Friday, September 30, 2011

Review: A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein

A Friend of the FamilyA Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those novels that snuck up on me and surprised me by how much I enjoyed it! I had no idea what the book was about until I began reading. This is a book that I want to be careful not to tell too much about in order to be sure that the future reader will experience the joy of watching this book unfold.

The novel itself is extremely well constructed. It's pacing is fantastic ... keeping you guessing while revealing just enough to keep you engaged and wanting more. The characters are well written and expertly developed over the course of the novel. They are well rounded - flawed, raw and incredibly, refreshingly human. Grostein did an exceptional job of writing the main characters voice - it can be difficult for women to write in an authentically male voice but she excels with it in this novel.

Grodstein's storytelling ability is stellar. Looking back over the novel, I'm amazed at how well she pulled it all together and brought the book to its conclusion. This is a novel about relationships and Grodstein does an amazing job of depicting those relationships as very true to life. The complex relationships and the way those relationships change is where this novel is so successful. This is a gripping tale about family and parental love. It goes to dark and twisty places but is very grounded in love.

I definitely recommend this book. There are some dark places in the book that can be difficult to read. Not scary or frightening but rather disturbing. But, I think that aspect of the novel was handled very well and is not in any way gratuitous. In fact, the story has to go to those places in order to get to the very heart of this novel.

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Review: Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell

Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of FriendshipLet's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Although I was not taken with this book, I completely understand how someone might be. I didn't seem to connect with the story in the way that it appears others have. I would even go so far as to say that I had to push my way through the book. I didn't feel myself connecting with the material so I was having to force myself through it at times.

Ultimately, this memoir was just ok for me. I can't even say that it was good. Yet, it doesn't feel bad, per se. Just nothing special. Nothing that really will stick with me once I put the book down.

Everything about this book had potential to hit me in the gut but it just seemed to fall short for me. I didn't connect with either of the women or their relationship. Neither of them or their journeys really came alive for me. The reading experience made feel as if I was watching a so-so movie that was constantly failing to make me FEEL anything. I'm reading about this intense friendship and the loss experienced by the author and just not feeling it. I should have been crying. I should have been devastated, given the events. Yet, I just wasn't feeling it. Which is simply disappointing and really made the reading of the book not particularly affecting.

Although there were small moments that I loved in the book - mostly thoughts on loss which spoke to me. Things that I wrote down to think about again later. One that comes to mind readily is Gail Caldwell's statement that "I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures." Wow. That really spoke to me. If only more of the book had spoken to me like those few sentiments. All in all, the writing and the language chosen just didn't do it for me. I felt it didn't live up to the events themselves. The events described in this book are amazing ... the way that these two women came together in friendship and changed each others lives so incredibly. That is fantastic ... however, the telling of those events in this book just missed the mark for me. I'm sorry that I didn't love it as so many others have.

I recommend it if you want to read about an intense friendship, one that is pretty amazing. I recommend it if you've lost someone special to you as there are great things in this memoir about loss and grieving. The bottom line is that most people that I know who have read it really loved it. Perhaps you will as well ...

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Buddy Read/Review of The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

I was recently given the opportunity to participate in a Buddy Read/Review with Carrie from Books and Movies! This is my first Buddy Read and I have had a great time working with Carrie on this. For our Buddy Read, we read  Tom Perrotta's new novel The Leftovers which was released on August 30th.  I had been wanting to read this novel from the moment that I'd heard about it because the concept sounded like something right up my alley! By the way, be on the lookout for a full review of the novel later this weekend!

As part of the Buddy Read/Review, Carrie and I each read the book and then sent one another a few questions about the book. Today we're both going to be posting our responses to the questions sent by the other person. Be sure to visit Carrie at Books & Movies to see her responses to the questions that I sent her. My answers to her questions are below, just after the book synopsis ... I'd love to hear what YOU thought about this book so please post in the comments of this post so that Carrie and I can continue the conversation with all of you!

Synopsis - (from the publisher's website)

What if—whoosh, right now, with no explanation—a number of us simply vanished?  Would some of us collapse? Would others of us go on, one foot in front of the other, as we did before the world turned upside down?  That’s what the bewildered citizens of Mapleton, who lost many of their neighbors, friends and lovers in the event known as the Sudden Departure, have to figure out. Because nothing has been the same since it happened—not marriages, not friendships, not even the relationships between parents and children. 

Kevin Garvey, Mapleton’s new mayor, wants to speed up the healing process, to bring a sense of renewed hope and purpose to his traumatized community. Kevin’s own family has fallen apart in the wake of the disaster: his wife, Laurie, has left to join the Guilty Remnant, a homegrown cult whose members take a vow of silence; his son, Tom, is gone, too, dropping out of college to follow a sketchy prophet named Holy Wayne.  Only Kevin’s teenaged daughter, Jill, remains, and she’s definitely not the sweet “A” student she used to be.  Kevin wants to help her, but he’s distracted by his growing relationship with Nora Durst, a woman who lost her entire family on October 14th and is still reeling from the tragedy, even as she struggles to move beyond it and make a new start.

With heart, intelligence and a rare ability to illuminate the struggles inherent in ordinary lives, Tom Perrotta has written a startling, thought-provoking novel about love, connection and loss.

Questions and Responses -

1.  Perrotta makes an interesting choice to not explain the Great Disappearance, and to keep the novel character-focused. What did you think of this? Did it bother you not knowing what the GD was?

All in all,  I really liked the fact that Perrotta didn't explain what really happened. It kept the novel focused on the aftermath which I think is a unique perspective. It would be so easy for someone to focus on the actual events but I think the more challenging perspective is the aftermath.  However, I will admit that there was a small part of me that, although acknowledging the good reasons for keeping things vague, REALLY wanted to know what his take of the actual events would have been!

2.  The book follows the stories of several characters after the GD. Which one was your favorite character? Why? Which was your least favorite and why?

I think my favorite character was Jill. She really jumped off the page for me and her journey was very relate able and interesting to me! I think her vulnerability combined with her adolescent ambiguity really spoke to me. I don't typically think about a book or a character after I close the cover of a book but I did find myself thinking back to Jill a few times since finishing the book. Something about her struck a chord with me.

I found Laurie to be the most disappointing character so I think she is my least favorite.  I didn't dislike her but I also didn't find her to be at all genuine. The character almost felt more like a plot device than a well rounded person. I still struggle with making sense of some of her choices, given what we know about her situation at the start of the book. And my reaction to her character got worse over the course of the book. I suspect that much of my reaction to the character was the result of deliberate decisions that Perrotta made in order to help explore the world of extremism.

I feel that I also have to mention Matt Jamison because he was a VERY close second to Laurie in terms of being my least favorite. His inability to believe he could possibly be left behind and his decision to call attention to all of the indiscretions of those who disappeared made him very unlikeable to me. I do understand the role he played in exploring the aftermath of the GD but I found myself reacting very negatively to him each time he popped up in the plot.

3.  What did you think of the theme of religion in the book?

The primary reason that I was interested in reading this book is to see what the fiction brought to light about faith and belief, particularly as it relates to religion. I appreciated how Perrotta explored these themes in the novel. Although I will say that I got a sense of where he fell in the 'believe or don't believe' camp, I don't think he shoved his personal beliefs down the readers throat which I appreciated. I found that a lot of the issues of belief and faith explored in the book did lean towards the side of stating that there are great perils in relying on outside structures for meaning in life (religious, political or otherwise). This is a sentiment that aligns closely with my own beliefs so perhaps that is why I was comfortable with the material and the leanings of the themes being explored.

I felt like there was a lot of material in the novel that really gave the reader the opportunity to explore belief and faith in new and different ways. I found myself once again thinking through my own personal beliefs as a result of the themes of this novel. Faith can be a very polarizing issue so I liked how Perrotta handles religion and its exploration in the novel. I will say that, by the end of the novel, much of my personal beliefs about faith were reinforced as a result of thinking that I did while reading the novel.

I am interested to see how someone who is a devout believer in a particular religion might feel about this book and its themes.  In my opinion, that would be a very interesting perspective to hear.

4.  There was such a huge variety of responses to the GD. I was especially intrigued by how Laurie, who hadn't lost anyone in her immediate family, had such an extreme reaction, changing her whole lifestyle, leaving her family. Did her reaction make sense to you?

Her reaction completely befuddled me. I just could not understand her decisions in the aftermath. They felt 'wrong' to me after all of the background that Perrotta offers about Laurie early in the novel. I'm assuming he was using her as a tool to show the potential extremism that can occur in the aftermath of a life changing event. And I guess, if that is the case, then she is exactly that. But, given the level of extremism she demonstrated in the novel (particularly in the latter sections of the novel), I was more irritated with her and her choices than anything. Despite my visceral reaction to her and her choices, I did like how Laurie's journey in the novel demonstrated so clearly how extremist groups can damage and heal people simultaneously as well as how easily good intention can morph into evil.

5.  This is my first book by the author. Have you read anything else by Tom Perrotta? If so, how did it compare to this one?

This is my first Tom Perrotta book as well. I've seen movies based on his books but I've never read anything by him. I really enjoyed this one so I have already picked up another of his novels The Abstinence Teacher, which I'm looking forward to reading. I like his mix of satire and insightful poignancy.

Okay, so there are my responses to Carrie's questions ... please tell us what you think about these questions (or anything else about the book) in the comments section! Looking forward to hearing what everyone thinks! Thanks and happy reading!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Review: The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson

The ReservoirThe Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Reservoir is a historical novel that is built around a true story that took place in Richmond, Virginia in 1885. It is obvious that the author has done exhaustive research into the original case and into 19th century Richmond, VA . He brings both alive in vivid detail! Goodreads describes this book as "a novel of lust, betrayal, justice, and revenge, The Reservoir ultimately probes the question of whether we can really know the hearts and minds of others, even of those closest to us." This is a really good description of the novel as a whole ... law, lust and deception are at the center of the story.

My feelings about this novel are a bit jumbled. I enjoyed it. I felt it was a good, solid read. But, it didn't capture my imagination in the way that I'd hoped. It was good but not great. Perhaps this is partly because the novel is loaded with ambiguity. by the way, if you’re looking for a mystery with solid resolution, then this book is not for you. You are not given answers, you are left with a lot of ways to look at the situations in the novel.

The writing is superb. John Milliken Thompson puts words together in ways that I found enchanting. I loved how the book felt like a mix of historical fiction and psychological thriller.
Given all of the things that I liked about this book, I haven't been able to pinpoint what it is that didn't take it from a good novel to a great one. I can't seem to put my finger on why it didn't completely wow me.

I definitely recommend this novel if you love well written historical fiction. And if Richmond, VA is a city that you care about at all, this is an excellent way to see the Richmond of 1855 come alive!
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Monday, September 26, 2011

Review: Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits by Jack Murnighan

Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest HitsBeowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits by Jack Murnighan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book ... I loved that I was able to dip in and out over time as I was able to read a bit. I liked to read what Jack Murnighan thought about each of these classics. His perspective on these novels is interesting. I didn't always agree with him but it was nice to see what he thought of the books that I love (and hate). There are a number of books on his list that I will probably never read so it was nice to get a taste of them through this book. Although they may not be what I'd like to spend time reading, I appreciated reading about the author's take on them. There were books that I was on the fence about that are now solidly on my TBR and others that are now solidly NOT on my TBR!

If you love books, I think you'll like this unique way of exploring some of the greatest books written. It's interesting to see what he picked as his top 50 and think about what I'd have included that he did not. Really interesting read!

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not a science fiction fan. I'm not a huge gamer. I'm not all of things that you'd think you'd have to be to enjoy this book. I wasn't sure going in that I was going to enjoy it. What a pleasant surprise! Wow. Just wow. I loved this book. Completely, totally and utterly loved it. Between the 80's references that took me straight back to my childhood and the unabashedly 'geeky' story, it was almost like coming home for me!

I love the world building that Ernest Cline has done so effectively in this novel. The characters just jump off the page, the world at large so familiar yet completely changed, and the great writing ... it all adds up to a fantastic, can't put it down read! I want to go back and read it again because it was so packed full of amazing things, that I'm sure I missed a few. I very rarely want to read a book a second time, given the size of my TBR list but this is an exception. This is, so far, my favorite book of 2011.

It might be a good idea to give a quick synopsis of the book (which I usually don't do in my reviews). This novel takes place in 2044, in a world that is essentially a wasteland. The main character (and most people in the world) spends most of his time in a MMO (massively multiplayer online) virtual reality game known as OASIS. Upon his death, the creator of this online game has decided to give away the game (and his financial empire) to the first person who can complete a quest created by him that takes place in OASIS. The plot entails the main character and a group of fantastic other characters working on completing the quest.

The entire premise of this novel was fantastic, believable and intriguing. The idea of a 'egg hunt' within an alternative reality - an interesting take on the idea behind Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory - is fantastic! All of the clues, riddles and puzzles were fascinating to me! I couldn't wait to get to the next one, to learn more about the world of Oasis and its creator. Halliday, Wade, Art3mis and the rest of the cast of characters came alive for me. I found the writing to be witty and multi-dimensional. I couldn't stop reading this novel. I wanted more and more and more. I was not happy when I reached the end and had to leave the world that Ernest Cline has created in this book.

The book is extremely easy to read and it's pacing is fantastic! It moved quickly and efficiently but it never felt rushed. Although technically a science fiction novel, the concepts of the book are easily understood and there isn't a lot of science fiction or any of the stuff usually associated with science fiction. It is in some ways science fiction for people who don't love science fiction. The endless 80s references and other 'geeky' references are fantastic if you're someone who likes that sort of thing. As a child of the 80s, I related to it. If you aren't a fan of the 80s, perhaps this aspect of the book might become tiresome.

I definitely recommend this novel. Without a doubt. Pick it up ... you will not regret it! As I said before, this may well be my favorite novel of the year! It's a great book!
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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Review: Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson

Before I Go to SleepBefore I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was highly recommended by a number of my bookish friends and the concept sounded amazing. This book is a thriller built around a woman who has a form of amnesia that causes her to wake each morning with no idea what happened before that morning. The concept alone was fantastic.

I found this book to be uneven - at times it was riveting and contained the kind of tension that you want in a thriller. However, at other times, it was slow and repetitive. Perhaps its inevitable for it to be repetitive, given the subject matter. But, for me, that aspect made the novel less successful than it could have been. The structure of the novel is one of the most impactful things about it - when it was GREAT, it was GREAT. When it was slow, it was excruciatingly slow. The lack of balance in those areas made this a less successful novel.

I think that S.J. Watson is a good writer and I liked the reading experience (with the exception of the slow bits and pieces). I liked the characters and felt compelled to see their journey through. I was eager to get to the 'big twist' which I think was done fairly well. It didn't come out of nowhere for me, it was fairly predictable. But, its predictability didn't make it bad for me. I still enjoyed the twist.  I did feel that the book, after the twist is revealed, seemed to lose steam. The rest of the novel felt forced to me. It felt as if the author just wanted to get on with it already or something.

All to say, I did enjoy this novel. I don't think it's a great novel but certainly worth reading if you like thrillers, particularly psychological thrillers. This isn't an action filled thriller but it is an examination of identity that is worth checking out!

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