Sunday, November 30, 2014

We Are Called to Rise

by Laura McBride
Nov 6-24, 2014

I can't exactly remember why or how We Are Called to Rise got added to my list. I also can't remember the last time a book made me so emotional. I'm so glad I picked up this book and I haven't stopped thinking about it since I finished it.

Similar to the format of Let the Great World Spin, Rise is divided by different characters, each with his own chapter, each not knowing the other, and finally all of them connecting in the same tragic way. I was instantly hooked, shocked and heartbroken all at once. Set in Las Vegas (no secret – one of my least favorite places) the town becomes a character within itself.

"Nothing in nature disappears. Helium becomes carbon becomes diamonds becomes rings. Bodies become bones become dust become earth. And in Vegas, murderers become patriarchs, card sharks become benefactors, the unredeemed become the redeemers. 
And cops are not convicted of excessive force."

A major statement to not only Vegas, but America today. What appropriate timing; so relevant and important.

There is an author's note at the end of the book. In it she states that she grabbed the subject matter from a real-life case and created a fictional story with what she knew. And while the real story as well as her own fiction are "unbearably sad," her goal was to "accept the full unbearableness, and still leave one wanting to wake up in the morning." I'd say she succeeded.

In a small way, I was beginning to guess where the story was going to end up, but even though I was right, I was by no means disappointed. McBride successfully told a very important narrative without trivializing it and instead making it quite profound.

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Astonish Me

by Maggie Shipstead
Oct 21-Nov 5, 2014

Étonnez-moi. Ever since I was a kid I had dreams of becoming a dancer. I took lessons from about 9 years old all the way through college. Not that I ever had a chance at becoming truly good. For one, I started way too late. Then the most obvious. I simply do not have a dancer's body. And maybe that's why I never even went en pointe. Why ruin my feet if I have no real future? But I can always dream. And books like this take me right into that fantasy world where I am a famous ballerina.

I loved every single word of this book. I loved the way the story was setup: chapters flashed back to a much different past than the chapters told in current time. I loved the way Shipstead was able to paint such a vivid picture of the world of ballet. Lots of drama without being overly dramatic. Just the way the world of ballet was – and is. Even with the approach of the dramatic reveal (which I only sort of saw coming), I was never left feeling it was over the top.

Joan is an adequate dancer who knows there are many others much better than herself. She falls for a famous Russian dancer and helps him defect to America. This story is inspired by the defection of Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1974, and brings to life all the great dance movies from that era (The Turning Point, All that Jazz, White Nights, A Chorus Line...some of my favorites). But when their relationship falls flat, Joan "settles" for a childhood friend who has always carried the torch for her. She becomes pregnant, they marry, and her life takes its intended course. But once her son shows signs of true talent, Joan is thrust back into the world of ballet and is forced to face the demons she thought she left behind.

“She realizes that the beauty radiating from him is what she has been chasing all along, what she has been trying to wring out of her own inadequate body.” She can’t help telling him, “Tu m’étonnes.”

I can't say enough good about this book. Such an unexpected delight. It was so great to read about performances and the lives of professional ballet dancers. Definitely one of the best books I read this year.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

The Book of Life

by Deborah Harkness
July-October 2014

Now that's the way to end a delicious trilogy! I literally savored every moment of this third and final installment of the All Souls Trilogy because I simply didn't want it to end. My friend tore through this eagerly-awaited book in less than a week, but I couldn't. I rationed myself. I wasn't ready to say goodbye to Matthew and Diana.

It's surprising to me how many negative reviews I'm reading about The Book of Life. Highly-critical readers upset by the outcome of Ashmole 782, the Covenant and the never-ending cast of characters. I couldn't disagree more. Once again with the silky smooth narration of Jennifer Ikeda, I was left {ahem} enchanted. There were times when I listened and gasped, cried or laughed out loud. Harkness knew exactly how to write a book just for me. I'm also hearing buzz from other fans of this trilogy requesting more from Harkness; perhaps a book about the life of Gallowglass?? How about a new book dedicated to the lives of the twins? Either way, I'm in!

The "magic" was definitely back after getting a bit lost in Shadow of Night. Diana and Matthew's relationship strengthened, they had twins, the family bond grew even stronger, and we were introduced to a few new characters. Oh, and Diana's powers kick ass. I can't praise the story, the writing, the characters enough. Just so, so great. And speaking of great, quite possibly the BEST lines I've read in a book in a long time.
“No, I’m a vampire.” Matthew stepped forward, joining Chris under the projector’s light. “And before you ask, I can go outside during the day and my hair won’t catch fire in the sunlight. I’m Catholic and have a crucifix. When I sleep, which is not often, I prefer a bed to a coffin. If you try to stake me, the wood will likely splinter before it enters my skin.” He bared his teeth. “No fangs either. And one last thing: I do not, nor have I ever, sparkled.” Matthew’s face darkened to emphasize the point.
Take that, Stephenie Meyer. As for my rating, a VERY rare, but more than worthy, five stars. I will eventually read all three again.

* * * * * 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Vacationers

by Emma Straub
Sept 26-Oct 20, 2014

Perfect time of year to read about a family vacation to Mallorca. A family with issues, but a vacation nonetheless. This book had the lazy, carefree tone of a vacation that sucked me in right away.

And then. And then nothing happened! The Posts brought their infidelity baggage with them and their 35-year marriage, while their daughter just kind of watched everything happen around her. Her brother was a bit of a disaster and quite honestly an asshole. Throw in the family friends, who had the potential to be the most interesting of the bunch, but were there just to make sure more drama filled the pages.

I struggled through this very short book and honestly should have just given up. It didn't hold my attention, and I can't say that I formed any attachment to any one character. And though I'm not a prude and don't mind a little "sex talk" in the novels I read, I found that, out of nowhere, an overly-crude sentence or two would pop up without enhancing the story one way or the other. Add the cliche of a love-struck teenager who ends up getting used in her most vulnerable state, and it's just time for this vacation to end.

Just as my eye rolling and tongue clicking was getting louder and more frequent, Straub pulled out the ultimate cheesy metaphor. With everyone all kissy/huggy and made up, they fly home:
"Marriages, like ships, needed steering, and steady hands at the wheel. Franny wrapped both of her arms around Jim's right one, her grip firm and ready for any turbulence ahead."
Gimme a break.

* * * * *

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Interestings

by Meg Wolitzer
August 19-Sept 25, 2014

The Interestings. Indeed. I have to admit that I resisted reading this one right from the start. But when it was recommended and lent to me by a very trustworthy coworker, I decided to give it a go. My impression from the synopsis was that the characters were going to be a little too old for me to be able to relate. I'm happy to say that I was wrong.

Starting out at an artistic summer camp in 1974, Wolitzer takes us through the lives of six unlikely friends. Jules always felt privileged to be accepted into the group; she never thought she was "interesting" enough. Ethan had a hopeless crush on Jules, one that lasted through adulthood. Ash and her brother Goodman were quite the pair. Jonah allowed unfortunate circumstances from his early childhood to affect the rest of his life. And Cathy was never really trusted by her so-called friends.

While I've read other reviews saying that it seemed nothing really "interesting" ever happened in this book, I need to disagree – to an extent. There were never any "gasp-worthy" moments, no great controversies, but instead it was a good story about friendship and how to remain close to those friends long after your lives take entirely different paths. And ultimately, it's a story about "what if." The story finished in a satisfying way, but not everything was tied up in a bow (which regular readers of my reviews know I hate). Admittedly, I was teary at the end.

Wolitzer has a wonderful writing style. I loved the way she was able to weave between past and present in just a few paragraphs, and never lose site of what she was trying to say. Her prose definitely had a calming effect on me, and I loved the warm fuzzy way I felt when reading about growing up in camp. Such an important time for teenagers (though I begged my parents to never, ever send me to camp!) coming of age and creating their own identities.
But, she knew, you didn’t have to marry your soulmate, and you didn’t even have to marry an Interesting. You didn’t always need to be the dazzler, the firecracker, the one who cracked everyone up, or made everyone want to sleep with you, or be the one who wrote and starred in the play that got the standing ovation. You could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting.

* * * * *

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Mother, Mother

by Koren Zailckas
July 21-Aug 18, 2014

I've been sitting on this one for a few weeks now, sort of trying to come up with something interesting to say. I recently joined Blogging for Books, and Mother, Mother was the first novel I received for review. I felt that I owed it to this cool book-sharing service to like it more than I did. The description on the dust jacket is promising, but ...

Josephine Hurst is a mother in control. From the outside, the life she shares with her husband and three children seems perfect. That is until her middle daughter ends up in a psych ward and her son needs home schooling for his own protection. The "mystery" behind it all is what happened to Rose, the eldest daughter. Josephine leads everyone to believe that she ran off with some boy, and her alcoholic husband is no help to anyone in this failing family.

The problems with the story began early on when I found myself wanting more. The characters were unsympathetic, but never completely fleshed out; Josephine, especially, needed to be a little more interesting and convincing as a master manipulator. The plot's potential was never fully realized simply because Zailckas couldn't deliver better detail, insight or character development. And while I am usually never correct in guessing the outcomes of books, I saw this one coming a mile away. Bottom line is that I'm just not into psychological thrillers, especially poorly paced and predictable ones.

Mother, Mother appears to be the first work of fiction by Koren Zailckas. Perhaps memoirs are more her strength.

* * * * *
I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Life After Life

by Kate Atkinson
May 22-July17, 2014

metafiction | ˈmetəˌfikSHən |
fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions (esp. naturalism) and traditional narrative techniques.

Ursula Todd dies. A lot. Pretty much in every chapter of this book. In a more serious look at a Groundhog Day-type of story, Ursula lives a little longer each time and learns valuable lessons along the way. Oh, and she assassinates Hilter before he has a chance to rise to power.
"What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?"
I was immediately drawn into this unusual plot and devoured the first half of Life After Life ... And. Then. It. Started. To. Drag. On. And. On. And ...

Oh, sorry, I nearly fell asleep there. What had the potential to be so interesting and different turned into a too-long history lesson on the Blitz. (I found out afterward that this portion is considered the "dark bleeding heart" of the novel.) I would find myself drifting off as I struggled through each chapter. At the beginning I was on pace to finish this book in about two weeks and instead it took nearly two months. Again, I'm wasting time on the so-so and not moving on to the great. But it always makes me hesitant to quit a book with so much positive hype.

To be fair, I do think a lot was lost on me due to the fact that the author chose to use German phrases and sentences frequently. I know no German. (Sidenote: wouldn't it be great if along with a regular dictionary, the kindle also offered a translation app? Simply hover the cursor over a phrase and get the English translation. Maybe I could get rich off this idea...) Granted, that's my ignorance, but it did get quite frustrating to miss the crux of so many scenes. I guess in the end it isn't the writing or even the overall premise that I didn't like. It just wasn't my cup of tea.

* * * * *

Friday, July 18, 2014

Never Knowing

by Chevy Stevens
May-July 2014

I really struggled through this one. Immediately, I was turned off by the narrator's voice; it was so affected and forced. Kind of like a bad acting job, but in her defense, she didn't exactly have exciting or intelligent dialogue to work with. The only reason I felt the need to stick it out was because of how much I enjoyed Still Missing.

The main character, Sara, was quite possibly the most annoying protagonist I've read in a long time. Whiny, selfish and just an overall pain in the ass, I would actually find myself clicking my tongue while listening to her antics. Her relationship with her fiancé felt forced. Her attitude with the police was completely obnoxious. None of her relationships were the least bit genuine.

In the same style as Still Missing, Sara is speaking to a voiceless therapist in each chapter. I guess this is Stevens' "thing?" Just because it was successful once does not mean it should be reused. This time it came across as obvious and trite.

The twist at the end was not only expected, but also proved to have no real bearing on the story. It was thrown in as an afterthought. Since I paid money for this audiobook I hung on until the end, torturous as it was. It's funny, I was reading some other reader reviews and it seems it's either a love it or hate it book. The complaints I read were exactly like my own. With so many books out there, I think I need to stop being loyal to random authors. It's one thing to read several titles by an author I consider a favorite, but just because I discover a great new book doesn't mean I need to read an author's complete repertoire. Enough of that.

* * * * *

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Goldfinch

by Donna Tartt
March 20–May17, 2014

I can't believe it's been just over a month since I finished this book. Not only did it take me FOREVER to finish, it's now taken me forever to post. I guess I've been as busy as a one-legged man ... well, you get the idea. The delay, however, has nothing to do with what a fabulous book The Goldfinch is.

I wasn't prepared for how heavy this book would weigh on me. The subject matter, characters and circumstances were quite exhausting. At a whopping 771 pages, Goldfinch has a lot to cover. Theo is just 13 when a terrorist attack in an art museum kills his mother, leaving him with horrific visions of the dead and the survivors, as well as life-long post-traumatic stress. In a split-second decision on his way to safety, Theo's life is forever tied to that museum, with art and antiques becoming his passion. All this not before a horrendous childhood filled with drugs, alcohol, and the desperate need to fit in. While Theo makes poor decisions constantly throughout his life, the reader will inevitably keep cheering for him. He wants to be a better person.

The entire cast of characters will take your emotions for a wild ride. From hatred to pity to compassion, Tartt was able to capture the full gamut. It's no wonder The Goldfinch has won countless literary prizes, including the 2014 Pulitzer for fiction. One of the better books I've read in a while.

* * * * *

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Stories I Only Tell My Friends

by Robe Lowe
January-April 2014

I have to admit something. I have been a completely pathetic reader this year. The good thing is that it's only May and I've already taken three trips/vacations, with 2-3 more still pending, but all that fun and frolic seriously cuts into my reading time. It just doesn't pay to read after a night out of drinking ... it only means that I end up rereading that same chapter over again. And though I love to read on an airplane, once I'm at my destination, reading wanes. Mainly because there is always a TV in the bedroom; one thing I will not allow myself at home. It's proof right there that I will choose the boob tube over a book. Anyway...

I've had the Audible version of Stories... since it first came out. A friend of mine pestered me incessantly to read it. Not sure why I held off. Rob Lowe really has some amazing stories about his life experiences. He's kind of like Forrest Gump in that way ... he literally was always at the right place at the right time to meet actors, politicians and even princesses ... and date practically all of the women he met.

This audiobook is the perfect example of when it's appropriate for the author to narrate his own book. Lowe has an amazing ability with impressions, expressions and compassion. There were parts that were laugh-out-loud funny, and stories that were poignant and sad (his inadvertent involvement with Flight 96). There's really no need to write a complete synopsis because that would serve to only give away the surprise and delight of each anecdote. I will, however, say that the stories about the casting and the making of The Outsiders were my favorite. I'm dying to watch that movie again now that I know a little of the inside scoop.

I suppose at some point I will listen to his latest, Love Life, which supposedly was written because there was such a high demand from fans for "more." Bottom line is that this is worth the listen. I'm sure the written word is good as well, but his voice made it that much better. No great literary work, but a fun look into an actor's crazy life.

* * * * *

Sunday, March 9, 2014

For Today I am a Boy

by Kim Fu
February 16-March 2, 2014

Peter, the third of four children, is a boy, a coveted one, by his traditional Chinese father. After two girls, Peter finally arrives. Testing his luck, Peter's father decides to try for another boy, only to have a third girl. And the biggest problem is that Peter wishes he were a girl. Only he can't properly define these feelings, instead worshipping his sisters in every way, even wearing their clothes and makeup.

And thus the promising basis for a quick, thought-provoking read. At only 261 pages, Kim Fu has her work cut out for her. For the sake of character development, I think we would have been better off had she added about another 100 pages. Peter's sisters each have dedicated chapters in the book, as do other random characters, but their stories didn't succeed in enhancing the theme, only questioning their relevance.

"If I had to name this thing I was born with, I would've called it misery."

I can't begin to understand the gender confusion that Peter struggles with. But his journey has the potential for such a thought-provoking narrative, which unfortunately (mostly) failed in my eyes. The book was just a little too disjointed and not fully realized. But Fu is a young author whose writing style has plenty of promise. Better luck for her sophomore novel.

* * * * *

Sunday, February 16, 2014

And the Mountains Echoed

by Khaled Hosseini
Jan 6-Feb 16, 2014

Well, that took me an inordinately long time to read. I'm not really sure what the holdup was, but I'm eager to start a new book. Hosseini really is a gifted author, but I had a hard time gaining any momentum with this, his third novel. For more than three quarters of the book, I just felt as though the story was still building up to something greater. I'm really glad I hung on to the end though, because it proved well worth it. The story eventually came together, expanding with every page, and was quite satisfying.

Mountains begins in a fictional village in Afghanistan in the 1950s and spans about six decades and travels to Paris, Greece and San Francisco; through several different voices, but each one is intertwined in way or another. Saboor must sell his only daughter in order to survive and adequately care for the rest of his family. Though a stoic man, he never gets over his decision and what unfolds is a sweeping narrative of how many generations are effected by this action.

In the beginning, it was a bit frustrating to jump between decades and voices with each chapter. It took me a while to figure out what was unfolding before me. Once I caught on, I began to like the structure. Of his three novels, this one probably ranks third for me, but that shouldn't diminish its appeal to anyone.

* * * * *

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Rosie Project

by Graeme Simsion
December 2013-January 2014

Don Tillman has Asperger's Syndrome. But don't tell him. He doesn't realize it. He's extremely intelligent; a genetics professor, but sometimes the most obvious is also the least obvious. Upon meeting a new person, Don estimates his age and approximate BMI. Hilarious.

Don is looking for a wife. That's where Rosie comes in. She is the exact opposite of everything he requires in a mate. Of course, that's what made this book so enjoyable. I'm not sure I would have liked The Rosie Project as much if I would have read the physical book. The story really benefitted from the narration of Dan O'Grady and his excellent Australian accent (his English accent, not-so-much).

Overall, I wouldn't say this book had much "meat" to it. Don't yell at me, some will argue with that for sure. Maybe I can say it had less substance than what I normally read. But that doesn't make it any less of a treat. For once, I just don't have a lot to say about it.

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Me Before You

by Jojo Moyes
Dec 22, 2013-Jan 5, 2014

What an unexpected surprise! Joanna highly recommended this book to me with the warning: don't be fooled into thinking this is chick lit. Because it sure starts out that way. And then suddenly you're drawn in and the emotion is real and raw.

Louisa has just lost her long-time, dead-end job that she actually loved. She's been dating the same guy for seven years and sees no real future with him. She is comfortable, plain and simple. Desperate to find a new job, she accepts work as an aide to a quadriplegic. With no experience, she is promised that her tasks are mainly to provide food, cleaning and a watchful eye over Will. Will had it all; a highly successful executive with a gorgeous girlfriend and a great urban apartment, when his life was changed in an instant. Now he reluctantly accepts Lou into his life, but it's not long before she cracks his hard exterior and develops real feelings for him. And that, my friends, is where the fluff ends.

The rest of the story is so emotional, surprising and even controversial that I absolutely couldn't put it down. The night I finished Me Before You, it was nearly 2am and I had to take short breaks because I couldn't read the words through my tears. Moyes succeeded in running the reader through the emotional gamut. Worth losing a good night's sleep over. Although I'm not a fan of book clubs, this one would be the perfect choice. I found myself thinking about it days after I finished reading. I'm usually pretty stingy with my star ratings, but this undoubtedly deserves four. Even four-and-a-half (I have to reserve those five-star ratings...there's a lot of years of reading ahead of me!).

* * * * *

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy

by Helen Fielding
November 2013

Oh, Bridget, how I've missed you. It's good to have you back, you nutty girl. It's been almost 15 years since The Edge of Reason, and in Bridget's life the same amount of time has also passed. Back in 1996, I listened to the audiobook version of Bridget Jones' Diary, and this time around I had to do the same. There's something about listening to Bridget's voice that adds to the fun of her story.

Mad About the Boy starts out a little depressing. Though it's not a spoiler, Mark Darcy is dead, and I didn't like that one bit. It's been five years since his shocking death and Bridget is nearly ready to move on. But Bridget's first focus is on her young children, Billy and Mabel, and her second is on her Twitter followers. Hilarious. Thanks to Twitter, Bridget meets a "toy boy" and enjoys a sexual reawakening.

Our old favorites are back too – Jude, Tom, and of course, Daniel Cleaver. Bridget does her best to be a good mother, and she really is, but she makes her share of mistakes. Ultimately, she adores her children and sees Mark in them at every turn.

Although I don't usually love books-turned-into-movies, I do thoroughly enjoy the Bridget Jones movies. And as I started listening to this one, I couldn't help but think that there'd be no way they can make a movie without Mark Darcy (love, love Colin Firth!). But as the story progressed, I started to see a way that it could work out, and still have some room for Mark. I do hope it comes to pass, but I also wonder if Renee Z would be up for it? She'd have to play a 51-year old, after all.

Poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, Mad About the Boy doesn't disappoint. Bridget is definitely one of my favorite characters in fiction. I think we'd make great friends. I just might listen to all three books again.

* * * * *

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

We are Water

by Wally Lamb
Nov 19-Dec 22, 2013

"A life I didn't choose chose me."

It wasn't until the last few pages that the theme of Wally Lamb's latest novel was actually spelled out. But it was nice to see it in writing. A lightbulb moment for sure.

It's no secret my love of every word Lamb writes, and it's always an exciting day when he releases a new book. Unlike many authors, Lamb keeps us anxiously waiting years for his next masterpiece. Luckily it's only been five years since The Hour I First Believed. I was beyond excited to dive in to all 576 pages of delicious storytelling.

Annie Oh is an artist who decides to end her 27-year marriage to Orion for her art dealer-turned-fiancée, Viveca. Viveca is rich, and it's difficult for Annie to adjust to the good fortune. Coming from modest beginnings, losing her mother and growing up in foster care, Annie struggles with her completely changed lifestyle. Her three children vary in their acceptance of Viveca, while her ex-husband, Orion, has struggles of his own. With chapters that weave between each member of the Oh family, and stories from past to present, it was so easy to be engrossed from beginning to end. Some subject matter was rather difficult to read (child molestation in particular), but very necessary in the plot development. Overall, We Are Water is a complex, layered story about a flood, family dynamics, difficult decisions and deep secrets with multiple, unimaginable sexual encounters. And I loved every minute of it.

You know how the last few chapters of most books have evident tonal changes that give the signal that the end is near? This one definitely doesn't do that. It was so great to keep reading as though there would be no end. Struggles were still unresolved, decisions were still not made, but I couldn't have been more satisfied.

"We are like water, aren't we? We can be fluid, flexible when we have to be. But strong and destructive, too....Like water we follow the path of least resistance."

Ultimately, Wally Lamb is a master storyteller and We Are Water is no exception. It really made me think about relationships and our ability to handle whatever life has to offer.

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