Thursday, July 30, 2015

What I've Been Reading: July 2015

Now is the time that my reading really feels like it's getting cranking--it's too hot to do much else. A good book, a tall glass of iced tea, and either enjoying the AC or hoping for a cool breeze in the evening or the early mornings. Yes, the dog days make for some great excuses to loll around and read--I will absolutely take advantage! Here's what I've been reading recently.

Blueprints, by Barbara Delinsky. I haven't read one of Delinsky's books in years, but I was intrigued by the plot of this one and picked it up. A mother-daughter team (mother Caroline is a carpenter, daughter Jamie is an architect) work together on a local public television show called Gut It!, featuring their handiwork on home renovation projects in the area. On her 56th birthday, Caroline is informed by the producers that she is going to be replaced as host by her daughter, because "viewers want a fresh look," leaving Caroline shocked and furious. Jamie is mortified to be put at odds with her mother, and very reluctant to accept the new role thrust upon her. Add family tragedy to the mix and nothing will ever be the same, for either of them. This is an easy read, a little uneven, but I was really hoping for more of the home renovation aspects, as I found that particularly interesting.

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson. This very much not a sequel to Atkinson's hugely popular novel, Life After Life, but more of a companion volume. Where the first in the Todd family saga primarily featured Ursula Todd as she lived the beginning of the last century over and over, this second features brother Teddy and his experiences both during WWII in the Royal Air Force as a bomber pilot, but also long afterward with his wife, daughter and grandchildren--the book is their story as well. Fascinating, well-researched, deeply moving. I loved each of the deeply flawed characters. Bonus: the audio version is read by Alex Jennings, who has most recently been reading Jeffrey Archer's Clifton Chronicles. I highly recommend both versions.

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. I've been meaning to read this forever, since it came out four years ago. This is a love song to the children of the 1980s, for sure. In a dystopian 2044, life for most of Earth's humans takes place in virtual reality. Children go to school in virtual classrooms. Jobs are held in the OASIS realm, virtual credits and hard cash are interchangeable, even as the physical infrastructure decays around the millions who plug in. When James Halliday, child of the 80s and the creator of OASIS died years earlier, he left a clue, the first part to unlock a series of trials--the winner will inherit the creator's fortune, worth billions. But though there are thousands of dedicated people trying to puzzle out how to start the process, it is Wade Watts, a poverty-stricken orphan and devoted student of all things Halliday who deciphers the first clue. Then the race is on to stay ahead of the crowd who follows him, and the sinister corporation that wants to control the OASIS by reaching the final game first. This was fun, nostalgic, brilliant, and hugely entertaining--I highly recommend it. Of additional interest, Cline has just released a second novel, Armada. And Steven Spielberg just signed on to direct the film adaptation--expect to hear lots more about this in the coming months.

Dietland, by Sarai Walker. When I read that reviewers were calling this Bridget Jones meets Fight Club, I was more than a little intrigued. What I was met with was a compulsively readable, subversive novel about expectations, reality, and permission to be ourselves. Plum Kettle does her best not to be noticed, because when you're fat, to be noticed is to be judged, or mocked, or worse. She's counting down the days until her weight loss surgery, because once she's thin, her life can finally begin. Then she notices that she's being followed by a mysterious woman, and promptly falls down the rabbit hole known as Calliope House, a community of women who live their lives by their own terms and who challenge Plum to learn to do the same. It's only as she begins to come to terms with her own struggles that she realizes she's unwittingly become ensnared in a terrorist plot that is shaking the nation, with explosive consequences. I read this in two days--it is clever, wise-cracking and wise, and I thought it was amazing. Definitely recommended.

Pretty Is, by Maggie Mitchell. At 12, pretty and precocious Lois and Carly May were kidnapped and driven to a cabin in the Adirondacks, where they were held hostage for two months. As adults, each has reinvented herself as a way to cope with the repercussions of their time spent as captives together. Lois is a professor with an alter-ego, an author who has written a novelized version of what happened to them in the cabin so many years ago, a bestseller which will be turned into a movie. Carly May is now an actress...slated to play a role in the aforementioned movie. As circumstances draw the two women back together after years of silent suffering, it is to a conclusion that neither of them ever saw coming. Recommending this for suspense readers who want something a little off the beaten path. A great debut.

Those Girls, by Chevy Stevens. This is, in my humble opinion, the best of Stevens's novels since her debut, Still Missing (which I loved, by the way). With a rocky home life made worse when their mother dies, sisters Dani, Courtney and Jess stick together--working odd jobs to make ends meet, learning to cook and clean up and generally take care of themselves while their father disappears for weeks at a time. When they have to leave town after a bad situation gets worse, they have no idea that they've jumped straight into the fire, with little chance of escaping unscathed. Fast forward 17 years and they've started over, still trying to stick together, still haunted by their collective past. When one of them goes missing, it's up to the other two sisters to put the past to rest, for good, in order to save her and themselves. This has a lot of plot twists and narrative tension--I stayed up late and got up early to finish this one. Thriller readers really ought to check this out.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. This is a re-read for me, as my book club is discussing it at our September meeting and I needed a refresher. And timely, as I read it concurrently with it's companion novel, A God in Ruins (see my review above). You can read my original review here.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stadal. This was in my Picks list for this month, and I was delighted to get my hands on a copy just a few days ago--I haven't been able to put it down since. When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club. Each chapter tells the story of a single dish and a character, exploring food in terms of community and identity. Full of bittersweet moments, joy, surprises, and missed opportunities, this is a novel that I recommend without reservation.

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