Thursday, June 30, 2016

"Three-Martini Lunch" by Suzanne Rindell

As someone who made time to read every day throughout both undergrad and law school, I shrugged off people who told me bar prep was different. Undergrad and law school had scared others off from reading, too, and I had survived both with my love of literature and insatiable urge to read in any spare moment fully intact. What I hadn't anticipated about bar prep, though, is the sheer lack of down time, and even spare moments. There is so much to cram into my head that a spare moment should be spent with a handful of flashcards, not a few pages of a novel. Nonetheless, my dog needs walks, which means I need audiobooks. If there are good bar prep podcasts out there, I definitely do not want to know about them.

"Three-Martini Lunch" by Suzanne Rindell was recommended by several book podcasts and blogs while I was still in New York, and I'm sorry I can't remember any of them as I write this. Set in 1958 New York City, it tells the story of three 20-somethings whose lives are intertwined with the publishing industry. Cliff wants to be a writer, Eden wants to be an editor, and Miles wants to find out more about his father while working as bike messenger for the publishing houses. The novel explores each of their own identity issues as their lives intersect and they interact with one another - Cliff is the son of a famous editor, Eden is navigating the male-dominated industry as a young Jewish woman, and Miles is an African American man working through his sexual identity while trying to learn of his father's past.

The characters are all well-developed and interesting. Cliff is the least so, but his perspective is something of a linchpin without which the other two would seem only glancingly tangential. Miles is by far the most interesting, and the novel could have stood on its own with only his narrative. But I'm generally a fan of rotating narrators. It ultimately served this novel well, particularly with respect to the setting. Rindell showcases the city through the eyes of three young people who each experience it very differently. From Greenwich Village to Harlem, the novel portrays the different neighborhoods and communities throughout the city in their own lights, cognizant of what people feel at home in each and why.

Verdict: Affirmed. In addition to the excellent story, each character has their own narrator, and all performances shine. Rebecca Lowman in particular does wonderfully as Eden, which comes as no surprise since she has a history of excellent audio performances, including "Fangirl" and Rainbow Rowell's other novels.

"Three-Martini Lunch" by Suzanne Rindell, published April 5, 2016 by G.P. Putnam's Sons. Audio narration by Will Damron, J.D. Jackson, and Rebecca Lowman, published April 5, 2016 by Penguin Audio.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

"The Nest" by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's debut novel "The Nest" is exactly the type of novel I like for a summer read. Engaging, but not so engrossing that I can't leave it for my millions of summer plans (or bar prep this summer); interesting characters who are still familiar enough that they don't merit close investigation or consuming reflection; and above all, enjoyable & stimulating without weighing me down with intellectual insights. I recognize that could very easily be read as a list of backhanded compliments, but I really did enjoy this novel.

The premise: four siblings are awaiting the day when they receive an inheritance from their father, which they affectionately refer to as the nest. One of the siblings is involved in a horrific car accident months before they are all set to receive the inheritance, and their mother decides to use the funds to pay off the expenses and hush money the accident requires. The other siblings are miffed, as each had their own plans for their inheritance, and must now figure out how to navigate their rich people problems without the tidy sum of money they had come to expect.

None of the siblings' problems are life or death, and they are all of their own making - living beyond their means, taking out loans without telling their partners, failing to sustain a livable income or honor contractual obligations. They are nonetheless serious, and the types of things that will reasonably weigh on their minds as they figure out what to do in the wake of their brother's accident and the ransacking of their trust fund. The four siblings were each unique, and I particularly appreciated Sweeney's definition of each in part by how they relate to the others. Siblings as close or as intertwined as these do not develop their identities in isolation, and Sweeney captures that perfectly. She also does a great job capturing the wealthy, or want-to-be wealthy depending on the character, New York City setting. The novel lacks the grit or stakes of a novel dealing with true life-or-death problems, but still remains compelling and interesting for its accurate depiction of the problems of those who probably consider themselves upper middle class, but whom the rest of the country would likely consider upper class.

Verdict: Affirmed. If you're looking for a light beach or summer read with a bit more heft than your average chick lit, check this one out. It's great on audio if you're looking for a dog-walking read as well.

"The Nest" by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, published March 22, 2016 by Ecco. Audio narration by Mia Barron, published March 22, 2016 by HarperAudio.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

"Egg & Spoon" by Gregory Maguire

Thanks to Audiobook SYNC for providing yet another great audiobook! Though this one's download period is up, they'll be giving away two titles per week through August 17, 2016, so check in every Thursday to see what's new. 

I don't think the book description really does justice to this madcap fairy tale mash-up & retelling. Gregory Maguire takes the outlines of a prince & pauper identity swap and adds Baba Yaga to create the delightful, fresh "Egg & Spoon."

Elena is the pauper, a poor Russian girl living with her dying mother while her brothers are away. Ekaterina is the prince, a wealthy girl traveling by train to meet the nephew of the Tsar when she meets Elena during a pit stop. The set-up getting them to swap places was the dullest part of the book. It really took a while to get everyone situated and put all the necessary plot elements in place. During parts 1 & 2 out of 11 on audio, I considered abandoning this book for fear it would never get any more interesting then two girls comparing their vastly different lives in unsurprising ways.

I'm glad I waited it out. Ekaterina meets Baba Yaga after their switch, and things really pick up. Baba Yaga is a time-traveling, child-eating witch living in a house that walks around on chicken legs. She brought levity and wit to the story, generally keeping things interesting even when the plot itself wasn't moving too far along. As they work to reunite and swap places, Ekaterina and Elena learn about themselves, and ultimately embark on a mission with Baba Yaga, the Tsar's nephew, and a few other characters to figure out what exactly is wrong with the magic in Russia. The girls grow and learn more about themselves along the way, of course. Like Sam in "Every Last Word," this book's  SYNC-paired-audiobook, they come into their own and learn to see themselves in new lights, capable of more than they had previously believed.

Verdict: Affirmed. Even though the book felt clunky at times, with some less-than-deft maneuvering of characters from place to place, it turned out to be a really enjoyable read. For fans of Gregory Maguire generally, fantasy, or fairy tale retellings specifically, "Egg & Spoon" is worth checking out.

"Egg & Spoon" by Gregory Maguire, published September 9, 2014 by Candlewick Press. Audio narration by Michael Page, published September 9, 2014 by Brilliance Audio

Thursday, June 9, 2016

"How to Make White People Laugh" by Negin Farsad

Negin Farsad does social justice comedy, a thing she invented to use humor to bring people together. As an Iranian-American Muslim women, she uses her own identity crises as the basis for her comedy and as a launching pad for her message of inclusion and cross-cultural understanding.

I was fortunate enough to see Farsad speak at Politics & Prose on her new book "How to Make White People Laugh." You may also know her as a TEDFellow, or for her films "The Muslims are Coming!", "Nerdcore Rising", or "3rd Street Blackout". Her talk at Politics & Prose pulled heavily from her book, though she presented it like a stand-up comedy routine. It was one of her first events on her book tour, and I found her answers during the Q&A particularly entertaining and endearing, especially when she spoke of her parents. I chuckled along & happily picked up her book.

I didn't realize just how heavily her talk pulled from the book until I was reading and recognized many of the jokes verbatim. And then I watched her TED Talk from 2013, recognized the jokes & general direction, and realized it's basically the introduction to her book. But as I read on, I cared less and less. Negin's comedy is comprised of poop jokes and cursing and heartwarming moments by turn. There's a little something for everyone. And her message is inspiring and important. It boils down to getting to know each other a little better, so that society can become more accepting and understanding of everyone. She puts herself on the front line of this mission, using humor and her personal story to humanize Muslims to white, mainstream America.

Verdict: Affirmed. Pick your medium - whether you watch her TedTalk, read this book, or see her perform, Negin Farsad's social justice comedy is worth checking out.

"How to Make White People Laugh" by Negin Farsad, published May 24, 2016 by Grand Central Publishing.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

"Every Last Word" by Tamara Ireland Stone

This book was another great selection from the Audiobook SYNC. It was paired with "Egg & Spoon" by Gregory Maguire, with the mutual theme of "girls who seem to be nearly overcome by their situations, only to discover the power of their own voices." I haven't listened to "Egg & Spoon" yet, but I can't wait to compare it to "Every Last Word."

Samantha is the girl at the heart of this story, and her "situation" is purely-obsessional obsessive compulsive disorder. As a high school junior, she hides her mental illness from everyone except her family. Especially from her best friends, the Crazy Eights, who are the most popular girls in school. At the beginning of the school year, she meets Caroline, someone who Sam didn't think she'd ever hang out with. Caroline, in turn, shows her the Poet's Corner, a hidden room where a group of students meet to share their poetry. Sam hides her new group from the Crazy Eights, even as she begins to like who she is with them more than with her best friends. "Every Last Word" is the story of Sam figuring out where her friends, priorities, and mental illness fit into her personal identity and the type of person she wants to be.

This novel has been praised for its accurate, accessible portrayal of OCD, and I can only second that praise. I liked Sam, I rooted for Sam, and I got to learn something along the way. Yes, I suspected some plot points were coming, but they were well-executed and made fro a compelling read once they came to fruition (as I noted in my Goodreads review). Most importantly, Stone folded Sam's OCD into the story in an organic way: it's central, but not the only thing happening in Sam's life or the plot of the book. Sam deals with the same identity and friend struggles that most teenagers run up against, her OCD is just additional problem she has to deal with that's slightly more unique than her others. 

Verdict: Affirmed. For general readers of YA or anyone curious to know more about OCD through a novel, this is a great pick. 

"Every Last Word" by Tamara Ireland Stone, published June 16, 2015 by Disney-Hyperion. Audio narration by Amy Rubinate, published June 16, 2015 by Ideal Audiobooks.