Thursday, August 13, 2015

Book Review: The Rocks by Peter Nichols

For the last few months, it seems like every 'Must-Read Summer Books' list included The Rocks by Peter Nichols. Over and over, this book has been compared to Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins, and since most of the story takes place along the rocky cliffs of Mallorca, it's the quintessential beach read, if you aren't going on vacation this year and want to pretend you are sitting by the Mediterranean sea. It's not really a breezy book but I definitely felt transported just a few chapters in.

The Rocks starts off in 2005 with a short chapter detailing a tragic accident. From there, the book is told in descending order, moving backward from the present into the past where there are layers and layers of history between the four main characters.  Lulu and Gerald had been married for a very short time after World War II, but after an incident (details which are unknown to everyone), they separate, and although they live within a few miles of one another, they manage to only run into each other three times over sixty years. Luc is Lulu's son from her second marriage, and Aegina is Gerald's daughter from his second marriage.  The heart of this story lies with Luc and Aegina.

This book is lovely and heartbreaking and crushing all at once. As I read and the years went further and further back, I started to fear that Nichols wouldn't give the reader another 'present day' chapter at the end, but I was wrong to worry. The second-to-last chapter of The Rocks was the emotional payoff for which I'd been waiting.  It made me cry, and then later when I shared the end with my husband, I teared up again.

I think the thing that got to me most is that The Rocks is all about misunderstandings and missed connections. Life for Lulu, Gerald, Luc and Aegina would have been so different if they had known some big, important things. Maybe they could have had happier lives; maybe they would have been more miserable. There's no knowing and that's true in our real, everyday lives as well.

I will say that there are some slow sections. Every time a new year began, it took some time to settle into the new story that was being told. And there was a point when I had a bit of trouble keeping all of the names straight--there are a ton of supporting characters with interesting backstories and European names that start to sound alike around page 250. Keep going, push through and you'll figure out who everyone is eventually (or not, but as long as you remember the main foursome, you'll be fine).

Final verdict: yes, I'd recommend The Rocks, whether you're reading on a beach or not. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Back Down to Charleston

It's Saturday and all I keep thinking about is how I want to be back at Folly Beach in South Carolina. A few weeks ago, Anthony and I took a trip down to Charleston but honestly, three and a half days in a new place isn't enough sometimes.

I want another night where we can fall asleep to the sound of the tide coming in through the open balcony door, only to wake up to the sight of surfers bobbing in the water waiting to catch the next wave.

I want another late dinner on the elevated deck at Loggerhead's, complete with live music and frozen drinks and a view of a sliver of the ocean.

And I definitely want another giant breakfast biscuit from Callie's Hot Little Biscuit.

Some observations:

*Angel Oak Park on Johns Island closes early but you can still stick your hand through the page fence to take a kick-ass photo of this ancient oak tree.

**The brewery scene in Charleston is out of control in the best possible way.

***No one will judge if you have an alcoholic beverage with every meal.

We can always go back, and I'm pretty sure we will. In the meantime, we have these photos of classic Southern homes and pretty fountains and yummy meals to help us fondly remember our jaunt.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Review: Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

I almost feel like I should write my review of Funny Girl by Nick Hornby in some kind of joke format.  From the book jacket, I thought I was starting a story about the crazy, wacky but wonderful world of entertainment in the 1960's but it was so much better than that. This is a behind-the-scenes look at the British entertainment business, folks, which is my way of saying it's much more interesting.

Our heroine, Sophie, nee Barbara, is the girl that every man wants, the girl that every other girl wants to be, and she's funny too. Sophie wants to be like Lucille Ball, but she basically gets her start in the television industry because she is honest with the writers about a terrible script when she goes out on an audition. From there, we follow her, her co-star and the show's writers as the comedy becomes a hit throughout the country, and while all that sounds kind of like the typical showbiz trajectory, it's really not.

Even though Sophie is the "funny girl," Hornby also lets his supporting characters shine and actually become people. It's fair to say that the book revolves around a very likeable Sophie but honestly, she's wasn't my personal favorite. Dennis and Tony, the show's producer and co-writer, respectively, were raw and human and open, and with his subtlety, Hornby makes you root for these people who not only make Sophie who she is, but also have lives of their own.

As I logged this book into my 'read' journal (yes, I have one; this is a no-judgement zone), I realized that this is the first book written by a man that I've read in several years, oddly enough. It is, however, the third Nick Hornby book that I've read and it was as honest and just plain fun as I expected it to be.  I officially recommend Funny Girl to anyone who is looking for a fast read, or who likes relateable characters or who is obsessed with I Love Lucy, or all of the above.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

"The Age of Miracles" by Karen Thompson Walker

I'm a newcomer to audiobooks. I spend a decent amount of time on the road commuting to work though, averaging about 45 minutes each way, so last week, while NPR was having a seemingly endless on-air fundraiser and every other station was playing a Taylor Swift song, I picked up The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker on audiobook. I can say with great certainty that I'm hooked on books-on-tape, my friends.

The Age of Miracles is a good pick to listen to in a car as it follows a young girl and her family during a time when the world around them is changing. And I literally mean changing. Earth's 24-hour days are gradually growing longer as the planet starts to rotate slower and slower. This means that days can have 20 hours of burning sunlight and 20 hours of freezing, dark skies.  There are power outages, food shortages, radioactive light, strange physical ailments and an overall subdued type of panic.  No one, including the scientists, know what is going on and with everything in flux, it's almost impossible to move forward with real life.

There are really two stories occurring simultaneously in The Age of Miracles. Walker's 11-year old main character, Julia, is navigating her way through school, making and losing friends, falling in love with the boy around the corner and dealing with her parents' marriage. At the same time, the world seems ready to implode. The birds start to die, the weather is extreme and unpredictable, and society is losing its morale compass. These two stories didn't always seem like they were happening at the same time; at points, there were details missing that were really needed to make this a full-bodied, complete story.

Walker is a beautiful writer, with lovely sentences and delicate wording. I found myself so drawn into the book as it was being read to me that a few times, I arrived at my destination and barely remembered the drive at all. And there was one particularly anxious instance when, around dusk, I actually expected nighttime not to arrive, until I reminded myself that the world was only changing in the book.  The Age of Miracles transported me, if only temporarily.

I don't normally read books about catastrophes, or disasters, or sci-fi.  Maybe one of the reasons I enjoyed this novel was because the science is soft.  There are no technical terms or scientific explanations as to why these horrible things are happening to the planet. As the reader, I am just supposed to believe and move on.  And for the most part, I did.

Something that I bothered me a bit, although I admit that I may not have picked up on it if I wasn't listening via audiobook, is that Walker repeats several lines over and over.  The one that sticks with  me is "It still amazes me how little we knew back then."  It's for effect, obviously; this is a mantra that Julia is compelled to repeat as she looks back on how this whole disaster started, and as she looks ahead in extremely uncertain times.  My issue is that by the end of the book, adult Julia doesn't seem to know much more than she did when everything started.  What didn't they know back then that they do know by those last pages at the end?

This is a quiet, rather slow-moving novel about a girl trying to make it through a worldwide catastrophe unscathed.  I think most readers will be drawn in by the apocalyptic aspects, but it was Julia's story that really kept me interested in The Age of Miracles.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

We took Anthony's mom to see The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel last Saturday. My mother-in-law is a huge fan of anything British, including but not limited to films, television shows, high tea, and the royal family. And while she was the one who had been looking forward to our outing for weeks, I was the one who was captivated by the story while she fought off sleep next to me in the dark theater.

There's something about these older adults trying to navigate a new stage of life that really got to me. Or maybe it was the accents.  You don't necessarily need to see the first movie in order to fully appreciate this one, but I would recommend that you do. It makes you care about the characters so much more and honestly, Maggie Smith's snark is not to be missed.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Book Review: Reunion by Hannah Pittard

I'll confess that this was the second time I checked out Hannah Pittard's Reunion from the library. The first time, I had to return it before I even had a chance to crack open the cover because someone else requested it (that two week loan period goes by quickly!). This time, I read it in a day and a half so yeah, you can say I liked it. 

Even though Reunion is a quick read, it's not full of levity.  The story takes place during a four-day period when Kate, our protagonist, and her two older siblings meet up in Atlanta to say goodbye to their father, who just committed suicide.  He was a difficult man and all three siblings, as well as many additional half-siblings and ex-wives on the periphery, have damaged or non-existent relationships with him.  His death comes at a time when everyone seems to be in some sort of turmoil and this added pressure causes all involved to reevaluate their own lives.

This book reminded me of why I dream of joining a really cool book club; as soon as I turned the last page, I wanted to call someone and to talk about it so I did the next best thing which is to scroll around online to read what other people thought.  Although the feedback was mostly positive, there were some negative reviews, and as it turns out, many of the things that those readers hated about the book were the things I liked the most. Kate isn't likeable and most of the time, I didn't really identify with her but ultimately, I'm not a reader who wants perfect characters or needs tied-up loose ends. True situations and messy relationships are what keep me interested.

If nothing else, Reunion reminds us that it's difficult to let go of the past, even if it's not really something you want to hold onto. It's hard to admit that sometimes it's easier to lie than to tell the truth, or that you can't always blame other people for your own mistakes. It's inevitable that we all will grow up, but no one ever said it's easy. That's a sentiment that Reunion definitely gets right.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Book Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Word of mouth is really an amazing thing. If it weren't for the recommendation that I received several times from the same librarian than I never would have checked out Sarah Waters' The Paying Guests and I never would have thoroughly enjoyed (and may I say raced through) this almost 600-page book just to be systematically crushed by the ending. 

Despite my disappointment in those last 100 pages, I really did enjoy The Paying Guests.  Waters' writing is really beautiful and since the story takes place in 1922 England, she obviously did meticulous research to make sure she was accurate to the time. There's a sense of longing in every sentence: first for normalcy (a majority of the young men have been killed in World War I, including the central family's two sons) and then a longing for passion and love mixed in with what seems like the eternal search for acceptance and belonging.  So little seems to happen (almost the entire book takes place in a big, creaky, falling-apart house) but then again, so much also happens.

The premise of the book is simple but intriguing.  When Frances and her mother run out of funds/realize their debts are larger than they believed, they take in boarders, or 'paying guests.'  There's a strange mixing of private and public lives here and class is a major issue too. Frances and her mother are old money and part of the upper class in a London suburb. Lillian and Leonard, the boarders, are of the rising middle class, ambitious twenty-somethings who are relative newlyweds.  When Frances and Lillian start an affair, everything is turned upside-down.

And from there, the story takes an unexpected twist, or at least it was unexpected for me. I don't normally read thrillers but this book was really suspenseful in the best way, and quite passionate without being graphic in the least.  Eventually, these ladies get themselves into a predicament which Waters takes about 250 pages to explain in detail, and then it resolves itself in about two pages. There was so little payoff to this great lead-up.

So, The Paying Guests is enjoyable, but undeniably long. The end just doesn't live up to the rest of the book.