Monday, December 31, 2018

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

I know that I'm not the only reader out there with a TBR stack nearly as tall as I am (or maybe even taller). Really, are you even a book lover if you don't have dozens of books on standby just waiting to be read? Last year, I received The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer in a book gift exchange (my favorite kind!) and I am finally getting started with them. I don't read a lot of YA anymore, but I thought it would be a nice, easy read during such a busy time of year.

Beginning with Cinder, I jumped into this futuristic, fantastical reimagining of classic fairytales. Cinder, a talented machinic, is a cyborg and cyborgs are treated with utter contempt from all the "real" humans in society, from the other vendors in the market to her adoptive "family". She has no memory of her life before it was saved through the surgery that turned her into a cyborg, but since then she has lived with a horrible step-mother and two step-sisters, one awful and one very sweet and kind. When Cinder is called upon to repair the Prince's android, her life takes a very unexpected turn. She finds herself in the middle of an intergalactic conflict and fighting a deadly plague all at the same time.

This book was fun and quick to read. I found myself trying to guess who each character was meant to represent from the original story, but it wasn't always obvious- much to the credit of Meyer. The storyline is unexpected enough to keep it interesting. I was especially pleased to learn that the series covers several fairytales and the storyline continues throughout the series rather than wrapping up each tale neatly at the end of its book. I've been in a bit of a book funk lately and this light, fun series may be just the thing to end the year and begin a new one. 

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

I can't remember where I first heard about Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates, but I'm sure it was on a list of "top books you have to read this year" or some such article. The premise caught my attention right away: a dystopian time travel book set in an obsessively controlled near future.

Adriane Strohl is a high school senior living in a time when thinking for oneself is not a reputation anyone would have wished to have; when Skin Tone is ranked from ST1 to ST10 and used as classification for a person's level of social and intellectual class; when boy students are always smarter than girl students. This is a time when the reckoning of time itself has been reset, starting with the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, and when Homeland Security now rules the day and all "rights" are subject to reconsideration in light of Patriot Act-esque regulations. This is an extremely "democratic" society where everyone has a "vote", but those quotation marks are no mistake. Anyone who votes contrary to the wishes of the government is marked as Subversive and suffers the most terrible punishments. Even the president, chosen by the Patriot Party not by individuals, enjoys a 95%- 99% approval rating. All information is controlled by the government and all communication is monitored. Education has become 80% standardized testing and all formerly public lands and National Parks are now privately owned- trespassing upon which is punishable by death.

This novel had a fascinating concept but the execution was absolutely atrocious. The writing was terrible, which I found shocking since Oates is such an accomplished writer. I have never read anything else she has written, but her reputation is stellar. I kept hoping I would adjust to the voice she attempted for the main character, but it was exceptionally irritating. The random use of unnecessary parenthetical sentence structure was disruptive to the flow rather than enhancing of the statement. The book flap also includes the phrase "exquisitely wrought love story" and I couldn't disagree more. The "romance" couldn't have been less romantic.

Set in a time and place when ultra-conservative ideals have run rampant, this imagining of what the future could hold should have been compelling. Instead it was a wasted opportunity. I kept waiting to get to the point in this story that I was enjoying it, but it never came. It makes me sad to review a book so harshly, but I feel responsible to you, SmartGirls, to be completely honest. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Shell Seekers by Rosmunde Pilcher

The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher is named for the last unknown painting of famous artist Lawrence Stern which is owned by his daughter Penelope. Having reached the ripe old age of sixty-four, two of Penelope's children think it is time she sell the artwork and go ahead and pass the proceeds on to them. An epic novel, this book delves somewhat deeply into a variety of characters and takes a long swim in the past where we follow Penelope's journey through WWII, her marriage, the loss of friends and family members, and the building of new friendships and relationships.

I have strongly mixed feelings about this book. The story was good, the characters were interesting, some I loved and some I loathed, but the book was just too long. Especially the first half of the book I felt was extraordinarily slow to start and it made it difficult to get into it and want to continue reading. I persisted simply because it was a book club selection, otherwise I would probably have let this one go. I did enjoy meeting the characters and hearing about Penelope's life. I do think this is a book that some people would really love, but it would likely help to know it requires an investment in time, but that it is worth it in the end.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell follows the last remaining Brontë, Samantha Whipple, as she begins her education at Oxford. Samantha has inherited her late father's obsession with the Brontës and is determined to understand what it is her father wanted her to learn from them. She is also fighting the rest of the world's fascination with the missing Brontë fortune and the assumption that Samantha herself is hiding it, depriving the world of secret diaries and paintings by the Brontë sisters. Samantha attempts for a few years to fulfill her familial destiny and become a writer herself. She is sadly disappointed in her efforts:

And yet I couldn't produce anything of value. Now that I could say anything I wanted, I had nothing to contribute I was unable to take advantage of the intellectual emancipation for which my own ancestors had struggled so fearlessly I had taken the freedom Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Brontë and Mary Wollstonecraft had sent me, and thrown it right back at them. 
For that, I knew I would never be forgiven.

I learned so much about the Brontë family from this book that I never knew. For instance, this tidbit:

...Charlotte was the eldest, the most famous, and the ringleader of the family. Four foot eleven. Strong, opinionated, admirable. The entrepreneur. A real nineteenth- century ballbuster. Jane Eyre was her brainchild. Mr. Martin didn't bother mentioning that it was the sort of novel you adored as a child and then misunderstood for the rest of your life.

This last comment really hit home with me, as does this statement from Samantha's professor at Oxford:

"I will wager a guess and assume that, like most women your age, this was your favorite novel growing up."

Oh, was Jane Eyre my favorite novel! And I thought it made me so original! All the other girls I knew thought Pride and Prejudice was the best on offer from classic literature, which I considered highly overrated. Instead, I latched on to the dark and mysterious Jane Eyre with the brooding love interest and tortured heroine. Still, it wasn't so dark as Wuthering Heights, which I thought was just miserable. Oh, I thought I was so clever to recognize the best of the classical novels presented in high school English class, but according to Professor Orville, I was just another cliché. 

I have always thought that certain books have season of their own. Some are beach reads, some are for fall. I would classify this as a Winter book.  Set in cold, rainy Oxford and with such a dark take on some of literature's most revered women writers, I think it is probably best suited to January, the most melancholy of months in my opinion. (My, see how my writing so quickly assumes that of the book I've most recently read. Or attempts to, at any rate.)

For the first half to two-thirds of this book, I really enjoyed the main character. She's smart and snide and sarcastic and she doesn't play into anyone's expectations of her. By the end, however, I had lost interest in her. There are twists and turns, and while they are surprising, none are enough to make this book what I had expected it would be as I read the first half. I liked it, but I didn't love it. If you are a huge Brontë fan, this book might hold more interest for you, but be prepared to have some of your images of those famous writers shaken.

Friday, November 16, 2018

What I've Heard- All the Harry Potter Books

It has been a while since I've posted a What I've Heard and that is because I've been very busy listening to ALL of the Harry Potter books as narrated by Jim Dale. I love these audio books. They are so sweet and wonderful and I get so happy every time I hear the intro music. I listen to them about every two years or so and it is always such a wonderful experience.
They make me laugh and cry every time.

I have heard that there are people who prefer the Stephen Fry narration, but I will always be a Jim Dale devotee. The way that he voices the characters makes it sound as though he is surrounded by an entire cast of actors. The experience is so vivid that I sometimes forget if a part of the story is something that is in the movies or only from the audio books. Even if you have read the Harry Potter series, and maybe especially if you have, I highly recommend spending some time at the knee of Jim Dale and absorbing the story anew.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

As difficult as it is for me to believe, I have never read anything by Agatha Christie. Given that she wrote sixty-six novels and fourteen short story collections, it's a mystery how I have thus far missed out on them. I assure you it was unintentional. That all changed this week with my first Christie novel, And Then There Were None. In this murder mystery we meet ten characters who are all invited to a mansion on a prestigious island. These ten people appear to have nothing in common, and yet the reader learns of just one quality they all have very much alike. They all have a terrible secret and one by one they each will die for their secret. But who could be the killer? Only the dead can be assured of their innocence.

Christie wrote this book in 1940 and I couldn't help but think of the similarities to Clue. It was fun trying to guess who could be the killer, but the book wasn't as intriguing as I had hoped it would be. This was a very fast read, but a fun one. This would make an excellent vacation read or for a time you might not want to concentrate too much. Christie herself says at the beginning of the version I read how very pleased she is with the novel because only she knows how complicated it was to write with all the twists and turns and red herrings. I didn't love this book and I don't know if I'll rush right out to read more Christie, but I can certainly see its value as a novel. I would be open to more.

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig is exactly the kind of book I love. It is historical fiction and literary fiction and science fiction and a love story all in one. Why confine yourself to just one genre when you can have them all?!?

In this book, Tom Hazard looks like he is about forty when in fact he is actually more than ten times that age. Born in 1581, Tom's early years were like anyone else's. Once he hit puberty, however, his aging slowed to about one year for every fifteen. This may seem wonderful but in the late sixteenth century this was seen as evidence of witchcraft. Forced to keep moving and changing his identity, Tom has had a difficult time managing his life until he is introduced to The Albatross Society, or albas for short. With this group, Tom is assisted with his transitioning from one life to the next, but what is asked of him in return is a high price.

This book was wonderful. It took me longer to read than it should have because I was out of town and unable to get to it. Given the time I would have easily been able to finish in only a couple of days because it was just so engaging. Tom is a wonderful character- tortured and lonely, but also with brilliant observations on humanity.

I was angry, yes, but as was so often the case with anger, it was really just fear projecting outwards.

It is the simplest, purest joy on earth, I realise, to make someone you care about laugh.

And my favorite:

And then, in this new state, free from fear, you ask yourself: who am I? If I could life without doubt what would I do? If I could be kind without the fear of being f--ed over? If I could love without fear of being hurt? If I could taste the sweetness of today without thinking of how I will miss that taste tomorrow? If I could not fear the passing of time and the people it will steal? Yes. What would I do? Who would I care for? What battle would I fight? Which paths would I step down? What joys would I allow myself? What internal mysteries would I solve? How, in short, would I live?

I really enjoyed reading this book and I hope that you will read it, too. The Washington Post called it "a quirky romcom", but don't let that stop you.

And OH MY GOODNESS! I just this moment discovered that it will soon be a major motion picture starring Benedict Cumberbatch!! Okay, now you really do have to read it!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

This month's official book club selection for two different book clubs of which I'm a member (LOVE when that happens!) is Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere. Set in an idyllic, very planned community, Elena Richardson's large family collides with Mia Warren's very small one. Mia is an artist, an unconventional photographer, who travels from one town to another with her daughter Pearl seeking out her next project. They own almost nothing and get by with as little as they can- the art is what is important. Elena Richardson, on the other hand, has the deepest of roots in the small town of Shaker Heights and has always lived her life by the rules. Her four teenage children, all in high school, don't all share her strong convictions and sense of right and wrong. As Pearl and Izzy, Elena's youngest daughter, get to know one another, as well as the other's mother, they each see something they have been missing in their own family dynamics.

I really loved reading this book. The characters are wonderful and complex. The narrative is beautifully delivered. I have heard this book called "slow-moving", but I couldn't disagree more. This book kept me up way past my bedtime and only when I forced my hands to relinquish it to the bedside table and squeezed my eyes shut was I able to begin to feel sleepy. One of my favorite aspects of this novel was that it was set in 1997. I am a Nineties kid and the references were delightful. Why yes! I did own a little pot of kiwi lip balm from The Body Shop that year. And yes, I also angrily listened to Tori Amos on repeat in my bedroom and in my car. Ah, memories...

This is a remarkable book that I thoroughly enjoyed diving into at any and every available moment. I have heard good things about the audio version, so I've added that to my list as well. I'll let you know! In the mean time, read this book and tell me what you think. There are some very interesting dilemmas presented for the reader's contemplation and there are no easy answers. 

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine in Gail Honeyman's novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Sure, the title tells you she's fine and Eleanor herself will tell you she is fine; lots of people have a harder life than she does. After all, she has always- well, almost always- had access to enough food to eat, a warm, safe roof over her head, and clean water to drink. She'll be the first to point out that millions of people around the world can't say that is true for them. And yet from the very beginning the reader knows there is something truly horrible and not at all fine in Eleanor's past. First of all, she tells us she has a disfiguring scar on her face, the result of a terrible childhood burn. She also has a job that she doesn't enjoy, but took gratefully at a time when she had been severely injured by an ex-boyfriend. And Eleanor's social skills leave much to be desired, the result of never really having normal interactions with other people. No, Eleanor Oliphant certainly isn't completely fine.

Very early in the book we learn about the appalling relationship Eleanor has with her mother:

Mummy has always told me that I am ugly, freakish, vile. She's done so from my earliest years, even before I acquired my scars.

Eleanor talks about how her life hasn't been perfect, but that she's had what she's needed. She is utterly pragmatic about her situation. Her council apartment, arranged by her social worker, is plain and furnished with donations and thrift store finds. I really enjoyed the background she imagines for the lackluster kitchen table she has come to own, from the newlywed couple who may have picked it out at a department store, through various owners, and then given to charity.

They gave it to me, unloved, unwanted, irreparably damaged. Also the table.

The reader is given a real sense of just how burdensome Eleanor's life has been. This has led her to become rather pragmatic and practical, leaving emotion and sentiment out of her decisions. While attending the funeral of a new friend and contemplating her own eventual demise, she ruminates on this interesting post-mortal possibility:

I think I might like to be fed to zoo animals. It would be both environmentally friendly and a lovely treat for the larger carnivores. Could you request that? I wondered. I made a mental note to write to the WWF in order to find out.

I did try to find the answer to this question as I was writing this blog post, but I have thus far been unable to find any helpful information. I'll be sure to let you know if I finally get the answer. Personally, I think this idea is pretty ingenious. Eleanor's reasoning is quite logical and I like to think of myself as quite sensible as well.

There were so many parts of this book that I enjoyed, but I'm not sure I can say I really liked this book. It is a little dark and the adversity that Eleanor must overcome in her life is so sad and distressing. The reader is asked to suffer through the remembering of it with Eleanor and I found that painful. Also, I really wanted to like Eleanor, but her personality at the beginning is quite unlikable. I appreciated the need for her to start off somewhat rough so that the reader could watch her grow, but it gave the book a slow start for me. The characters with whom Eleanor surrounds herself, however, are absolutely lovely and exactly the brightness this book needed.

Monday, October 1, 2018

I Work at a Public Library by Gina Sheridan

I live in a town that has always had a wonderful library. They never fail me when I really need something, be it book, audiobook, or DVD. The little bookstore in the corner of the library makes me happy every time I walk through it, nearly always bringing something home. I was wandering through the library last week when I stumbled upon a table that was displaying this cute little book:
I Work at a Public Library by Gina Sheridan. Now, I've kind of always wanted to work at a public library so of course this book called right to me. It is a collection of wacky, amusing encounters the author has had over the years working as a public librarian.

These experiences range from strange reference questions, to crazy complaints from patrons, all the way to touching moments of connection. This whole tiny little book was wonderful and I laughed quite out loud several times, but my favorite section was the last one in the book. It was all about those wonderful moments when a librarian gets to see the good they've done in the lives of their patrons. I actually cried over a couple of the stories. The best one was about a Doughnut Guy and it really goes to show how important it is to ask people about themselves. You really never know who you are going to meet.

If you love the library as much as I do (and, man is that a lot!), pick up this quick read and enjoy seeing it from the other side of the reference desk.

When you've read the book and are thirsty for more, check out the author's blog:

The Night Before by Wendy Walker

Well, that cover looks super boring! Don't worry- there's a good reason. The Night Before by Wendy Walker isn't scheduled for release until May 14th, 2019, but the publisher asked a few select readers to read and review it way ahead of schedule so that buzz could begin to build. I was flattered to be asked since I had read Walker's Emma in the Night and really liked it. 

Another suspense novel, The Night Before begins with Laura, a woman who has been very unlucky in love, getting ready for her first date in a long while. She is meeting a man she found on a dating website and is unsure if this is a good idea or not, but with the encouragement of her older sister, Rosie, she is willing to give it a shot. Laura carries some difficult baggage with her, not least of which is witnessing the brutal murder of her high school boyfriend. When the man she meets changes plans and is acting unexpectedly, Laura knows she should back out and go home early, but she is too busy talking herself out of listening to her doubts.

The interesting thing about the layout of this book is that it is told in two different timelines. The first is The Night Before during Laura's Date, and the second- and this is no spoiler as the information is right there on the soon-to-be cover- is the next few days while Laura is missing. The first timeline is told from Laura's point of view, the second timeline from Rosie's. What is really interesting is that we know Laura goes missing from Rosie's information, but as we read along with Laura we can't help but hope that nothing bad happens. Having read Walker's first book, I was expecting this one to have twists and turns, but I still couldn't see where it was headed. Every time I thought I had it figured out, it twisted back on me or had me doubting what I thought would happen. It was great!

Mark your calendars for May 14th, 2019 and be sure to get this exciting thriller!

Thursday, September 27, 2018

A Lady in the Smoke by Karen Odden

A nice little Victorian mystery sounded right up my alley last week so I was happy to try A Lady in the Smoke by Karen Odden. The lady referenced is Lady Elizabeth who, while traveling to her country home, is involved in a terrible train crash. Injured and attempting to care for her ailing mother, Elizabeth is informally introduced to Paul, a train surgeon who has come to help the survivors. In all the bustle, Elizabeth conceals her rank and takes advantage of the chaos to do whatever she would like. With her newfound, and brief, freedom, Elizabeth chooses to help the doctor as he desperately tries to keep more people from dying and to ease the pain of as many people as he can. When Elizabeth overhears Paul talking with a friend about the suspicious nature of the train crash, she inserts herself right into the mystery, partially out of curiosity, but also because her fortune is dependent on the success of the railroad. When Elizabeth finds herself falling for Paul, she is not the least bit put off by their difference in station, but how could it ever work between them?

This book was a fun, absorbing mystery that kept my attention. Set in 1874, it is historical fiction just as I like it- the right amount of description without becoming overbearing while still making me feel like I could see the characters. Also, unlike SO many historical fiction books of late, it wasn't set during World War II, which in my opinion has been overdone. This was a quick, light read and I think you'd like it. Give it a shot and tell me what you think.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Good as Gone by Amy Gentry

I really don't usually read this much suspense, but I seem to be in a bit of a streak. Good as Gone by Amy Gentry is the book club selection for this month and I admit it wasn't the option for which I cast my vote. The premise seemed like it might be difficult to read and a little like another book I had read, Emma in the Night, but rules are rules so I borrowed it from the library and got to reading.

Julie and Jane are sisters and still little girls when Julie, at age thirteen, is taken from their home in the middle of the night. Jane, ten at the time, is frozen with fear as she witnesses a man with a knife taking away her sister. Eight years later, with an innocuous ring of the doorbell, Julie arrives on the front steps of that same home, but something just doesn't seem right. Is this really Julie? If it is, where has she been all this time?

This book was so engrossing that I read the first half in one sitting. I could have finished it all at once, but real life got in the way. The story moves quickly, flashing from one point of view to another, allowing the reader two very different perspectives of the same story. Anna, Julie's mother struggles mightily with her loss and with the reunion with her daughter:

This woman is older than twenty-one. I am not as old as she is, and I am forty-six, with lines of mourning etched all over my face that will never go away.

Good as Gone also explores the family dynamics that drastically change when a child has gone missing or dies. Jane and her mother have a terrible time relating to one another; Anna and her husband, Tom, fall apart despite staying together; and Anna is doing all she can just to keep moving from one day to another. She hopes she will continue to receive credit for...

...the not-insubstantial difficulty I have getting gout of bed every morning to face a world where the worst thing has already happened and somehow I'm still alive. 

I stayed up way past my bedtime finishing this book because there was no way I could sleep until I had all the answers. The ending did seem to drag a bit with possibly more information and description than was absolutely necessary, but that may just have been my perspective as I was trying to rush through it. 

This book does require a bit of courage to read since it deals with such awful crimes against children, but I thought it was really good. What happens is awful, but the actual description in the book isn't overly obtrusive. Give it a shot and tell me what you think.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Let Me Lie by Clare Mackintosh

Let Me Lie by Clare Mackintosh is one of those books that is so hard to describe without giving away too much. Anna is struggling with the first anniversary of her mother's suicide, one that came only a few months after that of her father. She can't understand why they would choose to leave her in this way, especially now that she is a mother herself. When she receives a card in the mail implying that her mother's death was not actually suicide, Anna latches on to the possibility that her mother didn't voluntarily leave her and is determined to solve her murder.

I keep typing and deleting my comments on this book because I really don't want to give away anything. It is so fun to read and so full of twists and turns and dark alleyways. Every character is suspect, every event seems true and false at the same time, every page turn a new clue.
Argh! I want to tell you so much more, but I just can't!

This book was fantastic and one of the best suspense novels I've ever read and I think you'll really love it, too.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak

The holidays can be a stressful time, especially for family members who aren't used to spending an extended amount of time together. Now imagine if that time were a strict seven days in which no one could visit and no one could leave. In Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak, that is the situation for Olivia, a humanitarian aid doctor, and her family as she returns from treating an epidemic in Liberia. Quarantined together for seven days, Olivia, her flighty younger sister, her restaurant critic father, and her caretaker mother must find a way to get along and hopefully enjoy the week between Christmas and New Year's together. Olivia is plagued, hopefully not with the virus she had been treating, but with frustration at her family's frivolousness and obliviousness with the rest of the world. Phoebe, her sister, is newly engaged and obsessed with wedding planning. Andrew, their father, has just received an email from a son he never knew he had and Emma, their mother, is hiding an illness of her own. With the close quarters it isn't long before secrets and old resentments can't stay bottled up any longer.

I really liked this book. We've all wondered if the old saying is true that you can't go home again and this book asks what we do when that is unavoidable. As children become adults it is necessary for relationships with their parents to change, but that change can be hard. Olivia wants so much to make a difference in the world and the things she has seen in Africa forever stain the way she sees the life in which she grew up. Phoebe, 28 and still living at home, just wants everything to be fun and happy, but Olivia doesn't make that easy:

The trouble was it had been so long since Olivia had been back for any length of time that Phoebe- who still lived at home- had come to assume undivided attention...everything was so much easier, and nicer, when Olivia wasn't around.

Hornak writes well-developed characters with their own viewpoints and as a reader it is easy to understand each of their positions. It is also easy to want to smack a few of them, just like in a real family. I liked this book and I think you will, too.

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Best of Us by Joyce Maynard

It is an unimaginable thing when someone we dearly love becomes terminally ill. In Joyce Maynard's The Best of Us, Joyce shares with her readers the sweet love story of meeting her second husband, Jim, when she is nearly sixty years old and all the hopes and dreams the two of them have for a long life together. Those dreams are dashed, however, when barely a year into the marriage Jim is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Before we reach that diagnosis, we get quite a long back story on Joyce herself and even a little about Jim and what their lives were like before they met, their first marriages, and their relationships with their children. When Maynard does begin telling the readers about falling in love with Jim and their marriage, it is a lovely story. It provides hope for anyone who has been single for a long time and still wishes to find a partner.

I struggled with this book. As much as I wanted to like it, the story had some serious stumbling blocks. Maynard is honest about some things that not everyone would admit to, which I suppose makes her brave, but I'm not sure I can say that I like her. I find it difficult to read a memoir by someone I consider unlikable. The book was also fairly repetitive. She mentions certain things so many times that I'm not sure she realizes she is repeating herself or if she just really wants to be sure the reader didn't miss the point. She really likes skinny dipping; her first husband somehow ended up with the dream farm she bought herself when she was nineteen; she loves to dance alone in the middle of a crowd, making herself the center of attention. Also the timeline is really wonky and their are no clear changes between the present in the story and a flashback, making it difficult for the reader to keep track. Finally, toward the end she mentions a Facebook community that has been following her posts about Jim's health crisis and the disjointed flow suddenly makes sense. This book sounds almost exactly like she has just printed out all her Facebook updates and stapled them together and slapped a hardcover on the front.

There were good things, too. I learned a lot about pancreatic cancer and about being a caregiver for a terminally ill loved one. I appreciate the author's willingness to be open and honest, but the risk in that is that the reader may not like what she has to share. I'm sorry I didn't like this book. I really wanted to connect with the author and her situation, but that just didn't happen.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been making my way through the works of Ruth Ware and, frankly, it's been making me a little paranoid. A girl can only read so much suspense, especially when it isn't her usual genre, without questioning everything she thinks she knows. Ruth Ware is a master of making you think you have it figured out and then smacking you in the face with another plot twist.

My latest read is The Lying Game about a foursome of young girls at boarding school who immerse themselves in a game of, you guessed it, lying. Kate and Thea, friends already, meet Isa and Fatima, new girls to the school, on the train at the start of term. They quickly become an impenetrable clique developing a real "us-them" mentality. Things fall apart before long and the girls go their separate ways, each leaving the school. Nearly twenty years later, they are called back together to account for the biggest lie they ever told and it may cause their whole world to come crashing down on them.

Of the three Ware books I've read, I liked this one the best. It isn't because the mystery is so much better, but because the storytelling felt more like a story, more like fiction with a mystery thrown in than a mystery trying super hard to be mysterious. I will say I wasn't a big fan of then ending which felt a little flat, but the rest of the book was really fun to read.

Looks like I only have In a Dark, Dark Wood left to read. What's your favorite Ware novel?

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

I appear to be on a bit of a Ruth Ware kick. I've just finished The Woman in Cabin 10 and I'm starting another Ruth Ware today. I had heard lots of good things about The Woman in Cabin 10 so I was happy it was chosen for my online book club, pushing me to finally pick it up and read it. Laura Blacklock, called Lo by all her friends, has an amazing opportunity as a travel writer to join the maiden voyage of a new luxury mini- cruise ship. With only ten cabins available it is ultra-exclusive and something Lo would never be able to experience were it not for her boss, who usually benefits from the magazine's travel perks, being on leave. Shaken by a break-in at her flat, Lo begins the cruise wrong-footed and completely exhausted, but she is determined to make the best of it. When she witnesses what she thinks is a murder in the middle of the night, she isn't completely sure if she can trust herself. After all, all passengers and crew are present and accounted for and the cabin she swears was occupied by a young woman has been vacant the whole time.

When I read The Death of Mrs. Westaway, I was bothered by something in the writing on which I couldn't quite place my finger. I had the same experience with Cabin 10, though I still can't say what it is that bothers me, only that I feel like it isn't very well developed. I felt like it was a bit awkward and unpolished. A pet peeve of mine is when an author uses an unusual phrase more than once, especially when those occurrences are too near one another. For this book, the phrase was "raw-silk". She used it to describe curtains and dresses and décor and it was too much. I was also irritated with a main character that knows she is at an important business function or in a dangerous situation, but who can't stop herself from drinking too much. It just isn't very smart.

Overall, this book was interesting enough. I've said before that mysteries aren't my favorite genre so perhaps someone who likes them better would be able to appreciate this one more than I did.
Let me know if you enjoyed it more than I did.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

What I've Heard- What Thought This Was a Good Idea?

I really enjoy learning about the behind the scenes workings of politics and when I heard about Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco, former White House Deputy Chief of Staff for President Obama, I couldn't wait to read it. Or listen to it, in this case. When I learned it was read by the author, I opted for the audio version. Especially with autobiographies and memoirs, I really enjoy listening to the author read/ tell their own story. It feels more personal to me and gives me a greater sense of the action to hear it told by the person who wrote it.

Mastromonaco worked for Obama for nearly a decade, starting in his Senate office, working on his  campaign for president, and then holding two positions within the White House- Director of Scheduling and Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, the youngest woman to ever hold that position. Her book, Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?, tells about her time in those positions as well as her personal life and what led her to politics in the first place. Especially useful, I felt, was the practical every day advice that Mastromonaco gives to young people, and young women in particular, about beginning a career and learning how to negotiate early adulthood. 

My only complaint about this audio book is that the author reading was actually a bit stale. I expected her to sound like she was telling a story and instead she was clearly reading off a stack of hastily printed pages fresh from the office printer. It almost didn't sound like she hadn't read these words prior to sitting down in front of the microphone. Her tone just left something to be desired, but I still really enjoyed what she had to say. Even if politics aren't your thing (and really, they should be everyone's thing since they affect us all), this book still has a lot to offer and I hope you'll give it a try.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Suicide Club by Rachel Heng

Modern medicine is making advances all the time, certainly not quickly enough for some, but at a much faster rate than in previous generations. What will that mean in the next few hundred years? How close can we get to curing everything? Could immortality be possible and if so, would we want it to be?

These are the questions posed in Rachel Heng's Suicide Club which introduces us to Lea and Anja, two "lifers" in the midst of their own individual struggles with the system and regulations of mortality. In a world in which the birthrate has dropped significantly, life extensions have become available in order to maintain human existence. At birth a child is tested and the results indicate how long they are likely to live. If the child is a "lifer", someone expected to live far beyond the average lifespan, they are given treatments to maintain and supplement their health. As the book begins, Lea is celebrating her 100th birthday though it looks quite different to any 100th birthday celebration I have ever seen. Lea is in the prime of her life (three hundred was now the number to beat) and her career. She is of the utmost health and is expecting any day to be invited to join the Third Wave, a set of life extensions that could lead to absolute immortality.

Anja is in quite a different position. She has all the advantages of being a "lifer", and in this society they are many, but her mother does not. Having obtained certain procedures and medical devices on the black market, Anja's mother's health has begun to fail beyond help, legal or otherwise. Unfortunately, the mechanical heart and other treatments she has prevent her from actually dying and she is stuck in a horrific limbo between alive and dead. Anja wants to help her, but how to do so when the choice to live or die isn't in the hands of the individual? And so we are introduced to Suicide Club, a group of activists intent on changing the mind of society about what it now means to be either pro-life or pro-choice.

The concept of this book was fascinating and so much of it was so good, but at times the plot seemed to lose direction a bit. The science fiction elements, however, were on point. The details from the types of treatments available to the health recommendations for longer life were well thought. Everyone lives to live longer. Gone are most of the foods and even many of the activities we regularly partake of now. No more meat, absolutely no sugar, veg only and even that isn't all recommended. Lea agonizes over a carrot at the market, hoping that since it will be shared by two people it won't be too indulgent. She leaves the grapefruit behind and plans to come back for one for her next Special Occasion. I'm all for eating healthy, but when a grapefruit and a carrot are too indulgent, how much LIFE is left?
Music is too stressful and has been replaced by relaxing Muzak; running wears out joints, but Pilates is still okay if performed carefully, but Swimlates was better.

This book was interesting and made me think about where my health may some day lead me. It also leads the reader to ponder how much control we actually have over our own lives, how much choice is really available to us. I didn't love this book, but I liked it really well.

What I've Heard- Life After Life

When I read Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, I really loved it. As I said in my first review, it is quite complex and not an easy read, but well worth the effort. The audio version does not disappoint, but I would warn listeners that as complicated as the book is, the audio is no easier. At least while reading the book there are blank spaces between sections that denote a change in timeline or a flashback of some kind. The audio does not afford such space. I always say that I only (nearly only) listen to audiobooks I've already read so that I don't lose the thread and wind up confused about the plot or characters. In this instance, I would say that was doubly more important. I must caution audiobook enthusiasts against this audio version without first reading the printed version. I think reading it will just make it more clear and more enjoyable for you.

Friday, July 27, 2018

A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy

I don't know what the weather is like where you are, but where I live it is HOT! It being the middle of summer, A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy might not be the most obvious choice for book club, but it actually worked really well. Set in a tiny town on the northwest coast of Ireland, this book follows Chicky Starr's efforts to turn a crumbling estate into a holiday resort intended to attract weeklong vacationers. Told in sections each focusing on one guest or employee, the reader is given an opportunity to view the opening week of Stone House through different perspectives. We learn why Chicky thought opening the guest house would be a good idea, how her employees came to join the venture, and what brings each of the guests to such a place. The best part is they're all quite different.

This book is wonderful light, easy summer reading. The characters are sweet and I really liked the way Binchy pulls them all in from such diverse circumstances. A Week in Winter was the perfect book to follow Every Note Played which was much heavier and rather heartbreaking. Sometimes a reader needs a bit of a palate cleanser and this book came at just the right time for me. And it never hurts in summer to think cold thoughts!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Every Note Played by Lisa Genova

I finished this book a couple of days ago, but I needed a little time before I could write about it. Every Note Played is a novel written by Lisa Genova, bestselling author of Still Alice. In this newest book, Genova explores what it is really like living with, and dying from, ALS. Richard is a world-renowned concert pianist who has spent literally most of his 45 years at the piano, practicing in excess of ten hours a day and devoting his life to his music to the detriment of his family. Divorced from his wife Karina and estranged from his only daughter, Richard lives alone in a fancy Boston apartment when he isn't on tour playing the most prestigious concert halls in the world. As weakness begins to develop in his right hand, he desperately tries to deny anything is wrong until the music begins to suffer. His ALS is a devastating and relentless blow to all that he holds dear. When the course of the disease leaves him with no choice but to turn to his ex-wife, he must come to grips with who he was, who he now is, and what he will become before ultimately succumbing to his illness.

This book was fantastic and fascinating and frightening all at once. I was heartbroken reading the indignity and anguish that Richard endured as well as that of Karina and their daughter Grace. Passages like this one made me weep for him:
He'll never play the piano again. This is the loss he's imagined in microscopic detail from the first hints of this disease, the one that guts him through his center and keeps him from sleeping and makes him want to swallow a bottle of pills and end his life now. Because without the piano, how can he live?

And this one:

...he plays a single note, D, with his pinkie. He holds the key and the foot pedal down, listening to the singular sound, bold and three-dimensional at first, then drifting, dispersing, fragile, decaying. He inhales. He listens. The note is gone.
Every note played is a life and a death.

As I read this book, I carefully marked the names of the musical pieces mentioned by both Richard and Karina and then searched for each of them on YouTube. I cannot recommend enough that you do the same. It will give you a whole new appreciation for the talent that Richard possesses and then excruciatingly loses. 

Lest you think Genova is just sitting in her office making up all these stories, let me assure you she is quite qualified. She earned a degree in biopsychology from Bates College where she was the valedictorian and then went on to earn her doctorate in neuroscience from Harvard University. Genova interviewed many patients with ALS as well as their caregivers. She communicates their loss, their pain, and their fear. She also shares their bravery and courage and love. Reading the acknowledgements section of this book should not be skipped, no matter how tear-filled and snot-covered you might be at the end.

After Still Alice released, Genova gave a TED Talk about how to possibly prevent Alzheimer's disease. I think you will find it both interesting for the content and also for the opportunity to hear the author of this wonderful book speak.

Still Alice is still sitting in the pile on my bedside table, but it will quickly be making its way to the top. I can't wait to read more Lisa Genova.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Dear Rachel Maddow by Adrienne Kisner

A few years ago our family "cut the cord". We had been paying way too much for satellite television and we wanted to make a change so we decided to go with Netflix and Amazon. We have been so happy with our decision, but the only two things I miss are football and the news. I tried to watch a variety of local and cable news shows and one of my favorites was Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. When I came across Adrienne Kisner's novel Dear Rachel Maddow, I was quite intrigued. A young woman named Brynn is a junior in high school struggling with a learning disability, the death of her older brother, and a difficult family life. When she writes an email to her favorite cable news host, Rachel Maddow, for a class assignment she discovers an excellent outlet for all she is feeling but can't say out loud. Of course, she doesn't actually send all these emails- that would be crazy. She writes them and then just leaves them in her drafts folder. Brynn tells Rachel all about her awful breakup with her first girlfriend, the terrible way her mother and step-father treat her expecting that she will follow the same fatal path her older brother took, and about Adam, the most obnoxious, evil boy at school who is determined to make Brynn's life as horrible as possible.

Brynn really does have it tough. It broke my heart to read the way her mother and step-father treated her, especially considering the recent death of her brother. How a mother can choose someone, anyone, over her own child is so far beyond my imagination. There are redeeming adults in Brynn's life- two of her brother's old friends, her teacher, her principal- that make it better, but I couldn't help but think there must have been more they could have done to help her.

Touching and emotional, this book was well-written and compelling. Lines like this one were so satisfying to read:

September 26 always sneaks up on me and jumps me in the bathroom.

Warning for those who don't enjoy reading foul language: this book has lots of it. She is an extremely frustrated teenage girl so it is fitting, but it is also abundant. And sometimes it totally works:

I'm going to grab agency by the nads and use that motherf---er to try to enact change.

I really liked this book, but I also wanted more. I feel like it ended to quickly and before the story was fully resolved. We can't know everything, but I wish I had known more. What else do I wish I knew? How did the real Rachel Maddow react to this book? I've looked for the answer to that question, but I can't find it anywhere. I hope she's read it and likes it, too.