Book chat: ‘The Ramblers’ by Aidan Donnelley Rowley

The RamblersAs readers, we’re all looking for that magic.

The spark. The recognition. The connection. Whatever the special ingredient is that pulls us close, that makes it impossible to let go of a story and its characters . . . well, Aidan Donnelley Rowley’s The Ramblers has it.

I’ve been an ardent fan of Rowley’s since Life After Yes, her 2010 debut, and followed the progress of The Ramblers through the author’s Instagram feed. When I learned her sophomore novel was ready to be released in the wild? Er, I might have shrieked a bit. And then it arrived, I petted it, and we got down to business.

Set over the course of one autumn week in New York City, The Ramblers tells the stories of Clio Marsh and Smith Anderson — longtime best friends both set adrift by lovers, family and circumstances, clinging to each other through life’s changes before finally realizing they’re ready to inch into whatever comes next.

Smith and Clio are flawed. They’re struggling. Leaving her roots with a mentally ill mother and distant father, Clio is now a successful ornithologist who also leads bird walks through Central Park in New York City. Smith is Clio’s college cohort, a life organizer — a fixer — who grew up in a blue-blood family . . . but her advantages come with many costs.

Clio is in love with Henry, a hotelier who desperately wants her to move forward — and in — with him; Smith is still smarting from the cataclysmic break-up of her engagement to a doctor her father didn’t deem “suitable.” Clio believes it’s time to confront her grief at her mother’s recent death, but it’s actually her life — their shared lives, disrupted and distorted — that she’s mourning. And Smith has to learn how to snap the gilded strings her parents wrapped around her wrists . . . just in time to attend her younger sister’s wedding.

Here’s the thing about Rowley: her writing is gorgeous, lyrical, intentional. Each word is carefully selected; nothing is left to chance. This could come across as stilted, even condescending — but it doesn’t. The result is a novel of fully-formed characters that endear and irritate. They make an impression.

Described in the publisher copy as a “love letter to New York City,” the setting certainly has a starring role in this story. I knew nothing about the Ramble before diving in, but found myself picturing it beautifully as we moved along. I actually didn’t do any research until after I’d finished; I wanted to save my own mental pictures. They were pretty accurate, it turns out: the Ramble is a 36-acre “‘wild garden'” within Central Park where more than 40 species of birds perch year-round.

Clio’s occupation — and preoccupation — with birds was unique, interesting and never overdone. It’s her choice to lead birdwatching groups through the Ramble that brings her to Henry, crying quietly on a bench — a man who is also a little broken, a little scuffed . . . and the perfect match for her.

This is a love story, but it is not a love story. Though it could get steamy, even sexy, this is really a modern story of two women choosing to unshackle themselves from the past — and prior selves. There is growth, and when you finish? You feel like you’ve really gone somewhere. You’ve arrived.

Recently-separated Tate’s storyline was, in my opinion, the least interesting of the three — but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy getting to know him and how his life would come to intersect, however briefly, with Smith’s.

Fans of thoughtful fiction, lush New York settings and lyrical writing will find much to adore in The Ramblers. There is much more I could discuss, but it’s a novel best enjoyed on its own merits. And after adoring Rowley’s first work so much? Well, it was more than worth the wait.

4.5 out of 5

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

Wordless Wednesday: Panama Rocks, New York

Visiting Panama Rocks Scenic Park in Chautauqua County, New York — “an enchanting world of towering rocks, deep crevices and passageways, cool, cavernous dens, and small caves.” Formations are 300 million-year-old quartz conglomerate sedimentary rock, according to their website, and extend “about a half a mile and read upwards of 60 feet tall — one of the largest of its kind in the world.”

Yeah — it was pretty cool. And considerably cooler than the heatwave happening elsewhere in Western New York! Thanks to my boyfriend’s awesome parents for the excursion. I’m just grateful I didn’t face-plant after tripping on countless gnarly roots.

For more Wordless Wednesday, visit here!

Book review: ‘Sad Desk Salad’ by Jessica Grose

When Alex Lyons lands a gig writing snark-tastic posts for Chick Habit, a Jezebel-like website geared toward women, she’s delighted — especially since the job doesn’t require her to leave her tattered couch in New York City. The 25-year-old writer may have loftier goals, sure — ones that would take her beyond commenting on a celebrity’s erratic behavior. But for the moment, Chick Habit fills her need for a steady paycheck and allows her to stay in a place she loves with Peter, her supportive boyfriend. There’s time to branch out later.

Or so she thinks. As Alex learns Chick Habit may be bought out and a new hater website — Breaking the Chick Habit, designed to sully the reputations of CH’s core writers — launches, Alex feels intense pressure from the higher-ups to rake in the page views. A website’s stats are its lifeblood, after all, and the CH women are in competition for the most controversial (i.e. viral) stories.

After a shocking video lands in Alex’s inbox, our narrator must decide whether to publish a story that could potentially destroy a young woman’s life and career — or push forward in her own interest, darn the repercussions. But when her digital world collides with her real one, the consequences could be extreme.

Jessica Grose’s Sad Desk Salad is a fast-paced peek behind the world of online superstardom. Grose herself is a former editor at Jezebel, one of my favorite ways to spend my lunch hour while eating my own “sad desk salad,” so I was really looking forward to a peek behind the HTML, if you will. (Bad blogger joke  — sorry!) With its frenetic energy, witty dialogue and snappy characters, Sad Desk Salad was a fun way to spend an afternoon. And a clear reminder I could never make it in New York.

Narrator Alex is quick to draw readers into her world. The story spans a single week, and this glimpse at the complicated and fast-paced world of online journalism — or online gossip, depending on your perspective — was eye-opening. But for all the snark and attitude, the book also raises interesting questions about the ethics of sharing (and oversharing) in our digital age. Though no easy answer exists, it gave me something to chew on.

For readers interested in online publishing, blogging and our American celebrity culture, Sad Desk Salad is a quick read — and a fun one. Though no character outside Alex really gets beyond two-dimensional status, I felt connected with our narrator and hoped she would emerge relatively unscathed. (And shed the disgusting eyelet muumuu she dons for half the book. Ick.) I wished we could have gotten to know Molly, an aspiring editor from the Midwest, a little better — especially as she felt the most stereotypically bouncy and “New York, gee golly, YAY!” of the cast. Still, everyone served a purpose.

Fans of “The Devil Wears Prada” and avid readers of Jezebel, among other sites, will likely find much to enjoy in Sad Desk Salad. I whipped through it at lightning speed and wouldn’t hesitate to pick up Grose’s next book.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062188348 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Fresh from the country

Oh hey, y’all — sorry for the impromptu break there!

I haven’t fallen into the caverns of Panama Rocks, though I felt like maybe I could have on our recent trip. Spence and I are fresh from a trip to visit his family in Western New York, and I’m feeling refreshed and country-fied!

That sounds like country fried. Maybe country-fried steak. Mmmm.

So I’ve been working on puzzles, reading (I finished Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South for the read-along! Post coming soon), visiting, crocheting, photographing and generally hanging out. Reality comes crashing back on Wednesday as I return to the office, but it was nice to get away for a bit. Definitely came at a good time.

If I owe you an email or other correspondence, I promise it will be on its way! Going to give myself a few days to get my brain back in gear, and then I’m sure the normal Meg will be back to typing and buying way too much nail polish on eBay in no time. If I know myself at all, anyway.