Monday, May 27, 2013

Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire (2012)

That old adage, don't judge a book by its cover came true again - literally. I picked this book up, because I liked the cover. (Maybe I will explore this again sometime. When I had a bookstore, all the horror books had black covers with dripping red or purple letters. The romances too could be classified by their covers. Westerns had a certain style, so did science fiction and fantasy. I am sure the publishing industry puts a lot of thought into the type of customer they want to draw in with their cover.) I read the blurb and thought I was up for a contemporary book about college age kids. But it disappointed in so many ways. I will write what I thought and then look at what other people have said.

The opening chapter was good. She - Abby - gets drawn into a basement where there is an illegal fight going on. He - Travis - is one of the fighters, the reigning champ of Eastern University from some Midwest state not too far from Wichita, Kansas. The story is basically a romance with the usual push - pull. He isn't the type of guy she wants tatoos and all, she is getting away from some past and he reminds her of that too much. He doesn't want any woman - he sleeps with them but doesn't call or date. She has a best friend America, who is going out with his roommate and cousin. He talks her into a bet she loses, and ends up having to live with him for a month - just friends. But then it gets frustrating as they work things out. Maybe things have totally changed since I was in college, but since when are freshman looking for the one and only? Sure, people are looking for relationships, learning in them, but rarely do they end up forever. (OK, so my best friend in college was an exception, but they started in high school, and did some soul searching before they realized they really are meant to be together and still are.) I had a hard time with the college life depicted. Everyone meeting for lunch in the cafeteria every day, like in high school, sitting in clicks? With everyone watching what everyone else is doing? Maybe that happens in small schools, but it seemed so immature.

Then there was the physical fighting. Not my favorite thing, but I could get there being impromptu fights called together through cell phones like a flash mob, with bets going on, where everyone keeps mum, but there was some major fighting outside these situations, that never seemed to draw the attention of authorities. Maybe it is literary license, like Clint Eastwood movies, or the norm in that part of the country, but my sense is that any fight, especially if someone is injured, gets the attention of the police or campus safety. That seemed to barely graze the consciousness of the characters, especially in the last fight when a lot of people were injured. No way that would have gone unnoticed.

I was going to give up on this book early on, but since I have dropped a few books recently, I decided to stick with it and see if there was anything redeeming about it. It did get exciting about three quarters of the way through, when we get a glimpse into Abby's past, as she is forced to play her former role as an expert gambler. Now this I found interesting, but it was over way too soon. I wanted to know more about this life, how her friend America had gotten to be her sidekick at times like these, why Travis was not more impressed with her skills, more about her mother other than a brief mention. When Abby broke up with Travis, because he did not understand some aspects of her past, I never felt that he got it in the end. I do get that they were both broken in some way and in that way worked together, but I have a hard time understanding the "forever" sentiments at that age.

When looking for the book covers, I look at reviews. Of course, I must be getting old or way off mainstream, because this book got some sort of romance of the year award. I actually like Amazon personal reviews, there one reviewer that said it better than I: "the relationship was so raw and emotional that the rollercoaster that was their relationship became quite stressful. By the end of the book I just wanted them to stop fighting!" Though she did point out that the ups and downs in their relationship were more like real relationships than in many books. OK, I'll give it that.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier (2013)

Tracy Chevalier is one of the authors I will continue to pick up, no matter what she has written, and she did not disappoint. I can't explain why, but this is the type of historical novels I really like. I could not say why Ian McEwan just didn't grab me as Chevalier does. 

I understand this is the first time she has written about American history, having an English girl Honor Bright (what a great name for a Quaker heroine to have) come to the US with her sister, only to find herself all alone in Ohio with a community of Quaker "friends" as they call themselves, where she does not really fit in. Her one true friend in Ohio is Bell, a whiskey drinking milliner woman who's brother catches runaway slaves, and keeps eying Honor.

I like filling in my knowledge of history with stories that help me understand details, how towns evolved, how the underground railroad worked as far north as Ohio. Having lived in Ohio for six years, I could relate to the descriptions of nature and places. I have had friends say they have attended Quaker meetings, but I learned more about their beliefs and practices through this story. But my favorite detail was about quilting. Honor was a great quilter, and she worked patchwork quilts rather than the applique quilts favored in the town she landed. She saved scraps of cloth from people important to her life to incorporate into her quilts. Of course I always like strong women who think for themselves, so it was a pleasure to watch this shy little girl from a thousand year old town in England blossom into a woman and an American who accepts change and its challenges.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Atonement by Ian McEwan (2002)

This book in my favorite historical fiction genre did not really grab me until the very end, when I felt its
power. It is divided into three parts with an epilogue of sorts, though having listened to it, I couldn't quite figure out how it was labeled.

We start in 1935 with a detailed description of just a few days in 1935, where we see the well off Tallis family - 13 year old Briney, who wants to put on a play with her newly arrived cousins, her older sister Cecelia and older brother Leon. Mother Emily suffers from constant migranes and spends most of her time in bed. Father Jack is busy at work and doesn't always come home. Robby is the son of their housekeeper and is in love with Cecelia. I know kids are imaginative, and I too remember having flights of fancy, though I don't recall details of the topics of my thoughts, but it was hard reading about the over active imagination of Briney and her misinterpretation of what she sees that ends up affecting other lives.

The second part takes us to France during 1940 and the British retreat to Dunkirk, where the story is told mostly from Robby's point of view. This is a glimpse into the harsh realities of that war. As much as I dislike hearing these stories, we must keep telling them and hearing them, as only then we have any chance of having the motivation to prevent future wars. My friends in Facebook are currently discussing the atrocities of WWII done to women, and how little we know of those, as our parents would not talk of such things.

The third part of the book also takes place in 1940, but this time in London, following Cecelia and Briney, who saw the horrors of the war in their work as nurses in the hospitals. I was struck by the details such as preparing for bomb attacks - fortifying walls, doors, windows and roofs. I had heard of blackening out all light, so enemy planes could not find you, but I just can't imagine what that would be like. I am uncomfortable when we have a power outage and I drive through completely dark neighborhoods.

The epilogue shows us Briney for a few days in one of the last years of her life. Her acerbic wit comes through and pulls the whole story together. It is only when I realized what her atonement was, that I was struck by the skill of Ian McEwan as an author. I just may need to read some of his other work and see the movie version of this book.

I just realized this is my 500th post. Not bad for 8 years of book reading.