Adult Fiction Roundup

A huge review roundup of all the adult fiction novels I've read over the past four months. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’ve read a large amount of adult fiction novels over the past couple of months. Typically, children’s and MG fiction is more my style, but since joining a book club in December, my adult fiction consumption has gone through the roof. Several of the books I review in this post were book club reads. From historical fiction to fantasy, from mystery to comedy, there’s something for everyone in this roundup. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

Uprooted from their family home in the Dominican Republic, the four Garcia sisters – Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia – arrive in New York City in 1960 to find a life far different from the genteel existence of maids, manicures, and extended family they left behind. What they have lost – and what they find – is revealed in the fifteen interconnected stories that make up this exquisite novel from one of the premier novelists of our time.

The Garcia girls each get a chance to tell their story, weaving from the present to the past and back again. Their lives in New York and in the Dominican Republic take very different paths, and each of them has to come to terms with what each culture means to them. There are some uncomfortable moments in this book, but on the whole it does a great job of taking you on a journey with the Garcia family.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Frida

Capturing the essence of a ferociously gifted woman, Frida is a daring and brilliantly inventive novel about one of the most celebrated female artists of the 20th century.

This was one of our early book club reads. I knew a small amount about Frida Kahlo before reading this book, but I learned so much more as I made my way through. Frida offers an interesting fictionalized look at Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and their politics and art as seen from Frida’s sister Cristina’s point of view. You will probably hate both sisters and Diego most of all (I certainly did), but the knowledge I gained about these famous artists, their work, and the political situation in Mexico at the time made my time reading worth it.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Bees

Born into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean her orchard hive. Living to accept, obey and serve, she is prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. Yet Flora has talents that are not typical of her kin. And while mutant bees are usually instantly destroyed, Flora is reassigned to feed the newborns, before becoming a forager, collecting pollen on the wing. Then she finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers secrets both sublime and ominous. Enemies roam everywhere, from the fearsome fertility police to the high priestesses who jealously guard the Hive Mind. But Flora cannot help but break the most sacred law of all, and her instinct to serve is overshadowed by a desire, as overwhelming as it is forbidden…

This book is so weird! It’s about a dystopian bee society in which Flora is created to be a sanitation worker but has special skills meant only for the upper classes of bees. She can talk and produce Flow, so she is sent to work in the Nursery. She meets the Queen, becomes a forager, and even starts illegally laying eggs. Everything in this book is seen from the viewpoint of bees, and according to the guy in our book club who has a fascination with beekeeping, the author does a great job of incorporating real bee behavior into the story.

If you’re looking for an off-beat dystopian novel, or if you’re really interested in bees, this is the book for you.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Big Over Easy

Jasper Fforde’s bestselling Thursday Next series has delighted readers of every genre with its literary derring-do and brilliant flights of fancy. In The Big Over Easy, Fforde takes a break from classic literature and tumbles into the seedy underbelly of nursery crime. Meet Inspector Jack Spratt, family man and head of the Nursery Crime Division. He’s investigating the murder of ovoid D-class nursery celebrity Humpty Dumpty, found shattered to death beneath a wall in a shabby area of town. Yes, the big egg is down, and all those brittle pieces sitting in the morgue point to foul play.

I love every Jasper Fforde book I’ve ever picked up, and this one was no exception. This series is tangentially related to the Thursday Next series, but there’s no time travel here. Instead, we get a detective who investigates fairy tale crimes. This book has the same tongue-in-cheek humor and fun fantasy as all of Fforde’s books, and it features funny, great characters as always. Pick this up if you enjoyed the Thursday Next series, or if you’re just looking for a fun, quirky fantasy.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Dead Man’s Folly

Ariadne Oliver, Queen of Crime Fiction, has been asked to devise a “Murder Hunt” for a fête at Nasse House, the home of Sir George Stubbs. But she begins to suspect that someone is manipulating the scenario of her game and fears that something very sinister is being planned.

She sends for her old friend Hercule Poirot. At first he is not inclined to take her very seriously but soon a series of events propels him to change his mind.

Then suddenly all Ariadne’s worst fears are realised when the girl playing the part of the murder victim is found strangled in the boat-house. For Hercule Poirot, the Murder Hunt has become a grim reality.

This Agatha Christie is a fun mystery set during a fete. Hercule Poirot must discover who took advantage of Mrs. Oliver’s murder hunt and why. It’s one of those classic Christie mysteries that will keep you guessing until the end. Not my favorite (that honor goes to one of these other Agatha Christies), but it was certainly enjoyable.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Fans around the world adore the best-selling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and its proprietor, Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s premier lady detective. In this charming series, Mma Ramotswe—with help from her loyal associate, Grace Makutsi—navigates her cases and her personal life with wisdom, good humor, and the occasional cup of tea.

I just started reading this series, and now I’m obsessed with it. It offers simple but lovely writing and small mysteries interspersed with backstory about life in Botswana. Mma Ramotswe is a wonderfully practical and kind detective, and the setting is one I have yet to get tired of reading about. If you enjoy the first book (and I bet you will), good news! There are currently 17 books in the series.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Doomsday Book

For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.

But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin–barely of age herself–finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.

As always, Connie Willis is great. This book is sad–it’s about the Black Plague and a modern-day influenza epidemic–but still enjoyable. If you have read and enjoyed any of Connie Willis’s other historical fiction time travel series, you must add this one to your list.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Ruby Lennox begins narrating her life at the moment of conception, and from there takes us on a whirlwind tour of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of an English girl determined to learn about her family and its secrets.

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is one of my all-time favorite books, so it’s surprising that I waited this long to read any of her other work. Atkinson does an amazing job of intertwining the members of Ruby’s family, going back and forth from Ruby’s life to the history of her ancestors. Many are foolish, hurtful, or worse, but there’s a lot of humor too. The dark mysteries of deaths and disappearances are slowly revealed in such a way that you think you must have known it all along.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant and charismatic father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family.

The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.

(I’m sneaking this book on this list, even though it’s actually a memoir rather than adult fiction, because it was our latest book club read.) This book made me so angry! Jeannette’s alcoholic father and irresponsible mother let her and her three siblings starve, freeze, live in filth, and even be molested without giving up their vices of liquor, chocolate, and luxuries. It’s one of those memoirs that you can’t put down because it’s such a train wreck. Amazingly, Jeannette learns to rise above her upbringing and tells her story with grace and kindness, even toward her parents.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

American Gods (author’s preferred edition)

Locked behind bars for three years, Shadow did his time, quietly waiting for the magic day when he could return to Eagle Point, Indiana. But just days before his release, Laura and Shadow’s best friend are killed in an accident. With his life in pieces and nothing to keep him tethered, Shadow accepts a job from a beguiling stranger he meets on the way home, an enigmatic man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. A trickster and rogue, Wednesday seems to know more about Shadow than Shadow does himself.

Life as Wednesday’s bodyguard, driver, and errand boy is far more interesting and dangerous than Shadow ever imagined—it is a job that takes him on a dark and strange road trip and introduces him to a host of eccentric characters whose fates are mysteriously intertwined with his own. Along the way Shadow will learn that the past never dies; that everyone, including his beloved Laura, harbors secrets; and that dreams, totems, legends, and myths are more real than we know. Ultimately, he will discover that beneath the placid surface of everyday life a storm is brewing—an epic war for the very soul of America—and that he is standing squarely in its path.

This book has intimidated me for years, partly because of the length and partly because, in an aborted attempt to read it, I came across a weird sex scene that truly icked me out. This scene is still there (obviously), and there’s a fair amount of cursing, so please be aware if you decide to pick this book up.

Still, if you can get past that, there’s a lot to like. This has all of the rambling, strange, fantastical elements that Neil Gaiman is so good at describing. Shadow was an interesting character, as were all the gods. Even if you’re not familiar with all of the mythologies discussed in the book (everything from Norse gods to Hindu gods to gods I didn’t recognize), you’ll be drawn in as they map out the United States as their battleground. My favorite part was the Rock City battle, because Gaiman does such a good job of describing the beautiful and strange experience of being there.

I’m not sure how to recommend this book. Give it a shot for the first few chapters and see if it’s for you.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Bridget Jones’s Diary

Meet Bridget Jones—a 30-something Singleton who is certain she would have all the answers if she could:

a. lose 7 pounds
b. stop smoking
c. develop Inner Poise

Bridget Jones’ Diary is the devastatingly self-aware, laugh-out-loud daily chronicle of Bridget’s permanent, doomed quest for self-improvement — a year in which she resolves to: reduce the circumference of each thigh by 1.5 inches, visit the gym three times a week not just to buy a sandwich, form a functional relationship with a responsible adult, and learn to program the VCR.

This is a modern day classic, so even though I didn’t like the movie, I knew I’d have to pick it up someday. Honestly, I felt the same way about the book as I did about the movie–it’s sort of funny, but definitely outdated. I wouldn’t bother reading it unless you, like me, feel the need to experience this cultural touchstone for yourself.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Blackout and All Clear

This book duo from Connie Willis blew my mind. A must-read. | A book review from Newbery and Beyond
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Dear Connie Willis, I am so sorry I waited so long to read another of your books after reading To Say Nothing of the Dog. I loved that book, but I couldn’t bring myself to pick up your 500+ page tomes until recently. And oh my gosh, they blew my mind.

Blackout and All Clear were apparently originally slated to be one book. Clocking in at over 1,000 pages total, I can definitely see why the author chose to divide her story into two books rather than one. But as I said in my top books of 2015, I only wish they could have been longer. These books take place in the same universe as To Say Nothing of the Dog, a world of time travel centered in 2060 Oxford, and they are sweet, funny, sad, and totally engaging.

In Blackout, we meet the main characters, all of whom are working as time traveling historians to WWII: Eileen, who is working with evacuated children; Michael, on a mission to find the everyday heroes of WWII; and Polly, who is posing as a shopgirl in the midst of the London Blitz. But when things start going wrong with their drops, the three must band together to survive the most dangerous part of the war and hopefully make it back to their own time. All Clear continues that story, watching as the friends band together, along with the courageous people of London, to survive without affecting the outcome of the war.

The story is fascinating, the characters are relatable, and the setting is fantastic. I’m a huge fan of any fiction related to World War II, and this book duo has taken its rightful spot near the top of my list. I laughed, I cried, I read with a hot cup of tea and drank in the utter Britishness of the book. There is nothing not to love about these books. They are a must read. I can’t wait to see what else Connie Willis has in store (Doomsday Book, I’m coming for you)!

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Book Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog

My introduction to Connie Willis was in her book To Say Nothing of the Dog--so good! | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I almost dropped this book before I really got into it–I am so glad I kept going!  To Say Nothing of the Dog has a little bit of everything, including comedy, mystery, romance, historical fiction, and time travel, and it is so well woven together that by the end I was in love.

So, about the plot!  Ned is a time traveler from 2057 England, where a rich woman named Lady Schrapnell has promised to donate a massive amount of money to the time travel institution on one condition: that the time travelers help her recreate the Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in a WWII bombing, because the cathedral had made a huge impact on Lady Schrapnell’s ancestor.  Ned has been searching the rubble of the cathedral for artifacts in 1940 when he is suddenly sent back to the 1880s to meet Lady Schrapnell’s ancestor and try to smooth over a catastrophic mistake that might unravel the time-space continuum and allow the Nazis to win WWII (at least, I think so?  The consequences of time travely things was a little unclear to me).  Throughout all of Ned’s adventures in 1880s England, from boating down the river with his new friend Terence, to putting on a seance with his contact Verity to help redirect the course of history, Ned attempts to find the bishop’s bird stump–one of the last pieces of the original Coventry Cathedral that needs to be found for use in the recreation.  (In case you’re wondering, as I was through most of the book, what a bishop’s bird stump is, it’s basically a huge, gaudy vase or urn, decorated with depictions of historical and biblical events, in which the church placed flowers for their services.)  The mysteries of where the bishop’s bird stump disappeared to after the war, where it can be found now, and how things can be brought through the time travel net are, I suppose, the main plot of this book, but Ned’s narrative voice and his hilarious adventures kept me from getting too bogged down with trying to understand the mystery aspect (more on that later).

Like I mentioned earlier, it took me a while to get into this book.  It started off very 90s feeling (makes sense, since that’s when this book was written, but it was an odd feeling in a book that is set both several decades earlier and later than the 1990s), and there were several instances of “We’re going to talk about this thing you don’t know about and explain it to you later in the book” (I hate that!).  However, after the first thirty pages or so, I was hooked.  Ned and his contact Verity are great characters–they work hard to make things right, but neither of them are perfect, and a lot of times their mistakes are what drives the plot.

The time travel aspect was interesting, and once I got over the slight outdatedness of the timeline, I really enjoyed it.  (Apparently, cats became extinct in 2004, and time travel was a workable concept in 2018?)  Fortunately (in my opinion), since most of the book took place in the 1880s or the 1940s, it read more like historical fiction than a sci-fi or futuristic book, and the time travel was just an enjoyable facet to the story.

There were several references in this book to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (the title of this book is the subtitle of Three Men in a Boat) and Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.  I probably would have gotten a little more out of To Say Nothing of the Dog if I had read them before reading this, but I don’t think it was a great loss that I hadn’t.

The ending went so quickly that I was left slightly confused about what the solution to the mystery was (although most time travel books/movies tend to do that to me at some point).  Still, the mystery was solved (with a slight twist at the end!), and it was a very satisfactory solution.  No one was murdered, no one’s lives were really at stake (unless you count the entire time-space continuum threat), and it was a really fun, entertaining, sweet read.  There really is something for everyone, so pick it up and enjoy!

Rating: Re-read Worthy

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