Monday, May 31, 2010

75. Three Junes by Julia Glass

After reading my reaction post about Ursula, Under, my friend Jeff recommended that I also read Three Junes, swearing up and down that I would love it. I added it to my list and then forgot about it completely for a few months. I checked it out of the library and began reading it after I finished The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. There was really no book jacket copy to speak of (see below), so I really didn't know what I was getting into.

A luminous first novel, set in Greece, Scotland, Greenwich Village, and Long Island, that traces the members of a Scottish family as they confront the joys and longings, fulfillments and betrayals of love in all its guises.

Summary lifted from the book jacket. (See what I mean?)

I read the first two chapters and it took forever to figure out what was going on. I had a really hard time getting into it. The book is in three sections, each devoted the month of June in different years. The whole of the book is about Fenno, the oldest son in a Scottish family. The first June is told from his father's point of view and lays the groundwork, setting the stage for the rest of the book. This first part was basically easing into the book and getting my bearings. The second June, told from Fenno's point of view, I really loved. I got used to and really enjoyed the cross-cutting between the past and the present, and how the past informs the present. I was a little confused when the third June began, because it was told from the point of view of someone on the periphery of Fenno's world who briefly meets him. I couldn't wrap my mind around why we should see what happens to Fenno in such a roundabout way.

Ultimately, this story was more about the journey than the destination. It wasn't so much about what happens, as the characters, how they relate to each other, and what they learn from each other. It was good, but I don't think I was in the right mood for it. After The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I was all about what is going to happen and the action but that really wasn't the point of Three Junes. It was like the right book at the wrong time. I do recommend you read this one, it's very well written, but maybe read a longer plot summary first.

74. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

I heard about this series of books, but ruled it out for some reason for that I can't recall. Colin checked out The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo from the library and hadn't started it yet (and I was avoiding the other books I had lined up), so one night I decided to start it to see if it was interesting.

Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo combines murder mystery, family saga, love story, and financial intrigue into a complex and atmospheric novel. Harriet Vanger, a scion of one of Sweden's wealthiest families, disappeared over forty years ago. All these years later, her aged uncle continues to seek the truth. He hired Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently trapped by a libel conviction, to investigate. He is aided by the pierced and tattooed punk prodigy Lisbeth Salander. Together they tap into a vein of iniquity and corruption.

Summary lifted from the book jacket.

The first couple of chapters, with Blomkvist's backstory about the libel trial, are kind of boring and hard to get into. After that, it draws you in pretty rapidly, but that beginning pays off -- you're given lots and lots of info and it all pays off in one way or another; in this book, take nothing for granted. The mystery was completely engrossing and I liked all of the subplots as well because they added to story rather than diluting or detracting from it. I didn't solve the mystery myself, I was as in the dark as the characters were and that was fine with me. But when Colin read it, he kept theorizing aloud to me and I had to keep the best poker face possible because he kept picking up on all the right clues! He was reading in the bedroom one night while I was watching The Real Housewives of New York (Team Bethenny!) in the living room, and he came out to tell me what he thought happened to Harriet and he was right, and I just had to freeze my face so as not to give anything away. I don't know how he did it. He's so savvy. 

The original Swedish title translates to "Men Who Hate Women" and that should give you an idea of what to expect. I didn't know going in that there would be such graphic scenes of violence against women, but it's necessary for the story that Larsson is telling and it's not gratuitous. These scenes are so well-written that I felt ill reading one. But Larsson is writing about things he is passionate about -- the devastating effects of such attitudes and violence (as well as integrity in journalism and the dangers of the right-wing Nazi movement). I read about Larsson on Wikipedia, and noted the many similarities between him and Blomkvist. I came away with a lot respect for him, and genuine sadness that his life ended so early. 

73. Watchlist based on an idea by Jeffery Deaver

I read about this book somewhere and thought it sounded really cool. But I got a little nervous once I got Watchlist home from the library -- I always get excited about stuff like this and then I don't like it (case in point: Portland Noir). So I put off reading it for awhile but once I started it, I couldn't put it down!

From the International Thriller Writers, comes Watchlist: two powerful novellas featuring the same thrilling cast of characters in one major suspenseful package. The Chopin Manuscript and The Copper Bracelet are collaborations of some of the world's greatest thriller writers, including Lee Child, Joseph Finder, Lisa Scottoline, and Jeffery Deaver, who conceived the characters and set the plots in motion. The other authors each wrote a chapter and Deaver then completed what he started, bringing both novellas to their startling conclusions. 

In the first novella, The Chopin Manuscript, former war crimes investigator Harold Middleton possesses a previously unknown score by Frederic Chopin. But he is unaware that, locked within its handwritten notes, lies a secret that now threatens the lives of thousands of Americans. As he races from Poland to America to uncover the mystery of the manuscript, Middleton will be accused of murder, pursued by federal agents, and targeted by assassins. But the greatest threat will come from a shadowy figure from his past: the man known only as Faust.

Harold Middleton returns in The Copper Bracelet -- the explosive sequel to The Chopin Manuscript -- as he's drawn into an international terror plot that threatens to send India and Pakistan into full-scale nuclear war. Careening from Nice to London and Moscow to Kashmir to prevent nuclear disaster, Middleton is unaware that his prey has changed and that the act of terror is far more diabolical than he knows. Will he discover the identity of the Scorpion in time to halt an event that will pit the United States, China, and Russia against each other at the brink of World War III?

Summary taken from It took a really long time to type. I wish Colin were here to type for me.

I really enjoyed reading Watchlist. It exceeded all of my expectations. The mysteries each had a solid, thorough backstory and well-developed characters. Switching authors kept the pace way up, and made for a fun read. The only disappointment I felt was a result of the typos I found. More than once, the quotes that indicate who is speaking were misplaced, making for some confusion. Also, I noted a who's instead of whose and a premier instead of premiere. I know that typos happen, but come on. I would think that a book of chapters by alternating authors would require a single, talented editor. (And I think that I would be right!) All in all, it didn't affect my enjoyment of the book. And I noted the names of several authors, so I can check out their other work. If you like suspense and mystery, this book is definitely worth checking out!

72. The Wedding Girl by Madeleine Wickham

Madeleine Wickham is also known as Sophie Kinsella and as I said in my Twenties Girl post, "Sophie Kinsella knows from chick lit, and I will give anything she writes a chance. Although her characters can be a little zany and hijinks usually ensue (hello, Shopaholic series), her books are still well-constructed and just plain fun. I may roll my eyes a few times, but I like being along for the ride." I've been involved in wedding planning for almost two years now, because of my sisters' weddings spaced a year apart, so I was especially interested to read a chick lit book entitled The Wedding Girl. Please note: Some spoilers are included below but I don't think they would affect your enjoyment of the book, should you read it.

At the age of eighteen, in that first golden Oxford summer, Milly was up for anything. Now, ten years later, she is a very different person. Engaged to a man who is wealthy, serious, and believes her to be perfect, she is facing the biggest and most elaborate wedding imaginable. But one small episode from the past has the power to completely derail her her carefully planned nuptials. Milly has locked away this history so securely that she has almost persuaded herself it doesn't exist -- until, with only four days to go, her secret catches up with her... And when "I do" gives you deja vu, it could be a problem.

Summary lifted from the book jacket.

Let's start with good news. Wickham is growing as an author and trying new things, which I admire. This is the first of her books that I can recall using different points of view, and it worked very well. Instead of staying inside Milly's head the whole time, we experience events with her family members, fiance, etc., and most of the characters are pretty well-developed. I enjoyed that aspect very much. Also, like Twenties Girl, it was a bit weightier than expected. I wouldn't have been disappointed with a frothy, bubbly, unsubstantial chick lit book, but there are some more serious issues lying beneath the surface. I admire Wickham's ability to combine the froth with the substantial. 

Okay, onto the not-so-good news. Milly is not as well-developed a character as I would hope for. She's your standard zany heroine, which is fine, but I don't understand her motivations. As a teenager, she marries an American gay friend so he can stay in England to be with his boyfriend. That I actually understand, her feelings are explained pretty well. But after she loses touch with them, she starts practicing denial to an insane degree. How does it not occur to her until the week of her wedding ten years later that this -- you know, ALREADY BEING MARRIED -- might be a problem? And she starts to hope that her husband of convenience has filed for divorce and somehow she wasn't notified. What? Also, her relationship with her fiance is never explained to my satisfaction. When she meets him, she speaks intelligently about a subject that she knows about basically by chance. So he gets an impression of her as more intellectual and upper-crust than she really is. And Milly just goes with it. And she's planning on just being someone she's not, you know, forever. Why? Why does she even love the guy? I don't know. There were a few other loose ends; the villain of the story is kind of cartoonish and I don't understand the motivations there either, and I was expecting more of a resolution between the fiance and his father, who have a troubled relationship but end the story on good terms somewhat suddenly. 

And of course there had to be a simple solution to the main conflict because life always works out that way. Actually, that didn't bother me too much. It worked for the story, I guess. All in all, it's a fun read and I like seeing how Wickham develops as an author from one book to the next. But this isn't her best work, and there are better chick lit reads out there. 

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Progress report.

My year of reading dangerously will be winding down to a close fairly soon, so I thought it was time for a progress report. Since July 4, 2009 I have read 79 books, posted 71 reviews, and been consistently behind the ideal pace of two books read per week. If all were going to plan, I would be sitting pretty at rate of 90 books read and 89 posts up, with ten books to go at my leisure. Alas. This is not to say that all is lost -- I have more than a month left to reach my original goal, and I intend to hit it. Or at least make a darn good effort. I went through my spreadsheets and made a plan to see me through. And as you can see in the photo above, I have a couple of books lying around to read. So if you need me, I'll be curled up on the couch with a cup of coffee, Monty and a cat or two, and a good book.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

71. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

I checked this book out of the library after reading this on my friend Sarah's Facebook page:

Currently in love with "The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks" by E. Lockhart. Seriously. Read it in 4 hours on Saturday evening. You all must read so we can discuss! LOVE IT!

How could I resist?

Frankie Landau-Banks at age 14:
Debate Club.
Her father's "Bunny Rabbit."
A mildly geeky girl attending a highly competitive boarding school.

Frankie Landau-Banks at age 15:
A knockout figure.
A sharp tongue.
A chip on her shoulder.
And a gorgeous new senior boyfriend: the supremely goofy, word-obsessed Matthew Livingston.

Frankie Landau-Banks:
No longer the kind of girl to take "no" for an answer.
Especially when "no" means she's excluded from her boyfriend's all-male secret society.
Not when her ex-boyfriend shows up in the strangest of places.
Not when she knows she's smarter than any of them.
When she knows Matthew is lying to her.
And when there are so many, many pranks to be done.

Frankie Landau-Banks at age 16:
Possibly a criminal mastermind.

This is the story of how she got that way.

Plot summary lifted from the book jacket. Intriguing, no?

It was so good! I love The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks! I also read it in one night, I couldn't put it down. For some reason, I'm always into stories set at boarding schools and I think there's usually potential for awesomeness when a secret society is involved. So this book was a good fit for me to begin with, and it was so clever and quick-witted that it completely won me over, hands down. I have great love and respect for Frankie, and would like to see more protagonists like her in YA fiction. (As much as I like Twilight, Frankie wipes the floor with Bella in the role model category.) I really enjoyed her fascination with words -- she's not only clever, but fun as hell. And while her ideas are so radical to the other characters in the book, they made complete sense to me (as I suspect they would to most young women). If you are a fan of YA novels in any way, shape or form, PLEASE read this book! I can almost guarantee that you will love it as much as I did.

70. I, Alex Cross by James Patterson

I don't remember checking this book out of the library, but I have a feeling that I wanted a fun, light read to mix in with the rest of that week's books. Reading so many James Pattersons this year (actually, I think this is the third, so it's not "so many") isn't really following the spirit of the project, but I'm trying to give myself a break. Even though I want to try new things and challenge myself, that doesn't mean I have to give up what I already like.


Detective Alex Cross is pulled out of a family celebration and given the awful news that a beloved relative has been found brutally murdered. ALex vows to hunt down her killer, and soon learns that she was mixed up in one of Washington's wildest scenes. And she was not this killer's only victim.

The hunt for the murderer leads Alex and his girlfriend, Detective Brianna Stone, to a place where every fantasy is possible, if you have the credentials to get in. Alex and Bree are soon facing down some very important, very protected, very dangerous people in levels of society where only one thing is certain - they will do anything to keep their secrets safe.

As Alex closes in on the killer, he discovers evidence that points to the unimaginable - a revelation that could rock the entire world. With the unstoppable action, unforeseeable twists, and edge-of-your-seat excitement that only a James Patterson thriller delivers, I, Alex Cross is the master of suspense at his sharpest and best.

Summary lifted from the book jacket. Colin typed it up for me because he can't stand my hunt-and-peck typing. You can always tell which of us has typed it because he uses a single hyphen for a dash whereas I prefer the double hyphen. Obviously, neither one of us knows how to create an actual dash in Blogger.  

This is a good installment in the Alex Cross series; it's a solid thriller with a great twist. Patterson is nothing if not dependable for a few hours' enjoyment. However, the "beloved relative" is not someone familiar to audiences. This doesn't make the death any less tragic, but I hate it when the book jacket copy is misleading. Also, the violent crimes were a shade too violent for me. I don't know if the books are getting more graphic or I'm getting more squeamish, but some scenes were off-putting. 

I would say more, but that's really about it. Onto the next!

Friday, May 14, 2010

69. Sugarless by James Magruder

I found Sugarless on the new fiction shelf at my library and I'm not going to lie -- I checked it out partly because I like the cover. But I also thought it sounded interesting and a little different from the other books I've read in the my pick category, so I added it to my pile. 

Things look bad for Rick Lahrem, a high school sophomore in a cookie-cutter Chicago suburb in 1976. His mother's second husband is a licensed psychologist who eats like an ape, his stepsister is a stoner slut, and his father is engaged to a Southern belle. Rick's only solace is his growing collection of original Broadway-cast LPs, bought on the sly at Wax Trax. After he brings two girls in speech class to tears by reading a story aloud, Rick is coaxed onto the interscholastic forensics team to perform an eight-minute dramatic interpretation of The Boys in the Band, the controversial sixties play about homosexuality. Unexpectedly successful at this oddball event, Rick begins winnings tournaments and making friends with his teammates. Rick also discovers the joys of sex -- with a speech coach from a rival school -- just as his mother, reacting to a deteriorating home environment, makes an unnerving commitment to Christ. The newly confident Rick assumes this too shall pass -- until the combined forces of family, sex, and faith threaten to undo him at the state meet in Peoria.

Summary taken from the Google Books overview of Sugarless. 

I usually copy down the book jacket summary before I return library books but sometimes I forget, as was the case with Sugarless. The above summary is pretty close to what I remember reading on the book jacket with one key difference: the book jacket did not mention that this story takes place in the 70s. Or if it did, I skipped right over that part. So I started reading, expecting the story to take place in present day and it took a couple of chapters to figure out the actual setting. To be honest, I probably wouldn't have checked the book out if I had known -- in general, I don't find the 70s that interesting. Some time periods appeal to me more than others, and the 70s decade just isn't one of them. But I'm really glad that I didn't know about the setting beforehand, because I really enjoyed this book. I wasn't sure if I would at first but I found myself hesitant to put it down, and ended up finishing it in one night.

There is just something about coming of age stories. They just get me right there (imagine me pointing to my heart). And this is a fantastic one. I genuinely loved the arc of Rick's interpretation of the scene from The Boys in the Band; it was pretty effing incredible how his experiences and his performance of the scene were linked and over the course of the story, his understanding of both the material and his own sexuality evolved. This is Magruder's first novel, and you can't tell at all while reading; he's a skillful author and I'm interesting in hearing more of what he has to say.

I don't want to get too into gender stereotypes here, but I don't think many girl coming of age stories are physically graphic like boys' stories are. Or maybe they're physically graphic in other ways? Anyway, there were times when I felt a little squeamish because, well, boys are gross. They talk about masturbation and semen and all kinds of things that girls really aren't up-front about. Other than that somewhat unexpected aspect of the novel, I truly loved this one.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

68. 212 by Alafair Burke

I went to the library one day armed with a list of books to check out with the thought in mind that I should also choose something off the new fiction shelf as a my pick. I read the first few sentences of the 212 book jacket copy and was hooked, I thought it sounded sort of Gossip Girl-related and that was intriguing. The clincher for me was Alafair Burke is a former deputy district attorney from Portland, OR. I'll give any Portland author a try.

When New York University sophomore Megan Gunther finds personal threats posted to a Web site specializing in campus gossip, she's taken aback by their menacing tone. Someone knows her daily routine down to the minute and is watching her -- but thanks to the anonymity provided by the Internet, the police tell her there's nothing they can do. Her friends are sure it's someone's idea of a joke, but when Megan is murdered in a vicious attack, NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher is convinced that the online threats are more than just empty words.

With smooth, straight-talking partner J.J. Rogan at her side, Ellie tries to identify Megan's enemies, but she begins to wonder if the coed's murder was more than just a culmination of a cyber obsession. Phone records reveal a link between Megan and a murdered real estate agent who was living a dangerous double life. The detectives also learn that the dead real estate agent shared a secret connection to a celebrity mogul whose bodyguard was mysteriously killed a few months earlier.

Exposing the darkness that lurks beneath the glamorous surface of New York City, 212 delivers yet another "knuckle-biting journey that'll keep you turning pages until the very end" (Faye Kellerman).

Summary lifted from the book jacket. Do you see what I mean about it sounding a little Gossip Girl-y at the beginning?

I read this book in two days, I could not put it down. This is a perfectly constructed, intricate mystery and a great effing read. The hook that made me check out 212 in the first place wasn't really a big part of the story; it turned out to be something completely different but AMAZING. This post is going to be pretty short, because I don't want to give anything away! I want you to go read it for yourself.

I do have one minor complaint: I didn't think that Burke described the physical appearance of her main characters promptly enough. When I read something, I immediately start visualizing the characters in my mind either based on the author's description or on their actions if no description is included right away. I pictured Ellie's partner one way, only to find out a couple of chapters later that he was supposed to look and dress completely differently. And by this time, it's too late. I'm pretty stubborn and I want to keep picturing characters the way that I already have. But compared to my overall enjoyment of the story, I can let this one go. I will definitely be reading more of Burke's books, especially the second one featuring Ellie Hatcher. 

67. The Little Black Book of Style by Nina Garcia

I love Project Runway, always have. I think the quality has gone down a bit in recent seasons but it's still a really good show, which is due in part to Nina Garcia. She has impeccable personal style, high standards and a critical eye -- which makes her a perfect fashion design competition judge. You don't always like her, because it's not her job to be nice to the designers, but you always respect her. That's why I was excited to learn that my library carried The Little Black Book of Style and I was going to be let in on all of her secrets. I don't always have a lot to spend on my wardrobe, so I'm always interested in any tips and advice from people that I think are stylish.

Every time you dress, you assert your identity. With style, you tell the world your story. In that way, style affords you opportunities to think about your appearance as a quality of your creative character. The Little Black Book of Style helps you to explore your own fashion voice -- the piece of you that joyously revels in the glamorous experience of creating your best self. From cultivating good taste to guarding against definite fashion faux pas, Nina Garcia offers readers the ultimate guide to follow when it comes to dressing their best. Including tips on how and when to wear an outfit, occasion-appropriate wear, advice on how to combine colors and textures, and inspiration on how to achieve your own signature look, you learn how to experiment, storyboard, archive, and play. Timeless and universal, this book seeks to remind women that eternal style is internal style, and that everyone has what it takes to discover themselves through the colorful palette that is fashion.

Summary taken from the Harper Collins website. 

Okay, let me get this out of the way: I hated this book. Hated! Such a disappointment. Like many people, I only know Nina from Project Runway, and as such, the jokes fall completely flat and seem completely out of character. There wasn't enough background information on Nina's personal life and personal style. There's a lot of emphasis placed on confidence and it being the most important aspect of style, but it all sounds empty without any advice on achieving that confidence. I guess this book isn't meant to be touchy-feely. I appreciated the repeated references to fit and the importance of making sure that clothes and lingerie fit properly but again -- there's zero practical advice on the matter. And the repeated references to wearing fur were off-putting -- fur really has nor relevance to my style or the style of anyone I know, yet Nina goes so far as to say, "And, PETA be damned, I am a huge fan of fur." Good for you, Nina.  

I will give her this -- the look of the pages is very aesthetically pleasing, what one would expect of someone with her background as a fashion magazine editor extraordinaire. The first two chapters were about "being your own muse" and "the basics" -- which I guess I expected the whole book to be about. It seemed to me like she really didn't have enough to say, so she rounded out the rest of the book with lots of quotes, illustrations, spacing out copy. It's less than 150 pages, and she's really not saying much of anything. One chapter focused on inspirations, and it was seriously so boring. She listed 17 movies, broken down by scenes to watch for types of style; 10 musicians/bands and explained how they were stylish; and three artists that inspired three fashion designers. I almost fell asleep! The next chapter was about what to wear when -- it was pretty unnecessary in my opinion, but I think she included it because this is what people ask her about when they meet her. I really don't care about what I should wear to the Hamptons during a summer weekend, because I don't go to the Hamptons during any season. Whatevs. The overview of noteworthy trends and designers from every decade starting in the 1920s was especially pointless to me. She included it so that readers could sound knowledgeable around fashionistas -- um, this just sounds like filler to me. Sorry.  

The last chapter is what cemented my negative opinion. I don't think that I was the target audience for this book -- it seemed to me that Nina and her fashion insiders are completely out of touch with mainstream/middle America. The "insiders tips and tricks" included in this last chapter have nothing to do with me or basically anyone I know. Nina doesn't take the time to explain who the people quoted are and while it's interesting to ask each of the 28 insiders who they think is the most stylish woman they know, I don't know who many of those women are either. It was frustrating and by this point I wasn't in the mood to do Google searches for that many people. Here are some examples, so you can see what I mean.
Q: How to dress to make an entrance?
Zac Posen: The same way you make an exit: with aplomb, shoulders back, and a withheld secret.
Maggie's reaction: WHAT THE F@#*?

Q: What one item should all women own?
Michael Kors: Brown crocodile stiletto pumps.
Maggie's reaction: Seriously? I have never heard anything so impractical in my life. Is this for real?

Q: What items, besides a trench coat, should every woman have in her closet?
Christopher Bailey: An iconic Burberry Manor bag (among other things)
Maggie's reaction: 1) Who? 2) Yeah, let me get right on that. Oh wait, that bag costs over $1,000. Never mind. 

Q: Who do you find eternally stylish?
Heidi Klum: I think that non-fashion victims are eternally stylish...
Maggie's reaction: Um, what?

I got the feeling that Nina made a book deal after gaining notoriety from the show and then had to figure out what to write about, rather than coming up with this concept organically. This book didn't appeal to me and I'm really glad that I didn't spend money on it. Project Runway fans may want to check it out for themselves, but I personally didn't get anything out of it. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

66. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

I've referenced my geeky note-taking in the past couple of posts, and I just had to share the notes that I took on Persepolis:

recommended by Annie, she lent me her copy

super good, love the drawing, humor, serious moments

never fully understand middle east issues

That's it! That's all she wrote! :)

Wise, funny and heartbreaking, Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi's memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah's regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran's last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country. Persepolis paints an unforgettable portrait of daily life in Iran and of the bewildering contradictions between home life and public life. Marjane's child's-eye view of dethroned emperors, state-sanctioned whippings, and heroes of the revolution allows us to learn as she does the history of this fascinating country and of her own extraordinary family. Intensely personal, profoundly political, and wholly original, Persepolis is at once a story of growing up and a reminder of the human cost of war and political repression. It shows how we carry on, with laughter and tears, in the face of absurdity. And, finally, it introduces us to an irresistible little girl with whom we cannot help but fall in love.

Summary lifted from the book jacket. 

As you can see above, I barely took any notes while reading. I think this is because Persepolis is a fairly quick read and totally engrossing. It's rare that I don't want to turn away from a book long enough to tap away on the laptop for a few minutes. It's also rare for me to find something that I think is a valuable read, enriching my understanding of the world, that I also just plain enjoy reading. I love this line from the summary -- "It shows how we carry on, with laughter and tears, in the face of absurdity." -- because it perfectly encapsulates the tone of the book. I'm really glad that I decided to be open to graphic novels during the project, because each one that I've read so far has made me truly appreciate the story-telling in this genre. In conclusion, please read this book! It is amazing and I know you will love it.

65. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

I first heard of Shutter Island when the movie trailer started playing before every single movie I saw in the theater. Colin and I were both intrigued, and he decided to check the book out of the library. He read it pretty fast and furiously, and really loved it. But he asked me not to read it before we saw the movie; he was interested to see what my reaction would be without having read the book first. I kind of owed him one -- I read The Reader before we saw the movie adaptation, and I came thisclose to telling him the big reveal while we were watching it in the theater. I almost had to sit on my hands to stop myself from nudging him during the important parts and winking. So I was dying to see Shutter Island by the time it finally came out (why they pushed it back from October to February baffles me, but that's why I'm not a big-shot movie exec). I read the book about a week after we saw the movie. Read on to see how they compared.

It's 1954, and U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule arrive at a small island in Massachusetts' Outer Harbor. It is home to Ashcliffe Hospital, a federal institution for the criminally insane, and one of the patients has escaped. Although the two men are new partners, they have already developed a wry, jocular relationship while also swapping personal, painful details. Daniels lost his much-loved wife two years prior in a fire, while Aule requested a transfer out of Seattle after being harassed over his personal relationship with a Japanese American woman. After interviewing the hospital's medical personnel, both men have the feeling they are being stonewalled, especially by the director, who seems to alternate between a cold authoritarianism and a sudden and sweeping compassion. When the island is hit by gale-force winds and Aule disappears, Daniels must go it alone, beset by the fear that he has been fed psychotropic drugs and the belief that the hospital is performing radical brain surgery as part of a secret-ops program. Lehane throws in one mind-bending plot twist after another in a psychological thriller that will leave readers in suspense right up to the end. 

Summary lifted from 

This is my first time reading one of Dennis Lehane's novels, although I've seen at least three movies adapted from his work so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. I was a little surprised when I first started reading because I didn't feel drawn in right away. This was probably due to my high expectations, because after a while it became more of a page-turner and I found myself thinking about it when I had to put the book down. I loved this quote below so much that I wrote it down to include here. I think it's pretty representative of the overall sense of humor:

WHO IS 67?
(This is written on a note that's being read by the characters.)

Chuck said, "Fuck if I know."

Cawley stepped up beside him. "Quite similar to our clinical conclusion."

Okay, tell me that's not funny. You can't, can you?

I really enjoyed this book and I highly recommend it to everyone. It is so good! As I said above, it's a page-turner and I love the subtle humor. One thing that I found interesting is that I expected one story and found a completely different one. I liked where the story went, but it could have gone in a completely different direction and been just as good. I wrote down in my notes "how much violence can a man carry before it breaks him?" but I don't know if a character verbalized that theme or if I did, I can't remember writing it down. It hits the nail on the head pretty good. There was a lot of flickering between reality and delusions in dreams, which is generally not something I enjoy. Stream of consciousness is just not my thing. But it worked in this book. And finally, I completely related to Daniels' main struggle, which I can't elaborate on, because it's part of a great reveal. Suffice to say, I understood what motivated him (to a point, at least) and that made me enjoy the read all the more.

So how did the movie adaptation fare? Pretty well, although I enjoyed reading the book more than watching the movie. I thought the reveal of the truth, and the circumstances surrounding the reveal and the explanations of the truth, in the book was more effective. For one thing, the migraine dreams in the book seem more related to the reveal at the end than the dreams in the movie. The movie focused more on Daniels' experiences in World War II, something I'm still a little puzzled by. Perhaps Scorsese was more intrigued by that aspect than Lehane was? Also, the movie was a little more gruesome in its depictions of violence than the book and it didn't add anything to the story or my reactions to it. It was just a little more gruesome. But that's not to say that I didn't like the movie -- it's definitely worth seeing, especially for the atmosphere it created. The look of the settings and costumes is beautiful. I just thought the book was a better experience, something that is usually the case.

64. New England White by Stephen L. Carter

Colin read New England White awhile ago, and all I remembered about it was that it looked really long and the book jacket copy didn't sound that interesting. But I was complaining to him that I didn't have as many recommendations to choose from as I thought I might and on this particular day nothing on the list sounded intriguing. So he assured me that he really thought I would like New England White and I should give it a try. I trust his advice more now that we've been together for seven (seven!) years, so I checked the book out of the library and dove in.

When The Emperor of Ocean Park was published, Time Out declared: "Carter does for members of the contemporary black upper class what Henry James did for Washington Square society, taking us into their drawing rooms and laying their motives bare." Now, with the same powers of observation, and the same richness of plot and character, Stephen L. Carter returns to the New England university town of Elm Harbor, where a murder begins to crack the veneer that has hidden the racial complications of the town's past, the secrets of a prominent family, and the most hidden bastions of African-American political influence. At the center: Lemaster Carlyle, the university president, and his wife, Julia Carlyle, a deputy dean at the divinity school - African Americans living in "the heart of whiteness." Lemaster is an old friend of the president of the United States. Julia was the murdered man's lover years ago. The meeting point of these connections forms the core of a mystery that deepens even as Julia closes in on the politically earth-shattering motive behind the murder. Relentlessly suspenseful, galvanizing in its exploration of the profound difference between allegiance to ideas and to people, New England White is a resounding confirmation of Stephen Carter's gifts as a writer of fiction.

Summary lifted from the book jacket (this is what didn't sound interesting a few months ago). Colin typed it up for me because he can't stand my hunt-and-peck typing. 

My first reaction is that I can definitely trust Colin's opinion. He knows me well enough to have a good idea of what I'll enjoy. This did not used to be the case! When we had been together for six months, he swore up and down that he thought I would like Pirates of the Caribbean. Um, not so. That's 143 minutes of my life that I'll never get back. But, I digress.

I don't remember if I mentioned this before, but I create a Google Doc for each book that I read. I take notes as I read -- nothing major, just to help me remember what I want to write when I begin the blog post about that book. Then I write the post in my Google Doc and post it to the blog from there. It's a good system, and it's especially handy when I don't write my post until a few weeks after I finish the book (like this one, for instance). Okay, getting to my point: I took a lot of notes while reading New England White. I mean, I haven't taken so many notes on a book since I was in school. I knew that if I didn't, I would lose track of who was who and what was going on. Also, I had to look up a lot of words while reading -- the vocabulary was just out of my range. I even started to look up words that I was pretty sure I knew what meant just to be sure. It was kind of fun, if I'm being honest. And now I have the definitions of over 35 words in my Google Doc. (So I pretty much just geeked out, huh?)

At the center of New England White is an intricate mystery set in a richly imagined world populated with expertly drawn characters. Okay, I'm just trying to sound smart -- but it's all true! The mystery was laid out perfectly over the course of the book and I never lost interest in trying to crack it. Although you can tell that Carter is writing from experience, he's created this history for his characters that's not based in fact but sounds eerily plausible. (Is that cryptic? Whatever, maybe I'm just trying to sound smart again.*) I love how satisfying it was to read this book; Carter reveals information and motivations slowly, bit by bit, and every question has an answer in due time. The pacing was perfect. I love this book and I highly recommend it. Even if you're not too keen on mysteries, you'll probably enjoy being in this world for a few hours.

*It's okay, I know that I'm smart. I'm just self-deprecating. (And modest.)

And as a special treat, here is my list of definitions! In case you're interested, or if you want to reference it when you read New England White yourself.

sinecure: an office or position that requires little or no work and that usually provides an income
    abstemious: marked by restraint especially in the consumption of food or alcohol
brio: enthusiastic vigor
hegemonic: the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group
conflagration: a large disastrous fire 
    logy: sluggish, groggy
consternation: amazement or or dismay that hinders or throws into confusion
pique: a transient feeling of wounded vanity
dudgeon: a fit or state of indignation, often used in the phrase in high dudgeon 
riposte: a retaliatory verbal sally 
    sally: a witty or imaginative saying
    recalcitrant: obstinately defiant of authority or restraint, difficult to manage or operate
desultory: marked by lack of definite plan, regularity or purpose
obsequity: state of being obsequious 
    obsequious: marked by or exhibiting a fawning attentiveness  
contretemps: an inopportune or embarrassing occurrence or situation
shirty: angry, irritated
ubiquitous: existing or being everywhere at the same time, constantly encountered
laconic: using or involving the use of a minimum of words, concise to the point of seeming rude or mysterious
avuncular: suggestive of an uncle especially in kindliness or geniality
visage: the face, countenance or appearance of a person
maundering: a rambling or pointless discourse
implacable: not capable of being appeased, significantly changed, or mitigated 
politesse: formal politeness 
sally: an action of rushing or bursting forth, a venture or excursion usually off the beaten path
supercilious: coolly and patronizingly haughty
erudition: extensive knowledge acquired chiefly from books
anomalous: inconsistent with or deviating from what is usual, normal or expected
dulcet: sweet to the taste, pleasing to the ear, generally pleasing or agreeable
oenology: a science that deals with wine and wine making 
factotum: a person having many diverse activities or responsibilities, a general servant
inexorable: not to be persuaded, moved or stopped
hortatory: using exhortation 
exhortation: an act or instance of exhorting
exhorting: to incite by argument or advice, urge strongly, to give warnings or advice, make urgent appeals
paucity: smallness of number
synesthesia: a concomitant sensation, esp. a subjective sensation or image of a sense other than the one being stimulated; the condition marked by experiencing such sensations
        concomitant: accompanying especially in a subordinate or incidental way
primogeniture: an exclusive right of inheritance belonging to the eldest son
mysophobic: a pathological fear of contact with dirt, to avoid contamination and germs
sanguine: confident, optimistic

Monday, May 3, 2010

63. Sweet Little Lies by Lauren Conrad

You can refer to this post and this post to understand why I picked Sweet Little Lies as book number 63. On to the plot summary!

Jane Roberts was the average girl next door until she and her best friend, Scarlett Harp, landed their own reality show, L.A. Candy. Now the girls have an all-access pass to Hollywood's hottest everything. But there's more to life on camera than just parties and shopping... When racy photos of Jane are leaked to the press, she finds herself at the center of a tabloid scandal. She turn to co-star Madison Parker for help, unaware that Madison is scheming behind the scenes. She might be Jane's shoulder to cry on, but does Madison really have Jane's back? Scarlett's working on a scandal of her own. She's fallen for someone who is strictly off-limits -- which means Scarlett has a big secret to keep... from the L.A. Candy cameras, the paparazzi staking out her apartment, even from her best friend. Of course, nothing stays secret for long for the stars of the newest hit TV series, and all this drama couldn't be better for ratings. But can Jane survive another season in the spotlight?

Lifted from the Harper Collins website.

While Sweet Little Lies was total cotton candy fun, it's still solidly written, well paced and by no means a vanity project. I'm biased because I have loved Lauren on her reality shows, but I really think she's a good writer and she definitely knows her source material and target audience to a tee.

As I mentioned in my post about L.A. Candy, the events are more "inspired by" Lauren's experiences than a behind-the-scenes tell-all but you still get tons of insidery details on the production of this kind of show. Lauren delves a little deeper into this world, revealing how the stars of reality shows court the tabloid press instead of the other way around. Jane discovers that her sympathetic co-worker was hired by the show producers to encourage her to date someone and talk about it on camera. And at one point, Jane finds herself confused over whether her ideas were her own or driven by producers' suggestions. And I wonder how long it took Lauren to break this code that's explained in the book:

BFF = best friend forever
BFFN = best friend for now
BFFC = best friend for cameras
It's always fun for me to try and figure out who inspired the different characters, and what that might mean about Lauren's relationship with them. For example, I don't think she and Audrina are too close these days; the character of Gaby is clearly based on her and there are some choice words about Miss Gaby:

At one party, Gaby was "wasting her time with some emo loser. That girl had such foul taste in men." Yeah, that's definitely payback for Audrina accusing Lauren slept with Justin Bobby on The Hills.
Ooh, and at a different party "Gaby wasn't very good at about checking her cell or following Dana's directions, not because she was stubborn and rebellious (like Scarlett), but because her tiny brain really couldn't process too many thoughts at the same time." That comes from the Heidi Montag-inspired character's point of view, but STILL! The gloves are off now!

There's some mystery surrounding that Heidi-inspired character, Madison, and I love it. The clues are blended into the storyline with skill, and not all is revealed by the end -- so I'll just have to read the next one, too. (Yay!) And I have to mention the female friendship aspect of the story. Jane and Scarlett are fighting and growing apart for the first time in their life-long friendship, and neither are handling it very well. This comes across very genuinely, for Lauren knows that which of she speaks, and I think a lot of women will find this to be relatable. At one point, Scarlett thinks to herself that "It was like she was watching their relationship change and she couldn't do anything about it." and guess what? Been there, done that. It's sad. And Lauren writes about it really well.

If this is your type of thing, please read Sweet Little Lies. It's so good! You won't be sorry.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

62. Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein

I can't remember if I read about this book online first or if I saw Adelstein interviewed on The Daily Show first. Either way, I really wanted to read this based on what I was hearing about it. I had plenty of time to get excited about it because there was a 4 month wait at the library. 4 MONTHS! Sheesh.

From the only American journalist ever to have been admitted to the insular Tokyo Metropolitan Police press club: a unique, first-hand, revelatory look at Japanese culture from the underbelly up. At nineteen, Jake Adelstein went to Japan in search of peace and tranquility. What he got was a life of crime... crime reporting, that is, at the prestigious Yomiuri Shinbun. For twelve years of eighty-hour workweeks, he covered the seedy side of Japan, where extortion, murder, human trafficking, and corruption are as familiar as ramen noodles and sake. But when his final scoop brought him face-to-face with Japan's most infamous yakuza boss - and the threat of death for him and his family - Adelstein decided to step down... momentarily. Then he fought back. In Tokyo Vice, Adelstein tells the riveting, often humorous tale of his journey from an inexperienced cub reporter - who made rookie mistakes like getting into a martial-arts battle with a senior editor - to a daring investigative journalist with a price on his head. With its vivid visceral descriptions of crime in Japan and an exploration of the world of modern-day yakuza that even few Japanese ever see, Tokyo Vice is a fascination, and an education, from start to finish.

Summary lifted from the book jacket. Colin typed it up for because he can't stand my hunt-and-peck typing.

So, yeah. When I hear about Tokyo Vice, I thought it was going to be all about Adelstein's troubles with the Yakuza. I didn't connect that the title refers to the vice beat that he covered as a reporter. There's a lot of ugly stuff in this book about human trafficking, the sex trade in Japan, and the police force's dismissive attitude toward rape victims. There was one chapter in particular about an all-night tour he was given of the sex shop area that really got to me. Also, some very bad things happen -- a friend of Adelstein's disappears while helping him track down a story and someone shows him graphic photos of a murder victim, claiming that the murdered woman is his missing friend. Also, Adelstein didn't come off as very likeable to me. He never really explains why he went to live in Japan in the first place, which I found off-putting. He's very honest and upfront about the less sympathetic choices that he makes, and I respect that. But it doesn't really change the fact that he wasn't someone I was whole-heartedly rooting for.

Okay, I think that covers the cons. Let's get to the pros. Adelstein provides extensive background on journalism in Japan, which is very interesting. He's a talented writer, I give him that. And I don't know a lot about Japan, so I enjoyed learning more about the country as he experienced it. Here's one quote that I thought was especially interesting:

"It says a great deal about the safety of the country [Japan] that a murder, any murder, is national news. There are exceptions, however, and that's when the victim is Chinese, a yakuza, a homeless person, or a nonwhite foreigner. Then the news value drops 50%."

That's something I probably never would have known otherwise. So it wasn't a complete waste of time, even if the review makes it sound that way at first.

Ultimately, I was expecting to read part crime story, part memoir along the lines of American Shaolin by Matthew Polly. Not the case. Suffice it to say that I wish I had realized what I was getting into. A different mindset going in would have helped me enjoy this book more or get something more out of it. 

Here's the interview with Adelstein on The Daily Show:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Jake Adelstein
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

If you're interested, give the book a shot. You might love it, even if I didn't.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

61. Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

I think most people felt the same way about the presidential election in 2008: The stakes were really high. Regardless of who they wanted to win, for a few months it was all people could talk about -- and talk they did, with a lot of passion. It was the kind of point in history that I think my kids will ask me about one day (when I eventually have kids, that is). So when I heard about Game Change, I placed a request for it at the library right away. I was still a bit late to the party, though; there were 24 people in line ahead of me. Now I'm here to tell you -- it was well worth the wait.

In 2008, the presidential election became blockbuster entertainment. Everyone was watching as the race for the White House unfolded like something from the realm of fiction. The meteoric rise and historic triumph of Barack Obama. The shocking fall of the House of Clinton - and the improbable resurrection of Hillary as Obama's partner and America's face to the world. The mercurial performance of John McCain and the mesmerizing emergence of Sarah Palin. But despite the wall-to-wall media coverage of this spellbinding drama, remarkably little of the real story behind the headlines has yet been told.

In Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, two of the country's leading political reporters, use their unrivaled access to pull back the curtain on the Obama, Clinton, McCain and Palin campaigns. How did Obama convince himself that, despite the thinness of his resume, he could somehow beat the odds to become the nation's first African American president? How did the tumultuous relationship between the Clintons shape - and warp - Hillary's supposedly unstoppable bid? What was behind her husband's furious outbursts and devastating political miscalculations? Why did McCain make the novice governor of Alaska his running mate? And was Palin merely painfully out of her depth - or troubled in more serious ways?

Game Change answers those questions and more, laying bare the secret history of the 2008 campaign. Heilemann and Halperin take us inside the Obama machine, where staffers referred to the candidate as "Black Jesus." They unearth the quiet conspiracy in the U.S. Senate to prod Obama into the race, driven in part by the fears of senior Democrats that Bill Clinton's personal life might cripple Hillary's presidential prospects. They expose the twisted tale of John Edwards's affair with Rielle Hunter, the truth behind the downfall of Rudy Giuliani, and the doubts of those responsible for vetting Palin about her readiness for the Republican ticket - along with the McCain campaign staff's worries about her fitness for office. And they reveal how, in an emotional late-night phone call, Obama succeeded in wooing Clinton, despite her staunch resistance, to become his secretary of state.

Summary lifted from the book jacket. Colin typed it up for me because he can't stand my hunt-and-peck typing.

When Game Change first came out, people were buzzing about it. It seemed to me that every reviewer, blogger, member of the peanut gallery all had comments about how gossipy and salacious the book was, especially because they were questioning the writers' methods of quoting and paraphrasing -- and leaving unnamed -- sources. Based on the buzz, I assumed that the book wouldn't be very substantial. (And believe me, I would have been fine with that.) It could not have been further from the truth. It's... well, substantial. I read a lot of gossip, because that's my thing, and this book isn't gossip. At least, I didn't get that vibe.

The main focus is the battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during the primaries; you can tell that this pair of opponents fascinates Heilemann and Halperin. I would have been interested to read some more about the other major players, but the Barack-Hillary relationship dominates the story-telling. I didn't follow the primaries closely at all, especially after the downfall of Edwards, so parts of the book were actually kind of suspenseful, because I didn't know who won each primary. I was surprised by how invested I became during reading, because of course I already knew the ultimate outcome -- regardless of how you view their methods of quoting sources, you have to admit that that takes talent. I really wasn't expecting the book to focus on the primaries so much, and I was especially surprised that the election night was basically skipped over. The book concludes on the morning of November 5, and Obama convincing Clinton to come on board as Secretary of State. It wasn't an unpleasant surprise, but at the same time I would have been happy to read a book that zeroed in on the presidential election.

I liked reading about Obama because he comes across as a normal person. I think he's a great man, but at the end of the day he's still just a guy. And the writers recognize that, which is nice. Even though I do think he's a great man, I try not to drink the kool-aid on this one, you know? So it's refreshing to learn about the days when he lost his temper or complained about something, just like I've been known to do occasionally. (Right, Colin?) The Clintons are seriously fascinating. I think people will be writing about their dynamic and influence for years to come. And wow... I was so wrong about John Edwards. It's a little scary how off-base I was. Even taking everything in this book with a grain of salt, John comes across as a delusional pretty boy and Elizabeth is just plain scary. One staffer told the writers about one day when, after some crisis in the campaign, John left him a voicemail telling him that he did well and John understood that things happen and to keep his chin up (I'm paraphrasing, of course). The next voicemail the staffer received, basically moments later, was from Elizabeth chewing him out -- the staffer says that Elizabeth called him poison and "dead to them." Yeesh.

You can tell that the writers don't feel the McCain campaign was as compelling as the Democratic primaries. They do cover the trials and tribulations of McCain securing the nomination and fighting to keep his head above water during the presidential campaign, but not in nearly as much detail. It took a long time to get around to Sarah Palin, and when they did it fell a bit flat. I personally don't think much of her, but you can't deny that she's a lightning rod. No one's opinion of her is just "meh." Everyone has a strong and immediate love or hate of her. So I expected to be more invested while reading about her role, but I wasn't really. They try to make you wonder if she's mentally unstable, but their case is a bit thin. Don't get me wrong, there is some interesting stuff here, just not as much as I expected. (Expectations are everything, aren't they?)

I recommend that you check out this book if you're interested in learning more about this election. Enough time has passed to put events into perspective, and I think it would be interesting even if you had followed the news closely during this time.