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.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Book Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Title: Landline
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: Swearing and sex

When I heard that Rainbow Rowell had a new book out, I added it to my Amazon cart as quickly as I add those amazing sea salt butterscotch caramels that always seem to end up in my basket at Trader Joe's. I've read three of her previous books, and both Fangirl and Eleanor and Park rank up there with some of the most enjoyable reads of the last few years. I also read Attachments, which, like Landline, is an adult contemporary novel, and it was also a really fun read.

And maybe because Rowell had knocked it out of the park with her three previous novels, I had unrealistically high expectations for Landline. I wanted the sass of Eleanor mixed with the quirkiness of Cather (from Fangirl) and the wry honesty of Beth (of Attachments). But Landline is an altogether different animal. Georgie McCool is a tv writer who learns that all of her dreams are coming true-- she and her writing partner, Seth, have the opportunity of a lifetime to write their own pilot. The only catch is that the first several episodes must be written over Christmas break, and Georgie has promised her husband, Neal, that the family will go to Omaha to see his parents for Christmas. When Neal leaves with the girl, Georgie isn't sure if he's leaving for Christmas or really leaving.

She tries to call him on his cell phone, with no luck. Then she tries the landline from her mom's house, where she's been hanging out to avoid her own empty home, and Neal answers. The only weird thing is that it's the Neal from back when they were dating and almost broke up more than a dozen years ago. Georgie becomes obsessed with this Neal, and decides that talking to him is both what enabled them to stay together all those years ago, and what will save their marriage now.

I love Rainbow Rowell, but this is a WEIRD book. For one thing, Neal is almost completely absent from the narrative-- we see him in flashbacks and through Georgie's eyes, but the book takes place too much through Georgie to function well as a romance. I didn't love her character and I'm not sure I liked Neal's character, and I think that by putting us right in the moment of greatest stress in their relationship, it was hard to see them as people who I wanted to fall in love with each other. I love the concept of a romance for people who are long-married and struggling, and I wanted to love this book, but I found myself forcing myself to keep reading it. But I'll still read the next one. I saw glimpses of her earlier genius in this story, I just wish it were less about the misery of Georgie during this week and more about their relationship.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Book Review: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Title: Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
Author: Sheryl Sandberg
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: Nothing I remember

When I first heard about Lean In about a year or so ago, I didn't want to read it. I knew it was a book I should read, because everyone was talking about it, but I thought it was a book that would make me feel bad. One of the things I'm really sensitive about is the fact that I'm a stay-at-home mom, but I have lots of ambition and drive. It's not useful to channel that ambition into my kids, and I often feel like I'm not doing enough with my brain (I felt this way particularly when my older kids were little and not as easy to talk to and I didn't have as many kids to keep me busy). These days, I'm so busy that I often spend all day ferrying kids back and forth in the car, and I find myself at ten o'clock at night, folding laundry in the bedroom, dead on my feet with exhaustion, and I realize that I haven't had a moment of alone time to thing all day long. I constantly feel guilty because I don't have the time to devote to my other, unpaid job as the editor of a literary magazine, but because it's unpaid and I always have toddlers underfoot, it seems to take last priority in my life. I'm a feminist in a family with very traditional gender roles, and it makes me feel like a hypocrite.

But I heard Sheryl Sandberg give a TED talk a few months ago (no, not THE TED talk that inspired the writing of the book in the first place, but a follow-up talk), and after I listened to how funny and down-to-earth and non-judgmental she sounded in the talk (which was basically about the process of writing the book and about taking the scary step as a female executive to be willing to talk about her family), I decided to read the book anyway, even though I was sure it would make me feel guilty. But I found myself so compelled by her narrative and her arguments that I didn't have time for navel-gazing. Sandberg writes a lot about her own experience (she did an MBA at Harvard, worked for the Treasury Department, then as an exec in the earlier days of Google, and is currently the COO of Facebook). Her anecdotes are great (she talks in the TED talk about how her initial drafts were dry and full of stats and her husband encouraged her to tell her own story), and she paints a clear picture of someone who tries and sometimes fails at finding a work-family balance, and acknowledges that her situation, with nannies and a fantastic salary, gives her a different perspective than others might have. But she also uses the experiences of others, and lots of hard evidence, to show that men and women must work together to have more egalitarian marriages to enable both the husband and the wife to have more fulfilling careers.

As for me, the thing that's more likely to keep me up at nights than anything else is how I'm going to jump back in. I leaned out before I opted out (which Sandberg says many people do). I had my first child at 25 and my last came when I was 36, and by the time I'm ready to rejoin the job market, I will have a lot of years out. I often have to push back against the idea that what I do isn't "real" work because I don't claim a paycheck, especially in a marriage where my husband's paycheck is more substantial than mine will ever be. She talked quite a bit about how women at the very bottom and very top of the bell curves are most likely to opt out for financial reasons, and since Ed's job is so unpredictable, and we have so many children (which was my decision), it's put me in a place where I've leaned so far out I'm not sure I can lean back. But Sandberg gives me hope that I can, and that I can certainly give my sons and daughters advice for how they can have families and successful careers. While I was reading this book I talked about it ad nauseum with anyone who would listen, and if you haven't read it yet, even if you're a dude (especially if you're a dude, because it applies to you a lot more than you might think it would), then I agree that you tap into the zeitgeist and get your hands on a copy ASAP.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Book Review: Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Title: Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison
Author: Piper Kerman
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Swearing, references to sex and drug use

I binge watched the first season of Orange is the New Black on Netflix last year, taking in two or three episodes during epic laundry folding sessions. The series was fascinating-- I especially enjoyed how the show's creators zoomed into the lives of individual characters during the various episodes, because it helped me develop empathy for them.

And if I felt a sense of empathy from watching the television show, that feeling was only deepened when I read Kerman's memoir. While the tv show is sensationalized (as all television shows are-- the future in-laws snipe, the fiance is jealous, the relationship with the ex-girlfriend reignites in shower scene after shower scene), the book made me feel like I could have been Piper if we'd made different choices. We look similar, come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds about an hour away from each other, and have similar outlooks on life. And if I had been presented with the same situation that eventually landed Piper in prison, I can't say for sure that I wouldn't have fallen prey to peer pressure like she did.

What Kerman does a magical job with is extending that similarity one step further: if I can see myself in Piper's shoes, and she comes to see herself in the shoes of every other prisoner at Danbury Federal Correctional Institution, then I'm really not all that different from those women, either. Kerman does a great job telling the story of her year, and learning lessons both about paying for the crime she committed and about the things she had in common with the people around her, and eventually turns her narrative into a call for certain corrections within the prison system. It's an important and heartfelt book, and, like most books, so much better than the filmed adaptation (although I still plan to binge on season two one of these days).

Monday, August 4, 2014

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Title: All the Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
Content Alert: some violence and swearing

A couple of months ago, I heard Anthony Doerr interviewed on RadioWest about All the Light We Cannot See. I had been sort of on the fence about reading the novel, since I feel like I've reached a saturation point with World War II novels with young female protagonists, but after I listened to him talk about his process (the book took ten years to write) and about some of the subtler things in the novel (the way light plays such a prominent part in the narrative, for example), I decided to read it.

The story centers on two characters. Marie-Laure is the blind daughter of the chief locksmith of the Museum of Natural History in Paris. When the Germans come to occupy Paris, the pair takes refuge with an eccentric old uncle in Brittany, and they bring along with them what might be one of the greatest treasures the museum holds-- an enormous diamond reputed to be cursed. Werner is German orphan who is unusually bright and fascinated by radios. He escapes the fate of most of the boys in town (the mines) by attending a Nazi youth academy, and eventually they capitalize his aptitude for fixing and building radios by assigning him to track Resistance radio signals. Eventually, and briefly, the two stories come together, and then, all too soon, their time together ends.

I think it's fascinating to hear an author's perspective on a novel. If I had read the book without hearing Doerr talk about it, I don't think I would have enjoyed it nearly as much. It's a ruminative book, one that feels like it took ten years to write. Every word is considered and measured. And while it's a war story, it doesn't feel action-packed. But I found myself falling in love with Marie-Laure, as Doerr explained her, and there was a palpable sense of the spaces she inhabited in Brittany. I didn't feel that the Werner story was quite as compelling, but the modern-day resolution was absolutely lovely. I think All the Light We Cannot See was definitely the most beautiful book I've read this summer, and Marie-Laure is a character who will stay with me for a long time.