Monthly Archives: February 2017

CBR9 #8: The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough

realmHere’s another book that I liked and I don’t know why.  Something about the structure worked well for me.  It felt like the book was made up of slices and I only had a vague sense of the timeline, and I liked that.  Time is told through New England weather and I wonder if readers from places where there are no seasons got stuck trying to figure out how long this story lasted.

The plot is one of frustration.  Kristen and Cal have relocated from California to Massachusetts.  They’re in their fifties and this was not an expected move, but Kristen lost her job in higher ed administration, and you move to where the next job is, even when it’s a step down.  I don’t think Cal has a job.  He exists.

This was one of the things I liked about this book.  Kristen never defines or explains her second marriage.  We know when her first marriage ended, it was a complete shock and even looking back decades later, she doesn’t see any warning signs of what was coming.  With Cal, it’s simpler.  They ask for what they need.  If there is silence, it’s because no one wants anything.  Cal detests Kristen’s work and academic life, but rather than punish her, he simply waits to see if she will want to talk about things.  Kristen seems to like this freedom within her marriage, although there are times when she wonders what it would be like to love something as much as Cal loves music.

It was fascinating to watch them together because they seemed completely separate, and yet others saw their partnership.  Perhaps neither one could see it until someone outside showed them.

Kristen finds herself frustrated and lonely in her new world.  Cal has music and is remodeling and fixing their new house.  Kristen has her work, but there’s little comfort there as she tries to adjust to a small Massachusetts college.

A flooded basement leads her to a new friendship with a younger neighbor.  Matt is also alone, even among his friends.  His choices led to losing his job, marriage and kids, and so he keeps to himself and is on pause.  He knows he can’t go back, so he doesn’t bother to move forward.

Kristen is the first person he’s met who both needs him and is entirely self-sufficient.  Their friendship brings comfort and then an affair.  Kristen logically examines the end of her marriage while we see a few slices of Cal’s story and reactions.

What I liked the most about this book is that we never get the full story of Cal and Kristen.  There is a huge reveal about Cal that was fascinating.  There was a earlier reveal, but it’s old news when we find out about it, so it sits in the background until we learn the other story.  I was impressed at how Yarbrough constructed Cal’s personality.  He’s filled with music and disgust.  We see his depression and action.  He seems completely still and I wondered how much of his life he had lived letting things happen to him.  I wanted to know how he and Kristen chose each other, and yet it didn’t matter.

There is extreme violence in this story, and yet the book felt calm and slow, and I can’t figure out how or why.  Yarbrough laid out a clear path for his characters and then took his time following it.  There are a few flashbacks and side steps, but it moves forward and the ending makes sense.  If I had read this when I was younger, I don’t think I would have liked the ending at all.  It works for me now because it’s realistic and shows that life simply is sometimes.

 

Does The Dog Die Spoiler:

There is a dog.  Nothing bad happens to the dog.  Hooray!

CBR9 #7: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

my-grandmotherI don’t know why I liked this book.  It’s sweet.  It’s as far from cynical as one can get.   It’s… nice.

But the characters aren’t.  They are sarcastic.  And angry.  Super dysfunctional.  And really funny.

Seven year old Elsa tells this story and she is hilarious.  She’s far too smart for her age and finds other seven year olds to be boring and useless.  Adults aren’t much better, especially the ones at school.

Granny is her savior.  Granny doesn’t have time for rules.  Spelling is a suggestion.  Tormenting her neighbors in the apartment building is a must.  Sneaking out with Elsa in the middle of the night to break into the zoo is logical.

Within the first few paragraphs, I knew Granny wasn’t long for this world.

Sure enough, Elsa overhears a conversation and has to look up lots of information about cancer.  Granny gives her a letter and Elsa is sent on an adventure to tell people she only knows by sight that Granny has asked her to tell them she’s sorry.

Elsa learns that a seven year old doesn’t really know much about a grandmother.  She wasn’t always a grandmother.  She wasn’t a great mother.  The woman Elsa got is not the woman Elsa’s mother got, and that’s hard for anyone to process.

She learns more about her neighbors and pieces things together from the vivid stories Granny told her from the magical land she created.  No one has ever had much of a choice when Granny made a decision, so even now Elsa has to finish her quest and those who knew Granny are forced to participate.

There were points where the book made me laugh out loud and more than a few places where I sniffled through.  I didn’t understand why Granny was sending Elsa off on this adventure and why she didn’t sort things out on her own before she died, but on the other hand, it’s hard to turn away a dead woman’s apology being delivered by a seven year old.

I liked how all the pieces came together and the realistically happy ending.  Elsa’s world is much bigger and an apology from the afterlife helped a lot of Granny’s friends move forward.

The only part that didn’t work for me were a few moments where I didn’t know if Elsa’s voice was truthful.  Not having kids, I don’t know what serious conversations between a seven year old and her mother are like.  It mostly felt true, especially when her mother broke down and said she didn’t know how to talk about this stuff.  But other times I wasn’t sure how the reality of the story fit through Elsa’s narrative.  Another character couldn’t suddenly step in to explain it, so there were a few times I felt like a sentence didn’t quite fit.

If you liked Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, give this one a try.  There are some similarities, but Granny does not have the 9/11 backdrop.

 

 

Does The Dog Die Spoiler:

Unfortunately there is a not a book version of Does The Dog Die.  There’s a dog in this book.  The dog does not make it to the end of the book.  My friends are legally obligated to tell me if an animal in a book gets hurt or dies, so I freely pass this service on to you.

CRB9 #6: The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes

ravenI am so ambivalent about this book that it’s taken me several minutes to compose this first sentence.  I want to read some satisfying fiction, and this was not it.

We start out in 1941 with our protagonist Juliet blowing stuff up in the science lab at school.  I am on board with this.  I’m thinking this is going to be a book about a woman doing science during the war having to deal with everything this entails.

This is not what the book is about.  It’s confusing that Vanderbes started out with such a strong setting and gives Juliet a brilliant mind and then makes the book not about that.

Juliet has an older brother named Tuck and he is her entire world.  Their dad is loving, but quiet and reserved.  Their mom died when Juliet was three, and her dad’s new wife is decent, but there’s not demonstrative love in this house.  This is a house of science, and calm, rational discussion.

I get the sense that Tuck gets to experience and feel more things because he’s a boy and star of all the sports, so he can move quickly and speak loudly.  He gets to make decisions and take action and Juliet is there to support him.

Things happen to Juliet, and that’s my biggest complaint about this book.

Even when she takes action, I never felt like it was her own choice.  Tuck made decisions, so she made her decisions based on him.  I never really got to know Juliet even though the entire book is her perspective.  I didn’t feel frustrated when she did.  There were a few moments where I felt her anger, but she seemed so detached from everything.

But then again, it’s WWII and detachment might mean survival.

We’ve got the basic war plot where Tuck signs up and heads off.  Letters stop coming.  A telegram comes.  He’s missing, which is sometimes worse than death.

Juliet has decided to become a nurse.  She didn’t know she had decided to become a nurse.  She said it out loud and, oh hey, she’s going to become a nurse.

Again, she is super smart and I wanted more of that scientific brilliance to show through.

So she becomes a nurse and she plans on doing domestic nurse things until she turns 18 and can join the Nurse Corps.  Now that Tuck is missing?  What if she were to lie about her age and keep putting in for transfers until she gets as close as possible to where he last was?

Can that happen?  I don’t have any prior knowledge here, but this seemed really unlikely.  I liked the idea.  Tuck is her world, so of course she’s going to go look for him, but would this work?

Before Tuck went missing he sent Juliet a really weird letter.  He referred to Raven Point, their childhood safe place.  He used the code phrase they invented but not in a context that made sense.  Juliet reads it again and again trying to puzzle out what he was trying to tell her.  It didn’t match any of his other letters and they’d never had a face to face conversation like this.  She decides that he must be asking for her help, which fuels her to get as close to battle as possible.

She’s thrown in with a good cast of characters but she remains distant, which meant I remained distant from her.  I never got the sense that she loved her job or was proud of what she did.  It felt flat to me.

I’m reading and waiting for the secret of Raven Point to be revealed.  Conveniently, a member of Tuck’s platoon shows up, only Tuck has never written about him.  She knows everything about the other men, but nothing about this guy.  Also, he’s in a coma-like state.  Juliet is convinced that if she can unlock his mind, she’ll find Tuck.

I had checked out of the book long before this, but half-heartedly finished because I was interested in the secret and what kind of resolution comes with a missing-in-action brother.  I also realized I’d be able to finish it in one read, which was good because if I had put it down, I wouldn’t have gone back to it.

The did like the final few pages, which was in itself a let down because I thought the rest of the book could have done better.  The problem with the last bit though was that it was a bunch of telling and tying things up with pretty bows.

Eh.

Not a horrible book, just not for me.  Unless I am completely on board with a main character, I’m going to have a hard time with the story.