Thursday, March 27, 2014

Winger by Andrew Smith

Junior year is going to be different, Ryan Dean West has decided; he's been working out, he's got his eye on dating his gorgeous best friend Annie, and he's got big plans on diverting his boarding school classmate's focus away from the fact that he's only 14 years old.

It's a book about relationships and figuring things out as a teen. Rugby plays a central role, and the author does an excellent job explaining just enough about the sport but also keeps the story moving along. RD is a typical twisted teen - wonderfully insightful about a teammate's homosexuality, and then bullishly idiotic with his own hormones.

The text is liberally decorated with Ryan Dean's doodles (illustrations by Sam Bosma), which allow us to see into his head a bit. The book's a little gross, a lot horny, and overall excellent. Actually, the whole time I was reading I kept thinking it was a great book, and then at the end it became an AMAZING book. You'll have to figure out why on your own.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken

This fictional memoir tells the life-and-career story of comedian Mose Sharp and his partner-in-performance, Rocky Carter. These vaudeville actors eventually make the transition to radio and film, but it's their long and complex relationship that gives the book its dynamic story.

These two slightly broken men together create a work-marriage that outlasts every other partnership in their lives. It goes without saying this is a dysfunctional relationship and things maybe don't turn out so well. But it's the getting there that's fun.

I loved that this is a story I haven't read a million times over - it seems a fresh look at the relatively common theme on relationships. You love these men, and you want to smack them over the head for their foibles. The story doesn't focus overmuch on their financial success or their business - it's really an old man looking back at the brotherhood and his life. Highly recommended!

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

After his wife's death, a small-town book snob's soul begins to shrivel up; he's drinking himself to death, and his prickly personality isn't helping the bookstore stay afloat (he openly despises most of the clientele). But a woman, a baby, and his tight-knit community will eventually force A.J. to live, to grow, and maybe even to try new genres.

This is a captivating, lovely story and a book geek's dream: A.J. has opinions (and so do his customers) and the more well-read you are the more entertaining you'll find those references. It's a refreshing breeze of a book, with flawed, real "human" characters and a brisk pace.

It was hard to put down - and honestly, I finished it in just a couple sittings.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen

Elderly sisters Twiss and Milly live in their ancestral home, but the story of how they ended up spinsters, together, isn't as straightforward as it may seem. Everything changed during one summer - the summer their cousin Bett came to stay.

Our book discussion group chose to read this for next month (I'm working ahead), and I'm so glad they brought this one to my attention. It's a wonderful story about the bonds and allegiances within a family. I think it will be a good discussion title.

An extra bonus: it takes place in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and the landscape and community of the book are extremely familiar.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father by Alysia Abbott

Steve Abbott gave his daughter an unusual life; he was a devoted and loving only parent, a struggling full-time poet and writer, and on the front line of the 1980s AIDS epidemic as an out gay man in San Francisco.

It's a good book, and Alysia's honest in a way many might have glossed over. She didn't always behave well - often demanding her father's full attention to the detriment of the rest of his life. But it's overall a loving look at a nontraditional life, and the kind of story we've not heard much; since the AIDS epidemic primarily claimed gay men, most of its history has been written about the community of friends that grew up around sick men and their partners. This is a look at a marginalized group that's just beginning to speak out: children and wives of AIDS victims.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Best of Youth by Michael Dahlie

In this droll novel, a clueless young man struggles to find his place in life. Due to a family tragedy, he's a millionaire who doesn't NEED to work, yet he struggles to find something and someone with whom he connects.

It's a quick, funny book full of social commentary on the hipster lifestyle: alternative musicians, alternative magazines, boutique farming, and celebrity authors who've never written a page.

Henry longs to be a writer, and ends up a ghostwriter to a pompous Hollywood actor (second book I've read this month where that happens - strange new theme?). He's looking for a life partner, but ends up obsessed with a relative. And then there's a tragic farm accident.

This is an entertaining book, but I wasn't kidding when I said "droll." It's a literary, wry novel full of absurd self-involved people with first-world problems.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Guts by Roddy Doyle

Did you ever see the early-90s film "The Commitments" about an bunch of teens trying to become Ireland's greatest soul band? Doyle wrote the novel it was based on, along with several continuations: This is his fourth book in the Barrytown series.

The Commitments' manager Jimmy Rabbitte has stayed in music - he's made a career milking the nostalgia for Irish punk and folk acts, building internet sites and back-catalog sales for these mostly one-hit wonders.

But a sudden illness creates a strong sense of sentimentality about the glory days, and Jimmy starts to look up a few people he's lost touch with over the years. Most haven't fared so well, but a new music idea and a big outdoor concert help bring them all back to the friendship they'd enjoyed.

They're very relatable characters: flawed and funny, acting badly and also very bravely. This is a very funny book, but written in dialect and in a non-traditional quotation format - once you get used to it, it's a breeze, but I'll admit it took me a bit to get the hang of it.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

Two women - each chafing against the limitations imposed upon her by others. One is a privileged young woman in a white Southern colonial family who wishes for a life of books, learning, and the law; the other is the young black woman given as her own personal slave.

It's a story novelists love to tell and it's been done a million times, but this one's not without its merits. Notably, this novel is spun from true historical figures Sarah and Angelina Grimke, sisters who became radical and much-publicized abolitionists in the early 1800s. While the book is fiction, much is based in truth.

Additionally, the contrast between the white and black women's struggles against her bonds is well-done and interesting. Each finds a way to free herself, however temporarily - one through activism, the other through quilt making (although that storyline's not terribly fresh, either).

It's a captivating story, and I did enjoy it. But if you're a Jennifer Chiaverini reader, this one's going to seem hauntingly familiar.