Thursday, December 12, 2013

Middlesex, Jeffery Eugenides, Fiction.  I was lucky enough that my book club picked this for our recent read.  Having read it before and not remembering much about it (my constant complaint) but knowing that I loved it, I settled in for the epic, gender-bending, centuries-spanning ride.  If this was a movie, there should be a lot of spiraling up-close to far-away montages. Eugenide's ability to connect this story over years and continents is what makes this such an engaging and special read.  Even though you may not be familiar with the subject of trans-gender people, the story never treats the reader as a novice.  Eugenides traces the genetics of his trans-gender main character back to the original gene mutation, in an idyllic mountainside town, then continually checks in, in present day, with the young girl Calliope as she lives her childhood in Detroit, and then struggles through adolescence.  As the mutated gene slips through the immigrant family, Eugenides funnels the history of Detroit through the eyes and experiences of Desdemona and Lefty, who have made their way across the ocean to try to start a new life with their cousin in Detroit.  Henry Ford, rum running, speakeasies, and the "white flight" all effect the family, and they sure do keep close to each other - because the son and daughter of the new American families (second cousins) are Cal's parents.  Through their romance, and their life in Detroit - race riots, private schools, and the suburbs, they are never fully aware of the impact their coupling - and their parents' - until Calliope is examined by chance by an emergency room doctor on vacation.  Cal's lifelong struggle to find him/her self is finally put to rest when he learns to trust, and maybe try to love.
Two I didn't finish:  Baba Yaga and Night Film.  'Nuff said.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Bone Season, Samantha Shannon, Fantasty
Read this book for nothing other than to be blown away by Shannon's imagination.  The entire world and the detail that she creates within this world, is astounding.  It is London, in the year 2059, and the unnaturals have been banned from society, but are somehow surviving by going unnoticed by the authorities.  Paige Mahoney, an Irish girl who is an unnatural, has been recruited to work for the unnatural syndicate, by breaking into people's minds.  A dreamwalker, Paige is one of the most sought-after unnaturals in their society.  However, Paige's fear of being caught ultimately leads to her capture and imprisonment in Sheol 1, a secret world where the unnaturals are put in the dregs of society, where the leaders feel they belong.  However, because of her specific powers, Paige is just as sought after here by the leaders as she was in underground London, which buys her some leeway in her new life as a servant to the leaders of Sheol 1.  What makes this supernatural story so engaging is that it is grounded in reality - the possibility of tyrannical government, the fear of unknown, and the importance of relationships.  The Bone Season, the first in a series of six, promises to build upon the incredible imagined world of Shannon's, Paige's relationships to her employer in Scion London and her keeper in Sheol 1, and her role in possibly bringing change to a repressive world.

The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert, Fiction.
If this work of fiction from the author of Eat, Pray, Love seems familiar, you are right.  Like her best selling memoir, Gilbert's main character Alma's search for self takes her around the world.  However, for Gilbert and her character Alma, it takes the trip and their experiences to find the tools to see what was always in front of them.
Gilbert's writing is best when she is telling the story of Alma's father, Henry Whittaker, and how he found his fortune.  The daring, wit, and willingness to lose everything inspire Henry's actions, and in turn help him raise one of the vastest collections of plants - and fortunes - in the world.   Alma was born as the only child of Henry Whittaker and his wife Beatrice, and unbeknownst to her, leads an extremely privileged childhood.  Her parents' background in botany and the scientists and explorers with whom he does business inform Alma's social life, which results in her being afraid of nothing other than the children of the people who work for her family's estate.  Unfortunately, the magic that Gilbert describes and inspires her writing filters away as Alma grows up. By the time Alma leaves home, the drive behind her life and my reading of the book was gone.  Even though Gilbert's descriptions of sea voyages, far away islands, and caves of wonder are beautiful, they are too far between to drive the words in between these experiences.  Alma's contemporaries, even though they play a part in Alma's life, feel like people cut-outs, with almost no emotion, which is in full contrast with her parents and the Dutch woman who helped raise Alma.  Gilbert would have had great story and characters with the tale of Henry's childhood, adventures, and the resulting way in which his daughter was raised, but Gilbert carries on - and on - with the story of Alma's life.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

So, I took the summer off.  But not from reading!  Here are some reviews:

The Husband's Secret, Liane Moriarty, Fiction.  No spoilers here, but rest assured it is a good secret.  Enough to impact the lives of all who surround Cecilia, who finds a letter addressed "For my wife, Cecilia Fitzpatrick To be opened only in the event of my death."  Even though her doting husband is in fact not dead, she eventually opens the letter.  The events set in motion from the information found in the letter seem to reach out their tentacles to touch people across the small Australian town where they live, but then spiral back to crash upon them with such force it will leave their family forever scarred.  The plot teeters on the line of a bit soapy, but Moriarty treats her characters with such grace and compassion it never becomes too convenient.  You will immediately want to know the secret, and upon learning it, you won't want to put the book down until its conclusion, so prepare yourself for a surprise page turner.

Visitation Street, Ivy Pochoda, Fiction, Mystery.  This story is as much about the neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn as any mystery that could be set there.  Pochoda writes about the area as if its a character all its own - the moods, lighting, streets and docks all play a part in this sad tale of two girls - one who is lost, and the other who is left behind.  The other characters - a drunk teacher, a young man who wants to leave the hood, his mother who is tied there by the memory of his father, a bodega owner who has his sights set on the future, and a songstress who realizes she has her family's gift of hearing the dead - are all affected by the appearance of a young graffiti artist who drifts onto the scene like a ghost.  His art is astounding, but what is he running from?  Or to?  These questions are answered in this powerful tale of loss, pride and love set in Brooklyn.

Big Brother, Lionel Shriver, Fiction.  Shriver's latest does not shy away from controversial topics, and this time she tackles the mounting obesity epidemic in the United States - but through the eyes of family and a sister who will do anything to help her brother from the pit he has eaten himself into.  When Pandora picks up her brother at the airport, she hardly recognizes the man she used to know, trapped inside an extra 100+ pounds.  She hardly dares mention the obvious, until her husband Fletcher says what everyone is thinking - what happened to Edison?  Pandora pits her love for her brother and the commitment she has to helping him get healthy once again against the love and patience of her new family, Fletcher and his two teenage children.  Will Pandora's devotion help Edison lose the weight?  Will Fletcher and his family stick around to see the results?  Shriver also examines the US's obsession with food - too much, too little, too perfect, too healthy - why can't we stop thinking about food?  Her frank but tender treatment of siblings, tied with a mutual past and questioning a future without each other, makes this novel special.  I just can't say I love it for one reason - the ending.  Read it and tell me what you think.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Bonk, Mary Roach, Nonfiction.'s about sex.  More specifically, how people have sex, if they can't, how much pleasure they get out if it and why.  This recent selection from my book club gave me an insight into human sexuality that I didn't know I was lacking.  Mary Roach, who is well known for her insatiable appetite for information, takes on the often taboo but very common subject of how and why people have sex.  This very scientific look at human sexuality is hilarious, insightful and to the point.  She is careful to define the line between voyeurism and the quest for knowledge, and seemingly teeters on the line herself, until you catch her giggling at a man in polyester pants (you can't skip the footnotes in a Mary Roach book, you will miss all of the humor!!).  Not one to shy away from touchy subjects, any book by this author is sure to teach you something - and make you realize that people all over the world have some very interesting questions.  Her research on this book takes her all over the world and far back in history, and makes you realize the subject of sex isn't quite as taboo as society may want us to think.  By the end of the book I found myself wanting more of a conclusion to the question of scientifically what makes great sex, but really, when this subject is as old as time itself, wouldn't we all have known that answer before?
Accelerated, Bronwyn Hruska, Fiction.  Who knew the ins and outs of a tony elementary school education could be thrilling?  Hruska takes the sometimes mundane world of primary school and sets it in the heart of New York City, adds relationship drama (between husband and wife, wife and son, and teacher and son's father), bad doctors, and good reporting.  This all adds up to a very fun read.  What will schools do to keep their kids at the top of the class - and the system?  Hrusaka takes the idea to (hopefully!!) the limits of what any parent or child can take.  It is only when a thoughtful father and teacher take a closer look at how one student is treated both in and outside of the classroom that the real questions arise - and you find out that this school will go to any length to keep up images.  This is when the book takes a dark turn.  As a reader, you will enjoy the twists while as a parent you may ask yourself, when would I put my foot down?  Hopefully this smart novel won't be the last from Ms Hruska.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Next Best Thing, Jennifer Weiner, Fiction.  Ruth is going to Hollywood.  She picks up her family and heads out west.  Her family includes her grandmother Rachel.  Raised by Rachel since the horrendous car crash that severely scarred Ruth and killed her parents, Ruth depends on her grandmother for everything.  When Ruth expresses her desire to write a TV show based loosely on their lives, Rachel is the first to pull out a suitcase.  Ruth can’t imagine her life without the support of her grandma, so they merrily make their way across the country.  Things start to crumble when Ruth falls for another writer on the show she has been working with for three years.  Workplace romance is never a good idea, especially when he has already impregnated the TV show’s star.  Finding her way after this episode takes time, but Rachel is there to coax her along and finally kick Ruth into gear.  With her grandmother’s support, she finds a position with another writing company, this time run by two Daves, one of whom she falls for.  In the midst of her personal turmoil, her show is picked up for a season and her grandmother gets engaged.  Weiner's tale about planning a wedding, writing and producing a show, and trying not to fall in love make for a heartwarming, frustrating, and happy read.  

What the Family Needed, Steven Amsterdam, Fiction.  This novel tells the tale of one unusual family from multiple perspectives over a period of about forty years.  Starting from young Giordana’s perspective, her life really begins the summer her delighted cousin Alek asks her, “what do you want, to be invisible, or to fly?”  She chooses invisibility, and doesn't think a thing about it until she is standing in front of the bathroom mirror, watching herself slowly fade away.  At the time, he also bestowed the gift of flight on her brother Ben, but it is not until years later Ben discovers this ability.  The story jumps through time and characters as they discover their own powers, and how they use them.  Amsterdam takes a wish that many of us have – to have an ability that is impossible – and puts it in his character’s hands.  E
ventually the tale returns to Alek and his struggle with how he deals with his own power, and the way he is perceived by others.  The true beauty of this story is, even with superpowers, these characters can't find the courage to talk to each other about their astounding, scary and superhuman talents.  Which makes them all the more faulted than without the powers. What power would you choose?  Would you be ready to deal with the consequences?  What Amsterdam writes in answer to these questions is why this is one of my favorite books of the year.  
Gods and Beasts, Denise Mina, Fiction, Mystery.  Detective Sergeant Morrow, and the rest of the police squad of Edinburgh, needs to know exactly why the kindly old man helped a gun-wielding young man rob the local post office, then stand still as the robber shot him clean in half.  According to the eyewitness Martin Pavel, the gentleman seemed to recognize the rough-looking robber, but how would the two have crossed paths before?  Morrow, convinced there is more than just a robbery, delves into the history of the old man and this mysterious Martin Pavel, and continually runs out of leads, leaving her frustrated and knowing she is on the brink of solving this mystery.  Meanwhile, her police force is spiraling out of control.  Two of her fellow detectives were caught on camera taking money from a car, and someone on the force is leaking information.  Morrow is constantly reminded of her twin baby boys as she struggles with sleep deprivation and nursing while back at work, and speaking of family, her crooked brother seems to be trying to straighten himself out. Deftly dealing with the subject matters of organized crime, parental guilt, and murder, Mina's straightforward writing makes reading her books a pleasure.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Good House, Ann Leary, Fiction.   A descendant of the Salem witches, and a lifelong resident, Hildy is still a fixture at parties and in the historic New England town where she has lived her whole life, but she has grown tired of people being careful around her.  Fresh out of rehab, she only drinks when she needs to.  On her own.  Every night.  She knows her limits, she just doesn't want people judging her.  Working as a real estate agent, she just needs a few great sales to cover her own mortgage, but other, bigger agencies are moving into town and snapping up the best houses and selling them before she even knows the sellers want to leave.  Her divorce is far enough behind her to sympathize with her husband when his (male) partner leaves him, and she is grateful for the time she gets with her grandson.  Hildy needs a friend, and when Rebecca's husband snaps up the horse farm a the top of the hill, and throws in a champion horse to boot, Hildy gets one.  But Rebecca isn't as friendly as she seems to be.  The writing is somewhat menacing, as I was always waiting for the hammer to drop on Hildy, but she gets lucky.   Leary treats her fairly, and in writing about her drinking problem day to day, informs the reader what each drink must feel like for an alcoholic - a struggle to decide, sweet relief and finally regret.  Every day.
Wild, Cheryl Strayed, Memoir.  One of the best reasons to belong to a book club (other than friendship and having a nice night out) is to branch out and read books I would not have picked up otherwise.  Such is the story with Wild, a memoir about a young woman's solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail.  Strayed's writing reads like a novel and expanded my knowledge of what women are capable of when they don't think there are any other answers available to them.  Having lost her mother, strayed from her husband, and started taking drugs, Cheryl knows it is time for something drastic, and remembers a trail guide book she had run across years ago.  Months, and many trips to REI, later, Cheryl starts her trip along the trail and the path to forgiving herself.   Included in the obstacles she encounters are bears, rattlesnakes, stagnant water, and college boys.  Most importantly, she pushes her way through her own mind and physical pain to achieve her goals.  Never preachy, entertaining and inspiring, Wild is a trip worth trekking.