Chances Are . . . by Richard Russo: Russo almost writes a Crime Novel, but manages to avoid it.

Chances Are . . .Chances Are . . .

by Richard Russo

Hardcover, 302pg.
Knopf Publishing Group, 2019
Read: August 5 – 6, 2019

What were the odds these three would end up assigned to the same freshman-dorm suite at Minerva College on the Connecticut coast? Because yank out one thread from the fabric of human destiny, and everything unravels. Though it could also be said that things have a tendency to unravel regardless.

Whatever the odds were, three very different freshman from very different backgrounds did end up assigned to the same dorm suite and ended up working in the kitchen together. It’s the kind of friendship created by shared living space, shared experience and intense emotions (college in general, and the Vietnam Draft they watched on TV together). They became the Three Musketeers—in spirit and in name to those who knew them—and then they left Minerva College and started their lives. Then, yes, things unraveled.

It’s now forty-four years later and they reunite at Lincoln’s Martha’s Vineyard home for one last hurrah before Lincoln sells the family home. The three of them spent plenty of time there in college, and what better way to prepare to sell? But there’s a shadow over their reunion (and not just the fact that they’re all showing their age in different ways).

As with Dumas’ trio, there was a fourth—like them, yet not. Her name was Jacy. All three men were in love with her, but in a true one for all fashion, they didn’t try to see if there was any chance for a relationship with any of them. On the last weekend they spent in this house, a few weeks after graduation, Jacy left early one morning and was never seen again. All three—Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey—are haunted by memories of that weekend as they assemble.

Each man responds to these memories differently, Teddy indulges in self-introspection, Mickey drinks a lot and spends a good deal of time planning for the trio to catch some live music. Lincoln starts looking for an explanation—and ends up talking to a retired police officer who remembered the case, tries to build a case against a neighbor, and generally stirs up trouble asking questions.

This sounds like the setup of a Crime Novel, doesn’t it? I’ve read so many book blurbs that this sounds like that I started expecting this to be Russo’s take on Crime Fiction. While we do learn what happened to Jacy and why; the book is about so much more. It’s about friendship, fleeting youth, the expectations of others, aging, and love—probably a few other things, too.

“How about a cup of coffee?”

“I had one on the ferry. ”

“Doesn’t mean you can’t have another.”

“With me it does, actually.” In fact, it was distinctly possible the near-constant state of gastric distress Lincoln suffered these days was a symptom of an as-yet-undetected ulcer traceable to the 2008 financial meltdown. On the other hand, it might be nothing more than acid reflux, which came with the territory of getting old. His wife, being a woman, wanted clarity on this issue, whereas Lincoln himself, not being one, was content to dwell in uncertainty a while longer.

I don’t think I even really looked at the blurb for this, I just knew it was a new Richard Russo novel that didn’t feature Sully. That was enough for me to put it on reserve at the library weeks ago, so I could be one of the (possibly the) first to get my hands on it. As no two of his books are really the same kind of thing, it made for a pleasant surprise that way.

I don’t know that I was captivated from the get-go, but these three (and poor Jacy) grew on me, each had a story that was familiar, yet felt fresh. These were complicated me with complicated feelings—well, you’re never sure about Mickey, he seems pretty straightforward. We spend most of the novel seeing things (past and present) from Lincoln and Teddy’s perspectives—which helps us see everything going on with them, and primes us to pay close attention when it shifts for Mickey’s perspective.

I’m ignoring most of my notes now because I think I’ve really said everything I needed to say. Russo’s about as close as you can get to a sure thing in writing today and he brings that skill to these pages and these characters. Chances Are . . . is not something I’ll look forward to rereading like Straight Man, or as powerful as Empire Falls or as moving as Bridge of Sighs, but more interesting—and with more staying power—than That Old Cape Magic or anything published before Straight Man (not that any of those were bad, they just don’t appeal to me the way his latter works do). Still, there’s an ineffable quality to this work that will make me keep thinking about it—the power of friendship, lost love, how our youth controls our futures, and what really anchors us to this world.

I liked the story, I liked the characters, Russo can’t write a bad anything—there’s a lot to commend this book, and little to discourage a potential reader. Russo’s one of the best America has to offer right now, and this is further evidence of that.

—–

4 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge

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Reposting Just ‘Cuz: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

The second re-run from 5 years ago this week is from Rainbow Rowell, before she discovered she could make a lot more money on the YA market than she can with “Commercial Women’s Fiction” or whatever silly marketing label this got. I miss that Rowell, oh well.

LandlineLandline

by Rainbow Rowell

Hardcover, 310 pg.
St. Martin’s Press, 2014
Read: August 13, 2014

If the last few years have taught us readers anything, it’s that if you want quirky, honest, heart-felt romance with real (and usually moderately overweight) people and solid laughs, Rainbow Rowell will consistently deliver for you. And if you don’t think you want that, after you read her, you’ll realize that’s just what you wanted after all. She has two YA books and now two Adult books to her credit. Her latest, Landline delivers the typical Rowell magic in her story, but this time she included something else: actual magic. Sort of.

Georgie McCool is half of a pretty successful TV writing team who are thiiiiis close to being much more successful, all they have to do is crank out a handful of scripts in the next couple of weeks and they’re in a great position to sell their first series. The catch is, this involves working over Christmas — despite Georgie’s plans to go to her mother-in-law’s in Omaha with her husband, Neal and their two daughters. Georgie says that she can’t pass up this opportunity, so Neal and the girls go off without her.

Georgie sees this as a regrettable occurrence, but one of the sacrifices she has to make to get her dream show made. Her mother, step-father and sister see it as her husband leaving her, and Georgie ends up staying with them. Which gets Georgie to worrying — especially when she can never seem to reach Neal on the phone during the day. At night, however, when her iPhone battery is dead, she has to resort to the landline in her old room and she ends up talking to Neal back before they got engaged.

Don’t ask. It makes no sense. She never bothers to explain. And it doesn’t matter. Georgie eventually figures out that’s what’s going on and she rolls with it, and the reader does, too.

These conversations, as well as the absence of her family, lead Georgie on a path down memory lane, reflecting on the beginning of their relationship and how it changed as they did. Maybe Neal had made a mistake choosing her. Maybe she’d ruined her life (and his) by choosing him. Would they have both been better off going their separate ways? Or was there something worth fighting for now? Would that matter? The clock is ticking — for Georgie’s marriage (both now and then) and her career. Is she up for it?

The tension is real, the apprehension, fear, and self-doubt (for starters) that Georgie is wrestling with is very obvious and palpable. Yet while focusing on this, Rowell’s able to create a believable world filled with a lot of interesting people. There’s Georgie’s partner/best friend, Seth and another writer on their current (and hopefully future) show — and Georgie failing to hold up her end of things there, as much as she tries.

Then there’s her sister, mother and step-father. They’re much better developed (probably only because we spend more time with them). Her mother’s a pretty implausible character, yet not a cartoon, she’s a pug fanatic, married someone much younger than her, and generally seems really happy. Her sister’s about done with high school and is figuring herself out (and mostly has) — she’s a hoot, and my biggest problem with the book is that we don’t get more of Heather. Not that there wasn’t plenty of her — and it’d require the book to take a far different shape. We get whole storylines about all the non-Neal people in her life, little vignettes showing us their character, giving us smiles in the midst of Georgie’s crisis, like:

“Kids are perceptive, Georgie. They’re like dogs”–she offered a meatball from her own fork to the pug heaped in her lap–“they know when their people are unhappy.”
“I think you may have just reverse-anthropomorphized your own grandchildren.”
Her mom waved her empty fork dismissively. “You know what I mean.”
Heather leaned into Georgie and sighed. “Sometimes I feel like her daughter. And sometimes I feel like the dog with the least ribbons.”

Not only do the supporting stories, or even the little moments like this fill out Georgie’s world and make it more interesting, they provide a breather for the reader from having to deal with the disintegrating marriage.

I know some people think we spend too much time in flashbacks, where Georgie’s remembering how she and Neal met, got to know each other, and started seeing each other, etc. But we need that. If all we get is Neal in the present, or past-Neal on the phone, we’re not going to care enough. Especially in the first couple of scenes we get with Neal, it’d be real easy to see him as unsympathetic — the guy holding Georgie and her career back. We need these flashbacks so the reader can sync their feelings about Neal with Georgie’s, so that when we read something like:

Georgie hadn’t known back then how much she was going to come to need Neal, how he was going to become like air to her.
Was that codependence? Or was it just marriage?”

or

She needed him.
Neal was home. Neal was base.
Neal was where Georgie plugged in, and synced up, and started fresh every day. He was the only one who knew her exactly as she was.

find ourselves agreeing with her, or at least seeing why she says it.

At the end of the book, there’s a lot of plot lines dangling — some very important ones, actually. Enough so, that normally, I’d devote a paragraph to complaining about it. But I won’t this time — it works for Landline. There’s a lot for Georgie to work out herself, she’s really only settled on the one most important thing, leaving the rest to be resolved another day. And that’s got to be good enough for the reader.

Not her best, but Rowell on an off day is still really, really good.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

Classically Cool—Let’s Talk Classics!

Last week, Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub posted Classically Cool- Let’s Talk Classics!, and it got me a-thinkin’, what Classics would I mention as faves?

Dickens doesn’t do anything for me, ditto for the overwhelming amount of Shakespeare I’ve read, Hawthorne makes me angry, I don’t get Melville’s appeal (but I also kind of do…I just don’t want to put in the effort)…but by and large “The Classics” (aka the Canon) are Classics for a reason (not because some nameless, faceless group of (now-)Dead, White Males exercised hegemonic powers to impose their tastes, either).

Still, there are some favorites:

Starting with The Oresteia (for chronology’s sake), this is the only existing example we have of a Greek dramatic trilogy. This series showing the fall-out of the Trojan War for Agamemnon and his family/kingdom and is pretty impressive.

Call me silly, but Beowulf has always really worked for me. I don’t know how to rank the various translations, I’ve read a handful and don’t think I ever knew a single translator’s name. I’ve meant to try the Haney translation since it came out, but haven’t gotten to it yet—the same goes for Tolkein’s. From about the same time (a little later, I believe, but I’m not going to check because if I start researching this post, it’ll never get finished) is The Dream of the Rood, a handly evangelistic tool (one of the better written ones) in Old English.

Moving ahead a couple of centuries (I’ll pick up the pace, don’t worry, the post won’t be that long) and we get Gawain and the Green Knight, which is fun, exciting and teaches a great lesson. Similarly, we have that poet’s Pearl, Patience, and Purity. I don’t remember much about the latter two, beyond that I liked them, but the Pearl—a tale of a father mourning a dead child and being comforted/challenged in a dream to devotion—is one of the more moving works I can remember ever reading.

I want to throw in Tom Jones (technically, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling) by Henry Fielding here, but I’ve never actually completed it. Which says more about my patience and how distracted I can get than the book—which is an impressive work. I’ve gotta get around to actually finishing it at some point.

I can’t remember the titles for most of the Robert Burns poems I’ve read—”A Red, Red Rose” and “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785” (one of the best titles in history) are the exceptions—but most of them were pretty good. And I’m not a poetry guy.

Skipping a few centuries and we get to Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. If all you know is the story from movies, you’re in for a treat when you actually read this thing. I’ve read it a few times, and each time, I’m caught off-guard at how fast-moving it really is, how entertaining and exciting it can be. It’s not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but I feel compelled at this point to mention that the book about Dumas’ father, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss is a must-read for any fan of Dumas.

I don’t remember how Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott ended up on my bookshelf (I think whatever relative took me to the bookstore said I could get something silly and trashy (in their view) if I got a Classic, too). But a few years later, I finally got around to reading it at about the same time that another kid in my class (we were High School sophomores) was reading it—both of us talked about how it was pretty good, but too much work. Until we got to a point somewhere in the middle (he got there a day before I did, I think) and something clicked—maybe we’d read enough of it that we could really get what was going on, maybe Scott got into a different gear, I’m not sure—and it became just about the most satisfying thing I’d read up to that point in my life.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is one of my favorite books, probably belonging in the Top 3. Go ahead and roll your eyes at the idea of me saying that about a romance novel, that just means you’ve misread the book. This tale about integrity, about staying true to what one holds dear, what one believes and to what is right despite everything and everyone around you is exciting, inspiring, fantastically-written, and so-memorable. And, yeah, there’s a nice love story to go along with that 🙂

Speaking of love stories, we now get to my favorite, Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. I steadfastly refuse to learn anything about the actual figure, because I don’t want anything to ruin this for me. When I first read the play in junior high, I considered the best parts the lead-up to the duel in Act I, and Christian’s trying to pick a fight with Cyrano the next day. Now I know the best parts are Christian’s realization in Act IV and Cyrano’s reaction to it and then, of course, Cyrano’s death (I’m fighting the impulse to go read that now instead of finishing this post). And don’t get me started about how this play’s balcony scene leaves any other romantic balcony scene in the dust.

I can’t pass up an opportunity to praise, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s tour de force. Satire, social commentary, general goofiness and some real heart. This book has it all.

I’m not sure that Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictdionary is technically a “Classic.” But I’m counting it as one. It’s hilarious, it’s incisive, it’s a great time for those who like to subtly (and not-so-subtly) play with words. Yeah, it’s cynical—but it’s idealistic, too (as the best cynics are). If you haven’t sampled it yet, what’s wrong with you?

I feel strange dubbing anything from the Twentieth Century as a Classic, so I won’t talk much about The Old Man and the Sea, The Great Gatsby, Winesburg, Ohio or Our Town (the best way short of having a dog die to make me cry is get me to read/watch Act III). But I do feel safe mentioning To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the ground-breaking, thought-shaping, moving, inspiring, and (frequently) just plain fun look at a childhood in the south.

When I started this, I figured I’d get 4-5 paragraphs out of the idea. I guess I overshot a little. Anyway, that’s what came to mind when I read W&S’ post—maybe other works would come to mind if I did this another time, but for now, those are my favorite Classics. What about you?

The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion: The Last Volume of the Trilogy Recovers most of the Magic of The Rosie Project

The Rosie ResultThe Rosie Result

by Graeme Simsion
Series: Don Tillman, #3Hardcover, 376 pg.
Text Publishing, 2019
Read: July 16 – 19, 2019

So I loved The Rosie Project Simsion’s tale of a geneticist who is probably on the Autism spectrum, but has never been diagnosed, setting out to find a romantic partner in the most scientific way he can. It was charming, funny, and hit all the right emotional notes. If you haven’t read it, go do so now. The sequel, The Rosie Effect, about the early days of Don and Rosie’s marriage had a lot of the same traits but fell short on the story and heart. Which gave me a lot of pause when I saw a third volume was coming out a few months ago. But curiosity got the better of me, and I picked up a copy from the Library.

Phew! Simsion’s remembered what made Project so successful. It’s not quite as good, but it’s close enough for me.

Don and Rosie move back to Australia after a decade-plus in NYC. He’s returned to his university, Rosie’s got a major research position. They didn’t consult their son about the move, that’s causing all the problems associated with someone on the verge of adolescence being moved thousands of miles away from everything he’s ever known. To complicate things, Hudson’s a lot more like his dad than even Don realized. Incredibly intelligent, opinionated, precise, overly literal, socially awkward and stubborn. Throw a kid like that into a new school, new country, with no friends or teachers who know him—especially when he’s unhappy—and you have a recipe for disaster.

Which is precisely what Don and Rosie have on their hands. Hudson’s school is on the verge of expelling him but is willing to make allowances for someone diagnosed with Autism—while taking them out of the mainstream classes and educational path. Neither of his parents are all that interested in that course and begin working with Hudson on ways to fit in.

To add to that, Don’s fallen victim to the outrage culture of contemporary universities by answering a question about skin tone straight-forward and matter-of-factly with no thought of political/social connotations of his words. It was, of course, caught on video and has put his entire career in jeopardy. Rosie is dealing with a boss who seems to favor another member of the team she’s nominally leading and blatant misogyny from the boss and that team-member.

Don decides to take a leave of absence from his job (handing a victory to those wanting his head, but protecting his job so he can return after the dust settles) and sets out to help Hudson in a strategic fashion like he had done for himself on various fronts. With help from family and friends, he sets out to help Hudson gain some friends, become able to participate in group sports, dress like a normal kid, and essentially fit in.

There are lots of ups and downs along the way—Hudson does grow, but not in all the ways Don wants or expects. Don does, too—even making a friend who’s into homeopathy and against vaccines (even if he’s committed to showing her the error of her ways).

I do wish Rosie had been a bigger presence in this book, that’s my biggest complaint, really. Not just because her name is in the title, but she’s Hudson’s mom and Don’s wife. She should’ve had more to do in the story rather than being relegated (for reasons the story allows for) to a supporting character.

The basic theme of the book is about embracing who you are and finding a balance between fitting in with society and compromising who you are—if you’re on the Spectrum or not. In addition to having a lot of humor and heart, the overall tone is hopeful, oddly optimistic. It’s a great, heartwarming read that will remind readers why they loved the character of Don Tillman and will provoke a lot of thought while providing a great amount of entertainment.

—–

4 Stars

2019 Library Love Challenge Humor Reading Challenge 2019

Reposting Just ‘Cuz — Re Jane by Patricia Park

So, I couldn’t get anything written tonight — but wanted to get something up, so for no real reason, here’s a post from 5 years ago (or so)

Re JaneRe Jane

by Patricia Park
Hardcover, 338 pg.
Pamela Dorman Books, 2015

Read: July 6 – 8, 2015

There are two ways to look at this book — as a retelling of Jane Eyre and as a novel on its own terms. It’s clearly indebted to Jane Eyre — frequently, the allusions are subtle; sometimes, she might as well be jumping up and down waving a flag. Still, Park’s her own writer — this is its own story, with its own characters — and a heroine who’s not just Brontë’s best-known character thinly disguised.

If you haven’t read Jane Eyre, first of all — shame on you. Secondly, yes, you can read this and appreciate it — you’ll just miss some of Park’s cleverness. Instead, what you’ll get is a straight-forward story about the trials and travails (and travels) of a young Korean-American woman.

Jane Re’s a half-Korean college graduate who becomes a nanny for the daughter of a couple of silly (white) New Yorkers — she’s a stereotypical college professor in Women’s Studies, he’s a henpecked high-school English teacher. Their daughter was adopted from China, and is now old enough that she doesn’t need a nanny — which makes the whole thing a greater challenge. Still, it’s better than the alternative — returning to live with her uncle and aunt, who were forced to take her in after the death of her mother in Korea (and her family there being unwilling to keep her).

Then through a series of events you can read about yourself, she finds herself living for a bit in South Korea. This is as fascinating as you’d think it’d be. It’s not just about a young South Korean woman, it’s about a young half-South Korean woman, raised in the States (by people who left Korea decades before), trying to acclimate to Korea. A stranger in the U.S. to many because of culture and appearance, finds herself a greater stranger there for the same reasons.

Which leads to . . . spoiler stuff. Which is even more interesting. Along the way there’s a whole mess of family issues, stranger-in-a-strange-land issues, self-acceptance issues, romance issues, and other things I can’t pair with the word “issues.” Jane goes through a lot, I’ve got to say — maybe a wider-range of challenges than Eyre. I frequently found myself wanting a bit more spunk, a bit more chutzpah from Jane throughout. But, like her namesake, when she needed it, she found it within — and it was great to see.

Park makes a pivotal choice in her selection of chronological setting — and one that worried me. It’d have been so easy to go wrong with this, and I’m used to seeing it go badly — but Park pulls it off, and actually makes it work for her.

In the end, I liked Jane. I rooted for her. I liked (some of) her family and friends. I was invested in the story. It’s not going to go down as good as, or as important as, its inspiration — but it’s a well-written, warm, look at a woman learning how to take charge of her life.

—–

4 Stars

Pub Day Repost: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman: Believe the hype. All of it. 352 pages of Joy.

The Bookish Life of Nina HillThe Bookish Life of Nina Hill

by Abbi Waxman

eARC, 352 pg.
Berkley Books, 2019
Read: July 1 – 3, 2019

I think it’s entirely fitting to start my post about this book by talking about another book (Nina Hill would approve, maybe even insist on it). I remember a lot of what I read about High Fidelity in the late 90’s (I was a little late to the party), was about guys saying to either hand the book to women to help them understand how we think — or to keep it out of their hands, for the very same reason. That resonated with me. I never thought for a second that I was Rob, Dick or Barry, but we thought the same way, we had a similar weltanschauung — their banter was scripted, where mine frequently fumbled — but overall, they were proof that I wasn’t the only one in the world who thought that way. It took me less than two chapters to feel the same way about Nina Hill — our tastes differ somewhat, she’s more clever than I am, and there’s the ridiculous affection for felines — but on the whole, she’s my kind of person. In fact, many of the people in this book are — she’s just the best example of it.

The authorial voice — Nina’s voice, too — is fantastic. I seriously fell head over heels almost instantly with them. The narrative is specific, funny, observant, compassionate, and brutally honest — mostly funny. It’s just so well-written that I knew (and said publicly) by the end of the first chapter that this was going to be in my personal Top 3 for 2019 — I’ve had some time to think about this, and have reconsidered. I’m confident it’ll be in the Top 5, but I should give the rest of the year a little room to compete. It’s one of those books that’s so well-written you don’t care what or who it’s about, as long as you get to read more of that wonderful prose. By chapter 4 — and several times after that — I had to self-consciously stop myself from highlighting and making glowing notes — because if I didn’t, I’d end up never finishing the book (I still have a lot of notes and passages highlighted).

Let me try to explain via a tortured metaphor (this is where you see why I blog about books, and not write my own). Say you’re taking a road trip, say, to go look at autumn leaves and you know the city you’ll be staying in, but know that there are about 18 different ways for the driver to arrive in that city. You know the whole time where you’ll end up, but you don’t have a clue how you’ll get there, what kind of foliage you’ll see (hint: it’ll be brown, red or orange), what the roads will be like, or what random and surprising things might happen along the way. It’s not about the destination, it’s the journey — as the fortune cookies and high school graduation speeches tell you. This book is the same way — readers are going to know pretty much where this book is going to end up once they’ve read a few chapters. What they don’t know is how they’ll get there, what they’ll see on the way, what kind of surprises will be along the way, and how fast they’ll get there. It’s in these things that Waxman excels — her plotting is pretty obvious, but her execution is dazzling and often unexpected. (I want to stress that this is an observation, not a criticism)

Nina Hill is a reader — books are how she defines herself, the prism through which she sees and interacts with the world. She has a job (bookseller), a cat, a small home with a lot of shelves, a trivia team, book club, a place she exercises, a visualization corner, a fantastic planner and a love of coffee and quality office products. Her life is pretty regimented, but everything is just how she likes it. She also is introverted, prone to anxiety, and averse to change. Nina’s smart with a great memory, a penchant for honesty, and highly-developed sense of who she is.

Her friends are essentially the women she works with and the members of her trivia team — all of whom are intelligent, witty, well-read and fun. The kind of people I’d love to hang out with over coffee or wine for a few hours a week.

Nina’s mother is a noted and award-winning photojournalist and spends most of her time traveling the world being one. Nina was largely raised by a Nanny (although her mother visited frequently). Nina has never known a father.

Until one day her life changes — a lawyer arrives with some news. Her father is dead. Apparently, her mother discovered he was married and refused to have anything further to do with him. He was absolved of any need to support Nina or her mother as long as he never made contact with her. Which he honored — but made provisions for him in his will.

Her father was a successful entertainment lawyer, and a serial monogamist. He was married three times (one divorce, one widowing, and one marriage intact), had several children and more grandchildren (there are contextually appropriate and helpful graphics to help you understand the family structure). Nina went from being alone in the world to being a sister, an aunt and a grand-aunt in one conversation. She slowly meets various members of the family — discovering similar personality traits, interests and physical characteristics. The family she meets is wonderful — I could easily spend more time with them all. One brother and a nephew (who is older than her) in particular stand out — she gets to know them sooner and deeper than the rest. But many others are on their heels, and even the least-likable among them turn out to be great (with one exception, but that’s by design).

While reeling from the changes of learning she has an extended family, starting to meet them, and learning about her father — another thing happens in her life. There’s a member of a rival trivia team that she finds attractive, and who just may find her attractive. They have similar tastes and many shared interests, but he seems to know a lot about sports (including what “a Don Shula” is) and isn’t much of a reader. But there’s something about him . . .

There are three significant child characters in the novel — they’re not around much, but when they are, they have a large impact on the plot. They are all pretty unrealistic, talking and (apparently) thinking in ways that are immature, but not how kids talk and/or think. But they’re so adorable that you forgive Waxman immediately for these overly-precocious children. It’s not a major thing, I just wanted to say something less-than-positive about the book, and this is all I could come up with.

Throughout the novel, Nina learns how little she’s really alone in the world and how she might be able to find time for more people in her life — without losing who she is and too much reading time. This is the core of the novel and everything else is in service to this goal. While this is going on, there are plenty of laughs, chuckles and wit to carry the reader from plot point to plot point.

It’s a good thing that I stopped quoting from ARCs (I almost never got around to verifying the lines in the published version), because this post would either never be completed or would be so long that I’d be the only one who’d read the whole thing. I had to stop myself — repeatedly, actually — from highlighting great lines. Particularly comments Nina made to others (or the Narrator made on her behalf) about books and/or reading. Book memes are going to be mining this novel for years — you’ve seen 357 variations on the Tyrion lines about reading, or the 200+ takes on “Books were safer than people anyway” from The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Folks, Nina Hill is going to bury both of them.

According to Goodreads, I’ve read 122 books so far in 2019. If pressed, I’d easily say this is better than 120 of them, and might tie the other (it’s a lot more fun, I can say without a doubt). Your mileage may vary, obviously, but I can’t imagine a world where anyone who reads my blog not enjoying this novel and protagonist. It’s charming, witty, funny, touching, heart-string-tugging, and generally entertaining. I don’t know what else to say other than: Go, go read this, go buy it, expect it as a gift from me (if you’re the type to receive gifts from me, I’m not buying one for all of you on my wages, as much as I might want to).

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Berkley Publishing Group via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this great opportunity!!

—–

5 Stars

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman: Believe the hype. All of it. 352 pages of Joy.

The Bookish Life of Nina HillThe Bookish Life of Nina Hill

by Abbi Waxman


eARC, 352 pg.
Berkley Books, 2019

Read: July 1 – 3, 2019

I think it’s entirely fitting to start my post about this book by talking about another book (Nina Hill would approve, maybe even insist on it). I remember a lot of what I read about High Fidelity in the late 90’s (I was a little late to the party), was about guys saying to either hand the book to women to help them understand how we think — or to keep it out of their hands, for the very same reason. That resonated with me. I never thought for a second that I was Rob, Dick or Barry, but we thought the same way, we had a similar weltanschauung — their banter was scripted, where mine frequently fumbled — but overall, they were proof that I wasn’t the only one in the world who thought that way. It took me less than two chapters to feel the same way about Nina Hill — our tastes differ somewhat, she’s more clever than I am, and there’s the ridiculous affection for felines — but on the whole, she’s my kind of person. In fact, many of the people in this book are — she’s just the best example of it.

The authorial voice — Nina’s voice, too — is fantastic. I seriously fell head over heels almost instantly with them. The narrative is specific, funny, observant, compassionate, and brutally honest — mostly funny. It’s just so well-written that I knew (and said publicly) by the end of the first chapter that this was going to be in my personal Top 3 for 2019 — I’ve had some time to think about this, and have reconsidered. I’m confident it’ll be in the Top 5, but I should give the rest of the year a little room to compete. It’s one of those books that’s so well-written you don’t care what or who it’s about, as long as you get to read more of that wonderful prose. By chapter 4 — and several times after that — I had to self-consciously stop myself from highlighting and making glowing notes — because if I didn’t, I’d end up never finishing the book (I still have a lot of notes and passages highlighted).

Let me try to explain via a tortured metaphor (this is where you see why I blog about books, and not write my own). Say you’re taking a road trip, say, to go look at autumn leaves and you know the city you’ll be staying in, but know that there are about 18 different ways for the driver to arrive in that city. You know the whole time where you’ll end up, but you don’t have a clue how you’ll get there, what kind of foliage you’ll see (hint: it’ll be brown, red or orange), what the roads will be like, or what random and surprising things might happen along the way. It’s not about the destination, it’s the journey — as the fortune cookies and high school graduation speeches tell you. This book is the same way — readers are going to know pretty much where this book is going to end up once they’ve read a few chapters. What they don’t know is how they’ll get there, what they’ll see on the way, what kind of surprises will be along the way, and how fast they’ll get there. It’s in these things that Waxman excels — her plotting is pretty obvious, but her execution is dazzling and often unexpected. (I want to stress that this is an observation, not a criticism)

Nina Hill is a reader — books are how she defines herself, the prism through which she sees and interacts with the world. She has a job (bookseller), a cat, a small home with a lot of shelves, a trivia team, book club, a place she exercises, a visualization corner, a fantastic planner and a love of coffee and quality office products. Her life is pretty regimented, but everything is just how she likes it. She also is introverted, prone to anxiety, and averse to change. Nina’s smart with a great memory, a penchant for honesty, and highly-developed sense of who she is.

Her friends are essentially the women she works with and the members of her trivia team — all of whom are intelligent, witty, well-read and fun. The kind of people I’d love to hang out with over coffee or wine for a few hours a week.

Nina’s mother is a noted and award-winning photojournalist and spends most of her time traveling the world being one. Nina was largely raised by a Nanny (although her mother visited frequently). Nina has never known a father.

Until one day her life changes — a lawyer arrives with some news. Her father is dead. Apparently, her mother discovered he was married and refused to have anything further to do with him. He was absolved of any need to support Nina or her mother as long as he never made contact with her. Which he honored — but made provisions for him in his will.

Her father was a successful entertainment lawyer, and a serial monogamist. He was married three times (one divorce, one widowing, and one marriage intact), had several children and more grandchildren (there are contextually appropriate and helpful graphics to help you understand the family structure). Nina went from being alone in the world to being a sister, an aunt and a grand-aunt in one conversation. She slowly meets various members of the family — discovering similar personality traits, interests and physical characteristics. The family she meets is wonderful — I could easily spend more time with them all. One brother and a nephew (who is older than her) in particular stand out — she gets to know them sooner and deeper than the rest. But many others are on their heels, and even the least-likable among them turn out to be great (with one exception, but that’s by design).

While reeling from the changes of learning she has an extended family, starting to meet them, and learning about her father — another thing happens in her life. There’s a member of a rival trivia team that she finds attractive, and who just may find her attractive. They have similar tastes and many shared interests, but he seems to know a lot about sports (including what “a Don Shula” is) and isn’t much of a reader. But there’s something about him . . .

There are three significant child characters in the novel — they’re not around much, but when they are, they have a large impact on the plot. They are all pretty unrealistic, talking and (apparently) thinking in ways that are immature, but not how kids talk and/or think. But they’re so adorable that you forgive Waxman immediately for these overly-precocious children. It’s not a major thing, I just wanted to say something less-than-positive about the book, and this is all I could come up with.

Throughout the novel, Nina learns how little she’s really alone in the world and how she might be able to find time for more people in her life — without losing who she is and too much reading time. This is the core of the novel and everything else is in service to this goal. While this is going on, there are plenty of laughs, chuckles and wit to carry the reader from plot point to plot point.

It’s a good thing that I stopped quoting from ARCs (I almost never got around to verifying the lines in the published version), because this post would either never be completed or would be so long that I’d be the only one who’d read the whole thing. I had to stop myself — repeatedly, actually — from highlighting great lines. Particularly comments Nina made to others (or the Narrator made on her behalf) about books and/or reading. Book memes are going to be mining this novel for years — you’ve seen 357 variations on the Tyrion lines about reading, or the 200+ takes on “Books were safer than people anyway” from The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Folks, Nina Hill is going to bury both of them.

According to Goodreads, I’ve read 122 books so far in 2019. If pressed, I’d easily say this is better than 120 of them, and might tie the other (it’s a lot more fun, I can say without a doubt). Your mileage may vary, obviously, but I can’t imagine a world where anyone who reads my blog not enjoying this novel and protagonist. It’s charming, witty, funny, touching, heart-string-tugging, and generally entertaining. I don’t know what else to say other than: Go, go read this, go buy it, expect it as a gift from me (if you’re the type to receive gifts from me, I’m not buying one for all of you on my wages, as much as I might want to).

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Berkley Publishing Group via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this great opportunity!!

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5 Stars