Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets & Advice for Living Your Best Life by Ali Wong

Authenticity, bravery, and a willingness to just put it all out there. These are tips a comedian could really take to heart. Turns out, they're also what Ali Wong hopes her daughters will learn from reading the series of letters in this book. I have faith they'll get it, eventually.

I'm a fan of Ali Wong. Her stand-up specials (on Netflix) are great. Watching them during the pandemic gave me an opportunity to laugh when those moments were hard to find. A little too transparent for some, I personally think that discomfort is good to feel. She talks about what she wants to talk about. I believe it's her way of getting to the real truths of life. These letters are no different. I'm sure her daughters will one day yell, "TMI!!!!," as they read this book, but then, they'll nod, laugh, and feel thankful their mom had some sage wisdom waiting.

I also admire all that this book gets into. The letters embrace her Asian heritage rather than attempting to Americanize her life. She also doesn't shy away from showing "us" our shortcomings in how we talk to female comedians or celebrity moms. You don't refer to a male comedian as a "male comedian," and yet she came up having her gender constantly be a part of her professional title. You don't often ask fathers what it's like juggling parenthood and a career, but how quick are people to toss that question out to a mom? Ali has your number. Watch out if she turns you into fresh material.

This book observed so many things I didn't notice I'd seen too. It helped explain them with the kind of grave honestly and brutal detail that resonates. It was an enjoyable and personal read culminating in the most wonderful letter written by Ali's husband. To see her story from her perspective, and then his, deeply illustrated what a loving relationship can be. I hope that inspires Ali's girls (and the readers) most of all. 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore

 This is a great book to end the summer. It's a common theme -- coming of age -- told in a completely different way. It's light and interesting at the same time. You need a book with a twist once in a while, one that's not an actual mystery, and Oona Out of Order delivers.

The book catalogues only a few years of Oona's life, which as of her 19th birthday, begins happening out of order. Her mind is aging chronologically, but she moves between years in a seemingly random pattern. Imagine waking up being 20 in your head, but 51 in your body. There's a lot to adjust to, not to the mention the fact that future Oona insists on not giving everything away, allowing current Oona to keep making the same bad choices she feels like she should avoid. It's an interesting question of changing your fate, and whether it's worth it.

What's so perfect about this story is that the first five years Oona lives out of order happen to give enough of her life away that, although she makes some grave mistakes and faces some heavy sadness and anger, she hits a state of enlightenment with so much of her life still to live. That's such an amazing gift when compared to those of us, living life in order, getting a much slower route to finally feeling like we've figured a little bit out.

I really liked the complexity of this story. On one hand, Oona is struggling with her time jumps through her life. On the other, she's going through all the common crap living a life brings about. She has a unique relationship with herself since she's constantly encountering momentos from future Oona, delivered in the past. Her random movement through time brings her a lot internal anger because of choices she's making, out of order, but it also gives her an opportunity to spend some years living her best life without worry. It's a gift and a curse that the author equally explores.

I think about what years I'd want to live in what order from the 41 I have under my belt. It's a tough question to answer. Aside from the stock tips I could give myself, I'd probably pick to live my life in order if given the option. Luckily, this isn't a common issue, and instead we get to explore the idea in a book. This was a great read, seeing what could happen if forced into this condition. Who would stand beside you? Who'd take advantage? How much time would you spend YOLO and how much would you hide away from the world? I enjoyed this book so much, and highly recommend it. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Second book club book #11

This book's narrator is a dog named Enzo. Right away, that presented certain problems for me. I don't like animal narrators telling a person's story. Give me Watership Down rabbits or the crew in Animal Farm anyday. Those animals, living in their own animalistic world, can talk up a storm. In The Arts of Racing in the Rain, Enzo is in our world, and it's awkward.

First of all, the dog seems to already know everything. Secondly, he has humans so figured out that, in his head, he almost always acts like one without prompting. It comes off a big snobbish. Why would a dog -- or any single being -- have it all figured out from the start? It detracts, in my opinion, from the story of Enzo's family.

Denny, is a race car driver, gifted, and hopefully on the path to a successful career behind the wheel. Eve is his wife, a loving and practical woman. Eventually, Zoe comes along, an intuitive and patient child. Enzo is their dog. It's a family full of love. Then, tragedy strikes, and it all falls apart. Most of the struggle falls on Denny, with Enzo as his witness. It's such an unfair hand dealt to a single person, but Denny endures with an almost unnatural amount of stoicism. Enzo attributes it to his training as a racer. 

The family moves down the path of adversity, seemingly rewarded for their faith and patience. I didn't buy it.

The struggles are too extreme. The resolution comes too fast and all-at-once. The human element is uncomfortably absent, making certain moments feel too abrupt. Instead of walking beside the people in the story, you're running through tall grass with the dog.

While I get that Denny, having mastered racing in the rain, can now manage the rough waters of his life, I don't fully understand why I can't experience this revelation through Denny's eyes. Why must Enzo also have an 'aha' moment and somehow feel vindicated in his life choices?

This book bugs me, but it would be unfair to deny that it's a good, emotional story. I can see why it's so well-liked. I may be too much of a snob for it, but it's definitely a good, well-thought-out story, perfect for those looking for a heart-felt read. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

So I don't want to accidentally give away too much, which limits what I can talk about. I'd love to get into whether or not Snow is inherently the Snow we meet later on, or if it's someone he becomes through trauma. I have a distinct opinion after finishing the book -- sharing it will spoil everything though. Suffice it to say, he's nothing if not complex and highly intelligent.

This prequel to The Hunger Games Series takes place during the 10th Hunger Games. The games are still coming into their own, so this event is missing all the showmanship and flash we see when Katniss enters the arena. High school students have been tasked to act as mentors for the tributes for the first time, Snow among the chosen.

The Capitol is a different place too. Still reeling from the war, the district is in a state of reconstruction. As a result, poverty appears in unlikely places, namely Snow's apartment. A once prominent family, their money troubles are about to get the best of them. Reputation is all they have, and it's also on the line when Snow is assigned the female tribute from District 12 to mentor. He needs a win, but the odds aren't good. Fortunately, there's more than meets the eye when it comes to his tribute, Lucy Gray. She's highly intuitive and resourceful both inside and outside the arena. You can't help but root for her.

The Hunger Games themselves are narrated through Snow's perspective. You don't know everything that goes on in the arena, or among the tributes. In fact, the actual event plays a small role in the story. What goes on outside the arena is more important. It's what makes this Hunger Games unique. Before, during, and after, events occur that allow Snow to really solidify how he feels about it all. How he feels about people, Panem, family, duty, and love. You could even say that this single year in Snow's life is his character-defining year, and he's still just a teenager.

This self-discovery does turn him into the terror we meet through Katniss, but how far off is he here from who he becomes later?

This prequel is an exciting story that felt very different from the original trilogy. You get insight into the vile character we'd already seen, but as his origin story. I wish I could say more, but I really enjoyed this book and recommend it. Just read the original trilogy first.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

This is How it Always is by Laurie Frankel

Book club book #12

This is a wonderfully written, lyrical story. It's full of smart sentences and carefully chosen words. From a writer's perspective, it reads beautifully, and I really enjoyed that.

This is How it Always is is also a well-rounded story, that tries to hit a big issue from all angles. The book follows a rather large family -- two parents, five children -- as they navigate raising a transgender child. Claude, the youngest, born the fifth boy, ultimately decides his name is Poppy, and he is a she. Each member of the family must deal with this news, as they all learn the right way to behave. It's about how a family faces change, comes together, breaks apart, and goes off in multiple directions, all to come back together around the family table.

The critical error is keeping Poppy's difference a secret. This idea of secret-keeping weighing on a family is just as significant of a theme in the book as raising a transgender child in today's world. It helps broaden the struggles in this book beyond Poppy's. It's more than just how to find identity when your body parts don't necessarily match the gender of your soul. The complexity of this book adds power to the story, makes it more real, and makes it better.

The only issue I had was toward the end. Without spoiling anything, because you do get invested in how this family will figure it all out, the end starts to feel a little rushed. It also gets a tiny bit preachy. I almost felt like the author was coming up on her page limit, so had to wrap up the story quickly. It was especially awkward to feel rushed as you're reading about how this is a story that never ends, that the journey of a trans individual is like any other life journey; it keeps moving forward. As long and thought-out the rest of the book is, this last section moved like dominoes falling rather than an individually-paced race. 

Regardless, this book is a beautiful, emotional story with insight into a family so unlike my own. It's a special journey for a family full of personalities and experiences that drive home the common theme that life is hard, but hiding doesn't always make it better. I would highly recommend this read.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner

I'm a Jennifer Weiner fan. I may even still have my copy of Good in Bed. Either way, it's always fun to get to read another one of her books. I would recommend checking out her entire library of novels to find the one(s) that look most interesting to you.

This book was not the rom-com I'd expected. I appreciate that. What began as a best friend-turned-bully story, complete with a lot of emotional scars, becomes something so much more complex. It's not the typical, "love is going to help me heal" scenario. There's mystery and money and....SPOILER ALERT....murder.

Daphne Berg is a social media influencer capitalizing on plus-sized hashtags. She's found her niche to speak to people, and most of the time that helps her appreciate her own body. Like any insecurity though, it gives Daphne moments of doubt, where her confidence diminishes. This isn't helped by her "best" friend, Drue. Wealthy and oblivious, Drue makes the cardinal mistake of outwardly pitying Daphne for her weight. It destroys their friendship until one day Drue pops back up to ask Daphne to be in her wedding. As the reader, you want Daphne to yell out a strong, "NO!," but she lets herself get lured back into the friendship. Daphne meets a hot stranger the night before the wedding at a lavish party. That's where you think you know the direction this book will take. You're wrong. Instead of focusing on the hotness, Daphne gets distracted having to solve a murder.

There's a lot to this book, which is always so much better than a simple love and confidence story. Falling in love isn't what's going to uplift Daphne; being happy with who she is will. Each character in this book is dealing with something -- a secret, regrets, parts of their past that hurt -- but being right in your own mind about you now is the lesson to learn. Allowing your past to be a part of you that maybe influences you to change counts. At one point in the book Daphne talks about how everyone needs justice, even nasty people. She's specifically talking about solving a crime, but this sentiment goes further. You don't need to hide. You can be you.

I enjoyed this book a lot. It's surprising and fun and a great summer read that gives you something to think about once you've finished the book.

Other Jennifer Weiner books I've reviewed:
Mrs. Everything

Monday, July 6, 2020

The Female Persuasion: A Novel by Meg Wolitzer

I'm not really sure what this book is about.Initially, the impression was it would be a feminist journey of a shy, slightly withdrawn girl coming into her own while surrounded by inspirational women. It's kind of that, but then also not. The trajectory Greer -- our lead -- starts on really becomes where she ends up. The "major" event that might have sent her on a tangent really just helps her get to where you expect her to be all along. It's strange. She does learn how to speak up and speak out, but it's not cliche in that she's suddenly empowered. Also, I think she would have gotten to where she ended up regardless of what happened in the story.

The book revolves around six characters, three men and three women. The women have a much more dominant role in the book, but the men are present in one way or another. The females have a common thread of purpose, the males are a bit more listless,. Even the most successful man, Emmett, has a significant inability to listen. Cory, Greer's boyfriend, suffers a great family tragedy and withdraws from the world. His own grief becomes the central need he must attend to, leaving Greer out in the cold. The third guy, Darren simply serves as a catalyst to get Greer angry about how men get away with improper behavior. The guys get to tell a little of their stories, but only one is really "good." They're all flawed at varying degrees.

The women include Greer, her friend Zee, and Faith. Zee encourages Greer to think and act like an activist. Faith, much older than the other two, has already created a successful career around speaking out for women. She gives Greer her first job out of college, working for a foundation that puts on events and does special projects to aid those in need. The foundation is funded by Emmett's company. Emmett is in love with Faith. He's doing this to be close to her. Allowing the men to also exhibit the stereotypical gender roles often found in literature is a subtle piece to this book. It's not a full role reversal though. 

I didn't love this book, but the more I think about it, the more I appreciate how the author decided to flaw her characters. It's not a hyper-realized version of men and women, it's not a declaration of one being better than the other. It's the mediocre reality that we all mess up to varying degrees. Sometimes we overcome those mess ups, sometimes we hide them and hope they stay hidden, and sometimes we never acknowledge we did wrong. It's telling who people are by how they handle their flaws, regardless of whether they're a man or woman. I like that the author is willing to admit that sometimes your flaws tarnish all the good you're putting out into the world.

I picked up this book because The Interestings is a favorite of mine. This isn't as good. It's not bad though. Maybe you'd like it.

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

I picked up this book as quickly as I could because of Station Eleven. I loved that book. This one was a good read, but not as clearly formed in my opinion as the author's previous. The flow in The Glass Hotel is a bit awkward. I liked that, but I feel it could make the book hard to read.

The narrative moves forward in time, but you're never really sure who the main character is. Flashbacks are minor, and fill in some gaps, but again, you're not always sure where to focus. My bet is that the main character is Vincent, a young woman who touches every other life in the story. Whether she's a sister, girlfriend, or bartender, she's there for at least a moment. It's hard though to say definitively sine the characters are like ping pong balls in a lottery machine. They're bouncing all over the place, but they bump into each other before the machine burps out the winning numbers. Vincent is the ball that bumps into all the others. She's an interesting woman, who seems to accept her position as it comes until finally becoming so disillusioned that she moves her life off land completely. 

The other thing in the book that touches all the characters is risk. It could also be the main character in all honesty. The risk manifests primarily in the form of an investment opportunity. You have to decide whether to take the risk or not, to benefit it or not. Even those standing close to those confronted with the risk are impacted. It has a heavy influence, and is a key driver of the trajectories for the characters in the book. Tied into this component is a commentary on human connections, and how much time we waste making the wrong ones. It's only after the risk is eliminated that many characters seem to find out who their friends really are, who they should love.

There are other complicated elements in this book. A quick touch on drugs, on ethics, on life lived on a secluded Canadian island. Like I said, its form feels loose because it's so packed. I would definitely recommend giving this author a try, but start with Station Eleven. This book is more experimental to me in its flow. I enjoyed the art of it, and the complexities, but it might not be for everyone.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Second book club book #10
A Highway 59 Mystery - Book 1

I can count on one hand the number of crime novels I've read in the last five years at least. It's two. I'm talking about the ones that take place in the real world, with nothing fantastical about them. I always like them, but haven't been drawn to them since the days when my dad and I swapped Nelson DeMille novels.

I was glad to read this book. It's especially relevant today as it covers themes like race, hate, life in the rural South, and family. It's an intricate and complex book that feels all too real. I'm thankful it's set in the now, that it takes a deep look into today's racism without ignoring the many layers that can go into hate. The author does a fantastic job of vilifying the villains without creating stereotypes. She allows for the complexities of an individual to really contribute to her characters, whether they're good, bad, or somewhere in between.

Darren Matthews is a Texas Ranger (cop) with a drinking problem. A family friend stands trial for a murder without a weapon. Darren was the last to see the victim alive. Normally, no evidence would mean no trial but this is Texas, and there's a white man dead, possibly by black hands. It doesn't help matters that Darren is also African American. His loyalties might not be to the law. The lack of clarity in this situation means Darren is on probation, but he's not sitting still. Trouble finds him when he's asked to casually investigate two deaths in a nearby town -- that of a black man and a white woman.

The town is small and full of secrets. The dead man was an outsider. The woman had only recently had a baby. To say this is a complicated situation is a severe understatement. Floating at the center of all this confusion is Geneva and her restaurant, which has filled the bellies of black travellers for years. A widow, who also lost her son, Geneva has secrets of her own. There's a lot for Darren to dig through, but he's immediately in the middle, and on a mission for the whole truth.

Nothing is as it seems in this book. Yes, there's the underlying hate of racism, but it's not always the color of one's skin that inspires bad feelings. There's also who's kin to whom that gets tricky, fast. In the end, nothing about this story is simple.

What the author does so very well in this book is create characters. Each person we meet has such a deep backstory, whether they tell it all or not. Everyone's a little bit imperfect, a little dishonest. There are good and bad guys too, but most reside in a very grey area. I appreciated that nod of realism, that choice to not create fictional characters that got it all right or over-exemplified a stereotype out in the world today.

This is a powerful read that will keep you on your toes. It reminds you of what daily life is like in an area of our own country that hasn't caught up to the idea of loving everyone as their equal. These people don't carry kindness for everyone in their hearts. It's a story we can't forget. This is a book that makes you really think about people, love, and human connection. It timed out so well. I would highly recommend. 

Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

This is a good, fantastical adventure story. An epic journey of discovery. However, it begins a little muddled. You're not sure what's going to push the story forward fast enough to know what to pay attention to right away. It detracts from the 'aha' moments later. 

The author seems to love the genre so much, she over-inserts classic elements. You feel at times like you're in another book, if only for a few pages. This makes it hard to emphatically say whether I think this is a good book.

January Scaller is a girl that doesn't belong. She lives in a world she knows she doesn't quite fit into, but what choice does she have? Apparently, she has a lot. Weak spaces in the fabric of worlds create doors. If you can find them, you can move through them to somewhere new, somewhere that fits.

It's the beginning of the 20th Century when we first meet a young January. She's living as the ward of Mr. Locke, the head of an archaeological organization that obtains rare artifacts from around the world. January's father works for Locke retrieving these items. He's not really around for January, which makes it hard since she lost her mom as a baby. When her father disappears and is presumed dead, January begins to question everything. Once, January had discovered a door to a world smelling of salt and the sea. Maybe this is the solution to the mystery of her missing father, and what Locke is really up to.

At the same time all this happens, January comes into possession of a special book. It's a story of love, pain, and sadness. It's about misplacement and an almost endless search. It's her parents' story, and January decides she can find them again if only she can get to the right door. 

That's the heart of this book, what I feel is the main narrative line. A girl, coming into her own, heads out on a great search. But, that's hardly all that happens. It's practically impossible to summarize since so much leans into the general action. From multiple villains, magical abilities, daring escapes, death, love, and heartbreak, the story is stuffed with so much more than it needed. It takes too long for January to develop a sense of urgency, and she misses the obvious time and time again. The arc is awkward.

What I did like about the book is the magic it imbued to words. This is a book where words have true value and power. When believed in, they can literally change the world and bring people back to each other. It would have been easy for the author to use words as witchcraft, with characters speaking magic spells, but that's not what happens. It's more organic and feels more powerful.

Overall, this is a fun adventure to read over the summer. It will pick up momentum as it goes, so stick with it.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

Book club book #11

I don't often read mysteries or suspenseful novels. I either figure them out too early or get so involved I struggle putting them down. This book leaned more toward the latter, which is a good thing. This is a complex story that prays on perception. You're never really sure who all the villains are and who is just a product of some very crazy circumstances. The one thing you do know is this shit is nuts.

In the present, there is no family upstairs. There's just a 25-year-old, adopted girl who's inheriting an empty house her biological parents willed to her. She knows her parents died when she was a baby and that they had other children who haven't been seen in over 25 years. The house is worth a lot of money, but the mystery is more pressing than the sudden ability to boost her bank account. Teaming up with a journalist, Libby tries to crack the mystery of her family. What feels straightforward isn't, of course, as the missing children begin to reemerge. 

As Libby learns the layers of truth, we catch glimpses into the past. We hear from Henry Jr. as he shares flashes of what life was like when the Thomsen family moved in upstairs, took over his house, and changed everything. We also catch up with Lucy, his sister, who's living in France in poverty. Without giving anything away, the things that happened in this house are scary and cruel. It's a battle of the strong vs the weak, which ends in the deaths of three adults laid out just so on the kitchen floor.

The idea of family in this novel is so interesting and complex. This house holds two biological families, yet they muddy together in a way that blurs devotion to blood. When situations turn to the extreme, is it who's on your side that becomes your family or who you're really related to that matters? There's no clear answer. Power and loyalty are very big themes, but so is desire.

This is a smart book and I would recommend it. The intensity builds just right so you're not left freaking out about the end right after the beginning. It's a good read that goes fast, but it's dark, so be prepared.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

It's hard to write about this book and not spoil it. It's such a satisfying conclusion to the world Atwood created with Offred. I'm going to try and keep it neutral, but just to be safe, don't read this if you're a big fan, who hasn't read the book yet.

Picking up 15 years after The Handmaid's Tale, this book strings three distinct stories together to complete the story begun with an escaped handmaid. Everything is revealed through testimony or memoir, recounted shortly after they've happened. This gives an added bonus of more reaction, not less. The storytellers have time to reflect, and that depth ups the excitement level. I read this so fast as a result.

The first story is the memoir of Aunt Lydia, a founding Aunt of Gilead. She's gotten old, she sees her end. Will she go out with a soft poof or a bang? The second story is Agnes'. She's the daughter of a Commander, whose first sexual experience, unwanted and inappropriate, turns her away from marriage. Her only salvation is to train to become an aunt herself. Raised in Gilead, she has no ill feelings toward the system even though her life has given her opportunities to hate. The third storyteller comes from outside. She's lived her life in Canada, learning about Gilead in school. Her life fully sits on the other side until an insane combination of events forces her through the border. 

Why these three and what's the connection? It would spoil everything to share, but suffice it say, these three women, with their bravery and strength intertwine in a historic way for this word. It all happens fast, so read closely.

I love being reminded that complex stories can be simply told. Atwood takes a beautifully straightforward approach to heavy events with many moving parts. She makes her characters easy to understand, and exciting to read. Her stories are emotional, chaotic pageturners that don't over complicate. Time moves fast to maintain momentum, and you feel connected to every character by the end no matter the minor part they played in the narrative. I enjoy her writing so much.

This sequel puts you right back into the crazy, male-dominated world of Gilead. The same characters are playing and fighting the system all at once. It's a power struggle, it's a freedom fight, it's about how big of a splash ingenuity and patience can make. It's fantastic.

I highly recommend this book, but only after you've read The Handmaid's Tale. They truly go together, so even rereading them back-to-back sounds like a good idea to me.

I didn't write up a review when I read The Handmaid's Tale. It was before I began this blog. However, after reading the book, I became a big fan. Here are the Margaret Atwood books I did read and review:

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

It's difficult to pinpoint what this book is really about. It starts with a focus on the struggle of navigating divorce, but from the man's perspective. Then, it shifts slightly. You realize the narrator isn't the man, but rather a female friend of his who really wasn't around during the failed marriage. Part three of the story then swings over to the ex-wife, transforming the book into a heavily feminist-tinted story about society's views and expectations of married women with children, and the damage that causes. 

I've thought about it, and what I think the book is about is the toxicity of expectations. All the characters in this book, no matter whose story we're hearing, are in crisis because they've fallen victim to expectations. 

Toby Fleishman is the first one in trouble. He's put everything into his family and his career as a doctor. Now it's all different. He's getting divorced. He has to date again. He has to continually put one thing in his life above another, never in the order that he wants. His heart is wounded from a failure of his partner to feel as much as did. 

Rachel, his ex-wife is in crisis simply from overload. She works like a dog to make the money that keeps her family in the higher tier of New York City society. She invests so much time working, communicating with the nanny, and agonizing over her kids' schedules and social calendars. It all has to be perfect. Every exercise class she takes or lunch she goes on helps solidify their social standing. Why couldn't her ex see that?

Elizabeth, our narrator, is friends with Toby from college. They met on a semester abroad in Israel. Now, 20 years later as they're all entering their forties, she's back in his life, happy to have someone to distract her from her own issues. She's not happy as a stay-at-home mom. She struggles with the direction her career went, probably because she's a woman. She's a little tired of putting her family first even though she loves them.

All three characters, and a few others who jump in and out, are all trying to navigate the expectations of life and it's freaking hard. Who can't relate to that? Yes, it's convenient that I'm currently a forty-something with kids stuck at home on coronavirus quarantine, but still, I get it.

This book is complex and beautiful. It's not afraid to give into the rambling narrative that is the mind of a forty-something with kids, a job, and a million priorities. It's what a modern mid-life crisis really is. You no longer go out and buy a red convertible, but rather spend countless hours second-guessing your place in the rat race, whether you're screwing up your kids, or how to hide your aggravation and keep going. These characters feel the struggle in its most heightened way, but perfectly capture what happens when you need to be in five places at once.

In the end, without spoiling things, the outlook looks good for our characters. The crisis feels temporary, but that doesn't mean it wasn't intense. When the book ends, you feel like everyone is going to be okay. It won't be perfect, and it will take a lot of work, but they'll survive without imparting any lasting damage. It feels real.

This is a great book, and I really enjoyed reading it. I think it will speak to a lot of people for a variety of reasons, and highly recommend it.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Mr. Know-it-all: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder by John Waters

Second book club book #9

Oh boy. This book is a brain dump of immense proportions. While I liked a few parts, overall, this was not a favorite. I saw the humor, appreciated Waters' signature shock value, but was bothered throughout. 

Don't get me wrong, I knew what I was getting into. I'm no stranger to this guy. I think I was about 12 the first time I saw Cry Baby. It wasn't the topics he covered, it was the structure that drove me nuts. This book was a mess of unconnected paragraphs, mismatched thoughts, and disjointed tangents that didn't always circle back. The mental strain of processing this book consistently put me to sleep as I tried to read it.

There's also a complete lack of wisdom. No nuggets of insight, no real 'aha moments.' He may call it tarnished, but it's not wisdom. It's more like speculation or daydreams. Sharing what your ideal home would look like or how you want your remains dealt with does not impart wisdom. Obsessing about your Reborn baby doll or what Warhol was like isn't helpful and it was only kind of interesting.

Being a Waters fan seems to be diametrically opposed to being a professional writer. I like some of his movies. After the first time I saw Cry Baby, I wanted to watch it over and over. Hairspray is a great musical if you watch the original with Ricki Lake. While never seeing Pink Flamingos, it was most definitely a hot topic of conversation in my freshman dorm. As a filmmaker, Water's offbeat vision is in my wheelhouse, but write an entire chapter with only run-on sentences, and you've lost me.

At one point in the book, Waters says, "I am a man, a damaged, self-involved man..." This is very obvious in how he writes, so that's a warning to you. If you love the unusual, shocking, and crass, this might be your cup of tea. Otherwise, even if you're a fan, stuff might sneak up on you, so watch out.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Andromeda Evolution by Michael Crichton and Daniel H. Wilson

You may think this is a strange choice for a book given the world today, but what better time to read the sequel to a book about the possibility of a pandemic than now? The story is also so different from our current reality. I guarantee it's not in poor taste to pick this up if you're a Crichton fan.

The Andromeda Strain takes place in 1967. It's about a microbe that kills everyone but two people in a small town and the scientists who go investigate, and ultimately stop nuclear devastation from happening. It was a really fun book. Catching up to now, The Andromeda Evolution is happening 53 years later. The microbe has undergone serious study. We know it's still in the atmosphere. We know it's extraterrestrial and able to mutate. In its current state, it's most dangerous to a specific material used on spaceships. Military offices and detailed operational plans are in place for the sole purpose of watching Andromeda for any new anomalies that could lead to an attack, and reacting to them.

Nobody expects a giant structure to plop down in the middle of the Amazon. Spewing out a dark and deadly smoke, the threat of global extinction returns, but it's so much more than an invisible microbe this time.

Four scientists, one with direct ties to the first Andromeda incident, head into the dense jungle to investigate and hopefully neutralize the threat before more serious action is taken. In true Crichton style, the tense moments come rapid-fire along with a quick succession of informational nuggets that keep you in the loop as the story develops. The picture of what's going on and who's doing what comes into focus at the perfect time. You, as the reader, have all the necessary pieces alongside the heroic efforts of the main characters. 

The combination of diverse characters with unique motivations, technology and some great science fiction makes this book such a fun read. You're in the thick on things on the ground, but you also head up into space in order to face this alien microbe that seems hell bent on keeping humanity from leaving the planet. At the heart of all the action and terror, even Andromeda itself is a developing character.

Like most Crichton books, this is a fast and exciting read. It's an adventure set in a reality that's not ours, but could be. Reading it is a different kind of escape than something romantic or funny, but the message within the story seems fitting. It's a situation where humanity triumphs against those forces that would try to destroy us, and that's nice to read right now.

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.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

I know there are so many book about WWII out there. Even those that cover a triumph during this time period are sad because hate is sad. Unnecessary death is sad. You can't avoid these themes and talk about WWII. Taking all of this into account though, with a Hoffman spin, transforms a WWII story, like this one, into something with a little bit of magic. It's more about love, survival, sadness, and pain; pushing the other themes to the background. It's a complete story that culminates in hope.

The World That We Knew focuses on a set of children, just old enough to enter adulthood during the war. Their lives intersect as they navigate the war as Jews, in France. They suffer and see death, but also emit this amazing sense of survival and bravery. The four main characters, Lea, Ettie, Julien, and Victor all have completely different experiences during the war, but all impact each others' path.  

The first interaction leads to the creation of a golem, a mystical being in Jewish folklore, a protector. Ava, the golem is responsible for Lea's safety, but her creation liberates Ettie, the rabbi's daughter. Ettie goes against her orthodox upbringing and creates the golem, which changes her forever. Julien and Victor are brothers, born in Paris, but eventually seen as Jews to be feared rather than natives of the country. They flee separately and enter into an underground world that includes a passion for resistance.

Clever and complete, this story captures so many moments that evoke the terrors of war, but also puts forth so many moments of hope. Placing the main characters at such a delicate time in their lives also allows Hoffman to grapple with the question of whether someone can become who they're truly supposed to be even during a war. She shows how you can love when surrounded by hate, and how good never totally disappears. It's a tough and intriguing story, where you feel a real connection to the characters and the "fate" that intertwines them all.

I really do like Hoffman as an author, so would recommend this book, but I'd also suggest you start with another one of her titles first. WWII is a heavy setting to meet an author, so something a little lighter might make for a better introduction. Here are reviews of some of her other books I've read:

She's also the author of Practical Magic and The River King which are both excellent.

Friday, February 7, 2020

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

This book is a lot. A lot of characters with dual purposes. A lot of movement and action in a place that's hard to visualize. A lot of narrative changes which reveal information so far apart, it's hard to pull it together. I still don't totally understand the ending, but I get it enough to feel a little, "meh," about it.

A secret world exists right beneath our feet. It's a world that holds story -- all of it. People find this world because they're meant to, by going through the right door. While it seems that most people who make the discovery just go down and enjoy being surrounded by caverns upon caverns of books, a few enter with a purpose to fulfill. Zachary and Dorian are two of those people. Lured down by the discovery of two curious books, and aided by two locals of this underground world, the men must complete a journey full of fear, pain, heartache, and ultimately love. One that concludes rocking along the waves of the starless sea, which seems to be a living thing itself, on its own mission.

This synopsis leaves out a ton of characters and a lot of action. It's all difficult to explain and harder to summarize. Whether that's a good or bad thing is up to you. Suffice it to say, this is a book about love and creating the right situation for the love you're meant to have to grow. It also drives home how complicated it is to find happiness.

I almost feel like this is the kind of pseudo-philosophical story a developing writer creates before they really know anything about writing. There's a compulsion to put all your thoughts into the story without self-editing, to use a lot of metaphor, and to blur good concepts with an excessive amount of words. While I like the ideas toyed with in the book -- love, human connection, and the evolution of a person's story -- the setting really overcomplicates things. There's just too much to this book all around. The physical space and layers of time within the story somehow dilute the ending, which I feel should have hit with a more exciting punch.

This book is tough to recommend. I liked it, but I wish the story had pieced itself together better. There's definitely something here worth reading. An adventure is always fun. It just doesn't feel totally right to me.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

It's easy to forget this book is fiction. It's also refreshing to read a book written like a long interview. This story could have just as easily been told as a narrative, but there's something captivating about the idea of almost the entire thing being told without an author filling in the gaps. It's just straight from the mouths of the members of a 70's rock band. Along with the interjections from the people most connected to them, you get this complete picture of the life of a band, in the most intimate way, since the stories come directly from those involved.

It's such a genuine way to present a highly emotional story. Characters remember the same situations differently, impart their own neurosis onto events and share more emotion than I feel you'd get from another presentation style. It's great.

This book has all the elements you'd expect from a novel talking about rock and roll. There's addiction, infidelity, bad relationships, and serious drug use. There's also these amazing moments of love, passion, and creativity that you almost never feel from the outside when hearing musicians talk about themselves or their process. You see real doubt and fear as these characters come together to form an amazing band and then struggle to keep it all in sync. It's so real.

The surprise for me though, and this isn't really a spoiler, is that although all that is in the book, it's not what it's actually about. Yes, rock and roll is ever-present, along with the dynamic of being in a band and facing fame, but what this book is really about is love. How it comes in all kinds and what it means to keep it alive. It's about one woman who has found a successful formula for love and tries her best to empower other women to get on their path toward it. It's also about women who fail at it. It's about the concept that love is about choices. It's powerful stuff, and I appreciate the variety of women we see in the book and how they're each able to settle into where they're really supposed to be instead of being forced into a pre-set container.

This is a quick read and so unlike what's out there right now. It's enticing and I highly recommend it.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Book club book #9

I went and saw David Sedaris a few months ago, and he recommended this book. I totally get why. With the raw insight and, at times, painful lack of filter, Patchett, like Sedaris, gives us a story that's worth hearing. They're definitely kindred spirits.

In The Dutch House, we get a novel about a very odd and special house, and the family within it. The house seems to have a personality all its own as it's possessed with the power to drive people away as well as suck them in so deeply that death is the only way out.

A broken family lives inside. The mother one day leaves and never returns, no explanation. The children, Maeve and Danny, must lean on each other and their hired caretakers to survive. The dad is elusive. When a new "friend," Andrea is brought home the upheaval only gets worse. The broken family breaks even more as this "new mom" and her two daughters slide into the house and usurp everything.

Through it all, Maeve and Danny, our main characters, rely on each other as more than just siblings. It's a rotating series of familial roles the more they're left to depend on each other. At times, one parents the other -- advising and nurturing and maybe controlling a little. They question each other's choices as only siblings can get away with, but share an unbreakable connection.

As they grow, the Dutch House lingers on in its pristine, overly-huge perfection. An obsession for some, a symbol of trauma for many others, the house is as much a character as the people who have called it home. The house looms for Maeve and Danny as a sight of a lot of pain, yet they can't stay away. As the house's character develops, it becomes a key player in tying up loose ends.

While not all the characters find exactly what they're looking for within the walls of the Dutch House, this book concludes at just the right spot. You close it feeling as if a complete story was told. It's beautiful, emotional, sad, and sweet. The characters are complex and unpredictable. It's a really good story. I loved it.