Book Review: South Pole Station

Do you have digestion problems due to stress? Do you have problems with authority? How many alcoholic drinks do you consume a week? Would you rather be a florist or a truck driver?

These are some of the questions that determine if you have what it takes to survive at South Pole Station, a place with an average temperature of -54°F and no sunlight for six months a year. Cooper Gosling has just answered five hundred of them. Her results indicate she is sufficiently resilient for Polar life.

Cooper’s not sure if this is an achievement, but she knows she has nothing to lose. Unmoored by a recent family tragedy, she’s adrift at thirty and—despite her early promise as a painter—on the verge of sinking her career. So she accepts her place in the National Science Foundation’s Artists & Writers Program and flees to Antarctica—where she encounters a group of misfits motivated by desires as ambiguous as her own. There’s Pearl, the Machiavellian cook with the Pollyanna attitude; Sal, an enigmatic astrophysicist whose experiment might change the world; and Tucker, the only uncloseted man on the continent, who, as station manager, casts a weary eye on all.

The only thing the Polies have in common is the conviction that they don’t belong anywhere else. Then a fringe scientist arrives, claiming climate change is a hoax. His presence will rattle this already imbalanced community, bringing Cooper and the Polies to the center of a global controversy and threatening the ancient ice chip they call home.

A winning comedy of errors set in the world’s harshest place, Ashley Shelby’s South Pole Station is a wry and witty debut novel about the courage it takes to band together, even as everything around you falls apart.

That synopsis needs a little tweaking, I think. For starters, I don’t think I’d describe South Pole Station as a “comedy of errors”. While there are funny moments, I don’t think of this book as a comedy at all. The characters are quirky and odd, but the setting and the stakes become increasingly serious as the plot moves forward, and the individuals portrayed here all seem to have buried hurts in their pasts that they’re trying to escape from or figure out. So no, not a comedy.

Putting that aside, let me start by saying that I truly enjoyed South Pole Station. I seem to be fascinated by people who willingly walk away from society with the intent of spending months at a time in isolation at the farthest reaches of the planet. I’ve read a few novels and one memoir related to time at the Pole, and can’t help being intrigued by the special mindset it takes to make a commitment of that sort.

In South Pole Station, Cooper is going to Pole because she can’t quite be anywhere else. Her family life is raw after a devastating loss, she has no support systems and little hope for her art career, and latches on the NSF Artists and Writers program as if it’s her only lifeline. She feels compelled to go, both to prove something to herself, to lay her ghosts to rest, and to find something meaningful to give her purpose again.

At the Pole, she meets the scientists (Beakers) and support workers (Nailheads) who call the place home, as well as the odd group of artists on the same grant — an interpretive dancer, a historical novelist, and a literary novelist, among others. They’ve all come seeking inspiration, but they’re also expected to pull their weight, going through fire training and all the other essentials for survival in such a stark and inhospitable place.

The bonds that form among the people at Pole are strong, as are the gripes and grudges that quickly emerge among a group of argumentative, strong-willed people forced to live in extremely close quarters for extended periods of time. The dynamics can be insanely fun, but veer quickly to the dark side when their group understandings are threatened — as is the case when Frank Pavano, a climate “denier” arrives to conduct research that’s antithetical to everything the Polies believe in. Pavano, as we discover, is sponsored by big oil and by Republican Congressmen on a mission, and he’s ostracized and opposed at every turn by the hardcore Beakers and even the Nailheads. When there’s a terrible accident, it becomes a national scandal as headlines scream about bullying and harassment and the exclusion of diversity of opinions.

Be warned — there are heavy doses of science talk in this book, and I’ll admit that some of the talk about cosmology and quantum physics made my head spin. At the same time, that’s one of the book’s charms — it doesn’t talk down to its readers, and assumes we’ll all manage to keep up.

The characters are well developed and full of personality, from Cooper the artist to Sal the scientist to Denise the anthropologist and Doc Carla, the station’s one and only medical staffer. It’s great fun to see these oddballs bounce off each other, entertain each other, fight with each other, and fall in love with each other.

While Cooper is our main point-of-view character, we do get sections focusing on other characters’ backstories and inner workings, and these parts add to the richness of the story and enhance our understanding of the characters’ actions and motivations.

All in all, I found South Pole Station to be a captivating look at a unique social dynamic, as well as a story of interesting characters in a highly unusual situation. Oh, and add in politics and scientific discoveries and artwork, and it’s one book that really doesn’t fit any of the usual fictional trends or tropes.

A final note on my reading experience: This just goes to show how much damage a badly formatted ARC can do! I know we shouldn’t let formatting issues influence our reviews, but I can’t help but be turned off by a book that’s impossible to read. The finished, published version of South Pole Station includes emails and letters and other documents that enhance the story, but in the ARC version, these weren’t set off from the main text in any way, making it incredibly difficult to understand what went where. I DNF’d the ARC, and basically walked away from the book at 15%. Luckily, I happened across a copy at the library a few months later and decided to give it another chance, and I’m so glad I did! It’s sad to think that based on my initial reading experience, I would never have read this terrific novel.

Summing up my rambles… I thought South Pole Station was great! I love the setting, and had a lot of fun getting to know the characters. I was drawn into the scientific competitions and the political maneuvering, and felt the ups and downs of Cooper’s emotional journey. So yes, that would be a big thumbs-up recommendation!

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The details:

Title: South Pole Station
Author: Ashley Shelby
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: July 4, 2017
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Dark Net by Benjamin Percy

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Hell on earth is only one click of a mouse away…

The Dark Net is real. An anonymous and often criminal arena that exists in the secret far reaches of the Web, some use it to manage Bitcoins, pirate movies and music, or traffic in drugs and stolen goods. And now an ancient darkness is gathering there as well. This force is threatening to spread virally into the real world unless it can be stopped by members of a ragtag crew:

Twelve-year-old Hannah — who has been fitted with the Mirage, a high-tech visual prosthetic to combat her blindness– wonders why she sees shadows surrounding some people.

Lela, a technophobic journalist, has stumbled upon a story nobody wants her to uncover.

Mike Juniper, a one-time child evangelist who suffers from personal and literal demons, has an arsenal of weapons stored in the basement of the homeless shelter he runs.

And Derek, a hacker with a cause, believes himself a soldier of the Internet, part of a cyber army akin to Anonymous.

They have no idea what the Dark Net really contains.

Set in present-day Portland, The Dark Net is a cracked-mirror version of the digital nightmare we already live in, a timely and wildly imaginative techno-thriller about the evil that lurks in real and virtual spaces, and the power of a united few to fight back

My Thoughts:

This book wasn’t what I expected. I was looking forward to inventive techno-horror… but didn’t really get that until the final third of the book. Instead, we spend time with the main characters as they deal with the evil building up in Portland as the literal gates of Hell threaten to spill open and engulf the world. Parts of this book feel very 70s-throwback-ish, like The Omen with technology, as all sorts of demonic entities, including hellhounds and various gross and disgusting things come teeming out at people from dark corners… and it’s up to our ragtag bunch of misfit heroes to save the day.

In the final part of the book, we see how the forces of evil use the ubiquitous network of tech to infiltrate every person’s consciousness, providing a dire look at just how wired in and dependent we truly are (as if we had any doubt).

The Dark Net is a quick, sometimes gross, sometimes scary read that frightens more with its reflections on our lack of privacy in our cyber-dominated lives than by its invocation of demons and evil gaining world domination.

Interested in this author? See my review of The Dead Lands.

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The details:

Title: The Dark Net
Author: Benjamin Percy
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: August 1, 2017
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Library**

**Note: I originally received a review copy via NetGalley, but decided to wait to read a hard copy of the finished book instead.

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Book Review: Love and Other Consolation Prizes

From the bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet comes a powerful novel, inspired by a true story, about a boy whose life is transformed at Seattle’s epic 1909 World’s Fair.

For twelve-year-old Ernest Young, a charity student at a boarding school, the chance to go to the World’s Fair feels like a gift. But only once he’s there, amid the exotic exhibits, fireworks, and Ferris wheels, does he discover that he is the one who is actually the prize. The half-Chinese orphan is astounded to learn he will be raffled off–a healthy boy “to a good home.”

The winning ticket belongs to the flamboyant madam of a high-class brothel, famous for educating her girls. There, Ernest becomes the new houseboy and befriends Maisie, the madam’s precocious daughter, and a bold scullery maid named Fahn. Their friendship and affection form the first real family Ernest has ever known–and against all odds, this new sporting life gives him the sense of home he’s always desired.

But as the grande dame succumbs to an occupational hazard and their world of finery begins to crumble, all three must grapple with hope, ambition, and first love.

Fifty years later, in the shadow of Seattle’s second World’s Fair, Ernest struggles to help his ailing wife reconcile who she once was with who she wanted to be, while trying to keep family secrets hidden from their grown-up daughters.

Against a rich backdrop of post-Victorian vice, suffrage, and celebration, Love and Other Consolations is an enchanting tale about innocence and devotion–in a world where everything, and everyone, is for sale.

Love and Other Consolation Prizes is a truly lovely look at memories, connections, and the complicated ways in which families are formed.

We meet Ernest as an adult in 1969, as the World’s Fair (with its brand-spanking-new Space Needle) is getting underway in Seattle. Ernest is living apart from his beloved wife Gracie because of a disorder that has stolen most of her memories and leaves her highly agitated whenever Ernest is around. As he sees the city preparing for the spectacle of the World’s Fair, he’s brought back to his memories of 1909, when he fell in love with two very different girls during a visit to the Alaska Yukon Pacific Expo, held at the very same place.

Ernest’s earliest memories are horrific — his life as a starving child in China whose mother gives him away because she knows she can’t care for him. He’s basically sold as chattel and carted across the sea to America, where he moves through a succession of charity homes and schools, always an outsider due to his interracial heritage. Equally horrible is the way in which his patron offers him off as a raffle prize, a humiliating experience for Ernest which ultimately leads to the happiest years of his life. As a 12-year-old servant in the Tenderloin brothel, he’s treated kindly and given a home, surrounded by the upstairs girls and the servants, all of whom shower him with love and make him feel for the very first time as if he truly belongs.

At the Tenderloin, he forms a deep attachment to both Fahn, a Japanese girl a few years older than him who works as a servant, and Maisie, the tomboy daughter of the house madam who seems destined to follow in her mother’s footsteps. The three of them form a tight-knit unit, and stick together through unexpected changes to their happy home.

Author Jamie Ford keeps us guessing until close to the end. We know that Ernest loved both girls as a young boy, and that he ended up married to one, but he manages to avoid revealing the answer without any unnecessary gimmicks. It works; both girls love Ernest and have special relationships with him. We can tell how much they all care for one another, with the purity of an adolescent friendship that hasn’t bloomed into outright romance.

Mixed in with Ernest’s memories of the early 20th century are scenes from 1969, as he begins to share pieces of his past with his grown daughter, revealing his own secrets but wanting to preserve his wife’s. As the novel progresses, the entire family is changed by some of the truths that begin to be revealed.

He drew a deep breath. Memories are narcotic, he thought. Like the array of pill bottles that sit cluttered on my nightstand. Each dose, carefully administred, use as directed. Too much and they become dangerous. Too much and they’ll stop your heart.

The writing in Love and Other Consolation Prizes is beautiful. Through rich descriptions, we get a true sense of Seattle in the early 20th century, with the flavors of its neighborhoods, the personalities and politics of its citizens, and the diversity and tensions springing from so many different people living in such close proximity to one another.

The descriptions of Ernest’s time at the Tenderloin really shine. The brothel isn’t tawdry; it’s an upscale establishment, frequented by the upper crust of Seattle society, with girls who receive dance, elocution, and Latin lessons in order to be able to entertain and converse intelligently with the clientele. The people of the Tenderloin are a family, and it’s only Madam Flora’s illness that brings an end to the idyllic days there.

Likewise, the more horrible aspects of Ernest’s past — the memories from China and the sea journey, especially — are painted for us in language evocative of the experiences as they would have been felt and remembered by a child. These sections of the book are upsetting and feel quite real, but since we know from the start that Ernest survived and ultimately thrived, the bad parts never overwhelm the more upbeat parts of the story.

I highly recommend Love and Other Consolation Prizes. As historical fiction, it succeeds in bringing the reader into the world of Seattle in both 1909 and 1969, tied together nicely by the World’s Fair at each of these two times. And as a story of human relationships and the complications of love, it simply shines. Love and Other Consolation Prizes is a gorgeously written book that tells a fascinating tale, and in my opinion, is one of 2017’s must-reads.

Interested in this author? Check out my review of his first novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

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The details:

Title: Love and Other Consolation Prizes
Author: Jamie Ford
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: September 12, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: Young Jane Young

From the bestselling author of the beloved The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry comes another perfect fable for our times–a story about women, choices, and recovering from past mistakes.

Young Jane Young‘s heroine is Aviva Grossman, an ambitious Congressional intern in Florida who makes the life-changing mistake of having an affair with her boss‑‑who is beloved, admired, successful, and very married‑‑and blogging about it. When the affair comes to light, the Congressman doesn’t take the fall, but Aviva does, and her life is over before it hardly begins. She becomes a late‑night talk show punchline; she is slut‑shamed, labeled as fat and ugly, and considered a blight on politics in general.

How does one go on after this? In Aviva’s case, she sees no way out but to change her name and move to a remote town in Maine. She tries to start over as a wedding planner, to be smarter about her life, and to raise her daughter to be strong and confident. But when, at the urging of others, she decides to run for public office herself, that long‑ago mistake trails her via the Internet like a scarlet A. For in our age, Google guarantees that the past is never, ever, truly past, that everything you’ve done will live on for everyone to know about for all eternity. And it’s only a matter of time until Aviva/Jane’s daughter, Ruby, finds out who her mother was, and is, and must decide whether she can still respect her.

Gabrielle Zevin is an amazing writer, and in Young Jane Young, she captures the voices of the women narrators so well that it’s like hearing these very different people speak directly to us.

In turns narrated by Rachel (Aviva’s mother), Jane, her daughter Ruby, Embeth (the Congressman’s wife), and Aviva, we get a series of viewpoints and reactions to Aviva’s youthful mistake and how its consequences have persisted and affected all of their lives over the years.

Jane is grown-up Aviva, and she looks back on her 20s as if they were lived by a different person. She’s reinvented herself and left her past behind, but of course, nothing ever truly goes away. And to make a fresh start, she’s also left behind her mother, once her best friend, whom she equates with her shame and the insecurities of her past. Meanwhile, Ruby has no idea who her mother once was, and when the truth inevitably comes out, has to deal with the fallout in her own unique style.

The characters are each endearing in their own way. Rachel is a very Florida Jewish mother, who spends her mid-sixties with her best pal Roz, going to events at the local JCC and trying her hand at Internet dating. Jane is a savvy businesswoman whose success as a wedding planner stems in large part from her ability to empathize with the doubts and insecurities of her brides and to be there for them when they need her. Embeth is an interesting woman, who shows that there’s much more than meets the eye to the political wife who stands by her man. Ruby is a precocious, super smart girl who can’t fit in with her peers, but socializes flawlessly with the women of her mother’s world. And Aviva — young Jane Young — we get to know last of all, as we finally learn her take on the events that led to the affair with the Congressman, the ill-advised choices she made along the way, and the way scandal clings forever, courtesy of the Internet:

The discovery of your shame is one click away. Everyone’s is, not that that makes it any better. In high school, you read The Scarlet Letter, and it occurs to you that this is what the Internet is like. There’s that scene at the beginning where Hester Prynne is forced to stand in the town square for the afternoon. Maybe three or four hours. Whatever the time, it’s unbearable to her.

You will be standing in that square forever.

You will wear that “A” until you’re dead.

You consider your options.

You have no options.

Aviva compares her life to the Choose Your Own Adventure books that she enjoyed during childhood:

The way these books work is you get to the end of a section, and you make a choice, and then you turn to the corresponding page for that choice. You think how much these books are like life.

Except in Choose Your Own Adventure, you can move backward, and you can choose something else if you don’t like how the story turned out, or if you just want to know the other possible outcomes. You would like to do that, but you can’t. Life moves relentlessly forward. You turn to the next page, or you stop reading. If you stop reading, the story is over.

Ultimately, as Aviva narrates her choices and their outcomes, we see how she comes to the point where her only real option is reinvention — starting over as a new person, in a new place, and leaving her former story behind altogether.

Young Jane Young is witty, sad, entertaining, and unfortunately very real in what it has to say about women’s lives and women’s choices. Aviva made mistakes, to be certain — but she didn’t make them alone, and long past the point where she should be done paying, she still is stuck with the labels and judgments that she bears. Public opinion, sad to stay, still excuses the wealthy, well-positioned male in ways that it won’t for the young, foolish female. The disparity in the outcomes for Aviva and the Congressman are startling and upsetting, yet match quite well with what we all see in real-life public scandals and the apportionment of public shame.

I suppose, too, that Young Jane Young could serve as a sort of cautionary tale for people (especially women) on the cusp of their adult lives who don’t yet realize the permanence of certain choices and mistakes. But the book is much more than that. It shines a light on women’s relationships — the bonds of friendship, family, and compassion — and shows how vital these connections are in order to lead healthy lives. It shows the damage done, even without meaning to, by the constant judging that women endure over things — body size, clothing choices, etc — that really shouldn’t matter. It’s a bold feminist statement about the ongoing inequality in the public view, and how women are still held to different standards and face different consequences than their male counterparts.

I highly recommend Young Jane Young. Gabrielle Zevin creates people we care about, and she has a talent for making these character feel like people we might meet in our daily lives. I definitely laughed quite a bit while reading it (Rachel and Ruby in particular are terrifically funny people, even when experiencing moments that aren’t funny at all) — but also found myself sad and indignant and ready for a fight!

If you enjoy strong, entertaining, intelligent, vulnerable women leading the way, definitely check out Young Jane Young.

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The details:

Title: Young Jane Young
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Publisher: Algonquin
Publication date: August 22, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

From New Yorker staff writer David Grann, #1 New York Times best-selling author of The Lost City of Z, a twisting, haunting true-life murder mystery about one of the most monstrous crimes in American history

In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.

Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.

In this last remnant of the Wild West—where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes such as Al Spencer, “the Phantom Terror,” roamed – virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. But the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann revisits a shocking series of crimes in which dozens of people were murdered in cold blood. The book is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, as each step in the investigation reveals a series of sinister secrets and reversals. But more than that, it is a searing indictment of the callousness and prejudice toward Native Americans that allowed the murderers to operate with impunity for so long. Killers of the Flower Moon is utterly riveting, but also emotionally devastating.

It seems we’ll never run out of shameful chapters from America’s past. In Killers of the Flower Moon, writer David Grann explores the “Reign of Terror” waged against the Osage tribe in Oklahoma during the 1920s. The murder epidemic itself is horrifying, and so too are the years that came before in Osage history. For starters, when the Osage were forced off of their previously held land, they ended up settling in a rocky area of Oklahoma clearly unsuited for farming, feeling that it would be a stable home since the land was worthless and wouldn’t be taken over by white men. The irony, of course, is that under the land were undiscovered oil deposits that would soon turn the Osage into millionaires.

The members of the Osage tribe were allotted “headrights” — basically, a share of the oil and mineral ownership — and these headrights could not be sold, only passed on through family members. At the same time, the government considered the Native Americans incapable of managing their own affairs, and adult Osage who were deemed incompetent (and most were) were required to have white guardians to manage their money.

As we see in Killers of the Flower Moon, there was a lot to be gained by finding ways to either manipulate the Osage through shady business dealings and corrupt guardianships, or more directly, by murder. Mollie Burkhart is the initial focus of the book, and we see as her entire family is wiped out, one at a time, through violent murder or insidious poisonings. Between the crimes themselves and the bungling and corruption of the investigation, Mollie and her tribe lived in terror and with a very real threat hanging over their heads.

Part I of the book explores the crimes, and Part II traces the involvement of the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI), as well as the early stages of the Bureau’s investigative approach and its evolution under J. Edgar Hoover. We see the lawmen tasked with investigating the murders, and follow them all the way through to the eventual arrests and convictions of the men involved. In Part III, the author describes his research and what he uncovered in historical archives, through which he finally unearthed evidence that helped some descendants of the victims find a sense of resolution.

The subject matter of Killers of the Flower Moon is fascinating and very, very disturbing. However, I did find myself losing interest at various points, especially in Part II, as the sections about the Bureau and its processes just didn’t grab me as much as the parts focusing on the Osage tribe members and their experiences. I also wished that I’d felt a more personal connection to some of the people involved. While we learn what happened to Mollie and her family, Mollie herself often seems unknowable. Granted, this is history, not a dramatization, but I still wish there was some way to get more of a glimpse beneath the individuals’ surfaces.

I recognize too that my lack of interest or focus in certain parts of the story may say more about me as a reader than about the actual book itself. I can be easily distracted when reading non-fiction, and I might not have always been in the right frame of mind to truly appreciate what I was reading.

That said, I do feel that Killers of the Flower Moon is a powerful and compelling book. It’s astonishing to me that the history of the Osage in Oklahoma isn’t better known, and I’m sure that this book will change that. (I understand that a film version is planned, and will be a Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio venture — something to look forward to!)

Even people (like me) who tend not to read a lot of non-fiction will find themselves absorbed by the story once they pick up Killers of the Flower Moon. Highly recommended.

For more on the movie, go here.
To read the New York Times review of the book, go here.

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The details:

Title: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
Author: David Grann
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: April 18, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Non-fiction/true crime
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: Rules of Civility

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

On the last night of 1937, twenty-five-year-old Katey Kontent is in a second-rate Greenwich Village jazz bar with her boardinghouse roommate stretching three dollars as far as it will go when Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a tempered smile, happens to sit at the neighboring table. This chance encounter and its startling consequences propel Katey on a yearlong journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool toward the upper echelons of New York society and the executive suites of Condé Nast–rarefied environs where she will have little to rely upon other than a bracing wit and her own brand of cool nerve.

Wooed in turn by a shy, principled multi-millionaire and an irrepressible Upper East Side ne’er-do-well, befriended by a single-minded widow who is a ahead of her time,and challenged by an imperious mentor, Katey experiences firsthand the poise secured by wealth and station and the failed aspirations that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her life, she begins to realize how our most promising choices inevitably lay the groundwork for our regrets.

My Thoughts:

Why is it that the best books are sometimes the hardest to write about? I truly loved Rules of Civility, but I’m having a hard time trying to figure out how to explain why.

Rules of Civility captures late 1930s New York brilliantly, with dialogue that snaps and a briskness to the tone that conveys the bustle and high spirits of people constantly on the go. Katey is a young woman with ambition, who starts with nothing and yet somehow ends up on top. Over the course of her year, she sees friends rise and fall, mingles in society with the upper crust wealthy elite, and slums it in low-rent jazz clubs and drinking holes. The characters occasionally feel like types we’ve seen before — the spoiled son of money, the striver with a secret, the party girl who always winds up with a free drink or two — but they still sparkle with individuality and practically zip through the ups and downs of the story.

Through it all, there are insights on secrets, ambition, and what truly makes for a happy life. The writing is lovely (although conversation can become hard to follow, as this author seems to have an aversion to quotation marks). Some of the plot twists seems to come out of nowhere, and I found myself repeatedly flipping backward through the book to find the hints and side comments that I’d missed. This is not at all a negative — there’s a lot of nuance hidden amidst the clever repartee and frantic energy of the action, and it makes for an especially engaging read overall.

Highly recommended — and once again, I need to give a shout-out to my awesome book club for picking Rules of Civility for our August read.

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The details:

Title: Rules of Civility
Author: Amor Towles
Publisher: Viking Adult
Publication date: July 26, 2011
Length: 335 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: PurchasedSave

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Book Review: The Arrangement

A hilarious and emotionally charged novel about a couple who embark on an open marriage-what could possibly go wrong?

Lucy and Owen, ambitious, thoroughly-therapized New Yorkers, have taken the plunge, trading in their crazy life in a cramped apartment for Beekman, a bucolic Hudson Valley exurb. They’ve got a two hundred year-old house, an autistic son obsessed with the Titanic, and 17 chickens, at last count. It’s the kind of paradise where stay-at-home moms team up to cook the school’s “hot lunch,” dads grill grass-fed burgers, and, as Lucy observes, “chopping kale has become a certain kind of American housewife’s version of chopping wood.”

When friends at a wine-soaked dinner party reveal they’ve made their marriage open, sensible Lucy balks. There’s a part of her, though-the part that worries she’s become too comfortable being invisible-that’s intrigued. Why not try a short marital experiment? Six months, clear ground rules, zero questions asked. When an affair with a man in the city begins to seem more enticing than the happily-ever-after she’s known for the past nine years, Lucy must decide what truly makes her happy-“real life,” or the “experiment?”

The Arrangement wants very badly to be funny and topical, but only partially succeeds. While it’s a quick and quirky read, there are just too many illogical moments for this book to fully hit the mark.

Lucy and Owen love each other, struggle with their special-needs son Wyatt, and are more or less happy living in their little community, where people seem committed to providing their children with an idealized, wholesome quality of life. The idea of open marriage drops into their laps during a drunken dinner with friends, and it seems like with barely any real thought, Lucy and Owen decide to give it a go.

They launch their arrangement with a list of rules written in Sharpie on a legal pad: No talking about The Arrangement. (Yes, there are references to Fight Club). There’s a six-month duration, and then it’s done. No falling in love. Always use condoms. (No Costco condoms, either; make sure they’re good quality.) No prostitutes. No sexting inside the house. It starts as a joke, but within one conversation, they decide to actually do it.

Owen falls quickly into a sexy relationship with a local woman, who at first seems to provide him with just the sexual adventure he’s look for — but who quickly turns into a high-need, demanding girlfriend who’s combining their trysts with household chores like caulking the bathroom. And really, if Owen were going to start doing repairs for a woman, he might as well have stayed home. At the same time, Owen doesn’t really believe that Lucy will follow through on her side of The Arrangement, and has no idea that she’s found her own regular sex partner, who could turn into something more.

Meanwhile, the people of Beekman figure heavily in the background of the story, as we see one unhappy marriage after another, each with its own oddities and hidden secrets. The marital problems of the town seem to escalate throughout the book, as relationships tumble downward, fast.

I’ll admit that I had fun with The Arrangement while I was reading it. It had enough clever and interesting bits to keep me wanting more, and I read it all in about two days. At the same time — and maybe this is just because I don’t match the demographics or lifestyle or geography of the characters — I just couldn’t relate to these people at all.

The main characters are mostly in their 30s, with young children, experiencing life on the other side of wedded bliss. They all seem to be struggling with the reality that hits once marriage and family life is no longer new, when there are bills and groceries and school projects and home repairs to deal with. The initial euphoria is gone, and all of the characters in the book seem to be hitting a form of mid-life crisis at the same time.

Lucy and Owen’s decision makes little to no sense. They each feel weighed down by their lives, and miss the romance and excitement of their earlier years. But it’s a big step to decide to try an open marriage, and the fact that they launch themselves down this path with practically no discussion seems unbelievable.

The antics of the town are too cutesy to take at times, with the emphasis on organic foods and community organizing and non-stop mommy pressure. There’s a blessing of the animals event that becomes a big focus for the entire town later in the book, and it’s clearly intended to be a big comical moment in the story, as each family tries to outdo the rest by bringing more exotic animals than their neighbors. But when the event gets completely out of hand and ends in disaster, it’s so utterly predictable that it loses its comic value.

Likewise, the insistence on shifting focus away from Lucy and Owen to go inside others’ marriages becomes tedious and makes the storytelling seem more scattered than it needs to be. There’s far too much attention paid to the marriage of a 60-ish billionaire and his much younger 3rd wife, and they’re just not that amusing or important to take up that much space.

The Arrangement is a fun, light read, and as I said, I zipped through it. But there’s an inconsistency in the tone; not everything is funny, particularly not seeing a marriage dissolving in a way that could have been prevented had the characters not made ill-considered, bone-headed decisions. The foolish way in which the two main characters risk their marriage and their family life irked me too much to keep me from truly enjoying the story.

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The details:

Title: The Arrangement
Author: Sarah Dunn
Publisher: Little Brown and Company
Publication date: March 21, 2017
Length: 357 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

It’s up to a famous rapper, a biologist, and a rogue soldier to handle humanity’s first contact with an alien ambassador—and prevent mass extinction—in this novel that blends magical realism with high-stakes action.

After word gets out on the Internet that aliens have landed in the waters outside of the world’s fifth most populous city, chaos ensues. Soon the military, religious leaders, thieves, and crackpots are trying to control the message on YouTube and on the streets. Meanwhile, the earth’s political superpowers are considering a preemptive nuclear launch to eradicate the intruders. All that stands between 17 million anarchic residents and death is an alien ambassador, a biologist, a rapper, a soldier, and a myth that may be the size of a giant spider, or a god revealed.

My Thoughts:

The synopsis above doesn’t quite give the full picture, although it does hint at the craziness and unpredictability of Lagoon. In Lagoon, aliens land in the harbor of Lagos, Nigeria. We see the ensuing action unfold through the viewpoints of the main characters, as well as bystanders, lost children, preachers, prostitutes, and even spiders, bats, and a swordfish. The author’s descriptive, vibrant writing evokes the sounds, sights, and smells of Lagos, and immediately pulls the readers into the vibe of this chaotic city.

At the same time, the plot gets more and more complicated as the story moves forward, which is both an immersive experience and something of a headache. The powers of the aliens and the native gods come into play as they both make indelible changes to the lives of the humans in Lagos — but the interwoven plot points, the unusual magical and alien elements, and the strange experiences of the characters often are a real challenge when it comes to making sense of what’s happening.

Still, I really enjoyed getting to know the characters, seeing the social dynamics at play in Lagos both before and after the alien arrival, and experiencing the extreme oddness of certain scenes. Let’s put it this way — we have characters turning into sea creatures, and that’s not the weirdest thing that happens.

I’ve been wanting to read more of Nnedi Okarafor’s fiction ever since reading Binti earlier this year. She’s a remarkably gifted writer, and I think it’s pretty eye-opening for American readers to see contemporary science fiction set in Africa — quite unusual, and definitely a hugely positive addition to the genre!

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The details:

Title: Lagoon
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: April 10, 2014
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: LibrarySave

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Book Review: Good Me, Bad Me

With many thanks to Goodreads — I won this in a giveaway!

HOW FAR DOES THE APPLE REALLY FALL FROM THE TREE?

Good Me Bad Me is dark, compelling, voice-driven psychological suspense by debut author Ali Land:

Milly’s mother is a serial killer. Though Milly loves her mother, the only way to make her stop is to turn her in to the police. Milly is given a fresh start: a new identity, a home with an affluent foster family, and a spot at an exclusive private school.

But Milly has secrets, and life at her new home becomes complicated. As her mother’s trial looms, with Milly as the star witness, Milly starts to wonder how much of her is nature, how much of her is nurture, and whether she is doomed to turn out like her mother after all.

When tensions rise and Milly feels trapped by her shiny new life, she has to decide: Will she be good? Or is she bad? She is, after all, her mother’s daughter.

Good Me, Bad Me is an intense first-person visit inside the mind of a troubled teen. Milly is struggling to figure out who she really is: Can she live a normal life after 15 years with a psychopathic murderer for a mother? Does she truly have a shot at being good?

Milly’s story starts when she turns in her mother after the 9th in a long series of child murders. On the outside, her mother wears a kind and lovely public face, working at a women’s shelter, providing care and comfort to desperate women and their children. In reality, though, she’s an expert at gaining people’s trust, never letting them see below to the hellish, sadistic creature underneath. Milly (whose real name is Annie) has been living alone with her mother since age 4, when her father left and took her older brother with him. Since then, Milly has been both horribly abused and victimized herself, and forced to watch (and sometimes participate) as her mother abducted, tortured, and murdered young children.

Finally free, with her mother behind bars, Milly is taken in by a foster family. Her foster father Mike is also the psychologist who works with Milly to prepare her for her mother’s trial, where she’ll be the star witness, but the home life isn’t all rosy. Saskia, the mother, is a mentally unstable coke addict who’s physically present but emotionally absent. Most problematic for Milly is Phoebe, Mike and Saskia’s teen daughter, who emphatically does not want another foster kid in the house, resents the attention Milly absorbs, and sets out to bully and harass Milly at every turn, especially at school, away from her parents’ eyes.

We see everything from Milly’s point of view — and inside Milly’s head isn’t a very comfortable place to be.

Milly’s narrative of events is continuously peppered with 2nd person comments, as she maintains a one-way dialogue with her mother — the “you” who fills Milly’s thoughts and to whom Milly is constantly trying to justify herself. She doesn’t want to be like her mother, but the darkness keeps threatening to engulf her. We see her struggle to find a place for herself and be normal –but there are also lapses, incidents where Milly lets her inner demons take over as she engages in behaviors that are questionable, at best.

Like Milly, we never see the mother directly over the course of the book’s action. The closest Milly comes is when she testifies in her mother’s trial, during which she’s sheltered from viewing her mother by a screen. She knows she’s there, can sense her presence, but never actually sees her — and this holds true for the reader as well. Milly’s mother’s presence is a constant, even though we never see her directly. Between Milly’s inner dialogue with her mother and her nightmares about her, we feel her shadow over every scene.

I did have a few minor quibbles with the plot and the narrative. While we get enough information over the course of the book to get the basic idea of what Milly’s mother did over all those years and how Milly was victimized, we don’t see any of it directly. I’m not looking to wallow in the muck here, but there’s a bit of vagueness that started to irritate me after a while. A few more details would have been helpful about Milly’s earlier life — did none of her teachers over the years ever notice anything off about this poor abused child? Her scars may not have been visible, but surely some professional might have noticed her emotional damage?

I question too the lack of proper attention Milly received after her mother’s arrest. Mike represents a huge problem for me — he’s her foster parent, and is supposed to care for her, yet is also her court-sanctioned psychologist and is secretly writing a book about her. After all of the years of suffering, it would seem to me that Milly needs much more than she’s given, and the assumption that she can live a normal life with just weekly therapy seems terribly misguided. Without giving too much away, it’s clear that this is not a good foster placement for Milly, but if Mike is the only one providing her mental health care, there’s no way for the situation to improve.

When Milly gets into her inner monologues and dialogues, the writing becomes choppy and disjointed, reflecting her mental state. This is effective, but occasionally veers into Yoda territory: (“Committed, she is.” “Slice we do, a cut here, a snip there.”) Still, the sentence fragments that form Milly’s narration illustrate the way her thoughts push and pull at her constantly:

Your voice in my head. THAT’S MY GIRL, YOU SHOW THEM. THANKFUL NOW, YOU SHOULD BE, FOR THE LESSONS I TAUGHT YOU, ANNIE. Your praise, so rare, when it comes, rips through me like a bush fire swallowing houses and tress, and other teenage girls who are less strong, in its hot, hungry mouth. I meet their stares, the remnants of Izzy’s gum hanging off my chin. Thrown by my defiance, they are, I see it. Fleeting. The twitch around their succulent lips, eyes slightly wider. I shake my head, slow and deliberate. Izzy, the hungrier of the two, takes the bait.

The book builds to a climax that was not at all what I’d expected. It’s disturbing but makes sense, and left me with a huge sense of unease — which is a sign that this thriller accomplished what it set out to do.

Good Me, Bad Me is a tense, suspenseful read that I really couldn’t put down or get out of my thoughts. The inner life of a damaged soul is not a pleasant thing to see. Definitely check out this book if you like psychological depths and twists, but be prepared for sleepless nights.

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The details:

Title: Good Me, Bad Me
Author: Ali Land
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: September 5, 2017
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Psychological thriller
Source: Goodreads giveaway

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Book Review: How To Stop Time

I am old. That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong.

Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret.

He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen a lot, and now craves an ordinary life. Always changing his identity to stay alive, Tom has the perfect cover – working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive. Here he can teach the kids about wars and witch hunts as if he’d never witnessed them first-hand. He can try and tame the past that is fast catching up with him.

The only thing Tom mustn’t do is fall in love.

How to Stop Time is a wild and bittersweet story about losing and finding yourself, about the certainty of change and about the lifetimes it can take to really learn how to live.

This feels like another one of those books where I want the entire review to consist of the following:

Amazing book. Read it.

Really, what more is there to say?

I have been in love with Matt Haig’s writing for a while now, ever since reading The Radleys, The Dead Fathers Club, and even more so since reading the spectacular The Humans. In How To Stop Time, the author shows once again the complexity of the human experience and the universality of a search for meaning.

In How To Stop Time, we meet main character Tom, who appears to be about 40-ish but is in actuality closer to 500. He’s one of a small group of people with a rare condition that slows the aging process — dramatically. They’re not immortal; they age normally up until puberty, and they will die of old age eventually. They can also die of injury just like anyone else, but meanwhile, Tom appears to age about one year for every 15 that he lives. A secret society of similarly afflicted people refers to themselves as albas, short for albatrosses (as the bird is supposedly long-lived) — and, unflatteringly, regular humans are simply mayflies, with lives so short by comparison that they’re barely worth paying attention to.

According to Hendrich, the organizer and enforcer of the albas, eight years is about the maximum someone like Tom can remain in any given identity and location before starting fresh. Otherwise, people start to notice, and gossip and odd looks can lead to severe consequences. Or at least, that’s been the governing truth for centuries. And there’s a certain logic to it. Tom was born in the late 1500s, and saw his own mother tried as a witch when neighbors realized that her teen-aged son remained unnaturally youthful while everyone around him aged normally.

Early on, Tom has his one and only experience with love as well. After leaving his childhood home after his mother’s cruel fate, he eventually falls in love with a lovely young woman named Rose. They eventually marry and have a child — but Tom is forced to leave after some years when once again, his eternal youth raises suspicion and threatens to bring disaster down upon his family.

Since then, Tom wanders the world, assuming fresh identities and homes every 8 – 10 years, but never truly allowing himself to connect or become a part of anything permanent. And while eternal (or long-lasting) youth might sound amazing to anyone dealing with grey hair and wrinkles, the fact is that for Tom, it’s an incredibly lonely life that seems to lack any sort of meaning.

Of course, on the plus side, he’s had  lot of years to learn, grow, and try new things. From being a simple lute player way back when, Tom has become a gifted musician skilled in many instruments, and his ability to impart history as a living, breathing concept is what makes him a fantastic high school teacher. He’s also rubbed elbows with a who’s who of famous folks over the centuries, from Shakespeare to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and can pull up those memories at a moment’s notice.

When Tom begins to connect with another teacher at the school, he has to confront the lonely existence he’s had and to make some decisions. Does he let this woman into his life? Can he be honest with her? What will Hendrich do if he finds out? How far will Hendrich go to make sure that the secrets of the albas remain secret?

How To Stop Time is truly fascinating. I loved the dilemmas presented by being a man out of time, someone who has lived everywhere yet fits in nowhere. Tom is a thoughtful and sympathetic character who keeps going for only one reason, which I won’t reveal here. He suffers physically and emotionally from the constant bombardment of memories from his centuries of life. You can’t help wanting him to be happy, even while acknowledging the huge barriers to that happiness.

The premise is so interesting and absorbing, and I couldn’t put the book down. At the same time, it’s Matt Haig’s extraordinary writing and use of language that makes this book truly soar. I was so caught up in reading that I didn’t stop to mark pages and passages of interest, which makes it hard right now to highlight quotes and give examples of why I loved this book so much.

I do have just one that I managed to find after the fact, and I’ll use it to wrap up this review. From a passage showing Tom’s inner thoughts — completely applicable to regular people with regular lifespans too:

And, just as it only takes a moment to die, it only takes a moment to live. You just close your eyes and let every futile fear slip away. And then, in this new state, free from fear, you ask yourself: who am I? If I could live without doubt what would I do? If I could be kind without the fear of being fucked over? If I could love without fear of being hurt? If I could taste the sweetness of today without thinking of how I will miss that taste tomorrow? If I could not fear the passing of time and the people it will steal? Yes. What would I do? Who would I care for? What battle would I fight? Which paths would I step down? What joys would I allow myself? What internal mysteries would I solve? How, in short, would I live?

Like I said:

Amazing book. Read it.

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The details:

Title: How To Stop Time
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Canongate Books
Publication date: July 6, 2017
Length: 325 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Purchased