Review: Moon Over Manifest

Moon Over Manifest
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really liked this book, about a young girl in 1936 who has ridden the rails with her father for years, but as she gets older, he puts her on a train to Manifest, Kansas, a town where he spent time growing up. Without him, she feels lost and abandoned, even though the people around her seem to accept her and take her in.

Searching for clues to her father’s childhood, she uncovers old letters and mementos from two young boys who got into mischief and caused mayhem back in 1918. Using old newspapers and the stories she hears from Sadie, an outcast lady on the edge of town, the girl learns about Manifest, its history, its joys and tragedies and how all of those things made her dad who he was.

The writing style reminded me a lot of Fannie Flagg – funny and touching characters, great storytelling, everything wrapped up neatly in a package but a really, really sweet and enjoyable book.




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Review: Beatrice and Virgil

Beatrice and Virgil
Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I finished this book in less than a day – I could not stop reading it. Yann Martel is one of the most brilliant writers and ever since I read (and was haunted by) Life of Pi, I’ve been looking forward to reading his next novel.

A Booklist reviewer called this book “a fable-type story with iceberg-deep dimensions reaching far below the surface of its general premise.”

A young author named Henry L’Hote wrote a hugely successful book, but his second novel, eagerly awaited, is pitched to the publishers as a combination of fiction and essays thematically linked to the Holocaust, but presented in a different way than traditionally done. His publishers are appalled that Henry would place such a “sacred cow” of a theme in any setting other than WWII or its time. They tell him the manuscript is unacceptable.

So shaken by their review, Henry abandons his book. In fact, he abandons writing altogether. He and his wife move from Canada to an unnamed great city of the world, and Henry gets a job in a chocolate shop and takes up hobbies in community theater and music.

One day, Henry receives an envelope from someone who has read his book – it’s not unusual as fan mail for his first novel continues to arrive years after the book’s release.

This envelope contains a short story by Flaubert, as well as part of an unfinished play about a monkey and a donkey (Virgil and Beatrice), along with a terse note telling Henry “I need your help.”

The sender turns out to be an eccentric taxidermist, whose personality is as enigmatic as his stuffed creatures are haunting. In helping the taxidermist with his play, Henry becomes attached to the fates of Beatrice and Virgil, but increasingly unsettled by the taxidermist. Ultimately, he has to face a nightmarish discovery about the man who is writing the play, his subject matter, and its origins.

Well, when the description of this book came out, I was skeptical. A monkey named Virgil and a donkey named Beatrice? It seemed preposterous and I shuffled it to the bottom of my to-be-read pile.

I should have read this sooner. There are characters within a story within the book, but they’re not what the book is about. In fact, the book is about an author who wrote a book that was about something, but people didn’t get it and he went away and encountered another writer who wrote a play that was about something but not about the something the writer thought it was about.

Confused? Don’t be. Don’t think about it. Just read the book and keep reading and keep reading and immerse yourself in it. I was enthralled by the characters, the turns in the story, the quiet and perfectly intricate way the story unfolded. By the end, when the fog lifted from the story, I was sobbing. I was crushed by this story, but it was so GOOD.

I’ve seen some VERY mixed reviews of this book – I am on the side of considering it a masterpiece. This was probably one of the best books I have read this year, and is going into my pantheon of top books I ask people to read. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


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Review: Smokin’ Seventeen

Smokin' Seventeen
Smokin’ Seventeen by Janet Evanovich
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here’s the thing: these are fun books to read but it says something about the books and their formula that I couldn’t figure out until 30% of the way through the book whether or not this was one I’d already read. But it’s like a candy bar: Yeah, it’s a Hershey bar and there are WAY better chocolates, but if someone gives it to me, I’m going to eat it because it still tastes good and I enjoy it.

The Evanovich Stephanie Plum series are all formula, fun to read, laugh out loud funny in spots. They’re utterly predictable and sometimes you need that.


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Review: Bound

Bound by Antonya Nelson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked the writing itself but the story was cold and unengaging. The characters seemed to have little redeeming value. I was interested more in how the author described things than in how the story played out. Which is lucky because nothing seemed to tie together at the end. Loose ends, unlikable characters, the weird subtheme of the BTK killer (which to me seemed utterly unnecessary)…I don’t know. I wouldn’t recommend the book. Just saying.

On the other hand, there were a few passages of stellar and hilarious writing that I noted, including the following:

“She’d been held back in grade school, so she was already driving a car by ninth grade. Her teeth looked like something out of the Soviet Union. The epitome of white trash: she had a car but not a dentist.”

“…the three look-alike old men, former minister, postman, Cessna engineer, lined up now in Barcaloungers like benched players on the team of the curmudgeonly, murmuring their bitterness and complaint”

“Joanne rolled out of bed pissed off every morning, as if the night had served her up one bad dream after another, as if people had been insulting and blaming and humiliating her for hours, as if she’d been waiting on them and was exhausted, along with being unappreciated.”


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Review: Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Written back when food memoirs were not a genre, this book is a funny and fascinating recounting of the life of Ruth Reichl, whose formative years in food were based upon her mother’s atrocious cooking and Ruth’s job of keeping people from eating what her mother made for dinner parties.

Along the way toward adulthood, Reichl deals with her mother’s bipolar disorder, left with a series of housekeepers, family friends and even a French boarding school in Canada. By the time she’s in high school (and for stretches of time when she was nine years old), Ruth was left to fend for herself while her parents traveled, went to parties or pursued their own interests.

Friends and caregivers showed Ruth the wonders of good food, and the book is a journey through her education about how good food can be, how good life can be, and how she could overcome anything in her background to become her own person.


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Review: Doc: A Novel

Doc: A Novel
Doc: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book by Mary Doria Russell was gorgeously written, fascinating, richly descriptive and thoroughly entertaining. John Henry “Doc” Holliday was just a name I recall from old Tombstone movies so I went into the book unencumbered by myth and legend about the man. All I knew was he was a dentist and was at the shootout at the O.K. Corral.

Russell’s portrait of Doc was extensively researched and described his early childhood in Georgia, his education and upbringing, and the terrible and debilitating tuberculosis that plagued him for his entire short life.

Quoting Virgil, waxing rhapsodic about music and art, his gentle Georgia accent softening his acerbic wit, this Holliday character is more three-dimensional than most we read of in Westerns. Wyatt Earp and his brothers also appear, along with Bat Masterson and a host of rough citizens of Dodge City, Kansas.

Everything in the book takes place before the O.K. Corral and is a fascinating glimpse into the life of an incredible man, his compatriots and the frontier where he went to regain his health and ended up completely separating himself from his southern family and becoming a footnote to American history.

Some memorable gems from the book:
“When the hotheads of Charleston opened fire on Fort Sumter, his Uncle John remarked, “South Carolina is too damn small to be a country and too damn big to be an insane asylum.”

‘The first time John Henry came home bloody, all Alice asked was “Did you win?” Later that evening, she told the story of the Spartan mother seeing her son off to war. “Come home with your shield or on it,” Alice reminded him the next morning when he left for school. His cousin Robert followed that moral lecture with another involving applied physics. “Don’t start nothin’,” young Robert advised, “but if some ignorant goddam cracker sonofabitch takes a swing at you? Drop him, son. Use a rock if you have to.”’

“Wyatt,” the man told him, “the entire criminal code of the State of Kansas boils down to four words. Don’t kill the customers.”

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Review: The Borrower

The Borrower
The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved, loved, loved this book!

Lucy Hull is a librarian in the children’s section of a library in a town she calls Hannibal, Missouri (although she insists it’s not THE Hannibal, MO, just a convenient town name).

She is particularly close to a boy named Ian Drake, who is a voracious reader, even at the age of ten. Ian is precocious and funny and has read almost everything in the children’s section. One day, his mother shows up and tells Lucy that Ian is not to read any books that lack “the breath of God.”

Ian begins to sneak books home with Lucy’s help when his babysitter takes him to the library. Ian’s parents, very religious, begin sending Ian to a Christian program designed to “pray away the gay,” because they (and everyone else) believe Ian is homosexual.

Lucy is appalled and wants to help Ian. But Ian forces her hand one cold March night when she comes into the library and finds that he has camped out there with his knapsack after leaving a note and running away from home.

She wants to call his parents but he refuses and somehow, they end up on a road trip where Ian threatens to make it look like she kidnapped him, and she feels, weirdly, that he has kidnapped her. Along the way, they become closer while visiting Lucy’s family and traveling to out of the way places, not knowing if they were trying to get farther away or if they were working their way home.

I did NOT want this book to end. It was entertaining and heartbreaking and hilarious and I could not put it down. I loved it.


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Review: The False Friend

The False Friend
The False Friend by Myla Goldberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I couldn’t figure out if I loved this book or hated it. I disliked the main character but felt immensely sorry for her. I kind of wanted to punch her in the face several times in the course of the book.

Celia Durst is in her thirties and walking into work when she is assailed by an emerging childhood memory of the disappearance of her best friend Djuna Pearson. Djuna was abducted when the girls were eleven years old, taken while they were with three other girls walking in the woods. Celia saw Djuna get into a brown car and nobody ever saw her again.

But the memory Celia has is an entirely different vision of Djuna’s disappearance. She is shaken to her core and travels back to her hometown to tell the truth. In the course of trying to get someone, anyone, to believe her, she learns that not only her memory of Djuna’s disappearance is faulty, but her memory of what kind of person she was and how wrong people were about her.

In uncovering how cruel and malicious she and Djuna had been to their friends, Celia has to face a terrible truth about herself while trying to figure out which version of Djuna’s disappearance is true and which is a lie. By the end, even Celia is unsure.


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Review: Mariette in Ecstasy

Mariette in Ecstasy
Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Weird and fascinating look at a postulant in a convent in 1906, who is convinced she is seeing visions and hearing the voice of Christ. The other nuns are divided: some adore her, others suspect her of fraud. Stigmata, holy visions, ecstasies and piety – what some consider saintly virtues others take as affrontery. The book doesn’t so much explore Mariette’s situation as it does the affect it has on those around her.

Beautifully, gorgeously written. Unsettling. And ultimately, you’re left to decide: is she, or isn’t she telling the truth?




Review: The Lie

The Lie
The Lie by Petra Hammesfahr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book built up a complicated story and some great suspense throughout the first half of the book, and then the convoluted plot lost me about 75% in and I just wanted to find out what happened.

Susanne gets off an elevator at a building where she is to have a job interview and walking down the hall is a woman who could be her identical twin. They look exactly alike, other than different hair styles and different clothes and grooming.

In the weeks to follow, Susanne is approached by Nadia, the woman who looks so much like her. Nadia has a proposal. Be her double, take her place at home while she runs off for an occasional weekend with a man with whom she’s having an affair. Nadia and her husband don’t get along very well so their interaction should be brief, if at all. It’s just to provide Nadia with an alibi, and Susanne with desperately needed money, as she’s been unemployed.

Things go smoothly at first, then become more and more bizarre, especially when Susanne develops feelings for Nadia’s husband, and then when it turns out that there’s more to Nadia’s weekends away than first appeared. Soon, Susanne finds herself involved in a terrible case of more than just mistaken identity – there is embezzlement, fraud, extortion and blackmail, and then Susanne’s very life is in danger.

This book had a great premise and parts of it really drew me in. But there were so many extra characters toward the end, I got lost and the story hit a weird and clumsy tone toward the end. Either way, it was a fascinating read, decently written (translated from German) and a good distraction on a grey winter weekend.



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