Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Book Review: After You by Jojo Moyes

Title: After You (Me Before You #2)
Author: Jojo Moyes
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: sex and language

Remember Louisa Clark, the heroine of Jojo Moyes's Me Before You? When After You opens, months have passed since Lou helped Will, her quadraplegic employer (and the man she was hopelessly in love with), commit suicide, and she's floundering. She doesn't know how to redirect her career and is working at an awful bar. She's still too in love with Will to date, and she's drinking too much. When she falls off the roof of her London apartment building and narrowly escapes death, she realizes that she needs to make some serious changes in her life in order to keep living. So she reluctantly agrees to join a support group, meets a difficult teenager who needs some help, and everything starts to fall in place.

I loved Me Before You. It was one of those books that made me sob. It felt both completely heartbreaking and unfair, and beautiful and right. I wouldn't say that After You is quite as emotional as its predecessor, but it felt very real. Someone in Lou's position probably would struggle after the experience she went through, and in this way, it was nice to see what happens after "the end." And while the highs and lows weren't as high or low, they were sweet and meaningful on a smaller scale. There's a lot of redemption in After You, and it's lovely to see Louisa grow into womanhood in this novel.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Book Review: The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer

Title: The Masqueraders
Author: Georgette Heyer
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: A clean read

When I was growing up, I knew a family with several sons and daughters. The sons in the family were all petite and small boned, while the daughters were tall and broad. In The Masqueraders, Prudence Tremaine and her brother Robin use the same situation to their advantage. Since their father played a part in the Jacobite revolution, they've had to change their identities, with Prudence becoming Mr. Peter Merriott and Robin assuming the role of his sister, Kate. They ingratiate themselves into London society, and the ruse works until they fall in love and are accused of murder, and somehow, they have to use all of the skills of trickery they learned from their father to come out on top.

The Masqueraders is a really interesting book on several fronts. First and foremost, I love Heyer's portrayal of Prudence/Peter and her love interest, Sir Anthony Fanshawe. Fanshawe admires Peter, and grows to love Prudence, not despite the fact that she's been disguised as a man, but for her strength. Instead of rescuing her, Fanshawe and Prudence work together to help her get through the situation she faces. I also adored the twist that comes late in the book when the Tremaine's father appears. It's genius. The Masqueraders is really fun and funny. It feels a lot like a Regency-era Shakespearean comedy, complete with mistaken identity, cross-dressing, and multiple marriages at the end.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Book Review: Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig

Title: Last Bus to Wisdom
Author: Ivan Doig
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: A clean read

When Donal Cameron's grandmother needs to have surgery and no one on the ranch in Montana can care for him, he boards a Greyhound and heads east to Wisconsin. He has adventures to spare along the way, and gets plenty of signatures for his autograph book. At the end of the journey, he meets his cantankerous Aunt Kate and her husband Herman, and Donal's life is changed by this strange summer of new experiences.

Ivan Doig died in April, and this book, his last, was published in September. In many ways, Donal's life reflected Doig's own. Both lost their mothers when they were young and were raised by grandmothers who worked as ranch cooks. While it's impossible to read Doig's fiction and not fall in love with Montana, or at least with the idea of Montana, this book was also different from his other works in many ways. It was a little bit more rambly and ruminative. I loved the three principal characters, and Doig did a lovely job weaving characters into and out of the journeys to and from Wisconsin. While I'm really sad that Doig is gone (he's one of those authors where sometimes I'd say, "I'm in the mood to read an Ivan Doig book") the good news for me is that I came to him late enough that there are still books to be discovered. This, like everything I've read in his body of work, is a real treat.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Review: Why Not Me by Mindy Kaling

Title: Why Not Me?
Author: Mindy Kaling
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: language

You know how you sometimes fall in love with a character on a tv show, and then you're disappointed that they don't exist in real life? Well, I have sort of the opposite feeling for Mindy Kaling. Kelly Kapoor, her breakout role on The Office, was someone I never really connected with (and I haven't watched The Mindy Project yet, but it's on my list), but somehow I ended up reading Kaling's first book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and I fell in love with it, and with her (and isn't it nice when the real person behind the character is so much cooler than the character?). So I had high expectations for Why Not Me? and Kaling surpassed all of them. This book is funny (of course), but it's also really honest and open, and not just about interesting but superficial things like how to get your clothes tailored so they fit your body perfectly, but also about deeper things like how she decided sorority life wasn't for her, what it's like to work in Hollywood when no one else looks like she does, and how she credits her success to lots and lots of hard work, and not simply to being in the right place at the right time (and her resume attests to her work ethic). She reads the book herself, and has perfect delivery, and she finally answers the question about what is going on with her and BJ Novak. Even though Kaling's a little loose with the language, I heartily recommended that my teenager daughter give the book a listen, because let's be real, a girl who works hard but also loves great shoes is a pretty good and realistic role model.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Book Review: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Title: Bone Gap
Author: Laura Ruby
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: abduction, sexual content

Finn and his brother Sean live in Bone Gap, which looks a lot like any small rural town. People tend to get lost in Bone Gap. Finn and Sean's mom left with an orthodontist a few years ago, and they've been alone ever since. Well, for a while they had Roza, Sean's girlfriend, but she disappeared too, right before Finn's very eyes. He hasn't been able to forgive himself for letting her go.

At first, I wasn't sure I liked Bone Gap. I wasn't sure I trusted the world Laura Ruby was creating. Was it our world that Sean and Finn and Roza lived in? Or was it it our world, with a twist. For a long time, I wasn't sure. When we hear from Roza, she feels like she's inside the nightmare part of a fairy tale, and I didn't know how a world that contained EMTs and beekeepers who like to make out could also contain Roza's story. But Laura Ruby makes it work. She makes us reexamine how we see the world, and look for the gaps in our own spaces. The book manages to feel both intensely realistic and one step away from reality.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Book Review: The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz

Title: The Girl in the Spider's Web (Millennium #4)
Author: David Langercrantz
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: violence, language, sexual content

I always figured that the story of Lisbeth Salander died with Stieg Larsson; that her three adventures with Mikael Blomkvist would be part of the body of Nordic crime fiction for time immemorial, but that she'd remain frozen in amber, without a neat resolution. So I was excited and a little dubious when I read that David Langercrantz had picked up and written The Girl in the Spider's Web, a new book in the Millennium series. In this book, Salander has her greatest challenge yet-- in the middle of a hack and a murder, she's charged with the care of the young, autistic child of a dead computer genius. Salander is famously socially challenged, and this book provides lots of opportunities for readers to see her grow.

In The Girl in the Spider's Web, Lagercrantz is able to continue with all of the action and all of the complications that Larsson put into place with the original three novels. I'd say that in some ways the books are even better. There was far less emphasis on minute details like IKEA furniture lines and the brands of convenience store food Salander was eating (you can't edit a dead guy, I guess). Lagercrantz also ensures that Salander's extremely dysfunctional family will continue to plague Norway for years to come. For those of you rooting for a Mikael/Lisbeth relationship-- there are possibilities for that storyline to continue as well, although, I for one, think the series would be better without that angle.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book Review: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Title: Carry On
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: language, lots of boys kissing boys

If you read Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, you probably remember Simon and Baz. Cath, the protagonist of Fangirl was obsessed with Simon and Baz, two of the main characters in a Harry Potter-esque series by Gemma T. Leslie. Cath wrote fanfiction in which Simon (Harry) and Baz (a mashup of Ron and Draco Malfoy) finally got it on in their final year at boarding school. In Carry On, Rainbow Rowell writes her version of what happened in that final year-- including evil wizards, vampires, magic, and lots and lots of kissing.

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about Carry On. On the one hand, I think the idea of the book (that's she's telling her version of a story she created for another character to write fanfic about in another book) is pretty fascinating. On the other hand, I think the book draws so many obvious parallels to Harry Potter that it's hard not to compare the two, and the objectives of Rowell and Rowling are very different. While Harry and Ginny Weasley liked each other, their romantic relationship definitely took a back seat to the action and adventure and magic in the 4,224 pages of the Harry Potter books. By contrast, Carry On is 522 pages, and it contains ten times as much kissing as all of Harry Potter. Not that I don't like kissing-- it just seems that Rowell sets herself up for comparison with Rowling, and the comparatively small size of Carry On makes it nearly impossible for the kind of immersive experience someone gets from Harry Potter. So anyone looking for the book to be epic adventure might be a little disappointed. If you're looking for epic love story between teenage boy vampire and the wizard who was supposed to save the world, then you won't be disappointed.

Book Review: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Title: Fates and Furies
Author: Lauren Groff
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: sex

Today the National Book Awards are being announced. I've read three of the five finalists (you can see my reviews of The Turner House and A Little Life), and Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff would be my pick if I were judging. I was captivated by the first page of the book, which opens on the day Lotto and Mathilde, seniors at Vassar, elope after two weeks of dating. Lotto, the scion of a wealthy Florida family, struggles as an actor, and when he finds success as a playwright, he credits all of it to Mathilde, who loved him and made his work possible. First, we get Lotto's view of the marriage, and after his death (about midway through the book), the point of view switches to Mathilde, whose outlook on the relationship was more pragmatic and less rosy.

I read an NPR review of the book that says that Lotto's perspective represents the fates (the gifts) while Mathilde's represents the furies (the vengeance), but I think it's a lot more complicated than that. Lotto and Mathilde enter the marriage as nearly complete strangers, and while they do love each other and stay married for a long time, they (or at least she) still keep parts of themselves secret. I love the epic nature of this book (how could it be anything else with a title so grounded in Greek mythology?), and the focus on the minutae of marriage. Lotto and Mathilde are gorgeous, fully-rounded characters, and one of the things I loved best was that they still had the capacity to surprise each other, in good ways and in bad, even years into their marriage. Fates and Furies isn't only a love story, or the story of a marriage, because Mathilde's story is also a lot about childhood trauma, grief and resolution. Although the subject matter is difficult at times, it was a really engaging read for me. I wanted to gobble this book up, and then I was sad when it was over.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Book Review: This is Water by David Foster Wallace

Title: This is Water
Author: David Foster Wallace
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: language

So This is Water isn't really a book; it's really the transcript of a graduation speech Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005. My husband is a huge fan of David Foster Wallace, and although he has never tackled Invisible Jest, I think that he wanted to complete the body of Wallace's nonfiction and bought this. The main jist of the speech is that we should not be selfish as adults, and that compassion is more important than the conventional markers for success. We made our older kids sit down and read this with us. One of the hard things is that he talks about suicide at length in This is Water, which was given just three years before his own suicide.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Book Review: Home by Marilynne Robinson

Title: Home (Gilead #2)
Author: Marilynne Robinson
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: A clean read

Home is the second installment in Marilynne Robinson's trilogy about Gilead, Iowa, although it takes place concurrently with Gilead. I read it third, and probably loved it the most. Glory, one of the youngest of Reverend Robert Boughton's many children, has left her job as a schoolteacher to care for her ailing father. Shortly after Glory returns, her brother Jack, the lone prodigal, also comes home. The two siblings, the spinster and the rake (as their father sees them, and as they've come to see themselves) have to sort out problems in their own lives and shepherd their father through his final days.

For me, Home is all about the assumptions people make in families and tight-knit communities-- Glory and Jack have known each other all their lives, and it's hard for anyone to see them in new and different ways. Glory can never tell anyone about the fiance who turned out to be married. Jack never opens up about what it means to be in love with a black woman and the father of a biracial in the American South in the 1950s. Reverend Ames, a much more prominent character in Gilead and Lila, the other books in the trilogy, never learns to see Jack as anything other than a ne'er do well, even though he's gone through transformative experiences with people in his own life. The ending of this book is both profoundly beautiful and sad. Robinson's beautiful writing and thoughtful Christianity make Home a book to be savored.