Saturday, August 29, 2015

Review | Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Title: Still Alice
Author: Lisa Genova {website}
Publication Date: January 2009
Publisher: Gallery Books

Source & Format: Library; paperback
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble
This may be one of the most frightening novels you'll ever read. It's certainly one of the most unforgettable. Genova's debut revolves around Alice Howland - Harvard professor, gifted researcher and lecturer, wife,
and mother of three grown children. One day, Alice sets out for a run and soon realizes she has no idea how to find her way home. It's a route she has taken for years, but nothing looks familiar. She is utterly lost. Is her forgetfulness the result of menopausal symptoms? A ministroke? A neurological cancer? After a few doctors' appointments and medical tests, Alice has her diagnosis, and it's a shocker -- she has early-onset Alzheimer's disease. 

What follows is the story of Alice's slow but inevitable loss of memory and connection with reality, told from her perspective. She gradually loses the ability to follow a conversational thread, the story line of a book,
or to recall information she heard just moments before. To Genova's great credit, readers learn of the progression of Alice's disease through the reactions of others, as Alice does, so they feel what she feels -- a slowly building terror.

In Still Alice, Genova, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, uniquely reveals the experience of living with Alzheimer's. Hers is an unusual book -- both a moving novel and an important read.

This isn't an easy read.

The language isn't hard, despite many technical/medical terms - Genova goes out of her way to make the narration flow as simply as possible. Still Alice is a hard read because of the vast amount of emotions, each one taking the reader on a completely different roller coaster ride.

It took me a while to fall into Alice's story. I picked the book up and down, trying to get past the first scene as John, Alice's husband, searches for his perpetually missing keys. It was the moment Alice forgets her way home on her run that got to me: such an innocent, every day moment that marks the beginning of a major change in her life. From that moment, Alice and John became real figures in my life, people I wanted to hug and offer any help that I could.

Each character dealt with Alice's diagnosis differently: John searched desperately for a miracle drug, disbelieving the original diagnosis; the two older children fell into a cycle of disbelief, thinking/hoping if they just told their mother to remember, all of the missing pieces would fall into place; the younger, Lydia, became the strong pillar in Alice's life. What truly broke my heart was Alice's colleagues' reactions. I understood their detachment: there were still kids to teach, essays to grade, lectures to deliver, and she couldn't meet those qualifications (painfully revealed later in the story). The vast amount of humiliating moments, caused by either the disease or Alice's colleagues' reaction to it, made me feel for her and wish, like John, that a cure would appear.

The ending, however, was completely unexpected and utterly beautiful, sealing in Still Alice with the message that I think Genova was trying to teach us all along.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Review | H is for Homicide by Sue Grafton

Title: H is for Homicide
Author: Sue Grafton
Publication Date: June 1991
Publisher: Ballatine Books
Series: Kinsey Millhone {Book #8}
Source & Format: Library; paperback
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble
When PI Kinsey Millhone's good friend and colleague Parnell Perkins is found murdered in the parking lot behind California Fidelity Insurance, she can't believe he had any enemies. The only clue that raises a red flag for Kinsey is one of Parnell's files on a Bibianna Diaz, who appears to have made a lucrative career out of scamming insurance companies with phony claims…

Taking an alias, Kinsey goes undercover to befriend Bibianna, hoping she'll get close enough to catch the con artist at her own game. But Kinsey never dreams that hanging out with Bibianna will get them both thrown in jail. And when they're released, Bibianna's very jealous, very dangerous ex-fiancé Raymond Maldonado is waiting for them.

Kinsey soon discovers the short-tempered thug is the kingpin behind Bibianna's and countless other phony insurance claims. But was Raymond also responsible for Parnell's death? All Kinsey knows is that she'll have to think quick to nab one of the most treacherous criminals she's come face to face with--and keep herself alive…

It's hard to believe that at one point, I couldn't stand this series. I didn't like Kinsey's narration and the story felt flat more often than not.

I don't what I was thinking.

The Kinsey Millhone series has become one of my standing must-read/compulsively-buy. The combination of Kinsey's dry narration (maybe an acquired taste?), the intense and varied cast of characters, and the unique situations Kinsey finds herself in have me hooked. H is for Homicide lives up to this standard.

Out of the ones I've read so far, Kinsey's stories have followed a certain pattern: client hires her, she does some footwork, gets in a tight spot, uncovers a conspiracy/secret of some kind, and an action sequence ends the novel. H is for Homicide throws that out the window. Kinsey heads undercover (almost by accident at first) to discover who killed Parnell, a coworker at California Fidelity and a sort-of friend. What she finds isn't what she expected: an insurance fraud ring.

Kinsey's decision to go undercover reveals more about her character than if she had simply interviewed Bibianna, a client in Parnell's files suspected of insurance fraud. As she morphs into her alias Hannah Moore, Kinsey discovers the mix of guilt and a little snarky joy she finds in breaking the law. Her little walk on the wild side does wonders for her character.

I didn't expect to love Bibianna. To be honest, I was all set up to be irritated by her. Grafton creates a complex girl, one torn between her heart and survival. Her spirit and strength shone through even when she thought she was at her weakest.

For me, the highlight of H is for Homicide was Grafton's treatment of Tourette's. None of the characters pity or fear Raymond for the disorder - instead, they fear him for an entirely different reason. I admired that created a character and gave him a disorder that causes many polite people to wrinkle up their noses in pretend sympathy. Instead of letting it rule his character, the tics became only a part of it. It was his (terrifying) personality that stole the show.

If you haven't tried Grafton's series and love mystery like me, please do. I can't recommend them enough. Kinsey's dry narration and Grafton's fascinating set of characters leave me stunned each time.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Review | Dead Man's Chest by Rachel Caine

Title: "Dead Man's Chest"
Author: Rachel Caine {website}
Publication Date: October 2006

Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Series: There Be Pirates {Book 1}
Source & Format: Library; paperback
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble
Werewolves, vampires, witches, voodoo, Elvis---and weddings
An "ordinary" wedding can get crazy enough, so can you imagine what happens when otherworldly creatures are involved? Nine of the hottest authors of paranormal fiction answer that question in this delightful collection of supernatural wedding stories. What's the seating plan when rival clans of werewolves and vampires meet under the same roof? How can a couple in the throes of love overcome traps set by feuding relatives---who are experts at voodoo? Will you have a good marriage if your high-seas wedding is held on a cursed ship? How do you deal with a wedding singer who's just a little too good at impersonating Elvis?

Let's just say it's been a long week. And by Wednesday, I was more than ready for a little fun. I didn't know what to expect when picking up My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding, but Rachel Caine's "Dead Man's Chest" was exactly what I needed for a midweek pick-me-up! 

"Dead Man's Chest" begins with Cecelia standing on the dock, staring out at a rickety pirate ship with her romance cover model fiance, Ian. Yes. "Romance cover model." Talking over her quiet apprehensions, Ian hauls her aboard the pirate ship and back into the past for a quickie wedding on the romantic "cruise" ship and the grumpy Captain Lockhart. 

Something was off about Ian from the first moment, but Cecelia kept ignoring the little voice in her head that said they weren't the perfect match she originally hoped. Her internal dialogue was full of commentary, saying she'll never get another guy like him, he was too good for her, etc. I loved how Caine addressed this: instead of changing Ian to fit Cecelia's fantasy/nagging feeling, she made Cecilia come into her own and stand up for herself. She transitioned from a meek mouse into one hell of a lady. 

Although I loved the paranormal twists, I didn't quite get how the ending came about. Don't get me wrong, I much prefer the twists the story took instead of those it might have (trying to have this discussion without revealing what happened is difficult...), but it was hard to follow the logic. Then again, it's a pirate's this pirate ship. Logic isn't all it's cracked up to be here anyway.

I'm definitely looking for a Rachel Caine full-length novel when I head to the library tomorrow. Her characters were fun, engaging, the story fantastically fun to read, and "Dead Man's Chest" gave me a good laugh when I really needed one. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Review | Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

Title: Mrs. Hemingway
Publication Date: May 2014
Publisher: Penguin Books
Source & Format: Library; paperback
The Paris Wife was only the beginning of the story . . .

Paula McLain’s New York Times–bestselling novel piqued readers’ interest about Ernest Hemingway’s romantic life. But Hadley was only one of four women married, in turn, to the legendary writer. Just as T.C. Boyle’s bestseller The Women completed the picture begun by Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, Naomi Wood’s Mrs. Hemingway tells the story of how it was to love, and be loved by, the most famous and dashing writer of his generation. Hadley, Pauline, Martha and Mary: each Mrs. Hemingway thought their love would last forever; each one was wrong.

Told in four parts and based on real love letters and telegrams, Mrs. Hemingway reveals the explosive love triangles that wrecked each of Hemingway's marriages. Spanning 1920s bohemian Paris through 1960s Cold War America, populated with members of the fabled "Lost Generation," Mrs. Hemingway is a riveting tale of passion, love, and heartbreak.

We have a strange obsession with Ernest Hemingway. Even after 89 years since his first novel was published (The Sun Also Rises), Hemingway's legend lives on. It's so powerful that I even use a writing app, Hemingway Editor, to make my writing more concise. Despite this strong legacy, I didn't expect Wood's Mrs. Hemingway to be so powerful.

Ernest Hemingway was a busy guy; with four wives, it's amazing that he had any time to write. Mrs. Hemingway begins with his first wife, Hadley Hemingway, mulling over husband, their mutual friend, and her own mixed emotions. Hadley's character depiction was just the beginning: Wood creates each of the four wives as powerful and emotionally-charged characters.

I was a little put off when I realized that each wife had her turn at narration, but Wood's masterful writing style knocks this typically tricky narration out the park. To make each woman - Hadley, Fife, Martha and Mary - stand out as an individual and make the narration so smooth is quite an accomplishment and makes for an in-depth, intensive read. I felt Hadley's uncertainty, her jealousy, her relief. I recognized Fife's intense emotions, ranging from the feelings of a true first love to a mad rage. I admired Martha for her guts, recognizing that this life, whatever it was, wasn't for her. Mary's strength was dim at first (her and Martha's first conversation took me aback a bit), but her steadiness and courage was remarkable.

I found myself admiring these women, and through their eyes, seeing a new version of the legendary Ernest Hemingway. Mrs. Hemingway is a remarkable story, one that holds up the standard of the historical fiction genre, and one of my new favorite reads.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Review | Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo

Title: Ruin and Rising
Author: Leigh Bardugo {website}
Publication Date: June 2014
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co
Series: The Grisha {Book 1}
Source & Format: Library; hardcover
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble
The capital has fallen.

The Darkling rules Ravka from his shadow throne.

Now the nation's fate rests with a broken Sun Summoner, a disgraced tracker, and the shattered remnants of a once-great magical army.

Deep in an ancient network of tunnels and caverns, a weakened Alina must submit to the dubious protection of the Apparat and the zealots who worship her as a Saint. Yet her plans lie elsewhere, with the hunt for the elusive firebird and the hope that an outlaw prince still survives.

Alina will have to forge new alliances and put aside old rivalries as she and Mal race to find the last of Morozova's amplifiers. But as she begins to unravel the Darkling's secrets, she reveals a past that will forever alter her understanding of the bond they share and the power she wields. The firebird is the one thing that stands between Ravka and destruction—and claiming it could cost Alina the very future she’s fighting for.

There's no way around it: I was a little apprehensive about reading Ruin and Rising. What if the series ended badly or, like some I could mention, the love triangle ruined what could have been an amazing ending? I know, I know - the arrogance of the reader. I finally took the plunge last week when I saw this gorgeous book lingering in shelves and snagged it.

It was a little odd how many guys wanted Alina. They weren't all madly in love with her (that would have been a love...square?), but it felt a little silly at times. Yet, I appreciated how they wanted her for different reasons: Nikolai and the Darkling wanted her, partly, to further their own purposes, but Mal wanted her for her. That variety made the relationships/love interests easier to understand.

I admired how Bardugo made Alina almost intentionally imperfect and, in emphasizing her flaws, built up her character eveen more. Her struggles with the light and the dark, the constant tug of war in her heart and mind, made Sankta Alina more of a person. This war inside herself is something that's easy to identify: we've all struggled with something along the same lines: deciding who you want to be and then becoming it.

As for the story line itself, whoa. Bardugo filled page after page with unexpected plot twists that kept Ruin and Rising on my mind. Bardugo addressed each issue she brought up throughout the series and tied each off so the book, fantastic on its own, stands as an epic series-ender. She left me wondering how the characters are doing now, where they are, and how life has treated them. I look on them fondly, which to me is the mark of a well-written story.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Must List | Authors

I'm really particular about the books I chose to buy. Every year when I receive gift cards to bookstores, I hoard them carefully and research books until I finally decide which ones I want to buy. My bookshelves are so crowded, and while I should probably stick to the rule of giving one away for every one I buy...well, that's just not going to happen. 

However, these ten authors I can't resist. If I see a new book of theirs displayed/online, all that research goes right out the window and out come the gift cards.

J.D. Robb // If you've read The Canon for a while, you'll know about my love for this series.
Jim Butcher // Ditto for The Dresden Files. A must for any paranormal/mystery lover.
Philippa Gregory // She seems to be a hit or miss for many people, but I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for The Other Boleyn Girl. Her Tudor stuff is fantastic.
Janet Evanovich // Want a laugh? Read Stephanie Plum
Sue Grafton // A new adoration, but the Kinsey Millhone series is quickly rising to an obsession. 
Marissa Meyer // Sci-fi fairy tales retellings? Yes please!
Susan Elizabeth Phillips // Quite simply, the queen of contemporary romance.
Dan Brown // Love him or hate him, The Da Vinci Code is a great read.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle // Sherlock. Need I say more?
George R.R. Martin // Another recent. I struggled with the beginning of Game of Thrones, but after the first few chapters, I was hooked.

Runner-up: Diana Gabaldon. She might move up to the list depending on how Dragonfly in Amber goes. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Mini Monday | "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"

Title: "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"
Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 
Publication Date: 1892
Series: Sherlock Holmes {Book 12}
Source & Format: Owned; paperback
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble
Holmes and Watson have a visitor one morning, the lovely governess Miss Violet Hunter. Her tale starts as she applies for a new position and finds the nearly perfect one: one charge and a great wage. The drawback? Her employer has some peculiar requests, such as cutting off her hair, wearing and electric blue dress, and sitting in a certain spot when he tells her to. Her visit ends with Holmes offering his assistance should she ever need it. 

Although there's a great deal more to the story, I can't go into it without ruining the plot twists (and believe me, there's quite a few). "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" had an air of the the uncanny, the vaguely terrifying, from the moment Miss Hunter began her story. Although her employers, the Rucastles, were offering a great salary for such a position, the life he outlined in their brief interview (recounted by Hunter) terrified me. The specific nature of the requests, the strange excitement he displayed when he first saw Hunter, and odder experiences she has at the house all catapult "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" to number one in the list of my favorite Sherlock stories. 

Why? For such a short story, "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" is captivating. Aside from the mystery and the uncanny air, Doyle allows both Holmes' and Watson's characters to shine through individually: Holmes in his element and Watson, even slightly perturbed, in his.