This Song Will Save Your Life- Leila Sales

Elise is 16 and miserable.  She has no friends at school and every attempt she makes to try to make friends or fit in blows up in her face.  She feels so hopeless that she thinks about killing herself, going so far as to cut herself with a razor on her wrists.  She calls a girl from school who calls 911.  Flash forward 6 months and Elise is pretty much on house arrest because her parents are worried about her.  She has people to sit with at lunch now, but isn’t measurably much happier.  Especially since there is some pretty vicious online bullying going on.  The only thing keeping her kind of sane is sneaking out at night to take long, meandering walks around town.  That is, until she stumbles upon a night club on one of her midnight walks.  She is instantly accepted for who she is by Vicki, one of the nightclub regulars, and discovers a passion for DJing.  Finding her crowd and her passion really turns things around for Elise, as she finds life worth living and a place where she can truly accept and love herself.

This wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t really a story for me.  I didn’t ever want to quit reading it and it was decently written, but I had some major quibbles with the story and the characters that made it hard for me to really get into the book.  Elise is obsessed with being popular/cool and that felt out of place for me for a character who is 16 years old.  This desperation for popularity seemed a bit immature for Elise… sure, I could see her wanting friends and feeling isolated, but the need to be cool felt more like an 11 year old’s wish than a 16 year old’s.  At the same time, Elise’s time on the nightclub and DJ scene seemed to belong to a much older character, at least a freshman in college.  It was hard for me to buy that the bouncer would not only let her in without ID, but that the club owner would offer her her own DJ party when she is younger than legal drinking age.  And her parents later let her continue to attend these parties because she’s so passionate about it.  That’s a lot of lapse of judgment/looking the other way at the law for me to really buy into.

I also had some real trouble with Elise’s suicide attempt.  I am not a fan of suicide as a plot device and that is exactly what it was here… some dramatization to show how seriously awful Elise’s situation is.  And while there is mention of Elise getting therapy and while finding DJing doesn’t instantly solve Elise’s problems or insecurities, I feel like the suicide thing is a cheap shot that isn’t really dealt with on any serious level.  But I really hate suicide in novels, so this probably comes down to personal preference more than anything.

All that to say, this book just pushed a lot of my no-go buttons for YA contemporary.  I didn’t hate it and thought the glimpse into DJing and nightlife was pretty fascinating, but when I spend most of a book wanting to make major revisions to it (make Elise older, cut out the suicide angle, etc.), it’s probably not a book that is meant for me.




Spring Mini-Reviews: Books in Verse

I have always avoided novels in verse and poetry.  I don’t really know why.  I mean, I liked poetry ok when I was in school, but it’s POETRY and that’s what angsty teens do.  I know, I know, shut my mouth because I actually LOVED these two books written in verse and cannot wait to tackle more poetry.


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming is Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir, told in verse, reflecting back on her childhood.  This book has won a bunch of big awards and has been on my radar a while, as a result.  I was hesitant about the poetry aspect of the story, but felt it would be the perfect book for the Read Harder challenge as it is not only written in verse, but is written by and about a person of color and I’ve been trying to pay more attention to reading diversely.

What I liked: I absolutely loved this book.  It was full of hope, love, beauty, dreams, and longing and I read most of it with a lump in my throat because of how beautiful/touching it all was.  I loved how the major Civil Rights goings on of the time were woven into a more personal story.  I also appreciated the glimpses into Jehovah’s Witness religious culture and the subtle questioning Jacqueline does of her religion as a child.  I also loved the focus on family, especially Jacqueline’s relationship with her grandfather.  There were bits of the poetry that I highlighted and loved, but since I’m not an avid poetry reader, I think I’d need to do a more careful close reading to fully appreciate the writing style.  That said, using verse for a childhood memoir seemed really appropriate– there was a dream-like quality that came with it that felt reminiscent of childhood memories.
What I felt meh about: I only wish this had been a longer book!
All in all: I’m so glad I gave this book a try.  I imagine this will be one of the best books I read this year. I hope to someday share this one with my daughter.

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Inside Out & Back Again is a novel in verse, telling the story of ten year old Ha. Ha is living in South Vietnam at the end of the war.  Her father has gone missing in action and food and resources are becoming scarce in the face of hyperinflation.  But Ha is a young girl and while war is ever-present for her in Vietnam, she is more preoccupied with school and her papaya tree and not being told she can’t do anything her brothers can just because she is a girl.  Then Ha’s family escapes Vietnam and takes refuge in the United States, finding a sponsor family in Alabama.  Ha doesn’t know English and finds herself mercilessly teased by the children at her new school.  She misses Vietnam and her father terribly, but as time goes by she learns English and discovers friends and allies at school and in her neighborhood and begins to find a way of life that is both Vietnamese and American.

What I liked: I am particularly drawn to Ha’s story of immigrating to the United States and having to start a whole new life in a very strange place.  I have always enjoyed immigrant stories, but this one also had a lot of personal meaning to me as I grew up in an area with a high population of Vietnamese immigrants and I had a good friend in elementary school who moved to the U.S. in the 2nd or 3rd grade from Vietnam.  Ha’s experiences reminded me quite a bit of my friend’s, from desperately wanting curly hair to being self-conscious about language to being both proud and ashamed of her cultural background.  This also carries a fairly clear be-kind-to-your-neighbor/walk-a-mile-in-the-other-person’s-shoe kind of message, which felt aimed at a younger audience, but was certainly something I could appreciate as an adult.
What I felt meh about: I didn’t think the writing was as sophisticated as the writing in Brown Girl Dreaming and as I read these fairly close together, this suffered in comparison.  This felt like reading a book for kids, if that makes sense.
All in all: I’m glad I read this and I think it would be a great book to assign for middle grades in school.  I would certainly read this author again.

The Smart One- Jennifer Close

The Smart One is told in alternating points of view from four women in the Coffey family.  Weezy is the matriarch, whose empty nest doesn’t stay empty and who is a bit of a control freak.  Martha is Weezy’s oldest daughter. She is socially inept, works a dead end job at J. Crew, lives at home with her parents, is very into her weekly therapy sessions, and seems hopelessly incapable of ever becoming independent.  Claire, Weezy’s younger daughter, is the “normal” one, but has just broken off her engagement and finds she can’t make ends meet in New York City on her own.  She moves back home, but her fierce independent streak clashes with her mother’s need to control everything.  Finally, we have Cleo, the girlfriend of Weezy’s youngest child, Max.  Cleo is a beautiful young college student who doesn’t ever feel like she fits in anywhere she goes and can’t seem to follow societal conventions or relationship rules.  Cleo and Max move back in with Weezy, too, after they graduate from college.  This is an interesting look at family dynamics when adult children return to their parents’ home and at the lives of four women at personal crossroads in their lives.

What I liked: I picked up this book at the Strand when I was in New York visiting my sister.  I was eager to read more of Jennifer Close’s work after finishing Girls in White Dresses, which felt like a fresh, smart take on chick lit.  I was equally impressed with Close’s writing in this book.  I like her focus on the ordinary everyday events in life and I appreciate her ability to create characters who felt real and distinct.  Close also has a real understanding of relationship dynamics and that is very evident her in a story about the complexity of family relationships.  I also liked that this book focused on adults returning home, as that experience is becoming especially common these days.  I haven’t had to move back home, but I imagine that I would feel as frustrated as Claire did at the loss of independence.

What I felt meh about: While I appreciated that the characters in this book felt realistic and flawed, sometimes they felt too difficult.  It got to be a bit grating at times to read about Weezy constantly underestimating her children and her husband and trying to run everyone’s lives or about Martha complaining about everything and never taking control of her own life.  This also felt like a very WASPy, upper middle class story, which isn’t a flaw exactly, it just made the story less appealing to me.  Finally, some of the characters’ attitudes towards things like homosexuality, premarital sex, cohabitation, and unplanned pregnancy seemed out-of-place and old-fashioned for the characters that held the beliefs.  For example, Cleo is 21 and embarrassed about living with her boyfriend during college because that’s just not a thing girls her age do.  Moving in with a significant other during college was fairly common for people I knew when I went to college 10 years prior to the publication of this book, so that attitude seemed particularly strange.

All in all: While this book was not a personal favorite, I have no intentions of writing off Jennifer Close.  I really enjoy her writing and her sharp observations of people and personal relationships.  There is a lot of potential in her writing and I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.



Spring Mini-Reviews: Read Harder Challenge Books

So.  Every now and then I get supppppper behind on reviews (ok, so it’s more like I’m ALWAYS behind) and in order to catch up I like to throw up these mini-reviews.  This post focuses on books that I picked for the 2015 Read Harder Challenge.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Read for Task 3: A Collection of Short Stories

The Things They Carried is a book of interrelated short stories featuring a unit of soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War.  I bought it years ago after reading about it in one of my graduate classes.  I then proceeded to not read it, but I am so so glad I finally remedied that.

What I liked: The writing in this book is absolutely beautiful.  I have never been to war and probably never will, but this book felt like it carried a truth about war– there’s death, fear, grief, muck, boredom, love, humor, hijinks, drugs, friendship, loneliness.  These men (boys, really) are thrown into an unimaginable situation and their lives are forever changed by Vietnam, whether they die there or whether they come home and can’t move on or come home and never stop writing about it.
What I felt meh about: I don’t really have any complaints about this book.  It was a tough subject matter, which sometimes made it difficult for me to pick up, but I kind of think that’s the point.
All in all: This has become a classic for a reason.  The writing is amazing, the stories are meaningful and presented war to me in the most real/truthful way I think I’ve ever read.  I pushed this on my husband to read (and he reads fiction almost never) because it’s that sort of book that will appeal widely.  I hope to reread it again someday.


Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers
Read for Task 11: A YA Novel

Mortal Heart is the conclusion of the His Fair Assassin series, a historical fantasy series that I’ve enjoyed.  Mortal Heart is Annith’s story.  Annith has been stuck at the convent, eagerly awaiting her turn to go out into the field and practice as Death’s handmaiden.  But opportunities keep passing by and the abbess seems intent on keeping Annith under her thumb forever, as the seeress for the convent.  Annith knows that is not the life she wants or is meant to live, so she strikes out, hoping to uncover the abbess’s motives and to set her own destiny.

What I liked: I generally enjoy the world that LaFevers has created in this series and the things I liked about it continued on into this book– there is plenty of political intrigue and a strong spiritual element to the story.  I especially love the old religion and gods in the book and Mortal Heart offers us a look at another aspect of Mortain, as well as the goddess Arduinna.  I also loved getting to see Annith back with Sybella and Ismae, as their camaraderie from the first book was something that was missing in the second one.  I was also really satisfied to see a conclusion to the political crisis in Brittany, as that historical element of the books has always piqued my interest.
What I felt meh about: This was probably my least favorite of the series, mostly because it got off to the world’s slowest start.  It took me over 200 pages to get into to it.  I also didn’t buy into the romance as hard, as it felt a bit shallow to me… something that I did not feel about the romances in the previous two books.
All in all: This was mostly a satisfying conclusion to the series and I’m happy I finished it out.  This is high on my list of YA fantasy to recommend, even though I feel like these books don’t stick with me for very long.  The research and writing are impeccable.


Curly Girl: The Handbook by Lorraine Massey
Read for Task 24: A Self-Improvement Book

Perhaps I’m silly to choose a book about hair for self-improvement, but it became a recent goal of mine to start wearing my hair more natural (that is, curly) and I needed some advice on how to get started.  Curly Girl is mostly a handbook on how to cleanse, style, and care for curly hair from products to coloring to up-dos, but it is also interspersed with personal anecdotes (“curlfessions”) from the author and other curly girls who have come to love and accept their curls.

What I liked:  I liked the cleansing and styling tips and they have really gone a long way in improving the look of my hair.  I’ve been using the curly girl method and my curls seem more defined, less frizzy, and more manageable.  Some of the steps (shampooing and drying) take longer than what I was doing before, but the styling part is SO EASY and takes a fraction of the time that blow drying ever did (not that I dried my hair much, mostly brushed it into a ponytail).  I also enjoyed the little “curlfessions” and related to these women who have been fighting their hair their whole lives.  I have wavy hair and because it straightens fairly easy if I take the time to do so, I have pretty much always felt (and been given the impressions by hairdressers/the world) that my hair should be straightened.  Previous attempts to go wavy have always left me feeling like I couldn’t pass as curly, either, with too much frizz and volume and not much uniformity in my curls.  It’s nice to see that I’m not alone in feeling like my hair was uncooperative and not worth messing with.  It’s also nice to see that there is some light on the other side– curly hair can be easy, fun, and beautiful, too!
What I felt meh about: Large chunks of this book did not apply to me.  I don’t color my hair and don’t have any desire to try cutting my own hair or making my own products.  Also, the skeptic in me is a little uncomfortable with the fact that the author has her own product line and salon/stylist academy.  She never outright tells you to go buy DevaCurl products, but still I wondered about the potential commercial motivations behind the book.
All in all: This was a nice, easy intro to hair care and styling for those of us with curly hair.  I don’t think it’s essential to read the book if all you want is instructional information, but the anecdotes and pictures were helpful/interesting for me, so I’m glad I grabbed it from the library.

Here’s Looking at You- Mhairi McFarlane

Anna was bullied and ridiculed as a child for being fat, nerdy, and Italian.  Everything culminated in a horrifying scene at the school’s Mock Rock where Anna was pelted with candy and called names.  Anna is now in her 30s, a professor of history at a university.  She lost a lot of weight in her 20s and has become not just good-looking, but beautiful.  Her past haunts her, so in the name of closure (and a bit of sticking it to them), she goes to her school reunion.  No one recognizes her, though, but she runs into James, her school crush and one of her tormentors back in the day.  James doesn’t know Anna is THE Anna he tormented through school and Anna lets him believe they’ve never met before, that she has stumbled into the wrong event.  After the reunion, they keep running into each other, finding themselves thrown together on work project.  They get off to a rocky start, Anna holding the past against him, and James put off by Anna’s inexplicable rudeness towards him.  But as they spend more time together, they begin to realize how much they have in common, particularly a sharp wit.  With their past, though, it will be a rocky road to happily ever after.

I enjoyed Mhairi McFarlane’s debut and had been putting off reading her second book because the blurb sounded so cliched.  A girl loses a ton of weight and is suddenly beautiful and can suddenly land her high school crush?  Ugh.  Well, yeah, ok, that is the short of it, but McFarlane handles it much more delicately and just better than I ever expected.  Anna’s life isn’t perfect when she becomes skinny and beautiful.  Being beautiful comes with its own rules, ones Anna never had to learn.  And the Anna on the inside is still nerdy, smart, and sarcastic.  Love doesn’t come any easier to skinny Anna as it did to fat Anna.  James is also not a simplistic character.  He’s pretty shallow and vain and is left reeling when his gorgeous wife leaves him for another man.  He struggles with coming to terms with the fact that beauty and flash aren’t actually making him a happy person.  He, like Anna, also has quite the sense of humor.  The banter between James and Anna was one of the best parts of this book, it was funny and cute and really helped make this mismatched couple make sense together.  What sounds like an eye-rollingly simplistic and cliched story was actually quite complex and none of the issues were glossed over to make this an easy love story.

My only real trouble with this book was that the ending felt unnecessarily drawn out.  Everyone else realizes that Anna and James are in love.  Then Anna and James realize they are in love, but there are some complications thrown in (the bullying thing, James’s ex-wife) that keep them from getting together right away.  And in the end, they only come together after a grand romantic gesture, which felt a bit out of place for their characters (particularly as they joke about this being a convention in romance novels earlier in the book).  None of this was a dealbreaker, it’s all pretty standard stuff for the genre, but I had hoped for more given that most of this book is hell-bent on complicating cliches in romance.

In any case, if you are a fan of smart and funny chick lit, you should definitely give Mhairi McFarlane a try.  I, for one, am eagerly anticipating the U.S. release of her latest book, It’s Not Me, It’s You.

If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now- Claire LaZebnik

If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now by Claire LaZebnik

Rickie is 25 and living with her parents, taking one college class at a time and taking care of her son, Noah, who is in the first grade.  She’s in a relationship of convenience (as in they hook up when he’s in town) with the brother of her sister’s husband.  She doesn’t really have any friends at her son’s elementary school and she doesn’t really want to.  Her life is at a bit of a stand-still and her relationship with her mom has brought her back to adolescent behavior.  Things begin to change for Rickie when her sister signs them up for the hospitality committee of the PTA and when Noah complains about the new gym teacher.  The hospitality committee and confronting Noah’s gym teacher, Andrew, force Rickie to become more involved in the school, opening her up to new possibilities in terms of friendship, motherhood, and even romance.

This is very much chick lit in the sense that it involves an adult woman coming into her own and finding romance, but Rickie’s life changes much more subtly than many others in the genre.  She’s still a difficult person, always wanting to do the opposite of what she’s told and being prickly and sarcastic.  But she begins to let people in and starts realizing that she has a lot more control than she thinks in interacting with other people, her mother and Noah especially.  She starts out the story being very protective of Noah, but it goes a bit too far.  She underestimates him time and again and tends to shut him down from even trying new things, particularly when it comes to sports.  Andrew takes a special interest in Noah and tries to encourage his athletic abilities, which seems to open up Rickie’s eyes for the first time that Noah wants to try sports, enjoys them, and they help boost his confidence, in spite of his not being very athletically-inclined.  At the same time, Rickie and Andrew are getting to know one another and the romance that develops between them is sweet.  Andrew is a genuinely nice guy and his mentoring of Noah was quite endearing.  This was a romance with a single mom where it felt right for the two characters to get together– they both were invested in Noah.  I also enjoyed Rickie’s developments in her relationship with her mom.  The two are always at odds, but they come to realize that that is what moms are for– someone you can be your worst with who will still love you.  I also thought that some of the side characters, like Rickie’s sister and her friends at the elementary school, were entertaining and interesting additions to Rickie’s life.

I kind of wish this book better addressed Rickie’s lack of direction in terms of career/education.  She spends the whole book mooching off her parents and it doesn’t really seem like that was going to change soon.  I’m not sure it would have fit into the scope of this book, but what can I say?  I wanted to see her gain a little more momentum in terms of her future and supporting herself and Noah.

All in all, Rickie is not a particularly likeable character, but I nonetheless found myself rooting for her, Noah, and Andrew.  This is the kind of chick lit I enjoy– smart character development, exploration of multiple relationships (family, friends, romance), and a sweet, easy romance.  I expect I’ll return to it sometime down the line and maybe even read other books by this author.

War Dances- Sherman Alexie

War Dances by Sherman Alexie

I chose to read War Dances to fulfill one of my Read Harder Challenge tasks– a book by or about someone from an indigenous culture.  I have read some of Alexie’s works in the past and listened to him narrate The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, so when I saw he narrated this collection of short stories and poems on audio, I knew I would enjoy it.

What I liked:  I love Sherman Alexie’s writing and narration.  As a whole, the short stories were funny and genuine and awkward and heartfelt.  There was always something in them that pushed the bounds of comfortable, but in a subtle sort of way, rather than being there as a shock tactic.  In one story, we have Paul Nonetheless, who is charming in spite of the fact that he is an awful father and husband– absent and adulterous.  I found myself rooting for him to hook up with the married Sarah Smile, even though he was pretty much the epitome of a sad middle-aged man with very little to redeem himself.  Another story features George Wilson, who has beaten to death a young black man who had broken into his home.  He can’t explain why he snapped.  He doesn’t really feel guilty, but he also doesn’t understand why he killed someone.  He never thought of himself as a defender of property and while he acted in what is legally defined as self-defense, he’s not really sure he was actually defending himself.  He was a sympathetic character, despite his grappling with being a killer.  I had previously read the story that involved a man in the hospital after his alcoholic, diabetic father had his feet amputated, but it was one whose tenderness resonated with me again.

What I felt meh about: My problems with this book mostly had to do with the audio production. The poetry didn’t add anything for me and was hard to separate out from the short stories because it felt pretty prose-like. Also, there was hardly any pause between stories/poems and some of the stories were told in numbered parts and it was hard to distinguish between separate works some of the time. Perhaps this was intentional, but it was confusing and as much as I like Alexie’s narration and think it adds something to the reading experience, I almost wish I’d had the print to refer to so I could see how the stories were formatted there.

All in all: I will always recommend Sherman Alexie’s work and will probably read more of it in the future.  He writes with such insight, truth, and humor that I will always appreciate his stories.  I do, however, think I most enjoy him in more traditional narrative-style, longer-form short stories and novels, rather than poetry.

Throne of Glass- Sarah J. Maas

Celaena Sardothien is a renowned assassin, serving time as a slave in the salt mines of Endovier.  One day she is presented to Prince Dorian, who tells her he hopes she will be his representative in a competition hosted by his father, the king, to find the king’s next champion.  If Celaena wins, she will be obligated to 4 years of service before earning her freedom.  Given that her only other choice is certain death in the mines, Celaena agrees to the bargain with Dorian and is brought to the king’s Glass Castle.  The competition ensues and it becomes clear that Celaena has only one real competitor to worry about.  That is, until the champions start dying gruesome deaths at the hands of a mysterious creature roaming the castle.  In the midst of the competition and the murders, Celaena finds herself growing close to both Prince Dorian and the captain of the king’s guard, Captain Chaol Westfall, perhaps even falling in love with them.

I have had very mixed success with the blogosphere’s favorite YA fantasy series.  I did not like Shadow and Bone, but loved The Girl of Fire and Thorns.  So I went into Throne of Glass nervous.  It seemed like everyone loved it and there’s not much worse than being the one person who just doesn’t get it.  Well, sorry to say, I don’t get Throne of Glass.

For one thing, the writing is excessively descriptive and flowery.  There are endless depictions of Celaena’s dresses, people’s glittering eyes, and Chaol’s red cape blowing crimson in the breeze.  Maas tends to overuse color words to the point that crimson, scarlet, obsidian, raven, jade, sapphire become overworked alternatives to saying red, black, green, and blue.  It was just too much for me and I found myself zoning out during descriptive parts because they just weren’t good.  I know fantasy is all about the details, but I don’t know, I feel like Maas tended to give overwrought descriptions of dresses rather than putting words into describing the world or the events of the plot.

That brings me around to the second issue that I had with this book, which is that the plot is totally convoluted.  There are a million things going on– from the competition for king’s champion to the murders to the love triangle to some political/historical/magical conflict and intrigue, but none of them actually have any impact on Celaena’s outcome.  It is clear from the on-set that Celaena will win the champion competition.  It is clear who the bad guys are and that the murders are not an actual threat to Celaena herself.  It is clear that you will have to read the entire series to come to a resolution on the love triangle.  This book read like 400 pages of backstory, basically.  (And to think that there are actually prequel novellas…)

All that to say, there were aspects of this book that made me think there is probably more to this series than I got out of this one book.  There a things going on the background that I was truly curious about in terms of the history and politics and magic, which might become important later and which, if brought more to the forefront, would probably ensure an interesting and action-packed series ahead.  I also thought the love triangle was one of the better ones I’ve ever read.  Both guys are good choices, who are attracted to Celaena for her character, not just her beauty.  Also, Celaena herself was an interesting and unique character.  She’s arrogant and bratty, can kick butt and take names, but also loves reading and shiny things.

At the end of the day, though, I don’t have any desire to keep on with this series.  I think it suffers from too much detail, too much set-up, too much of a desire to tell us every little detail, while delivering nothing of real substance.


What Alice Forgot- Liane Moriarty

Alice comes to on the floor of a gym, having just taken a hard hit to the head.  She thinks she’s 29, happily married, and pregnant with her first child.  The reality is much different.  Almost everything old Alice hoped for her future is the opposite of what she’d expect.  She’s almost 40, a mother of three, going through a messy divorce and custody battle with her once-beloved husband.  She is an involved school mom and spends her days running PTA-type meetings, exercising, and managing her house and children.  Alice and her sister, who were always very close, have grown apart.  Her relationship with her oldest daughter is strained.  And Alice can’t shake the feeling that something terrible has happened.  Alice can hardly recognize the shape her life has taken and spends her days trying to recover her memory, while reconciling the old Alice with the new Alice, and hoping to get a second chance in her marriage.

This is the fourth book I’ve read and enjoyed by Liane Moriarty.  What Alice Forgot, like Moriarty’s other novels, is told from three different points of view.  Alice is the predominant voice and story here, but we also have journal snippets from her sister, Elisabeth, and letters written by her surrogate grandmother, Frannie.  Elisabeth and Frannie’s perspectives help fill in the backstory of Alice’s missing 10 years, but these characters also are transformed by what has happened to Alice.  In particular, they are forced to reflect how their past selves would view who they’ve become, which helps them let go of some past hangs up and move on with their lives.  It is an interesting line of reflection, and Elisabeth’s story, which focuses on her struggle with infertility, was particularly effective when put next to Alice’s story.  Alternating points of view is something I am picky about, but I think Moriarty does them very well, as I always enjoy them in her stories.

As for Alice, I didn’t find that I particularly liked Alice or that I could relate to her (well, other than I’m a wife and a mother), but I did find her situation one of those that does force you to reflect on your own life and how things never quite go the way you expect them to.  Alice’s life has been shaped by people and events she doesn’t even remember and while on the one hand it makes it hard to understand what is going on in her life (Why on earth are she and Nick getting a divorce?), it gives her some distance to reconsider things from a new perspective (Why was she so hard on her daughter when what she needed most was love and attention?).  And when Alice finally recovers her memory, she is able to actually move on with her life and to heal some of the wounds that have been gaping in her various relationships.

This book, and my reaction to it, reminded me a lot of Time of My Life by Allison Winn Scotch, in which a character goes back in time to relive her past life, but with memories of her old one.  Both reflect on how we grow and change over time and particularly with marriage and motherhood.  Both also encouraged me to confront the questions that the protagonists were facing: How would me from 10 years ago view my life now?  What would I change about the past (or the present) if I could?  And I think that this is something that I, as a reader, am drawn to– books that make me reflect about myself and my own development and decisions.

Anyways, if chick lit is your thing and you haven’t tried Liane Moriarty, I’d highly recommend her books.  She is definitely one of the best chick lit writers around these days and I particularly appreciate that her books tend to focus on women in their 30s with husbands and children.  What Alice Forgot is not my favorite Liane Moriarty book (just read Big Little Lies already, ok?), but it was an interesting story with well-developed characters and it left me with a lot to think about.



The Casual Vacancy- J.K. Rowling

I was never really sure I wanted to read this book when it came out because the description sounded dry and boring and decidedly not Harry Potter, but after absolutely devouring The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, I thought I’d give it a try.  And if you assess J.K. Rowling’s talent solely by reading the Harry Potter series, you are seriously missing out.  Every book I’ve read by her has blown me away, this included.

The Casual Vacancy starts with the untimely death of Barry Fairbrother, the beloved Pagford parish member and an upstanding member of his community.  His death creates a “casual vacancy” on the parish council that various factions hope to fill.  You see, Pagford’s council is deeply divided on the issue of The Fields, a government housing project that sits on the border of Pagford and the neighboring large town, Yarvil.  There is an acrimonious history between Yarvil and Pagford, particularly surrounding The Fields.  Barry Fairbrother grew up in The Fields, which allowed him to attend the well-regarded primary school in Pagford, which he believed gave him a leg up and helped him escape the poverty he was born into.  He has fiercely championed for The Fields to remain part of Pagford, while he himself serves as the embodiment of what a social safety net can help produce.  However, not all the council members agree with Barry.  Howard Mollison, parish council member and local deli owner, firmly believes that The Fields taint Pagford and bring nothing but trouble to the idyllic small town.  For him, The Fields are embodied by Krystal Weedon, a teenager whose mother is a heroin addict and who has caused nothing but disruption in her time at Pagford schools.  Howard hopes to push his son, Miles, into the vacant council seat, while Collin “Cubby” Walls takes it upon himself to run on the ideals that Barry campaigned for.  The election and the loss of one of their most beloved town leaders resonates through the town, shaking up not only politics, but also the private lives of many of the citizens.

It it tough to explain the plot of The Casual Vacancy because this is more the story of a town told through the lens of multiple residents, rather than the story of any one particular person or event.  While the election to replace Barry Fairbrother is central to the construction of this story, the central debate that lay at the heart of this novel is how to address the inequality inherent in capitalism.  Because capitalism is competition-based, then there will be winners and losers and inequality.  It is how to think about the “losers” that fuels Pagford’s debate about The Fields.  Howard Mollison and his followers believe that those that are on the bottom are there due to their own flaws (laziness, drug addiction, criminality, etc.) and that their way out of poverty should involve pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.  After all, Howard claims he is a successful business owner without having the benefit of a government hand-out (neglecting entirely the fact that he started his deli with substantial help from his mother’s personal savings).  On the other hand, Barry Fairbrother and his followers cling to the notion that government plays a role in addressing inequality through providing housing, schools, drug treatment, and other community services.  After all, Barry is a successful councilor, banker, husband, father, rowing coach, and upstanding community member and he credits this all to the benefits he received by being allowed to attend Pagford’s premier schools.

And while political ideals are all well and good, it is clear in examining the community members that no one’s motives are pure.  Barry’s faction is mostly made up of adults who were more struck by his charisma than they were by the causes he was working for.  Howard seems to be more enamored with creating a flawless image of Pagford, sucking up to the old money of Pagford, and beating Barry than he is about actually saving the parish money.  Which just brings me around to the point– most of the adult characters in this book are petty and trifling and deeply flawed, in a rather unhopeful sort of way.  The adolescent characters, while not perfect angels by any means, were much more sympathetic.  I was particularly affected by the parts about Krystal Weedon and the desperation and hopelessness of her situation.  The scenes in the Weedons’ house were difficult, but important, vivid, and moving.  And while Krystal has been given the worst start of anyone, no one’s life in this story is easy.  Everyone has their own problems, from bullying to OCD to an abusive father to fear of commitment to unrequited love to type 2 diabetes and hypertension.  To me, this is what makes The Casual Vacancy so successful; it is a character study of various townspeople with varying socioeconomic, ethnic, and family backgrounds and yet these are all real people dealing with their own struggles, some self-imposed, some external.  It is a fascinating portrait of the whole community.

My only complaint with this book was that it got off to a slow and confusing start.  The point of view changes often, sometimes after only a few paragraphs and without warning.  There are no gaps, headers, or other formatting to denote you’re now following someone else, just a change in the character’s name and before you get a feel for who is who (lots of people share last names because they are related, not to mention there are nicknames galore) it gets confusing.  The point of view changes and the large cast of characters made this a difficult novel to approach.  It is something you have to really allow yourself some time with, to get to know the cast of characters and how they relate to one another.  It does all come together in the end, however, and the more I read the easier it was to keep characters distinct in my mind.

I am absolutely blown away by J.K. Rowling’s talent.  I loved Harry Potter, am newly obsessed with Cormoran Strike, and was wowed by the beauty and complexity of The Casual Vacancy.  It is safe to say that if I see her name on a book, I will read it.  I’d also highly recommend this book, especially to those who love character studies.  It was absolutely not what I expected, but I think this book turned out to be something quite special.  It was quite refreshing to see an analysis of social welfare in fiction that addressed both its successes, failures, and the dangers of dismantling it.  I will be thinking about the characters for a long time to come (and every time I hear Rihanna’s “Umbrella”).


Me, to J.K. Rowling