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.