Book review: ‘What I Was’ by Meg Rosoff

What I WasWhat an intriguing little book.

I knew from experience that Meg Rosoff doesn’t pen your “average” young adult fiction; indeed, How I Live Now was one of the more offbeat, compelling and disturbing YA books I’ve ever read. I finished it almost four years (!) ago, yet I can recall certain passages and turns of phrase all these books later.

In the vein of the colorful, unusual and incredibly well-written is this slim novel: What I Was. The tale of H, our relatively unnamed narrator, and his long-ago friendship with Finn, Rosoff’s story is an exploration of friendship. A confusing, focused, odd and all-encompassing friendship, perhaps, but still just a friendship at its core.

It’s hard to do this book justice — or discuss it without spoilers. So much happens, but there is little discernible “plot” in the traditional sense. H is a rapscallion (how often can one use that word?!) used to getting kicked out of prestigious boarding schools, and he expects he’ll face a similar departure from this one. Everything is a little boring, a little beneath him; he’s not interested in studying or readying himself for the future, or whatever it is young men of wealth and privilege should be doing. He simply doesn’t care.

And then, on a run with his classmates, he meets Finn. Moody, quiet and living a life of extreme independence in a small but well-cared-for hut on the water, Finn’s life is everything H wishes for himself — especially free from the prying eyes of professors and classmates. Though H doesn’t recognize his growing concern for Finn as what it truly is (until it’s too late, perhaps), we know that H has fallen in love.

It gets more complicated from there.

But not in the ways you’d expect.

Oh, the exquisite pain of wanting to discuss what happens in this book without spoiling it all for you. I will note that I had an awful spoiler-ish encounter with a review posted elsewhere, so I’m not going to do that to you. Even knowing what I knew going in (not everything, just some of it), I was still shocked by what transpired. In an impressive way. Rosoff is a master of revealing secrets slowly, then all at once . . . and you’re left gobsmacked that you could have missed something so obvious.

She’s just that good.

Though H is not a thoroughly admirable person, he’s a teenage boy. A teen boy with issues and problems and secrets weighing heavily on his shoulders, even if his natural defense is to laugh them off or lash out. I appreciated him as a narrator, enjoying his sarcasm and natural wit — and even when the chaos became too much to handle, I felt that this older-H telling us the story of this fateful year was an anchor. I held on to him.

The setting of What I Was — a crumbling British coastline — just added to the allure for me. Rosoff’s writing is rich in imagery, very atmospheric; we sense the damp and cold of Finn’s hut just as H does, and therefore appreciate the fledgling fire that much more.

Though this won’t go down in my personal literary history as a favorite, Rosoff’s story is fascinating and unique — something I’ve thought about often in the weeks since finishing.

4 out of 5!

Pub: 2008 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘The Age of Miracles’ by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of MiraclesThe Earth is slowing. Days are no longer true “days.” Phrases like the “crack of dawn” lose all meaning, and everyone is taking a stand. The world’s citizens divide into those who follow “clock time” — and those who don’t. Our 24-hour days eventually stretch to 40 hours or longer, with days or weeks stretching with no sunlight. Weather patterns shift; birds begin to mysteriously fall from the sky. Gravity alters. Life begins to dissolve.

For 11-year-old Julia, her sunny life in California is forever altered — and not just by the government-mandated time changes. The Slowing affects everyone: her parents, who experience a sudden rift in their marriage; her friends, who retreat into religion or new acquaintances; her young love interest, who has already experienced a devastating loss and isn’t ready for more.

While some of Earth’s denizens wrestle with the Slowing as a harbinger of the End Times, others use it as the impetus to shake up their quiet existences — joining cults, switching spouses, leaving jobs. As a middle-schooler, Julia understands little of the world’s changes . . . but The Age of Miracles is told from an older, wiser and more broken-down Julia: a woman from the future who knows things don’t pan out well. But we never quite get there.

And that’s my biggest issue — and disappointment — with Karen Thompson Walker’s novel: we never quite get there. Wherever “there” is. We know Julia is reflecting on her youth in California from a decade or so down the line, but we never feel the true grips of despair because it’s all so . . . vague. Despite being a true scaredy-cat, I came into this book hoping for a repeat experience of Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It. That book captivated me, terrified me, left me aching for more . . . and even when life seemed unbearably bleak, Pfeffer knew how to pull us along and save us at the very last moment.

There was no saving here. The tone of the book? Bleak. Confused. No one is redeemed; no one gets saved. Julia is lost in a quagmire of longing and uncertainty, but we never see the Earth deteriorate past a point of recognition. Where rural Pennsylvania turns into a minefield of desperation in Life As We Knew It, suburban California just feels so mundane in The Age of Miracles. I wanted something to really happen, and . . . well, nothing much actually happens. Nothing to satisfy me, anyway.

But here’s the rub: I liked Julia. Because the tale is told from her older, first-person viewpoint, she often comes across as absurdly mature for an almost 12-year-old — but that goes with the narration. Her maturity didn’t bother me . . . in fact, I liked that she was wise enough to discuss the beginning and results of the Slowing so clearly, even if it lacked any urgency.

That’s what was missing for me: that sense of foreboding. I tore through Pfeffer’s novel with my heart in my throat, unable to focus on anything that wasn’t about a lunar disaster, and The Age of Miracles — while well-written and lyrical — lacked any commotion or connection. Honestly, I found much of it boring . . . not something I’d expect when discussing the potential end of the world. (Though we know it doesn’t end.) It did provide some food for thought, especially about the potential breakdown of society, but it wasn’t enough.

Fans of dystopian novels and young adult, coming-of-age tales might find Julia to be a young woman with whom they can relate, but it lacked that urgency that keeps me reading. I didn’t need fiery explosions, volcanoes erupting, nuclear holocaust or a perpetual winter . . . but I did want something to ignite in The Age of Miracles. Like, um, my interest.

But alas.

3 out of 5!

Pub: Jan. 15, 2013 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library

Book review: ‘Girl Unmoored’ by Jennifer Gooch Hummer

Sometimes a novel hops into your lap, looks into your weary eyes and wraps its little paper arms around you. The hug from this book feels so real, so good that you never want to part with it — and that’s exactly how I feel about Girl Unmoored. And Apron Bramhall, a redheaded teen heroine unique enough to match her name.

It’s 1985 in small-town Maine, and seventh-grader Apron Bramhall is grappling with many competing forces: the aftermath of the unexpected loss of her mother; her father’s sudden remarriage to Marguerite, a woman Apron stubbornly refers to only as “M”; the betrayal of her best friend and its accompanying loneliness; and the appearance of Mike and Chad, two florists who form an unlikely alliance with our young heroine.

In a story brimming with love, warmth, loss, grief and everything in between, Apron must come to grips with her changed family — and the changing world.

It’s almost impossible to summarize Jennifer Gooch Hummer’s Girl Unmoored — mostly because this story was so much more than I ever thought it would be, and caused me to feel So Many Emotions I can barely articulate them all. Knowing it deals with loss and grief, I wasn’t sure how maudlin the story would become . . . but in Hummer’s very talented hands, what could have ventured into sad-sack territory somehow left me feeling enlightened and uplifted.

Reflecting on the book, that’s the word that keeps coming back to me: uplifted. Because even a book about death, homophobia, pain and ignorance somehow left me feeling good. And yes, I’m serious — I think it would be nearly impossible to finish Girl Unmoored without some sort of smile on your face. Because Apron? She’s amazing. And I’m feeling amazed by how much I adored this book.

Where was sassy, bright, hilarious, brave and klutzy Apron when I was 13? Because really, girl knows what’s what. Partly because her mother’s terminal illness robbed her of a childhood, I know, but she’s incredible all the same. After all these changes, Apron feels . . . well, unmoored. At least until she meets Mike, a handsome actor portraying the title role in a local theatre’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Apron attends with her judgmental friend Rennie, a simple girl who comes from a deeply religious family. When word gets around that Mike is a little more than “friends” with Chad, and that Chad is has a mysterious illness, proverbial — and literal — stones are cast at them. And Apron — amazing Apron — is somehow the link that holds everyone together.

I can’t tell you why I loved this story so much, but I read parts with my hands shaking and tears streaming down my face. One particularly incredible moment — which I won’t spoil for you — comes near the close of the novel . . . when Apron retrieves a photo of her mother to give to someone in need. When she passes it over and explains why she’s sharing it, I actually felt like my heart was breaking. Like, cracked open on a broken mirror. And it’s been a long time since I felt like a book was breaking through that harsh Meg exterior.

I loved Hummer’s writing and Apron’s unique turns of phrase, especially when she was embarrassed or scared or angry (“My hair is melting,” for instance). I loved Mike and Chad and the pure devotion they had to one another; I even loved Dennis, Apron’s screwed-up, grief-stricken father, because I can’t fault him for what he does and somehow wound up caring deeply for him. Even “M,” Apron’s mother’s nurse-cum-wifely-replacement, had her endearing moments . . . until she said something that made me want to punch her. And then? Then I was glad things worked out as they did. I also loved Dennis’ obsession with Latin and how he instills a passion for it in Apron, and how each chapter opens with a telling phrase that had me wanting to read them all aloud.

Despite all my crying fits, I finished Girl Unmoored feeling like I could spend another 1,000 pages with Apron. Like I wanted to meet up with her a decade later for coffee, chatting about what she’d done with all that curiosity, courage and intellect. Though our narrator is a kid, absolutely nothing about this book is child-like — and I’m not sure how it’s being marketed. Young adult fiction? Coming-of-age drama? Contemporary fiction?

Regardless, readers, lend me your ears (eyes?): read this book. You will feel human and alive. It’s the one I’m going to be touting all year, declaring to others that this is the book we should all be trying to write. And the one we should all want to read.

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1936558300 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Season of Second Chances’ by Diane Meier

Joy Harkness has had it with New York City. Leaving her post as a professor at Columbia University and selling her cluttered apartment, Joy accepts a new position in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she busies herself as a member of a new educational group spear-headed by Bernadette, a renowned educator.

Oh, and there’s this house.

A rambling, beat-up, unsteady but gorgeous Victorian, to be exact. Joy surprises herself by falling in love with it, trading small-space city living for the sprawling interiors of her new Amherst home. The place is a disaster, to be sure, but with the creative direction and steady hands of Teddy Hennessey, a local handyman and restorer, it begins to hold its own — right around the time Joy begins to open her hardened heart to a new host of people and ideas, both big and small.

Diane Meier’s The Season Of Second Chances delivers on what it promises: a novel based on the thought that “coming of age can happen at any age.” When we first meet Joy, she’s one bitter shrew of a 48-year-old — and I don’t mean that generously. She’s closed off. Cold. Distant. She shies away from human interaction, choosing to hold anything and everything at arm’s length. Her best friends are two cousins who specialize in Civil War history, the Grant Girls, and she notes with a hint despondency that they still never discuss anything “private.” In New York, her life was like a dusty, bound-up book.

Basically, Joy is a mess — just a carefully cultivated, educated mess. She loves English literature and finds solace in her books, as do most avid readers. A devotee of Henry James, Joy prefers spending a night in grading English papers and reading than having any semblance of a social life. Which is why she arrives in Amherst alone, divorced for decades and without any immediate family.

Despite the fact that, as a narrator, I found Joy condescending, pedantic and whiny from page one, something about The Season Of Second Chances really worked for me. It was a gradual process, but Joy — so hardened, so emotionally vacant — began to change. And she morphed before my eyes. As her home was lovingly restored by Teddy — wallpaper chosen; furniture installed — she changed with her surroundings. As it became more beautiful, so did she. And as her relationship with the home intensified, so did her relationships with the new people in her lives — especially Josie, a fellow professor, expert cook and mother; and Teddy, her handyman and new best friend.

The novel wasn’t without its troubles for me, though. While the fact that Joy was a professor was definitely her defining characteristic and crucial to the plot, I found any of the scenes revolving around academia and the “program” in which Joy was a member to be Boring. With a capital B. If there was some metaphor I was supposed to draw from Joy finding a more intuitive way to teach disinterested students, I didn’t see it. I could have happily skipped over any scenes at the college and been a happier reader.

I spent a good portion of the book in a blind rage, too, over Teddy’s situation with his mother, a good ol’ selfish “Mommie Dearest” if ever I’ve read one. Mrs. Hennessey was demeaning, rude, ill-tempered, terrible — and without redemption. Man, I hate when characters are beyond redemption! I kept waiting for Teddy to be slapped awake with the realization that he was a man — a 36-year-old man — who was no longer beholden to Mama’s whims and worries. And when that moment didn’t come, I wanted to reach in and slap her myself. (Yes, another character to slap — my list is growing.)

The tone of the book, too, was a little off for me. Written in first-person, the book serves as a narrative and feels present, despite the fact that it’s written in past tense — but Joy has far too much self-awareness to be narrating a truly current scene. I grew frustrated, too, with the fact that after I’d figured out a metaphor — like, “Oooh, yes, restoring the house is akin to restoring Joy!” — our fearless narrator would go ahead and just spell it out for me. I hate when that happens. I want to feel smart and sophisticated — like, you know, I got the book. I don’t want a character swooping in and hitting me in the face with the knowledge, spoiling all my fun.

I’m torn on this book. I can see why people love it — and just as easily see why people hate it. I had some issues with the novel, yes, but I’d feel terrible if I ended on a bad note. Overall, I found The Season Of Second Chances to be an entertaining, optimistic story — full of lush descriptions, interesting characterization and a whole host of vivid characters. As a narrator, Joy might have been a little cagey — but I came to love her, prickly thorns and all. And by the final page, I was cheering for her, too. Fans of contemporary and women’s fiction might enjoy this one — especially if you’re into coming-of-age stories that may or may not take place in a crumbling old house.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0805090819 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publicist

Jonathan Safran Foer might be a jerk, but I kind of still love him

An interesting discussion broke out on Twitter yesterday — as interesting discussions are wont to do — between the wonderful Andi of Estella’s Revenge and yours truly. After I noticed the list of attendees for this year’s National Book Festival had been posted, I gleefully announced my excitement over the prospect of seeing Jonathan Safran Foer, an author I’ve respected and admired for years.

Er, well, that’s basically what I said.

(If you want a history of the whole #pantyworthy thing, stop by The Book Lady’s Blog
Rebecca’s the originator. And it was too apt to not include.)

Anywho, friends, I sent out my gleeful tweet and started pondering the ways in which I would get close enough to touch Jonathan Safran Foer’s little writing fingers (is that creepy? Am I weird?) when Andi hit me back.

And this got me thinking. What do I see in Foer? I know many folks share Andi’s thoughts and I’ve certainly read enough interviews/reviews to know many think he’s pedantic, irreverent, conceited. Arrogant. Haughty. And so on.

Usually when someone is generally accepted to be a pretentious jerk, I run so far and fast from their work, you’d think I was headed to a Starbucks offering unlimited pumpkin spice lattes. But Foer? No. Not my Foer.

. . .  And why?

In the summer of 2006, I read Foer’s two novels to date: Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I might not have read them both that summer, but I read them in a very short time period while I was commuting to Washington, D.C., where I had an internship with a city newspaper.

My typing fingers were very busy that summer as I researched articles, made phone calls, interviewed locals and wrote, wrote, wrote. It was exhilarating. It was terrifying. At 20 years old, I felt like I was doing something. Going somewhere. Each morning as I left the commuter bus from Southern Maryland and stepped foot on K Street, I felt like a real, serious member of the world. I didn’t think journalism was for me — ironic, considering I’m now an editor and columnist at a newspaper — but I loved it all the same. In between the times I was so nervous about screwing things up, I feared I was having a panic attack.

As I made my daily trek from the suburbs to downtown D.C., I had plenty of time on the bus to do as I pleased — which, when I wasn’t napping, meant reading. It’s hard for me to now remember a world in which I didn’t blog about books, but for a while? Well, I read like a maniac — but never recorded a thing. The details of so many books I read during that time — four or five books a week — have softened, faded and dulled. I can’t tell you the plots, characters or settings. And I can barely recall what I read unless someone asks me about a specific book.

Foer’s novels, though, have remained whole, intact in my memory: souvenirs from my summer adventure. Everything Is Illuminated was a book I devoured over two days. It drew me in from page one, depositing me in a foreign world with a foreign narrator and enveloping me in this whacky, difficult quest. The flashbacks were disorienting; the language could be confusing. Sometimes? Well, honestly, I wasn’t sure what was going on.

But I fell in love. With the book. With the author.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, told from the perspective of a young New Yorker whose father died on Sept. 11, was in a completely different vein — but I loved it just the same. Some of the passages and images included, especially of the “Falling Man,” have haunted me. They hover just behind my eyelids before I fall asleep. It was such an emotional read, a book that has stuck with me. It was also the first novel I’d read that addressed Sept. 11, a subject which was still rough and raw — especially for people I knew, people who lived and worked and played in D.C. It seemed like every local community and town lost people in the Pentagon attacks; several of those we lost attended my high school.

It was hard.

So I did love the books. And, you know, I think he’s cute. (And I know he’s married and I’m all kinds of in love, too, so don’t worry about me waving Foer’s novels around and tryin’ to be a homewrecker.) But what is it that keeps me coming back to them, that makes me remember them with a sense of awe — and even reverence?

Well, it had to be the time period.

When I think of Everything Is Illuminated — actually think about the book — I picture myself propped up in a comfy seat, bent slightly over the creased novel I’d just taken from my work bag. I’m sweaty from walking down the street to catch the bus, the stickiness and nastiness of summer in Washington clinging to my dewy skin. I’m young, relieved to be done with the work day; I’m struggling to move forward, still nursing a broken heart. I reach deep into the novel to take me away, and it’s not long before I’m crying. The first novel to make me cry in public.

Remembering Foer’s books makes me remember that time in my life — a difficult time, but an exciting one. Young, still in college, with a whole lifetime before me — well, it makes me nostalgic. There’s no other way to put it.

Now, I’m not exactly washed up. At nearly 25, I have a job I enjoy, a great family, a handsome and ridiculously awesome boyfriend. I get to write and read for a living. I run this blog, my pretty baby, which has brought so many wonderful people into my life.

But looking back to that summer, well . . . it just makes me feel whimsical. For what was and what I knew would eventually be. I made new friends, new contacts — I worked in a real office. I had my own work number. I was in the city and worked near the White House. It was the year I came of age, if you will. And Foer’s books were a definitive part of that.

Now, whether the guy is actually a pretentious twit? Well, I’ll let you know come September. Don’t let me down, Jonathan. Please don’t let me down.

Everybody’s free (to wear bright red sunglasses)

Looking at a recent photo of me in a pair of bright red sunglasses, my sister did a double-take.

“Who are you?” she crowed, giving me a hard look.

The answer came to me quickly: “Me. The new me.”

It’s true that I’ve recently undergone some changes. I can’t pinpoint exactly when I decided I was completely tired of my old life — mindset, misdirected energy, and the boring clothes I’ve been wearing since college: faded T-shirts with the University of Maryland splashed across the chest; ill-fitting jeans, worn with wear; scuffed sandals into which I’ve shoved my feet for years.

I’ve never been a fashion maven but I’ve never looked ridiculous, either. I generally wear feminine styles and, in terms of clothing, have a little flair for the dramatic. But lately? I’ve been stepping it up.

At least twice a week, you’ll see these little legs in a skirt or dress at work. Gone are my frumpy, baggy black dress pants — the ones I’d wear constantly to the office, hiding my expanding figure. In the past year, I’ve lost enough weight to fit back into all my “skinny” clothes . . . and invested in new pieces. Pieces that are more “me” than ever before. And see that nail up there, the one poking my cheek? That’s green, friends. Green nail polish. Would I have rocked a hue like that a year ago? Doubtful. But now? Let’s go for it.

Emerging from a very “blah” relationship and finally taking stock of my life since this time last year, I’ve sensed such a change in who I am . . . and what I want from myself. I’ve never been quiet, meek or afraid to speak up, but for a while I silenced any part of myself that was ready to step out of my comfort zone. Complacency was the name of the game, and anything that challenged me — as a person, as a writer, as a woman — was squashed. But between traveling, making new friends and strengthening old relationships, writing, bonding and generally living? I’m ready to get silly again. And bold. And crazy. 

All while wearing bright red sunglasses.

And damn if it doesn’t feel good.

Book review: ‘The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate’ by Jacqueline Kelly

Life for Calpurnia “Callie Vee” Tate is full of the daily intricacies you’d expect of life for an 11-year-old girl at the turn of the century: tending to animals on her family’s large Texas farm; monitoring her boisterous brothers’ behavior; learning the “feminine arts” of sewing, cooking and tatting under the watchful eye of her mother. But what appeals most to Callie — her most fervent and serious of desires? Science. The natural world. And, guided by her taciturn but loving grandfather, Callie discovers the natural world — and learns more about her place within it.

In Jacqueline Kelly’s magical coming-of-age novel The Evolution Of Calpurnia Tate, the year is 1899 — and Callie is the only girl in a home of six sons. A little lost in the shuffle and wishing to escape from the mundane Texas summers, Callie is befriended by her own grandfather, a Civil War veteran and man of science who spends long days in a shed on the property, the former slave quarters that have been converted into his private laboratory. Callie is immediately drawn into the world of questions and experiments, and after she’s introduced to Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”? A burning quest for knowledge is ignited.

Though she longs to while her days away with her grandfather examining plants and gathering samples of river water for inspection with her grandfather’s microscope, Mrs. Tate has little patience for Callie’s endeavors. And, likewise, Callie has little patience for learning to bake bread or knit socks for her brothers. But while dreams of attending university or taking over the farm responsibilities are excellent for Callie’s six brothers, including oldest Harry, the most Callie is told she can aspire to is becoming a schoolteacher or, most respectably, the wife of a wealthy man.

From the get-go, Callie’s narration — wise, humorous — had me intrigued and delighted as she ran away from her meddling brothers and found solace in her grandfather’s lab, and her notations and remarks in her scientific notebook are both hilarious and touching. I fell into the world of the dusty Texas plains at the turn of the century in no time flat, and I blinked like a newborn babe after I closed the final pages . . . it really felt strange to be back in the twenty-first century. Discovering, as the Tates did, newfangled machines like the telephone (picking up a receiver and talking to someone — across the country! Unbelievable!) and the automobile (it has the strength of four horses!) was actually touching.

But my favorite part of the novel? All of the family relationships. Despite the fact that the Tates are a seriously overflowing brood, Callie’s relationships with her brothers — especially Harry and the youngest, J.B. — were adorable. I could absolutely feel Callie’s reluctance to accept any young woman her oldest brother brought home, knowing that the arrival of Harry’s new wife would signal the end — or, at least, a huge change — to her tight-knit family.

More than anything, The Evolution Of Calpurnia Tate is a glimpse at growing up — and, though Callie is young in 1900, not 2010, many of the concerns and questions she has about life and aging are universal, and still apply today. While the plot isn’t slow, it’s not action-packed, either; those looking for lots of bells and whistles in a story should probably look elsewhere. But for book lovers with a sweet spot for young adult fiction with an historical slant, there’s plenty to fall in love with in Calpurnia. An entertaining, tender story I’ll remember for quite a while.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0805088415 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy obtained through BookMooch