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.

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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.

mini-review · stuff I read

Florida by Lauren Groff

36098092Summary from Goodreads:
The New York Times-bestselling author of Fates and Furies returns, bringing the reader into a physical world that is at once domestic and wild—a place where the hazards of the natural world lie waiting to pounce, yet the greatest threats and mysteries are still of an emotional, psychological nature. A family retreat can be derailed by a prowling panther, or by a sexual secret. Among those navigating this place are a resourceful pair of abandoned sisters; a lonely boy, grown up; a restless, childless couple, a searching, homeless woman; and an unforgettable, recurring character—a steely and conflicted wife and mother.

The stories in this collection span characters, towns, decades, even centuries, but Florida—its landscape, climate, history, and state of mind—becomes its gravitational center: an energy, a mood, as much as a place of residence. Groff transports the reader, then jolts us alert with a crackle of wit, a wave of sadness, a flash of cruelty, as she writes about loneliness, rage, family, and the passage of time. With shocking accuracy and effect, she pinpoints the moments and decisions and connections behind human pleasure and pain, hope and despair, love and fury—the moments that make us alive. Startling, precise, and affecting, Florida is a magnificent achievement.

A funny thing, books. And authors. I read Lauren Groff’s debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, as part of an early reader group and wound up DNF-ing it. I could not get into it, I didn’t care about the main character, etc. I didn’t read anything else she wrote for a good while. I only started a galley of Fates and Furies because at least four people whose opinions and taste I respect said it was good; I tore through it on a layover at O’Hare. And then I backed up to read Arcadia. Apparently, she’s a pretty good writer, more fool I.

Groff’s new story collection Florida is very “Lauren Groff” – well-written narratives with well-educated female narrators who are often in unhappy relationships and/or ambivalent about motherhood even though they love their kids. It was a good collection to read one story per day. If you’ve never read Lauren’s novels this is a good way to get a taste of her writing.

(I still haven’t re-tackled Monsters…but I do have that galley squirreled away in my desk, just in case.)

Florida is available June 5.

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

mini-review · stuff I read

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

35480518Summary from Goodreads:
Greer Kadetsky is a shy college freshman when she meets the woman she hopes will change her life. Faith Frank, dazzlingly persuasive and elegant at sixty-three, has been a central pillar of the women’s movement for decades, a figure who inspires others to influence the world. Upon hearing Faith speak for the first time, Greer–madly in love with her boyfriend, Cory, but still full of longing for an ambition that she can’t quite place–feels her inner world light up. Then, astonishingly, Faith invites Greer to make something out of that sense of purpose, leading Greer down the most exciting path of her life as it winds toward and away from her meant-to-be love story with Cory and the future she’d always imagined.

This is going to be a quick review, since I’m leading the Book Club tonight at work and I don’t want to work over my opinion too much ahead of time. But I did read it twice.

Basically:
Five stars for the sentences. I love me a Meg Wolitzer sentence. She also has one of the most simple, moving paragraphs about grief in Chapter Six in the exchange between Cory and the taxi driver.

Three stars for plot: This is OK. It’s a perfectly fine story, which is worth discussing in its critique of white and/or privileged feminism and mentorship and whether that critique is successful but I feel like the story took no risks. The characters told us nothing new, except to always be wary of holding our idols too dear.

Thanks to Riverhead for sending the galley copy.

Dear FTC: I read a galley sent by the publisher to my store.

mini-review · stuff I read

My Oxford Year by Julia Whelan

35820405Set amidst the breathtaking beauty of Oxford, this sparkling debut novel tells the unforgettable story about a determined young woman eager to make her mark in the world and the handsome man who introduces her to an incredible love that will irrevocably alter her future—perfect for fans of JoJo Moyes and Nicholas Sparks.

American Ella Durran has had the same plan for her life since she was thirteen: Study at Oxford. At 24, she’s finally made it to England on a Rhodes Scholarship when she’s offered an unbelievable position in a rising political star’s presidential campaign. With the promise that she’ll work remotely and return to DC at the end of her Oxford year, she’s free to enjoy her Once in a Lifetime Experience. That is, until a smart-mouthed local who is too quick with his tongue and his car ruins her shirt and her first day.

When Ella discovers that her English literature course will be taught by none other than that same local, Jamie Davenport, she thinks for the first time that Oxford might not be all she’s envisioned. But a late-night drink reveals a connection she wasn’t anticipating finding and what begins as a casual fling soon develops into something much more when Ella learns Jamie has a life-changing secret.

Immediately, Ella is faced with a seemingly impossible decision: turn her back on the man she’s falling in love with to follow her political dreams or be there for him during a trial neither are truly prepared for. As the end of her year in Oxford rapidly approaches, Ella must decide if the dreams she’s always wanted are the same ones she’s now yearning for.

When I finished My Oxford Year I had to sit with it for a little bit. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting. (It was certainly better than my last go-round with an “Americans at Oxbridge institutions” novel, The Madwoman Upstairs).

This is…good. I almost quit reading after the first few chapters because I really didn’t get the whole get a Rhodes –> get told no one cares what you do at Oxford because you’re a Rhodie –> here’s a political job. And then there’s the wrinkle that, for someone so obsessed with getting to Oxford, Ella seems really clueless about how Oxford actually operates (i.e. where to buy books, where to buy gowns, how the housing works, etc). But I stuck with it because Ella’s neighbor Charlie is a hoot and the chemistry between Ella and Jamie was good. Their relationship becomes really interesting. Whelan also gets in an extraordinary amount of wonderful literary criticism about love and poetry (particularly Tennyson) and the expectations of women in the political sphere. There is a lot going on in this book.

But I will tell you that this is “romantic” in the way that Me Before You and many of Nicholas Sparks’s book are “romantic” (although this is far less maudlin, in my opinion). Whelan digs very deeply into the push-and-pull of loving someone with a serious and possibly terminal illness, the adjustments that both partners have to make, and the changes that you have to accept for the relationship to exist for the time that is given to you. This is a very much “Happy For Now” book.

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

#BookishBloggersUnite

#BookishBloggersUnite – Kicking off US Women’s History Month

Hello everyone!

Bookish Bloggers Unite was formed when a group of like-minded writers decided they want to talk about books together.

Sue at Doddy About Books is hosting this week’s tag which is Favourite Women Writers Across Multiple Genres. Pick your favourite genres and tell us about your favourite female authors writing within them (or around them or across them!) Anyone can play – just pop your link in the linky at Sue’s page.

ja cassie drawingClassics

Jane Austen, 5ever. I will never tire of re-reading Austen’s work, from the ridiculousness of her Juvenilia to the beauty of Wentworth’s letter in Persuasion. Even the letters, because I always want to kick Cassandra in the shins for destroying so many letters. There are so many layers to her books I will never find something new on each reading.

Other perennial favorites are Anne Brontë, Charlotte Brontë (sorry, Emily fans – don’t @ me), George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell (oh, North and South, I do love thee, also your adaptation), and Edith Wharton.

PossessionbookjacketLiterary Fiction

This is where I lose my bananas over Possession by A.S. Byatt. It is by far my favorite novel by Byatt. On each reading I am convinced anew that Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte are not merely derivatives of Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti invented for the purposes of the narrative but real poets who actually existed in Victorian England. Possession allows you to time travel, with out actually using the time travel trope by moving brilliantly between the Victorian and late twentieth-century settings. It is a literary mystery hidden within a poetry collection within a love story. All of Byatt’s novels and stories have these deeply textured, rich characters and settings – The Children’s Book, The Virgin in the Garden, Angels and Insects, and so on.

Another favorite lit-fic author is Margaret Atwood. If your only exposure to Atwood is from The Handmaid’s Tale (social dystopia), try the Maddaddam trilogy (environmental dystopia, which didn’t start out with that trilogy name), Alias Grace (ghost story), Hag-Seed (retelling of The Tempest as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series), Bodily Harm (woman trying to keep her life together), or Surfacing (a thriller….perhaps?).

Georgette_HeyerRomance

I can’t mention the romance genre without introducing you to the Grande Dame and Grandmother of the historical romance genre, Georgette Heyer. She is the woman who conjoined the social novel of Jane Austen, with all attendant historical details, to the marriage plot of the twentieth-century. The modern historical romance machine owes its existence to the woman who gave us the Duke of Avon (think the Vicomte de Valmont from Dangerous Liaisons but not a jerk and also English) in These Old Shades. Start with Venetia (Regency) or The Convenient Marriage (Georgian) and if you can get the audiobooks read by Richard Armitage (aka Thorin Oakenshield and John Thorton), do that.

I have a laundry-list of authors who I auto-buy in the romance genre: Eloisa James, Tessa Dare, Sarah MacLean, Maya Rodale, Cat Sebastian, Alisha Rai, Alyssa Cole, and Elizabeth Hoyt. Probably more. The Nook account, it explodeth with goodness.

Agatha_ChristieMystery

Y’all, I do not need to explain Agatha Christie to you. Some of her books don’t age as well (I forget that some of the plots turn on some casual racism and then I am that literal grimace face emoji) but the brilliance of plots like Murder on the Orient Express4:50 from PaddingtonAnd Then There Were None, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd can never be equaled. Now, if you like Christie novels, and want to stay with a contemporaneous writer but want sleuths with more flaws, I recommend Dorothy Sayers, creator of the shell-shocked Lord Peter Wimsey (The Nine Tailors will give you a mini-education in the uniquely English art of change-ringing) and mystery writer Harriet Vane (Gaudy Night contains a capsule portrait of a women’s college at Oxford in the 1930s).

Some of my favorite modern mystery writers are Tasha Alexander, Laurie R. King, and P.D. James (who I share a birthday with).

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Have you met Ann Leckie? Check out Ancillary Justice, the revenge plot of a massive starship AI now contained with in a single, fragile humanoid body. This is an genre where I’m a little light on “favorites” because I own loads of SFF books….but just haven’t read them. Or I’ve read one book from an author, but not any others. Project Overdue Reads, you are being paged.

22710140Comics

Dana Simpson burst into my reading lineup last year with her Phoebe and Her Unicorn webcomic series. You can start with the first actual OGN, The Magic Storm, but I totally recommend just going back to the beginning – they read VERY fast. Other favorite writers/illustrators include Lucy Knisley and Sarah Andersen.

A favorite writer of comics is G. Willow Wilson, creator of the awesome Ms. Marvel series, and I will read anything she writes. A favorite illustrator I’ve followed from series to series is Fiona Staples.

Non-fiction

Because this post is getting very long, I’m going to do a quick round-up of favorite non-fiction writers spanning memoir, humor, personal essay, science, and women’s studies.

Roxane Gay – Bad Feminist is a warm-up for the most wrenching book I have ever read, Hunger
Jenny Lawson – be prepared to laugh forever with Jenny as she uses her droll and dry humor to discuss everything from her mental health to her fascination with taxidermied rodents dressed in people clothes
Sarah Vowell – Assassination Vacation is one of my favorite road-trip audiobooks
Alison Weir (her history, I’m not the biggest fan of her novels) – Tudors forever, though I really love her book about Eleanor of Aquitaine
Terry Tempest Williams – When Women Were Birds always
Mary Roach – you want this book about the science of sex, you are welcome

And that’s it for this week! Kick off Women’s History Month with some of your favorite authors.

mini-review · stuff I read

How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry

Summary from Goodreads:
The enchanting story of a bookshop, its grieving owner, a supportive literary community, and the extraordinary power of books to heal the heart

Nightingale Books, nestled on the main street in an idyllic little village, is a dream come true for book lovers–a cozy haven and welcoming getaway for the literary-minded locals. But owner Emilia Nightingale is struggling to keep the shop open after her beloved father’s death, and the temptation to sell is getting stronger. The property developers are circling, yet Emilia’s loyal customers have become like family, and she can’t imagine breaking the promise she made to her father to keep the store alive.

There’s Sarah, owner of the stately Peasebrook Manor, who has used the bookshop as an escape in the past few years, but it now seems there’s a very specific reason for all those frequent visits. Next is roguish Jackson, who, after making a complete mess of his marriage, now looks to Emilia for advice on books for the son he misses so much. And the forever shy Thomasina, who runs a pop-up restaurant for two in her tiny cottage–she has a crush on a man she met in the cookbook section, but can hardly dream of working up the courage to admit her true feelings.

Enter the world of Nightingale Books for a serving of romance, long-held secrets, and unexpected hopes for the future–and not just within the pages on the shelves. How to Find Love in a Bookshop is the delightful story of Emilia, the unforgettable cast of customers whose lives she has touched, and the books they all cherish.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop is adorable as all get-out. If you get a kick out of the foibles of the picturesque English villages of Midsomer Murders but could do without the murdering, this is for you. When Emilia’s father dies, she inherits his bookshop – including the financial problems it has – and the array of villagers who want to help her keep it open while dealing with their own problems. There’s about one love story too many plot-wise and extreme heteronormativity among all the characters, just FYI (the laws of probability should give us at least a few people who aren’t straight, the village isn’t that small). This was just the right book for the hot days of late summer with a glass of iced tea or lemonade.

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