Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

fpo  For starters, let me say that it is difficult to talk about this book without revealing anything. So if you don't want to know anything about this book, stop here.

Heart-wrenching, frustrating, beautiful, disturbing - Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life is all those things and more. It is a novel about friendship, abuse, survival, adulthood, and love in its various forms - romantic, friendly, familial, self-love. Four young men meet in college and become friends for life. JP, an aspiring artist, is the most ambitious and arguably the most self-involved. Malcolm, an aspiring architect, is perhaps the most confused and uptight. Willem, an aspiring actor, is the most kindhearted. Jude is sad and mysterious. He doesn't talk about his past, not even how he he came to have a limp. His friends suspect something terrible happened in Jude's childhood. They have no idea what. It ends up being worse than they could have imagined, than I imagined. There were a couple times when I had to put this book down and walk away.

Notwithstanding the very disturbing parts of this story, I'm so glad I read this. The writing is beautiful. Each character is thoroughly and richly drawn, even the secondary characters. Without being judgmental or overly simplistic, Yanagihara slyly comments on race, money, success, and relationships. A Little Life is partly a series of in-depth character studies and partly a social commentary, all wrapped up in a compelling piece of fiction. I can't recommend this highly enough (but with caution for those with trigger concerns).

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Bone Crossed by Patricia Briggs

fpo  Bone Crossed, the fourth book in the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs, picks up not too long after the events in Iron Kissed. Mercy is still shaken by what happened. She and Adam are taking tentative steps toward a relationship. Just as things are starting to get back to normal, a new set of problems pops up. Marsilia, the local vampire queen, has learned what Mercy did in Iron Kissed and she is not happy. Mercy may be prepared to accept whatever Marsilia has planned for her, but Mercy is not about to stand around while her friends suffer at the hands of Marsilia for her actions. In other news, Mercy inadvertently draws the attention of another vampire after being recruited to do some ghost hunting. There is never a dull day in the life of Mercy Thompson, that's for sure.

Mercy has always been different. Even in a world where werewolves, vampires, witches, and fae exists, Mercy is unusual. She is a walker. As a walker she can turn into a coyote, but there's so much more to it than that. Unfortunately since she is the only walker in existence as far as anyone knows, Mercy doesn't quite know the extent of her abilities, just that magic often has a different effect on her that it does on others. In Bone Crossed Mercy learns a little more about her abilities as a walker. While learning more about being a walker, Mercy has to deal with one vampire she considers a friend, two who are most definitely not, and a pack of werewolves, several of whom are none too happy at the prospect of their alpha dating a coyote. Fortunately, Mercy is not to back down from a challenge.

I have said it before, and I'll say it again, I am loving this series. Briggs is quickly becoming one of my favorite paranormal writers. All of her characters are so vividly drawn. The plotting is action packed. She even manages to touch on real world problems without it feeling forced or out of place. Can't wait for the next one.

Fifty Shades of Grey E L James

fpo  I resisted the pull of E L James's Fifty Shades trilogy for several years. The fact that it began as Twilight fan faction was a big reason for my aversion. To be clear, I read Twilight, all four books, and enjoyed reading them while at same time recognizing the many, many flaws contained within those four hefty volumes. The thing is, despite the repetitive writing, the sparkling vampires, and the at times disturbing nature of Bella and Edward's relationship, I wanted to know what happened next. So when Fifty Shades of Grey came out I said no because I didn't want to get pulled into another questionable, quasi-romantic trilogy about a young woman with a tendency to find herself in need of rescue and a controlling man.

Although I had not read Fifty, I did enjoy reading the reviews and criticisms of the trilogy. This series has inspired some truly great reviews. I half wanted to be able to participate more fully in the discussion surrounding the series, but kept finding a dozen other things to read instead. Then came the movie, which was unexpectedly funny. Favorite scene - Ana's phone call to Christian outside the bar. But I wasn't sure if it the comedy was intentional. I decided it was time to read the source material and find out what the fuss was all about.

As luck would have it, my mom had bought the audio version of the book a few months earlier, but she couldn't get through it. So she gave it to me. I couldn't get through the audio book either. This was partly due, no doubt, to my general apathy towards audio books. (Yes I know millions of people love audio books. I am not one of them. Not that I am unwilling to try again, perhaps something non-fiction.) The woman reading the audio was fine, but I kept wanting to speed through the slow parts but there is no way to do that with an audio book that I know of. I made it through one CD before giving up and checking out the paperback from the library.

Now I was prepared for repetitive writing about how cute Christian Grey was (inspired by Twilight remember). I was prepared for inner goddesses, the red room of pain, and sex that was always orgasmic and fantastic (even Ana's first time). What I wasn't prepared for was boredom. I'm all for trashy romance and erotica, so long as its hot. I'm all for books that offer little more than mindless fun, laughter, and pleasure. Fifty Shades of Grey gave me none of that. There are a few passages in the book that are funny, even warm but not enough to justify 500 plus pages. I was so bored with Fifty that I began and finished four other books before I finished this one. I remember after finishing a book in the Twilight series and thinking something along the lines of, "badly written, needed a better editor but can't wait to read the next one." There is no worry about that happening with this series. I will probably watch the next movie, but won't read the next book.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis

fpo  Wow, Rainey Royal, not even sure where to start with this. It's 1970s New York. Rainey is a fourteen-year-old girl struggling to find her own identity against the backdrop of puberty, art, sexual assault, and friendship. Her biggest obstacle might be a horrible parents. Rainey's mother has abandoned her daughter to go live in an ashram in Colorado. Rainey's father, a famous jazz musician, is more concerned about the fawning students he brings into the house (to do much more than study music) than he is about the physical and emotional safety of his child. Despite careless parents and other harmful adults, Rainey shines. She is beautiful and artistic. She is also rebellious, trouble-making, and sometimes cruel. People are drawn to her and she uses that, not always for good.

Rainey Royal was a quick read. It was also raw and heart-wrenching at times. It started off on a shiny and bright and then dimmed a little towards the end. This was mostly because the perspective shifts from Rainey from those of her friends in the later stories. (Rainey Royal is a novel told through a series of short stories.) We get to see a different perspective of Rainey through her friends, but frankly their adoring takes just aren't as interesting as Rainey's own perspective.

I have to mention how I came across this book because I think it symbolizes the pull Rainey herself has. I was walking through the bookstore, just browsing because I needed a walk and more often than not a walk through my neighborhood leads to a stop at the bookstore. I picked up a lot of books and put them down again, because I had just ordered a couple books and my credit card needed a rest. I picked up this book and put it down, like all the others. The next day at work I couldn't stop thinking about this but couldn't remember the title or the author just that it was the "L" section because I had been looking for another book by an author whose name started with the letter "L". I entered dozens of search terms into Google and other databases trying to identify a book about the daughter of a jazz singer in 1970s New York who has a sketchy best friend. Several hours later I finally found Rainey Royal. Something about this book just wouldn't let me walk away.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

If You Feel Too Much by Jamie Tworkowski

If You Feel Too Much: Thoughts on Things Found and Lost and Hoped For   If You Feel Too Much is a collection of writings by Jamie Tworkowski. The blurb on the back of the book talks about a story Tworkowski wrote called To Write Love on Her Arms about helping a friend battling drug addiction and other issues. That story led to Tworkowski founding a non-profit organization called To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA), an organization I had never heard of until I picked up this book. Not entirely sure what the organization does other than generally promoting hope and love and encouraging people struggling with addiction, depression, suicide, and self-injury to get help. In any case, it was that story that drew me to this book.

It is difficult to explain exactly what this book is, but I'll give it a shot. It is a non-fiction collection of essays, many of which (I think) began as blog posts. Some are really personal and seem like they could have been journal entries. Though the book is divided into chronological sections, I wouldn't call it a memoir. It is author writing about an isolated event or something/someone he saw/spoke to/ heard and then writing about how he felt about it. Ultimately all of that connects to TWLOHA's general message about the importance of mental health, connection to other people, and all the rest. It isn't a religious book though the author talks about God in a "there is something bigger than us out there" kind of way. I found this book on a display table dedicated to recent releases by Penguin at my local B&N. I wonder where it would be shelved normally. In the religious inspiration section? Self-help and addiction?

Books like always leave me a little bit hopeful and a little bit sad. Hopeful in that it is an encouragement to keep trying and keep hoping in the face of life’s disappointments and depressions, and further that there are others going through the same thing. But also sad because it is a reminder of just how hard life is.

A Few Quotes That I Love:

For the next five days, she is ours to love. (pg. 19)

From the story that led to the organization (TWLOHA)…when a girl is rejected by a rehab clinic because she is currently high, Tworkowski and friends stay with her for the next five days until she is clean enough to go to rehab. “She is ours to love” is such a beautiful and selfless way to characterize the situation, as if it were a gift to spend five days watching and making sure the girl didn’t do any more drugs or other harm to herself, like she was doing them a favor. People often say "happy to help." I often say that. This sentence sounds like Tworkowski and friends really were.

...he takes a knee on the Brooklyn Bridge, asks her for forever. (pg. 47)

Don't have to explain this one.

He would show her patience and kindness, wanted her to feel seen and known, appreciated and beautiful. His dream became to love her, and to be loved by her. (pg. 57)

For the romantic…what a beautiful and kind way to describe love. There is a book I have of everyday women talking about sex and love and the interview that always stood out to me was a woman who said her greatest wish was to be really known. I had never heard it phrased like that before but immediately felt it to be true. This quote reminds of that.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Which Brings Me to You by Steve Almond & Julianna Baggott

fpo  They met at a wedding. His friend, her great aunt's brother-in-law's sister's daughter. There was flirty banter, a not-dead cat, and groping in the coat check room. Before the coatroom hookup was completed, they pulled back with the realization that there was potential there, potential worth not ruining with sex under strangers' coats in a closet whose door could be opened at any moment. He proposes that they get to know each other. They live in different cities so he suggests they write letters to one one another. No emails, snail mail only. The deal is they will confess to one another. She agrees but secretly thinks she'll never hear from him again. The she gets his first letter.

I didn't want to be rich. What I wanted was the sense of ease I imagined rich kids possessed, of being able to relax, not having to try so hard all the time. I wanted to be loved, of course, but more than that I wanted to be able to receive love.

The podcast Dear Sugar has been around for ages, first as an advice column and then as an advice podcast, but it only came across my radar relatively recently. I listen to a lot of podcasts. This show quickly rose to the top of the pile. Each episode is a little treasure for my ears and my heart. Rather than deleting an episode after listening as I do with most episodes of a podcast, I'm saving them so I can hear it all again. After listening to ten or so episodes I started to wonder about these advice givers who were so full of empathy and handled every letter with such care. I knew both were writers and so looked up what they had written. I knew about Cheryl Strayed's Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things, in fact that was how I found my way to Dear Sugar, but hadn't read anything by her partner on the podcast, Steve Almond. Of the books attributed to Almond Which Brings Me to You, a story told through a correspondence of the confessional sort, sounded the most intriguing. It did not disappoint.

I love this concept and its execution. It was raw and emotional. John and Jane share their first loves, family baggage, and personal failings, romantic and otherwise, through letters and the occasional postcard. It's a different kind of love story. We don't see much of John and Jane together with each other. Instead we get a snapshot of how they got to that moment in the coat check room.

There was a certain unreal quality to this novel. Seriously, who would confess their deepest secrets in writing to a stranger on the edge of one's social circle, and even if one did such thing, who could do so with such articulation and adroitness on a consistent and continual basis? Still, however improbable such a letter writing campaign might be the emotional impact was real. With letters about first loves with first boyfriends/girlfriends, lovers that changed the characters and their world, broken hearts, and people John and Jane should have been nicer to, who couldn't relate to this, at least some of it?

Definitely a good read.