Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Book Review: The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North

Title: The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
Author: Anna North
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Sex, swearing, suicide

Filmmaker Sophie Stark let few people truly know her. A relentless, often selfish and abrasive visionary, her modus operandi was to obsess over someone else's life, borrow pieces of it, and present it as a film. This method worked over and over for her-- with the star basketball player of her college team, with the girl in NYC whose yarn about growing up in West Virginia she turned into a feature film, and with the story her husband told her about his mother's life. This unflinching reshaping of reality to conform to her vision has devastating consequences in her relationships, and Sophie ends up attracting and repelling the people who are closest to her.

It's no secret from the title of the book what eventually happens to Sophie Stark. The Life and Death of Sophie Stark just shows how she got there. It's interesting, because at times I thought she was truly genius, and at other times I thought she was simply weird or downright crazy. The mind and motivations of this character don't resonate with my experience, and I think that might be what made this read so compelling. There's a delicious, satisfying twist at the end of the book that makes it entirely worth the read.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Book Review: Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson

Title: Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship
Author: Robert Kurson
Enjoyment Rating:
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Maybe some swearing. A pretty clean read.

John Chatterton is a world famous diver. John Mattera, a New Jersey tough guy with connections to the mob and a mind for history. Together, they decided to find The Golden Fleece, the famed ship captained by the infamous pirate Joseph Bannister. They narrow their search to a bay off the coast of the Dominican Republic, but can they find the ship before the Dominican government revokes their rights to search? Robert Kurson's Pirate Hunters follows their quest.

I've never been a huge fan of pirates or scuba diving, so this book wasn't a natural fit for me. However, it came highly recommended from a number of sources, so I picked it up. I found it a bit of a struggle at first. The guys went to one place, then another then another, where they dived around a bit. They met some bad guys, they talked to some historians, repeat, repeat, repeat. Then, a little more than halfway through, Kurson spent time giving the reader background on Chatterton and Mattera, and now that I could connect with them as individuals, I was hooked. The story started to pick up quite a bit too, and I found the second half of Pirate Hunters pretty great.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Book Review: Rising Strong by Brene Brown

Title: Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution.
Author: Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: A little bit of swearing

I had never heard of Brene Brown until a few weeks ago, when shout-outs for her new book Rising Strong started showing up in my Instagram feed. Without knowing anything about her or what the book was about, I decided to use my September Audible credits to buy it. I trusted those friends that much. It turns out that Rising Strong is the companion book to Daring Greatly. In Daring Greatly, Brown encourages people to take risks and be vulnerable, and in Rising Strong, Brown talks about how to emerge from the inevitable failures of life.

I'm a little torn on the audio version of Daring Greatly. On the one hand, I think there's so much to be gained to hearing this book in Brown's voice, because her enthusiasm is infectious. On the other hand, I wish I had a hard copy of this book to mark the heck out of. I wanted to underline things so I could come back to them easily. So I would recommend and old-fashioned paper copy of this girl. I love the way that Brown practices what she preaches here and examines her own failures. She looks into the failures in her life (and in the lives of people around her) and shows how we grow when we're willing to admit when we're wrong and take the consequences for it. I've already ordered Rising Strong and I'm eager to immerse myself in that one as well.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Book Review: Days of Awe by Lauren Fox

Title: Days of Awe
Author: Lauren Fox
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: ARC
Content Alert: Some sex and swearing

In the last year, Isabel Moore's life has fallen apart: her best friend died under mysterious circumstances, she and her husband separated, and her only daughter morphed from a lovable child into a preteen she barely recognizes. Isabel is still haunted about all of the babies she lost, and she wonders if she'll ever feel normal again.

Days of Awe is a book about grief, forgiveness and understanding, and I felt that the book was at its strongest when Isabel was trying to figure out her relationship with Josie. Fox does a nice job going back in time to scenes when Josie, who was complicated and fractious and pretty difficult, was alive and juxtaposing those with Isabel's present. I felt that the story of the end of Isabel's marriage was less strong. There didn't seem to be anything cataclysmic that brought the couple to divorce (which I think is realistic) but the possibility of their reconciliation (which they hinted to several times early in the novel) wasn't resolved. Her new budding new relationship wasn't entirely satisfying either, mostly because Isabel hinders herself so much. I think the character development in Days of Awe is realistic and well-done, but that didn't always make it enjoyable.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Title: A God in Ruins
Author: Kate Atkinson
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Wartime violence, sex, swearing

If you loved Kate Atkinson's Life After Life (the story of Ursula Todd, an English girl born in 1910 who gets to live her life over and over again until she gets it right) like I loved Life After Life, then you probably anticipated the companion story, A God in Ruins, as much as I did. While Life After Life was full of sorrow, whimsy, and hijinks (and ended with a fist-pumping cheer from me), A God in Ruins felt wholly different in tone. While Ursula Todd's life had more and more possibilities each time she lived it, Teddy Todd's (Ursula's younger brother) narrative feels very straightforward in contrast. Teddy goes off to war, where he's an RAF bomber (where the average life span was about two weeks after being called into action), who returns home from the war to marry the girl next door, father a child, and life a quiet life in York. There are the usual domestic tragedies, but all in all, it's a good life.

I have a friend who was reading A God in Ruins and asked if I'd read it yet. She then told me that she found the book underwhelming, especially after Life After Life. I was really glad that I talked to her before delving into the story myself, because it tempered my expectations enough that I could appreciate the story for what it was. Yes, this story is long, and at times feels a little mundane (although expertly told). There were times when I almost gave up on it, but I persisted, and I'm glad, because the last few pages are knock your socks off-- they reframed the previous 460 and made the whole read feel worth it.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Book Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Title: The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Author: Richard Flanagan
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: War, sex, language-- it's definitely a book for adults

Dorrigo Evans is a fine doctor, although what would have been his crowing achievement as a surgeon, a new cancer surgery, didn't work out. Although he's been married for many years, he's a complete failure as a husband, and a minor failure as a father, a role that seems almost forgotten as he nears the end of his life. He's been a serial adulterer forever. He once knew true love. And a long, long time ago, he led a group of POWs in Burma during World War II. For that, the people of Australia consider him one of their greatest heroes.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a complicated book. The narration, which goes back from the 1910s and forward to the 1990s with many stops in between, isn't always easy to follow. Dorrigo's motivations are often unclear as well. Why does he act so nobly on behalf of his men, dying by the dozens as they work to build a train line, but so ignobly at home? Does the loss of one love kill all other opportunities for love? What purpose does sex serve when it doesn't bring two people together? The Narrow Road to the Deep North is beautifully written and very thought-provoking. There's a scene toward the end of the novel when he sees a woman he hasn't seen in years which is possibly the loveliest and most painful thing I've read in my life. It's not an easy read, but it as a rewarding one.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Book Review: The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Title: The Light of the World
Author: Elizabeth Alexander
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: This book digs deeply into grief and loss

Poet and Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander expected April 4, 2012 to be a regular evening, juggling work and child care of her two boys, Solomon and Simon, with her husband, Ficre. Then, the bottom dropped out of their lives when Ficre, so healthy and full of life, suddenly died of a heart attack while exercising on the treadmill. The Light of the World is an elegy in prose, in which Alexander shows how Ficre, an Ethiopian painter and chef, brought color and spice to her life, and how she and her boys mourned and lived in the time just after his death.

I listened to The Light of the World in less than a day, and I would have listened to Alexander talk about Ficre and her love for him for ten times as long if she had written more. This isn't a whitewashed love story-- she's open and honest and raw about the imperfections of their life together, but that doesn't diminish the story-- it endeared me to them. I loved the inside view Alexander gave us into her life-- it takes a brave author to be willing to expose the private aspects of life, especially and love and grief and raising teenagers, and Alexander shows herself both wise and brave in The Light of the World.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Book Review: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Title: The One and Only Ivan
Author: Katherine Applegate
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: A clean read, perfect for family road trips

Ivan the gorilla lives at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall, where he's the star attraction. Or at least he once was, back when he was little and cute. These days, the mall is struggling, and Ivan, along with Stella, an elephant with a painful foot infection, and Bob, a dog, are sort of neglected by day, then trotted out several times a day for a show. When Ruby, a baby elephant, shows up at the mall, the trio soon discover that she was poached, separated from her family and secretly shipped out of Africa. This scenario reminds Ivan of his own childhood, and he becomes determined to find a better future for Ruby, doing his best to communicate with the sympathetic humans around him. The One and Only Ivan shows that big dreams are sometimes rewarded with big payoffs, especially when they're motivated by love.

Honestly, it's a little bit difficult to get comfortable in the mind of Ivan the gorilla. Part of the reason is because he's depressed and unhappy after spending many years subject to the whims of Mack, the man who raised Ivan after he was separated from his family and treated him as part of the family until he grew too big. But I persevered with this story, and found it sweet and heartwarming. Ivan does what we would all do for our families-- he sacrifices and tries to make their lives the best they can be. Although I really enjoyed listening to the story, apparently the paper version of the book includes illustrations (Ivan's big dream to save Ruby is an art project) and I think that having them would have been beneficial to the story.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Book Review: Malice at the Palace by Rhys Bowen

Title: Malice at the Palace (Her Royal Spyness #9)
Author: Rhys Bowen
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Although the book opens with a sex scene, it's actually a pretty clean read

If you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you know that I'm a sucker for Rhys Bowen's Her Royal Spyness books. The series focuses on Georgie, a lesser royal, trying to scrape by in London with no man and no means of support in the 1930s, and usually ending up solving some kind of major crime, sometimes despite herself. The nine books in the series have ranged from delightful and refreshing to rushed and sloppy, and Malice at the Palace is one of the better books in the series. The queen (Georgie's great-aunt) asks her to live at Kensington Palace to act as a companion to Princess Marina of Greece during the weeks before her marriage to Prince George (George and Marina's were actual people whose wedding took place in November 1934). When Georgie discovers a body on the palace grounds her first night there, and learns that the dead woman was one of many who had relationships with the prince, her loyalties are torn-- does she want to know who killed this woman?

I don't know if I've ever stated this on the blog, but in my mind, I've equated the Her Royal Spyness and the Maisie Dobbs series. Right now, they take place at a similar place and time in history (London in the 1930s), and both involve female sleuths. I've always thought as Her Royal Spyness as Maisie Dobbs lite. And while this may be true, maybe now it's only because Maisie Dobbs has taken such a dour turn. While Georgie was pretty silly in the early books, she has matured, as have many of the characters (with the exception of the infuriating Queenie, her maid), and this book in particular feels on point historically, especially as it takes on the issue of unwed mothers during the period. Malice at the Palace is a pretty fun read, with a little more gravitas than some of its predecessors.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Book Review: Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Title: Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery
Author: Henry Marsh
Enjoyment Rating; ****
Source: Hardback Copy
Content Alert: Possibly some swearing

Henry Marsh is an eminent London brain surgeon who writes about his experiences in Do No Harm. Marsh delves into individual cases, devoting a chapter to each, and talks about what he's learned, both in the operating theater and in life, from each one.

If Derek Shepherd is your idea of a brain surgeon, get ready for those assumptions to be tested by Henry Marsh. While I do think someone has to have a certain amount of self-confidence in order to cut into someone's head and take out pieces of their brain (especially when that person is alive), and Marsh does occasionally come off as self-important, he tends to focus a lot more on his failures here-- the cases that went wrong, the people that he tried to fix but couldn't, the cases he shouldn't have taken. Do No Harm feels a lot like a catalogue of regrets, and I think it takes a certain amount of self-awareness and humility to be able to write about your failures. This book was illuminating in illustrating some of the downfalls of the NHS in Great Britain, and the behind-the-scenes look at surgical protocols. It was also very humanizing to see Marsh talk about his relationships with patients and their families, especially when things did not go as planned.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Book Review: What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman

Title: What She Left Behind
Author: Ellen Marie Wiseman
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Psychological abuse, some swearing

Izzy is seventeen, and has been living with relatives or foster parents for a decade, since her mother killed her father and was sent to prison. When her newest foster parents get Izzy involved in a history project at a recently-closed mental hospital, Izzy gets captivated by the story of Clara, an apparently healthy eighteen-year-old girl who was institutionalized in 1929. Through coming to understand Clara, Izzy gains insight into her mother's motivations, and begins to gain some hope for her own future.

Wiseman does a lot of things right in What She Left Behind: both Izzy and Clara are interesting and complicated, and their alternating narratives are nicely balanced and subtly parallel. The book is also painstakingly researched, and the view of mental hospitals in the mid-20th century is pretty heartbreaking.  What I didn't like about the novel is that many of the supporting characters are very flat. We never really understand what motivates Clara's parents to lie about her mental state and have her forcibly committed. I mean, we understand that they're upset that she has fallen in love with the wrong kind of man, but who has their daughter put into a mental hospital (basically worse than a jail) for that offense? I didn't find their actions believable. I was similarly annoyed by the bullies at Izzy's school, who seem in the thrall of a single mean girl (why?) and whose offenses go way beyond just razzing the new girl. I could go on with the staff of the mental hospital as well. If the characters were more nuanced, or at least their horrible actions were more clearly explained, I think I would have liked this book a lot better.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Book Review: Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

Title: Modern Romance
Author: Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Holy cow, I must be getting old, because it seemed like every other word in this book was the f-word. And if the title didn't clue you in, this book is basically all about sex.

Comedian Aziz Ansari and sociologist Eric Klinenberg look at the ways that dating and falling in love have changed in the modern era, focusing a lot on how technology (texting, online dating, tinder, and the like) and a prolonged period of early adulthood have changed relationships. Much of the research for this book was collected during Ansari's standup routines over the last few years.

First of all, the content of the book is fascinating. I met my husband in 1993, when we were both freshmen in college, and we got married in 1997, about a week before I got my first cell phone. It's amazing to me that although I'm not all that much older than Ansari, my dating experience could not have been more different. Ed and I met when we were eighteen, decided we liked each other, and the rest was history. According to Ansari, dating is a lot more complicated than that now, and social media and online dating muddy the waters and add some anxiety to what is, for many, an already anxious process. Ansari actually had members of the audience come up on stage and read their texts from potential romantic partners to the audience so everyone could give them feedback on subtle messages and subtext. Brilliant, right?

I've spent the summer watching Parks and Recreation, at the request of my teenage daughter. Unlike Annie, who is on her third watch of the show and can bust through an entire season in a weekend, I'm a little slower. I'm halfway through season four, and I go through phases where I adore Tom Haverford and where I loathe Tom Haverford, played by Aziz Ansari. I know that Tom Haverford and Aziz Ansari are not the same person, but in Modern Romance, I got the sense that Aziz Ansari is someone Tom Haverford would like to become, if he could get out of Pawnee, Indiana and into standup comedy clubs all over the world. I guess what I'm saying here is that I think I would have liked Modern Romance better if it had a little less Tom Haverford in it. A little less smooth music, a little less jokeyness, a little less f-bomb. The dating stuff? Fascinating. But Ansari plays the audiobook with a very heavy hand.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Book Review: A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

Title: A Song for Issy Bradley
Author: Carys Bray
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Death of a child, some mild language

One morning, four-year-old Issy Bradley wakes up feeling sick. Her dad is gone being the bishop of their ward in England, and their mom, busy with a birthday party for one of her four children, is preoccupied and doesn't register the seriousness of her daughter's illness, and by the next day, Issy, the baby of the family has been lost to spinal meningitis. In the following weeks, each member of the family deals with their grief in separate ways-- one brother hoping for a miracle, another turning to petty crime. Their mother, Claire, is wracked by guilt and finds herself unable to function, while their father, Ian, functions beautifully, never taking a step back from his role as the shepherd of his family and his ward. He must endure, especially when everyone else seems to be falling apart.

I feel pretty conflicted about A Song for Issy Bradley. The story is gripping, and Issy's death definitely hooks the reader into wanting to read more. Bray does a lovely job with the pacing, and I appreciated seeing multiple perspectives throughout the story. However, the adult Mormon characters, which the exception of Claire, all feel like caricatures. There's Ian, whose singular focus on living the letter of the law often results in completely ignoring the spirit of the law and making the people in his family resentful. The stake president, who isn't as ardent as Ian, comes off as a hypocrite. The members of the ward seem either needy or nuts. It's no wonder the family is in a state of spiritual crisis. These aren't the Mormons I know-- the Mormons I know, for the most part, are complicated and genuinely trying to do their best, but aren't nearly as inflexible as Bray presents them in the novel. While I really liked the story (and loved the ending), and strongly identified with Claire's character, ultimately I felt that Bray spent too much time grinding her ax to write with nuance in A Song for Issy Bradley.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Book Review: Real Moms by Lisa Valentine Clark

Title: Real Moms: Making It Up As We Go
Author: Lisa Valentine Clark
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean read

Back when I was an English major at BYU, there was a girl in a lot of my classes who was all the things I wished I was-- she was beautiful, confident, smart, and hilarious. I know this because she commented frequently in class and because I also knew she was in the "The Garrens," a comedy troupe on campus. So when I saw that she'd written a book, I thought, "why not?"

Twenty years later, Lisa is still adorable, smart, and funny. The things she has to say in Real Moms about parenting five kids are not putting herself in the position of a parenting expert, but as someone trying to draw lessons from real life. It was a fine, fun read, as long as the reader isn't expecting to be more than entertained. The book is pretty short and I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but several weeks later, I barely remember anything other than that there are plenty of ways to be a good mom, that motherhood requires improvisation, that moms shouldn't lose themselves to their kids, and that hard work is more important than natural smarts.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Book Review: Bet Me by Jennifer Cruise

Title: Bet Me
Author: Jennifer Cruise
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A sexy read, for sure!

Minerva is a cranky actuary who's trying to drown her sorrows with girlfriends at a bar one night when she overhears her ex making a bet with Cal, the hottest guy in the bar: that even Cal can't get Min into bed by the end of 30 days. The wager? $10,000. Cal doesn't want to make the bet, but due to a series of misunderstandings, but Min and the ex think the bet is on. She's understandably even crankier, but somehow, Cal and Min manage to fall for each other, despite the fact that she is decidedly NOT sexy, despite the fact that she's starving herself to fit into a dress for her sister's wedding and won't eat anything, despite both of their horrible families. If you like sexual tension and find food erotic, this is the book for you. If you like sexual tension and a girl who finally starts to see herself as sexy, this is the book for you. If you like sexual tension and hot guys, this is the book for you. Basically, if you like sexual tension and just about anything, this is a great read.

I thought Bet Me was a whole lot of fun. I especially liked seeing Minerva grow into herself and start seeing that all of the things she saw as liabilities (especially her body), other people could see as assets. I was sad when Min and Cal's story ended, because they were great fun to get to hang around with for as long as it lasted.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Book Review: Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

Title: Elsewhere
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A pretty clean read

Liz Hall is fifteen-- never been kissed, never driven a car, when she runs a stop sign on her bike, gets plowed over by a taxi, and dies. Soon, she finds herself in Elsewhere, which is basically an afterlife. Life in Elsewhere is pretty much exactly like life on Earth (people have jobs, live in houses with flush toilets, and obey the laws of the land) except that residents of Elsewhere age backwards. So Liz has fifteen years in Elsewhere, and when her time is up, she'll be a baby, ready to be reborn on Earth (strange concept right?-- are you still with me). Liz feels pretty gypped by the fact that her life is over before it really began, and after spending some time mourning and trying to communicate with people back home (strictly forbidden, btw) she gets on with her (after) life, finds a job and a boyfriend, and works at figuring things out.

I adored Zevin's novel The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, so I think my expectations for this book were quite high, even when I learned that this was YA speculative fiction (that's what you'd call it, right?). Elsewhere is totally unlike AJ Fikry, and it felt more like an experiment with a place, and what kinds of interesting twists on our life Zevin could make in Elsewhere than a great story about Liz and the people she loves. It's a fine read, but not one that kept me up in the night wanting more.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Book Review: Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Title: Luckiest Girl Alive
Author: Jessica Knoll
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: This one is pretty dark-- violent, non-consensual sex, consensual sex, swearing

Ani seems to have the perfect life-- she's an editor at a magazine in Manhattan, she lives with her stockbroker fiance, she has a perfect body and perfect clothes and is planning the perfect wedding. But the veneer of perfection is thin, and underneath that perfect exterior is Tiffani FaNelli, the girl she once was-- the chubby insecure girl whose mom talked too loud and whose parents never had enough money for her to really fit in at her private school in Philly. Although Ani would say she has risen above her past (and we learn more about the dark secrets of that past as Luckiest Girl Alive unfolds), but she is not happy. In fact, the book opens with visions of Ani stabbing that perfect fiance with knives from their wedding registry.

I know that Luckiest Girl Alive is getting mixed reviews. Ani is an unreliable narrator, and she's pretty unlikeable too. While Knoll worked as a writer for the same kinds of magazines that Ani writes for, I don't think she made Ani unlikeable by coincidence. She name drops. She's obsessed with brands and with keeping herself thin. She's marrying a guy who seems more like an accessory than a partner. All in all, she's kind of a nightmare. She was a nightmare fifteen years ago, when she started at the Bradley School too. But Knoll does a great job making readers interested enough care about his damaged girl, and then lays out a harrowing, totally compelling story of what happened to Ani during that pivotal freshman year. I can't tell too much without giving things away, but this book is full of twists and turns, and deals with issues far more important (like sexual abuse, school violence, and class issues) than having the perfect boots for the season.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Book Review: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

Title: The Royal We
Authors: Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: It's pretty sexy!

We all know the story of Will and Kate. Yes, that Will and Kate. They met in college, they fell in love, they broke up, they reunited, they got engaged, and married in front of more than a billion people. But what if Kate were Bex, an Iowan whose father is famous for inventing a couch that can keep your beer cold? In that case, you'd have The Royal We, which is blatantly Kate Middleton fan fic, and completely and totally fun and engrossing. Cocks and Morgan work together as a pretty great pair (unlike most writing pairs, it was hard to tell who wrote which pieces of the book), and they made Bex and Nick a totally adorable couple, with some interesting stumbling blocks in their relationship. If you're a fan of the royals, or if you grew up thinking that you'd go to England and Will would fall in love with you enough to overlook the fact that you were from the wrong side of the pond, or if you just like a totally engrossing, steamy, funny, (long) romance novel about two great characters, this is a perfect read. It's no longer beach season, but go run yourself a long bath, crack into this one, and pretend it's still summer.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Book Review: Another Day by David Levithan

Title: Another Day
Author: David Levithan
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: teen sex, swearing

In David Levithan's novel Every Day, a teenager, A, wakes up every day in the body of a different person. Sometimes it's a girl, and sometimes it's a boy. Sometimes their life is amazing and sometimes it's the pits. A's life has always been like this, and when he (she?) meets Rhiannon, life changes. A wants to stay in one place, to continue relationships beyond a single day. Every Day is a pretty darn fantastic experiment, and Levithan leaves readers with a fabulous cliffhanger.

So I expected a lot of Another Day. I expected that it would address the cliffhanger. I expected that it would advance the narrative. It doesn't do any of these things. Instead, it rehashes the entire story, this time from Rhiannon's perspective. Although I really liked Every Day, my main criticism of the novel at the time was that it felt a little too self-consciously experimental, like Levithan was prioritizing the "look what I can do" factor instead of focusing on storytelling. And I feel pretty let down by Another Day. I have a short attention span for books in series, and this one lost me. What's the good of a second novel if it doesn't get into the messy middle and advance the story towards the conclusion. While it was interesting to look at things from Rhiannon's perspective, this book felt a little more like one of those books where we get Twilight from Edward's perspective or 50 Shades of Grey from Christian's perspective. In other words, more of a piece geared toward hard-core fans, and I'm not sure the first book merits that all on its own.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Book Review: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

Title: The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy
Author: Jeanne Birdsall
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean read

When I was a little girl, I loved novels in series. Little House gave way to Betsy-Tacy and All of a Kind Family, and then I started reading Anne of Green Gables and read all eight books at least once a year until I left for college. I wanted my daughters to have this same kind of series experience, but sometimes I worry that the world has changed so much in the last thirty years that Betsy-Tacy doesn't have the same allure for my daughters that it did for me, and so far, they haven't shown much interest in any of the books series that I adored as a girl (which is fine, I guess, there are a lots of good books out there, right?). Then I came upon The Penderwicks, which my lovely friend Catherine mentioned in her list of top summer reads for kids in a segment on Channel 5. Maren and I started reading this together, but then she wanted to read something else, so I finished on my own. The Penderwicks is the first book in a series of five about four sisters who take a summer vacation with their widowed father to a cottage on an estate in the Berkshires. They have lots of adventures with Jeffrey, who lives in the big house with his imposing mother.

The Penderwicks is the kind of book that could take place in 1950 or 2015. While Birdsall mentions a computer once, the book feels totally timeless. The girls have the kind of unplugged, roaming adventures that parents think don't really happen any more. I loved the characters of each of the four girls, who are nicely differentiated by the author, and with whom most readers will find someone to identify. I'm definitely hooked-- I want to see where The Penderwicks go from here, and I want to take my kids to a cottage in the mountains without wifi and see what happens.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Book Review: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Title: The Nightingale
Author: Kristin Hannah
Enjoyment Rating:
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Wartime violence, French curse words

Vianne and Isabelle are sisters living at the outbreak of World War II in France. Both bear the scars of their mother's death and their father's subsequent abandonment of them when they were young girls, and while they share a bloodline, they don't seem to share a worldview. Vianne, a wife and mother living in a small village, is concerned primarily with keeping her family safe and protecting her home. Isabelle seeks adventure, and finds it in the Resistance movement, moving into Nazi-occupied Paris right when most Parisians are fleeing the city.

Like many readers, I have a little bit of fatigue when it comes to World War II stories. I feel like I've read a lot of them, and they're all emotionally difficult for me. While The Nightingale is no exception, it's a book that's engaging enough that I wanted to keep reading. Hannah does a lovely job exploring the strengths and weaknesses of Vianne and Isabelle's characters. These are two women who are complicated, who make grave errors due to the ways they view the world, and who have to pay for those errors. It's also a beautiful love story (actually two love stories) and a story of friendship, loss, and forgiveness. Hannah also keeps readers guessing with a third main character (an elderly woman who is hiding her identity and is presumably one of the sisters, but which one?) The Nightingale is the kind of audiobook you want to keep listening to all day long, and would make a really great book club read.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Book Review: The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn

Title: The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School
Author: Kathleen Flinn
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Paperback Copy
Content Alert: Perhaps some mild swearing

American Kathleen Flinn was in her thirties and living the dream of working as an executive in London when she was laid off from her job. In the ultimate case of turning lemons into lemonade, Flinn decided to take the opportunity to change her life and finally move in with the guy she was dating long-distance, while indulging in her lifelong dream of attending Le Cordon Bleu, the world-famous cooking school in Paris. Then she wrote all about it in The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry.

While chef training is notoriously challenging and hazing is seen as part of the experience, Flinn's experience at Le Cordon Bleu is mostly positive, focusing on Paris, friends, and her blossoming romance. Sure, some of the recipes are weird or disgusting, the chefs can be unforgiving and uncompromising, but that's to be expected. This book is more of a love story than a war story. It's definitely one that made me want to get in the kitchen, go to Paris, and nurture love and friendships.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Book Review: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Title: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
Author: Atul Gawande
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Hardback Copy
Content Alert: A clean read

I don't have much up-close and personal experience with death. I can count the number of dead people I've seen on a couple of fingers and I've never been with someone as their spirit passed from this life. Because of Ed's profession, and after watching several of our grandparents undergo a slow decline in quality of life, I do have a fairly clear picture of how I do and don't want the end of my life to look. According to Atul Gawande's important book, Being Mortal, the process of aging and dying has become so separated from most of our daily lives and so messed up by the idea that doctors should prolong life as long as possible, that the end of many people's lives is much more difficult than it may have been in the past.

Gawande delves into personal experience (sharing stories about the deaths of his grandfather, his wife's grandmother and his own father), as well as a wealth of other stories about people in all different kinds of end-of-life care, ranging from hospitals to hospice to living with family to assisted living and nursing homes (or a combination of several of the above). Gawande's mission is to preserve quality of life for people at the end of their lives and to help their families have the support they need to make this happen. The book is engagingly-written and important, and will definitely help readers know about what the options are for end of life care and how they can integrate them into their lives and the lives of people they love.