Book Review: “The Bookseller” by Cynthia Swanson (2.5/5)

22635858

Harper, 2015, 352 pages [hardcover]

I had seen some reviews of this floating around Goodreads and other blogs and I was very intrigued. It was also in the staff picks at my library which definitely made me think that I was in for a treat. I always gravitate towards “books about books” which includes books about bookstores!! Unfortunately, though, I did not love this book as much as I hoped to. Looking again at other reviews I feel I might be in the minority so I hope I can do a good job explaining why it didn’t work for me.

The Bookseller tells the story of Kitty Miller who runs a bookshop in Denver in the early 1960s with her best friend. She’s in her late 30’s and doesn’t have any real romantic prospects but is OK with it and has come to terms with being single. However at night Kitty starts dreaming of another life, where she is Katharyn Andersson, married to handsome architect Lars and the mother of three children. As time goes by and the dreams become more vivid Kitty starts to become quite confused as to what really is a dream and what is reality, and starts to wonder where she truly belongs.

There were honestly some things about this book that I adored. I am a huge fan of mid century modern architecture, decor, and just… stuff (products? housewares?), and Swanson’s descriptions of the Anderssons’ 1960s house were so very on point with this. Her writing is truly transportive (is this a word? it’s late here) in this way; I felt extremely integrated into the politics and society of the time, from the gender roles, attitudes about marriage and parenting, fashion, and even the growth of suburbs.

So why didn’t I love this? As great as many of the descriptions were much of the story was a bit boring. I thought that the Kitty/Katharyn character really lacked a spine and I just couldn’t relate to her at all. I love a good twist as much as anyone could but the twists that the author pulled out here just left me feeling kind of hollow. Also without giving anything more away even though I really did feel transported to the 1960s including the politics and attitudes of that time there were a few comments and insinuations made about parenting that as a hopefully future mother some day (in a few years, Mom, I know you are reading this) just upset and angered me (I would be happy to explain more privately just to avoid spoilers).  These faults and more just overpowered the generally good writing for me. 2.5 stars but would not rule out a future Cynthia Swanson book.

Advertisements

Book Review: “The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster” by Scott Wilbanks

“What a fascinating turn of events for her rather ordinary life. She’d found a friend — an unexpected treasure. She waved at the door self-consciously before dropping her hand to her side, then placed the letter in the mailbox and slowly made her way home.”

lemoncholy

Sourcebooks, 2015, 392 pages.

I bought this book without really knowing anything about it, but the cover called out to me. The yellow is a lot nicer in person than this picture, and the flowers are raised up slightly from the cover – it’s really pretty. I was also intrigued by the book’s description, which promised me a time-travel adventure with some charming characters. Annie Aster buys a mysterious door in an antique shop in San Francisco, puts it in her backyard, and the next day amidst tons of roses that have appeared there, she finds a wheat field in her yard with a small cabin. The cabin belongs to Elsbeth Grundy who is an elderly retired schoolteacher in 1895. They can now communicate through letters in a brass letter box that has now also appeared on their newly shared property, trying to figure out why this happened, how they’re connected, and how they’re able to correspond with each other which of course ends up getting each of them into some serious trouble. You *know* I’m into that!

tumblr_inline_nrstbmfH0k1qbacj7_500

I unfortunately was not blown away by The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster. I think that the premise of the book was really great and had a ton of potential, but there were a LOT of characters here with a LOT of story lines that detracted from the main focus of the book. This can work sometimes but I just kept getting confused and having to go back to remember exactly where we were and what was happening. I wanted to know so much more about the essentials of time travel and how it worked in this book and did not need the side stories in place of that.

I also felt like a lot of the characters’ personalities and characteristics were a little overused – our heroine Annie loves Jane Austen, dresses in period clothing even though it’s 1995, and has a “rather obscure talent” of keeping her china set in flawless condition. This to me could have been any girl in any book and I felt like I had read it many times before. The same thing happened with almost every character that I encountered and it made things a little bit predictable for me.

I’m giving The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster 2.5 stars. I felt like there were so many wonderful ideas in this book that would have been better served as separate works rather than trying to fit everything into one. I would be interested to see what Wilbanks will choose to write about next.

Book Review: “Heartburn” by Nora Ephron

“Every so often I would look at my women friends who were happily married and didn’t cook, and I would always find myself wondering how they did it. Would anyone love me if I couldn’t cook?”

Knopf, 1983 (first edition). 179 pages.

Knopf, 1983 (first edition).
179 pages.

I’m sorry that I haven’t posted in a few days!! Just had a busy week and weekend with lots of plans with family and my college roommate’s bridal shower yesterday! The wedding is in October and we cannot wait. It was wonderful to catch up with some of my other college friends too.

I went to the library early last week to take out my next group of audiobooks, and picked this up just because in big letters on the cover of the CD case it said “Narrated by Meryl Streep.” How could I say no to Meryl? This was a super-short book that kept me nice company during 4 hours of bumper to bumper traffic driving to and from New Jersey yesterday.

The basic premise is that Rachel Samstat, a cookbook author who has a toddler and is 7 months pregnant with her second child, finds out that her husband, Mark, a journalist in Washington D.C., is having an affair. The rest of the book goes on to explore the consequences of her discovery on her relationship with Mark and her friends. Interspersed within the story are various recipes. I really enjoyed that particular format and I need to look up the recipes since I listened to it and some of them sounded awesome.

I already knew that Nora Ephron can tell a great story, being the writer of many of my all-time favorite chick flicks. There were a lot of laughable moments here, and Meryl Streep as a reader was simply fantastic. However, in general, this book really did not move me at all. I didn’t feel sympathetic towards the main character despite what she was going through which makes me feel sad because I am told that the story parallels an experience in Ephron’s own life. I just did not feel that even as a married woman AND even more so as a married woman who adores cooking for her husband, I would have had the same responses and reactions that she did to the situation. Apparently there was a movie WITH MERYL AS RACHEL so I will get on watching that ASAP. I am giving Heartburn 3 stars because the audiobook reading itself was fantastic so I had a great reading experience, and Ephron is a of course good writer. I just wasn’t that into this particular story.

Now, if this was a book edition of "You've Got Mail," that would have been 5 stars for sure. Don't you think so, Mom??

Now, if this was a book edition of “You’ve Got Mail,” that would have been 5 stars for sure. Don’t you think so, Mom??

Book Review: “Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes

“I closed my eyes and lay my head against the headrest, and we sat there together for a while longer, two people lost in remembered music, half hidden in the shadow of a castle on a moonlit hill.

Hardcover edition; Pamela Dorman, 2012. 384 pages.

Hardcover edition; Pamela Dorman, 2012.
384 pages.

I found Me Before You to be a surprisingly deep and beautiful book that dealt with far more serious issues than one might imagine judging by the cover alone. The basic premise involves Louisa Clark, who is 26 and lives a “small life” that is turned around when she loses her steady job. Because she’s the main breadwinner in her family she is desperate to resume work and ends up taking a position as a caregiver for Will Traynor, a 35-year-old former business executive who became a quadriplegic after being hit by a motorcycle two years prior. Lou is reluctant to begin this job with zero experience as a caregiver, but she basically has no choice (it’s this, or stripping, or working in a chicken packaging plant), and Will is really obnoxious and rude to her at the start, as he is pretty miserable with his existence since his accident. The longer Lou is employed by Will and the Traynors, the more we learn about how important her job really is and the consequences that it might have on them both.

I am giving Me Before You 4 stars. I adored this story and felt that many of the characters’ actions and decisions were incredibly realistic in an extremely difficult situation. Lou was such a relatable character, especially being the same age as me and going through the typical mid-20s career struggles and relationship issues that my friends and I have all grappled with from time to time. Also, I’m definitely a little bit in love with Will (don’t tell Anthony)… Listening to this has absolutely changed the way I think about many things, I think for the better. For example, I’ve started to always look for ramps and other handicapped access in all of the public places that I’ve been over the past few weeks, because that was such a struggle for Lou and Will. At the same time, I did end up successfully predicting how the book was going to end fairly early on and because of this I wasn’t really as emotionally moved by the story as I could have been (as in, me, the queen of tears, did not cry at all during my reading). I am very glad that I read this and hope that it has improved me as a person, but just wish that I was able to feel as much as many other readers did.

Book Review: “The Enchanted” by Rene Denfeld

“The walls that might make others feel like they are suffocating have become my lungs.”

Hardcover edition; Harper 2014. 237 pages.

Hardcover edition; Harper 2014.
237 pages.

This book was a staff pick from my hometown library and was a short, quick read that I finished in just a few hours. You wouldn’t normally expect a book called The Enchanted to take place in prison, specifically on death row in a dirty, crumbling, incredibly corrupt men’s prison, but in this case, it works. Our narrator brings us into the narrow universe of these inmates, the prison staff, and an unnamed “lady” who is actually a mitigation specialist, working in her own way to save the inmates from their sentences. The world revealed to us, both inside and outside of the prison’s stone walls, is dark, starving, bloody, and so painful, but can also be a tiny bit magical, and is written and explored in a beautiful, intense way that even squeamish readers could likely appreciate. I have never read a story quite like this before and, while I wouldn’t exactly call the ending a happy one, it was a satisfying conclusion. I don’t want to give too much away about this particular book; it’s definitely better if you go in not knowing much, but given the short length and effortless language, it is not a grand time investment if you are at all interested.

I am giving this book 4 stars. It was a great novel especially considering that it is the author’s first; she previously only wrote non-fiction including work as a death penalty investigator so I guess it is not really a surprise that her fiction on the topic was so good. I do not want to reveal much on this blog about my particular views on the death penalty, but I believe that the insights that Denfeld has provided will allow readers on either side of the spectrum to appreciate the book – it’s not at all political. What kept it from a 5-star book for me was purely the fact that when you consider the narrator’s scope and position (again, I don’t want to say much), you realize that it is not entirely possible for the narration to be altogether truthful and it makes the structure of the book come apart a bit, but I just tried not to think about it and instead took it at face value and appreciated the prose. It felt like nearly every page had something beautifully quotable. I will definitely return to the staff picks binder at the library if the other selections continue to be as good as this book was.

Book Review: “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

“We clung to books and to our friends; they reminded us that we had another part to us.”

Hardcover edition; Dial Press 2008. 288 pages.

Hardcover edition; Dial Press 2008.
288 pages.

Sorry it’s been a while since my last review. Our best friends got married on Sunday so we had lots of pre-wedding events and then the big weekend itself! It was beautiful and we’re so happy for them!!!

Guernsey was my most recent commuting companion and was a fun audiobook because it’s an epistolary novel with many secondary characters, so there were multiple readers who each used different voices for each individual character’s letters. However, despite my enjoyment of the listening experience itself due to the talented readers, I really did not enjoy this book as much as I thought I would. The basic premise, involving a young (32 years old, as she reminded us often) writer in London after the war struggling to come up with the idea for her next novel, as she begins to correspond with some folks in Guernsey after one of them finds her name and address in his favorite book, was super intriguing, and I’ve wanted to read this for a while, but it fell totally flat.

In my opinion, this novel had amazing potential to address a very serious and interesting topic, the occupation of Guernsey and the other Channel Islands by the Germans during WWII, which I personally didn’t know much about in the larger scheme of WWII history. However, the wartime experience gets lost in what I found to be a very predictable story with unlikable characters. I knew just about everything that was going to happen to Juliet and the others before it did, and found the entire story and much of the characterization to be extremely trite, contrived, and rather boring. EVERYONE was quirky. Elizabeth was just TOO perfect. I especially hated Juliet pretty much from the very beginning, as she consistently complained and whined about everything that happened to her; my hatred culminated when she demonstrated jealousy of another character for always managing to look so stylish, even when she knew that this character was recently released from hospice after surviving as a prisoner in a CONCENTRATION CAMP. REALLY, JULIET?!?!?! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?????

Two stars for some absolutely delightful passages about books, bookstores, and book lovers, as well as the descriptions of my favorite character, Ariel the goat. Also, please keep in mind that I know many people (yes, including my mom) who really enjoyed this book, and it has excellent ratings on Goodreads, so I am definitely in the minority, but I can’t in good conscience recommend it.

Book Review: “The Husband’s Secret” by Liane Moriarty

“Falling in love was easy. Anyone could fall. It was holding on that was tricky.”

HusbandsSecret_frontonly.indd

This was the first book that I ever listened to on CD. I really enjoyed the audiobook experience and I will definitely continue utilizing books on CD as a way to get more reading done during my commute. Caroline Lee’s Australian accent was perfect to capture the setting of this book. Now, to the book itself:

I previously read Moriarty’s Big Little Lies on my flight to London and really enjoyed it. That was a 4-star book for me, but The Husband’s Secret gets a full 5 stars without hesitation. I don’t know if my enjoyment was particularly enhanced by listening to the book, or if it really is this good, but I got so emotional over these characters and what happened to them. I feel like Moriarty really gets people, women in particular, and I could identify bits of myself in each of the three leading ladies:

Cecilia Fitzpatrick is seemingly the perfect wife and mother: Handsome husband, successful Tupperware business, three beautiful daughters, the PTA president, etc. etc. etc. Until she (stupidly) opens a letter, written by her husband, not meant to be opened until his death, and what she discovers inside ensures that her perfect life will never be quite so perfect again.

Tess O’Leary feels like everything is going just fine: Her marriage is happy and secure, if not the most thrilling, and she is growing her advertising business with her husband and her cousin/best friend, until they confess something that turns her world upside down and makes her run home to her mother, where she faces her past and then her future.

Rachel Crowley is a bit older: The nice, sweet, somewhat elderly secretary of the elementary school, a devoted grandma. But the truth is, she’s barely holding it together, still reeling from her daughter’s untimely death in 1984.

The stories of these three women come together in some expected and unexpected ways. Even though I figured out what “the husband’s secret” was very early on in the book, the majority of the book really deals with the aftermath of the secret and its effects on every single character. I’m not always the biggest fan of “chick lit” but in my opinion this book actually is much deeper than how it might appear on the cover: Real, concrete issues that may come up in a marriage, figuring out what it means to be a good parent, being a good child to your aging parents, dealing with serious tragedy… and so much more, are all handled within in what I found to be strong, serious writing – it wasn’t fluffy at all, though Moriarty does infuse humor in all of the right places.

The book does a great job of switching between characters (it’s all in third person, though, which helps it from getting confusing on audio) at just the right moment so that there were times I would have to just sit in my car for a few minutes before going into work or my house or the store to finish up a chapter or two. I’ve read some complaints about the epilogue and how it was too “neat,” but for me it was perfect and a perfectly satisfying way to wrap up my experience with this book (of course at that point I wasn’t even driving anywhere, just sitting in a parking lot making myself late for a bridesmaid dress fitting).

This is the kind of book that, when you put it down and come back to the real world, makes you find yourself staring at random people on the street, thinking about what sort of secrets they’re hiding, what might be going wrong in their lives that even they don’t know about. I’ve been asking Anthony a lot of very odd questions and eventually just had to explain the entire plot to him so that he understood why I was being so weird!! It’s rare that a book can take my somewhat middling expectations for it (I picked this book to listen to instead of The Queen of the Tearling from the library simply because I thought a fantasy book might be a poor choice as a first audiobook since there are often so many characters and settings with complicated names) and blow them out of the park. I think that especially as a new wife I really fell for this book, and I’m probably even younger than the target demographic. Devotees of YA will probably not like this as much, but if you are the kind of person who will try any kind of book, I think (and hope) that you will be pleasantly surprised by The Husband’s Secret.