What happens when two thirtysomething siblings relive the summer reading programs of their youth in an all-out battle of the books? The race is on as they read by the rules and keep tally on their logs to see who will be the ultimate reader by Labor Day 2011.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Epic Fail

Dear Readers,

I am sorry that I failed you. This reading challenge has been a Civil War where the Union forgot to show up, and now lies in the smoking embers of so many chick lit and young adult novels. At the beginning of the summer, I had crafted a plan to read a bunch of Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry anthologies, and checked several of them out of the library. But guess what? Reading poetry is hard. All of these spare assessments of life and death just make me sad, and I only made it twenty pages into "American Primitive" by Mary Oliver.

Any semblance of strategy continually eluded me. I picked a chunky Pulitzer Prize-winner, "The Edge of Sadness," but could only get fifty pages into it. It was beautifully written and I know all of the characters are going to be fully realized and contain faceted secrets, but it was slow work, not amenable to the cutthroat pace of summer reading challenges. When I was home, I eked out thirty pages of "Just Kids" by Patti Smith. I also downloaded pretty much every song she mentioned in the first thirty pages, embarrassed that I had never heard of them. So not only did I not read the book, I'm out eleven bucks (but I've finally listened to Coltrane's "A Love Supreme").

In spite of these reading rabbit holes, I managed to read two books in August. "The Last Werewolf" and "Black Swan Green." "The Last Werewolf" is a psychologically gripping thriller about the mechanics of being the last werewolf on the planet. It also contains continuously graphic sex scenes, making it the best book you never read in the eighth grade. "Black Swan Green" is by my new favorite author, David Mitchell," and spans the year of the life of a thirteen-year-old boy in 1982 England. It's funny, warm, and captures all the terrible parts of being thirteen with grace and compassion. Plus, the dialogue is fantastic and all of the different characters (from stuck up uncles to Beligian emigres to gypsies) have their own unique voice. I've adopted all the slang of 1982 teenagers and have been calling everything "ace" and "epic." So far my friends have been mildly tolerant.

Perhaps most importantly, "Black Swan Green" also traces the main character's relationship with his sister, as they evolve from brutal adversaries to friends. It is in that spirit that I offer this olive branch to my sister. I know I gave feeble competition this summer, but I hope she enjoyed reading the three good books she read this summer as much as I did.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wish you were here (and you were!)

Things we did while Brendan was here for a week:
1. Went to the beach a few times (and did not read).
2. Went on a boat (and did not read).
3. Went to the movies (and did not read).

Do you sense a theme emerging here?

My brother claimed he's "50 pages into a bunch of different books" and that "he's going to finish something, sometime soon". Let's all give him the support and encouragement he needs to achieve his goals.

In the meantime, I've read three books.

I discovered Mindy Klasky in a "buy a bunch, get one free" sale at Barnes & Noble a few years ago and fell in like with her Jane Madison series, a trilogy that follows a 20-something historical librarian as she discovers her magical abilities. While spells and potions aren't really my thing, I do like when chick-lit authors take the time to really embed their characters in their professional lives, and this series gives a glimpse into the world of non-profits, museums, libraries and small businesses.

Amazon kindly reminded me a few weeks ago that I've liked Klasky in the past and made the recommendation that I try out her "As You Wish" series on my Kindle (Ha, Amazon! You may track my every move on your site, but you don't know that it's my mother's Kindle. My secret is safe.) This time, the story is about a magical lamp with a genie inside (who grants four wishes!), and what happens as the lamp travels around the theatre world. Again, Klasky takes a setting that is unfamiliar to most everyone and gives readers a glimpse of what life is like for the professionals there (ok, so there may not be a magical lamp in your theatre, but excepting that). The plot itself isn't as tired as I expected: the choices each wish recipient makes as she decides how to use each wish are actually thoughtful and not always anticipated. What's also different is the story of the genie and how that character evolves and changes throughout the three books as he grows closer to his own wish. All three are quick, but fun, reads that gave me all that I wished for: some easy bedtime reading...and three points!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

But I was Supposed to LOVE this Book!

"The Three Weissmans of Westport" was heavily reviewed in 2010 and sat high on my list of books to read last summer. Life being life, I didn't pick up the book until now. It was a happy moment when I came upon a copy at the library, and I delayed starting it until I knew I had the time to read a good chunk of it.

How disappointing, then, to be utterly bored by this book.

Maybe it was the comparisons to Jane Austen. Yes, this is a modern twist on "Sense and Sensibility", and much better than the other dozen attempts published in the last few years...but I think that the Austen expectation overshadowed the initial reading attempts for me. It took several starts for me to make it through the first 50 pages and, even then, I was having trouble keeping characters straight. The extravagance and superficiality of many of the characters prevented me from feeling much empathy for their positions (Betty, a 75 year old woman, is unceremoniously dumped by her husband of 45 years, Joe, who wants to move his new girlfriend, Felicity, into their magnificent Central Park West apartment. Betty accepts an offer of a Westport "cottage" and moves in with her two 40-something daughters, Miranda and Annie, both of whom are having personal and professional struggles of their own). I couldn't summon an ounce of caring for anyone.

It takes about 250 pages, but finally the three Weissmanns hit rock bottom and begin working their way toward independence. Cathleen Schine's writing is flawless as she tackles the growth of these three women, not to mention the others milling about and making a mockery of their lives. The ending is far from formulaic and, in many ways, is unexpected. It completely makes up for the slow moving start and left me thinking about what's to come for the Weissmann family. All in all, I liked the book...but only wished I could have started liking it a whole lot sooner.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Hey, wasn't this a TV show first?

Every so often, I manage to watch 30 Rock on TV (instead of later on the DVR). When that happens, I sometimes keep watching the show that follows, Outsourced. Truthfully, I haven't seen enough episodes to really know the full plot, but it's basically the story of a call center manager from the States who is sent to India to improve a call center there. Between the tired jokes that befit the stereotypical male from the Midwest and the haven't-we-moved-beyond-these jokes about Indians, the plot twists around the challenges of adjusting to a new culture, the view of the United States from abroad, life in a call center, and office romance.

I picked up "One Night @ the Call Center" as a little reward for completing "Dark Places". According to the back cover blurb, it's the story of six (mostly 20 something) call center coworkers (in India, for a small appliance manufacturer in the States) and the changes that take place in both their personal and professional lives during their night shift one (American) Thanksgiving Day. Written by Chetan Bhagat (one of TIME's 100 Most Influential People in 2010 for his ability to portray youth in present day India), I've since learned that several of his books have been remade for the Bollywood screen.

Perhaps that is the reason the book read like a movie or, in my mind, a television show. I couldn't help but picture characters from "Outsourced" as Shyam, Priyanka, Esha, Vroom, Radhika, and Military Uncle. I completely confused myself at times when the book plot mirrored themes from "Outsourced", and I couldn't remember which happened where (this may be due more to the fact that I read the book while sleeping in a tent with the kids, one of whom kept waking up from nightmares). In any case, the book had moments of fun, was decently written, and helped to pass a long night in the backyard.

Here's where the book took a weird twist, and I'm still not sure what to think of it. Sandwiched between the dedication page and the prologue is a page of three questions: name one thing you fear; one thing that makes you angry; one thing you do not like about yourself. Then follows 300 pages of story, until God calls the call center folks and has a little chat with them...and asks each employee to answer those questions. From there, each makes dramatic changes in life and the final chapter informs us of how profound those changes are (especially within Indian culture). After reading more about the author and his reputation in India of motivating and influencing younger people, I get why the self help/improve yourself vibe was there...but it struck me as over-the-top and Oprah-like.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Cost of Success

Sometimes reading a book series is like removing a bandage: it's best done quickly. I knew that if I didn't complete "The Hunger Games" trilogy immediately, I'd never get there. With that in mind, I downloaded the final two books on my borrowed Kindle and got to work.

If you think the first book is full of horror, the second, Catching Fire, focuses on the unfairness of life (in another horrific way). Katniss and the other former victors are informed that, in "celebration" of the 75th anniversary, 24 of them will face each other in a special version of the Games. Gore ensues.

While reading the first book, I was entirely focused on the terrible things that were happening, what children were being forced to do in order to survive. The fog somewhat lifted during the second book (perhaps too saturated by sadness?), and a corner of my mind resumed it's usual occupation while book reading: catching errors.

No, I don't mean typos and grammatical mistakes (although, thanks to a former teacher who used to award extra credit points for those catches, I see them, too). I'm talking about leaps in the plot that just don't make sense (why everyone lives in fear of being overheard through hidden receivers everywhere, but don't worry when they're walking down the street). I found myself really being taken off track by these thoughts until I forced myself to remember: these books were written for teen readers. Lay off a little, Kerry.

So, I finished the series as if I were a sixth grader on summer vacation. I ignored jobs I knew needed to be completed (yes, I do believe those dishes will wash themselves). I pretended not to hear someone calling me from the other room. I vacuumed while holding the book in my other hand (sinfully easy to do with a Kindle; I must keep that in mind). My one submission to reality is that I limited my reading to when my husband was home, so at least my kids weren't left to completely fend for themselves while I remained in the war world of Panem.

Collins' concludes the trilogy quickly, violently, and unexpectedly. Previously, important characters were killed off every chapter, then page. Suddenly, I found myself rereading sentences to comprehend the realization that several major characters died within a sentence. With a word or two, they were gone and never mentioned again because the plot, Katniss, life was moving forward. Survivors don't exist because they dwell on life lost. Survivors march on.

There's no great place to mention this, so as an aside I'll just point out that Katniss' younger sister, Prim, is an exquisite character to watch evolve over the course of the three books. Many of the characters have stunted development (especially the victors, as their lives so abruptly changed by playing the Game as a teen), but Prim is one of the few children in the story who are allowed to grow into themselves. To say more would ruin the storyline, but I found myself really interested in how Prim found success in her life despite the absence of the sister who had so protected and sheltered her.

Monday, August 8, 2011

When Reading Induces a Panic Attack

I've had the same recurring dream since I was six or seven years old. The scene is the set of a television game show, where three pairs of contestants compete against each other in a combination of quick answers and physical feats. One pair is an engaged couple; another friends; the final a recently returned Vietnam Vet (in full uniform with a bandaged arm) and his mother. Mother and son reunite for the first time on the set, and it's quite emotional. After winning several rounds, their final challenge is Russian Roulette. One must pick up a handgun and shoot themself in the head, chancing that it's an empty round. The mother begs and pleads for the son to let her do it, that he has suffered and survived so much already, but the son simply picks up the gun and shoots. Other versions of this dream have the mother being forced to shoot the son. Regardless, the son always winds up with a lethal head wound, the mother always cries out an anguished scream, and I awake as his life is slowly fading away. *

Since our mother was a high school English teacher for much of my childhood, I was always privvy to what authors the older kids were reading in class. In elementary school, I thumbed through one anthology and came across Shirley Jackson's short story, "The Lottery".  (Take five minutes to read it there, I'll wait.) The story freaked me out so much that I thought I'd throw up. A few years later, we read it in English class and I told my teacher that I could not, would not talk or write about the story. I can't remember the exact outcome there, but I think it involved taking a lower grade and doing at least one other assignment instead. (My ninth grade History teacher was much more understanding when we read and watched "Lord of the Flies". You can play a game here, but I'm too chicken.)

So, there you have it: I don't like stories where family members are pitted against each other in order to survive; I don't like survival stories where children discover their most primal instincts; and I really don't like reading of communities having annual events where they kill one of their own.

And, yet, I just read Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games".

Brendan talked up this young adult trilogy earlier this summer, and I've had it on my mental list of books to peruse before they hit my 9 year old daughter's reading radar. First off: I will only be checking these books out of the library, to reduce the chance that she will stumble upon them in the house. This is definitely middle school reading. I'm also both horrified and mesmerized at the thought of this book hitting the big screen. Really, you're going to make that a PG-13??

That is simply the story of teenagers, two each selected by lottery in each of the 12 districts of the former North America, who are forced to fight each other for survival...where only one will survive. While these teens (some not even, as they are as young as 12) fend on their own for food, shelter, and survival tools, the rest of their country watches the events unfold...televised. It's Survivor meets Big Brother meets...whatever crazy creepy show Mark Burnett thought of and dismissed as too barbaric. The plot of the first in the trilogy is the actual game, where we meet Katniss, a 16 year old from District 12 who has kept her mother and sister alive with her hunting and bartering skills for the last five years. Told from her perspective, we live the weeks of the game through her eyes, meeting her male counterpart from the District, Peeta, and the other competitors. Even though I knew she would eventually win (there are, after all, two more books), I turned every page, expecting it to be Katniss' last. Collins has written a book that not only captivates, but makes the reader question with every page, "Would I make it past the first minute of the game?". The themes in this book about community, governance, survival alliances, and civil disobedience make this a possible book to share and discuss with even the most reluctant middle school readers.

Library opens at 2 today...I think I'll find the second book of the series upstairs on the second floor.

* If you think this an odd dream for such a young kid to have, I always did too...until, in my 20s, I saw an old rerun of Saturday Night Live with this skit. When my parents used to have friends over, I was given permission to watch television in their bedroom (this was in the pre-cable era, where our antenna limited us to four or five stations; the most illicit stuff I'd find was Dynasty). Usually, I'd fall asleep and wake up in the middle of a new show (hence, SNL)...or when the station would show the flag and sign off for the night, waking me with the sudden burst of static. In any event, I must have groggily watched the skit, then fallen back to sleep. My subconscious took some liberties with the skit over the decades, but the pieces are essentially the same.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

My Summer of Reading Like Brendan

My ability last summer to outread my brother outraged several of our fearless followers (no, of course I'm not referring to you, Martin), which led me to defend my reading choices. This summer, I contemplated (for a nanosecond) whether I wanted my win to be questioned again and decided on a different strategy: I would simply read the same books as Brendan. That would stop the criticism, right?

With this decision made, I picked up "A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True", Brigid Pasulka's debut novel and one of Brendan's earlier summer reads. Pasulka weaves together two stories, that of Anielica (Nela) and Czeslaw (the Pigeon) in World War II Poland and Beata (Baba Yaga), their grandchild living in 1990s Krakow. As a reader, I was taken by the details of the small community of Half-Village (located in a remote section of the mountains) and the slow development of the relationship between Anielica and the Pigeon. Pasulka drops in enough Polish phrases that I finally forced myself to pause and look up the vocabulary instead of guessing it (worth the effort, although I have since discovered that Pasulka has all the pronunciations and definitions on her website).

Beata's life to date has been similar to her grandparents' early years. Also raised in Half-Village, she has lived within the bubble of her small community, raised solely by Nela following her mother's death and father's abandonment of her. Upon Nela's death, 20-something Beata moves to Krakow to live with her (much older) cousin, Irena, and 20-something daughter, Magda. Life has certainly not been easy for Beata, but as more is revealed about her family's trials in the war, I couldn't help but wish she showed more of their strength and determination with her own struggles (and found myself mentally shouting, "It's in your genes to be a survivor, so stop being so mopey about your life!").

While parts of Beata's story dragged for me, the final chapters made up for it, with descriptions of the raw truths of wartime (a time when revealing a secret could absolutely end in someone's death) and the sacrifices families make that are kept in confidence for decades.

(P.S. to Brendan: Standing still in a fountain to avoid being captured by the Nazis seems rather extreme...and wet. Running very, very fast for a long, long time is always an option, and one I'd totally support.)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Making Helen Reddy Proud

I am confident that Helen Reddy would affirm that "reading books about bad parenting and horrible childhoods" was on her mental list of things confident women can do when she helped pen the words to "I am Woman". If ever I needed a background song to keep me focused on a book, reading "Dark Places" was it for me (also a contender, The Little Engine that Could's mantra of "I think I can, I think I can", which would also restrain my mind from creeping to tunes like Suzanne Vega's "Luka").

I bravely read Gillian Flynn's first novel, "Sharp Objects", earlier this summer and managed to keep my subconscious fears ("Could this happen to one of my kids?") at a dull roar while I lost myself in Flynn's writing. Brendan (who read it last summer) somewhat burst my bubble by telling me that her debut was nothing compared to "Dark Places", the story of the youngest daughter, Libby, of a family allegedly murdered by the eldest child, the only son, Ben. Told in chapters alternating between the present time (in which she is, 20+ years later, questioning the guilt of her brother) and the past, readers are overwhelmed with the horror of the murders and the sadness of Libby's ensuing childhood and life. Fortunately for me, the book begins in the present time, where the facts are directly presented: Libby's two older sisters and mother were gruesomely murdered (suffocation; blunt force trauma with an axe; knife to the heart) in their decrepit farmhouse late one night in January, 1985; Ben, the 15 year old son, was found guilty of the murders (conducted, they claim, as part of a Satanic ritual) and sentenced to life in prison. I can handle facts; it's the events that lead up to those facts that are unbearable for me to read. Flynn's choice to alternate between time periods (and narrators) allowed me to handle the brief glimpses of the unraveling, but also gave me a break from the present heartache that is Libby's life. How much bad stuff can one person take in a lifetime?

Other writers could certainly take the ideas in this plot and string them together to make a decent mystery. It's the emotional angst that Flynn captures so well that puts this book over and above the top of her peers. After reading 344 pages of turmoil, it was this sentence in the final chapter that got me: " There is such a thing as a pretty trailer park, you know." Life will never come easily for Libby, or any of the characters from this impoverished community, but particularly for damaged Libby. Despite that, the journey she takes in this book ends with her having more support and more options for a better future.

Flashbacks with Commencement

A book about four roommates at Smith College and the paths their lives (and friendships) take? Yes, please, I'll read this.

I think I'm like many readers: I either unconsciously insert myself into the plot as a silent bystander, seeing where I fit in, or attach myself to a character that most feels like me. (The latter can backfire; when reading "Little Women", I always want to be Jo, but ultimately must face that I'm Meg.) In J. Courtney Sullivan's debut, "Commencement", I was both the unheard and unseen fifth friend but also felt the book from the viewpoints of the four women: Celia, Sally, April and Bree.

Reading this book was, at times, like revisiting college. I attended a small, private liberal arts college (that was mentioned in the first few pages of the book. Go Swat!) and spent my first year living in a quad with three other women. As the characters got to know each other and their new environment, I couldn't help but remember my first days of college. While some of the Amazon reviews criticized the book for its lack of discussion about Smith's academic life, I was content to read without memory of the intensity of that part of college. Bring on the occasional down time and relationships!

Ultimately, I was more drawn to the lives of this four women after college, that weird time when you're supposed to be an adult but you're still not exactly convinced you are one (and have no idea how, exactly, to succeed at being one). While their choices have placed them throughout the country, they stay connected with each other through the instant reward of email, cell phones and text messages-- a privilege that both allows them all to survive the insecurities of their early 20s, but that also somewhat restrains each from branching out into new, adult friendships. Eventually, though, they each find their own place in the world.

The second half of the book is difficult to discuss without giving away major plot developments, but this is no fluff take of Sex in the City: Smith Alumnae. Each woman makes decisions that the others think are entirely wrong, and they flounder as they try to support each other as adults but with the instant/no filtered reactions that governs their friendship. Ultimately, this leads to a major fallout that lasts for over a year...a time in which one friend desperately needs the logic and straightforward statements of the other three. The book concludes with a horrifying problem, one that brings the foursome together again in unexpected ways and will alter the path of each of their lives forever.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Books by Beths

OK, so I packed my travel bag with some heartier reads, but panicked just before we left for New Hampshire. It's a vacation, shouldn't I have something simple and sweet to read after spending the day at the Granite State's kiddie amusement parks? I didn't have time to Amazon browse, but I recalled hearing that Beth Harbison had a new book out. I had read her "Shoe Addicts Anonymous" series with some interest and thought that I couldn't go wrong.

Oh, but I could. Yes, I could.

"Always Something There to Remind Me" (I know the song is already in your head, so here's the video) is the story of first love and what happens when you revisit that relationship years later. Erin and Nate had that typical high school relationship that ended dramatically. Fast forward 23 years and Erin is a single mother raising a teenager and dating a decent guy who wants to marry her. This proposal causes her to think about Nate, and there we go: story time.

Now, maybe I'm not the target reader for this book. I met the guy who is now my husband when I was 18. I don't need to Googlestalk him in order to find out where he lives or what he looks like or if he's on Facebook or LinkedIn. (And, since I just did that out of curiousity, I now know that it's a fairly tedious task to find him on the Interwebs, unless you search his name and college). But we all have people in our past who were, at the time, vitally important and have since fallen from our lives. If we've learned anything from Facebook, it's that it's fun to see where life has taken these people, but that reconnecting with them isn't going to drastically alter life as we know it. Harbison takes this to inconceivable levels with her tale of Erin and Nate. Page after page (or click after click, since I read it on a Kindle), my mind wandered off. I gladly stopped to fold some laundry. Unload the dishwasher. I even watched a few minutes of the local access cable channel's rebroadcast of a school committee meeting. (We're renting a condo this week; can you tell? It kind of stinks to have ready access to all the comforts of home, when those comforts=chores.) Completing the book was a triumph.

I felt cheated out of a good vacation read, so I took to Amazon again to find something more suitable. I was feeling pressed for time, and selected a book that I thought was also by Beth Harbison. Turns out, it was by Beth Kendrick, someone with whom I've had a Kindle affair over the past six months.

Let me explain about the Kindle. My mother bought one last fall to bring on an extended vacation. Upon her return, she declared her preference for reading physical books and offered to let me borrow her Kindle. I've since sullied it with some low-brow reads and free e-books, mainly under the guise of semi-limiting my 9-year-old daughter's ability to read my books (Hasn't worked, as I just realized she's been reading my copy of Emma Donoghue's "Room". Oops. We might need to make this into our very own mother-daughter book club to avoid any later therapy needs.) Beth Kendrick's books were on major discount this spring on Kindle, and I passed many a long night with pneumonia this March with her earlier works.

"The Bake-Off" met all of my expectations for a fun vacation read. Amy and Linnie are sisters who have lived very separate lives until their grandmother intervenes with the request that they replace her in a weekend getaway/baking competition. Both sisters have traits that endear them to the reader: Linnie was a child genius who hit an academic wall and now makes ends meet by working as a card dealer in Vegas; Amy was the shadow sister who perhaps enjoyed her teenage years a tad too much, but now is a dental hygenist and mother of twins. They are both fallible and immensely human. Best of all is Grammy Syl, an active woman in her later years who has maintained a relationship with each granddaughter, despite their problems with each other. She's a fun character, herself, and a great representation of women her age (i.e., not the stereotype). As implausible as the plot details might be (spending a night in jail for editing graffiti?), this was a very fun read, if only to imagine what I might choose to do if given three nights away from reality and responsibility.

Two Beths. Two books. Two points!

Now I See Another Book Kerry Probably Wouldn't Enjoy Reading

I spent the first half of S.J. Bolton's Now You See Me going through the motions. Everything about it seemed familiar: plucky female detective with a tough past, copycat serial killer, chapters from the victims' point of view right before getting killed, defiantly gruesome crime scenes. Even the scenes detailing my beloved Unsolved Crime From the Past and How that Crime Ties Into The Awful Events of the Present weren't pulling me in. But about halfway through the book, Bolton reveals how the past intersects with the present, and it caused me to reevaluate all that I had read prior and appreciate how ambitious her thriller is.

Lacey Flint is the plucky Detective Inspector who gets pulled into the web of a Jack the Ripper wannabe after his latest victim dies in Lacey's arms. The killer's seeming interest in Lacey plus Lacey's knowledge of all things Ripper thrust her into the center of the investigation. From there, we get a very compelling portrait of modern day London as all the disparate puzzle pieces begin to interlock. Bolton keeps things moving at a clipped pace; chapters are usually only a couple of pages and dispense enough information to keep you reading more, each chapter bringing you to a closer understanding of the killer's ultimate goal.

I've read enough mediocre serial killer novels that I'm now bored with the formulaic plot of profiling the killer, discovering the psychological trauma that created him, the killer fixating on the lead detective, lead detective using him/herself as bait, etcetera. Enough writers rely on threadbare characters of Wounded Cop, Potential Love Interest/Source of Cop's Salvation, and Paternal Supervisor that I mentally check out while reading. Pretty much every one ends the same ways as Silence of the Lambs anyway, so why sweat the details?

At first, I thought Bolton was just playing catch-up with her peers, trying to match them grisly detail for grisly detail. But she's actually doing something much more challenging. By the book's end, several tough moral questions had been posed and I was surprised at how skillfully Bolton transferred my sympathy to pretty much every character. The background explanation of how the killer came to be is deftly handled and Bolton throws enough twists to keep you on your toes until the end (I should note that I'm the world's least critical thinker when it comes to mysteries and am always surprised at their end, no matter how poor the writing). While some of the characters are on the thin side, ultimately Bolton's novel leaves you pondering the truly awful events within and their ramifications on all of the characters' lives.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Worst Father Ever?

Carl Ott and our father have two of things in common. They are both married Caucasian men and they both own a tool set.* That, I am glad to say, is where their similarities end. While I haven't read everything, I feel confident in saying Carl Ott is probably the worst father in the history of American Literature. If you ever feel bad over missing your kid's t-ball game or forgetting to pick up your daughter after her violin lesson, read Tom Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. Unless you are an abominable person, you'll finish feeling pretty okay about your own mediocre parenting skills.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter concerns the friendship of two boys, one black and one white, in late 70s Mississippi. They're friends for three months before circumstance pulls them apart (understatement of the year, but I don't want to spoil anything). Later in high school, Larry Ott, the white boy, takes a girl out on a date in high school and she is never seen again. No crime is ever proved to have taken place, but the small town gossip imprisons him more neatly than any jail cell could have. He slowly transforms into one of the sad loners who populate his beloved Stephen King novels, staffing his family's garage (once run by the aforementioned Carl, now dead) that the townspeople avoid like the plague. Meanwhile, his former friend Silas blossoms into a star athlete in high school and later a police constable. Silas moves back to their small town just as another girl disappears and attention turns back to Larry and the girl who disappeared twenty-five years earlier.

First of all, my favorite genre is probably Mysteries Involving the Unsolved Crime From the Past and How that Crime Ties Into The Awful Events of the Present (see also The Thirteenth Tale, In the Woods and Case Histories), so I am an ideal reader for this book. But here the mystery is secondary, as Tom Franklin plumbs what it means to be all those important things: a good friend, a good child, and a good citizen of your world. His writing is gorgeous; a scene where a carburetor is removed from the car is so meticulously described you want to throw the book across the room and give a slow clap. Fair warning, the scene where Carl Ott earns his Terrible Father Award is so devastating that it would test Kerry's Brave Reader Status (although, truth be told, I don't know how she's going to get through Dark Places).

I should mention that one of the great joys of this book is how awesome the dialogue is. Franklin captures the individual voice of its disparate characters, regardless of age, race, class, or gender. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed going around asking for a "Co-Cola" after reading The Help last summer. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter reminded me of that simple pleasure, and also added saying "Enjoyed it" after every meal to my lexicon.

*Carl Ott's tool set is neatly arranged and cleaned daily. Our father taught us that a butter knife was preferable to a screwdriver and that when wood glue somehow ends up coating the tool box and most of the work bench in the basement, don't freak out about it. Wood glue never hurt anything. Chill out and let it be.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Reason #396 that I'll Never have a Pool

Have you heard how daring and brave I am?

Despite the titles beckoning in my library bag, I opted to read a book that I bought months ago and put aside because of a d-e-a-t-h in the first pages. I'd be able to conquer "The Girl Who Stopped Swimming". Why? Because I am a fearless reader. (If I keep repeating it, surely I'll start believing myself.)

I'd never read Joshilyn Jackson before, and I'm fairly certain that I first bought this book solely due to the book jacket blurb by Sara Gruen. This story centers around Laurel and her small family (husband, David and daughter, Shelby) who live in a wealthy southern neighborhood. Laurel has made a good life for herself, but is unsettled by several childhood memories (One of them being the accidental shooting death of her uncle, while hunting, in her presence. You know, pretty much your average childhood experience. Oh, and this uncle, Marty, had exposed himself to her just before the hunting trip.) Laurel's determination to live a "better" life has, in part, led her to have infrequent contact with her parents and sister...until her daughter's friend winds up dead in their pool and appears as a ghost to Laurel. Then it's time to bring in the family crazies and get to the bottom of this whodunit before the police (just in case it's Laurel's daughter who did it).

The family and socioeconomic dynamics of this book overshadow any of the mystery surrounding the death of the friend, Molly. No one is as happy as they seem, regardless of age or status. Neither is anyone as clueless as they may act. Laurel discovers unpleasant truths around her, both from her present life and past, and faces some of her own demons in the process. Unfortunately, it takes the deaths of two young girls and more lies for her to do so. While Laurel's life is on an upswing at the conclusion, you can't help but think of the lives that were harmed in order for her to get to this happy place.

One thing is for sure: Jackson gets a vote for "Best Use of Watership Down in an Adult Novel" for her references to Cowslip, and making the name into a verb. This use might stick in my lexicon.

Friday, July 22, 2011

I am the Bravest!

OK, I'll admit it: I've grown a little tired of reading fluff. I decided that this summer would be the perfect time to delve into something weightier, perhaps even pick up a book on topics that I've avoided (with hands clasped tightly over my eyes, humming mindless tunes). I didn't want to waste time (or bravado) on just any piece of writing, so I took to Goodreads to check out what some of my reader friends have been recommending. Then, with list in hand, I went off to the library.

Clue #1 that reading dark books in the summer is a solitary occupation: every single title of the six books I sought was available to check out.

Silly me, I thought I was just in great luck. I was at the library during prime check out hours (first hour of opening, when all returned books have made their way back to the stacks). Of course I was going to find everything I needed!

Clue #2 that I was in trouble: the librarian who checked me out took my selection, looked at the titles, and began to quake.

(OK, that's an exaggeration, but she did make a comment that I'll share in a moment).

Last summer, Brendan taunted me by saying he'd force me to read a book where bad things happen to children, citing Gillian Flynn as a perfect example. He flaunted this in last summer's blog, as well. Then, a few months ago, Brendan interviewed Flynn. I just couldn't get past the fact that he kept throwing my weakness in my face recommending a writer that was so completely off-limits to me. At the library yesterday, I took out both of Flynn's books, which resulted in the librarian pausing, grasping one, and saying, "This book is so...so...so..." I then had to share Brendan's comment to Flynn that her books are awfully hard to recommend to others, since you basically have to admit that you like reading graphic images of murdered children. Said librarian readily agreed.

I like to read in order (yes, I know, of course I do), so I started with Flynn's first published book, "Sharp Objects". I really don't know what to say. I guess first, I'd say that this is not a book to read while eating a snack, drinking coffee, or catching a quick bite. It really doesn't go well with food in any form, so maybe you should just brush your teeth before sitting down with it. I'd also recommend planning your reading time well, because once I started I did not want to put this book down (Yes, I brought it to swimming lessons and read while lifting my head every 10 seconds to give an encouraging smile to my new swimmers). And definitely, certainly, do not do what I did and read the final chapter at bedtime. I closed the back cover, visions of sadness and horror clouding my brain, and immediately reached for my literary sedative of choice (last night, a few chapters of Claire Cook, which is about as far away from Gillian Flynn as you can get).

I don't dare give details for fear of ruining the reading for someone else, but there were enough plot twists and turns along the way to keep me reading (Although, at the end of chapter four, I wrote down who I thought was behind the murders of little girls in the small town of Wind Gap. I guessed correctly, but still was interested and committed in reading to the end). Camille is a compelling main character, as are the other adults central to the story. The teenaged characters felt a bit contrived to me, which only added to the overall creep factor as the plot unrolled. For a first novel, this book is amazingly intricate and will stick with readers for a while.

We're heading off to New Hampshire for a week of lakes, small amusement parks and hiking...and some serious reading. My bag of books is packed!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

If You Like To Hold Back Tears on the Train. . .

I like reading books set in other eras of history mainly because it confirms that I'm a gigantic wuss with no practical survival skills. Reading Lonesome Dove last summer led to a particularly candid discussion with Kerry about how long each of us would have lasted in Reconstruction Era Texas. Kerry decided I would have succumbed to diptheria or the measles as a baby and she would have perished giving birth, probably around seventeen or eighteen. The astute reader will notice that even in Hypothetical Lives, Kerry wins.

Which leads me to A Long, Long Time Ago And Essentially True, by Brigid Pasulka. The novel skips back in forth through time, detailing the blossoming romance between two Polish youth, Anielica and the Pigeon, and their granddaughter fifty years later as she finally leaves her village and moves to Krakow. It's important to note that the grandparents fall in love in 1939. In Poland. Which begs the debate of the summer, how long would 1939 Kerry and Brendan last in Nazi-occupied Poland?*

Pasulka takes what could have been rote tales (Love in the Shadow of War, Country Mouse Becoming City Mouse) and infuses them with complexity and moral shadings. Anielica and the Pigeon are full-blooded characters who more than rise to the challenges the war offers, yet are still recognizable human beings. Their granddaughter, who is known only by her nickname "Baba Yaga" through most of the book, is so sweet and endearing that it's all you can do not to find some way to transport yourself into the book so as to protect her from any of the dangers of life.

The stories begin to bleed into each other, with themes repeating over the span of years, and snippets of family lore one hears about in Baba Yaga's section is filled out in detail in the grandparents'.

Pasulka's book is, in a lot of ways, a love letter to Poland, a country which up until now I had no opinion about ever visiting. More importantly, it's a love letter to grandparents. Even if you have a luke-warm (at best) view of your parent's parents, you'll be a sniveling mess by the end as Pasulka reveals the full extent of Anielica and the Pigeon's love for their granddaughter. Pasulka hints at how we can never fully know the depth and complexity of our grandparents' lives (apparently they did stuff before I was born? Huh.) and plays at what family stories can't capture and leave out. Needless to say, I have spent the last week since reading the book and walking up to random eighty-year-olds and thanking them for all they've done.

Yet perhaps the greatest gift Pasulka gave me was the fact that her book won the Pen/Hemingway Award. Two points!

*Answer: Kerry would have become an active leader in the Resistance, cutting off German supply lines and risking her life to communicate with the Allies. Brendan would have stood very still in a fountain and pretended to be a statue for fifty years.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

This Book is about What??

With the title, "A Married Man", I thought I knew the whole plot from the first page. Lucy Fellowes is a young widow struggling to begin the next chapter in her life, four years after the sudden death of her husband in a car accident. A man catches her eye, and she begins to hunt him down in the neighborhood shops, grocery stores, and cafes. When her mother-in-law offers the family housing at the family estate, Lucy jumps at the chance to move closer to this cute mystery man, Charlie. "A ha!" I thought. "He's a married man. I know where this is going."

200 pages later, I was certainly swept up in the dysfunction of the extended Fellowes family, but wondering when exactly Lucy and Charlie were going to have their moment. Things on that front were progressing slowly, but predictably. In the meantime, Lucy tried to understand her place within her in-law's family, make new friends, and find a job. With such realistic characters and circumstances, I was very committed to discovering what was in store for Lucy. It no longer was about Lucy and the married man...just Lucy and her life.

It became suddenly apparent that I had let the title lead myself astray from the actual plot. Married men are everywhere in this book: her late husband; Charlie; her father-in-law; her new boss; single men who want to become married men. Which married man did the author, Catherine Alliott, mean? Where is this all going?

It would be so easy to simply say this book is chick-lit and leave it at that. The plot, however, takes so many unexpected twists and turns in the final 100 pages, becoming at times a mystery and a drama. While the book did, ultimately, end the way I anticipated, the scenes leading to this conclusion were far from what I predicted.

This is the second Catherine Alliott book I've read this summer, and I'm beginning to wonder why her books aren't more widely available in the U.S. market. Has Jodi Picoult saturated this market?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Things Our Father Taught Us

Jim Brozina and our father have a lot in common: they're roughly men of the same age; both educators; love reading and sharing books with children; like bikes; and...and...and...are fathers. There, that's the best I can do to draw comparisons between our Dad and Jim, the father and co-creator of the father-daughter reading streak that led to the book, "The Reading Promise".

As a sixth grade teacher, Dad not only had firm knowledge of classic titles to share with us, but also kept pretty current with new authors and releases. We often went to the library as a family, and Dad was just as likely as Mom to suggest a title or offer a recommendation. Dad's reading corner in his classroom contained, I believed, the world's largest collection of thrillers for kids: books like "I Survived A Grizzly Attack! (and other tales of survival)". Looking back, there may have been only two or three of these books(and I'm paraphrasing the titles), most probably freebies from Scholastic Books, but I was riveted. A chance to peruse these books was one of the main reasons I so readily agreed to help with the summer cleaning and classroom prep (also: games; reading notes from kids; discovering graffiti; and lunch at McDonalds).

I give you these details because working together on a reading streak is precisely the kind of thing we would have done with our father, had it ever occurred to us. We're a competitive family, we like challenges, we like games...why not? As I made my way through the opening pages of Alice Ozma's literary account of her reading challenge with her own father, I couldn't help but wonder how our family would have made this our own. Popcorn and ice cream would have been involved somehow. We probably would have read a lot more in the morning (picture a parent reading while children are listening and dusting or weeding...we are also a family who multitasks). There would have been endless reminders not to dog ear the pages. (I'm of the mind that paper was meant to be folded. I've been somewhat rehabilitated, but we're all flawed. Right?) We probably would have taken turns being the reader, or at least switched sometimes. We might have also interrupted the reader to comment on the plot...a lot.

But, this is the story of a newly single dad who, whether by design or happenstance, helps his 9 year old daughter through this transition by reading aloud to her every night. Not that this was a new schedule for the pair, but they challenged each other to read for 100 consecutive nights, then 1,000, leading to a grand total of 3,000+ nights until she left for college. Told from the perspective of the daughter, Alice Ozma, their nine years of reading together are chronicled through tales of favorite titles, memorable moments, and slightly embarrassing times. Yet, this isn't a story of a happy father and happier daughter who become even happier by reading together. Ozma writes quite bluntly of her father's emotional distance; her mother's suicide attempt and later abandonment of the family; her much older (9 years) sister who fends for herself by making a life elsewhere; major financial hardship; and feeling like an outsider throughout most of her teenage years (more so than the rest of us). The book doesn't close on a happy note: the father is forced out of his job as school librarian and is in the process of figuring out the next chapter; the daughter is now a college graduate (and published author!) looking for a job through her personal website (as a former career counselor, this made me cringe).

While I loved the idea of this book, I wanted it to be so, so different. 9 years of reading together is certainly worthy of its own book. It could have been instructional, as so many parents need to be taught how to read to their children. It could have been more collaborative (the father does contribute a foreword), because I strongly wanted to hear the perspective of the adult in this reading duo. It could have been a young adult tale of survival, the kind of sensationalism I craved as a pre-teen ("My mother emailed her boyfriends, drank, and tried to kill herself...while my emotionally distant father read his books. I survived and you can, too!"). Instead, the publisher went with a 20 something writing autobiographically, using books as the anchor. This is very much a (well-written) personal diary that found its way to the printer's press. It's an interesting read as it stands, but could have been so much more so if Ozma had another 10 or 15 years of perspective on these very recent years of her life.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

My (Literary) Life as an EMT

According to my usual rules of literature (among them, bad things can't happen to children), I should have left "Rescue" in the stacks for some other, tougher reader. But, it's written by Anita Shreve, who is such a great teller of true-to-life stories, that I couldn't pass it up. Plus, I've taken her on before with no ill effects. I could handle this.

A little back story: I was in car accident last week. No injuries, except to cars, but it's been on my mind a lot ever since. This is a prime time for escaping into a book for a few minutes...and I go and choose one that starts with a car accident. Excellent.

Peter Webster has been raising his daughter on his own for over 15 years, following the departure of his wife, Sheila. Webster, an EMT, first met Sheila at the scene of her first DUI accident and her ensuing alcoholism and second DUI (with daughter, Rowan, in the car) makes Webster give up and send her away. Shreve tells a compelling story of Webster's attempt to rehabilitate Sheila, his tireless determination to be there for his daughter, making the best of his life in a small, isolated town. Readers can foreshadow life unraveling for Webster as Rowan's world becomes complicated with typical teenage angst with a side of why-did-my-mother-abandon-me emotions. Webster's such a nice, hard working guy that you want to reach in and shake him into action, into a different direction with his daughter.

But, for me, I had to focus on the EMT talk to get through the bad-things-can-happen-to-kids parts.

I love when an author really researches the setting well, whether it's the landscape, a profession, or a location. Based on my own strong knowledge of the medical world (you know, from ER and Grey's Anatomy and such), I fell right into the reassuring motions of a medical professional: assessing the scene, barking out orders, calmly taking action. Shreve pulls you into the life of an EMT, how Webster absolutely needs to be right there in the moment with his patient instead of wondering where his daughter might be drinking that night. The medical calls are a careful side story to the mini-breakdown going on in Webster's family, but weighty enough on their own that one gets invested in the outcome of each call. By the time that Webster, inevitably, is called to the rescue of his own daughter, readers are ready for it. I, for one, was grateful that Shreve glossed over the little bit of sadness at the end. Leave that story line for Jodi Picoult.

Another one down...but now I really need to find a Calgon-take-me-away book for a little literary R&R.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mayflower Descendants Make the Best Authors

I am the book marketer's dream because I so easily fall for shiny colors, fun fonts, quippy comments and snazzy stock photos. I have selected books for any number of reasons, but this is a first: I fell for the first line in the author's bio: "Abby Drake is a Mayflower descendant".

Of course I had to plop "The Secrets Sisters Keep" in my library bag.

Alas, there was no talk of John Alden, Myles Standish, or Remember Allerton (Don't know that last one? My daughter studied her this past year in third grade and will tell you all about her). No sly references to a plantation, Plymouth Rock or Thanksgiving. The author, Jean Stone writing as Abby Drake, is even a Massachusetts resident, but there were no allusions to the Bay State. This was just a straight up book about four sisters and the secrets and misunderstandings between them.

Now, I don't have a sister, but the literary world has led me to believe that there is something inherently different and special in the relationship between sisters ("My Sister's Keeper"; "Beezus and Ramona"), and that the more, the better ("Little Women"; "Pride and Prejudice"). My brother and I have had our share of secrets with each other*, but that can't compare to sisters.

So, I was ready to unlock the secrets of sisterhood, or at least debunk the myth a little. The story goes that the four sisters (Ellie, Amanda, Babe, and Carleen) are to be reunited after twenty years at the 75th birthday party of their uncle/benefactor, Edward. The youngest, Carleen, accidentally set fire to the family house as a teenager, resulting in the deaths of their parents and the ensuing wrath of her sisters. Despite being cleared by the courts, she is sent from the family by Uncle Edward and told to make a better life for herself elsewhere. Babe leaves for the West Coast, becoming a semi-famous actress. Ellie and Amanda lead fractured lives closer to home. Two decades later, they are brought together again.

As the secrets unfold, it becomes abundantly clear that this family has never been well. We learn that the sisters' failures are the same mistakes their parents made (and, in the weekend in which the story takes place, we watch the grandchildren repeat the cycle as well). I can usually find something in one of the main characters to like, but I grew tired of the selfishness, narcissism and just plain meanness of the characters. I hung on to one minor character, Ray, who, at the conclusion, holds the promise of redemption and renewal for one of the sisters-- and I desperately wanted him to run out of the book, away from these sisters who are bound to turn his life for the worse.

By the final pages, it's clear that this isn't really a book about secrets between sisters. It's secrets between adults, secrets that are kept regardless of the pain or harm they cause to children or other bystanders. It's a sad story of what happens when secrets become lies. The attempt to make a happy ending out of sharing the secrets felt, to me, just like putting a band aid on a surgical site. This just didn't work for me.

Lesson learned: Mayflower descendants don't necessarily tell the stories I want to read.

* That's obviously a lie. My brother is an open book, and I'm the one with a slightly translucent cover.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Arts and Crafts

Last summer, knowing Kerry's fondness for visual representations of books she's read and both of our sentimentality for summer reading programs, I made her a beautiful construction paper pirate ship. It said something like "Sail the Seven Seas With Reading!" and there were construction paper doubloons for her to attach for every book she read. I'm pretty sure this piece of art was left, ignored, at our parent's house for several weeks.

Realizing that the best presents are the ones you give yourself, I decided to make my own construction paper motivator for myself this year. The above frog represents the result of ninety minutes of work (don't let anyone tell you that kitchen shears can't be used for arts and crafts projects - they force you to cut more attentively and everyone appreciates the traces of salmonella on your project). Sure, the time could have been better spent reading, but every time I pass by Froggy, with his rejoinder to "Hop into Reading," and see the dead flies of my books clinging to his flaccid tongue, I am reminded of the importance of reading as its own reward (and also beating my sister).

Don't Mock the Mockingjay

Two years ago I read "The Hunger Games." I don't want to be melodramatic, but it was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life (and I include the time when my lung collapsed). Collins managed to take things I had previously considered benign aspects of our culture (reality television, beauty pageants, food shortages) and made them seething forces of evil. My memory of the reading experience was reading it till I got too tired, falling asleep, having nightmares involving what I had just read, waking up, and then picking up the book again.

Not wanting to disturb my sleep cycle any more than I needed to, I was slow to pick up its sequel, "Catching Fire." I liked it fine, perhaps because friends who read it had lowballed it. Sure, it wasn't as gripping as THG, but the bar had been set pretty high, in my opinion. Plus, it provided significant back story about supporting characters (Haymitch's experience in the games, the mayor's wife's illness, the meaning of the mockingjay pin), which is my cardinal rule for any sequels.

So reading "Mockingjay" dovetailed perfectly with the Summer Reading Challenge. I knew I would read it quickly so it would give me the requisite numbers, plus I was anxious to see how the series ended. I would say it was totally satisfactory, tying up all loose ends and taking its characters into unexpected developments. The last fifty pages, in particular, brought the characters in such unexpectedly morally ambiguous predicaments that I was faced with the "Toy Story 3" conundrum: not knowing what the right decision for the main characters to make.*

I think some of the disappointment in the latter two books of the trilogy lies in that nothing can match the initial spectacle and shock of THG. I was conscious of how often Collins referred to events of the first book to maintain her street cred. The third time she referenced The Most Horrifying Death Scene Ever** from THG I wasn't sure if she was doing it to illustrate Katniss' mental state or just remind the reader just How Awesomely Horrifying that scene was. Once the fighting kicked into overdrive, the novel succumbed to "Armageddon" syndrome, where peripheral characters who I wasn't even aware existed started dying. And while I've never seen or read "Battle Royale, " "Series 7," or "The Running Man," I know the debt THG owes all of them. To add to that list of influences, it was hard not to read the end of the book without echoes of "Cold Mountain" and "A Very Long Engagement" running through my mind.

That being said, I enjoyed reading it and would certainly recommend it to anyone (except Kerry, since it breaks one of her Cardinal Rules of Literature: killing children) interested in a fast-paced and thought provoking read. I anxiously await the movies so I can only talk loudly about how terrifying they are in front of Kerry (and then watch them through half-closed eyes).

*Seriously, "Toy Story 3" messed me up. I mean, the attic's not a terrible place, right? And that day care center seemed like a perfectly reasonable fate. I mean, it's not like you can just waltz into a situation and expect to go to be king of the hill, right?

**I don't want to spoil it for people who haven't read it yet, but I of course am referring to the part when Collins brutally kills off your favorite character and you realize you aren't reading your father's Young Adult novel.

For what it's worth, Cherry Jones is my pick for President Coin for the eventual film adaptation. Maybe that's because I've watched too much "24?"

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Road Trip #1

Ours was a road trip family. While I'm sure we spent time packing clothes and toothbrushes, what I really remember is the book prep. Getting ready for vacation meant at least three separate trips: 1) 2-3 days before departure, to the library for some books; 2) a bookstore, for a special book or two; and, 3) a second trip to the library minutes before closing the night before departure, where I'd return the books I'd already ready and take another dozen out. Many of our summer road adventures were in our maroon Omni. That hatchback may have given our parents loads of storage, but didn't offer much room in the back. Between the cooler taking up the leg space and the library books spilling out of their bags, Brendan and I hardly had elbow room. But, with the windows rolled down (no AC, of course) and our bodies firmly affixed by heat to the vinyl seats, we were plenty comfortable to read and read and read.

I just returned from our first road trip of the year with my kids (4, 4, and 9) and, while I followed the traditional three rules of preparation, I simply did not get enough reading done. Now sitting shot gun, I have loads more room, but having to play navigator to the driver and negotiator to the kids sucked up all the best car reading time. I was reduced to simply reading at night in the hotel room, and we all know those are the best hours to pilfer bathroom sundries and watch cable channels you can't get at home. I had packed three books and a loaded Kindle, and only finished one. Pitiful.

I had grabbed Catherine Alliott's "A Crowded Marriage" from my mother's library bag just before leaving town and had already slogged my way through the first 100 or so pages before the car backed out of the driveway. This would have been the perfect book to read during the car ride, had I the chance to read. A tried and true plot line (woman questions whether husband's friendship with ex-girlfriend is more than that), one doesn't have to expend much energy to remember plot twists while also retaining what exit the driver needs to take next. The characters are typical, but have a few quirks and details that make them fun. While the ending was nice and neat, it wasn't the conclusion you'd necessarily anticipate; the fast moving final 50 pages brought the characters to their own happily ever after.

So, even though I read the majority of this book late at night while trying to unwind after ten hours at an amusement park, I still count this as a strong contender for your road trip book bag this summer. I'd read more of Alliott's work, but it's somewhat limited in the U.S. market-- leading me to leave this post and commence researching why a title that has a Kindle option on Amazon UK can't be downloaded in the U.S. Can't we all just get along?

Monday, June 27, 2011

On the Board with "The Great Night"

I found out about "The Great Night" via one of those summer reading lists to which I too easily fall prey (helpful hint to magazine editors: if you want me to read your book, see your movie, or listen to your album put it in a list of "Thirty Things You Must Do/See/Read Right Now!"). And while these lists have led me to read half of well-publicized, yet poorly written, novels in the past, this one did not lead me astray. "The Great Night" is a fantastic book crammed with long sections of gorgeous passages that punch you in the solar plexus.

Now for the difficult part. "The Great Night" is a modern retelling of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," set in San Francisco's Buena Vista Park. I know, I know - it sounds lame, but it's THE EXACT OPPOSITE. The way Adrian has the fairies (stay with me) interact with the human world is so poignant and heartbreaking that it causes you to view your surroundings through different eyes. I don't know if I'm ever capable of looking at a squirrel the same way again.

I'm not big on giving plot descriptions, especially for a book where so much of the fun is seeing how he slowly unveils the characters' interconnectivity. But suffice to say that the three lovers, all heartbroken for different reasons, are endearing and it's relevatory how he can make their very unique stories of pain so relatable. Molly's childhood was excerpted in the "New Yorker" a while back, causing Adrian to be named one of their "20 Under 40" (I was named "Most Improved" in my Freshman Kayaking class, so I too know what it's like to be acclaimed.)

Would it help or hurt if I said it's like if David Cronenberg directed Shakespeare's comedy? Because some of the fairies are so grotesque that I was literally biting my fist, eyes scrunched up in horror, while reading sections. Or that the Mechanicals are a group of homeless people putting on a musical version of "Soylent Green?" Okay, my trump card: there are a couple of group sex scenes. Did I lose you? Or just add fuel to the fire?

Sleep Neglected

I awoke last night to the wondrous sounds of nature: a fox capturing its midnight feast. Grabbing a book from my library bag, I came upon "Left Neglected", Lisa Genova's most recent novel. So much for getting back to sleep...

Her debut novel, "Still Alice", captivated me with the detail of emotions that Alice felt as Alzheimer's took over her brain. In her second book to focus on a neurological problem (Genova, herself, has a PhD in Neuroscience), Sarah is a stereotypical high-powered business executive in her late 30s who is caught up in the craze of breaking through the glass ceiling while parenting three young children with her equally career-and-status focused husband. The couple squeeze all they can out of each waking moment, multi-tasking to the nth degree to send one more email, close one more deal, and complete one more project. This all comes to a terrifying halt when Sarah suffers a brain injury in an entirely preventable car accident, resulting in a condition called Left Neglect where she has no recognition of the left side of her body. Sarah's brain doesn't recognize the left of anything, making it difficult to read, dress, eat, track action in a room-- most every simple action is a challenge.

As a scientist, Genova provides very precise examples of this very real medical condition. As a writer, her descriptions make you ache for Sarah as she struggles to make progress with her rehabilitation. For me, Sarah was not a likable character in the beginning. Her choices in how she raised her children, especially with her son who is experiencing his own difficulties, made it hard for me to care whether she was good at her job or that she tried to make it home for a soccer game (to be fair, I felt the same way about her husband, Bob). It's sad that it required a traumatic brain injury for Sarah and Bob to question the direction and path of their lives.

Without revealing too many facts, it's Sarah's mother who most captured me. Sarah's adult life is very much defined by a horrible event that happened to her family when she was a small child, after which her mother spiraled into a terrible depression. Her mother returns to help with the aftermath of Sarah's own devastating accident, and it's the evolution of this relationship that most interested me of all the other storylines.

(Brendan, we need to talk about awarding points for books in which tragic things happen to young children. And, seriously, are you stockpiling posts again? Some would say you're eerily silent.)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sometimes You Can't Judge a Book by its Cover

On Friday, I took my kids to the library to sign up for the summer reading program, six days after it began (we are so far behind). While I'm not sure my memory is entirely accurate, I remember registering on the very first day of the program (ok, sometimes two, as we visited two libraries regularly) to ensure that every book I read during the summer went toward my final tally so I could win! It's unfortunate the librarians in my world didn't want to make their library a competitive arena.

In any event, we went to the library, took care of business, and searched for books. I gave myself three minutes to choose my titles (which included walking time from the children's room). I limited myself to the new releases, figuring there would be a decent mix of "point worthy" books on the shelf. In my final seconds, I grabbed a colorful spine-- yellows and blues, funky lettering, and a drawing of a summer hat-- to counter some of the denser selection already in my bag.

And this is where karma paid me a visit.

Title ("The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus") and cover (drawings of popcorn, a fan, and a thong) aside, I recognized the author, Sonya Sones, as a recognized writer for young adults. Well, to be completely honest, I remembered that she had been involved in some censorship issues with one of her YA books. That was about it. The cover sold me, so in my bag it went.

It should come as no surprise that I chose to read this book first. I had perfect reading conditions: the house was quiet; kids were conked out; husband busy with work. I settled in, opened the book...and discovered that Sonya Sones is more accurately described as an author who writes in verse. Page after page after page of verse. Now, I do read poetry and actually find it admirable that Sones' writes YA novels in verse. It just wasn't what I was expecting...or wanting.

But I continued (both because I don't like reading multiple books at a time and because I was already cozy). Holly is at a transition in life: she's 50; her only child is heading to college; her mother's health is declining; her husband seems distant. Holly's world is changing and she's struggling to keep pace. Verse actually helps define the emotional chaos in Holly's life, how she segments each problem in her life. She seems incapable of looking at her life as a whole, that perhaps she's so overwhelmed she can only handle snippets of her challenges (and occasional celebrations) at a time. By the end of the final poem, I knew Holly pretty well (it was like reading a really, really long diary). I had a passing knowledge of the other characters, although arguably less than I would have had in prose form.

Curiosity will bring me eventually to Sones' YA titles, but Brendan will probably blow a gasket if I attempt to log any of them, regardless of their length. And, speaking of book length, Hunchback was 420 pages...two points!

Thursday, June 23, 2011


I tried. I really and truly tried. I made a few notes about what profound literary tomes I'd read this summer. I picked up a few titles honored in recent book awards. I had high, high hopes of astounding you (and if you're reading, I mean you) with my change of pace. This would be proof that I do, in fact, read books other than pink, glittery odes to the life of a single girl. Or divorced girl. Or recently married, not-sure-if-she-wants-to-have-a-baby girl.

But, I wanted to read a book that recently consumed the evenings of my almost-double-digit daughter and it just so happened to be the first book I began upon the start of this summer's challenge. If you're an adult mystery fan or the parent of an elementary school reader, you've probably heard of Rick Riordan. Riordan is the king of the authors for reluctant readers, offering plots that go beyond the humor and science fiction genres usually popular with these kids. He has equally strong male and female characters of all ages. He mixes fantasy with history, magic with mythology, really smart minds with nice, solid average kids. There's practically a character for any kind of student, but they all have a compelling role in his stories. Above all, the writing is strong, the plots complex, and the series go on and on. What's not to love?

Last year, my daughter and I read through his Percy Jackson series and became immersed in the 39 Clues. I'm usually not a fan of abject commercialism, but I loved the idea beyond the books in the 39 Clues series, how readers could join in the quest through a website and trading cards. It brings the plot to life in ways that Harry Potter fans could only dream of (until today). While Riordan only wrote one of the books, he conceived the overall story and other authors have written the subsequent books (under their own name, in an attempt to broaden reading interest).

His latest series, The Kane Chronicles, follows a similar trajectory, beginning with the first book, The Red Pyramid. Between the numerous characters and the references to Ancient Egypt, I should have used a character list to track them all (and just discovered one on the series' website). However, and this is important to a younger or more reluctant reader, all of these characters didn't muddle the plot. The twists and turns of the story, and its reliance on ancient times, make for some complex plot jumps, but Riordan nicely repeats important tidbits throughout to remind the reader of salient points. I read this book over the course of one week (at 500+ pages, it's a hefty challenge to any reader) and, I have to admit, I'm ready to delve into the second book in the trilogy. Now that it's officially summer vacation, I might turn this into a read aloud book with my daughter, who is just as eager to start learning again about the future of Sadie and her brother, Carter.

Family time. Wholesome entertainment. It's worthy of one point, don't you think?

Too Quiet on the Eastern Front

The contest has been going on for a week, during which I've managed to read 80 pages of "The Great Night," or approximately 14 pages a day. This has caused me to remember an offhand comment my mother made my senior year in high school about how 40 pages a night is a reasonable expectation for an English teacher to ask of her students.* So it's nice to have spent the last week in not only a mild state of paranoia that Kerry has been effortlessly stockpiling books by women named Plum but also knowing that I''m not even meeting standards set for kids half my age.

In any case, I have vowed to be more strategic this year, and not let Kerry steamroll me as effortlessly as she did last summer. When I've told friends that we're resuming the contest,** their faces scrunch up in a mixture of pity and anguish, knowing full well I am pursuing a goal for which I am woefully ill-suited. Have I thought about giving Ultimate Fighting a shot, they gently inquire? Wouldn't my time be better spent learning Dutch?

Well, the joke's on all of you! This summer I will triumph! I will scour the Young Adult section of my library looking for large print copies of 301 page books. I shall snag celebrity memoirs and slim anthologies of poetry.

And I will read more than eight books this summer.

*The remark was probably in direct response to me complaining about my slog through "Crime and Punishment," yet another of the classics that I started and never finished. The pawnbroker fakes her own death for insurance purposes, right?

**Or, as they refer to it, "that stupid contest." One friend was kind enough to point out that our twitter handle, "SiblingsWhoRead," could also be read as "Siblings Whore Ad." I have surrounded myself with a nurturing support network.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Summer 2011: Let the Reading Begin!

Did you miss us? Have you wondered what we've been reading lately? Could you just not wait until the reading program season began again?

Brendan and I have agonized (if it's possible to do that in three minutes) over this summer's rules and challenges. For those of you who don't have total recall over last summer's challenge, Kerry is a super fast reader whose page turning is only impeded by the occasional need to sleep and raising three kids. Brendan absorbs and savors every single word on the page, which is fitting for his career as an actor and wordsmith...but makes him an unlikely reading contest winner. In reviewing the book tally of the 2010 Challenge, in which Kerry read three times as much as Brendan, we decided to tweak the 2011 rules:

1. The Summer 2011 Reading Adventure begins on Saturday, June 18 (in keeping with the schedule of our hometown library) and ends on Labor Day, Monday, September 5.
2. Kerry can only include books that she begins on or after June 18. Brendan can record anything.
3. Any adult book can be considered, provided it has an ISBN.
4. Any young adult book can be considered, provided it is over 300 pages.
5. Any genre of writing counts! We are not reading snobs.
6. Each contestant enters his/her reading log through this blog and is responsible for updating the count total and submitting a post.
7. Each contestant will suggest one title (that s/he previously has read) that the other contestant must read.
8. The contestants will agree to reading one title in common.
9. Each contestant must read at least one non-fiction title.
10. Keeping with the circa 1982 requirements of our hometown library's summer reading program, each contestant must create an artistic rendering of a favorite scene from one of the logged books.

This final rule is probably our most exciting change to this summer's challenge, and one that will keep all our readers in great suspense until the final hours of the adventure. (Yes, I'm totally serious.)

11. Each book will be awarded points based on a sliding scale.
And, finally:

12. The Summer 2011 Reading Adventure will be celebrated in the fall with, of course, an ice cream party.