Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Talking as Fast as I Can (Lauren Graham)

It's really funny -- a friend of mine has always told me that I needed to watch this terrific show called Gilmore Girls.  So one day over Christmas break, I began a Netflix binge, finishing the show completely (including the revival) last week.  I loved Lauren Graham's portrayal of Lorelai Gilmore so much that I recently read and reviewed her fiction novel (Someday, Someday Maybe) and began watching another show she was in, Parenthood (perfection!).  Her latest collection of essays, Talking as Fast as I Can, is a book that all of Graham's fans can enjoy, no matter what you know and love her from.

I got one thing straightaway from this book: Lauren Graham IS Lorelai Gilmore.  Whether she's talking about her experiences on Gilmore Girls or Parenthood, or all her many jobs before she became a bona fide TV star, reading her essays is as comforting as a hot cup of coffee from Luke's.  Graham's warmth comes through loud and clear, and her honesty is really refreshing in this day and age.

You can devour Talking as Fast as I Can in a single afternoon or savor each essay so the book lasts longer.  Either way, I bet you're going to love it.


The Girls (Emma Cline)

Every once in a while, a book comes along that has a huge waiting list at the library and many readers fawn over that I just don't understand why.  Such is the case with Emma Cline's The Girls.  To me, this novel didn't live up to its hype at all, and judging from other reviews on Goodreads, quite a few people seem to agree with me.

To put it simply, The Girls takes the horror of the true Manson murders and for the most part, just plops in fictional characters to replace the real life killers.  We see the "family" through the eyes of Evie, a 14-year-old girl living in the late 1960s who is completely disillusioned with her life.  Upon meeting members of this cult, she is drawn to them and their leader, Russell (you can only guess who he is supposed to represent).

If you think The Girls is going to be mostly about the actual killings, think again. They don't even happen until almost 90% of the book is finished.  Many times in these fictionalized accounts, knowing that something is definitely going to occur draws up quite a bit of suspense.  However, Cline just fills the previous pages with mundane details and lots and lots of sex, so The Girls was definitely not the page-turner I was expecting.


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Big Little Lies (Liane Moriarty)

Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies features an unforgettable cast of characters and a storyline that seamlessly alternates between all of them.  Even though Moriarty is often considered a chick lit type of author, her books are usually pretty smart, and Big Little Lies is one of the smartest of all of them.

The main premise and setting are odd for a novel like this -- a school where helicopter parenting abounds and lots of gossip takes place.  The three main women (Madeline, Celeste, and Jane) have much turmoil going on with their relationships, children, and lives in general, much of which are secrets they're keeping.  From the very beginning, the reader knows that something tragic will happen at the school's trivia night (of all events); Moriarty does this effortlessly by including snippets of conversation that characters in the town divulge to the detective on the case.  The fun comes from trying to figure out what exactly will occur and which character will be the victim.

Extremely well written, truly suspenseful and often downright funny, Moriarty reminds us that as much as we try, we probably don't know everything there is to know about our families, friends, and neighbors.


Thursday, April 13, 2017

Someday, Someday, Maybe (Lauren Graham)

"You have to watch Gilmore Girls!  What are you waiting for???"  After hearing this for the umpteenth time, I decided to catch the first episode on Netflix.  Six hours later, I realized I was still watching it.  I have since finished the series and loved every minute of it.  Even though the show is called "girls" plural, to me, it centers around Lorelei, which is why I was excited to find out that Lauren Graham, the actress who plays her, wrote Someday, Someday, Maybe.  Watch for my upcoming review of her book of essays, Talking as Fast as I Can.

Franny Banks is a New York City actress trying to make it in the big time.  When she first moved there, she gave herself a strict deadline: if she didn't have success by a certain date, she would go back home.  Time is running out, and even though she is getting a few minor jobs, she still hasn't broken out.  She lives with two roommates, Jane and Dan, and seriously struggles to make ends meet in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Someday, Someday, Maybe is often laugh-out-loud funny, and Franny is certainly a character that most people will find themselves rooting for.  Even though most of us don't know what it's like to be grasping at straws trying to make it as a working actor in New York City, we do understand what it's like to be a twentysomething (or older) attempting
to get all aspects of our lives straight. Because of this, Graham's novel is really quite relatable.

Celebrities writing fiction (or anything really) is sometimes not a good thing.  I'm happy to say that this isn't the case with Someday, Someday, Maybe.  Even though it's an average read, I found most of it enjoyable, so I'm going to give it a solid 3.5 rating.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Isabella of Castile (Giles Tremlett)

Isabella of Castille: Europe’s First Great Queen is a thorough profile of the Spanish monarch mostly known for financing the voyages of Christopher Columbus to the Caribbean in the 1490’s and 1500’s.  However, Isabella was a much more prominent monarch in European history.  Along with her husband Ferdinand, she was responsible for joining much of what is now Spain under one kingdom, unifying it through marriage and then through military and political conquest of the Moors in Southern Spain.

Giles Tremlett’s chronicle of Isabella is thorough but probably a little too lengthy to keep most readers' interest the entire time.  There is quite a lot of inside information about the political interweaving between the Roman church and European politics in the 15th Century, briefly touching on the corruption within and outside of the Church that fueled the Reformation and development of Protestant denominations in the 16th Century.  Isabella fought for a more pious church and nation, helping unify disparate confederacies and kingdoms into a singular state that dominated world politics for a century after her passing.

Tremlett’s book is generally fair in its approach, mentioning the negatives of Isabella’s lengthy reign in contrast to the strong points.  These conflicts worked to make Isabella an intriguing and interesting queen, traits that are not always seen among the great monarchs of European history.  Her rule was instrumental in setting the stage for our modern life in the Western Hemisphere through her desire to globalize and colonize foreign lands in pursuit of wealth and faith.  Tremlett astutely mentions that despite her strength in bringing Spain together as one geographic entity, it took centuries for the country to fully unify, and this slow, quarrelsome process was a contributing factor in the gradual decline of the Spanish Empire over time.  Isabella may have been a strong, powerful monarch, but her successors were not able to fulfill her vision.


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Burntown (Jennifer McMahon)

Jennifer McMahon and Jodi Picoult are the two authors I most look forward to seeing on the “Coming Soon” list.  In fact, I made the mistake of taking McMahon’s Island of Lost Girls on vacation one year.  I say “made the mistake” because reading that book was all I wanted to do -- no sightseeing or anything. In fact, that was one of the first books I reviewed on this blog back in July 2009.  McMahon has always succeeded in creating that creepy, “just one more chapter” atmosphere.  Until now, that is -- unfortunately, Burntown was no winner in my book.

The plot is quite difficult to explain, but I’ll make an attempt.  Eva grew up close to her father, Miles, and loved watching him invent wonderful things.  There’s one invention, however, that’s wanted by someone dangerous; this person will even resort to murder to get it.  Eva (later changing her name to Necco) has always believed that her father drowned in the Great Flood, but it’s only after the death of her mother and boyfriend that she begins to think differently. 

Helping Necco to find out what really happened is a motley crew of characters, and I found it difficult to care about any of them.  There were so many stories and threads going on here, and when they finally all came together, the payoff was less than rewarding.

I began reading Burntown in January, and it took everything in my power to finish it by March.  I found it boring, and far beneath McMahon’s usual standards.  Unfortunately, this was no Island of Lost Girls.


Friday, January 6, 2017

At the Edge of the World (Jean-Vincent Blanchard)

At the Edge of the World by Jean-Vincent Blanchard documents the first century of the French Foreign Legion, from its founding in the 1830's under a French king to its use as a force helping the French Republic expand throughout North Africa in the years after World War I.  It circles largely around Louis Herbert Gonzalve Lyautey, who rose through the ranks of the French Army to command several missions for the Foreign Legion in various French colonial military campaigns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A scholarly work, Blanchard spares little detail in the inner workings of the French Foreign Legion and how it's uniquely made up of both French citizens and foreigners who are willing to serve and fight for France in foreign lands.  The book as a whole, while solid and well-grounded from a historical standpoint, did not captivate me as much as other historical military books of the past have.  It comes across quite wonky and scholarly, lacking the ability to captivate this reader at several points.  

Blanchard also focuses much of the book on the French Foreign Legion’s impact in Morocco and Southeast Asia; this comes at the expense of covering its contributions and impact on World War I.  The author’s focus was clearly on French colonialism and the French Foreign Legion’s contribution to those efforts; however, skipping over a major global conflict seems inappropriate in telling the full story of this outfit of French fighters.