04 January 2021

What I Read Last Week

Hello, all. Here is another of my periodic "what have I read lately" posts. I skipped a December roundup, but my thoughts on everything I read in 2020 are available on GoodReads, where I'm BethFishReads.

What to read right nowOne of Our Own by Jane Haddam (Minotaur: Nov. 2020; Dreamscape: 9 hr, 6 min). This is the end of a long series featuring an ex-FBI agent, his wife, and the members of his Philadelphia Armenian American neighborhood. Haddam finished this book just before she died. Note: because I was the copyeditor for the first several entries in this series, the Demarkian books have always held a special place in my heart.

Although this isn't the strongest Demarkian book, Haddam did a fine job concluding the series. Most of the story arcs reached a satisfying ending, though (rightly so) not everything was tied up in a neat bow. I'm sorry to say goodbye to the returning characters whose stories I've followed since the first book was published.

As in most of the Demarkian books, Haddam addresses contemporary sociocultural/sociopolitical issues. In this case, she looks at inner city housing and a real estate magnate, immigration and ICE, foster care, culture clashes, and the changing nature of city neighborhoods. The mystery and side stories are well constructed, complex, and engrossing.

You'll want to start this series from the beginning so you can understand the dynamics between the main characters. For my thoughts on the audiobook, read by David Colacci, see AudioFile Magazine.

What to read right nowThe Children's Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin (Delacorte: Jan. 12; Random House Audio: 11 hr, 25 min). This is a well-researched, though fictionalized, account of the great 1888 blizzard, often referred to as the Children's Blizzard because it struck just when most schools in the upper Midwest were closing for the day. The majority of those schoolchildren failed to made it home or to a safe haven before the blinding snow engulfed them.

The focus of the novel is on two sisters who are schoolteachers in different towns. The women make very different choices for how to tend to the children in their care. We also meet a newspaper man who is forced to think about his role in enticing the unprepared to stake claims on the prairie, and a young girl who was sold by her mother to a childless couple and makes decisions based on her unique situation.

The storm came up so suddenly that people were simply caught unaware and unprepared on the open prairie, where they became lost in the blinding snow, eventually freezing to death. The novel conveys the horrors of the blizzard, why even seasoned settlers were surprised by the snow, and how the storm had lasting effects.

Cassandra Campbell performs the audiobook, adding to the drama and bringing the characters to life. Thanks to the publishers and Libro.fm for review copies in audio and digital media.

What to read right nowUnder the Alaskan Ice by Karen Harper (Mira: Dec. 2020; Harlequin Audio: 9 hr, 9 min). I was attracted to this book because of the premise of the mysterious unmarked private plane that crashes into a frozen Alaskan lake. What I didn't realize, though, was that this mystery had a heavy romance factor. That in and of itself would have been okay, but ultimately I had problems with the writing/style and put the book aside fairly early on.

My primary issue was the number of times the author asks the questions that should be left up to the engaged reader. For example, Harper has one of the characters think through a long list of questions about the plane: Why did it crash? Why now? Why here? and so on. The plotting should have made me ask those questions, without the prompting. This happens more than once. In addition, the young child was little too precocious for my tastes.

I'm a mystery fan and love an Alaskan setting, but this book just didn't click with me. Thanks to the publishers for audio and digital review copies.

What to read right nowSummerwater by Sarah Moss (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: Jan. 12 Macmillan Audio: 4 hr, 27 min). Written almost as linked short stories or vignettes, this slim novel, told over the course of one day, follows about a dozen people who are vacationing in a remote area of Scotland.

At the beginning of the day, which opens with a young mother taking a dawn run, each family is insular, hunkering down in their own cabins or following their own amusements. As we see the day progress through the eyes of different characters, we begin to view the temporary community of strangers as unique individuals, understanding their behavior from a variety of perspectives. By the end of the day, several groups have crossed paths, quarreled, or bonded . . .

The novel is beautifully written. Moss creates an uneasy atmosphere, building a sense of dread beneath what should be a relaxing summer day for the vacationers. This isn't an uplifting story, and some threads are left open-ended. But life isn't always bright and we can't predict how people are going to face their challenges.

The audiobook is read by Morven Christie, who does an excellent job conveying the author's style, building the tension, and subtly distinguishing between the characters. Highly recommended.

Thanks to the publisher and libro.fm for the audio review copy.

What to read right nowThe Effort by Claire Holroyde (Grand Central: Jan. 12; Hachette Audio: 10 hr, 38 min). What happens when a comet is destined to hit Earth? A secret international team is quickly cobbled together to try to figure out a way to deflect the comet's path. Meanwhile, a team of scientists is heading to the North Pole, with a poet and photographer in tow, to try to record the last vestiges of Arctic wildlife and the icy landscape before climate change finally wins.

We follow the individuals from these two groups as the countdown to either the comet's impact or the comet's destruction occurs. We also see what happens afterward.

I liked the premise and the different ways people reacted to the news of the impending death of the world as we know it. This isn't an action-packed story but more a slow burn as individuals rise to the occasion or crumple under hopelessness. In addition, this isn't a feel-good story, but it does give us lots to think about.

This will not be the best book I'll read this year, but I'm glad I read it. This would be a good book club pick because readers will likely have differing opinions about the characters' actions. Worth your while.

The audiobook was read by Jay Ben Markson, whose sense of pacing was good match for this book. Thanks to the publishers for the digital and audio copies of this book.

What to read right nowThe Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage (Back Bay: 2001; Hachette Audio: 8 hr, 15 min). This is a re-issue of a book originally published in 1967 and my first time reading it. It is soon to be a movie.

Set in the 1920s in Montana, this is the story of two brothers, aged 38 and 40. The older, Phil, has always been thought of as the smarter, tougher, more sociable of the two. George is stocky and quiet. The brothers run a successful cattle ranch, living together in their childhood home, which their parents left them when they moved to Salt Lake City.

Strict routines are kept until George suddenly, and without telling Phil, marries Rose, a widow from town, bringing her out to the ranch to make a new home for her and her son. Teenage Peter is bookish, somewhat effeminate, and has trouble connecting with others, but George hopes to be a good stepfather. Phil concocts myriad reasons for disliking and distrusting Rose and Peter and is determined to break up the marriage so life can get back to normal.

Savage writes with power and insight. He provides just enough of the characters' history, through minimal backflashes and memories, to give foundation to the events that unfold after George brings Rose into their home. Chilling and moving. In a way, Savage reminds me of Mishima: through sparse prose, a full and lush story is told. The Power of the Dog will likely be on my best of 2021 list.

This is my first Savage book, but now I must read the rest of his work.

The unabridged audiobook was brilliantly read by Chad Michael Collins. This is my first experience with him, and I was taken in by his pacing, his delivery style, and his ability to build a mood. The afterword (do not miss this!) is read by Annie Proulx, who provides context and thoughts gleaned from several close readings.

Thanks to the publisher and Libro.fm for the audio review copy.


Laurie C 1/4/21, 10:04 AM  

Happy New Year! I now want to listen to all of the audiobooks you've reviewed here. I especially like the sound of Summerwater. The Jane Haddam series has been on my TBL for a long time, so I'll need to start at the beginning with that.
I tried to venture into the world of ARC-audio (ALCs?) a few years ago, but I just haven't gotten back into the swing of real reviewing again since my hiatus. I can't take the pressure of review copies, I guess.
Looking forward to all of your 2021 recommendations and reviews!

Laurel-Rain Snow 1/4/21, 10:06 AM  

So sorry about Jane Haddam's passing. I haven't read any of her books, but now I want to check them out.

I have enjoyed Melanie Benjamin's books, so The Children's Blizzard is falling onto my list as I write this.

Enjoy your week and the New Year. Here are my WEEKLY UPDATES

JoAnn 1/4/21, 11:40 AM  

Lots of interesting books here. Glad to know Cassandra Campbell narrates The Children's Blizzard - she's a favorite. Just friend requested you on goodreads... could have sworn we were already friends! Happy New Year!

Vicki 1/4/21, 1:31 PM  

I think I'd like to read The Children's Blizzard and The Power of the Dog.

Kathy Martin 1/4/21, 3:21 PM  

What a great assortment of audiobooks. So many sound like something I'd enjoy. Come see my week here. Happy reading!

Greg 1/4/21, 4:08 PM  

One Of Our Own sounds good. Summerwater has me super curious, I love the idea of the interlinking stories and the Scotland setting. Bummer about Alaksan though...

The Effort definitely looks like one I'd like.

westmetromommy 1/4/21, 8:56 PM  

All of these books sound great...I'm going to check some of them out. Happy New Year! (Melinda @ A Web of Stories)

Iliana 1/4/21, 9:58 PM  

The Power of the Dog sounds really great but the one that is totally intriguing me is Summer-Water. That cover is striking too!

RAnn 1/4/21, 11:47 PM  

The Children's Blizzard sounds interesting but I don't know about reading a book where I know kids are going to die--even if they died years ago.

Tina 1/5/21, 12:25 PM  

The Melanie Benjamin book appeals to me. I would like to read the Power of the Dog but of course I need to see if there is animal abuse, that bothers me trmendously.
Nice roundup of books.

Les in Oregon 1/5/21, 1:50 PM  

After reading your glowing review on Goodreads for The Power of the Dog, I immediately bought the audiobook from Libro.fm. I can't wait to give it a listen. Also, when I saw your review for The Children's Blizzard, I mistook it for an older book of the same title by David Laskin. Interesting that Melanie Benjamin didn't find a more unique title, but as we know, there are many books out in the world that share a title with another book. I guess it's unusual when the subject matter is the same. All that said, I will give this novel a read (probably on audio) since I did enjoy The Aviator's Wife. Thanks for the great reviews!

Claudia 1/23/21, 8:13 PM  

Happy New Year! Thanks for the reviews and introduction to Jane Haddam. I hadn't read any of hers and now have the first of that series on my TBR stack.

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