Friday, October 24, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

I often feel that the books I like the best are ones that I could never have expected.  They're not predictable, they're not typical of any particular genre.  They're just what I was in the mood to read at the moment I was reading, but I could never have said what I was in the mood for.

"We are All Completely Beside Ourselves" by Karen Joy Fowler is one of those novels. It's essentially the story of a family, and of the remarkably complicated and thoughtful narrator's attempts to understand how her unusual upbringing affected her. But this was no ordinary family, you learn along the way.  It's difficult to say more without spoiling the plot.  But I can say this:  Read it. It's amazing. Beautiful,  Thought-provoking.  Poignant.  Funny.

There's a reason this book has won all sorts of acclaim.  It's short-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, it's won a 2014 Pen/Faulkner award, and it's one of the New York Times Book Review's 100 Notable Books of 2013.

I'm not kidding. Add this to your Must Read list.

One more thing:  I've read other books by Karen Joy Fowler, and I wasn't wowed by them. This one, however, I LOVED.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Secret Place

I've read and loved everything by Tana French, so I moved quickly to get her newest novel, The Secret Place, when it came out.  And I wasn't disappointed.  This was another novel that I gave a "5" to on my 1-5 scale.

French's mysteries all involve a murder squad within the Dublin police force, but each features a different detective and each novel stands squarely alone.  French's stories unfold slowly.  There are no gimmicks -- just deep character development and careful plotting.  What I love about French's mysteries is how the place becomes almost an additional character in the story. The setting provides the tone and color for the whole novel in a way that I don't often see in books.

And that was true in The Secret Place, which takes place in a posh girls' boarding school.  There'd been a murder there a year ago, as yet unsolved.  But when the novel begins, one student approaches a detective she remembers because she finds an unsettling reference to the murder on the school's "secret place," a bulletin board where students are encouraged to post whatever anonymous bits they like.  As the detectives investigate how the note came to be there and what it might mean about the murder, they see more and more of the life at the school.  There's the sense of layers being pulled back and revealed as more secrets emerge and characters' relationships emerge.  

The novel actually takes place over the course of one rather long day.  The story was engrossing, and French's writing is skillful and evocative.  But what I especially loved is how the theme of belonging, of fitting in, of how much of yourself it is safe to reveal to the people around you, carries through.  It's explored as the dynamics between the school girls are examined, and it's something the detective himself struggles with as he works to sort out his own role among the detectives.  

This was a rich, deep reading experience. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Wife 22

"Maybe it was those extra five pounds I’d gained. Maybe it was because I was about to turn the same age my mother was when I lost her. Maybe it was because after almost twenty years of marriage my husband and I seemed to be running out of things to say to each other.

But when the anonymous online study called “Marriage in the 21st Century” showed up in my inbox, I had no idea how profoundly it would change my life. It wasn’t long before I was assigned both a pseudonym (Wife 22) and a caseworker (Researcher 101).

And, just like that, I found myself answering questions."

   Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon was quite the thought-provoking novel for me.  I was reading it on what turned out to the last vacation my husband (from whom I am now separated) would take together.  But, rest assured, the novel isn't to blame for that.  But the story of a woman who is thinking about her marriage, and examining why she got married, how she and her husband got together, and where they'd come to years later, resonated strongly with me.  Told from the wife's perspective as she worked her way through the Marriage questionnaire, it was sweet and charming and poignant.  It gave me a lot to think about.  And I think anyone who is married, or who has ever been married, or who isn't but is fascinated by the complexities of marriage, would be intrigued and entertained by this novel.  Me, I loved it.   

ADDED AFTER POSTING:  I was thinking about this book and wondering whether my view of it was affected by the time in my life that I read it, so I just went back and read it again.  And I was quite happy to find that I liked it just as much the second time.  I'd forgotten a lot about this book: how chapters start with funny bits from the narrator's google searches; how the story is interspersed with Alice's answers to the questionnaire questions which reveal so much about her; how Alice's struggle to connect with her teenaged children feels so real; and most of all, how the biggest theme is how important it is in a marriage for each partner to truly see and hear the other.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

We Were Liars

Although I read, and read, and read, it's been some time since I've posted any book reviews here.  I was toying with eliminating this "Books and Reading" adjunct page to my blog altogether, in fact, but decided instead to wake it up and get back to posting regularly here.

In that spirit, I thought I'd start by talking about books I've loved lately.

Today's 5-star book:  We Were Liars by E. Lockhart.

We Were Liars tells the story of four teenagers who have spent their summers on their family's small private island off of Cape Cod.  But things are odd as the novel opens.  Narrator Cadence, one of the four "liars" as they call themselves, has suffered an accident, and over the next two years suffers from migraines and amnesia.  The story follows her return to the island, her reconnecting with various family members, and her trying to remember what happened to her.  It's a twisty but subtle plot, and skillful characterizations throughout.  I didn't realize until after I'd finished it that it is billed as a young adult novel.  Yes, its main character is a teenager.  But the layers of the story and the portrayals of the complexities of family relationships were enormously satisfying to me, and I'm solidly in grown-up territory.

In my 1 to 5 star rating system, I tend not to give many 5 stars.  But this story was so unusual that it was easy to give this my highest rating.  And in case you care, John Green described this novel as "thrilling, beautiful, and blisteringly smart."

Monday, January 21, 2013

Rise and Shine

I've loved Anna Quindlen's essay writing for a long time, but somehow I'd never read any of her novels.  I picked up Rise and Shine at the last library used-book sale, and read it over the last few days.  And I loved it, absolutely loved it.

It's the story of two sisters in New York city, one a famous morning television journalist in the Katie Couric/Diane Sawyer mode, the other a social worker whose days are spent working with mothers and children in crisis.  Narrated by the social worker sister, the story explores the sisters' relationship, life in NYC, motherhood, celebrity, and the roles we take on in our families.  There isn't a complex plot, more of a series of unfolding events that shows each woman evolving and revealing more of who she is at her core.

From the reviews of this book on I see that a lot of readers thought it was mediocre.  That surprised me because I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  Maybe it was a matter of finding the right book at the right time -- sometimes that confluence can make a book feel perfect and delightful it might not have if read at another time -- and I think it has something to do with the fact that I like Quindlen's smart writing and her sense of strong women.

I give it four stars out of five.  


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Vanity Fare

I'm a sucker for those novels about women who chuck their careers to open a restaurant, or who go to visit their ailing grandmothers and end up taking over the town bakery, or who start making bread to release anger after a divorce, and end up as successful bakery owners.  And when I picked up Vanity Fare by Megan Caldwell after spotting it in a local book shop, it sounded to me like it'd be in that vein.   The subtitle is "a novel of lattes, literature, and love."  So what's not to like?

As a quick, light read this was okay.  I think I was expecting more of a woman's journey of discovery, and what this turned out to be was a bit more of a traditional romance novel.  It had its charm, and it was written well. 

The plot? Heroine Molly has been left by her husband, is low on funds, and takes a job doing copywriting for a bakery owned by a handsome chef whose plan is to tie the bakery in with the nearby public library.  The literature tie-in is mainly that Molly write literature-related description of baked goods ... you know, naming menu items things like The Bun Also Rises. A Room of Ones Scone. Of Mousse and Men. Much Ado About Muffins. And the best? Tart of Darkness. 

It was a fun book, in a minor sort of way. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Twelve Clues of Christmas

I like to read Christmas-y books at Christmastime, and so when Amazon's book recommendation genies told me that I might like "The Twelve Clues of Christmas" by Rhys Bowen, I decided to give it a try.  I'd not read any mysteries by this author, but I found myself charmed right away.  "Her royal spyness" is Lady Georgianna Rannoch, a distant relative of the queen's (34th in line for the throne, she reports) and an accidental amateur detective.  (What can one do, when one keeps stumbling across murders?!)  All of this series is set in the 1940's in England, and Georgianna narrates with a tone that reminded me of the breezy charm of Myrna Loy in the Thin Man and the Topper movies. 

In this one, Georgianna is desperate to escape the prospect of spending the holidays with her brother and sister-in-law in the drafty ancestral Scottish castle, and takes a job as a social activities leader at a country house in a small village where the house's owner is taking in paying guests to provide them the proper English country experience.  Meanwhile, a series of seemingly unrelated and accidental deaths to local villagers starts up -- one a day -- and Georgianna sets out to sort out why. There is much amusing commentary on the different classes of guests and their reactions to the holiday traditions, and of course reading about the Christmas activities is quite entertaining. 

This wasn't a particularly twisty plot but it had a lot of amusing turns.  It was the perfect enjoyable and well-written story for post-Christmas light reading.  I'll be hunting down others by this author.