Angel Falls by Kristin Hannah

angelfalls

It is clear that Kristin Hannah’s writing blossomed dramatically between writing this novel and writing her master work The Nightingale.  I was hoping to be drawn into similarly beautifully drawn scenes with intricate plot lines as I was in that great novel – and I was sorely disappointed here.  While there started to be an intriguing idea for the story, and it began well enough, it just was not developed with the same sophistication and elegance as that later work.

This story begins with young Bret preparing the saddle early in the morning for his mom, Mikaela, to have her early morning horseback ride.  Suddenly, something was noticeably off and Bret watched as his mom started jumped the horse and the horse stopped and Mikaela was thrown forward, banging her head against a pole, sustaining a severe head injury.   The next thing they all knew, their lives were thrown upside-down, as Mikaela was in a deep coma and it was unclear if she’d ever recover.  What comes after tests the love each of the family members has for each other.

There are some truly brilliant moments in this story and the basic plot is a clever one.  The test of love that Mikaela’s husband, Liam, faces is a fascinating ethical dilemma that I think many would find paralyzingly difficult.  And there are tender scenes between the various family members that are quite sweet.

However, the writing itself is somewhat simplistic.  The plot could be more involved, with more story lines woven into the main one.  The characters could be much more multi-dimensional – they are extremely flat – and, wow, is the latter half of the story just pure saccharine-sweetness!  It felt as if the author herself got bored with the book about halfway through and just wanted to be over and done with the project, so she wrote whatever came out easily.  It was quite anti-climactic.

So, stick with The Nightingale, and forget about this one, I’d say…

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Sweeping Up Glass by Carolyn Wall

sweeping up glass

Olivia is determined to figure who is killing and disfiguring the wolves on her property and why.  She has her suspicions about it – the Phelps boys have always been evil, for example- but she cannot understand why.  Meanwhile, she has to go about her life, juggling her responsibilities of raising her grandson, caring for her insane mother whom she has always called Ida, running her grocery store, and maintaining her household, until her life gets completely turned around by her gradual discoveries from her wolf investigations.

The voice of the storyteller is Olivia’s and it is frank and raw and powerful.  Olivia lives in such frequently harsh conditions that her emotions usually must be kept tamed, but the heat of her seething anger sears the page.  She loves her father as fiercely as she hates her mother, and her world is build around this contrast.  She is smart but not educated and while she doesn’t give herself credit for having much, she manages to navigate complicated and even dangerous situations with strength and with heart.  She is a truly beautiful, strong woman character.

I think the way that racism and racial violence is woven into the story is extremely effective as well.  There is a building of very tender relationships between Olivia and some of her black friends, particularly of her best friend, Love Alice, as a preface to any of the tension.  When incidents do happen -or even threats of them-  then, it becomes all that much more personal and so incredibly disturbing.  It feels like my own family members have been affected when they are only fictional characters, because of this beautiful character development.  And the story builds into an incredibly suspenseful and somewhat complicated plot line – I literally could not put this book down!

This was a surprisingly excellent book – I very highly recommend it!  A new “must-read” for the blog!

Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McAll Smith

tears of the giraffe

Like the first in this series, this book is lovely.  It is the story of Mma Ramotse, who has established her No 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana, who now happens to be engaged to be married.  Here in Book 2, her life undergoes some vast changes, but she greets them with a calm acceptance as she pursues the cases that continue to be the focus of her life.  These cases continue to be ones that are sometimes complex and sometimes straightforward, but always with a very human and ethical twist.  There is a hint of danger and a hint of suspense, but always a great deal of heart.

What I love about the main character is that she is a beautiful feminist of the quietest and most subtle kind.  She supports other women in their pursuit of their careers (as she does in promoting her own secretary) and she sticks it to men in a discrete but very direct way to get her message across.  There are many times when feminists must beat the drums and rally the marches – I am not against that at all – but it is in these quiet moments, behind closed doors when one can really change the minds and hearts of the men who might be most resistant.  There are moments in this book that demonstrate that quite poignantly.

I think I have to move on from this series, but I will definitely return to it at some point.  It definitely gives me peace.

 

The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

ladies detective agency

This is a book where writing is beautiful in its simplicity.  Mma Ramotswe is the first lady detective in Botswana, fulfilling both hers and her father’s dream of owning her own business successfully.  Although she is off to a precarious start, and has to take on occasionally less desirable cases (involving dogs, for example), she always uses her wise intuition and her cunning instincts to outsmart even the shadiest of characters.  And as we hear her cases unfold, we also get a taste of Africa, which is as rich an experience as the stories themselves.

Between the twists and turns of the story lines, the beautiful and colorful characters and the rich landscape in which the events unfold, this book is absolutely delightful.  I have seen it advertised for so many years and have not known what I’ve been missing all this time!  I now find myself wanting to read the other sequels to this to see what other adventures await.

I highly recommend this to all of you as well.  In this time of political distress, and when the news is so oppressively sad, this is a beautiful distraction.

 

The Book that Matters Most by Ann Hood

book that matters most

Ava is still feeling raw, even a year after her husband has left her for a woman who is famous for “yarning” statues and signs.  Thank goodness for her new book club, which has let her join for the new year.  Unfortunately, in her yearning to be accepted, she has sworn that she’d procure the author of her book to appear at their meeting at the end of the year – and it just might take the whole year to find this obscure author!

At first glance, this book appears to be a somewhat superficial novel – but it very quickly delves beneath the surface, plunging into Ava’s traumatic childhood, and focusing also on her daughter, Maggie, who is lost and has lost herself in Paris.  While there is not much discussion about feelings, there is much that is clearly felt, and the awkward moments are palpable in this book.  Maggie’s character, in particular, is extremely poignant and sympathetic, and I felt very drawn to her.  The change in voice from Ava’s to Maggie’s also helps to deepen the complexity of the plot and help move the story line along as well.  It is quite suspenseful in some parts, especially when it comes to Maggie, as she engages in some very dangerous behaviors.

Spoiler alert:  Don’t read the next paragraph if you don’t want to know my opinion about the ending…

Because my opinion is that the very ending is unfortunate.  The book is actually quite good.  I am not sure, however, why authors feel compelled to wrap their productions in such neat packages.  Life isn’t like that so why do stories have to be?  Even if the book had been as it is right up until the second to last page, it would have been ok.  But literally the last 2 pages undid the book for me – just sent it right down the path to cheesy.  Such a disappointment…

But overall, I’d still recommend this book – it’s a solid read and very engaging.  And I personally enjoyed the location – as most of it took place in my original home town of Providence, RI – which does not happen very often!

 

Faithful by Alice Hoffman

faithful

After a devastating accident leaves Shelby with an onerous survivor’s guilt, she wilts into a depression and essentially withdraws from her life.  People around her — particularly her mother — try very hard to pull her out, but it is only when she begins to discover her drive to save mistreated animals that she finds a purpose in her life and a reason for her to actually connect with other people as well.

This story actually starts off so simply and slowly that it seems almost too simplistic.  But it builds insidiously and the characters develop a charm and sweetness that work their way into your heart even before you know it.  Even while Shelby is being rude and harsh, you can only feel sadness for her because of her tragic brokenness.

The writing here is remarkable as well.  It is written in the present tense, which I usually find annoying.  (I can’t even say why that is so.)  However, in this case, I actually think it works.  But Shelby can only live in the moment, in the here and now and has trouble thinking about a future; therefore a present tense is a logical way to express her story.  There is also an intentional stiffness to the writing in general – to the description as well as the dialogue.  It is very effective in relaying how awkwardly Shelby relates to others.  There is only a comfort or warmth that shines through with very few people, and that becomes obvious as time goes on.

This is a heart-wrenching story but very moving and well-written.  Another winner by Alice Hoffman!

 

Choke by Sian Beilock

choke

Why would an accomplished, experienced athlete competing for a spot in the Olympics suddenly flub an event?  Why would an A student who has aced all the practice SAT tests get a mediocre score when it really mattered?  That is, why do people choke?  This is what Dr. Beilock examines in the course of this fascinating summary of psychological research done by herself and others on this subject.

The book reviews what is happening when a person “chokes” both behaviorally and neurologically.  It appears that overthinking a situation can actually interfere with the automatic responses that training leads the body to perfect.  Once your attention is drawn to the specific mechanics of a behavior (kicking a soccer ball, playing a piano concerto), what would be done automatically very smoothly is now pulled apart and diverted by the brain’s other areas becoming involved.  Gradually, the book builds into suggesting what can be done to offset the possible risks of choking or remedies for people who have choked and need to get back onto a path of success.  Not surprisingly, these can include focusing on the goal, meditation, writing down one’s anxieties and worries just before a performance/test, and practicing (although this is a gross over-simplification of her findings).

What makes this book readable is the inclusion of many anecdotes.  Dr. Beilock uses both famous legends from sports history and stories from her own personal experiences from people she’s met through her work to enhance the narrative of the book.  This both engages and clarifies and makes the reading fun.  I found the psychological experiments remarkable and often surprising as well.

And for those of you who might be going on interviews sometime soon – well, there are tips for you, too.  And they are really not what you would expect!

A very interesting read for anyone interested in psychology or sports or really being successful when it counts!