An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

by Hank Green
First sentence: “Look, I am aware that you’re here for an epic tale of intrigue and mystery and adventure and near death and actual death, but in order to get to that (unless you want to skip to chapter 13–I’m not your boss) you’re going to have to deal with the fact that I, April May, in addition to being one of the most important things that has ever happened to the human race, am also a woman in her twenties who has made some mistakes.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It will be in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore, but a high school student who was interested could definitely read this one.

April May is just living her life — and not really her best one, at all — when she stumbles upon a… thing… in Manhattan at three a.m. She has enough presence of mind to grab her filmmaker friend and upload a video about the phenomenon that will come to be known as The Carls, which shoots April into the world of the famous. She  is at the forefront of everything Carl-related: TV stations want interviews, her YouTube and Twitter followers skyrocket. And, yet, no one knows what the Carls really want.

Soon, April is experiencing the darker side of fame: There are factions out there that want to defend the world from The Carls, and see April as a traitor for being a “spokesperson” for them. And it doesn’t help that April keeps burning the bridges between her and everyone in her life that cares about her.

There are two ways you can read this book:

1) as a straight-up science fiction story. And, to be honest, it kind of lacks on this level. It’s not really a great plot; you only find out what The Carls are up to at the end of the book, and it turns out to be rather anti-climatic. April is a questionable human being, more concerned about her own fame than the lives or feelings of the people around her (though I do wonder if I’d feel the same way if Green wrote April as a man). There’s a bit of action, but not much; it’s mostly talk about coding and uploading videos and dealing with people.

2) as an exploration of what fame can do to a “regular” person. This is where I thought the book actually worked. If you know anything about Green (one half of the Vlogbrothers, etc.), it seems that he is coming to terms with the way fame works, especially in the era of social media, and how that affects people. I found that part of the book to be fascinating; how the masses glom on to someone — anyone really — who says things we like (or don’t) and by the sheer force of numbers make that person famous. And how that fame — and the money advertisers and corporations and “news” stations are willing to throw at them — ultimately changes a person. It was an interesting exploration into April’s psyche and the ups and downs of fame.

An interesting read, in the end.

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The Dinner List

by Rebecca Serle
First sentence: “‘We’ve been waiting for an hour.’ That’s what Audrey says.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 11, 2018
Content: There is some (tasteful) sex, and a few swear words. (I don’t remember any f-bombs, but I may be wrong). It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

We all have seen those questions: Who would you want to have dinner with, if you could have it with anyone, dead or alive?

Sabrina wrote a list, and tonight, it came true. She’s having dinner with her five people: her (dead) alcoholic father who left when she was little, her favorite professor from college, her best friend, her ex-fiance, and Audrey Hepburn. They sit down for dinner, to talk, reconnect, and (perhaps) heal. Interspersed with the dinner conversation are chapters with the story of Sabrina and Tobias’s (he’s her ex) relationship.

It’s more than a cute romance book (though it is that, since there is an element of Fate to Sabrina and Tobias’s relationship), looking at forgiveness and what it takes to keep a relationship together. The personalities of the five dinner guests meshed really well, and I liked how they each played off each other. It was a sweet story (and I didn’t mind the twist too much) and an enjoyable read.

The Lost for Words Bookshop

by Stephanie Butland
First sentence: “A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some off-screen sex, some difficult themes, and a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Loveday (pronounced love-DEE) Cardew works in a used bookshop, and would rather not deal with anyone she doesn’t have to. Archie, the owner, is okay — he’s been informally looking out for her since she walked into his office at 15 and tried to steal a book and he offered her a job instead — but everyone else? Loveday is fine on her own, thank you very much.

But then two things happen: Nathan, a magician and a poet, accidentally walks into Loveday’s life, and books from her past start appearing at the bookshop. These two things combined force Loveday to rethink her relationship to her past, as well as to others around her. And maybe — just maybe — it’s time for a change.

It’s rare for me to find an adult book I like, even rarer to find one that I find completely charming. But this one hit all my buttons: it’s basically about book-lovers, and it’s a smart love story with a depth to it. I adored Loveday and her gruffness; as her backstory unfolds, you understand why she is the way she is, and you feel for her. And I loved Archie; he was definitely a personality that takes up the room. It was populated with all sorts of characters I wanted to get to know and loved spending time with. I also liked the format; Butland titled sections “Poetry” and “History” and “Memoir” among others, and I thought it was clever and fitting in a book set in a bookshop.

In short: this one was incredibly sweet and I adored it.

Audio book: Crazy Rich Asians

by Kevin Kwan
Read by Lynn Chen
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, plus some illusions to sex and a couple of pretty crass characters. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This is a trip and a half! Seriously. The basic plot is that Rachel Chu has gone to Singapore with her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, to attend the wedding of his best friend. What she thinks Nicholas is: a history professor who was educated at Oxford. What Nick really is: the grandson of one the richest people in Singapore, with a huge and wildly rich and snobbish family. Rachel — who grew up the daughter of a single immigrant mother in the US — has absolutely no idea how to fathom the wealth or handle the snubs of Nick’s family and friends.

What this book really was: a huge soap opera featuring incredibly wealthy Asians, both old money and new. The book was full of name-dropping and place dropping and everything dropping, but yet, I couldn’t stop listening. Partially it was because Chen is a fantastic narrator, handling all the accents, from old-world Chinese accented English, to both posh and Aussie English to a flat American accent. It was delightful listening to her nail every character and every voice. And, I have to admit, I love the soap-y aspect of it all. What wild and crazy and absurd and outrageous things are these people going to do?

It also serves as a reminder that a good percentage of the world’s money is not, actually, in the US. That there are some really really really rich Asians out there, and that they spend their money. A lot of money.

Was it a good book? Maybe not. But it sure was fun! (Am I going to read the sequels? Maybe…. Will I see the movie? Heck yeah!)

 

The Last Cruise

by Kate Christensen
First sentence: “As Christine walked out of the air conditioned terminal into the balmy, sweet air of Southern California, she inhaled sharply and wanted to laugh.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a lot of swearing (including multiple f-bombs) and some on-screen sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’m going to pitch this the same way the publisher rep pitched it to us. It’s a great character study set on this cruise ship — the last cruise of an old, retiring ship — and that’s all you think it is until something happens — I’m not going to say what — and everything gets really intense. You probably  won’t want to read this while on a cruise.

See, I don’t know what you’d expect from that, but I expected something Really Interesting. A murder perhaps. Or an accident that capsizes the ship. Something… intense. He was right: it is a really good character study of three main characters. A Hungarian chef, who wasn’t supposed to be on the cruise and who is considering getting out to start a restaurant (or something) and who just wants to be with his girlfriend in Paris; a New England farmer’s wife, who maybe just wants a little more out of her life; and an Israeli violist, who is in love with the first violinist in her quartet, whose wife has recently died and so they are now able to follow their hearts.

But, it never got intense. The Thing I Was Waiting For never happened. Something did happen — the engine dies, they’re stranded at sea, and everyone gets sick with norovirus — and when it first started I thought it was going to be big. But, it really wasn’t. They floated along for a week or so, and then they were rescued. A few people died from the sickness. Meh.

I think Christensen missed out on a really good opportunity by not focusing on the disgruntled kitchen staff — they organized a walk out to demand higher pay and their contracts reinstated  but it got lost in the engines dying — that sounded like it could be an interesting story.

In the end, this was just a reminder of why I don’t read too many adult fiction books.

 

Still Life

by Louise Penny
First sentence: “Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday.”
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Content: There are a few f-bombs, and some other mild swearing as well as few instances of disturbing violence. It’s in the mystery section of the bookstore.

I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while, just to see what the fuss about the Inspector Gamache stories are (we have a ton of customers who just love this series). This is the first one, which takes place in a small village in Quebec, around Thanksgiving weekend (which, since it’s Canada, is in mid-October…). A local woman, Jane Neal, dies in a hunting “accident”, pierced through the heart with a hunting arrow. Gamache is called in from Montreal to solve this case. There are ups and downs, setbacks and advances, and a junior detective that I didn’t get why Gamache was so impatient with. It’s a pretty simple plot, and one in which I guessed the ending early on, but then second guessed myself, so I was pretty miffed when it turned out to be the person I guessed.

It was an interesting portrait of a small town, but I didn’t love Gamache enough to want to revisit this series again and again. Still, I’m not disappointed to have read it.

My Name is Asher Lev

by Chaim Potok
First sentence: “My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion. ”
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Content: It’s long and often philosophical. It’s in the adult fiction section, but I think high schoolers who are interested in art should read this.

I’ve briefly talked about this book (in 2004 and in 2007), but I’ve not written a proper review. I probably haven’t picked up the story of Asher Lev in about 10 years, and doing the #ICTReads challenge gave me a chance to revisit this world of Brooklyn Hasidic Jews and the struggle between religion and art.

The basic story — if you haven’t heard — is that of  prodigy artist and orthodox Jew Asher Lev’s childhood and teenage years. His father was an ambassador for their sect leader, the Rebbe, and his mother ended up going to school to learn Russian to help with the work as well. They were both fully committed to their religion, to helping build up yeshivas (schools) around the world, and to helping Jews escape communist countries in the years after World War II. Asher’s passion, on the other hand, was to draw. He had a drive to do it, sometimes not even realizing that he was drawing. That’s not to say he wasn’t religious — he was. He went to school and to synagogue, he studied the Torah, he kept kosher. But, he wanted to create art. Which meant that his parents just didn’t understand him or his desires to do something so frivilous.

And it all comes to a head in his 20s, after he goes to Florence and Paris and has been abroad for many years. He comes back with paintings that use the form of the crucifixion —  he says in the book something along the lines of “what better way to depict anguish?” — and his parents, for whom Jesus is the symbol of suffering and hate, just cannot accept that.

It’s a very introspective book, musing about the meaning of art and the purpose of religion and whether there’s a place in religion for art that doesn’t conform to the rules of religion.  And while it’s often philosophical and sometimes has a tendency to be sluggish, I do think Potok does an excellent job walking the line between religion and art, and showing not only the conflict within Asher, but also between him and his parents (especially his father) and between his parents. And while I wish, now, that there were more female characters (there’s his mother, their housekeeper, and the art gallery director), it’s still an excellent book.