Tuesday, April 22, 2014

What I've been reading: Books I liked, books I didn't

Maybe it's me, but it seems like there a lot of bad and/or overhyped books out there right now -- more so than usual. And while I dislike dissing authors, knowing how hard it is to write a book and then get it published, I feel compelled, as a public service, to mention a handful of books to avoid (IMHO).

So I have two lists this go round. The first is a list of fiction and nonfiction books I liked, including one starred selection (for a favorite book). And the second is a list of books I did not like. At all. Whereupon finishing them I stomped around the house muttering to myself, and the spouse and the teenager, and the cats, about the amateurish prose, vapid plots and/or characters, and/or totally unsatisfying ending.

In both cases, I have listed books alphabetically by author, with just a brief description. No links to Amazon this time. If you want more info, Google the title. (To see previous Book Recommendations, click the link or on the label at the bottom of the post.)

Books I Liked (Fiction and Nonfiction)

*Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan. Fascinating (somewhat fictional though based on fact) biography of Fanny Vandergrift Osborne Stevenson, the wife of author Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Impersonator by Mary Miley. Well crafted mystery about a missing heiress and her actress doppelganger set in the 1920s against the backdrop of vaudeville and Prohibition.

The Lavender Garden by Lucinda Riley. Beautifully written story of an introverted young French woman's search for answers about her glamorous yet mysterious family, set in the South of France during the late 1990s and World War II.

The Midnight Rose by Lucinda Riley. The poignant story of an impoverished but noble Indian woman's quest -- even after death, via her beloved blue-eyed great grandson (the grandson of her daughter) -- to find the lovechild/son she was told had died as an infant. The story alternates between the British Raj, modern-day India, England just before, during, and after the First World War, and modern-day England. A love story that spans continents and generations.

From Scratch: Inside the Food Network by Allen Salkin. Biography of The Food Network. Lots of gaps but a must read for Food Network watchers.

Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind by Alex Stone. Fun, fast-paced read/memoir about a young man's love of (or really obsession with) magic. Very entertaining and informative (though I may never play poker or black jack again).

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya von Bremzen. Memoir by James Beard award-winning food/travel writer Anya von Bremzen about her childhood in the former Soviet Union (in Russia, mostly), her parents and grandparents, and the things they ate and drank (good and bad) and still remember and cook fondly.

(I also read several mysteries and historical romance novels -- hey, it was a long, cold winter -- which I'd be happy to tell you about if you are interested.)

Books I Really Didn't Like (and Wanted to Throw Against the Wall but Didn't)

Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay. Marketed as an adult novel, but really should have been shelved in the YA section. Totally unrealistic romance about an orphaned girl who grew up in foster homes who is "forced" to attend Northwestern's School of Journalism on a scholarship and the wildly successful (and do I need to add handsome?) mystery writer she has a secret crush on (and who falls madly in love with her). Puh-lease. (Still can't believe I read the whole thing.)

The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert. A tale of love and loss set against the backdrop of the 1898 Omaha World's Fair. But I was so distracted by all the red herrings in this novel (what's up with all the allusions to the wizard in the Wizard of Oz, dude?), I could never figure out what the book was really about -- and found the characters unsympathetic.

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield. Proof that second novels often fall short of the first, especially when the first (The Thirteenth Tale) was great. Started out like a good ghost story but went nowhere.

The Color of Light by Helen Maryles Shankman. Does the world really need another love story about a rich, good looking vampire and a pretty, naive virgin (in this case an artist who resembles the vampire's long lost love)? No.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. OMFG, did any of those people on Amazon who gave the book four stars actually read the book? Or maybe they were friends of the author, or drug addicts. Reminded me of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, if it took place just after 9/11 and the following 10 years, and instead of being amusing was depressing as hell, and 300 pages longer. Can't believe I read the whole effing thing. Total disappointment.


TLEC said...

Thanks for these, J2O. I had more mixed feelings about the Goldfinch. There were some redeeming qualities in the final chapter, IMHO. Try "No 2 Alike" by Judith Rich Harris, non-fiction. :)

Anonymous said...

I agree about The Goldfinch. I read it to the end because it was 1) a book club selection, 2) I paid for it on my Kindle 3) I was curious as to how she would resolve the problem. Could have done in half the time.

I just finished reading The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. You might find that interesting.