March Minireviews – Part 2

It’s gardening season again!!! So even less time for blogging than ever!! However, there is also less reading time, so maybe that will balance out as far as my attempt to catch up on reviews goes??

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Coffin Road by Peter May – 4*

//published 2016//

I really need to read more by Peter May.  I read the Lewis Trilogy back in 2015, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but somehow this is the first May book I’ve picked up since then.  The story opens with a man staggering onto the beach from the sea, wounded and borderline-hypothermic. He has no idea who he is or where he comes from, and as he begins to piece together this own story, he starts to realize that he may have been living a lie… The story is pacey and engaging, and while I couldn’t say that I was shocked by any of the twists, I still felt compelled to keep turning the pages.  Watching the main character struggle to piece together his life while not letting anyone know that he has lost his memory was completely engaging, especially as you (and he) begin to realize that things aren’t really as they seem.  This wasn’t the best thriller I’ve ever read, but I really enjoyed it and definitely will read some more by May in the future.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott – 3.5*

//published 1819//

This one was actually my February classic read, but at a chapter-a-day pace I didn’t finish it until mid-March.  While it was okay, it didn’t become an instant favorite that I see myself rereading.  When I was growing up, one of my favorite books was The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.  (I haven’t read that one in years and don’t know why – I NEED to read it again!!)  In that book, the main character and her friend are reading Ivanhoe, and I’ve always meant to read it ever since.  Almost 30 years later, here we are LOL  I’m not 100% sure it was worth the wait, but it was a perfectly fine story and can see why it was so popular when it was published.  I went into it completely blind and thus did not realize that this is actually a Robin Hood tale!  Many of the characters traditionally found in the band of Sherwood outlaws make an appearance, so it was also interesting to see how those myths have changed over time.  The story was quite long-winded – it’s rare that I read a book and think “I really should have gone with an abridged edition,” but I thought it a few times while reading this one.  It can be a bit repetitive and sometimes the conclusion of a scene feels obvious far too early.  There is also an astounding amount of anti-Semitism in this story, but I can’t really be mad about it being in the story as it’s an accurate portrayal of how the Jews were treated/viewed at the time.  It’s honestly so fascinating to trace back the roots of the Nazis and Jewish stereotypes literally a couple of centuries.  I also found myself doing research to learn more about why Jews became moneylenders and how many of the negative stereotypes came to be.  Ivanhoe is a worthwhile read and I think deserves its place on the classics list, but I doubt I’ll come back to this one again.

Into the Forest by Rebecca Frankel – 4*

//published 2021//

It was ironic that while I was reading the anti-Semitism in Ivanhoe, I was also reading a nonfiction book about Jews who escaped and survived in the woods of eastern Poland. Frankel weaves together the stories of several people from the region, discussing the hardships and horrors they suffered under both the Russians and the Germans. Despite the darkness, this book was inspiring and hopeful, as so many Holocaust stories somehow are. The determination, faith, and grit shown by people living under unlivable circumstances was beautiful to read. I do wish that Frankel’s afterword, explaining how she came to write the book and how she was connected to some of the people in it, had been a foreword, as it added a lot to the story for me. Many of the people in this story were related and I also found myself wishing that I had a family tree to reference. But all in all, I highly recommend this book. I was also intrigued when Frankel said that one of the people she wrote about had written his own book about his experiences, published in the 1950s – Faith and Destiny by Philip Lazowski. It appears to be out of print, but I am going to see if I can find a copy somewhere as I’m sure that is an amazing read as well.  That one seems like it would be especially engaging as Lazowski went on to become a rabbi, so it is obvious that his experiences strengthened his faith rather than weakened it, and I would love to read his story.  All in all, this was an excellent book that I definitely recommend.

Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah – 3*

//published 2010//

I struggled to get through this one as I found all three of the main characters to be incredibly unlikable/frustrating, and in the end was just left feeling depressed by the way the mother had treated her daughters their entire lives.  The story is about Anya and her two adult daughters, Meredith and Nina.  Anya has always been distant and borderline emotionally abusive to the girls all their lives, and their dad was always the glue that kept the family together.  When he passes away unexpectedly towards the beginning of the book, he extracts a deathbed promise from the women that Anya will tell her story and the girls will listen.  The rest of the book is that story of Anya’s history escaping Russia and the daughters coming to grips with everything.  The main problems was that I didn’t like anyone.  Meredith is one of those people who huffs around like a martyr doing everything because “no one else will do it [right]” and ignoring everyone (like her amazing husband) who offers to help her in any way.  Nina has a job where she travels and acts like anyone who chose to be part of a committed relationship or (horror) raise a family needs to have their head examined because she’s soooo free and sooooo happy!  As for Anya – like, I get it, her backstory is tragic.  So why the heck did she ever have children if she was just going to ignore and belittle them their entire lives?!  Nothing in her story excused the way she treated her daughters like garbage.  Nothing.  It’s great that they were able to forgive her and start to move forward, but I was just mad the whole time at the way she had literally wasted her ENTIRE life and also emotionally crippled her daughters while she was at it, plus making her husband’s life a constant difficulty.  Just.  Like.  Whatever.  And if Anya really was “incapable” of being able to share this stuff – why didn’t their dad?!??!  When the girls were old enough to understand, why didn’t he tell them some of her story so that they could understand what was going on in her head??  He was supposedly this amazing kind, loving, sweet, compassionate person, but he let his daughters suffer needlessly, constantly thinking that the reason their mother didn’t love them was their fault, when he had all the information he needed to at least give them some closure about it.  The book still gets 3* for being a decent story and an interesting piece of historical fiction during those sections, but I couldn’t connect with any of these characters and spent most of the book feeling annoyed.

Pride by Ibi Zoboi – 2*

//published 2018//

This Pride & Prejudice variation is a modern retelling set in a mostly-black neighborhood in Brooklyn.  I found the Elizabeth-character, Zuri, to be completely obnoxious and bratty.  She was super judgy about everyone and everything, and then also offended if anyone dared judged her.  She literally never once considers even the POSSIBILITY that Darius might be, I don’t know, SHY?!  She also just immediately was against her (Jane) sister dating the Bingley character for literally no reason other than cause drama in the story.  The guy is funny, friendly, good-looking, and treating her sister great – and Zuri is just like “THIS GUY IS EVIL WHY ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT DATING HIM ARE YOU CRAZY?!!?!”  It made no sense and gave me a lot of negative feelings towards Zuri right off the bat.  There were some aspects of this that were fun and interesting, but for the most part Zuri kept this book at a big fat no for me, and I didn’t remotely buy her sudden and completely 180* turnaround at the end.

The Lewis Man

//by Peter May//published 2012//

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Okay, I was UBER EXCITED to read the second book in this series.  The Blackhouse was a 100% win for me, my favorite read of February, and a book I added to my always-growing list of books I would like to actually own and add to my personal collection.  In case you don’t remember, it’s all FictionFan’s fault that I’m reading these books; here is the link to her review of The Lewis Man…  she’s always significantly better at writing coherent reviews!!  Mine seem to involve a lot of asdf;lkawer;l!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Overall, I absolutely loved The Lewis Man. The narration was brilliant; the story-from-the-past narrated by Marsaili’s father is absolutely gut-wrenchingly beautiful; and the story itself is so engaging that I could barely put this book down.  It was another easy 5/5, and so exciting to read a sequel that was every bit as enjoyable as its predecessor.

Our hero from The Blackhouse, Fin, has left his job and returned to his childhood home on Lewis.  Meanwhile, a body is found, perfectly preserved, in the peat bog.  The DNA test indicates that the murdered man is a close relative to Marsaili’s father…  except he doesn’t have any close relatives.  As Fin helps Marsaili search for the truth, May gives us access to Marsaili’s father’s thoughts.  Stricken with dementia, his narrative is at times garbled, especially when he is trying to understand the present.  But, as is the way with such disease, his memories of the past are hauntingly clear.

What if everything you thought you knew about your parents wasn’t true?  It’s really just a brilliantly simple idea, and May plays it perfectly.  As the reader, I actually knew much more about the murdered man and Marsaili’s father’s past than Fin or Marsaili did, but that does nothing to ease the tension and intensity of the book.

May also delves into the way we, as a society, tend to shrug off the elderly and their concerns, and he handles it exceptionally well.

“We walk into that nursing home, and all we see are a lot of old people sitting around.  Vacant eyes, sad smiles.  And we just dismiss them as…well, old.  Spent, hardly worth bothering about.  And yet behind those eyes every one of them has had a life, a story they could tell you.  Of pain, love, hope, despair.  All the things we feel, too. Getting old doesn’t make them any less valid, or any less real.  And it’ll be us one day.  Sitting there watching the young ones dismiss us as…well, old.”

I loved the way how, throughout this story, May really brought home the reminder that everyone we know, everyone we think we know, has a story.  Something inside of them that no one else knows about.  A secret that they keep safe, something deep and important and hidden.  We naturally judge people by what we see/understand of them, but how often do we even consider all the layers below what they’ve chosen to share?

And he realized that you can never tell, even when you think you know someone well, what they might have been through in their lives.

Another thing about May’s writing that I really appreciate is that even though the stories are grim and intense, there is still a spark of humor throughout.  It really keeps his characters feeling very human and real, the fact that they can laugh and tease a bit.  It’s an excellent balance to could otherwise come off as quite bleak.

So I may have used this example before, but I worked on a dairy farm for years, and every year the milk inspector would come and check the parlor and the equipment and give the farm a grade, which determines what the milk can be sold for.  And there is this saying among the dairy farmers that you can never get a perfect grade – the better and cleaner your farm is, the pickier the inspector gets.  This, I find, applies to a lot of life, and books are one of those areas – the better the book, the pickier I get.  :-D  So yes, below are some rather nit-picky issues I had with this read.

When I read The Blackhouse, I griped a bit about the portrayal of religion/Christianity in the story as being a grim, hypocritical, self-righteous lot, while all the “good” and likable people were, of course, the people who had shaken free of those terrible chains of religion.  FictionFan (who is from Scotland and probably knows more about the religion there than I do :-D) had some good thoughts in the comment section of The Blackhouse, reminding me that religion has developed differently and different regions of the world, and that the Scots’ version does, in fact, tend to be a bit more on the grimmer side than in other places.  And while I understand and agree, it still frustrates me that the development of Donald Murray’s character is that basically he has to not believe in God in order to become a decent person.

And Fin realized that Donna knew only the bible-thumping, God-fearing, self-righteous bully that Donald had become.  She had no idea of the real man who hid behind the religious shell he had grown to conceal his vulnerability.

I just…  yes, I understand what he’s saying, but I really just can’t get behind this concept that the only way someone can become a kind and thoughtful person is if they ditch God.  I guess that I just wish it was a bit more obvious that what Donald needs to ditch is his understanding of God, because that understanding is wrong, not God Himself, if that makes sense.

Anyway, another minor problem I had with this book was Marsaili’s mother.  Just, I don’t know.  She’s been married to this guy for a really, really long time, and “Oh he has dementia so I want him out of the house right now and I’m throwing away all his stuff and I’m going to pretend like not just that he’s dead but like he never existed.”  It felt weird to me.  Unnatural.  It was probably the only point in the book where I found myself going, “Wait, what?  That does not seem like what this character would do.  At all.”  I can see where May was going with it, and how he wanted to be able to tie Marsaili’s father to his past in the end, but still.  It really turned Marsaili’s mother into a rather dreadful, selfish person.  I think her desire to have her husband not live with her any more could have been handled in a way that wasn’t so harsh, especially since in the first book Marsaili’s mother is portrayed as such a kind and loving person.  It wasn’t the fact that she felt like his dementia was too much for her to handle and that she needed him to stay somewhere else that felt strange, it was the fact that it had to happen TODAY like I HAVE PUT HIM IN HIS COAT and then just a couple days later she already has his stuff completely boxed up and ready to go out with the trash??  Without even asking Marsaili if she wants any of it??  I don’t know, it just seemed unnecessarily harsh for an otherwise gentle character.

Third and final personal dislike – this story was all about the past.  Like, a decently distant past.  Thus, the tie-in to the present-day danger felt a bit contrived and quite a lot rushed at the end.  It was plausible, but not likely in my mind.  Still, May manages to pull it off, and guess who stayed up late to finish the last several chapters?!??!  (Who needs sleep??  Not like I can sleep with all those loose ends hanging over me anyway!)

Overall, though, The Lewis Man was brilliant and gripping writing.  I came away loving pretty much all of the characters even more than I loved them in the first book.  May has created a community of characters who are, despite their many flaws, still striving to be good, decent, hardworking people – people you root for, people you want to see win in life.

5/5 and highly recommended…  getting read to start The Chessmen next and I can hardly wait!!

The Blackhouse

//by Peter May//published 2012//

BlackhouseCoverOh, wow, I don’t even know where to start!!  I picked up this book because of FictionFan’s review of the third in the trilogy, and her review of The Blackhouse can be found here.  I am super glad that her enthusiasm won me over, because The Blackhouse was a thoroughly gripping tale, and I can hardly wait to read the other two in the series.  Also, you should totally read her review either way, since she has a knack of being significantly more coherent than I am when I’m reviewing books I really liked.  :-D

Our protagonist is Fin Macleod, a detective in Edinburgh whose personal life is going through a bit of a rough patch.  When a murder occurs on the Isle of Lewis, where Fin grew up, his superiors send him off to see if there is any connection between the Lewis murder and one that occurred in Edinburgh a few months earlier, as the initial MO seems to be the same.  Fin is reluctant to return to Lewis, but as he reconnects with the people and places of his childhood, he begins to see that this murder and his life may be more entwined than he first believed.

First things first:  I really, really like Fin.  He’s just a solid, steady sort of fellow, with a quietly snarky sense of humor and a strong sense of justice.  While he has a lot of problems, he’s working through them like a man, not wallowing in them like a whiny baby.  Fin isn’t afraid to admit when he’s done something wrong (although he doesn’t mind taking the credit when he’s right, either :-D).  I just really, really liked Fin, and that made this whole story work for me.  I wanted to know more about him and his childhood and his life.  I really wanted things to work out for Fin.

Okay, so, this story starts out in third person, but then, chapter two, suddenly switches to first person – Fin, recalling an episode from his childhood.  At first, I was a bit confused.  It seemed weird.  But it only took a few pages of the first person narrative to make me realize that I liked Fin even more, and I found myself flipping through the rest of the book to see if the narrative alternated back and forth – and was pleased when I found that it did.  Present day events in third person, past events from Fin’s POV.  It sounds like it ought to be disjointed and choppy, but it’s actually brilliant.  May manages to insert Fin’s recollections at very natural points in the present-day narrative.  The first time occurs when Fin is on the plane getting ready to land on Lewis.  I felt that I was reading Fin’s thoughts/memories from that exact moment – the memories that would naturally come to him as he returned to the island for the first time in nearly twenty years.  And it stays that way throughout.  May never makes a stated connection (e.g., “As Fin drove across the countryside, his thoughts drifted to the day  he first met her….  I met her on a rainy day…”), but every time Fin’s recollections take place, it’s at a natural gap in the present-day narrative, at a point where learning more about Fin’s past is exactly what ought to happen.

The secondary characters in this book are very well drawn, as well.  As we meet people from Fin’s past, May does an excellent job of contrasting them, via Fin’s memories, with their youth and where they are now.  Somehow, this made the present-day narrative much more emotional and engaging, as we slowly see what events shaped the people into who they are now.

In a weird way, the mystery is almost to the story of Fin as a person.  It’s almost as though the mystery is here simply as a catalyst for Fin to discover things about himself.  I felt the story was far more about Fin than it was about who murdered the victim.

One thing, however, I did not like about this book was a rather unnecessarily lengthy and detailed explanation of the autopsy of the murdered victim.  It was bad enough to have to listen to descriptions of this brutal death (I especially found the continued emphasis on how fat the victim was, and how his rolls of fat where hanging down, etc. to be quite off-putting, simply because they didn’t feel particularly necessary??)  But ten pages of chopping this guy up seemed a bit much (maybe especially because I happened to be trying to eat dinner during that chapter??).  However, I resorted to an old trick of mine – I skimmed through and only read where there was conversation.  In third-person narratives of this sort, most important information will be imparted through conversation, not the description.  Worked like a charm.  ;-)

Of course, I also wasn’t a huge fan of the way in which May presents religion:  a dark, dank, dated drug that sucks the joy out of everyone’s lives and forces them into a slavery of tradition, judgment, and gloom.  The only even somewhat-happy people are the ones who are, either secretly or opening, defying the church and living life free of those horribly shackling rules.  Anyone who is a “genuine” believer is a hypocritical, angry grouch.  I guess I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t (per usual) that 100% of church people are horrid, and the only way they can be not-horrid is by leaving behind that ridiculous fairy tale of a religion that they know, deep inside, really isn’t true.  It is frankly insulting.  (Imagine if I wrote a book in which an entire group – take your pick – a certain race or gender or virtually any religion other than Christianity – was 100% portrayed as confused, cruel, ignorant, arrogant, angry fools??  How well would that go over? Yet it seems to be expected of any time the Christian church is involved in a story.)  Ah well.

In many ways, this story is a bleak one.  The whole story felt like it was written in black and white.  It is a book of stark contrasts, of people who have survived, but who have survived at a cost.  Life on the Outer Hebrides is not for the weak of heart.  May does a masterful job of writing of Fin’s slow realization that as much as he wanted to escape from Lewis, he still feels that pull toward home – even though he has no family left there – that calls us all back to the place we were born, the place that somehow helped to make us.

This book was definitely a 5/5 read and highly recommended.  It is gritty, intense, and thoroughly engaging.