Posted by: Jeanie F | August 21, 2016

Carousel Court by Joe McGinniss, Jr.



Living in suburban Southern California, we had a first row seat to the devastation the sub-prime mortgage crisis brought to homeowners who purchased beyond their means, based on the hope that by the time their “adjustable” mortgage adjusted, home prices and incomes would have increased accordingly. Easy approval, low entry rates, and a steady economy lulled them into buying just at – or beyond – their means. When the economy crashed, so did their ability to stay in their homes. Families all over the country watched their dreams disappear as they faced bills they couldn’t pay. Having watched this disaster from a safe remove, I was interested to see it personified through a piece of literature.

In this dark and depressing novel, Nick and Phoebe Maguire, a young married couple,move from Boston to a fictional Southern California town, Serenos. Serenos is a town like many others in this state: too far inland to enjoy the beach, comprised of new developments built cheaply and to sell quickly in areas that are hot, dusty, and located on the eastern edge of Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Having secured mid-level jobs (which disappeared for Nick before they crossed the state line), he and Phoebe hoped to invest their savings in improving the house and selling it for a large profit. But along with their hopes, their furniture, and their young son, the Maguires dragged a lot of baggage with them.

As we learn quickly, both have secrets: Nick hasn’t told Phoebe that he not only doesn’t have the job he planned on, but he doesn’t even want another like it. Nick has other plans.

Phoebe has her own secrets, attachments from her past that seriously impact the future of the entire family.

It’s unfortunate for readers that their problems are unremittingly visited upon us.

This book is not for the squeamish nor the fainthearted. I found both protagonists – not to mention the assortment of minor characters – not only unsympathetic but, at times, abhorrent. The details of the decline in both their lives and that of the larger society around them was oppressive.

The challenges that foreclosed-on homeowners faced as homes in the area were left abandoned and open to squatters and thieves were based on very real events – tragedies for people in this situation – and yet the issue was treated in a way that made the reader feel complicit in a distasteful act of voyeurism.

Having said all this, however, I have to confess that I was pulled along by the tension of the story. The Kirkus Review, in a starred review of the the novel, says, “McGinniss . . . injects it with an urgency, a sense of constant, inescapable threat that all adds up to a taut page turner.” I can’t disagree with that.

Grade: C



Posted by: Jeanie F | August 3, 2016

Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo



The release of Richard Russo’s latest novel, Everybody’s Fool, reminded me that I never read Russo’s earlier book, Nobody’s Fool, published in 1994.  I saw the movie starring Paul Newman, and enjoyed it but, more to the point, I am a fan of Pulitzer Prize-winning Russo’s other novels. I decided before I began the new book, I should take the time to read the first one.

Donald Sully, the erstwhile hero of Nobody’s Fool, is a small town legend. The son of an angry, alcoholic, and abusive brawler, “Sully” as Donald is known in North Bath, N.Y., does everything he can to follow in his now-dead father’s footsteps, all the while cursing the traumatic childhood he and his brother endured. Sixty years old, Sully was once the high school football hero. As the book opens, he is now a down-on-his-luck handyman and day laborer, divorced and distanced from his adult son, Peter.

But there’s another side to Sully, for all his bad habits, that seems to endear him to the people in town even while they excoriate him. Perhaps it is only in small towns where close physical proximity forces people, much in the way of nuclear families or small businesses, to accept what they’ve got and make the most of it. Certainly in Sully’s case, while few admire him, most everyone seems to accept him.

He is described in this way:

Throughout his life a case study underachiever, Sully – people still remarked — was nobody’s fool, a phrase that Sully no doubt appreciated without ever sensing its literal application — that at 60, he was divorced from his own wife, carrying on halfheartedly with another man’s, estranged from his son, devoid of self-knowledge, badly crippled and virtually unemployable — all of which he stubbornly confused with independence.

Sully rents an apartment in the upstairs floor of his junior high school teacher, Beryl Peoples. It is very possible that Ms. Peoples is one of only two people in the town of North Bath who truly loves Sully. The other is a gnomelike sidekick named Rub, who idolizes his “best friend,” Sully. Sully, on the other hand, both uses and abuses poor Rub as the mood hits him. Much like the fool in classical literature, Rub provides not only comic relief but an emotional foil against which we see a transformation in Sully as the novel progresses.

It is Mr. Russo’s genius that enables us to root for Sully even as we feel a bit of gratitude that he isn’t our own next door neighbor. Francine Prose explains the success of this novel (for in spite of Sully’s many shortcomings, as a reader you find yourself caring for the man and hoping that things do turn out well) in this way:

. . . Mr. Russo deals with interesting themes: change and stasis, free will and obligation, luck, responsibility, forgiveness — the bonds of community, friendship and family. He offers us apt observations of human types, human behavior.

To that point, I believe it is near the end of the novel that we discover what it is about Sully that keeps us engaged, keeps us hoping that all goes well. After a comic scene in which Sully’s grandson, Will,  cautiously returns an artificial leg to its rightful owner, Russo exposes the inner Sully in a rare flash of self-awareness:

For a moment, as Sully watched, it wasn’t Will standing there but Peter, the Peter he remembered as a boy. Or maybe even himself, the boy he remembered himself to have been so long ago, the boy who had a heart capable of being broken.

We leave Sully at the end of the story better off than we found him at the beginning. Apparently it is true – Sully is nobody’s fool.

Grade: A

Posted by: Jeanie F | May 18, 2016

The Year of the Runaways: A Novel by Sunjeev Sahota

Year of the Runaways


They move among us, largely unseen, but this year’s politically-charged invective against illegal immigrants has brought those uninvited guests to the forefront. Living here in California, we drive past them as they labor in our fields. Across the country, they work behind the scenes in restaurants, toil in sweatshops for low wages, do the jobs that most of us might offer up a prayer of thanks that  we have never had to do.

Much as T.C. Boyle did in The Tortilla Curtain, Sunjeev Sahota forces us to take a closer look.

This is the story of a group of young people who, due to various circumstances, leave their homes in India and immigrate to England hoping to improve their lot in life. There’s Tochi, who leaves his home in Bihar following a riot that destroys his life and family. Randeep uses his connections to secure an illegal “visa-wife”, a sham marriage that keeps them both on the edge of the law. Avtar hopes to improve his parents’ lives of poverty by sending money back to India. All come to London with high hopes.

It isn’t as easy as they expect. In fact, this novel is essentially the story that is playing out for desperate people around the world – Syrians, Libyans, Central Americans to name a few – trying to improve their lives in a world that is becoming less and less welcoming. For the young men in The Year of Runaways, it becomes a constant search for work that is impossible to find. When they do find it, they live in fear of their job site being raided by immigration inspectors. At the mercy of unscrupulous employers, they are forced to tolerate dangerous working conditions. When ill, they don’t dare seek out medical care. When borrowing money, if they can’t make installment payments on time not only are they threatened, but so are their families in India.

Shortlisted for last year’s prestigious Man Booker Prize, The Year of the Runaways is a compelling, if disturbing, read. Ron Charles, in his Washington Post review, calls it “The Grapes of Wrath for the 21st century”.

It is also a challenging read in that Sahota has interspersed Panjabi words throughout the book without providing translations or a glossary. (An interesting aside: a reviewer on Goodreads named Paul Bryant tallied “facts” about the book and included “Untranslated Panjabi words: 24,677). In an interview for Bookpage, Sahota explains this decision:

It’s the background orchestra of the novel. This is an insider’s view, so it felt natural to include Punjabi in the book to give a flavor, to show this different world that exists inside England. If a reader doesn’t understand some of it, then ironically it puts the reader in the position of someone coming to England who can’t make much sense of this new world.

This is a challenging, yet compelling, book. It covers a wide range of issues with honesty and purpose. It forces us to look at and consider uncomfortable issues, making it more difficult to look away.

Grade: A


Posted by: Jeanie F | April 16, 2016

Vacation Reading

Summer Reading

The days are getting longer, the temperature is beginning to rise, a gentle breeze replaces the cold blasts of winter – and, if you’re like me, you’re beginning to think about summer vacations. Whether you’re taking a break from sightseeing for some wine and cheese at a Paris bistro, relaxing in your camp chair beside a river after a vigorous hike, or lying on a sun-drenched beach in Maui, vacation reading is going to be part of that picture. If you’re reading this blog, you’re hoping you will find the perfect book to keep you entertained during those moments of relaxation.

When my friend, Dennis, goes on vacation, he likes to bring along challenging books that he doesn’t have time to read during the work year. He’s brought “Anna Karenina,” “Bleak House,” one year he brought “War and Peace.” And during every trip he tries to read over the shoulders of the rest of us, who bring less lofty, but more entertaining, books. As soon as one of us finishes a book, he snatches it away.

I’m far more realistic about my vacation reading. I know I don’t want to be enlightened or educated – I want to have as good a time while I’m reading as I do when I’m sightseeing.  I’m always keeping my eye out for books that might be good to take on vacation so, when the time comes, I’m not settling for something that turns out to be a disappointment.


The books I’ve selected to recommend to you as great summer reads are tried and true favorites that meet this criteria:

  • Not too mentally challenging
  • A great story that keeps you entertained
  • Something you can pick up or put down easily, depending on the day’s activities
  • Something I’ve reviewed on this blog

Because each of us has our own definition of what a good vacation book might be, I’ve divided my selections by genre. And I’ve linked each title to my review, so you can get more information than you might find on a book jacket. Be aware that many of these books fall into more than one genre, but I’ve chosen the one I think highlights the most distinguishing characteristic of each.

Humorous Books  These aren’t necessarily “laugh out loud” books, but they are books that I thought were light reading and had an element of the ridiculous or eccentric.

And Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evision

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Action/Mystery These books are heavy on plot, lots going on.

City of Thieves by David Benioff

The Reversal by Michael Connelly

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Let Him Go by Larry Watson

The Painter by Peter Heller

Drama Human interest, serious but, for summer reading, engrossing and hard to put down.

Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment

Room by Emma Donoghue

Defending Jacob by William Landa

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Short Story Collections Because sometimes you just want something you can finish.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenudin

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

Your turn – what books would you add to this list? Please share with the rest of us!

Reading in Paris



Posted by: Jeanie F | April 10, 2016

Introducing . . . 

If you have or work with pre-teen or teenage readers, you might send them over to check out a new blog written by high schooler, Hooprgirl, at

Hooprgirl seems to have a handle on adolescent fiction – high action and energy titles that appeal to this age group.

Posted by: Jeanie F | April 8, 2016

Do You Re-Read Books?


Lately I have been having trouble settling on a book. I’ve purchased several that seemed promising, but found myself unable to sustain interest in them. I spent some time reverting to short story anthologies – always a great fall-back option for me – and some non-fiction. But I continued to hunger for a novel that I loved. I tried isolating the qualities of some of my favorites, hoping that would lead me to similar selections, when it occurred to me that maybe what I should do was reread some of my favorites.

When I was a child it was standard procedure to reread a beloved book, often many, many times. I couldn’t guess how many times I went through HeidiBlack Beauty, Little Women. All of the Black Stallion books had to be replaced when the covers finally came off and, for  a number of years I could actually quote passages of Lad, a Dog. Happiness on a desert island would have been a single copy of The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I decided if rereading was something that had once been immensely satisfying, there was no reason not to see if that still held true today.

I started with what those of you who read this blog regularly could probably guess – Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Although I read the Holt Trilogy several years ago on my Kindle, after Haruf’s death last November I asked for new copies of all three titles for Christmas. I really wanted the physical objects in my hands. It was such a joy to reread this wonderful book, to revisit the McPheron brothers and Victoria Roubideaux, to admire Maggie Jones strength and Tom Guthrie’s strong character. I almost literally devoured the book, so happy to be reading great writing about characters I loved treating each other with kindness and respect, coping with problems in human ways, trying again and again to get it right.


A Fine Balance

The hours that it took me to reread Plainsong were the happiest I’ve spent reading in a long time, so I’ve decided to give rereading one more try. This is a little more of commitment since my favorite non-Haruf novel is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Unlike the Holt Trilogy, with each novel coming in at about three hundred pages, A Fine Balance is larger and more dense, 603 pages and filled with characters and subplots. It is a novel of India and, as the book cover relates, “captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India.”

It’s been a number of years since I first read this book, but I’ve never forgotten it. I’m curious to see if, like Plainsong, it still resonates in the same way it. I’m almost afraid to reread it, lest I find myself disappointed, but I’m going to give it a try.

Do you reread books? How and when do you make the decision to do so? What books have you reread, and are there any that you go back to over and over? I’d love to hear how others balance returning to beloved books with taking the time to read something new.

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