Thursday, July 10, 2014

Astonish Me - Maggie Shipstead

Astonish Me is the irresistible story of Joan, a young American dancer who helps a Soviet ballet star, the great Arslan Rusakov, defect in 1975. A flash of fame and a passionate love affair follow, but Joan knows that, onstage and off, she is destined to remain in the background. She will never possess Arslan, and she will never be a prima ballerina. She will rise no higher than the corps, one dancer among many.After her relationship with Arslan sours, Joan plots to make a new life for herself. She quits ballet, marries a good man, and settles in California with him and their son, Harry. But as the years pass, Joan comes to understand that ballet isn't finished with her yet, for there is no mistaking that Harry is a prodigy. Through Harry, Joan is pulled back into a world she thought she'd left behind - back into dangerous secrets, and back, inevitably, to Arslan
Received an ARC via Harper Collins

At first I was hesitant to read this second book by Maggie Shipstead, because I wasn't a big fan of her first book - Seating Arrangements. But I was pleasantly surprised how this book captured my attention right from the start.  I have a feeling the main theme - ballet - was more interesting than a wedding weekend - which is the focus of her first book.  Also I could relate a bit more to the characters in Astonish Me than Seating Arrangements.

The book does flash back in time as the present day story moves forward.  As a reader, you don't learn about Arslan's journey until halfway through the book.  Joan also is not the typical mother who might push her son towards the same experiences that she had as a child. She does strive to be the best mother she can for her son, even if that means memories from her past have to be revealed.

Maggie Shipstead weaves these characters together as she points out that sometimes your past is hard to leave behind in order to move forward.  

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The UnAmericans - Molly Antopol

In this auspicious debut, Molly Antopol cuts a wide swath through the fabric of time and place, exploring people from different cultures who are all painfully human in their joys, desires, tragedies, and heartaches. An actor, phased out of Hollywood for his Communist ties during McCarthyism, tries to share a meaningful moment with his son. An Israeli soldier comes of age when his brother is maimed on their communal farm. A gallerist, swept up by the 1970s dissident art movement, begins smuggling paintings out of Moscow and curating underground shows in her Jerusalem home. This is a rare collection as accomplished at capturing our soaring triumphs as it is our crippling defeats--a hopeful reminder that we are all closer and more capable than we sometimes feel.
The premise of this book was really fascinating to me and Antopol was recognized as a writer to watch.  What I didn't realize until I started to read this book, that the book was a collection of short stories.  These stories all have a shared theme of an immigrant making their way in a new country, but the stories don't relate to each other.  At times, it was hard to switch and relate to new characters every 10 pages or so.

That aside, Antopol captures the immigrant and even second-generation immigrant life really well.  Each story ends with a small twist that usually I didn't see coming. The prose is just beautifully written and draws the reader in.  I highly recommend this book!

Visitation Street - Ivy Pochoda

Summer in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a blue collar neighborhood where hipster gourmet supermarkets push against tired housing projects, and the East River opens into the bay. Bored and listless, fifteen-year-old June and Val are looking for some fun. Forget the boys, the bottles, the coded whistles. Val wants to do something wild and a little crazy: take a raft out onto the bay. But out on the water, as the bright light of day gives way to darkness, the girls disappear. Only Val will survive, washed ashore semi-conscious in the weeds. June's shocking disappearance will reverberate in the lives of a diverse cast of Red Hook residents. Fadi, the Lebanese bodega owner, trolls for information about the crime. Cree, just beginning to pull it together after his father's murder, unwittingly makes himself the chief suspect although an elusive guardian seems to have other plans for him. As Val emerges from the shadow of her missing friend, her teacher Jonathan, Julliard drop-out and barfly, will be forced to confront a past riddled with tragic sins of omission.

This book reminded me a lot of Let the Great World Spin- all the different story lines and characters end up coming together into one story at the end.  Pochoda captures the Red Hook neighborhood well and how that neighborhood adapts and changes with the potential of economic development.  

The relationship between Jonathan and Val felt strained to me and wasn't expected.  Pochoda weaves together characters from different parts of the neighborhood and allows them to grow and change because of these relationships.  Fadi and Cree are two examples of characters that grow by the end of the book because of the new relationships they make.  

Underneath the neighborhood changing and the new relationships, there is a simple mystery about what happened to Val and June.  The reader doesn't learn what happens until near the very end, but the mystery doesn't disappear from the first chapter to the last chapter. 

The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion

An international sensation, this hilarious, feel-good novel is narrated by an oddly charming and socially challenged genetics professor on an unusual quest: to find out if he is capable of true love. Don Tillman, professor of genetics, has never been on a second date. He is a man who can count all his friends on the fingers of one hand, whose lifelong difficulty with social rituals has convinced him that he is simply not wired for romance. So when an acquaintance informs him that he would make a “wonderful” husband, his first reaction is shock. Yet he must concede to the statistical probability that there is someone for everyone, and he embarks upon The Wife Project. In the orderly, evidence-based manner with which he approaches all things, Don sets out to find the perfect partner. She will be punctual and logical—most definitely not a barmaid, a smoker, a drinker, or a late-arriver. Yet Rosie Jarman is all these things. She is also beguiling, fiery, intelligent—and on a quest of her own. She is looking for her biological father, a search that a certain DNA expert might be able to help her with. Don's Wife Project takes a back burner to the Father Project and an unlikely relationship blooms, forcing the scientifically minded geneticist to confront the spontaneous whirlwind that is Rosie—and the realization that love is not always what looks good on paper.
This book definitely grew on me as I read more and more.  The main narrator is quirky and has an interesting outlook on life, but underneath is just a regular guy wanting some companionship.  I could definitely see this book being turned into a romantic comedy movie.  

Simsion captures true humility in the relationships within this book. He challenges the readers to look at their own relationships and see why we are friends or lovers or partners with other people. While science and math are themes in this book, Don must learn to trust his instincts in order to grow and blossom in his relationship with Rosie. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Lost Sisterhood - Anne Fortier

The Lost Sisterhood tells the story of Diana, a young and aspiring--but somewhat aimless--professor at Oxford. Her fascination with the history of the Amazons, the legendary warrior women of ancient Greece, is deeply connected with her own family's history; her grandmother in particular. When Diana is invited to consult on an archeological excavation, she quickly realizes that here, finally, may be the proof that the Amazons were real. The Amazons' "true" story--and Diana's history--is threaded along with this modern day hunt. This historical back-story focuses on a group of women, and more specifically on two sisters, whose fight to survive takes us through ancient Athens and to Troy, where the novel reinvents our perspective on the famous Trojan War.
Received an e-galley from Ballentine 

I read Fortier's Juliet pretty much in one day at the beach, so I was looking forward to seeing how she  captured the same intensity with the Amazons.  I wasn't disappointed.  I was drawn into the mystery of the story right away.  While I had some knowledge of Greek mythology and the Amazons, I found myself learning more about that civilization.

Readers looking for a romance along with a good mystery will enjoy this book.  The main characters definitely have a romantic comedy relationship (on again off again) for most of the book.  At times, I did wish Diana would be a bit stronger and thoughtful about her actions.  She did grow from a bookworm type professor into a confident and well published professor by the end of the book.

The style of the book goes between the present day and the past story. This back and forth didn't happen every chapter which sometimes confused me.  Also in the last quarter of the book, there is less past story and more present. I found myself wanting to read more about the past heroine than Diana.

Fortier delivers another strong novel with twists, turns and romance all wrapped into one.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White

An affectionate pig named Wilbur befriends a spider named Charlotte, who lives in the rafters above his pen. In this story of friendship, hardship, and the passing on into time, White reminds readers to open their eyes to the wonder and miracle found in the simplest of things.
February Book Club

It was my turn to host book club this past month and I choose Charlotte's Web for the book. We've been reading our favorite books from our childhood.  I remember reading this book and feeling sad for Charlotte.

Rereading the book as an adult, I was struck by the amount of vocab words and turns of phrases that are prevelant throughout the prose. We discussed at book club how by the end of the book Fern is not really mentioned anymore.  Friendship is a key theme throughout this book and it is interesting how Wilbur's friendship with Fern is different than his friendship with Charlotte.

I found a nice appreciation of E.B. White when searching for discussion questions.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Fever by Megan Abbott

The Nash family is close-knit. Tom is a popular teacher, father of two teens: Eli, a hocky star and girl magnet, and his sister Deenie, a diligent student. Their seeming stability, however, is thrown into chaos when Deenie's best friend is struck by a terrifying, unexplained seizure in class. Rumors of a hazardous outbreak spread through the family, school and community. As hysteria and contagion swell, a series of tightly held secrets emerges, threatening to unravel friendships, families and the town's fragile idea of security. 

Read an e-galley from Little Brown

I haven't read any other books by Abbott, but something about this description and the cover of this book drew me in.  As a mysterious illness slowly starts to impact a high school class, everyone is questioning will I be next? Abbott tells the story from each character's perspective.  The confusion, the uncertainty, the gossip, the social media impact is spot on.  It's easy for the reader to relate with either the students or the parents or just as someone in the community.  I could see this book adapted into a long CSI episode - all the elements can be found.  There is even a little science fiction/fantasy element to this book.  A few times I got the chills from reading a passage here and there.  In the end the root cause is because of basic human emotions.  High school never changes when it comes to girls who like boys and boys who like girls.