Blah, Blah, Blah, Book Blog

Blah, Blah, Blah, Book Blog

I'm not a fan of summarizing, so get that from the publisher, and then we can talk. Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Young Adult, Middle Grade, Picture Books. I'll read it all, and, if I like it, I'll make you want to read it too!

 

Review
3.5 Stars
Cruel Beautiful World
Cruel Beautiful World: A Novel - Caroline Leavitt

This is a painful, heartbreaking story about expectations, disappointments, love and secrets. When Lucy leaves her already fragmented family to run away with William, her 30-year-old high school English teacher, she has no idea how isolated her life will become. (Time out a second - What is it with students and their high school teachers? I loved mine, but I never wanted to run away with them. I know they were nuns, but still.) While the story is primarily Lucy's, Leavitt gives vibrant life to each of her characters, who face their own demons and regrets with grace and dignity.

 

As usual, Leavitt delivers a beautifully written story, moving in its courage, raw emotion, and unflinching hope. William's selfishness and immaturity made me wonder why Lucy, a young, beautiful girl, would stay with him. Then I listened to this NPR interview that someone kindly posted on Goodreads, and I understood it a little better. This is not an easy story to read, but it is moving and thought provoking, and it is worth the effort you will have to put into seeing it through its final pages. Not because it is hard to read, but instead, because Leavitt has created a world so real that you will worry about these people until the very end, and then, maybe even a little bit longer.

Review
3.5 Stars
The Wonder
The Wonder - Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue has the unique ability to place the reader in a precarious, uncomfortable and psychologically fraught situation — it is utterly compelling, and almost equally frustrating. In this story set in the Irish Midlands, Donoghue's characters are perfectly balanced; so that while there are certainly "good guys" and "bad guys" in a traditional sense, many of them cross the line back and forth between the two. There is a danger here in giving away the story with the small details, but I usually try to avoid that anyway. When I first finished this book, I could only comment on Goodreads that it was disturbing, and I needed time to recover. I have had some time now, but I'm not so sure I have recovered. Don't let that stop you from reading this book. In fact, it should make you go out and get it right now.

Review
3 Stars
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane - Lisa See

It's been a while since I read a Lisa See book. I had a digital copy of this book thanks to NetGalley, but I opted to listen to it when I had the chance. Sometimes, when there are foreign names and places, I prefer this, rather than have the voice in my head stumbling over unfamiliar words. This was a well done audio book, but not my favorite Lisa See book of the bunch I have read - Snowflower and the Secret Fan is probably still my favorite.

 

In any case, I did learn a lot about the ethnic minority Akha people and the tea growing region in China, and the characters were interesting and unique. There were some things that didn't jibe for me, including the fairly open-minded views about sex in the culture, but then an almost complete ignorance of how these actions relate to procreation. Despite Li-yan's age and far flung experiences, she still seemed incredibly immature even as she aged throughout the story. I found the historical aspects and the details of the tea industry fascinating, but there were other parts that were predictable and repetitive that distracted from the story.

 

I was reminded of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland (I saw the movie, not sure if I would recommend it, unless you need a reason to drink) while reading this book because I had the same shocked reaction to discover that the story took place in the present day. Li-yan's village has barely seen a car in the 1990s; when an actual date was finally mentioned well into the story I was stunned — I thought I was reading about a culture from the 1800s. So yes, Lisa See once again presents a compelling topic and a wealth of information, and for that reason I look forward to the next book she has to offer.

Review
3.5 Stars
Leave Me
Leave Me: A Novel - Gayle Forman

I haven't read Gayle Forman's YA books, but of course I've heard good things about them, so I was eager to read her first book of adult fiction. (I feel weird and grown up at the same time calling it that.) Anyway, while her writing was undeniably compelling, I found the subject slightly too close to home, having myself been a 40-something working mom with toddlers at one time. Happily, I have never had to deal with a health crisis like Maribeth's, but abandoning my children is an idea I could relate to only in theory. My own experience was more of a peculiar longing upon passing hotels — wanting to spend a long, uninterrupted night, and leave late in the morning with the bed unmade and the dirty dishes from a delicious breakfast by the door — but maybe that's just me. A lot has been said of the premise of the book, so clearly Forman has hit a nerve and sparked a conversation.

 

The logistics of Maribeth Klein's departure from her family and her job did not seem all that realistic to me, and the life she led in their absence strained belief, but thankfully Forman's crisp writing kept me reading. I find it hard to lose myself in a story where I do not like the main character, and honestly, I did not really like Maribeth. I can't help but think that despite what she considered compelling reasons to leave (prior to her health issues), most of these were "first world problems". Meanwhile, her husband Jason has to be the most unrealistic character of all, barely fazed by her behavior and eager to accept a good part of the blame for her abandonment. If only.

 

There were many things I liked about the book; many minor characters were depicted with fine detail and clarity. While I liked Maribeth's ultimate search for her adoptive mother, I felt that it should have been more of the point of her leaving, rather than the backhand way she happened upon that search. As a reader, you knew where this was going, there were just some parts along the way you might have wanted to skip.

Review
4 Stars
These Dark Wings
These Dark Wings - John Owen Theobald

This is another World War II story – a middle grade one — and yes, I know I've read a ton of them already, but of course I am going to tell you this one is different. Honestly, I wish I read this book sooner, because we visited the Tower of London and its famous ravens last summer. No worries, though, that would have merely been a bonus; Theobald has written a compelling story that makes you feel like you are there anyway.

 

The Tower of London is such a unique place, with an insular community of people living within its walls. Personally, Theobald had me at "Ravenmaster". I really don't want to say too much more - this is a thought-provoking adventure of a book, and probably a perfect read-aloud or audiobook for your summer road trip if you still have a middle-schooler willing to listen with you.

 

I also loved the cover of this book, which was dreamy and eerie and made me wish I wasn't reading on my kindle so I could see it every time I put the book down, which, to be fair, was not all that often before I finished. And, despite the fact that I am not a huge reader of multi-part sagas, I'm looking forward to the other books in the trilogy.

Review
4 Stars
Booked
Booked - Kwame Alexander

Kwame Alexander paid a visit to our school this year, and every child received a copy of his book. For some reason I did not jump on this one as quickly as I did The Crossover but that is by no means a telling detail —it just got put in the wrong to-read pile (in the to-read-later, instead of the to-read-now).

 

Reading it this week I was again reminded of how blown away I was reading Crossover. I couldn't put it down, and then, I didn't want it to end. 

 

Review
4 Stars
Hag-Seed
Hag-Seed - Margaret Atwood

I am a huge Margaret Atwood fan, so when I saw a new book with her name on it I did not even bother to read what it was about. Who cares? Margaret Atwood could write a software manual and I would read it. Maybe you feel more discerning than me, I'm ok with that. I've read at least half a dozen Atwood books by now, (with more on my to-read pile) including a crazy, ingenious, zombie story on Wattpad, and I have yet to be disappointed.

 

Hag-Seed continued that trend. Of course, Atwood tackles The Tempest, why not? She is certainly up to the task. I read some of this book (courtesy of NetGalley) and I also listened to the audiobook. I laughed out loud as Atwood weaves a tale of bizarre vengeance and unlikely heroes, which all works toward a strange and perfectly satisfying resolution.

 

This book is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare collection, which has Shakespeare's plays reimagined by today's celebrated writers, including Anne Tyler, Tracy Chevalier, and Jo Nesbø, among others. Several of these are already on my to-read pile; you should check them out as well.

Review
3 Stars
Paper: Paging Through History
Paper: Paging Through History - Mark Kurlansky

This was my first Kurlansky book, but my husband has read and loved his others, (and still quotes from Salt), so you can appreciate that I would choose this just so I could throw some facts back at him. In any case, as a graphic designer and a book lover, of course I am a fan of Paper, so this book had my name written all over it. Kurlansky, I think, has a reputation like Michener — if he is going to tell the story of paper, he is pretty much going to start at the beginning of time and work from there. This is great if, like me, you have an almost unnatural devotion to paper, but I'm guessing this is probably not a huge target audience. Oddly enough, since I got the book from NetGalley, I read a book all about paper on an electronic device, which seems kind of thoughtless and uncaring. But I do care about paper. Maybe not as much as Kurlansky, but a lot.  

 

Veering off his topic, Kurlansky goes deeply into paper production techniques, the economies of mill towns, and all sorts of interesting bunny trails, but sometimes, this makes the almost 400-page book feel a bit longer. The paper industry was huge in my early career, so this book was nostalgic for me. There was a time when I would pray to be asked to design a paper sampler — an elaborate, no holds barred presentation used simply to show off the qualities of different types of paper to potential customers — because it offered complete freedom and exceptionally large budgets. But, like Kurlansky, I digress.

 

Here's the thing: Kurlansky is a master at choosing a subject and then letting it consume him. There is, I think, no stone left unturned here. If you're up for the challenge, this is your book.

Review
4 Stars
We Are Still Tornadoes
We Are Still Tornadoes - Michael Kun, Susan Mullen

Compared to the book I read before this, I have to say that the blurb that accompanies this book dramatically undersells it. Honestly, looking at it now I cannot imagine what inspired me to choose this from NetGalley, but I am certainly glad I did. I understand that this is a YA title, but for people like me who actually lived through the 80s, this is a fond trip down memory lane. I especially loved that the novel was written entirely in “letters” sent back and forth between the two protagonists; letters that have a date on top, and acknowledge things like crossing in the mail, instead of the to-the-minute time stamp of an ordinary email. Do YA readers even understand this? Ink, paper, stamps, envelopes, all of it? As someone who still has letters from her siblings, parents and friends sent during college, I hope that they at least have a sense of it. The letters here come in a range of sizes — from the dashed off note to the long, meandering, angsty questions that only a college student can ask.

 

I loved every cheesy detail of this book (especially the title origin), and it made me laugh, out loud, embarrassingly. The characters were clever and endearing, and even though the plot sometimes crossed the line of believability, it did not take away from my enjoyment. If you are a Rainbow Rowell fan (of any age), this book will have a place on your shelf. And if you aren’t (wait, really, you’re not?) try it anyway. Don’t read the blurb, just trust me.  

Review
2 Stars
First Comes Love
First Comes Love: A Novel - Emily Giffin

I sometimes feel like I live under a rock. Granted, it’s a nice, comfy rock, and there are plenty of books to keep me company and the light is surprisingly good, but I cannot deny missing the boat on some popular trends. I picked this Emily Giffin book because how can you not know her name? Her books are beloved bestsellers, and when I saw this one on NetGalley I thought, she certainly does not need me to help her sell them — how nice of her to offer them to us!

 

But this book was just not for me. As a mother who came to that in the traditional way, but also as a woman who has been lucky enough to pursue her passion in work, I could not relate to these women and their many regrets. The courses they pursue seemed unrealistic and contrived, sometimes for shock value alone. I will admit, the book was well-written and, in some ways, compelling, but the characters just did not appeal to me. I will take issue with the blurb I read — I was promised “dazzling”, “emotionally honest and utterly enthralling”, but these are not the words I would have chosen. But hey, almost 24,000 people on Goodreads feel differently than me on this one, so clearly this was just a miss on my part. If you are a fan, don’t listen to me, just have at it and I’ll catch you next time.

Review
3.5 Stars
Before the Fall
Before the Fall - Noah Hawley

This book was positioned as a thriller, but it didn’t really fit into that genre for me. While it seemed a bit “ripped from the headlines”, it was written with an intelligence that belied the occasional celebrity tell-all feel. To me, it was more intriguing than gripping, but while the conclusion seemed inevitable and unsurprising, this did not really detract from the story. Hawley is terrific at crafting his wealthy characters, but I found the ordinary, flawed ones more interesting. I especially appreciated that the artist living on Martha’s Vineyard is poor and relatively unknown despite living in what would normally be considered a high-end vacation spot. Hawley is deft at contrasting the flashy tabloid news with the human side of the story, and I found just as many parts deeply moving as completely despicable.

 

One reviewer ranted on and on about how bad this cover is – but as a graphic designer (who frequently judges a book by its cover), I am weighing in on this one. I was attracted to the type that was at once bold and ethereal; accurately, I think, evoking the tragedy and uncertainty to come.

Review
3 Stars
You Know Me Well
You Know Me Well - Nina LaCour, David Levithan

I thought this book was well-written and the plot moved along at a brisk pace, but honestly, even considering the fact that I am not a YA reading this, I found it unrealistic. There is endless talking and pining for love in this story (I found all the over-analyzing more like college students than high school, but maybe that’s just me) and yay, it’s a story of so many under-represented gay teens, but aside from that, not a whole lot happens. Well, actually, a lot happens in the span of just a few days, but I didn’t find it very believable. Having said that, I will admit that I loved the banter between the friends — I found it smart and funny and the authors established a nice rapport among them; but it was all smart and funny, barely an awkward pause despite the fact that most of them had only just met. I mean I get the whole fast friends thing, but there was a lot of that here – not just one relationship.

 

LaCour and Levithan had their hearts in the right place, but I thought the story that unfolded had the potential to be so much more.

Review
3 Stars
New Thoughts on Innovation
The Power of Little Ideas: A Low-Risk, High-Reward Approach to Innovation - David Robertson, Kent Lineback Mapping Innovation: A Playbook for Navigating a Disruptive Age - Greg Satell The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World - Brad Stone

I'm reading for my July-August review in Global Business and Organizational Excellence and these titles pretty much run the gamut on innovation. From a core product that needs some new life to a disruptive, groundbreaking, category-changing idea, there are some excellent insights offered in each of these new books.

Review
3.5 Stars
The Children
The Children: A Novel - Ann Leary

I chose this book from NetGalley because I loved Leary’s previous book, The Good House. While these books do not share a setting (though I think both could be Connecticut), they share a certain penchant for an oddball cast of characters, not always likable but always interesting. This is no easy task — for the most part these people are seriously flawed, or at the least, in serious denial about some of the realities of their lives.

 

The beauty of The Children is that Leary offers up a family that at first seems low-key and light on drama, only to reveal a dark edge, and deeply felt animosities among the “loving” members of this sprawling family. In a place where everyone seems to know everyone else’s business, there is remarkably little they really share. I think Leary has a gift for this type of character-driven story, where the plot is not nearly as compelling as the motley crew propelling it forward. They carry with them all manner of secrets – some more obvious than others – but regardless of this you will want to stick around to see how it all works out in the sometimes-bitter end.

Review
3.5 Stars
Under Rose-Tainted Skies
Under Rose-Tainted Skies - Louise D. Gornall

When I first started this book, it reminded me of Everything, Everything. Except in this story, it is not the Mother keeping the daughter inside the house; its 17-year-old Norah, whose crippling anxiety has made it impossible for her to leave.

 

There is a lot to come to grips with in this book. Norah suffers from a multitude of fears and phobias, brought on by agoraphobia and OCD. Luckily, she lives with a compassionate, loving mother with unflinching patience, and a caring doctor who caters to Norah’s changing needs. Of course, it is Luke, the new boy next-door (an overdone plotline, maybe, but it still works for me) who makes Norah rethink her world, and, in the same way, Luke’s worldview changes dramatically because of her.

 

It is not all sunshine and lollipops when Luke moves in, however. While the intense drama that followed later bordered on the implausible for me, I understood the necessity of the device to allow Norah to come to grips with her life. Despite the implicit danger the author contrives, in some respects I thought, ah, if it were only this easy.

 

I like that this is almost an ordinary teen romance; while it is an important theme, mental illness is only one of the facts of Norah’s life, not her whole story. Instead, this is a story about two new friends getting to know one another and finding their place in the world, and it is told with empathy, compassion, and grace.  

Review
3.5 Stars
The Fifth Petal
The Fifth Petal: A Novel - Brunonia Barry

You know what I like reading about almost as much as plagues? Witches. I loved Brunonia Barry’s first book, The Lace Reader, so much that when I saw another book was coming out, I jumped on it. I am not generally a series reader, though I will often read the first one in a series and nothing else (yes, I’m a quitter, I admit it.) But Barry sucked me in last time, so this time I was a willing victim. I completely believed her tales about the lace readers, and honestly, I was stunned that she made everything up (sorry, spoiler alert). I was completely convinced, and I am telling you that so when she tricks you with her voluminous knowledge of old Salem and throws in a bunch of hooky, you will not feel bad like I did. You’re welcome.

 

So anyway, here’s what you need to know. Read this book. There is high drama, grave danger, horrible childhoods that need to be redeemed and reclaimed and also, witches. Did I mention that? What could be better? Nothing. It takes place in Salem and surrounding areas, so of course there are witches. There are also regular people, unfortunately, with all kinds of unmanageable, overwhelming problems. There are bad characters I kind of liked, and good ones who do the wrong thing, so basically, it’s perfectly balanced. And don’t worry if you didn’t read the first one – this one stands alone just fine. (But I’d read The Lace Reader anyway, because really, aren’t you better than that?)

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