Today Will Be Different

Posted 3 October, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Today Will Be DifferentToday Will Be Different by Maria Semple
on October 4th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Women, Family Life, Humorous, General, Literary
Pages: 420
Format: Paperback ARC
Goodreads
four-half-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Eleanor knows she's a mess. But today, she will tackle the little things. She will shower and get dressed. She will have her poetry and yoga lessons after dropping off her son, Timby. She won't swear. She will initiate sex with her husband, Joe. But before she can put her modest plan into action-life happens. Today, it turns out, is the day Timby has decided to fake sick to weasel his way into his mother's company. It's also the day Joe has chosen to tell his office-but not Eleanor-that he's on vacation. Just when it seems like things can't go more awry, an encounter with a former colleague produces a graphic memoir whose dramatic tale threatens to reveal a buried family secret.

Eleanor Flood, the main character in Maria Semple’s new novel Today Will Be Different, is self absorbed, overprivileged, whiny, bitchy, and awful. I love her. In Today Will Be Different Semple manages to capture all the first world difficulties of being a white, upper-middle class woman with humor, grace, and a touch of zaniness. There is a delicate balance that this novel straddles between chick-lit and literary fiction and Semple does it perfectly.

Eleanor is a well fleshed out and fairly dynamic character, she has feelings that are tangible and completely relatable to me. The scene where she takes her son to the doctor after the school calls her (again!) to tell her he has a stomachache. The doctor’s judgmental gaze that causes her to change her plans from lunch (with a friend she hates) to ‘Mommy time!’ I have been there. Complete with avoiding my friends that I hate. The boring (wo)men that you meet through networking or play dates who have nothing of any interest to talk about. I know those (wo)men!

Today Will Be Different had me nodding along at every turn, empathizing with Eleanor’s moods and feelings. Semple throws in some of the craziness that made Bernadette such a lovable book and capitalizes on that style with a fun story, easy reading, and likable characters. My sole complaint with Today Will Be Different is the ending. It’s such a minor complaint but it takes just a touch of the polish off of what otherwise is an excellent and enjoyable book.

Months after writing this review I had a chat with Catherine at The Gilmore Guide to Books about it. She pointed out some of the flaws in the book – some of which I remembered and some of which after all this time – that I didn’t. The conclusion that I came to after our discussion was that I found Eleanor to be so relatable… the weird little plot flaws just didn’t matter for me.

I devoured Today Will Be Different in about a day and a half. It is highly readable, very enjoyable, and overall a great time. Recommended for anyone looking for some fun, light reading where you might recognize yourself.

Anyone out there who loved this book? Who loved Where’d You Go Bernadette?? Hated it? Thoughts, Reader?

April @ The Steadfast Reader

5 Comments/ : , , , ,

Divider

Terrific Tuesday: Children of the New World

Posted 6 September, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Terrific Tuesday: Children of the New WorldChildren of the New World: Stories by Alexander Weinstein
Published by Picador on September 13th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Science Fiction
Pages: 240
Format: Paperback ARC
Goodreads
four-half-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Children of the New World introduces readers to a near-future world of social media implants, memory manufacturers, dangerously immersive virtual reality games, and alarmingly intuitive robots. Many of these characters live in a utopian future of instant connection and technological gratification that belies an unbridgeable human distance, while others inhabit a post-collapse landscape made primitive by disaster, which they must work to rebuild as we once did millennia ago.
In “The Cartographers,” the main character works for a company that creates and sells virtual memories, while struggling to maintain a real-world relationship sabotaged by an addiction to his own creations. In “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” the robotic brother of an adopted Chinese child malfunctions, and only in his absence does the family realize how real a son he has become.

Children of the New World is fantastic. In fact, as of writing this review (30 July 2016), I have read 42 books this year. There are only two or three others that were as well written and enjoyable as Children of the New World. I picked up this book thinking that it was a novel, it wasn’t until I got halfway through the second story that I realized it wasn’t a novel but a collection of short stories. At that point I almost set it aside, (because I was in the mood for a novel) but ultimately decided to press on. Jeeze-o-pete, I’m so glad that I did.

I kind of relate this to the short story collection The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. Each story can absolutely stand on it’s own, but the collection as a whole is infinitely more enjoyable and most of the stories build off of the others in subtle and delightful ways. This method is how Weinstein has managed the extraordinary feat of excellent world building within the length of a short story. To be fair, the world building gets better the more stories that you read, but each story in Children of the New World is completely insular and most are 5 star stories in their own right.

A few of my favorites. Moksha takes the delightful idea that enlightenment is now something that has been digitized and can be downloaded into your brain – it’s now a drug that is illegal in most western markets. Phrases like:

There had been nonstop busts at yoga studios and health spas in the U.S.

made me giggle a little, but the chilling reality of where technology is going was, at times, sobering.

Later in the book with The Pyramid and the Ass the tenants of Buddhism are nearly criminalized and Weinstein makes ‘radical Buddhism’ synonymous with what the media calls ‘radical Islam’ today. Complete with kidnappings and mutilations. These kind of details are what I’m talking about when I say that Weinstein world builds within his collection of short stories. Both Moksha and The Pyramid and the Ass are excellent in their own right, but taken together they are phenomenal.

Another story in particular that I really enjoyed was the title story Children of the New World. In this story people are able to log into a virtual reality network and experience pleasures beyond their wildest dreams. They are also able to procreate, build houses, and lives in this reality (think The Sims). Children of the New World grapples with questions that I find to be extremely complex, even if they’re not quite ripe for discussion.

The only story that seems completely out of place and more incongruous than the others is the last one in the collection, Ice Age, I enjoyed this story, but it stood out – perhaps because of it’s placement – to be not quite a part of the same universe as the others.

So, Reader, has anyone has the pleasure of reading this collection yet? Thoughts and feelings on where technology is going for us? Is it out of control? 

April @ The Steadfast Reader

10 Comments/ : , , , ,

Divider

Magnificent Monday: A Gentleman in Moscow

Posted 5 September, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Magnificent Monday: A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Published by Viking on September 6th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Historical Fiction
Pages: 448
Format: Paperback ARC
Goodreads
five-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

A transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel. A Gentleman in Moscow immerses us in an elegantly drawn era with the story of Count Alexander Rostov. When, in 1922, he is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery.
Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

A Gentleman in Moscow is a beautiful character driven novel that really hit me square in the heart-space. To be fair, I only stood in line for Towles’ second novel because Catherine, Shannon, and other trusted bloggers ensured me that I should. A Gentleman in Moscow is not something I would have picked up on my own as I normally don’t go for historical fiction. But jeeze-o-pete, am I ever glad I got peer pressured into that signing line.

Despite being an American who spent twenty years as an ‘investment professional’, Towles has a real talent for rendering well formed and interesting characters from the Bolshevik revolution and also the U.S.S.R.. When my biggest complaint about a book is that I wanted more at the end – I consider that a win.

A Gentleman in Moscow is a sprawling novel a little in the vein of John Irving that follows a series of characters over decades. Count Rostov’s relationships with others at the Metropol hotel from the Bishop to Nina to Andrey are nearly flawlessly executed and completely believable. This novel is about the little things that make life worth living, if you’re looking for a plot driven action novel – you’re going to be disappointed with A Gentleman in Moscow. However, if you’re looking for a thoughtful character study that gives hope on the decency of humans as a whole – Towles has you covered.

I felt some sort of emotional connection with every character in this novel. If Towles were to write spin-offs describing the background and life trajectory of most of these characters — I would read those books.

A Gentleman in Moscow is an excellent novel and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

What about you, Reader? Have you read Towles’ Rules of Civility? Does A Gentleman in Moscow sound like your bag? Who else has read this?

April @ The Steadfast Reader

9 Comments/ : , , , , , ,

Divider

Whatever Wednesday: Before the Fall

Posted 13 July, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Whatever Wednesday: Before the FallBefore the Fall by Noah Hawley
Published by Grand Central Publishing on May 31st 2016
Pages: 400
Format: Paperback ARC
Goodreads
three-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

On a foggy summer night, eleven people—ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter—depart Martha's Vineyard on a private jet headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the plane plunges into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs—the painter—and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of an immensely wealthy and powerful media mogul's family.

With chapters weaving between the aftermath of the crash and the backstories of the passengers and crew members—including a Wall Street titan and his wife, a Texan-born party boy just in from London, a young woman questioning her path in life, and a career pilot—the mystery surrounding the tragedy heightens. As the passengers' intrigues unravel, odd coincidences point to a conspiracy. Was it merely by dumb chance that so many influential people perished? Or was something far more sinister at work? Events soon threaten to spiral out of control in an escalating storm of media outrage and accusations. And while Scott struggles to cope with fame that borders on notoriety, the authorities scramble to salvage the truth from the wreckage.

I’m going to dub 2016 “The Year of the ‘You Could Do Worse on a Plane’ Book” because seriously, that’s pretty much the rating I’ve given to everything this year.

Before the Fall is by no means a bad novel, but it’s not a particularly good novel either. It’s kind of fun the reconstruction of the accident, the push and pull of the suspense, and loving to hate the Fox News-esque anchor Bill Cunningham for exploiting the death of his boss and whipping up the public into a totally unnecessary frenzy. Actually, Bill Cunnigham’s role in the novel is perhaps the most interesting thing about it. He’s so repulsive and the way he behaves (both on and off the air) is so repugnant that it really leaves the reader to question the motivations behind cable news and info-tainment anchors on both sides of the aisle.

I also enjoyed the portions about the extreme swimmer and fitness guru from the fifties. The imagery of a man swimming from Alcatraz with his wrists chained, pulling a boat was just fabulous. Come to think of it, the stronger visual parts of Before the Fall all involved swimming.

The rest of the novel is a decent enough cross between a character study and a suspense novel. Before the Fall is not a great novel for book clubs because there’s not a whole lot to talk about. Once you’ve finished the book it’s pretty cut and dry. I only mention this because it was featured at BEA’s book club speed dating event and I tried to book club it myself.

Does this kind of action, suspense, character study type novel appeal to you, Reader? Has anyone else read this? Enjoy it? Not enjoy it? Thoughts and feelings?

April @ The Steadfast Reader

7 Comments/ : , , ,

Divider

Monday Controversy: Underground Airlines

Posted 11 July, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Monday Controversy: Underground AirlinesUnderground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
Published by Random House on July 5th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Alternative History, General
Pages: 336
Format: Paperback ARC
Goodreads
four-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

It is the present-day, and the world is as we know it. Except for one thing: slavery still exists.
Victor has escaped his life as a slave, but his freedom came at a high price. Striking a bargain with the government, he has to live his life working as a bounty hunter. And he is the best they’ve ever trained.

A mystery to himself, Victor tries to suppress his memories of his own childhood and convinces himself that he is just a good man doing bad work, unwilling to give up the freedom he is desperate to preserve. But in tracking his latest target, he can sense that that something isn’t quite right.
For this fugitive is a runaway holding something extraordinary. Something that could change the state of the country forever.

And in his pursuit, Victor discovers secrets at the core of his country's arrangement with the system that imprisoned him, secrets that will be preserved at any cost.

This is a good lesson on why to write your reviews as soon as you finish a book. I finished Underground Airlines last Monday, before (I read) the New York Times review, before (I knew about) the Twitter backlash, before the three days of violence in America. But here we are, living in the present, writing in reality. The question is, do I tackle the review or the controversy first? Let’s just see where things take us, shall we?

First, the world building is excellent. Underground Airlines, if nothing else it is well researched novel with a meticulously created world. The devil is in the details with this book and Winters does his due diligence in getting most of them. This is a novel where the plot will fail if the premise fails. If Winters had been unable to convince me that the Civil War had never happened, that slavery had been permanently enshrined in the Constitution, the the Hard Four were real, nothing else would have mattered. But the attention to detail in the world building makes the whole thing frighteningly plausible. It’s worth noting that Winters spends the first SIXTY EIGHT pages establishing his world.

Speaking of world building… I loved the literary name dropping Winters did. The subtle changing of the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird. “…about the Alabama runner [slave] who is discovered hiding in a small Tennessee town, and the courageous white lawyer who saves him from a vicious racist Deputy Marshal…” The celebration of Zora Neale Hurston’s “masterpiece” that was smuggled out of a sugarcane plantation “page by page” before Florida went free. These details are delightful to any bibliophile.

As far as the plot, stories, and characters go… these are a little more thin for me. I’m not a huge fan of crime noir novels, so the stylistic decision Winters made to frame the plot and Victor’s character in this fashion didn’t work overly well for me. I found the characters to be a little underdeveloped. What was really with Barton? (Though I did love the characterization that he had a ‘Mockingbird complex’ “…the white man is a the saver, the black man gets saved.”) Marsha’s motivation was believable, but there was still something missing with her… The point is the characters wer all pretty static and I wish that Winters had done more with them.

Overall I found this book to be immensely enjoyable and very readable. It’s thoughtful, well written, and will leave you thinking.

Meanwhile on Twitter…

I get it. I get the reality behind the diversity in books movement. I agree that Octavia Butler is an unsung hero and that it is wrong in so many ways. But (and here’s where I piss people off…), does that negate the fact that Winters has written an incredibly thoughtful book about race relations in America?

Look. When I started Underground Airlines I didn’t realize who Ben Winters was. Maybe a third of the way into the book I looked up who he was and had the thought, “Oh shit. He’s white.” At that point I had the thoughts and feelings on “Should he really be writing about this?” I was already committed to the story so I pressed on and it was a good book. Do I agree with Lev Grossman’s characterization that Winters is “fearless” for writing this novel? Not really. Do I think that it’s fair that Winters is getting backlash for writing this just because he’s white? Not really. Do I think that there are people of color who have written books with similar premises who have not gotten fair recognition? ABSOLUTELY.

I understand that people of color have an uphill battle in publishing. Hell, in life. But should we condemn a book that may reach a larger audience (because of the popular acclaim of his previous novels), which may get that audience to think about these issues? An audience that isn’t actively seeking out novels by people of color because they’re not book bloggers or social justice warriors, it’s an audience of casual readers. People who pick up crime novels because they want some beach reading, not all of them are going to be politically active – but Winters’s novel might reach them, it might make them think, it may turn someone who was previously apathetic into an ally. Is that a bad thing?

Just my take dear Reader. Respectful dissent is always encouraged. 

April @ The Steadfast Reader

7 Comments/ : , , , , , ,

Divider