"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, December 31, 2015

Review #38: Can you keep a secret?, by Sophia Kinsella

I confess I'm not a fan of the Shopaholic books. I tried one and I just couldn't get in to it. I don't mind books with heroines who are a little bit of a mess - I actually quite enjoy them because it reminds me that it's okay that I'm a little bit of a mess - but there was just something about the Shopaholic books that I just couldn't deal with. So I've always resisted Sophia Kinsella's other books, thinking that they would be similar to Shopaholic. But I was recently desperate for something to read on a very long plane ride, and I snagged Can You Keep a Secret? from my friend's bookshelf.
And it wasn't terrible. In fact, I kind of got in to the story, and it kept me busy during the long hours of sitting in the middle seat on a flight from Anchorage to Seattle with a weird smelly old man on the aisle (who insisted his wife was "just fine alone" in the middle seat behind us even though the relatively good looking and probably not stinky at all man who was sitting in the aisle behind me offered to switch with him), and my kid at the window (who watched Wizards of Waverly Place on repeat). I'm not a frequent flyer. Clearly.
Anyway, I digress. When Can You Keep a Secret? opens, Emma is on an airplane, in first class. (I was not in first class, sadly.) Emma is not a good flyer and she's chugging cocktails in an effort to calm her fears. Of course, there is a gorgeous American man sitting next to her (not at all like the weird smelly old man I was sitting next to), and when the plane hits turbulence, Emma has a meltdown, thinks she's going to die, and spills all her secrets to her seatmate, including the fact that she doesn't think she loves her boyfriend, she's wearing a g-string that's two sizes too small (ow), she hates her job, including several coworkers and the coffee maker, and she kind of sort of fudged her resume just a smidge. Gorgeous American Man picks her up, calms her down, gets her another mimosa, the plane lands safely, and they bid an awkward goodbye.
And then GAM shows up at Emma's office. Turns out, his name is Jack Harper and he's the owner of the company she works for. Turns out, Emma told her boss that she was wearing too-small knickers and hates her job and kind of sort of fudged her resume. Turns out, Emma kind of wants to crawl in a hole and hide for fifty years.
But Jack takes it all in stride, taking Emma under his wing a bit, quietly replacing the hated coffee maker, putting the awful coworkers in their place, and dishing out romantic advice on how best to handle her boring boyfriend. Jack presents his interest as just wanting a friendship, but Emma senses that he wants something more, and she's not mistaken. And Emma, for her part, can't stop thinking about Jack.
Of course, no romance would be complete without a Big Misunderstanding, and there is one in the form of Jack spilling some of Emma's secrets on national television, and then there's another in the form of a reporter trying to trick Emma in to spilling some of Jack's secrets. 
But in the end, of course, they come together, and everything is happy ever after, as if there was ever any doubt. The feminist in me had some troubling moments with the story; Jack is, after all, Emma's boss and she was in very real fear of losing her job, so in real life, some of the story wasn't cool, but it's fiction, it's a romance novel paperback, and I was an a four hour flight. I was willing to overlook things like possible sexual harassment. Plus, I kind of love books set in London, thanks to Bridget Jones. Jack wasn't Mark Darcy (no one is Mark Darcy), but he certainly wasn't Daniel Cleaver, either, so Emma didn't make out too terribly bad.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Review #37: Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer

I'm going to Alaska next week because my best friend is getting married. A couple of friends are coming with me, along with their son and The Kid.  Somehow or other, I got conned in to agreeing to go camping in Denali during this trip. And not even in a cabin, but outside. In a tent. With a sleeping bag. On the ground. With, you know, bears and moose. I've gone nearly 40 years without peeing outside; I have a real fear that streak may be broken next month, much to the Kid's utter amusement and my total dismay.

In other words, I'm not really the outdoorsy type. 

So Into the Wild is not my kind of book. A book about camping? Backcountry exploring? I can't identify with people who willingly wander off in to the woods to climb icy mountains with sheer faces. On the surface I get the adventurous aspect of it, but my adventurousness runs more to a road trip with no hotel reservations. But this book grabbed me and didn't let me go, and I was amazed at how quickly I was caught up in the story.

Chris McCandless - aka Alexander Supertramp - is a young boy just out of college when he disappears in to the Alaskan wilderness in the spring of 1992 and never returns. Months later, his body is found wrapped in a sleeping bag his mother sewed for him, tucked in to the back of an abandoned bus that is used by hikers and hunters as sort of a way station in a remote section of the woods on the edge of Denali National Park. What happened between him setting off on his last adventure and the discovery of his body is a mystery that will most likely never be solved, but how he died becomes less important as the story goes on. Filled with stories of Chris' adventures as a young boy and of other adventurers who walked in to the wild and never returned, this nonfiction account reads like a suspense novel and I devoured the book over the course of a couple of nights.

This is a heartbreaking story. The reader knows from the outset that Chris doesn't survive. Reading his journal entries and the reconstruction of his final days was difficult, knowing that he would soon be dead. Chris seemed very lost to me, someone who should have been born in another time perhaps, someone who didn't quite fit in to "normal" society, someone who simultaneously needed to be alone and surround himself with people. He was a drifter, picking up odd jobs here and there as he made his way north, and it seems as though he made a positive impression on everyone he came in contact with. He was definitely searching for something, and I can only hope that he found a few moments of peace towards the end. and while I'm sure that starvation is not an easy death, there are indications that one of the possible contributing factors to Chris' death may have also brought a sense of euphoria. For Chris' sake - and that of his parents - I hope that's true.

It's a romantic notion, going off on one's own, becoming one with the earth, with nature, living off the land and one's wits. Even I (in very, very, very, very faint tones) hear that call. But then I think that I'd miss things like indoor plumbing and air conditioning and diet Coke. And, as JB said the other night when we talked about this book, I'd miss my mom. Reading the epilogue, where Chris' parents hike out to the bus to see the place their son spent his final days, tore my heart out, both as a daughter and as a parent. The moment that started the tears flowing was when Krakauer described Chris' mom leaving a suitcase stocked with survival supplies in the bus, alongside a note that read "call your parents as soon as possible". I know from Sophia's review of Chris' sister's book The Wild Truth that the McCandless family wasn't always filled with sweetness and light, but no parent deserves to not know where their child is, and I can't imagine what Chris' parents went through during the months he was wandering.

Krakauer is an excellent narrator for Chris' story. He tells it like it is, never glossing over what I'm sure were painful memories for his family, and the family definitely deserves kudos as well for being so open and honest in their interviews with Krakauer. His books have been turning up in my life lately - Boss just finished Missoula and a few Cannonballers have excellently reviewed MissoulaInto Thin Air, and Under the Banner of Heaven. I'd like to add Into the Wild to that growing list. This is the book I wanted Wild to be, and I'll definitely be adding Krakauer's other books to my TBR list.

I originally wrote this review before I left, but a flurry of packing and work and sewing projects left it unpublished. I got back last week and am just now getting around to posting reviews. I'm too lazy to rewrite the review, but I want to add two things. One, I survived camping. Camping, it turns out, kind of sucks. Actually, camping itself isn't too bad. It's the sleeping on the ground thing that I didn't like, in a tiny two person tent with the Kid, who decided that my bladder was an excellent pillow. I thought we gave that up after she exited the womb, but apparently not. Bonus points though, that I made it to an actual bathroom each time and didn't have to break my I've-never-peed-outside streak. 

Two, while I was there, I went to 49th State Brewing in Healy, just north of Denali. (Crazy amazing Scotch and whiskey selection, plus beer, plus yak burgers. How can you go wrong?) They have the bus used in the Into the Wild movie in the corner of their patio area. While I know it's just a replica - the real bus remains 20 miles in to the wilderness, and they highly recommend a guide if you want to go - it was a sobering experience to see it. It's small, much smaller than I thought it would be, maybe twice the length of a VW van. It's run down and the windows are broken. The floor is a termite's wet dream. The cot in the back looks like it's been chewed by bears and slept on by too many unwashed bodies, and all I could think about was McCandless' joy at having an actual bed when he saw it. There are copies of photos and journal pages, along with the infamous last postcard - "I now walk into the wild" - hung along the top of the bus walls. His handwriting seemed almost familiar, the carefully printed letters, straight and neat, even the entries towards the end of his life. I saw a lot of things on this trip - whales and bear and moose and caribou and mountains and the sheer enormity and power of Mother Nature - but seeing this bus will remain with me for a long time.

Review #36: The Last Child

This came to me from JB, who has an affinity for coming-of-age stories, and although this mystery certainly doesn't seem like one on the surface, I can't think of a better way to categorize it.

A year ago, twelve year old Alyssa Merrimon disappeared, seen being pulled in to a van by Jack Cross, the son of a local policeman. Alyssa's father, feeling responsible for the disappearance because he was late picking her up, runs off shortly afterward. Alyssa's mother, unable to cope with the disappearance of her daughter and the subsequent abandonment by her husband, turns inward, relying on booze and pills to get her through the day, making her very easy prey for a manipulative and abusive former boyfriend. And Alyssa's twin brother Johnny is left to desperately hold the pieces of his family together and bring his sister home.

Convinced that Alyssa is still alive, Johnny scours the county for her, stalking the registered sex offenders, determined to find her. Running parallel to Johnny is Detective Clyde Hunt, the lead detective on Alyssa's case. Johnny's gotten under Hyde's skin - the whole family has, really - but he's no closer to finding Alyssa than Johnny is.

Then, on the anniversary of Alyssa's kidnapping, another girl goes missing, and Johnny's actions set off a chain of events that will change countless lives.

I can't stress enough how much I enjoyed this book, and more than that, how well crafted it was. Mystery novels are often described as "chilling" or "gripping" or "shocking" or having "edge of your seat drama". All of those phrases seem trite, but they are absolutely accurate in regard to The Last Child. Johnny's story grabbed me from the beginning and didn't let go, and as the novel wore on, the faster I read it, both frantic to get to the next page and reluctant to reach the end. It's extraordinarily rare to find a mystery novel that keeps the reader guessing until the very end, and even more so to find one that so skillfully introduces a B story that surprises the reader as well. Hunt's characters are well drawn, and Johnny - described by one reviewer as "an amalgam of Opie Taylor and Scout Finch with a hint of Huck Finn" (Raleigh News & Observer) - is a boy who will stay with me for a long time to come. This is easily one of my favorite books of the year.

Review #35: Landline, by Rainbow Rowell

I've been sitting on this review for a while because I'm not really sure how I feel about this book. (Well, that, plus I'm lazy. And real life keeps interrupting. And the Kid wants food, like, every day, and Boss expects me to be sort of productive at work, so... book reviews tend to fall to the wayside at times.) In any event, I'm not sure how I feel about Landline. I loved Attachments, which was my first Rowell book, and I feel that if you didn't love Eleanor & Park, you just aren't human. But Landline... I don't know.

By now you know the synopsis. TV writer Georgie McCool and her BFF from college Seth finally have an opportunity to get their own show, the way they want it, which is an opportunity they've been waiting for for years. The only hitch: they have to knock out several episodes in under a couple of weeks, and it falls right over the Christmas holidays, and right over the time where Georgie, her husband Neal, and their two daughters are supposed to be at Neal's mom's house in Omaha. Georgie feels like she needs to stay behind and realize her dream, and Neal takes the girls to Omaha without her. Unsteady and unsure of the state of her marriage, Georgie begins to teeter emotionally and winds up at her mom's house, where she plugs in her old landline phone to call Neal... and when she does, she reaches the Neal of the past, before they were married, before kids and jobs and the history of a million little hurts came between them.

It's an interesting concept, this magical phone, and it's a testament to Rowell's clever writing that at no point does the reader ever say, "What the hell? A magical phone???" You just sort of buy in to it, and you have to know that there's no explanation ever given for this phone, by the way, which sort of irked me, but at the same time, it's a fiction novel, and I'm willing to suspend my disbelief for a little while because it's Rainbow and I love Rainbow (in a totally non-stalker way of course).

At times, it feels like there's nothing really wrong in Georgie and Neal's marriage. Nobody cheated, nobody is running around lying or spending money they don't have. There's just a general malaise. Georgie feels unimportant and unnecessary, and Neal feels unappreciated. But sometimes, that general malaise can be more devastating to a relationship than the nuclear bomb of something like an affair. It's more insidious, I think, and sometimes, I wonder if it's harder to undo. At times, I wanted to grab Georgie and scream at her, telling her she has to realize how unhappy Neal is, and ask how she could possibly choose her career over her family like that. But then I'd think, well, men do that all the time, and nobody would expect Neal to be there Christmas morning if the roles were reversed, so why shouldn't she get to chase her dream? And I got very frustrated with Neal: he made the decision to stay home, to take the role of the primary parent, and if he is unhappy in that role, then it's time to have a conversation with Georgie about it. But he's trying, in his way, to be the supportive spouse, to help her realize her dream, and so he gets points for that.

There are no clear winners here. If Georgie gives up her dream of this show to stay home with Neal and the kids and have a more "normal" existence, then she's giving up something she's wanted for years. And if she chases her dream, she risks losing Neal, the kids, and everything she thought she wanted. And it doesn't appear that there's a compromise available, at least not right now. Because we all know how it goes. One spouse promises that it will "only be for a year", but that one year turns in to two, turns in to seven, and before you know it, you're ships passing in the night, and you can't stand each other, and the marriage goes out not with a bang, but with a whimper. So how do you fix that? Can you fix that? Do you even want to? Or is this just how it's supposed to be? 

I don't know the answer to that. My marriage went out with a bang, not a whimper, but if I'm honest, there was some whimpering before the final implosion. So I'm definitely not the expert here. And I don't think Georgie is either. Actually, I know Georgie isn't, and neither is Neal. Maybe none of us are.

I've written and rewritten this review a hundred times. (Not really a hundred. But a lot.) And I still don't know how I feel about it. A Cannonball reviewer I read awhile ago (and I can't find it now, of course) said recently that a book hit too close to home for her to be objective abut it, and I think maybe that's my problem with Landline. It hit too close to home, but in subtle ways. I certainly am not a show runner, and my former husband is definitely no Neal, but some of the underlying angst and resentment that they felt...I quite identified with that. Maybe Landline just picked at old wounds. I still love Rainbow, but I don't think I'll revisit this one.

Review #34: When I Found You, by Catherine Ryan Hyde

I snagged When I Found You from JB's bookshelf. The book had been a gift from someone, and the inscription inside mentioned that it was a story about true unconditional love. And it is. When I Found You is a story about the bonds between humans, about the unspoken connection we sometimes find in other people, about the strength and patience it takes to love someone, even (and especially) when they are most unlovable.

Accountant Nathan McCann is out duck hunting one chilly fall morning when he and his dog stumble across the body of an infant, wrapped in a sweater and wearing a tiny knit cap, at the base of a tree. Shocked, Nathan assumes at first that the baby is dead, but then notices movement, and as carefully and quickly as possible leaves his shotgun behind and rushes to the hospital. The doctors don't give the baby good odds - he's brand new and it was a cold night - but the baby survives, and Nathan tells his wife he wants to adopt him. His wife flatly refuses, although his desires are rendered moot when the boy's grandmother steps in. Nathan makes the grandmother promise to keep him apprised of the baby's progress, and the grandmother reluctantly agrees, even naming the child Nat in a sort of homage to his savior.

Fifteen years go by, years that see Nathan burying his wife, and checking on Nat, delivering presents on his birthday and Christmas, but never making contact with the boy until one day, the grandmother appears on Nathan's doorstep with Nat, saying that she is washing her hands of him, and surrendering him to Nathan. Nathan simply opens the door wider, pulling Nat in to the house, as the grandmother drives away without so much as a backward glance. Nat is understandably angry, sullen, and scared. He's a fifteen year old boy who has been lied to and abandoned, not just at birth, but again at fifteen, and so he retreats in to himself. Nathan, for his part, is woefully unprepared to deal with Nat's needs, particularly in the first fragile moments, but he approaches the situation with the same calm resolve that he approaches everything else in life. And as Nat grows - often with two steps forward and three steps back - Nathan is there to guide him every step of the way, with his simple advice and his steady heart.

Nathan is an extraordinarily patient man. He loves Nat in the way that parents love their children: inexplicably, and with every single breath. Nat, in the way of teenagers everywhere, throws that love back at him, testing him at every turn, but Nathan is steady, unwavering, and even when a Nat experiences a life-changing event - more than one, actually - Nathan is there. This could have easily turned in to a sappy Hallmark story, full of wise words from Nathan and wise-ass moves from Nat. "Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates," and all that nonsense. But Hyde deftly avoids the Very Special Episode Syndrome and instead gives the reader a story that feels honest and true, and she doesn't shy away from the ugliness that happens when we hurt the ones we love.

Someone once told me that having children is like having someone break your heart in to a million pieces every day, and every day, picking it up, giving it back to them, saying, "Again". To be fair, it's not always like that. Lots of times it's perfectly nice having a child, and lots of times it's about the most awesome experience in the world, but there are also times - many, many times - that my heart has been shattered, and I have picked it up, given it back to the Kid, and whispered, "Again". When I Found You is Nat, breaking Nathan's heart over and over again, and Nathan, picking up the pieces and saying, "Again".

Read this. Have tissues. Lots and lots of tissues.

Reviews #31 - 33: The Stars of Mirtha Trilogy, by Nora Roberts

Nora can usually be counted on for a halfway decent trilogy. Sure, it's predictable. Sure, the timeline of true love is sped up. Sure, there's always some Horrible Danger. Sometimes it's an otherworldly type of danger, just to mix things up, like a werewolf or a witch or something. Sure, the men are always perfect physical specimens, tall and lanky, funny, totally at ease with women in distress, and not at all freaked out at the thought of marrying what amounts to a total stranger. But it's Nora, so I can look past that. Sometimes I need the predictability, especially when I'm holed up in the house on a rainy Saturday.

But this trilogy? I don't know, you guys. I just couldn't get behind it. Maybe it's cause I read all three in one sitting. Maybe it's cause they were more like novellas and not her usual 300 pages. Maybe it's cause it was pretty unbelievable, even for Nora.

The first entry, Hidden Star, introduces us to Bailey James, a cool blonde who has amnesia, and has turned up on the doorstep of rugged (of course he's rugged) P.I Cade Parris. She's got a million dollars in cash, a gun, and a blue diamond the size of her fist. What she doesn't know is that she's left behind a body or two, as well as two best friends who are searching for her. Oh, also? Bailey's a virgin. But of course the sex is amazing because Cade knows just what to do. 

The second entry, Captive Star, brings us Bailey's best friend MJ, who meets bounty hunter Jack Dakota when he tries to bring her in for jumping bail. The trouble is, MJ has never been arrested, and they quickly figure out that they've both been set up. MJ is busy looking for her best friend Bailey and doesn't have time for Jack, but Jack has Knight In Shining Armor Syndrome, so once he realizes MJ is in trouble, he decides to stick with her till he can solve the mystery of who is after her, and why she has a blue diamond the size of her fist.

The final book, Secret Star, unveils Bailey and MJ's other best friend Grace, a world famous heiress who is supposed to be the dead body on the floor in front of Lieutenant Seth Buchannan but is instead standing right in front of him. Grace also has a blue diamond the size of her fist, in addition to a dead body on the floor of her mansion. And even though the good lieutenant makes it crystal clear that he's sworn off women, especially the (misunderstood) spoiled little rich girl type, Grace has her sights set on Seth, and she's not taking no for an answer.

Usually Nora writes these in order, so that the mystery isn't really solved until the final installment, but I kind of felt like I was reading the same book from three different points of view, and it just didn't work for me this time.

Review #30: The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R., by Caroline DeSanti

The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is the debut novel from Carole DeSanti, an editor with Penguin Group. It follows the story of Eugénie Rigault, a young goose girl from a province outside of Paris, and her coming of age during the rise and fall of France's second empire. Eugénie is a naive young girl when she runs away to Paris ahead of her lover Stephan, checking in to a hotel with his letter testifying to her good morals to await his arrival. But as the days pass and Stephan fails to arrive, Eugénie is eventually forced out of the hotel, meeting the tortured and starving painter Pierre Chasseloup in a bar, and in an absinthe-soaked haze agrees to become his muse. But before long, the call of his art is too strong for Pierre to resist, and Eugénie finds herself again out on the streets, this time rescued by Françoise, a submistress for one of Paris' most elite brothels. 

From there, Eugénie discovers she's pregnant, gives birth to a baby girl whom she eventually is forced to abandon to the nuns at the orphanage, falls in love - this time with the mysterious Jolie, who reminded me a little bit of what I imagine Marlena Deitrech to have been - and tries for years to remove herself from the Paris rolls of the inscrit, the registered prostitutes. In between, she leaves the brothel, finds protection under various Parisians and American ex-pats - mainly Confederates spending the American Civil War in France - and falls in with a community of other cocettes (courtesans). 

And then, as the Empire is falling, she comes face to face with Stephan at a party, and Pierre is back, regretful and apologetic, and Jolie's brother Henri, the roguish soldier, informs her roughly that monsieur le comte certainly can't kiss her the way he does. But Eugénie doesn't have time for the ghosts of the past and the irritants of the present. The gates of Paris are closing, the shelling is inching closer, food is dwindling, her protectors are defecting - to London, to Versailles, to America - and she is determined to get her daughter back.

The bones of a good story are here. It's war-torn Paris, courtesans and painters, absinthe and orphans, a mother's quest for her daughter, a woman's quest for equality, sex and love and money and intrigue. I especially admired the way the courtesans were portrayed - strong women who fought as hard as they could for equality, and certainly didn't take their status as second class citizens lying down. But I wasn't in love with DeSanti's style, and that's where she loses a star from me. Too much... I don't know. Just too much. Too flowery? Too wordy? Too many sentence fragments? Definitely too many semi-colons, and this is coming from a girl who loves a good semi-colon. But you have to be judicious with them. One shouldn't use them more than once or twice a page, let alone three or four times in one sentence. And Eugénie is an unreliable narrator; at times she even tells the reader that she wishes that's how it had happened, but it wasn't, but yet she never corrects herself, so that left me wondering how much of the story was accurate. When that's coupled with the overall sense that Eugénie didn't particularly learn anything from her experiences, and at the end appears destined to make an even bigger mistake, I had a hard time liking her. 

Eugénie's story has potential, but I expected a little more unruliness and a lot more passion. And way less semi-colons.

Review #29: If I Stay, by Gayle Forman

I'm a sucker for a good YA novel. I'm an even bigger sucker for a good YA novel where there is tragic death or dismemberment or some sort of horrible disease or a dead boyfriend. I cut my teenage teeth on Cynthia Voigt. Izzy, Willy-Nilly had me convinced that if I ever got in the car with someone who had had even one beer, I'd lose my leg, too,or even worse. And I wanted If I Stay to be good. I really, really did. But it just...wasn't.

For the uninitiated, the story revolves around one day in the life of Mia, a seventeen year old senior who appears to have it all: grandparents who love her, cool rocker parents, a sweet younger brother Teddy, a hot rock star boyfriend, a great best friend, and a promising future studying the cello at Julliard. In the blink of an eye, a head on car accident kills her parents and her brother, leaving Mia's body clinging to life while she floats above the scene, watching the paramedics try to save her. Mia sees the family - both her blood relatives and her friends - come to see her, and slowly realizes that she alone has the power to decide whether to stay behind with them, but without her parents and brother, or to leave them and go to the great beyond.

In a series of flashbacks, we learn about Mia's life, from her dad's transformation from punk rock rebel to cool hipster English teacher to her sweet boyfriend Adam, who plays in a rock band that's just becoming famous and supports Mia wholeheartedly, even though their musical tastes are at opposite ends of the spectrum. We meet Teddy, the younger brother who appears to worship the ground his older sister walks on, Mia's mom, who seems like the fun hippy mom I always wanted but was secretly glad I didn't have, and the best friend Kim, who is wise beyond her years. 

The book wasn't awful. But I can't say that it was tremendously well-done either. Perhaps it just didn't live up to the hype I've been seeing about it. And while I know I'm not the target audience, I'm not so sure I would feel differently if I were seventeen. I felt like Mia's family life was a little too perfect, and her relationship with Adam was a little too adult. Perhaps it's my inner cynic, but it's hard for me to believe in Mia + Adam 4eva. There were already signs of struggle, and I can't imagine something like becoming an orphan at seventeen while your boyfriend's rock star status is taking off is going to help the preexisting issues go away. But more than that, I felt like the book was presented as a story about a girl trying to make a choice - I mean, for Pete's sake, the name of the book is If I Stay - but I never got the sense that there was ever a choice. There was no suspense, no feeling that Mia was agonizing about her parents and Teddy being dead, no question as to whether Mia would stay. In fact, without looking at the sequels, I'll predict that Mia lives, goes on to Julliard, she and Adam break up, it's devastating, and then he comes back in to her life in some way, turning everything she knows upside down, and eventually they wind up together. And that's probably a good story - it's got a happy ending - but I kind of just don't care. 

And, this is a tiny nit to pick, it was written in present tense. Which I sort of hate with the heat of a thousand suns. So maybe Forman didn't even have a fighting chance with me. I may catch the movie when it eventually turns up on TBS, but only if Law & Order isn't playing for the eleven-billionth time on TNT.

Review #28: The Giant's House, by Elizabeth McCracken

This book. Oh, this lovely, quiet, little book that wormed its way in to my heart and left me weeping. 

Peggy Cort is the librarian of a small Cape Cod tourist town in the 1950s. She's the very definition of a spinster in her brown tweed and sensible shoes. She's lonely, weary with it, resigned to it, defined by it. "Socks mate for life," she says sadly, and in those words, the reader understands perfectly how desperately Peggy wants to be loved. And then one day, James Sweatt, eleven years old, walks in to her library on a field trip, and her life changes in that instant. James is big - Peggy has heard talk of the boy around town - but until she sees him, over six feet tall at that age, she doesn't realize just how big he really is. And James is a true giant; by the end of the book he is well over eight feet tall.

The novel spans nine years or so, from James' introduction to Peggy at eleven until his death at age twenty. (Don't worry - I'm not giving anything away. Peggy tells us he dies in the first page.) Over those nine years, Peggy manages to forge a friendship with James' mother, the ethereal Mrs. Sweatt, his aunt Caroline and uncle Oscar, and finally, with James himself. She inserts herself into their lives, their family, until she is a necessary part of it, like an important limb that after a time they cannot imagine themselves without. James comes to depend upon Peggy to be his friend, his personal librarian, his company late at night, his traveling companion, his advocate. And Peggy, with all her loneliness, falls into a weird sort of love with James, one she knows she can't act on, one that she isn't sure she wants to act on. James dies, of course - the human body isn't meant to sustain the kind of growth that James experienced - and Peggy is left alone again, locked in her grief and denial.

Can I tell you something? It wasn't so bad. Not so bad at all right then, me scowling at the dirt, James in his bed, the way it always always was. Look, if that's all that happened, if his dying just meant that I would be waiting for him to say something instead of listening to him say something, it would have been fine.

It's difficult to discuss parts of this book without spoiling it, so I'll just say that I had many mixed emotions. There were times I felt that Peggy was wholly inappropriate, a master manipulator, preying on a weakened Mrs. Sweatt and taking advantage of their family. But then there were times I felt that Peggy was just sad, lonely, and so desperate for any semblance of family and love that she intentionally sought out this quirky, strange family, knowing that she herself was quirky and strange, and therefore, they would have no choice but to accept her. On the whole, I felt sorry for Peggy, mourned her loneliness, but then grew angry at some of her behavior after James' death, declaring it selfish and manipulative, but then felt that maybe she had been taken advantage of, and was just trying to make the best of a sad situation. I simultaneously loved Peggy, hated her, and felt sorry for her. And truly, I felt that way about most of the characters, which I think is at least part of what makes this book so extraordinary. 

For years I'd waited for someone to love me: that was the permission I needed to fall in love myself, as though I were a pin sunk deep in a purse, waiting for a magnet to prove me metal. When that did not happen, I'd thought of myself as unlovable....It was this I'd waited for all my life: a love that would make me useful, a love that would occupy all my time.

Review #27: Black Hills, by Nora Roberts

Sometimes, I need something quick that I can read on my tablet, something easy that I can pick up and put down (or fall asleep to), something that doesn't make me think. But I have anxiety over buying a book I can't flip through, so most of the time I resort to what's on my library's website. Which, honestly, isn't a whole lot. But I know that Nora Roberts is always good for a good time, so I found myself downloading Black Hills the other night.

Lil is a young girl living in the hills of South Dakota when she meets Coop, a young city boy visiting his grandparents while his parents try to patch up their marriage. She and Coop become fast friends, and the summer she is seventeen, they turn lovers. Fast forward ten years, and Lil and Coop's romance is over, torn apart by youth, Coop's move to New York to become a cop, and Lil's education and travel. But now they're both back in the same small town, Lil to resume running her wildlife refuge, and Coop to help out at his grandparents' farm. 

But not everyone's happy to have Lil back, and strange things are happening at the refuge - and other places, too - that have everyone on edge. Broken cameras, open animal gates, and some dead hikers are making everyone nervous. Before long, Lil realizes that she's the target of a serial killer, one who fancies himself a descendant of Crazy Horse, sent to protect the land and animals that he feels Lil is abusing. 

This is classic Nora Roberts, so much so that I could swear I read this once before, but I don't remember it enough for that to be true, although the cover looks awfully familiar. There's a sweet B story with Lil's best friend and a farm hand, and the lines between the good guy and the bad guy are clearly drawn. One thing I've always liked about Roberts is that she writes relatively strong female characters (Eve Dallas, anyone?), and Lil is just as strong as all the others in Roberts' stable. 

Black Hills isn't going to blow you away or become classic literature, and I certainly was able to see the ending coming a mile away, but sometimes that predictability is why I like Nora Roberts so much. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Review #26: The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Somehow, I escaped high school without ever having read The Catcher in the Rye. I'm not sure how, since it feels like we read every other book in the world. Maybe the nuns weren't crazy about old Holden Caulfield. And strangely, while I have always been aware of Holden, I never really knew his story.

So I embarked on what is arguably Salinger's best known, and most divisive, work without having any idea what to expect. The novel opens just before Christmas, with Holden at Pencey Prep, a boarding school for boys in Pennsylvania. Holden has just discovered that he's been kicked out of Pencey, which is his fourth school in the last couple of years. Unwilling to go straight home, he makes his goodbyes around the school and then boards the train to Manhattan, where he plans on bumming around for a few days before eventually returning to his parents.

Holden looks up old friends - as much as he can call these acquaintances friends - old girlfriends, and old teachers. Each scene is uncomfortable and strange - for various reasons - but I got the sense that Holden never thought that he was the strange one. And to some degree, I never really did either, although with Holden as the narrator, the veracity of each encounter is relatively unreliable. Eventually, Holden decides he can't go home and begins to plan to run away somewhere "out West", but he must see his younger sister Phoebe first. He devises a plan to meet her at the Museum of Art, where they argue about her coming with him - Holden is understandably opposed but Phoebe is a surprisingly mighty foe -  and they wind up at the zoo, with Phoebe riding the carousel and Holden watching as the rain pours down on top of him. The short epilogue finds Holden in a mental hospital and Salinger wraps up Holden's narrative in a few short, terse sentences. He suddenly sounds tired and bored with the story, ready to move on to something else, and so he's done. 

That's the short version, but the longer version involves lots of teenage boy bravado, more than one physical altercation, and several moments where Salinger painted  Manhattan - as much a character as any living person in the book - with such a vivid brush that I could picture myself standing in the rain in Manhattan, smelling the exhaust fumes from the traffic and the cigarette smoke from the bars Holden haunted. There is also a very uncomfortable scene with a former teacher that hints at the possibility of molestation, but in true Holden fashion, he tells it very matter-of-factly, and then moves on to the next part. Perhaps the sections I enjoyed most were his musings on the opposite sex, which made him seem so very boyish to me, this young man trying desperately not only to figure out people, but women, who I'm sure he, like many boys his age, regards as the world's greatest mystery.

I've read bits and pieces about Catcher over the years. Teenagers, in all their angsty glory, love it. Many adults find Holden insufferable. Everyone has an opinion: he's having a nervous breakdown, he's just selfish and self-absorbed, the writing is brilliant, the writing is bad. Google Holden Caulfield or Catcher in the Rye and one can spend days reading all kinds of theories on what it all means, where the ducks go in the winter, what the true meaning behind the mummies in the museum is. But, and I've said this before, I don't want to dissect every nuanced word. I did that enough in junior year English, with a teacher I will never forget, who marked my answer wrong on a Jane Eyre quiz because I answered true on this true or false question: Jane ripped the bridal veil to shreds in the attic. Turns out, she only ripped in half, and the ripping in half Meant Something Big, so I got it wrong. Not that I'm still bitter about something that happened more than twenty years ago. Ahem. Anyway, I digress.

I don't think Holden was having a nervous breakdown. Honestly, Holden reminded me a lot of Don Tillman (The Rosie Project) and Christopher (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time). His difficulty reading people, his inability to recognize social cues, even the abruptness of the ending...it's hard to not draw comparisons to those characters. And I think when you couple those characteristics with the usual difficulties of being a teenager and magnify them for the purpose of a book, it makes sense that you wind up with someone like Holden Caulfield. Autism and Asperger's were certainly not words that were common in Salinger's day - cursory research tells me that those terms were still in their infancy when Catcher was published - but all throughout Holden's narrative, that was all I could think about. Holden's mind is busybusybusy, bouncing from one idea to the next, and at times it was exhausting. I can't imagine how it must have felt for Holden, and, by extension, Salinger.

Whether Holden was mentally ill, whether he had an undiagnosed disorder, and where the Central Park ducks go in the winter are questions for the English teachers. All I know is that Catcher is indeed a part of American literature, and while it may not be everyone's cup of tea, everyone should discover Holden's story. And if you read it years ago, maybe it's time to revisit it. The more I think about it, the more I think I loved this book, so thanks, JB.

Review #25: Breathing Room, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Years ago, I read a book by Susan Elizabeth Phillips called Glitter Baby. It was chick lit, but it wasn't half bad. Boss, who purports to be a book snob but secretly devours celebrity biographies - and the much jucier autobiographies - made fun of it, and now Glitter Baby is office shorthand for trashy romance novels. So when I was looking for something light (and free on the library's website), I found Breathing Room, and figured that I couldn't go wrong with another Phillips.

Dr. Isabel Favor is a high-powered self-help guru, but it turns out her personal life is a mess. She's just discovered - in the course of 24 hours, mind you - that her accountant has robbed her blind, her fiancé is breaking up with her for another woman (she apparently is pretty rigid in the bedroom), and her business is crumbling. Unsure of what her next step should be, she accepts a friend's offer to escape to a farmhouse in Tuscany for a couple of months to regroup.

Once in Italy, Isabel decides to throw caution to the wind and sleeps with a fellow tourist she picks up in a bar. She sneaks out of the hotel room in the early morning hours, sure she'll never seem him again. Except in typical romance novel fashion, he's the owner of the farmhouse where she's staying, and their paths cross again. To add drama to the drama, they both used fake names for their one-night tryst, and he soon discovers she's the Oprah of self help, and she figures out that he's really Ren Gage, a world-famous actor known for playing the bad guy.

Shenanigans ensue, the townspeople are acting strange, there's a strange fertility statue missing from the town, Ren's pregnant ex-wife turns up with her four children, the ex-wife's new husband comes along later, Isabel and Ren fall apart, there's a big storm (with storm sex, during which all I could think about is that, having grown up in Florida, I know you should never, ever, ever have sex in an open field when there's crazy lightning), they pick grapes and make wine and go truffle hunting, and of course, there's a happily ever after ending.

As this kind of book goes, it's halfway decent. There are no surprises, but sometimes you just need something light that you can read in ten minute snippets of time. It's no Glitter Baby, but, as Boss would say, not much is.

Review #24: Mr. Maybe, by Jane Green

I think the first Jane Green book I read was Family Pictures, and it was fantastic, so I had pretty high hopes for Mr. Maybe, but unfortunately, it fell flat for me.

Libby is a twenty-something single woman living in London. She works in PR, handling mainly local B-list celebrities, including the local morning news personality Amanda. She has a best friend, Jules, who is married to an awesome guy named Jamie, and a relatively good circle of friends. But the one thing she doesn't have is a guy. At a party, she meets Nick, a gorgeous unemployed novelist. He's wrong for her in every way, but she decides to have a fling with him. No feelings, just sex. A friends with benefits deal, if you will. And Nick is on board with this, saying that he's not ready for a relationship right now. Except, of course, that's not what happens, and Nick and Libby begin to feel things for each other, and because of some event that I can't remember (which should tell you how invested I was in their story), they decide to break up.

So Libby meets Ed McMann (yes, that's his name, and no, there's never a joke about it, and I really, really wanted there to be) at a club the night she breaks up with Nick. Unbeknownst to her, Ed is Britain's most eligible bachelor, a successful, extremely wealthy businessman. She's uninterested, but accepts a date with him because she thinks it's time to settle down with a "grown up". Ed is dull. And needy. And a wimp. And doesn't appear to like Libby's personality. And for a few horrifying moments, I thought that he was going to be a thirty-nine-year-old virgin, but it turns out that he's just bad at sex. Really, really bad at it. But Libby toughs it out, changing herself in to the woman she thinks Ed wants her to be. It's hard to turn down fancy dinners and giant bouquets of flowers and thousand dollar Gucci bags. 

There was the making of a good story here. We've all had that relationship that we knew we should keep casual but that felt like it wasn't, we've all experienced the Ed phenomenon (although my Eds never had that kind of money), and we've all stuck it out for far longer than we should have because we thought we were doing what we were supposed to do. But it just didn't do it for me. Maybe Nick was too perfect, maybe Libby was too selfish, maybe Ed was too dull. 

I'll give Green one more shot - there was a snippet of a new book in the back called Saving Grace that immediately caught my interest - but I just can't recommend this one.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Review #23: Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game arrived in my inbox from JB with this note: "Read this now...better than whatever you are currently reading." Since I was reading Every Day, I can't agree with that statement, but I can say that once I finished Every Day, I blew through Ender's Game in just a couple of days and loved it. 

Ender's Game is the first book in what eventually became a quintet about Andrew "Ender" Wiggins, the youngest of three brilliant children, who is chosen for Battle School, an elite military academy that trains young boys and girls to defend Earth against the threat of a species from another planet. Ender is young - only six when he is first sent to Battle School - but according to some shadowy conversations between some military higher-ups the reader is privy to, he's pretty much humanity's last great hope. It's up to the brass to train him to quite literally save the world. 

If I had read that summary (and/or not trusted JB's taste), I would have put this book back down and moved along to another section of the bookshop. Fantasy isn't my deal, and sci fi even less so, but even though this was largely set in outer space with rockets and zero gravity and all the other trappings of a futuristic story, it was so very human that all of that fell away as I became engrossed in the story of Ender's destiny.

It's hard to talk about the story without giving away the ending, and I really don't want to do that, so I'm going to stop my summary there. The climax and conclusion was so well executed that I truly didn't see it coming, not even a hint of it. And even though the book is part of a series, it works quite well all on its own.

I know much has been made of Card's personal politics both here and on Pajiba, and I didn't connect the dots until after I finished the book. Reading about Card's beliefs is disappointing, and honestly, quite surprising, given the way his characters are constructed. That said, Ender's Game is one of the best YA books I've ever read, and in a sea of books about vampires and uninspiring characters and poorly written stories with weak and uninteresting protagonists, it's a stand out. 

Review #22: Every Day, by David Levithan

I read Will Grayson, will grayson the other day, and developed a little bit of a crush on David Levithan. (Is it dorky that I get crushes on authors the way that other people get crushes on movie stars?) So I went to my library's website to see what I could download, found Every Day, and blew through it over the course of a couple of hours.

Told in a first person narrative, Every Day is the story of a boy named A who wakes up each day in someone else's body. He gets one day to live as that person, and at midnight, he vanishes in to another person's life. It's an interesting concept, how to live a life without changing it too much, and it brings up some unanswerable moral questions. What do you do when the body you're inhabiting is craving a drug that your mind knows could be fatal? Do you let the body win? Or do you let the mind - your mind, not the body's mind - win? Will one day be enough to change the addiction? What do you do when the body you're in is suicidal? Do you step in and try to prevent the death? Do you leave it up to the fates? If you aren't in that body any more, what can you even do?

And what happens when you fall in love? 

Because eventually it's bound to happen, and one day, A falls in love with Rhiannon after waking up in the body of her boyfriend Justin, and he can't get her out of his mind. So he seeks her out, each day in a new body. Rhiannon is disbelieving at first, of course, because it's a preposterous idea, but eventually she sees him in there, hidden behind the eyes of high school wrestlers and Goth art students, the class nerds and the popular girls. But how can a love like that last? Never knowing where he is, or even who he is, knowing he will always leave? Every day, A wakes up in a different body, sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes fat or thin or beautiful or ugly or black or white or purple. Sometimes he can get to Rhiannon and sometimes he is four hours away, with no way to get even a message to her, so she's left wondering every day if this is a day she'll have him, her life constantly on hold for something that can only last a couple of hours at a time. A and Rhiannon fight with everything they have to make it work, an impossible love in an untenable situation. It's heartwarming and heartbreaking, hopeful and hopeless all at once.

I want to mention Levithan's treatment of mental health in the book. More than a few times, A wakes up in the body of a person who is struggling with depression or body issues or drug addiction. He handles it with exquisite grace, saying that when he was younger, he would wake up and couldn't understand why things felt "muted, dimmer. Or the opposite - I'd be supercharged, unfocused, like a radio at top volume flipping quickly from station to station." He says that he finally realized that these feelings were "as much a part of the body as its eye color or its voice". He makes a very firm statement that it's the body that is sick, not the soul. He talks about how it takes "uncommon strength" to live with those feelings, and how he has seen that strength in many of the bodies he's inhabited. Every Day is a YA book, aimed at teenagers, and I think it's so important for kids to read - and understand - that if they are feeling muted or supercharged, dimmed or unfocused, it doesn't mean that there's something wrong with them. I saw the same treatment and care of this topic in Will Grayson, will grayson, and any review would be remiss if it didn't commend Levithan for tackling this topic with such a skillful hand.

"I want love to conquer all. But love can't conquer anything. It can't do anything on its own. It relies on us to do the conquering on its behalf."

Every Day is set against a wholly unique backdrop, but in the end, it's a simple love story. As A says, "It's as simple as that. Simple and complicated, as most true things are."

Review #21: Will Grayson, will grayson, by John Green & David Levithan

Will Grayson, will grayson is a Cannonball favorite, so I'm going to skip the summary and dive right in, because I have lots and lots of thoughts about this book. It's the kind of story that when I was done with it, I needed to call up someone and talk about it right away, but felt like maybe I was overreacting just a smidge, because after all, it's impossible to fall in love with Tiny Cooper, because he isn't real. And that, my friends, is a great, great tragedy.

Because Tiny Cooper might just be the best thing ever. (And did you know he's got his own book now? Hold me closer, indeed.) He's big, black, and gay. And in your face. And a little bit self-involved. And exhausting to be around. And definitely has some delusions of grandeur. But you know what else Tiny is? An amazing friend. Sometimes I wanted to shake Will and scream at him that he would never find a friend as loyal and true as Tiny. Tiny, who wears his heart on his sleeve, who falls in and out of love with the flip of a switch, who is, yes, a little bit self-absorbed, but who loves Will with a fierceness and protectiveness that we all crave in a best friend.

I've read John Green (Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns) before. He's a Cannonball darling, and he's a hoot on Facebook. He'd be a blast to hang out and have a beer with and I love his unabashed excitement over seeing his stories come to life. But this was my first exposure to David Levithan, and he blew me away. His treatment of will grayson was spot on. The very matter-of-fact way that he dealt with will's depression and mental health, the running commentary in will's head, his shock at Maura's betrayal...it all felt so natural. His disbelief and anxiety - that anxious hope that someone could like him for him, really like him - was extraordinarily on point. Levithan tackles depression and anxiety, sexual identity, and personal identity, as well as the usual teen angst, in a way that I've rarely seen on the written page. If I want to have a beer with Green, I want to lay on Levithan's couch and explore the inner workings of his mind.

I loved Will Grayson, will grayson the way eighteen year old me loved My So-Called Life. The characters could have easily been a Very Special Episode of Blossom or Glee-ified, but they rang so incredibly true - like Angela and Rayanne and Ricky and Brian and Jordan Catalano did to me twenty years ago (sweet baby Jesus we're old) - that I was sad to close the cover and say goodbye to them.

Review #20: Paper Towns, by John Green

My first John Green novel was Looking for Alaska, and I loved it. I follow him on Facebook (he's delightfully goofy), and with all the buzz surrounding Paper Towns being made in to a movie, I figured I should give it a read. Plus, I was reading Father and Son, which is fantastic but very, very dark, and I needed a little bit of light for a couple of days, and I knew I could count on Green to give it to me.

Quentin (Q) and Margo Roth Spiegelman have been friends since she moved in next door as a young girl, their friendship forever cemented when they discovered a dead man in the park together. But as often happens between boys and girls, they drifted apart as they entered high school, with Q loving Margo from afar and Margo sliding in to the in crowd, leaving Q behind. Until one night, Margo appears at Q's window, determined to take him on an adventure that includes stealing her philandering boyfriend's pants and breaking in to Sea World. After such a night, Q is sure that she's come back to him, but he gets to school only to find that she's gone missing.

What follows is Q's journey to find Margo, discovering clues that he's convinced she's left for him, pleading with his friends to help him. Finally, with just minutes to go before their graduation ceremony, he realizes that she's in a paper town (a fictional town mapmakers use to prevent plagairism) in New York, and he grabs a handful of friends, ditches the cap and gown, and takes his mom's mini-van from Florida to the upper reaches of New York, praying all the way that he finds Margo before it's too late.

I have to say that I really didn't like Margo. Perhaps that was Green's goal, but I wanted to cheerfully strangle her more than once. I found her to be extremely frustrating, the epitome of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl with more than a dash of selfishness. Q's friends, though, were delightful, nerdy and funny and serious and exactly the kind of support system one should have. And I grew more and more frustrated with Q, because Margo just didn't deserve Q's devotion. At least with Alaska, I could understand some of her behavior, but Margo was just a selfish, spoiled, narcissistic little brat, completely undeserving of Q's attention or affection.

I've read elsewhere that Paper Towns isn't Green's strongest effort. The more I sat on this review, the more indecisive I became about my feelings about it. Sometimes I think I loved it, and other times I think it isn't his best work. But Green himself is so likable that I'll read anything he writes, even if it's a description on the back of the cereal box.

Review #19: Father and Son, by Larry Brown

Set in rural 1960s Mississippi, Father and Son spans a week in a small town after one of their own, Glen Davis, returns from three years in the state penitentiary for running over and killing a young boy while driving drunk. Glen is angry, furious, and the reader senses immediately that this is not a man who has learned his lesson. He's hard-edged, cold and disconnected, and there is no redeeming quality in him.

Glen returns to an elderly father intent on drinking himself to death, a former lover, Jewel, for whom he has very little feelings, a bastard four year old son for whom he has even less, his sainted dead mother's unmarked grave, a hero-worshipping, no account little brother, and Bobby, the sheriff of the town. Glen's hatred of Bobby is more than the natural hatred a criminal has for a lawman, and Brown lets it slip, in a very unobtrusive way, that Bobby's mother and Glen's father once had an affair, and Bobby is the product of that union.

The town is as much a character as the humans, with its run down houses, tiny general store, steamy afternoons, even sun bleached cotton fields. Everyone chain smokes, drinks whiskey, drives with no seat belts, and has a six pack of Old Milwaukee on the bench seat. Young boys are going off to war with stars in their eyes, and it's nearly certain that they'll be returning with those stars burned out, if they return at all. It's a town that is slowly dying, with men eking out a living on dry and dusty farms and women donning polyester waitress uniforms and trying desperately to make ends meet.

Within hours of his return, Glen has assaulted, killed, raped, and robbed, and Brown deftly weaves his actions in with other, more mundane stories of the town and its inhabitants. Sheriff Bobby follows Glen's trail, sorting through the chaos left in his wake, the white knight to Glen's raping and pillaging. Glen rails against his place in this world, even as he clings to it with all his might, so consumed with rage that he is doomed to self destruct. Bobby could have easily been painted as an aw shucks, Andy Griffith kind of sheriff, but he, too, is human and flawed, and quietly, desperately, wants to do the right thing.

Father and Son was a tough read for me. Glen was such a dark character - and the town was so depressing - that I found myself having to step away from the book for a couple of days, needing something light and funny to offset the clouds that had suddenly appeared when reading this. I'm glad I returned though, and I'll be looking for more from Brown in the future.

Review #18: When All the World Was Young, by Ferrol Sams

When All the World Was Young came to me via JB, and I think know why. It's exactly the kind of book he likes - kind of a meandering, character-driven novel that doesn't really have a story, per se, but is more about the human experience.

This is the third installment from Ferrol Sams in a loose trilogy, although it's not necessary to have read the first two (Run with the Horseman and The Whisper of the River). Porter Longstreet Osborne, Jr. is the first of his family to have gone to college and is just about to start medical school at Emory University. It's 1942, and World War II has broken out, so like many colleges and universities across the country, Emory has accelerated its curriculum, and Porter is starting medical school at 19, destined to become a doctor by 22. He survives his first year, but is frustrated at being stuck at home while the war rages on without him. Porter deliberately throws a final exam, failing, and by getting kicked out of the medical program, he's able to join the army, where he is sure that he will be scooped up and put to use immediately in the European theatre.

Porter is stuck stateside for far longer than he anticipated, but eventually makes it overseas, coming ashore at Normandy in the weeks after the famous June 6th invasion. From there he criss-crosses Europe, running in to old medical school friends and basic training buddies, half falling in love with army nurses and French women, playing pranks on commanding officers. There's one running prank in the book about an invented soldier that plays out many times over several hundred pages, and it's a testament to Sams' gifted writing that the threads of that prank were woven so neatly in to the story, coming back up when least expected.

Sams tackles some fairly big topics: racism (both of the small Southern town variety and the veiled xenophobia of the era), feminism, classism, family relationships, the transition from boyhood to adulthood, the idea of family and home. But he does it deftly, so that the ideas that he explores are part of the story and not necessarily Topics To Discuss. Porter struggles with all these, and more, and yet manages to keep his sense of humor, his sense of childlike fun, and his sense of self and home and family. Post reading research reveals an awful lot of similarities between Porter and Sams, who himself was a small town Georgia boy, a country doctor who dropped out of medical school to join the army. If real life Sams was anything like what I think Porter eventually became, I'll bet he was quite a guy.

Review #17: The Liar, by Nora Roberts

My mom is an avid Nora Roberts fan. I used to be as well, but in recent years I've become less avid, but it's hard to resist a shiny new hardcover from the library, so when Mom finished up her copy of The Liar a week before it was due, I snagged it. 

The book opens with Shelby, a young widow with a three year old daughter, coming off the news of her husband's tragic death in a sailing accident. Richard was an investor of some sort - Shelby's not really sure; it was a whirlwind romance and he didn't like her to worry her pretty little head about such matters - but after his death, it comes out that Richard was broke. And now, so is Shelby. More than broke, actually; Richard left her with millions of dollars of debt.

Forced to sell the McMansion she hated anyway, as well as most of the furniture, which she also hated, Shelby packs up her little girl, her few belongings, and two hundred thousand dollars - as well as some fake IDs and a gun - she found in Richard's safe deposit box, and heads for home. Home is Rendezvous Ridge, where her family has lived for decades. Her dad is the town doctor, her mother and grandmother run the local day spa, and her brother is a police officer. 

Once home, a private investigator comes knocking, and once the dead bodies begin piling up, Shelby realizes Richard may not have been what he said he was. In fact, Richard may not have existed at all. Her friends and family rally around her, though, including her former BFF Emma Kate, with whom she had a falling out when she left town the first time, and Griffin, the town's Yankee contractor, who falls in love not only with Shelby but her little girl as well.

I'm sure by now you've figured out that Richard's not really dead, and the fact that it took Shelby about 350 pages to realize that when I figured it out after three kind of drove me nuts. And while I don't want to say that Shelby's recovery from the crippling debt was easy - it's never easy to sell your home and your dead husband's clothes, even if you hated the home and the husband - it was tied up pretty neatly, and felt even more unrealistic than the usual romance novel suspension of disbelief.

I also felt like I could see a lot of J.D. Robb coming through in this novel, and I've noticed that more and more in her last few books. It's nothing overly specific, more of the rhythm and certain turns of phrase. And it can't be easy taking off her J.D. Robb hat and putting on her Nora Roberts hat, but if I wanted to read J.D. Robb, I'd pick up J.D. Robb. Lord knows there are eleventy billion to choose from.

Years ago, my mom and I used to read Danielle Steele all the time. Zoya was my all time favorite. (I was fifteen - what can I say?) But as the years went on, my mom would read her latest and say, "It was okay, but I think she needed to buy another car, so she wrote another book." That's kind of how I feel about The Liar. It was okay, but I think maybe Roberts wanted a new car.

Review #16: The Cinderella Deal, by Jennifer Crusie

Normally, I like Jennifer Crusie. She can be counted on for some mad-cap adventures, a hot guy or two, and a girl who is kind of a mess but fiercely independent. She's chick lit, but she's usually pretty good chick lit. Perfect for an audio book. But The Cinderella Deal left me feeling pretty disenchanted.
Daisy Flattery is a free spirited unemployed artist, struggling to make ends meet and struggling to make her paintings speak. Her apartment is a riot of color, and she has an illegal cat. Linc Blaise is a no-nonsense professor, rigid in both his dress and his demeanor. His apartment, directly above Daisy's, is black and white and silver, all modern chrome and hard edges, and he hates Daisy's cat. When Linc needs a stand-in fiancee, he offers to pay Daisy's rent for the month so that she can pose as his girlfriend to him get a job at a nearby college. Daisy agrees, and Linc gets the job.

But when Linc arrives at the college with the cover story that he and Daisy "just didn't work out", the dean forces him back to get Daisy, and suddenly, he and Daisy are on their way to the altar. Linc and Daisy agree to make the marriage work for the school year, giving Daisy a chance to get out of town and concentrate on her art without having to worry about how to pay the bills, and freeing Linc up to work on his book. Of course, Daisy and Linc are meant to fall in love and discover their true feelings at the eleventh hour, and true to form, that's what happens. Daisy discovers she likes Linc's rules and rigidity and Linc discovers how much he wants the crazy artist with the wild hair. And they should live happily ever after.

Except, by the end of the book, by the time they discover their true love, I didn't really care. Daisy, who wasn't all that fiercely independent but was definitely a mess, had become a faded carbon copy of herself, weak and almost Stepford wife-ish. And Linc, never exactly a bastion of sexuality, felt boring and even more rigid than in the beginning of the novel. Clearly, these are two people who are destined only to have sex missionary style and only on Saturday nights. Which is fine if that's your deal, but I expect more from a romance novel. Plus, the whole subtext that Daisy needed a man to take care of her, to pay her bills, was just a little bit more than I could stomach. I need my romance novel heroines to be a little bit more independent.

I still like Crusie, but this one missed the mark big time.