Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Night Like This

A Night Like This (Smythe-Smith Quartet #2) by Julia Quinn (2012)

A couple of years ago I read Just Like Heaven, the first novel in this series. Ironically, it was actually a review for A Night Like This that made me want to try it (and the romance genre in general), so why I didn't get to it sooner is rather a mystery.

In a romance series, you obviously can't have the same primary characters in each book. It would dampen the required happy ending a bit if the couple then broke up in order to have romances with other people in the next book. Commonly, a romance series centers on members of a particular family, here the Smythe-Smiths. The first book was about Honoria, but this one stars her brother Daniel who has been in exile for 3 years after accidentally shooting a friend. Newly returned to England, he immediately falls for his cousins' governess, Anne Wynter. But Anne has secrets, and is extremely hesitant to get involved in a relationship. The last time that happened it resulted in having to cast off her old life entirely and take on a new identity.

Just as in the last book, this one begins with a concert of the Smythe-Smith Quartet They are a group of extremely untalented young ladies who do not enjoy playing music but perform every year for a reluctant audience, because tradition. Anne has had to fill in for Sarah, who faked an illness so she wouldn't have to perform, which resulted in Anne's initial meeting with Daniel. Also similar to the last book, this one is infused with a great deal of humor. The story is a bit darker though because of Daniel and Anne's pasts, but I liked that. It heightened the tension and raised the stakes. Though it was even a bit too dramatic at times, I found it overall quite deliciously enjoyable.

Often, the hurdles that keep the love interests from one another feel forced, and there are many times I wish one of the characters would just tell the other person what's going on. But here, it felt convincing. There were secrets that Anne kept from Daniel and it was completely understandable why she would do so. I would have done the same thing in her position.

This is the first romance I've read in a while and it reminded me why I like them. I read this last week while out on vacation and it was just the perfect reading for a few lazy days. The next time I'm thinking of romance, I'll probably look to Julia Quinn again. I've really enjoyed her books so far!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Agent 6

Agent 6 (Leo Demidov #3) by Tom Rob Smith (2012)

We were first introduced to secret police agent Leo Demidov in Child 44, then continued his story in The Secret Speech. Agent 6 is the latest final volume in this series. It's 1965 and Leo's wife Raisa will be traveling to the US with their daughters to give a concert. Because he left the KGB, Leo is forbidden from traveling abroad so he stays behind in Moscow, worrying and waiting. When his family becomes involved in a plot that ends in tragedy, Leo becomes desperate to hunt down those responsible.

Agent 6 is a saga spanning continents and years. It has two distinct major parts; the first takes place in Russia and in the US, and the second is set unexpectedly in Afghanistan fifteen years later. Leo is again working for the government, as a Soviet advisor for the Afghan Communist regime. Being stationed in Afghanistan - an unpopular assignment - may allow him the opportunity to escape to the US and finally carry out his investigation into the events of 1965. Smith captures both settings quite well, I think, though I rather wished the Afghanistan part was a little shorter.

As with the first two books in the series, the plot was quite well-crafted. Here it revolved partially around a black, communist, American singer named Jesse Austin who was under great scrutiny from the US government and often felt more at home in the Soviet Union. The government destroyed his career because of his political leanings towards the Soviet Union, where, ironically, a similar sort of fear and paranoia reigned.

Leo continues to be an intriguing, though flawed, hero. His single-minded goal for so many years speaks less of justice than stubbornness and an inability to let go of the past. But his life is so tightly controlled in the Soviet Union and he had so little to begin with that every loss is devastating.

Agent 6 is not happy or hopeful, and I'm still undecided about how I feel about the ending. All in all, this trilogy was consistently good, which is fairly unusual. Usually I feel like the second or third book is especially weak, but not here, though I did love the first book a bit more than the others. I don't consider myself a fan of spy novels (I read about half of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and understood none of it, and the movie didn't help things any) but Smith's writing is clear, his settings vivid, and his characters real enough that you root for them all the way.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985), narrated by Claire Danes

Last year, I reread Alias Grace and it made me want to revisit The Handmaid's Tale, which I last read probably twenty years ago. I think most people are familiar with the premise of the story, but in case you've forgotten, it takes place in a future United States under tight religious-fueled control. The birth rate is extremely low and women who are fertile have been forced to be handmaids for more powerful members of society who are unable to have children. In this new world women are not allowed to work or own property.

The main character is Offred (as in "of Fred") and we never learn her real name, but she remembers the time before, when she had a husband and daughter of her own. She has no idea where they are now. The story of how she lives now is broken up with bits and pieces of her past life and the chilling tale of the time when things changed.

What is so unnerving about the world Atwood has created in the The Handmaid's Tale is that it seems so possible. With the explosion of religious fundamentalism, increase in violent crime, and backlash against feminism such a scenario is disturbingly easy to imagine. Just the fact that Offred lived through the change from our world to this dystopia makes it seem real - she identifies with everything that is familiar about our culture, making her recognizable to us, yet also exists in this strange new world.

And it is strange, despite how small of a leap it would take to get there. A world ruled by extreme paranoia, in which women aren't allowed even to read (that would be a nightmare in itself for me), and in which executions are frequent and the bodies are hung on public display. The handmaids all dress in red uniforms with white wimples, the housekeepers in their own blue uniforms, and everyone with an extremely specific role. Speaking your mind is extremely dangerous, and society is ruled by fear - of execution, or of being sent to the mysteriously unexplained colonies.

This time I chose the audiobook, narrated by Claire Danes. Danes seems an unlikely narrator somehow, but the reviews don't lie - she does an excellent job. Her style is fairly impassive, which seems just right for Offred's voice. This is a woman who can barely believe how her life has changed, but feels forced to accept it, just as she is forced to keep all of her thoughts and feelings bottled inside so she doesn't draw attention to herself.

This literary novel is political and feminist, but in the very best way possible. It has become a modern classic, and with good reason. If you haven't read it, or even if it's just been a long time, I encourage you to pick it up. This fairly short book is packed with not just a captivating story, but also a great deal of fodder for thought and discussion.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Nine Inches

Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta (2013)

Most of the stories in this collection are recognizable Perrotta, set as they are in schools and suburban neighborhoods, the star characters primarily parents, teachers, and teenagers. In "Backrub" an honor student, who was inexplicably turned down from every college he applied to, now delivers pizza and is being subjected to unwanted advances from a local cop. In "Grade My Teacher" a teacher confronts a student who wrote negative reviews of her online. A man sneaking into his neighbor's garage to use an air compressor on the sly finds more than he bargains for in "Kiddie Pool." A teenaged boy gets paid to take the SATs for other students in "The Test-Taker."

Unlike many short story collections it was easy to just move from one story to the next - maybe because they felt like they could have taken place in the same town to characters who all knew each other. Whatever the reason, instead of my usual habit of reading just one story at a time and then setting the book aside for a while, I plowed through the entire collection in less than a day.

In most collections there are a couple of stories that don't seem as good as the others, but each of the ten stories in Nine Inches deserved its place here and it would be tough to even pick favorites. Some of the stories were sad, filled with lost opportunities and missed connections, and in all of them I felt the same intimacy with the characters as usual in Perrotta's writing. As much as I don't like suburbia, I'm happy to dip into Tom Perrotta's version of it. I'm already looking forward to his next book.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Pain, Parties, Work

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder (2013)

I started reading Sylvia Plath in high school, beginning with The Bell Jar and then moving on to her poetry. At the time I was fascinated with her macabre imagery and, of course, her suicide. But I've continued to admire her poetry over the years, though I don't generally read much poetry.

It was serendipity when I came across Pain, Parties, Work on a shelving cart of recently-returned books at work. I hadn't even heard of it, but was instantly eager to read a book about the summer that inspired Plath to write The Bell Jar.

Plath was at Smith when she joined Mademoiselle magazine's College Board, a national group of collegiate contributors to the magazine. Out of this pool, twenty lucky young women were chosen to spend the summer in New York as guest editors to work on the college issue of the magazine. Sylvia Plath kept extensive journals, but not for this one summer. She wrote only a single entry, and that was focused on the execution of the Rosenbergs. Winder had to consult other sources, such as interviews with the other guest editors, to piece together the story of Plath's summer in New York.

Written in an easy, breezy style, this was a pleasant and quick read, if a bit choppy. The text is frequently broken up with "conversations" that seem to be quotes from various friends put together to look like a conversation (though they don't quite match up in a sensible way), or boxed insets containing bits of information about Plath that doesn't fit into the text. One of those is labeled "Vitals" and contains factoids such as "She never wrote in cursive" and "She went on sixty-seven dates between July 1 and August 31 in the summer of 1949." (Which, wow.) These were fascinating and I'm glad Winder found a way to include them.

Less a cohesive narrative about Plath's summer, instead it was a vivid snapshot of 1950s New York, especially magazine culture. Here's a description of Mademoiselle's offices:

"Desks were littered with black and cream Stork Club machbooks, or crammed with Ferragamo shoes and berry-trimmed hats. Editor in chief Betsy Talbot Blackwell's office was a deep green forest - she called it her boudoir and kept her desk stocked with vodka and ice."

I want to work there.

Details about fashion and sexual mores were also included, as well as the girls' views on feminist issues especially as it pertained to their own career and family goals. Some of the most interesting parts occurred after the editorship was over, when Sylvia went home and sunk into a depression. Less than two months after returning from New York she tried to commit suicide.

It's easy to view Sylvia Plath as a mentally ill women whose entire life is just building up to her suicide, but of course that's not the case. Winder's book gives us a glimpse of the other Sylvia, the one most of her acquaintances knew. Even they didn't all view her in the same way, as Winder emphasizes when pointing out that we are all seen in only one dimension at a time. Sylvia's acquaintances saw her as "a kindred bluestocking" or "a cultivated beauty" or "a caviar-stuffing barbarian" depending on who was observing her at the moment, each under different circumstances. As Sylvia herself was quoted saying, "People are like boxes. You would like to open them up and see what's inside but you can't."

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kristin Cronn-Mills (2012)

Gabe knows he's a guy, even though he was born in a female body, but convincing everyone else is proving difficult. High school is almost over though, and once he's free he will start living the life he was meant for. That includes music - and he's just scored a gig on a local radio station thanks to his friend and next-door neighbor John. His show is called Beautiful Music for Ugly Children and he garners a following almost immediately. He is still known as Liz at school, but now does the radio show as Gabe, so it's only a matter of time before worlds collide.

Gabe's best friend Paige has stuck by him through the transition so far, but his family is another matter. And some of the kids at school are just horrible. But Gabe finds support in surprising places, which actually made the story even more realistic to me.

There's a moment in which Gabe is slightly tempted to just throw away his new life and go back to being Liz because he feels like he's complicating everything for everyone. But of course he doesn't because he's not Liz, and as much as that would make things simpler for other people, for him it would mean living a lie, living in misery, and possibly not living at all. I think this is a really important point for those who have trouble understanding the trans experience - that it's far more difficult and uncomfortable and miserable to live in their assigned gender than to be themselves and endure ridicule and prejudice that comes with it. When you think about all the crap they have to put up with, that's pretty mind-boggling.

My only critique with this book was that some of the conversations felt forced and fake, mostly between Gabe and his mom. She seemed a little two-dimensional to me, and the rest of his family wasn't especially well-developed either. But that wasn't really important, because this story was so much more about about Gabe and Paige and John and the radio show and all of those parts were really really good. Some of the reviews on Goodreads call this an "issue book" and I suppose it is in a way, but it doesn't feel like an after-school special or anything like that. I really felt like I was getting to know Gabe, who is a kid who is struggling with some stuff but is totally going to turn out well because he's strong and knows what he wants. Despite some of the bad things that happen in the story, it was was inspiring and hopeful.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Fangirl (because once wasn't enough)

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (2013)

I wrote about Fangirl back in October after listening to the audiobook, but now I've read the print version in preparation for my Not-So-Young Adult book group at work and have a few more thoughts.  I won't summarize the story again, so look at my old review if you need to familiarize yourself with the basics.

A happy result of having listened to the audio first is that the entire time I was reading I heard it in Rebecca Lowman's voice in my head. God, I could listen to that woman read anything. (Ok, maybe not anything. I won't be downloading her audios of Nicholas Sparks books.) But I hope that Rebecca Lowman narrates every book that Rainbow Rowell ever writes.

When I listened to the audio I had a bit of trouble with the excerpts from the Simon Snow books and from Cath's fan fiction. Sometimes I wasn't sure which it was for a while, and it was also just hard to switch gears and start paying attention to the story within the story. That aspect went much more smoothly reading it in print and I was actually able to follow the stories a bit more.

There is a part in the book where Cath submits a piece of fan fiction for a creative writing assignment and the professor refuses to accept it, leading to an argument about whether or not fan fiction counts as legitimate writing. I didn't think much about this when I was reading, but my book group spent quite a while on this topic as several of them read or write fan fiction themselves. Overwhelmingly, they thought the professor was being unreasonable and I have to agree. One person mentioned all the retellings of Shakespeare's plays that are considered legit and you know, that's a really good point. Why would it be ok to retell Romeo and Juliet, or a fairytale, but not take characters from one story and put them in another? Is it just a matter of whether or not the names are changed?

Last time I posted about Fangirl I barely mentioned the dad's problems, but this time I was quite struck by his character and by his relationship with his daughters. After their mother left, he raised them alone while struggling with his own mental health issues. Although he sometimes went off the rails, it was clear to see what a good father he was. In one particularly touching scene, he has been hospitalized and when Cath arrives she wonders how he was when he was brought in, if he was screaming or had to be restrained. "She wanted everyone know that her dad was a person, not just a crazy person. That he had people who cared about him and who would notice if he was roughed up or given the wrong medicine." It's significant in young adult literature to have a well-developed adult character, and their dad seemed especially genuine. There was just something I loved about the way that the girls and their dad took care of each other, like it wasn't just a one-way street.

The more I look through at the pages I marked, the more scenes and quotes I want to share. I have about 27 favorite parts of this book, I'm pretty sure. It's clever and funny and a bit heart-wrenching, and definitely worth reading a second time.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sunday Knitting

We had about ten minutes of warm sunshine yesterday, which perfectly coincided photographing my finished Geodesic Cardigan.

This would have been extremely unpleasant in the 30-degree weather we had been having.

One of my concerns while knitting was that the hem remained flipped up, but I'm happy to see that it seems to be behaving after blocking.

I was also afraid of how the tucks would turn out, because judging from other projects on Ravelry, the results vary widely. Mine aren't perfectly straight or uniform by any means, but they don't stick out awkwardly either.

The color is lovely, isn't it? I hope I can wear it at least a few times before it completely disintegrates, which is exactly what I fear will happen since this yarn is of such poor quality. It was trouble from the start, and then a couple of times while I was knitting, the strand just came apart in my hands. That was pretty unnerving.

Come to think of it, this entire project was fraught with peril. Aside from the yarn troubles, the pattern was very confusing and required simultaneously counting several different things. For someone who enjoys a stiff Manhattan while knitting, that's just asking for trouble. But I didn't make any major mistakes. Nor did I run out of yarn, as I feared through the entire project. There's even a small ball left. (Which I may end up using to fix holes when the yarn begins to disintegrate.)

So, my spring cardigan is done. Do you hear that, spring? That means you can arrive now!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Woman Upstairs

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (2013)

Once a striving artist, Nora is now an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, MA. She lives by herself in an apartment where she is quiet and neat and a good neighbor - the "woman upstairs" who nobody really notices. When a new student shows up in her classroom, she ends up befriending the whole family. They are from Paris, just here for a year while the husband, Skandar, teaches at Harvard. His wife, Sirena, is an artist and she and Nora decide to split some studio space. Nora is increasingly drawn to the family, to each of them individually, becoming consumed by her strengthening obsession.

Messud's writing is beautiful - her word choices and her descriptions were the best part of this novel for me, especially the descriptions of Nora's and Sirena's art projects. The story is compelling in its way - a woman coming to grips with growing older alone, her growing bitterness, and an unhealthy obsession with a family - but it didn't really grab me.

I didn't especially like Nora, but found her recognizable in the way that many women my age will. This made it painful to read. When she first quoted from "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan" it brought me back to my college days and early 20s when I found that song sad and wistful, but it didn't yet apply to me. Now it does. Now that I'm around Nora's age I, too, must come to grips with everything I won't do and that is not a happy thought. Nora is single and failing at her art and she's teaching at an elementary school - because she must do something to earn money - and the worst part is that I can see her sabotaging herself through the entire story.  It's strange to me to obsess over anyone the way Nora did, much less an entire family, so I don't know what to think about her relationship with the Shahids. But the trajectory was well-crafted, from Nora's first meeting with Sirena through the final betrayal.

The story takes place in areas I'm very familiar with. Nora lives in my old Cambridge neighborhood and visits some of my old haunts, like Hi Rise and Formaggio. Her studio is near my current neighborhood in Somerville, and in fact I've gone to Open Studios in the buildings where her studio was. It's always a pleasant distraction to recognize real locations in fiction, and strange to see familiar places through different eyes.

The Woman Upstairs was a pretty hot book when it first came out last year, garnering rave reviews and becoming quite popular and highly-requested (at least in my library system). It was pretty good, but I'm not sure why it took off the way it did. It's not, I don't know, sexy or new or exciting or controversial, and I don't think she has the sort of name recognition that makes everyone flock to her books (though now she might), but obviously there was something compelling about it to a lot of people. I thought it was good, and her eloquent writing elevates it a bit more, but I don't think it's a book that will stick with me.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Grasshopper Jungle

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith (2014)

We've seen a lot of end-of-the-world scenarios, but this may be the first featuring giant praying mantises. These harbingers of doom were unwittingly unleashed by some teenaged boys in Iowa. The star of our story is Austin Szerba, who is confusingly in love with both his girlfriend Shann and his best friend Robby. Austin loves history and includes in his narration the history of his Polish family, as well as many other connections between the people in his small and previously-boring town.

It's hard to describe this book in a way that does it any sort of justice, and I don't think I would have read it based on the description. It's hot right now - I keep hearing about it everywhere, and thought it just sounded too weird not to read. It is.

The story about the unwelcome invasion is best uncovered bit by bit, so I won't go into that too much here except to say that there's a well-crafted explanation and it's a fun story. What makes it so is the way that Austin narrates, especially how he pulls together little bits of different stories and makes connections between them, all from an omniscient viewpoint. There are parts where we learn what is simultaneously happening to different characters all over town, and it makes the story both more immediate and more like something that's happening to the whole town, not just to our teenaged protagonist.

I loved the theme about Austin's sexual confusion, and how devoted he remained to both Shann and Robby. The three were very close friends, and all were aware that Robby was gay (though he was only out to his two friends), and their friendship only became complicated when Austin started to realize his attraction to Robby and couldn't reconcile it with his continued feelings for Shann. Also complicating these feelings was the fact that he was constantly horny, which he mentions frequently. I found Austin's voice honest and sweet and funny, and these relatable characters made a good anchor for an otherwise very surreal story.

There are about a hundred other things I want to tell you about this book: Austin's dog Ingrid, the boys' sad trip to a local gay bar called the Tally-Ho! and the controversy over the book The Chocolate War are just a few. But much of the fun of this book is discovering all this for yourself, and I encourage you to do so.

This is my first Andrew Smith, and certain aspects of his writing remind me of another favorite author, A.S. King. They each have a very individual style, but the combination of realistic characters, humor, and a bit of the surreal would make me recommend either of these authors to fans of the other. Grasshopper Jungle is one of the most unusual stories I've read in a while, and one of those rare books that garners praise both from respected book reviews and all the teen librarians in my Facebook feed, all of which is well deserved. I read somewhere that Smith wrote this novel entirely for himself and only considered publication after he finished, which just goes to show you what can come of unleashed creativity, unfettered by concerns of the publishers.

Have you read Grasshopper Jungle yet? What should be my next Andrew Smith book? (I'm leaning towards Winger.) Let me know what you think in the comments!