"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

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review #9: The Queen's Fool, by Philippa Gregory

The Queen's Fool is one of those books that sat on my bookshelf for awhile, getting passed over time and again for something else. I don't know if it was the cover (it does look a little romance-y) or the blurb on the back, but it never really jumped out and demanded to be read. Then one day, I found myself reaching for it, and I couldn't put it down.

Set during the tumultuous years after King Edward's death in the sixteenth century, the novel tells the story of Hannah Green, a young Jewish girl who escaped Spain and the Inquisition with her father, but not her mother, who was executed before they left. Hannah is hired as a fool for the young and inexperienced Queen Mary, and is immediately swept in to the intrigue that surrounds the palace and the royal court. Half in love with Robert Dudley, one of the palace consorts, unsure of her place - and safety - in the court, forced to keep her father's profession as a printer secret, forced to keep her identity as a Jew secret, and tempted to defect to Elizabeth's court, Hannah's loyalty to Mary is tested at every turn.

I'm not a sixteen-century English historian - my knowledge of that era is limited to what I can vaguely remember from junior year literature, a handful of movies, and some trashy romance novels - but Gregory paints Tudor London with such a vivid brush that I found myself wanting to learn more about these characters, these kings and queens and consorts and fools and spies who really existed. And that, I think, is the mark of a great story.

Review #8: Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

One of my closest friends hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) a few years ago. She's an experienced hiker; she did the Appalachian Trail a few years prior to that. (And we're talking through-hike. All eleventy million miles of it. Both the AT and the PCT. This is something I would never do. I don't pee outside, let alone hike. I'm not really sure how it is we're friends.) Anyway, my hiker friend happened to be visiting while I was reading Wild, and I asked her whether she'd read it, what she thought of it. She paused for a moment, gathered her thoughts, and then said, "I liked the book. I'm not sure I liked her, though." And that sums up my feelings about this memoir pretty succinctly.

Cheryl Strayed weaves a good story. She knows how to grab her reader from the beginning by starting out with a story of the forest literally swallowing her boot, leaving her stuck in the woods with nothing but crappy camp sandals, which are little more than knock off Tevas you can pick up at a gas station. Hardly conducive to hiking fifteen miles a day. With this opening anecdote, the reader realizes that Cheryl is a mess, both literally and figuratively.

Reconstructed from her trail journals, Strayed bounces back and forth from her journey to the events that led her to take those first steps in California. She details the tragic death of her mother at 45, the demise of her marriage, the actions that brought about her divorce, her struggle with drugs (heroin - this girl doesn't mess around), and her general feeling of being directionless. She describes the PCT, its wildness and unpredictability, her backpack Monster and the PCT itself almost becoming characters in their own right. Interestingly, it's the other people she meets on the trail - and who only appear for brief moments - that are the most brightly painted, not her family or her friends or her ex-husband, all of whom are written about pretty extensively.

I found Strayed difficult to sympathize with, but perhaps that's the thirty-something in me losing patience with the twenty-something Cheryl. I was shocked at her unpreparedness. This is a girl who had camped but never hiked, who did little to no research beyond buying a book and talking to people at REI, and who walked in to the woods with no direction, no plan, and no money. Perhaps that was the point, but she was so unprepared that, quite frankly, I'm a little surprised she survived. Luckily, and I wish she had spent more time on this, several people helped her out along the way, and by that I mean, taught her what she needed to bring, gave her food, helped her with shelter, and generally did things that kept her alive. 

Wild is touted as a journey from lost to found on the PCT, and I know without a doubt that she was lost when she went in to the woods. But I'm not sure she's as found as she thinks she is. Maybe none of us are.

Not Writing...

...my reviews. I've been reading, I swear, but actually writing? Turns out I'm not good at staying on top of that.

So I wrote two reviews today, and hopefully (hopefully hopefully hopefully), I'll get back on track.

With reviews and, you know, everything else.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Review #7: Divergent, by Verionica Roth

I feel like everyone on the planet has read this book, so I'm not sure what else I can add to the discussion. We all know the story by now: a dystopian Chicago, teenagers who have to choose their faction - and their future as well, the brave young girl who goes against the grain, the realization that we may not all fit in to one neat little box, the older mentor she sort of falls in love with, the sacrifices of the parents.

I recognize that I'm not the target audience because I'm well over the age that YA authors are writing for, but it is nice to see a book that's not about vampires, a book that doesn't have a stupid girl in it, and a book that shows strong characters, both male and female, So often, I feel like the "strong girl books" paint the boys as weak, and that's as damaging as when we write weak females. I get so tired of the notion that either the girl or the boy have to be strong, that theyt can't be both, and that strong characters can't show weakness. Real people are weak and strong at the same time, and we need to teach our kids that it's okay to be both.

A friend (a high school English teacher, actually) recommended Divergent to me, telling me it was loads better than Hunger Games. I'm not sure I agree, and I don't really think the two can compare. They both have a strong female lead, but I felt like they were very different books. I enjoyed Divergent, but I also wasn't 100% compelled to rush right out and read the other two books in the series. I'll eventually get around to it, I'm sure, but I didn't need to immediately find out what happens.

Review #6: The Chase, by Janet Evanovich & Lee Goldberg

Oh, Janet. I love you. I love your slightly control freak women who don't exactly have a handle on their lives, your devilishly handsome men who like to live in the grey area of morality, and most especially, the wacky hijinks you cook up.

The Chase picks up where The Heist left off, with FBI Special Agent Kate O'Hare and master criminal Nick Fox (get it with the names?) secretly teaming up to recover a Chinese artifact that has gone missing. See, the Chinese loaned the US a bronze rooster awhile ago, and a rich Chinese guy wanted it back. Sure, no problem, except the rooster's a fake; the real one was stolen years ago. Nick hatches a plan, but you know what they say about best laid plans. Shenanigans ensue, and some of the old B characters come back for a cameo. My favorites are Kate's dad, a former Army Ranger (or something like that) who lives in his other daughter's garage, but can still, at 60+, save the day in a helicopter with a knife strapped to his thigh, and Wilma, a blowsy broad who can drive, pilot, fly, or steer just about anything.

This isn't a particularly challenging book, the mystery isn't a deep psychological thriller, but sometimes I don't want that. Sometimes, I want to read to escape, and Janet lets me do that when she takes me in to her weird, wacky worlds. Plus, also, Nick is kind of hot, so that helps. (Not Ranger hot - because nobody is - but I wouldn't kick him out of bed, and sometimes a girl needs to have a pretend white collar criminal boyfriend.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Review #5: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

It's impossible to review this book without spoilers, but since I think I'm the last person on Earth to read this, I'm not too worried I'm going to upset anyone. Either way, fair warning: spoilers ahead.

Told in alternate voices, a technique I'm not a huge fan of, Gone Girl details the disappearance of Amy Dunne, the beautiful, smart wife of Nick Dunne, on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. Naturally, Nick is the prime suspect, because the husband is always guilty, but, like any good guilty husband, Nick proclaims his innocence. Of course, it's a lot harder to look innocent when it turns out that you've spent the last year sexing up one of your community college students. One of your very young, very immature community college students. And it certainly doesn't help that your wife is actually alive, has actually faked her own disappearance and death, and is a complete and utter psychopath.

Gone Girl was a runaway hit a couple of years ago, and Boss finally convinced me to read it. The beginning grabbed me right away, and then when I figured out what a total whackjob Amy Dunne was, I was really interested. But Flynn started to lose me long about the time Amy befriended the two drifters at the campground, and when Amy called her old pal Desi (also a total nutterbutter) for help, I felt like she had lost sight of who Amy really was.

I know that much has been made of the ending, and while I wasn't nuts about it, I also don't know how else Flynn could have wrapped this all up. It felt like she wrote Amy in to a corner when Desi showed up, and didn't quite know how to get out of it.

Gone Girl was good, but I felt it could be better. The potential was there for a really chilling story, and I just wasn't as impressed as I wanted to be. Perhaps if it hadn't had so much hype for so long, I would have enjoyed the story more. Still, I'd recommend it as a good read. And the movie looks like it's going to be great.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Kidnapped by Pirates

Well, not really. But between the pirate invasion (really? we need a month long festival of pirates that involves not one, not two, but three parades? ), an Indian a Native American invasion (we do like our invasions down here in Florida), an impending office move, Boss being, well, see the aforementioned office move, and the Kid being her usual Cat 5 hurricane, I haven't had time to write any reviews.

Plus, all those pirate events required rum. Lots of rum. Rum, as it turns out, is not conducive to writing, unless you're Papa Hemingway.

But I have been reading - I swear it!

Stay tuned for reviews of the next Outlander book (which, my mom is on book six (!!!) and really mad that I haven't made it that far, so something big must happen), Divergent, Twilight and Beautiful Bastard (there's a story there!), a couple of funny trashy romance novels, a really bad rapey romance novel that I might not be able to finish, and an Anne Rivers Siddons novel, now with even more mental illness. After all that, I need some wacky capers, so I'm reading the latest Janet Evanovich. It's not Stephanie, but it's the FBI agent Kate O'Hare and the con artist Nick Fox. I'm sad to say it's taken me until this book to figure out the whole The Fox and the Hare thing with the names.

The pirates have finally left on their ship, so I swear I'll write reviews this week.


Unless Mike Rowe comes dressed as a pirate (or, you know, dressed as anything) to kidnap me.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Review #4: Dragonfly in Amber, by Diana Gabaldon

The second book in Diana Gabaldon's best-selling Outlander series, Dragonfly in Amber opens in present day (well, late 1960s, I think, if I do the math correctly, but more present day than eighteenth century). Claire has returned to Scotland after her husband Frank's death, and she's brought her daughter, tall red haired Brianna, with her. The trip is ostensibly a mother-daughter vacation, but Claire is actually looking for a way to tell Brianna that her real father is Jamie Fraser, the man Claire married in Scotland...two hundred years ago.

Exiled from Scotland, Jamie and Claire find their way to France, where Jaime is to take over temporarily for his cousin Jared, a wealthy, well-connected wine merchant. Together, they enter a world of court espionage and intrigue, working to foil Bonnie Prince Charlie's attempts to take the Scottish throne. The reader is introduced to Lord John Grey (a character who spawned his own series), Fergus, a young, nimble French boy rescued from a brothel (and the evils of Jack Randall), and Geillis Duncan, a woman who has a secret just as shocking as Claire's.

But Claire and Jamie's attempts to thwart the rebellion and the subsequent slaughter of the Scottish clans appear unsuccessful, and suddenly they find themselves on the field at Culloden, where so many Scots are to die. Jamie, resigned to his fate, forces Claire back through the stones, where she returns to her life with Frank, pregnant with Jamie's daughter.

This second installment wanders a bit more than the first, but Jamie and Claire's love story is just as intense as when we first met them in Outlander. They come together and fall apart, but they always, always are connected. Once again, theirs is a true partnership, one that stands out even more starkly against the backdrop of a time when women were not seen as equals. And their love is one that, quite literally, stands the test of time.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Review #3: Labor Day, by Joyce Maynard

I finished this book a week or two ago, but I've sat on the review, because I'm haven't been sure of what to say. Labor Day appeared to be a quick, quiet little read, given to me by Boss, who said he thought I'd breeze right through it. He didn't appear to have any thoughts either way about the book; he enjoyed it, but I don't think it necessarily struck a chord with him.

It did with me, though. And that was very, very unexpected.

Labor Day is told from the perspective of thirteen-year-old Henry and largely takes place over the four days of Labor Day weekend sometime in the mid-80s. Henry lives alone with his mother Adele, a woman who Maynard paints with such a fragile brush that I'm afraid to breathe loudly when I read her scenes. Henry, in an attempt to get Adele out of the house, convinces her they need to go to the store, and, once there, runs in to Frank, a man who just escaped from prison via his hospital room window. Frank is injured, and Henry, in the way that only kids who haven't been raised in the Age of Instant News About Missing Children can, conspires to have his mother secret him away to their house.

Adele, surprisingly, agrees to this idea, and together she and Henry bring Frank home. Adele cleans his wounds, and Henry begins to witness a mysterious, unspoken bond between his mother and Frank. Suddenly, Henry realizes that no matter what he does, or how much he loves her, there are some things he will never be able to provide for his mother.

At the time I was too young to understand the part of being Husband for a Day I was not equipped to carry out, but in another way I think I sensed my own terrible inadequacy and it was the knowledge of this that weighed on me, when I lay in my narrow bed in my small room, next to hers, the walls between us so thin it was almost as if she were there with me. I could feel her loneliness and longing, before I had a name for it. It had probably never been about my father really. Looking at him now, it was hard to imagine he could ever have been worthy of her. What she had loved was loving.

It's just The Kid and me living together; I divorced her father two years ago, and we separated nearly two years before that. We've been pretty much on our own for four years, with, it should be said, lots of loving family around. But at the end of the day, it's just the two of us, and that's been an adjustment, at times more for one of us than the other. The Kid is an empathetic soul, and in the four years we've been on our own, we've developed an almost a psychic connection. We can communicate with one look, and we each know how the other feels about something at any given moment. (We don't hide feelings in this house - we couldn't if we tried!) Luckily for her, I'm (hopefully) not as fragile as Adele, although I'm sure I've had my moments, but she's a lot like Henry. In many ways this thrills me; Henry is a smart, resourceful, kind, generous young boy. But in a lot of ways this worries me, for Henry often turns inward, repressing his emotions in a futile quest to make his mother happy. As a mom, I worry that she does that as well, and I never want her to put my happiness in front of hers. It should be the other way around.

I honestly think that if I didn't have a child, or if I did but wasn't divorced, this would have been a quick, simple read, enjoyed but promptly forgotten. But, for both the reasons detailed above and too many more to list, Maynard's quiet, spare little story about a boy and his mom made me take a second look at my own relationship with my child, and realize that everything I do, both the big Parenting Moments and all of the tiny, little, unrealized acts, affects her in ways I never thought possible.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review #2: The Temptation of Lila and Ethan, by Jessica Sorensen

I've written before about "New Adult" and what crap it is, but I keep reading it because I never learn. I want it to be the equivalent of hangover watching Dirty Dancing on TBS while waiting for your roommate's boyfriend to come back with hangover McDonald's with a big fat hangover diet Coke, but it's not. It's not at all. It's like discovering that Dirty Dancing has been replaced with, I don't know, sports or something, and your roommate's boyfriend got you a regular Coke instead of a diet, and now you have to put on a bra and go get one yourself. Not that I ever had that experience in my early twenties. Ahem.

But I'm done. I'm breaking up with "New Adult". (And yes, I'm going to keep using quotation marks because I refuse to recognize this as a real genre.)

Anyway, on to the story. Lila's a poor little rich girl who developed a pill habit thanks to her mom introducing her to them at the age of fourteen, after Lila disgraced the family by sleeping with an older man. And by sleeping with, I really mean date-raped, and being tied up while that happened, which resulted in scars on her wrists, ankles, and belly. Lila's twenty at the time of the story, so all I could think about was that I was pretty sure that rope burn doesn't last six years. Anyway, the tied up rape sex and Lila's crappy parents make her drink and pop pills and have indiscrimate sex with random men.

The story needs a hero and he arrives in the form of Ethan, who rides in in his truck to pick up Lila and save her from the walk of shame. Lila wants Ethan, but Ethan made it clear early on that they are just friends. Ethan doesn't want to have any sort of relationship because his dad used to hit his mom (but now he doesn't and his parents are still together), and because his last relationship was with a heroin addict named London who now has amnesia and can't remember Ethan.

I finished this book yesterday, and I honestly cannot remember the circumstances that finally got Lila and Ethan to Do It, so that should tell you everything you need to know. And I can't remember the sex scenes, so they can't have been that great. It's also part of a series, which I didn't know when I pulled it off NetGalley, and while the last chapter gives Lila and Ethan a conclusion, it also reads like the preview chapter of the next book, and it feels very gimmicky.

A lot of things bother me about "New Adult" - the smelly loser-ish guys, the extra dumb girls, the lack of any kind of decent parental figure, the message that if you just love each other enough, you can survive on minimum wage jobs forever - but what bothers me the most is the writing. It's bad. I don't know how else to say it, other than it's really, really, really bad. I once had a teacher spend several class periods on written language versus conversational language versus street language, and I never forgot that lesson. It's a lesson some of these "New Adult" writers need to learn.

Review #1: Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon

I first read Outlander about fifteen years or so ago. My mom gave it to me, saying, "I know you don't like time travel, but just get over that, and read this book." Rarely does my mom do that, but when she does, she hits the mark. In fact, she gave me Harry Potter in much the same way, about four months before it exploded, saying, "Stick with it. Trust me."  After hearing about the upcoming series on Starz, and discovering it was only $1.99 for an e-reader edition, I realized I needed to take a little trip to the Scottish Highlands.

And I'm glad I did. Jamie's just as delicious as I remember, and Claire is just as smart and fiesty. The characters come to life as easily as they did the first time around, and the reader is transported back to eighteenth century Scotland just as quickly as Claire was when she stepped through the stones at Craig na Dun.

For the uninitiated, Gabaldon's story begins in 1945, with British nurse Claire Randall on a second honeymoon with her history buff husband Frank. Though they've been together for years, the war has kept them apart, and Claire and Frank are just beginning to settle in to married life. On a solitary walk near a stone circle, Claire is whisked through a time portal and finds herself in Scotland in 1743, at the height of the British and Scottish fighting. Through a series of events, Claire finds herself with Jamie Fraser, a young Scottish warrior fighting to clear his name and return to his land. Together, they must face the truly evil Lord John Randall (Frank's ancestor), keep each other safe, and try to find a way for Claire to return to her own time.

One of the things I love about this series is how well it blends the "prince saves the girl" storyline with a strong female lead. Yes, Jamie saves Claire - quite often, in fact - but Claire is no slouch, and she pulls off several clever and daring rescues. As fierce a warrior as Jamie is, he needs Claire, and as intelligent and strong as Claire is, she needs him, too. They truly are a team, and that's not something you often see in stories like this.

The beauty of this book lies in its characters. The story is good, to be sure, but the characters are what elevates this book from good to excellent. Jamie, Claire, and the entire cast are strong, brave, smart, and resilient, but they are also flawed, and Gabaldon doesn't shy away from exposing those flaws.

I also read the author's interview, and I found it interesting that Gabaldon wrote Outlander "just to see if [she] could". I'm glad she decided to take the leap.