The Bucket List by Emily Ruben

The Bucket ListThe Bucket List

by Emily Ruben

eARC, 383 pg.
Inkitt, 2017

Read: June 14 – 19, 2017


I am absolutely not amongst the audience for this book. I knew that from the title alone, much less the description. Still, I’d read Ruben’s first book and enjoyed it and was curious about her take on this idea.

This is basically a take on the dying teen romance, with a splash of the Rob Reiner movie. I’m tempted to go on a rant about the whole dying teen romance idea — The Space Between Us, The Fault in our Stars, and the like — but I just don’t have the energy. I don’t get it, it seems like a highly artificial way to inflate drama. But whatever — just because it’s an overplayed idea, that doesn’t mean the book can’t be good.

Besides, the central characters in this book are 20 and 21, so by definition this is different.

Leah is surprised one day to find the new guy moving in next door is her old best friend that she hasn’t seen for 5 years. Damon (think Ian Somerhalder) is glad to see her, but before they renew their friendship, has to warn her that he’ll be dead within a year and a half. He has some sort of brain tumor (Ruben intentionally gives few details about this) that cannot be treated. Leah decides that she’ll do what she can to renew their friendship in the time remaining.

Soon after this, the two decide that he’ll write up a Bucket List and that each day, they’ll cross an item off of it until it’s too late. This will lead to all sorts of travel, adventure, changing of existing and/or new romantic relationships and (this isn’t much of a spoiler, you can tell it’ll happen from the get-go) their eventually falling in love.

The worst part about this book is how everything that happens to them is the best, the greatest, the ____est (or the worst). Leah and Damon live in the extremes — they never have a normal day, a blah experience. It’s just too much to handle — a few things that are okay, a few things that aren’t bad mixed in with all this would make this easier to read. Yes, you could say that given the heightened situation, everything they do is given a hint of the extreme, but still . . .

The tricky thing with Damon having an unnamed disease — it’s hard to have any idea how realistic this is. But a brain tumor that causes organs to decay before death, necessitating an ethically/legally-questionable euthanasia method is stretching things beyond the breaking point. Beyond that, the amount of money that these people spend is utterly unbelievable — talk all you want about plundering no-longer-necessary college savings, it’s just not something I could buy.

There’s an element of charm to the writing — but I don’t think that this is as charming as Ruben’s first book — there’s something appealing about the earnestness of her writing. But this just wasn’t for me. Although he probably didn’t say it, Abraham Lincoln is often quoted as reviewing a lecture by saying something like, ” People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” I feel like that about this book — if you can find a grain of salt big enough to help you swallow the unbelievable, if you can tolerate the excess of superlatives, and like a love story in the face of certain doom, this is probably a pretty entertaining book. Was it for me? Nope. But I didn’t hate it and can understand why many would.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the publisher in exchange for this post — I do appreciate the opportunity, even if it doesn’t come across that way.

—–

3 Stars

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster CallsA Monster Calls

by Patrick Ness

Paperback, 225 pg.
Candlewick Press, 2013

Read: June 1, 2017


I hadn’t even heard of this book until a couple of weeks ago, when it was recommended to me by a loyal reader. And I wasn’t given a lot of details, just a strong recommendation and something about it being “about grief.” I could’ve used the warning that it was a YA book, but otherwise, that’s all I needed to know (and the YA wouldn’t have been a deal breaker or maker — I just would’ve liked to know what I was grabbing). I’m not going to say much more than that, really. It’s about grief, there’s some magic, and it’s one of the most effective novels I’ve read this year.

There’s been so much said about this book by others — I’m almost afraid to say much, I don’t want to ruin anyone’s discovery.

You’ve got a 13 year-old boy, Conor, whose mother is undergoing cancer treatment — and it’s not going well. His grandmother (not at all the stereotypical grandmother-type, as Conor is very well aware), comes to stay with them with every new round of treatment, and Conor hates it. His father and his new wife have started a new life in the US. All of this has left Conor isolated, emotionally all alone — except at school, where he’s bullied (when not alone). Somehow in his despair, Conor summons a monster, a monster older than Western Civilization, who visits the boy to help him.

He helps him via stories — I love this — not escapism, but through the lessons from stories — and not in a “You see, Timmy . . . ” kind of moralizing — just from understanding how people work through the stories.

After reading page 15, I jotted down in my notes, “Aw, man! This is going to make me cry by the end, isn’t it?” I didn’t, for the record, but I came close (and possibly, if I hadn’t been sitting in a room with my daughter and her guitar teacher working on something, I might have.

The prose is easy and engaging — there’s a strong sense of play to the language. There’s some wonderfully subtle humor throughout, keeping this from being hopelessly depressing. The prose is deceptively breezy, it’d be very easy to read this without catching everything that Ness is doing. But mostly, what the book gives is emotion — there’s a raw emotion on display here — and if it doesn’t get to you, well, I just don’t know what’s wrong with you.

The magic, the monster and the protagonist remind me so much of Paul Cornell’s Chalk (which is probably backwards, Chalk should be informed by this — oops). Eh, either way — this is cut from the same cloth.

That’s a bit more than I intended to say, but I’m okay with that. I’m not convinced that this is really all that well-written, technically speaking. But it packs such an emotional wallop, it grabs you, reaches down your throat and seizes your heart and does whatever it wants to with it — so who cares how technically well it’s written? (and, yeah, I do think the two don’t necessarily go together). A couple of weeks from now, I may not look back on this as fondly — but tonight, in the afterglow? Loved this.

Love, grief, hope, loss, anger, fear, monsters and the power of stories. Give this one a shot. Maybe bring a Kleenex, you never know . . .

—–

4 1/2 Stars

2017 Library Love Challenge

The Right Side by Spencer Quinn

The Right SideThe Right Side

by Spencer Quinn

eARC, 336 pg.
Atria Books, 2017

Read: May 11 – 12, 2017


Okay, since I first opened the pages of Dog On It 8 years ago, I’ve been a Spencer Quinn fan — it probably took me two chapters to consider myself one. So it’s kind of a given that I’d like this book — but only “kind of.” This was so far from a Bowser & Birdie or Chet & Bernie book that they could be written by different people.

Sgt. LeAnne Hogan was an excellent athlete in her childhood and teen years, and then she joined the Army (deciding her West Point plans would take too long — an oversimplification that’ll do for now) and became an excellent soldier, serving multiple tours in combat zones. During her last sting in Afghanistan — as part of a team working to build intelligence sources among Afghan women — she is involved in an attack that leaves some dead and her injured — physically and mentally.

Her memories of that fateful day are vague and dim at best, but the scars will not leave. Not only that, she lost an eye, her confidence, her future plans, and career. She slowly befriends a woman who lost part of her leg to an IED in Iraq who shares a room with LeAnne in Walter Reed. Marci dies suddenly and unexpectedly — and that is too much for LeAnne. She leaves the hospital immediately and sets off on a drive across the country, she really doesn’t have a plan, but she needs to be somewhere else.

It’s pretty clear that LeAnne is suffering from PTSD on top of everything else — as you’d expect. She comes across as angry and rude to almost everyone she runs across and exchanges more than a few words with. She eventually finds herself in Marci’s hometown — where her daughter has gone missing. For the first time since the day everything changed, LeAnne has a purpose — bring her friend’s daughter home. Along the way, she LeAnne gets adopted by a large dog who will prove an invaluable aid in this challenge.

LeAnne is a great character — not a perfect person by any means, but you can see where a lot of writers (novelists or journalists) would try to paint her as one. She has huge flaws — some of which are easier to see after the injury (and some of them are new after it, too). There are some other good characters, too — even if you don’t necessarily like them (LeAnne’s mother would be an example of this — she’s trying to do the right thing, but the reader can sense LeAnne’s apprehensions toward her — and will likely share them). The people in Marci’s hometown (particularly those that are related to her) are the best drawn in the book — and I’d be willing to read a sequel or two just in this city to spend more time with them. Not everyone gets what LeAnne’s going through — some don’t know how to react to her — but those that come close will endear themselves to you.

The dog, Goody, isn’t Chet, he isn’t Bowser — he’s a typical dog, no more (or less) intelligent than any other. Goody won’t be serving as the narrator in a story any time — he will drink from the toilet bowl and ignore a lot of what LeAnne wants him to do.

Like I said, I’m a Quinn fan — but I didn’t think he had this in him. Funny mysteries with dogs? Sure, he’s great at those. But sensitive explorations of veterans dealing with the aftermath of life-altering injuries? I wouldn’t have guessed it. But man . . . he really got this flawed character, this incredibly human character, right. There’s a couple of moments that didn’t work as well as they should’ve — a couple of moments that were hard to believe in a book as grounded in reality as this book was. But you know what? You forgive them easily, because so much is right with this book — so much just works, that you’ll accept the things that don’t. It wasn’t all dark and moody — there’s some hope, some chuckles, a lot that is somber and sad, too. While not a “feel good” read by any means, you will feel pretty good about who things end up.

This is probably categorized as a Thriller, as that’s where Quinn’s readers are — but I can see a case for this being labeled General Fiction (or whatever synonym your local shop uses), it’s flexible that way. This is Spencer Quinn operating on a whole new level with a character we need more like — such a great read.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Atria Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

The Glamshack by Paul W. Cohen (updated)

I pulled this one from publication this morning to work on it a bit more. I’m not sure I actually made it better, but I’m pretty sure it’s not worse.

…and then tweaked again 12 hours later . . .

The GlamshackThe Glamshack

by Paul W. Cohen

eARC, 222 pg.
PUB, 2017

Read: May 8 – 9, 2017


Do not read this book for the plot — you will likely be disappointed, and possibly frustrated. There’s just not much of it, and what little there is isn’t that creative — there are good plot-moments, yes. But really, there’s nothing here that you likely haven’t read. But the strength of this book is in how Cohen delivers the plot, not the what that he delivers.

Essentially, the novel is a story of Henry Folsom — a lifestyle reporter in 1999. I think lifestyle reporter is close — he writes for a fashion magazine, doing puff-piece profiles and interviews. He’s just not that good at his job, and is close to being fired after some disastrous encounters with the kind of people that you cannot have disastrous encounters with. During one such encounter, he meets a woman that he finds much more interesting than his interview subject. They flirt, they date, they have a months-long relationship, full of ups and downs. She leaves him for a few days (at least) when the book opens, and as he waits to see if she’ll return as promised, he spends this time in a drunken stupor reliving, rehearsing, and analyzing (not too deeply) the relationship while reading a history of the Plains Indians Wars of the 1800s.

Henry never gives us the name of his love, his obsession. It’s always “She” or “Her.” Always capitalized. Within the last few months, I read something describing a man in love’s speech by saying something like “you could hear the capital She in his voice.” That’s surely how Henry talked — it’s how he writes, how he thinks. She is completely and totally unworthy of the devotion he shows. Sure, you could (rightly) argue that none of us are — but She is really just the worst — manipulative, selfish. untrustworthy . . . But there’s no two ways about it, Henry’s devoted to her (and he’s not alone). She has a tragic backstory, which, if true, probably accounts for some of her personality flaws. But I’m not convinced that she didn’t invent part of it to serve her own ends. All this is to say that she’s not a good person, but a great character.

Henry is sort of a Humbert Humbert character. No, he’s not a murderer or a pedophile — or any other kind of criminal that I’m aware of. He is someone with a fancy prose style and has overly-idealized the object of his affections. The way Henry thinks about, describes, and acts toward Her really reminded me of Humbert — particularly (and this is what made me start down this trails of thought) in the way that Henry reveals Her character, her shortcomings, and virtues while defending or denying the problematic aspects of Her character and well as his. Henry’s use of language — and Cohen’s, too — is just wonderful. Most of the quotations I’d pull wouldn’t work without a lot of context, but there’s some great use of language throughout this book. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that I mastered the novel — there’s a lot of Cohen’s figurative language that I can’t wrap my brain around. The repeated phrase, “fighting breasts,” is a good example — I have no idea what those are. Didn’t are while I was reading, don’t care now — segments of this might as well have been poetry for the care shown to word choice and placement.

Elmore Leonard’s famous 10 Rules for Writing contains warning against “hooptedoodle” — the parts of books that sound like writing. His goal was to remain invisible (he failed, by the way, I think he knew that). I don’t regularly use these rules to evaluate books — but sometimes, I can’t help it (they stick with you more than some other writer’s do). Glamshack wouldn’t last 5 paragraphs against Leonard’s standards. But that’s okay, as Leonard himself says, “If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules.” Cohen’s one of those who can skip the rules without a lot of complaint from anyone.

I wasn’t wowed by The Glamshack story or characters, but I enjoyed reading it and loved Cohen’s writing. I recommend it.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the author in exchange for this post — thanks, Mr. Cohen, I enjoyed this.

—–

3 Stars

Startup by Doree Shafrir

StartupStartup

by Doree Shafrir

eARC, 304 pg.
Little, Brown and Company, 2017

Read: May 2, 2017


It’s hard to give a thumbnail pitch for this book — my gut wants to compare it to Coupland’s Microserfs, just because I liked that so much. But it’s more like a feminist Po Bronson’s The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest, I think. It’s been about 20 years since I read that, and my memory is more than fuzzy on the details. It’s about web/app-based companies in New York and the strange (especially to outsiders) culture that surrounds them. You don’t have to know a lot about tech — or venture capitalism — to appreciate this, however. You just have to know about people.

Because at the end of the day, this book isn’t really about startup culture, apps or technology — it’s about people. There are 5 central characters — and a couple that hover around central — to this book, and yes, they’re all involved with startups, but that’s just where they happen to be. You could set this novel in the Wall Street culture of the mid 80’s and not have to change much about it at all, because the relationships, the people are what matter — not the industries/subcultures they’re in.

You’ve got Mack McAllister — the driving force and face of TakeOff — an app promoting mindfulness, happiness and productivity; he seems pretty harmless (initially, anyway), but gets reckless with money and sloppy with interpersonal issues — when that starts to snowball out of control, he then crosses the line into something worse. Isabel is in charge of Engagement and Marketing for TakeOff, she had a little thing with Mack awhile ago, but has started to see someone else recently. Sabrina works for Isabel, is ten years her senior, but has just got back in the workforce after having kids — she’s got some money problems and a husband that seems to be checked out of the relationship and parenting. His name is Dan, and he’s an editor for a Tech News website — he’s pretty oblivious to a lot, really (like his wife’s problems) and the crush he has on one of his reporters (actually, he may be very aware of that, come to think of it). Her name is Katya, the child of Russian immigrants — a hungry reporter, trying to figure out just how to make it in the world where journalism is judged by quantifiable results (views, shares, retweets). Katya needs a break, and stumbles upon a story about Mack — and Isabel — and this could be the thing to solidify her position at the news site.

That’s all you really need to know going in — actually, I knew far less, so that’s more than you need to know. You take those people and their goals, their problems — but ’em in a blender and this book comes out. It’s pretty easy to see how — the part that isn’t obvious is how Shafrir accomplishes this. She does it by: 1. making these all very relatable characters, with strengths and weaknesses; 2. by making even the villains of the piece not that villain-y (I’m not saying, for example, that Mack is a paragon of virtue — he does some horrible things, but he never sets out to be horrible, he just ends up that way); 3. by making the heroes of the piece not all that heroic — just people trying to do (and keep) their jobs, while not screwing up the rest of their life.

I love the fact that Sabrina and Katya are both pretty serious grammar Nazis who find themselves in jobs where they have to do so much that violates grammar — it’s a nice touch, and I enjoyed their reactions to poor grammar. Similarly, Katya’s attitude toward smoking is a lot of fun to read about — but not really something you want to inculcate to kids, or even see in someone in real life.

This is Shafrir’s first novel, but she’s been writing for forever — most notably as an online journalist. She knows the world she’s depicting, she’s lived it and wrote about it — this is just a barely fictionalized version of her reality, so it reeks of authenticity. I have no doubt I could find people very much like her main characters without trying very hard if I put myself in the right cities. She’s not so close to this world that she can’t comment on it, nor is she so close to it that she’s bitter, nasty and cynical about it.

There’s a very slow build to this book — around the 40% mark, I noticed that while I was enjoying the book, appreciating the writing, and so on — I wasn’t really “hooked” by it, I wasn’t invested in any of the characters, which I thought was odd. So, I resolved to make note of when it happened, to see if it was an event, or a development with a character or whatever that prompted it. By the time I hit 80%, the hook was set (it happened well before then, but don’t ask me where), but there wasn’t anything that I could point to that did it. Just slowly but surely, these people and their individual struggles wormed their way into my subconscious. Which is a great way for a book to be — not that I mind those that hook you from the start, or those that a have a big, dramatic moment that grabs you — but those that gradually get you without you noticing.

The ending sneaks up on you — I really didn’t realize the novel ended when it did — I got to the words “Acknowledgements” on the next page before I realized that the book had ended. I really liked the way it ended (once I figured out it happened), even if I found the last sentence annoying. I still do, actually — but I see what she was going for and she achieved it. But I still would’ve liked a few more pages to follow that last sentence.

I can’t help feeling like I should have a lot more to say about this book — but I can’t figure out how to do so without giving everything away. So I’d better leave it by saying that I really liked these people, Shafrir’s writing, and the way she told a story. Startup was honest, heart-felt, compassionate, and real — this debut is as strong as it is winning. I hope to read more from Shafrir in the future.

—–

4 Stars

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Little, Brown and Company via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

Pub Day Repost: The Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simsion

The Best of Adam SharpThe Best of Adam Sharp

by Graeme Simsion
eARC, 352 pg.
St. Martin’s Press, 2017
Read: April 17 – 18, 2017

If my life prior to February 15, 2012, had been a song, it might have been “Hey Jude,” a simple piano tune, taking my sad and sorry adolescence and making it better. In the middle, it would pick up—better and better— for a few moments foreshadowing something extraordinary. And then: just na-na-na-na, over and over, pleasant enough, but mainly because it evoked what had gone before.

That’s the first paragraph, and I’m betting 80% of reviewers will be quoting that — how can you not? You get a sense of Adam, his musical taste, how much music means to him/the way he thinks — and you get the novel’s mood. In the next few pages, you get an idea what Adam’s life is like in February 2012 — his relationship, his relationship with his mother, the nostalgia (and maybe more) he feels towards a country he lived in while he was young and his first great (greatest?) love.

Then we end the introduction with this paragraph that pushes us into the novel:

No matter now. I would soon have more immediate matters to occupy my mind. Later that day, as I continued my engagement with the past, scouring the Internet for music trivia in the hope of a moment of appreciation at the pub quiz, a cosmic DJ—perhaps the ghost of my father—would lift the needle on the na-na-na-nas of “Hey Jude,”say, “Nothing new happening here,”and turn it to the flip side.

“Revolution.”

On the flip side is an email from The One Who Got Away (“got” isn’t necessarily the best term — “slipped away”, “blindly walked away from”, “made the greatest mistake of your life with” — come closer). Angelina was a night-time soap actress that Adam had an affair with while he lived in Australia while working on a contract job in 1989. Over the next couple of chapters Adam reminisces about his time with Angelina — it’s a heckuva love story. It’s an even better doomed-love story since we all know it’s coming to an end, and he’s able to tell it that way.

This email is the first communication she’s attempted since she informed Adam that she was getting married before he had a chance to come back.

We also get a compressed history of Adam and Claire (his might-as-well-be wife), their 15+ year relationship — the ups, downs, and obvious commitment. Even if the romance is largely gone, there’s something strong under-girding their bond. Right? Maybe? Probably? And I do mean compressed — their decade and change is given less space than the few months Angelina and Adam have. We also see what’s going on in the Spring of 2012 with their relationship, and how this new email correspondence fits in with Adam’s life.

Part II of the book is focused on what happens when Adam and Angelina reconnect in person for a few days months later. Which is really all I can say about that. Well, it takes almost the same amount of space as the first part (ecopy, so I can’t do page counts, so these are just estimates) — so it’s obviously a lot more detailed.

I loved Part I — totally. The feel of it, seeing the changes for the better that Adam goes through thanks to the confidence boost that emailing Angelina gives him. Watching his relationship with Claire improve at the same time. All the while enjoying the 1989 story, too, sharing that feeling of nostalgia and more with him. It’s just so well done.

But Part II? I had serious problems with. I cannot detail them without ruining the book for you all. But people just don’t act the way most (if not all) of our primary characters do here. There are just too many psychological, emotional, spiritual and moral problems with what happens, how people react (both in the heat of the moment and in the cool light of day) — people, real people, just can’t do this and survive in any meaningful fashion.

We also do meet Angelina’s husband, Charlie, and I have so many conflicting opinions about him — on the one hand he appears to be good guy, generous, gracious (and other positive adjectives that don’t start with “g”) . . . but he’s dishonest with everyone (possibly including himself), manipulative, cold, calculating . . . I want to state that he’s not physically or mentally abusive, because my description of him almost sounds like it. Things would be less murky if he was.

Angelina is equally troubling — both in how she acts toward Charlie, her children and Adam. I’m not incredibly certain that I’m pleased with the way she treats herself (or if she’s true to her chosen vocation or character). I can understand a lot of how Adam comports himself, but at some point, I needed him to call the whole thing off (anyone else could’ve, but it wasn’t in their character at the moment).

The whole thing at the point became the car wreck you pass by on the Interstate and try to not gawk at.

I can’t find the exact quotation, but Nora Ephron said something about Sleepless in Seattle not being a love story, but a story about movie love (Rosie O’Donnell’s character says something similar in the film). About the only way I can handle huge portions of this book is thinking of it in similar terms — Part II isn’t about actual love, romance/commitment between two human beings — but it’s about love in fiction, romance/commitment between two fictional characters. If I think of Adam and Angelina (and Charlie and Claire) as actual people, I feel a mix of pity and repugnance for all involved (well, no repugnance for one of them, but I’ll leave it at that) — along with a strong desire to get a pastor and/or psychologist to their doorsteps. But if I think of them as fictional characters — which, I guess is what they are, as much as one doesn’t like to admit that — I can feel that revulsion and sympathy and just hope that they’re able to have decent lives.

But the writing? Simsion’s craft here is what kept me going through my distaste — and what’s going to compel me to give it a higher rating than I initially thought I would. Everything I thought/hoped he was capable of after The Rosie Project is on full display here — and, honestly, Adam Sharp is probably a better novel than it’s predecessors. Yes, there are comic moments, but this isn’t as funny as the Rosie books, so don’t look for a similar experience. But the emotional palate is richer, more varied — deeper.

The use of music throughout — as Adam’s refuge and outlet, the way that he bonds with people, and the songs used for various purposes — is just dynamite. Well, almost dynamite — Cher’s “Walking in Memphis” rather than Marc Cohn’s? Really? (both in the playlist and novel) One of the problems with musicians in novels who write their own material (Alex Bledsoe’s Tufa, Andy Abramowitz’s Tremble, Hornby’s Tucker Crowe, etc.) who use other’s songs, is that you have to imagine the music, imagine the skill, imagine the feeling. But with Adam (or Doyle’s The Commitments) you can take a shortcut through that and know exactly what feelings, sounds, rhythms, and so on are to be conjured up (Simsion gives us the exact album version sometimes so we can’t get it wrong). I’m sure there are articles to be written about the music here and how it serves, propels, shapes the plot — but I don’t have that kind of time.

Oh, I can’t forget to mention — the official playlist for this is killer. I wish I’d have had an Internet connection available while I was reading it, I’m sure it’d have been a bonus. It’s definitely helping while I write — but there’s some good stuff there for just good listening.

I was genuinely excited to read this book — while I wasn’t especially taken with The Rosie Effect, I loved The Rosie Project — I’m pretty sure it made my Top 10 that year, and I recommended it to everyone I could think of online and in person. So when a new book by Simsion was announced — and not another Rosie book — I preordered it, and jumped on the opportunity when I saw it on NetGalley. And then that Introduction hooked me hard. Part I was wonderful. But man . . . I just couldn’t handle Part II. Which leaves me in a pickle when it comes to this post, you know?

I admired this book more than I enjoyed it — though I need to stress I really enjoyed parts of it. I’d love to heartily recommend this, I wish I could — but I can only do so with reservations. There’s so much I object to going on in these pages that I can’t, while I can respect Simsion’s work — and I know this book achieved everything he wanted. I’ll give it 4 Stars on merit, not my own enjoyment.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.
N.B.: As this was an ARC, any quotations above may be changed in the published work — I will endeavor to verify them as soon as possible.

—–

4 Stars

The Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simsion

The Best of Adam SharpThe Best of Adam Sharp

by Graeme Simsion

eARC, 352 pg.
St. Martin’s Press, 2017

Read: April 17 – 18, 2017

If my life prior to February 15, 2012, had been a song, it might have been “Hey Jude,” a simple piano tune, taking my sad and sorry adolescence and making it better. In the middle, it would pick up—better and better— for a few moments foreshadowing something extraordinary. And then: just na-na-na-na, over and over, pleasant enough, but mainly because it evoked what had gone before.

That’s the first paragraph, and I’m betting 80% of reviewers will be quoting that — how can you not? You get a sense of Adam, his musical taste, how much music means to him/the way he thinks — and you get the novel’s mood. In the next few pages, you get an idea what Adam’s life is like in February 2012 — his relationship, his relationship with his mother, the nostalgia (and maybe more) he feels towards a country he lived in while he was young and his first great (greatest?) love.

Then we end the introduction with this paragraph that pushes us into the novel:

No matter now. I would soon have more immediate matters to occupy my mind. Later that day, as I continued my engagement with the past, scouring the Internet for music trivia in the hope of a moment of appreciation at the pub quiz, a cosmic DJ—perhaps the ghost of my father—would lift the needle on the na-na-na-nas of “Hey Jude,”say, “Nothing new happening here,”and turn it to the flip side.

“Revolution.”

On the flip side is an email from The One Who Got Away (“got” isn’t necessarily the best term — “slipped away”, “blindly walked away from”, “made the greatest mistake of your life with” — come closer). Angelina was a night-time soap actress that Adam had an affair with while he lived in Australia while working on a contract job in 1989. Over the next couple of chapters Adam reminisces about his time with Angelina — it’s a heckuva love story. It’s an even better doomed-love story since we all know it’s coming to an end, and he’s able to tell it that way.

This email is the first communication she’s attempted since she informed Adam that she was getting married before he had a chance to come back.

We also get a compressed history of Adam and Claire (his might-as-well-be wife), their 15+ year relationship — the ups, downs, and obvious commitment. Even if the romance is largely gone, there’s something strong under-girding their bond. Right? Maybe? Probably? And I do mean compressed — their decade and change is given less space than the few months Angelina and Adam have. We also see what’s going on in the Spring of 2012 with their relationship, and how this new email correspondence fits in with Adam’s life.

Part II of the book is focused on what happens when Adam and Angelina reconnect in person for a few days months later. Which is really all I can say about that. Well, it takes almost the same amount of space as the first part (ecopy, so I can’t do page counts, so these are just estimates) — so it’s obviously a lot more detailed.

I loved Part I — totally. The feel of it, seeing the changes for the better that Adam goes through thanks to the confidence boost that emailing Angelina gives him. Watching his relationship with Claire improve at the same time. All the while enjoying the 1989 story, too, sharing that feeling of nostalgia and more with him. It’s just so well done.

But Part II? I had serious problems with. I cannot detail them without ruining the book for you all. But people just don’t act the way most (if not all) of our primary characters do here. There are just too many psychological, emotional, spiritual and moral problems with what happens, how people react (both in the heat of the moment and in the cool light of day) — people, real people, just can’t do this and survive in any meaningful fashion.

We also do meet Angelina’s husband, Charlie, and I have so many conflicting opinions about him — on the one hand he appears to be good guy, generous, gracious (and other positive adjectives that don’t start with “g”) . . . but he’s dishonest with everyone (possibly including himself), manipulative, cold, calculating . . . I want to state that he’s not physically or mentally abusive, because my description of him almost sounds like it. Things would be less murky if he was.

Angelina is equally troubling — both in how she acts toward Charlie, her children and Adam. I’m not incredibly certain that I’m pleased with the way she treats herself (or if she’s true to her chosen vocation or character). I can understand a lot of how Adam comports himself, but at some point, I needed him to call the whole thing off (anyone else could’ve, but it wasn’t in their character at the moment).

The whole thing at the point became the car wreck you pass by on the Interstate and try to not gawk at.

I can’t find the exact quotation, but Nora Ephron said something about Sleepless in Seattle not being a love story, but a story about movie love (Rosie O’Donnell’s character says something similar in the film). About the only way I can handle huge portions of this book is thinking of it in similar terms — Part II isn’t about actual love, romance/commitment between two human beings — but it’s about love in fiction, romance/commitment between two fictional characters. If I think of Adam and Angelina (and Charlie and Claire) as actual people, I feel a mix of pity and repugnance for all involved (well, no repugnance for one of them, but I’ll leave it at that) — along with a strong desire to get a pastor and/or psychologist to their doorsteps. But if I think of them as fictional characters — which, I guess is what they are, as much as one doesn’t like to admit that — I can feel that revulsion and sympathy and just hope that they’re able to have decent lives.

But the writing? Simsion’s craft here is what kept me going through my distaste — and what’s going to compel me to give it a higher rating than I initially thought I would. Everything I thought/hoped he was capable of after The Rosie Project is on full display here — and, honestly, Adam Sharp is probably a better novel than it’s predecessors. Yes, there are comic moments, but this isn’t as funny as the Rosie books, so don’t look for a similar experience. But the emotional palate is richer, more varied — deeper.

The use of music throughout — as Adam’s refuge and outlet, the way that he bonds with people, and the songs used for various purposes — is just dynamite. Well, almost dynamite — Cher’s “Walking in Memphis” rather than Marc Cohn’s? Really? (both in the playlist and novel) One of the problems with musicians in novels who write their own material (Alex Bledsoe’s Tufa, Andy Abramowitz’s Tremble, Hornby’s Tucker Crowe, etc.) who use other’s songs, is that you have to imagine the music, imagine the skill, imagine the feeling. But with Adam (or Doyle’s The Commitments) you can take a shortcut through that and know exactly what feelings, sounds, rhythms, and so on are to be conjured up (Simsion gives us the exact album version sometimes so we can’t get it wrong). I’m sure there are articles to be written about the music here and how it serves, propels, shapes the plot — but I don’t have that kind of time.

Oh, I can’t forget to mention — the official playlist for this is killer. I wish I’d have had an Internet connection available while I was reading it, I’m sure it’d have been a bonus. It’s definitely helping while I write — but there’s some good stuff there for just good listening.

I was genuinely excited to read this book — while I wasn’t especially taken with The Rosie Effect, I loved The Rosie Project — I’m pretty sure it made my Top 10 that year, and I recommended it to everyone I could think of online and in person. So when a new book by Simsion was announced — and not another Rosie book — I preordered it, and jumped on the opportunity when I saw it on NetGalley. And then that Introduction hooked me hard. Part I was wonderful. But man . . . I just couldn’t handle Part II. Which leaves me in a pickle when it comes to this post, you know?

I admired this book more than I enjoyed it — though I need to stress I really enjoyed parts of it. I’d love to heartily recommend this, I wish I could — but I can only do so with reservations. There’s so much I object to going on in these pages that I can’t, while I can respect Simsion’s work — and I know this book achieved everything he wanted. I’ll give it 4 Stars on merit, not my own enjoyment.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.
N.B.: As this was an ARC, any quotations above may be changed in the published work — I will endeavor to verify them as soon as possible.

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4 Stars