Recent Reads and Recs: January 2013 Edition

Brief thoughts on books you may or may not want to explore on your own. 

Care to chat with me more about these books or others? Leave a comment or find me on Twitter – @ProfeJMarie.

I feel like I was a little more long-winded than usual with these “reviewlets” this month… hopefully that’s a good thing in that it helps you decide whether or not to read any of them. 😀

 

ADULT FICTION

A Casual Vacancy cover A Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling

Author loyalty might have been the driving force behind me reading and completing this novel. I hadn’t read any stellar reviews of Rowling’s first attempt at adult literary fiction and mine will be no different. Rowling’s story is steeped in small town politics and a lot of sad lives. The book opens with the death of a councilman (in U.S. terms – I might be getting his actual position wrong). The first part of the book drives us through the multiple reactions in the community as an effort to help us get to know the characters. The social commentary on the political issue at stake as a result of his death is interesting, as it delves into issues of lower-income populations and what services a community should provide to help.

The problem lay in the characters themselves. It took me until about ¾ of the way through the story to feel sympathetic towards any of them. I felt like I was supposed to feel for the adolescents – and ultimately I did, but it took too long for me to get pulled in by them, which is problematic, given how much I also love young adult literature and its vat of troubled teens.

 

Love the One You’re With, by Emily Giffin Love the One You're With book cover

I waffled on this novel. A few chapters in I discovered that it was going to involve infidelity and while I am not opposed to reading in that theme, I find it especially painful when all of the characters are so likable. I wasn’t sure that was the direction I wanted to go at the time I was reading this book. So I did a really unusual thing. I read the end to see if it piqued my interest enough to find out how the story got there. It worked.

Ellen is very happily in her first year of marriage with Andy – until she runs into Leo, a man she purportedly fell head over heels in love with several years earlier, but ended not so well. It was a highly charged, passionate, all-consuming relationship, and since Ellen had never felt true closure with him after their break-up, seeing him again is interfering with her “what if” sensor. Giffin does a great job of helping me really relate to Ellen and feel a touch of disdain for Leo, which is bittersweet because I like Ellen, I understand her feelings even if I don’t like them, but right from the start, I loved Andy, the kind, loving, and thoughtful husband (although he is a bit clueless later – also making me somewhat sympathetic to Ellen). Here is a quote from where we first meet Andy, who was not even on Ellen’s radar until much much later:

“No problem,” Andy said. And then, “So Margot’s going to be excited to hear from you. I know she wanted to discuss bedspreads or curtains or something… I sure hope you like the color pin.”

I replied with an earnest, “Oh. Yes. I love pink.”

“Well. Aw-right,” Andy said. “A match made in pink heaven.”

I smiled and thought, no matter what else unfolded with Margot, she had a very nice brother.

Andy’s from Georgia and can’t you just hear that “Aw-right”? I loved him from that moment, which is why you might see my conundrum. (Okay, here is the funny and weird thing. My husband’s name is Andy and he was born in Georgia. I’d say that had something to do with it, but Ellen’s Andy and my Andy really have very few things in common, so nope, not gonna go there.)

Anyhow. I have read other reviews that say this is a “smartly written book”. I do agree.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet cover Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford

The title of this book is exactly the tone of this novel. The story is in first person narrative that cycles back and forth from current to past. Henry has lost his wife not too many months ago, but the discovery of locked away items in the about-to-be restored Panama Hotel in Seattle reminds him of his first love, Keiko.

Henry is Chinese-American and as a young boy during WWII attended a private school where he was the only non-white and frequently mistreated by his classmates. Keiko is a Japanese-American who becomes the second non-white and Henry feels compelled to protect her as of course, during WWII, the United States was, to speak euphemistically, unkind towards its American citizens of Japanese heritage. Keiko and her family are sent to an internment camp and Henry still manages to see her and ultimately court her. The bigger obstacle, as it turns out, is Henry’s father, whose hatred of all things and people Japanese, clouds over Henry.

Ford does a lovely job of telling a love story within a love story and manages to give fresh eyes to a time in our history that is not told enough.

(In case you weren’t sure of the definition of “bittersweet”, Big Head Todd and the Monsters can help you out. “More sweet than bitter, bitter than sweet. Helpful, no?)

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker The Age of MIracles cover

I had high hopes for this book (and in no way lay blame on my friend, Jen, for being only the latest person to recommend it to me – haha!). It has a great title and I really liked the premise of it, which is that Julia, the main character, lives through an unthinkable event: the Earth’s spin is slowing. This, of course, creates a significant impact on, well, most things. The social changes Walker describes, for the most part, feel very realistic and since the narrator is 11 years old, Walker also shapes a nice connection between the global changes and Julia’s own changes in her world as she begins the coming-of-age experience.

I had a lot of unexpected issues with this book that I am nervous about detailing too much here because chances are you might gloss over them and enjoy the book much more. Part of my difficulties was with scientific details, others with style. I have read reviews that describe how beautiful the writing is which almost makes me feel like I have no taste, but then I read The Round House (below), and realize that yes, I can indeed recognize some beautiful writing. All in all, I loved the idea behind this novel and it had a lot of potential, but somehow, it just fell a little flat for me.

The Round House cover The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

Being only a month into the year it’s probably not saying much when I state that this is the best adult fiction book I’ve read all year. The topic is difficult and therefore might not be for everyone, no matter how well it’s written (you read above about me and Emily Giffin’s novel, right?).

Joe, now an adult, narrates this story through the memory of his just-turned-13-years old eyes. His mother has been sexually and physically assaulted and the novel follows the aftermath, including the complications of trying and convicting the assailant as jurisdiction becomes muddied due to land boundaries. Joe and his family live on a reservation. There is question as to whether or not his mother was attacked on reservation land or U.S. soil and whether or not the assailant was white or a reservation resident. All combinations affect how things can proceed. While that is the thread that weaves the plot, the real tapestry, of course, is in how Joe and his family handle it all.

Erdrich does a fantastic job of not only providing us with aspects of the unreliable narrator in general (which, if you’ve read some of my past reviews, you know how I love this), but giving us the tone of how everything gets filtered through a young adolescent male’s perspective. Joe does things where as adults we are thinking, “what are you doing?”, but if you know of or remember at all what it’s like to be a teenager, you get it (even when you don’t like it).

Heartbreaking at many turns. Beautifully written.

 

MIDDLE GRADE FICTION

The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, by Trenton Lee Stewart The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict cover

The fourth book in the Benedict Society series, Stewart gives us a glimpse into Nicholas Benedict’s beginnings and how he might have become the man we know in the earlier books. Nicholas has been in orphanages all his life and this story takes place in probably the last one he is in. Naturally, there is a mystery to solve, but being an outcast since he refuses to kowtow to the orphanage bullies, he nearly has to solve it all on his own – until he becomes with two others, one another orphan and the other who they meet secretly at night on the orphanage grounds.

I enjoyed this book, but did not find it nearly as compelling reads as the three that precede it. It lacked the action and element of danger that characterize the others and needed, as might be referred to in the writing world, higher stakes. This book was probably the most realistic of the set in terms of actual conflict and primary plot, to the detriment of its overall appeal. I liked the idea of a young Nicholas, but if Stewart is to write more of these, I would rather he return to the adventures of the other kids or create a new generation of off-the-chart IQ kids.

 

YOUNG ADULT FICTION

Wintergirls cover Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson

This story is beautifully written and covers the extraordinarily difficult topic of anorexia. First person narration gives a heartbreaking perspective of Lia, an 18-year old high school student as she not only deals with the psychological issues of anorexia, but the recent death of her best friend. Like most issues that surround eating disorders, we discover that the emotional and psychological factors that surround them are the true triggers vs simply a person’s weight.

Being inside Lia’s head is hard. Her battle is painful as she cannot move past her own self-image or quite allow the adults in her life to reach her. Anderson creates a family life that is balanced and realistic without ascribing blame, while still offering insights on the possibilities of an eating disorder’s origins.

The narrative is unique and exceptionally written.

 

And that is my month.

Currently I am reading Dare Me, by Megan Abbott.

More importantly: what are YOU reading? What should I be reading next? Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Leave a comment or send me a shout out on Twitter – let’s chat!

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11 Responses to Recent Reads and Recs: January 2013 Edition

  1. Sarah says:

    My sister has read many Emily G. novels and says they all deal witb infidelity, and frustratingly so,for the reasons you mentioned. Haven’t read any others you have listed but did just finish The Mysterious Benedict Society. Very fun, smart & sweet.

    Like

    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      Yes – others told me the same about Giffin’s novels, so I might not read any others of hers, which is too bad. Glad you liked Benedict Society – that is certainly the best one of the bunch, but I really enjoyed the next couple, also.

      Like

  2. I LOVED The Round House and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (the author is really great about responding to Twitter mentions. I heard that Round House is part of a trilogy, which means I will have to go find the others!

    Like

    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      I don’t think The Round House is a planned trilogy, but if it were, we wouldn’t see the next ones for awhile since this one only just came out last October. So glad you chimed in! I love to hear what others think about these books!

      Like

      • I did some digging (in case I was crazy in thinking that) and The Round House is actually the second in a trilogy. The first is “The Plague of Doves” from 2009. Here are some articles that I found about it!

        NPR and Native News Network

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        • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

          Very interesting. Thanks for the link! I read Plague of Doves (also a very good novel), but don’t remember enough of it to make a connection with this one (it came out back in 2008). I just looked at the book jacket (of Plague of Doves) and sure enough, tribal judge Coutts is the shared character. I wonder if the third will try to connect these first two?

          It is interesting to me how sometimes the idea behind a trilogy is not necessarily a continuous plot/story arc, but simply a shared theme of justice and the setting.

          Like

  3. ***add in the ) after ‘mentions’ 🙂

    Like

  4. Kathy says:

    Roundhouse may be one of my most favorite books – ever. I love Louise Erdrich, but this one is her best so far. Also enjoyed Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and sweet. Reminded me of Snow Falling on Cedars, another wonderful book.

    Like

    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      I don’t think I ever read Snow Falling on Cedars, so now I have to for sure add it to my list. Everything you told me about The Round House was true. Fantastic book.

      Like

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