mini-review · stuff I read

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

46265702._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
From Jennifer Weiner, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Who Do You Love and In Her Shoes, comes a smart, thoughtful, and timely exploration of two sisters’ lives from the 1950s to the present as they struggle to find their places—and be true to themselves—in a rapidly evolving world. Mrs. Everything is an ambitious, richly textured journey through history—and herstory—as these two sisters navigate a changing America over the course of their lives.

Do we change or does the world change us?

Jo and Bethie Kaufman were born into a world full of promise.

Growing up in 1950s Detroit, they live in a perfect “Dick and Jane” house, where their roles in the family are clearly defined. Jo is the tomboy, the bookish rebel with a passion to make the world more fair; Bethie is the pretty, feminine good girl, a would-be star who enjoys the power her beauty confers and dreams of a traditional life.

But the truth ends up looking different from what the girls imagined. Jo and Bethie survive traumas and tragedies. As their lives unfold against the background of free love and Vietnam, Woodstock and women’s lib, Bethie becomes an adventure-loving wild child who dives headlong into the counterculture and is up for anything (except settling down). Meanwhile, Jo becomes a proper young mother in Connecticut, a witness to the changing world instead of a participant. Neither woman inhabits the world she dreams of, nor has a life that feels authentic or brings her joy. Is it too late for the women to finally stake a claim on happily ever after?

In her most ambitious novel yet, Jennifer Weiner tells a story of two sisters who, with their different dreams and different paths, offer answers to the question: How should a woman be in the world?

I liked Mrs. Everything, especially the relationship between Jo and Bethie and how women’s roles have changed (or not changed, see also: #metoo) over the latter half of the 20th century. But it felt very draggy to me, with some parts rendered so beautifully early in the book and then others very slapdash later. She could have used some balance in the narrative pacing.

It’s definitely an ambitious book, based on events in her mother’s life. The author’s note in the back of the Barnes and Noble Book Club edition was very informative. I haven’t read any of Weiner’s previous books so I don’t know how this compares to Good in Bed or In Her Shoes.

Read for BN Book Club. A trigger warning for a brief description of sexual assault and abortion on the page and several depictions of unwanted groping.

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of this book provided by the publisher to the Book Club leader.

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mini-review · stuff I read

The Guest Book by Sarah Blake

45885281Summary from Goodreads:
An unforgettable love story, a novel about past mistakes and betrayals that ripple throughout generations, The Guest Book examines not just a privileged American family, but a privileged America. It is a literary triumph.

The Guest Book follows three generations of a powerful American family, a family that “used to run the world”.

And when the novel begins in 1935, they still do. Kitty and Ogden Milton appear to have everything—perfect children, good looks, a love everyone envies. But after a tragedy befalls them, Ogden tries to bring Kitty back to life by purchasing an island in Maine. That island, and its house, come to define and burnish the Milton family, year after year after year. And it is there that Kitty issues a refusal that will haunt her till the day she dies.

In 1959 a young Jewish man, Len Levy, will get a job in Ogden’s bank and earn the admiration of Ogden and one of his daughters, but the scorn of everyone else. Len’s best friend Reg Pauling has always been the only black man in the room—at Harvard, at work, and finally at the Miltons’ island in Maine.

An island that, at the dawn of the 21st century, this last generation doesn’t have the money to keep. When Kitty’s granddaughter hears that she and her cousins might be forced to sell it, and when her husband brings back disturbing evidence about her grandfather’s past, she realizes she is on the verge of finally understanding the silences that seemed to hover just below the surface of her family all her life.

An ambitious novel that weaves the American past with its present, The Guest Book looks at the racism and power that has been systemically embedded in the US for generations. Brimming with gorgeous writing and bitterly accurate social criticism, it is a literary tour de force.

Read for the BN Book Club at my store. I liked this one quite a bit more than some of the more recent picks for the group.

Blake has a very lovely way of putting words together – she can really set a scene with just a few sentences. She made the characters interesting, not likeable, none of these people are very likeable, but you did want to dig around and see what made them tick. It’s not a very plotty book, so if you like fast-moving stories this won’t be for you. There is a lot of “nice white people grappling with having to acknowledge casual racism/anti-semitism in their family” and some slurs are used on the page, so a bit of a warning about that if you wish to avoid. In discussing the book with the group, we did muse on whether the author was queer-baiting with two characters near the end (also, one of those characters dies in an accident a chapter later – which is not a spoiler since this character’s death is mentioned or alluded to several times early in the book – but for a book chosen to be discussed during Pride month it did smell a bit like a “kill your gays” trope).

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of the book from the publisher provided for the book club leader.

mini-review · stuff I read

Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly (Lilac Girls #2)

40988979Summary from Goodreads:
The runaway bestseller Lilac Girls introduced the real-life heroine Caroline Ferriday. This sweeping new novel, set a generation earlier and also inspired by true events, features Caroline’s mother, Eliza, and follows three equally indomitable women from St. Petersburg to Paris under the shadow of World War I.

It is 1914 and the world has been on the brink of war so many times, many New Yorkers treat the subject with only passing interest. Eliza Ferriday is thrilled to be traveling to St. Petersburg with Sofya Streshnayva, a cousin of the Romanov’s. The two met years ago one summer in Paris and became close confidantes. Now Eliza embarks on the trip of a lifetime, home with Sofya to see the splendors of Russia. But when Austria declares war on Serbia and Russia’s Imperial dynasty begins to fall, Eliza escapes back to America, while Sofya and her family flee to their country estate. In need of domestic help, they hire the local fortuneteller’s daughter, Varinka, unknowingly bringing intense danger into their household. On the other side of the Atlantic, Eliza is doing her part to help the White Russian families find safety as they escape the revolution. But when Sofya’s letters suddenly stop coming she fears the worst for her best friend.

From the turbulent streets of St. Petersburg to the avenues of Paris and the society of fallen Russian emigre’s who live there, the lives of Eliza, Sofya, and Varinka will intersect in profound ways, taking readers on a breathtaking ride through a momentous time in history.

I liked much of the story in Lost Roses and it was compelling – the violence of the Russian Revolution, how the emigres were treated like vermin abroad even though they would previously have been catered to as rich, white women, the comparative time period in the US, etc.

However, the actual construction of the book left me cold. The author uses a rotating cast of three narrators, which ordinarily would be fine, but in this case each narrative has a different pace broken up by unnecessary cliff-hangers and the other narratives. Two chapters from Sofya’s point-of-view that should flow directly from one to the other are broken up by a different narrator at what feels like a different time with a cheap cliff-hanger thrown in for good measure. This was more of a problem at the beginning of the book than at the end when the three narrating characters’ timelines had converged. Some of the plotting was revealed to be overly convoluted in the climax of the plot.

Read for the BN Book Club. Note: I have not read Lilac Girls, and understood everything fine, so don’t worry about reading in series-order, especially since this is a prequel.

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of this book provided by the publisher for the book club leader.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

40538657._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
Set on the Korean island of Jeju, The Island of Sea Women follows Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls from very different backgrounds, as they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective. Over many decades—through the Japanese colonialism of the 1930s and 1940s, World War II, the Korean War, and the era of cellphones and wet suits for the women divers—Mi-ja and Young-sook develop the closest of bonds. Nevertheless, their differences are impossible to ignore: Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, forever marking her, and Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers. After hundreds of dives and years of friendship, forces outside their control will push their relationship to the breaking point.

This beautiful, thoughtful novel illuminates a unique and unforgettable culture, one where the women are in charge, engaging in dangerous physical work, and the men take care of the children. A classic Lisa See story—one of women’s friendships and the larger forces that shape them—The Island of Sea Women introduces readers to the fierce female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives.

This was…fine. See has stuffed The Island of Sea Women with research and the pacing of the novel is glacial. I also often stopped to wonder – was See the right person to write this story? A lot of the overstuffed feel stems from the fact that this is a historical novel written for an overwhelmingly American and white audience and the narrator does not trust the reader to follow. There was an instance where this worked (the contrast of the two women’s weddings) but I don’t need hanbok defined for me. I have google.

If I hadn’t had to read this to lead the Book Club meeting, I probably would have bailed on it around page 80.

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of this book from the publisher provided to the Book Club leader at my store.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin

40390714Summary from Goodreads:
The New York Times bestselling author of The House Girl explores the lives of four siblings in this ambitious and absorbing novel in the vein of Commonwealth and The Interestings.

“The greatest works of poetry, what makes each of us a poet, are the stories we tell about ourselves. We create them out of family and blood and friends and love and hate and what we’ve read and watched and witnessed. Longing and regret, illness, broken bones, broken hearts, achievements, money won and lost, palm readings and visions. We tell these stories until we believe them.”

When the renowned poet Fiona Skinner is asked about the inspiration behind her iconic work, The Love Poem, she tells her audience a story about her family and a betrayal that reverberates through time.

It begins in a big yellow house with a funeral, an iron poker, and a brief variation forever known as the Pause: a free and feral summer in a middle-class Connecticut town. Caught between the predictable life they once led and an uncertain future that stretches before them, the Skinner siblings—fierce Renee, sensitive Caroline, golden boy Joe and watchful Fiona—emerge from the Pause staunchly loyal and deeply connected. Two decades later, the siblings find themselves once again confronted with a family crisis that tests the strength of these bonds and forces them to question the life choices they’ve made and ask what, exactly, they will do for love.

A sweeping yet intimate epic about one American family, The Last Romantics is an unforgettable exploration of the ties that bind us together, the responsibilities we embrace and the duties we resent, and how we can lose—and sometimes rescue—the ones we love. A novel that pierces the heart and lingers in the mind, it is also a beautiful meditation on the power of stories—how they navigate us through difficult times, help us understand the past, and point the way toward our future.

Well, I liked it. Or, I at least like it better than last month’s Book Club selection. The women of the family were all interesting and Joe, well, Joe I wanted to kick down the nearest flight of stairs. I’m not quite sure the author delivered on her premise, that when we fall in love with the right person everything works out. Also, she finked on Fiona’s poetry, giving us only a hint about her work (for a book that pulls off the narrative plus the invented poetical works, see AS Byatt’s Possession).

What I really could have done without was the frame narrative, which was jarring whenever I would come back to it. We had enough of the omniscient narrator from the future, the frame narrative could have been easily cut.

Read for the BN Book Club (and this time finished more than 2 hrs ahead of the meeting 😂).

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of this book from the publisher provided for the BN Book Club discussion leader.

mini-review · stuff I read

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux

Rioux_cover-TEMP_REV.inddSummary from Goodreads:
Soon after publication on September 30, 1868, Little Women became an enormous bestseller and one of America’s favorite novels. Its popularity quickly spread throughout the world, and the book has become an international classic. When Anne Boyd Rioux read the novel in her twenties, she had a powerful reaction to the story. Through teaching the book, she has seen the same effect on many others.

In Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, Rioux recounts how Louisa May Alcott came to write Little Women, drawing inspiration for it from her own life. Rioux also examines why this tale of family and community ties, set while the Civil War tore America apart, has resonated through later wars, the Depression, and times of changing opportunities for women.

Alcott’s novel has moved generations of women, many of them writers: Simone de Beauvoir, J. K. Rowling, bell hooks, Cynthia Ozick, Jane Smiley, Margo Jefferson, and Ursula K. Le Guin were inspired by Little Women, particularly its portrait of the iconoclastic young writer, Jo. Many have felt, as Anna Quindlen has declared, “Little Women changed my life.”

Today, Rioux sees the novel’s beating heart in Alcott’s portrayal of family resilience and her honest look at the struggles of girls growing into women. In gauging its current status, Rioux shows why Little Women remains a book with such power that people carry its characters and spirit throughout their lives.

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women turns 150 years old in 2018. There’s a new miniseries out (it’s…OK, given that it was largely shot in England and with English actors who have questionable American accents) and new editions of the book are popping up. Norton is also publishing Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy by Anne Boyd Rioux, which examines how Little Women came to be and why it has such staying power.

This is a lovely overview of Alcott’s life, the publication history of Little Women, and how Alcott’s most famous creation has endured as a beloved work of American literature. Unless we’re talking about the “canon” and then “ugh, girl cooties” which is the basis for almost an entire chapter about why boys don’t/aren’t expected to/can’t read “girl books” even as girls are fully expected to read “boy books.” I spent almost that whole chapter yelling PREACH SISTER at my iPad. Boyd also gets into the many different adaptations to movie and television (my favorite: the 1994 adaptation with Susan Sarandon, don’t @ me).

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy is out August 21.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

37880810Summary from Goodreads:
A bewitching new novel of family and self-discovery from the best-selling, award-winning author of A Spool of Blue Thread.

Willa Drake can count on one hand the defining moments of her life. In 1967, she is a schoolgirl coping with her mother’s sudden disappearance. In 1977, she is a college coed considering a marriage proposal. In 1997, she is a young widow trying to piece her life back together. And in 2017, she yearns to be a grandmother, yet the prospect is dimming. So, when Willa receives a phone call from a stranger, telling her that her son’s ex-girlfriend has been shot, she drops everything and flies across the country to Baltimore. The impulsive decision to look after this woman and her nine-year-old daughter will lead Willa into uncharted territory–surrounded by eccentric neighbors, plunged into the rituals that make a community a family, and forced to find solace in unexpected places. A bittersweet, probing novel of hope and grief, fulfillment and renewal, Clock Dance gives us Anne Tyler at the height of her powers.

After reading Clock Dance twice, it falls somewhere between a 3 and a 4 book for me. I’d never read Anne Tyler before – she has a very nice writing style – but I wasn’t super-jazzed by the actual story of Willa and her life choices. She was so blah in the space between Chapter 1 and maybe the last 20 pages. I’m pretty sure my favorite character was Airplane, the dog.

However, I was the bookseller leading our Book Club discussion last night and I was intrigued to hear from others about this book. A number of participants were older women (50-60+) who are or had been married who had decided opinions about Willa’s marriages and how she related to her husbands and sons. Some sympathized with her, some did not. Some felt she was trapped, some that she was too comfortable and inclined to accept the status quo. I think Clock Dance is very much a novel where your mileage may vary, depending on your situation.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley and a paper galley from the publisher.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson

36739557Summary from Goodreads:
A woman inherits a beloved bookstore and sets forth on a journey of self-discovery in this poignant debut about family, forgiveness and a love of reading.

Miranda Brooks grew up in the stacks of her eccentric Uncle Billy’s bookstore, solving the inventive scavenger hunts he created just for her. But on Miranda’s twelfth birthday, Billy has a mysterious falling-out with her mother and suddenly disappears from Miranda’s life. She doesn’t hear from him again until sixteen years later when she receives unexpected news: Billy has died and left her Prospero Books, which is teetering on bankruptcy–and one final scavenger hunt.

When Miranda returns home to Los Angeles and to Prospero Books–now as its owner–she finds clues that Billy has hidden for her inside novels on the store’s shelves, in locked drawers of his apartment upstairs, in the name of the store itself. Miranda becomes determined to save Prospero Books and to solve Billy’s last scavenger hunt. She soon finds herself drawn into a journey where she meets people from Billy’s past, people whose stories reveal a history that Miranda’s mother has kept hidden–and the terrible secret that tore her family apart.

Bighearted and trenchantly observant, The Bookshop of Yesterdays is a lyrical story of family, love and the healing power of community. It’s a love letter to reading and bookstores, and a testament to how our histories shape who we become.

I do love me a mystery/puzzle story set in a bookshop. The Bookshop of Yesterdays is a compulsively readable upmarket novel about a history teacher who inherits her uncle’s bookshop, its attendant problems, and a literary scavenger hunt. And blows the lid off alllllllll her family drama. Note: the longer you keep secrets the bigger the bomb when uncovered. Although, if you are like me, you’ll probably guess the secret immediately but still enjoy watching the characters in the book slowly catch up to you.

The bookstore portions of the novel feel very much “publishing 2012” when we were all “we need more books that aren’t high-brow white dude novels.” The conversation Miranda has with the bookstore manager – who has been the manager for almost a decade – made me wonder if the character ever talked to or interacted with another indie owner. There’s a lot of “ugh, but we sell LIT-ra-chaaaaa not that Twilight crap” from that guy and surprise, surprise you get more customers and business (aka more filthy lucre) if you stop gatekeeping. I wish the author had leaned harder into that. (It just now occured to me that almost all the male characters in the book do not come off well – Miranda’s boyfriend, the store manager, Uncle Billy….)

The Bookshop of Yesterdays is out June 12.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this novel from the publisher via Edelweiss.