Friday, March 29, 2013

The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress

The Friday Society
The Friday Society is about three young ladies who are assistants to rich, powerful, well known men.  There's Cora, lab assistant to an inventor; Nellie, assistant to a famous magician; and Michiko, a samurai trained assistant to a fighting instructor.  For one reason or another each of the three women were left on their own with no family and happen to meet these men who, with the exception of the magician, do not always appreciate the intelligence or work ethic of their faithful assistants. A chance meeting at a society gathering, a series of murders, and other strange happenings bring Cora, Nellie and Michiko together as they try to solve a mystery or two and save the city of London.

I picked up this book in part because I am participating in a challenge suggested by the online book club Literary Explorations (which I discovered through Goodreads).  The challenge is to get out of one's comfort zone and read books from a wide variety of genres over the course of 2013.  There are three challenge levels to choose from: easy (12 genres), hard (24 genres), and insane (36 genres).  I choose to do the hard challenge and one of the genres I must read is steampunk.

Intrigued by steampunk but not having read much in the genre before, I was really looking to The Friday Society and it did not disappoint.  It is not a perfect book.  While the three leading ladies were sharply drawn, most of the male characters blend into hard-to-distinguish caricatures.  The plot got lost in silliness at times and there were a few stretches where I thought the book should be shorter.  However, overall it was fun introduction to steampunk and it has definitely made me interested in continuing to explore the genre.  I'm not sure if The Friday Society is the beginning of a series but if it is I would read the next one.  I would especially recommend this book to any preteen/teen girl who wants to read about girls who are smart, strong and resourceful.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Sweet Tooth
As a child and college student, Serena Frome (rhymes with Plume) read anything and everything without discrimination.  For this reason alone I expected to adore this book.  She argues fervently that Jacqueline Susanne's Valley of the Dolls is as good as anything by Jane Austen.  (For the record, Valley of the Dolls is a pretty good book.)  An affair with an older man leads to Serena being recruited by MI5.  The job is less impressive than it sounds - it's the early seventies and (most) female agents are relegated to more or less secretarial work.  With Sweet Tooth, Serena gets to do a more than type and file.

Sweet Tooth is the code name of MI5's secret mission to fund writers with a certain world view.  It is propaganda but more subtle.  Serena's role in Sweet Tooth is mostly to be herself - a pretty girl who likes to read and who can talk about books with intelligence.  (Aside from getting her recruited by MI5, the older man with whom she had the affair took it upon himself to improve her literary taste such that they are more conventional.)  She poses as the representative of a charitable organization that is looking for writer to support and acts as a liaison between the writer and the foundation.  Tom Haley is the writer that Serena is assigned to.  Serena prepares for the mission by reading Haley's short stories and journalism.  She falls in love with the writing.  Then she falls in love with the writer.

I have to admit I was a little bored by Sweet Tooth.  The parts of the book about reading, writing and writers I loved.  I also enjoyed the description's of Haley's fiction.  In between the great passages about reading and writing there were long stretches where I was waiting for something to happen.  The other aspect of this book that bothered me was that although there is a female protagonist, much of this book seems to revolve around how other people (especially the men in Serena's life) steered her life in one direction or another.  First at her mother's insistence, she studies math at college even though she prefers English.  A long time reader of fiction, Serena's older lover molds her into a different kind of reader and thinker and chooses a career path for her.  And not to give anything away, but the end of Serena's Sweet Tooth mission is also due to men.  (This is not a spoiler -  In the opening paragraph Serena/Ian McEwan reveals that Sweet Tooth ends badly for Serena and her lover-writer.)  Very few decisions seem to be of Serena's own choosing and that was disappointing.

This is the second book by Ian McEwan that I've read, the first being Atonement.  I am not sure what I think or how I feel about his writing yet, I'll let you know after I've read more of his work.  One thing I can say, his books always give me pause and make me think long after I've turned the last page.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Where She Went by Gayle Forman

Where She Went
Loved this!  This is one of those books where I stayed up late reading it was so good.  It reminded me a little of the movie Before Sunrise where two people walk the streets of a city talking, small talk about unimportant things at first but eventually getting to the bigger, important conversations.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Where She Went is the sequel to If I Stay, also a great book.  One of the things I loved about If I Stay was the family, parents Kat and Danny, their teenage daughter Mia and younger son Teddy.  They are a family that gets along and where each was a well rounded, believable character.  The parents are not completely oblivious, the little brother is more than an annoying distraction, and Mia has more on her mind that boys and being popular.  Not that they don't have their quirks or that they don't fight, it is just that it is obvious that they care about each other.  They even like spending time together.  The parents even like Mia's boyfriend, Adam.

Adam and Mia were brought together by their shared passion for music.  He is a guitarist and songwriter on the verge of rock stardom.  She is an award winning cellist.  Both Adam and Mia are ambitious and realize that their future careers may take them to opposite ends of the country - Mia to Julliard in New York and Adam to Los Angeles - but that's a conversation they've decided to put off until for the moment, at least until Mia has graduated from high school.  Then an accident makes that conversation irrelevant.  One moment Mia and her family are enjoying a family outing, driving along Oregon's snowy streets; the next Mia is in the hospital.  In If I Stay Mia watches as doctors work on her damaged body.  As she watches medical staff and her family and friends come in and out of her hospital room, Mia debates whether to stay or let herself die.

Since there is a sequel you already know she decides to live.  Where She Went picks up the story three years later.  Mia is a budding start in the world of classical music.  Adam is living his rock star dream.  She seems to be doing okay, still dealing with the aftermath of the accident, but surviving, even thriving.  He is a mess, heartbroken, angry, depressed, and dependent on pills and cigarettes to get through the day.  While writing hit songs and playing to sold out crowds, Adam has been grieving the past three years.  Even though he was not involved in the accident, he lost a lot because of it.

Forman's writing is beautiful.  In less capable hands this would have been just another sad story about a pathetic loser who has nearly everything he ever dreamed of but is still unhappy.  In Forman's more than capable hands Adam's pain is visceral and understandable.  It feels real.  So is Mia's.  She made a decision that affected that them both.  At first her decision seems cruel, but her reasons are equally understandable (though it takes times before her reasons are revealed).  Both of Adam and Mia have suffered and are getting by as best they can.

I can't recommend this book enough.  The characters felt like real people.  It was emotional and compelling, hopeful but without the kind of ending where every problem is solved.  This is the second book I've read by Gayle Forman and I look forward to reading more.

Also recommended, If I Stay
If I Stay