24 November 2012

Book (P)Review: Period 8 by Chris Crutcher

Period 8 by Chris Crutcher is a pretty interesting tale of school and suspense and sociopaths.  I only read this book in tiny increments (TMI: I mostly read it in the smallest room in the house), so a few things that came as surprises to me probably wouldn't otherwise have done so had I been reading in larger than 5-page increments.

The tagline on the cover still doesn't make a lot of sense to me, even after finishing the book. "They told him it was safe. They lied."  While I know who "him" is, I have no idea what "it" is supposed to be.  Life? Swimming in cold water? Being a teenager? Falling in love? Talking openly and honestly among your peers because there may be a sociopath among them? All of the above? Dunno. And for that matter, who are "they?" The teachers? The parents? The cops? The mob?

That being said, I enjoyed this book for the various relationships in it, particularly those between Logs and his students.  He's a teacher on the verge of retirement, and he's trying to keep it real with his students every day during Period 8, a time when kids gather 'round and talk about whatever is on their minds, with the assurance that everything that is said during Period 8 stays in Period 8. But not all of his students are who they seem to be...

The dialogue lacks the snappiness of John Green and David Levithan and Sarah Rees Brennan, who write dialogue well, but they've not convinced me yet that there's a teen alive who talks the way their teens talk.  Chris Crutcher's dialogue is very real--these kids are both smart and confident, and they're not completely snark-free, but I feel their conversations could have been lifted wholesale from any prep school in the real world and transplanted into this novel.

It was around the page 230 mark that the book's adrenaline really ratchets up, and I'm SO HAPPY that this book is written in third person instead of 1st.  I think this might be the first YA book out of the last dozen or so that wasn't 1st person, present tense.  What's more, this might actually be a book that is as well suited for male readers as female ones--not a common occurrence in the world of YA.

So if you're interested in realistic teen fiction with relationship drama, the bizarre mood swings of adolescence, betrayals, tough guys, cool teachers, political and/or moral corruption, and parents who are hiding a secret or two of their own, give this one a shot.  No, really--it's good.

NB: This book will release in April 2013 from Green Willow Books, a division of Harper Collins.  I randomly picked up the ARC from our bookstore shelf because I wanted to read a YA that involved neither dystopias nor love triangles and hopefully would appeal to a male readership.  

22 November 2012

Book (P)Review: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

I find it interesting that within the course of two short weeks, I saw a film (the brilliant "The Intouchables") and read two books about wheelchair-bound patients and their caregivers, becoming just another instance of book synchronicity. One of the two novels was Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, whose previous book was the wildly popular (at least in the UK) The Last Letter From Your Lover. I said it once before, but it bears repeating: while I don't mind romance as a by-product in my fiction, I rarely turn to books where it is the raison-d'etre. This book is not only a romance, it's a tragic one, but that's not giving anything away if you've already read the back jacket (which proclaims that it's "a Love Story for this generation"). Which means, basically, that while it shares much of the same subject matter with "The Intouchables,"it lacks that film's pure joie de vivre.  Man, I am apparently all about using the French phrases today.

This novel should come with a warning: do NOT pick this book up unless you have a box of tissues by your side and several hours to spare. Because once you start reading it, you're not going to want to put it down, and once you do put it down, you're going to be a soggy, wet mess. Believe me, my cat Murray was quite concerned with my state of mind. Then again, anything that interrupts the administering of chin scratches concerns him.

Up until the motorcycle accident that made him a quadriplegic, Will Traynor was both a go-getter and a player--wealthy, handsome, charismatic, and a thill-seeker to boot.  Lou, on the other hand, is from an economically challenged working class family--bright enough to have gained university admittance, but required to join the workforce to help her family pay the rent when her sister gets pregnant and her father gets laid off. When the cafe where she's been working as a waitress for the last several years closes, she desperately accepts a six-month contact taking care of Will. Will and Lou couldn't be more different on the surface, so when they form an uneasy alliance that grows into the truest friendship either has ever known, nobody is more surprised than they are.

The catch, and of course there's a catch, is that Will and his mother are keeping a secret from Lou, and when she discovers what it is, she reacts with her characteristic passion, matched only by her pigheadedness.  But might Will's secret haunt Lou to the point she makes the biggest mistake of her life?

Let me clear: this is not a book with complicated twists and turns that will keep the reader guessing.  If you pick this book up to read, you will have a fair idea of the story-arc before you're even fifty pages into it, as it's the story itself that pulls you in; but the class issues, the family relationships, and the importance of having somebody to believe in you when you no longer believe in yourself give this book a heft that matches its heart.

NB: This book is already available in the UK, but it will be published in the US in January 2013 by Pamela Dorman Books, a division of Viking.  I read an advance reading copy of the book provided by my sales rep. 

21 November 2012

Book (P)Review: Just One Day by Gayle Forman

I was a big fan of both If I Stay and Where She Went, Gayle Forman's previous story pairings, and she is following the same formula this time around, too--but without the emotional heft--telling the story from the girl's perspective in one book and the boy's perspective in the sequel.

Allyson is on her Teen Tours! tour in England, a high school graduation gift from her parents, when she meets a handsome young Dutch Shakespearean actor.  They click immediately and spend a day and night together in Paris. After a simply marvelous and unforgettable time (in which she feels freer and more risk-taking than ever before in her life) Allyson thinks they're falling in love, but when she wakes up the next morning, Willem is missing.

Eventually convincing herself that he was just a player, she heads back to the US and to college, where she mopes for her entire freshman year. She can't make new friends easily and her former best friend from childhood drifts apart from her.  She also can't tell her parents that she's dropped pre-med classes and doesn't want to be a doctor, their plan for her since she was a girl.

She does enroll in a Shakespeare Out Loud class at the urging of the school counselor, where she finally makes her first college friend, the mercurial D'Angelo, and life at least starts to interest Allyson again, even if she doesn't feel quite successful at it. When she finally decides that she wants to go back to Paris to try to find Willem, she's able to get a bit more direction in her life, and the second half of the book is devoted to her finding a job to pay for French classes and her two-week trip back to France, then her actual search for Willem.

It's true that Allyson goes a bit Twilight-Bella-like with her moping after Willem's disappearance, but I was able to pardon her for it in the midst of her own identity crisis.  She has no idea who she is because all of her life she's been living her parents' dreams for her and not her own.  It's hard as a teen when you have to start re-evaluating and restructuring your relationship with your parents, not to mention your own relative unimportance in the wider world, and Forman covers it well.

Like Maureen Johnson's Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes (which is the most obvious comp), though, there's a metaphorical journey tied up in Allyson's physical journey back to Europe, and by the end of the book, she is able to definitely say that Shakespeare got it slightly wrong: it's how to be, not whether to be, that is the real question. The other major comp to this book is The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight for its exploration of first love and whether it's even possible after a single chance encounter.  This book doesn't blaze new paths, to be sure, but it covers old ground in a sweet and eminently readable way.

I apparently read through this book so quickly that I dogeared hardly any pages.  Here's a passage that I did make note of, the first description of D'Angelo : "He's one of two African American students in the room, though he's the only one sporting a huge halo of an afro covered in bejeweled barrettes, and bubble-gum-pink gloss on his lips. Otherwise, he's dressed like a soccer mom, in sweats and pink Uggs. In a field of carefully cultivated weirdness, he's a wildflower (197)."

NB: I read an Advance Reading Copy of this book that I got from our sales rep and it will be published by Dutton in January 2013.  The sequel, told from Willem's point of view, is slated for sometime in the fall of 2013.

11 November 2012

Virgin Gorda: Day 5

Sunrise through a screened door
It's hard to wake up on your last full day of vacation and feel excited.  Sure, you want to make the most of your last day, but it's difficult not to get bogged down with how little time you have left.  Breakfast is a casual buffet of fruit, eggs, toast, juice & coffee, and then we're off to Savannah Bay for the morning.  If we'd had our druthers, Spring Bay probably would have been our first choice, but with DH's arm still bandaged and tender, we opted not to make the short hike down to the beach, ducking boulders and tree branches along the way.

We were the only people on the beach when we first arrived, but the surf was much stronger this morning compared to our previous visit--related to the large storm that passed through overnight, we surmised. We set up our chairs under the sea grapes again; Melanie and I tried to snorkel while DH and Mom opted to read, but the visibility was pretty poor and Melanie wasn't comfortable swimming against the mild undertow.
DH, sporting his Guana cap and Guana shirt

Footprints in the sand...

Black sand patterns on Savannah Bay
After a while, DH and I took a walk and admired the black sand patterns on the far end of the beach. There was also a good bit of erosion at the point where the waves were strongest:
Erosion on Savannah Bay
Savannah Bay viewed through sunglasses
We walked back and sat down to read for a little while longer, enjoying the sound of the waves and being distracted by the chickens.  We made a few more pictures and then I did my little bathing suit change under a sarong before heading to lunch. But first we stopped at one of the lookouts on the Nail Bay road to make yet more photographs, and then we saw the adorable pigs not far from Heavenly Hog.
Mom photographing the view
Love this little piggy!
Leverick marina
The $18 nachos platter
Since we hadn't spent any time at Leverick Bay, we chose to lunch at their beach bar. It wasn't crowded but the service was still fairly slow.  We shared a variety of appetizers, including my mom's favorite nachos (they better have been good at $18 a pop!) and in general enjoyed the laidback atmosphere over our meal.

Talk about multipurpose!
Melanie at Leverick
After that, we made a few photos and then went back to Euphoria to relax for cocktails before dinner. We had time to take a swim, too, so I kicked back with the floating donut ring for once and just floated around.  There's something absolutely relaxing about zoning out, your legs sprawled below the water, and gently floating where the current takes you. Before long, though, we had to clean up for an early dinner, as we planned to visit the copper mine before catching the sunset at CocoMaya.

Main part of Virgin Gorda seen from the Copper Mine
It took close to 30 minutes to drive from Leverick to the Copper Mine and by the time we got there, the sun was behind the ridge, so the light wasn't great on site, but it did throw a lovely, golden color on the main part of the island when we looked back in that direction.

Close up shot of same structure above 

Different angle of same structure above
Melanie and I went down the somewhat-precarious stairs to make photographs while DH and Mom stayed closer to the top.  The ground was uneven and after a certain point there was no rail to hold on to, so they made lots of photos up top.

The uneven steps down to the lower level
Close-up shot of the copper-streaked rock. 
Zoom photo of the goats across the water on the cliff
My guess is that we were there for around 30 minutes or a little less, and then we drove back to town for cocktails and dinner at CocoMay.  We had liked the atmosphere so much there two nights before that we made reservations on the spot, requesting a particular table. Or so we thought.  When we showed up, they were surprised to see us and didn't have a reservation down at all. Oh, well. They had room for us, but they had several tables that night, including one large party with a few small children, so we had a less-than-ideal table location.

That's one high bar. It almost comes up to my husband's shoulders.
Still, the atmosphere was just as fantastic as we remembered, and the bar was still empty when we arrived, so we grabbed the swing and two bar stools and hied ourselves up.  No, seriously, it's a really tall bar and even with the "mounting block" beneath the swing it was a little difficult getting up, and this was before the first round of cocktails.
Looking down at my feet on the "mounting block"
Josey is quite petite, so she's the perfect photographic foil for the tall bar.
Cocktail menu at CocoMaya
But oh, what marvelous cocktails they were.  They definitely get my top nod for any cocktail menu I've ever seen for both creativity and clever twists on current trendy drinks, edging out both Veya and The Sand Bar on Anguilla, my previous favorites. The Cohiba is one of the best cocktails I've ever enjoyed (fresh fruit & mint but not too sweet), and one that I could drink all night, and the Tamarind & Chili Margarita was among the most interesting burst of flavors I've ever experienced. One was enough for me, but it was truly excellent. If you like your cocktails on the sweet side, I definitely recommend the Strawberry Mule, the Mango Mojito, or the Cinnamon Girl, all three of which at least one person in our group ordered (and I sampled).

Mom and I are on the swing here

DH and Melanie, bellied up to the bar next to us
We enjoyed two rounds of cocktails at the bar  and visiting with the lovely Josey (who entertained and educated us about island flora, particularly local herbs) before heading to the table.  I chose not to leave to make sunset photographs because my bug bites from two nights ago were still irritating me and I didn't want to add to their numbers, but I did climb upstairs and make a few photographs of the upper level, which was closed off for the night but had a very comfortable-looking lounge area and almost a private dining room.

Looking down on Melanie & DH at the bar
The upstairs lounge area
The semi-private dining balcony upstairs
Beautifully set table at CocoMaya
This seemed to be the secondary dining space
We decided to order a smattering of tapas for the table. Unfortunately for my mom, the menu was full of items she'd never heard of, much less eaten, before, so they challenged her palate but she gamely tried most of the items we ordered for the table. We ordered the Fire & Ice ceviche, the duck confit nachos (that were more like wantons), one of the rolls of sushi, edamame, and the curried snapper.

Curried snapper

Fire & Ice ceviche
Duck confit nachos (really, wantons)
Virgin Gorda Roll
I'm sad to say that the setting definitely outclassed the food.  It wasn't bad, mind you, but it wasn't the fine cuisine that we had been expecting from the rest of our experience, either. But I didn't find the prices out of line like many reviewers (on TripAdvisor and other travel forums) have. For five tapas, eight (I think) cocktails, two desserts, and five glasses of wine, the bill came to $198, plus additional tip.  We met the sweetest honeymoon couple, Quinn & Benjamin Oglesby, who had just arrived on Virgin Gorda after a few days on St. John and a few days on Jost, so we sent two drinks over to their table, too.  And Melanie was a real sweetheart for picking up our bill on the last night.

The honeymooners

Chocolate Mousse

Signature dessert trio
I'm not a huge chocolate fan, but I enjoyed my two bites of the chocolate mousse.  The dessert trio was pretty interesting conceptually, but not quite as successful in practice.  We all loved the coconut creme brulee and wished it had been on the regular dessert menu in a full portion, but the sorbet tasted just like mince meat pie but with extra spices.  Not unpleasant, exactly, but a little too intense, and the two biscuits were forgettable enough that I can't remember what was in them, but I do recall that we only ate one of them between us.

If and when CocoMaya lays out food that is commensurate with the rest of the dining experience, it will be a force to be reckoned with on Virgin Gorda.  It's hard to believe that the island has been lacking this kind of place for so long, but with a congenial bar scene, a fabulous cocktail menu, interesting dinner menu, and a great location in a beautiful setting, I think there is much potential here.

One last shot of Mom and me in the swing
Savannah Bay again

10 November 2012

Book Review: The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

Warning: This review of Nell Leyshon's The Colour of Milk will be chock full o' spoilery goodness.  If you'd prefer not to know about finer plot points and what happens in the last 50 pages, don't read much further beyond this sentence, in which I tell you that the author has created an original and compelling voice that is the perfect counterpoint to the better-known drawing room narratives of (or set in) the Regency era.

Each section of the book begins, "this is my book and i [sic] am writing it by my own hand," and thus the reader comes to know our protagonist, Mary, who tells us more than once in her first person narrative that her hair is the colour of milk.  She is a teenager of indeterminate age when the novel opens in 1830, born with a bum leg, possessed of a backtalking mouth and something like an inability  to speak without giving offence. Her mother, three older sisters, and most especially her father have no use for her at all beyond the hard work they can get out of her, and as a farmer's daughter, there seems to be no end to such work--even to the point where she is forbidden to sit down during the day unless she is milking the cows.

The one source of kindness she knows in life is from her grandfather, a once-robust man whose legs have been crushed and who has been reduced to being a permanent invalid. Mary's father is a man of violent tempers who thinks no more of beating his wife and daughters than he would have thought of whipping his oxen if they weren't plowing properly. Mary herself is clearly possessed of a native intelligence that comes from close observation of her natural world and reflection thereof, though utterly uneducated and illiterate. Thus, she knows exactly what is happening one night when she wanders through the barnyard and sees one of her sisters copulating with the vicar's son, but she has no real idea of what social consequences could arise.

It comes with much displeasure but not much surprise when her father tells her one night that he has essentially sold her into slavery at the vicarage: Mary will leave home to work for the vicar, the vicar will pay her father.  Because, y'know, that's fair. Life turns out to be not quite as awful at the vicarage; Mary actually is treated mostly with kindness, thanks to the vicar's wife who values her very much. But the fact that it is not her choice to be there rankles her and her resulting impertinence gets her in trouble more than once.

Okay, here is the second spoiler alert.  If you keep reading on from this point, don't say I didn't warn you.

The thing about being a woman in the first half of the 19th century is that you are at the mercy of the men in your life.  It's bad enough if you're like Elizabeth Bennet, who at least is assured of her value within the family sphere; if the western world's favorite heroine had been assaulted during the course of Pride & Prejudice, we know that her family and the neighborhood, and most importantly, the law would have taken up her cause.

Not the case if you're born the fourth daughter to an impoverished and illiterate farmer in the west of England. In this way, the author aligns herself with the long literary tradition of heroines who are not only at the mercy of the men in their lives, but the victims of the men's perversity.  The very figures who should have been most protective of Mary, namely her father and the vicar, and the ones who abuse their position over and over.

When the vicar's wife succumbs to her weak heart, it's not long after that the vicar dismisses the second household servant and invites Mary into his study to drink tea with him on a nightly basis.  There he  takes the first steps in teaching her to read using The Holy Bible, and once the indecipherable black code resolve itself into recognizable letters, Mary is hooked on learning more.  Unfortunately, the vicar is hooked on Mary and utterly unhampered by any scruples that would prevent his preying on a young woman in his care. He starts touching her and sneaking into her room at night, claiming loneliness as his right to rape her, in exchange for teaching her reading and writing.

Mary decides to accept the exchange and never puts up any resistance to his unwanted fumblings until the day she decides she has learned enough from him and no longer needs to participate in his sordid quid pro quo. The vicar seems truly bewildered at her decision. One can practically hear his inner monologue: "You mean it wasn't good for you, too?" But no matter, he forces her anyway, and this time with true violence in his hands and vengeance in his heart: how dare she make this difficult for him?  Doesn't she know who he is?  He's the goddamned vicar, for crying out loud, and he deserves her respect, nay her obedience, no matter how depraved his demands.

Little does he know that Mary, good farm-raised girl that she is, has a wiry strength and an emotional detachment when it comes to the dispatching of animals. Little is he aware that in the pocket of the apron she was wearing when he raped her for the last time, there was a wire for cutting hard cheese.  Little does he suspect she would ever use it to garrote him when he passes out from post-coital rapal exhaustion.

Of course, he can go to the grave resting in the easy assurance that no court of law would ever find in Mary's favor for his murder, and that is what makes this book the utter counterpoint to the Regency novels we know and love. Every time I sit down to revel once more in the exploits of Eliza Bennet or the Dashwood sisters (and I do love them), my readings will forever be altered, because for every Miss Bennet or Miss Dashwood, I fear there were hundreds more of girls like Mary.

NB: I read an ARC of this book, which is already available in the UK and will be published in January 2013 in the US by Harper Collins. I would also like to thank my coworker, Caitlin Caulfield, for planting the seed that Mary's story was the darker side of the same literary coin as Austen's novels.