Book chat: ‘The Hopefuls’ by Jennifer Close

the-hopefulsBeth can’t say she entered into her marriage with Matt ignorant of his political aspirations. But when her husband relocates them to Washington, D.C., as part of his work for President Obama, the tedious, seedy and, yes, often dull side of politics takes over her day-to-day life.

A friendship with Ash, a Texan also in the city due to her husband’s presidential connections, adds levity and companionship to Beth’s life — but Ash’s husband, Jimmy, has political goals of his own. When Matt and Jimmy become entangled in “turning Texas blue” as part of Jimmy’s campaign to earn a spot in local government, jealousy and indignation threaten to derail more than just their friendship.

Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls caught my eye because, hello, I adore the cover. I’m also a Marylander who lives within breathing distance of Washington and am always swept up in politics, both local and national, and I’ll admit to being a bit wistful regarding the halcyon days of the Obama Administration. The story opens at the start of his first term, and it was actually bittersweet — especially given the current state of affairs — to think about how different life was then.

The Hopefuls had my attention early, gaining good ground even with the constant digs against D.C. (yes, it’s hot and humid; yes, everyone here talks about their job as a way of gaining status), but my enthusiasm for the story flagged by the time Matt and Beth departed for Texas to help with a weirdly unattainable political campaign put on by Jimmy.

Told from Beth’s first-person perspective, I expected … more of Beth in this story? As it stands, she’s merely an observer — and not a terribly interesting one at that. Though we’re told she’s a writer, she spends her time in Texas complaining and wandering around the house she and Matt now share with Jimmy and Ash, “helping” with the campaign here and there but ultimately doing nothing but seething with rage as Matt comes increasingly distant.

There was so much potential in a subplot regarding whether Beth actually wants to have the child she knows her husband longs for, especially as all of their coupled friends start families … but it never really goes anywhere, at least not in a satisfying way. Beth has an opportunity to look inward regarding the source of her anger as her closest girlfriends become mothers, but the novel just stays on-the-surface throughout. That disappointed me.

I enjoyed Close’s examination of adult friendships and liked brash Ash (hey, that rhymes), but her dynamic with husband Jimmy was pretty sad — and Matt and Beth’s marriage ultimately flounders, too. As a look at how changing priorities can impact — and damage — relationships as marriages mature, I think The Hopefuls works. But it’s just a little depressing, too.

3 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for review consideration


Advertisements

Book chat: ‘We’re All Damaged’ by Matthew Norman

We're All DamagedIt’s been a year since Andy Carter’s safe suburban life collapsed. His marriage explodes when his wife leaves him for a neighbor; his ultra-conservative mother has changed completely in her quest to take her talk-radio show to the next level, casting his father in the background. Andy loses his job, then acts a fool at his best friend — and former brother-in-law’s — wedding.

Skipping town seems wise — until the need to see his dying grandfather brings him back to Nebraska. It’s there that he meets Daisy, a young “friend” of his grandfather’s. Daisy has her own complicated background, but she takes a shine to Andy as she took a shine to his granddad. In the midst of this, the Carter family is targeted after his mother makes outlandish and homophobic remarks . . . just before marriage equality is achieved in the U.S. Some unseemly family information is released in the process, leading to further scrutiny.

Is that a light at the far end of the tunnel . . . or just a train?

Having loved Norman’s debut novel in 2011, I went into We’re All Damaged looking for that same sensational spark. The story started out promisingly, what with Andy getting dumped at an Applebee’s (!) and all. Our narrator was obviously going to be down on his luck, maybe a bit of a ne’er-do-well, but hopefully one with a heart?

Something about We’re All Damaged failed to click with me. It felt extremely current, tackling issues like gay rights, the conservative/liberal media, internet ethics . . . and I could appreciate the intent. But it just felt a bit full to me. Full of too many issues, too many characters, too much chaos for me to really lose myself in the story. If we’d had fewer hot-button topics to address, I might have enjoyed focusing more on Andy’s evolution. As it stood, I never broke past the surface.

Andy’s brokenness was endearing at first, but quickly became frustrating — especially as Daisy enters the scene. Daisy is totally a manic pixie dream girl — one I could never figure out, given we knew next-to-nothing about her (aside from her many tattoos, which are addressed constantly). She seems to be a nymph designed solely to help shove Andy out of his post-divorce funk. And that was boring.

Matthew Norman’s sly, biting humor peeks out occasionally, but isn’t used to best effect. I did like the nod to Curtis Violet, famed author/father in his first book, as well as the hilarious passages about Andy’s dad’s paintball assault on the squirrels smuggling goods from his bird feeders. His obsession and description of that battle felt just a little heartbreakingly human to me.

We needed more of that.

Though We’re All Damaged wasn’t memorable for me, I do look forward to meeting up with Norman — a perceptive, skillful writer — again someday.


3 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher/TLC Book Tours for critical consideration


Book chat: ‘The Martian’ by Andy Weir

The MartianI must be broken.

While everyone and their book-loving great aunt has been raving about Andy Weir’s The Martian (seriously: look at all these five-star reviews), I was over here listening to the story on audio and trying not to fall asleep on the road.

The story centers on astronaut Mark Watney, a botanist stranded on Mars after his colleagues believe he has been killed during a powerful dust storm. They reluctantly depart to save themselves, but no one feels good about it. No man — or woman -– left behind.

After he comes-to in the barren red landscape light years from home, Mark must take stock of his limited resources and find a way to communicate with Earth. He uses his wits, experience and sense of humor to stay alive and fed as NASA scrambles to save him — with the eyes of the world watching.

The premise was definitely intriguing, especially given how obsessed I was with last year’s “Interstellar” and my general love of outer space. Fun fact? Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” defined my early marriage. Spencer and I never missed an episode, often settling down on busy weeknights to re-watch ones we’d already seen. I was all about it.

I married a scientist, so my interest in science-y stuff does come in handy . . . but, you know, I was an English major. Despite my love of the subject, I don’t know much about space — or survival.

Maybe that’s partially what hurt me here?

Along with high expectations, of course. The Martian is everywhere right now, with a high-profile film starring Matt Damon due to release this fall. Everyone I know who has hunkered down with this fast-paced tale has loved it, so I assumed I would love it, too.

But I didn’t. It was . . . missing something. Though initially hard to pin down, I’ll describe it as a lack of emotional investment. As a narrator, Mark is funny, compelling, smart and sarcastic — definitely a great character. I liked him. I felt for him. But did I ever truly worry for his fate? Not so much.

Buddy Trish recently commented that she believes it will make a better movie than book, and I agree. The trailer definitely got me hyped up. All the extremely science-y science may better translate on film. As it stood? I didn’t have the attention span necessary to follow the intricate plan for Mark’s survival, totally zoning out as he described the math needed to ensure he could grow enough potatoes to survive until possible salvation.

And that was just the beginning.

Though I wasn’t emotionally invested in the outcome, I definitely appreciate Weir’s writing. He builds suspense — will he make it, or won’t he? — and deftly brings hostile, lonely Mars to life. Between its storms and desolate landscape, it’s not exactly a place conducive to life. Yet Mark’s ingenuity allows him to tame the red planet, finding a way to subsist despite all reasoning saying he shouldn’t be able to.

Also, it’s fun to see under “settings” in the middle of my 2015 reading log spreadsheet:

New York City, New York, USA
Nantucket, Massachusetts, USA
MARS

The audio narration by R. C. Bray was fantastic. If you’re toying between reading the story or listening to it, I heartily recommend the latter. Bray perfectly nailed the tone of the story and seamlessly shifted between characters, with his portrayal of Mark being the definite highlight.

Though The Martian won’t go down as an all-time favorite, I’m happy I read it — and was impressed to learn that Weir’s science is sound. Plus, it was originally self-published . . . and as a writer, that earns an extremely impressed thumbs-up.

3 out of 5

Pub: 2011 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio book borrowed from my local library


Book chat: ‘Who Do You Love’ by Jennifer Weiner

Who Do You LoveRachel Blum is an 8-year-old heart patient when she first meets Andy Landis at a Florida hospital. Andy arrives alone with a broken arm, capturing Rachel’s attention in the emergency room. She’s searching for a good story to tell an ill friend up on their regular floor, and she finds that — and more — in Andy.

Fast-forwarding nearly a decade, Rachel and Andy meet randomly while volunteering as teens and strike up a summer romance. Though together only a short time, they immediately bond despite their different circumstances. While Rachel grows up in Florida being doted upon in an affluent Jewish family, Andy is a biracial teen being raised by a hardworking, tough-to-please single mother in Philadelphia.

Andy’s solace — his salvation, really — comes through running. At the encouragement of a beloved neighbor and mentor, he survives his rough teen years with an end goal in mind: getting to — and winning at — the Olympics. As Rachel goes to college and pledges an exclusive sorority, Andy devotes his life to becoming a world-class runner.

As time and distance both separate and reunite them, the pair must decide what truly matters in life . . . and if they’re willing to go after it.

Jennifer Weiner’s Who Do You Love is a comfortable, fairly predictable read following two young lovers over the course of three decades. Their chance meeting at a hospital sets them up for a lifetime of serendipitous encounters, only some of which seemed realistic. It’s really a story about first love.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I feel the need to extol my love for Jennifer. She creates characters that make you feel, and her stories always suck me in with their casts of relatable — if occasionally frustrating — characters. She has a powerful ability to tap into the inner lives of women, and I greatly admire her ability to produce novels that really stick with you.

So why didn’t this one work for me?

It comes down to narrative voice. Rachel’s sections are told in first-person, allowing us to really get to know her, while Andy’s are third-person omniscient. While I could begin bonding with Rachel, I always felt removed from Andy . . . physically and mentally. His sections lacked soul. I felt as if we were going through the motions — all tell, no show — and couldn’t get excited about his victories nor mourn his failures. I wanted to, but there was just something . . . missing. The only time I really felt anything? When he’s interacting with Mr. Sills, a neighbor who takes Andy under his wing.

While I enjoyed seeing the interesting ways in which Rachel and Andy’s lives intersect, I found Rachel to be a pretty uninspiring heroine. We’re introduced to her as a young girl struggling to get out from under her parents’ anxious gazes, and I thought there was real potential there. Instead, Rachel spends much of the story projecting herself as a whiny sorority girl who doesn’t feel good enough for the Famous Andy Landis. And that got old.

Who Do You Love is not a bad story, but it’s not Weiner at her best. This was a different sort of novel for her: no elaborate cast of female characters; no exploration of friendships or sisterhood. We do get her trademark family dynamics, but it wasn’t enough to save the plot for me. I liked that she was trying something new, but I probably would have enjoyed this story more if it had been told exclusively from Rachel’s point of view. It lacked . . . sparkle. Pizzazz. Not heart, exactly, but warmth.

Will I come back to Jennifer? Absolutely. But if you’re new to her work, I would recommend Good In Bed or All Fall Down instead.

3 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Complimentary copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Book chat: ‘Love, Lucy’ by April Lindner

Love, LucyThe summer before her freshman year of college, Lucy Sommersworth embarks on a European adventure for a taste of freedom before sacrificing her dreams of acting to focus on business in school. Accompanied by Charlene, a new friend and fellow college student, the pair purchase rail passes to crisscross the continent and meet many characters along the way.

Landing in Florence, Lucy and Charlene check in at a hostel in the heart of the city with the goal of exploring the famous Italian locale — and it’s not long before they meet Jesse Pallatino, a New Jersey native currently bumming his way around Italy busking for cash.

What follows is a whirlwind romance that sizzles in the Florence sun . . . but threatens to implode when Lucy returns to Philadelphia, where she begins her practical education but struggles to forget the amazing summer they shared. As the pair try to determine if and how they fit into each other’s lives, Lucy undergoes a metamorphosis all her own.

April Lindner’s Love, Lucy is a sweet — if predictable — young adult novel perfect for armchair travelers. With its warm Italian breezes, vivid scenery and romantic settings, Lucy’s time in Europe reads like something out of a dream . . . especially when a guitar-playing free spirit comes on the scene.


David

Florence

Florence cafe

Scenes from Florence, 2007


Though I’ll admit to liking the first half of the book — set abroad — more than the second, Lucy is a likeable heroine struggling to appease her difficult father while still being true to herself. In love with theatre, she feels alive on stage . . . but her dad, who happens to be footing the bill for her college education, has little interest in the arts.

After their chance meeting and mutual attraction, it’s Jesse that gets Lucy thinking about how life could be should she leave the safe path her parents have laid for her to chase her dreams. I found the conflict realistic and, for many, familiar: choose the comfortable route, or dare to be bold?

Though Lucy and Jesse never felt totally formed as characters, I didn’t mind the lightness with which I read Love, Lucy. It was sweet, uncomplicated and relatable, especially as Lucy struggles to choose between a new love interest and the wild Jesse. Intimacy definitely plays a role in the storyline, so bear that in mind for younger readers.

If you’d like to take a walk through Italy without leaving the comfort of your porch, Lindner’s fun story may be your ticket. The scenes in Florence and Rome took me back to my own trip there in 2007, and I loved reliving that experience through Lucy’s eyes.

3.5 out of 5

Pub: 2010 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy kindly passed along by Estelle. Thank you!


Book chat: ‘Hugo & Rose’ by Bridget Foley

Hugo & RoseThis book was . . . not quite what I was expecting.

That’s not inherently a bad thing, you know; surprises are exciting. Interesting. Compelling.

But sometimes they’re jarring. And with Bridget Foley’s Hugo & Rose? Well, I felt jarred. I’m still jarred, in fact.

To start, the cover is just so pretty and whimsical, you know? And reading the description — about a stay-at-home mom who has dreamed of the same man and their adventures every night since childhood — made me think of the imaginary friends who once accompanied me at recess, lending an ear to all my troubles and taking my side in sister fights.

But this was . . . darker. Textured. Nuanced. I liked that, but it startled me. In a good way, perhaps? But I’m still not sure. It’s not too often that I’m left with such mixed feelings on a story. Have I been ambivalent about a novel in the past? Absolutely. But I’m not suffering from a lack of opinion on Hugo & Rose — just a lack of clarity.

So Rose — our dear, troubled Rose — is in a bit of a rut. She deeply loves Josh, her doctor husband, and their three children — but Josh’s hours are long and his attention short, and the boys can be a bit much to handle. Now in her mid-thirties, Rose struggles to believe she’s an aimless woman with a baby on her hip. It’s in her dreams that she finds relief, escape, fulfillment: her dreams with Hugo.

After a bike accident knocks her unconscious as a child, Rose finds herself on Hugo’s island locked in eternal struggle to get to a glistening city on the horizon. Like “Lost” without the other castaways, Rose and Hugo help each other fight off enemies and battle evil forces — both seen and unseen. While they start their time there as kids, they grow together into adulthood. No matter how they may look in reality, their island selves are strong, lean, tan. More beautiful. Powerful.

Following a kids’ soccer match in a nearby Colorado town, Rose succumbs to temptation and takes her bawling boys for fast food on their drive home. It’s there that she first sees Hugo perched in a take-out window, hunched and weary at work. He’s thicker in the middle, balding, less enigmatic — but definitely Hugo.

Hugo in real life.

Shocked and inexplicably drawn to this strange not-stranger, Rose tumbles down an obsessive path. Foley excelled at showing Rose’s deepening preoccupation with this man, eventually demonstrating what can happen when reality and fantasy collide. There is a touch of magical realism to Hugo & Rose — a little suspension of disbelief. But Foley is a talented writer, and I felt the transitions between the island and reality were well done.

While I didn’t always like Rose, I did appreciate her challenges and nuanced personality. Who hasn’t longed to feel like a better, stronger version of themselves? I could sense her physical and mental exhaustion in Foley’s descriptions, feeling a very suburban desperation in it all. That’s why sleep is so welcome for Rose . . . well, until it isn’t.

The story becomes increasingly sinister — almost frightening. While I didn’t always enjoy it, I was invested in the characters’ fates and racing to finish. At times I wanted to slap some sense into Rose, desperately not wanting her to ruin everything good and whole in her life, but our heroine has spent so much time feeling powerful on an island and powerless in reality; it’s easy to see why escapism appeals to her.

The twists and turns were not ones I saw coming. Though I wondered how the island would be explained, of course, I wasn’t preoccupied with knowing all the hows and whys. It’s fiction, not science. Hugo’s back story is a fascinating, tragic one, but I was glad that Foley never took the easy route to cast him entirely as a villain. No one here is a saint, and no one just a sinner.

I wasn’t always in love with the story, but Foley made me care about her characters. There’s no denying Hugo & Rose makes — and leaves — an impression.

3 out of 5

Pub: May 5, 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Twitter
Digital review copy provided by publisher for coverage consideration


Book chat: ‘Catching Air’ by Sarah Pekkanen

Catching AirFor Dawn Zukowski, fleeing a life — and love — she thought she wanted is more than she bargained for. Marooned in the snowy wilds of Vermont, she happens to meet two couples — Kira and Peter, Rand and Alyssa — who have recently taken over a charming bed-and-breakfast in the mountains.

With nowhere to go and no plan for the next step, Dawn reluctantly agrees to accompany the crew to the B&B and assist in day-to-day tasks in exchange for her lodging. Though Kira senses there’s plenty more to Dawn’s story, she doesn’t push her — especially as plans ramp up for a coming wedding at their little lodge. Despite her strange presence, they need Dawn. And Dawn needs them.

Kira and Peter have traded their busy lives in Florida for the slower, snowier pace of Vermont. Rand, Peter’s estranged brother, proposes the four go into business as a way of rebuilding his relationship with his sibling. Babies loom large in the lives of the couples: Alyssa desperately wants to be a mother, but is having trouble conceiving; Kira knows Peter desperately wants to be a father, but isn’t sure she’s ready for a family.

Sarah Pekkanen’s Catching Air is a quick, engrossing story of a family finding their way back to each other — as well as the meandering paths one sometimes takes to motherhood. Though Dawn’s character always felt a little “off” to me, I fell in love with the cozy winter setting of the story and would have loved to take up residence on one of the B&B’s plush couches.

Of the two couples, I bonded most with Kira and Peter — two young professionals escaping their complicated work lives in the south. A hardworking lawyer by day, Kira finds it easy to deflect Peter’s overtures on having children when she has a grueling schedule . . . but in Vermont? Away from the hustle-bustle? Well, the conversations get more complicated.

I found Pekkanen’s exploration of marriage and compromise very interesting. Where Kira and Peter are serious and straight-laced, Alyssa and Rand are the nomads: free spirits, wanderers, travelers. The idea of having children with Alyssa — though something he professes to want — also scares Rand, wondering how children will impact their lifestyle. And with good reason.

Playing out against the marital dramas is their first wedding at the B&B: a lavish affair in the dead of winter, and the key to getting them all out of financial trouble. Ever the organized taskmaster, Kira spearheads the event coordination and handles the meals churning out of the lodge’s kitchen. As the details became more complicated, I felt my anxiety rising right along with Kira’s — and wondered how she was going to handle it all without collapsing. It felt like too much.

Pekkanen’s charm is her ability to create likeable, realistic characters and seamlessly interject readers into their lives. Her heroines feel like real people — women that could be your girlfriends — and her stories are always fast and compulsively readable.

Though this wasn’t my favorite of her works, I was engrossed in the story and invested in the characters’ fates. Though Dawn felt out-of-place, even she grew on me by the end. An entertaining read for fans of women’s fiction and stories exploring family dynamics.

3.5 out of 5

Pub: 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher for coverage consideration