Thursday, July 9, 2015

Book Review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Title: We Were Liars
Author: E. Lockhart
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Personal copy
Content Alert: Some swearing, dark theme for young teens

Take three cousins, and one friend so close he's practically family: Cady, Mirren, Johnny and Gat. Add one private island off of Martha's Vineyard and lots of inherited wealth. Mix in jealously, lust, and power struggles, and the result can be tragic.

We Were Liars is a book that's hard to write about in a review. I'm usually one for spoilers. I often like a book better if I know exactly what it's about. But in the case of this book, I think even telling people that there are spoilers might ruin the experience for them. I'm a little surprised that I got my hands on this book and started reading without knowing what it was all about (it got a lot of buzz last summer when it was first published). So I won't ruin it and tell you. What I will tell you is that if you appreciate a great story, a story that requires a reader to be engaged work out what's happening along with the narrator, who may or may not be reliable, then this is a book with a rewarding payoff. Lockhart writes in a spare, poetic style, and makes good use of fairy tales to shed light on the story of what exactly went wrong with the Sinclair family in summer fifteen.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Book Review: Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell

Title: Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels
Author: Sarah Wendell
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Paper copy
Content Alert: Some swearing, discussion of some racy bits from romance novels

For the last few years, I've been trying to overcome my prejudice against romance novels. This isn't really that hard, because I enjoy reading them. What is hard is admitting that I enjoy reading them. I've decided to embrace that fact, and decided to educate myself a little more about the genre. I turned to Sarah Wendell, who, along with Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast host Linda Holmes, have been instrumental in helping me nudge myself out of the closet and proclaim myself a lover of the HEA (Happily Ever After, in romance-speak). In Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels, Wendell draws on her own vast experience as the co-creator of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, a website dedicated to romance reviews, as well as an online community of romance readers. Wendell uses her online community and her relationship with romance authors as primary source material for the books, asking these readers and authors what they've learned from reading romance. The book is fun and enlightening, especially the parts about how romance novels teach women to navigate conflicts, to be more assertive in relationships, and to be smarter about sex. I also added a dozen or so books to my reading list. It's also a quick read-- I read the entire thing one night when I was putting Rose to bed.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Book Review: Finders Keepers by Stephen King

Title: Finders Keepers (Bill Hodges Trilogy #2)
Author: Stephen King
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Violence, swearing

In 1978 Morris Bellamy and his friends break into the home of John Rothstein, an author who seems to be part JD Salinger, part John Updike, part Harper Lee. While Bellamy's friends think they're just going to rob the guy and get out of there, Bellamy is after something more-- he wants to know what Rothstein, the author of three books about Jimmy Gold, has been writing since he stopped publishing in 1961. The men kill Rothstein in the heist and hit paydirt, finding more than $25,000 and a whole safe full of notebooks. But before Bellamy can read the stories, he's arrested on an unrelated charge and spends the next 38 years in prison.

Thirty-five years later, at the height of the financial crisis, Pete Saubers finds a trunk full of money and notebooks buried in the woods. It seems an answer to prayer, since Pete's father was injured at the civic center massacre a year earlier, and Pete anonymously sends the money to his family, bits at a time. But he becomes even more interested in those notebooks, and when Bellamy gets out of jail, he's willing to do just about anything to get them back. We get the same familiar cast of characters we grew to love in Mr. Mercedes-- Bill Hodges, Holly Gibney and Jerome Robinson, who try to save Pete's gravy before it's too late.

You may be reading this review in July, but I'm writing it in June, the last of more than a dozen books I reviewed over a couple of days. They were the first of my summer reads, and I saved Finders Keepers until the end because I loved it so much that I knew I'd keep writing them if I had this carrot dangling at the end of my line. I really enjoyed Mr. Mercedes, the first book in the Bill Hodges trilogy, but Finders Keepers is far better (which is practically unheard of with trilogies, right?). It's also the kind of book where you don't have to read the first one to know what the second one is all about. Yes, there are too many details (you get the sense that Stephen King is a bit disdainful of people who are overweight, for example), and it could be a little shorter, but the story itself is super exciting. And it's a book for readers. Both Bellamy and Saubers genuinely love the Jimmy Gold story so much that they share more than they'd like to admit. King writes beautifully about how a love of literature can shape a life, for good or for evil.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Book Review: Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Title: Yes Please
Author: Amy Poehler
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: personal copy
Content Alert: Some swearing

Amy Poehler is the shiz. She's a fantastic writer. She's hilariously funny. She is the voice of Joy. She started Smart Girls, a website I love. Apparently she's a pretty great waitress too. And she's basically my own age. Which means that I'd better get cracking. Although she'd never say that. In fact, she would tell me not to apologize for my life. Because one thing you learn from reading smart girls is that Amy does not like reflexive apologies (as in when someone steps on your toe and you say "sorry"). But she does like making real apologies (she talks about a beautiful experience that came from a long-overdue apology she made a few years ago). And she won't read your screenplay either, and she's not surprised at her success, because she put in years and years of hard work to get where she is.

Yes Please is part memoir, part essay, part self-help book, with pieces thrown in from people Poehler has worked with over the years. It's a strange little beast of a book, and I loved it. I really wish I had bought it as an audiobook, because I've heard that hearing her read the book makes it even better, but my sweet husband got me this for Valentine's Day (that's how big my backlog is!). My daughter Annie is 13 and she has been begging to read it, and even though it's a little racy in parts (it's pretty frank about drug use and acknowledges the existence of sex, and she's pretty liberal with the cussing), I really do want her to read it, because I want her to know what she should and shouldn't apologize for when she's 13, and not try to figure it out when she's 40. If you haven't read this one yet, you should. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and if you're like me, you'll start binge watching Parks and Rec so you can hang out with Poehler just a little longer.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Book Review: Some Girls by Jillian Lauren

Title: Some Girls: My Life in a Harem
Author: Jillian Lauren
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: This is a book about life in a harem, prepare yourself accordingly

At the age of eighteen, I worked at a photography studio and made $5.25 an hour. When Jillian Lauren was eighteen (a year or two before me) she joined the harem of Prince Jefri of Brunei and was paid in Cartier watches and Dolce and Gabbana dresses. Some Girls is a memoir that recounts the events that led up to Lauren's decision to join the harem (difficult family life, dropping out of NYU, working as an exotic dancer), her time living in Brunei (which is a lot of what you would expect-- complicated female friendships/rivalries, isolation, conspicuous consumption, loneliness, and disordered behaviors resulting from all of the above), and her reintegration into life back in America.

I was interested in reading Some Girls because Lauren writes a lot about the process of writing the memoir in her second memoir, Everything You Ever Wanted (which is such a beautiful book that I think I may be judging this one a little harshly in contrast). She writes at length about the fallout with her family from how they're portrayed in the memoir, and I wanted to see if what she said about them was really bad enough to provoke years of silence (and I can see how they would be sensitive, and how she would want to tell her story in the way she does). This story didn't move me as much as her other story, probably because this one didn't parallel my own life in the same way. The book is currently being made into a movie, and I think it will be a good one, and it's an interesting book worth reading.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Book Review: Everything You Ever Wanted by Jillian Lauren

Title: Everything You Ever Wanted: A Memoir
Author: Jillian Lauren
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Some swearing

When Jillian Lauren gets to the point in her life where she wants a child, she has lived a very full life-- she's been an actress, a member of a harem, a drug addict, a cosmetologist, a rock star's wife, and an MFA student, just to name a few things. One thing that it seems like she might never be is a mother, and after several years of infertility, she and her husband Scott Shriner (bassist for Weezer) adopt a son, Tariku, from Ethiopia. And then, they set out on the task of learning to become a family.

I can't tell you how many times Everything You Ever Wanted made me cry. I was crying even before Tariku entered the picture, just from the way Lauren was able to get her life back together (she talks about her best friend, who also struggled with addiction, throughout the memoir, and it provides a haunting counterpoint). I adore her for the honesty about which she talks about raising Tariku. Raising kids who know trauma and loss, who have been abandoned and neglected, is no small stuff. Many of us put smiles on our faces, but Lauren goes the places that so many of us feel-- sometimes at our wit's end, but loving these kids with a desperate ferocity. So thanks, Jillian Lauren, for this book. For your gift with words, and for making me feel not quite so alone. And for the beautiful way in which you're raising your son. It gives me hope.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Book Review: So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Title: So You've Been Publicly Shamed
Author: Jon Ronson
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Some swearing

I have a teenage daughter who uses social media. This means that I am intimately aware of all of the insecurities of how what she puts out there (or what other people put out there) reflects on her. She agonizes over her captions, posts just enough but not too much, and could tell you exactly how many "likes" each of her Instagram pictures has. I'm not nearly as careful at cultivating my public persona as she is. I'll post something with typos and triple chins. So maybe one day I will be in need of Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed, a book inspired by his personal experience in the arena, when a fake Twitter account was set up in his name, providing his friends with frequent updates about his sexual proclivities and what he was eating.

The book goes on to follow the stories of others who have been shamed or outed. Ronson runs the gamut from Jonah Lehrer (the author and former New Yorker writer whose most recent book was recalled after it was revealed that interviews were made up), a pretty famous guy who mostly seemed unhappy that he'd been caught doing what he was doing, to an unknown software engineer who lost his job after a woman with a mission took a picture of him at a conference where he'd made a snarky comment to a friend, to the girl whose whole life was basically ruined when she took a rude photo at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (it's a long story, and she acknowledges it was in bad taste). Ronson explores what public shaming does to people, and how social media can not only be a place where people can embarrass themselves, but it can also function as a frenzied mob where people get all fired up and hurt mostly innocent people over relatively small things. It's definitely a thought-provoking read, and an important one in our current day and age.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Book Review: Counting by 7s by Molly Goldberg Sloan

Title: Counting by 7s
Author: Molly Goldberg Sloan
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: A clean read

Willow knows she's not like everyone else in her junior high. She's obsessed with germs and disease (both studying them and not contracting them). She counts by sevens to calm herself down. But she's absolutely embraced and celebrated by her parents, who have never seen her differences as a liability. When they suddenly die in a car crash, and Willow doesn't have a safety net of family to fall back on, she learns her own inner strength by pushing beyond her limitations to create the family she needs (from a highly disparate and unlikely group of people), and they all find themselves the better for it.

Counting by 7s is the story of an unusual kid who isn't defined by a label. In fact, the counselor she's assigned to help her adapt to life in junior high, who has a labeling system for all of his students, seems at a loss to label Willow. I love that about this novel. I have a kid who people have tried to label for most of his life. Some of those labels didn't fit right, some we had to resist using as a crutch, and others he downright refused to accept. In Counting by 7s, the label itself isn't important, Willow as a person, a person with unique talents, is what is important. As the people around her come to know her in this time of great crisis, they learn to celebrate the aspects of her personality that some might be quick to point out fall outside of two standard deviations on a normal bell curve.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Book Review: Inside the O'Briens by Lisa Genova

Title: Inside the O'Briens
Author: Lisa Genova
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: Swearing, maybe a (not graphic) sex scene

When Joe O'Brien starts dropping dishes at the dinner table, or seems a little more short-tempered than usual, his family doesn't pay much attention to it. As a Boston police officer and the patriarch of a clan of four adult kids, Joe, in his mid-forties when the book opens, just chalks everything up to stress. But when he develops more troubling symptoms, he agrees to see a doctor, who diagnoses him with Huntington's Disease, a genetic, fatal neurological disorder, and then gives him the even more devastating news: his children each have a 50% chance of inheriting the disease. Inside the O'Briens, written by Lisa Genova, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist and author of Still Alice (for which Julianne Moore won an Oscar this year), focuses much of its attention on Joe's kids, and how each of them process their own relationship with the disease as they watch their father display more symptoms.

Genova knows how to create an engaging story and to get at the emotional heart of an issue. I feel a little bit like her modus operandi as an author is to pick a disease (Alzheimer's in Still Alice, Huntington's in Inside the O'Briens) and to write a novel about how that disease drops a bomb into the lives of the family who confronts it. I'm not sure I like that strategy (is it too didactic?), but I won't argue that it's effective. I was particularly invested in Katie, the youngest daughter, who feels that her life is on hold until she knows whether or not she too has the genetic markers for the disease. I think Genova definitely accomplished her goal of humanizing Huntington's Disease and raising public consciousness surrounding it.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Book Reivew: Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner

Title: Secrets of a Charmed Life
Author: Susan Meissner
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: A pretty clean read

It's Isabel McFarland's ninetieth birthday, and her family has gathered to celebrate. However, before the party can start, Isabel has agreed to tell her experiences in the London blitz, which she has never shared before, to a college student who is gathering oral histories. Isabel launches into an epic tale of two sisters, fifteen-year-old Emmy and six-year-old Julia, who lived in London until just before the first bombs started falling, when their mother sent them to live in the Cotswolds with a retired schoolteacher and her sister. Emmy, angry at being sent away from the job she loved at a dressmaker's shop, returns to the city to meet with a potential employer, and this action changes the lives of both girls forever.

Secrets of a Charmed Life is the story of many voices-- we have Isabel's voice looking back, Julia's voice in journal entries, and Kendra (the student) frames the story with her interviews. Actually, my only quibble with the narrative is the fact that Isabel's voice doesn't feel like narrative storytelling. Meissner will have her go on for a hundred pages with no interruption, and when we jump back out to Kendra, it feels a little jarring. But that's only because Isabel's story is such a good one-- rich in detail, regret, and longing. I love the way that we see Emmy come to understand and even forgive the single mother of whose choices she had been so disapproving. There's a lot of tragedy in this novel, but a lot of redemption too, and it's one that I read from cover to cover quickly, sneaking away to read a page or two between loads of laundry and car pools.