Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Where'd You Go, BernadetteWhere’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Published by Little, Brown and Company

From the publisher:

Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle—and people in general—has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence—creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is every bit as charming and wonderful as everyone says it is. I put off reading this one for a while because I thought it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype – it seemed like literally EVERYONE loved it – but it turned out that all that hype was for good reason.

Semple does so many things well in this novel. She crafted such flawed, ridiculously real characters in Bernadette, her husband, and all of the secondary characters that are sprinkled throughout the book – the moms at school and her husband’s administrative assistant come to mind most prominently. And Bee is SUCH a charming, sweet girl that I just wanted the best for. She’s crafty, super intelligent, creative, spunky, just an overall awesome kid. And the fierce love and protectiveness she felt for her mother absolutely melted me.

Semple really knows how to structure a book to get the reader fully invested and take them on this incredible journey with the characters. Her set-up to Bernadette’s disappearance took nearly half the book, and throughout that time I grew so attached to these characters, all the while knowing that their worlds were about to implode, and I was both looking forward to that part in the book and fearing it at the same time.

Another thing that I loved about the novel is the incredible sense of place that Semple created with her writing. I have been to Seattle once, and I loved it, and Semple made me want to go back there right now. Even though Bernadette hated Seattle, the ways she described it still held my interest and reminded me of all the things I loved about visiting there. And once the disappearance happens, and Bee and her dad go off in search of Bernadette, the descriptions of where they went to look for her were fantastic. I wanted to go there, too (I won’t tell you where they went!).

The search for Bernadette is kind of like a wild goose chase but was handled perfectly in Semple’s highly capable hands. I couldn’t stop listening as Bee and her dad got closer and closer to figuring out what happened to her mom. There were some major surprises toward the end and I was truly satisfied by the time it was over.

I listened to the audio of Where’d You Go, Bernadette and it was an excellent choice. Lots of the story is told through emails and other nontraditional forms of communication, but somehow the narrator, Kathleen Wilhoite, handled the whole thing flawlessly. It wasn’t difficult at all for me to follow what was happening, who was speaking, etc. – it was just perfect.

This book really is as wonderful as everyone is saying. I absolutely loved it.

The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

The Silver Linings PlaybookThe Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
Published by Sarah Crichton Books

Pat Peoples has just gotten out of a mental health facility where he spent several years after an unnamed incident occurred. Pat doesn’t know how long he was there or why he was there, but what he does know is that his goal is to get back together with his estranged wife, Nikki. Unfortunately, no one in his life will talk to him about Nikki, and he’s being pursued by another woman, Tiffany. Also, everything has changed since he’s been gone and he just can’t figure out why.

This novel is so absolutely wonderful and quirky and sweet and a little sad but really just fantastic. I enjoyed every minute I spent inside Pat’s head and Matthew Quick is an author I’m very intrigued by after having read this book.

I loved getting to know Pat, frustrating as he was. He was just so determined to get back together with Nikki even though it’s obvious to everyone, including the reader, that this is an impossibility. Why this is impossible isn’t quite clear, as Pat doesn’t seem to recall himself what exactly happened that led to their separation. The fact that he doesn’t know all the facts of his own life creates a tension-filled story, as the reader desperately wants to understand what happened, but only gets bits and pieces along the way as Pat’s gaps in memory are slowly filled.

The supporting characters really give the book that extra push that it needed to be truly successful. Since Pat is such an unreliable narrator, we need these other characters to help him (and the reader) come to the full reality of his situation. Pat’s mother and to a lesser degree, his father, his brother, his therapist, and his best friend, they all help him uncover the truth about his life and help get the reader to see it too. Tiffany, although also somewhat in the dark about Pat’s past, sort of ties everything together as she has a past of her own that she’s trying to heal from. I loved Pat and Tiffany together and as they got to know each other better, their two types of crazy just fit so well together. Theirs was a sweet relationship, one that worked so well because it was so incredibly flawed but so very, very human.

I listened to the audio of The Silver Linings Playbook, and narrator Ray Porter did an excellent job. The emotion in his voice was spot-on and in my head, he truly was Pat Peoples. I highly recommend the audio if you are going to read the book.

I did watch the movie, too, and I’m glad I waited until after I read the book because the movie is very different from the book. The basics are the same, but in the movie the big event that changed Pat’s life is revealed at the very beginning of the movie, and in the book it’s this big secret that the reader doesn’t learn about until the very end. I HIGHLY recommend reading the book first if you’re going to do both, because the movie would totally ruin the book for you otherwise (in my opinion of course). But the acting in the movie was, of course, fantastic, and I did enjoy the movie quite a bit.

The Silver Linings Playbook is a wonderfully sweet novel that really surprised me. I loved getting to know Pat Peoples and his story is one of forgiveness, redemption, and moving on in life when things don’t quite go your way. I highly recommend the novel and I look forward to reading more from Matthew Quick.

Mini-review binge

Tell the Wolves I'm HomeTell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
Published by Random House

June Elbus is fourteen years old in 1987 when her beloved uncle Finn dies of AIDS. Her family can barely speak of the reason for his death, and they definitely don’t talk about the man they believe killed him by giving him the disease, his long-time partner Toby. When June begins a secret friendship with Toby, she learns of this whole other life that Finn had, a life he kept her completely out of, his life with Toby.

You guys, this book is everything. Heartbreaking, unflinchingly honest, great characters, perfect writing, EVERYTHING. I loved it and I need you to read it. I just wanted to reach through the pages and give this girl some love. So, so sad but so beautiful too. Please read it.

House of BathoryHouse of Bathory by Linda Lafferty
Published by Amazon Publishing

Elizabeth Bathory, a countess in the early 1600’s, ruled a castle in Slovakia, and rumor has it that she tortured and killed hundreds of young women, after which she would bathe in their blood to preserve her youth. Four hundred years later, Betsy Plath, a psychologist, is working with difficult teen Daisy Hart, when the two of them discover ties from the legend of Bathory to their own lives.

This book is why I love being in book clubs. I never would have picked this up on my own, it is totally not my thing, but I really, really liked it. The plot was intense and unique and, especially in the second half, like a thrill ride that I didn’t want to put down. My only complaint would be that the writing is far from perfect, but honestly I was so captivated by the craziness and the characters that I didn’t really care about the writing.

Eating AnimalsEating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
Published by Little, Brown and Company

This book is by far the most compelling and well-written case against eating animals that I’ve ever read. I’ve always gone back and forth between wanting to go vegetarian and loving meat and Eating Animals might just have pushed me over the edge. Although I can’t quite get there all the way (I still eat seafood, eggs, and some dairy products), I haven’t eaten red meat, pork, or turkey since I started reading this book, and I’ve only had chicken a handful of times. I have to say, if you don’t want to question your meat-eating, I wouldn’t pick this one up, because it’s just that good, and it will force you to at least consider cutting down your meat consumption. But if you’re at all concerned about where your food comes from and the truth about how we treat animals at factory farms, Eating Animals is a must-read.

VirtuosityVirtuosity by Jessica Martinez
Published by Simon Pulse
Review copy received at SIBA 2012

Carmen is a teen prodigy, a violinist who is thisclose to winning the prestigious Guarneri competition. She decides one day to scope out her competition, Jeremy, and while she finds him arrogant and obnoxious, she can’t help falling for him a little, too. When the urge to be with Jeremy gets in the way of her competitive drive to win, she has to make an incredibly difficult choice.

I really liked this one and it’s stayed with me even though it’s been a while since I finished reading it. I felt deeply for Carmen, as the pressure her family and peers put on her to be the best became suffocating to the point that she had to take anti-anxiety medicine just to get through a violin lesson, let alone her performances. When she grew close with Jeremy, I rooted for them to figure out a way to be together, despite their circumstances. This really was a sweet YA novel that had some tough subjects wrapped up in that sweetness.

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor

My Beloved WorldMy Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
Published by Knopf

Summary from the publisher:

With startling candor and intimacy, Sonia Sotomayor recounts her life from a Bronx housing project to the federal bench, progress that is testament to her extraordinary determination and the power of believing in oneself.  She writes of her precarious childhood and the refuge she took with her passionately spirited paternal grandmother. She describes her resolve as a young girl to become a lawyer, and how she made this dream become reality: valedictorian of her high school class, summa cum laude at Princeton, Yale Law, prosecutor in the Manhattan D.A.’s office, private practice, federal district judge before the age of forty. She writes about her deeply valued mentors, about her failed marriage, about her cherished family of friends. Through her still-astonished eyes, America’s infinite possibilities are envisioned anew in this warm and honest book, destined to become a classic of self-discovery and self-invention, alongside Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father.

This was an impulse listen for me, an audiobook I spotted at the library that I’d heard good things about and that I felt I might enjoy because I like these kinds of reads. I was not disappointed here. Sonia Sotomayor has led an interesting and inspiring life and I loved hearing about what has helped her become so successful over the course of her life.

SO much of what Sotomayor has to say is both important and quotable. I almost wish I read the paper book so I could have highlighted and took notes instead of just listening to what was said; however the audio was really good so there’s that too. I just loved everything she had to say about growing up with not a lot of money, being a minority and a woman, with few examples around her about what success in the traditional sense looks like, yet still being so driven and hardworking that to succeed was the only choice she gave herself. One thing she stressed, which I think is important for anyone trying to nurture and help children, is that the ONE thing that matters in a disenfranchised kids’ life is having one adult who roots for the child, boosts him or her up, and has the child’s back in all things, no matter what. For Sotomayor that person was her grandmother, when I was a child I had one or two people in my life who did that for me, and I have to say that I can’t agree more with this statement. Not all kids have perfect parents or perfect lives, but if you are able to be there for a child who might not be in a great situation, to really show how important that child is, how special and smart and unique and creative and all of those things, it could make a huge difference in that child’s life.

Sotomayor is unflinchingly honest in this memoir and I appreciated her so much for that. She has been through a lot in her life – deaths of loved ones, a failed marriage, education at America’s top schools, many different levels of her career – and she was so open about it all. I found myself really admiring the way she makes decisions and thinks through things – I hate to admit it but I’m not as caught up in politics as I once was so I really didn’t pay attention to her confirmation hearings when she became a Supreme Court Justice and I knew almost nothing about her political beliefs and leanings. She truly is a fair and thoughtful judge – thinking very carefully through every single possible repercussion and consequence before making even the smallest decision. I liked her quite a bit and enjoyed getting to know her and understand her throughout the book.

If you’re looking to get to know Sonia Sotomayor better – the real person behind the media image of her – this is a fantastic choice. Or if you, like me, enjoy these kinds of autobiographies in general, also a fantastic choice. Sotomayor has led a very inspiring life and I have no doubt that she will continue to inspire and interest me throughout the rest of her career. I’m so glad to have read this book. Highly recommended!

Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham

Someday, Someday, MaybeSomeday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham
Published by Ballantine Books

Aspiring actress Fanny Banks has given herself just three years to become successful, and with just six months to go things aren’t looking good. She’s working as a cocktail waitress, living in Brooklyn with her best friend Jane and their friend Dan, an aspiring writer with a deadline of his own. Even though Fanny is getting call backs from auditions, she’s only booking silly things that she doesn’t feel are  “important” enough for the actress she knows she’s capable of becoming. And the charming guy in her acting class, James, who begins to show interest in her, keeps telling Fanny how important it is to be taken seriously as an actor, if you want to become successful. This is a truly funny and heartwarming coming-of-age story set in New York in the early ’90’s – a story about finding and accepting yourself.

While I’m a huge fan of Lauren Graham (the actress) I wasn’t sure how her talent as an actress would translate into a talent for writing fiction. Luckily, she seems to be excellent at writing too and I thoroughly enjoyed her first foray into the fiction world. I am sure that much of this novel is based on Graham’s own experiences as an aspiring young actress when she was in her twenties, and the authenticity of those experiences shines through on the page.

Fanny is an extremely likable character and she’s easy to root for from the very start. She’s smart, ambitious, funny, interesting, and someone I would want to be friends with. Her inner monologue is hysterical at times, as she’s constantly analyzing the people and situations around her and has running commentary to provide for the reader on just about every single thing that happens to her. It’s impossible not to be entertained by how she interprets the world around her and deals with the obstacles that come her way. She’s the kind of character that you can’t stop reading, that you want to get to know better and hang out with in real life.

I loved how the romance in this story is such a small part of the overall novel. She’s in a relationship with this actor guy, but the reader never gets to know him well because even though he’s a somewhat significant part of Fanny’s life, acting and the pursuit of success is such a bigger part. At one point there becomes a sort of love triangle thing going on, but even that story is secondary to the story of Fanny’s journey, both professionally and personally. I loved how this book is really all about Fanny and the guys (and her best friend) in her life are so secondary to what’s going on with her.

I enjoyed Someday, Someday, Maybe quite a lot! Also, I forgot to mention this but Lauren Graham narrates the audio herself and it is fantastic. I highly recommend the book and listening to the audio.

Mini-reviews – wrapping up 2013 reading part 1

Since my blogging pretty much slowed to a trickle these past few months, there are several books I never got around to reviewing. So here are some brief thoughts on four books I haven’t told you about yet. I’ll be back tomorrow with four more.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of BeliefGoing Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright – This is nonfiction but it might as well be horror because it scared the pants off of me! Not that it’s “scary” in a traditional sense – it’s a book about a religion after all – but the way that this religion developed and grew and got so many people to follow it is terrifying to me. It’s brainwashing, pure and simple, and it’s mind-boggling to me that there are so many Scientologists in the world who actually believe everything L. Ron Hubbard taught. This book is incredibly thorough, the research Wright did is very in-depth, and the writing is excellent. For those interested in learning more about Scientology this is a book not to be missed.

The Sister SeasonThe Sister Season by Jennifer Scott (review copy from the publisher) – I decided to read this one because Jennifer Scott also writes excellent YA fiction under the name Jennifer Brown and I was hopeful that her talent for YA would carry over into women’s fiction. It did, to a degree, as I liked this book about three adult sisters who are forced to spend Christmas week together at their childhood home because their father has just passed away. I thought Scott did a great job with these characters and illustrating the way sister dynamics can be so complicated – these women have true love-hate relationships with one another, and I know that’s the way it is for a lot of sisters. But I didn’t love some elements of the story (to say what would be to spoil things) so overall I didn’t end up loving the book. It was like just not love.

The Space Between UsThe Space Between Us by Jessica Martinez (review copy from SIBA 2012) – another book about sisters, this time it’s YA about Amelia (older, more responsible sister) and Carly (younger, wild sister) and a mistake Carly makes that have huge repercussions for both girls. I liked this one a lot and I think that Martinez can really write teenage girls. She truly gets them, the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that are unique to that period in a girl’s life. The dynamics between these girls were realistic and definitely accurate to real life – I connected with Amelia because as a kid, I was her, and I had a Carly as a sister too (different name, same personality). But there was a big reveal towards the end that I saw coming from miles away, which annoyed me. Overall I’m excited to read more from Martinez even though this book wasn’t perfect.

Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in AmericaFire In the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol – This book absolutely broke my heart, and gave me hope at the same time. I can’t recall ever having read another book by Kozol but I really need to start, as his approach to writing about poverty and education definitely speaks to me. It’s so alarming to realize that so many children in America have to live in atrocious conditions and then can’t even get the education they need and deserve in order to make a better life for themselves. I liked how Kozol showed readers both children who were able to get out of poverty and those who weren’t, and some who tragically died way too young. There is so much sadness in this book but also tiny slivers of hope that left me wanting to read more of Kozol’s work. I listened to the audio of this one and it was excellent.

Mini-reviews: A Hundred Summers and The Newlyweds

A Hundred SummersA Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams
Published by Putnam Adult

I loved this book so much that I don’t have much to say about it. The characters, the historical setting, the drama, the intrigue of the fact that the reader knows the characters have secrets, the romance, and all of that set at the beach! It was the perfect book for me and I couldn’t put it down. I think that so many readers will identify with the main character, as we all have toxic people in our lives that just don’t seem to disappear, but we are somehow drawn to anyway, which is the case for Lily with her “friend” Budgie. I was highly entertained by every aspect of this novel, and it was extremely well-written too. I absolutely look forward to reading Williams’ first book, Overseas, and I highly recommend A Hundred Summers.

The NewlywedsThe Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger
Published by Knopf

This novel, about Amina, a woman from Bangladesh who marries an American man, George, and leaves everything she’s ever known to be with him in his home in Rochester, New York, charmed me from the beginning. The clash of cultures was evident from the minute Amina stepped off the plane and into George’s arms, and their constant struggles to understand and empathize with one another were just like that of any other married couple – except much more complicated. Not only that, but Amina’s isolation in this foreign land made me feel so much compassion and empathy for her situation – I couldn’t imagine being in a situation like that. Freudenberger does such an excellent job helping the reader get to know and understand both Amina and George, even though the novel is told from Amina’s point of view. I listened to this one and the narrator, Meera Simhan, who was a new voice for me, did an excellent job. I highly recommend The Newlyweds, I fell in love with these characters and Freudenberger’s writing is absolutely great.

Mini-reviews: The Preservationist and How to Be a Woman

I’m not reading a ton these days but I’m blogging even less, so if I ever plan to get through my backlog of unreviewed books I realized I need to start doing some more mini-reviews. So here are minis of a couple of the books I read in September! Stay tuned for more of these coming soon. :)

The Preservationist by Justin Kramon
Published by Pegasus
Review copy provided by the author

I absolutely loved Kramon’s first novel, Finny, so when he contacted me asking if I’d be interested in The Preservationist, I jumped at the opportunity, even though I’ve been accepting very few review copies lately. Kramon’s second novel is completely different from his first, and in a way that’s a good thing – it shows he has talent writing more than one kind of book, in fact this one is in a whole new genre (thriller). To be honest, though, this departure from what I loved about Kramon’s work was a slight disappointment for me – I adored his first book so much that I was looking forward to getting my brain back in that space. This novel did have some stuff going for it, though, as I found the atmosphere to be deliciously creepy, especially towards the end when things start getting crazy for our main character, Julia. Also, while I had a good idea about what was really going on with these two men in her life, Sam and Marcus, I was impressed by how Kramon handled working out all the details and how he brought the two together in a shocking, although not altogether surprising, conclusion. The very end was a bit of a surprise, and one that I quite liked in fact. Overall, while The Preservationist wasn’t exactly what I wanted to read from this beloved author, I still enjoyed it and will continue to be interested in his work.

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
Published by Harper Perennial

This book is more a personal feminist manifesto than anything else. Moran’s wit and sarcasm add just the right amount of humor and snark to what are, in most cases, incredibly serious subjects she’s discussing. I particularly appreciated the chapters on sexism and abortion. The book is packed with insightful observations on everything related to being female and being a feminist in today’s world. I listened to the audio of How to Be a Woman and it was fantastic. Moran narrates herself, so it’s as if she’s telling her thoughts and feelings directly to the reader. I highly recommend this unique feminist memoir and especially would recommend listening to the audio for a fabulous listening experience.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach

book coverBonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
Published by W. W. Norton and Company

From the publisher:

The study of sexual physiology—what happens, and why, and how to make it happen better—has been a paying career or a diverting sideline for scientists as far-ranging as Leonardo da Vinci and James Watson. The research has taken place behind the closed doors of laboratories, brothels, MRI centers, pig farms, sex-toy R&D labs, and Alfred Kinsey’s attic. Mary Roach, “the funniest science writer in the country” (Burkhard Bilger of The New Yorker), devoted the past two years to stepping behind those doors. Can a person think herself to orgasm? Can a dead man get an erection? Is vaginal orgasm a myth? Why doesn’t Viagra help women—or, for that matter, pandas? In Bonk, Roach shows us how and why sexual arousal and orgasm, two of the most complex, delightful, and amazing scientific phenomena on earth, can be so hard to achieve and what science is doing to slowly make the bedroom a more satisfying place.

This is my second experience with Mary Roach’s work (the first being the book she wrote about space, can’t recall the title) and I got exactly what I expected with this book. By that I mean an interesting, sometimes comical, but incredibly well-researched book about a relatively obscure subject … in this case, the science of studying sex and what sex researchers have learned over the years.

Rocah’s style is pretty unique and I think her books lend themselves to a lot of different kinds of readers. You definitely have to be okay with nonfiction, but at the same time her style is very witty and at times conversational – she brings her own personality to the book at every chance she gets.

In this case, it’s a book about sex, which is a subject of interest for just about every human being I know, making this appeal to a pretty wide audience. What is revealed about the research that has been done over the years into various aspects of sex is extremely interesting and definitely held my attention. It’s funny, for a book about sex, there is nothing arousing in the book whatsoever – it’s completely focused on the science, research aspect of it, which held my attention and definitely gave me some knowledge I didn’t have before!

I listened to the audio of Bonk, which is narrated by Sandra Burr, a voice I didn’t really love. She has this sort of flat, emotionless quality to her voice that you would expect to be quite appropriate for the material she’s reading, but in all truthfulness would cause me to get bored and zone out from time to time. I think I actually would have liked this one in print better, which is a shame because nonfiction usually works really well for me in audio.

Anyway, Bonk is really good! I found it interesting and packed full of facts about sex I never thought to explore or even think about!

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill
Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins

Jenna Miscavige Hill is the niece of Scientology leader David Miscavige and was raised in the Church of Scientology. After much soul-searching and years of unhappiness, Jenna decided to leave the church in 2005. In her memoir, she recounts exactly what life was like growing up in the most upper ranks of Scientology. Along the way, she explains the beliefs, teachings, rituals, and secrets of the religion and gives a unique perspective on this controversial and secretive organization.

I’m fascinated by all religions, especially those that seem completely unlike anything I could believe in myself, so it was a no-brainer that at some point I would pick up this book. I have to say that while I was expecting to be stunned by the insider information the author presents in this book, I was more than stunned – so much of what she tells the reader in this book is completely shocking. Take, for example, the fact that Scientology is really not a religion at all, but the founder of Scientology registered it as a religion with the IRS so they would receive the tax benefits of being a religious institution, just for starters. Seriously?!

Mostly I came away from this read feeling sad for the children that grow up in Scientology and have no choice but to be raised this way. The way Miscavige Hill grew up was that she lived separately from her parents and only saw them once a week, was assigned manual labor and truly hard work on most days, and her education consisted mainly of Scientology teachings and not a whole lot else. What an awful way for a child to grow up and truly reading about her life made my heart hurt for her and the rest of the children who grow up in Scientology.

I listened to the audio of Beyond Belief and Sandy Rustin did a great job narrating. It was a petty straightforward listen, nothing fancy, but I like to listen to nonfiction and this was a great choice for that.

If you are as interested in learning about different religions and/or cult-like groups, Beyond Belief is a great choice. Miscavige Hill reveals a lot about the Church of Scientology that was previously unknown to most of the general public, and she did so at great risk to the members of her family who still have ties to the church. Mostly she wanted to educate people on the truth about Scientology and I think she did a great job of doing that without being too harsh on its leadership. Highly recommended.