I can’t always write a full review of every book I read, although I’d like to! So here are some short reviews of the books I’ve enjoyed lately.
The Publishers Weekly starred and boxed review of Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore caught my eye and I was able to get an e-book right away. Valentine is a very accomplished debut novel told in several voices about a teenage girl in the west Texas oil country town of Odessa. Gloria had the bad judgment to go off in a truck one evening with an oil worker; he rapes and beats her. She drags herself through the scrub to a nearby house where a woman with a young daughter finds her, too terrified to speak. The aftermath of this horrific event is told in the voices of several women and teenagers in the town. Each of these women, in Wetmore’s prose, is a fully developed, complex character. We ache for them and the choices they’ve made or had forced upon them, living in this brutal and desolate part of Texas where the degradation begins with the effects of the oil industry on the land and proceeds into the lives of everyone in the area. Yes, this subject is painful but the writing is so wonderful, so precise and insightful, that it is worth the pain.
The highly anticipated new novel by Joshua Henkin, Morningside Heights, was finally published this spring after several delays. I found the cover–a picture of an empty suit–disturbing, but I’m sure that was the intent. I enjoyed it, but didn’t love it. Pru Steiner, a graduate student at Columbia University, falls in love with her rock-star Shakespeare professor Spence Robin. They marry and Spence continues to top the rankings of teachers and turn out books and papers. They have a daughter, Sarah, and Pru puts her own career on hold. They live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan near Columbia and there’s lots of atmosphere and context about the neighborhood. They take in Spence’s teenage son Arlo from his first brief marriage and that changes the family dynamic in positive and not-so-positive ways. As time goes on, Spence begins to decline mentally and is no longer able to teach; Pru becomes his caregiver. That’s a rather dry recital of the plot, but Henkin has lots to say, in an understated way, about the choices we make in our lives. Arlo is an especially interesting character, but I have to say that I wasn’t overwhelmed. If you’ve read and enjoyed Henkin’s previous novels, go for it.
I read A Nearly Normal Family by Swedish author M.T. Edvardsson in two days, a psychological thriller about a family whose teenage daughter is accused of murder. Stella has always been a difficult child with a terrible temper and a lack of impulse control, but could she murder someone? The story is told in three parts; first by the father, then by Stella, and last by her mother. Unreliable narrators and complicated family relationships move the story forward. The novel poses the question: how far would you go to keep your child out of jail whether she’s guilty or innocent? Would you know if she was guilty? Would it matter?