Margin Notes: A couple well reviewed books that just didn't hit the spot for me

I give books a fair shot. I almost always finish them, unless I'm not loving them and they're due at the library. Recently though I've been super exicted to read some books that I haven't fallen in love with--either the plot didn't catch me, the characters weren't my favs, or something of the like. So, take my thoughts or leave them, but make your own decisions too! That's why there are so many books! Not everyone is going to like everything. :)

The Night GuestThe Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane
Ruth is widowed, her sons are grown, and she lives in an isolated beach house outside of town. Her routines are few and small. One day a stranger arrives at her door, looking as if she has been blown in from the sea. This woman—Frida—claims to be a care worker sent by the government. Ruth lets her in.
     Now that Frida is in her house, is Ruth right to fear the tiger she hears on the prowl at night, far from its jungle habitat? Why do memories of childhood in Fiji press upon her with increasing urgency? How far can she trust this mysterious woman, Frida, who seems to carry with her her own troubled past? And how far can Ruth trust herself?
     The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane’s hypnotic first novel, is no simple tale of a crime committed and a mystery solved. This is a tale that soars above its own suspense to tell us, with exceptional grace and beauty, about aging, love, trust, dependence, and fear; about processes of colonization; and about things (and people) in places they shouldn’t be. Here is a new writer who comes to us fully formed, working wonders with language, renewing our faith in the power of fiction to describe the mysterious workings of our minds.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was well written and interesting. I really felt for the main character, Ruth. And the whole idea of what happens to her was just heartbreaking. However, this wasn't a book that felt compelling to me. Maybe b/c my life experiences haven't yet included something like home care or an elderly person who needs help, but I just found myself not really wanting to pick it up. I also found Ruth's quick degradation into a feeble older woman surprising and am left wondering if Frida had something to do with it. All in all, well written and thought provoking, just not for me.

The Shining GirlsThe Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The future is not as loud as war, but it is relentless. It has a terrible fury all its own." 

Harper Curtis is a killer who stepped out of the past. Kirby Mazrachi is the girl who was never meant to have a future.

Kirby is the last shining girl, one of the bright young women, burning with potential, whose lives Harper is destined to snuff out after he stumbles on a House in Depression-era Chicago that opens on to other times. 

At the urging of the House, Harper inserts himself into the lives of the shining girls, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He's the ultimate hunter, vanishing into another time after each murder, untraceable-until one of his victims survives.

Determined to bring her would-be killer to justice, Kirby joins theChicago Sun-Times to work with the ex-homicide reporter, Dan Velasquez, who covered her case. Soon Kirby finds herself closing in on the impossible truth . . . 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has such an interesting premise--a time traveling serial killer, and the girl he didn't kill trying to track him down. I enjoyed this book--great characters. Kirby, the girl, is fiercely independent and relentless. Harper, the bad guy, is creepy and scary and more of a character than you expect from a bad guy. The shining girls are all interesting, I don't want any of them to die and keep hoping that they'll somehow miraculously survive. The end of the book picks up the pace to the point that I found it distracting. And, while this book was readable, I thought Kirby's investigation deserved more. It felt happenstance. You're never with her when she figures anything out or surmises what's going on, and that could have added the depth that would have made this book a little more memorable. All in all, a good, not great, read.

Help for the HauntedHelp for the Haunted by John Searles
It begins with a call in the middle of snowy February evening. Lying in her bed, young Sylvie Mason overhears her parents on the phone across the hall. This is not the first late-night call they have received, since her mother and father have an uncommon occupation, helping "haunted souls" find peace. And yet, something in Sylvie senses that this call is different than the rest, especially when they are lured to the old church on the outskirts of town. Once there, her parents disappear, one after the other, behind the church's red door, leaving Sylvie alone in the car. Not long after, she drifts off to sleep only to wake to the sound of gunfire.

Nearly a year later, we meet Sylvie again struggling with the loss of her parents, and living in the care of her older sister, who may be to blame for what happened the previous winter.

As the story moves back and forth in time, through the years leading up to the crime and the months following, the ever inquisitive and tender-hearted Sylvie pursues the mystery, moving closer to the knowledge of what occurred that night, as she comes to terms with her family's past and uncovers secrets that have haunted them for years.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was a little scary, and a lot weird. I liked the ending, but the plot itself was too out there for me and I didn't find the ending believable. Just a little too tidy. I think people who like creepy books might like this book, but other than that, I didn't feel like the characters were round or like I had any real insight into any of them. I felt like I was being told this story, not like I was uncovering anything.

BabayagaBabayaga by Toby Barlow
Will is a young American ad executive in Paris. Except his agency is a front for the CIA. It’s 1959 and the cold war is going strong. But Will doesn’t think he’s a warrior—he’s just a good-hearted Detroit ad guy who can’t seem to figure out Parisian girls.

Zoya is a beautiful young woman wandering les boulevards, sad-eyed, coming off a bad breakup. In fact, she impaled her ex on a spike. Zoya, it turns out, has been a beautiful young woman for hundreds of years; she and her far more traditionally witchy-looking companion, Elga, have been thriving unnoticed in the bloody froth of Europe’s wars.

Inspector Vidot is a hardworking Paris police detective who cherishes quiet nights at home. But when he follows a lead from a grisly murder to the abode of an ugly old woman, he finds himself turned into a flea.

Oliver is a patrician, fun-loving American who has come to Paris to start a literary journal with the help of friends in D.C. who ask a few favors in return. He’s in well over his head, but it’s nothing that a cocktail can’t fix. Right?

Add a few chance encounters, a chorus of some more angry witches, a strung-out jazzman or two, a weaponized LSD program, and a cache of rifles buried in the Bois de Bologne—and that’s a novel! But while Toby Barlow’s Babayaga may start as just a joyful romp though the City of Light, it quickly grows into a daring, moving exploration of love, mortality, and responsibility.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was interesting. The characters were great, the plot was surprising. I wasn't sure where it was going and how it would end, which is always kind of fun! Some of the plot was confusing, but in the end, I thought it was a fun, off-kilter, odd book that I enjoyed.

The EngagementsThe Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan
From the New York Times best-selling author of Commencement andMaine comes a gorgeous, sprawling novel about marriage—about those who marry in a white heat of passion, those who marry for partnership and comfort, and those who live together, love each other, and have absolutely no intention of ruining it all with a wedding.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I liked this more than Maine, but the ending was so... Contrived. Forced. Annoying. Sullivan writes interesting but not at all likable characters. I found jumping from one story line to another disjointed and it took me time to get back into the story. I spent the whole first half trying to foresee how the stories would be intertwined, but then, I just stopped caring. By the end there were maybe one or two characters I was still interested in hearing about but the rest I was just bored with. I found that I disliked these characters less than in Maine, so that's a plus...

LoteríaLotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano
A young girl tells the story of her family's tragic demise using a deck of cards of the eponymous Mexican game in this spellbinding debut novel that marks the arrival of a powerhouse new talent.

With her older sister Estrella in the ICU and her father in jail, eleven-year-old Luz Castillo has been taken into the custody of the state. Alone in her room, the young girl retreats behind a wall of silence, writing in her journal and shuffling through a deck of Lotería cards-a Mexican version of bingo featuring bright, colorful images.

Neither the social worker assigned to her case nor her Aunt Tencha, who desperately pleads for her niece's release, can cajole Luz to speak. The young girl's only confidant is her journal. Within its pages, Luz addresses an invisible higher power, sharing her secrets.

Using the Lotería cards as her muse, Luz picks one card from the deck with each shuffle. Each of the cards' colorful images- mermaids, bottles, spiders, death, and stars-sparks a random memory. Pieced together, these snapshots bring into focus the joy and pain of the young girl's life, and the events that led to her present situation. But just as the story becomes clear, a breathtaking twist changes everything.

A surprising, spellbinding tale richly imaginative and atmospheric, Lotería is an exquisite debut novel from an outstanding new voice in fiction.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked this book. The premise is that a young girl, Luz, has had something bad happen and isn't speaking, so she's living in a group home and trying to work through her feelings by flipping cards from her Loteria deck and writing what pops into her mind. I thought it was a great conceit, and I hadn't heard of Loteria previously. I thought the characters were really interesting and well drawn. The story was adult, but the writing seemed a but simplistic and young adult, so I was confused about the intended audience. Also, I don't speak spanish, and there was a lot of spanish in this book. I read with google open so I could try to get the nuances that I'd otherwise miss, but it really impacted my reading experience. If you speak spanish, I'm sure this book will read smoothly and have a nuance that I missed. With that said, the story was compelling and the characters were interesting.

That seems like enough (too much?!) for now... I have a couple to add to this category, but I have a couple that I loved I want to mix in first!


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