Friday, February 27, 2015

'Cause when I close my eyes, I'm somewhere with you.

I've been incredibly swamped with work and kids and life lately, but I did manage to read Eight Hundred Grapes, by Laura Dave. I feel torn about the rating for this book, which probably truly clocks in at 3.5 stars. For a decent part of this novel, I felt slightly annoyed with its protagonist, Georgia. Georgia returns to her parents' home in disgrace a few days before her wedding, after finding out her fiance has been keeping a crazy secret from her.

Her parents' home is a vineyard in California, where Georgia grew up with her older twin brothers, Finn and Bobby. She expects to find the comfort she always experienced as a kid (but also ran away from - she's very clear that she left the vineyard for a life as a more glamorous lawyer). But upon arriving home, she finds that no one is really happy -- not her parents, not Bobby and his wife, and not Finn.Yet, she finds herself longing for life at the vineyard more and more, even as everything is falling apart around her. Hmm.

There are several plotlines in this novel that, when combined, all seem a little ludicrous. Georgia's fiance Ben's secret involves a movie star. The crazy issues between the brothers. The problems and arrangement between her parents. What happens with the vineyard. Even the ending. One or two of the storylines, perhaps, I would have found more believable. All together, it is a bit much. Add in Georgia's constant vacillating (I'm getting married! I'm not! I am!), and it gets to be a bit old.

However, I have to cut Georgia some slack, as I realize, despite the lawyerly job and upcoming wedding, she's young, and she has had quite a shock. She eventually grew on me a bit as the storyline progressed and she herself grew up a bit. And, as silly and as "neat" (as in, neatly tied up) the ending was, it warmed my heart a bit and made me end the book on a good note.

Still, I think I may pick up a Michael Jordan biography next. I'm a little tired of flighty thirty-somethings! Time for a clever, genius, and sometimes angry athlete for a change of pace.

(Note: I received an advance ebook copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.)

Friday, February 20, 2015

All of us under its spell, we know that it's probably magic.

I zipped through two books lately. Both tied up their plot-lines a little too quickly and easily for my taste, but I still think they are both worth reading... 

I definitely enjoyed the first, the latest novel by Sarah Pekkanen entitled Things You Won't Say. It's the first of her books I've read and after I completed it, I looked back on Goodreads and saw I've had several of her earlier novels on my "to read" list for a while. I certainly liked what I read here enough to go back and explore some of her earlier works. Probably the only thing that prevented me from giving this a 4-star rating (I'd say this is about 3.5 stars) is that the novel wrapped up suddenly and a little too easily.

The novel follows the story of Jamie, a stay-at-home mom with three young kids and a teenage stepson. Her husband, Mike, is a cop. The story is very current -- not long after his partner is seriously wounded in a shooting, Mike finds himself in another dangerous situation. There's another shooting--at Mike's hands.

The story unfolds from the viewpoint of the women in Mike's life: Jamie; her sister, Lou - a slightly eccentric zookeeper and part-time barista; and Christie, Mike's ex-girlfriend, who is night to Jamie's day, but also mother to Mike's eldest son, Henry.

The characters are well-developed and complex. Jamie is a bit irritating at times, but I really liked Lou. The book is a rapid read and a very easy one, as well, even if it's rather stressful. It's certainly a worthwhile and enjoyable read. I'll be curious to see what some of Pekkanen's earlier books are like.

(Note: I received an advance ebook version of this book from Edelweiss in return for an unbiased review.)

Next, came a short book and a very fast read: Michael C. Grumley's Through the Fog. I read it in less than 24 hours. The story is really far fetched, but almost compulsively interesting. Evan hits his head in a bike accident shortly after he turns 18 and starts having strange visions when he falls asleep. His psychiatrist, Shannon, attempts to help him. As she does, she realizes that Evan, using his visions, may be able to help her find her young daughter, Ellie, who disappeared 18 months ago. The problem is that each vision seems to take a crazy toll on Evan, and it seems likely that finding Ellie may kill him.

So, definitely compelling. Evan seems sweet and likable. None of the characters were particularly well-drawn or complex. We meet Shannon's sister, a nurse, who helps find a similar case to Evan's, from many years ago. We don't learn that much about this person, though. And even when we learn more about what happened to Ellie, it all ties up a little easily, with this "aha" moment that seemed a little to neat for my taste.

Paradoxically, a lot is left unresolved with Evan, and I almost found myself wishing for a sequel, so I could learn more about his future.

Still, I was quite intrigued by this one. It was oddly enjoyable.

(Note: I received an advance ebook version of this book from Netgalley in return for an unbiased review.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

As I've stated things can be complicated.

I read the most bizarre book lately - seemed almost worth its own post.

I wanted to like Molly Campbell's Keep the Ends Loose. I really did. It was a quick read, but honestly, I kept reading partly because the ridiculous and far-fetched plot sucked me in and partially because I just wanted it to be over. There were times when I found myself gritting my teeth because of the rather annoying diction and narration. You sort of became lulled into it the more you read, but it really was painful.

The novel follows 15-year-old Miranda (Mandy), who thinks she has a rather boring life and family, until her mother reveals a shocking secret that turns the family upside down. It involves Mandy's aunt, Iris, whom she adores, and  encompasses the entire family - her father, Roy; her 17-year-old brother Adam; her best friend, Barley (seriously, Barley); and a whole cast of other characters.

I'll hand it to Campbell - she creates a cast of rich characters and it's a plot worthy of a soap opera. The problem is that everything just seems a little off. Mandy is so adamant about her life previously being so boring and her startling "realizations" that adults, too, have depth and problems, that you feel like you're being hit over the head with it. The author bashes you over and over with Mandy's coming of age thoughts, rather than simply letting them unfold naturally from the plot.

Further, while Mandy is supposed to be a naive 15-year-old, at times she sounds like a kid. Other times, she's drinking beer and ruminating on sex. It's really disconcerting. Her narration is jumbled, and I was left wondering if the author actually knew any teens at all. Both Mandy and Adam exhibit a host of age-inappropriate behaviors and diction -- no matter what happens to them!

Finally, the storyline is so inane that I found myself wondering what sort of parents would actually do this to their children? If Mandy's parents were so supposedly boring and placid, the behavior seemed awfully odd. It was all just a little unbelievable and again, left you a tad jarred.

Overall, about 2.5 (out of 5) stars. A lot of promise, really, but just didn't get fulfilled.

(Note: I received an advance ebook copy of this novel from Netgally in return for a honest review.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Promise me you'll stay with me and keep me warm tonight.

 I've been reading some random books lately. Of these four, I'd probably recommend Marisa de los Santos' newest novel.

I've actually loved Marisa de los Santos since I read Love Walked In eight or so years ago. She has a lovely, poetic way with words and The Precious One doesn't disappoint there. It's told in the alternating voices of two sisters: Taisy, a grown woman, who has always wondered why her domineering father, Wilson, was never a true father to her, and who has been basically estranged from him since 18, and Willow, her 16-year-old half sister, Wilson's pride and joy.

After Wilson suffers a heart attack, he summons for Taisy and her twin, Marcus. Only Taisy -- still longing for the fatherly approval she could never attain-- comes. There she learns that Wilson wants her to write a book about his scholarly life. As she embarks on that quest, she learns more than she bargained for about her father, her halfsister, her stepmother, and herself.

Here's the thing about this book. Much of it is incredibly implausible. It's kind of insanely implausible. There's a line where Willow, who is truly this pure, kind child of 16, after being isolated her entire life by her father, is talking to a school friend and asking how anyone could possibly be so nice. That's how I feel about half the characters in the book. Willow, said friend, Luka, Taisy... we also meet Taisy's high school boyfriend, Ben, whom she abandoned when the Wilson craziness happiness. Even he's amazingly nice.
They're all so kind and amazing and introspective. Well, except for Wilson, who is a completely horrible person: even after you learn about his past, he's just an ass.

But it doesn't matter if the characters seem a little too nice, or things happen a little to easily. There's definitely adversity, and poor Willow is certainly put through the wringer in a short period in this book. You find yourself rooting for her (she's just so nice, dammit) and Taisy (she's just so feisty and kind, dammit!) and for their relationship(s). There's also a beautiful moment, where things sort of come full circle, and you find yourself amazed about de los Santos' writing all over again.

It's a pretty book, and a romantic book, and a slightly improbable book, but still a good read nonetheless. Rated 4 stars here, probably truly a 3.5 rating (there's a little de los Santos nostalgia that goes into that rating).

(Note: I received a free ebook copy of this novel from Edelweiss in return for a honest review.)

In a bit of a turn from de los Santos' romantic novel, I tried Amy Poehler's memoir, Yes Please. I wasn't sure how to feel about this book. In some ways, I appreciated that it was more serious than some of the other "funny people" memoirs going around. I am not a huge fan of books written by silly people full of silly things that pretend to tell the story of their life. What's the point? At least Amy makes an attempt to write a memoir, chronicling bits and pieces of her life and actually detailing true thoughts and feelings about things, rather than just jokey things that have no meaning. I found myself sort of rushing through some of the silly lists and spending more time on the actual writing, though some of the funny bits were good - fake acceptance speeches and the like.

The problem is that the book jumps around a lot and never really delves too much into anything. Not wanting to cover her divorce - okay, I get that. There is a really sweet chapter on her sons, which was lovely. You get a rough chronicle of how she became a kid from New England who wound up in New York by way of Chicago. But there's not a lot of detail. I also, selfishly, wish there had been more Tina Fey.

I enjoy that you get the impression that Amy is a deep person with deep thoughts - and isn't even perhaps always nice. She's not afraid to tell stories that don't necessarily flatter her. You get an idea of her as multifaceted person - actress, writer, mom, etc., and not just someone who tells funny stories. There are also some good stories that feature celebrities, which you are always looking for in a celebrity memoir. Finally, there's a fun bit annotated with notes by Parcs & Rec creator Mike Schur. He and Amy talk about a holiday gift Mike gave all his family and friends containing every email, text, and phone message he received during the Red Sox's successful World Series run in 2004. I was left thinking I want to read *that* book.

Anyway, the book just felt a little flat to me, as if it was missing something. It was a little disjointed in its presentation and content. Because it jumps the line between serious and funny, you're left without a full idea of who Amy is, but yet it's not funny enough to just make you laugh and forget all the other flaws.

I'm not exactly sure how I feel about Ian McEwan's The Children Act. Certainly a 360 degree turn from Poehler! I didn't particularly like it or dislike it. In the beginning, the novel seems to be the story of Fiona, a high up respected family court judge in London, and her husband, Jack, who comes to her, asking for an open marriage.

However, the story quickly drifts away from that thread and is pulled abruptly toward Fiona and her cases, particularly a 17-year-old boy, Adam, a Jehovah's Witness, who has leukemia. He needs a blood transfusion, which goes against his religion (and that of his parents). It's an interesting case, and Adam makes for an intriguing character (via the snippets we learn of him), but we never really get to understand quite why Adam grows to have such power over Fiona.

By the end of the novel, without revealing the ending, I felt a bit deflated, and left wondering why I'd read the story to begin with. It was certainly well written, but it seemed a bit pointless at times, and I didn't find Fiona or her husband that likable, and didn't get to learn enough about Adam or anyone in her other cases.

Last book of this group was Joyce Carol Oates' Jack of Spades. This book was certainly a page turner and a quick read, although I really just wanted it to be over.  Andrew J. Rush is a successful mystery author -- married with a wife and three grown children. He also secretly (not even known to his wife and children) writes under the pseudonym Jack of Spades - and these books are dark, violent thrillers.

The book starts with Rush receiving a court summons that a woman in nearby locale is accusing him of stealing - basically plagiarism. He feels threatened and slowly, the unbidden Jack of Spades within Rush starts coming out.

The book is peppered with Stephen King references and I don't typically read King's more dark novels, so I can't say if there's a comparison here. Overall, I didn't find the book scary, or even that psychologically interesting, but a bit stupid. While a character in a novel like this shouldn't be likeable, per se, you should have some sort of admiration for their cunning. Instead, I just found Rush annoying and stupid.

Oates provides us with a back-story that is supposed to explain Rush's pathology, but it seems thinly constructed. The whole premise just seems off. I can't imagine someone not picking up on this guy and his behavior, his wife not just walking out, his kids not just taking their mother away, etc. It was just not my cup of tea.

(Note: I received an advance ebook copy of this novel from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.)