Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Secret Chord

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (2015)

In her newest novel, Geraldine Brooks takes on the life of the Bible's King David. The story is told in the first person by Natan, who is David's adviser, prophet, and friend. It begins with a meeting between the two men, in which David asks Natan to write his life story. He sends Natan to visit three people who can recount his early life before Natan entered it, and they are not necessarily flattering portrayals. Through Natan's interviews we learn about David's life through his young adulthood, and the rest we learn from Natan. This is not so much a plot-driven story as it is a fictional biography.

Natan began having strange visions of the future when he was still quite young, and it was this that both saved his life and brought him to David. These visions were the only part of the novel that were remotely supernatural; it was otherwise a pretty down-to-earth portrayal. David was complicated and flawed and I found him kind of fascinating, especially how he acted towards his many wives and his horribly-behaved sons. Although this story is more or less Biblical, it's not religious. I would even venture to say that actual Christians might have some issues with how David is portrayed here.

As you might expect if you're familiar with Geraldine Brooks, reading this story was an immersive experience. I don't recall reading another novel set in Biblical times, so a lot was unfamiliar but she brought it to life quite vividly. I really sort of felt like I was being plunked down in the middle of a strangely different time, without many explanations, which is how all the best historical fiction should work. It sort of made me want to look stuff up, and if I was a less lazy person I would research things like the practice of rending one's garments and putting ashes in one's hair as an expression of grief.

Many of the characters had similar names and they were difficult to keep straight. I did ok until about 50 pages from the end when I suddenly felt like I didn't know who anybody was anymore. I also was a bit confused about the timeline; early in the novel when Natan interviews a few people about David's life, he also thinks back to his own introduction to David and then as the story moved forward I kept thinking it was before those interviews, when in fact it was after. I'm not sure why that was the case - the writing or my own lack of comprehension - but although I kept expecting the story to catch up to that part, it didn't diminish my enjoyment of it.

Despite the well-drawn characters and the drama in their lives, I never felt the sort of connection I did with the young female characters in Caleb's Crossing and Year of Wonders. Still, I think anyone who likes historical fiction, and who may want to try an under-represented time period, would find something to enjoy in this novel.

The Secret Chord will be available on October 6.  I received my copy from the publisher via Goodreads. I was not compensated for this review.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Wicked Girls

The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood (2012)

When they were eleven years old, Bel and Jade met by chance and became friends for just one day. By the end of the day they had killed a little girl and after their trial never saw each other again. Twenty-five years later both women, now under assumed identities, are peripherally involved in a series of murders in the seaside town of Whitmouth, England. Amber Gordon is a cleaner at an amusement park called Funnland where she discovers one of the bodies. Kirsty Lindsay is a reporter who comes to town to investigate the murders. Now that they've crossed paths again in a situation with so much attention turned towards them, the new lives they've built are suddenly threatened to come crashing down.

I honestly can't remember where or how I first heard of this book, but when someone in my book group suggested it, I knew I had heard that it was good so I jumped at the chance to read it. I wasn't disappointed.

There's something especially horrifying about children committing murder and I was rather fascinated by this premise. It's not that I can't conceive of children being cruel or violent; I can. It's more the idea that they now have to go through the rest of their lives with such a thing weighing on them. As proven by Amber and Kirsty, it's not easy. They've both grown into adults who are just like everyone else: they each want a good job, a relationship, a nice vacation now and then. But neither can go a day without thinking of the little girl who is dead because of them, or wipe away the visceral images of that day that still continue to haunt them.

Their lives are both fleshed out quite well, though they are very different. Amber lives with her common-law husband, Vic, who seems like a jerk from the very beginning, and two tiny dogs named Mary-Kate and Ashley (a particularly pleasing touch.) She is friendly with some of her co-workers, including a woman named Jackie who is being stalked by a guy she dated briefly. Amber doesn't have a bad life, all things considered, but she works cleaning an amusement park and she's not paid well for it and her husband leaves a lot to be desired. Kirsty, on the other hand, has an incredibly supportive (though unemployed) husband, two children, and a satisfying job. She is the sort of person who drinks lattes and eats bruschetta. Compared to Amber, she is quite posh. (By the way, this book is British so I feel compelled to use their language.)

Another person we get a close look at is the creepy man who is stalking Jackie, Martin Bagshawe. He is clearly lacking in social skills and doesn't understand how to relate to people, especially women; he will get obsessed with a woman in a way that involves both lust and anger and it is very unpleasant to witness. Still, I have to give props to Marwood for this well-drawn, though uncomfortable character.

If I had to find a criticism, it would be that there are a lot of murderers in this book. That is pretty much all I can think of, and even that doesn't actually bother me. I thought this was a great story with characters that felt genuine, and it was told with a level of detail that made it all very easy to picture without getting too bogged down in descriptions. I highly recommend it if you like character-driven fiction that's a bit on the dark side.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Emmy & Oliver

Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway (2015)

At seven years old, Emmy, Oliver, Caro and Drew are all good friends. But one day after school, Oliver's dad picks him up for the weekend and never brings him back. For ten years, everyone misses Oliver, the police look for him and his dad, his mother is a complete mess, and his friends feel an empty, gaping hole in their lives. And then Oliver comes home. Now seventeen, he's back at the house next door to Emmy, trying to fit in with his family which now includes a step-father and two younger sisters. He's also trying to fit in back at school and with his old friends. To all of them, Oliver has returned home; to Oliver, he has just been kidnapped all over again.

Since Oliver has been gone, it's not just his mother who was worried. Emmy's mom is so protective that she doesn't want Emmy to go to college, but instead plans for her to stay at home and attend community college. Emmy learned to surf three years ago and loves it, but knows her parents would never let her be on the surf team so she sneaks around and steals precious hours at the beach, hiding her activities. Emmy actually has a pretty good relationship with her parents, but they clearly want her to live in a protective bubble and she just doesn't know how she'll get out from under their thumbs.

When Oliver returned, all the adults admonished the kids to give him space, with the result that Oliver felt ostracized and alone. Finally, Emmy and Drew and Caro started hanging out with him regularly again. Of course they've all changed since ten years ago, but they are getting along very well. Especially Emmy and Oliver, who quickly become more than friends.

But this isn't just another teen romance. Despite the title and cover, it felt much more like it was about friendship. Emmy and Oliver do start dating, but they were friends first and even their romance is based on friendship. Plus, Drew and Caro are huge parts of the story. So if you're turned off by the idea of a teen romance, I would urge you to give it a chance.

The storyline about Oliver's abduction is done so very well, in all its subtle complexities. To Oliver, he wasn't a victim of kidnapping, he just moved away with his dad. He knows now that what his dad did was wrong, but for as long as he can remember, that was just his life. Now he has been uprooted and needs to adjust to a whole new life. I felt so bad for this poor kid! He feels so torn and confused. Thank goodness he goes to therapy.

There is much to love about this novel, but I found Caro to be especially endearing. She is the youngest of six kids (I am the youngest of five myself) and she is super funny. She shares a bedroom with her older sister Heather and they are opposites in the cleanliness department. Heather is like a tornado and Caro is a complete freak for organization and neatness. I marked several passages just because of her clever quips. Like, when she was commenting on a news anchor whose appearance hasn't changed in decades: "She probably makes so much money that she could hire a team of tiny elves to hide in her hairline and hold her face up." Robin Benway is just full of this kind of clever dialogue.

I read Audrey, Wait! several years ago and despite some minor criticisms I really liked it and still recommend it regularly. Although it's tough to pinpoint exactly what makes it so special, Emmy & Oliver is even better - I'm so glad I read another Robin Benway novel.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Isla and the Happily Ever After

Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins (2014), narrated by Grace Blewer

Isla attends the School of America in Paris, where she has had a crush on Josh Wasserstein for years. This year he finally notices her and they start dating, but it's not an easy happy ending for this troubled couple. This is the third in a series that began with Anna and the French Kiss and continued with Lola and the Boy Next Door. Each book has cameos of characters from the others, but each is focused on a different couple.

I liked this book well enough, but didn't love it like the first two. The story arc was a bit flat and lacked the dramatic tension of the other novels in the series. The conflict was pretty much based on Isla being kind of neurotic, making assumptions about how Josh felt without any evidence or bothering to ask him. This is a typical romance novel trope and it is lame.

There were also some grand romantic gestures that happened near the end which didn't have the intended effect on me. In one case, I was really turned off by something that should have been significant and touching because it happened in a life context that seemed just not right. I'm sorry to be vague, but I'm trying hard to explain my issues with the book without revealing spoilers.

Have said all that, I still liked listening to it and even though I just didn't find the story as interesting, I still enjoyed getting to know these new characters and visiting again with those from the previous books. I really liked Josh as a love interest. Josh was working on a graphic memoir about his high school years and planning to attend cartoon school in Vermont. (This is a real legit thing: my friend Mitra Farmand went there and she just got published in the New Yorker, so.) Josh's dad was a senator running for re-election, and now that Josh was old enough to vote he was expected to fly back to the U.S. for the election and be on tv with his family. In the meantime, he kept breaking rules at school and getting into all sorts of trouble which threatened both his education and his relationship with Isla.

I liked Isla also. She didn't have as clear a path as Josh did, and they had many conversations about what she could potentially study in college. Her aimlessness felt realistic. How many teenagers have some obvious, special talent or know what they want to do with their lives? She had an older sister, Jen, who previously graduated from the same school, and now her younger sister Hattie has just started there. Hattie is not the nicest person in the world and their relationship is a struggle. Isla's best friend is a boy named Kurt, and although I really enjoyed their friendship, I thought Isla was a bit of a dolt about it. She was totally shocked to find out that people thought they were a couple, and can't imagine why a boy she was dating would feel jealous about her relationship with Kurt. I mean, they spend the night in each others' rooms, for crying out loud!

The narration garnered some really bad reviews on Audible, which kind of shocked me. Grace Blewer has a very different voice from the first two narrators, and she has a much stronger voice than the character is described as having, but that's not her fault. She definitely sounded more like she was reading the book than just telling the story, but that's fairly typical and I liked her narration well enough. (Fun fact: Grace Blewer is the daughter of one of my favorite authors, Chris Bohjalian. She actually narrates his most recent book Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.)

It wasn't a terrible ending to the series (this IS just a trilogy, right?) but I still think it was the weakest of the three stories. It was good, just not as great as the other two.

Now I'll spend a week or so getting caught up on podcasts before I start another audiobook, but I have no idea what it will be. It needs to be less than 10 hours long preferably, and fairly uncomplicated, but different from these 3 teen romances I just listened to all in a row. A coworker suggested Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews, which I might try, but I'm still looking for more ideas. Any suggestions? Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

We Were Liars

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (2014)

I first experienced this book on audio last year soon after it came out, and was kind of blown away. E. Lockhart wrote one of my all-time favorite young adult novels, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, so I was eager for her new offering and boy, it was a totally different kind of story. My Not-So-Young Adult Book Group at work chose We Were Liars for this month so I just read it again, in print this time. For a summary and my thoughts after listening to the audiobook, go here.

This is a book filled with secrets that you learn only at the end, so re-reading it is truly a different experience. Fortunately, there's enough to love that the experience isn't diminished just because I actually know what is going on this time.

One difficulty I had when listening to the audio is that I would sometimes be confused about which parts of the story took place in the present and which were in the fateful "summer fifteen." (Not because the book made it unclear, but because I am not a fantastic listener.) In print, I always knew which time period I was reading about, and I think this improved my experience.

Because I knew all the secrets this time, throughout the book I looked for clues and was delighted every time I read something and thought "How did I not notice this before?" But they were subtle. You are a clever one, E. Lockhart.

This time I was struck, even more, by the dysfunction in this family. They are wealthy and privileged and clearly want to preserve their family in very specific ways. Gat is an outsider not only because he's not related but because he's Indian. He is welcome in theory, but never really belongs. The family also obviously doesn't handle trauma well. After Cadence's Granny Tipper died, the family just erased her from conversation rather than acknowledge the loss. No wonder it's so difficult for Cady to figure out what happened to her two summers ago.

Most people in my book group had read this for the first time. I got some early feedback from one person who thought the book was a bit too dark, but everyone seemed to really like it nonethless. This is a really great book for discussion. There is so much to talk about!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Top Ten Auto-Buy Authors


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is Top Ten of Your Auto-Buy Authors. I rarely buy books, so just assume that here "auto-buy" actually means "automatically get on hold for a library copy."

It's tough because some of these authors haven't published much, or are new, or may not be publishing anymore (John Green? Hello?) So I'm thinking about it more as a list of authors that I will automatically read whatever they publish next. I don't think I have more than 10 of these total.

1. Sam Savage: I actually do buy his books because they are so short and so good I am likely to read them again.
2. Elizabeth McCracken: Everything she writes is just so perfect. If I could be an author, I'd want to be Elizabeth McCracken.
3. Chris Bohjalian: I've been reading him faithfully since Midwives.
4. Sarah Waters: She doesn't publish frequently and there's still one I haven't read, but despite my semi-disappointment in The Paying Guests I will definitely read whatever is next.
5. Donna Tartt: Only publishes about every ten years, but I'll be there waiting.
6. Jennifer Weiner: We hit a rough patch there with The Next Best Thing so I didn't rush out and read All Fall Down, but when I did finally pick it up it was great! So now I'm really looking forward to her new book.
7. Geraldine Brooks: Like Sarah Waters, there's still one I haven't read, but I'm about to start a galley of one that's not published yet, so I think that makes up for it.
8. A. S. King: One of the most sophisticated YA authors out there. Look out for her forthcoming novel I Crawl Through It this fall. It's kind of amazing (post to come soon!)
9. Rainbow Rowell: How I wish her books existed when I was in high school.
10. John Green: I've read them all and he seems to be focusing more on his vlog (with his adorable brother Hank) and movies. I'm just listing him here in hopes that he will actually publish more books someday.

Which authors do you automatically read every time they have a new book?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Walden

Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)

I've gone to Walden Pond a number of times over the years and every time I've gone, I've been reminded about Thoreau's book that I still hadn't read. Thanks to the TBR Pile Challenge, I finally made it a priority to read Thoreau's musings on nature and his time living in a little cabin that he built himself out in the woods.

Somehow I expected it to be a detailed account of his life while he was living near Walden Pond, and I thought that he wrote it while he was there. But it's more like he's looking back on the experience, and though it contains some details about how he lived it's mostly filled with essays in which he meditates on various aspects of life and nature.

I have a lot of conflicting feelings about this book. It contains some of the most beautiful nature writing I've seen, but it's also really slow going and kind of boring in parts. I also found him difficult to like based on many of the views he expressed.

Thoreau clearly has a sense of superiority over other people, and it is not deserved. One could argue that there are certain ways of living that may be objectivity better than others, but cutting oneself off from the world and criticizing those who don't is not one of them. It may be tempting to run away from the more social parts of life, but doing so doesn't make you better than other people. His essays display a love of nature, sure, but it's more of a dislike for being a part of society. He looks down on people who read the news, which he considers gossip. I don't really pay attention to news either, but it's not a bad thing to know what's going on in the world or your local community.

Although he speaks of sucking all the marrow out of life, he eschews travel or any sort of activity that is new or different in favor of just sitting on his front step for four hours at a time. I'm just going to come out and say it: This guy is lazy. He does not want to work. He ridicules people who have jobs. He even says, "He that does not eat need not work." I think part of his keeping his activity levels low is so that he won't have to eat that much, and therefore not have to work for it (either through a job or through hunting/farming, etc.) Well, you may as well lay down and die if you're just going to sit around all the time to conserve energy.

At the same time, we could all do well to spend a little time observing the natural world as he does. He may spend a little too much time describing the ice on the pond, but his account of ants fighting was both educational and amusing. He made his surroundings come alive in his descriptions: "All day the sun has shown on the surface of some savage swamp,  where the single spruce stands hung with usnea lichens, and small hawks circulate above, and the chickadee lists amid the evergreens, and the partridge and rabbit skulk beneath..." There were many such passages I re-read just to savor the poetic language.

At times it was a bit of a slog, but it was nicely balanced with vibrant, lively discussions and observations so I'm glad I finally got around to reading it even if it wasn't the easiest book to get through. If you are thinking of reading it, I recommend the way I read most of it: in summer, while sitting outside.