"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

"You're not allowed to say anything about books because they're books and books are, you know, God." - Nick Hornby

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Review #24: Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

I read Gone Girl a couple of years ago and while at the time I thought it was okay, the farther I get from it, the less I like it. It was a runaway hit, as we all know, but it just didn't quite live up to the hype for me. So when I found a copy of Dark Places at the local library book shop, I figured I would give Gillian another shot. But just like Gone Girl, she lost me at the ending, and now I think that Gillian and I have to break up for good.
Spoilers ahead. Like, I'm going to talk about the ending in detail, so don't read further if you don't want to know.
For those who haven't read it, Dark Places is the story of Libby Day, the sole survivor of a family massacre in Kinnakee, Kansas. Libby was the youngest of four children, and famously testified against her brother, Ben, fingering him as the killer of her mother and two older sisters. After the murders, Libby bounced around from family member to family member, and now, 25 years later, she is broke and alone. The funds that were donated all those years ago have dried up, and Libby can't work; the killings understandably wrecked her, and there are days she can barely leave her bedroom, let alone hold down a job. She still sleeps with the lights on. Desperate for money, she agrees to meet with some crime enthusiasts for a fee. The members of The Kill Club, as they are known, think that Ben is innocent, and that Libby was coerced in to her testimony, and soon she begins to question whether her accusations all those years ago was really the truth.
Flashing back to the day of the murders, Libby recounts the events that led up to the destruction of her family. Ben, listening to "satanic rock" and dyeing his hair black, Libby's mother, so beaten down by her ex-husband and the poverty that comes with running a farm in the early 80s that she can't bear to discipline him, Libby herself, playing with her sisters, knowing that something is wrong when their aunt Diane arrives, carrying with her rumors that Ben has been accused of molesting a girl at school. By the time Diane arrives, Ben is nowhere to be found; Libby is dragged along with her mother and aunt in a frantic search to find him. By the next morning, Libby's mother and two sisters are dead.
Twenty five years later, after Libby's investigations with the help of a really weird guy from The Kill Club, we finally discover the truth. And the truth is, as they say, stranger than fiction. Ben didn't kill his mother; a serial killer nicknamed the Angel of Debt did, for a fee that was paid for by Libby's own mother. This is a woman who so loved her children that she was willing to protect her son from child molestation accusations, and yet she contracted for her own death because they couldn't make ends meet? That doesn't seem like character continuity to me. And at the very same time that the Angel of Debt is in the house killing Mrs. Day, Ben and his girlfriend Diondra come home, and Diondra stabs Ben's sister (because...I'm not sure? Diondra's just a bad person? It's never really explained), spraying blood everywhere. And then the Angel of Debt realizes that another sister witnessed his killing of Mrs. Day, so he has to kill her, too, but somehow Diondra and Ben escape, but not till after Diondra paints the walls with blood. And we're supposed to just believe all that? That's an awful lot of coincidences, and I nearly threw the book across the room at that point.
But Gillian wasn't done with her WTFery. Because, you see, Diondra was pregnant with Ben's baby while she was killing his sister and dancing in her blood. After Ben was arrested and sent to prison, Diondra skipped town and had a daughter named Crystal. And since Diondra is a total bananapants crazy person, Crystal grew up with her mom telling her the fairy tale of her imprisoned father and her murderess mother, and since Crystal is also a total bananapants crazy person, Crystal thought the whole my-mom-got-away-with-murder-and-let-my-father-rot-in-jail-for-it thing was OMG so cool, so when Libby finally tracked her niece down and asked to meet her, not knowing that Diondra and Crystal were freaking nut jobs, Crystal was so overcome with joy at meeting a new member of the family that she tried to kill Libby. And that's when I actually threw the book across the room. 
I'm all for unreliable narrators. I'm all for a few gory details, too, even if I do skim them sometimes cause I think they're too icky. And who doesn't love a good twist or two? But you have to make it believable, and that's where Flynn struggles. She paints herself in to a corner and can't figure out how to get out of it, so instead of rewriting or choosing a different path, she picks the most absurd ending she can possibly come up with, and it feels manipulative. And frankly, it takes me out of the story and ruins the book for me.
The only character in this entire book who was even slightly likable was the freaking Angel of Debt, because at least he felt a little bit of remorse over being forced to kill a little girl. When I can't even muster up some sympathy for the kid who had her entire family massacred, then we've got problems.

Reviews #20 - 23: The Stephanie Plum novels, by Janet Evanovich

I sort of gave up on Stephanie Plum a few books ago. I think I was in the middle of something else when the latest book came out and Mom had to get her copy back to the library before I could read it, and besides, Mom said it was kind of "meh", so I just never really pursued it. But recently Mom read the latest installment and said Janet's got her groove back, so while I'm waiting for the digital copy to become available, I'm catching up on the last few audio-style.  (By the way, audio's the way to go with these. The voice actress is great, and it's not like Stephanie is high literature, so if I zone out while I'm driving, I'm probably not missing much.) So here's a quick run down of the last few peeks we've had in to Stephanie's wacky life.

Explosive Eighteen opens with Stephanie coming back from Hawaii - solo - leaving both Morelli and Ranger behind in paradise. She doesn't want to talk about what happened, not even when it turns out that her seatmate never made it on the plane because he was stuffed in to a garbage can in the airport in California. Which wouldn't be a big deal, really, except that somehow she wound up with a photo that the dead guy stuffed in her messenger bag, and now everyone - the FBI, the fake FBI, the dead guy's wacky girlfriend, and a host of other weirdos - is after her.
In the meantime, the bail bonds office is working out of a temporary space that's infested with rats (I'll admit, I fast forwarded through the scene with the rats falling out of the ceiling. I just couldn't. ICK.), Lula has the hots for a big dummy that Stephanie has on her skip list, and Joyce Barnhart (remember her?) is crashing at Stephanie's. 
Morelli and Ranger make appearances, of course. Not a lot of sexy times with either of them in this installment - Stephanie's off men because of the Hawaii Incident - but there are enough hungry looks from Morelli and "Babe"s uttered from Ranger to make me happy.

Notorious Nineteen has Stephanie hot on the trail of Geoffrey Cubbin, the accountant at Trenton's ritziest assisted living facility. Cubbin's on trial for embezzling millions when he disappears from the hospital after an emergency appendectomy. Because Stephanie doesn't quite fit in with the over-80 crowd, she recruits Grandma to go in undercover, and Stephanie, still on a break from men after the disastrous Hawaii trip, is thrown together with Morelli on the hospital side of things, along with three foot tall Randy Briggs, one of Stephanie's long time nemeses. 
Also happening: Stephanie's been assigned to guard Ranger, for which she gets paid. Ranger, if you're reading this, I could probably guard you just as well as Stephanie and I would do it for free. Call me. Anyway, Ranger and his buddy are in the middle of being stalked by a former special forces friend, and so Stephanie is tapped to help do security at the wedding, which means a hideous pink taffeta dress. Although it also means Ranger in a tux, so, you know.
I think that might be all we need to know about this book: Ranger wears a tux.
But the tux doesn't sway Stephanie enough; at the end, she's kind of still off men but back, sort of kind of, with Morelli and Bob. Cubbin's been found, or rather, his money's been found and (mostly) returned to the ALF, the wedding gets cancelled in favor of elopement, and Ranger returns to his lair, so all's well that ends well.

Takedown Twenty starts out with a giraffe running through the streets of Trenton. I know that Janet says weird things happen in Trenton, and I believe her, but a giraffe is weird, even for Stephanie Plum. There's a few dead guys, a hit and run, and Stephanie is out looking for Morelli's godfather Uncle Sunny, who happens to be an actual godfather as well. Uncle Sunny's friends aren't talking, and neither is his bimbo girlfriend. Grandma Bella gets in on the action, going around town and giving people - including Stephanie - the eye. 
Grandma Mazur shows up too, helping Stephanie and Ranger work the case of the death of the mother of one of Ranger's clients, and Stephanie winds up at the bingo hall with Grandma, Bella, and Ranger, looking for the murderer.
And still, the giraffe roams the streets.

In Top Secret Twenty One, Stephanie's on the hunt for Jimmy Poletti, New Jersey's favorite used car dealer. (Aside: we have a guy in my hometown who is from that area. His commercials are obnoxious. He talks over his female cohort, named Caroline. The hashtag #WheresCaroline was trending for awhile in town when she was replaced for a few weeks by a pair of sultry Latin women who didn't speak. Caroline came back, though, and he still talks over her. And he always ends the commercial with, "It's gonna be HUGE," except he says it YOOOOOOOOGE. I can't stand him. All this to say, I think he'd fit right in with Trenton.)
Anyway, that was a weird digression in to local commercials. 
Stephanie's after Poletti, and Poletti's after little Randy Briggs, who is hiding out in Stephanie's apartment, which of course, gets blown up. I wonder if Stephanie has rental insurance. Morellia's around again, with Bob, Lula winds up with a pack of wild Chihuahuas that she and Stephanie found on Stark Street, and perhaps most important of all, someone is after Ranger, so he turns to Stephanie for help.
I have to interject here for a second and say that Ranger is a brilliant man, but I think sometimes he may place a little bit more faith in Stephanie than she deserves. I mean, if I had to pick someone to help guard me, I'm not so sure it would be Stephanie. She and Lula are fun and all, but if someone was really trying to kill me, I'm not so sure they would be the ones I'd turn to.

I need more Ranger. More Morelli's okay, too. I mean, the way he looks at Stephanie and calls her "cupcake" is pretty shiver-inducing. But Ranger's "Babe"? Swoon. No wonder Stephanie can't decide.

Review #19: You Have to Kiss a Lot of Frogs, by Laurie Graff

I'm not sure quite how to classify You Have to Kiss a Lot of Frogs. It reads like a memoir but I think it might be fiction. Either way, it's an interesting look at dating adventures.

The novel opens with our narrator Karrie Klein attending yet another bridal shower for yet another friend, enduring the questions about when it will be her turn to get married. She doesn't normally worry about her perpetually single status, but she's 45, her acting prospects are drying up, her dating prospects are even slimmer, and suddenly, she's awake in the middle of the night reevaluating her life and recounting her paramours.
As the title suggests, you have to kiss a lot frogs, and boy, does Karrie have a lot of frogs in her life. There's the "Famous Actor" who barks like a dog, the man who gets upset that he had to pay for her coffee, and the one who didn't love her nearly as much as his parents did. I laughed out loud at some of the stories and visibly cringed at others, while there were one or two that left me shaking my head at her willingness to turn a blind eye to things even as I recognized that I've done that at times, too. Anyone who has ever dated will recognize some of the characters here and they will either raise their eyes to the heavens to give thanks for not having to be in the scene any longer, or they will wholeheartedly sympathize with Karrie and wish that their stories didn't so closely parallel hers.
So many times, these types of books end up with the heroine meeting Prince Charming in the final chapters. We just can't seem to get away from that fairy tale ending, or at least the feeling that that is what happily ever after looks like. What I liked most about this book was that there was none of that. Karrie doesn't meet Prince Charming. What she does do, though, is fall in love with a sweet little dog, and the two of them lived happily ever after.

Review #18: This Lullaby, by Sarah Dessen

I follow John Green on Facebook and a few months ago, he posted about Sarah Dessen's new novel (the name of which escapes me at the moment), and I figured that since I harbor a) a secret love for YA fiction and b) a secret love for John Green, I'd give her a whirl and downloaded This Lullaby, which was what was available from Overdrive. And it was... okay, I guess?

The story follows eighteen year old Remy during that magical time between high school graduation and the start of freshman year. Remy's in the throes of planning for college (a west coast school, because she's going as far away as possible) and also in the midst of planning her mother's fifth wedding when she meets Dexter, a member of a local band in town for the summer. Dexter is immediately a smitten kitten, but Remy, cynical in a way that only eighteen year old fictional girls can be, isn't so sure she likes him. There's a lot of back and forth banter, typical teenage drama, and a smelly but faithful dog. Rounding out the cast of characters are Remy's friends (I guess the kids call them a squad now - I'm so old): darkly humorous Chloe, Lissa, who is always emotional and a bit of a drama queen, and Jess, who is practical and a little bit dull. In other words, a poor man's teenage version of the Sex and the City women: Remy is Carrie, Chloe is Samantha, Lissa is Charlotte, and Jess is Miranda. We also have Dexter's friends and bandmates, who are written as such scatterbrains that I found it hard to believe they managed to find the town, let alone a place to live and some gigs, Remy's aforementioned wacky mom, the car dealer husband, and her weird brother, who is equally infatuated with both his pet lizards and his girlfriend Jennifer Anne. Anyway, Remy mainly resists the pull of Cupid's arrow while Dexter happily surrenders to it, and there is a lot of angst and hand wringing about what she should do.
Remy's thing is that she doesn't believe in love. Not the true love, fairy tale kind of love anyway. Her dad left when they were young; his claim to fame is a song called "This Lullaby" that he ostensibly wrote for her, and it's one of those songs that gets played for the father/daughter dance at every third wedding in America. Because of her dad's disappearance, and probably thanks in no small part to her mom's eleventy billion weddings, Remy feels as though love is just an illusion. But Dexter...Dexter could possibly change her mind, although Remy is also determined not to let him. College and her future is too important to get hung up on some guy.
The overall theme here is good. I have to give Dessen major points for having Remy still leave for school and follow her dreams, no matter how much she may have been tempted to stay behind. And points, too, for not making Dexter a total jerkface and allowing him to be confident enough in their relationship to give Remy the time and space she needs to become an adult, regardless of whether she'll end up with him. In a world of Bellas and Annas giving up their world for Edwards and Christians, it was nice to see two young adults make some pretty responsible decisions.
But somewhere along the line, Dessen kind of lost me. And maybe this is a small nit to pick, but I just didn't really like Remy. I found her just a smidge unbelievable: a seventeen year old who is the only girl in the salon who knows how to handle the demanding women who come in, the girl who is not only responsible for her older brother and his daily life but also her mother's wedding(s), the girl who has saved thousands of dollars to drive across the country to go to college. I don't know. Maybe Remy just has her shit together more than I did at that age. Or maybe Remy just comes across as thinking she has her shit together. Maybe that's it: I'm old enough to know that just because she thinks she knows everything, she really doesn't.
I'm not Dessen's target audience, of course, and so I'm sure the things that bothered me about this novel wouldn't even occur to someone in the right demographic, so probably all this means is that I'm too old to be reading this genre. This Lullaby wasn't bad, not by any stretch of the imagination, and in writing this review I'm feeling more positive about the book, but it just didn't hit it out of the park like I expected it to.

Review #17: Bittersweet, by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

I'm woefully behind in my reviews, and so I've had some time and space apart from this novel, and I have to tell you, I still don't know what to think. I can't tell if I loved it for all of its gothic-ness, or I hated it for all of its horrible characters. So I'm giving it three stars, because that feels like a solidly middle-of-the-pack recommendation, but if you pick this up, know going in to it that you might get to the end and ask yourself what the hell you just read.

Mabel Dagmar is on scholarship at a very expensive east coast college, and she shares a dorm room with the cooly aloof, terribly popular, beautiful Genevra Winslow. For months, Mabel isn't sure that Ev even knows of her existence, and then suddenly, Ev invites her to spend the summer at Bittersweet, her family's summer cottage. When Mabel arrives, she finds that Bittersweet isn't so much a cottage as it is a compound that supports the nearby town. Each member of Ev's family has their own little house, and Ev and Mabel settle in to the cottage that is to become Ev's. Welcomed in to the Winslow clan, Mabel suddenly has everything she's always wanted: a family, access to money, friendship, and love. But there are dark secrets behind the drawing room curtains, and soon Mabel must choose between exposure and expulsion or keeping her mouth - and eyes - closed.

I don't want to give too much away, but this family makes the Dollanganger family from Flowers in the Attic seem like the Waltons. Murder, rape, incest, coverups, extortion, embezzlement, kidnapping -  it's all just a normal summer for the Winslow family. This book is a creepy, weird, and oddly fascinating read, and I kind of wanted to take a shower afterwards.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Review #16: Dune Road, by Jane Greene

Oh, Jane.

I had such high hopes for you after reading Family Pictures, so I read Mr. Maybe, which wasn't a home run with me, but I wanted to give you another chance. But I think I might have to break up with you after reading this. You nearly did me in. Plus? Halfway through I realized I'd read this before but I still read it again, and now I'm a little mad at myself.

Dune Road is the story of middle-aged Kit, who is divorced from her husband (Adam? I can't remember), who is a hot shot Wall Street banker. Kit gave up the three carat diamonds and getting her hair done each week for lunch in favor of a small little cottage and yoga pants, and now works part time for a reclusive author, Robert somebody-or-other. (Which begs the question: how on earth can she afford to live in this fancy-pants Connecticut town working part time for the equivalent of Stephen King, but whatever: suspension of disbelief.) Kit gets along with Adam (again: suspension of disbelief - perhaps there are better divorced parents out there than I, but I can't picture going in to the woods with my ex-husband to chop down a Christmas tree together. Perhaps chopping other things, although I probably shouldn't say that on the internet (just kidding, law enforcement - this is a joke), but not Christmas trees) and her two kids seem relatively well-adjusted. She's friends with Charlie, another Wall Street wife whose husband, it turns out, is about to lose everything, forcing them to move in with her husband's parents, Tracy, the owner of the local yoga studio, and her next door neighbor, a spry surrogate grandmother type, who is more of a mother to Kit than her own mom.

Out of the blue, a young woman arrives on Kit's doorstep from England, claiming to be her half-sister (Kit's mother apparently had a torrid love affair with her gardener years ago), so instead of doing like any sane, rational person would and, you know, Googling that nonsense and hey, maybe also running a background check, instead, Kit invites this total stranger to come live with her and her children. She introduces them to Adam, who apparently can't keep his pants on around his brand new former sister-in-law, but that's okay, because Kit's going out with a guy named Steve that Tracy set her up with, who it turns out is actually Tracy's secret ex-boyfriend, who is in cahoots with Tracy to get in to Robert The Writer's mansion and take him for all he's got. Why? I don't know. Jane never explains it. Charlie's no help in seeing all the problems here because she's busy selling her clothes and carpets so they can afford to put gas in the Range Rover, but the next door neighbor tells Kit something is up, although Kit totally ignores her and sleeps with Steve (and it must be said that the sex is... fine. Not earth shattering, just... fine. I mean, give me something, Jane) and invites him in to her home with her kids without again, you know, Google. And hey, good for you Kit, get after it, but maybe use a little bit of common sense and protect yourself. And your kids, while you're at it.

Anyway, Kit's mom comes to town with her soon-to-be husband (number five, not that there's anything wrong with that) and demands that Kit look in to what the mysterious sister has been up to, and even though Kit's mom only parented her two weeks a year for her entire childhood, Kit listens to her and discovers that her sister's been stealing from her. So she calls Adam to tell him, realizes that Adam's sleeping with her sister, and throws her sister out of her house and puts her back on a plane to London. Then later (it feels like the same day, but I'm sure it's not), at the Christmas party at Robert's, Kit overhears Tracy confessing to Robert that she and Steve are in cahoots, but Tracy really truly loves him and wants to leave Steve, and oh, by the way, Steve used to beat her up and she set him up with Kit so they could get to Robert through Kit, but she's really really sorry and she really wants Robert to forgive her so they can live happily ever after. So Kit goes home, has breakfast with her mom and tells her that whole story, Mom calls Number Five who intervenes with Robert the Writer (cause they used to be BFFs a million years ago but then Robert the Writer's wife died mysteriously when they were all on a yacht together - shades of Natalie Wood) on Tracy's behalf, and just like that, we've fast-forwarded to the wedding of Robert and Tracy, and it looks like Kit and Adam might not be divorced forever. The end.

So yeah. Can we talk for a second about ALL THE THINGS WRONG WITH THESE SCENARIOS? A) Kit just magically forgives her mom for never being there and trusts her (and Number Five) implicitly, taking their not so great advice on the whole thing, although I'll say that Kit's mom was the only one with a brain when it came to the long lost sister, B) Kit forgives Adam for SLEEPING WITH HER SISTER, C) Kit forgives Tracy for SETTING HER UP WITH A GUY WITH KNOWN RAGE ISSUES (seriously, at one point, Tracy has a black eye - she "ran in to the door" - and yet she's Kit's BFF and set her up with Steve?), and D) Robert forgives Tracy for trying to fleece him, and then MARRIES HER. Probably without a prenup, too, cause apparently all of his brainpower is being used up writing bestsellers instead of having some critical thinking time about his choices in women.

And everyone's OKAY WITH THIS?

I know Jane was going for a whole "we don't know who people really are" and "you never know what battles people are fighting" but come on, people. There's a difference between having money troubles and hiding it from your friends and, you know, deliberately setting up your newly divorced friend with a guy who used to (and still does) beat you up. And don't even get me started on Adam sleeping with Kit's sister. The only character in the entire book with a half a brain is Kit's octogenarian neighbor and her wacky friend. And maybe Kit and Adam's daughter, who figured out pretty quickly that Daddy and her new auntie were doing the deed and gave some serious side eye for awhile, at least before being bought off by a trip to Claire's.

I mean. I can't even. 

Review #15: This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp

It wasn't until I went to Amazon to read some reviews of This Is How It Ends that I realized that the entire book takes place over 54 minutes. That's it. Just 54 minutes of heart-racing adrenaline, tears, anger, sadness, fear, disgust, terror, and laughter.

At 10 am on a sunny morning in January, the principal of Opportunity High School in Opportunity, Alabama, finishes her beginning of the semester speech. It's the same speech each year, and so a senior named Tomas and his friend know exactly how much time they have to break in to the principal's office before they get caught. But in the middle of their student file spying, they hear gunshots and screaming coming from the auditorium. On the other side of campus, five track and field stars and their coach have been given special dispensation to skip the assembly; a race is coming up and they have to practice. In the middle of their run, they hear gunshots as well. And in the auditorium, the rest of the school is in their seats, frozen in horror as the Thing That Only Happens At Other Schools begins happening to them.

The story is told from four different first person perspectives. As Tyler Browne is coldly locking the auditorium doors with chains, senior Tomas is telling the reader he has broken in to the principal's office. As Tyler is stepping out on to the stage and preparing to hold the school hostage, Claire, the track and field star who dated Tyler the previous year before realizing that sixteen year old love isn't always meant to be forever, is detailing her run.  And as Tyler opens fire, his sister Autumn and her girlfriend Sylvia, Tomas' twin, are describing the heart-stopping terror unfolding in the auditorium.

As Nijkamp rotates through the four characters, she fleshes out the story with some flashback scenes, and although the book is relatively short, she does an excellent job of making every character human, even the most minor players. It would have been very easy to pigeon-hole these characters, but they truly felt real and not at all stereotyped. And most importantly, I think, none of the "heroes" are flawless, and through Nijkamp's excellent character development, I even felt some empathy for Tyler. Peppered with just enough bits of text messages and Twitter posts, the B stories in this taut novel will affect you just as much as Tomas, Claire, Autumn, Sylvia, and even Tyler do.

Gun control is a hot button issue in this country today. I'm the daughter of a public school teacher. I'm the friend of several more. I'm the parent of an almost teenager, and I have friends with lots of teenaged kids. I think about guns and guns being on campus all the time. I look at my daughter's school and I realize how easy it would be to just walk in and open fire. Same thing with any school, really, no matter how many fences and gates and security guards and metal detectors there are. If someone wants in with a gun, they're going to get in with a gun.

While this is an "easy read" in that the reader will whip through the pages in the course of a couple of hours, this is by no means an easy book to read. I spent most of the story with a pounding heart, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I gasped aloud a couple of times. This is the kind of book that would have terrified me as a teenager, and while I would never censor what my kid reads, you'd better believe that when she's of the right age to read this, we'll be reading this together, and having lots of conversations about it.

Since 2013, there have been 185 school shootings. That's an average of about one a week.