Tag Archives: fiction

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.

 

CBR9 #4: The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson

booksellerIt’s such a bummer when you read a book that’s just “eh”.

If it’s something you hate, you can decide if you want to cast it out of your life and be done with it or if you want to revel in how bad it is, knowing you’ll be able to write a fun review. (See Dan Brown. And also Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy.)

But an “eh” book is tough because maybe it’ll get better. Maybe there will be a twist or an ending that’s satisfying.  Or maybe you’ll finish it and it won’t be great and you’ll be mad you spent time on a book that wasn’t your thing.

That is  what I have been struggling with while reading The Bookseller. It’s not a bad book. I’m curious about the conflict and unknown. It’s not the type of book where I don’t care about the characters.

But… eh.

It’s human nature to wonder about the life we don’t have.  The one we’d be living in today if we had chosen a different college.  Taken the bus instead of walking.  Not answered the phone.  Got the job.  Turned left instead of right.

Kitty is currently living both of these lives right now, only one version is an incredibly real dream.  Here, she’s married and has children.  She somehow knows how to be a wife and mother.  She is deeply in love with her husband.  There is an easiness here.  Bills are paid.  Grocery lists are organized by meal.  Days are scheduled.  She is Kathryn.

In Kitty’s waking world, there is confusion.  She and her best friend are struggling to keep their bookstore open.  There are no dates.  No love.  But there is friendship and the familiar and she’s never felt miserable.  Just… maybe not completely whole.

Kathryn, however, is complete.  Dependable.  She knows what to do and what to say.  How to be a mother.

But something is wrong here and Kitty is having a hard time keeping up with the rules of the dream.

And then the book turned and went from being “eh” to becoming “What in the hell?”

Kitty starts remembering things in Kathryn’s world that she shouldn’t know.  Then she starts forgetting things in her waking world.  She’s lost two days, sort of.  She knows she must have gone to work, but doesn’t remember how she got there.  Dreaming, Kathryn can’t remember how to drive from the park to the grocery store, but she knows what kind of shoes to get for her kid.

Clearly something was going to be decided and I couldn’t tell what it was.  Was Kathryn dead?  Was Kitty dead?  Did Kitty get to decide to go to sleep and never wake up and stay as Kathryn?  Would Kathryn overthrow Kitty?  Was she in a mental institution?  Was ANY of this real?

I burnt through the last third of the book because I could not figure out what was real.  Or was ANY of it real?

I liked being confused, even if I was worried Swanson wasn’t going to be able to end it in a way that made sense.

I liked the setting of this one a lot.  It’s early 1960’s and women don’t have it super awesome.  Kitty and her best friend have their own bookstore, but had to have Frieda’s father cosign because women can’t get loans.  They’re in their thirties and unmarried and there’s a mix of freedom and “Oh, how sad.”

And there are infuriating moments where women are blamed for things they have no control over.  I thank science for figuring out that A did not happen because of B.  Things happened in Kitty’s dream life of Kathryn that made me clench my jaw because I’m sure women are still told it’s their fault if they need to get a c-section.  And that it’s the mother’s fault if things aren’t right at home.  And the wife’s fault if there is unease in the marriage.  It’s worse here though because there is no one telling her that this is all bullshit.  Little details that made the book feel honest.

This is another addition to the “What if…” conversations that we will continue to have.  What would your life be like if you kissed that person?  What if you had ordered the chicken instead of the pasta?  If you had left your house ten minutes before you did?  If you had taken the later flight?

And what would you do if you dreamt an entirely different life?  Would you wake up?

 

CBR9 #3: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

miniaturistI don’t know how to write this review.

Partly this is a physical problem.  I have an injured dog wearing a cone trying to get as close to me as possible, forcing me to twist toward the keyboard which will result in muscle rebellion later.  (He scratched his eye and will be fine, but is so very pitiful right now.)

But more than that, this book is hard to describe because of how different and solitary it is.  I keep pausing to find my adjectives and debate connotation over denotation.  It’s a strange book, but that’s not quite the right word.  It’s not something brand new, but it is very much its own thing.  I’m not madly in love with it, but these characters are absolutely going to live in my mind and I know I’m going to be wondering what came next.  Burton did something that’s now part of me, and not all authors win the rights to my brain space this way.

It’s 1686.  Nella is 18 and newly married.  A quick ceremony and her husband is off without a wedding night or even a kiss at the ceremony.  Nella leaves home to join him in Amsterdam.  Her father is recently dead, leaving the family with an old name and endless debts.  Her mother wrote letters, found a solution for her eldest, and here she is, standing in front of her husband’s house, waiting for someone to open the door.

Her husband’s house.  Her house?

Instead of the comforts of wealth she may have expected, she is met by a cold sister who has no interest in kindness or conversation.  Is Nella to be the mistress or merely a child in Marin’s way?  What does Marin want?

And where is her husband?  And why doesn’t Marin know where her brother is?

So many secrets and confusion for both me and Nella and I found myself quickly wondering if there would be any happy endings in this book.

I am the worst at piecing together mysteries and rarely figure out the secrets ahead of time.  I was searching for clues throughout these pages and while I had guessed at a few, I had no idea what the full truth was.  Burton is very careful with her slipped in clues and sentences that I had to go back to later.

Something is wrong in this house, but also on the streets and canals of Amsterdam.  There is money, but there is also fear of God.

Nella receives gifts that she doesn’t understand.  Items that she ordered, but then others that are too real.  Someone knows what she doesn’t and can see into rooms that Nella thinks are closed.  She tries to puzzle out the meanings of the pieces and cannot tell if she is being warned or if she is being toyed with.

Money is power but secrets are worth more.  Nella comes to her husband’s house with few skills and grasps for friendship and knowledge anywhere she can find it.  Her husband, when he is there, is kind, but something is wrong.  Marin and Johannes fight and I was as lost as Nella trying to figure out their relationship.  They each protect the other, but from what?  What secrets do they share and what’s being hidden?  Who is running the business and who keeps the family safe?

And still the gifts come.

***

One of the strengths of this book was that all of the characters were well developed and written.  I didn’t hate anyone, mostly because I was so confused.  I knew Marin had a past and there must be a reason for her to behave the way she does, especially toward Nella.  And her actions felt so real.  There were moments of… not kindness, but a sort of understanding where it was clear she didn’t wish harm on Nella, but painfully understood that Nella was in no way prepared for the truths behind closed doors.  Her anger with her brother was also shot through with love and I knew that something must have happened that Marin was trying to either make up for or protect him from.  Or punish him with?  It depended on the sentence.

Nella was a perfect slate for the story to be written on because she was a complete outsider.  Nothing was familiar to her, and things she was expecting from a marriage weren’t there.  She had to piece things together, and because the setting of the story was completely unfamiliar to me as well, I was right there with her in confusion.  She’s not a child, but with her lack of knowledge, she might have been a schoolgirl still learning basic lessons.  She struggles to keep her feet beneath her and hang on to her dignity.  She has value and she knows if she can just find a crack to dig into or a corner to call her own, she’ll be OK.

But eventually things begin to slip out from behind closed doors and Nella has to decide what to do in order to keep the family intact.

 

CBR9 #2: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

aristotle-and-danteFew things are as satisfying as starting a book and realizing you’re going to sit there and read it straight through.  It is such a wonderful moment where you know this is your life’s purpose for the next few hours and you can measure your next bit of existing by the number of pages the author has handed to you.  It didn’t take me long to know I’d be with Aristotle and Dante and Sáenz until the last word.

Ari is 15.  He’s bored and miserable.  He can’t figure himself out or anyone else.  He can throw a punch, so everyone leaves him alone, and this makes him happy.  He doesn’t understand how people interact with each other.  What they talk about.  How they’re supposed to feel.  So he hopes things will change but you can tell he doesn’t really even know what that would mean either.

Happily he has a great relationship with his mom.  She worries about him, but there’s lots of love there.  Several times during this book I wondered what Ari’s life would be if he didn’t have her.  His dad?  That one is confusing.  He’s back from Vietnam, but he’s not really back.  He and Ari try, but for Ari, it’s easier to avoid and wonder why his mom fell in love with the guy in the first place.

Ari is waiting for things to change.  For summer to end.  For it not to be so hot.

And then he meets Dante and… Ari doesn’t know what’s happening.  Are things changing?  Is this how you act when you have a friend?

Dante is different from anyone Ari has ever met.  He gets excited about things.  He wants to talk about everything.  He shares his thoughts and ideas and experiences.  He wants Ari to do the same.

Ari doesn’t get it.  He doesn’t want to share.  He’s worried that he doesn’t have anything to share.  Maybe he’s so entirely different that if he did share, Dante would realize there is something wrong with him and decide he didn’t want to hang around.

But that doesn’t happen.  Suddenly Ari is laughing all the time.  He’s reading books he didn’t know about.  He’s thinking more about who he is and why he acts the way he does.  He doesn’t like that part so much.

He wants to know the secrets in his family.  Dante is always asking questions, but Ari stopped asking long ago.

And then he finds out Dante is leaving at the end of the summer.  Ari doesn’t know how he’s supposed to feel.  How to react.  He’s sad and excited for Dante.  Jealous.  Relieved.  He doesn’t know how to be a friend.  He won’t have to answer questions.

And after the accident happens, he won’t have to see Dante cry.

School starts.  There are letters.  Ari wants to go back to who he was, but he didn’t know who he was before Dante and he doesn’t know who he is now.

More time passes.  More confusion.  Anger.  Relief.

And then Dante is back.

***

Oh, this book.  Ari is a complicated and carefully written character.  The way he questions everything without wanting to think is both confusing and true.  Sáenz has created a strict set of rules for Ari and does not break them.  There’s sadness and sometimes you see hope.  Ari is afraid of hope.  He’s afraid of Dante.  Of not being friends with Dante.  Of not knowing how to be a friend or how to talk to people.  Of being normal.  Of not being normal.

Dante on the other hand?  Pure and open and honest.  Sure, he has a few things he keeps to himself, but other than that?  If he thinks it, he says it.  His questions don’t stay locked up.  He wants to know favorite colors and deepest fears.  Ari is a puzzle.  Ari is a friend and Dante wants Ari to be open and honest.  Dante has the social constructs down for friendship, but Ari is hesitant because he knows some questions aren’t supposed to be asked.

The parents in this book are so awesome.  Mistakes are made, but there is so much love there.  Knowing Ari and Dante had their parents before they had each other is comforting.

Watching Ari navigate and distrust friendship spins perfectly around the secrets in his own family.  How can you be a friend if you don’t know what happened when you were too little to remember?  How can you be open and trusting when your mom shuts down when your brother’s name is mentioned?  Who is your dad and why do you only get to see parts of him?

Everything about this book… struggles of growing up, coming of age, anger, first kisses, school, fights, family, pure confusion and terror of being a teen.  Sáenz is gifted.  He created a world and made me care about everyone.

I’m really curious about what’s in store for Ari and Dante in There Will Be Other Summers.

M

CBR9 #1: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

I’ve got a ton of nonfiction in a pile next to my bed but I decided I really needed some fiction to take the edge off my anxiety.

This wasn’t the best choice.

I mentioned this on Facebook and my friends wanted to know if I had fallen down and hit my head because why would I think a Judy Blume book would be calming?  I tried to disprove them and then I remembered:

  • Iggie’s House – racism
  • Superfudge – dead turtle
  • Blubber – Mean Girls before Mean Girls was a thing
  • Sheila the Great – big ol’ liar
  • Tiger Eyes – dead dad
  • Sally J. Freedman – racism, maybe Hitler, sick kids

I could continue.

Happily for my mental health, Judy Blume is an amazing writer and even if the subject wasn’t calming, the book was great and worth my while.

in-the-unlikely-eventIn December of 1951, again in January 1952, and for a third time in February of the same year, planes crashed in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  This is true and Blume was an eighth grader living there when it happened.

Something like that doesn’t leave a person, and when you’re an author, it can hang around long enough to become a book.

In the Unlikely Event follows a slew of characters that could have fit into any book.  We get to see them through the lens of the crashes.

Miri is in ninth grade and this could have easily been her book, no plane crashes needed.  She’s at that age where she loves and trusts her mom, but is starting to see her as a person and not an all powerful being.  She wants to know more about her absent, not mentioned dad and is trying to figure out what it means to be getting older and what happens the first time you fall in love.  She has a tight group of girl friends, but things are changing there.  They’ve all been in a familiar path with routines and parts to play, but things aren’t staying the same and Miri wonders if she should be upset by it.  Of course having her first ever boyfriend helps, even if her best friend sees him as a problem.

If Blume had chosen to follow Miri, this would have been a solid book.  I liked her a lot and related to the joys and horrors of the teenage years.  She didn’t need the plane crashes to guide her decisions, but the way she reacts to them is in line with they way her character is written.

Along with Miri, we have sections from:

  • Her mother Rusty and grandmother Irene
  • The Osner family – senior in high school Steve, Miri’s best friend Natalie, Dr. O the town dentist, Mrs. O his beautiful wife, and young daughter Fern who was probably a big surprise.
  • Mason – Miri’s first love
  • Ruby the beautiful dancer
  • Leah – Miri’s uncle’s girlfriend
  • Henry – Miri’s uncle
  • Christina – young assistant in Dr. O’s office
  • Daisy – Dr. O’s long time assistant
  • And a few other characters that get to share a bit from these months

I should have written this list earlier because I kept confusing Leah, Christina and Daisy, which makes no sense because they are so incredibly different from each other.

The structure of the book is interesting because Blume didn’t need the plane crashes.  She’s created a cast of characters that are solid and true and everything that happens, with one exception, would have happened anyway.

But then, that’s the point.  When tragedy happens, everything changes but nothing changes.  You still have to get up and eat.  Dogs need to be walked.  Teeth need to be cleaned.  There are dances to go to and boyfriends to kiss.  Secrets to keep.

What the crashes do is show how each character responds to the every day boring moments as well as the defining moments.  Blume’s talent is that they all react truthfully based on who she has created them to be.

Later, when Miri is faced with an entirely different crisis, the crashes have given her a foundation to react from.  Would she have responded the same way had she not dealt with the terror and confusion of death?  Seeing a crash, losing people she knew and having the terror of not knowing if people you love are alive are thrown against “normal” family secrets, lies and panic.

For me, this was Miri’s book.  The other characters have good story arcs and I liked their sections, but I was all about Miri.  She’s a good kid with normal teenage girl thoughts, feelings and reactions, and like all of us, she has to learn who she is and redefine family and friendship as she gets older.  We all went through it.  She just had to do it with wreckage strewn across her town.