Book Reviews

Book Review: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line

VMars Thousand DollarEver year, Eric’s dad and his entire extended family take a trip to the beach. It’s a wonderful, week-long affair that includes nightly home cooked meals, sunburns, and rocking chairs. The house sleeps close to 30 people, and we usually end up at capacity. It’s not a quiet trip, but it is full of love and fun.

I love walking along the beach at sunset, and spending hours lounging in the pool, but if I’m being perfectly honest, my absolute favorite thing to do during beach week is sit on the huge back porch and read or listen to an audio book. The porch faces the ocean, and it’s the perfect place to find a little bit of peace in the afternoon, when most folks are out tanning themselves or building sandcastles.

In preparation for beach week, I read the previous Summer Reading Guides from Modern Mrs. Darcy, as well as various other summer reading recommendation lists through out her site. I can’t recall where I saw the recommendation for The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, but she specifically suggests trying the audio version, as Kristen Bell narrates it.

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line picks up shortly after the events of the 2014 movie. While this is a great continuation of a beloved fictional universe, it is also definitely a stand-alone story, and there’s enough influence from the exposition fairy that you don’t necessarily have to be a fan to enjoy the read.

The novel takes place in Neptune during spring break, so imagery of beaches, bikinis and body shots abound. But the atmosphere of a film noir is unmistakable. Sketchy eye witnesses, hidden agendas, and powerful political forces make the search for two missing girls a difficult, seemingly insurmountable one. The investigation twists and turns at a solid, if expected pace, and the welcome introduction of high powered, morally ambiguous, former-model-turned-hotelier Petra Landros adds a new layer to the already complex and politically charged beach town.

The story is a great mystery, as I said, with suspects, misdirection, and dangers galore. To the “marshmellow” fans out there, this is a welcome addition to the canon. Absolutely true to the heart of the show, the wit, the love, the pessimism with a dash of hope – all of it is there, along with fan favorite characters and a few surprising returns.

Kristen Bell’s narration of the audiobook is a fun way to ease into the new delivery platform. She’s playful in her impersonations of Weevil, Keith, Mac and Wallace. But hearing the narrative from Veronica herself made the transition from silver screen more seamless. Thomas and Graham’s descriptions were so clear and perfect, I could close my eyes and see Dog Beach or Mars Investigation without missing a beat.

I truly loved coming back to Neptune. I know the next installment, Mr. Kiss and Tell, will feel just as familiar, while keeping me on my toes with Thomas’s signature dark mystery and sardonic humor. 5 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: & Sons

And SonsWhat a gorgeous novel. This was my first selection from the Book of the Month Club, selected by Josh Radnor. I was so incredibly pleased. The plot summary mentioned that the novel is book ended by deaths, and the reviews I read begged the reader not to let the morose subject deter them. I’m so glad I didn’t, because getting to know the Dyer family was a sad and wonderful journey.

The novel is told in first person by an unreliable and inconsequential narrator, and yet somehow the focus is able to shift between various players who don’t share a space with him. And while this could make for a frustrating, plot hole driven experience, Gilbert has masterfully created a character so pathetically drawn to this family that it only seems natural that he would know what each member is doing at any given moment.

This is not a novel with fast action and plot twists (though it has one or two). It is a beautiful study of a genius going mad, and how his talent and self-destructive nature impacts the people he loves the most – a somewhat familiar tale.

The prose are lovingly crafted by Gilbert, shifting subtly depending on the character in focus, and I wanted to devour every word. I lingered on paragraphs, awestruck by some of his turns of phrase.

This book is not without it’s faults though, and I can’t write about it in 2016 and not mention the stark lack of diversity – in race, gender, and privilege. With one brief exception, the “view point” characters are white, abundantly wealthy, and male. I loved reading about them, their motivations, and their struggles, but even while enjoying some of the most lovely parts of the novel, a nagging voice in the back of my head asked “Haven’t we read this before? Over and over and over?”

I still love this novel, unabashedly, and will recommend it time and again. Simultaneously, I will hold out a small bit of hope that talented writers like David Gilbert will use their pens to write pieces that are slightly more modern and inclusive. 4.5 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) – April 2013

is everyone hanging out without me Firstly, I’ve learned that I really need to write my reviews much closer to the time that I finish the book. And this is especially true with audio books. It’s much more difficult to go back and refresh my memory for the details.

That being said, I really enjoyed this audio book. I love that Mindy Kaling narrates, because she is inherently funny and, much like with Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns) feels like an extended intimate stand-up routine. Kaling weaves a story of growing up in Boston, dating, working, managing a career, and being single (all while being a “woman of color,” natch). I love hearing completely relatable personal stories and hilarious anecdotes from women I admire.

I have two complaint with the audio book format for this particular book. The first is that Mindy Kaling uses a ton of lists, and hearing them over and over feels very repetitive and not terrible funny. I don’t think I would have this problem if I were just reading the text, and I can’t really explain why. I think it has something to do with the nature of intimate story-telling and listening to the writer narrate, that makes that specific writing trick underwhelming when heard (and not when read).

Also jarring was her use of two male voices, so that some vignettes were more like scenes in an audio play, rather than a simple story being told. I think this only bothered me because it was unusual, but it didn’t take away any enjoyment.

So. The book was good. Legitimately enjoyable. But not great. It hasn’t really stuck with me in the way that some of the other books I’ve read this year have.

I really wish I’d written this sooner. 3.5 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: The Graveyard Book – March 2013

the graveyard bookNobody Owens, Bod to his friends, is a normal boy growing up in a decidedly abnormal way. The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, opens with the horrific triple homicide of Bod’s family when Bod is only a year or so old. Through a series of miracle-like coincidences, baby Bod makes his way into a nearby graveyard at the exact same moment the man Jack is committing the murders. Once the residents of the graveyard realize the murderer is still searching for the innocent and helpless little boy, they decide to protect him, granting him the Freedom of the Graveyard.

An ominous beginning for such a future hero. The Graveyard Book follows Bod through childhood and adolescence, adventures and education, and finally to his inevitable encounter with (not really a SPOILER if you understand story structure at all) the man Jack.

I liked this book. The world of the Graveyard was fully fleshed out (pun intended) and felt real and a little magical. The story is told through third person limited perspective, and this worked really well because it kept the mystery in the context of Bod’s perception. Bod doesn’t receive a normal education, and therefore he doesn’t act or respond to things in the way a “normal” child would. He is mature for his age in some ways, and yet believably naive in others.

My only minor complaint is that I don’t think this is a Children’s Book, as it’s being categorized  but I’m kind of a prude when it comes to dealing with death.

Overall, it’s not my favorite work from Mr. Gaiman, but it’s an enjoyable and quick read. 3.5 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – March 2013

WITAWITARHaruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a lot of things, but first and foremost it is a series of personal essays documenting a writer’s training program leading up to the New York City Marathon. It is a memoir, chronicling  the life of a former smoker and bar owner, novelist, professor and runner. It is a memory of one man’s journey from Athens to Marathon. It is running as a metaphor for writing and writing as a metaphor for running. It is a beautiful story about aging gracefully. It is a sad and heartwarming story of the inherent tragedy of an aging athlete.

This book was lovingly crafted by Murakami to tell a very intimate story about his own life, his own experiences, and his own struggles with a very personal sport. I related to some parts and found myself inspired by others. The fluid storytelling, the beautiful imagery, and the painstakingly detailed physicality were all so incredibly written that I was engaged from the first words, and didn’t let up until the last.

One note – I would not recommend listening to this book. The narrator was great, but Murakami jumps around so often in his personal timeline that I found it hard to keep up, and had no easy way to reference the When. Obviously for me, this did not detract immensely from the book, but it was enough that towards the end I was a little frustrated.

Overall, I would definitely purchase this book and keep it around to read again from time to time. 5 Stars

(See also: Random Thoughts II)

Book Reviews

Review: The Night Circus – March 2013

the night circusThe circus arrives without warning.

This is how The Night Circus begins, and this is how it ends. From Amazon:

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.

The novel is, at first, a series of vignettes, introducing character after character. It also spans several decades, and jumps back and forth to an almost dizzying effect – much like the circus itself.

I loved this book. It set out to tell a fantastical fairy tale, and it accomplished that in the most charming and vivid way. The imagery was everything I had hoped for when I picked it up at Barnes and Noble. I would recommend this book to just about anyone.

That said, the novel is not without faults. Because it is chalk-full of colorful characters, and because it jumps through time in nearly every chapter, the dizzying effect makes it difficult to narrow down an emotional attachment to anyone in particular. Though the two protagonists are obvious from the start, Morgenstern does not spend a terrible amount of time crafting their emotions or motivations. Instead, she focuses on their technical training and their execution of beautiful illusions. She focuses on the circus itself and it’s dreamlike mysteries. She focuses on those just outside the circus who are affected by its wonders. So when the two magicians finally fall in love, though it feels natural, it also feels a little empty and unearned.

This was almost a perfect book for me: it was an historical fiction, it contained fantasy and magic, it was beautifully told with style, and it was a fairly easy read, though not depthless or bland. I felt like there was just one more element, something bubbling under the surface that was never revealed. It fell just short. Short of what, I can’t say. But honestly, that undefined lacking is only a minor concern. This novel transported me, and that’s the best compliment I can give to any story. 4 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: The Final Solution – February 2013

the final solutionI picked up The Final Solution, by Michael Chabon, not knowing anything about it other than the fact that it was 131 pages, including some illustrations, and it was written by a writer whose work I have enjoyed in the past. I wanted to pick something that would be quick (because, yes, my total number of books read so far is a little behind), but smart.

The back page summary seemed interesting enough. A reclusive retired detective living in the English country-side is more content with bee-keeping than interacting with his fellow man. Into his life walks an intelligent but mute boy and his exotic African parrot. The boy is a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, and his bird never leaves his side, repeating a random string of numbers in German regularly and peaking the curiosity of several characters. When a murder occurs, and the bird is stolen, the detective is recruited to help solve the case.

And the detective is Sherlock Holmes. It’s never stated, but it’s incredibly obvious, and had I known I probably would not have picked this book. I’ve never read a Sherlock Holmes mystery, and as such I have a nagging feeling that I probably missed a lot of references in this short little book. The mystery itself is fine, I suppose, if you like that sort of thing, but honestly, I’m finding that I don’t.

I think my issue is that I love character driven stories, and this novella is framed through a previously developed character. Each additional character in the novella, including the parrot, has his own motivations, but “the old man” is the protagonist grounding the story. Having not read the source material, I felt a bit cheated. The story seemed almost hollow somehow, which I’m sure was not Chabon’s intent.

All of that being said, it’s a very well crafted little story. I’m sure if you enjoyed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s collection, you’d enjoy this. 3 Stars