An Italian Wife by Ann Hood (2 out of 5)

•September 2, 2014 • Leave a Comment

                                                              

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Ann Hood’s last book, The Obituary Writer, was one of my favorite books last year. I was hoping it would be a 1,2 punch. Instead it was a kick in the gut. Her extraordinary skills to show the passage of time effectively continues, as do her unforgettable characters. The problem is that there are some characters you would like to forget. As usual, she paints her characters with a great deal of colors, which isn’t the problem. The problem is that some of these characters need to be drawn from scratch, for redemption of their entire character is unheard of and unlikely, given the actions they choose to take in this book. It just did not live up to the expectations I had placed upon it, based on how much I loved the previous one.

This time, Josephine Rimaldi, a fourteen year old girl living a dream-filled life in Italy, is thrust into an arranged marriage with a man she has never met. You aren’t too surprised, as this was the way of many Italian marriages back in the 1900’s. She marries Vincenzo, who really doesn’t do much except treat her reasonably and give her seven children. Josephine’s lack of true emotion toward her husband and their marriage undergoes a test when she engages in a passionate brief affair with the ice man, which ends in her pregnancy. She confesses all to her priest, a man who thinks nothing of asking her to “give her all to God”, meaning letting him suckle her breasts, after she confesses she’s lonely in her marriage and doesn’t want more children. Yes, you read that sentence right. She gives birth in secret to Valentina, her illegitimate child with her now-disappeared lover, and gives her up for adoption, a decision that haunts her the entirety of her life and the book. Her husband Vincenzo passes away from the Spanish Influenza and she has to be the head of her family. She continues to fight with her conscience over giving up her child for adoption, but now she has to concentrate on her children. One of them returns from WWI permanently scarred and not all there mentally. Another of her children is developmentally slow. Another of her children takes Latin lessons from the same priest who told Josephine to give her “all to God”, and that daughter secretly lusts after the priest. Another of her daughters wants to be a nun, at the young age of eleven.  The younger children are the only ones who aren’t touched by some fleeting emotional scars. Overall, Josephine has her hands full with raising her kids. Her granddaughters end up messing with drugs in the psychedelic era. It never seems to end. Just when you start to connect with Josephine, you end up wanting to scream at her or her kids for their actions. The book takes us from the 1900’s to early 2000’s, as Josephine grows older and more frail, you get to see how her and the kids’ stories play out. I did enjoy seeing it to fruition, but it was missing a lot of somethings.

I wish I had liked this one more. I was truly hoping it was going to win my heart like her previous title. Not the case, unfortunately.

Us by David Nicholls (5 out of 5)

•September 1, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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I recently passed four years at ye olde bookstore. In a startling development, the last David Nicholls book, One Day, was the first book I borrowed from work and read when hired. So, at the same time I am celebrating four years there, here comes his next book. Some may call it kismet. I call it a fantastic read.

You all know by now that I like realistic stories. That’s the reason I read Jodi Picoult for years (until she started writing stories about wolves dancing in cargo-knit sweaters, then I checked out of that library). I think the one thing about David Nicholls is that he doesn’t punctuate his words with hearts, rather with broken heart squiggles. The I that he’s dotting? It’s a blood drop from tears. This guy writes real stories, real emotions, and real characters. The end of One Day broke my fucking heart. Yet I still recommended it to anyone who walked into the bookstore. Because it was superbly crafted and written. Sometimes the best things in life have a little heartbreak attached to them. Happily, this is not the case with Us.

Douglas is a scientist who’s very routine in the way he deals with everyday life; so much so, that it’s killing his marriage and he doesn’t realize it until Connie, his wife, tells him point blank that she’s thinking of leaving him. Douglas is stunned and heartbroken, but feels as if there’s still a chance that the woman who loves him is in there somewhere; they’ve been married this long, have two children (one deceased, one a little 17-year old punk who’s constantly nay-saying his father while putting his mother on a pedestal) together, and have a lovely, predictable life. Connie’s the former wild child, free spirit that Douglas met through his sister’s matchmaking efforts. Complete opposites? Oh yes. Somehow, as it often is with real life, it works. For many years. However, after their little girl dies hours after birth, Connie and Douglas drift apart, something he doesn’t realize until she tells him she’s been having an affair. That ends, they begin anew, and shortly afterward, Connie and Douglas discover she’s expecting. She births a son, Albie, who from day one worships his mother and regards his father with ill-disguised disdain. Life goes on in a predictable fashion, with Douglas working his insane hours with as a microscientist, and Connie never fully realizing her dream of being an artist, but making do by working in an art gallery. Until one day, Connie tells Douglas, late at night, that she is dying in the marriage and that she’s thinking of leaving him. Her timing couldn’t be worse. Connie’s idea to encourage Albie’s artistic interests was that the family does a tour of the European capitals…which they are set to embark upon immediately after she dumps this on Douglas. Douglas attempts to keep his bearings and suggests they go ahead with the trip as planned, secretly hoping the spark in their marriage will be rekindled and that he will finally find some common ground with his boy. What happens? Well, read it and find out.

It won’t be difficult to read this book. Once you start, you just can’t stop. It’s a weightier, more satisfying jar of Pringles. Douglas is a great character, a sweet, gentle soul whose heart is weeping inside at losing the best thing that’s ever happened to him, yet maintaining his unique sense of humor throughout. Douglas is a fighter; he doesn’t fight with nunchucks, but with nostalgia. His words are often impassioned, never embittered. Connie is a harder character to like. There are parts of the story where I believe her wild-child nature refuses to stay idle, and that’s the reason for her flighty pathos. However, there are parts where I believe it’s a strong case of mid-life crisis, and nothing less. Some people have that, and act accordingly. I’m not sure what Connie’s deal is, to be honest, but I did spent a lot of the book shaking my head, calling her a sock thief, and wishing someone would bash her in the head with an earthenware jug. It takes two to make a marriage, and two to break a marriage, but the way the story unravels from her periscope, it’s all on Douglas. I didn’t find that to be the case. Sure, he should have woke the fuck up and they should have gone to therapy, but then, we would not have this book. Albie, their son, is another piece of work. You don’t really see too much of him until the latter part of the book. The first half glimpses are of his fascination and “relationship” with Kat, the troubadour accordion street busker (say that three times fast!). Kat, for the record, was one of my favorite parts of the book- because the spirit of freedom and life takes here wherever, and there’s some of that spirit that Connie is looking to recapture. The reason Connie dislikes Kat isn’t because she doesn’t approve of her for Albie (although there is some of that), it’s because she somewhat resents her for living the life that Connie always wanted to, but didn’t due to domestic “bliss” with Douglas. The last minute addition of Freja, the dentist, who Douglas forms a friendship with, and begins to examine things in his marriage, his relationship with his son, and his life- realistically.

This is a book about what happens when everything that you take for granted crumbles and disappears into dust. How do you recover? How do you learn to live again, without that anchor that you’ve had there all those years? How do you act, without the one you love by your side? How do you make your son respect you? How does life go on, after it ceases in it’s everyday somnolence? You come out of it eventually, because you have to continue living, but the process of that is what takes the sass out of your sassafras. Nicholls perfectly captures this in this book. You are rooting for Douglas; I don’t think I was rooting for his marriage to Connie as much as I was rooting for him to find himself and for him and Albie to build a bridge to establishing an actual father-son relationship, something which isn’t present in the book until closer to the end. Fantastic book that will tug at your heartstrings one minute, and have you rolling in the aisles the next. You just don’t know who great life can be on the other side of normalcy, until you venture to the outer limits of a new chance. Do yourself a favor, venture to the bookstore when this is released on October 28, 2014, and buy a copy. And enjoy.

Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little (3 out of 5)

•August 28, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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I thought I had this summer’s “Gone Girl” in my hands, if the reviews on that book cover were any indication. Until halfway through it, I still believed. Then I stopped believing. There were a number of occurrences in the book that defied logic, and I quickly figured out who I thought did it. Unfortunately, as is true in real life, I was right, and we all know that’s never good. I really did enjoy this book, but the eventual set of circumstances that turned me off the book, and then the big reveal, really sucker punched it for me. I felt cheated.

Let me tell you that Janie Jenkins (great name, by the name) is one of my favorite female characters in a long, long time. What a smartass. And a funny one, to boot. You don’t get those often in suspense thrillers or regular fiction either. She really made the book awesome in so many ways. At the start of the book, Janie has just been released after an investigation into the police department that was in charge of putting her away reveals evidence tampering (basically, she gets out on a technicality). What did Janie do that she had served ten years? Murdered her famous socialite mother Marion Elsinger. You aren’t quite sure what to believe, because there are parts where Janie speaks of her mother with such dislike, that the reader has to wonder if she did indeed do the deed. Then there are parts where you see she’s trying to retrace her mother’s secretive past to get to the bottom of who may have done it. I asked myself at least five different times if she did do it. Janie’s let out, but she’s never safe. Reading about how the press in the book, not to mention “fans of the case” (ala Nancy Grace, that overzealous weirdo crime fanatic) on her after her release, reminded me a lot of what I’ve read Casey Anthony’s gone through since she skated out on something she obviously did. I wonder if that was the author’s intention. If so, well done. Janie kind of reminded me of what I thought Casey Anthony was like, as a normal person, before the insanity set in. Anyway, Janie flees, with the long-distance help of her lawyer Noah, to a secretive, trapped in a time warp, South Dakota town, where she believes she is safe. She’s also uncovered a ton of her family’s secrets, and met a good portion of the family. Some of those mysteries lie at the feet of Janie’s father, a man her mother never identified, and all that Janie has figured out from her mom’s coded diary is that the man’s name with a “J”. Of course, the men in this town have a plethora of “J” names, so Janie has to painstakingly dig through the past and figure it out. Getting the answers is the only way she’ll figure out what happened and who killed her mom. She’s also battling time, because the journalist Trace is out on a witch hunt for her, determined to deliver “justice” for her dead mother. Trace, may I add, also bears resemblance to Nancy Grace, with a different gender code. Does Janie figure it out? Does Trace get his hands on her? Will the journalist researching the town, with whom she strikes up an uneasy friendship based on investigating the shadiness of the town, help her figure it out in time? What happened? So many questions, and when the answers are delivered, well, not what you thought. Even the reasons for killing the mother- well, just seemed flimsy to me. But again, in the words of the infamous Gordon Gecko, greed is good.

Overall, a great debut novel. A good pace, although I felt it bogged down at the mid, where she’s working her way through the residents of the small town, in an attempt to rebuild her mother’s secret past, and maybe get answers. I got more questions and mild annoyance than answers. Except, obviously, I figured out who did it, and that was a major disappointment. Overall, not too bad as a debut suspense. And Janie Jenkins is fucking hilarious as a narrator. On those merits alone, totally worth the read.

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (4 out of 5)

•August 27, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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I am not often lucky enough to read two books, back to back, that were both fantastically written. First I read All That We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, then started on this one right away. I have noticed a ton of press for Thomas’ book, and one of my regular customers couldn’t remember the name of it last week. The minute she described it, I knew, also because it’s been written up quite a bit in the last couple of weeks. Many accolades have called forth, rightly deserved. Parts of this book read so well, you almost believe this is autobiographical in some nature. There are chapters that were so beautiful that I had to go back and read them. All of the participants in this family are very real, and you take their journey to heart. Not an easy thing to convey in books sometimes, but Matthew Thomas has mastered it here.

Eileen Tumulty is born into an Irish immigrant family in Queens in the 40’s. She’s raised in an apartment, where the temperature of the mood depends on whom is visiting and how much alcohol may or may not have been consumed. Eileen thinks she’s onto the next big step in her life when Ed Leary, a scientist who is nothing like those neighborhood boys she grew up with, walks into her life. The inevitable attraction is there, and a courtship ensues. Eileen has big plans of a life where she conquers the world, her dreams of bigger and better are brought to life, and things aren’t as dark and hopeless as they often seem in that little apartment. She believes, wrongly, that Ed will share her vision and help her open those doors to a palatial home filled with opulent dreams. They marry, and before long, Eileen realizes that this man she married doesn’t have the inclination to go any further into the American Dream. Eileen tries so hard to convince him that there is so much more that they could have, but Ed just seems to care less and less about those attainable things, as he begins to care less about anything. The marriage, and Eileen’s dreams of a better life, may not survive what turns out to be a major psychological pothole and a medical tragedy. They have a son, Connell, who’s also caught in between this seismic shift of personalities. Eileen sees things going downhill, but she fails to act upon them, because she really has done a stellar job of convincing herself that she will have those dreams come to fruition. She fails to realize that Ed just has simply stopped caring, and may never have cared that much, in the first place. The reasons for this are unexpected and tragic. But, may I remind the reader, realistic.

You know pretty much by that review that it’s not a “Don’t worry, be happy” book. Which is another reason I enjoyed it so much. There are some parts of the book that lagged, but the quest to see if any of Eileen’s dreams come true overruled that through much of the book, and I didn’t stop until I finished it. Within a day. And it’s not a quick book, by any means. The personalities in this book are superbly crafted as they watch the years go by, history and the world change, and nothing really changes in the Leary house. Eileen is a pretty strong character; most other female characters I have read would have been long gone, had their husbands not delivered on previous aspirations. She keeps on trying. Ed drove me nuts, although when you read and realize what is going on there, the sentiment shifts radically to empathy. Connell, I felt for that kid. Great child model for this family. The tilting of their world continues throughout the novel, and up to the end, but you always feel like there’s something, some hope of promise, around the corner, on the next page. There’s some hope in this something bleak book, and I loved that Matthew Thomas pulled that off. I also have to say that there were a few chapters that I felt could have been omitted. Again, however, this is a superbly written, very realistic look of life in a family where things often do not go according to plan. Some of us call that life.

 

 

All The Light That We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (5 out of 5)

•August 27, 2014 • 1 Comment

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This is a book that I received an advanced reading copy of, thanks to Ms. Wendy over at Simon & Schuster. As always, thank you, Wendy, for giving me a chance to read this before it came out and review it here. I hope as many people enjoy this as I did. The past couple of days at the store, we’ve had teens rolling in looking for historical fiction. If I thought any of them were serious about reading it and enjoying it, on leisurely terms, I would have recommended this in a second. However, most of the teens wanted quick, easy reads. This is a quick read once you get into it, but I don’t think it’s a book that teens will dedicate themselves to truly enjoying. Adults are another matter, and that’s whom I’m targeting to point out how awesome of a book it is.

Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her dad, the lockmaster (literally) at the Museum of Natural History. Marie-Laure loses her sight at the young age of six, and her dad builds a miniature version of their neighborhood, so that she can memorize it by touch and get to and from her home safely on a daily basis. Years go by, and then the war and the Nazis find and occupy Paris, forcing Marie-Laure and her father to flee and seek refuge with her extremely private uncle, who lives in Saint-Malo, a location that may just keep them safe for the duration of the war. Of course, this wouldn’t be a legit historical fictional retelling of the war if there wasn’t some dangerous object involved. In this case, Marie-Laure’s dad has with him an incredibly valuable and likely dangerous jewel. You read a lot of historical fiction from that time period, where those who fled tried to take flight with valued keepsakes, or valuable treasures that later may be able to be sold for money to fund travels, to feed those on the run, or to just barter with, if they are caught by enemy forces. Of course, there’s more to this angle of the story.

Shortly after Marie-Laure and her father flee to Saint-Malo, you’re taken away to a small mining town in Germany, where the reader meets Werner and his sister Julia. They find a radio, which not only fascinates Werner, but to a point that it leads to him becoming an expert at fixing, building, and trying to interpret radio waves. This leads him to a position at an academy for the Hitler Youth, and he ends up being cast in a role he never quite expected- an assignation to track the resistance. Werner learns a lot about the human spirit, infallibility, and the price of war. Werner’s travels lead him through the bloody realities of the war, and he ends up in Saint-Malo, where he and Marie-Laure meet, and the entire landscape of the novel takes another turn.

To say that I can review this book is a hard thing for me to write. Quite obviously, I AM reviewing it, but I feel my best chance at selling it is going to be at the bookstore I work in. My enthusiasm for this book and Anthony Doerr’s beautiful writing knows no bounds, but I feel as if sometimes a book is just so wonderful that the true emotion in one’s voice and boundless enthusiasm in their expression, is the easiest way to sell a book to someone who may not have heard of this. Thankfully, we have one book club in the area that is doing this as their monthly read, so I hope the word gets out. Pretty sure that this book hasn’t left the NYT bestseller list since it came out. Also pretty certain that it’s an Indiebound bestseller also. It deserves all of those kudos and more. I can’t think of the last time I read a historical fiction title where I was so sucked in that I named it a favorite for that year. Probably The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly. I read a lot of historical fiction, but this one, wow. Just unbelievably well written, beautifully descriptive writing. Doerr’s writing flows so well that it’s a damn shame if you don’t give this novel a chance. He deserves to win some major literary awards for this title. Definitely in my top 3 favorites of the year so far. I can only hope it’s on many other favorite lists by year’s end. It so deserves it.

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett (3 out of 5)

•August 25, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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Bulikov was a city that used to conquer the worlds around it by enslaving and murdering thousands. Was is the tense used because it’s no longer the case with its protectors out of the picture- permanently. Bulikov may not recover from this mortal blow, now standing in a surreal futuristic shell of its former self. Enter Shara. Believed to be a diplomat sent by those who are trying to shut Bulikov down forever, she’s actually a skilled spy, trying to bust a murderer. Trying to do that, Shara’s brought into further into the shell of the broken metropolis by realizing that those who were presumed dead, may not be. And they may be on the rise to re-take over Bulikov and reign murder and blood upon all. The stairs that keep popping up all over Bulikov are a mystery onto themselves, and when you see what it’s about, it’s going to blow your mind. That’s when the book begins to do just that.

This is a book that has gotten fantastic reviews. I really enjoyed the world that Bennett has created here. You never quite know what’s going to happen, and that works both for and against the book. It seems as if you’re so caught up in atmospheric descriptions of what Bulikov was and could have been, that you oft lose sight of the characters and the evil pulsing behind the broken lights of the city. It’s also slow going for the first half of the book. I really didn’t start to get caught up into the story until page 140. I’m cursed with not being able to stop reading a book, even if it makes me crazy and bang my head against a brick wall. This book was not that bad at all, but it was slow going at the start. I really enjoyed the characters In this book. Shara really is a smart cookie in regards to how she goes about her mission. Everything you heard about Sigrud (aka The Viking Hulk)? Is true. Definitely my favorite part of the book. He and Shara make one hell of a team.

I guess I am only going with three on this one because the parts that lag really lag, as the parts that rock, really rock.. Bulikov is a shimmering metropolis, ready to either explode with forces of a primal and evil nature bursting forth, or explode with the forces of evil decimating the city to its knees. It could go either way, and again, both scenarios would work, but I was very happy with the way that Bennett wrote what happened. The cover is freaking awesome too.

*I received this book for free from Blogging For Books, in return for a honest review.*

Simon Vs. The Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (5 out of 5)

•August 23, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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Sixteen year old Simon Spier is gay. He’s not so comfortable that’s he’s openly gay, however. He spends a lot of the beginning of the book worrying that it will get out into the open, or worse yet, he’ll not log off of his computer and someone will figure it out and use it to “blackmail” him. I air quote blackmail, because Martin, the kid who knows, asks Simon to get him in more with a girl that he digs. Simon probably wouldn’t be too worried normally if the identity of “Blue”, the young man with whom he’s enamored, was safe. However, in class clown Martin’s hands, who knows whether or not the secret stays safe with them, or will he tell everyone? Simon now has more reasons to worry.

The thing about this goof-up on Simon’s part is that he and Blue were just getting more comfortable and flirty, via email, when this happens. His attempting to help Martin and save his secret results in some real bang-up dynamics in his friend’s circle. This is a great story for an ages-old dilemma for teens. If you’re gay, do you feel comfortable enough coming out to your friends? To your schoolmates? To your family? You are cheering for Simon and Blue’s unconventional relationship from the start. I say unconventional because it blossoms while emailing. Simon is a great character, unabashedly fun and friendly, while being realistic and a biting sense of humor for a high school junior. I didn’t want to like Martin, with his blackmailing, but I ended up even liking that little twit by the end of the book.

This is a fun, uncompromising look at teens, sexuality, and how society makes people with different sexual orientation often feel as if they have to keep their true selves hidden from public view. Not easy, and not fair. It’s a tough world out there, and this book does a great thing with addressing it, but not losing any sense of fun. There are only a few times in this book where you feel as if things take a serious turn, but still, Simon and his cohorts are so much fun, it’s hard not to love the book. The ending? I think you’ll approve.

 

 
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