Feb 6 2013

I present to you: Little House on the Prairie for adults

These books are over a decade old and I just discovered them, so I apologize to all of you rolling your eyes at my “announcement.” However, after searching high and low I finally found a book series that is written for adults but has all the comfort and stylings of a good Laura Ingalls Wilder tale.

The author is Sara Donati and the first book is entitled Into the Wilderness. It’s the story of a woman who comes from England to a tiny village in the vast, endless forest of upstate New York to start a school. It’s the late 1700’s, the Revolutionary War is over, but the War of 1812 looms.

It has an epic love story, it faces slavery, the treatment of native Americans and the role of women straight on in an intelligent, thoughtful and sometimes heartbreaking fashion. I’ve read the entire series and loved it all.

Plus there’s log cabins and maize and storing up for the winter and even a mercantile.

– Jen

Jan 17 2013

It’s cold, stay inside and read

In the midst of a cold snap, I was lucky enough to read two good books.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Since this book recently won the National Book Award, I may not be telling you anything new. A grown man looks back on the summer of 1988 when his mother was viciously attacked on their reservation in North Dakota. It’s a who-done-it and a coming of age story and a search for justice all rolled into a beautifully written and really compelling story. You’ll be hooked from the first few pages.

Me Before You by JoJo Moyes

Again, my understanding is that this book has been a phenomenon for quite awhile in Britain, so you may know all about it. I hesitate to give much of the plot, but in the vein of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (although fictional), it’s a very intimate look at the life of a quadriplegic man and the people who care for him. It’s a love story, but more, it’s funny and tragic and it doesn’t let you look away.

– Jen

Dec 3 2012

When your Thesaurus becomes your enemy

I just read The Secret of Ella and Micha and it’s terrible. Terrible as in the worst book I read all year.  One look at the cover and you’ll ask, “what are you, 14?”

Here’s what happened: Over the summer I read Gone Girl, which was a hugely popular and very well-written book (we can debate the ending at a different time.) Amazon has some sort of algorithm which decided that since I purchased a book about a wife who disappears, perhaps I would like a book about a girl-next-door who disappears. I received a little pop-up telling me “Hey you liked Gone Girl, you’ll like The Secret of Ella and Micha for 99 cents. I took the bait, but man, did I pay.

The grammar is horrible. But that’s becoming more and more common with all these self-published books, and while it takes you out of the story for a second when every single apostrophe is used incorrectly, I can live with it. (My grammar isn’t great either, but that’s why I would use an editor!)

The plot is terrible. The big secret mentioned in the title and then alluded to on every page? They’re in love.

But the real problem is crazy word usage. I have to think the author, Jessica Sorenson, wanted to punch up her sentences a little so she just plugged words into a thesaurus without checking to make sure they meant the right thing.

“I carry her gaze forcefully”

“She conceals her hand over my mouth”

“The sofas are shoved to the side so the band can flare on their instruments”

“He chuckles lowly”

“We expected the police to show up and arrest her for car thievery”

“Her gaze lifts, giving a fleeting glance at my lips before resolving on my eyes”

“I decide to make a sporadic stop and try to get her out of my head”

“He descends his voice to a soft purr”

and my favorite…

“I flinch at my body’s fiery reaction his voice emits”

I double-checked to make sure the author wasn’t a kid or non-English speaker, but it seems she’s just unbelievably lucky that somehow her awful book got linked up with a critically acclaimed book…because I’m not the only chump. On Sunday I saw that it’s #14 on the NYTimes eBook Bestsellers list!

In the words of Captain Von Trapp, “She must have done something good.”

– Jen





Nov 14 2012

I really want you to read this book

I fear you are all sick of hearing me talk about it. However, I just finished The Twelve, which is the sequel to The Passage. It had been a couple years since I read the first one, so I went back and re-read it to get ready for the Oct. 16th release date and it was even better than I remembered. And then the sequel was awesome too.

Modern day American scientists travel into a South American region where rumors say something lives which carries the cure to all sickness. This seemingly philanthropic mission unleashes a most horrific plague upon the world. Run for your life.

Author Justin Cronin has written what some might consider a horror novel, but I think it’s a story of healing and love between parents and spouses and siblings and friends and enemies. He makes every character count. The blood that’s shed is accounted for. Lives and hopes and loves matter. These books are thrilling and action-packed, but they have just as many small moments…quiet moments where people make big decisions that define their humanity and underscore all of our need to be loved and to matter.

You just can’t believe how much you’ll enjoy ’em.

– Jen


Oct 22 2012

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

If this book had been handed to me sans author credit, I would have guessed some Brit was doing a damned good Jonathan Franzen impression. The Causal Vacancy is about the sad lives of depressed people trying to pass the time and find small measures of happiness and meaning. Sound familiar readers of The Corrections? Freedom?

It’s 500 pages and I read it really fast. As we all know, Rowling is a great storyteller. I was quickly sucked in and the little town of Pagford felt as real and knowable as the little Seattle neighborhood that I grew up in. On the surface, the story is about the power brokers in town who are split on what to do about the troubled public housing and addiction clinic (known as The Fields) on the outskirts of town.When the councilmember leading the charge to continue to support “The Fields” dies, it sets up an election for his seat and ignites a public debate as this contentious vote is coming to a head.

But deep down it’s about an amoral man who beats his wife and children without qualm, it’s about a teenage boy who daily torments girls in school without conscience. It’s about parents who spend their time debating the responsibilities of a town toward the poor while ignoring the needs of their own kids. Wives hate their husbands, children hate their parents and no one seems to actually care for their neighbor let alone the Wheedon family who arise as emblems of the vote. Tragic, sometimes sympathetic and often sickening, this drug-addled family from The Fields is the example used by both sides to influence the vote.

The Harry Potter books also showcased power struggles and cruelty to children and spouses and the abuse of the poor. But in the midst of great evil and petty meanness, you found parents who died for their son, parents tortured into insanity rather than give in to tyranny, and parents who wept over their child’s body on the battlefield. This latest book is depressing, has no hope, is filled with unlikeable people, and gives chapter after chapter to darkness and hate.

Yes, it’s well written and makes its point very well. But it leaves you hollow and sad and feeling like all is lost in the world if this is how people treat one another. I don’t think I live in a fantasy, but I know that I live in a world closer to Harry Potter than to Pagford, England. In my life people have been unbearably kind to me. From my parents to teachers to friends and even to strangers, for the most part I’ve been shown more kindness than I deserved. I’m sorry Rowling couldn’t have added a little of that spice to this blend.

– Jen



Oct 4 2012

Just read a good book…

It’s become famous as the “Seattle-bashing book” and this made me hesitant to read it. As someone born and raised in Seattle, I’m well aware of the ways we drive ourselves and others crazy and I don’t need some outsider to make fun of us for 200 pages in order to understand myself better.

But I’m so glad I read it.

The book, told mostly through emails, is the story of a woman who disappeared from her professional life in Los Angeles when she moved with her husband to Seattle. But (unlike my first impression) it is not just a book about a fabulous Californian who hates Seattle. There is so much more to the story. And by the way, if you’re from Seattle and have a sense of humor and even the slightest amount of self-awareness, you will laugh a lot while you read it. It’s really funny. But it’s also a book that takes on a big subject: Loss and Failure

How do you survive, how do you comfort those you love, and what does it take to finally give each other a break? 

We, the citizens of Seattle, can be a pretty ridiculous bunch. And we serve as the perfect backdrop, catalyst and metaphor for a story about a family on the verge of collapse trying to figure out where they are and how they got there.

– Jen

Aug 8 2012

If you don’t have time to read The Times’ Book Reviews

Here are my super short reviews of the many books I’ve read this summer. (I posted longer reviews of The Age of Miracles and Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail earlier and you can read them by clicking on those titles.)

Quick question for discussion: If the book is great but you hate the ending…do you still say the book was great?

I feel this conundrum all the time because a great ending is really hard to achieve and hardly anyone ever does it to my satisfaction. But that doesn’t mean the book wasn’t meaningful to me or that I didn’t enjoy it. I’ve basically made it a policy that if I don’t like the ending I don’t recommend it, but that’s mainly because I want to be exuberant when recommending a good read. But maybe that doesn’t have to be the case.

Okay, on to my super short reviews.

Broken Harbor by Tana French

I deeply disliked this murder mystery set in a suburb of Dublin, modern day. I am a huge fan of her last book Faithful Place because the murder mystery was compelling but the personal story of tragedy and the search for happiness and redemption for the main character resonated and touched me deeply. In this latest novel, the murder is horrific and the tragedy of its circumstances just goes on and on, from start to finish, without relief.

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

I absolutely loved every page of this sequel to Discovery of Witches. It has time travel, romance, historical and literary references galore. Most importantly it continues the theme of the inviolability of true love (the kind of love that respects one another, protects one another and upholds and supports the dreams of one another) and our duty to protect it wherever that kind of love is found. I cannot wait for the final book of this trilogy!

Diamond in the Rough: A Memoir by Shawn Colvin

She’s one of my favorite songwriters ever, but she didn’t write a very good book. She almost seems abashed, as if she doesn’t feel her life story is worth a book. Therefore she speeds through each event and never really engages you, as if she’s trying to tell the story really quick before she loses her audience. I didn’t really find the person who wrote my favorite song “I Don’t Know Why” in this book. It’s mainly a quick retelling of her life and a bunch of anecdotes about songwriting, romance, depression and the life of a touring musician.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

This seems to be the “must read” of the summer. It’s the story of a wife who disappears and it’s told from two perspectives: the husband as he deals with suspicion from everyone around him; and the wife, in the form of her diary left behind. It’s immediately engaging, you can’t put it down, and it’s a really good mystery. But I didn’t love it the way other people do. Even though I thought it was really good, I had a hard time finding someone to root for in the story. A bit like a Jonathan Franzen novel, it was just a little too reflective of real people and I can watch them any old time. And I’m really torn about the ending, but that’s a discussion we’ll have to have in the comments, with Spoiler Alerts attached.

Back to my reading chair. I’m in the middle of Dare Me by Megan Abbott with Gold by Chris Cleave on deck.

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Jul 9 2012

Summer Reading: The Age of Miracles

I love stories about the end of the world. Through movies and books I’ve learned there are so many ways the earth can fail. From asteroids to a virus to alien invasion to zombies, and frankly we could all use a little more preparedness.

And now comes The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. It begins with our protagonist, an insecure 11 year old, waking up in southern California in what seems to be present day. Except that the earth’s orbit is slowing which is triggering a chain of events which will slowly finish mankind for good.

If I had to guess I would say that I love disaster/post-apocalyptic/end of the world stories because they are actually at their core about community and survival. Which people are prepared, how people form communities, what we’re willing to do in order to save our species…all of this is endlessly fascinating to me. And ultimately why this book fell a little short. It all takes place through the eyes of a withdrawn junior higher. It doesn’t widen the lens much more than glimpses of the people on her street. And she’s not quite compelling enough to make it the grand escape I am looking for in this genre. In terms of people trying to survive the end of the world, I enjoyed last year’s offering Life As We Knew It far better.

– Jen

Jun 15 2012

Summer Reading Take 1

I just finished Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed.

It’s the memoir of a woman who goes through a traumatic loss in her life and it leads her to hike the mountain trail from southern California to the Columbia River (at the Oregon/Washington border)

It was a very easy read. Her narration is accessible and moves easily between her past pain (dealing mostly with a dysfunctional family life) and her present pain (the insanity of walking hundreds of miles with no training while carrying 50 pounds on your back.) She’s really likeable and honest and I felt hooked right away. The question of whether she will finish the trail is gripping all the way through.

I was really moved by her relationship with her mother and by the fast and deep friendships she formed on the trail. I do think the book is a little overrated. It has too much of the “what I came to learn about myself…” insights for my taste.( Although I’m sure those sections are exactly the reason Oprah chose this book to relaunch her book club.) When we endure, whether physically or emotionally, we learn about ourselves and the world. There is no doubt about that. I find it’s nearly impossible to communicate those insights without sounding vague or preachy or Deepak/eatpraylovish.

That said, I was inspired and entertained and would recommend it.


Jun 7 2012

My Summer Reading List

I’ll let you know my thoughts as I finish each one and maybe we can do a little online book club if you are into it!

Broken Harbor by Tana French (She’s written three books so far and each one was better than the last. I adored Faithful Place, so I can’t wait for this one.)

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (You know I can’t resist post-apocalyptic disaster novels.)

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness (the sequel to Discovery of Witches)

Diamond in the Rough by Shawn Colvin (a memoir by my favorite singer)

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed

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