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You Should Have Known

you should have knownYou Should Have Known
by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Published by Grand Central Publishing
448 pages
Genre: literature; women’s literature 
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
4.5 / 5

 

I have a particular affinity for certain words.

Masticate. It sounds so lascivious, doesn’t it? Yet it means “to chew.”

Schadenfreude. Leave it to the Germans to have a word for “joy in other people’s misery.”

And hubris. Ah, hubris. The cause of the hoisting of one’s petard. The reason behind Trump Tower and the Dallas Cowboys.

Hubris. Excessive pride or ambition.

As I read this book, “hubris” kept popping up in my mind. So many characters seem to suffer from it, and given that Korelitz’s writing is realistic and relatable, I wonder, then: do we all suffer from hubris? Is it part of the human condition?

In the case of Grace Reinhart, perhaps pride is not so excessive. Certainly not enough to cause what happens to her.

Grace is a therapist whose patients come to her, as most do to therapists, searching for answers. Grace believes that they knew the answers all along, that if they had only paid attention, not been so quick to ignore the evidence in front of them – if they had only seen reality as opposed to what they wanted to see – then they would realize that they knew. Because, really, they should have known.

In fact, she wrote a book about it. You Should Have Known. She is in the final stages of pre-publication, working with her editor and publisher, granting early interviews. Grace’s theory is simple, but true: the clues were there all along. You just chose to overlook them or make excuses for them or wish them away.

You should have known.

Of course, when you write a book about something like that, your own house better be spotless. And Grace’s appears to be. Her son Henry is twelve, suitably precocious, and ensconced at the same New York City private school she attended. Her husband Jonathan is an acclaimed pediatric oncologist – he treats children with cancer, for goodness’ sake. She’s an only child, her mother having passed away when Grace was in college and her father remarried. She is successful, but not too successful.

Life is good for Grace Reinhart.

But then there is a grisly death.

And Jonathan goes missing.

And every certainty Grace had becomes uncertain, questioned.

She should  have known, right?

Jean Hanff Korelitz weaves her tale with the precision of a master chef, slicing, dicing, and sauteeing her characters into various confections of deliciousness for us readers.

Grace is a fantastic character: fully complex and fully realized. Her hubris is in her somewhat smug, somewhat frustrated response to her patients’ problems. If Grace can see within three minutes that your husband prefers the company of men, why haven’t you? As they weep in her office, Grace responds with professional empathy, albeit with some personal tsk-ing. When she recalls her history with Jonathan, we begin to see what Grace did (would) not. We also harbor, before she does, certain suspicions of Jonathan, as well as of another character. Because we care about her, we also hope that our suspicions are wrong. Not that she’s perfect, mind you. Grace is a bit too caught up in her world to pay attention to those details that she would condemn her patients for ignoring. She judges. She suffers jealousies and insecurities. She gets frustrated and snippy.

But she’s a good mother, devoted to Henry, and she adores Jonathan, admiring him to the point of awe.

As developed as Grace is, Jonathan is a mystery, and that is entirely by design. I was frustrated by how little I knew him, which only made me more concerned for Grace. The question here – how well do we know our spouse – is not the point, though. Korelitz believes, and hopes you understand as well, that we only know what our spouse wants us to know. We only know, Korelitz posits, what we want to know.

Occasionally the pacing is off (we spend a bit too much time with Grace’s patients), and there are a couple of threads that are a bit too neatly tied up. So is the book perfect? No, but it is deeply, richly entertaining and engrossing.

The ending is something I would dearly love to discuss with you faithful readers, so please hit up the comments and let me know your thoughts. I’d also love to know your reaction to this book.

Read it. READ IT.

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The Life List

The Life List
by Lori Nelson Spielman
Published by Bantom
378 pages
Genre: chick lit, literature
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
5 / 5

I have mother issues. I’ll admit that straight away. I don’t know if it’s because I’m adopted or if my mother was not all that fabulous or what, but I have mother issues. When I read books with good mothers in them (and I’m looking at you, Mrs. March), I get wistful and flat out jealous. I wish I’d had a good mom. I wish I could be a good mom.

So as I read this book, I found myself wondering how you get to be the sort of mother who just knows what your child needs, who knows what your child is thinking before the child is even aware of what’s going through her mind. Gosh, do I wish I had a mother like that. And gosh, do I ever wish I could be that mother.

When Brett’s mother dies, she is bereft with grief. And then she becomes confused and a bit angry, because Mom’s cosmetics empire is not left to Brett, but rather her imperious sister-in-law. Everything else apparently goes to Brett’s brothers, and all Brett is left with is a list. Not just any list, but a to-do list that Brett created when she was a girl. Mom refuses to leave any inheritance to Brett until she completes the to-do list, and she has one year to get it done.

Brett is stunned. One of the things on the list is to buy a horse. Another is to have a relationship with her father, and that one is particularly problematic because dear old Dad is dead. Fall in love? Brett thinks she has that one, thanks to her boyfriend Andrew. Have a baby? Does Andrew want kids?

There are ten things in all that Brett must do, and of course as she completes her tasks, she receives the greatest inheritance her mother could leave: Brett becomes the person her mother knew she could be. Along the way, much of what Brett thinks she knows is proven wrong, just as you’d expect would happen.

This is written so clearly and enjoyably that you can’t help but get hooked on Brett’s story. We see some of the solutions to her task before she does, much like her mother could do. But we also find ourselves in Brett’s shoes, thinking we know how something will turn out, only to have life zig when we expect a zag. Brett is not perfect; there are times she is agonizingly blind or nearly insufferable with self-righteousness. But she’s so darn likable that she invests you fully and completely in her story. At one point, I found myself crying, and I wasn’t even sure why. I just wanted her to find love, and every time it seemed as if she had, circumstances would change. I don’t just mean romantic love, either. Her relationship with one of her older brothers is prickly at best, and then there is that whole dad thing.

You may find yourself thinking about the you you wanted to become when you were fourteen. Are you that person? Would you want to be? And if you aren’t, what’s stopping you?

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The Abomination: Book One in the Carnivia Trilogy

The Abomination: Book One in the Carnivia Trilogy
by Jonathan Holt
Published by Harper
448 pages
Genre: fiction; mystery
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
5 / 5

Jonathan Holt, where have you been all my life? And when are you going to write another book?

First, I suppose, we should discuss your debut novel. I really enjoyed it, every intricate, detailed page. I love the characters you created, although I will tell you that I have some – shall I say – questions pertaining to Aldo Piola. I’m sure you understand what they are.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

I like the setting you chose. Venice. So rich with possibility, so ripe for crime, secrecy, and passion, right? You don’t just have Venice around, you use Venice. She is as much a character as Kat, Holly, or Daniele. Or Aldo … You also educate us a little about the city. I found it interesting that you so rarely allude to gondolas or the canals; instead, you focus on the water as a source – or conduit – of death and crime. The canals that are so breathlessly romanticized in film and literature are here stripped of that sheen and examined with a dispassionate eye.

Your story is gripping, fast-paced, entertaining, and even educational. I like how it starts off with a fisherman fearing for his life, then moves into a murder investigation of a woman dressed as a priest, and then morphs into an investigation into a prostitution ring filtering from Croatia into Italy. Against these big issues, though, you have small, personal stories. Kat and Aldo’s pursuit of truth in the face of corruption. Holly’s fears of being branded a whistle blower combating with her inability to ignore crimes potentially committed by her own country. And Daniele. I liked him so much. His website, Carnivia, is a fascinating creation, especially given his background of having been kidnapped as a young child and his need to solve puzzles. I like how Carnivia, with its absolute secrecy, is the piece that brings Kat, Holly, and Daniele together. There is a murder to be solved, yes, but there are other puzzles to be solved. What role does the Mafia play? What about the American government?

In fact, I’m glad this is the first of a series, because I’m not ready to say good-bye to Daniele. I like how Holly saw through him and accurately pinpointed his motivation for creating Carnivia. It’s little personal details like that that make this such a superb novel. Or Kat’s reaction to seeing what anonymous people say about her online. I like how she questions it based not on a “this is how it’s done in Italy” position but rather “this is how it shouldn’t be done to women.” I like how she and Holly stood up for themselves, each in her own way.

For a novel packed with so many characters and so much detail and action, you might assume it would feel unwieldy. It should be difficult to know the characters as well as we do. But neither is the case. The story is far more straightforward than it appears, largely because you stick to the principal that we cannot stop future crimes until we account for those from the past. You do an excellent job of presenting fully realized characters. The only stereotype or flat character is Avvocato Morcello, right down to his greasy hair.

I hope people read this book, I truly do. It’s an excellent mystery, fast-paced and loaded with action and characters we enjoy.

Now, about the next installment in the trilogy. When can we expect that?

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Exotic Music of the Belly Dancer

Exotic Music of the Belly Dancer
by Brian Sweany
Published by The Writer’s Coffee Shop
254 pages
Genre: literature; coming of age
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
5 / 5

Yeah, the title. I hear what you’re saying, and I had a similar reaction. Huh? That was the best they could do?

The thing is, it works. Everything in this book works.

Welcome to the 1980s, complete with occasional cultural references, and the life of Hank Fitzpatrick. As Hank tells us his story, he takes us back through his life, never flinching from the ugly or unseemly. The fun begins with the opening words:

My morning gets off to its usual start. I wake up. Masturbate. Eat some bacon and eggs. Drink a cup of heavily creamed and sugared coffee. Have a frank discussion with my father about his testicles …

Go ahead. Pretend you didn’t laugh. We both know you’re lying.

Hank takes off from there, recalling a godfather whose legacy is dirty and cruel, a mother whose delight in her family is offset by her reaction to a tragedy, and a father. Oh, a father. Hank’s dad is the dad we all want, a man whose devotion to his family is beyond compare, who teaches his son by example and by proclamation, and whose presence in his family’s life is vital and dynamic.

Hank doesn’t so much aspire to be his father, or even to live up to him, as he does to have as much fun as he can. This includes copious amounts of alcohol and sex. In high school, Hank falls in love, and his devotion to this girl is as intense as that he shares with his friends and, yes, family. Hank’s coterie of chums does not vary; his boyhood friends are his friends into adulthood. He may all but set up a turnstile into his bedroom, but he’s actually a pretty devoted man. The high school girlfriend comes and goes in his life, perhaps because Hank is averse to change. As he says at the start of the book, his days take a predictable turn. He finds comfort in that.

But life is about as predictable as a horse race. You absolutely cannot rely on anything except change, and that’s where Hank struggles to adapt. He copes by indulging in booze and broads, leaning on his friends for help. Many times while reading this, I wish I had a Hank in my life. He gives as good as he gets, even if there were times I wanted to shake him. He made me laugh and he made me cry, he made me cringe and he made me fist pump with joy. His voyage from boy to man takes him all over the place emotionally, and he takes us right along with him.

You will need to fortify yourself with a box of tissues, because there will be times you cry. You also may find yourself gobsmacked with shock at some of the things that happen. But isn’t that what happens in life?

Read this book. Then come back and thank me for telling you about it.

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The Age of Miracles

The Age of Miracles
Karen Thompson Walker
Published by Random House
288 pages
Available on Amazon.com
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview.
5 / 5 cupcakes

Sometimes, you get to read a book that grabs your mind and doesn’t let go, even when you finish reading it. You might even feel angry when it’s over, because you don’t want to say goodbye.

Such is the case with The Age of Miracles, which made me so nervous and anxious while I was reading it that I thought I would have to self-medicate with some chocolate chips with walnuts. And now that I finished reading it, I’m PISSED OFF. How dare Karen Thompson Walker write this and then end it? I mean, the nerve of some people.

So here is the premise: for reasons no one seems to understand, the world starts spinning slower. Days take longer, the earth’s magnetic field is disturbed, and life as we know it changes radically and unsparingly. Told from the point of view of 11-year-old Julia, the “slowing,” as it’s called, is a metaphor for the changes Julia experiences on the cusp of puberty. You remember middle school, right? How your best friend one day won’t speak to you the next? What it was like to have a mad, secret crush on a boy who seems oblivious to you? And what it felt like when he finally – FINALLY – paid attention to you? Oh, and the boobs. Remember what it was like waiting for those to come in?

While Julia and the rest of the world try to adjust to the slowing, Julia also has to adjust to the circumstances in her own life. Her parents’ marriage seems problematic, to say the least, and Julia’s allegiances fluctuate as she tries to figure out how much of her parents’ problems are due to the slowing and how much to them just being them? The same goes for her friendships and even her piano lessons. When whales wash up on the shore, she hopes that by cooling them with cups of water, she can save them. She is desperate for her small gestures to be useful and effective. She wants things to stay the same, yet she craves change. Most of all, she wants to figure out who she is and what is her place in the world.

What I understood so far about this life was that there were the bullies and the bullied, the hunters and the hunted, the strong and the stronger and the weak, and so far I’d never fallen into any group – I was one of the rest, a quiet girl with an average face, one in the harmless and unharmed crowd. But it seemed all at once that this balance had shifted.

While so much of her life changes – her waking day may begin as early as 2:00 a.m., when the sun rises – some things stay the same. Julia still has to go to school, she still feels slighted when someone throws a birthday party and doesn’t invite her. She still has soccer practice. She needs those remnants of stability to ground her in her unstable world, a place where she learns that “so much that seems harmless in daylight turns imposing in the dark. What else, you had to wonder, was only a trick of light?”

You should know that there are moments of bleakness in this book. Gut wrenching, heartbreaking moments of extreme sadness. They make Julia – and us – savor her moments of joy, because we know how tenuous and fleeting those will be.

The only problem with The Age of Miracles is that it ends. And, okay, the ending is not fabulous. I have tried to figure out how it could have ended, and I’m left with no ideas. Karen Thompson Walker does not slap on a happy ending, and for that she should be commended. She ends with just as many questions as she started, but then again, that’s life, right? Do we ever get the answers, even in an age of miracles?

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