Saturday, August 31, 2019

Mrs. Everything

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner (2019)

This decades-long family saga opens in 2015, with just a couple of pages letting you know that Jo's breast cancer is back and it's probably not good this time. You learn little else, except that she has a wife who isn't named, and a few daughters, who are. After the opening, it begins again in the 50s when Jo is a kid living with her parents and sister, Bethie. Jo is the difficult one who doesn't quite fit in and wants to be a writer rather than a wife and mother. Bethie is practically perfect in every way, always behaving the way her parents expect her to.

We go through formative events in both sisters' lives, and watch how it changes them and the resulting directions their lives take. They both have complicated relationships with their mother, Sarah, whose own life appears very confined. Jo wrestles with her sexuality and Bethie struggles with the effects of sexual assault, neither of which are easy to deal with, especially in the time period in which they first come about. Both women have relationships that are unconventional in some way, and of which their mother is not supportive.

As the novel spans decades we see various cultural movements and trends, including hippie flower children and the proliferation of 1980s home exercise videos. Some criticize the timing of certain styles and other cultural references, saying they weren't showing up at the right time, but I didn't notice that and I'd be surprised if Weiner didn't research styles and trends while writing this. Another criticism was the inconsistencies - for example, early in the book the girls' father worked for Ford and bought the latest model every year, but later in the book when this is referred to, it says Chevrolet. There were a couple of things of this nature, but this is about the editing not the writing so they felt pretty minor.

Overall, it was a pretty engrossing family saga and I was fascinated by the twists and turns that Bethie's and Jo's lives took and how their relationship changed and grew over time. Despite complications and fights and setbacks, the sisters really took care of each other. One of my favorite things was how, when they were growing up, Jo would tell Bethie fairy tales in which Bethie was the heroine and it gave her self-confidence that she was able to draw on later when she really needed it. I just felt like there was a lot of thought put into this book and in turn it gave me a lot to think about.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Wolves of Winter

The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson (2018)

After nuclear war and a widespread deadly flu, Lynn lives in the Yukon with what's left of her family. She's in her early 20s, great with a bow and arrow, and pretty fearless. She misses her dad a lot and is kind of tired of being cold all the time and eating nothing but potatoes, carrots, and whatever they manage to kill. Now, after years of seeing no other humans but those in their makeshift settlement, a stranger appears and changes everything.

Jax arrives with little explanation, obviously hiding something, yet he seems trustworthy. It's not surprising though that where there's one newcomer, others will follow. Soon Lynn and her family feel like they are in serious danger from a world they thought they had escaped.

I was concerned about reading this immediately after another post-apocalyptic novel, The Lightest Object in the Universe, but it's very different story. I'm happy to say that they're both ultimately hopeful though. But The Wolves of Winter took place in an isolated area, so there's no rebuilding of society - in fact, there was an avoidance of society. Lynn's family moved from Chicago to Eagle, Alaska to the Yukon Territory to get away from everything when the world started going wrong. The nuclear wars were devastating enough, but it was the flu that really drive them out into the wilderness. They had no connection with any civilization and they were happy that way. Well, Lynn always knew she would end up leaving - she wanted to go find out where there were people and what was happening in the world. However, it turns out that there's a lot she doesn't know about the reasons her family left the city in the first place.

This was on my list for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge. Now I realize it shouldn't have qualified because it was published in 2018, but it had been on my TBR list for more than a year because I added it pre-publication. Well, in my own head it counts. As a post-apocalyptic novel and one that takes place in a cold climate, it hits a couple of marks for me and I'd be very interested in a sequel.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Lightest Object in the Universe

The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele (2019)

Hooray! A new post-apocalyptic novel! I first heard about this one from Kirkus Reviews, which said this about it:

"...given the current state of our deeply divided, heavily armed nation, it takes a stretch to imagine that, in the event of total international disaster, so much of the population would cheerfully turn to manual labor and generosity. It’s pretty to think that a global economic, political, and technological collapse could be solved by bike co-ops, backyard chickens, and a radio show about a homegrown superhero, plus a little true love, but this novel just doesn’t make it plausible."

My reaction? Sign me up! I'm happy to read a book about the collapse of civilization that has people rebuilding and helping each other rather than tearing each other apart. I've had enough of our deeply divided, heavily armed nation. Bring on the backyard chickens!

There are two primary characters: Carson, a teacher on the East Coast, and Beatrix, an activist and organizer on the West Coast. As things were getting dire, Carson promised Beatrix that if everything collapsed he would make his way to her. Then things collapse, and he set out on the road. Meanwhile, Beatrix had just returned from a stint in Central America and is putting her community organizing skills to work in her own neighborhood. There's this religious leader named Jonathan Blue broadcasting over the airwaves to attract people to the Center, where he promises all sorts of abundance. He's the only thing on the radio and Beatrix wants to counter his rhetoric with helpful information about growing vegetables, fixing things, raising chickens, canning, etc so she sets out to start her own radio station.

I love post-apocalyptic novels of all kinds, and this one felt to me like a cross between The Dog Stars and Station Eleven. That's really saying a lot, and I don't want you think it's necessarily as wonderful as either of those because I don't think it's quite as magical as either of them but it's a pretty solid 4 stars for me. It's not perfect - for instance, there are a lot of homeless people and I don't understand why. A lot of people were killed off by flu and a lot of other people left for elsewhere so surely there are empty houses and apartments? No need to live in your car! It also could have used a proof reader as there were a few noticeable errors. But it was a compelling story about the different ways people handle the collapse of society, and the hope that brings so many of them together to build a better future.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Body in the Wake

The Body in the Wake by Katherine Hall Page (2019)

In May I attended the Massachusetts Library Conference where I went to a panel presented by three mystery writers. I totally went because of Peter Swanson, but I ended up getting books from the other two authors as well, Growing Things by Paul Tremblay and this newest book by Katherine Hall Page. I only grabbed it at the end after hearing her speak, because it turns out that the story takes place in my home state of Maine and touched a bit on the opioid crisis. I was intrigued.

Faith Fairchild has apparently investigated a lot of mysteries in this series, and this time she's really not trying to get involved but just happens to keep being around when bodies turn up. The first one in this book is a person unknown in the community, but who has been seen around town recently. Faith and her friend Sophie are out swimming when they find his body. He has a distinct tattoo, shared by the second body that turns up.

One thing that was confusing right out of the gate was the number of characters in the story and how they related to each other. This book is barely over 200 pages, yet in addition to the murder mystery is a storyline about Faith's friend Pix's new neighbors clear-cutting their land and the animosity surrounding that, the upcoming wedding of Pix's daughter Samantha and the arrival of her mother-in-law-to-be who is a ridiculous, snobby woman who wants to re-plan the wedding, AND a writing retreat at which Faith's daughter Amy works assisting the chef. There is actually a whole lot going on here. I was introduced to a lot of these characters in the first few pages and keeping them all straight seemed hopeless, so I just kind of let it go, figuring I'd get to know them and their relationships better later. That's pretty much what happened, so the confusion was kept to a minimum.

Her characters reminded me of some of the phrases Mainers use, like one character who commented on a meal "That is some good." I was less pleased about the gender stereotypes, like when after dinner one evening, the men and women separated to different areas to talk about things that wouldn't interest the others - I don't know if this was an attempt to captured some old-timey-ness that still exists in rural areas of what, but that kind of thing always rubs me the wrong way. I was also a bit annoyed when she referred to lobster fishing as a "lucrative operation" which tells me she hasn't done much research into what the fisherman are actually paid. (Very little - lobster is always an expensive menu item, but that money certainly doesn't go to the people who catch it.) But these were minor annoyances.

I liked this a lot more than I thought I would. I'll admit that part of it is because of my moving-back-to-Maine fantasy that is based on Maine summers, not the reality of the seemingly10-month long winters which I know well since I did live there for the first 22 years of my life. But this took place in an area I know, and everybody was so friendly in their little community, knowing everyone else's business and looking out for each other. Also they all had lovely houses with back porches that were apparently impervious to mosquitoes, and it was beautiful weather all the time. It's very obviously fiction, but I found it surprisingly pleasant to read.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

What If It's Us

What If It's Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera (2018), narrated by Noah Galvin and Froy Gutierrez

Arthur is from Georgia but is spending the summer in New York, interning at his mom's law firm. One day he's on a coffee run and in front of the post office he sees a super cute boy carrying a box. Following him into the post office, they end up talking briefly but then are interrupted by a flash mob. Arthur can't find the mysterious boy, but now he's obsessed! He didn't even catch the guy's name, and only knows that he was there to mail a box of stuff to his ex-boyfriend.

The mysterious boy is Ben, and although he's not looking for a new boyfriend already, he IS kind of intrigued by Arthur. But how are they to find each other again?

Well, it's not easy but they do, and what transpires after that is just adorable and fun and super cute, which is not surprising coming from Becky Albertalli. Both of these characters were the exact right combination of appealing and flawed to make the story angsty enough to be a story, and one that I just listened to obsessively until it was over.

Compared to Ben, Arthur is totally inexperienced when it comes to romance so he had a lot of anxiety, and he is a talker so he has this tendency to keep talking even when he shouldn't. Everything in his head just comes out of his mouth. He is jealous of Ben's ex-boyfriend Hudson, which causes a little friction since Ben and Hudson are in summer school together. Ben is self-conscious about being in summer school since Arthur is so smart and apparently bound for Yale after his senior year. Although Ben isn't academically strong, he's creative and talented and he's writing a fantasy novel, which he shares with Arthur. They sort of bumble their way through this relationship totally awkwardly. I loved every moment of it.

A big part of the story is their friends. Ever since Arthur came out to his friends Ethan and Jessie, Ethan has avoided him, only texting in the group text with the three of them. Ben's best friend Dylan is far cooler with Ben being gay, and they are super close like brothers. Except that Dylan has a new girlfriend he's obsessed with, so he's spending all his time with her. But I loved their friends, and I loved that they eventually met each other. I even liked their parents and Arthur's coworkers. Everything about this book was so great.

The narrators were fantastic. One of them is Noah Galvin, who I totally LOVE. He read Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock and he's amazing because he doesn't sound like he's reading, he sounds like he's just telling you a story. (Also, he's in the movie Booksmart, which I just saw and which you should also see.) Froy Gutierrez is new to me, but I had to look him up because he sounds just like Leo from Veronica Mars, but it's not him. He is also a great narrator and I loved the two together.

I think my favorite Becky Albertalli book before this was Leah On the Offbeat, and I can't decide if I like this one the same or even more. I guess it doesn't matter. What does matter is that I've now run out of Becky Albertalli books and that makes me very sad. Luckily I work with a teen librarian and I got some good recommendations from them so I've got some options. Still, I hope she releases another book soon!

Monday, August 12, 2019

Version Control

Version Control by Dexter Palmer (2016)

After a tragedy claimed their son, Rebecca and Philip got their lives back together. Rebecca has stopped drinking and has a job a Lovability, the dating site through which she and Philip met. But everything seems off to her, just a little bit wrong. Philip doesn't seem to share the feeling, buried deep in his work. He's a physicist working on something called a causality violation device - essentially, a time machine.

This is kind of a hard one to talk about without spoiling it, but I'll spoil one thing that should be obvious anyhow, which is that the device works and there is time travel. But Palmer has taken some of our usual assumptions about how that would work and what the rules are and changed them in a way that still makes sense but is different from anything I've read or seen about time travel before.

It's the kind of book that leaves me with questions, so many questions. After I finished I went to bed but kept thinking about it and was thinking about it when I got up. I immediately went back to the book and re-read a number of passages to make sense of everything. It does make sense, it's just that of course I didn't remember everything by the time I finished.

The story is about more than just Rebecca and Philip, though I liked their story a lot, especially how they first met through the dating site and Rebecca was put off by Philip's dry, logical messages to her. We also get to meet some of Philip's coworkers at the lab, Alicia and Carson. Rebecca's good friend Kate dates Carson for a time. Rebecca's father is a minister and enjoys having philosophical conversations with Philip - there's a good amount of philosophy in this book actually, which is not surprising given that the work of the scientists is so largely theoretical. Physics and philosophy seem fairly intertwined from the little I know about each of them.

It's set in the near future, and there are some things that are different from our own reality. The president, for instance, is always just barging in on people's tvs or phones or computers to talk to them individually. Super creepy. The country is on the verge of a Civil War as the Dakotas are trying to secede from the Union. There are cars that drive themselves, and the $20-bill has Ronald Reagan on it. It was kind of fun to see all the ways that things are different in their world.

I read this for my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge and what made me put it off for so long, I think, is that it's 500 pages long. But surprisingly, it goes fast. Unlike a lot of science fiction, this one is pretty character-driven which is something that makes any book easier for me to read. Also, once I got into it, I just couldn't put it down. I spent most of a beautiful summer weekend immersed in this book (some of that outside on my back porch, at least.) I'm glad I know a couple of people who have also read it because it's definitely the kind of book you want to talk about when you finish it!

Wednesday, August 7, 2019


Costalegre by Courtney Maum (2019)

I wish I could adequately convey to you how satisfying I find the physical aspect of this book. It's smaller than your typical hardcover, and the cover art - which is gorgeous - is directly on the actual cover. There's no jacket. So ok, this isn't great for libraries because all our stupid stickers won't adhere directly to the cover, but from a tactile perspective, it's wonderful.

The story inside is based loosely on art collector Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter Pegeen, and I know very little about them so I can't speak to how closely it mirrors reality. Leonora is an American heiress who put a bunch of art and artists on a ship from Europe during the rise of fascism in the late 30s, with the plan to meet them at a house in the Mexican jungle. She and her daughter Lara, along with several other artists, are there awaiting the ship's arrival. The story is told from the point of view of 15-year-old Lara.

Mostly it is about the relationships between all the people staying in this house. Leonora had married one artist just to get him out of Europe, but he is in love with a writer who is staying with them. Some of the characters are insufferable and annoying to everyone, while others are beloved. Lara has a crush on an artist, Jack, and she is mostly ignored by her mother. Because we get the story from Lara's point of view there is a lot that we don't actually see. She's not sure what her mother's relationship is, or was, with some of the men. She's also not sure what has become of her father and brother who were left behind in Europe. Does her mother know more about where they are and if they'll also be coming to Mexico? Maybe. But her mother just kind of pretends that nothing bad is happening and focuses on art and parties. It's a very bohemian lifestyle they're living as they await the ship from Europe, and it's unclear what will happen when it eventually arrives.

There's probably more I could have gleaned from the story because I suspect we're supposed to read between the lines a bit, but to be honest I think the book is a bit too literary for me. I'm not sure I get the point or the message and not a lot actually happens. But it was fairly entertaining to read and it's so short that by the time I realized there wasn't a lot I was getting out of it, it was over. I will say, though, that Lara's narrative voice was strong and distinct and I probably won't forget it soon.

Sunday, August 4, 2019


Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld (2013)

I love Curtis Sittenfeld, but when this book came out I was skeptical because it's about twin sisters with psychic powers. I don't believe in that and didn't think I could stomach a book in which I had to suspend that disbelief. But recently I came across it again, and I reminded myself that not long ago I read a book about a woman who flies through space in a giant shrimp and I thought surely I can manage a book with a little ESP. It turns out I needn't have worried about the psychic aspects, but there were plenty of things about this book I didn't like.

The premise is this: Daisy (who as an adult is called Kate) and her twin sister Violet have always had psychic abilities. In middle school Daisy was more open about it, but there were consequences to letting everyone know you could predict the future. As they grew up, Kate avoided using her senses and didn't tell people about them while Vi embraced hers and even started a career as a psychic medium. In 2009, Vi publicly predicted a serious earthquake and went on the news, creating a media firestorm. This caused a little friction for Kate because her husband and his colleague, Courtney were geologists. Courtney and Hank were also neighbors and the two couples were good friends since they both had little kids. They all thought that Vi was crazy.

So basically nothing happens for oh, another 200 pages, except for revisiting Kate and Vi's childhoods and Kate's really boring relationships pre-Jeremy. Why were we subjected to all of this? I have no idea. Also, we get a LOT of minutiae about Kate's day-to-day life as a stay-at-home mom to two little kids, which I absolutely could have done without. Then in the last hundred pages or so a bunch of stuff happens that I will spoil for you now: Kate has sex with Courtney's husband, the stay-at-home-dad she spends a lot of time with. This happens totally out of the blue without any thought for her husband, the fact that their marriage is actually pretty damn good, or birth control. She becomes pregnant, but also had sex with Jeremy around that time so she needs to figure out who is the father. This is important because Hank is black and if she has a black baby it will be pretty obvious that it's not Jeremy's. She didn't even consider an abortion (she is allegedly pro-choice, but was super judgey about Courtney having an abortion, so now SHE can't.) Anyhow, it's Hank's baby but she doesn't tell him; it is all handled stupidly and ridiculously and this WILL come back to haunt them someday, mark my words. Or it would if the book didn't end with them just suddenly moving to another part of the country.

Honest to god, Jeremy is too good for this woman. She was so uninteresting and wishy-washy about everything and really into judging other people when she is actually the terrible one. Maybe her sister Violet dropped out of college and wasn't great with money or whatever, but at least she's pretty honest and doesn't treat people so horribly. And I don't think the author actually intends for Kate to be seen as a bad person, but I can't find many redeeming qualities about her, and she doesn't learn or grow at all during the book. [Edited to add: She is also homophobic; and at one point says that Courtney is "more like a man" because she doesn't express her feelings. Gross.] Hearing so much about the day-to-day aspects of having two little kids, I couldn't imagine why she was happy to have a third kids. If anything ever made me feel good about my choices to not have kids, it's this book.

I mean, it wasn't horrible. I wouldn't have made it through if it was. Sittenfeld is a great writer and she created a whole cast of characters who felt real and it was fairly immersive for a while. But about halfway through I started questioning whether anything was ever going to happen and why the book was so damn long, and that went on for a while before all the stuff at the end started happening. So I guess pacing was a big problem. That and a main character I couldn't stand.

Anyhow, lots of people loved this book and maybe you would too. But it's by far my least favorite book by Curtis Sittenfeld.