Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I have never been as conflicted about a book as I am about The Goldfinch.

For the first half of Donna Tartt’s celebrated novel, I was hooked. I read it slowly, treating myself to it chapter by chapter. I recommended it to every reader I knew. I bristled in indignation when I read an article quoting critics who thought it was poorly written and didn’t deserve its Pulitzer Prize — of course Theo thinks in clichés like ‘the tip of the iceberg,’ he’s only thirteen! I was certain I was reading one of my future favorite books.

And then … the second half happened, and I was left wondering whether the emperor had any clothes.

(NB: This review contains more spoilers than I normally include in my reviews; they are all fairly vague, but you have been warned.)

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Review: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

I have long felt that Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is an underrated member of the Austen pantheon. Yes, Cathy is a bit silly and Henry is sort of a drip, but I adore the sendup of the goofy Gothic novel genre. So perhaps I’m not quite the ideal audience for The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, the fifth book in the Contemporary Women’s Fiction collection, which embraces Gothic tropes with unreserved enthusiasm.

Edinburgh shop owner Iris Lockhart arrives one morning to find a mysterious letter waiting for her; later that day, she receives a phone call from a lawyer who tells her that she is the legal guardian of an elderly woman Iris has never heard of. Documents prove that Esme Lennox is the younger sister of Iris’s grandmother Kitty, but Kitty has always claimed she was an only child. Esme has been institutionalized since her teens and must be relocated now that the asylum where she’s staying is closing its doors for good.

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Review: The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones

Amazon’s Best Contemporary Women’s Fiction Kindle collection has become my go-to gift for friends who are sick or on bed rest — what could be better for passing the time than six novels at a bargain price? The collection got lost in my reading shuffle for a while, but this holiday season I finally got around to revisiting it and I devoured all three remaining books in a matter of days. My favorite book in the collection turned out to be the fourth: The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones.

Maggie McElroy is a recently widowed food writer who specializes in writing about popular American cuisine — food at state fairs, local specialties in small towns, and other bites (pun intended) of Americana. She is slowly coming to terms with the sudden death of her husband, Matt, when his co-worker calls with stunning news: a woman in Beijing has filed a paternity claim against Matt’s estate. Maggie must go to China to obtain a paternity test.

Maggie’s editor, hoping to give Maggie something to do besides worry about the lawsuit, suggests that she combine the trip with a writing assignment: interviewing Sam Liang, an American-born chef who is about to open a new restaurant in Beijing. Sam is no American culinary giant opening a satellite restaurant in a busy business district. He is the grandson of Liang Wei, author of the (fictional) classic text The Last Chinese Chef, and he dreams that his Beijing restaurant will showcase the kind of classical Chinese cooking his grandfather wrote about. 

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Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Some books are easy to review. Plot summary, praise, criticism, rating, done. Other books are like Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

I enjoyed reading this book tremendously and think you should read it too. But how can I convince you to do that without spoiling the humor and wit and surprise of the book? Maybe I should just link to this wonderfully spoiler-free review by my friend Mouse. Or maybe I should let the first page sell you on the book:

The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says “What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.” You’ll notice that wasn’t even the question. When I press him, he says the second annoying thing, “The truth is complicated. There’s no way one person can ever know everything about another person.”

Mom disappears into thin air two days before Christmas without telling me? Of course it’s complicated. Just because it’s complicated, just because you think you can’t ever know everything about another person, it doesn’t mean you can’t try.

It doesn’t mean I can’t try.

But that seems lazy. So instead, I’ll try listing five spoiler-free reasons that I really liked Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

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Review: Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

Years ago I used to participate on a book discussion forum that had a board called “Great book! Too hard to read.”  It was devoted to books that were smart and well-written but hard to read because their subject matter was so disturbing.  I thought of that board as I tried to process the second book in the Contemporary Women’s Fiction collection, Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum.  This is a powerful, compelling, beautifully written book.  It is also incredibly upsetting.

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

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Review: Almost by Elizabeth Benedict

Last week, I finally bought a Kindle collection that a friend has been recommending: “Best Contemporary Women’s Fiction.”  To be honest, I held off for a while because the title of the collection bugged me — what makes it “women’s fiction”?  The fact that women wrote it?  We don’t call fiction written by men “men’s fiction”!  Grrr — but in the end I couldn’t turn down six books for $13, especially when one of them was by Ann Patchett.

The first book in the collection is Almost by Elizabeth Benedict.  It is the story of Sophy, a novelist (and occasional celebrity-biography ghostwriter) who has just separated from her husband and moved to Manhattan.  She’s begun a passionate affair with a fellow New Yorker and is struggling with her latest novel when an unexpected call comes: her husband, Will, is dead.  Sophy must leave Manhattan and return to Swansea, the Martha’s Vineyard-esque Massachusetts island where she used to live with Will, to deal with the aftermath of his death.

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