Saturday, December 17, 2016

Wishin' and Hopin'

by Wally Lamb
Nov 27-Dec 14, 2016

Wally Lamb is probably my all-time favorite author. For some reason though, I never read this book. It came out seven years ago and I vaguely remember something at the time that steered me away from reading it. But now with his latest release, I'll Take You There, and its resurrection of the main character Felix from Wishin' and Hopin', I decided to make sure I was up-to-date.

This is nostalgia on steroids. Probably much more relatable for Baby Boomers, but still funny, cute and super sentimental. Felix Funicello is related to – guess who? Annette. He's in fifth grade and the prose is written exactly like an 11-year old would speak. Really fun and light, but honestly it got a little tiring after a while. When Felix befriends a Russian student the ease of reading slowed down a lot. Her accent was pretty tough to get through. And although this is touted as a Christmas book to really get you in the spirit, it didn't come off that way to me. It's not until the last third of the book that Christmas is even really mentioned.

I guess I am just more of a fan of his deeper novels. This is light-hearted and fun and there's nothing wrong with that, but it's not what I want from him. But no way can I give him any less than three stars. That would be blasphemy.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Another Brooklyn

by Jacqueline Woodson
Nov 20-27, 2016

Family. Friendship. "This is memory." As a child growing up in the 70s, for August, this was everything. Woodson used a very unique writing style to illustrate August's life. As the adult August reflects, her memories come in snippets. Some clear as crystal, some a little hazier. But with jumps and shifts in time and past, the result was magical.

Although the novel is short, I feel like the ultimate reveal (to August) about her mother was a slow burn. The denial was raw and sad and real. It was also a protective barrier for her little brother.
"When my brother cried, I shushed him, telling him not to worry. She’s coming soon, I said, trying to echo her. She’s coming tomorrow. And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow." 
The way the story is told is truly poetic. These short sentences, or memories, must sound lovely when read aloud. The mood is one of pain and sorrow, yet I felt a sense of calm after the last page.

* * * * *

Sunday, November 27, 2016


by Ann Patchett
Nov 1-20, 2016

Ann Patchett is truly one of my favorite authors. Her first fiction release in five years, Commonwealth did not disappoint. I savored every word. Stories that span decades are the kind I really sink my teeth into. I love being fully invested in the characters, their lives. It's a commitment for 300-plus pages that I crave. And Patchett's words invite you in from page one.

Commonwealth takes chronological leaps from past to present to the near past and back again. Some people complain about this, but for me it's a challenge that I accept. I like to be kept on my toes and pay attention to every word. If every novel was written linearly, what a boring world this would be!

From what I've read, Franny, the main character, is fashioned around Patchett's own life. Write what you know. My favorite scenes were of the six step-siblings getting into all kinds of trouble as children in Virginia. In a way it reminded me of my own childhood in the 70s – the never-ending, hazy days and the mischief. Although I can happily say that my childhood never involved drugs and guns! The scenes that introduce the crux of the novel's title happened rather quickly and could have easily been overlooked. But I think this is part of the author's style; quick glimpses into scenes that will unknowingly change your life forever.
“All the stories go with you, Franny thought, closing her eyes. All the things I didn’t listen to, won’t remember, never got right, wasn’t around for."
I'm in love with this formula.

* * * * *

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Tuesday Nights in 1980

by Molly Prentiss
Oct 8-Nov 1, 2016

Art. New York City. The 1980s. Some of my very favorite things. These subjects alone are what drew me to this book. The melodic tone of the author's words were enough to keep me until the end. But the dust jacket describes it as "risk-taking" prose. Um, how? I'd say no, not really.

The first chapter begins with a group of radicals in Buenos Aires, and continues in NYC for the next 80% of the story. By the time the subject of the radicals is brought up again, I nearly forgot about it. I had to go back and reread parts to get back on track. While I found the beginning a little slow, I soon found a rhythm and wanted to see what happened to the painter, the art critic and the muse. What I struggled with most was why the author chose 1980 as the point in time. This is Prentiss's debut novel, released this year, so what significance did 1980 hold, besides the SoHo art scene? She's only 32, so it's definitely not personal experience. I'm not sure why I had such a hard time with this fact – every novel needs a backdrop.

I'm reviewing this book as though I didn't enjoy it...but I did. I just didn't get a "wow" feeling that for some reason I was expecting. The ending was good too – not at all wrapped up in a neat little bow – but I don't think this book will stick with me like some do.

* * * * *

Sunday, October 2, 2016

A Monster Calls

by Patrick Ness
Sept 24-Oct 2, 2016

I began this book knowing very little. It was simply recommended to me by a friend and fellow book-lover. All he told me was that it was heart breaking; be prepared to sob at the end. So I steeled myself and read A Monster Calls in one week. I typically try to read only current releases because there's just not enough time and so many great new books that if it's over two years old, I tell myself I've missed the boat. But with strong influence from my trusted pal, I jumped.

This is heavy, heavy reading for young adults. Even for not-so-young adults. While it won about a jillion awards, I kept trying to decide if it would be a book I could recommend to my 11-year old niece (it's intended for ages 12-17, but of course my niece is brilliant and could easily comprehend this story). The final consensus though was that I cannot. It's just too sad. The best part about reading is escaping reality, and a book centered around a child whose mother is dying of cancer, is just too real. Not that the message wasn't wonderful – it was.

Ness masterfully wove a narrative about coping, strength and simply "letting go." The metaphor of the yew tree was perfect. I think because I was warned about the emotional ending, I was better prepared, so I didn't cry. I didn't let myself get overly invested. I'd say that anyone over 15 will connect with this book.

* * * * *

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Two if by Sea

by Jacquelyn Mitchard
Aug 20-Sept 24, 2016

Five weeks. Struggling. That's a long time for a book by an author I adore. But what a disappointment. I was so excited to dive into Mitchard's latest because it had been about eight years since she'd released anything new. I have to admit that even the jacket copy wasn't as intriguing as I hoped. But from a well-loved storyteller, I had to give it a chance.

The first issue I had was with the far-reaching facts. Not that reality can't be suspended in a great novel, but it still has to be believable. Adopting a boy saved from a tsunami, when in fact, the boy was kidnapped, is not endearing. The second stumbling block was the heavy focus on horses. Horse training. Horse farms. Horse competitions. Horse, horse, horse. While it may have added interest to the plot, it could have been edited down significantly. From there, the story spiraled out of control. Too many facets, too many directions this book tried to cover. It was like the story was trying to be a romance, mystery, animal-lover, murder, intrigue and family epic all in one. Too much. The telepathy the children had could have been the main focus, but was instead eye-rolling because it was treated more of an afterthought. Bottom line is that Mitchard should never, ever write a mystery novel again.

The whole tale seemed rushed, frantic and completely jumbled. The characters were not very likable, not well explained, and certainly underdeveloped. Even the "bad guy" was a head-scratcher. In the last 20 pages of the book when he finally appears, I found myself thinking "who?" And then not caring much because he was written like a mustache-twirling buffoon. Throw in the killing of the family dog and a newborn foal – presumably just to add suspense – and I'm done.

This review is incredibly harsh, I know, but I expected so much more from one of my favorites.

* * * * *

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Parts One and Two

by J.K. Rowling
August 2-16, 2016

I'll take my Harry doses any way I can get them. Even in script form. At first it was hard to flow through stage directions and the usual, comfortable writing style that Rowling has (although she had help on this one), but after a few "chapters" which are really acts, I relaxed and tore through.

There's definitely less of a magical feeling this time around. And Harry isn't the delightful little boy we all grew to love – he's an adult with adult problems and three children. Ron, however, seemed to remain the same goofy kid he always was. With this being a play, there wasn't enough time to take deeper dives into these characters, so for that, it can be disappointing. I definitely liked it, but I wanted more. I felt the story too-quickly wrapped itself into a neat little package. But again, I'll take what I can get about my favorite wizarding world! I bet the play is going to be fantastic. If the authors gave us the depth that we are truly craving, the play would probably be eight hours long.
“Those we love never truly leave us, Harry. There are things that death cannot touch.”
Having said that, the original message from the first seven books remains the same.

* * * * *

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Nightingale

by Kristin Hannah
July 5-August 1, 2016

Paris during Word War II. Seems to be a trending topic for novels these days. And I'm the first to admit that I am completely drawn to them. There is the saying "never forget, lest history repeat itself," and I think The Nightingale does justice to the horrific events of the war. It's nearly unfathomable what people suffered in Paris, let alone throughout Europe. Nightingale focuses on the women left behind while their husbands bravely try to stay alive and return home.

The story's heroines, though very different sisters, had an unbreakable bond. Truly some of the best character development I have ever read. I was enthralled from page one until I was utterly sobbing by the last page. When I think about it now, I still can't believe what Parisians had to endure, and for so long.
“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”
A few adjectives come to mind while I try to think of what to say about this book. Beautiful: The people, the friendships, the landscapes. Excruciating: The descriptions of Nazi torture, the concentration camps, and the human suffering. Heart-wrenching: What we will do for love and survival. Bravery: I learned more about the women left at home than I ever knew. And the public opinion of these women in the 1940s.

I know there are plenty of comparisons to All the Light We Cannot See. I will say that I liked each book equally, but the only comparison that should be made is on the subject matter. Both are brilliant in their own ways.

* * * * * 

The Art Forger

by B.A. Shapiro
May30-July4, 2016

It's been ages since I listened to an audiobook. I got myself burned out on them and needed a break. But there's something about long weekends, yard work and a great narrator in my ear that makes me happy. Luckily, I achieved two out of three with this one. But, I'm also a sucker for Degas, so it was all worth it.

Claire is a legitimate art forger, or more politically correct, a reproductionist. However, she's naive to the point of exasperation. I had many "of course" and "duh!" moments, but I did enjoy the true art history portions of the story. It's not an incredibly deep narrative, but kind of a fun one that is based around the real-life art heist in Boston in 1990.

My biggest issue was the narrator. The best word I can come up with to describe her style is "breathy." It demeaned the main character probably more than it was intended. I think it made Claire more of a pushover, more insipid, than she actually was. Good narration isn't always easy to find.

Still, a fun little lesson in art history with great descriptions of painting styles thrown in for good measure. Might be better to read than listen to.

* * * * *

A Man Called Ove

by Fredrick Backman
June 5-July 3, 2016

Wow, this one took a while to get off the ground. I was warned of this and told to hold out for the payoff, but it was hard to plug away through nearly 70% off the book before I was invested. Normally I would have given up long before then. I'm not sure this is the best formula for a book, but Ove sure has been praised like crazy.

To somehow find joy, laughter and compassion in a plot where the main character's whole goal is to commit suicide doesn't even sound like a sellable premise. But it worked. Though again, the praise for Ove is off the charts. I'm flabbergasted by it. I mean, it was a good book, but people a just gushing. Pleas to vote Ove as character of the year (2015). Predictions that this will be book of the year. I mean, it's not that good. It's not that unique. But it was a good story if you remain patient. For all those who know a "curmudgeon," Ove will probably resonate stronger.

* * * * *

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Hundred-Year House

by Rebecca Makkai
May 16-June 5, 2016

The idea of taking the reader through a story in reverse chronological order is a good one, but it has to be perfectly executed. And, with the book being segmented into three parts, I found the character development lacking. For me this was a case of the back-cover copy being much more intriguing than the actual story.

Violet's the great grandmother ghost, who supposedly looms over the house, but it's more implied than fully realized. Zee, the main character, is pretty annoying, but as the story progressed in reverse, I cared less and less what happened.

Short review – I'm way behind. Plus, much better books to talk about.

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Monday, May 30, 2016

A Little Life

by Hanya Yanagihara
Mar 6-May 15, 2016

Brutal. Positively brutal. I've been ruminating on this monster of a book for two weeks now wondering what to say about it. As I was reading it over the course of two very long months, I would tell people, "It's hard to say I'm enjoying it because it's so brutal. And just when you think it can't get any worse, it does." I was compelled into giving up completely, but I told myself to keep plowing through just to see how it ends – because truly, how could it get any worse than it already was? Only it did.

I found myself needing to take a day or two (or three) off from reading A Little Life because sometimes it was more than I could take. At times I would audibly gasp, or cringe or scream out loud at the sentences before me. To that note, I found that the trials Jude, the lead character, had to face were beginning to become eye-rolling and unbelievable. Could one person really endure that much abuse and suffering?

The general plot is of four college friends and their loyalty to each other. The book starts out with each of the four in equal measure, but soon shifts to Jude becoming the main voice. As they age their friendships are tried, their feelings for one another change, but ultimately their bond is strong. When Jude and Willem became a couple, I again wondered how much more the author could pack into one book. I'm not sure that relationship felt real enough for me.
“But what was happiness but an extravagance, an impossible state to maintain, partly because it was so difficult to articulate?”
I know I said that Delicious Foods was difficult to manage. A Little Life tops that by about a million. Although I'm not sure it really needed to be 700+ pages. The author tended to ramble a little too long at certain points where I didn't think the extra sentences added to the overall experience. Regardless, this is one I'm not soon to forget.

* * * * *

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Delicious Foods

by James Hannaham
Feb 7-Mar 6, 2016

Delicious Foods is a fruit and vegetable farm. For its workers, it's a living hell. For me, the reader, it was a grueling month of insane subject matter. The book starts out in an unbelievable place:
“After escaping from the farm, Eddie drove through the night. Sometimes he thought he could feel his phantom fingers brushing against his thighs, but above the wrists he now had nothing. Dark stains covered the terry cloth wrapped around the ends of his wrists.”
And it isn't until about 90 percent through that the "how" is revealed. Some might call that a slow burn; I call it agony. The entire story was surreal. Hannaham has some imagination. But for me it was very difficult reading. Not only the story, but the heavy dialect used for one of the three main characters. Oh, and this character, Scotty, is crack. Literally the voice of crack. Not an easy read by any stretch.

This novel has everything from political undertones to modern-day slavery. That's really the only way to describe what happens at this horrific place. I'm actually kind of glad that I didn't know what a palmetto bug was until I finished the book because it would have been that much harder for me to take. By the way, it's a cockroach. Gross.

It's hard to determine whether someone could actually enjoy this book. One reviewer was quoted on the dust jacket calling it "astonishing." That's the perfect adjective. With intense descriptions of how Darlene's husband was murdered to the treatment of the crackheads on the farm, I truly found it a chore to turn the page. But the author's messages were quite clear and he painted scenes one more macabre than the next. I'm exhausted.

* * * * *

Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Spool of Blue Thread

by Anne Tyler
Jan 3-Feb 7, 2016

That felt like a marathon. Not that I've ever run one (or ever will!), but that's what I imagine it would feel like. That it will never end. Like Seinfeld, this was a book about "nothing." Unlike Seinfeld, I can only come up with one funny antidote in A Spool of Blue Thread – the dashiki. Otherwise, for 358 pages, nothing happened.

It bothers me when I presumably "miss the point" about the plot of a novel. Did it go over my head? Am I dense? Or am I simply trying to get more out of the story than the author intended? I even read the discussion questions at the end of the book to see if they would spark an "aha" moment in me, but instead I realize I did indeed miss the point a little, but in other cases I fail to care that much. Because my love of books is so deep, I simply want to get the most out of each one that I can. Sometimes, like this one, either I failed or the book failed me. I suppose the reason I care so much is the amount of accolades this book has gotten over the past year. A Man Booker nominee?! In no way can this book equate or compare to Did You Ever Have a Family. In my opinion, they can't even live on the same shelf. So vastly different.

Don't get me wrong, I didn't hate this book. I was just bored. Nothing happened! Sometimes that makes for a satisfying novel, but not in this case. Nothing earth shattering or overly exciting that made me want to pick it back up every night. But from what I've read of other reviews, this is par for the course with Tyler, which is fine in some cases. I just crave something with a little more depth.

* * * * *

Sunday, January 3, 2016

A Fall of Marigolds

by Susan Meissner
Dec 22, 2015-Jan 2, 2016

Everything happens for a reason. Love is meant to be given to another. Grief lives in an in-between place. While this may sound incredibly sappy, and so not the subject matter I am typically drawn to, A Fall of Marigolds enchanted me from chapter one.

A scarf entwines two women who live a century apart. Both survived horrific tragedies – Clara, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and Taryn, 9/11. Trying to cope in the aftermath of each, both women must find the will to move on.

I definitely enjoyed Clara's story – a nurse on Ellis Island – more than Taryn's. I think the storytelling was better, but I also think that it was easier to remove myself from events that happened 100 years ago than it was for September 11. Taryn's story was beautiful, but incredibly difficult to read, if also a little under-developed.

It's that time of year. Hibernation season. This is the perfect book to get cozy with.

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