Tuesday, March 28, 2017

"Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty" by Ramona Ausubel

This 2016 summer release is a doozie. I have so many mixed feelings, so let me just unpack them.

Fern and Edgar are the children of wealthy New Englanders, living a life of ease with their three children when they learn Fern's family money has run out upon the death of her parents. This news sends the couple careening in different directions as they grapple with the choices they must make about their family's future and the changes their decisions will necessitate in their lifestyle.

Fern and Edgar each split off on trips with  a different person who is not their spouse, leaving their 9-year-old daughter and twin 6-year-old sons to fend for themselves. This is children plot line is absurd. Each parent assumes the other is with the children and are not communicating with each other or the children themselves. These are people who are otherwise presented as sane, rational humans, albeit facing difficult decisions. I just did not buy it. There were other, more minor points with Fern's parents and her travel companion that were also not-too-convincingly described, the this children plot line was an absolute mess.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the excursions into Fern and Edgar's minds, and those of their parents, as they navigated how to live their lives of privilege. Their musings and thought processes are well-written and provide an interesting topic for thought and discussion. The story is told in alternating timelines, which is always confusing on audio, but the background is doled out in bits that tie to the main characters' current musings such that I didn't find myself hopelessly lost. Definitely readable on audio without losing the story or what makes this book tick.

Verdict: Jury's out. There is some interesting food for thought in here, but if you can't get past questionable plot points for the sake of moving the story, look elsewhere.

"Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty" by Ramona Ausubel, published June 14, 2016 by Riverhead Books.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen

I was born and raised in New Jersey, a few towns over from Bruce Springsteen's hometown of Freehold & his current home in Rumson. When people ask what part of NJ I'm from, I describe it as "Springsteen country." An earlier biography of his was one of my first reviews for the Morningside Muckraker, and I enjoyed learning more about the man behind the music I grew up with. Now, his autobiography gives fans the chance to learn more from the Boss himself.

The voice in which Springsteen writes is familiar to his fans - it's the same voice we flock to in his music. His prose is lyrical and accessible, familiar and enchanting. It shouldn't be a surprise that he can turn a beautiful phrase, but it was a joy to see how well his songwriting talent translated to prose. And bonus for audiobook listeners, he does the narration himself. This is a plus for most memoirs, but when it's someone known for his distinct voice, it is particularly special.

Springsteen doesn't shy away from the conflicts in his life, both internal and interpersonal. He writes of his own struggles with mental illness honestly and frankly, which I always appreciate. He also describes his relationships, and at times, clashes with those with whom he has works. I was particularly impressed with the respect he demonstrates for everyone about whom he writes. He describes their faults and how those faults interact with his own, sometimes combustibly. Because of his frank admissions of his own shortcomings as a root cause of conflicts with others, his descriptions of the faults of others do not seem vindictive. It is clear that he is a mature adult writing, describing others with magnanimity and fairness.

Verdict: Affirmed. If you're a Springsteen fan, it's a must read. It's also an enjoyable read for anyone who enjoys a beautifully-written career memoir.

"Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen, published September 27, 2016 by Simon & Schuster. Audio narration by Bruce Springsteen, published December 6, 2016.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

"My Lady Jane" by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

I have read a lot of historical fiction novels set in the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. It's an interest that dates all the way back to middle school when I first read "Queen's Own Fool" by Jane Yolen, about Mary Queen of Scots. So it is with great confidence and familiarity that I declare "My Lady Jane" one of the freshest, most entertaining novels of Henry VIII's children.

The writers admit in their dedication and prologue that they are taking considerable liberties with historical facts to tell this tale. In real history, Lady Jane Grey took the throne upon her 15-year-old cousin King Edward VI's death. She reigned for nine days before Edward's older sister Mary I claimed the throne. There's a lot more political intrigue behind this, but those are the bare facts. What happens in "My Lady Jane" is markedly different. 

To begin with, instead of a raging social conflict between Protestants and Catholics, we have one between shapeshifters and those without such a gift. Henry VIII would turn into a lion when he was angry, scaring everyone in the court lest he eat someone. So it is not surprising that Verities without such an ability would be distrusting of those with the gift. Meanwhile, Jane is a fierce heroine, and those around her are entertaining as well. Two women met later on the adventure, without giving spoilers, are particular joys. The writing is hilarious, with witty asides and explanations littered throughout. I listened on audio, regularly laughed out loud, and some excerpts even caught Kyle's attention. 

Verdict: Affirmed. This YA take on a grim political tale subverts the true story with wit and humor, and everyone is better off for it.

"My Lady Jane" by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, published June 7, 2016 by HarperTeen. Audio narration by Katherine Kellgren, published June 7, 2016 by HarperCollins.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

"Gizelle's Bucket List" by Lauren Fern Watt

FTC Disclosure: I received a copy from the publisher for review consideration. Below is my honest review.

If you know me personally, you probably know New York City was not my favorite place to live while I was in law school. (This probably has something to do with the fact that I spent a lot of time studying and didn't find a ton of time to stray too far from my school.) When I went back for my final semester, I had one buddy who made it remarkably more enjoyable: my scruffy rescue terrier Forrest. Having a dog in the city is a ton more work than having a dog when you have a backyard, but a dog also gets you out into the city in ways and with people you never would have experienced or met otherwise. Forrest and I wandered up and down Morningside Heights, wondering at the incredible variety of food people left lying on the street -- he in awe at his good fortune, myself in disgust. We became regulars at our local dog park & everyone cheered when my timid pup finally made friends with the calmer dogs. Forrest barked with the might of a dog twice his size at the strange delivery guy who showed up (unsolicited) at 11:30pm, and I protected him as best I could from the scary radiator noises that are the bane of many NYC apartments.

Lauren Fern Watt can relate to these types of experiences, and plenty more besides. When she graduated from college, she and her 160-pound mastiff, Gizelle, moved to New York City. It's a city that's not built for much personal space, never mind an extra large pup. They attracted plenty of stares and comments, but found the same sorts of routines and special experiences open only to those who brave the city with a canine companion. Watt tells her story of Gizelle's life in two parts: the first runs from getting to Gizelle as a puppy through settling into NYC. The second half is the inevitability every pet owner knows will come, but never wants to face: finding out your best bud is sick & figuring out how to handle what comes next.

Watt makes the best of Gizelle's remaining time, finding adventures to enjoy together and prioritizing spending time with her. Watt grew up alongside Gizelle, drawing strength from her pet while she learned how to cope with her mother's addictions and to navigate her relationships with friends, boyfriends, and family. I don't know how non-pet-owners will relate to Watt's story, but the many lessons and strengths she learned from Gizelle rang true to my own experience. Watt's prose is light and conversational, and the memoir is an easy, heartfelt read. A warning, though: she does not shy away from the tough ending, and I cried while snuggling Forrest extra close for the last 30 pages.

Verdict: Affirmed. This book may have been an unusually perfect fit for me, but I tore through it in two days. If you're a dog lover and can handle a good cry over a life well lived, you'll appreciate this memoir.

"Gizelle's Bucket List: My Life with a Very Large Dog" by Lauren Fern Watt, published March 7, 2017 by Simon & Schuster.