"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

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.

Review #14: Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews

I downloaded Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl from the library a few weeks ago. It's the "other book" about kids with cancer and hasn't been discussed with quite as much fervor or passion as The Book. Confession time: I still haven't read The Fault in our Stars. I love you, John Greene, but I want to keep loving you, and I'm worried TFIOS will make me not love you any more. So I fear we're at an impasse.

Anyway, back to Me and Earl. Greg is a senior in high school, and he's managed to float through the last eleven years of school by staying mainly under the radar, acquaintances with everyone, truly friends with nobody save his best friend Earl, who might be my favorite YA sidekick next to Tiny Cooper from Will Grayson, will grayson. On the first day of school, Greg comes home to find his mother in tears; it seems an old family friend named Rachel has been diagnosed with cancer, and Greg's mother tasks him with renewing his friendship with Rachel, a directive that Greg wants nothing to do with.

So Greg, in an embarrassing and awkward phone call, reaches out to Rachel, and eventually they form a sort of tenuous friendship. Somewhere along the way, it comes out that Greg and Earl make movies, and they are roped in to making a movie for Rachel, a move that catapults Greg from the invisibility he has so carefully cultivated straight in to the spotlight at a time when he wants to do nothing more than to disappear in to the woodwork.

I will admit that at times, Greg's self-deprecation got a little bit wearying and almost too self-aware. I'm not sure it's a good idea to start off your book with a quote about how reading this book might make you want to come to the narrator's house and kill him, although knowing that the book has been made in to a movie, I did appreciate the next bit: when you convert a good book to a film, stupid things happen. But Andrews so deftly captured the awkwardness and selfishness of young adulthood, the insensitivity and inconsiderateness, the naiveté, the feeling that you're supposed to have it all together but in reality, you're not really sure if you're allowed to go to the bathroom unsupervised, nor are you sure you should be, that it was easy to forgive that little misstep.

Greg wasn't the perfect hero; in fact, a lot of times, I couldn't stand Greg and wanted to smack him for some of his choices. But that just drives home the feeling that Andrews perfectly nailed the teenage mind. Cause let's face it: I'm sure we've all had moments where we can't stand the teenagers in our lives. And Rachel wasn't the perfect patient, either. There was no well-lit scene where she serenely accepted her fate or raged against the unfairness of her disease against a backdrop of a thunderstorm.  She was by turns bitchy and funny and sweet and mean and bored and excited. In other words, your average teenage girl.

But Earl. Earl is my everything. Earl is a man of few words, but what words he did speak were perfection. Earl is to Greg what Tiny Cooper was to Will Grayson, although I'm pretty sure that Earl could fit in to Tiny's pocket.
You don't know shit, man," he said finally. He was brisk and sad at the same time. "I hate to get on you for this. I'm not getting on you for this, but I'm just telling you. This is the first... negative thing that happened to you in your life. And you can't be overreacting to it and making big-ass expensive decisions based on it. I'm just saying. People die. Other people do stupid shit. I’m surrounded by family members doing stupid shit. I used to think I had to do shit for them. I still wanna do shit for them. But you gotta live your own life. You gotta take care of your own shit before you get started doing things for errybody else.” 
The humor is dark, the writing is sharp, the dialogue is crisp, the story will make you laugh and cry and be angry all at the same time. Andrews just went on the same list as John Green, Rainbow Rowell, and David Levithan.


So. If this was some normal fictional young-adult book, this is the part of the story where after the film, the entire high school would rise to their feet and applaud, and Earl and I would find True Acceptance and begin to Truly Believe in Ourselves and Rachel would somehow miraculously make a recovery, or maybe she would die but we would Always Have Her to Thank for Making Us Discover Our Inner Talent, and Madison would become my girlfriend and I would get to nuzzle her boobs like an affectionate panda cub whenever I wanted.That is why fiction sucks. None of that happened. Instead, pretty much everything happened that I was afraid of, except worse.

Review #13: Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine

I downloaded Mockingbird from the library the other day, not really realizing that it was a YA book - actually it's a middle grade book - until I was in to it, and by then, I was in to it, and couldn't put it down. In fact, I finished it within a couple of days, even sneaking in a few minutes here and there at work. It grabbed me from the first page and didn't let go.


It also broke my heart.

Ten year old Caitlin is in the fifth grade. Her mother died when she was young, and her older brother Devon, who was her guide to the world, was killed in a school shooting last year, so now she only has her father, a widower who is having trouble seeing through his own veil of grief. Caitlin also has Asperger's, and over the course of the novel, we hear Caitlin's own voice explaining how she and her father are coping with moving forward and moving on. 

But moving forward from Devon's death isn't the only challenge in Caitlin's life. She still needs to navigate recess and lunchtime and school and group projects. She has a very patient school counselor in the form of Mrs. Brook, who is helping her to adjust to life without Devon as well as prepare for the future. And in an interesting twist, Caitlin befriends a first grader named Michael who is the son of a teacher who was killed in the same shooting as Devon. 

With Caitlin as the narrator, the reader is plunged headfirst in to her world, and for the first time, I felt like I maybe understood a tiny bit what it must be like to go through life, not just as a scared and confused kid, but as a scared and confused kid who also doesn't have all the "normal" tools available to her. From the outside, some of Caitlin's reactions and statements may look and sound bizarre, but from her perspective, they all made total and complete sense. And that's what elevates this book for me: Erskine so deftly pulls the reader in to Caitlin's world that she isn't "weird" or "different". What she is is a kid who is trying to cope, in a very honest way, with all the things that life is throwing at her. And isn't that what we're all trying to do, too?

It would be easy to lump this book in with the latest crop of Asperger's books. It seems like they're popping up all over the place, but this is more than just another "aspie book".  Some of the criticisms I read indicated that maybe there was too much going on, and there definitely is a lot happening: Asperger's, being "on the spectrum", school shootings, bullying, parental death, sibling death, coming of age, and it's also got some lovely homages to Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. But kids today do have a lot going on - we have only to turn on the news or look online to see that - so why shouldn't their books reflect that?
I don't think I'm going to like it at all. I think it's going to hurt. But after the hurt I think maybe something good and strong and beautiful will come out of it.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Review #12 : Irresistible, by Susan Mallery

Sometimes, a girl just needs a trashy romance novel on a rainy night, but I'm not sure this was the trashy romance novel I needed.
The storyline was okay, I suppose. Young, fiercely independent single mom Elissa Towers lives with her young daughter Zoe, making it on her own with no family to help, save for her elderly neighbor, who helps watch Zoe while Elissa works. Elissa has sworn off men until Zoe is out of the house, but then former U.S. Marine Walker Buchanan moves in upstairs, and the sparks begin to fly. But Walker has sworn off women, choosing instead to focus on finding the girlfriend of the buddy who took a bullet for him in Afghanistan, and so the two form a sort of tenuous, tentative friendship. Insert family meddling, family drama (Walker's grandmother is a piece of work and kind of a horrible old lady), a precocious five year old, an old lady neighbor who wants to play matchmaker, and Walker and Elissa have no choice, of course, but to wind up together.
Of course there has to be conflict, though, and there is. Walker's grandmother threatens to slut-shame Elissa, but she conveniently has a heart attack and is banished to the hospital for the rest of the book. Walker is haunted by the ghosts of the past; not only is he reliving the sights and sounds of war, but he's also still carrying guilt for leaving his dying girlfriend when they were seventeen, so of course this makes him unsuitable for consumption. And Elissa is hiding from Zoe's father, a sometime musician and sometime drug addict who turns up just often enough to give her grey hair and clean out her savings account.
But when Elissa's ex winds up back in town and beats up Elissa (and Zoe, by the way, which I really didn't feel comfortable with, not that any of those scenes were comfortable but beating up Zoe just felt like it went a bit too far; this is a romance novel, after all - the genre isn't really known for this type of stuff happening), Walker saves the day and all is right with the world, and of course they live happily ever after, complete with a truly bizarre scene in the hospital where Walker confirms to Zoe that he's her daddy now. Without, you know, consulting Elissa, which as the mama of a young girl (she's older than Zoe but still a kid), really set my teeth on edge. If Mike Rowe offered to marry me, I'd jump on that in a heartbeat, but the minute he announced to my daughter that he's her daddy now? Sorry, Mikey, but you're out. Hell, that holds true for even Jamie Fraser. Leave my kid out of it. That's a conversation that I have with her, not you. Make no mistake about that, buddy. 
Maybe I haven't read a contemporary romance in a while, but lots of other things bothered me with this story, although I can't quite put my finger on them. There were also an an awful lot of B-stories, which I'm sure are there to set up others in the series (thanks a lot, Nora Roberts, for starting that trend), and maybe that's part of it. And, honestly, Walker didn't really do it for me. I mean, I'd love to have a strapping young Marine change my tire (shirtless) while I watched (and drooled), but it didn't seem like there was a whole lot more to Walker. Sure, he was nice, and sensitive, and all those things, but... I don't know. He just seemed kind of simple. I think I just like my men a little bit more complicated. 

Review #11: Mohawk, by Richard Russo

I read Richard Russo's Empire Falls a few years ago and described it as a slow burn. I put it down several times, thinking I was bored with it, but after a few days, I found myself thinking about the characters and then devouring 150 pages at a time. Mohawk had the same effect on me, only reduced by about 50%.

Set in Mohawk, NY, a dying northern industrial town, Mohawk is very much like Empire Falls in that it's not really about anything other than the stories of the town's residents. There are unhappy marriages, unhappy wives, unhappy factory workers, unhappy waitresses...it seems as though the entire town is a little bit grey and downtrodden.

But that's classic Russo - stories about the quiet desperation that is played out in small towns across the country, towns that are hanging on by the barest of threads. Stories of the waitress who has worked at the same greasy diner for twenty years, serving men as they grow older with each cup of coffee she pours for them. Stories of the long suffering wife who harbors a secret crush on her cousin's husband, dreaming of the day when they can run away together, and then when the opportunity is finally there, when they can finally be together free of their spouses, she backs out and retreats to her mama's house. Stories of the town bookie who tries to pay a dead man's winnings to his widow, only to be greeted with scorn and suspicion. 

This wasn't Russo's best - in fact it almost felt like a practice novel for Empire Falls - but Russo at his worst is still a much better writer than most. 

Review #10: Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott

Charming Billy is a quiet little novel that takes place over the course of one day at Billy Lynch's wake. Our narrator is the adult daughter of Billy's best friend Dennis, and she is telling the story to her husband, who isn't at the funeral. It's an unusual narration, and one that took me quite awhile to figure out, but it works within the context of the story.


The story begins at a bar after the funeral, where approximately fifty mourners have gathered to eat roast beef and raise one final pint to their dear friend. Snippets of conversation allow the reader to deduce that Billy, for all his charm, was a drunk. Maeve, his long-suffering wife, sits at the head of the table with Dennis, Billy's cousin and the family patriarch, at her side, ready to save her should she need a rescue. For that's Dennis' role in Billy and Maeve's life - in everyone's lives, really - but especially for Billy and Maeve: to pick up Billy. Dennis has picked up Billy from barroom floors, the street, his own kitchen floor, helping Maeve drag Billy upstairs and in to bed, and finally, the morgue, as it was Dennis they called to identify Billy when he was found.

But Billy was indeed charming, as addicts so often can be, and so Dennis returned time and again, and Maeve forgave him time and again, and his friends loved him time and again, even after he gave up on AA, even after he showed up sauced one too many times. Billy was larger than life, again, as addicts so often can be, writing letters and poetry, always slightly in mourning for his lost first love Eva, an Irish girl he met the summer after the war. Billy was to marry Eva, but she died of pneumonia before she could return to the States, and even though he married Maeve years later, he still carried a torch for Eva. 
McDermott explores a lot of themes in this short novel - family ties, family lies, hope, heartbreak, the enduring power of love, the destruction that good intentions can sometimes create, and I think there's more than a little bit of exploration about how well we lie to ourselves. Her prose is almost lyrical; I'm always in awe of writers who can string together phrases that sound like music. This is the type of book that you curl up with on a rainy afternoon and you don't resurface until you've finished it.
Billy didn't need someone to pour him his drinks, he needed someone to tell him that living isn't poetry. It isn't prayer. To tell him and convince him. And none of us could do it because every one of us thought that as long as Billy believed it was, as long as he kept himself believing it, then maybe it could still be true.