Archetype by M.D. Waters (Feb 2014)

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I loved this book. It’s futuristic, dystopian, scifi that should attract even those who, like me, don’t normally get into that genre.  I’m dying to read the sequel, Prototype, coming out next summer.  What I really like about this book is that you’re never really sure exactly who’s the good guy, and who’s the bad.  And with the bad guys, you’re not sure exactly how bad, or if the bad bits are actually kind of good.  There’s also romance, which is a plus on my checklist.  But again, you’re not sure whether the love is well-placed.  I’m reading another book, Parasite by Mira Grant, that reminds me a little of Waters’ Archetype, in that both deal with medical advances, and what they could mean for our future.  Corporate medicine, pharmaceutical giants, loom large — and don’t they loom large in our own lives lived off the printed page?  This real-world connection makes it easy to relate to and get absorbed in these fast-paced novels.  Hooray for M.D. Waters!  It’s too bad you’ll have to wait until February when it comes out — but put it on your list today!  Advance Reader’s Copy provided by Penguin.

Love Overdue by Pamela Morsi (August 2013)

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The trope of the frumpy librarian breaking out in 5-inch stilettos is amusingly (from a librarian’s perspective) resilient in its attraction to the general public.  I guess it’s that madonna/whore thing. And I can’t say I’m immune to the trope’s attraction.  I’ll refrain from showing up to work in heels that hobble.  But I did amuse myself with this little mass market confection.  There were a few places where I thought, no way, that’s not how libraries work.  But in general, Morsi got it right.  I loved the Miss NO NO NOOOOOOooo! character.  Every library’s gotta have at least one.  I had to suspend my disbelief in a serious way, when the main male character didn’t recognize his siren librarian from a brief encounter with her break-out form eight years earlier.  It’s quite the conceit to believe someone you once slept with isn’t going to recognize you just because you’re actually wearing clothes this time.  Or am I giving men too much credit?  Regardless, this is a fun, contemporary romance, that is well-written enough I only winced a couple times at the sweetness.

How To Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman (October 2013)

how-to-be-a-good-wife-emma-chapmanChapman has written a novel that reminds me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.  I suppose it also reminds me of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.  It’s quite a good book, I couldn’t put it down.  How To Be a Good Wife is creepy in a slowly oozing sort of way.  It’s not slow, I don’t mean that — it moves along quickly enough.  I just mean it’s scary, but not in the monster jumps out of closet suddenly way.  There is no graphic violence.  There was physical harm in the main character’s past, but it is not described in detail.  The harm is mostly psychological, and it is a harm that is primarily part of the female experience: the roles we play as young women, as wives, as mothers.  The novel is about how hard it can be to be believed, and how quickly our experiences can be trivialized.  There were two junctures in the novel where I thought, “but why aren’t you doing the obvious?!”  But I believe now that the failure of the main character to do some key things to save herself, while not rational, is realistic.  We make choices.  And it’s not always about saving ourselves, when our freedom and vindication and attainment of justice means, for someone else, destruction.  There are many questions that linger after finishing this novel, in the best sense.  I can see this being a great read for book clubs.  Advance Readers Copy provided by BEA.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (October 2013)

signatureElizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, deserves every bit of that fame.  Her writing is exquisite.  This novel of the 19th century will sweep you away with the esthetic of it’s period language.  And that esthetic is not in the least bit stodgy; it’s rather humorous.  For a large book that covers two generations and travels the world (London, Philadelphia, Tahiti, Peru), it was quick and engulfing reading.  The story centers on Alma, a woman who does not fit her century’s mold for females:  She is not only brilliant, but she lives the full life of the intellect, pursuing a life-long study of mosses and evolutionary theory.  MOSSES?  you say.  Yes, mosses, that lowly plant that perhaps you dislike if it invades the shady places of your pristine lawn, or perhaps you discount because it has never grabbed your attention.  I’m actually quite fond of the stuff, having grown up close to the PNW rainforests.  And I once tried to grow it in my sidewalk garden, only to watch the fragile plant whither to wiry brownness in the unrelenting New York sun.  But I guffawed at first at the notion of spending one’s life dedicated to understanding moss.  Nonetheless, I was entranced by Alma’s enthusiasm and complete absorption in the subject.  And heartbroken at the price she paid for being brainy, tall, and not terribly attractive.  The consequences of Alma’s choices, coupled with those things out of her control — those aspects of her time and culture that determined her fate — combine to form a deeply drawn character whose life was, in the end, very full in spite of gnawing absences.  Like the fragile mosses she studied, Alma struggled to thrive.  But when she found the right ecosystem, she flourished.  One of the best books of the year, I think.  Advance Readers Copy supplied through BEA.

The Universe vs. Alex Woods by Gavin Extence (June 2013)

alex woodsFabulous book.  And it surprised me.  It’s not about what I thought it was going to be about.  And I don’t want to ruin it here by telling you.  I’ll just say it deals with a somewhat controversial subject, and humanizes it in a wonderful way.  This is a coming-of-age story of a 17-year-old boy in England.  Like any other young person who doesn’t fit the standard mold — Alex has epilepsy brought on by being hit by a meteor — he gets bullied.  This might make you think it’s a YA book.  It could be.  But some of the allusions are ones that YA’s may not get, so I’d put this in more of the adult reading category.  This is a funny book.  Such a light sense of humor (in that lovely British way), especially given what ends up being weighty subject matter.  I had no problem, as a middle aged woman, relating to the story.  Maybe in part because one of the characters is a quirky (slightly crazy?) mother, and if I’m honest, I probably fit into that broad (not specific: I do NOT hold seances or collect all things witchy) category.  You’ll close this book feeling pretty certain that your own uniqueness is quite all right.  And you’ll likely have a refreshed perspective on what makes life worth living.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty (Aug 2013)

husbandI’m not much on being secretive.  I pretty much have to work hard to keep my thoughts appropriately stuffed away.  But as I came to the end of Moriarty’s newest novel (after What Alice Forgot), I kept going back and forth on the question “to tell or not to tell?”.  I still don’t know the answer.  It’s not possible to blithely proclaim “always tell the truth”, unless you’re a total black and white person, in which case, you probably don’t like the moral complexities of good fiction.  In The Husband’s Secret, there are actually multiple characters who hold secrets.  Lives are protected, and destroyed, by these secrets.  The story revolves around 3 women and their families in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia.  Most of the story takes place in the present, while at times reverting back to the 80s.  It took a little effort at first to get the characters and families straight (though not like trying to sort through Game of Thrones families and locations and loyalties, so don’t worry), but soon enough, I was totally engrossed in each character’s life.  Moriarty’s ability to flesh out characters is extraordinary, her dialog impeccable.  This is a fabulous novel that won’t let you go until you’ve read the last page, and even then, it won’t be finished with you.  You’ll keep mulling over the quandaries days later: would I have told?  Would I have kept the secret?  Could I have lived with the consequences of either choice?

Longing for Home by Sarah M. Eden (August 2013)

longingThis book is labeled “A Proper Romance” on the cover.  I think that’s because there is no sex, and only one exceptionally chaste kissing scene.  The “Proper” bit almost made me put the book down.  I’m glad I didn’t.  I read this book quickly and enjoyed it, in spite of the treacly  and repetitious spots, and moments when the main character doth protest too much.  This is a sweet romance that takes place in a small Wyoming frontier town.  But it illuminates an historical reality that was anything but sweet:  the intense, sometimes fatal discrimination faced by Irish immigrants.  I knew the Irish were treated poorly.  But I did not realize the extent of the discrimination, the blatant, in-your-face unfairness of it.  And I knew something about the famine from which they escaped.  But I did not have a feel for the impossible choices families faced.  So I recommend this novel for it’s enjoyable, chaste romance; and for the history that will grab your attention and keep it, giving you that emotional connection to an aspect of the country’s expansion that fiction often does best.  Advance Reader’s Copy supplied by BEA.

Morning Glory by Sarah Jio (Nov. 2013)

morningHaving grown up near Seattle, I knew the setting of this novel — the house boats on Lake Union.  It was a pleasure to read Morning Glory, by the native Seattlite, Jio, and to recognize many of the places mentioned.  I learned things I was less acquainted with, too, like the cultural strictures that even egalitarian Seattle women lived with in the late 50s, and the art scene.  The grief that the main character lives with is something I hope to never be more acquainted with.  Mostly, this was a pleasant, enjoyable, easy romantic suspense (but the mystery does not entail anything gory) that switches back and forth between the late 50s and the present, in the exact same location — the houseboats.  I pretty much gobbled up this book.  But I have to warn you:  one needs a tolerance for puzzle pieces fitting neatly together.  If you like your rough edges, you won’t like this book.  It’s not that everything ends up hunky dory.  There is real tragedy and unfairness, and real effort to survive and move on.  But the lives lived among the houseboats in this novel do end up intimately intertwined through the decades, in ways surprising and too perfect to be truly realistic.  It’s part of the fun of the story, how everything fits together.  But you have to be the “half-full” sort of reader to appreciate it; if you’re the “half-empty” sort, you might think “oh, pulease”, in spite of enjoying other aspects of the story and the writing.  Advance Reader’s Copy provided by BEA.

Covet by Tracey Garvis Graves (Sept., 2013)

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At first, I was taken aback by Graves’ lack of verbal artifice, her plain narration of the alternating points of view of Claire, her husband Chris, and Claire’s friend and possible lover, Daniel. But it did not prevent me from getting propelled into their lives. I finished the novel in two days, and can feel the characters still lingering in my head, as though their lives continue outside the encapsulating book covers. I believe now the plain narration is fitting for a story that seeks to lay bare the progression a budding affair can take. How the innocent and friendly and more-or-less proper can slip past boundaries and become complicated. How we avoid looking, and talking, clearly about friendships with the opposite sex, so we can postpone admitting that they are rarely the uncomplicated things we want them to be. How we struggle to remain constant when we don’t get what we need. And how dependent we are on each other’s understanding of that struggle, taking responsibility for it, and forgiving. Graves’ story is ultimately an optimistic one. It’s refreshing, in the age of Fifty Shades Madness, to be reminded of our honorable potential (Is that too harsh? Do I sound like a prude? I don’t mean to – I only mean to say that I enjoyed reading about an average married couple who endured difficult but average hardship, and behaved with above-average integrity). The ending is not pat. There is no sticky sweetness or cliché to the honorableness. It is hard and painful. Complicated. And yet, in the final analysis . . . it’s pretty simple. You love, and you remain loving: sometimes up, sometimes down, constantly evolving. But you love. The naked simplicity of that vision is what propels us into honorable living when our lives are not as we hoped they would be. It’s what brings that disappointing present into the future we do, indeed, want.

Language of the Sea by James MacManus (2011)

 

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As a young adult who woke to years of dark, quiet mornings for training as a competitive swimmer, I often felt more comfortable in water than on land.  So when my cousin Lynette introduced me to selkies – the half-human half-seal beings of Scottish mythology – by giving me her VHS tape of the film “The Secret of Roan Inish”, I absorbed the waking fantasy of silently and without remorse abandoning land to slip beneath the waves and join my seal kin.  And now, decades later as an adult who occasionally uses said fantasy to escape the demands of daily life, I have read a novel that brings that very escape to life.  Language of the Sea by James MacManus is the stuff of Celtic lore and fantasy – and yet it reads like realistic fiction.  What happens in the novel is not far from the plausible.  At core, it is a novel about science – specifically the marine sciences – and not fantasy at all.  The main character is a marine biologist on Cape Cod, working as an academic at a research center, focusing on seal communication.  The book is one whose images are now a part of me; I suspect further decades (if I’m lucky) of living on land will not erode them.  But I have (or rather, had) one criticism.  I thought at several junctures in my reading that the science parts of the novel, where what is known about the oceans and sea mammals was explicated, were not strong enough.  Not detailed enough.  I kept thinking, there is lot being left out here, and the author is just scratching the surface.  But alas, by the end of the novel, the reader sees the point in that withholding.  What is most important is not what we know, but what we do not know, and our degree of humility in admitting that.  Our current scientific knowledge base is large, and we can explain a lot, especially in comparison to what we knew just 30 years ago, when I was still that young adult diving into pools while half asleep.  But we have only just scratched the surface, especially when it comes to our oceans, which cover 70% of our planet, but of which we’ve explored only five percent. And so my one criticism of this novel is washed away.  I will be reading MacManus’ new release, Black Venus, in the near future.  Next Spring, we may visit a remote research outpost in Baja California – one of several vacation spots I had looked into before reading Language of the Sea – where sea lions frolic.  If one dark morning I am said to have walked straight into the sea, slipped beneath a wave, and never returned, you will know with whom I am keeping company.

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