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.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Review: The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

Title: The Sky is Everywhere
Author: Jandy Nelson
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Personal Copy
Content Alert: Swearing, acknowledgement of teen sex

Seventeen-year-old Lennie has always been okay with being second. She's the second clarinet in band at her Northern California high school, the one her best friend is always encouraging to live a little, and the younger, quieter of two sisters being raised by their uncle and grandmother. When her older sister Bailey suddenly dies, Lennie doesn't know how to grieve, doesn't know how to be alone, and feels uncomfortable with all of the attention she's getting. To make matters worse, she's feeling attracted to two boys, Bailey's boyfriend Toby, maybe the only person on earth who understands how Lennie feels, and Joe, the gorgeous French horn player who just moved to town and doesn't understand that Lennie is supposed to be a sidekick. The Sky is Everywhere is a hard, lovely story about a girl who's trying to put her own mind back together after it's been rocked in the worst way possible.

I think most people who read my blog know how much I loved Nelson's 2014 second book, I'll Give You the Sun, when I read it last year (The Sky is Everywhere is her first book). Annie is reading it now, and it's all I can do not to go into her room every day and grill her about what she thinks about it. So the bar was set high, really, really high, for The Sky is Everywhere. Did it succeed? In many ways, I think it did. Nelson does a great job making Lennie a rounded character, someone I felt like I knew and understood. She does incredibly stupid things during the course of the novel and matures a lot in the process. The supporting cast of characters is also pretty great, and the way Nelson intersperses dozens of poems and notes that Lennie writes to Bailey in the months after her death (and finally ties them into the narrative) is also lovely. It wasn't quite as moving for me as I'll Give You the Sun, but I think that was mainly because I loved the way she focused on the brother-sister relationship in that novel, and redeeming people who thought themselves too broken for redemption, while The Sky is Everywhere is more of a totally rocking, very thoughtful, teen romance.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Book Review: The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson

Title: The Bookseller
Author: Cynthia Swanson
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: A pretty clean read, as far as I remember. Maybe one very PG-rated married sex scene.

Kitty lives a quiet life in Denver in the early 60s. She never married, and she owns a failing bookshop with her best friend Frieda. One night, she goes to sleep and wakes up in a life where she's a suburban housewife known as Katharyn, married to Lars, and the mother of triplets. Katharyn's life is a lot more complicated than Kitty's, and she's both drawn to the richness of it and a bit overwhelmed by it as well. Then she learns that a tragedy has taken place in Katharyn's life that she would do anything to avoid, and the reader can't help but be drawn in by the contrasts between the two lives.

I can't say much about The Bookseller without giving away some big spoilers, but I will say that it was a delightful read for me. I plowed through it on vacation, where I may have sat a little longer than I needed to with my sleeping kids because I didn't want to put the story down. It has a lovely twist that was quite thought-provoking for me, and as a busy mother I understand the pull Kitty feels where she both wants Katharyn's life to be hers and she wants to retain the independence she has as a single woman. The Bookseller would be a fantastic beach read for summer. Just make sure someone else has an eye on the kids.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Book Review: The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

Title: The Girl With All the Gifts
Author: M.R. Carey
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: Swearing, violence

When we meet Melanie, we know she's a little girl who is living all alone in a cell. Every weekday she's strapped into a wheelchair and wheeled to a classroom in the basement of the bunker where she lives with a bunch of other kids. On weekends she's left alone for the entire time. Every so often one of the kids disappears permanently, and Melanie soon learns that she and the other kids are special-- they have been infected by the spores that turned most of the population into zombies, but for some reason they are still sentient-- sentient, and deadly.

Oh my gosh, I am not a fan of the zombie thriller. Ed has watched every single episode of The Walking Dead, and when the first season came to a close, I told him he would be going to Fort Benning without me. If I had known that the main characters of The Girl With All the Gifts would essentially be Michonne and one of her walker pets, I never would have downloaded the book. But I did, so I read it, and by the time I realized what Melanie was, I was too invested in her perspective to put it down. The first part of the story, where we learn what Melanie is and how lonely her life is, and the final few chapters, where we learn about her potential, completely redeemed what was otherwise just Rick, Michonne, that creepy scientist from the NIH, and some other disposable guy fighting off the other humans and the walkers. Carey does a lovely job showing the complications of various perspectives-- in their minds, all of these people had good reasons for their actions, which often came into conflict. The Girl With All the Gifts was not my cup of tea at all, but if it's yours, this one was done very well.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Book Review: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

Title: In the Unlikely Event
Author: Judy Blume
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Some sex, some swearing

Within a three-month period in 1951-1952, there were three major commercial plane crashes in Elizabeth, New Jersey (near Newark airport). Author Judy Blume was an eighth-grader in Elizabeth at the time, and in her most recent novel, Blume fictionalizes that experience. Although In the Unlikely Event is told from the point of view of more than a dozen characters, the one at the center of the story is Miri Ammerman, a ninth-grader who experiences first love and lots of changes within her family and friend group in the months that the planes are falling from the skies.

When I was twelve, Judy Blume was my favorite author. She taught me all about periods, mastrubation, sex, scoliosis, party lines and divorce, and I read her books over and over again. I loved her so much back then, probably because she seemed to trust young girls with hard topics. All of those happy feelings came rushing back in In the Unlikely Event. Miri Ammerman could be Margaret or Deenie, and Blume is still a master of all of the insecurities that young girls feel. There are lots of voices in this story, and lots of threads to keep track of, but I found that after a hundred pages or so, it wasn't hard to keep things straight. What was hard was turning off my audiobook long enough to engage with my family.

Book Review: Never Never by Colleen Hoover and Tarryn Fisher

Title: Never Never (Never Never #1)
Author: Colleen Hoover and Tarryn Fisher
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: Teen sex and swearing

A girl gains consciousness in a New Orleans high school, but she doesn't know who she is or why she is there. The reader follows along as she tries to piece together her history, and she quickly learns that her name is Charlie, her best friend since childhood/boyfriend is Silas, and that he has also lost his memory. Together they try to piece together their history, which involves warring families a la Romeo and Juliet, before time runs out and their memories reset.

I've never read anything by either Colleen Hoover or Tarryn Fisher, but I understand that both are popular YA romance authors. Never Never is written in a similar way to Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist or Will Grayson, Will Grayson, where one author writes for each POV character. I found both Charlie and Silas to be interesting and engaging, and both authors definitely know how to propel a story forward and keep their audience interested. Many readers are disappointed by the fact that these novellas (the first two are 150 pages apiece) constitute a whole story over the three books, but don't stand alone as individual stories. There is no resolution of a minor story arc in this novel, with the ultimate resolution coming at the end of the trilogy. Instead, there's a big cliffhanger, and bam! see you in the next book. Of course, the books were published as $7.99 paperbacks or $2.99 Kindle reads, so the entire series is not that much more expensive than a single brick of a novel. I'm not sure what the rationale was for publishing the story this way, but it means a little loss of momentum for me as a reader since I didn't dive right into the second book immediately.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Book Review: Spring Muslin by Georgette Heyer

Title: Sprig Muslin
Author: Georgette Heyer
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: A clean read

A bachelor in his thirties who lost his true love during their engagement a decade earlier, Sir Gareth Ludlow is on his way to propose to Lady Hester, a woman he admires but does not love. He gets sidetracked by Amanda, a young girl running away from her grandfather in hopes that her flight will somehow convince him that she should be allowed to marry the naval officer she loves. Amanda is full of stories and hijinks, and once Sir Gareth gets rejected by Lady Hester, he embarks on a quest to return Amanda safely to her family, which proves more difficult than he could ever have imagined.

While Georgette Heyer is the unrivaled champion of the Regency Romance, Sprig Muslin was not my favorite of her novels. Part of it was undoubtedly that I was listening while trying to get ready to go on vacation, so I kept walking out of the room and missing parts of the book. Part was that I was more annoyed than charmed by Amanda. Mostly, it was because I had very strong feelings about who Sir Gareth should end up with at the conclusion of the novel (NOT the sixteen-year-old he had run off to save) and I was seriously anxious that Heyer was going to take the story down the path of an April-September romance. I think I would enjoy the book a lot more upon a second read. The madcap ending reminded me of a Shakespearean comedy, with all of the silliness and all of the convenient matchmaking.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Review: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

Title: The Turner House
Author: Angela Flournoy
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Some sex, language

Cha-Cha and Lelah are the bookends of the Turner family. Cha-Cha, the oldest of Viola and Francis's thirteen children, is old enough to be Lelah's father, and he often acts like he is the patriarch of the family. He's capable and responsible, makes decisions on behalf of the entire sibling group, and he sees ghosts. Lelah's sneaking around in the abandoned family home in a part of Detroit that has gone to seed after losing her job due to her gambling addiction and being evicted from her apartment. Detroit itself is a major player in this story, with its prosperity of the forties and fifties and blighted state of the last couple of decades playing strongly into the characters actions and motivations.

As someone who wants to write about Mormons, one of the challenges I frequently encounter when I'm thinking about crafting a story is how to write about big families. Sometimes it seems like there are just too many people to keep track of to make a story work well. While Flournoy solves this problem in part by focusing mainly on Cha Cha and Lelah (the round characters), she does include some of the other siblings (the sister who had gastric bypass, the brother who was in the military). She writes in the third-person, bouncing back and forth from Arkansas in the 1940s to present-day Detroit and all the places in between, but I didn't find myself feeling confused by the narrative, so that encourages me not to avoid complex storytelling from many points of view. Reading The Turner House also made me realize that although I think I've read widely, I haven't read nearly enough
contemporary stories by African Americans featuring African Americans (the graduate seminar I took fifteen years ago no longer feels relevant). Flournoy does a lovely job featuring some of the problems endemic to Detroit. The ghosts Cha-Cha sees and the ghost of their home, now underwater and empty, feel like natural parallels. All in all, a great read with lovely, flawed, generous characters.
Viola should feel proud of her posterity.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Book Review: Slim by Design by Brian Wansink

Title: Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life
Author: Brian Wansink
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: A clean read

Did you know that how you organize your kitchen may have an impact on how much you eat? Or that where you sit in a buffet restaurant may play a role in your ability to stay slim? In Slim by Design, Brian Wansink, a nutrition science professor at Cornell and a former executive director for the USDA, talks practical strategies for avoiding mindless eating, involving things like eating dinner off smaller plates, putting healthy snacks at the front and center in the refrigerator, and keeping the counter free of snack foods and cereal boxes.

I haven't read Wansink's Mindless Eating, but I plan to read it after reading Slim by Design. It appears to the be practical application of his previous book, and is full of good advice. He talks, for example, about how to make over your kitchen so you're not snacking all the time without thinking about it. While my kitchen received a good score based on his strategies, I think I would need to get rid of a half dozen kids who constantly leave brownies on the counter. Sometimes the writing is overly cutesy, and some of the suggestions require a little too much work for practical implementation. The second half of the book deals with how restaurants and school kitchens can become slim by design, which is interesting, but don't have much of a practical application in my life.   .

Book Review: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

Title: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Author: Daniel James Brown
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Maybe some swearing, but I don't remember much

While The Boys in the Boat is the story of a bunch of young men from the University of Washington and their coach, and the obstacles they overcame to win a gold medal in crew in the 1936 Olympics, it's really the story of Joe Rantz, a boy whose mother died when he was a baby, who was abandoned by his father and stepmother and left to raise himself while he was still a child, who managed to survive, on his own at the heights of the Great Depression, and who found himself rowing crew for the University of Washington, not, as many of his teammates did, to have a fun extracurricular activity, but so he could afford to attend school and get an education. By the end of the story, while I was rooting for all eight boys in the boat, it was Rantz who had captured my heart.

Captured my heart. That's an interesting phrase to use when writing about a nonfiction book. This week we were at my in-laws' house for Father's Day, and the women in the family were talking about books. My sister-in-law agreed that although David McCullough's John Adams was an important book, it was also a fairly boring book. While I would never fault McCullough's writing or scholarship, I find myself gravitating more to nonfiction books that I might classify as "storytelling history." I was first introduced to these kind of books with Erik Larson, Bill Bryson, and Laura Hillenbrand-- you know, these are the books you want to read for the story, and they keep you reading even though they're nonfiction. Daniel James Brown belongs to this class of writers (and I think it's great company). I realize that I am probably the last person in America to read The Boys in the Boat, but if I'm wrong, it's worth a read for sure. I listened to it while I was running the Ogden Marathon, and it was definitely engrossing enough to keep me reading, even when the running was not fun.

Book Review: The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer

Title: The Children's Crusade
Author: Ann Packer
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Format: Kindle
Content Alert: Some swearing

Bill Blair, a pediatrician from Michigan, came to Northern California after his service in the Korean War and fell in love. He fell in love with a place, actually, and chose a local woman, Penny, to share it with. As the years pass, they raise their four children to adulthood in an idyllic home near Palo Alto, but their relationship flounders. Years later, after Bill dies and Penny moves to New Mexico, this relationship colors the way the adult children live their lives.

I saw one reviewer say that The Children's Crusade reminded them a lot of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. While I think that's true, I think that Franzen's characters were generally unlikeable, while I saw things to like in all of the Blairs. I love that Bill is a wonderful, very involved father (in an era when many fathers were not) and a caring doctor, but not a particularly empathetic husband. It would be easy to write Penny off as uninvolved or inflexible (she never quite gets over getting pregnant with a fourth child and retreats to a backyard art studio instead of engaging with her kids), but instead I recognized that I feel a lot of those same impulses. Packer also does a lovely job fleshing out the lives of all four children, and of making the place the Blairs loved so well a central character in the novel.