How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz

how to start a fire

Anna, Kate and George (short for Georgianna) could not be more different from each other – and yet, they inexplicably become fast friends in their college dorm.  Unfortunately, life moves them beyond their usual frolicking to a shared traumatic experience that alters the trajectory of their respective life journeys.

I should have loved this book.  It had all the right elements.  I loved the characters.  They were colorful, complicated, and clever.  I liked the overall story and the intertwining of events.  There were multiple layers of stories, which kept things interconnected and engaging.  And the dialogue was witty and occasionally made me giggle out loud.

The problem was that it was extremely choppy.  I love when the voice changes or the time changes – but the transitions must be smooth so as not to lose the reader.  It was not done smoothly here.  Every time a new chapter started, I felt like I was starting a new book over again – just with the same characters.  There were such different scenes in such different locations with the characters in such different times of their lives, that it took a long time to figure out where we were in the story and how this part connected to the whole.  I feel as the reader, I should definitely not have to work that hard.

Ultimately, though, I am glad I read this book – I did like it overall.   I’d love to know what others think!

My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

italian bulldozer

This is an example of a great idea poorly executed.

Paul is a successful writer of food and wine books who has just been jilted by his girlfriend of 4 years.  In a bit of depression and in a rut, his agent (who of course, happens to be single, intelligent, and attracted to him) sends him to Italy to work on his next book.  In a bizarre set of circumstances, he ends up with a rented bulldozer as his means of rented transportation during his stay.  On his first foray to explore his new town, he happens upon a beautiful, intelligent woman who has run her car into a ditch and lo and behold (!) a bulldozer just might do the trick!

There are a few tiny plot strands that are started in this book that could make the book so interesting that unfortunately are never pursued.  There is the evil-looking man that Paul is jailed with on entering the country (yes, jailed!), there is the boyfriend of the beautiful woman who has a port wine stain, and there are other towns folk who might be more involved in a more interesting plot than they are.  But no, the author chooses to make his former girlfriend as truly shallow and predictable as she is (then why would he have spent the past 4 years with her??), and the ending as neat and predictable as it becomes.

There is so much potential here.  I did finish it, but I spent most of the book waiting for something of substance to happen.  I think I’m still waiting…

 

Bed and Breakfast by Lois Battle

bed and breakfast

This was a sweet story about Josie, the owner of a bed and breakfast, whose Christmas holiday is off to a crazy start with her friend having a heart attack in the middle a bridge game in her home.  This reminder of the vulnerability of life triggers her to invite her estranged daughters to come home for Christmas, much to their surprise, and it invites a lot of nostalgia mixed with emotional eruptions.

I think I’d describe this book as benign;  it’s a decent read, quick, keeps one’s interest, the characters are likable, the writing is passable – but there is nothing imaginative about it.  I did not learn anything new from it.  There was nothing culturally unusual about it.

I do find stories about relationships interesting – mother/daughter, wife/husband, generational conflicts, etc.  This touches on some of this.  But I found that some of this is left undone, or kept at the surface.  There is never a deep unpacking of the deeper relationship or feelings.  There is never the huge explosion that there should be when emotions run so high.

I was left wanting just a little bit more.  And in this case, that was not a good thing…

 

The Hypnotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty

hypnotists-love-story

I love Liane Moriarty’s books – they’re fun, smart, and usually tackle topics of some substance.  This book, unfortunately, is an exception…

Ellen is a hypnotherapist who prides herself in her work with people – she’s had many successful treatments, helping people in their relationships.  Unfortunately, she has not had many successful relationships of her own; that is, until she meets Patrick.  Patrick is handsome, kind, and fun – but complicated.  He is a widower with a young son, which would be fine, if it weren’t for his stalker…

I think if the characters here were just a little more likable, or the story were a little more believable, or the substance of the book was a little more solid, it would have come together and been ok.  But the characters were flat and strange, the story a bit outlandish, and the substance just too airy for my liking.

It wasn’t a book I gave up on, but it did feel just too long and I was glad to reach the end.  Not a rave review, this time.  Sorry!

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

rules-of-civility

Little did Katey know that when she and her best friend, Evey, went out to ring in the new year of 1938 that she’d  be ringing in a new relationship that would introduce her to the moneyed Upper East Side social scene of New York City.  Meeting people with names like Tinker and Bitsy, Katey gets drawn into this scene, even as she continues to work her own way up the business ladder, using her wiles and wit.  But while Katey does hold onto her scruples – or her own rules of civility , if you will – she does become tangled in a web of love triangles that both highlight and transcend social class status.

There is so much to be said about this book.  Most importantly, the writing just downright beautiful.  This prose by Towles often verges on the poetic.  The phrasing and the images that are drawn with words are so vivid that I was forced to read some passages multiple times, just to really appreciate them fully.  The author has a true gift that he is generously sharing with us here.

The characters are also so gracefully drawn.  From their subtle tics to their happy or hapless (depending on the character) wit, you cannot help feeling compassion for each and every one of them.  And each and every one of them is neither all good or all bad – much like the real world.  And Katey is the kind, vulnerable, and yet steady heroine we all aspire to being.

What I appreciate most about this book is the underlying current of friction between money and honor.   As Katey mixes more with those of the upper class, she sees some who feel they should earn the money they have and others who feel they just deserve it.  And in this era of Trump and the Republican Party’s shameful and frightening abuse of both money and power, the statement of honor and kindness triumphing over greed in this story is particularly poignant.

A lyrical and delightful book – highly recommend!

 

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

before-the-fall

This was one of those easy reads that have a little suspense, a little drama, a little heartbreak – but that you don’t have to take too seriously.  And in this moment of political unrest with enough daily drama and anxiety in real life, it was fun to sneak away to this bit of fiction.

It begins with the crash of a private plane going from Martha’s Vineyard to New York – right up front – with a very dramatic story of 2 survivors.  The rest of the story is a combination of the aftermath – trying to untangle the mystery of the crash – as well as the personal story of each of the characters leading up to the fateful flight.  As each of the personal stories unfold, the story comes to a fulminant crescendo, with the revelation of the cause of the crash.

While there are some inconsistencies and a few loose ends, the story is entertaining and actually travels in many divergent directions because of the various characters.  Each character has his or her unique story and each intertwines somewhat with the others.  In the telling of each story, though, the author manages to build up the suspense and create many more possible explanations for the crash.

If you’re looking for a distraction in these troubled times, this is a good place to hide!

Distant Shores by Kristin Hannah

distant-shores

After 24 years of marriage, Elizabeth has finally come to terms with the fact that her husband, Jack, and her 2 daughters have all taken center stage in her life, leaving her to cast aside her own dreams and aspirations.  When Jack was a famous football star, she cared for her young daughters mostly by herself.  When Jack later became a smaller time sports caster, moving from town to town where opportunities arose, she duly followed. But now that the girls are both out of the house, she realizes that it is time for her to attend to herself – she just has to figure out whether that plan will include Jack or not…

This is a story that will, sadly, strike a familiar chord with many readers, I believe.  When the nest empties, it is often a challenge for couples to fill the void – or it is the time when the void has to finally be acknowledged.  Hannah describes this conflict with sensitivity, honesty and warmth, presenting both Elizabeth’s and Jack’s sides to a complicated story.

I think it was not good that I knew before reading this book that the author had written The Nightingale.  That book was so outstanding that I had elevated expectations for this one.  For example, some subplots were hinted at but then left undone.  One character, Kim, who Elizabeth met in a support group, was a mysterious, moodier member of the group.  It appeared that she was going to be more of a presence in the book (and it was an interesting possibility), but she was just sort of abandoned in a more underdeveloped state.

I would still recommend this book – it was a nice read – but manage your expectations if you’ve read The Nightingale!