Books: The Girl I Used to Be by April Henry

*A free copy of this book was provided to me by Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.*

The Girl I Used to Be by April Henry
The Girl I Used to Be by April Henry

The Girl I Used to Be by April Henry is now available from Amazon

Olivia Reinhart is an emancipated teenager who survived a gruesome event when she was but a toddler.  She spent most of her life believing that her father killed her mother, abandoned her, and ran away to save his own skin. But the book opens with Olivia discovering that her father has also been found dead, in the same are as her mother was killed, and is now believed to be a victim of the crime himself.  Olivia remembers nothing of the event, even though she was present.

We then travel with Olivia to the town she was from when she was Ariel Benson, before she ended up in foster care and was adopted only to be returned to foster care. We follow along with her as she tries to discover the truth of what happens with her parents.  She meets townspeople who all knew her, but she doesn’t remember them.  They also don’t seem to recognize her, except for one young guy, who was apparently best friends with her when they were young.  He ends up being a romantic lead in the story, as you might imagine, though Olivia’s relationship with him, and indeed every character she meets, is tainted by her wondering fi they could have been involved in her parents murder.  As she meets people, and seeks to find out who is responsible for the murder of her parents, memories of that time slowly begin to return to her.

The book builds up a great deal of suspense, and I was following along gladly, intrigued by who-mighta-done-it and interested enough in the characters.  Then, before I was ready, it about faces and drives to a fast, mostly satisfying, conclusion.  I felt the introduction and resolution of who the killer actually was was a bit too pat, for my taste, and happened in a manner I couldn’t quite believe.  Still, it was a quick, pleasurable, and captivating read, and I would recommend this read for anyone interested in murder mysteries, and YA. But I do wish the book had taken a little more time to draw out the web of characters it introduced, and driven down to a better paced and thought out conclusion.

Re Jane by Patricia Park: A Contemporary Korean American Retelling of Jane Eyre (yes, you read that right)

Re Jane by Patricia Park

I just finished Re Jane by Patricia Park, and found it a  mostly pleasant, quick read.  It tells the story of Jane Re, a Korean American who is raised in Flushing, Queens by her aunt and uncle.  The story parallels that of Jane Eyre, but is an interesting modern adaptation.  It opens with Jane working in her Uncle’s grocery store.  He is abrupt, rude, and dismissive of Jane.  She has recently finished college, and dreamed of a job on Wall Street, but the economic downturn has shut her out of that possibility.  It’s probably worth mentioning that the book is set in and around 2001.

Jane, unable to find a Wall Street job, takes a job as an au pair for an unusual family in Brooklyn.  Her ward, Devon, is an adopted Chinese girl, and the parents are an unconventional couple as well.  Of course, unlike Jane Eyre, the wife, Beth, is alive and almost omnipresent in the section of the book where Jane works for the Mazer-Farleys. She’s described as a very unlikeable intellectual, pushing wheat grass shots and veganism on her reluctant family, and feminist values on Jane, the Korean American girl who has been taught to always follow nunchi, a sense of family order, heavy on respect.  I thought this was actually quite interesting – watching Jane struggle to balance her traditional upbringing with contemporary life in China.  Of course, counterposed to this is Beth’s relationship with her Chinese American daughter, and Beth’s overdone and strangely myopic way of trying to incorporate Devon’s cultural background into her life and upbringing.

Jane inevitably falls for Ed Farley, the husband.  Unlike the real Mr Rochester, though, Ed is not a very interesting character.  From the beginning he seems overshadowed by his wife, who seems oblivious to the fact that she is dominating the household in ways the other members all find constraining.  But Ed seems to primarily lack personality.  He does, however, provide Jane with a bit of a culinary (as well as sexual) education, and this was one of the most interesting cultural points of juxtaposition for me.  Jane’s mind is blown when he makes her a fig and prosciutto hero, and again when he later makes her a cassoulet.  Ed’s role in the book seems tied to this for Jane in many ways – when later in the book he is forced to try to prepare that most classic of French (and caucasian?) dishes at Jane’s 20 something apartment, which lacks what to him are basics like thyme, he fails.

But as Jane’s relationship with Ed begins to turn sexual, she panics, and flees.  Her family has been called to Korea for the funeral of her grandfather.  She happens to quite literally fly over the September 11 terrorist attacks, landing in Seoul, Korea the day after they happen.  While I felt this was glossed over, I also was glad we weren’t forced to dwell in the New York of post 9-11 trauma.  Rather, in Korea, she goes about discovering her roots, redefining her looks, and discovering that her aunt and uncle, who taught her everything they know about Korea, were out of touch with contemporary Korea.  In New York she is an outsider because she is half Korean, half American.  In Korea, this status makes her even more desirable as an employee, friend, and girlfriend.

In Seoul she makes friends, finds a boyfriend, and almost marries him.  Here, though, the boyfriend introduces her to a kind of octopus dish where you consume live, wriggling octopus tentacles.  The juxtaposition with Ed’s fig and prosciutto sandwich, and also with her aunt and uncles prosaic bowls of rice, are unmistakable.  Her boyfriend, though, is also not right for her, and she soon splits with him.  She has unfinished business in New York, and, armed with new information about her own past, she flies home.

I actually expected the book to end sooner than it did, but in many ways I respect it for continuing on longer.  It not only introduces a relationship with Ed, it sees it through.  The Jane at the end of the book is not the same Jane as the beginning, but rather, a more rounded and fully realized character.  I recommend this read, especially if you are a fan of Jane Eyre.

Four Bees.

The Robert Galbraith/Cormoran Strike Series, or, Why I Am Now an Even Bigger Fan of JK Rowling

I enjoyed each of these books more than the last.

Like most people who follow publishing I was surprised and impressed when Robert Galbraith was revealed to actually be JK Rowling.  Like the old stories of the prince consorting with the commoners, I found it fascinating, and immensely admirable, that JK Rowling chose to release her hard work under a pen name.  This ensured that the book would stand on its own.  And it did well on its own.  While I would have been interested to see the reveal happen later, so that the books could have further developed their own following, that was not to be.  Ms. Rowling was unmasked, and the first book leaped to the top of the bestseller lists overnight.

But I will argue that, while wholly unlike Harry Potter in any way, these books are good.  As a writer, I give props to anyone who can pull off a good whodunit.  It is a task that is definitely easier said than done.  And I LOVE a good mystery.  The girl in me who first feel in love with reading because of Nancy Drew and her pesky meddling needs to be sated every once in a while with a good mystery.  And these books provide that.  As a reader, too, it can sometimes be difficult to find a mystery that both holds your attention and doesn’t seem wildly unrealistic.  I read the three Galbraith books that are out now back to back, and can’t wait for the next book.

I would also say that I enjoyed each book more than the last.  It is exciting to see an author of Ms. Rowling’s stature growing as a writer.  It gives the rest of us hope, right, if a writer who’s wildly successful and famous can also still conquer new territory? And these books DO get progressively better.  The hero and heroine of the book are fascinating, with troubled pasts, and their relationship as detective and budding detective is strong.  I like these characters, and want them to succeed.  I want to see what happens next with them.  This isn’t always the case, especially with mysteries.

I recently read The Silent Girls by Erik Rikstad.  While interesting enough, I would not recommend this book.  The main character seemed more of a caricature of a detective than a believable detective.  He makes a decision part way through the book that was so unbelievable, and so out of character, that I was literally rolling my eyes.  You can see the strings too clearly, ya know?  Having jus finished  another similar book, I am actually even contemplating a post on mysteries that DON’T work, and why.  Which is why I felt compelled to recommend the Galbraith series.

Galbraith/Rowling effectively keeps me guessing til the end, and there are constant surprises that I am willing to GO with.  Which, to me, is the mark of an adept, intelligent hand behind the prose.  I highly recommend this series for lovers of mystery, suspense, and crime fiction.

Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase

Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase is now available on Amazon.

Black Rabbit Hall caught my eye when I was struggling to find my next book to read.  I go through phases like this – nothing seems to suit, and I will aimlessly meander a bookstore or the pages of Amazon until I find something that catches my eye.  I hate being without a book, so I can usually find SOMETHING, but this past month I’ve been more listless than usual.  I blame the pregnancy hormones!

Still, in my aimless wanderings I came across this book and it seemed to be a kind of throwback to the kinds of books I loved as a girl.  I thought it would do just the trick.  It took me a while to settle into it though.  I think this time it was because it is  a book that straddles two time frames – the late sixties, in England, Cornwall specifically, and present day in the same locations.  Its a psychological thrilled, but the thriller aspect doesn’t get more than hinted at for a good 100 pages in.  Still, I think this book is worth reading for any reader who like a house as a character.  Black Rabbit Hall is our setting, and it is a hulking, dark, impressive animal of a character.  In many ways, this grand old house is the main character.

The book is told from the perspective of Amber, a young girl in the late 60’s who loses her mother in a horrible accident, and whose father all too quickly remarries.  It sounds typical, perhaps even archetypal, but there are a few twists.

Lorna, our present day narrator, wants to get married at Black Rabbit Hall despite the fact that it is all but falling down.  She feels drawn to the place, and agrees to spend a night there with its current inhabitants who aim to convince her to have her wedding there.  Add to this that Lorna has also recently lost her mother, and the parallels between the time periods begin.  Some people have argued in reviews that the characters are a bit too pat, but I am mostly ok with this.  You do have to be willing to dig in for a hundred pages or so before the story really gets moving, but once it does, it does, and I enjoyed the read.  I would recommend it for fans of haunted houses, psychological dramas, and tales that unfold over generations.

Up to this Pointe by Jennifer Longo: A YA Book both Ethereal and Earthy

Up to this Pointe by Jennifer Longo is now available on Amazon and everywhere books are sold.

Up to this Pointe begins like many ballet books do, but it doesn’t stay that way.  Up to this Pointe opens with Harper, our heroine, preparing to dance “Snow” in The Nutcracker.  She slips and falls, and this, essentially, is what the book is about.  While Harper does have food issues, even though her father is a baker and there are more taunting description of cinnamon rolls in this book than one would expect of a ballet book, none of the cattiness typical of most books about ballet is present in this book.  Essentially, though, this book isn’t about a ballerina but a failed ballerina.  A ballerina who worked so hard and was so utterly convinced that she would BE a ballerina that when she fails to get past even barre work at auditions she is sent into a tail spin.  A tail spin that causes her to run, literally, to the farthest corner of the world.

Because Harper is distantly related to Robert Falcom Scott, one of the explorers of the South Pole, she is able to secure a spot during Winter Over at McMurdo station on Antartica. Perhaps a bit implausible, but Longo does an amazing job of making that very implausibility work with Harper’s character.  During Winter Over, people are isolated from the rest of the world because the harsh conditions prevent any planes from taking off or landing.  This makes an excellent and highly unusual setting.  It feels almost as if Harper is on another planet, and indeed it is not much different.

The beginning of the book alternates between scenes at McMurdo and scenes back in San Francisco, and introduces two male love interests, Austin, on McMurdo Station, and Owen, the supportive friend of her brother back home in San Francisco.  It does a excellent job of slowly unraveling the story of how she came to the realization that she was never going to dance for a major company.  An it does a good job of describing life inside McMurdo station, and the scary, raw, beautiful, and isolated icy scenery of Antarctica.  Longo makes it seem both otherworldly and alien, and very, very real.

Longo also has an easy hand with Harper’s voice.  Her dialogue is excellently done, which perhaps comes from her background as a playwright.  Indeed, I can see much of the playwright here, in her well crafted scenes, and smooth plotting.  While you sympathize with Harper for her plight, you also clearly see a solution for her problems.  It takes Harper time to get there, and for once, I don’t mind going along for the ride.  The ending is satisfying and rather elegantly done.  I recommend this book for anyone who likes character driven YA, ballet, or has an interest in Antartica.  I will definitely be reading this author’s first book, and watching out for anything she does in the future.

in a dark, dark wood, or, a Fun Way to Spend a Cold day Between the Covers

in a dark, dark wood by ruth ware

I recently read in a dark, dark wood by ruth ware and found it delightful.  I heard the interview on NPR with the author, and thought, that sounds like just the way to while away a cold day.  And it is.  This book takes place over the course of a weekend hen-do, which is basically a bachelorette party for you non-Brits out there.  This is all about a hen-do gone WRONG though.  It combines the usual bachelorette shenanigans with a good old-fashioned Agatha Christie-esque locked room murder mystery.  Its part murder mystery, its part Clue, its part unsolved mystery.  Its a fast read, and manages to not be overly ridiculous.

The book open with Nora, our heroine, getting invited to the hen-do of a friend, Clare, she hasn’t seen in 10 years.  The hen-do is to take place in chilly November, in a remote location in the UK.  The isolated, atmospheric setting help heighten the tension, and support the aspects of the story that are necessary for a mystery like this – limited cell service, unexplainable tracks in the snow, etc.  To up the ante, Care is actually marrying Nora’s former flame, but Nora doesn’t know this until after she’s arrived and already in the midst of the weekend.

Some reviewers have remarked that the book is bordering on cheesy – there is, after all, a shotgun hanging on the wall when everyone arrives, thats supposedly loaded with blanks.  Dun, dun, dun.  Frankly, though, this didn’t bother me.  I didn’t feel like this book was ever asking you to take it THAT seriously.  I don’t think its trying to be high literature, and I’m ok with that.  I felt like this was a book that harkens back to the “good ole days” of Agatha Christie, and maybe even Nancy Drew.  Even the title riffs on the genre, and the cliche of “A dark and stormy night.”  Yet the book manages not to be cliche, in my opinion.  If you’re a fan of old fashioned mysteries, pick this book up without delay.  If you’re looking for something with crime scene analysis, forensics, grit, or noir, give this one a pass.  For me, I enjoyed it and will read this author again.

These Two Books Don’t go Together, Except, They Do

So I’ve probably mentioned on here that I have eclectic reading tastes.  You can tell from my review guidelines, I like a little bit of everything.  And I have just finished two very different books, but two books that absolutely go together in my opinion.  The first book I’ll talk about is literary, elegant, and moving.  The second book is YA, a page turner, and all kinds of fun.  What they have in common, besides that I read both and liked them both, is that they both are magical, mysterious, and compelling.  Do you like that in a book? Because I sure do.

Eleanor by Jason Gurley

Eleanor by Jason Gurley

I was provided a review copy of this book by Netgalley, in exchange for a fair and honest review.  And I can honestly say this book is lyrical, painful, dramatic, and beautiful.  It deals with generations of repressed feelings, a horrific family tragedy, and a magical, dreamlike quest by Eleanor, the main character.  Eleanor is born into a family that has suffered many tragedies in recent generations, and before long, tragedy visits Eleanor herself in the loss of her twin sister.  In order to truly understand her family’s past, and to find any sort of healing, Eleanor must undertake this quest through a mysterious, magical land.

I found this book to be surprising and refreshing in it’s depictions of the depth and breadth of human emotion, as well as compelling.  To be honest, the beginning of the book was a bit tough for me, because it deals with some of the older generations in the family feeling trapped and confined by their marriages and, indeed, their families.  I was afraid this was going to be another one of those literary “masterpieces” that drag the reader through endless pages of angst about middle age, white people, and marriage discontent.  However, before too long Eleanor is transported on her quest, in a dreamland where all the typical rules of nature no longer apply, and we move with grace towards a finish that is empathic, rewarding, and satisfying.  This is a lovely book that I hope gets some attention.  For me, the combination of the artful, literary prose and the fantastical plot are win-win.

 

 

 

The Killing Jar by Jennifer Bosworth

The Killing Jar by Jennifer Bosworth

The Killing Jar is a young adult novel about a young girl, coming of age, and coming to understand the magical powers she possesses.  Indeed, Kenna, our main character, is one part normal teenager, other part magical creature who holds life and death in the power of her touch.  While on the one hand, the novel is very much YA – the heroine gives lectures about music, is a musician herself, and battles over her growing feelings for the neighbor boy.  But on the other hand, the novel is very much about desire, and the danger of giving in wholeheartedly to desire.

The book opens with the main character reminiscing about a haunting experience in which she discovers she has incredible power, the power to take a life with a touch.  After her family is attacked, she discovers that power is just the tip of the iceberg.  She is soon exiled to a community where she suddenly feels like she belongs.  That she is not an outcast, rather, but someone to be appreciated, admired even.  This feeling does not last, though, for Kenna suddenly begins to wonder if she is in danger.  Is she about to be made a pawn because of her power?

The book is fast moving, well plotted, and leaves you hungry for more.  I hope this book has a follow up, and that Jennifer follows it up soon!

Happy Jolabokaflod! Or, Giving Books for the Holidays

JOLABOKAFLOO
Meme from Lit Lovers Facebook Page.

There’s a meme floating around Facebook right now that I first saw linked on LitLovers, which is a great Facebook page to follow by the way.  It talks about Jolabokaflod, or the Icelandic tradition of giving books on Christmas Eve.  Most new books are published during the Christmas season in Iceland, apparently, and therefore Jolabokaflod means ‘Christmas Book Flood.’  The tradition in Iceland is that everyone spends the rest of the evening reading.  I first heard of this tradition long ago, and to me, this sounds like heaven.

Every year I always ask people to give books.  They aren’t just presents for kids, they are presents that, hopefully, anyone of any age can enjoy.  I know not everyone likes to read as much as I do.  But most everyone I know reads something, and if you can choose a book that speaks to the person, that says something about who they are, or where they have been in life, or might be going in life, then I think you have given a tangible object that can still be unwrapped, and that carries a far weightier meaning.

That’s why I’ve appreciated some of the great posts from other book bloggers out there.  I found this one, from Books on the Table, to be very well thought out, and speaks to the idea that you don’t just pull a bestseller off the shelf and call it a gift.  I’ve actually purchased two of the cocktail books mentioned as gifts.  I was also inspired by this post from River City Reading, that talks about giving some love to some smaller presses.  Since I run one of those, and have enjoyed at least one title in the list she gives, I’m all for this.  And over at Book Riot, they’ve just put up a post about some great recent releases in fantasy in 2015.

If I were to add something, I might suggest the mystery series by Robert Galbraith, aka JK Rowling, for fans of mystery and suspense.  For the history lover, and the literature lover, and I would suggest NO Lit, which, I will explicitly say is compiled by friends of mine, but is what I consider a pretty great book for perusing on Christmas Eve or Day.  There’s lots of gorgeous tidbits about New Orleans writers (think beyond Tennessee Williams) that you can share with friends and family over coffee, cocktails, and canapes.  For the nonfiction lover, or the fashionista, perhaps a biography of the fascinating life of Coco Chanel?  My point is, there is a book out there for every interest.

I would tell you what books I’ve selected for my family this year, but I don’t want to ruin the surprise.  I can give you a hint, though – they all involve food!  But what books will you give this holiday season?  What books do you recommend as gifts?

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

Our Endless Numbered Days was released by Tin House Books in the US.

I have so many books to read and review right now that I am practically SALIVATING at the thought of my holiday break.  In five business days friends, FIVE AND COUNTING, I will be a lean, mean, reading and baking machine.  But in the meantime, I wanted to let you know about a book I read on our trip that was absolutely haunting.  Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller is a page turner of a tale.  It manages to be both lyrical and susepenseful, which isn’t an easy thing to accomplish.  But this is EXACTLY what I’m looking for in a book.

The book is set in 1970’s London, when our heroine, Peggy Hillcoat, is 8 years old.  She is taken by her survivalist father, James, to a cabin in the woods, and held there.  He tell her the world has ended, and with the guilelessness of a child, she believes him.  The tale is dark, a modern fairy tale.  It ends in the modern day, when Peggy returns to her mother in London, and the world at large.  Its ending lingers.  It follows you for days after you finish the book.

There are some reviews of the book that say they wish this part of the book was longer, and while I think the present tense bits of the book, which intersperse the narrative and help to drive the suspense, COULD have been elongated, I like the book as it is.  Its brevity in the modern day heightens its fairy tale, epic feel.  I think its pretty masterfully done, and can’t wait to read Ms. Fuller’s new book, which comes out in the UK in 2017, I believe.  And I’ll be getting my UK buddies to send me a copy stat!

Four Bees. 

Nonfiction November and Two Backlist Memoirs

Its Nonfiction November, and while I think of myself as an omnivorous reader, I do mainly read fiction.  All different kinds of fiction, but mainly fiction.  But this November I wanted to take a minute to recommend two out of the box nonfiction reads that I recently devoured.  Neither are new releases, so it might be pretty ho hum for some of you.  But my list is ever growing, and every once in a while I just need something different.  And I did enjoy both of these reads immensely, even though they were quite different.

My Life in France by Julia Child
My Life in France by Julia Child

My Life in France by Julia Child was published posthumously, though she began work on it before she died.  As my husband and I are planning a trip to Paris next week, and as I am basing this trip all around the food, this seemed like the perfect book.  And I must say, that while it did lack a bit of spit and polish in some areas, particularly the later years, I found it highly entertaining.  I think you have to be interested in food and food history, though I’d also say anyone interested in general history of the 20th century would find a lot to appreciate in this novel.  Ms. Child certainly conquered a lot, and the sheer length of time and effort she put in to her seminal cookbooks is almost as impressive as some of the recipes.  In the book she describes a life changing lunch when she lands in France in 1948.  A lunch of sole meuniere.  I had a similar life changing fish dish when I first visited New Orleans – Redfish Meuniere.  So I, like many people, feel a kindred spirit with the Lady of the Ladle.

 

Three Bees.

 

 

 

 

 

Bossypants by Tina Fey

The second book is Tina Fey’s Bossypants.  I know, a comedic book.  Honestly? Tina Fey?  Me? I never really watched her on SNL, except for that amazing Sarah Palin showdown, and until recently I hadn’t seen even a single episode of 30 Rock.  But Netflix being Netflix, and binge watching being binge watching, my husband and I recently embarked on 30 Rock.  Which made me interested in reading Bossypants for the first time.  I read it in a few hours, actually, and it was entertaining.  Nothing earth shaking, but entertaining.  I think it would make a great plane read.  I do think there were elements of the book she could have developed to be pithier, and more of a statement.  But that’s not the book she wanted to write, and the one she did write is pretty damn entertaining.

Three Bees.

 

 

 

Do you read nonfiction?  What’s on your current nonfiction to-be-read list?  Did you add anything to your list for Nonfiction November?