Friday, July 31, 2015

"The Sky is Everywhere": Fall in Love With Jandy Nelson's Ability to Capture First Love

"Years ago, I crashed in Gram's garden and Big asked me what I was doing.  I told him I was looking up at the sky.  He said, 'That's a misconception, Lennie, the sky is everywhere, it begins at your feet." 

I love when I finish a book and I can't stop smiling.

Or thinking about it.

Or  I'm awestruck of the author who created such lovely sentences and such lovely characters who are passionate, intricate, and people who I'd like to know.

I feel lucky that I've now read both of Jandy Nelson's YA books.  I'll Give You The Sun was a miracle, and now that I've read The Sky is Everywhere, I realize that Jandy Nelson is even more gifted and amazing than I thought.

Although I read "The Sky is Everywhere" in huge helpings and raced to the end, I didn't really want it to end because that means that Lennie with her beautiful hair and Joe Fontaine with his beautiful eyelashes would no longer be a big part of my day.  I wouldn't get the chance to feel their love story unfold.

The novel tells the story of 17 year old Lennie Walker whose sister, Bailey, died suddenly and Lennie who always allowed her sister to overshadow her suddenly realizes she needs to be her own person and doesn't really know who she is.  She starts to lust after boys, and begins to really question why her mother hasn't contacted her in 16 years, and she alienates the people who matter to her most.

And then she meets the new boy in band, Joe Fontaine, who just happens to be a music prodigy, highly romantic, and from Paris.


Even more, he really seems to get her, he helps her to tap into her musical genius, and he's okay with the fact that her family is kind of crazy.

BUT . . . Lennie has a slight issue.  Her sister's boyfriend, Toby keeps showing up to find comfort from his loss.  His grief over Bailey's death equals her own and when they get together it's like they are trying to piece Bailey back together by their electric grief. Although Lennie knows that it's wrong to kiss Toby and put her hands all over him, something about his presence comforts her.  He's the only one who understands how much she misses her sister and the only one who understands how hard it is to live in a world without Bailey.

From the poems that Lennie leaves pretty much everywhere she goes to write her story into the air, to Gram's seductive roses, to Big's affinity to marry every woman in town, to Joe Fontaine's beautiful older brothers, to the way Lennie has read Wuthering Heights 23 times, Jandy Nelson created quirky but believable characters.  These are the kinds of people we wish we could be - talented, gorgeously creative, beautiful, deeply expressive, unapologetically passionate,  but most of all they are believable.

I believed the love story between Joe and Lennie.

I believed the shared grief between Lennie and Toby.

I believed Gram's eccentricities and her obsession with painting green women.

Everything about this YA book works and it was lovely to read and be sucked into the storyline for a few days.  I only hope that Jandy Nelson hurries up and writes another magical creation soon.

I'm ready for more.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

"The Last Summer of the Camperdowns": Something is Missing

I fell for it again!

For some reason, even though none of the books I have ever read from Oprah's "Best Books to Read for the Summer" have ever been a book I've loved, I am suckered into believing that I will eventually find one that I actually do love.

It's my fault as well that I am drawn in by covers of books that look summery, and that I have yet to find a perfect book for the summer of 2015.  Canadian writer, Elizabeth Kelly's book "The Last Summer of the Camperdowns" is not the summer book I have been waiting for.

Touted by The Washington Post as a Notable Fiction Book of 2013 and by Cosmopolitan Magazine as one of the 22 Best Books For Women by Women in 2013, "The Last Summer of the Camperdowns" and described as "an uproarious coming-of age story brimming with old money, young love, and astonishing family secrets" made it sound like a promising summer read to me.

It tells the story of 12 year old Riddle Camperdown and her two eccentric parents in the summer of 1972 in the privileged area of Wellfleet, Massachusetts.  Her mother, Greer, is an ex-movie star who still possesses jaw dropping beauty and a cutting personality.  Her father, Camp, is running for office and trying to protect his image at the same time he is trying to toughen up his daughter. The other main character in this book is their neighbor, Gin, whose love of his horses trumps his love for anything else. It is on Gin's horse stables that Riddle witnesses what she believes to be a crime perpetrated by Gin's horse hand, Gula, whose creepy presence brings to mind gothic horror, but seems a little misplaced in this mostly realistic fiction book.

The story that unfolds brings to light the lies that Riddle's parents keep, suspicions about past secrets, long ago love, and a crush that Riddle develops on a boy that is not just too old for her but also the son of her mother's ex-love.

There is scandal and intrigue, and parts of this book were enjoyable, but overall, I felt disappointed by the needless complicated plot.  Even more than that one of the characters seem to care much at all about what is important (a 15 year old boy is missing for crying out loud) but they care a great deal about it's important at all (appearances).

Uproarious? I'm confused by this description of this book.  It wasn't really funny at all.  I think that Greer's acidic dialogue was supposed to be funny, but I mostly found her flippant response to everyone including her daughter irritating.  I think maybe that was the most confusing part of all for me about this book - was it supposed to be funny? Thought-provoking? A statement about rich people and their carelessness? I couldn't tell and the style was hard to digest.  Kelly over describes much in this novel which sometimes made me lose the plot.  For example Riddle describes a failed conversation with her mom in this way: "She turned her back on me and took up with Gin in her brittle way - the uninflected chilliness, the precision of evisceration, her aloof sociability.  she was a late frost and I could feel my toes curling." It's pretty and all, but it doesn't fit with the choppy story line.

I did enjoy the parts about long kept secrets.  In one of the few honest conversations that Riddle has with her mother after many of the truths start spilling out, Greer tells her "Sometimes I think we only imagine ourselves.  The rest we conduct in secret.  It's hard sometimes, coming face-to-face with your truer nature - the part you conceal even from yourself."

It's that truer nature that eluded me in this book.  I wasn't sure what it wanted to be or what I was supposed to get out of reading it, and mostly it just made me feel empty and glad when I got to the end.

I'll still be searching for that perfect summer read, so if you have suggestions, let me know (unless it's an Oprah suggestion).

Monday, July 27, 2015

"Go Set a Watchman": The Darker Side of Maycomb, Alabama

I often wondered what happened to all my beloved characters in Maycomb, Alabama.  Who doesn't wonder about the lives of their favorite characters of all time? Because Harper Lee once said, "I wrote one good book and that was enough" I never believed I needed to know more about Scout's life, Jem's life, what happened to Boo, Atticus, Uncle Jack, Aunt Alex, Calpurnia and the rest of the characters of Maycomb.  "To Kill A Mockingbird" with all it's amazingness would do it for me.  I didn't need a trilogy, a movie sequel, nor did I need anything wrapped up in a tidy little bow.  I liked the unresolved ending and didn't need more.  

When Harper Collins announced that they were releasing "Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee, my jaw dropped.  I shook my head and emphatically told my husband, "There must be some mistake. Harper Lee didn't want to write another book" as if I knew her and could attest to her feelings on the matter.  Controversy surrounded the release of this book.  Did Lee really sign off on this deal or was it a money grab by the publishers? Was it released only because Lee's sister Alice died and her lawyer Tonja B. Carter took over her estate and just "happened upon" the manuscript that was actually written before "To Kill A Mockingbird"? If she wanted to publish this book, why did Harper Lee wait so long to do so? Did Carter take advantage of an elderly woman and resurrect an unfinished novel just to make money? 

I may never know the answers to all these questions surrounding the release of Harper Lee's second novel "Go Set a Watchman" but I decided to read it anyway even though I read early reviews that said Atticus was a racist in it.  Just the thought of that made me want to cover my ears and say "La la la, I am not listening to you" until everyone came to their senses and explained that he only appears to be racist in one part of the book, but shows his true nature as the book progresses.  I mean how could Atticus, my favorite literary hero of all time change so drastically as a 70 year old man? Surely he must have the same moral code and conduct that he had as a 50 year old champion of equal rights? 

The novel tells the story of Scout's (who now goes by Jean Louise) return to Maycomb 20 years after the close of "To Kill A Mockingbird." She's a 26 year old liberal New Yorker who still loves her hometown even if some of the people there are narrow minded.  She's in love with her father's right hand man, Hank, who is one of her oldest and dearest friends, and she still sees her father as the most amazing human being in the world.  The Maycomb in this novel is similar and different from the 1930s depression era Maycomb, but darker in a way because it is no longer told from the perspective of an idealistic, intelligent child whose father is infallible in his life lessons.  In the 1950s civil unrest, Maycomb fights a different battle than the ghosts that lurk in dark, mysterious houses, it fights the ever present NAACP and traveling racists who spout hate against a potential black uprising or the (gasp) mixing of the races.  In this Maycomb, even Atticus wants the races kept separate.  He, unlike Scout, is not colorblind. 

In many ways Jean Louise still retains the tomboyishness and the idealism of her days as Scout.  She doesn't shy away from confrontation with Aunt Alex (Alex is even more blustery in this novel), nor does she escape the expected traditions of having to do a Coffee session with the local ladies who can't seem to understand why on earth anyone would ever want to live in New York City with all the "Negroes" everywhere.  

Amid the rambling chapters in this novel, the real story is Jean Louise's separation from Atticus.  She becomes her own person by seeing Atticus as a flawed human being after witnessing him at a town council meeting about the preservation of the white way of life.  Uncle Jack takes on a bigger role in this novel and in almost preacher like fashion, he dominates the end of the book telling Scout "you confused your father with God.  You never saw him as a man with a man's heart, and a man's failings . . . You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers." 

There are big flaws in the writing.  Yes, this is Harper Lee, so there are more than a few moments of brilliance, but the narration lacks the vibrancy of "To Kill A Mockingbird" because it is told in 3rd person (and sometimes trails into an awkward 1st person).  The dialogue in some chapters is more like sermons and speeches, and there seems to be unfinished holes all over the place.  

I couldn't love this novel like I love "To Kill A Mockingbird" but it's still a noteworthy novel.  The chapters that flashback to Scout's early dates with Hank were my favorite (especially the part about her falsies), and The Coffee conversations were entertaining as well.  This novel, to me, still felt unfinished.  It contains the seeds of the more innocent "To Kill A Mockingbird" and because this was written first, this might be the draft that Lee never really wanted anyone to read or see - the dark side of all the characters, or maybe what the characters were like before she shaped them into what they became.  To me, this is an unfinished sculpture which has it's own merits, but can't really be compared to what "To Kill A Mockingbird" is.

Regardless of the shortcomings, I'm glad I read it.  I'm glad I got to see a different side of Maycomb, a different side of the South in the 1950s.  It shed light on other issues for me that I need to research and I will most likely read this book again when I am ready to venture back into Maycomb.  I just have a feeling I will reread "To Kill a Mockingbird" first. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

"The Midwife of Venice": 1575 in Venice = Yucky

I'm ruined.

After reading "All The Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr, I don't think any other historical fiction will compare.  My latest foray into the historical fiction genre was a quick read, but not very satisfying.  Compared to "All The Light We Cannot See" which to me is like having the best wine in the world, Roberta Rich's international bestseller "The Midwife of Venice" was like drinking a Coke after the ice melted in it.

Rich's novel seems promising.  It follows the story of Hannah Levi, a renowned midwife in Venice who has a special (and secret) apparatus that aids women in childbirth.  She lives in the Jewish Ghetto of Venice in 1575 which was not the cleanest time to live in a ghetto or the safest time to bring a child into the world.  Plague was rampant, Jews were seen as trash, and childbirth was dangerous as many women and babies died in the process.  The second storyline revolves around Hannah's husband, Isaac who was captured at sea and taken to Malta to be sold into slavery.  Hannah risks her life and the safety of her beloved ghetto to aid in a Christian birth (forbidden for Jews during that time period) in order to earn the money to buy her husband's freedom.  Told in alternating chapters, the stories of both Hannah and Isaac are fraught with danger.  Both are headstrong and unyielding and both escape near death in improbable fashion often.

I need to admit that I was a bit grossed out by the graphic descriptions of Hannah's midwife skills during the Countess Lucia's grueling labor and birth.  I didn't think I was squeamish until I had to read about the bloody birth.  Lucia's weak state along with a large headed baby was not a good combo and Hannah had to try everything in order to save the baby and the mom.  Equally as horrific was the treatment of Hannah by the brothers of the family and Lucia's main attendant.

Isaac's chapters were equally as graphic - near starvation, illness, wretched conditions and prejudice rule his quest to make it back home to his wife.  But, just like Hannah was a gifted Midwife, Isaac was charming even in his weakened and filthy state and he was able to make deals for his life because he was smart.

This novel does shed light on the conditions in both Venice and Malta during this time period, and it shows the disparities between not only the wealthy and the poor, but the Christians and the Jews during that time.  It's graphic because that's the truth of life then.

But, was this a good book that I would recommend to fans of historical fiction?

I rolled my eyes a few too many times.  The writing was just adequate, and the implausibility of the narrow escapes by both Hannah and Isaac became tedious instead of more exciting as the novel progressed.  I wanted to like it, but too many things held me back.  It was a quick read, and a good story idea, but I never got to a point where I could say, "I can't wait to read this book."

I read it.

I finished it quickly, but it was more like finishing a watery coke because there was nothing else to drink at the time even though I really wanted a fine wine.

Monday, July 13, 2015

"Remember Me This Way": A Creepy, Twisted and Slow Burn Thriller

How well do we really know anyone?

Sabine Durrant's dysfunctional marriage thriller "Remember Me This Way" goes beyond the surface of the secrets in a marriage between a sociopath and an introverted librarian that he stalks and eventually marries to show how easy it is to be deceived.

I'm not always a huge fan of thrillers - especially thrillers that show how messy marriages between crazy people can be.  Infidelity, twisted psychotic episodes, abuse - both mental and physical . . . all of these traits seem to mark the "must reads" that deal with dysfunctional marriages.  Just like in "The Girl on the Train" Sabine Durrant gives us a clingy, passive woman as a main character.  Lizzie unlike Rachel in "The Girl on the Train" has some desirable traits.  For one, she isn't drunk all the time, and for the most part, she doesn't tell lies to everyone that she knows.  Lizzie's conflict is her husband's tragic death which happened a year before the book begins.  Due to her guilt over feeling a little bit relieved after his death, she hasn't been able to visit the site of his car accident.  When she musters the will to go there, she finds flowers from a woman named Xenia there already, and she begins to unravel the secret life that her husband, Zach led.

Was anything that he told her true? If he really was a horrible person, what does it say about her that she really loved him? What does it say about her that she often felt responsible for his abusive and erratic behavior?

The narration switches back and forth from Lizzie trying to figure out what really happened to her husband and what he was really up to during their brief and tumultuous marriage.  She also wants to answer the questions that she has about whether or not he even died or if he is just waiting to punish her for the break up letter that she sent to his art studio.  In Zach's chapters, the reader becomes privy to the world of a misanthrope who never really tells the truth to anyone in his adult life, and about how easily he can camouflage himself into the nice guy or the new guy or the artist guy.  It's a dark world that Zach inhabits full of stalking just to see if he can get away with it and a trail of lies and abhorrent behavior with people who foolishly trust and even love him.

Lizzie's story is sad, but Durrant handles her codependent behavior with care.  She gives Lizzie a backbone (even if it isn't a very strong one).  The biggest downfall in this novel for me was the ease that Lizzie excepted the obviously troubled and incredibly spooky teenager, Onnie, into her home.  Although Lizzie felt reservations in allowing Onnie into her life, she caves quickly due to the pity she feels for her.  I never got a true sense of Onnie, and I never really wanted to.  She was more of an annoyance even though her story was integral to the plot.

Overall, I found Durrant's book to be a sly and well crafted thriller that felt perfect for an overly rainy week of summer.  I flew through it, and was satisfied with the outcome.  Something about this dysfunctional marriage rang more true than the relationships in the wildly successful "Girl on the Train" characters and their flawed love lives, or even "Gone Girl" and the sadistic nature of the wife who wants to punish her husband for his infidelity.  The pace wasn't as break neck, but quieter and even a bit repetitious at parts.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed myself while reading it, and recommend it to anyone looking for a quick thriller for the beach.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

"Firefly Lane": Before The Nightingale, this one was considered her best

Sometimes I wonder what's wrong with me that I don't love the books I am pretty sure that I SHOULD love.  I've been called a "book snob" before, and I know that it's true.  In the summer, though, I generally love a good sappy romance, and I thought I would find it with Kristin Hannah's 2008 huge hit "Firefly Lane." This book, touted as her best before "The Nightingale," intrigued me.  It sounded like a perfect summer book - love, friendship, loyalty, loss.  Yum. I LOVED "The Nightingale", so I thought I would be just as enchanted by "Firefly Lane" and I was even more happy that it included nothing about WWII, but I was sorely disappointed by Hannah's lack of writing depth in this straightforward and often cliched book.

To be fair, the story is a good one.  "Firefly Lane" follows the friendship between an unlikely pair - innocent, ugly duckling, Kate whose family bonds are strong and dependable, and beautiful, rebellious Tully who moves next door with her burn out mother for a short span of time in the summer of 1974.  They become TullyandKate, inseparable best friends, and forge a bond that transcends the ravages of time, motherhood, love gained and lost, and jealousy both buried and apparent.

There is much to love in this story of friendship.  The cultural references throughout struck a cord with me.  With each decade came new challenges.  In the 70s, the girls struggled with their own forming identities, but found solace in summer bike rides.  In the 80s, the power struggles of college where Tully wanted them to stick together and enter the world of journalism as a pair, and Kate's ever growing sense of disinterest surfaced.  Tully's quest for t.v. stardom continued to grow through the 90s and early 2000s as she gained more and more fame and notoriety and Kate's priorities shifted to motherhood.  Each of the women long for what the other possesses and each feel pangs of regret over their chosen paths, but always remain friends. I could relate to the changing styles, the changing priorities, and the ability to stick to a friend even after betrayals.

The friendship was sweet at first, but something shifted for me when the girls entered college.  Tully's sense of entitlement and her blind ambition made me sad.  Kate's devoted loyalty to her egomaniac friend made me sad, too.  And that pattern continued their whole lives.  It was hard for me to understand why Kate remained so faithful to Tully who clearly was out for herself for most of the story.  It was just as hard for me to understand Kate's inability to take care of herself EVER. My feelings shifted in the last few chapters of the book when Tully and Kate returned to the sweetness that defined their early friendship.  They needed each other, and loved each other like sisters, frenemies, life-long rivals and besties.

The writing was eye rolling worthy in many instances, and then sweet in others.  I cringed at the cliches and the predictability of the story line.  Some of the dialogue was dreadful and campy.  The thing is, though, that Kristin Hannah is a prolific writer with a devoted following for her 20 novels.  She writes for women who don't want a complex novel, but want something straightforward with conflicts of friendship and love intertwined.

I don't think I'll be reading any of her other earlier books, but I do know that I loved "The Nightingale" and it has many of the same elements that "Firefly Lane" possessed like one driven female character who rebels against society and another who is a headstrong mother. Hannah knows how to craft memorable female characters that modern women can relate to in many ways and she knows how to draw in readers, it just depends on how deep of a read you prefer and now, it seems with her latest bestseller "The Nightingale" that readers have a choice between substance free writing and something with a little more grit.