A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

I saw a LOT of this book when it first came out, with all these wonderful glowing reviews, and so of course I ignored it because I am nothing if not contrary in the face of hype. I figured I’d let the excitement die down before checking this one out, but then it won the flipping PULITZER and I was like, “I should probably read this now while I still have a chance of getting from the library” and immediately put it on hold. I got it quickly, but then I let it languish for my six-week lending period and found myself preparing to power through it last week so I could finish by the time it was due back.

In fact, I didn’t so much “power through it” as “not stop reading it because it’s so darn good.” I can see why it won the Pulitzer; I am going to have to buy my own copy and read it like sixteen more times before I can even pretend to understand everything Egan’s got going on in here. But I so want to.

Very generally, what you’ve got here is a set of short stories about a set of characters who interact with each other in various configurations over a long period of time.

But each story has its own narrator and voice, with first person chapters and third person chapters and a second-person chapter and a chapter written as a magazine article and a chapter written as a PowerPoint…. And the stories jump around in time and space and Egan does a LOT of reader-trusting by not just giving you the time and place but expecting you to figure it out based on your prior knowledge and also expecting you to remember details from those previous chapters that do interesting things in subsequent chapters. And there are so many recurring phrases and themes and it all fits together just so well. Structurally, this book was fan-freaking-tastic.

I did have some problems with a couple of the chapters for being a little long and boring for being so short, or for being overly odd, and I really disliked the conceit of the last chapter though I appreciated the sentiment behind it. But overall I think that Egan has done a beautiful thing, and if you can stand the continual confusion, I think you will like this book. I could say many more things about this book, but so much of what I loved about it was watching everything unfold and I don’t want to take that away from you!

Recommendation: For people who like experimental-type things, confusing things, and very intricate things.

Rating: 9.5/10
(A to Z Challenge)

Juniper Berry, by M.P. Kozlowsky

One of the nice things about putting the stickers on library books is that I get to see these books before they make it out to the shelves, and often before regular library-goers even know these books exist. Sometimes I have no idea why the library buys some of these books. At better times, I go “oooooooh shiny want” and pull out my smartphone and put the book on hold so I can get it first!

This is, obviously, one of those books, and what struck me about it first was the cover, which is delightfully stylized. Then I saw the bit about “a tale of terror and temptation,” and then I looked at the back which reads only “Be careful what you wish for.” I didn’t even have to read all the way through the book flap to know I wanted this book to come home with me. Phone! Hold!

Now, the book is not quite as exciting as all that, unfortunately, but I still found it rather adorable and worth a read by the braver children in your life. Juniper Berry is our protagonist of the amusing name, and she’s the daughter of some very busy acTOR parents who have been acting increasingly weird of late. She is isolated in her giant house surrounded by forest, but one day she meets a boy called Giles in her backyard who is worried about his own strange-acting parents. He followed them to Juniper’s yard, where they disappeared. Juniper and Giles set off to find out what their parents are doing, and it turns out to be a lot more creepy and sinister than they might have imagined.

It’s sort of like a Coraline, I’d say. Very sort of, actually, but the mood is similar and I think it is looking for the same audience. In this case, it’s the parents who have gone off looking for that elusive greener grass, but Juniper is still the one who has to set everything right because, you know, parents are useless. This book is also a little more obvious with its message of “no seriously just chill and make the best of the life you have because the life you want can kind of suck,” but it’s still a totally valid message.

Recommendation: For those who like kick-butt kids and creepy demon types.

Rating: 7/10
(A to Z Challenge)

The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor

A couple weeks ago, when I had run out of audiobooks to listen to at work (and just one day before a bunch of audiobooks I’d put on hold came in, of course!), I made an emergency trip to the library with my husband to find something to fill my time. I had no idea of what I wanted, so I just told Scott to grab the first thing that looked interesting. It was this, and I must say that Scott chooses very well!

Well, maybe. I adored this book, but from what the internets have told me, this is the kind of book that you’re going to love or loathe, so be prepared!

What this is is a retelling of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which I also liked quite a lot, largely because of Michael York. You know how it goes. Anyway, in Beddor’s version, Alice is not just the overactively imagination-ed daughter of a friend of Charles Dodgson, but also Alyss Heart, Princess of Wonderland. After her not very nice aunt, Redd, comes out of exile, has Alyss’s parents beheaded, and takes over Wonderland, Alyss is secretly shepherded out of Wonderland by Hatter Madigan, a Heart bodyguard and elite fighter. She ends up in late 19th-century London, where her story is mangled by Dodgson, and since no one believes her anyway she decides to forget all about having been a princess once. As these things go, of course, once she’s grown up and about to be married, her wedding is crashed and she ends up back in Wonderland, where she has to fight Redd and try to win back the kingdom.

Or, to be brief, what this is is Alice with more action sequences.

And I liked it a lot. I’m always a fan of this kind of “true story” of a popular story, and I think Beddor does it quite well. Some of the conceits are a bit of a stretch (Dodgson inventing the White Rabbit from an anagrammatical counterpart, Bibwit Hare? Alyss and a boy being in love-ish at the age of, like, seven?), but for the most part I was totally on board with Beddor’s world. I’ve seen some complaints about the writing, but I wasn’t distracted by any of it while I was listening to this at work, so it can’t be that terrible. If I ever get through all of the audiobooks that have subsequently arrived for me, I’m sure I will be dipping back into this series.

Recommendation: For readers of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland who thought, “Not enough heads are coming off, here.”

Rating: 9/10
(A to Z Challenge)

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova

I. Hate. Epilogues. Hate hate hate. Hate. I want to be all “This book is AWESOME” and “Holy heck this is one of the best books I’ve read this year” and then I remember the epilogue. -muttergrumble-

However, this book is awesome, and it is one of the best books I’ve read this year, if you stop listening or reading when the story should end. In fact, I was thinking about how sad and awesome that ending was when I heard “Epilogue.” come out of Lisa Genova’s mouth (she reads the audiobook version). So I’m just going to pretend the epilogue didn’t happen and tell you about the rest.

-pretends-

This is definitely the Alzheimer’s novel my previous book club should have read. So it is fitting that I’ve read it for my current book club, which hasn’t met yet so I can’t tell you what they think. But for me, it was amazing.

Well, not at the beginning. The beginning part, the background part, was kind of boring to me — it sets the scene of a high-achieving Harvard linguistics professor, Alice, and her equally high-achieving husband who is growing more and more estranged from her, and their kids, one of whom has pretty much totally written off Mom and has Dad helping her out behind Mom’s back. And it feels like Genova, a neuroscientist by day, is just trying way too hard to be deep and meaningful about everything.

But then we get to the important and scary part of the story, which is that Alice starts forgetting things — a word here, an assignment there, how to get home from practically around the corner. Like anyone (well, I) would, she denies her problem until she can’t anymore and finds out that she has early-onset Alzheimer’s, at the age of 50. I’ve seen regular Alzheimer’s in my family, and I can’t even imagine having it at 50.

Well, no, now I can, because this book is told from Alice’s point of view, generally as it happens so that the reader can watch her do something and forget it, and sometimes do it again and forget it, all while being otherwise extremely intelligent and rational. Listening to this book made me incredibly aware of any time I would forget anything, which is a regular occurrence in my brain, and wonder what that would be like on a much larger scale. Terrifying, I think.

And deeply depressing. I had to listen to Alice step down from her job, give up her running, start forgetting her children, and attempt to maintain control of her brain without exploding. I am tearing up a little just thinking about this book, which I finished a week ago, and of course last week at work I was just hoping no one would walk by my desk and see my depressed face. That would have been fun to explain.

I absolutely can’t wait to talk about this at my book club, especially with those people who are a bit closer to 50 than I am…

Recommendation: Absolutely recommended, but only when you’re in a mood to be depressed and worried.

Rating: 9/10 (I really hated that epilogue.)
(A to Z Challenge)

Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer, by John Grisham

I… ugh. I don’t usually regret reading books, but this one? This one I do. I have never read a John Grisham novel, so I don’t know how this compares, but on its own? It’s not good.

So why did I listen to it? Well, I’ve got five hours of tedious work everyday that is made better by the presence of audiobooks and podcasts. And I was out of podcasts. And audiobooks. And I knew that a friend had read and at least moderately liked this, so I figured it would be okay.

Well, I guess it had its okay moments. Let me think of them. … Um. …

Okay, let me take a different tack. Here’s why it should have been good: I adore Veronica Mars, which is about a high-schooler that kicks some butt in the private investigation department. Theodore Boone is about a middle-schooler who kicks some butt in the law department, and throughout the book I felt a distinct VM vibe from the story, with fellow students and even adults coming to Theodore with their problems and Theo solving them right quick.

But it turns out that the conceit doesn’t actually carry over very well. For starters, I’m pretty sure it’s not completely illegal to practice private investigation without a license, and even when it is, the nature of being a PI lends itself to a little rule-breaking. Theo Boone apparently thinks it is totally okay to practice law without a license as long as he doesn’t charge for it (very very wrong), and when he’s all hacking into computer systems and lying to school staff and whatnot I am like, “ARE YOU SURE IT IS A LAWYER YOU ARE TRYING TO BE.” I know lawyers are not all fine upstanding citizens, but the ones in Grisham’s novel here at least try to be, so all of this shenaniganizing kills me.

Other things I did not like: the central bit of the story is this big murder trial, and the prosecution has absolutely no case but everyone thinks the guy is guilty anyway but it doesn’t matter because reasonable doubt blah blah blah. And a convenient way for the guy to be convicted would be for a surprise witness to show up, like they do on TV. So when several characters informed me that a surprise witness NEVER happens because it is NOT ALLOWED… I figured there was going to be a surprise witness. And (spoiler!) there is, and he blurts his whole story to Theo (OF COURSE), and much of the book has Theo dithering about whether and how to get this dude into the trial.

And it’s just so… tiresome. I didn’t really care whether this guy’s testimony could or would be used, and I really didn’t care about the seventy million other legal troubles Theo helped in, but I was curious to see how it would all turn out and then the ending just does something else entirely!

On the plus side? It’s not Castle.

Recommendation: I think that if you are more willing than I am to suspend your disbelief and/or you are a precocious 7-year-old who thinks that law is pretty neat and wants to read books about kids and law, you will like this book.

Rating: 2/10
(A to Z Challenge)

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

I had meant to post this last week, but with Blogger acting up I figured I’d wait until I was sure everything was fixed. This turned out to be an excellent idea, as a) Blogger ended up eating a couple of my posts and b) by waiting, I made it to the book club meeting for which I read this book AND we watched a companion movie. So I have lots to talk about!

So, the book. I’d been meaning to read this, oh, forever, so I’m glad the book club made me do it. Before reading it, though, I just knew it was an important book that people read, and also a true crime story, another thing I’ve never read. The reason it’s important is because it is a true crime story written as non-fiction but in the style of a novel, with people doing things and talking to each other and expositing their own story. This was apparently a very new thing, and the conceit does fall apart in places, like any time Capote includes an entire letter or confession or whatever that just goes on for pages and pages or when there are scenes where you know Capote had to be making some stuff up because he just couldn’t have that information.

The story itself is about the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, who in 1959 were murdered quite unexpectedly and brutally in their own home. Capote’s novelization presents the murder and investigation in a really interesting manner, as the Clutters die fairly early on in the story and the rest of the book is spent first in figuring out the whodunnit and then in pondering about the whydunnit. The book jumps back and forth between the Kansas investigation and the murderers on the run until, of course, the two meet, and then there’s a bunch about jail and the trial, which is more intriguing than I originally thought it would be.

I quite liked this book even with its problems, and so did the rest of my book club, and after we talked about it we watched Infamous, which is a recent movie about Capote and how he managed to actually write this book. I thought it was a perfect complement to the book, as it’s structured similarly and touches on the unreliable narrator problems of In Cold Blood while taking its own liberties with Capote’s story. Brilliant, really. And it was really the unreliable narrator parts that intrigued me most — the movie brings up the fact that Capote never took notes during interviews, preferring to write things down with 99 percent accuracy later (mmhmm), and that he reworked “quotes” until they sounded better, which did not surprise me in the least. The movie even points to one bit of In Cold Blood that is just outright fabricated! I may need to go read the book that Infamous is based on.

Recommendation: For the Criminal Minds/Law and Order/other crime procedural lover in your life.

Rating: 8/10
(A to Z Challenge What’s in a Name Challenge)

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

After living in Jacksonville for eight months already (holy HECK), I’ve realized that I still barely get out of the house except to hang out with my husband, which is not a bad thing in the least but still I need some more friend-type things. So I’ve joined a book club! Huzzah! And I made it really easy on myself by waiting to join until they had picked a book I’ve already read, this here Middlesex.

Of course, I read it like seven years ago and so I had to read it again, but if you’ve ever read this book you will understand that it goes much more quickly and easily the second time.

It’s amazing, re-reading a book. When I decided to join in on this discussion, I was like, “Oh, Middlesex. That’s the one about the girl with the boy chromosomes who runs away and joins some crazy freak show. And yet I remember liking this?” I do remember liking it quite a lot, but it wasn’t until I started reading it again that I remembered the other, oh, 99 percent of the book which is the actual good portion of it.

Because while Middlesex is, in fact, about a girl with boy chromosomes, and toward the end our fine protagonist does temporarily join a freak show after running away, these are not really the things the book is about. It starts off right from the beginning to be a sweeping epic tale of mythology and family and what it means to be any kind of person in a culture predominated by dichotomies.

Obviously I don’t remember how I read this the first time, but I can tell you that my fellow book-clubbers were generally dissatisfied with the first half of the novel, which focuses heavily on our fine protagonist’s grandparents and parents and the family history that leads to the birth of Calliope Stephanides, she of the XY chromosomes and love for “girly” things. After this opening, after Eugenides gets to talking about Calliope’s life, that’s when the story starts moving along at a faster pace as we try to catch up to Calliope-the-narrator’s present-day life.

But actually I rather liked this first half, maybe because I knew I’d eventually get to the more exciting things and could relax and enjoy the writing. I could see more of Eugenides’ work on making a mythology, putting the grandparents up on a hill and the vices at the bottom, setting them off on a seafaring voyage in which they fashioned new lives for themselves, meeting other secret-keepers and shape-shifters and disembodied voices — it was all just so perfectly Greek.

The second half is more like your average novel, as it gets into the more “important” themes of the story, which include the fight between Nature and Nurture and the question of how to be true to yourself. And then there’s a freak show, which gets back into that mythological aspect with now-Cal playing Hermaphroditus. And I hadn’t thought of it until just now, but it is perhaps fitting that people (including me, re: the freak show) had a harder time accepting the less “normal” aspects of this book.

Overall, then, I think that this book does accomplish what it sets out to accomplish, and does it with some really wonderful writing and imagery (and some clunkers, of course, but that’s to be expected). And it’s really perfect for a book club discussion.

Recommendation: For fans of mythology, science vs. tradition, and gender and sexuality issues.

Rating: 9/10
(A to Z Challenge)

The Partly Cloudy Patriot, by Sarah Vowell

I said on the Twitters the other day that I don’t know whether I want to marry Ms. Vowell or be her when I grow up. But after finishing up this book and starting in on her next, Assassination Vacation, I think I just want to hang out with her and go on strange adventures on an irregular basis. She’s delightfully quirky, but I’m not sure I could actually be friends with her.

I picked this book up for many reasons, but the main ones are that Vowell has a new book out, I’ve never read one of her books, and I’ve heard that the new one is a little odder than her others so it made more sense to back up and wade into the pool that is Sarah Vowell. Whatever that means.

And let’s be honest, I loved it. It merited the Twitter mention as well as three quotes in a row on my Tumblr… I found myself cracking up in the middle of work and hoping that no one asked what was going on, because it would be too hard to explain.

Part of it is the subject matter… this book is a collection of essays mostly about politics and patriotism, which haven’t changed terribly much save in name in the last nine years. Vowell is a capital-D Democrat, so she spends a few essays proclaiming her love for Bill Clinton and Al Gore and her distaste for George W. Bush. But there’s no proselytizing, just an acknowledgement of her politics and her involvement in the political institution. And outside of politics proper, Vowell includes some essays about the underground lunchroom in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the current practice of declaring everyone a Rosa Parks, and playing that one basketball game in the arcade.

The other part is Sarah Vowell. I listened to the audiobook, which is primarily narrated by her, with brief cameos from others (like Stephen Colbert as Al Gore), and so each essay is imbued with Vowell’s inflections and emphases. Considering her often sarcastic nature, I can imagine that these essays might come across rather differently in print, so I’m glad I went in for the audio. It’s sort of like hanging out with Sarah Vowell, right?

Recommendation: Highly recommended, unless you’re smitten with George W. Bush.

Rating: 9/10
(A to Z Challenge)

Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie

Continuing on the theme of books I should have already read, here is Peter Pan, which I have seen in Mary Martin movie form as well as on stage, once, though I barely remember, and of course I have seen Johnny Depp as Barrie in Finding Neverland.

The book, like The Princess Bride, plays out pretty much exactly like the movie I remember (though I’ll grant that I haven’t seen the movie in ten years or more), with Peter Pan losing his shadow at the Darlings’ house, returning to fetch it, and then teaching Wendy, John, and Peter to fly off to Neverland. There they have some adventures with Peter and the infamous Captain Hook, and then eventually they return home to grow up, unlike Peter.

And it’s so much more depressing than I remember! Part of this is the narrative around the action in the book, which describes for us poor readers how awful the Darling parents feel about the loss of their children, who are gone for quite a while, with Mr. Darling even taking to sleeping in Nana’s kennel. It also describes often exactly how children feel about their parents, which wounds me as a potential parent. Clearly I should not have children.

The other depressing part is the same thing that drives Toy Story 3, which I cried over recently — growing up. The Darlings return home to grow up, and they do, and they become fairly boring and forget how to fly and think that perhaps Peter wasn’t real after all. And Peter mostly forgets them, too, returning only sporadically to make good on Wendy’s promise of a yearly visit. I’m getting sad just thinking about it!

But it is otherwise delightful, with Indians and pirates and an alligator with a clock in his tummy, and so I am glad to have gotten around to the book. But I think I’ll stick with Mary Martin for the foreseeable future!

Recommendation: Definitely a good read, but not quite a good bedtime story.

Rating: 8/10
(A to Z Challenge)

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Ohhhhhh, Pride and Prejudice. This is a book that many of my trusted friends have been obsessed with for many many years, and which I have avoided like the plague because all I ever hear about it is how sexy Colin Firth is. Which, I mean, he totally is, that’s not in question, but I wasn’t too keen on a book whose primary lure is the attractiveness of an actor. I knew there was more to it, but I just wasn’t that interested.

But then I found it for cheaps at Mac’s Backs, and I told myself I was going to sit down and finally read it. And I did. Last January. Side note: I started trying to read this last January. I got married four months before that. I have been attempting to finish this book for most of my marriage. That’s intense.

And so I read through about half the book over the course of six months, then decided I couldn’t remember most of it and started over, and then I read more than half the book in a month but got utterly sick of it right around the point when Darcy gives Elizabeth the letter, and so I moved on to more delightful pursuits. Then this February I downloaded the Kindle app for my phone and tried P&P as an e-book, but I couldn’t be arsed to load it up to read. So THEN I found it for the OverDrive app for my phone as an audiobook, and I forced myself to listen to it last week.

It turns out that Pride and Prejudice is quite good.

I had the same troubles with the audiobook that I did with the print version, namely that if Mrs. Bennett and Mr. Collins wanted to run off and be batshit crazy together I don’t think anyone could complain, and maybe we could send Lady de Bourgh over to judge them. I absolutely hated these characters, but of course I imagine I’m not supposed to like them. I also, having gotten to Darcy’s letter, was not a fan of The Darcy, which is supposed to be the draw, right, and I could not imagine how Austen was going to make Darcy sympathetic in a couple hundred more pages.

And yet, she did. I am definitely more in the Jane and Bingley camp, but by the end of the book I was like, “That Darcy isn’t so terrible after all, is he? I do so hope that those two crazy kids work it out.” Darn you Jane Austen!

Aside from the ‘shipping, I was actually most interested in the culture of Longbourn and environs, as I have not read too deeply in or about this time period. I was intrigued by the particulars of politeness and society and how incredibly scandalous pretty much every little thing seemed to be. And with the characters, I loved how Austen was able to make me hate the sympathetic characters and like the antagonists (with the notable exception of Lady de Bourgh, who can go jump off a cliff if she pleases) in their turn.

Verdict: I need to read some more Austen. I think I might go after Emma and see if Mr. Knightley is as enchanting as Paul Rudd.

Recommendation: Yeeeeah, you should probably read this. I wouldn’t quite recommend the audiobook version I listened to, but there are probably better ones out there.

Rating: 8/10
(A to Z Challenge, TBR Challenge)