Book Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Georgie McCool knows that things are not great in her marriage to stay-at-home dad Neal.  The two have a pair of amazing daughters, and Neal is an incredible father, but Georgie’s work–writing for a hit television sitcom, and preparing to launch the show she’s been working on for decades with her writing partner, Seth–causes stress between her and Neal.  Two days before they’re supposed to leave for a Christmas visit to Omaha to be with Neal’s family, Georgie backs out to work on the new show.  Neal takes the girls and goes anyway, leaving Georgie alone and wondering if her marriage is over.

But when Georgie calls Neal from the yellow celandine phone in her childhood bedroom at her mother’s house, she realizes that she’s not talking to the Neal of the present.  She’s talking to the Neal of the past.  So what does it mean?  Is she crazy?  Is she supposed to fix something?  And if she is, what exactly is it?

Rainbow Rowell’s second adult novel has all the trappings of what readers expect from Rowell at this ponit: it’s funny, clever, and often very charming.  No one writes a romantic comedy like Rowell, and this novel has many of the author’s trademark witticisms.  But it’s also the weakest of her four novels thus far.  That’s not to say that the novel isn’t enjoyable or that readers won’t devour it, because they will.  But it’s a bit of a letdown for those who have absolutely fallen in love with Rowell’s other books.

But first, the good: Rowell’s examination of a complex, difficult marriage is smart, nuanced, and authentic.  What’s important to note here is that Georgie and Neal love each other but recognize that that might not be enough and that it certainly doesn’t fix their problems.  These are two good people who are trying to work it out but are dealing with personality conflicts and fundamentally different priorities.  The novel is sympathetic to its central couple, but it doesn’t shy away from the fact that they are flawed human beings with different motivations and needs.

There’s also something very smart about Rowell’s touch of magical realism in the novel.  Georgie discovering that she can connect with the Neal of her past via a landline–a communication device that is very nearly obsolete–makes for a compelling metaphor.  This anchor to the past, in some ways very literally, provides Georgie a way to feel both nostalgic and also allows her to do some deep reflection.  But the problem is, the phone works better as a metaphor than as an actual plot point, because readers are treated to a lot (and I do mean A LOT) of repetition of conversations as Georgie and Neal talk.

Which brings this reviewer to the novel’s biggest problems: uneven pacing and disappointing characterization.  What has worked so well in Rowell’s previous novels is her incredible characterization.  Even small, tertiary characters leap off her pages and are fully realized, well-rounded individuals.  Here, that’s not the case.  While Georgie is fairly well drawn (if not more than a little exasperating), Neal isn’t given enough page time to become a fully sympathetic character, and Georgie’s writing partner, Seth, is given even less.  This is particularly troubling because he’s supposed to serve as a major part of the tension in Georgie and Neal’s marriage.  But Seth never becomes more than a one-dimensional needy lech of a dude-bro.

As mentioned before, the novel’s pacing feels off at times, too.  Because Rowell relies so heavily on phone conversations between present-Georgie and past-Neal, the novel feels weirdly padded with conversations that become a slog to get through.  More page time could have been given to characterization or action, and the novel would have picked up its pace considerably.

Even so, it’s still a Rainbow Rowell book.  Readers will be able to consume this novel in one sitting, and it’s still got a lot of humor and heart.  Perhaps it’s a case of raised expectations that lead to a slight letdown with this one.  Some teen crossover appeal, but this one is pretty firmly in the adult camp.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell. St. Martin’s Press: 2014.  Purchased copy.

 

 

Book Review: The Fever by Megan Abbott

The town of Dryden is known for its terrible weather and its weird, murky lake.  The Nash family resides in the town: Tom is a teacher at the high school, and his two children, Eli (the hockey star) and Deenie attend the school.  Their somewhat stable lives are thrown into disarray when Deenie’s friend has a terrifying seizure in class.  From there, rumors start to swirl about the affliction.  This escalates when another girl demonstrates some of the same symptoms.  Before long, girls throughout the school have fallen ill with mysterious afflictions.  Gossip and rumors spread like wildfire, and a lack of real answers only make the panic spread faster.

Megan Abbott is getting a lot of press these days.  The Fever, her latest slow-burn of a book, is part of the reason she’s getting all sorts of attention.  It’s attention that she’s earned, because this chilling, smart look at a small town gone crazy is incredibly well done.  This memorable book will have crossover appeal for teens as well as adults.  It’s remarkable.

Much of the credit for why the book works so well should be given to Abbott, who withholds information so expertly that the reader is always just within reach of having enough of the facts to piece the mystery together.  Because the reader doesn’t know what’s actually happening, they’re put right into the thick of the drama with the characters who inhabit the small town.  The suspension ramps up as the questions about what is happening to the teen girls continue to increase.

Is it a bad batch of the HPV vaccine?  Is it an effect from pollutants in the lake?  Is it some sort of sexually transmitted disease?  Who is a carrier?  All of these questions and more propel the story forward.  There’s so much happening here, and it’s all so smart and real that it’s a lot for a reader to unpack.  But that’s what makes the book such a standout: Abbott is in firm control of the narrative and the greater meaning behind what’s happening.  And it works.

There’s a lot happening beneath the surface, and the exploration of the different issues and themes is important and resonant.  There’s stuff here about teen girl friendships, about jealousy, about emerging sexuality.  There’s stuff here about the frustrations of parenting and about the reticence of adults to give agency to teens, especially when those teenagers are female.  This is about the insanity of adolescence, and about the richness and emotional complexity of what it means to come of age in today’s world.

Although it’s not for every reader, it’s certainly for many.  This is brilliant fiction guaranteed to spark discussion.  Read it, read it, read it.

The Fever by Megan Abbott.  Little, Brown: 2014. Library copy.

 

Waiting on Wednesday: The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone by Adele Griffin

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone by Adele Griffin

Expected Release Date: August 12, 2014

Two-time National Book Award finalist Adele Griffin offers an ingenious fictional take on the “oral history” celebrity bio that defined a bestselling genre: Edie, American Girl by Jean Stein and George Plimpton. In presenting herself as interviewer and curator of memories, Adele paints the portrait of a tragic young celebrity who allegedly committed suicide—presented in a series of brief first-person recollections—that ultimately results in the solving of a murder.

Adele’s words: “From the moment she burst into the downtown art scene, seventeen-year-old Addison Stone was someone to watch. Her trademark subversive street art and her violent drowning left her fans and critics craving to know more about this brilliant wild-child who shone so bright and was gone too soon. By means of more than one hundred interviews with those who knew her best—including close friends, family, teachers, mentors, art dealers, boyfriends, and critics—I have retraced the tumultuous path of Addison’s life, with research that sheds new evidence on what really happened the night of July 28, 2013. With photo inserts and previously unpublished supplemental material.”

(summary via Goodreads)

I haven’t read an Adele Griffin book that I haven’t loved, so this one is high on my list of books to get as soon as they come out.  It took me several times to read the summary of the book and understand it.  I have to say, I think it’s already sort of brilliant: a fake oral history of a young girl, told by the people around her?  Amazing.  Totally unique and I’m already hooked.  I can’t wait!

What are you waiting on this week?

Book Review: Why Can’t I Be You by Allie Larkin

Jenny Shaw’s boyfriend has just broken up with her and she’s alone in a hotel for a work conference when someone shouts “Jessie!” from across the lobby.  Impulsively, she answers, and ends up pretending to be a girl who seems to be much more fabulous than the real Jenny.  As she gets further embroiled in the lives of strangers, she realizes it’s going to be harder than she thought to extricate herself.

Definitely a rom-com put to paper, this sweet little novel hits all the romantic comedy sweet spots and should have no trouble attracting adoring readers and fans.  While the premise itself is a little far-fetched, especially when one factors in social media, online presences, and the like, it’s easy enough to let some of that go and become enveloped in Larkin’s vivid settings and memorable characters.

Jenny as a narrator is both likable and sort of frustratingly indecisive.  Not every reader will understand why she does what she does in this novel, but her motivations seem authentic enough to make it believable for a character like this to behave in the manner she does.  The novel’s most interesting bits revolve around her friendships with several of the women she meets as “Jessie,” and the ruminations on female friendship are thought-provoking and moving.

Of course, there’s also romance here, but it’s handled with a light touch, which works well in its favor.  As Jenny becomes Jessie to this group of strangers, she finds herself drawn to Fish, a boy who loved the real Jessie all through high school.  What happens next is predictable but ultimately fairly satisfying.  The friendships are what make this novel work.  Witty dialogue and a whip-fast pace make this a page-turner and fast read.  It’s frothy and fun.

Why Can’t I Be You by Allie Larkin. Plume: 2013. Library copy.

 

Waiting on Wednesday: Magnolia by Kristi COok

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

Magnolia by Kristi Cook

Expected Release Date: August 5, 2014

In Magnolia Branch, Mississippi, the Cafferty and Marsden families are southern royalty. Neighbors since the Civil War, the families have shared vacations, holidays, backyard barbecues, and the overwhelming desire to unite their two clans by marriage. So when a baby boy and girl were born to the families at the same time, the perfect opportunity seemed to have finally arrived.

Jemma Cafferty and Ryder Marsden have no intention of giving in to their parents’ wishes. They’re only seventeen, for goodness’ sake, not to mention that one little problem: They hate each other! Jemma can’t stand Ryder’s nauseating golden-boy persona, and Ryder would like nothing better than to pretend stubborn Jemma doesn’t exist.

But when a violent storm ravages Magnolia Branch, it unearths Jemma’s and Ryder’s true feelings for each other as the two discover that the line between love and hate may be thin enough to risk crossing over.

(summary via Goodreads)

I’ve been reading a lot of pretty heavy stuff lately, so this one seems like a fairly good antidote, if you ignore the straight-up terrifying notion of an arranged marriage between two TEENAGERS in CONTEMPORARY AMERICA.  Which, I guess, is what the book is asking readers to do, since I think we all know where this one is going.  I don’t expect a lot of surprises out of this one, but I do expect a southern-fried romance, and it looks like it’s going to deliver on that front.  I don’t mind a little steamy read during the steamy hot days of summer.

What are you waiting on this week?

Book Review: Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn

Jamie Henry’s sister Cate has been in a juvenile detention center for two years, since the night she burned down a barn with horses and a classmate inside.  The classmate survived (albeit very hurt), the horses did not.  Since then, Jamie has tried to live life as normally as possible, dealing with his own anxiety issues.  But now Cate’s out, and she’s coming for him, telling him it’s time to face the truth.  But Jamie isn’t sure what truth she means.

Kuehn’s latest offering is a gripping, absolutely riveting thrill of a novel.  From the onset, readers will be find Jamie’s narrative compelling, his voice authentic, and the slow-burn of the story absolutely unforgettable.  This is a knockout of a novel, and despite the fact that many readers will extol or lament the ending, the novel as a whole is as strong as can be.  This is not a case where the ending makes the book.  The book makes the book, because it’s really that good.

From the start, readers will know that there’s more to this story than meets the eye.  Jamie is a classic unreliable narrator, and while he has moments of sympathy, he’s also kind of a dick.  All of this works perfectly, and Kuehn’s grasp of the character and his affectations make this a hell of a read.  Readers know that Jamie isn’t telling the whole truth, either because he doesn’t want to or because he literally can’t, but there are clues in the text to help them figure it out alongside Jamie.

A great example of a look at mental illness from inside the mental illness, this book stands apart from others of similar ilk because it’s so exceedingly well done.  Tight pacing, excellent plotting, and a firm grasp on the prose makes this a quick read, but one that demands a second or third, much closer reading.  Readers are going to want to go back and look for clues they missed the first time around.  And they’re going to want to talk about them.  Because this is a book that demands to be discussed.

Absolutely engrossing and horrifying.  Recommended for teens and adults alike.  This will make a great discussion book, and is guaranteed to haunt readers for a good long while.  One of the best of the year.

Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn. St. Martin’s Griffin: 2014. Library copy.

Book Review: The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh

Jenn and Greg are happily married and enjoying their annual vacation in Majorca.  After a week spent alone, drinking, swimming, sunbathing, and languorous afternoon sex, the two are joined by Greg’s daughter Emma arrives with her new boyfriend, Nathan.  Their arrival alters the chemistry of the house, and Jenn finds herself drawn to Nathan despite her better judgment.  At the end of the week, nothing will be the same–for any of the four.

This short, sexy novel is being touted as a literary beach read, and that’s probably fairly apropos.  Helen Walsh’s sparse novel takes aim at a woman on the cusp of middle-age who finds herself viscerally drawn to someone completely inappropriate for her in many ways.  Walsh’s writing is sparse but also taut, and while readers will enjoy the crackling tension between Jenn and Nathan–and it is there, no doubt about it–they will also feel the suspense of what could happen if they two get found out.  It’s a book readers won’t be able to put down.

What is commendable is how Walsh doesn’t shy away from the book’s exploration of aging, of lust and love, of the ins and outs of marriage.  Jenn is aware of her own body and her aging, but she also recognizes her own sexuality.  This frankness makes the book all the more compelling, and Jenn’s conflicted feelings about her thoughts and actions all the more intense.  There’s never any doubt that what is happening is wrong, but that’s part of what makes it so exciting.

And there’s never any doubt that everything is going to turn out okay for everyone, which also makes for an interesting read.  The tension throughout the book is expertly done, and the taut narrative makes this a page-turner of the highest order.  This reviewer blew through this in one sitting, and weeks later is still thinking about the characters.

Perhaps the book’s only downfall is that the characters aren’t fully developed.  Nathan and Greg sometimes feel like props for Jenn’s thoughts and actions, and while her relationship with Emma has some nuance, she falls a little flat.  Even Jenn, whom readers spend so much time with, has limitations in terms of development.  Readers are given no sense of who she is outside of this vacation, making her actions seem all the more wild.  But that might also be Walsh’s point: vacation makes people do crazy, stupid things.

The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh. Doubleday: 2014. Library copy.

 

Waiting on Wednesday: I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister by Amelie Sarn

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister by Amelie Sarn

Expected Release Date: August 5, 2014

Eighteen-year-old Sohane loves no one more than her beautiful, carefree younger sister, Djelila. And she hates no one as much. The two have always shared everything. But now, Djelila is embracing her life as a secular teen, and Sohane is becoming more religious. 
 
Every choice has a price.
 
When Sohane starts wearing a head scarf, her school insists that she remove it or she’ll be expelled. Meanwhile, Djelila is repeatedly harassed by neighborhood bullies for not following Muslim customs. Sohane can’t help thinking that Djelila deserves what she gets. She never could have imagined just how far things would go.
 
I love I hate I miss my sister.
 
In the year following Djelila’s tragic death, Sohane struggles with her feelings of loss and guilt, revealing a complex relationship between two sisters, each girl’s path to self-discovery, and the consequences they face for being true to themselves.

(summary via Goodreads)

While this in no way looks like it’s going to be an easy read, it does look like it’s going to be thought-provoking, different, and compelling.  The buzz on this one has been largely positive, and it’s been on my radar for a while now.  I can’t wait to get a copy of it and devour it.

What are you waiting on this week?

The Best YA Books of 2014 So Far

Now that we are well into July, it’s time to talk about the books from the first half of the year that have blown me away.  It’s true that I’ve been reading more adult fiction lately, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not focused on the YA world.  These are the YA books published this year that have totally knocked my socks off.  Or whatever.  They’re just really great.

Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern

Amy was born with cerebral palsy and can’t walk without a walker or talk without a computer voice box.  She can’t even completely control her facial expressions.  All of these things have largely alienated her from her peers.  When she decides to hire student helpers for her last year of high school, her mother is reluctant, but Amy is persistent.  She wants Matthew, a student at the school who is struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, to be one of her helpers.  As the two become enmeshed in each other’s lives, a deep friendship forms, and the two of them wonder if they could ever be more.

McGovern’s book is really great, offers a fresh perspective of YA, and while it might be slightly over-plotted, it’s a knockout of a debut that I devoured so quickly but also didn’t want it to end.  Read the rest of my review here.

Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn 

Jamie’s sister Cate has been in a juvenile detention center for two years, since she burned down a barn, killing several horses and dangerously burning a classmate.  Since then, Jamie has tried to move on with his life and deal with his own issues, including a crippling case of anxiety.  But now Cate is out, and she’s coming for him.  She says it’s time for the truth to come out, but Jamie isn’t sure what that means for her or him or anyone, because wasn’t everything better when she was locked up?

I just finished this one and haven’t written a review of it yet, but it’s a stellar novel and well worth your time.  I had a friend text me about it the other day to tell me that she couldn’t put it down and couldn’t believe how obsessed she had become with the characters and the story, so I know I’m not alone in loving this one.  It’s a haunting read.  Fantastic.

Pointe by Brandy Colbert

Theo is doing much better than a few years ago.  When her best friend Donovan first disappeared, Theo stopped eating.  But she’s eating again, kind of, and she’s dating boys who are much more appropriate (although maybe still not quite right) for her, and she’s so close to getting an important break with her ballet dancing.  But then Donovan reappears after years, and the shitstorm that emerges with his return means Theo has to confront the ugly parts of her past that she’s worked hard to suppress.  Will Donovan ever be okay?  Will Theo?

Brandy Colbert’s debut is so good that I still think about the characters long after finishing the book.  It’s so good that I immediately finished the book, sobbed, and then pushed a copy into the hands of my English-teacher mother and said, “You have to read this book so we can talk about Theo!”  It is harrowing, authentic, and pitch-perfect.  Go read it.  Here’s my review.

Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu

Tabitha’s friends think she’s changed, and they’ve dropped her like a bad habit.  Tab isn’t exactly sure how she’s changed, except that her boobs got bigger and she started to get attention from dudes.  Lonely, Tab seeks solace in carrying on a secret relationship with Joe, who already has a very public girlfriend.  Then she stumbles upon an online community called Life By Committee.  There, members spill secrets and complete Assignments.  As the Assignments raise the stakes, Tab wonders if she’s going too far.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Haydu is an author to watch.  This is the second novel of hers that I have just loved, despite having serious reservations when first beginning them both.  The characters here are vivid, the lessons hard, and the journey uncomfortable.  But it’s a fascinating, riveting ride.  Here’s my review.

That’s what I’ve got so far.  What books have I missed out on so far in 2014 that are must-reads?  Let me know.

Book Review: Tease by Amanda Maciel

When Emma Putnam commits suicide, a community is up in arms.  Everyone seems to think that it’s the fault of several teens who bullied Emma relentlessly.  Sara Wharton is one of those teens.  Along with her best friend Brielle and a few other classmates, the group is awaiting trial for their role in the death of the sixteen-year-old.  Completely ostracized from everyone in town and ordered to stay away from Brielle, Sara reflects on what has happened in the days leading up to the trial.

Amanda Maciel’s ambitious debut succeeds on a lot of levels.  Creating a story and characters loosely based on real events, she crafts a novel that is achingly real, ultimately heartbreaking, and pretty unforgettable.  By choosing to have Sara, one of the bullies, narrate the story, Maciel’s approach to the subject matter is different than many other authors.  It’s a risk, because there are many readers out there who won’t like Sara.

And while that shouldn’t matter, because since WHEN do readers have to “like” the narrator, it will to some.  But what Maciel does is elevate Sara from a stock character and make her a deeply flawed protagonist who is also very real.  For the most part, at least.  Both Sara and the character of Carmichael are fairly well done, as are brief moments with Sara’s family–in particular, her younger brothers.

Less successful characters include Brielle, who is clearly supposed to be the Queen Bee Mean Girl.  While there’s a moment or two where Maciel hints at something underneath Brielle’s surface, it feels like too little to get on board with her.

There’s lots of stuff for readers to chew on and discuss here.  Not merely about issues like bullying and suicide, the book raises questions about who is complicit when a suicide like this occurs, what other factors play into something this horrific, and how one can move on after something like this happens.  Readers are going to want to talk about this one, and it will be great for discussion.

Which is why it’s so disappointing when Maciel’s ending makes everything a little too convenient, too easy, and more than a little inauthentic.  It undermines all of the groundwork that Maciel worked so hard to put in place.  It’s too bad, because it takes what could have been a knockout of a book to one that is merely pretty good.

Tease by Amanda Maciel. Balzer & Bray: 2014. ILL’d through library.