Book Review: The Empty Glass

May 8, 2013 Books to Skip, Fiction 0

Empty GlassThe Empty Glass: A Novel
by J.I. Baker, Fiction 
(Released July, 2012)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Summary: Ben Fitzgerald, L.A.’s deputy coroner, steals Marilyn Monroe’s diary from the scene of her death, leading him on a quest to unravel the conspiracy theories surrounding her “overdose”.
My Thoughts: I was excited about this book because I’ve always loved reading about the Kennedy family, especially the many conspiracy theories surrounding them, including the speculation that they were somehow involved in Marilyn Monroe’s death. Baker puts forth some interesting theories that are based on real evidence from Marilyn’s death (visit the novel’s website for the evidence)…he speculates about the cause of death (i.e. that it wasn’t suicide) and who could have been responsible (i.e. the Kennedy family, the Mafia, the CIA?). That being said, the book was somewhat bizarre. Some of the story is told by Ben in his testimony to some sort of “Doctor” (I assume a shrink, but you never find out for sure), while some is told in real time. This structure makes the story very hard to follow and also allows for too much focus on Ben’s personal struggle…I wish Baker had stuck to the controversy surrounding MM’s death and the Kennedy’s, the Mafia, and the CIA. From the sections of Ben with the “Doctor”, I got the impression that Ben sunk into some kind of paranoia and maybe the reader was supposed to question his version of events, but this is never explicitly stated and I’m still confused about this. Whatever Baker’s intention, I did not think this ambiguity added to the story and was one of the major reasons I disliked the book. Despite having the potential to be an interesting read, The Empty Glass sadly veered off into la-la land, leaving me a bit perplexed at the end. 

First Annual Summer Reading List (2013)

May 4, 2013 Fiction, Something Light 0

What’s better than sitting on the beach with a fantastic book?! As summer approaches, the magazines and Internet are chock full of “Beach Reading” recommendations, which are usually easy books that do not require using many brain cells. While I definitely appreciate a light book for summer, I don’t like to put my brain entirely on vacation. There are plenty of fun books that keep you engrossed and your mind working (but not too much!) – and that’s what you’ll find on my summer reading list. Since this is my maiden voyage into recommendations for summer, it contains both old and new selections, while future summer lists will focus solely on new books. Finally, I will continue to update this throughout the summer.

First Annual Summer Reading List (2013)

Book Review: This is Where I Leave You

April 27, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction, Something Light 0

This is Where I Leave YouThis Is Where I Leave You: A Novel
by Jonathan Tropper
Fiction (Released August, 2009)
Bottom Line: Read it.

Plot Summary

The Foxman family gathers upon the death of their father to sit Shiva for seven days.

My Thoughts

This book will always hold a special place in my heart because I was reading it while I was in labor with my daughter. I think it takes just the right book to get you through those pre-epidural labor hours (and, in my case, the hour right before pushing when the epidural more or less wears off on one side!!)…something light, funny, and easy to read in small snippets. This Is Where I Leave You was all these things and more.

For those of you that read my review of Seating Arrangements, This Is Where I Leave You is similar (both are centered around family gatherings that result in awkward, but funny situations), but funnier, faster moving, and way less WASPy. It’s somewhat of a tragicomedy with most of the tragedy cloaked in humor….so I would not classify it as a sad book at all. I laughed most of the way through it, even though the situations the family members were in would definitely be considered “sad” (think divorce, infidelity, death of a family member, infertility).

Tropper’s portrayal of the process of mourning a deceased family member was also spot on…he captured the awkwardness of acquaintances trying to be nice, but coming across as totally inappropriate or acting like they’re closer to the family than they really are, and of forcing politeness in a cocktail party-esque atmosphere while you’re grieving.

Finally, the characters in this book are lovably eccentric and very witty…the mother who is obsessed with her looks amid her husband’s Shiva, the spoiled youngest brother, and the witty and biting sister…just to name a few.

This Is Where I Leave You is a great pick if you’re looking for something light and funny. 

Book Review: The Book Thief

April 20, 2013 Books to Skip, Fiction, Historical Fiction 0

Book ThiefThe Book Thief
by Markus Zusak, Historical Fiction 
(Released March, 2006)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Foster child Leisel Meminger steals books as a way to get through the turmoil of growing up during World War II in Germany.
My Thoughts: Even though this book was released a few years back, many people recently recommended it and noted that it was one of their favorite books they’d read in awhile. While I liked the story, I didn’t feel nearly as passionate about it as the people who had mentioned it to me did (or most of Amazon’s reviewers, for that matter). I certainly appreciate the premise that books can sometimes be saviors and loved the “feel good” nature of Leisel sharing her love of books with other characters (particularly her neighbors as they hid in the bomb shelters). However, I think the book’s structure was a detriment to Leisel’s story. It begins with a huge section of the narrator’s thoughts and him/her telling the readers about the three times he’d seen “the book thief” (i.e. Leisel). As I was reading it, it took me quite awhile to figure out who in the world the narrator was and, when I did, I was just perplexed. Why is the Angel of Death (or something like that…he/she is never explicitly mentioned by name) the narrator?? It just never made sense to me…even after I’d finished the book. I hated it so much that I thought if things didn’t change fast, then I wasn’t going to be able to keep reading. Things got better when we got into Leisel’s story, but the constant return (at the beginning of each “section” and in asides throughout the book) of the Angel narrator pulled me out of the story and just plain drove me nuts. Had the story of Leisel and her world been told in a straightforward way, I think I would have labeled The Book Thief as a “Read it”, though I still doubt I would have loved it as much as others did. 

Book Review: Indiscretion

April 17, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

Indiscretion. jpgIndiscretion by Charles Dubow
403 Pages
Released February, 2013

Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary

When Claire, a beautiful and captivating girl in her early twenties, enters the world of Harry and Maddy Winslow, their lives will never be the same.

My Thoughts

This book was described on Amazon as paying tribute to The Great Gatsby (which I loved), and it does in certain ways. It’s set among the estates of East Hampton, it’s narrated by an outside friend (Walter, similar to Gatsby‘s Nick Carraway), Walter often looks out the window of his estate to watch Maddy’s nearby bedroom light go off at night (the green light on Daisy’s dock in Gatsby), and the plot centers on a devastating outsider being drawn into the center of other people’s lives. But, Indiscretion is unabashedly less “literary” and more straight up guilty pleasure than Gatsby.

The plot seemed so cliche to me at first – I felt there must be more to this than the blatantly obvious “earth shattering event” you see coming a mile away. But, I found myself inexplicably drawn in and absolutely flying through the book…cliche and all. I would go as far as to say it was somewhat addictive. It was almost as if some page turning impulse was overriding my brain telling me that I had read this story many times before.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on why it was so addictive despite rational thought and landed on the fact that the story is about much more than initially meets the eye. It’s about marriage being a whole life created with impacts reaching far beyond the two people in the relationship. It’s about the ripple effect of actions – and their consequences even decades later. Dubow does a fantastic job making you feel what the characters are feeling – and he covers every end of the betrayal feelings spectrum. 

Indiscretion is Charles Dubow’s first book and I’m interested to see what he does next. This one will make a great beach read for summer!

Book Review: The Chaperone

April 13, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Something Light 0

ChaperoneThe Chaperone
by Laura Moriarty, Fiction 
(Released June, 2012)

Bottom Line: Read it.
Based on an actual time in the adolescence of real life silent film star Louise Brooks, Cora, a proper matron from Wichita, accompanies a young and temperamental Brooks to New York City to train at the Denishawn School of Dancing and returns to Kansas a changed woman.
My Thoughts: I was a little surprised by this book. I went into it thinking it would focus on Cora and Louise’s tempestuous relationship and Cora’s efforts to rein in Louise’s mischief. However, it turned out to be much more about Cora and her quest to answer questions about her past than I expected. Cora has quite a life and I found her story unexpected and suspenseful, but I did wish Louise played an even bigger role in the book. She’s a total firecracker…although b*tch may be a better word…but, she certainly spices things up. I loved the historical fiction aspect of The Chaperone and the premise reminded me a bit of The Paris Wife (a fictional story based on a real time in Ernest Hemingway’s life). The Chaperone was set during Prohibition, a time when social mores were extremely prohibitive (think corsets and “chaperoned” dates with your “beau”), especially in somewhere like Wichita. But, the roaring 20’s are just around the corner and signs that times are changing (think shorter hemlines, women wearing make-up, the birth control movement, etc.) are everywhere, especially in New York. This book is a study in contrasts that illuminate these social dynamics: Cora vs. Louise, Wichita vs. New York, and Wichita at the beginning of the book vs. at the end. The judgmental social atmosphere also sets the stage for lots of scandal going on behind closed doors, adding more spice to the story. This is a fun, but incredibly interesting book that is going on my Book Club Recommendations List.

Book Review: The Orphan Master’s Son

April 7, 2013 Books to Skip, Fiction 0

Orphan Master's SonThe Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
by Adam Johnson, Fiction 
(Released January, 2012)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Summary: Jun Do, the son of a leader of an orphan camp and a “lost” mother, experiences numerous horrific episodes under the totalitarian government of North Korea before embarking on a mission to “free” Sun Moon, North Korea’s most famous actress.
My Thoughts: This book had so much going on that I couldn’t figure out how to write a short, coherent plot summary! But, it also tells you something about the book. This book won numerous awards last year (NY Times Bestseller, National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, Best Book of the Year by multiple big name newspapers including The Washington Post and the WSJ) but, unfortunately, joins The Round House in my “don’t let the big awards fool you” category. Hmm…maybe that should be the topic for an upcoming book list! Before I talk about why I’m not recommending this book, I should say that I found the topic of life in North Korea absolutely fascinating and I learned a lot about a mysterious (and terrifying!) country. There were long stretches of the book where I forgot this was set in present day – North Korea is so backward that I kept thinking I was reading about the early 1900’s until some mention of “Nikes” from Japan or “ATM’s” in Seoul jarred me back to reality. The “Conversation” section with the author at the end of the book about what was true vs. fiction about life in North Korea is definitely worth reading. On to the book…the first half was such a slog. I had to force myself through it and wanted to put it down many times. I should have felt something emotional for the characters and the conditions they live under (insanely constricting rules, constant government propaganda, mysterious “disappearances” of loved ones to labor camps, labor camp conditions, food rations and hunger, astounding brutality, etc), but I just didn’t feel it. The characters felt less like humans and more like paper dolls to me. Many of them didn’t have names, which bothered me and contributed to the one-dimensional feeling. The second half did pick up considerably, but not enough to make the first half slog worth it. There was also just too much going on in the plot. Jun Do did so many loosely related things in the first half that I couldn’t remember them all during the second half…nor do I think they mattered all that much to the central story of him trying to save Sun Moon. Finally, there is a parallel “government sanctioned” version of the story that is being told to citizens over the national loudspeaker system throughout the entire book. I appreciate the message Johnson is trying to convey by including this, but I would sometimes forget if I was reading the “real” story or the propaganda version, just adding to the confusion. While The Orphan Master’s Son was deemed masterful and important by the “literary community”, it doesn’t stand up to my primary criteria of “was it enjoyable to read and/or was I engrossed in it?”.

Book Review: The Fault in our Stars

March 27, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 1

I’m always looking for new sources for book ideas and I was delighted to find a fun, online book club run by Julie at Peanut Butter Fingers (a healthy lifestyle blog). The Fault in our Stars was her March Book Club selection and I will be reading her monthly selections moving forward.

Fault in our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars
by John Green, Fiction 
(Released January, 2012)

Bottom Line: Read it.
The love story of two teenagers (Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters) who meet in a cancer support group.
My Thoughts: This is one of those books that I kept hearing about and seeing on various “Best” lists, but just couldn’t force myself to read because the premise sounded totally depressing. The joke’s on me because I ended up loving it and understanding all the hype. There is some sadness (how could there not be with this type of story?), but it’s surrounded by enough humor and honesty to balance it out. This is a character-driven story and I loved Hazel and Augustus. They’re smart, witty, and playful despite being in horrific circumstances. Occasionally, their characters fall into the “Dawson’s Creek” trap of having conversations that are way beyond the language and thought process of your average teenager. And, these kids have read far more serious “literature” and poetry at age 17 than I’ve read at age 34. But, who wants to read 300 pages of “OMGs, LMAOs, and likes”, which I’m guessing might be closer to how a realistic teenager speaks today? I want to read smart, witty dialogue even if you sacrifice a bit of reality in the process. After reading the book, I discovered that John Green is also well-known for his video blogs and has a huge Twitter following. As a caveat to my thoughts on his book, I must say that I was not an established “John Green fan” before reading it (I’m not one of his Twitter followers and haven’t seen any of the video blogs)…I just loved the book for what it is. This one is going on my Book Club Recommendations List.

Book Review: The Yard

March 24, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction, Historical Fiction 0

YardThe Yard
by Alex Grecian, Historical Fiction 
(Released May, 2012)

Bottom Line: Read it.
Following Jack the Ripper’s reign, London’s Scotland Yard “Murder Squad” must solve the murder of one of their own detectives.
My Thoughts: This book is somewhat similar to The Gods of Gotham, which I reviewed last year and included on my 2012 Holiday Gift Ideas List. However, I liked this one a little better than The Gods of Gotham, mainly because of the historical context of post-Ripper London. I never realized how terrified and paralyzed Londoners were following the Ripper’s reign, and also how public sentiment turned against Scotland Yard for failing to catch him. Another interesting dynamic is that Scotland Yard was having a hard time wrapping its head around the existence of “serial killers” and was mentally fighting the fact that someone other than the Ripper might be killing just for sport. Aside from the context, there were three cases going on at once and part of the suspense is trying to figure out how they will all connect in the end. And, there is a focus on the developing forensics technology (including fingerprinting) of the time and the methodology of solving cases without the advanced technology we have today. If you are interested in criminal history or the development of forensics, you will find this book fascinating. The Yard is going on my Books for Guys List.

Business Books List

March 22, 2013 Business, Nonfiction 0

Books on this list are behind the scenes stories – dramatic, scandalous, and back-stabbing – and teach you a bit about business along the way. Most importantly, I got a much better understanding of what caused the 2008 financial crisis (which I wasn’t getting by following the news) by reading a couple books on this list. And don’t worry – not all “business” books (and certainly none on this list!) are dry and boring.

Business Books List