30 August 2013

Ivy and Bean meets Love Story?! A Book Review of Maybe One Day by Melissa Kantor

Warning: Ahead there be spoilers. Sort of.  If you're not at all intuitive when it comes to reading the summaries found on the jacket flap of books, that is.

What can you say about a 17-year-old who dies? That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Ballanchine and Tchaikovsky. And Serge Gainsbourg. And me.

Now that would have been the perfect opening for this book, but apparently Melissa Kantor didn't want to invoke Love Story with her new YA novel, Maybe One Day.

It wasn't until I read this book that I realized that there is a serious dearth of YA novels that treat female friendship as a primary focus. The closest thing I could come up with was The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, but those are less about the collective friendship and more about the individual adventures of the girl wearing said pants. So help me out here.  What are the great books about female friendship that are aimed at the teen audience? It seems that these days we're either dealing with romance (paranormal or otherwise) or we're dealing with dystopian love triangles.  All of which I'm happy to read, to varying degrees, but why aren't there more books out there that are paeans to friendship?

Because honestly, to describe this book, I either have to say that it's Ivy & Bean meets Love Story, which has a serious squick factor, or I have to be cumbersome and say that this is The Fault In Our Stars, minus the romance, the book-within-a-book subplot, and the snarkier-than-thou dialogue.

Zoe and Olivia have been best friends for ages, inseparable at school and in the corps de ballet for younger dancers at the NYBC. These girls have big dreams and big ambition to see them through. When right before junior year, they're released from the corps, they think that it is the worst thing that could happen to them.  Then a few weeks into the school year, Olivia gets diagnosed with leukemia.

This book could so easily downshift into melodrama and simply remain there until the end, but I think that Kantor handles the cancer crisis adeptly and realistically.  Zoe and Olivia have an amazing friendship, and that really upstages the cancer for much of the book.  Yes, there is certainly some melodrama, but it's entirely warranted--this is a book about teenagers, after all, and just how would you feel if your own best friend had cancer?

The writing here is solid, and so are the secondary characters.  Olivia's mom, devoutly religious and perfect stay-at-home mom that she is, could so easily have been drawn as a brittle Stepford wife, but she's not.  I also loved Stacy, the insufferably perky cheerleader who could have been terribly shallow but turned out to have surprising heart.  And Zoe's parents, who were tremendously supportive of her but never allowed her to use Olivia's illness as a crutch or excuse to behave badly. And Calvin, the hunky jerk Olivia has a crush on, but who is also best friends with her older brother and helps out the family by playing with their young twin boys.

And, of course, there's Zoe.  Zoe is one of the most realistically drawn teens I've encountered in YA. She breaks my heart.  Zoe is incredibly bright, insecure, loyal, misguided, devastated, annoying, sympathetic, emotional, and droid-like.  In other words, she's a teenager. She says smart things and does dumb things in equal measure.  She gets drunk and makes out with Olivia's crush at a party and then lies to Olivia about it, but she also plans a spectacular birthday celebration with Olivia that passes muster even for Olivia's germaphobic mother. She is fiercely protective and helpless and frustrated; she's no good at all with kids, and she's afraid to dance now, but she still winds up teaching Zoe's volunteer ballet class to inner city kids in Newark when Zoe is too sick to continue. She is complicated and overwhelmed and oh, my goodness, just read this book, will you?

I definitely cried while reading this book, but it was in an entirely satisfying way. I recommend Maybe One Day to all fans of YA and to adult readers of what my coworker calls "relationship fiction."  Or, you know, if you happen to like good books. 

NB: This book will be published in March 2014 by Harper Teen. I read an advance reading copy that was mailed to my store.

27 August 2013

Book Review: Longbourn by Jo Baker

Most books that tout themselves as "This" meets "That" inevitably disappoint the fans of "This" and/or "That."  So when I heard that Longbourn was a book where Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey, I sure was skeptical. "Read this," said my sales rep.  "Maybe," replied I. But I dutifully tucked it into my book bag and took it home with me. About one week later, when I was floundering between books, I decided to take Longbourn to bed and two hours later I had devoured half of the book. I reckon my sales rep was right.

I should say right now that if you're simply looking for more Mr. Darcy, this is definitely not the book for you.  While it's true that much of the action of this book mirrors the drama of Pride and Prejudice, it's strictly the backstage version of that great story.  We see almost as little of the Bennet family in this book as we see of the Bennet family's servants in Pride and Prejudice. And when this book is compared to Downton Abbey, it's solely the below-stairs part of that great show that invites the comparison.

The third person narration centers around Sarah, a maid in the Bennet household who is treated decently by both the family and by Mr. & Mr. Hill, the primary servants. The prose makes a good effort at passing for period writing, which means the reader gets the best of both worlds: a more linear and straightforward sentence structure of modern narrative, combined with all of the charming archaic language not commonly found outside of Regency novels. In other words, there is nothing glaringly contemporary about the writing, which is one of the greatest downfalls of historical fiction, in my considerable estimation.

Beyond that, the writing is actually quite good.  Not necessarily of the "I want to read these passages over and over for their sheer beauty" persuasion, but of the more subtle "this writing is carrying me along quite beautifully through the story without jarring me out of it with any language missteps" variety. It is consistent, occasionally elegant, and always imbued with the flavour of the period.

There's also an earthiness about the book lacking in Austen, for poor Sarah must deal with those things in life with which the Bennet girls would never sully their minds or hands. One instance rendered quite well in the book, pertains to that famous scene where Elizabeth Bennet walks to Netherfield across muddy fields, dirtying her petticoats and earning the admiration of Mr. Darcy: "If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often though, she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them." Indeed.

Still, life is generally good for Sarah: she has a position in a modest country home, and though her mind fantasizes about escaping, she is realistic enough to know that striking out on her own for London could be the ruination of her, for how little she knows in the way of the world.  And so she toils on, guiding young Polly the scullery maid in the ways of the household, and forming her mind by borrowing books from Mr. Bennet's library, when one day a mysterious young man blows in seemingly on the wind.  In a place where most young men without fortune have been conscripted for the Napoleonic wars, James stands out, and Sarah takes it upon herself to discover the enigmatic past of the new footman and learn why the Bennets might hire him without a reference.

To say much more would be spoilerific, but I will say this: Mr. Bennet harbors a dark secret from his past, George Wickham plays not just the rake but a sadistic and pedophilic one,  and Sarah has miles to go before she sleeps.  If you are any kind of reader of historical fiction, this book should land on top of your To Be Read pile, regardless of your feelings about Pride and Prejudice. I prefer to think of Longbourn as a terrific companion piece to all of Austen's novel, showing the behind-the-scenes drudgery of daily life for all of those people not fortunate enough to have been born above stairs.

NB: I think this book is poised to be a big book for the fall publishing season here in the US.  It's already been published to great acclaim in the UK and Knopf will bring out the American edition in October.  

26 August 2013

Book Review: Someone Else's Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson

I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to attend a publisher dinner in Boston sponsored by William Morrow publishing.  These things are generally a lot of fun--or at least they are when I don't arrive late and a trio of drunk librarian bookblocks me (kinda like cockblocking, but with bookish things), but this one was especially fun for a variety of reasons: my husband was able to come with me as my date, I got to chat briefly with a Rhode Island bookseller I've been wanting to meet, I knew two of the authors personally (Beth Ann Fennelly and Tommy Franklin, the most gorgeous literary couple you could ever wish to meet), and I came away wanting to read an author whose books I've never paid attention to before.  In other words, that night for me was all winning, all the time.

So, Joshilyn Jackson...As I mentioned, I'd never read her before.  But then she walked into the room and started talking about her new book and kinda made me wonder why my head had been up my ass for so long.  This woman is funny.  Damn funny.  And smart.  And did I mention the funny?  She's also Southern, so when she sat down across from me, we got our drawl on, much to the amusement (and possible dismay) of the Yankee booksellers surrounding us.

Someone Else's Love Story is very much a relationship book.  Not necessarily a romance book, because just as much of the time it's about the relationship between a parent and a child or two best friends from childhood. Since most of the fiction I read could open with the line, "It was a dark and literary night," this book was something of a revelation. It's snappily written without necessarily being literary, and though there are some darker moments, it is, overall, a lighter read. I also think that children are particularly difficult to write well in books for adults, but Jackson succeeds on that front.

There are two narrators in this book: A first person narration from Shandi, who is young mother to little Natty, best friend to Walcott, and daughter of a whacked out and divorced set of parents.  Then there's a third person narration telling the story of William, a genetics scientist who is somewhere on the autistic/Asperger's spectrum and grieving from the loss of his wife and little girl from a car crash.   Thank goodness his own best friend, Paula, is there to help pick up the pieces.

One year to the date after said car crash, William and Shandi cross paths in a Circle K during an armed robbery, an event that binds them together for the rest of the novel. The moment William puts himself directly between Natty and the barrel of the gun, Shandi falls for him. Nobody is happy about this, least of all Shandi's friend Walcott or William's friend Paula.  In the mean time, Shandi and Natty have moved out of her mother's place in the country to move into her father's townhouse in, well, town in an effort to be closer to her school--she's gone back to school to finish her degree after taking time off for Natty's birth.

Amidst the trauma of being held at gunpoint and living in the city again, Shandi makes the decision to enlist William's help in discovering the boy who sexually assaulted her when she was in high school.  Here's where it gets a bit complicated.  You see, technically Shandi was a virgin when she gave birth to Natty.  Yes, she'd been assaulted, but her would-be rapist got his jollies on, er, prematurely and thus the virgin birth.

Anxieties, middle class mayhem, a Molotov cocktail, and unconventional love letters ensue. In the end, the author throws a couple of twists (one of which I actually did not see coming).  I loved this book up until the last 40 pages or so, and then I downshifted into merely liking it, but I have to say, this was one of those books that kept distracting me whenever I wasn't reading it. This book definitely wasn't my usual read, but I'm awfully glad that I broke through and discovered this author. Her writing is infused with warmth and humor, and who says a book where nothing truly terrible happens is a bad thing?  (Well, Cormac McCarthy probably says that...)

Here is an excerpt from her acknowledgements, which is a fairly representative sample of her writing. I kind of love this, not least because she thanks booksellers like me and uses the word "posse":
 I cannot function as a human, much less as a writer, without the following four posses: My reader posse: That's pretty much you, Person Who Bought This Book.  You are letting me keep this job I love.  Thank you. If you're one of those passionate and miraculous bookstore handsellers or big-mouthed, wonderful readers who recommend my books to other people, then I feel so warmly toward you, we should probably make out a little.
See what I mean?  Funny stuff.  She goes on to thank her writer posse, her family posse, and her Jesus posse, and immediately ends with "Shalom, y'all."  Joshilyn Jackson is a person I want to know.  And maybe make out with a little.

NB: This book will be published in December 2013 by William Morrow. I read an ARC that I received upon my request. 

21 August 2013

Book Review: Uninvited by Sophie Jordan

I picked up the advance reading copy of Sophie Jordan's Uninvited to read because the first sentence of the description reads: "When Davy Hamilton tests positive for the Homicidal Tendency Syndrome, aka 'the kill gene,' she loses everything."  Sold!  As someone who was once shunned by my church group for having SATANIC TENDENCIES (I kid you not)*, I knew I wanted to read about Davy.

Big mistake.

Davy, short for Davina, is a musical prodigy AND beautiful AND fairly smart AND popular AND wealthy AND in love with her perfect boyfriend. She's also a pretty nice person.  In other words, she's your typical Mary Sue. Until one day she's uninvited from her prestigious prep school (because it's too posh to expel anybody) for carrying a particular gene.  The US has been overrun with violent crime and they've isolated said gene and are now in the process of rounding up everybody who has it. Most carriers are being put in concentration camps.  Carriers with special talents are put into boot camps to become assassins for the government.  Guess which one Davy qualifies for? If Davy were a more interesting character, that might sound interesting, right? Good jumping off point for a new dystopian series and all that.

Unless your mindsent tends more towards the Bella-from-Twilight-only-romance-can-save-me-girls-aren't-as-good-as-boys brand of thinking, skip this one. This book had tremendous potential but lacked all of the following: subtlety, follow-through on the most interesting parts , a strong female lead, and anything that could pass for character development. Davy is one of the most preposterous characters I've ever met.  Her thought process is embarrassingly shallow and her take on gender equality would have been progressive had this book been written 30 years ago. Why the author thought it would be reasonable for Davy to still be in regular school at the age of 17 when she sat down to a piano at the age of three and could miraculously play a Chopin piece that she'd heard once before, in an elevator (in other words, probably Chopin Muzak and not actually Chopin), I couldn't say.  In fact, Davy's planning to move to New York to attend Juilliard once she finished her senior year at the posh school, but there's nothing about her or her parents in this book that makes me think this character wouldn't have had a private tutor and gone to Juilliard at the ripe old age of, say, 12.

The book is also narrated in first person, present tense, which is the most annoying POV for me.  Your miles may vary on that one. But first person present tense largely depends on the tell, not show brand of storytelling and you can never, EVER get into the mind of a narrator the way you can with third person.

I'm sure non-particular readers of all ages will love this one.  I daresay I would have liked it as a teenager. But Davy is so insipid and two dimensional that I actually laughed out loud while reading what passes for her inner thoughts and musings.  Being stuck in her head for a few hundred pages? Not a treat.  Which makes it all the more extraordinary that I finished this book (albeit with heavy skimming), but I did it for you, gentle reader, so that you might escape this claptrap and read something of value instead.

* It was a Southern Baptist church I attended on Sunday evenings because practically the entire small town went there.  I went to an Episcopal church on Sunday mornings (which I also kinda hated,  but they didn't put me in the center of a circle to pray for me, so there's that), which probably qualified as a Satanic tendency in small town Mississippi in the 1980s. That, and my preference for wearing black, sleeping late, and listening to the Dead Milkmen were apparently enough to clinch the Satanic Tendencies of the Year award for me.  I wish I were making this up.

NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book that was sent to my store.  It will be published by Harper Teen in 2014.

P. S. Happy birthday, Mom!

20 August 2013

Book Review: Gulp by Mary Roach

If you're looking for a work of serious non-fiction, or if you need a central driving narrative, keep on looking.  But if you like your nonfiction on the lighter side, with plenty of fascinating facts thrown in, and better yet, if you're not squeamish about humor derived from bodily functions, rush right out to pick up a copy of Mary Roach's latest work, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.

In case the cover doesn't spell it out for you, Mary Roach's writing tends to the irreverent. I'd read one of her previous books (Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers) and so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect with this one: lots of biology, quirky research and some gross-out factors. I picked up this one to read on vacation a couple of months ago, and while it is not the kind of book that I can read straight through--I need a true narrative for that--I loved reading this one a few chapters at a time and feeling both enlightened and entertained simultaneously.

Roach (and one feels that growing up with this surname certainly was instrumental in developing the author's sense of humor) introduces the reader chapter by chapter to the entire digestive tract of the human body, soup to nuts, as it were, beginning with the relationship between scent and flavor/taste and ending with the excreta, with diverting stops in between for saliva, the art of chewing, and stomach acid, among other things. Her style is to jump right in and get involved with her research, whether that means sampling the muktuk (uncooked narwhal skin) offered by her Inuit hosts ("exquisite") or bearing the moderate discomfort involved in viewing her own appendix or ileocecal valve through modern surgical techniques.

Here's one sample of her trademark humor that doesn't involve any ick-factors: "Animals' taste systems are specialized for the niche they occupy in the environment...This includes the animal known as us. As hunters and foragers of the dry savannah, our earliest forebears evolved a taste for important but scarce nutrients: salt and high-energy fats and sugars. On the African veldt, unlike at the American food court, fats, sugar, and salt were not easy to come by. That, in a nutshell, explains the widespread popularity of junk food. And wide spreads in general."

This book is many things, but foremost it is fascinating, and that more than makes up for the occasionally off-putting sections that I don't recommend reading within an hour of eating.  Roach concludes, almost poetically, "Most of us pass our whole lives never once laying eyes on our organs, the most precious and amazing things we own. Until something goes wrong, we barely give them a thought. This seems strange to me. How is that we find Christina Aguilera more interesting than the inside of our own bodies? It is, of course, possible that I seem strange. You may be thinking, Wow, that Mary Roach has her head up her ass. To which I say: Only briefly, and with the utmost respect."

NB: I read an advance readers copy of this book provide to me at my request from my sales rep.  This book is published by W. W. Norton. 

19 August 2013

Book Review (in brief): The Rathbones by Janice Clark

Boy, howdy, but I am having a dickens of a time making myself sit down and write book book reviews.  I took a bit of a book review hiatus when writing up my travel experiences earlier this summer and now it's like pulling teeth to get me to write one. Time to get back in the saddle and stop grousing!

I met Janice Clark at a Doubleday dinner in Boston back in June, and once I learned that her book had been edited by Alison Callahan, editor of The Night Circus, I knew I would read her book.  The Rathbones is marketed as a novel that combines elements of Moby-Dick with an American Odyssey, and I definitely agree, as far as that goes.  This is the story of a seafaring family, beginning with the tyrannical but brilliant patriarch, Moses Rathbone, and ending with the youngest generation, narrated by his great-great-great granddaughter, fifteen year old Mercy Rathbone.

Mercy tells a first person narrative, beginning with a brief history of her family.  Her father has been whaling at sea for so many years that suitors have started coming 'round the family home to woo her mother. When Mercy hears a mysterious and haunting snippet of music wafting down from the widow's walk one night, she doesn't understand what she sees: her mother in congress with the Man In Blue, who chases her back down the widow's walk. Mercy's narrow escape from the Man In Blue marks the beginning of her journey in which she sails beyond the horizon with her uncle Mordecai. It also marks the beginning of her journey to learn and understand the peculiar history of her family.

Unlike the two classics from which Clark borrows most heavily, she writes not in a singular, straightforward narrative, but in two timelines that double back on each other until they run together. This, more than anything else, is what was unsuccessful for me as a reader.  We get Mercy's current story interwoven with the stories of previous generations of Rathbones and while it is supposed to be epic in scope, this doubling back on the storytelling lends it a cramped and exasperating feel.  There are high sea adventures, polygamy, wife-sharing, abductions, secrets uncovered, covenants betrayed, and hidden identities revealed, but by the time most of these things happened, I was already a little disconnected from the story.

That being said, this is a very solid debut novel, and I think it would feel magical for the right reader, though I am not that person. Beyond the obvious model of Homer's Odyssey, Clark clearly knows her ancient texts, interweaving elements of Greek mythology and tragedy in a deft manner, including multiple instances of deus ex machina and not a few fairy tale or fable-like tropes (fratricide, foundlings, or sentient crows, anybody?). In today's parlance, those are simply not my jam. I tend to prefer either straight-on fantasy elements or realism and not novels that straddle both worlds equally.

NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book, given to me at my request. It is available in the US from Doubleday. Whose insignia, incidentally, fits this book perfectly:

06 August 2013

Book Reviews: Two Travel Memoirs

On my vacation earlier this summer, I packed up two travel memoirs for reading, one of which was by an author whose previous work I loved and another by a new-to-me author.  Though I did a test drive of both books by reading the first couple of chapters, both ended up being disappointing. 

The first one, The Turk Who Loved Apples and Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World by Matt Gross, wasn't really a travel memoir at all. It was a memoir about being a travel writer, but not really a memoir about travel.  There was no real narrative drive to the book, and the writing felt to me like it was largely copied & pasted from other sources and thrown together with no form to give it cohesion.  I'd even go so far as to say that it approached being a book about the philosophy of travel, and this author certainly has an ax to grind with both backpackers and luxury travelers. He was, for quite some time, the "Frugal Traveler" for The New York Times, during which he was paid to travel on a shoestring budget.  Which apparently is very different kind of travel from the backpackers whose grunge seems to litter the world, in Gross's estimation. 

There were parts of his book that resonated with me, and they are the things that I suspect would resonate with many solo travelers with little experience outside of the first world: "Money and experience can insulate you from calamity, but never perfectly; when it comes down to it, you are responsible for your own happiness. Are you ready for that kind of responsibility? I wasn't always--but I am now, I think (9)." And then this: "Guilt overwhelmed me...but guilt is the ultimate province of the thinking traveler. As a citizen of a wealthy, mostly functional country, you can't see what goes on in poorer corners, or meet people with lives truly out of their control, without in some way feeling responsible. So what do you do (244)?"

This ultimately was not a good fit for me. I wanted a book that took me on an armchair adventure but I ended up with an author who was more interested in reminiscing the way he felt in different places at different times of his life than actually sharing with the reader what he did, and where and when.

The second travel memoir, Headhunters On My Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost Story by J Maarten Troost, also ended up being a disappointment because my expectations were not in align with what he delivered. Troost's prose style has changed since his first, and quite excellent, travel memoir (The Sex Lives of Cannibals) that made me think he was going to be the next Bill Bryson--with a deft combination of humor, personal narrative, and travel.  His new book, however, would be more accurately labeled: My Addiction and Me, With a Side Helping of Travel, But With All Points Leading Back to My Addiction.

Which is obviously fine if I'd known that ahead of time, but it was not what I had signed up for. Troost takes us on a new series of South Pacific adventures, traveling in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson, but he also takes us on a more intimate journey: his own recovery from alcoholism.  Unlike his three previous travel memoirs, where he plants himself in one country (Kiribati, Fiji, China) and then engages the reader with  pure nuggets of travel gold entwined with clever bits of humorous commentary, Troost flits about in this book from island to island, never landing on one long enough to give a satisfactory portrait. What we do get is countless references to his Alcoholism and his Difficulty Moving Past It. To wit, here's a passage regarding Gauguin and Tahiti. Sort of. As I said, all roads lead to Troost's addiction: 

He, too, has a museum here...complete with a recreation of a fishing pole dangling from a second story open window, which Gauguin used to fetch his bottles from a well. This, I think, was meant to convey something charming and rascally about Gauguin. Of course, what I saw was the ingenious solution to that most intractable of problems confronting the alcoholic--stairs. They are a fucking nightmare when you're fucked up. You think it's a coincidence that most of us end up in a double-wide trailer instead of a fifth-floor walk up? No, that's what passes for forethought among junkies and drunks (124-125).
See what I mean?  If you're looking for a memoir about recovery, this would be a fine one to read.  If you enjoy memoirs in general, and humorous ones in particular, this could be the book for you. But if you're looking for the Next Great Armchair Adventure, consider skipping this one. 

NB: I requested advance reading copies of both books from my sales reps.  The Turk Who Loved Apples was published this year by Da Capo and Headhunters On My Doorstep will be published in September by Gotham Books.

With apologies to my bookish followers for having gone more than a month since my last book review, I am happy to send either of these books to any reader in North America. If you're interested, please leave a comment. First come, first served. Offer expires on August 8, 2013.