Saturday, April 4, 2020

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

This book reads like a movie. What's better is it reads like a highly stylized, Victorian-era, Sherlock Holmes style movie. Jess Kidd does a great job of commiting to the genre, presenting a fun thriller with just the right amount of oddities and nefarious characters. 

You think you're getting a cast of characters too large to keep tabs on, but that's only because some pull double duty. You think you're getting too much backstory about Bridget Devine, our lead, but just wait. The interconnectivity of characters and the motivation behind all the action fits together perfectly. It's great.

A crime makes it all work. The kidnapping of one young girl with some curious traits sets everything in motion. Bridie is on the case, but she's not alone. A ghostly companion has recently manifested who prefers to not leave Bridie's side. He's a mystery on his own, but adds just the right supernatural element to make Christabel, the missing girl, plausible. 

Victorian England is really the only setting for this book as science, medicine, and the mythical merge along the city's sooty underbelly. Cruelty is commonplace and easy to hide, thickening the mystery Bridie deftly pursues. Will she find Christabel in time?

A little cliche, this is just an exciting read. Pacing is excellent. Like I said, it reads like a movie. I enjoyed this book as a great escape. Very much outside my regular genres, this is a good book for people who aren't typically drawn to mysteries and thrillers. It's a nice side-step, but be prepared for gore and the macabre. They're not shy.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Book club book #10

I'm not really sure I liked this book. The message felt muddled. The writing isn't that good. I know a memoir is a real story, so there's not a lot of control, but I feel it has to have a preconceived endpoint. Titling this book Educated leads one (or maybe just me) to think the end is headed in a certain direction, but the book never gets there.

Growing up as a sheltered, "home-schooled" child, in an environment I can hardly believe she survived, Tara's introduction to formal education, when she starts college, should be the real place the story starts. The shock of knowledge and the adjustment to the "real" world should stand front and center. It's interesting and different. It's inspiring and amazing that she begins her formal education so late and goes through to earn her Ph.D. Her transition to welcome new knowledge rather than fear it -- that's the heart of the story for me. I love it, but it's barely told; glossed over by her internal struggle to defy and ultimately break from her parents.

Her real education is the rude awakening that her parents can be wrong, and that she's not obligated to blindly acquiesce. Their truth doesn't have to be reality. It's also a strong story, but more common in its essence. Tying her emotional education into her formal learning pushes the schooling into the background and somehow muddles the whole story. At times I felt like she was just transforming lists into paragraphs. I saw these things...I felt these things...I did this stuff...

Tara had to overcome so much mental and physical abuse to finally figure out how to live her life but it wasn't her education that did it. It was her bravery. She decided to leave her home and accept that there were alternative ways to do even the simplest of things. It was a choice to not live in fear, but thrive through curiosity. Her education opened the world to her, but it didn't inspire all this growth based on how the book is written. There's no important point at the end, no strong moment that's allowed to live on its own. Each step forward is accompanied by a long glance backward and it bugged me.

This story will affect people in different ways, and I'm sure my sentiment isn't the popular one since this book has done so well. I personally wouldn't recommend it, but I think it's a good book for conversation, so would suggest you add it to your book club reading list.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The Book of Dust Volume II: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

I'm at a loss for how I want to write about this book. It sadly was just a means to an end, slowly building suspense only to leave you dangling on a cliff at the end. Minor revelations keep you reading, but you're constantly asking, "Why do I need to know this?" 

Even if it's going to all make sense in the end, the payout lies in a book not yet published. It's not like a movie where the suspense climaxes to a resolution all in one swoop. I've no idea how long the wait will be for the third book. I don't know what I'll remember by that time either. If I forget something, is the third book going to disappoint too? It's a tough call on how I feel here, since I love the characters and love this world Pullman has created.

The book begins further into the future of Lyra's life than we've ever gone before. She's an adult, a young one, going to college and preparing for the world. The lustre from her adventures in the His Dark Materials trilogy has worn off a bit, and she's settled into a regular life more or less. She's still odd, especially because she can separate from her daemon, Pantalaimon. It's so uncommon that they keep it a secret even as it continues to cause a rift in their relationship. Pan eventually abandons Lyra and everything changes overnight. The story goes into ultra-complicated mode as all the characters -- Malcolm, Alice, and Hannah -- from the first volume of The Book of Dust reemerge in Lyra's life.

We now have to keep up with five primary good characters who all move in a totally different direction. There are also two bad guys who aren't always together, that the story tracks. It gets complicated so fast, but they're all on the move because of this mysterious building, in a desert, where a special rose grows. The characters either want to understand it or destroy it. Along the way, everyone interacts with about a million other people in so much detail that I was quickly overwhelmed by names and confusing who knew whom. It's all relevant to driving the story onward, but it's a lot. 

If I were able to look deeper into the text, which is hard to do, I'd say this book is really about love, truth, and faith. But, the complexities of the story itself detract from the deeper thoughts and the emotional connections. My brain is too muddled to keep up.

I just can't say I liked this book, having read the rest of Lyra's story, but I know I had to read this so everything going forward makes sense. I feel like I was trapped, and that gave Pullman a hall pass to put everything he could possibly think of into a single book. It's so busy, that it's frustrating to read. On top of that, you don't really get anywhere by the end, but I guess, for the sake of the story, it must be read.

Before you read this book, make sure to read The Book of Dust Volume I: La Belle Sauvage.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Second book club book #8

I don't usually read two books by the same author that aren't in a series this close together, but that's the way the book club schedules played out. That, and I may have purposefully put another Patchett book so soon after my last (see The Dutch House,) because I'm really liking her work. It's also nice that her stories are so different even though all the characters feel very real and believable.

While Commonwealth gets off to a confusing start, mostly because it's really a very busy book, it's still so good. The large cast of characters are all dynamic because they're all struggling in some way in an environment seemingly full of pitfalls and trauma. Everyone deals with things differently, but nobody is safe. 

It's hard to say who the main characters are, but for me it was about the kids of two sets of parents. Caroline and Franny belong to Beverly and Fix. Cal, Holly, Jeanette, and Albie belong to Teresa and Bert. The kids merge together into one mixed-up family when Beverly and Bert run off together and get married. In the flashbacks, the kids come together at only certain parts of the year, operating as many kids did in the 60's, without much supervision. In the present, we see them as adults, recovering from their childhood and trying to figure out how best to relate to each other and their parents. It's a lot to track.

However who's related to who and how isn't the crux of the book. This is a book about larger themes -- love, devotion, and how family is built through connections and not necessarily blood. It's about bearing the scars of your past while navigating the present, keeping an eye on the future. It's about the universal fact that people are complex beings who can take others to such incredible highs and devastating lows. It's about survival and what happens when someone doesn't make it. It's the daily struggle.

Even though I didn't share many experiences with the characters, I felt a connection to the way they felt because it's all so real. The dysfunction, the good and bad, is all heightened to a certain extent, but it's all out there in the world. I think this is why I like Patchett so much after just two books. She gets what's out there and puts it under a magnifying glass in her books to help show it to others. Another recommended read.