Monday, May 23, 2016

#24 [2016/CBR8] "Displacement" by Lucy Knisley

I first heard of Displacement (2015) by Lucy Knisley from another Cannonball review. Knisley is a twenty-something writer who volunteers to chaperone her aging grandparents when they unexpectedly sign up for a cruise. I'd never read a graphic novel [or travelogue] before, but this one called to me for a number of reasons. First, the review was very positive and persuasive. Second, I have never been on a cruise, and I'm pretty sure that's been a good decision. Right now, most of my knowledge of cruises comes from David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. However, cruises are often on the table when it comes time to planning vacations, and I always like to hear more about them. Finally, one of the themes in this book is Knisley facing and dealing with the decline of her beloved grandparents. I have recently found myself in a similar situation with my father, and it was cathartic and moving to learn how Knisley dealt with these challenges.

This was a good, fast read that I would definitely recommend. The art is well done, Knisley is very relatable, and the story is engaging. From discussing the stress of flying with her grandparents, to her frustrations with caring for them, to the despair she feels when she realizes she is losing them, this book feels very honest  and real. The details are sometimes hilarious and sometimes sad, but they were always interesting.

Interspersed between descriptions of the trip are excerpts from her grandfather's recollections of when he fought in WWII. These are very different but equally fascinating little snippets. They are not only absorbing first-hand accounts of a different era, but the dichotomy between the handsome young soldier and the incontinent, old man are striking. It serves to remind us just how much he's experienced in his life, as well as how much he's changed. It also reminds us that no matter how young and healthy we are now, we will find ourselves in need of help.

Near the end of the book, Knisley includes a real picture of her with her grandparents on the cruise ship. I had so wholeheartedly swallowed Knisley's drawings, that I remember being startled by the photographic proof of the reality of this trip and these people. On the surface, this book is simple, fast, and easy to read. Even when I think back on it, I don't have much to say because it's pretty easy to sum up. Yet it has a knack for sticking with you emotionally. I'm glad I read it.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

#23 [2016/CBR8] "The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins

When a random woman at Costco goes out of her way to recommend a book to you, then you listen--especially when that book is already on your to-read list. I had to wait forever for The Girl on the Train (2015) by Paula Hawkins to become available at my library. I guess I wasn't the only one who had heard good things.

The Girl on the Train is a murder mystery. In many ways it reminded me of Gone Girl and other books by Gillian Flynn--primarily because both Flynn and Hawkins excel at writing unlikable characters. This story centers around Rachel, one of the most pathetic protagonists I've ever seen. She is an alcoholic whose husband left her for another woman. Her drinking caused her to lose her job, and she's living with a friend who is too nice to kick her out. She spends her time on the train, pretending to go into the city for work, chasing after her ex-husband, and drinking. I can't remember another book where I was cringing so hard and so often at the protagonist's actions.

The train always slows down at the same point in the tracks, and Rachel always watches out the window to get a glimpse of the image of her "perfect" couple. They look so beautiful and loving as they drink coffee on their rooftop deck, and Rachel has invented a romantic backstory for both of them. What makes this semi-obsession with strangers even more disturbing is that their house is just down the street, and even the same design, as the one she used to share with her ex-husband. When Rachel's perfect woman ends up murdered, Rachel's unhealthy interest in the case has her recklessly throwing herself into the middle of things. To make matters even more difficult, Rachel blacks out when she gets drunk and can't trust her memories.

Besides Rachel, the story circles around two couples: Rachel's ex-husband Tom and his new wife Anna as well as Scott and Megan--the perfect couple from the train until Megan is killed. The characters in this book are, on the whole, disturbing, and I would rather not know any of them. It did make for a fascinating story, though.

On the whole, this was a well-written book with believable characters, a nice, twisted mystery, and plenty of suspense. The nature of the story and the characters' poor choices had me cringing throughout the book, and I felt like I needed a hot shower once I finished. However, I would recommend it to anyone interested in dark, gritty, psychological mysteries.

If I had any complaints, it would be that the male characters had less nuance than the female characters. We get chapters from the point of view of Rachel, Anna, and Megan, so it is easier to know their feelings and sympathize with them. The men, on the other hand, remain mysterious through most of the novel. And although they range in degree of awfulness, their awfulness seems to come more naturally and unexplained than the women.

Monday, May 16, 2016

#22 [2016/CBR8] "The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child (2012) by Eowyn Ivey is a book I had never heard of and wouldn't have chosen to read if it weren't for my book club. In fact, after reading the description, I was dreading it:

Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart--he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season's first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone--but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees.

Ugh, four hundred pages of a snowgirl/fairy tale book. My plan was to read the first twenty pages or so, get frustrated with it, and stop. Since my book club is more about meeting up with old friends than critical discussion, it's better to show up than to read the book. But once I picked it up, it was much more realistic than I was expecting, and I found myself getting into it. The book sucks you immediately into Mabel's isolated, sad, and lonely life. Jack, her husband, is the only human being for miles, but he is outside almost all day trying to farm and they barely talk to each other. Ivey paints a very realistic portrait of a despairing couple in a cold, dark place. I became so relieved to see glimpses of a potentially happier life for the two: a moment when they connect, or becoming friends with their closest "neighbors."

There is still a fairy tale snowchild--the part of the book's description that turned me off so much in the beginning. Faina is the young girl who begins to appear around Jack and Mabel's cabin. This aspect of the story did not bother me nearly as much as I was expecting. Faina balances a thin line between real child and fairy tale, and there are times when you wonder what she really is. I was fascinated that from Mabel's perspective, Faina was a fairy tale, but Jack saw her only as a little girl. If they had talked more often and earlier to each other, they would not have had such disparate views. Either way, she is a strong, independent character, and her presence allows Jack and Mabel to have a kind of family they were never expecting.

I spent most of the book immersed in Jack and Mabel's growing relationships: with each other, with the land, with their neighbors, and with Faina. I had some interest in finding out what Faina would turn out to be and what would happen to her. Without getting into spoilers, there is what you could call a lack of closure in the end, which bothered some of my book club friends. I don't think it bothered me as much, but the ending was probably my least favorite part of the book.

In the end, this was a happy surprise. I do like being forced to read books I would not have otherwise read--especially when they're better than expected.

***SPOILERS***
There were many points throughout the book where I thought Faina would disappear or die. Her fox is killed, she sleeps with a boy, she stays in the summer after the snow melts. Yet Faina only loses herself once she gives birth to a child. I don't know if the author was trying to say anything with this, but it brought to me the sacrifices women often make to have children.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

#21 [2016/CBR8] "Sugar Daddy" by Lisa Kleypas

I have continued with my out-of-order reading of Lisa Kleypas's contemporary romance novels surrounding the lives and loves of the wealthy, Texas, Travis family. Sugar Daddy (2010) is pretty unique and not at all what I was expecting--Kleypas deliberately failed to follow the tried and true romance protocol.

Liberty Jones grew up in the small, dusty town of Welcome, Texas. Her father died on an oil rig when she was younger, and her mother hasn't has the best taste in men since. When Liberty is a teenager, her younger sister, Carrington, is born, and Liberty takes on much of the mothering. The most prominent person in Liberty's young life is Hardy Cates. Hardy is a couple of years older than Liberty, and a neighbor in her trailer park. He often watches out for her. Liberty falls deeply in love with Hardy as only a teenager can do, and Hardy eventually appears to return the feeling. However, he is so eager to get out of town, he doesn't start anything with Liberty because he's afraid of being tied down.

Not long after Hardy leaves, Liberty's mother is killed in a car accident, leaving Liberty as the sole caretaker of her toddler sister. Liberty manages to support herself and her sister by becoming a hair stylist. She meets Churchill Travis when he comes in as a customer. He seems preoccupied by her and the two become friends. Despite the appearance of the wealthy, older man taking an interest in the poor, young, and beautiful woman, their relationship remains platonic. However, Liberty eventually meets Churchill's son, Gage, and that's when the sparks fly.

The book moves on to a genuine love triangle between Liberty, Hardy, and Gage. Now, I knew who Liberty would end up with because I read these books out of order, and I'd already read the love story of the loser in this story, but both Hardy and Gage are natural romantic heroes and good matches for Liberty. I am curious what I would have thought of this book if I didn't already know how it would end.

***SPOILERS***
The main reason this books strays so far from the typical romance novel, is that we don't meet Gage Travis (the real love interest) until the book is almost seventy percent finished. Hardy Cates is introduced early and with all the descriptive glamour we expect from our romantic heroes. Liberty and Hardy are truly close as they grow up, and they would make a fantastic couple. We not only meet Hardy Cates first, but we also get to know him much better. Many of the more negative Amazon reviews did not want Liberty to end up with Gage, and I can see how readers want Liberty to end up with the character they knew first and better. In addition, Gage is really unlikable when he first meets Liberty. He has to improve a lot in a very short period of time. As for me, I knew Liberty couldn't end up with Hardy because I'd read Blue-Eyed Devil, but I kept checking to see how many CD's I'd gone through and wondering when the real love interest was going to show up.

Liberty is a likable character who works hard and loves her sister. However, I was a little disappointed that Hardy could go out and become a powerful businessman, and Liberty only manages to become a hairdresser with the anonymous help of Churchill. It was even more disappointing when she became Churchill's assistant. Really? That's all she could aspire to? And now she's one hundred percent dependent on Churchill. It's a good thing he turns out to be nice.

Now, there is only one more thing I feel I have to mention, and that's because this subject came up in another Cannonball review: Gage Travis buckled Liberty's seatbelt when they went out on a date. I was listening on CD and I almost rewound it because I thought I'd heard wrong. Fortunately he only does it once, but is this the new thing? Does it show caring and protectiveness? I still think it's weird, and I was surprised to see it in a Kleypas book.

Sugar Daddy spends much more time on Liberty's coming-of-age and her formative years. The story of Liberty losing her virginity felt especially realistic and sad in a way that you rarely see in romance novels. However, as a romance novel, it does not quite work, because there is such limited time between the two main love interests. This may have bothered me less because I knew from the beginning that Liberty and Hardy wouldn't get together. Although this wasn't as compelling or romantic as Blue-Eyed Devil, I enjoyed it.

#20 [2016/CBR8] "The Rogue Not Taken" by Sarah MacLean

The Rogue Not Taken (2015) is the first book I've read by Sarah MacLean. Each chapter begins with an alliterative sentence torn right from the gossip rags. The gossip always surrounds the "dangerous daughters" of a scandalous, socially climbing family. The eldest daughter is known for "tricking" a Duke into marriage, while all of her sisters are outrageous in their own ways. All except for the youngest, Sophie, who is known as the "boring and plain" daughter. Being boring doesn't stop Sophie from pushing the unfaithful douchebag that is her sister's husband into a fishpond in front of the ton. After that debacle, Sophie decides that she can't stay in London any longer.

And this is where it gets a little weird. As Sophie is running away from the party, trying to be alone, she runs into the Marquess of Eversley ducking out of a woman's window. She begs for a ride away from the party, but he refuses. So, she pays his footman for his clothes and jumps on Eversley's carriage in disguise. The carriage unexpectedly heads North before stopping at a hotel where Eversley first sees her. For some reason, he is the only one who can tell Sophie is a woman in disguise, even though she is wearing women's slippers. He continues to refuse to help her, and so she continues to pretend to be his footman. There is a lot of bickering and fighting between the two that I did not find romantic.

The next morning, Eversley awakes to find that Sophie has sold his extra carriage wheels and used the money for a stagecoach ticket to her hometown. He chases after her to get back at her, half-rescues her from some bad men, and they continue to fight and bicker with some make-out scenes thrown in. Once they finally decide that they like each other, it's kind of unclear what's keeping them apart. He can't get over his past love, she has some other ideal in mind. Then they're variously angry with each other.

As you can probably already tell, I didn't love this one. I am always more partial to couples that work together than couples that fight (although I always appreciate quality badinage). The Duke was kind of a dick. He treated Sophie badly because of her family's reputation, refusing to help her, and then blatantly using her to get back at his father. In addition, the plot felt too convoluted for me to focus on the feelings of our protagonists. I couldn't even keep all of the sisters apart. The only part I could relate to was Sophie's not being happy in London and yearning to find a place where she belonged--although her actions often defied logic. In the end, it kept my attention and wasn't too hard to finish, but it wasn't a favorite.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

#19 [2016/CBR8] "The Curse of the Pharaohs" by Elizabeth Peters

I've been trying to always have an audio book available to listen to when I'm in my car. I enjoyed Elizabeth Peter's first book in her series about Amelia Peabody, so I decided to move on to The Curse of the Pharaohs (1981).

The Curse of the Pharaohs begins about three years (I think?) after the ending of the first book. Amelia has married Radcliffe Emerson--her love interest/soul mate from the first book, she's just recently had a child, and they've settled down to a relatively peaceful life in England. When there is news from Egypt that a cursed tomb is wreaking havoc, killing people left and right, Peabody and Emerson cannot help but take over the dig. Neither one believes for a second that the tomb is actually cursed, and they are prepared to solve the mystery. Leaving their son, Ramses, with Emerson's brother and wife, the two set off on another adventure.

In Egypt, Emerson and Peabody must contend with a mysterious white figure, knives falling out of closets, a nosy reporter, a man in disguise, a Texan, and some crazy women. In addition, the two are trying to find the opening to the tomb before it is robbed, relying on local laborers who are terrified of the supposed curse. In the meantime, the body count rises. Amelia Peabody is her normal self, taking control with aplomb and amusingly exaggerated self-confidence.

I did enjoy this book, but not quite as much as the first. The mystery was both repetitive and more convoluted than the first book. I think part of the problem was that I was listening to this book on CD, but if I stopped paying attention for a second, I would get the characters confused. The first book possibly felt more clear because there were fewer characters to keep straight. Even after the "after the mystery" discussion where all is revealed, I couldn't look back on the narrative with a lot of understanding. So many people were murdered, a normal motive didn't quite fit the story. In the end, I was disappointed.

I was also disturbed by pretty much all discussions of Ramses, Peabody and Emerson's son. The couple have Ramses, and then promptly leave him with family for months when he is newborn. Then they leave him again for months to go to Egypt. I'm all for parents following their dreams and balancing family and their passions, but that long of a separation at that age could be nothing but traumatic for Ramses. And of course, Ramses is a boisterous, precocious child, but he felt more cartoon than flesh and blood. Sure, the other characters are something of exaggerated caricatures, and maybe Ramses was supposed to fit in with them, but for whatever reason, it just creeped me out. So, Ramses is a creepy, neglected child, and I couldn't understand why he was in the book because he was not a part of the main mystery. I'm assuming that Peters was setting him up for use in later stories, but he took me completely out of the story.

I really enjoyed Crocodile on the Sandbank, and I was expecting a lot from this second novel. I definitely enjoyed the first one more, but there were still parts of the second that made me smile. I think I'll at least get to the third, and gauge my reactions from there.

Friday, April 22, 2016

#18 [2016/CBR8] "The Orchardist" by Amanda Coplin

The Orchardist (2012) by Amanda Coplin is another book on Huffington Post's list of 21 Books From the Last 5 Years That Every Woman Should Read. I'm slowly making my way through this list, and I'm grateful for the recommendations. I wasn't sure what to expect with The Orchardist, and even now that I've read it, I have some mixed feelings. There is no question that this is an impressively written, very original story, with remarkably drawn characters. The orchard as a place, and the story itself, are all memorable and meaningful.

Talmadge is a solitary man in his fifties, living on an isolated orchard in central Washington at the turn of the 20th Century. His mother died when he was a teenager and his younger sister mysteriously disappeared when she was a young woman, leaving him completely alone. Talmadge keeps himself busy by nurturing his orchard and hauling his crops to town to sell. The only person remotely close to him is the town healer, Caroline Middey. He sometimes eats dinner with her when he comes to town.

Then two young, very pregnant teenagers show up at his orchard. He undoubtedly sees his missing sister in these two lost souls, and he does what he can for them. At this point, I thought I knew what was coming: In the security and safety of the orchard, as well as the quiet care of Talmadge, the girls could recover from their traumatic past and an unconventional, but loving family could be formed.

I was wrong. Coplin takes a much more realistic route. The girls' past comes back to haunt them, and the significant abuse and trauma they suffered affects their ability to form relationships and control their lives. Talmadge has sincere compassion for the girls and does what he can for them, but it's impossible to erase what they'd gone through in their formative years. Della is the young girl that we get to know best and the narrative follows her for years. This was probably one of the most realistic portrayals of the long-term effects of abuse that I've ever read in fiction.

In many ways, Coplin's writing reminded me of Cormac McCarthy. Her story is very tied to the land; the characters are quiet and stoic; and you can never guess what is coming. Once I realized this novel wasn't necessarily going to have the happy ending I was expecting, I read the rest of the book with a sense of dread. I was afraid of what would happen next and anticipating the worst. That's probably where my mixed feelings come in. The second half of the book felt like the slow destruction of people's lives. There wasn't much to keep me reading. Sure, I was curious what would happen to the characters, but I couldn't see a way out for them and hopelessness is no fun. So, although I appreciated the writing and I was drawn in at the beginning, it was harder to read through until the end. If the ending could have sustained the tension that I felt in the beginning, I would probably give it five stars. As it is, I'd still recommend The Orchardist, but maybe it's not for everyone.

"And that was the point of children, thought Caroline Middey: to bind us to the earth and to the present, to distract us from death." (124)

"It was only too bad that to gossip and support mean ideas was easier and more enjoyable, really, than to keep quiet and know in silence that the true story can never be told, articulated in a way that will tell the whole truth." (378)