Us by David Nicholls

usI have mixed feelings about this book. I had high hopes for it and couldn’t wait to start reading it, as I’d loved One Day when that came out. The writing was really good, the story was good,  but the best part was the last 50 pages and when 300 pages precede that….well, it was incredibly slow. And not very compelling. And took me forever to read. Fortunately Melissa told me that it picked up once it hit the halfway mark, so I stuck with it. And that did prove to be true, but half a book is a lot to slog through just to get to the picking up part.

The story is told by 50-something rational scientist Douglas. His wife of almost 25 years, Connie, has said she’d like to leave him, but not quite yet. First they embark on a planned Grand Tour style vacation with their only son, Albie.  Douglas tells about the trip, alternating with stories of when he and Connie met and the early years of their marriage. They were an unlikely couple-he so stiff and rational, she a passionate artist. But somehow they fell in love and genuinely loved each other.  The way Douglas is written you can see why he might be unlikable to some people, but I definitely aligned myself with him and felt like his wife and son were terrible to him. And when Connie leaves the trip early and Albie runs off on his own and Douglas decides to track him down across Europe I couldn’t help but think why bother? Your son is a total ass to you and everyone picks on you.

I really felt like the last 50 pages of the book were the best-adding new depth to the characters, their relationship and the novel as a whole. I should have known from One Day that there would be some sort of surprise (to me), and indeed I was startled by some events at the end (I wouldn’t call it a surprise or twist ending.)

It was a pretty melancholy book and a slow read and that combination just made it almost painful and dutiful to get through. But why did I continue? I really admired the way certain parts were written and I did want to find out what happened to Connie and Douglas (Albie, not so much.)

Friendship by Emily Gould

friendshipI thought this was beautifully written. In fact, I think Gould is such a good writer-creating striking sentences that sharp and moving-that the writing seemed almost better than the story itself.  That said, I did like the story of the changing friendship between Amy and Bev, two young women trying to make a go of it in NYC.  They’ve been through good times and bad together, but most of the story focuses on when they both end up going through their roughest patches at the same time. And truly broke, down on their luck hard times. The friendship becomes strained because they can’t give each other the help they need and because Amy basically freaks out over Bev’s unplanned pregnancy more than Bev herself does.  Amy veers into “unlikable main character” territory, but not completely.
I just read someone else’s review on Goodreads who only gave this 3 stars and said the story was somewhat forgettable. I actually gave it a full 5 stars (!) because I thought it was so well written and did dare to poke the unhappy sides of friendship.

p.s. I kept picturing Amy and Bev and Ilana and Abbi from Broad City.

Me and Fat Glenda by Lila Perl

fatThis is the second of my Lizzie Skurnick books.  And this is another one that apparently I hadn’t actually read when I was a kid.  The title was so familiar to me, but nothing in the story rang a bell.  With an original publication date of 1974 there were many things that seemed dated to me, including simply the way Sara, the main character, talked about Glenda being fat.

Sara’s California family is unconventional-you can tell because they live in California, her dad is a junk sculpture artist, her mom wears leotards, they eschew furniture or cooked food, and Sara calls them by their first names.  When they move across country to Long Island for a new college teaching job for her dad the culture shock is greater for the adults than for Sara, who longs for a more conventional lifestyle. Still, she recognizes the importance of creativity and individuality and I loved it when she stuck up for her parents, called out Glenda on racism, and spoke up at other times, too.

There’s a funny tone to this book because the story really isn’t about how much they stick out in this town-it’s about Glenda and whether or not she can be trusted.  Glenda instantly befriends Sara and then tries to manipulate her so that she doesn’t make friends with anyone else. Meanwhile other kids are telling Sara to watch out for Glenda because she’s sneaky and not to be trusted.  So who’s to be trusted? Who’s telling the truth? It seems like there’s going to be a huge revelation on Halloween, but it felt a bit anticlimactic to me.  And the ending seemed too easy and simple, and given the previous events I still didn’t trust anyone!  I see that there’s a sequel and I might have to find it because I’m curious to know what happens to them all.

This One Is Mine by Maria Semple

thisoneI loved Where’d You Go Bernadette? so much that I immediately got this one (her first book) from the library and promptly started it.  I didn’t like it quite as much as Bernadette, though, like Bernadette, I found it hard to put down.  I liked the snappy writing and this also changed pov’s quite a bit, so you see various pieces of a story and the bigger picture before the characters themselves do.  She definitely has a style that is identifiable, and one which I like.  I’d say the main reason I didn’t like this one quite as much is this: there are three main characters in this book and they are all kind of awful.  Just when you think you’re rooting for someone they go ahead and do something terrible.  You see flashes of a good side, but then it seems like their bad side takes over.  I like to be on board with at least one character (and, for all her flaws, I liked Bernadette and didn’t think she was a bad person at all) and there were times when I found myself thinking, “you’re all so awful who cares that you’re making terrible mistakes and messing up your lives!” But you know me, deep down (not so deep down) I was rooting for a happy ending.

The story is this-Violet and David are married and living a fancy life in LA. She used to write for television (just like the author) and he is a superstar famous music producer.  Hanging out with Mick Jagger or Ringo Starr or other up and coming bands is totally normal for them.  They have a darling baby Dot, who is primarily cared for by the nanny, whom they call LadyGo. Their perfect life is really not so great as we find out from each of them.  Their marriage has become bitter and resentful.  A seemingly entirely separate storyline revolves around David’s sister, Sally.  She is vain, shallow, scheming and I really found her a terrible person.  She sets her sights on a man she calculates will become famous and begins forcing a romance. It is evident to everyone (at least every reader) that the man is autistic or has Aspberger’s Syndrome.  Yet she remains clueless. I found it strange that no one else who knew him every mentioned it to her.  Anyway, Violet one day meets a man who completely bewitches her.  She is wildly attracted to Teddy and on fire for him.  He’s an old junkie, crass, vulgar, and for some reason he turns her on.  I spent a lot of time shouting in my head at Violet to just walk away from Teddy. But she did not listen to me. And thus everything falls to pieces for everyone. And then the pieces begin to fit together.

Even though I was mad at the characters often, I really like Semple’s writing and I was dying to find out what would happen to everyone, so I would recommend this too.

Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich

Paul got this and passed it on to me. The whole time he was reading it he kept saying that it was different than Rich’s other things, that it was very predictable.  I see what he meant about predictable-simply that it was a familiar story–unpopular boy has wealthy manipulative boy take over his life and bring him untold popularity and power, but in exchange for doing whatever the other kid tells him to do. The whole time you know that it’s not going to end very well. But that said, it doesn’t matter that it’s a classic story, because so is a boy meets girl story! What was here was the Simon Rich humorous writing that I expected.  Sure it’s not one page jokes or anecdotes, but the funny is still there. I especially enjoyed (and imagine he had fun with) how completely over the top wealthy the Allagashes were. Elliot is an 8th grader, but has his own personal dumbwaiter to receive drinks in.  It was like a crazy world a kid might dream up for what the richest people in the world are like.  And Elliot is indeed a clever mastermind.  But, as you would expect, he’s kind of nutty and a bastard.  This is a very quick read and I thought it was hilarious and had a satisfying ending.

(I think this is an adult book, or at least marketed that way, but it is definitely high in teen appeal.)

There is No Dog by Meg Rosoff

It took me forever to read this. In part because I kept stopping to read other books for the challenge, and also because it just wasn’t holding my attention.  The premise of seeing the beings who are God, as well as the creators of other universes, is very funny and appealing to me.  I think I was hoping for something along the lines of The Second Greatest Story Ever Told by Gorman Bechard-one of my all time favorite books.  But alas, it was not.  God is actually a horny teenage boy who falls in love/lust with a mortal and doesn’t care about the earthly consequences.  Actually, he doesn’t much care about Earth at all-it’s his assistant who answers prayers, created whales, and actually cares about what happens.

I kept going because I was curious how the mess he created would all work out, but I didn’t find the ending very satisfying at all.  Rosoff is a really talented writer, but this was not a great example of her work.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Mr and Mrs Fang are performance artists. They like to make things happen and then watch the world react. Film it and it’s art.  Their children are also required to participate in the performances and referred to in the completed works of “art” as Child A and Child B (Annie and Buster, conveniently.) The performances are basically things like staging a big fight, making the children pretend to be orphans playing music for coins on the street and then loudly saying how awful they are.

Now A and B are all grown up and, let’s face it, kind of messed up.  They end up back at their parents’ house.  One day their parents disappear. There has been a string of highway murders recently and their case fits the pattern.  But Buster and Annie know their parents and are convinced that it’s another performance.  Either their parents are totally nuts and messed up and inappropriate, or they’ve totally messed up their kids so that they cannot even accept a death when presented with sufficient evidence.  It’s all so messed up!!! I thought this would be darkly funny and there was some humor in it, but I ended up disliking all the characters and being appalled by everything.

Happyface by Stephen Emond

Ugh. I know this character was depressed by the miserable event that changed his life, but I found myself just not caring about him and wanting the story to wrap up. I did, however, like all the drawings that were part of the book-as it was his journal we were reading.

Nutshell review: kid has ok life. Then a new chapter starts and he’s living with just his mom in a depressing apartment and starting over at a new school. He takes the opportunity to recreate his personality and be a “happyface.” It’s clear though that it’s just a mask for whatever is going on with his family.

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

This was a very hot book a few months and I just got around to reading it now. As promised, it was a book that was compulsively readable.  However, I did have some issues with how unlikable I found the main character.  I realize that that is somewhat the crux of the novel, but halfway through I found myself thinking that no matter how great her redemption was at the end it would not make up for what kind of person she had been established to be.  The basic premise is that Sam is a super popular girl with a tight group of three best friends and one Friday night she dies in a car crash. Sam then has to relive that final day seven more times.  As you would expect she tries to change things so the outcome is different, right some wrongs, and so on.
I couldn’t believe how long it took her to get around to trying to be a better person, though.  Sam and her friends were cruel to others, obsessed with popularity, unkind, and shallow.  This was, however, contrasted with what amazing friends they were to each other-they truly loved one another and supported each other, were funny and devoted.  When you find out how much these girls have done to harm one specific individual, Juliet, it is really awful.



A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

It was quite some time ago that I read about this, so I really had no idea what it was about when it started (but I remembered that it had some acclaim, I think). When I began the story I didn’t actually like it-first we read about Sasha who is a kleptomaniac, then about her boss, Bennie, who seemed kind of sketchy/sleazy.  But then I got really into it.  It is a nonlinear story that jumps all over from character to character and everyone is somehow connected to someone else.  I found it very interesting that I pretty much found something in every character to dislike-they just were not warm kind people at all–and yet, I was invested in what happened to them.  And you know I love epilogues so I loved it when occasionally the author would, in a matter of three paragraphs, tell you what eventually happens to someone in their whole life.  The interconnectedness is what I really liked about this book (and what simultaneously blows my mind and makes me a little uncomfortable because the characters, for the most part, don’t know they are connected and who’s to say that is not happening in your life?), and I do believe it was wonderfully constructed-it simply couldn’t be told in a linear fashion.  At the end though, there is a circular aspect to the story which is pretty amazing.

The only element of the book that I thought was a little odd was the “futuristic” angle at the end.  By the end of the story it’s about 15 years in the future from now, but the world seems to be a very different place-not a completely unrealistic imagining of the future, but it seemed jarring.

Overall, though, a big thumbs up! And that’s 2 books in the New Year already, hurrah!