Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book Review: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Title: Big Little Lies
Author: Liane Moriarty
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: physical abuse, swearing, conversations about sex

I am not a mom who gets a lot out of being at my children's elementary school. I think part of this is because I alway have little ones hanging on me which makes volunteering difficult, and part of it is because I'm a little bit nervous about breaking into the social circle that seems centered on school life. Liane Moriarty's book Big Little Lies, centers on the lives of the mothers of the children in Miss Barnes's kindergarten class at Pirriwee Public school in coastal Australia, and culminates in the death of one of the parents at a school fundraising night.

While the book appears relatively light at first, and even sort of satirical, painting the characters with broad strokes (the "Blond Bobs" who run the school, the mothers who are obsessed with Clorox wipes, the hot nanny, the working moms who are always at board meetings), but the book, which centers on the lives of three moms: Madeline, who now has to see her ex-husband and his new wife at daily school events, Jane, a single mom new to the area whose son is accused of bullying another student, and Celeste, whose wealth, beauty and adorable twin boys hide the fact that she's being abused by her husband. The story started slowly, and definitely picked up steam as it went along. Moriarty presents both the straightforward, linear narrative, with police/journalist interviews at the end of each chapter, which function as a sort of Greek chorus, while highlighting the events to come.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Book Review: One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

Title: One Plus One 
Author: Jojo Moyes
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: language, some violence (including an attempted sexual attack), sex

Take the classic road trip story. Add in one part nerdy, soon-to-be-arrested-for-insider-trading software developer, another part hardworking single mum who happens to be the software developer's house cleaner, another part bullied, anxious teenage stepson, yet another part math whiz preteen daughter prone to carsickness, and one final part stinky dog. Put them together in a luxury car headed from the southern coast of England to a math tournament in Aberdeen, Scotland, and adventure ensues.

Moyes does a nice job taking what at first appear to be broadly-drawn, stock characters, and adding some complexity. Jess, for example, won't ever let her kids eat a McDonald's because that's exactly what people think a single mom who had her kids when she was a teenager would do. At first Ed appears to be an unthinking jerk who doesn't want to visit his dying father, but we learn it's much more complex than that. It's an enjoyable ride, with some serious moments interspersed within the comedy of errors of the vacation. And there's romance too, and learning to trust people, and how two people from completely different backgrounds can learn to fall in love. It's a super-fun read, with sweet characters that will stay with you once the journey ends.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Book Review: Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Title: Mr. Mercedes
Author: Stephen King
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: pervasive language, sex, and violence. Also incest.

Now that I'm deep into my Stephen King kick, I picked up Mr. Mercedes, which is a hard-boiled crime novel instead of a supernatural thriller. The novel opens with a group of job seekers waiting for a job fair to open, only to be run down by a Mercedes sedan. Eight people die, the owner of the stolen Mercedes commits suicide soon after, and Bill Hodges, a detective, is unable to solve the crime before he retires from the police force.

Several months later, Bill has been wallowing in his retirement and suffering from depression when he gets a letter from someone identifying himself as Mr. Mercedes, the murderer. Hodges' life resumes as he works to track down the killer before he strikes again.

First and foremost, Mr. Mercedes is a book that should be 100 pages leaner than the 436 pages in the published work. It's wordy, with too much description. Way too much description. While there's no supernatural violence in the novel, that doesn't mean it's not creepy. Mr. Mercedes is one of the creepiest villains I've ever come across, primarily because he looks so normal (he drives an ice cream truck, for goodness' sake!). The two sidekicks Hodges acquires over the course of the novel are pretty great, and I enjoyed the book, but just didn't love it as much as I could have if it had been edited a little more thoroughly.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Book Review: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

Title: The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike #2)
Author: Robert Galbraith
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: disturbing violence, sex, swearing

Cormoran Strike is still basking in the glow of solving the Lula Landry murder when a woman walks into his office. Most of his clients are going after rich, cheating husbands, but this woman looks different. She's unattractive and nervous, and she wants Strike to find her husband, the novelist Owen Quine, who has been missing for several weeks. Strike and his assistant, Robin, soon discover that Quine has been brutally murdered, and the police think Mrs. Quine committed the crime.

This second novel in the Cormoran Strike series, written by JK Rowling, delves deeply into the publishing world, and capitalizes on a knowledge of how agents and assistants and publishers work with and sometimes struggle with their authors. The novel is well-paced and the characters are fascinating. I really like both Cormoran and Robin, particularly as Robin works to navigate her family responsibilities and her work roles, but the secondary characters. There are lots of literary references which might be annoying in another context, but really work in a book about publishing. And, as is rarer and rarer these days, I didn't figure out who the murderer was until the great reveal, which was a beautiful a-ha moment. The novel is gritty and tough to read, but also really great for those who enjoy the genre.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Book Review: Where She Went by Gail Forman

Title: Where She Went
Author: Gail Forman
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: sex, language, and drug use

I finished If I Stay, and immediately purchased Where She Went (what can I say-- the Kindle makes it so easy-- it was recommended right there in the screen that pops up once you finish the book. In fact, ordering on the Kindle is so easy that my toddlers have ordered three Elmo movies and a $500 printer in the last week). I started reading the book right away, because I was so captivated by the first book. The story picks up three years after If I Stay leaves off.

Adam's band has hit it big. They have several platinum records under their belts and are in New York for one day before heading off to tour in Europe. But ever since Mia left for Julliard and wrote him out of her life, he's been reeling. He doesn't like the person he's become, and things are so tense with the band that they can't even stay at the same hotel. He's taking drugs for his anxiety and not sleeping, and he's pretty much just a jerk. Then, on the day he's supposed to leave, he walks by Carnegie Hall and sees that Mia is playing a cello concert there that night. So he buys a ticket, and that changes everything.

While Where She Went is another interesting novel, and I read it quickly and with gusto, I didn't enjoy it as much as its predecessor. This is Adam's story in the way that If I Stay was Mia's story, but I really appreciated the structure of If I Stay, with its flashbacks and removed point of view (with Mia sort of hovering above everything), and Where She Went was much more forward momentum. It was a satisfying conclusion to the story, just not quite as satisfying or inventive as If I Stay.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Book Review: The Vacationers by Emma Straub

Title: The Vacationers
Author: Emma Straub
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Library Copy
Content Alert: sex and swearing

It was going to be the perfect vacation to Spain-- writers Franny and Jim were celebrating their thirty-fifth anniversary, their daughter Sylvia was graduating from high school, their son Bobby would join them from Miami, and Franny's best friend and his husband would make sure there were plenty of interesting things to do and plenty of good food to eat.

And then the news came out that Jim had slept with his assistant and gotten fired. Bobby decided to bring his annoying older girlfriend, Carmen, the one who was a personal trainer and wore "Juicy" sweatpants. The other couple is preoccupied and private, and Sylvia just wants to lose her virginity before heading off to college.

While the story was an entertaining read, I was struck throughout by the sense that the characters weren't especially relatable. It made wealthy New Yorkers seem like a breed apart, and not a good breed at that. Franny is haughty and annoying right up until the last chapter, and it was a little disappointing (spoiler alert) that things turned out so well for her in the end. In fact, the character I liked best was Carmen, who was no longer in the picture by the end of the novel.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Book Review: City of Thieves by David Benioff

Title: City of Thieves
Author: David Benioff
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: pervasive swearing, lots of violence, eye opening discussions of sex

Leningrad is a dreadful place to be fated to live during World War II, especially if you're a teenager living all alone. Lev is running with a band of other teenagers when he's arrested and threatened with execution for being out past curfew. While in jail, he meets Kolya, a soldier charged with desertion. Instead of killing them, the officer in charge gives them the chance to live if they find a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake within the next week. In war-ravaged Leningrad, this task is much easier than it sounds.

Lev and Kolya are interesting characters. Kolya is larger-than-life-- a writer and a dreamer with a girl in every village. Lev is a scrawny Jewish teenager in awe of Kolya's ideas and his way with the ladies. Both are well-drawn and complex. In the week of the novel's action, they have adventures that would fill a lifetime for most people, from escaping from cannibals to saving the lives of a house of women held prisoner, to battles with the Nazis, to falling in love. It's an exciting story, and one that older teenage boys would enjoy, particularly if they're fans of historical fiction.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Book Review: If I Stay by Gail Forman

Title: If I Stay
Author: Gail Forman
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: Swearing, sex, and a grisly accident that may upset some readers

If you're like most of America, you probably saw a preview for the upcoming movie If I Stay when you went to see The Fault in Our Stars. And if you're like me, you bought the book based on the movie preview. Mia is seventeen, and her biggest conflict in life is what will happen if she gets into Julliard and has to leave her boyfriend, Adam, whose band is starting to make it big. Then, in a second, life changes when a truck runs into her family car, and her parents and only brother die. Mia is at the precipice of death, and she has to decide whether to follow her family or stay and fight.

If I Stay is the kind of book your teenage daughter will love. Annie read it in about a day, and I think we'll probably go to the movie. But it was also a book written by someone who knows her stuff. While Mia was an engaging character, I loved her parents, the aging punks who managed to keep their cool as they raised their kids. In fact, I think Forman does a great job with characterization throughout the novel, the story is paced well, and even though it's fairly apparent from the title of the novel what will happen at the end, it felt fresh and not expected.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review: The End or Something Like It by Ann Dee Ellis

Title: The End or Something Like It
Author: Ann Dee Ellis
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: Nothing objectionable that I remember

Kim knew she was dying, and she made her best friend Emmy promise to watch out for her. Emmy was reluctant and creeped out by everything, but eventually she promised. In the year since she died, Emmy has seen plenty of other dead people, like her creepy teacher, but she hasn't seen Kim. Even though the idea of seeing Kim repels her almost as much as it fascinates her, she also feels a responsibility to Kim, and sees it as a chance to get outside of her crappy teenage existence.

The End or Something Like It is emblematic of Ellis's signature style. She uses short sentences, paragraphs, and chapters and features characters whose teenage lives are complicated. Emmy is overweight and unpopular. She resents the way Kim ditches her for other friends even as she's dying. Ellis does a great job capturing Las Vegas in the story, and in showing Emmy's angst, but sometimes I want a little more lushness in the language of her stories.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Book Review: Goodnight June by Sarah Jio

Title: Goodnight June
Author: Sarah Jio
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Library Copy
Content Alert: swearing and maybe a mild sex scene

I feel like Goodnight June is really two books. One of them is a fascinating, four-star read-- a series of fictional letters between Margaret Wise Brown (the author of Goodnight Moon and a lot of other children's books) and Ruby. Margaret and Ruby met in college, and when they correspond, they are single women in their early thirties, dealing with the challenges of careers and life. The other book is the one- or two-star story of June Anderson, a stock character-- a stressed out NYC banker who trades in her high-powered career to take over the bookstore when Aunt Ruby dies. This action, complete with the requisite love story, has her working to save the bookstore from the very bankers with whom she used to work. The 2005 part of the story is predictable and there are quite a few anachronisms (the characters have iPads, for example). There's a side story with her sister that comes out of left field and brings out dramatic action that feels rushed. And June had to be blind not to see the resolution to the main mystery of the story-- what happened to Aunt Ruby's baby. Altogether, it makes for a book that is enjoyable, but that could have been so much better if the action in the present was as interesting and rich as the letters she sought out in the bookstore.