In the Company of Cheerful Ladies by Alexander McCall Smith

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, #6)
Summary:

In the newest addition to the universally beloved No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the charming and ever-resourceful Precious Ramotswe finds herself overly beset by problems. She is already busier than usual at the detective agency when added to her concerns are a strange intruder in her house on Zebra Drive and the baffling appearance of a pumpkin. And then there is Mma Makutsi, who decides to treat herself to dance lessons, only to be partnered with a man who seems to have two left feet. Nor are things running quite as smoothly as they usually do at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. Mma Ramotswe’s husband, the estimable Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, is overburdened with work even before one of his apprentices runs off with a wealthy woman. But what finally rattles Mma Ramotswe’s normally unshakable composure is a visitor who forces her to confront a secret from her past. . . .

My take: 5 looks

I adore this series by McCall Smith, “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”. I love the name of the main character, Precious. I love that she considers herself a “traditionally built woman”. I love that she has such pride in her homeland. Everything. I love it all.

In this installment, we get to know more about the main characters, as well as being introduced to what I hope will be recurring faces. This is among the best of the “cozy mystery”, and I will read them as long as they are written.

Highly recommended.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

I'm Thinking of Ending Things
Summary:
In this deeply suspenseful and irresistibly unnerving debut novel, a man and his girlfriend are on their way to a secluded farm. When the two take an unexpected detour, she is left stranded in a deserted high school, wondering if there is any escape at all. What follows is a twisted unraveling that will haunt you long after the last page is turned.

In this smart, suspenseful, and intense literary thriller, debut novelist Iain Reid explores the depths of the human psyche, questioning consciousness, free will, the value of relationships, fear, and the limitations of solitude. Reminiscent of Jose Saramago’s early work, Michel Faber’s cult classic Under the Skin, and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an edgy, haunting debut. Tense, gripping, and atmospheric, this novel pulls you in from the very first page…and never lets you go.

My take: 2.5 looks

I started this one over three times. It was so easy to put down when I needed more time or was feeling overwhelmed. However, it was also very easy to read, enabling me to start from the beginning each time. At less than 300 pages, I felt as if I had to finish it.

The story was interesting enough. I didn’t get a good feel for any of the characters, and was not overly surprised by the ending. Some of the scenes felt forced, some of the dialogue choppy, and internal monologues were a bit too heavy-handed. However, because of the nature of the “surprise” ending, all of these things may have been as-designed. With a little more writing experience, I expect this kind of thing will naturally fall into place.

It read like a first novel, and upon looking, found that it is Reid’s first novel, but not his first book. Because it was fairly easy to read, and because I am intrigued by the title of one of his previous works (“The Truth About Luck: What I Learned on my Road Trip with Grandma“), I am not yet crossing him off my list of TBRs.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Summary:

A Gentleman in Moscow immerses us in an elegantly drawn era with the story of Count Alexander Rostov. When, in 1922, he is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

My take: 5 looks

A delightful book! So beautifully written, and such a nice combination of historical events, figures, and characters. I was truly sad to see it end, and yet so satisfied in its ending. I felt intimately familiar with The Metropol, which is a character unto itself. Who can resist the luxury of this famous bastion of Russian history, forging ground with its warm water and telephones in the rooms? Dining at night by candlelight in the prestigious Boyarsky Hall and slipping into the Art Nouveau Shalyapin bar for a nightcap before retiring to your room.

The author in Suite 217 with the Bolshoi in the backgroundEven today, they offer breakfast with musical accompaniment. I can imagine that Towles immersed himself in the glamour of 20th century Russia. Here is a photograph of the author in his Metropol suite, with the Bolshoi Theatre in the background.

Apart from the hotel, our protagonist, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, is a gentleman of gentlemen. Educated, well-traveled, speaking several languages, and presenting the patience and fortitude of the nobility, he is a delightful sort with the highest of morals, even if they are sometimes apt to bend just a little.

By his side is a host of colorful characters which go in and out of the story. It is a wonderful adventure through decades of Russian change, seen through the eyes of a man exiled in luxury.

Read this for the beautiful location. Read it for the wonderful characters. Read it for the beautiful writing. For goodness sake, just read it.

Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

Summary:

A vivid and compelling novel about a woman who becomes entangled in an affair with Edgar Allan Poe—at the same time she becomes the unwilling confidante of his much-younger wife.

My take: 4 looks

I was initially disappointed in this one, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I enjoyed it.

To get my initial thorn out of the way: I wanted the main character, Fanny Osgood, to be more Scarlett O’Hara and less Melanie Wilkes. Once, in a scene involving Fanny, at the height of decorum, I thought of the quote by Scarlett about Melanie, “…silly little fool who can’t open her mouth except to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and raise a passel of mealy-mouthed brats just like her.”

However, I realize after reflecting on the story, characters, and writing that I was completely wrong. Fanny is acting exactly how she was raised, to be respectful, kind, and acquiescing. The fact that Virginia is emboldened in both word and deed is eventually explained by Poe by explaining that she stayed as a child.

The tension between Poe and Fanny was evident, as was Virginia’s increasing awareness of their relationship. While I admit that I did want Fanny to be a little more free to allow herself these illicit feelings, the time and culture did not permit that she act on her feelings. Her concern for Virginia was yet another testament to her character.

And speaking of characters! What a wonderfully colorful collection of REAL historical figures in this story! When historical fiction drives a reader to do more reading and research, there is no greater compliment to an author. I loved reading about Griswold’s penchant for hand adornments, Fuller’s growing friendship and trust with Fanny, Bartlett’s interest in Southern colloquialisms, and Ellet’s drive to ruin anyone who wronged her.

The fact that these were real people has driven me straight to historical references to learn more.

All-in-all, when my friend Kerri recommended this book to me, she did me a favor!

Recommended.

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Summary:

Two sensational unsolved crimes—one in the past, another in the present—are linked by one man’s memory and self-deception in this chilling novel of literary suspense from National Book Award finalist Dan Chaon.

My take: 3 looks

Dan Chaon’s “Await Your Reply” sits with me still. It is one of those books that I will think of every now and again for years and years to come. Because of that, I leapt at the opportunity to get an ARC of his latest from LibraryThing.

The writing style is marvelous, as we have come to expect from Chaon. Going back and forth in time, using columns on the page to present various perspectives in the same timeline and various timelines from the same person, and presenting different points of view … all of this added to the intrigue, breakdown of collected evidence, and confusion of our various characters. The book is full of unreliable narrators, wild goose chases, and misread assumptions. Like a mystery at its best, page after page of reading brings little solid fact.

It is so beautifully written that the ending was all the more disappointing to me. There was no explanation, no resolution, no reconciliation, no redemption. While I am sure that was part of the point, perhaps to be more like reality than a novel, I expected a more nuanced ending from an author of Chaon’s caliber. There were so many avenues left unexplored that I feel there could be a series here, although I don’t think that is the author’s intention. In all, I was left disappointed.

Not recommended.

Thanks to LibraryThing and Random House for an advance reader’s copy in exchange for my honest review.

The Murderer’s Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers

Summary:

Lulu and Merry’s childhood was never ideal, but on the day before Lulu’s tenth birthday their father drives them into a nightmare. He’s always hungered for the love of the girl’s self-obsessed mother; after she throws him out, their troubles turn deadly.

My take: 3.5 looks

When your father kills your mother, tries to kill your younger sister, and himself, how does a 10-year-old girl handle the shock waves that reverberate through her life, especially now that she is all that her recovering sister has?

Dad is in jail, in serious denial of what he has done to his daughters. Meanwhile, years go by while family members shun the “murder girls”, orphanage children torment them, and a wealthy family finally takes them in out of pity.

It is an easy and compelling read, perfect for those afternoons by the pool. While it is a bit formulaic and predictable, it is not high art, and the story, characters, and conclusions were all satisfying.

Recommended.