Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book #34: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

Nick & Norah's Infinite PlaylistTitle: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
Author: Rachel Cohn, David Levithan

Here's the fifth book in my five-book omnibus review for my Creative Writing Theory class. As I've said before, I chose to focus on novels told from multiple points of view. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is significant because it's told from two points of view (Nick narrates the first chapter, then Norah picks up the story where he left off), and it's written by two separate authors. I'm interested in reading more about the writing process of the book. I assume that Levithan wrote the chapters from Nick's perspective and Cohn wrote the chapters from Norah's. It seems that they would have had to write the chapters in sequence with Levithan passing what he had written to Cohn. I wonder how this changed both the challenges of the writing process and spiced things up. I remember listening to an NPR story about a mystery novel co-written by several famous mystery writers, where each author would finish a chapter and then pass the project on to a friend. The authors joked about trying to muddy the waters for their friends down the writing line, making things incredibly complicated.

Anyway, I'm a little bit surprised at how seamless the book is. While Nick and Norah are definitely different characters, the overall style of the writing is similar enough that the transition from Nick to Norah doesn't feel jarring. I saw the film version of the book a few years ago, and I'm surprised (just like with Darkly Dreaming Dexter) at how much of Nick and Norah takes place in Nick and Norah's heads. The whole book takes place on the night that the two meet, and as they start to like each other, we get lots and lots about what they're thinking and feeling and how they're misinterpreting each others' actions. In the film version, I remember a lot more action and a lot less introspection.

Finally, I'm curious about how Nick and Norah would be classified and marketed in bookstores. Although the main characters are both high school seniors, and "straight-edge" (meaning that they don't smoke, drink, or do drugs), the book takes place in a series of (mostly gay) nightclubs where everyone around them is drunk and stoned, Norah has a serious pottymouth, and two chapters near the end are so lusty that I felt like I needed a cold shower after reading them.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Book #33: Cross My Heart (Whitney Book #13)

Cross My HeartTitle: Cross My Heart
Author: Julie Wright

Things aren't going well for Jillian Belle: she's spent the last three years trying to get over her ex-fiance, Geoffrey, when her ad agency transfers her back to Boston with explicit instructions to get to know him well so she can ferret out whether or not he's stealing her company's ideas (he's been known to steal ideas before-- Jillian dumped him when he stole hers). On the plane to Boston she meets Allen, a dentist who hates people who work in advertising, mostly because he just lost his girlfriend to an adman.  The adman in question turns out to be-- guess who?

Yeah, the story sounds predictable, but it it's really pretty cute. I liked Jillian's character quite a bit. She was prickly, which gave her some depth. I also liked that she didn't seem overly self-aware. For example, she refers to herself as physically graceful, but she keeps tripping and falling (and breaking her teeth, which is how the good dentist returns to her life). Allen also has some depth too-- he holds grudges and makes snap judgments and sees Jillian as something of a trophy. I think Wright does a great job with the setting of the book too. The LDS singles scene in Boston came alive for me, and I thought Boston itself was one of the most interesting characters in the book.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Book #32: Murder By Design (Whitney Book #12)

Murder By DesignTitle: Murder by Design
Author: Betsy Brannon Green

I just finished reading the five books in the mystery category and found it surprisingly strong. I think it's going to be hard to choose among the five books! Murder by Design is the second book in Green's Midway series (for those of you familiar with Green's work, Midway is just down the road from Haggerty, Georgia so many of the characters are familiar). Midway librarian Kennedy Killingsworth has just helped the police (including her ex-husband Deputy Cade) solve the murder of Foster Scoggins, so naturally townspeople think she's the person to go to when they need a mystery solved. Kennedy sets out to find out who stole wood from an old barn and steps into a new murder mystery. Boyfriend Luke returns from Purdue to woo and fight crime.

There are a few times when I feel like Green's personal prejudices come through (like in how Kennedy's sister Madison has a hard time controlling her kids during sacrament meeting. I know Green had eight kids of her own, but perhaps enough time has passed since they were toddlers that she doesn't remember what a struggle that can be). I'm not sure whether I like all the focus on Kennedy's diet-- she seems to survive on Moon Pies and Pepsi with healthy doses of Hardee's and chicken fried steak thrown in for good measure. It does make her a charming character, but if it were realistic fiction, I think we'd need to see her struggling to button up her jeans or going for long runs to burn off all those calories. Also, the title? Not sure what the book had to do with design, other than the fact that the victim fancied himself a painter.

That aside, I found both Kennedy and the extended cast of characters charming, the mystery believable, and the romance not too gag-worthy. It was a fun read!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Book #32: Crossfire (Whitney Book #11)

CrossfireTitle: Crossfire
Author: Traci Hunter Abramson

It's unfortunate for Traci Hunter Abramson that her work is grouped in the mystery category. This year, the other four books in the category are fairly traditional mysteries. Abramson's book, the third book in the Saint Squad series, is more of a thriller, where the Navy Seals (and their CIA buddies) are working to stop a terrorist threat before it happens. There's not much question who the baddies are, it's more of a question of how to stop them. Because of this, I wonder if Abramson's books would do better in the general category, especially in a year when all of the other mystery offerings are so different.

In Lockdown (book 2 in the series) I grew to like Riley and Tristan quite a bit. I felt like they both carried the action of the novel. In Crossfire, Riley is mentioned in the book, and Tristan is a minor character, and in a series where readers grow attached to certain characters, I'm not sure that dropping them in favor of other characters is a great move.  Crossfire's main story is about Navy Seal Seth and undercover CIA agent Vanessa, high school and college sweethearts who are reunited six years later to work on the same mission. Sparks fly. So do helicopters.

I'm curious about the phenomenon in Mormon mysteries/thrillers to have the focus on relationships. In traditional mysteries, it seems that very few have the dual focus of the protagonist solving a mystery while falling in love. In the Whitney finalists, all five books have strong romantic elements. I don't have any great conclusions to draw from that, it's mostly just an observation.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Two steps back

You know how we announced on Monday that we're planning to adopt from Ethiopia? Well, on Wednesday I got an email from our adoption agency reporting that the Ethiopian government wants to take a closer look at the way adoptions are handled, so they're only going to process five adoptions each day (they have been processing 45-50/day for the last half dozen years, from what I understand). That means that our anticipated wait of about a year has the potential to stretch out to ten years. They say that the move is a temporary one, but I don't think anyone knows what temporary means. So we're reconsidering our options. There are other international adoption programs we qualify for, so we'll have to decide if we want to commit ourselves to some uncertainty with Ethiopia, if we want to investigate other countries, or if we want to rethink committing ourselves to the process altogether. I'm pretty bummed about the whole thing, but I guess it's good that it happened at this stage in the process for us. I can only imagine how heartbreaking it must be for families who are already matched with a child to have to wait so long until they can bring those children home. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book #31: Saving CeeCee Honeycutt

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt: A NovelTitle: Saving CeeCee Honeycutt
Author: Beth Hoffman

I spent the last few drives to and from school listening to Saving CeeCee Honeycutt. Sometimes when I listen to an audiobook, I look for any excuse to listen to something else. If the book is really challenging or boring, it even makes me not want to run. It's at those times that I usually turn to my cache of This American Life podcasts and listen to those instead. Over the last few days, I've been looking forward to my runs and my drives down to campus, and I think it's in large part because this book was so easy to listen to. CeeCee Honeycutt is a twelve-year-old Ohio girl whose spent the last few years caring for her mother, who suffers from mental illness. After her mother runs in front of an ice cream truck, CeeCee's dad (a traveling salesman) farms her out to live with Aunt Tootie in Savannah, Georgia. The rest of the book takes place over the course of a single summer in Savannah, as CeeCee adapts to the changes in her life.

While the story was easy to listen to, there were definitely things about it that I found troubling. For one thing, it seems in early chapters that CeeCee is going to grapple in some significant way with the specter of mental illness. But once she gets to Aunt Tootie's house, her fears about inheriting her mother's disease are mostly swept under the table. And for that matter, Tootie and Oletta, the maid/cook/sage adviser who runs the household, are pretty good at sweeping lots of things under the table. There's lots of opportunity to talk about race relations in the book (it takes place in the mid-1960s) and while the book does discuss Martin Luther King and the problem when white men perpetrate crimes against black women, once again, the problems seem to be solved relatively easily. Finally, it bugged me that all of the characters in the book were female, or else they were slimy. CeeCee's dad is a jerk, then a guy tries to rob them, and there are a few drunks and philanderers along the way, but the only good guy (Tootie's husband Taylor) is a dead guy. I'd like to see at least one good man in the book. However, I do think the book has an audience-- I'm sure my mom will love it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Book #30: Innocent Traitor

Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane GreyTitle: Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey
Author: Alison Weir

I read this book at the beginning of January and just realized now that it was buried deep in my list of draft posts. Woo hoo! One more book to add to the list. This was a pretty good one-- the different voices in the audiobook added a lot of texture to the experience, and I feel that I know and understand (the 21st century interpretation) of the motives of Jane Grey and her family in their attempts to put Jane on the throne of England. I read this book shortly after Wolf Hall and although they take place at roughly the same time and include the same cast of characters, and Wolf Hall was much better reviewed, I felt much more connected to Jane Grey and her plight than I did to anyone in Wolf Hall

Monday, March 7, 2011

Not a book review, an announcement...

I was being cryptic on Facebook yesterday, which led to lots of questions. First of all, I am not pregnant, nor do I ever plan to be pregnant again. Second, I am not signing up to torture myself by running three marathons this year. There's no new job, no great vacation, no move. But if you've noticed my book reviews lately, you've probably noticed a pattern: I've been doing a lot of reading about adoption. Why?

We've started the process to adopt a baby from Ethiopia. Shocked? Believe me, no one is more surprised than I am. I promise not to leave you hanging with all the juicy details-- I'll explain more over the next few weeks. Over the years, this blog has been a lot of things-- a Mommy blog, a running blog, an absent-minded grad student's favorite distraction, a place to read about books. And as of today it will morph yet again. Over the next year (or longer, we're not sure how long it will take) I'll be blogging about our adoption process. I thought about starting a separate blog, but I'm already so frazzled and fractured (is that a good frame of mind to be in to start the process of international adoption? I'd guess not) that I decided to use the existing format I have here. If you just want to read my book reviews, then skip this adoption stuff. If you want to read about running, then I'm sorry, I stopped blogging about running a couple of years ago.

So there it is-- our big secret. Only it's not such a secret any more. For those who speak international adoption, we filed an initial application with WACAP last month, and I mailed off a 2" thick stack of papers to a homestudy agency here in Utah last week.

Wish us luck! If you're a veteran and have any advice on the process, I'd love to hear it. I'll try to write in the next few days about how we came to this decision.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Book #29: Cold as Ice (Whitney Book #10)

Cold as IceTitle: Cold as Ice
Author: Stephanie Black

I wasn't a huge fan of Stephanie Black's Methods of Madness in the Whitney competition last year, so I'll admit that I didn't have super high hopes for Cold as Ice. Last year, I was disappointed that the characters were flat, the Mormons were good, and the non-Mormons were bad. In Cold as Ice, I was encouraged to see more complicated characters, both Mormon and non. Derek and Abigail are brother and sister living in a resort town in upstate New York. Derek is trying to put his life back together after committing the unpardonable sins (at least in the eyes of his parents) of living with his girlfriend and arriving at his grandmother's funeral drunk. Now in his mid-twenties, he's on his way to starting his own business, but still hasn't figured out some of the basics-- like paying his rent on time. Abigail, thirty and unmarried, worries about her brother and her parents and her business, and tends to meddle more she should for her emotional health.

When Derek's landlord shows up dead, Derek becomes the prime suspect. He insists he's not guilty, but he acts guilty, and all the evidence points to him. Only Abigail believes in him, even when it might be in her best interest not to believe, and sets out to figure out who really did it. Black does a good job of creating suspense in Cold as Ice. Even 40 pages before the last chapter, there were at least four guys who I thought could be the real killer. I also felt like she did a good job with the setting, except I think she may overestimate the number of thirtysomething, employed, handsome, single LDS guys in upstate New York.

All in all, I enjoyed Cold as Ice. I liked seeing Derek and Abigail's proud, unforgiving, and very Mormon parents, who also had their good qualities, mixed in with other complicated characters. I also liked that although there was an element of romance in Cold as Ice, it didn't derail the mystery.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Book #28: A Time to Die (Whitney Book #9)

Title: A Time to Die: A Shandra Covington Mystery
Author: Jeffrey S. Savage

I generally avoid starting a series of books in the middle of a series, but sometimes, like when I'm reading for the Whitney Awards, it's unavoidable. It always gives me the sense that I've started a class midway through the semester. At the beginning of A Time to Die, Shandra Covington is at the hospital, where her bff Bobby is in a coma after a bullet intended for Shandra got him instead. Shandra, a reporter for the Deseret News (I guess she survived the recent round of firings) find support in a lively cast of characters-- toothless Cord the butt-kicking PI, and numerous members of the police force who Covington knows a little too well from her previous escapades. In order to distract herself from Bobby's predicament, Shandra takes on a story-- the daughter of a sitting US senator's death from a heroin overdose. Shandra soon discovers that the death isn't as accidental as it appears, and she spends the rest of the book chasing down yet another serial killer.

There are many things Savage does well in A Time to Die. I liked Covington's character, as well as the supporting cast (especially officers Dashner and Wells, no strangers themselves to the Whitneys). My favorite scenes took place in the hole-in-the-wall diner where Shandra goes to escape Cord's health food regimen. In fact, I loved that the book takes place in my hometown, because it was easy for me to imagine the landscape of the city, from the senator's house in the Avenues to the gang bangers (who spoke with hilariously clean language) hanging out by the homeless shelter near Pioneer Park. I read the book in one sitting, and it wasn't because I was pushing myself to get through it; I genuinely enjoyed reading the book.

That said, A Time to Die wasn't without its problems. I know Shandra Covington is pretty smart, but it seemed like she made connections that needed a little bit more time to develop. In fact, I feel like the book would have benefited from an extra hundred pages of development. I felt like Shandra would have had to do more convincing to get the police to come onto her side in preventing another murder. I don't know if I got a different copy of the book than the published version (I read a PDF) but after I came across a dozen typos and misspelled words, I stopped counting. Misspellings? Really? Finally, even though I didn't read the book just prior to this one, I know that by the end of A Time to Die, less than a week has passed since the beginning of the novel, and we hit this novel just off the breakneck pace of the previous story. A Time to Die closes with a cliffhanger that will send us directly into another adventure. I felt a little sad for Shandra. I just want her to be able to clean the blood off the floor of her apartment, order a pizza, and enjoy a quiet evening at home.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Book #27: Darkly Dreaming Dexter

Darkly Dreaming Dexter (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)Title: Darkly Dreaming Dexter
Author: Jeff Lindsay

I am a huge fan of Dexter on Showtime. My sister-in-law and her husband got us hooked on it about a year and a half ago, and Eddie and I spent way too much time last winter getting caught up on the first four seasons. So when Audible had a sale on Darkly Dreaming Dexter, I was curious to see how this first book in the Dexter series was similar or different from the television show.

I hadn't anticipated how much of the novel would take place in Dexter's head. Although Dexter Morgan is obviously the main character in the show and we do get glimpses (through voice-overs) of Dexter's thoughts from time to time, the show is, by nature less in Dexter's head than the novel. As a result, we get characters like Dexter's adoptive father Harry, who appears frequently in the show as the good angel sitting on his shoulder. Harry and Dexter talk on the show to reveal the same kinds of inner conversations that take place in Dexter's head in the book.

The ending of Darkly Dreaming Dexter comes more out of left field than the ending of Dexter (although they are, by most accounts) the same ending. On the television show, there's a whole story of Deb's romance with an orthopedic surgeon specializing in artificial limbs, and another whole story of Dexter trying to put together what his life was like before he was adopted by the Morgan family and became a serial killer himself, and both stories appear only tangentially related to the main story of a serial killer who cuts women's limbs from their bodies with surgical precision (when I say it that way, it seems sort of obvious doesn't it?). Anyway, I felt like we were led to the conclusion more clearly in the television show. And Dexter was a little less creepy in the concluding scenes in the television show as well.

Also, I guess I should have intuited this from the opening of the show, where Dexter wakes up, gets dressed, and makes breakfast, all in eye-popping detail, but there's a huge focus on food in the books. We learn all about who makes the best Cuban sandwiches in Miami and the relative benefits of crullers and apple fritters. I know the story takes place in a police station, but there seems to be a lot of discussion about donuts. And while the Miami setting is integral to the show, I also saw Darkly Dreaming Dexter as sort of a love letter to a city. My brother-in-law and his family live in Miami, and when we visit I'm eager to to a Sopranos-esque tour of Miami, Dexter style.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Book #26: The Forbidden Sea (Whitney Book #8)

Forbidden SeaTitle: Forbidden Sea
Author: Sheila Nielson

Last year when I read for the Whitney Awards, I felt like a curmudgeon-- all of my prejudices come out, and I worried that people will think I'm unfair or unkind as a reviewer. This year, with graduate school added to my plate, I feel even more like a crank-- I'm too busy to be nice. If I were in a less stressed out frame of mind, I wonder if I would have liked Forbidden Sea more, but when I feel like I don't have enough time to devote to each story, I want to get caught up in the story right away. Forbidden Sea started out promisingly enough-- Adrianne rescues her sister from drowning and gets scratched by a mermaid in the process. But then, for the next 200 pages, not much happens. Adrianne worries about her family, she pines over the neighbor boy, she feels embarrassed by her scratch, and she hears the mermaid calling for her. I kept putting this book down, reading something else, and coming back to it, all the time wondering when she'd finally go see the dang mermaid. Finally, in the last 50-60 pages, she does go under the water, and the mermaid guides her to the sea prince that she's destined to marry. That part starts out interestingly enough, but then parts of it start to feel really didactic. For pages and pages Adrianne worries about what she should do, what her responsibilities to her family should be, and whether she should stay in this rich and idyllic land under the sea or return to the difficulties and uncertainties of life on land. I won't tell you what happens in the end, but it shouldn't be too hard to guess what happens. I feel like this book had a lot of promise, and Nielson creates the scenes both on land and under the sea with great details. I even feel like Adrianne is an interesting and complicated character, but the arc of the story didn't work for me.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Book #25: Band of Sisters (Whitney Book #7)

Band Of SistersTitle: Band of Sisters
Author: Annette Lyon

Band of Sisters tells the story of five women living in Utah County have nothing in common other than the fact that their husbands have been deployed for a year in Afghanistan. In order to help them have a support system of friends who understand their situation, they decide to meet for weekly lunches, and through the year they go through struggles and challenges that bind them together as a band of sisters.

One of the hardest things for me about reading the books for the Whitney Awards is getting glimpses of potential about the books these books could have been if they'd had better editing. I think Annette Lyon is a good writer. I think her idea for the book is interesting and she does a good job setting up conflicts over the course of the year. But she, and most of the other Whitney authors, could benefit so much from a smart editor who could give her advice on things. For example, the characters talk frequently about when their husbands return to "base." As far as I know, the only "base" in Utah is Hill Air Force base-- there is no Army base here. I think it would have made more sense for the husbands to be part of the National Guard, since then it would have been likely that they would live all over Utah County.

There are also times when an author's preconceived notions come through a little too strongly (another failure of editing, I think). In Band of Sisters the youngest wife, Kim, has been married just a couple of months when her husband is deployed. She's living all by herself in Provo, working as a dental hygienist, and she's lonely. But she doesn't want to go home, where she has friends and older sisters. In fact, she turns around on Christmas Eve when she's just miles from Cedar City because she doesn't want to be judged by her mom, a feminist with a PhD (scary!). I understand how Kim might feel judged, but it seems to me that Kim, holing up in Provo, reluctant to tell anyone she's pregnant, AWOL on Christmas Eve, is not an innocent victim in the dysfunctional family dynamic. I feel that the implied narrator doesn't see anything wrong with Kim's actions, though.

Finally, and I just can't say this any other way. The ending was so cheesy. I actually threw the book down with a loud sigh when I finished it. This is the second Whitney book where a baby was born more than a month early with absolutely no consequences of prematurity. In this case a 35-weeker came into the world without a NICU team standing by. In a book that based itself so much on real-life places (like the restaurants of Utah County-- note: Cafe Rio doesn't sell chimichangas), having an editor screen for factual inaccuracies would have been a big plus for Band of Sisters.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Book #24: Meg's Melody (Whitney Book #6)

Meg's MelodyTitle: Meg's Melody
Author: Kaylee Baldwin

When I was in the hospital after delivering Bryce, I remember that my obstetrician's partner came in to check on me during rounds. He was a guy in his late forties or fifties, but I'll never forget how neatly pressed his shirt was and how nicely his butt filled out his khaki pants. I'll blame my brief lusting after the obstetrician on the post-delivery hormonal soup raging through my body, but it was never more than a look, and a little fantasy. And in talking to other moms, I know I'm not alone, many of us have had brief crushes on our obstetricians, but nobody I know has ever taken the next step and dated him.

In the opening pages of Meg's Melody, poor Meg Sanders gets dumped by Austin, her husband of six months. It turns out that he wants a quickie divorce, and six weeks later, when Meg tries to reach him to tell him she's carrying his baby, he's already married to another woman (note to Baldwin: Arizona law states that a divorce cannot be finalized until 60 days after the papers have been delivered to the other spouse). Even though Meg's feeling sick and dejected and uncertain about her future, men start coming out of the woodwork. At one point, Meg has three men who want her hot, pregnant body. One of them, Johnny, is just as cruel and one-dimensional as Austin, but then there's Matt, the poor, widowed, hot obstetrician.

And here's where the story stops working for me. For all the details Baldwin gives, Matt could be Meg's guidance counselor. Sure, he encourages her to eat a little more and gives her a prescription for anti-nausea medication, but think about how much more awkward things would be if he were giving her a pelvic or a breast examination? That's what I wanted to read about. And for several months after he knows that his relationship with Meg is no longer strictly doctor-patient, he continues to keep her as a patient, which feels a little ick to me (eventually he does dump her off to his partner, which makes Meg feel rejected). The whole premise of pregnant woman dating her doctor while other men tried to win her away felt so laughable to me that I couldn't stop telling people about this book I was reading.

Perhaps the most realistic thing about Meg's Melody came in the last 30 pages, when Meg and Matt finally stopped being proud and misunderstood and dumb and decided they loved each other. It was predictable and sappy, and yes, also a little sweet.