Thursday, February 11, 2016

Vacation Reading

Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt
Eighteen years ago, Wayne and Kelly Maines got a call from a cousin, telling them that she needed a good couple to adopt the twins she was carrying.  After years of infertility, the answer was a resounding "Yes!"  The complete reconstruction of their concept of what it is to be a family, and what it is to be a specific gender, takes place over the next years of their lives.  Author Amy Nutt does a spectacular job of staying out of the story, telling the narrative as an objective observer, and beginning each new section with physiological and psychological research into gender identity.  As the Maines' story unfolds, we see an ex-military, conservative father grapple with the ideas of what makes a boy a boy, and vice versa.  We see bullying in the school that erupts in a fight taken all the way to the state legislature.  We see friends who rally around Wyatt, who becomes Nicole, and we hear from his brother, Jonas, who says he has always known he had a sister and not a brother.  And we see their mother Kelly, who fights for the civil rights of her daughter, and teaches not only her husband, but her community, of what it means to become who one was born to be.  This is an inspirational, thoughtful book full of so much healthy learning - definitely a five star read.

The Good Goodbye  by Carla Buckley
I loved Buckley's previous novel, The Things that Keep Us Here, the far-too-real tale of a worldwide bird flu pandemic, a precursor to Station Eleven that I actually found more realistic.  The Good Goodbye is a worthy follow up.  It is a story of two families that send that daughters off to college, thinking they know everything about their lives...but do they?  Do any of us know what happens in the world of the constantly connected, tuned in, tech-savvy teens?  We see these two families at the hospital bedsides of their daughters/cousins after a terrible dormitory fire, and as Buckley takes us in and out of the past, we begin to piece together the puzzle of how their girls got to this place.  The parents are not altogether lovable, each with some unpleasant sides to them, as well as some redeeming qualities.  These are complex folks and I was constantly wondering who done what?? This is a great beach book - fast reading, gripping story, and a mystery that keeps you guessing to the end.  Solid effort by a good author.  It's getting a lot of buzz out in the publishing world - could be a nice little hit for Buckley.

The  Banks of Certain Rivers by Jon Harrison
A debut novel by new writer Jon Harrison, I am sad that this book has stayed on the periphery of the publishing world.  It is a fantastic read:  well-written with a complex story line that is both familiar yet new; richly drawn characters that you both want to cheer for and choke at times; and a fresh, honest voice that looks deeply into family relationships and how we deal with the 'ordinary' tragedies of life.  Teacher/administrator Neil Kazanzakis had it all - his childhood sweetheart as his wife, a job coaching cross country and teaching at a small port town on Lake Michigan, and a close relationship with his fourteen year old son.  Fast forward four years and his wife is in a permanent vegetative state, Neil is being accused of physically abusing a student, and his secret affair with a nurse is about to be put on public display.  Yup, it sounds like a big soap opera...but it does not read that way.  As we watch the student's story unfold, we slowly see the trap set for Neil by YouTube and public perception.  We feel his son's pain as he visits his mother weekly, and we watch Neil's relationships unravel one by one, as he desperately tries to hang on to his life.  To paraphrase one reviewer on this book, "I would not change a thing about this story."  I felt the same way.  The story was masterfully told; I hope that others discover this jewel of a book.

The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer
Belinda Bauer is a very popular British writer with a string of thriller/mysteries set in England.  After reading just one book, I am a fan.  The plot begins in a small town outside London, in a mechanic's garage where Anna Buck sits daily, cleaning the footsteps frozen in the cement of the garage...the last known trace of her five-year-old son who went missing four months ago.  In the depths of crippling depression, Anna decides to consult a psychic, coincidentally the same psychic who failed miserably to help Detective Marvel find Edie, a missing freckled-faced twelve year old girl.  As the stories begin to tangle themselves together, not only do the characters begin to question the presence of the 'shut eye,' the ability to see beyond what is known, but so do we the readers. Questions revolve around everyone:  Is Anna insane or can she see into the beyond? Does Detective Marvel have the ability to solve the case, or is he just a misogynistic ass? Can Anna's husband see past her problems and find his boy?  This mystery will keep you guessing until the end, guaranteed.

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
This was one of those books that 'everyone' was reading, so of course who wants to be a lemming and follow that crowd?  Perhaps they were right, however - it's a darn good read!  The best part of the book is the main character, Ani FaNelli - geez, just look at that name again - it's priceless.  And so is Ani (aka TiFFani) - she is what I would call a 'piece of work.' Currently engaged to a wealthy scion of New York society, employed as a 'sex' writer at a brainless fashion magazine, and permanently committed to starving herself to death to fit into a size two, Ani is a character you can easily hate.  However, she's also wickedly funny, brutally honest in her self-reflection, and has a few interesting ghosts in her past.  In fact, she has a whole closet-full in her past.  As Ani prepares for both her wedding, and a big television interview, we start to see glimpses of her past: a previous English teacher now back in her life, a nosy reporter who wants all the dirt on what really happened at the nationally -famous 'incident' at her preppy college-prep high school, and the loyalty of her quirky best friend.  As author Knolls unravels Ani's past, we start to question our earlier perceptions of Ani...hmmm, is she really a wicked bitch or a survivor?  This is a roller coaster ride of a book - read it before the movie comes out:)

Descent by Tim Johnston
Having been on the PNW bestseller list for a number of weeks, I figured it was my 'job' to read and review it. I would suggest not listening to it.  That is what I did, and it read 'slower' I think because of that.  Johnston's writing is beautiful, with incredible description of the Colorado mountains, and I would have enjoyed actually seeing the writing.  It is a strong story of a family who becomes unraveled and how they their way back to a new reality.  Told from a variety of perspectives, we see the Courtland family as they first arrive at their motel in the Colorado mountain resort, and the phone call the parents get when their son is found badly injured at the side of the road. No sign lis eft of their 18 year old daughter, off for a training run with her brother on his bike.  As the next two years play out, we see the father, Grant, as he refuses to leave the Colorado town, the roots he puts down as he continuously searches for his daughter, and both the friends and enemies he makes.  We see his son, Sean who quits school and lives on the road, trying to run away from the guilt of surviving that fateful day.  The mother, Angela, flits in and out of a mental hospital back home in Wisconsin, attempting to regain her teaching career, yet failing each month.  And then we hear from Caitlin, the daughter trapped on a mountain side with a monster.  As Johnston plays this story out, he chooses not to follow the cookie cutter pattern of plot development, and gives us unexpected twists and turns, with a good dose of reality as well.  This is a thought-provoking story, that delves into the psychology of a survivor, the criminal mind, and the make-up of what makes a family.

Shadow and Bone trilogy by Leigh Bardugo
If you are adamantly opposed to fantasy, stop reading.  However, if you have an open mind to trying new genres or you do like a bit of fantastical adventure, you might want to continue on.  I have come to a personal epiphany about 'fantasy,' that in the past I would say I didn't like.  However, I grew up on the Oz books, and then dove deeply into Harry Potter with my two daughters.  It occurred to me that yes, I must obviously like a little magic and fantasy.  When an author takes a place I recognize, in the case of Shadow and Bone Russia and its neighbors, and then throws in some magical heroes and villains, I am hooked.  In this case, Leigh Bardugo (Six of Crows - one of my 2015 favs), has created a fantastic female hero in Alina, the poor, not particularly attractive orphaned peasant girl, who has no idea she is a Grisha.  What is a Grisha, you may ask?  It is a person born with distinct magical abilities:  Heartrenders can stop your heart (problematic if they're your enemy);  Fabricators can make anything, and I mean anything; Inferni can create fire, Tidekeepers have that whole water thing down, and the ones that can summon the wind can keep a flying boat afloat.  Alina's little gift...she can summon the Sun - not bad.  The Darkling, the resident bad guy, of course wants her power and goes to fairly treacherous lengths to align with her.  However, Alina makes some powerful friends, and her loyal childhood friend, Mal, will never leave her.  Bardugo is just a fantastic storyteller, seriously.  She spins a book, or three, that are impossible to put down - exciting, at times terrifying, funny, romantic, and yes...fantastical.  Try it - you may be surprised:)

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