Book Review: The Burgess Boys

June 2, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 1

Burgess BoysThe Burgess Boys: A Novel
by Elizabeth Strout, Fiction 
(Released March, 2013)

Bottom Line: Read it.
Three grown siblings, Jim (a successful New York City defense attorney), Bob (a NYC Legal Aid attorney), and Susan (Bob’s twin sister and a single Mom), from small town Maine reconnect when Susan’s son throws a pig’s head into a local mosque during Ramadan.
My Thoughts: I usually make notes about why I like or dislike a book as I’m reading to help me with the review. However, I didn’t for this book and enjoyed just reading. That may be a bad thing for the review (if so, I apologize!), but it is meant as a compliment to the book. The Burgess Boys is a New York Times Bestseller and was one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for March 2013 – and I totally agree! It is an easy to read, engrossing family saga with an interesting political / legal theme. The plot string about Susan’s son (Zach) throwing the pig’s head into a Mosque is somewhat random for a small town in Maine (in the book, Shirley Falls has a sizable population of Muslim, Somali immigrants), but gives the book a uniqueness that differentiates it from a run of the mill family saga. The pig’s head incident and the ensuing legal wrangling also remind me a bit of Defending Jacob by William Landay (see my Page Turners List for my review). I really liked how Strout thoroughly explored both angles of the political issue (religious tolerance vs. adapting to your surroundings and overreaching political correctness) and didn’t seem to take sides. In addition to Zach’s legal drama, The Burgess Boys is a book about sibling and marital dynamics. The two Burgess boys (Jim and Bob) and lone Burgess girl are extremely different and have long rooted resentments that they are forced to work out while trying to help Zach. All three siblings are compelling, if not completely likable, characters. The only thing that bothered me was that Strout left one lose end hanging at the end of the book – it always annoys me when authors do this! The Burgess Boys is a NYT Bestseller that lives up to its hype and is going on my Book Club Recommendations and 2013 Summer Reading lists.

Book Review: The Bonfire of the Vanities

June 1, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

Bonfire of the VanitiesThe Bonfire of the Vanities: A Novel
by Tom Wolfe, Fiction (Released October, 1987)
Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary:  Set in 1980′s New York, Sherman McCoy, a wealthy NYC bond trader, and his mistress are involved in a hit-and-run in the Bronx, sparking a racially charged trial and tabloid battle.
My Thoughts: Wolfe’s social commentary is at its best covering the go-go 1980′s of NYC finance, racial tension, and politics.  Though fictional, BOTV is a far more entertaining and all-encompassing version of Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker.  Wolfe goes beyond the financial focus of Liar’s Poker to explore the implications for other areas of society at that time. Bonfire is one of my All-Time Favorites and is on my Book Club Recommendations and Books for Guys lists.

Book Review: The Love Song of Jonny Valentine

May 29, 2013 Books to Skip, Fiction 0

Love Song of Jonny ValentineThe Love Song of Jonny Valentine: A Novel
by Teddy Wayne, Fiction 
(Released February, 2013)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Triple platinum child star Jonny Valentine deals with the perks and pitfalls of the music business and its effects on his childhood.
My Thoughts: This book is clearly based on Justin Bieber, down to the haircut, “showmance” with a dark haired actress turned singer (i.e. Selena Gomez), and overbearing “mom-ager”. I personally think Justin Bieber is insipid and this entire book was, I guess appropriately, insipid. However, insipidness does not make for a good read. The story was somewhat creepy, as were Jonny and his mother, Jane. Jonny is incredibly knowledgeable about the music business and speaks like a music business executive at times, but is completely ignorant about most everything else. He alternates between his “executive” persona and that of a five or six year old boy, not the eleven year old that he is. He also calls his mom by her first name, which annoyed me. The writing style was stream of consciousness with horrible grammar and run-on sentences. I think Wayne was trying to imitate the thought process of an eleven year old, but it was painful to read. The book was also way too long – I think it could have been a funny short story or magazine article, but I have a hard time understanding how anyone outside of the entertainment industry would find 300 pages of this nonsense interesting. I did feel sorry for Jonny at times because he is completely exploited by everyone around him and is missing out on a childhood, but this is mainly a story about a bizarre world inhabited by shallow and dislikable people, which made the book hard to enjoy.

Book Review: Beach Music

May 28, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

Beach MusicBeach Music: A Novel
by Pat Conroy, Fiction (Released July, 1995)
Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: Following his wife’s suicide, Jack McCall escapes to Rome to recover, but returns to the South Carolina low country to face additional family drama.
My Thoughts: This is a “big” book – spanning 3 decades, set in 2 cities, dealing with 2 major historical events (Vietnam and the Holocaust), and weaving together complex characters. Conroy’s writing style always seems peaceful to me, which provides a calming balance to the plot chaos in Beach Music. Beach Music is one of my All-Time Favorite books and is also on my Time to Kill List.

Book Review: A Prayer for Owen Meany

May 23, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction 0

A Prayer for Owen MeanyA Prayer for Owen Meany: A Novel
by John Irving, Fiction (Released March, 1989)

Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: Owen, a tiny boy with a distinctively soft voice,accidentally kills his friend, Johnny’s, mother with a baseball, starting a journey of friendship and exploration of God’s presence in the world.
My Thoughts: I read this book years ago and thought the writing was gorgeous and the story was heartwarming.  This is a book that you can read over and over and still appreciate as much as the first time.  Writing this now makes me realize it is high time for a re-read! This book is on my All-Time Favorites and Time to Kill lists.

Book Review: The Good House

May 22, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction, Something Light 0

Good House The Good House: A Novel
by Ann Leary, Fiction 
(Released January, 2013)

Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: Hildy Good, a successful real estate agent in an historic New England town that has become a summer home “destination” for the wealthy, befriends newcomer Rebecca McAllister, who involves her in a scandal that threatens to reveal Hildy’s own secret.
My Thoughts: This was a light, easy to read, and enjoyable book, but not one that was especially memorable. It was good and I liked it, but it was a middle of the road book that I don’t have tons to say about. Tension between locals and wealthy interlopers in a community that has recently become an “in” destination is nothing new, but it works well here and adds an interesting dynamic to this story. There are good characters with small-town New England eccentricities that make them lovable despite their flaws. Hildy is an interesting narrator because she adds perspective from the locals’ (she grew up in the community) and newcomers’ points of view (which she gains through her real estate business). The question of Hildy’s alcoholism (is she a true alcoholic or not?) adds substance, but I will say that this is the lightest book on alcoholism I’ve ever read. Amazon billed The Good House as “funny, poignant, and terrifying”…I would say it is funny at times (though not hilarious), definitely poignant, but in no way terrifying (have no idea where they came up with that one!). The Good House is an easy read for summer and is going on my Summer Reading List with the caveat that it’s not my favorite book on there.

Book Review: 11/22/63

May 21, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mysteries/Thrillers 1

11-22-6311/22/63 by Stephen King
Historical Fiction
Released November, 2011
866 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary

A high school teacher (Jake/George) is given the opportunity to change history (i.e. prevent JFK’s assassination) by going back in time and faces tough dilemmas about the ripple effects of past events on the future.

My Thoughts

11/22/63 is one of my favorite books of the past few years. Don’t be scared away by 11/22/63′s time travel premise, even though it seems cheesy. Very quickly, King had me believing wholeheartedly in the world of Jake/George and enthralled with the story and characters. Don’t expect a run-of-the-mill Stephen King novel a la Misery or Pet Sematary. This book is on my All-Time Favorites, Book Club Recommendations, Time to Kill (it’s almost 900 pages!), and Books for Guys lists.

Book Review: If I Stay

May 19, 2013 Books to Skip, Fiction, Young Adult 0

I recently started participating in an online book club run by Julie at Peanut Butter Fingers (a healthy lifestyle blog). If I Stay was her May Book Club selection and I will be reading her monthly selections moving forward.

if_i_stay_gayle_forman_book_cover.jpgIf I Stay
by Gayle Forman, Young Adult Fiction 
(Released 2009)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
After a horrific car accident, seventeen year old Mia watches the aftermath from a suspended state as she is forced to make a tough decision.
My Thoughts: Before I get into my thoughts on this book, I have to say that I’m not a big Young Adult (YA) reader, but I have loved a couple YA books. The YA books I loved (The Hunger Games trilogy and The Fault in our Stars) were ones where I forgot I was reading YA; however, I felt the “YA-ness” of If I Stay every step of the way. Despite the serious and sad topic, the story felt shallow to me. Call me dense, but I wondered where this book was going for quite awhile (maybe I should have just paid more attention to the book’s title, but I have a newborn at home and paying attention to things is not in my wheelhouse right now!!). I figured it couldn’t just be a timeline of Mia observing the aftermath of the car accident – there had to be some bigger purpose. Thankfully, Mia finally begins to talk about the decision she has to make about 70% of the way through the book. Though I was glad to finally learn the book’s bigger purpose, it was too little too late. The dynamics of Mia’s family and particularly their dialogue also bugged me. They seemed unrealistic, contrived, and too witty in a cheesy, trying too hard kind of way. In my experience, teenagers don’t usually “banter” with their parents. Finally, the ending was completely obvious and lacked creativity. The good part about all this was the book was short and I only spent a few days on it…silver linings! There is apparently a sequel called Where She Went, but I kind of don’t care where Mia went and, needless to say, won’t be reading it.

Book Review: Z (A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald)

May 16, 2013 Books to Read, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Something Light 0

Z Zelda FitzgeraldZ: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler 
Historical Fiction 
Released March, 2013
384 Pages

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

Plot Summary

The story of Zelda and author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s relationship as told from Zelda’s fictional perspective.

My Thoughts

I absolutely loved this book, was sad when I finished it, and couldn’t wait to write about it. I know there is Gatsby everywhere right now with the movie coming out, but this book really lives up to the hype. The start is a little slow, but don’t let it deter you because the story picks up steam quickly.

Z is similar to The Paris Wife by Paula McLain in that it’s a fictional take from a famous author’s wife’s perspective about a real period of time in their lives. And, Z even covers the same time period as The Paris Wife, but from a different perspective (Zelda’s vs. Hadley Hemingway’s), so it’s especially interesting if you’ve already read The Paris Wife.

The story of Zelda and Scott is a tragic love story carried out amid fame (if not fortune), glitter, clinking champagne glasses, and the literary intelligentsia of the time (Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, etc). And, you truly would never guess this novel takes place during Prohibition based on the amount of alcohol flowing through it…which made for an exciting, but heartbreaking story.

Zelda’s voice is distinctive through Fowler’s writing and I just loved the way she phrases things – the language feels similar to The Great Gatsby‘s.

This book is understandably pro-Zelda. She is portrayed as exciting, modern, misunderstood, and somewhat victimized while Scott comes across as slimy, pretentious, arrogant, petty, jealous, childish, and obsessed with rich people (despite never becoming one himself due to his profligate spending). But, they seem to love each other as much as possible through all that.

It was interesting how Scott was portrayed as the first author to truly embrace the modern concept of marketing and P.R. for his writing – he seemed to view his marriage to Zelda as a tool to add mystique to his writing and encouraged her to act like certain characters in his books and stories.

Z also provides great fodder for discussion about women retaining their own identities in marriage and motherhood…whether through a career or something else. This strikes me as a very modern topic for the 1920’s and is obviously still relevant today. Scott wants Zelda, increasingly against her will, to live a life of hair appointments, parties, and painting lessons that enhances his own image and then puts her down for it later when comparing her “series of low-key amusements” to the importance of his “risky existence” of baring his soul through his writing.

Reading Z made me want to re-read The Great Gatsby, as well as Scott’s first two novels (This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned), both of which were initially more successful than Gatsby. Z is a fun, light read for summer, but is also chock full of history and substance – a perfect fit for my Summer Reading List and a fantastic Book Club selection.

You May Also Like:

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Book Review: The Storyteller

May 12, 2013 Books to Skip, Fiction, Historical Fiction 0

StorytellerThe Storyteller
by Jodi Picoult, Fiction 
(Released February, 2013)

Bottom Line: Skip it.
Sage Singer’s friendship with Josef (an elderly pillar of their community) and his revelation of a dark secret forces her to confront her grandmother’s experience as a Jew in Germany during World War II and to decide whether to help Josef with a favor.
My Thoughts: I hadn’t read a Jodi Picoult novel in awhile and was excited to read her latest, as I absolutely loved Nineteen Minutes and have enjoyed every other novel of hers that I’ve read. I’m sad to say that The Storyteller is the first of her books that I didn’t like. For anyone not familiar with her writing, her books generally follow a formula of posing a difficult moral question where you truly cannot imagine what you would do in the characters’ situations. She has always succeeded in creating truly confounding dilemmas, but she failed with this one. I think she tried to create such a dilemma for Sage, but it wasn’t one where I could not imagine what I would do in her shoes. I actually had no trouble imagining what I would do and don’t think it was that hard a moral question to consider. Much of the book ended up being about World War II through flashbacks to Sage’s grandmother’s past, which I hadn’t expected and was somewhat disappointed to discover (maybe because I’ve coincidentally read a lot of books set in that time period recently and am a little burned out!). I was bored during a lot of these sections and kept looking to see how much longer the book was…something I’ve never done with any other Picoult novel. Finally, there is a “story within a story” (I’ve read so many books that included these lately…are they the new “in” literary device these days or something?!!), which I thought was totally unoriginal and took up way too much of the book. Parts of it seemed like rip-offs of Bella and Edward from Twilight…and I found myself screaming “Jodi Picoult, you are better than this!!” in my head. Needless to say, The Storyteller finishes last in my ranking of Picoult novels.