Book Review: My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

Title: My Italian Bulldozer
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Publisher: Abacus
Publication date: April 4, 2017
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The best-selling author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series returns with an irresistible new novel about one man’s adventures in the Italian countryside.

Paul Stuart, a renowned food writer, finds himself at loose ends after his longtime girlfriend leaves him for her personal trainer. To cheer him up, Paul’s editor, Gloria, encourages him to finish his latest cookbook on-site in Tuscany, hoping that a change of scenery (plus the occasional truffled pasta and glass of red wine) will offer a cure for both heartache and writer’s block. But upon Paul’s arrival, things don’t quite go as planned. A mishap with his rental-car reservation leaves him stranded, until a newfound friend leads him to an intriguing alternative: a bulldozer.

With little choice in the matter, Paul accepts the offer, and as he journeys (well, slowly trundles) into the idyllic hillside town of Montalcino, he discovers that the bulldozer may be the least of the surprises that await him. What follows is a delightful romp through the lush sights and flavors of the Tuscan countryside, as Paul encounters a rich cast of characters, including a young American woman who awakens in him something unexpected.

A feast for the senses and a poignant meditation on the complexity of human relationships, My Italian Bulldozer is a charming and intensely satisfying love story for anyone who has ever dreamed of a fresh start. 

Once again, a book group selection is responsible for me reading a charming book that I probably never would have encountered otherwise. Yay, book group!

In My Italian Bulldozer, writer Paul Stuart heads to Tuscany for a few weeks of rest and relaxation while finishing his newest foodie book. His girlfriend of four years has just dumped him, and he’s in need of a change of scenery, so what better choice than to head to the site of the delicious food and wine he’s writing about?

The trip does not go as planned. Immediately upon arrival, he has some rather comical mishaps with the rental car company. When no cars are available, a new acquaintance connects him with a commercial vehicle rental agency, which is able to offer him the only rental they have: a bulldozer. With no other option, Paul sets off on the road to Montalcino, the rural hilltop village where he’ll be staying, enjoying the vantage point of his rather odd ride.

Once settled in Montalcino, Paul begins to meet the locals, who seem to take a shine to him right away. He quickly becomes a regular at the coffee houses and restaurants, and also meets an American woman who sparks his interest. Picnics, meals, and all sorts of outings via bulldozer make up his days, and he also makes great progress with his book.

My Italian Bulldozer isn’t exactly a plot-heavy book. It’s a peaceful, calming story about a man’s encounter with a quieter way of life, giving him time to think and reflect on what really matters and what he wants. It’s sweet, charming, and quirky, a quick read, and altogether a very good book for the holiday season.

Describing a book as “nice” doesn’t really sound like great praise, but this book really and truly is nice. The people are sympathetic and likable, the setting is lovely, the food and wine sound delicious, and the adventure is on the mild side. I had a nice time reading My Italian Bulldozer. It didn’t make me work hard to enjoy it, it went by fast, and was enjoyable all the way through.

Perhaps not (definitely not) the most exciting book I’ve read all year, but I’m glad I read it, especially as a way to cleanse my palate after some heavier, less pleasant reading. I’d recommend My Italian Bulldozer as a sweet diversion for when you’re looking for a pick-me-up.

Book Review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Title: American Dirt
Author: Jeanine Cummins
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: January 21, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Received as a gift
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

También de este lado hay sueños. On this side, too, there are dreams.

Lydia Quixano Pérez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has a son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. And while there are cracks beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, her life is, by and large, fairly comfortable.

Even though she knows they’ll never sell, Lydia stocks some of her all-time favorite books in her store. And then one day a man enters the shop to browse and comes up to the register with a few books he would like to buy—two of them her favorites. Javier is erudite. He is charming. And, unbeknownst to Lydia, he is the jefe of the newest drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. When Lydia’s husband’s tell-all profile of Javier is published, none of their lives will ever be the same.

Forced to flee, Lydia and eight-year-old Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia—trains that make their way north toward the United States, which is the only place Javier’s reach doesn’t extend. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?

It’s impossible to read American Dirt without awareness of the controversy surrounding this book seeping into the reading experience. Which is okay — it’s controversial for a reason, and I actually had no intention of reading this book, until a family member gave it to me as a gift. So, with hesitation, I jumped in.

American Dirt is a story of pain and violence. Lydia’s life is permanently ravaged when a cartel murder squad invades her family’s backyard celebration. Purely by chance, Lydia and her eight-year-old son Luca survive, while sixteen other members of her family, including her husband, are killed. Recognizing their immediate danger, Lydia flees with Luca, knowing that the cartel won’t stop hunting them and that their only chance at safety is to head north to the US and try to cross the border.

As the book progresses, we learn more about the escalating violence in Acapulco as well as across all of Mexico, as the cartels exert more and more power. Lydia’s husband is a reporter who specializes in profiling cartel violence. Lydia herself runs a bookstore, where she ends up befriending a seemingly kind, intellectual man… who turns out to be none other than the head of the cartel ruling Acapulco. When Sebastian’s expose of Javier runs, it sets off a course of tragedy and violence that leads directly to the massacre of their family.

Lydia and Luca’s journey is harrowing, as they join the crowds of migrants riding La Bestia, the network of freight trains that run through Mexico, which migrants risk life and limb to ride atop in the hopes of making it north. Along the way, they face physical danger from the train itself as well as severe threats from police and cartel soldiers who round up migrants and inflict torture, death, and demands for ransom as part of their standard operating procedures.

Is this a good book? Not really, no. It’s dramatic for sure, and a compelling read, but it’s hard for me to actually praise it. Despite problems (more on those in a second), it’s a fast read that’s hard to put down once started. Yet the book really is more melodrama than anything else, indulging in nonstop violence and horrific situations, and presenting a portrait of Mexico as a place with not one ounce of safety or happiness.

The friendship (almost romantic) with Javier is unnecessary and feel soap opera-worthy. What are the odds that the wife of the journalist who exposes him would also be this man’s good friend and close confidante?. Why does Lydia, a woman grieving her slaughtered family, need to be also burdened by what-ifs about putting trust in Javier’s friendship?

Teen sisters Soledad and Rebeca become traveling companions for Lydia and Luca. We’re hit over the hit repeatedly with how remarkably beautiful the girls are — and, the book makes clear, how their beauty singles them out to become targets of rapists, again and again and again throughout the book. Why is their beauty relevant? Don’t women not at this pinnacle of beauty also get raped? Not in American Dirt.

The coyote who takes Lydia, Luca, and a group of others across the border is, of course, one of the good ones. He’s a coyote with a soul. Despite his tough talk and enforcement of rules, one tragedy one this journey in particular is enough to transform him and change him permanently. Really? As if he’s never lost anyone on a crossing before?

These are just a few examples, but I found the whole story to be over the top and voyeuristic. I could go on (why does it matter that Luca is a geography protege?), but I’ll turn instead to my other annoyances with this book, namely the writing.

First, the point of view shifts from paragraph to paragraph between Luca and Lydia, with no sense of why, and it’s confusing and distracting. Lydia will be thinking about something, and it’s not until midway through the following paragraph that a reference to Mami alerts us that we’re now seeing Luca’s perspective. Other character’s points-of-view are randomly included, seemingly so that the author can offer us first-person narratives of terrible experiences that Lydia wasn’t present for.

Also, the writing itself and the author’s descriptions are often over the top or simply incomprehensible. A few examples, but I could really open up the book practically at random and find more:

She loved that boy with her whole heart, but my God, there were days when she couldn’t fully breathe until she’d left him at the schoolyard gate. That’s all over now; she would staple him to her, sew him into her skin, affix her body permanently to his now, if she could. She’d grow her hair into his scalp, would become his conjoined twin-mother.

Her face is splotchy but dry, and there are dark circles beneath her eyes. Her expression is one Luca has never seen before, and he fears it might be permanent. It’s as if seven fisherman have cast their hooks into her from different directions and they’re all pulling at once. One from the eyebrow, one from the lip, another at the nose, one from the cheek. Mami is contorted.

In the half-light left over from Soledad’s corona, Rebeca glimmers like a secret sun.

Your mileage may vary, but repeatedly throughout the book, I had to pause to try to turn the author’s imagery into a picture in my mind that actually made sense. It didn’t always work.

I’m not directly addressing the controversy about the author, I realize, and that’s simply because it’s been covered elsewhere in depth. For more, I recommend:
The Seattle Review of Books: “The Dirt on American Dirt”
Tropics of Meta: Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck
Vulture: “Why Is Everyone Arguing About the Novel American Dirt?”
New York Times: “American Dirt is Proof the Publishing Industry is Broken”

I with the author had explained more about her sources or the research that went into writing this book. The migrant experience is a compelling and important topic, but I don’t feel that American Dirt is the right book for really learning about it.

It does, however, make me want to seek out more authentic accounts by #ownvoices authors. I know there’s a lot to learn — I just don’t think American Dirt is the book to learn from.


Book Review: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Title: The Midnight Library
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: September 29, 2020
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Somewhere out beyond the edge of the universe there is a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life. While we all wonder how our lives might have been, what if you had the chance to go to the library and see for yourself? Would any of these other lives truly be better?

In The Midnight Library, Matt Haig’s enchanting new novel, Nora Seed finds herself faced with this decision. Faced with the possibility of changing her life for a new one, following a different career, undoing old breakups, realizing her dreams of becoming a glaciologist; she must search within herself as she travels through the Midnight Library to decide what is truly fulfilling in life, and what makes it worth living in the first place.

At age 35, Nora Seed makes a choice that should be fatal. Estranged from her best friend and from her brother, let go from an unfulfilling job, with a broken engagement in her past, she’s finally pushed too far when she learns that her beloved cat has died. Nora’s life once seemed full of promise, but now, she sees nothing ahead of herself but more loneliness and bleakness. So she decides to end her life.

But in the moments between life and death, Nora ends up in the Midnight Library, a seemingly magical place where choices are endless. In this infinite library, each volume on the shelves represents a different path her life might have taken. Nora is full of regrets for all the missed opportunities and seemingly wrong decisions she’s made during her lifetime, and in fact, one of the key books in the library is the Book of Regrets, capturing everything in Nora’s life that she wishes she could have done differently.

Under the guidance of Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian who represented kindness and safety at a difficult time in her life, Nora chooses different volumes of her life to try again. In each, she inhabits the life she might have had if she’d chosen differently. From sticking with the swimming career that could have led her to the Olympics, to signing the recording contract with the band that might have launched her into international stardom, to a life pursuing her academic career in philosophy while also raising a daughter with a man she loves, Nora gets to experience alternate realities and how she might feel in each different version of her life.

As in real life, there are no easy answers. While Nora seeks the right life, each ends up with flaws. If only she could find the one that’s perfect for her, she’d be able to stay in it… but with each, there comes a point where she returns to the library to try again.

Over the course of the book, Nora learns to let go of regret. She also learns the importance of perspective — that what she sees isn’t necessarily true for the people she’s interacting with, and that each person’s life can have far greater impact than they realize.

The Midnight Library is so meaningful, and so beautifully written. There are life lessons throughout, but never in a way that feels preachy or patronizing. Nora’s experiences feel real, and in each version of her life, it becomes clearer and clearer that the right life doesn’t equate to perfect happiness, as no life can be nothing but happy. Ultimately, it’s about choosing to live, to find purpose, and to find connection. As Nora progresses, we’re able to journey with her and discover some truths that make perfect sense, yet are rarely said.

I really loved this book, and will be pushing it into the hands of several bookish friends. Highly recommended — it’s uplifting and life-affirming, and left me feeling hopeful and renewed.

For more by this terrific author, check out my reviews of:
The Humans
How To Stop Time
The Dead Fathers Club

Book Review: West End Girls by Jenny Colgan

Title: West End Girls
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Publication date: January 5, 2021 (originally published 2006)
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

They may be twins, but Lizzie and Penny Berry are complete opposites. Penny is the life of the party—loud and outrageous, while quiet and thoughtful Lizzy is often left out of the crowd. The one trait they do share is a longing to do something spectacular with their lives, and as far as these two are concerned, there’s no better place to make their dreams come true than London.

Presented with a once-in-a-lifetime house-sit at their grandmother’s home in a very desirable London neighborhood, it finally seems like Lizzie and Penny are a step closer to the exciting cosmopolitan life they’ve always wanted. But the more time they spend in the big city, they quickly discover it’s nothing like they expected. They may have to dream new dreams…but are they up to the challenge?

Jenny Colgan has become a go-to author for me for when I need something bright and uplifting to cheer me up or lighten my day. West End Girls, to be published in early 2021, is actually a re-release of a book from earlier in her career, and it shows.

Lizzie and Penny are non-identical twins who at age 27 live with their mother in a cramped apartment, work at dead-end jobs, and have no prospects. When their paternal grandmother, with whom they’ve had no contact since their childhood, moves into a care facility, she offers her Chelsea flat to the girls, provided they protect her stuff while she’s away.

Jumping on the opportunity, Lizzie and Penny show up at their swanky new address, only to discover that Gran was basically a hoarder. Still, while the inside of the flat is a mess, they’ve arrived in an exclusive London neighborhood and are determined to launch new lives.

Penny is obsessed with looks and landing a rich man, and sets out to do so by going to clubs, being outrageous, dressing provocatively, and throwing herself into a wealthy crowd. Lizzie, the shy one, just wants a job, and ends up being hired by a cafe owner who’s large, gregarious, and a true talent in the kitchen.

During their time in London, both Penny and Lizzie experience romantic ups and downs, disappointments, career opportunities, and awkward social scenarios. They’re often in opposition to one another, but when push comes to shove, they have each other’s backs.

West End Girls is a fairly predictable rags-to-riches story, with each sister getting what she needs by the end — which isn’t necessarily what she thought she wanted at the start. It’s cute and light, but not problem-free.

Some of the pop culture references are dated (which makes sense, considering this book was first published in 2006), but thankfully, there aren’t enough of these to be seriously distracting. The book is much less body positive than it would be if written today, I suspect. Lizzie is overweight at the start of the story and dresses drably to hide her pounds, having survived on microwaved dinners for two many years. As Georges, the cafe owner, teaches her how to find her way around a kitchen and appreciate quality food, she ends up slimming down and getting healthier, and toward the end, even gets a wardrobe, hair, and makeup makeover. Which, good for Lizzie if she feels better about herself, but I felt like I was hearing about Lizzie’s weight and how much better she looked slimmer a bit too often for my taste.

Jenny Colgan’s more recent books have a depth and richness that I love, with wonderful settings, quirky and funny characters, and some true emotional heft. Here, I got entertainment, but not that much more.

Still, West End Girls was a fun way to spend my weekend reading hours, and I had a good time with it. It just made me look forward to summer 2021, when Jenny Colgan next new book will be released!

Shelf Control #235: The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Light We Lost
Author: Jill Santopolo
Published: 2017
Length: 328 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

He was the first person to inspire her, to move her, to truly understand her. Was he meant to be the last?

Lucy is faced with a life-altering choice. But before she can make her decision, she must start her story—their story—at the very beginning.

Lucy and Gabe meet as seniors at Columbia University on a day that changes both of their lives forever. Together, they decide they want their lives to mean something, to matter. When they meet again a year later, it seems fated—perhaps they’ll find life’s meaning in each other. But then Gabe becomes a photojournalist assigned to the Middle East and Lucy pursues a career in New York. What follows is a thirteen-year journey of dreams, desires, jealousies, betrayals, and, ultimately, of love. Was it fate that brought them together? Is it choice that has kept them away? Their journey takes Lucy and Gabe continents apart, but never out of each other’s hearts.

How and when I got it:

I bought it at least a year ago.

Why I want to read it:

I first heard of The Light We Lost when it was selected as a Hello Sunshine book group book. I tend to shy away from most celebrity book clubs, but I find that the Reese/Hello Sunshine books tend to be really, really good!

From the Hello Sunshine website:

“This book is all about different kinds of love – the kind that engulfs you like a wildfire and the kind that keeps you warm like a hearth fire. This love story spans decades and continents as two star-crossed lovers try to return to each other.

Life, motherhood, and distance get in the way. Will they ever meet again? This book kept me up at night, turning the pages to find out. Can’t tell you the ending but definitely have tissues close by!! I loved it!” x Reese

This definitely sounds like something I’d enjoy. I haven’t read much contemporary fiction lately, and I like the sound of a love story that spans years and years.

Now that this book is on my mind again, I think I’m going to bump it higher up my to-read list.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Title: Anxious People
Author: Fredrik Backman
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: September 8, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is a poignant comedy about a crime that never took place, a would-be bank robber who disappears into thin air, and eight extremely anxious strangers who find they have more in common than they ever imagined.

Viewing an apartment normally doesn’t turn into a life-or-death situation, but this particular open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes everyone in the apartment hostage. As the pressure mounts, the eight strangers slowly begin opening up to one another and reveal long-hidden truths.

As police surround the premises and television channels broadcast the hostage situation live, the tension mounts and even deeper secrets are slowly revealed. Before long, the robber must decide which is the more terrifying prospect: going out to face the police, or staying in the apartment with this group of impossible people.

In Anxious People, an ill-prepared and not very talented bank robber inadvertently seeks shelter in an apartment that’s open for viewing, turning a failed robbery into a hostage situation. For the people at the apartment viewing, being held hostage (by a robber none view as particularly dangerous) is the least of their worries.

The eight people present at the apartment all have stories to share, which we learn over the course of the book. How and why they all end up at this apartment on New Year’s Eve is complicated, and as they open up to one another, we see common threads of worry over relationships, living up to expectations, family drama, success, and finding meaning in life.

The narrative jumps around in time, taking us back 10 years to a suicide that occurred on a bridge visible from the apartment balcony, through the events of the day of the viewing, plus the police interviews that take place after the hostages are released.

We also get to know two police officers in this small Swedish town, Jim and Jack, father and son, whose professional interactions are more than a little influenced by their sometimes difficult personal relationship and their shared losses and fears. The deeper they delve into the witness statements, the more the bank robber’s motivations and actions become clear, but that doesn’t answer the fundamental question of what happened once the hostages were released.

Naturally, Jim did his best to act like he definitely had experience, seeing as dads like teaching their sons things, because the moment we can no longer do that is when they stop being our responsibility and we become theirs.

This was a quick, captivating read, and yet the level of whimsy in the storytelling is set very, very high. Your tolerance for this kind of quirky, whimsical storytelling will determine whether you’ll enjoy this book. For me, it was mixed. I’ve loved some of Fredrik Backman’s books in the past, yet there’s at least one (My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry) where I couldn’t get past the first few chapters because of the whimsy factor. It was just too much.

He presses his thumbs hard against his eyebrows, as if he hopes they’re two buttons, and if he keeps them pressed at the same time for ten seconds he’ll be able to restore life to its factory settings.

Here, the quirky storytelling leads to some very funny observations and comments, yet it’s all a bit much as a whole. The writing veers toward the precious at times, which tried my patience. A lot. I often enjoy quirky writing, but the sheer volume of it throughout Anxious People made it tough for me to enjoy.

Overall, I really liked the strange bunch of characters who find unexpected common ground through this one weird experience, an experience that teaches them all about how lives becomes mingled and how random occurrences can lead to profound change.

The truth? The truth about all this? The truth is that this was a story about many different things, but most of all about idiots. Because we’re doing the best we can, we really are. We’re trying to be grown-up and love each other and understand how the hell you’re supposed ot insert USB-leads. We’re looking for something to cling onto, something to fight for, something to look forward to. We’re doing all we can to teach out children how to swim. We have all of this in common, yet most of us remain strangers, we never know what we do to each other, how your life is affected by mine.

This wasn’t my favorite Backman book (I’d have to go with A Man Called Ove or Beartown), but I do look forward to continue reading his books, and have at least two from his backlist that I still need to read.

Anxious People is recommended for readers who enjoy character studies and quirkiness, with a smattering of deeper life lessons threaded throughout.

Book Review: The White Coat Diaries by Madi Sinha

Title: The White Coat Diaries
Author: Madi Sinha
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 15, 2020
Print length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Grey’s Anatomy meets Scrubs in this brilliant debut novel about a young doctor’s struggle to survive residency, love, and life.

Having spent the last twenty-something years with her nose in a textbook, brilliant and driven Norah Kapadia has just landed the medical residency of her dreams. But after a disastrous first day, she’s ready to quit. Disgruntled patients, sleep deprivation, and her duty to be the “perfect Indian daughter” have her questioning her future as a doctor.

Enter chief resident Ethan Cantor. He’s everything Norah aspires to be: respected by the attendings, calm during emergencies, and charismatic with the patients. As he morphs from Norah’s mentor to something more, it seems her luck is finally changing.

When a fatal medical mistake is made, pulling Norah into a cover-up, she must decide how far she’s willing to go to protect the secret. What if “doing no harm” means risking her career and the future for which she’s worked so hard?

In this debut novel, written by a physician, we get a close-up-and-personal view of the life of a medical intern through the eyes and experiences of Norah Kapadia.

Norah is just starting out as an intern at the prestigious Philadelphia General Hospital, hoping to live up to her personal dream of becoming a doctor that her late father would be proud of. Internship, as we all know, is one of the roughest years in a young doctor’s professional development. Insane hours, lack of experience, lack of sleep — all contribute to the frenetic pace and intense pressure on Norah and the other interns in her cohort. Not all will make it through the year.

In addition to the professional challenges, Norah is also dealing with a demanding family who basically want her to quit, take a boring lab job, and devote herself to her hypochondriac mother’s 24/7 care. Nothing she does is good enough, despite her huge achievements thus far.

As an intern, Norah learns that her stellar book learning and years of studying to the exclusion of having a life have not truly prepared her for the real work of treating patients in a hospital. She makes some big mistakes, but so do the others, and their supervising residents vary between supportive and absolutely demeaning.

The tone of the book is very mixed. From the synopsis above, with its comparison to Scrubs, you might expect this book to be comedic in tone, and while there are some humorous episodes, it’s really not a funny book overall. In fact, it’s pretty dire at times, and the situations facing Norah and the other interns can be distressing and disturbing.

We’ve all heard about interns’ crazy hours and lack of sleep. Here, in The White Coat Diaries, we see how it feels to be an intern, and it’s not pretty. The mistakes can be devastating, and I found the lack of compassion and true caring about patients pretty upsetting. There’s one patient who gets passed from department to department and is known by the hospital staff as “Fat Dan”, and honestly, if that’s based on a real life experience, that’s just a really sad commentary on the state of medical practice today.

I wanted to like Norah, but she makes some very questionable decisions in her personal life that really affected my view of her. And then there’s the major ethical crisis stemming from a critical medical mistake (mentioned in the synopsis), which is horribly handled and left me feeling that none of the characters, including Norah, had any integrity whatsoever. From that point onward, it was very difficult to care about Norah or any of the characters in the slightest.

I also felt that Norah’s home life and family should have been explored further. We get snippets of her background and how her Indian-American upbringing affect her career choices and work ethic, but I wished it had been a little more fleshed out and developed.

Overall, The White Coat Diaries is a fast and absorbing read, but definitely isn’t as light or cheerful as the cover and description might make it seem. If The White Coat Diaries is a somewhat accurate depiction of the intern experience, then we should all be very worried about the future of the medical profession in the US.

Book Review: The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Title: The Silent Patient
Author: Alex Michaelides
Publisher: Celadon Books
Publication date: August 18, 2020
Print length: 325 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Alicia Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect. A famous painter married to an in-demand fashion photographer, she lives in a grand house with big windows overlooking a park in one of London’s most desirable areas. One evening her husband Gabriel returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then never speaks another word.

Alicia’s refusal to talk, or give any kind of explanation, turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety. The price of her art skyrockets, and she, the silent patient, is hidden away from the tabloids and spotlight at the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London.

Theo Faber is a criminal psychotherapist who has waited a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia. His determination to get her to talk and unravel the mystery of why she shot her husband takes him down a twisting path into his own motivations—a search for the truth that threatens to consume him… 

I’ll be blunt — this book annoyed the hell out of me. It’s super hyped, has tons of buzz, and I have friends who’ve insisted that I just had to read it. When my book club picked it as our August book, I knew my time had come.

In brief, this is a psychological thriller about Alicia, a woman who was convicted of murdering her husband and has been confined to a mental institution ever since. From the time she was discovered near her husband’s bloody body, she hasn’t spoken a word. Alicia, a talented artist, made only one communication since Gabriel’s death — a self-portrait, with the mysterious word “Alcestis” written at the bottom.

Theo Faber is a psychotherapist who became fascinated by Alicia’s story and the ensuing notoriety. Years later, he has the opportunity to work at the hospital where she’s a patient, and there he dives into her case, determined to understand why she hasn’t spoken in six years.

From the start, I was annoyed by Theo, and because he’s our point of view character, I felt impatient with the book as a whole. Theo overcame a horrible childhood to achieve professional success, and yet from the moment he transfers to the Grove, he seems to be flouting every rule of professionalism in his obsession with uncovering Alicia’s secrets.

It’s clear that there’s more to the story of the murder than what people accept as the truth. As Theo digs, several potentially shady people emerge as either witnesses or possibly perpetrators of some terrible acts. Aaaaaand… I won’t say too much more about the plot.

The resolution to the mystery took me by surprise, but I felt that the author only managed to achieve this through some sleight-of-hand involving the plot timelines that left me feeling manipulated, rather than pleasantly shocked by the cleverness of it all.

Theo’s actions often make no sense in the big picture, and I’m not sure that I buy the crime scene set-up and explanation as presented either. Yes, it’s twisty and full of unexpected revelations, but I felt too often that I was being “handled”.

I know I’m in the minority on this one. My book group seems to have loved The Silent Patient, and so did my husband and a few other friends. It’s a very quick read, and I was never bored — I think I tore through this book in about a day and a half, and reached a point where I couldn’t put it down.

So yes, it’s an absorbing read and I needed to keep going once I started. But something about it doesn’t sit well with me, and that’s why I gave it three stars.

Book Review: The Switch by Beth O’Leary

Title: The Switch
Author: Beth O’Leary
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: August 18, 2020
Print length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Eileen is sick of being 79.
Leena’s tired of life in her twenties.
Maybe it’s time they swapped places…

When overachiever Leena Cotton is ordered to take a two-month sabbatical after blowing a big presentation at work, she escapes to her grandmother Eileen’s house for some overdue rest. Eileen is newly single and about to turn eighty. She’d like a second chance at love, but her tiny Yorkshire village doesn’t offer many eligible gentlemen.

Once Leena learns of Eileen’s romantic predicament, she proposes a solution: a two-month swap. Eileen can live in London and look for love. Meanwhile Leena will look after everything in rural Yorkshire. But with gossiping neighbours and difficult family dynamics to navigate up north, and trendy London flatmates and online dating to contend with in the city, stepping into one another’s shoes proves more difficult than either of them expected.

Leena learns that a long-distance relationship isn’t as romantic as she hoped it would be, and then there is the annoyingly perfect – and distractingly handsome – school teacher, who keeps showing up to outdo her efforts to impress the local villagers. Back in London, Eileen is a huge hit with her new neighbours, but is her perfect match nearer home than she first thought?

Switching lives is a fiction trope that’s always fun and entertaining, and that’s true for the new novel by Beth O’Leary.

In The Switch, a grandmother and granddaughter decide to switch lives for two months, each being stuck in a frustrating rut. For Eileen, she’s 79 years old, her lackluster husband has just left her for another woman, and she already knows all the single men her age in her little village. She’s ready to get back out and start dating, but the pickings are slim.

Meanwhile, Leena is afraid that she’s torpedoed her career after suffering a major panic attack in the middle of a client pitch. Her boss (kindly, I thought) insists that Leena take a 2-month paid holiday to rest and recenter herself.

Both Leena and Eileen are dealing with loss and grief, in addition to their career/dating woes. Leena’s younger sister Carla died a year earlier after a battle with cancer. Leena has been quietly falling apart ever since, and Eileen has thrown herself into looking after her daughter Marion, who is fragile and shaky. On top of all this, Leena isn’t speaking to Marion, since she blames her for allowing Carla to stop treatment rather than pursuing an experimental option in America.

Once Leena is forced to take time off, she comes up with the idea of switching places with her grandmother. While there are no eligible men for Eileen where she lives, there are plenty in London, and Leena realizes that the peace of the village might provide her with a fresh start.

Naturally, they’re both fish out of water. Eileen moves in with Leena’s twenty-something flatmates and immediately begins making waves, insisting on getting to know the neighbors, rather than observing the time-honored city dweller tradition of ignoring everyone around you. Eileen does not take no for an answer, and soon has the entire building socializing and coming together for a good cause. Not only that, but her online dating profile leads her to a few good prospects, including a suave, attractive actor who’s clearly just looking for a no-strings lover — something Eileen is all too eager to give a try.

For Leena, small-town life is not as quiet as she’d anticipated. She’s expected to fill Eileen’s role on town committees, to socialize with Eileen’s friends, and to pitch in whenever needed. The town gossip immediate includes Leena and her misadventures, but she’s determined to break through some of the walls that the town’s grumpier residents put up.

Of course, each woman ends up finding love — and I can’t really say it’s where you’d least expect it, because I could see the love stories coming from a mile away. Leena starts off with a serious boyfriend, but it’s easy for the reader to see the couple’s issues, even if Leena doesn’t, and naturally the right guy is right under her nose, once she opens her eyes.

The Switch is a warm book, definitely lightened up by Eileen’s quirkiness and feistiness. I enjoyed Leena’s interactions in the village too. The emotional beats related to Carla’s death and the aftermath of her loss are often powerful, although the plot thread showing Leena and her mother finding their way back together could have benefited from more showing and less telling.

Overall, this is a sweet, lovable book. It’s perky and charming, and even though it’s mostly predictable, I still found it a hug-worthy, engaging read — just the right blend of lightness and real-life emotion to make it a good summer escape.

Excerpt: The Switch by Beth O’Leary

The Switch by Beth O’Leary
Flatiron Books
336 pages
To be published August 18, 2020

I’m delighted to be participating in the blog tour for Beth O’Leary’s upcoming new release, The Switch! I loved her debut novel, The Flatshare, and today I’m thrilled to be able to share an excerpt from her soon-to-be-released new book.

Synopsis:

A grandmother and granddaughter swap lives in this charming, romantic novel by Beth O’Leary, hailed as “the new Jojo Moyes” (Cosmopolitan UK).

Eileen Cotton’s husband of sixty years left her four months ago, and good riddance. After all these decades of sleepy village life, Eileen is ready for an adventure. She’d like a chance at real love, too – and she wonders if maybe the right man is up the road in the big city…

Eileen’s granddaughter (and namesake) Leena lives in bustling London, where she is overworked, overscheduled, and overcaffeinated. When Leena collapses and her office sends her on a mandatory vacation, she wants to escape to her grandmother’s inviting, picture-postcard little village.

So they decide to switch lives.

Eileen will take Leena’s flat, Leena’s laptop, and Leena’s glitzy twenty-something London lifestyle. She’ll learn all about dating apps and swiping right, the best coffee shops, and paper-thin apartment walls. Leena can have Eileen’s sweet cottage, her idyllic Yorkshire village, her little projects to help her neighbors, and her nice, quiet life. But neither finds that her new life is exactly what she’d imagined.

Will swapping lives help Eileen and Leena become more truly themselves, and can they find true love in the process?

Excerpt:

I do a quick half-hour of research before I start on Grandma’s dating profile. Apparently, what makes for a successful profile is honesty, specificity, humor, and (more than any of those other things I just said) a good profile picture. But as soon as it’s set up, I realize we have a problem.

There is not a single person her age registered to the site in under an hour’s drive from here. It’s not just that Grandma doesn’t know any eligible gentlemen in the area – there aren’t any. Bee bemoans the lack of good men in London, but she has no idea how lucky she is. When there are eight million people in your city, there’s going to be someone single.

I turn slowly in my chair to look at my grandmother.

When I think of Grandma, I always think of her as an absolute force of nature, bending the world to her will. I can’t imagine there’s a more youthful old lady out there. Her boundless energy has never shown any signs of running out as she enters her late seventies – she really is extraordinary for her age.

But she doesn’t look like that Grandma right now.

She’s had a truly terrible year. The death of one of her only two granddaughters, supporting my mum through losing her daughter, then Grandpa Wade walking out on her… It hits me quite suddenly that I think of my grandma as invincible, but that’s so ridiculous – nobody could go through what she’s been through unscathed. Look at her, sitting here, contemplating dating Basil the bigot. Things are not right at Clearwater Cottage.

Which I’d already have known if I’d come home once in a while.

I reach for the laptop again. Every time I remember that I can’t go to work on Monday I feel wretched, useless, afraid. I need something to do, to help, to stop me thinking about all the ways I’ve messed up.

I change the search area on the dating site, and suddenly: hello, four hundred men between the ages of seventy and eight-five, looking for love.

“I have an idea,” I tell her. “Hear me out, OK? There’s hundreds of eligible men in London.”

—-

There’s a long silence.

“This seems a bit crackers,” Grandma says eventually.

“I know. It is, a bit. But I think it’s genius too.” I grin. “I will not take no for an answer, and you know when I say that, I one hundred percent mean it.”

Grandma looks amused. “That’s true enough.” She breathes out slowly. “Gosh. Do you think I can handle London?”

“Oh, please. The question, Grandma, is whether London can handle you.”

About the author:

Beth O’Leary worked in children’s publishing before becoming a full-time author. She is also the author of The Flatshare. She can be found on Instagram @BethOLearyAuthor and Twitter @OLearyBeth.

Many thanks to Flatiron Books for including me in the blog tour and providing a review copy! I’ll be sharing my thoughts once the release date gets closer.

Doesn’t this sound terrific?