Monday, May 22, 2017

A Head Full of Ghosts (Paul Tremblay)

In July of this year, 1776 Books will be celebrating its 8th anniversary.  In all that time, I can probably count on one hand how many times I've given a 5 rating.  When I began the blog, I worked hard on my definitions of each rating and described a 5 as "Excellent. I would read it again in a heartbeat."  To me, a 5 is practically perfect, and Paul Tremblay's A Head Full of Ghosts is that for me.

With so many books being released every week, it's getting difficult for one to surprise me.  I've read the historical fiction, the beach reads, and and the "I couldn't even begin to describe this book if I tried" novels.  I picked up A Head Full of Ghosts because I was looking for something different, and the possession/reality show plot caught my attention right away.

We begin simply with a normal suburban family -- John and Sarah Barrett are parents to Marjorie and Merry.  Merry worships the ground her older sister walks on and is always asking her to tell her stories.  But the family can't hide the fact that Marjorie is starting to act strangely, and in addition to sending her to a psychiatrist, John seeks the counsel of a priest.  John is also out of work, and when a reality show comes calling to film what they think is Marjorie's "possession", he finds it hard to say no.  What results is a suspenseful, often horrific, and utterly tragic story of the entire Barrett family.

A Head Full of Ghosts also ranks as a book I read in record time.  I normally like to take my time with novels I enjoy, allowing me to delve into each layer of the story.  With this one, I couldn't turn the pages fast enough.  You'd be hard pressed to find a more richly developed horror novel than this one.


Monday, May 15, 2017

Churchill, Roosevelt & Company (Lewis E. Lehrman)

Lewis E. Lehrman’s Churchill, Roosevelt & Company covers the stories of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt but also pulls their advisers and lower level government officials in to weave the narrative of the Americans and British during World War II.  While the Churchill-FDR relationship was unique in its flow and ebb through both men’s leadership of their respective nations, the management of that relationship and the Allied War effort by individuals such as John M. Keynes, Lord Halifax, Anthony Eden, Harry Hopkins, and Generals Marshall and Eisenhower played a more critical, substantive role in ensuring the two countries collaborated in their efforts to defeat the Axis Powers.

Lehrman compares the two leaders’ styles in managing and dealing with the Soviet Union during and especially after World War II, and shows how both countries were able to use each other (and each other’s strengths) to their advantage. The author skillfully moves between the British and Americans, weaving in tails of espionage and intrigue along the way to add extra spice to the historical narrative.

Above all, Churchill, Roosevelt & Company reinforces a most powerful lesson that all of us should remember: Relationships matter. The book shows many examples of how government policy and decision-making was influenced by interpersonal relationships by second and third level diplomats and lower level government advisers. While Churchill and FDR garnered the headlines, the dirty work in the trenches required that personal touch that Churchill and FDR were not always able to maintain during the balance of the war effort.


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.