Showing posts with label books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label books. Show all posts

Friday, August 4, 2017

Summer Reading: Commonwealth

The final selection on my summer reading list (the summer has gone by so fast!) was Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. My former book club read Truth and Beauty, a memoir about Patchett's friendship with the author Lucy Grealy which was quite moving, but I had never read any of her fiction until now. I will definitely read some of her other works because I loved Commonwealth. This novel spans fifty years in the lives of the blended family of Bert Cousins and Beverly Keating, including Bert's children Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie, and Beverly's daughters Caroline and Franny. The six children spend their summers together with their parents in Virginia, mostly left to their own devices as the adults try to deal with the situation they have created, until a tragedy strikes. The events are told in a nonlinear narrative from multiple perspectives as the children become adults and deal, each in their own way, with the trauma of their childhood. All of the events are set in motion when Bert attends the christening party, to which he has not been invited, of the daughter of a man with whom he has a passing acquaintance and then shares an illicit kiss with his wife, Beverly. Thus begins a chain-reaction of events which have far flung consequences. All of the children, at various points, wonder what their lives would have been like had that kiss not happened. There is a sub-plot involving Franny and her relationship with a famous author who uses her childhood stories as the basis for a best-selling novel, and later movie, and her siblings' negative reaction to something which makes them confront their past. This is an interesting device because Patchett's own childhood informed much of this story and one has to wonder if her siblings had a similar reaction as the fictional ones. What I liked most about this novel is the use of time. Whole decades are skipped in the lives of the characters in favor of a series of vignettes but you still feel like you know them intimately and they are all incredibly compelling. The time span allows the theme of learning how to forgive family members, even ex-spouses, to emerge very powerfully. The writing is absolutely exquisite and I enjoyed reading this novel so much, which I did well into the night so I could finish it. I think anyone who has ever been a part of a blended family will find it very authentic and I highly recommend it.

Have you read Commonwealth or any of the other selections on my summer reading list?  What did you think?

Friday, July 28, 2017

Summer Reading: Eligible

The next selection on my summer reading list was Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. I was really looking forward to this novel because it is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, one of my favorite novels of all time. I absolutely hated it and, before you accuse me of being a purist, I loved Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame Smith because I thought it was so clever. Eligible is not clever; it is absolute rubbish. Liz Bennett is a writer for a gossip magazine and Jane Bennett is a yoga instructor, both of whom live in New York.  Liz is in a long term relationship with a married man named Jasper Wick and Jane, concerned about her biological clock, is inseminated by a donor. The two of them are called back to their home in Cincinnati when their father suffers a heart attack. They end up staying for the summer to sort things out because the family's rambling Tudor home is in a state of disrepair and the Bennetts are living well beyond their means because Mrs. Bennett is addicted to shopping and the three younger girls are sponging off their parents. The family is invited to a Fourth of July barbecue hosted by the Lucases where they meet Chip Bingley, a contestant on a popular TV program (like The Bachelor), and his friend Fitzwilliam Darcy, a Harvard educated brain surgeon. Mrs. Bennett is a fan of the TV show and encourages Jane's relationship with Chip while Liz takes an immediate dislike to the snobby Darcy (although that doesn't stop them from having casual sex with each other). Chip and Jane eventually break up when Jane discovers that the IUI has been successful and that she is pregnant while Liz spurns Darcy's proposal (for no discernible reason). The rest of the novel is about getting the two couples back together (in a trashy televised ceremony for Chip's TV show). Ugh! I hated so many things about this novel. It is almost as if Sittenfeld was trying replace every plot point in the original novel with the most salacious details possible. I hated what she did to all of the characters: Liz is a cynical woman involved with a married man, Jane is a passive woman who lives off of the kindness of others, Mary may or may not be a lesbian simply because she is intelligent, Kitty and Lydia are crass and vulgar young women, Mrs. Bennett is racist and homophobic, Mr. Bennett is nasty to everyone, Mr. Bingley is a simpering weakling, Mr. Darcy is bland and unappealing, Miss Lucas is unmarried because she is overweight, Mr. Collins frequents prostitutes, and Miss Darcy is anorexic. I didn't care about any of them by the time I reached the bewildering end. It took a long time to reach the end because the story is bloated with so many useless details such as the names of every single street Liz passes as she runs in the morning, a disgusting spider infestation, and an interview with a feminist named Kathy De Bourgh that does nothing to advance the plot. Ugh! The original novel is a brilliant comedy of manners but this novel has reduced the beloved characters to people without any manners to speak of. Avoid this novel at all costs.

Have you read Eligible? What did you think?

Friday, July 21, 2017

Summer Reading: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

The next selection on my summer reading list was All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood. The story revolves around a young girl named Wavy and her incredibly dysfunctional childhood. Her father is a drug dealer and her mother is completely delusional with a compulsion for cleanliness that she uses to brainwash Wavy into thinking that anything she eats is contaminated. Wavy is basically responsible for raising her baby brother, Donal, and she is bounced between her negligent parents and an uptight aunt whenever her parents are in prison. She rarely speaks and refuses to eat in front of anyone. The only person who pays any attention to Wavy is an older man named Kellen who occasionally works as a drug-runner for her father. He is rough, anti-social, and quick to get into fights at the local bar but he takes responsibility for Wavy and she grows more and more attached to him. Eventually, the two of them begin an inappropriate relationship. When a tragedy strikes, Wavy is sent to live permanently with her aunt, who disapproves of this relationship and has Kellen charged with statutory rape. Wavy spends all of her energy, for the next six years, trying to reunite with the only person who has ever cared about her. I had a very difficult time with this novel.  On the one hand, it is beautifully written and Wavy's story about triumphing despite overwhelming odds is very compelling. In fact, I couldn't put it down and I confess that the story has stayed with me for quite a while. However, I just couldn't get past the relationship between Wavy and Kellen. I know that they are both profoundly damaged and turn to each other for the only comfort they can find in horrific circumstances but, to me, it is not a love story. No matter what they are going through, it is wrong for a 12 year old girl to be sexually involved with a 26 year old man. No matter how neglected, abused, or unhappy the protagonist is, she is still a child and there are just some boundaries that should not be crossed. I didn't view Kellen as Wavy's savior; rather, I feel that Wavy had so many opportunities in college that she threw away in pursuing a relationship with him. This is not a romance and I did not view the ending as a happy one. I don't think I can recommend this book but the very things that made me so uncomfortable might make this a compelling read for someone else.

Have you read All the Ugly and Wonderful Things? What did you think?

Friday, July 14, 2017

Summer Reading: Lily and the Octopus

I started reading Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley, the next selection on my summer reading list, early in the afternoon and I finished it in the wee hours of the next morning (even canceling my plans for that evening to continue). I couldn't put it down! I laughed and cried and I think anyone who has ever had a dog in their life will have the same reaction. Ted is a lonely, middle-aged, gay man who is suffering from writer's block and a recent heartbreak. Lily is the beloved dachshund he has had for all of her 12 years. Lily is Ted's whole life and he often eschews going out in favor of game night, movie night, or pizza night with her. Ted has actual conversations with Lily and she answers. I have to admit that one of my favorite aspects of this novel is Lily's dialogue. It is exactly what a dog would say. One day an octopus appears on Lily's head, which is how Ted views her tumor. He always refers to the tumor as an octopus, as a coping mechanism because he cannot face what it really is, and tries every way he can think of to make the octopus leave on its own. Then things take a strange turn into the realm of magical realism as Ted takes a metaphorical journey to kill the octopus. I have to admit that this part of the story didn't work as much for me but it is a small criticism. Rowley describes Lily's final hours with so much emotion and anyone who has ever experienced the loss of a pet will probably be shattered. As sad as this novel is it does end on a hopeful note. When Ted does finally acknowledge the tumor, he faces his own mortality and reevaluates his life. It is such a poignant story about the love and grief experienced as a pet owner and I highly recommend it.

Have you read Lily and the Octopus?  What did you think?

Friday, July 7, 2017

Summer Reading: Nutshell

I am a huge fan of Ian McEwan! I've read and enjoyed many of his books (Enduring Love and Atonement are my favorites) so I was quite eager to start Nutshell, the next selection on my summer reading list. This novel is a contemporary retelling of Hamlet which, of course, made me even more excited.  Rather unusually, the first-person narrator is the unborn fetus (a rather loquacious fetus) of a woman named Trudy who, with her lover Claude, is plotting the murder of her husband and Claude's brother, John. The fetus hears all of their discussions and tries, unsuccessfully, to foil their plan and save his father. The action builds and builds into an ingenious conclusion (half of the fun for me was trying to figure out how the fetus could affect the outcome and it didn't disappoint). I loved the fetus' description of being inside the womb and his account of what it was like for him when Trudy and Claude have sex is highly amusing. I also really enjoyed all of the fetus' philosophical musings about the state of the world, such as global warming, over population, religious extremism, and identity theft (Trudy listens to a lot of public radio when she can't sleep), and his worries about being born into such a world with an unreliable mother, a despicable uncle, and an absent father. All of the sly references to Hamlet, including the title, are such fun and I suspect that I will have to read this again to find all of them. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Trudy is absolutely complicit in the murder of John because I always go back and forth in how I feel about Gertrude's involvement in the death of King Hamlet. McEwan's prose is so beautiful and I found myself going back to reread certain passages. While I was sometimes exasperated with Cline's hyperbolic descriptions in The Girls, I think the removal of even a single word in this novel would result in diminishment. I highly recommend this clever and captivating novel.

Have you read Nutshell? What did you think?

Friday, June 30, 2017

Summer Reading: The Girls

Emma Cline's debut novel, The Girls, was the next selection on my summer reading list. It tells the coming-of-age story of Evie Boyd and her involvement in a Manson-like cult in San Francisco during the summer of love. In present-day, Evie is a middle-aged woman in between jobs and staying at the beach house of a friend. When his son unexpectedly visits with his girlfriend, Evie sees a hunger in the girl which reminds her of her younger self and begins relating her experiences in the cult as a cautionary tale. In the late 1960s, Evie is a bored 14-year-old, alienated from her friends and neglected by her divorced parents, when she sees a group of older girls and is enthralled by their unconventional behavior (which includes digging for food in a dumpster). She is eventually drawn into their orbit, which includes the charismatic leader Russell who fancies himself a musician, and begins experimenting with sex, drugs, and rock and roll while living at a communal ranch. When a promised record deal falls through, Russell has the girls go to the house of the musician, who promised the aforementioned deal, to commit a grisly murder much like that of Sharon Tate. To be honest, I had a very difficult time finishing this book because nothing much happens until the expected ending and, without giving anything away, this ending is quite anticlimactic. Evie, an in-and-out member of the cult, is a first-person narrator so most of the other characters are very thinly drawn and I would have liked to have known more about Suzanne and Russell and their motivations. Cline's writing style is overly-descriptive and sometimes it is a bit too much, almost like style is more important than substance. I didn't hate this novel but I didn't like it as much as other people do.

Have you read The Girls?  What did you think?

Friday, June 23, 2017

Summer Reading: The Nest

The next selection on my summer reading list was The Nest, the debut novel by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney. Four adult siblings have been looking forward to inheriting a large sum of money, nicknamed "The Nest," set aside by their father to be dispersed when the youngest sibling turns 40, which will be soon. However, Leo, the eldest, is involved in a devastating car crash involving a Porsche, cocaine, and a young woman (not his wife) who is severely injured. His mother depletes "The Nest" to cover expenses and to pay off the young woman to avoid a scandal.  This sends the other siblings, Jack, Beatrice, and Melody, into a tailspin because they are in financial difficulties and have been counting on receiving their inheritance to bail them out. I found all of these characters to be self-absorbed, selfish, and unlikable and they spend the entire novel whining about losing some unearned and undeserved money. By the end of the novel I didn't even care about what happened to any of them but I was infuriated that Leo seemed to get away with it without any consequences. Even though the three younger siblings deal with the loss of their inheritance, there is absolutely no character development from the beginning of the novel to the end. I was actually more interested in some of the minor characters (there are a lot of them) but the resolution of their stories seemed very rushed to me. I think the story is very mediocre and, as I mentioned, I lost interest very quickly. Like other novels which seem to be lauded by the critics, I wonder if I've read the same thing.

Have you read The Nest?  What did you think?

Friday, June 16, 2017

Summer Reading: My Name is Lucy Barton

The next selection on my summer reading list was My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. My former book club read Strout's The Burgess Boys and I thought it was fascinating. This novel is very nonlinear beginning with Lucy Barton's extended stay in the hospital for an unexplained illness with flashbacks to her difficult childhood and glimpses of her future as a successful novelist. For five days during her hospital stay her estranged mother comes to visit and, through trivial conversations about the people back home, the two of them reconnect. There are vague references to the debilitating poverty suffered by the family and hints about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father and, while nothing is really resolved between Clara and her mother, Clara begins to come to terms with her past and it is assumed that she uses her experiences in her writing. While I was reading this short novel I kept wishing that more would happen (it is definitely more character driven than plot driven) but upon reflection I view it is a poignant masterpiece. Lucy is an incredibly sympathetic character and I found her descriptions of her childhood to be very affecting, especially when she describes staying at school to do her homework because it was warm. That really made me think about the students who linger in my classroom after school. Strout's writing is very understated but it really packs an emotional punch.  It took me a little while to wrap my head around this novel but once I did it really resonated with me.  I highly recommend it!

Have you read My Name is Lucy Barton?  What did you think?

Friday, June 9, 2017

Summer Reading: Small Great Things

The next selection on my summer reading list was Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. My former book club read My Sister's Keeper, House Rules, and Leaving Time, all of which I enjoyed to varying degrees. Jodi Picoult can always be relied upon for a thought-provoking read and this novel certainly delivered. Ruth Jefferson is a well-respected labor and delivery nurse with twenty years of experience. She is also African-American. She is assigned to assess Davis Bauer, the newborn son of Brittany and Turk Bauer, who happen to be white supremacists. They make a request that Ruth not be allowed to care for their son and a note is placed in his file. On a busy night with many deliveries and an emergency C-section, Ruth is the only nurse available to monitor Davis after a routine circumcision. When he goes into cardiac arrest, she tries to save him but, fearing for her job, immediately stops ministering to him when others arrive. When the baby dies, Turk and Brittany hold Ruth responsible and she is arrested and charged with murder. Kennedy McQuarrie is the overworked public defender who is assigned Ruth's case. It is her first murder trial and she hopes to win in order to advance her career. The narrative alternates between the perspectives of Ruth, Turk, and Kennedy and I found all of them to be compelling and believable, although Turk made me extremely uncomfortable. Of course, this novel explores the overt racism of the white supremacists which we would all agree is utterly reprehensible but Picoult also explores the subtle racism of Kennedy, a good person who asserts that she doesn't see race yet makes decisions about Ruth's case which silence her voice. This also made me very uncomfortable as I began questioning my own implicit bias. Some of the most powerful scenes in the novel are when Kennedy tries to experience what it is like to live inside Ruth's skin. While there are some aspects of the novel that I questioned, especially the transformation at the end which was not entirely believable, I highly recommend Small Great Things for bringing up important and timely questions about race.

Have you read Small Great Things?  What did you think?

Friday, June 2, 2017

Summer Reading: Truly Madly Guilty

The first selection on my summer reading list was Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty. My former book club read Big Little Lies and What Alice Forgot, both of which I really enjoyed, so I was really looking forward to this, Moriarty's latest best-seller. Like these previous novels, Truly Madly Guilty is set present-day suburban Sydney and involves a great deal of foreshadowing before finally revealing the conflict. It centers on three couples: wealthy electrician Vid and his "smoking-hot wife" Tiffany (who used to be an exotic dancer), their neighbors Erika and Oliver who are both accountants, and Erika's childhood best friend, Clementine, a cellist, and her husband Sam. Vid spontaneously invites Erika and Oliver to a barbecue in his backyard and, when Erika reveals that Clementine, Sam, and their two young children are expected at their house for tea, he invites them along as well. Then an incident occurs at the barbecue and the narrative alternates between the night of the barbecue and several weeks later as the couples deal with the aftermath of the incident. All of these characters have issues, to say the least, and the incident at the barbecue bring them all to the forefront of their lives and they all feel a tremendous amount of guilt over what happened. The incident is referred to constantly and information is revealed with brief, and sometimes maddening, little flashes of information about what happened. I must admit that I literally couldn't put this book down, often reading well into the wee hours of the morning, because I had to know what happened at the barbecue. However, unlike Moriarty's previous novels, when the incident is finally revealed, I found it to be utterly anticlimactic and, to be honest, I quickly lost interest in the resolution. I did continue reading and I found the resolution, given the characters' backstories and their traumatic reactions to the incident, to be much too neat and pat. All of the characters are pretty unlikable, which is usual for Moriarty, but this time I didn't find them to be quirky or humorous and I wasn't really invested in what happened to them. This novel was a pretty big disappointment to me and reading it to the end seemed like a chore rather than a pleasure. I would definitely recommend reading Big Little Lies instead.

Have you read Truly Madly Guilty?  What did you think?

Friday, May 26, 2017

Summer Reading 2017

Today is the last day of school and you know what that means:  uninterrupted time for reading!  My summer reading list is back by popular demand (okay one person asked me about it).  This year's selections come from a list of the most popular fiction of 2016 (found here) and I think it includes an eclectic mix by authors I enjoy.  I'm looking forward to all of them!  I will be reading Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty, Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult, My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, The Girls by Emma Cline, Nutshell by Ian McEwan, Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley, All The Ugly And Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood, Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld, and Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.  Like last year, I will review each of these selections here every Friday.  I hope you will join me and tell me what you think in the comments!  Yay for summer reading!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Summer Reading: White Teeth

White Teeth by Zadie Smith was the one book on my summer reading list that I was the least interested in reading (hence the reason I saved it for last).  I really wanted to like this book because it has been lauded by so many critics but I just didn't find it to be very appealing. I get that it is a treatise about the immigrant experience and generational conflict but I thought it was very boring at times and I kept waiting for some sort of climax that would tie all of the disparate narratives together but I was left feeling more confused than ever at the end of the novel. It focuses on the lives of World War II buddies, Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones, and their wives and children in post-colonial Britain.  Iqbal and his wife are originally from Bangladesh and are afraid that their twin sons are straying from their traditional values. They decide to send one of the sons to live with family in Bangladesh (they can only afford to send one). The son in Bangladesh becomes an Anglophile while the one in Britain becomes involved with a terrorist organization. Jones marries an immigrant from Jamaica (after deciding that meeting her is a sign not to kill himself) and their daughter is incredibly smart but lacks self-esteem because of her looks and, like the twins, she struggles with her identity. There are lots of tangential family members, such as a niece who has shamed the family and a grandmother who is a devout Jehovah's Witness, for comic relief. To be sure, all of the characters are quirky and their dialogue is, at times, quite hilarious, but I didn't find them to be sympathetic. I did laugh at many things in this novel but it wasn't funny enough to keep my attention. Also, the leitmotif of teeth as a symbol of success seems really forced to me, almost as if those passages were added to the novel after it was finished so Smith could use it as a title. There is something to be said when a person who usually devours books in one or two days takes about three weeks to plow through it.  This novel just wasn't for me.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Summer Reading: In a Dark, Dark Wood

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware is a psychological thriller that will keep you up late into the night trying to figure out what happened!  Nora hasn't talked to her former best friend Clare for over ten years so she is surprised when she is invited to Clare's hen-do (bachelorette party) over a long weekend at a remote cabin in the woods. She is initially wary about accepting the invitation but, ultimately, her curiosity overtakes her good judgment and she accepts.  She begins to feel uneasy almost immediately upon arrival (no cell service, an atmospheric location, and party guests who are not what they seem) and there is definitely an undercurrent of unfinished business between Nora and Clare. The narrative alternates between the events at the cabin and Nora waking up in the hospital after a terrible accident which she cannot remember (amnesia is such a tiresome plot device but it works here). The suspense builds and builds (I was holding my breath for the last few pages) to a dramatic conclusion back in the woods. I definitely wasn't expecting the outcome (in fact, many of the twists and turns in the novel caught me off guard) which is high praise for a thriller. I could really relate to the characters of Clare, the golden child who seems perfect, and Nora, who was always in Clare's shadow. Trying to figure out what caused the bad blood between them was very compelling and it was interesting to see how easily they fell back into earlier patterns of behavior. The narrative is fast-paced and kept my attention throughout so I highly recommend it.

Note:  I hear there is a movie in the works and I can't wait to see what the glass house in the middle of the woods looks like!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Summer Reading: The Paying Guests

World War I is a particular interest of mine so I was very eager to read The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters which is set just after that tumultuous period in history. The war is over and many in England are trying to adjust to a much different life than before the war. Husbands and sons are dead and servants have found work elsewhere. The aristocratic Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter Frances are finding it difficult to keep up their rambling mansion and their finances are in disarray because of some bad business decisions made by her husband before his death (from apoplexy when the details of his mismanagement became known). They are obliged to take in lodgers to make ends meet. Lilian and Leonard Barber are less genteel than the Wrays and belong to the rising middle class.  This makes for some awkward encounters between them until Lilian and Frances begin an affair which leads to terrible consequences for both families. This novel is beautifully written and the atmospheric prose perfectly captures that era. However, I didn't entirely like it. The build-up to the affair between Frances and Lilian seems to take forever (a full two-thirds of the novel) with the accretion of tiny detail after tiny detail. I had predicted this relationship early on so I just kept waiting (and waiting) for it to happen and I became increasingly impatient. Then a plot twist happens which disrupts the fragile relationship between them and they both become so overwrought that they cannot come to a decision over what should be done. Frances contrives to visit Lilian, they have an emotional discussion about their situation, and then resolve to wait and see. Repeat, repeat, and repeat again. I feel like the characters had the exact same conversation at least five times! By the time the situation is resolved (which was rather abrupt considering the build-up) I almost didn't care any more. At least 200 pages could have easily been omitted without changing the outcome. Even though I usually love psychological dramas set during interesting historical periods, I was quite disappointed with this novel which had so much potential. I can't really recommend such a boring book.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Summer Reading: The Girl Next Door

I was expecting a typical murder-mystery when I first picked up The Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendell. Instead, I got a psychological drama about a group of people trying to recapture their youth. The novel begins with the cold blooded murder of a young woman and her lover by her jealous husband.  The murderer discovers their affair when he sees them holding hands so he ruthlessly severs their hands, places them in a biscuit tin, and hides the tin in an underground tunnel where his son and his friends play during World War II. Sixty years later, the biscuit tin is discovered, and in a half-hearted attempt to solve the crime, the police gather the people who played in the tunnels as children to question them. I thought it was odd that the murderer is revealed in the first chapter but the novel is less about the murder than about the effect the murder has on those involved. In fact, the murder is only relevant in that it brings a group of people back together after a lifetime apart. Memories are stirred. Relationships are rekindled. Truths are uncovered. When the murder is solved, it is almost anticlimactic compared with the upheaval is has caused in the lives of the characters. There is an almost bewildering number of characters (including a bevy of brothers whom I could never keep straight) but several emerge from the field.  My favorite character is Rosemary, whose husband leaves her when he is reunited with the proverbial girl next door. She is completely undone by his betrayal but eventually creates an exciting life for herself and refuses to take him back when the affair runs its course. Even though this is a very unconventional murder-mystery, I enjoyed the character development and I particularly liked the fact that the characters, who are in their 60s and 70s, have complicated and interesting lives. Give it a read.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Summer Reading: Life After Life

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you got it right? That is the premise of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and it is so good! I started reading it while waiting to get my car serviced. The dealership was unusually busy and I had to wait for quite a while but I didn't even notice the time because I was so engrossed. I was genuinely surprised to see that three hours had gone by! When I finished the novel in the wee hours of the next morning, I was quite sad to be finished with such an absorbing story. Ursula Todd is born on a snowy night in England in 1910 but she dies before she can take a breath because the umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck. In the next chapter, Ursula is born and lives because, this time, the doctor is able to make it through the snowstorm and is able to save her. Thus begins the extraordinary life of Ursula Todd. Every time she dies (from influenza, from an abusive husband, during the Blitz), she returns with an innate ability to save herself from peril (although it takes her a few tries to save herself from the influenza). She always returns to that snowy night but, lest you think that it becomes tedious, her birth is described differently every time from the perspectives of different characters. It is an interesting device because you become intimately acquainted with everyone in Ursula's life. She leads many vastly different lives, often because of one small decision, but there are common threads in her life (all of the main characters are recognizably the same) which is fun to look for as you read. Ultimately, Ursula realizes her ability and decides that she has a higher purpose. It is absolutely brilliant! Atkinson's writing is beautiful.  Her attention to detail and her descriptions of historical events, especially the Blitz, are incredibly powerful. The theme of this book is so intriguing in that even the simplest decision can have far-reaching consequences.  I'll admit that I have been thinking about this idea non-stop since I finished it.  I highly recommend this beautifully written and though-provoking novel.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Summer Reading: The Sense of an Ending

I think The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is one of those books that people are either going to love or hate. I loved it! On the surface it seems like an ordinary story about an ordinary middle-aged man looking back on a rather mundane life, particularly his memories of his three best friends from school and his first girlfriend.  But it is anything but ordinary when our hero, Tony Webster, is forced to make contact with his old girlfriend after the death of one of his friends, causing everything he believes about his past to be challenged. The events are first presented in a linear way and then, at the midway point, they are presented again, backwards with hindsight. It is, in my opinion, a brilliant device because there are quite a few "a-ha" moments as you read the second half.  What I liked best is that we are left still guessing about what really happened with only the sense of an ending.  It is a study in character development and not a lot actually happens but I found it to be is so interesting because I think we all rewrite our personal history to suit our opinions of ourselves. The writing is absolutely exquisite.  Barnes has a way of conveying so much meaning with only a few words.  I found myself reading a particular phrase and then stopping to think about it for a while. This book is just the kind of perfect little gem that I love and I think I could read it again and again and derive just as much enjoyment as the first time. I highly recommend it knowing full-well that a lot of people might hate it.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Summer Reading: Little Bee

Little Bee by Chris Cleave is a book that I desperately wanted to love (there is so much hype surrounding it and the topic is particularly salient at the moment) but, while I did love many parts, the story left me feeling flat at the end. Little Bee is a 16-year-old Nigerian refugee who has seen her entire village, including her family, brutally murdered and is seeking asylum in the UK. Sarah is a 30-something suburbanite mother who runs her own fashion magazine but feels like she is losing her journalistic integrity and that her marriage is in shambles. The lives of these protagonists converge for a brief moment under horrific circumstances on a beach in Nigeria and the story begins two years later when Little Bee seeks Sarah out to help her (with flashbacks that reference the events many, many times before revealing them). The narrative alternates between the two women but I enjoyed Little Bee's perspective much more than Sarah's. I found Little Bee to be incredibly sympathetic and her voice made me think differently about the refugees around the world. I had tears in my eyes every time she would search for a way to kill herself in a new environment just in case the bad men found her and I laughed as she thought of ways to describe first world problems to the imaginary girls back in her village. I found Sarah to be less likable because her behavior seems so random.  I could never figure out her motivation for anything (I think her affair with Lawrence would have made more sense if it had begun after the events on the beach), including her reason for helping Little Bee, and she wasn't entirely believable to me, especially in her interactions with her son Charlie (who refuses to wear anything other than his Batman costume). I am not sure how I feel about the ending because it seems rather ambiguous, as if Cleave's message is that there is nothing anyone can do to help refugees. I don't want to believe that! I liked this book (I would have liked it better had it been from Little Bee's perspective only) but I didn't love it and I certainly don't think it lives up to the blurb on the cover (a cryptic message that the book is so good that the publishers can't give away any of the details).

Note:  I do, however, still want to read Cleave's latest book Everyone Brave Is Forgiven.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Summer Reading: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

When I published my summer reading list I had several people recommend The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman so I was very eager to read it, despite the fact that fantasy is not a genre that I usually enjoy (although I did as a teenager). An unnamed narrator returns to his childhood home for a funeral and begins to remember long-suppressed events which happened forty years ago when he was a seven-year-old boy. As he walks to the farmhouse at the end of the land, he remembers himself as a lonely (no one comes to his birthday party) and fearful boy with distracted parents and a bratty younger sister who finds solace in the adventure stories he reads. He befriends his neighbor, a mysterious eleven-year-old girl named Lettie Hempstock, along with her mother and grandmother, and they inadvertently open a wormhole (literally) for a malevolent presence to enter his house. Lettie helps him summon a strength he didn't know he possessed to fight against this evil. As the narrator leaves Lettie's farmhouse, he once again forgets these horrific events and returns to his ordinary life. I have to admit that I really struggled while reading this because the events seemed so fantastical and, frankly, a little strange (Oh, what happened to the girl who loved A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle?). Now that I've finished it, however, I can't stop thinking about it. Once I rediscovered that girl who loved A Wrinkle In Time, I came to appreciate this novel as a metaphor for childhood and the magical worlds that children inhabit before they embrace the cold reality of adulthood. Imagery and symbolism abound (Gaiman's writing is truly beautiful) and the more I think about the elements in the story, the more I understand them, especially the ocean, the wormhole, and the giant flapping canvas monsters. I highly recommend this novel to help you remember what it was like to be a child. Just make sure you check underneath your bed before you start reading!

Friday, June 10, 2016

Summer Reading: Wolf Hall

I absolutely love historical fiction (the thicker the better!) so I was definitely looking forward to settling into Hilary Mantel's novel about the reign of King Henry VIII during the turbulent Reformation period. I have enjoyed other novels about this historical period (The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory is my favorite) and I thought telling the story from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from relative obscurity to become Henry VIII's most trusted advisor, was an interesting device. Alas, I have to admit that I struggled with Wolf Hall almost to the point of giving up several times. Honestly, did the judges for the Man Booker Prize read the same book that I did?  I actually have a theory that none of the judges understood what was going on and didn't want to admit it to each other so they declared it a masterpiece. I certainly did not view it as such! First, there is a bewildering number of characters and none of them have a distinct voice so it is extremely difficult to distinguish who is who.  This is further compounded by the fact that many characters have the same name (Mary Boleyn, Mary Shelton, Princess Mary) and by Mantel's frustrating use of the pronoun "he."  There were many times when I had to go back and reread passages just to figure out who was speaking. To me this is unnecessary obfuscation that could have been avoided by having Cromwell be a first-person narrator. Second, I had a difficult time following the chronology of the book because there are many flashbacks to Cromwell's boyhood with almost no transition. Again, I had to reread many passages.  Finally, nothing happens in this book!  It is all dialogue, dialogue, and more dialogue (which is not always a bad thing...if you know who is speaking). For a historical period full of sex, violence, and political intrigue I found Mantel's version to be absolutely boring. There is no drama, emotion, or suspense.  There is not even a climax at the end of the book because it just simply ends.  I think I continued to read because I was waiting for something, anything, to happen to tie together all of the disparate elements of this novel (I was thinking it would be the execution of Anne Boleyn or even Cromwell's own execution since he is not a first-person narrator) but it simply ends with Cromwell deciding to visit the Seymours at Wolf Hall. This novel was disappointing, to say the least, and I recommend that you read almost any other novel about the Tudors rather than this one.
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