25 January 2015

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope (The Austen Project)

Summary from Goodreads:
From Joanna Trollope, one of the most insightful chroniclers of family life writing fiction today, comes a contemporary retelling of Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen’s classic novel of love, money, and two very different sisters.

John Dashwood promised his dying father that he would take care of his half sisters. But his wife, Fanny, has no desire to share their newly inherited estate. When she descends upon Norland Park, the three Dashwood girls—Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret—are faced with the realities of a cold world and the cruelties of life without their father, their home, or their money.

With her sparkling wit, Joanna Trollope casts a clever, satirical eye on the tales of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood.

Reimagining Sense and Sensibility in a fresh, modern new light, she spins the novel’s romance, bonnets, and betrothals into a wonderfully witty coming-of-age story about the stuff that really makes the world go around. For when it comes to money, some things never change....

Someone somewhere got a wild idea to get best-selling authors to "officially" rewrite Jane Austen's major novels for a twenty-first century audience.

Well, OK...Austen sequels, rewrites, updates, variations, and etc. have been an industry for years.  So sure, a few more won't hurt.  The series started with Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, continued with Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid (reviewed briefly on Goodreads), Emma by Alexander McCall Smith, and Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld should be coming out in 2015 (I don't have a US release date for that).  I decided I'd at least give the re-tellings a try.

Sense & Sensibility as told by Joanna Trollope is a perfectly every-day novel.  I've never read any of Joanna Trollope's novels so I can't compare to her usual style but S&S is adequate.  The sentence-level writing reads well and some of the plot updates (Marianne's illness, Brandon's military experience, the Ferrars obsession with money) work very well.

However, however...I was immediately put off by a change in Edward Ferrars's backstory and never got back on an even keel.  He is changed from a diffident, but upstanding young man interested in entering the Church to a vague, unfocused drifter who was sent to school in Plymouth after being expelled from Eton for being the lookout man in a drug ring.

Excuse me?

From there we get extreme examples of bad behavior from Fanny Dashwood, John Dashwood, Marianne, Margaret, and Mrs. Dashwood (here named Belle). Belle and Marianne are so incapable of recognizing that bills such as the gas and electricity must be paid it that it becomes irritating. The number of times Eleanor points out she needs a job and every one pooh-poohs the idea....  Margaret is now a caricature of a grouchy modern teenager. (Does anyone know if British teenagers use the "w" sign from the movie Clueless as "whatever? Because I haven't seen an American teenager use that since I was in college and that's about 15 years ago now)

Mrs. Jennings and Charlotte Palmer (among others) no longer just seem self-centered and silly.  Their teasing of Marianne reaches a level of mean-spiritedness that I didn't think possible.  In the scene where Marianne sees Willoughby in London - at a wedding reception that Charlotte has managed to "get them invited to" instead of a ball - the whole thing is recorded and put on YouTube (of course).  Charlotte shows up at her mother's house and insists on playing the video over and over for Eleanor and commenting almost gleefully about what happened.  There is a lack of authorial distance in this book - Austen uses the distance for ironic commentary in the original novel that is lacking in this re-telling and it makes the characters' actions simply nasty.

And then there is the same complaint that I had with Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey - the plot is in lockstep with the original.  There are absolutely no deviations, nothing allowed to develop organically to better fit with the modern time period.  As a result the story begins to feel clunky and boring.  Does Fanny immediately start redecorating Norland? Yes. Does Marianne like music and Eleanor drawing? Yes. Does Brandon immediately fall in love with Marianne? Yes. Does Marianne get caught in the rain, requiring dramatic rescue by Willoughby? Of course.  Does Willoughby give Marianne an expensive gift? This time it's a car. Is Brandon called away right before a picnic allowing Marianne and Willoughby to sneak off to Allenham?  Yep.  Is Lucy Steele out to marry money and almost sunk by the loose lips of her idiot sister? Yep (and the sister is actually one of the most annoying and least believable characters ever written).  Does Mrs. Ferrars bang on about some Morton girl marrying Edward?  Yes.  Does it all work out in the end including forgiveness for everyone?  Yes, yes, yes.

In short, the Austen Project novels, so far, seem to be best suited for those readers who are unfamiliar with Austen's original novels.  Which I find to be galling because there is nothing wrong with the original novels and they can be read by academics and plebeians alike.  Meaning, if you are as familiar with the original novels as I am you are going to be just as bored and underwhelmed.  If one wants to re-tell a familiar story and update it for a contemporary audience there are so many successful adaptations: Clueless, Bridget Jones's Diary, The Three Weissmanns of Westport, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  Each of those took the original story and concept and adapted the concept to fit the time period rather than bend the time period to fit the idiosyncrasies of the plot.  I'll probably give the McCall Smith Emma adaptation a shot but if that's as underwhelming as Sense & Sensibility and Northanger Abbey then I might bail at fifty percent. 

Dear FTC: I received a finished review copy from the publisher.

14 January 2015

Out with 2014, in with 2015! (With Pie Charts!)

2014 is fading into the background so that means its time for little old me to look back at my year of reading.  I had a few reading-related (and other) resolutions for 2014:

1. Be mindful in my reading and bookish purchases - I did really good on this in the second half of the year and really made good use of my library cards (I finally got signed up at ICPL and NL) and my Oyster subscription.
2. Be timely on reviews - I think this was kind of a fail.
3. Drink more water - also kind of a fail.
4. Move more (the Fitbit is helping, but I need to be better at going to the gym) - I was diagnosed with a probable tear in the cartilage in one hip and the gym going was really limited.
5. Cook for myself - I really limited my fast food consumption this year and started remembering to make my own coffee in the morning which helped with the mocha/latte consumption.
6. Be brave - I visited Rebecca of Book Riot when I went to Virginia for the AXS biennial Conclave (and met Amanda, too), I started a YouTube channel, and I also made sure to make use of the new FilmScene art-house movie theatre.
7. Take a vacation - I visited Washington DC with my parents and, of course, stopped by Politics & Prose in Georgetown.
8. Relax - maybe?

So, overall, I think I did pretty good with my resolutions this year.  Now, what about those pie charts I promised.... It's taken me a few weeks to wrangle my book database but I did!  And I have stats!

This year I used the .csv file generated from Goodreads to build the backbone of my book database in Access (I have an analytics background and am teaching myself SQL so this was several hours of merrily wallowing in code and Google searches and spreadsheets back in February/March).  I've been tracking genre, format, gender, nationality, and race this year and I have a little historical data, too.

To start, I smashed my Goodreads goal of 130 books by reading 195 books.  BOOM.  (Yes, I counted comic books as "books" - who cares?)  Some of my favorite books this year were Jenny Offill's Dept of Speculation, Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation, Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You, Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams, Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist, Sarah MacLean's Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover, G. Willow Wilson's/Adrian Alphona's Ms. Marvel, Brian K. Vaughan's/Fiona Staples's Saga, and Eloisa James's Three Weeks with Lady X.  And those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head!

I read a pretty wide range of genres:

And a pretty wide range of formats (I'm about 50/50 or so on paper/digital and that suits me just fine):

My gender breakdown is 60/40 ladies to gents, which makes sense given that a good chunk of my genre reading comes from romance:

The 60/40 split has been pretty steady for a number of years, with the exception of 2012 because romance novels were almost the only thing I could handle reading when my mom was being treated for cancer (a guaranteed happy ending can go a long way...).

Most authors I read come from the US (followed by the UK, Australia, and Canada so it's really Anglophone up in here):

(and I'm super-sorry about spelling Malaysia wrong - it's corrected in the database now so should be correct next time I do this).

And what about race/POC?  The issue of reading diversely was huge this year in the book community, particularly on the bookternet.

Yeah, not so good.  I read more POC authors overall, but since I read more books in general the percentage of POC authors I read didn't go up.

(I deliberately didn't make the denominator discrete "authors" but counted each book individually in these stats - if I read 7 books by the same author, and that author happens to be white, that should be counted the same as if I read 7 books from 7 different white authors).

So the takeaway here is that I get an A+ in reading but a D- in diversity.

Diversity is one of my big, huge goals for 2015.  I am going to be more mindful about reading authors of color (i.e. not-white) and authors in translation which (in theory) might help with reading more POC authors.  I was really struck by Ann Morgan's blog A Year of Reading the World - she spent 2012 reading one book from each country on Earth (about 196 books total) - and now has a book coming out where she expands on themes and issues she encountered while trying to locate and read more books by non-UK/Commonwealth writers.  Reading the World will be published in the UK on February 5 and in the US as The World Between Two Covers in May.  I have a galley and am so excited and honored to have received one.  I'm also participating in the Goodreads Seasonal Reading Challenge group and the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge - a number of these tasks require reading non-white, non-US/Anglophone literature - so that will also help me keep my reading goal.

Other 2015 resolutions, which look suspiciously similar to 2014's resolutions:

1. Be mindful in my reading and bookish purchases - keeping this up will help so much with financial responsibility and the general amount of excess stuff in my house that I will never get around to reading/liking/re-reading.
2. Be timely on reviews - such a big deal, especially for books that I have requested as a reviewer (I know that there has been a lot of discussion in the book blogging community about what is "owed" to a publisher but, in my opinion, if a publicist, etc. has taken the time to send me an ARC or DRC then I should return the gesture by reading and reviewing the book in a timely manner).
3. Drink more water - do I need to drink as much Dt. Pepsi as I do? No.  Although, #deathbeforedecaf is still a mantra (you cannot separate me from my coffee).
4. Move more - the hip (and knees and back) and I have come to an agreement on ways of moving so I should be able to at least get on the elliptical and basic weights at the gym.
5. Cook for myself - I got a Dutch oven and new pots and pans for Christmas so this year the goal is to wean myself off of frozen dinners for 2/3 of my meals (they are handy, but my MSG-sensitivity is much less of an issue if I cook food for myself).
6. Be brave - I still hate having my picture taken or meeting new people but I need to keep putting myself out there.  Nothing gets accomplished by holing up in my house with the cats and books and not interacting with actual people in a social setting.
7. Take a vacation - I hope (HOPE HOPE) to have the finances sorted out enough to visit my friend Kate and see Rhinebeck (aka New York Sheep and Wool) this year.  ALSO, Book Riot announced their first live event in early November in NYC and I really, really, really want to go to that, too. (And see my friend Beth! And maybe Karen!)
8. Relax - cf. resolution #7.

And that's it!  Bring it, 2015!

You can see me holding my iPad up to the camera (and get a serious close-up of my face) in my BookTube video for my 2014 wrap-up - same thing as here, just more visual.

13 December 2014

Episode 15 - #Unboxing Riot Read #6!

Riot Read #6 came while I was running around the store in full bookstore-retail-at-Christmas mode! Surprise packages are so fun to come home to after a long day.

07 December 2014

Unboxing Book Riot's Quarterly Box #5!

So I've been getting the Book Riot Quarterly box for about a year now.  It's 50 dollars every three months and I love it.  Because if there's anything I love more than getting books it's getting a surprise box of books and bookish stuff.

03 December 2014

Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James (Holiday Blog Tour and Giveaway)


In the summer of 1791, fifteen-year-old Miss Jane Austen is determined to accomplish three things: to do something useful, write something worthy, and fall madly in love. While visiting at Goodnestone Park in Kent for a month of festivities in honor of her brother's engagement to Miss Elizabeth Bridges, Jane meets the boy-next-door—the wealthy, worldly, and devilishly handsome Edward Taylor, heir to Bifrons Park, and hopefully her heart! Like many of Jane’s future heroes and heroines, she soon realizes that there are obstacles—social, financial, and otherwise—blocking her path to love and marriage, one of them personified by her beautiful and sweet tempered rival, Charlotte Payler.

Unsure of her own budding romance, but confident in her powers of observation, Jane distracts herself by attempting to maneuver the affections of three other young couples. But when her well-intentioned matchmaking efforts turn into blundering misalliance, Jane must choose between following her own happily-ever-after, or repairing those relationships which, based on erroneous first impressions, she has misaligned.

In September 1796, Jane Austen wrote in a letter that she has passed by the estate of Bifrons, "the abode of him, on whom I once fondly doated."  "Him" is Edward Taylor and Syrie James has taken this mysterious nugget and spun a tale of fifteen-year-old Jane Austen and her first crush in 1791.

Seventeen-year-old Edward Taylor, heir to Bifrons, makes a favorable impression on the young Jane when he and his friend Tom Payler stop to rescue Jane, Cassandra, and their brother Charles when their carriage becomes stuck in the mud.  Edward is cosmopolitan, cultured, educated, good-natured, and handsome, all qualities perfectly designed to entrance an intelligent, ambitious, and sheltered young woman.  Their paths cross frequently with all the fêtes, balls, and visits held in honor of Jane's brother and his fiancée (and her sister and that sister's fiancée, who got unexpectedly engaged....).  Jane also sharpens her powers of observation (and her tongue) by observing the self-aggrandizing, unimaginative Lady Bridges and her daughters, the gregarious Sir Brook, various other neighbors, and, frustratingly, Miss Charlotte Payler - Tom Payler's younger sister and Jane's rival for Edward Taylor's affections.

Syrie James effortlessly captures the sweetness of teenage crushes - the uncertainty, the wish to impress, jealously, and the sudden certainty that, yes, this person above all others is destined to be your one-and-only.  But readers know, simply by the introduction to the novel, that this teenage love is destined to be bittersweet.  Jane herself tells us that she "once" was fond of Edward Taylor and James does a remarkable job giving the reader an engaging romantic plot while staying true to the biographical history of her very famous protagonist.

In addition to the marriage plot(s) Janeites and sharp readers will delight in picking out lines, scenes, and characters that James has borrowed from Austen's novels.  Sir Brook is an analogue to Sir John Middleton, from Sense and Sensibility.  Lady Bridges is a bit like a more-aware version of Lady Bertram from Mansfield Park.  Jane horses around by climbing a high wall to impress Edward Taylor, much like Louisa does to impress Captain Wentworth in Persuasion (don't worry, Jane is quite all right).  She even suffers from a combination of Elizabeth Bennet's prejudicial first impressions and Emma's blind but well-meant match-making.  These are lovely distractions from the separation we know comes at the end of the novel.

Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James is available now, wherever books are sold (Penguin and BN).


Syrie James, hailed as “the queen of nineteenth century re-imaginings” by Los Angeles Magazine, is the bestselling author of nine critically acclaimed novels that have been translated into 18 languages. Her books have been awarded the Audio Book Association Audie, designated as Editor’s Picks by Library Journal, named a Discover Great New Writer’s Selection by Barnes and Noble, a Great Group Read by the Women’s National Book Association, and Best Book of the Year by The Romance Reviews and Suspense Magazine. Syrie is a member of the WGA and lives in Los Angeles. Please visit her at syriejames.com, Facebook or say hello on Twitter @SyrieJames.


Grand Giveaway Contest

Win One of Five Fabulous Jane Austen-inspired Prize Packages

To celebrate the holidays and the release of Jane Austen's First Love, Syrie is giving away five prize packages filled with an amazing selection of Jane Austen-inspired gifts and books!

To enter the giveaway contest, simply leave a comment on any of the blog stops on the Jane Austen's First Love Holiday Blog Tour.

Increase your chances of winning by visiting multiple stops along the tour! Syrie's unique guest posts will be featured on a variety of subjects, along with fun interviews, spotlights, excerpts, and reviews of the novel. Contest closes at 11:59pm PT, December 21, 2014. Five lucky winners will be drawn at random from all of the comments on the tour, and announced on Syrie’s website on December 22, 2014. The giveaway contest is open to everyone, including international residents. Good luck to all!

25 November 2014

Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover by Sarah MacLean (The Rules of Scoundrels #4)

Big, big note: If you have not read the three previous books in Sarah MacLean's The Rules of Scoundrels series - A Rogue By Any Other Name, One Good Earl Deserves a Lover, and No Good Duke Goes Unpunished - you are warned that this last book in the series is a bit of a game-changer.  So if you don't want to be spoiled, stop reading this review now, go get the first three books in the series, read them, and then come back and read this review.  Actually, just buy this new fourth one, too, while you're at it.

So, you've been warned.

Summary from Goodreads:

She is the most powerful woman in Britain,
A queen of the London Underworld ...
But no one can ever know.

He is the only man smart enough to uncover the truth,
Putting all she has at risk . . .
Including her heart.

The fourth book in New York Times bestselling author Sarah MacLean’s incredible Rule of Scoundrels/Fallen Angels series. These four dark heroes will steal the hearts of their heroines and the readers alike! This is the last in the Rules of Scoundrels series—Chase’s story

By day, she is Lady Georgiana, sister to a Duke, ruined before her first season in the worst kind of scandal. But the truth is far more shocking—in London’s darkest corners, she is Chase, the mysterious, unknown founder of the city’s most legendary gaming hell. For years, her double identity has gone undiscovered . . . until now.

Brilliant, driven, handsome-as-sin Duncan West is intrigued by the beautiful, ruined woman who is somehow connected to a world of darkness and sin. He knows she is more than she seems and he vows to uncover all of Georgiana’s secrets, laying bare her past, threatening her present, and risking all she holds dear . . . including her heart.

The very last paragraph of No Good Duke Goes Unpunished blew speculation of Chase's identity wide-open.  We see what we wish to see and, in Chase's case, readers of Sarah MacLean's The Rules of Scoundrels series assumed that Chase was a man given that the three previous heroes, Chase's fellow owners of the Fallen Angel, were all male.  Very, very male.  Instead, Chase "smoothed her skirts."  Boom.

The mysterious Chase is Georgiana, first introduced to us as a frightened teenager in Ten Ways to be Adored When Landing a Lord from the Love by Numbers series.  It is now ten years later and Georgiana is determined to re-enter Society, the same nest of vipers who turned on her and who willingly spill dreadful secrets for the chance to try their luck at the Angel's tables, all for the sake of her nine-year-old daughter, Caroline.  A titled husband would help Caroline to find a husband with a rank worthy of a duke's niece so Chase puts aside her breeches (yep!), dons a proper corset and evening gown, and steps into the harsh glare of the ton.

And it is harsh indeed.  A gossip rag has previously published a cartoon of Georgiana as Lady Godiva - and included Caroline.  At the first ball, Georgiana overhears a hoity, snotty ton miss putting her down.  When the vicious girl oversteps and brings the subject of Caroline into the conversation, the lioness in Georgiana rises up and pounces.  Chase decides she will ruin the girl, as she has so many of the ton over the last decade.

Duncan West witnesses the tongue-lashing Georgiana has doled out.  Lady Georgiana is far more woman than the secluded, ruined, woeful young lady Society has expected.  The newspaper magnate is intrigued - he offers to make amends for damage the cartoon has caused.  With the help of his Society papers, he can help Georgiana to find the type of titled husband she requires, the type who won't ask any questions (because, secrets) and the type very unlikely to require many "wifely" duties.  Georgiana, who has previously interacted with Duncan in her guise as "Anna," the madam of the Angel, agrees.  Duncan, of course, has no idea she lives a double, even triple life.

The well-defined layers of Georgiana's life now begin to twist and shift.  By happenstance, Duncan's curricle is directly behind Georgiana's carriage when it leaves the ball and heads straight for the Fallen Angel, also Duncan's destination.  He is stunned to see the glittering Anna emerge from Georgiana's carriage and breeze through the Angel's entrance.  Armed with what he thinks is Georgiana's secret, he presents her with a second bargain: get him truly damaging information on a certain aristocrat (he won't tell her why) or he will unmask her.

Thus begins the back-and-forth dance between a man and a woman who each have secrets, damaging, potentially life-threatening secrets, and a taste for vengeance.  Can Georgiana trust Duncan with her true identity?   Can Duncan trust Georgiana with the truth of his origins?  Neither is willing to come clean and engage in outright confession.  Each time a layer of disguise is lifted away, Duncan and Georgiana are drawn closer together.  So close, they might unwittingly bring disaster upon themselves.

Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover is a brilliant conclusion to the Scoundrels series.  Chase is such a multi-dimensional character, with a life is so compartmentalized - ostracized single mother, guilty parent, breeches-wearing casino owner, alluring courtesan, brilliant social engineer - that she steps right off the page.  We, the readers, know all her secrets from the beginning and that makes us her allies.  We can watch with relish as Duncan makes wrong assumption after wrong assumption until we just want to shake him because the truth is staring him in the face...then turn around and shake Georgiana for denying herself true happiness.  We can laugh as Bourne, Cross, and Temple needle Chase about her attraction to Duncan and chuckle as Caroline adroitly puts all the adults to shame.  We can sigh when...well, that one is too good to spoil but there's a pool....  The conclusion to the novel is a parallel to Chase's favorite casino game - roulette, the only game that is truly a game of chance and cannot be predicted.

I cannot say enough good things about Never Judge a Lady or the Scoundrels series as a whole.  They are four of my favorite historical romance novels with unique, vibrant heroes and heroines.  So I conclude this review with one word: perfect.

Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover is on sale today, November 25, from your favorite retailer!

Dear FTC: I received access to a digital ARC via Avon Romance and Edelweiss.

19 October 2014

#Readathon Wrap-Up Fall 2014

Hello all!

Just a short Readathon wrap-up post!

I didn't get as much read this time around as I have in past years (the total page count is a bit down) due to work and I just couldn't get that "reading groove" going.

But I did finish four books and start a fifth:

So that's 992 pages and I read for 10 hours and 41 minutes total.  That's still really good!!

Thanks to all the organizers at Dewey's Readathon and I'll be ready to read-it-up in the spring!

18 October 2014

It's time for #Readathon! Dewey's 24-hr Readathon Fall 2014 edition

It's October and that means Readathon!  I'll be reading most of today, Saturday, October 18, except for the 12-6 block because I have to work at the bookstore.  Boo.

But I have a nice stack of books:

Authority by Jeff Vandermeer
The Penguin Book of Witches edited by Katherine Howe
Age of License by Lucy Knisley
People I Want to Punch in the Throat by Jen Mann
The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer
Field Notes on Democracy by Arundhati Roy
Please Ignore Vera Dietz by AS King
The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
California by Edan Lepucki
On the nook: Darling Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt and Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie
On the iPad: First Impressions by Charlie Lovett, The Human Body by Paulo Giordano, and a DRC that I kind of can't tell you I have (but it will be amazing!!!)

(I made a video of my stack and a few readathon tips for my BookTube channel if you want to watch)

In a goofy departure from my norm, most of my stack is comprised of library books and DRCs.  Go figure.

Righty-ho, then.  My coffee will be brewing, my scones are baked, my brownies are baked, my Excel spreadsheet is ready, and with any luck I will be awake for the kick-off at 7am CDT.

But if I'm not, my post will be up then.  Haha.

Get ready, get set, READ!!

13 August 2014

Unboxing Riot Read #2!

I recently joined the "book-tube" community.  Yeah, I'm a little behind the curve on that, but I decided to make an unboxing video for the Riot Read #2.  Enjoy!

11 August 2014

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Summary from Goodreads:
Finally, a novel that puts the "pissed" back into "epistolary."

Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the midwest. His department is facing draconian cuts and squalid quarters, while one floor above them the Economics Department is getting lavishly remodeled offices. His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part as the result of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novels. His star (he thinks) student can't catch a break with his brilliant (he thinks) work Accountant in a Bordello, based on Melville's Bartleby.

In short, his life is a tale of woe, and the vehicle this droll and inventive novel uses to tell that tale is a series of hilarious letters of recommendation that Fitger is endlessly called upon by his students and colleagues to produce, each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies. We recommend Dear Committee Members to you in the strongest possible terms.

Jason Fitger writes a lot of letters.  Letters of recommendation, letters of complaint, emails of the persuasive variety.  He writes letters for a writing student for whom Fitger seems to be the only one with visions of promising output.  He writes letters for one of those students for whom everything she touches - from law school to medical school to writing retreats - turns to gold.  He writes letters to the dean/chair/university president complaining about dwindling resources, fellow faculty members, and the din of construction.  You sympathize with the sheer number of letters.

But as humans go, he's also a dick.  He praises an institution in one paragraph and then undercuts with snide comments in the next.  He calls a colleague colorful names in one letter and in the next he's asking that colleague for a favor.  He's mined his personal life for fodder to mock in his novels and burned nearly every, last bridge (his writing career/reputation is currently non-existent).  His social filters are non-existent.

This short, epistolary novel is wry and uncomfortable.  We laugh at Fitger's tone while knowing all the while that his wording would likely get him fired in the real world (or maybe not; tenured faculty can have a lot of rope with which to hang themselves).  We sympathize with the letter recipients, even if we don't get to read their responses (if any - Fitgers letters might be the ones consigned immediately to the circular filing cabinet).

Dear Committee Members is a quick read, perfect for those who are looking for something similar to Amis's Lucky Jim.

Dear FTC: I received access to a digital review copy via the publisher.

09 July 2014

The Hundred-Year House

Summary from Goodreads:
Meet the Devohrs: Zee, a Marxist literary scholar who detests her parents’ wealth but nevertheless finds herself living in their carriage house; Gracie, her mother, who claims she can tell your lot in life by looking at your teeth; and Bruce, her step-father, stockpiling supplies for the Y2K apocalypse and perpetually late for his tee time. Then there’s Violet Devohr, Zee’s great-grandmother, who they say took her own life somewhere in the vast house, and whose massive oil portrait still hangs in the dining room.

Violet’s portrait was known to terrify the artists who resided at the house from the 1920s to the 1950s, when it served as the Laurelfield Arts Colony—and this is exactly the period Zee’s husband, Doug, is interested in. An out-of-work academic whose only hope of a future position is securing a book deal, Doug is stalled on his biography of the poet Edwin Parfitt, once in residence at the colony. All he needs to get the book back on track—besides some motivation and self-esteem—is access to the colony records, rotting away in the attic for decades. But when Doug begins to poke around where he shouldn’t, he finds Gracie guards the files with a strange ferocity, raising questions about what she might be hiding. The secrets of the hundred-year house would turn everything Doug and Zee think they know about her family on its head—that is, if they were to ever uncover them.

In this brilliantly conceived, ambitious, and deeply rewarding novel, Rebecca Makkai unfolds a generational saga in reverse, leading the reader back in time on a literary scavenger hunt as we seek to uncover the truth about these strange people and this mysterious house. With intelligence and humor, a daring narrative approach, and a lovingly satirical voice, Rebecca Makkai has crafted an unforgettable novel about family, fate and the incredible surprises life can offer.

Old houses seem to have a life of their own.  Laurelfield, the crumbling Chicago estate of an estranged offshoot of the Canadian Devohr family is no different.  The Devohrs seem to be a cursed line, plagued with suicides and mysterious deaths.  The last of the Devohrs are Gracie and her daughter Zee, born Zilla. Zee has returned home (reluctantly) to teach at the local college.  She and her husband Doug live in the Laurelfield carriage house, soon shared by another couple Case and Miriam, Zee's step-brother and his wife.  Things seem fairly orderly: Zee will teach (and try to get Doug hired at the college) and Doug will finish his monograph of Edwin Parfitt.

Then things start to go weirdly wrong.  Zee is obsessed with forcing out her elderly colleague, then imagines Doug and Miriam are having an affair. An old dress re-appears in a wrong place.  Doug writes and writes but not on his monograph - he is ghost-writing Baby-sitters' Club-type books.  Case suffers a series of accidents.  Gracie becomes fanatical about guarding the arts colony files from Doug.  Bruce begins hoarding supplies to survive the Y2K meltdown.  Is the house causing all these things to happen?  The ghost of Violet Devohr?

As the wheels begin to come off normality we find that the characters wear their identities like cloaks, one under the other, much like the history of the house reveals that it has been a home, a prison, and a haven of creativity.  Lies are created and lies are uncovered.  Relationships are made and broken.  At the end of each section we step through a doorway in time as the house sheds another layer to let us out into another one of its secrets.  It's a bit like a counter-part to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.  How much crazy is lent by the environment and how much is lent by the inhabitants?

Makkai's progression through Laurelfield's history is very interesting.  A reverse first-half of Cloud Atlas, if you will.  I only have one very minor bone to pick and that has to do with a very short (perhaps 10 pages) section where Makkai does a very neat wrap-up of all the previous characters' lives.  It's redundant, in my opinion, because readers who pay attention have already pegged what happened, it pulls you out of the established narrative of the book just before you get the very last bit of information that you need.

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai is available from Viking Adult on July 10.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book via the Penguin First to Read program.

01 July 2014

One Plus One

Summary from Goodreads:
American audiences have fallen in love with Jojo Moyes. Ever since she debuted stateside, she has captivated readers and reviewers alike, and hit the New York Times bestseller list with the word-of-mouth sensation, Me Before You. Now, with One Plus One, she’s written another contemporary opposites-attract love story that reads like a modern-day Two for the Road.

Suppose your life sucks. A lot. Your husband has done a vanishing act, your teenage stepson is being bullied and your math whiz daughter has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you can’t afford to pay for. That’s Jess’s life in a nutshell—until an unexpected knight-in-shining-armor offers to rescue them. Only Jess’s knight turns out to be Geeky Ed, the obnoxious tech millionaire whose vacation home she happens to clean. But Ed has big problems of his own, and driving the dysfunctional family to the Math Olympiad feels like his first unselfish act in ages . . . maybe ever.

One Plus One is Jojo Moyes at her astounding best. You’ll laugh, you’ll weep, and when you flip the last page, you’ll want to start all over again.

Confession time: I have yet to finish Jojo Moyes's Me Before You.  I'm about halfway through and I'm absolutely terrified of the ending because I'm not sure if I will "like" the ending as a critical reader or whether it will feel trite and manipulative and then I'll be ragingly annoyed.  There is a level of social realism in Moyes's writing that conveys an "anything might happen" situation.  So there was a bit of trepidation when I put in my name for a Penguin First to Read DRC of One Plus One and got lucky in the drawing.  Would I like it?  And, more importantly, could I finish it?

The above blurb doesn't quite do One Plus One justice because it gives a sense of zaniness or a madcap adventure.  And while there are moments of levity and goofy circumstances, this is not a funny rom-com where people dash all over England and Scotland in attempt to get a special child to a contest that she is guaranteed to win and a Happy Ending For All.


Jess is a single mother living on a council estate where she works two low-paying jobs (bartending and cleaning houses) to try and juggle the bills so that she and the kids can eat, pay rent and utilities, and have a bit leftover to take care of the dog and maybe have a small treat now and then.  She is ever the optimist, believing that being a good person and constantly working hard will bring rewards (she even avoids nagging her husband who, two years ago, went to live with his mother in what sounds like a bout of severe depression).  Her current desire is to get the hell out of that council estate because Nicky (her stepson) is being terrorized by a local crowd of bullies who have so terrified the neighborhood that witnesses to the abuse evaporate, even when an attack lands Nicky in the hospital.  If Nicky is beaten for being different (a little alternative, maybe a little glam, a good kid) what will happen to eight-year-old mathematics prodigy Tanzie when she gets to the same school?

Ed, though he works hard, grew up in a solidly middle-class family, went to a good school, and recently sold the software he created with his best friend to make a mint.  He had it all - until he made a spectacularly bad decision in giving an annoying booty call some "financial advice" (caveat: it's the Queen Bee from college that nerdy Ed couldn't ever hope to be with and he got played).  Now he's being investigated for insider trading, ostracized from work, and isolated at his beach house.

Jess is his house cleaner.  Later, he vaguely recognizes her at the pub when she calls him on being a jerk.  Through a series of plot machinations - chiefly, Tanzie's ability in maths, her acceptance at an elite school, Jess's desperation to cover the remaining ~2,000£ with a series of poorly thought out bad decisions, and a Maths Olympiad prize that could cover the amount and then some - Ed offers to drive Jess, Nicky, Tanzie, and Norman (the family's very large, drooly, smelly dog) to Scotland for the maths competition.

And this is where Moyes's social realism brings the issues of income and social class to a head.  Ed literally cannot wrap his head around why Jess makes sandwiches, avoids incurring expenses, and insists on paying him back.  When she says that he is rich, he demurs.  He describes the banking software he sold as costing the average person less than a penny per transaction (it sounds vaguely like a universal PayPal something or other); when Jess asks Tanzie to do the addition it comes out to over 100£ per year.  Ed protests that this is a rather paltry sum but Tanzie reels off exactly, almost to the penny, how much food and clothing the family could buy and how much Jess could stretch that amount for a family of three.

This conversation is one of the significant points in the book.  It illustrates how much the system makes a family like Jess's work for every little good thing.  That even in the face of the family's financial hardship the school that could save Tanzie thinks that a 90% scholarship is enough and that surely Jess could just fork over 2,000£.  The hidden shame that Jess makes all of Tanzie's clothes rather than buy them.  That the police can hardly be bothered when Nicky is hospitalized.  That Ed doesn't realize 100£ dribbled out over the course of a year could take a family from poor to destitute.  Tanzie's list of much needed items, a very pedestrian list to someone like me who, although I have bills and debts, doesn't have to worry about choosing between paying for the next meal or paying the rent, reads like a calorie count of food items recited by an anorectic.  Each strange set-back on the trip - motion sickness, food poisoning, Tanzie's broken glasses - seems like another brick in a wall meant to keep the lower classes low.  Even the maths competition is not the rewarding experience that is promised.

Alongside the issues of money and class, Moyes's also pulls bullying, cyberbullying, the ostracism of females who excel at STEM fields (I don't have a tidy word for that - it's feminism but that doesn't seem to fit right), slut shaming, and deadbeat dads into the mix.  Jess and Ed each make really stupid decisions, then regret them.  Nicky thinks that ignoring his problem will make it go away.  Even Tanzie makes a decision that could have disastrous consequences.  I was moved to tears at one point when Nicky discovers that the kindness of strangers is a real, true thing.  This is a novel about people who live real, messy lives and don't have the luxury of waiting for things to happen.  They grab onto their opportunities with both hands and if the ending isn't Happily Ever After it is certainly Happier and More Secure Than We Were.

Jojo Moyes's One Plus One is out today from Pamela Dorman Books.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book via Penguin's First to Read program.