As promised, I’m back today with Part Two of this month’s quick(ish) book reviews. These six titles are a little bit of everything: some self help, some short stories, a couple of novels. Just how I like my reading life to be!
The Widow, by Fiona Barton: Jean Taylor has spent the last several years married to a man the world believes is a sexual predator. Four years ago, Glen Taylor was accused of kidnapping a little girl. Though he was acquitted, the press have continued to pester the couple and their life has grown suffocating. When Glen is killed by a bus, Jean is free to tell her full version of the story. The novel alternates between Jean’s narration and that of a few other characters, including a detective who investigated the kidnapping and a reporter who is determined to get Jean to talk. The story also moves back and forth in time, from the kidnapping to Glen’s death. When done well, this narrative style can be very effective in maintaining suspense, but here I found it mostly confusing and I wish the novel had a more focused storyline.
This is yet another novel marketed as “in the vein of Gone Girl”—and, not surprisingly, it failed to live up to the comparison (they never do). The Widow recycles themes I’ve seen in many thrillers lately: unhappy marriage; fertility issues; psychological manipulation; child abduction; sexual addiction. These themes come together in some unique ways, and I found the novel engaging, but definitely not riveting. I kept waiting for a big twist that unfortunately never came.
My Rating: 3.5 stars.
9 Things You Simply Must Do for Success in Love and Life, by Henry Cloud: A read-alike to The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (my favorite self-help book), from one of the coauthors of the Boundaries books. Dr. Cloud shares nine strategies for happiness and success that he has found to be recurring habits of what he calls “dé jà vu people”—people who are generally doing well in life. These principles for effective living are mostly expected but still great strategies: things like Act Like an Ant (tackling things one piece at a time), Play the End Game (keep the big picture in mind), and Do Something (get rid of a victim mentality).
I liked Dr. Cloud’s pithy names for these principles as well as his straightforward explanations of what they are and how they can be applied. The book contains many examples, and I could have done without quite so many stories, but I enjoyed the conversational tone. Dr. Cloud reads the audio version he’s a great narrator.
My Rating: 4 stars.
The Dinner Party and Other Stories, by Joshua Ferris: This collection of short stories, many of which first appeared in the New Yorker, is part comedy, part tragedy, and ultimately an examination of what it’s like to be a human in this mixed up world of miscommunications, heartbreak, longings, and regrets. A couple preparing or a dinner party with their long-time frenemies; a man who jumps to conclusions about his wife’s intentions; a woman desperate to make the most of a perfect spring day. Many of the moments featured in these eleven stories are familiar and straightforward, and their outcomes are bizarre yet oddly expected.
I was impressed with Ferriss’s writing, his ability to extract meaning from ordinary moments and convey broad messages through little vignettes. The stories themselves, though, just weren’t for me. Too depressing without a spark of hope. There’s humor here, but only of the very satirical variety, and far more betrayal and deceit than I could stomach.
My Rating: 2.5 stars.
The Brontë Plot, by Katherine Reay: Lucy Alling lives for stories—those in the antique books she sells for a living, and also those she creates around her own life. She has never viewed her tendency toward elaborate fabrications to be a problem, until a handsome young gentleman enters her antique shop and quickly becomes an important part of her life. Lucy loves her relationship with James, but he and his grandmother Helen have an uncanny way of exposing her deceptions. Lucy quickly learns that her connection to Helen spans generations, and the two of them set off for England to make amends for past sins and embark on new journeys of self discovery.
I loved the literary ties woven throughout this novel, and especially the ways that Lucy searches for wisdom and inspiration from her literary heroines. Reay’s characters are flawed but still endearing and believable. The book has an engaging plot and a lot of heart, but it also takes time to explore important themes of vulnerability, forgiveness, and acceptance—as they apply in Lucy’s favorite classics, and also their relevance for Lucy, Helen, and the other characters in this book. I found the the writing to be a little clunky and the pacing a bit off, but it was still a fun and surprisingly enriching and thought-provoking read.
My Rating: 4 stars.
Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits–to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life, by Gretchen Rubin: Gretchen Rubin strongly believes that positive habits have the power to greatly enhance our lives, and this book (which I first read in 2015) is essentially her love letter to habit formation. With its emphasis on new beginnings, the start of a new year seemed like the perfect time for a reread.
Gretchen begins by explaining what habits are, why they are important, and how habit formation is not one-size-fits-all. She outlines numerous strategies for creating healthy habits, but refrains from dispensing advice on specific habits to embrace. Like her Happier books, this one is more than just a how-to-guide, but also a memoir of sorts in which she shares how she has utilized these practices to make changes in her own life. This personal touch is something I really appreciate in her books, and it’s probably why her most recent book (which is heavy on research and lighter on personal anecdotes) didn’t work as well for me.
Gretchen has such an amazing ability to articulate the simplest truths and translate them into actionable steps. Her approach definitely resonates with me, and her delivery makes for a delightful read. Rereading this book, I was reminded of many great strategies I’d like to begin implementing, but I also saw a few tactics that I’ve actually adopted; I’d forgotten that they originated with this book!
As much as I consider myself a Gretchen Rubin fangirl, I can see why many don’t care for her. Her black-and-white approach isn’t for everyone, and her tone is often condescending. I personally have a very hard time with all of her diet talk (in this book and her others); her food-related habit suggestions are essentially prescriptions for an eating disorder, and I shutter to think of the people who may have found themselves in the throes of full-blown orthorexia or even anorexia as a result of reading this book.
Food talk aside, this is an engaging and informative read and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking to make a few changes in their daily habits and routines.
My Rating: 4 stars.
The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe: When his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007, William Schwalbe sought a creative way to connect with her during their remaining time together. Since both were lifelong readers, the answer quickly revealed itself: a mother/son book club. This book tells the touching story of son and his mother, and the books that draw them together. Schwalbe shares with honesty and vulnerability about what it is like to lose a parent, and offers glimpses from his mother’s perspective on the experience of approaching death. Carrying both through the difficult times is the books they read together, and through these books both mother and son learn about life and about each other, and discover new ways of talking to one another about what is truly important.
This could have been a very sad book—it is a book about death, after all—but I found it surprisingly uplifting. Schwalbe’s connection with his mother is so sweet, and I was touched by his warm and loving reflections on her life. Mary Anne Schwalbe was a remarkable woman, and her son knew how blessed he was to have her as his mother. It was beautiful to see their relationship blossom, even as she neared the end of her life.
Of course I loved all of the book talk, too. I hadn’t read most of the books that are woven throughout the narrative, yet I still enjoyed hearing about the insights Schwalbe gleaned from them and how the words of others both mirrored and shaped his own experience.
My Rating; 4 stars.
What have you been reading lately? Any good books to recommend? If you are stopping by from the Modern Mrs. Darcy linkup, I’m so glad you are here! Please be sure to check out Part One of this month’s Quick Lit where I share reviews of the other six titles I’ve read in the past month.