Review: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Book Review The Music Shop by Rachel JoyceRachel Joyce is a master of tender, heartening storytelling. I’ve read two of her three novels, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Music Shop. In both cases, I wanted to curl up and live in her stories for a while. Joyce’s writing epitomizes sweetness.

The Music Shop takes place on Unity Street, where a tiny row of rundown shops exist despite all odds – a bakery, an undertaker, a Christian store, a tattoo parlor, and a vinyl record store. The masonry is falling from the shopfronts, the town council wants to demolish and redevelop Unity Street, and the little community of shop owners and their neighbors are barely scraping by. Yet, they form a scrabbled together family who does not wish to be split apart.

Frank owns the music shop, and has a knack for suggesting the exact right song for each of his customers. A customer is likely to come into the shop asking for one thing, and walk out with something completely different, yet expressly what they needed in the moment:

“Frank could not play music, he could not read a score, he had no practical knowledge whatsoever, but when he sat in front a customer and truly listened, he heard a kind of song”.

In this way, Frank becomes the center of his little community, comprised of people whose lives he has transformed through music. He is well-loved, despite being stubborn and a tiny bit bumbling.

Frank’s life is forever altered when a pretty woman in a pea green coat peers into the music shop one day, and promptly faints. Frank and his fellow shopkeepers revive her, and instantly their curiosity is piqued by the mysterious woman. Gradually, she and Frank get to know each other. She suggests Frank give her music lessons, and they meet at a little cafe each week. No matter that she is engaged to someone else, Frank is besotted and seems quite comfortable with his seemingly unrequited love:

“Real love was a journey with many pitfalls and complications, and sometimes the place you ended up was not the one you hoped for. But there. Better to have held her hand on a summer’s day than to have had nothing at all”.

I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll stop there. My one criticism is that the story is a tiny bit cheesy. It’s a good sort of cheesiness though. The kind that verges on saccharine without tipping fully over. Music lovers will appreciate Frank’s suggestions and varied stock of vinyl. Readers will fall in love with the charming characters. The Music Shop is a feel-good must-read.

Review: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Review: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Before we begin…

29094474_2047241348882955_7690873150967382016_nYesterday was my 4 year old daughter’s last day of dance class at our local community center. On the last day, parents are invited into the classroom to watch a little “recital” – which sounds like a level of cuteness rivaled only by videos of sea otters holding hands (or paws, if you insist on accuracy). All seemed lost when my son woke up with a cold and had to stay home. My husband, hero to the rescue, worked from home so we could make it to the recital. Perhaps it was doomed from the get-go. We arrived at the community center, but the teacher did not.

You can probably picture the perturbed parents (many of whom had taken time off work for the occasion). One extremely thoughtful mom had brought a bouquet of roses, and handed a stem to each dancer on their way out the door. My daughter weathered her disappointment with an attitude worthy of a benevolent character from a 19th century novel. We came home with a rose as a consolation prize, which does feature nicely in the picture for today’s review of Vanity Fair.

And now, the book…

Have you read Vanity Fair? Though I geek out on literature from this era (Austen, Dickens and Brontë) I’d never read this novel. If you’re not into novels from that time period, this book is definitely not for you. Even if you like books from that time, Vanity Fair is quite long. More verbose than this post, if you can believe it.

Vanity Fair recounts the lives of two women, Rebecca and Amelia, who start out as childhood friends. At the start of the novel we see these two characters leaving finishing school together. After that point, like many a great 19th century novel, things don’t go well for the main characters for much of the story. Rebecca, born without money or class, is ambitious and cunning. She stops at nearly nothing to ascend society, even at the risk of scandalizing herself. Amelia, born genteel and comfortable, falls into poverty when her father loses all the family wealth. She bores each sad occurrence in her life with a flood of tears, followed by an overarching grace befitting of a lady of her day.

The whole story is framed by the narrator essentially gossiping to the reader, which makes this novel unique (at least, for its time). In fact, there are portions of the story the narrator claims to have received second-hand. Occasionally, the narrator goes so far as to suggest certain information may be biased and inaccurate:

“…as I have no doubt that the greater part of the story was false and dictated by interested malevolence, it shall not be repeated here”.

Or, the narrator might start a juicy tidbit of gossip, only to refuse to tell-all:

“…and here she named the name of a great leader of fashion that I would die rather than reveal”.

In this way, the plot reveals itself through hearsay, in a rather rambling pace. The beauty of the ramble is that it reads in an easy, almost contemporary way. I could imagine a similar tone coming out of the mouth of a gossipy friend over brunch. Did you hear about so-and-so? You are not going to believe it. Let me pull up Instagram so you can see for yourself.

As you might suspect of a book of this era and place, people of color are depicted in offensive, unflattering ways. If you are able to read past that, considering it a snapshot of the times, you may enjoy this book quite a bit. It is replete with love stories, scandal, tragedy and redemption. It is a commentary on social hierarchy and, of course, personal vanities. In many ways, I felt that Vanity Fair might translate nicely to a modern day retelling.

A little gossip about William Makepeace Thackeray…

Are you interested in a little gossip I overheard from Wikipedia, a source well-known for its veracity? Apparently he was born in India. Thackeray’s father and maternal grandfather were both secretaries for the East India Company. When Thackeray’s father died, his mom sent him to England (without her! when he was only 4 years old!). When he turned 21, he received his inheritance. However, he wasn’t great with financial matters. He gambled and made poor investments. Sounds a bit like the two characters Rebecca and Amelia marry in Vanity Fair. Thackeray apparently got his act together when he married. He and his wife, Isabella, had three children. Sadly, Isabella suffered from post-partem depression. She threw herself into the ocean while sailing to Ireland. Fortunately, she was rescued. Unfortunately, she suffered from mental illness for the rest of her life, and spent some time in asylums, and most of her life in private care. Wikipedia notes that Thackeray “desperately sought cures for her”. Though, that didn’t stop him from becoming a bit of a bedswerver. Despite personal losses, Thackeray experienced a great deal of success as a writer. In his lifetime, he was nearly as popular as Dickens. In his later years, he was in ill-health, ate gluttonously, and eventually died of a stroke at the age of 52.

And on that happy note, I bid you adieu.

Review: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Review: Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

28151220_2066388013594152_6146061096353529856_nThe other evening, a friend asked what I’m currently reading. I had just finished Rabbit Cake that very morning. When she asked how it was, I told her that I had trouble getting into it. I’d read another book somewhat recently that I loved, and it temporarily broke me; I was having trouble enjoying anything I picked up next. My friend said there’s a term for that ailment.

Apparently, I had a book hangover. Like a greasy-spoon-breakfast after a night of tipsy tomfoolery, Rabbit Cake pulled me from my funk.

A little girl named Elvis, her older sister Lizzie, their father, and their pet dog Boomer, are grieving over the loss of their wife and mother who drowned while sleepwalking. Elvis is the youngest in the family, and yet finds herself in the position of holding everyone together. Like her deceased mother, older sister Lizzie also suffers from sleepwalking episodes. Equally she is a handful in her sleep as she is in her waking life. Their dad is heartbroken over the loss of his wife, and deals with it by wearing her lipstick and bathrobe. They adopt a parrot from the local pet shop, who has begun imitating the voice of their lost loved one. Lizzie drops out of school and begins obsessively baking rabbit cakes, something their mother used to do for special occasions. On the advice of her school counselor, Elvis assigns herself 18 months to grieve.

Not surprisingly, the book is a little sad; especially in the beginning. At times, I found it a bit morbid. For example, Elvis loves animals (her mother was a biologist), and she frequently shares random animal facts, such as:

“A naked mole rat cannot feel pain, I remembered. It is one of the reasons naked mole rats are studied so extensively in labs. The rodents are missing some neurons or something, scientists aren’t sure, but you can dribble acid directly on their skin and they won’t even shudder”.

Despite the occasional dark moment, the story pulled me in. A dry humor settles in, and the characters begin to heal in their own unique ways. Elvis starts working on the biology book her mom was writing before her death, Lizzie decides to get into the Guinness Book of World Records, their dad starts dating again.

Through it all, Elvis is wise beyond her years. In the way of precocious narrators, she often provides moments of wisdom and sweetness, such as when she describes an incident between her sister and her sister’s best friend:

“Lizzie should never have hurt Megan, especially not for something that sounded like it was partly our mom’s fault. But I understood why she did: you want to defend those you love, even if the ones you love aren’t very good all the time, and sometimes they are even downright awful”.

This is a story of slightly flawed people coming to terms with a terrible tragedy, yet the story itself doesn’t feel too heavy. It balances darkness with a good dose of levity. The characters will win you over. It you need it, it might be the perfect book to get you over a book hangover.

{Have you suffered from a book hangover? What book did you in? Put the title in the comments; I might add it to my reading list!}

Review: Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

Review: The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You by Lily Anderson

27891869_223923958169148_6272060361482960896_n-1This book reads like the little sibling of a John Hughes movie. It’s not as inspired or accomplished as its older brother, but it is loveable in a similar way.

Trixie and her two best friends, Harper and Meg, are in the top 10 of their class. They study hard, make weekly trips to their local comic book store, and decide to become interested in boys. Trixie is reluctant to spend her energies on the opposite sex despite a very obvious budding romance between her and her arch-nemesis, Ben West. While the girl trio focuses on attaining boyfriends, several of their classmates are caught allegedly cheating. It isn’t long before someone in their group of friends is dragged into the mess.

This is the story of a privileged group of kids getting into the kind of trouble that has low-stake consequences. It is done in the best possible way. The characters are privileged without being bratty. For the most part, they don’t seem to take themselves too seriously. It has just the right amount of teen angst – a titch of angst rather than a heaping spoonful.

This is a book that knows its niche without being overly derivative of its predecessors. Though I found some of the nerd-girl references overdone, overall the dialogue is well written. It’s feel-good, easy reading. It’s also surprisingly wholesome. The most the main characters get up to is a little snogging. If you are a parent who worries about the content of your teenager’s reading material, you can rest easy on this one.

Now that I’ve said that, there will undoubtedly be some parent, somewhere, who chooses to disagree with me. Please spare me your outraged email.

Review: The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You by Lily Anderson

Review: A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders

27892561_1561114333925336_3763349824787709952_nI was in the mood for some light reading, and thought a cozy mystery might hit the spot. Browsing the aisles of my favorite bookstore, A Murder of Magpies jumped out at me. The cover art pops – robin’s egg blue background with bright orange birds (magpies, I assume) perched above a typewriter. It certainly looked like a light-hearted mystery, and the back cover made claims of wittiness and humor. Perfect.

I was feeling a bit under the weather when I started reading. Thus, I can’t entirely blame the book for my mind continually wandering. Then again…

The main character is Sam, an editor working on a fashion-industry tell-all. When the author of this tell-all disappears, Sam is soon drawn into a convoluted case that could be missing person, murder, money laundering, or stalker, in essence. Quite predictably, the main character begins some minor investigations of her own. Her mother, a high-powered lawyer, helps her out; including a little mother-daughter breaking and entering. How many lawyers do you know getting down with light B&E on the weekends? With their daughters?* Of course, there is also an actual member of the police force on the case, or cases, or whatever is going on… He’s on the job, and in more ways than one. Without preamble the lead Inspector becomes romantically involved with Sam. Although this type of liaison is common enough in the mystery genre, their relationship comes out of nowhere. One minute they have a few polite interactions, then the next they are sleeping together, and within one or two hook-ups the main character is already having commitment issues and they sort of have “the talk” to define their relationship. It’s weird.

Okay, so here is where my review gets a little messy; as messy as the plot. There are all these sub-plots that have no bearing on the main mystery. In addition to the sudden romance, there are story lines with Sam’s neighbors, with coworkers and industry acquaintances, and a plot line between Sam and her biggest author who wrote a chic-lit book of questionable quality. There is little reason for these sub-plots to cross paths, or in some cases, for them to exist at all. For example, at one point Sam goes to visit her chic-lit author. During the visit, she shares some of the details of the mystery with the author and her husband. Their sole response is to suggest to Sam that she should not trust someone from one of the other sub-plots – an elderly agoraphobic neighbor whom the author and husband have never met, and have no reasonable cause to mistrust. Presumably, Judith Flanders threw in the chic-lit author for the primary purpose of introducing a red herring into the story. However, she chose as her red herring, arguably, the most unlikely character for the job – someone with no connection to the main mystery. Furthermore, it turns out that the agoraphobic neighbor was at one time a well-known architect. And one of the plot lines from the main mystery is related to money laundering through bad real estate deals. It would have been cleaner to hint that the agoraphobic neighbor may have been involved with shady real estate practices back in his architectural career. The chic-lit author sub-plot could have been omitted altogether.

I don’t want to spoil the ending. It can do that for itself, after all. I will say that once the actual crime is revealed, the motivation for it remains elusive. Further, it doesn’t really tie into what I thought was the main plot of the book.

It is all utterly, confusingly, random.

While we’re on the topic of random… After finishing the book, I realized I had no idea what the title had to do with the story. It made me question if I was, in fact, under the weather, or if I had come down with a full blown cold that was addling my brain. So I jumped online for some answers, because I typically find the Internet is chalk-full of ’em. I was pleased to see that other reviewers also took issue with the great mystery of the title that has no connection to the book upon which it is affixed. Thanks, Internet!

This book about an editor could use some editing; as if it was published one or two drafts shy of final copy. It wasn’t terrible. It also wasn’t funny. I would call this book mildly amusing. If you’re at home, under the weather, looking for a book that doesn’t require you to think too hard, you might enjoy it.

* Mom, in case you’re reading this post, please don’t get any bright ideas. I may be the Ethel to your Lucy, but I draw the line at burgling. Probably.

Review: A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

IMG_20180125_104144I feel as though I am on a first date with this book. Externally, I am doing my very best to keep it cool, whilst my inner dialogue shouts, “I think I’m in love!!!”. Which may explain why it was so difficult to write this review. I read the book two weeks ago, but have been unable to produce a decent write-up. Oh, well. Here goes nothing.

It is worth noting that Ms. Eleanor Oliphant would not wish us, complete strangers to her, to presume a first-name basis. Begging her pardon, and keeping in mind that she is, after all, a fictional character, let’s call her Eleanor.

Eleanor is proper, opinionated, and entirely unable to read social cues. She is prone to blurt out whatever comes to her mind, and frequently finds fault in others. Her coworkers make fun of her when they think she is not listening. She speaks with her mother, regularly on Wednesday evenings. Her mother (incidentally, one of the most deliciously hateful characters I’ve encountered in a book) seems even less fond of her than her coworkers. Not surprisingly, Eleanor lives alone. She is filled with heartbreaking loneliness. She questions her own existence:

“It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination. There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar”.

Then, two things happen. First, she goes to a concert and sees onstage, leading the band, her soul mate. Never mind that he’s unaware of her existence, Eleanor is infatuated:

“His eyes were light brown. They were light brown in the way that a rose is red, or that the sky is blue. They defined what it meant to be light brown”.

Secondly, she meets Raymond, the IT guy for her office. Though Raymond falls short of Eleanor’s standards of attire, hygiene, and social graces, they become friends:

“He had his hands in the pockets of his low-slung denim trousers, and was wearing a strange oversized woolen hat that I hadn’t seen before. It looked like the kind of hat that a German goblin might wear in an illustration from a nineteenth-century fairy tale, possibly one about a baker who was unkind to children and got his comeuppance via an elfin horde. I rather liked it”.

Through her friendship with Raymond, and a series of other new relationships and experiences, Eleanor’s life slowly begins to transform.

It is difficult to fault Eleanor, despite the fact that she is deeply scarred by a childhood tragedy that she either can’t or won’t recall, her personality can be a bit off-putting, she may be an alcoholic (at least on the weekends), and she is most certainly delusional. She is also outrageously funny, intelligent, strong, and touching. She may not be completely fine, but she is certainly doing her best. In this way, the book is a kind of root-for-the-underdog, late-blooming coming-of-age story, that will captivate you from start to finish.

This is a debut novel for Gail Honeyman. I hope she’s started writing another book, because, (though I’m trying desperately to keep it cool), I’m in love.

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Review: Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw

IMG_20180119_125026The most complimentary thing I can say about this book is, I finished it. I’m not sure why I picked it up in the first place. Certainly the provocative, high-gloss cover was a selling point. I like the underwear the cover model is wearing? The title? I don’t know. My indifference to this book prevents me from providing reasonable answers to my own questions.

The novel is written in a series of short paragraphs which weave in and out of at least half a dozen different story lines all pertaining to the main character – a prostitute and heroin addict living in New York. The opening paragraph is instantly intriguing:

“I met a man, when I was a whore in Dubai, who shook my hand and then passed it to his other palm and held it there. At the time it was mildly confusing. Now I know what he was doing. He was trying to see if I was wide-open, if he could fill my mind with anything.”

Possibly, this is the best written paragraph in the entire book. Maybe there were others, equally well-crafted, and I was too disenchanted to notice.

It was difficult to settle into the characters, because the book keeps jumping around from story line to story line in short bursts. Doubtless, the fractured framework was intentional. The main character’s personality, like the flow of the narrative, is rather splintered. There will be some readers who are deeply satisfied, and find hidden depths in this literary structure. I would argue that such depths are very well hidden, indeed. Usually, I’m down with a story that ticks back and forth between narrative elements. In the case of this book, however, everything felt supremely underdeveloped. It was as if the author apathetically threw out each paragraph with nary a care for the arc of the story, nor character depth. It read as such:

Paragraph: Prostitute has gross sex with client and pretends to like it.

Paragraph: Prostitute has gross sex with another client, and pretends to like it.

Paragraph: Prostitute meets equally broken army vet in bar and begins to date him, but not really date him.

Paragraph: Prostitute partakes, often in large doses, of drugs; usually heroin, sometimes coke.

Paragraph: Prostitute flashes back to memories of a bomb-making Sheikh she dated in Dubai. She loved the Sheikh; it’s not clear why.

Mini Paragraph: Prostitute gets her nails painted.

Mini Paragraph: Prostitute agrees to be physically harmed for money, and pretends to like it.

Mini Paragraph: Prostitute buys some groceries.

I’ll stop before revealing the ending, lest I give away the entire book. I’m sure, by this point, you’re itching to know how it ends.

If you turn to the copyright page, it lists the “Subjects” the book should be filed under – “Prostitutes – Fiction. | Terrorists – Fiction. |GSAFD: Suspense fiction.”. That is a scintillating combination of subjects. Then again, I don’t know that I’d call this book suspenseful. I think it’s mostly dull with a few salacious details thrown in. The suspense part comes in the last five pages of the book – the first time the plot picks up at any noticeable pace. By then, unfortunately, it was too late for me to care.

To be fair, I do think there are people who will really enjoy Ultraluminous. It was compelling, in its own way. There was a clear narrative tone; a bit of a dark, ambivalent ambience that carries through from start to finish. It seemed as though the author knew where she wanted the story to end, but struggled a bit with the getting there. You may find it entertaining. It wasn’t my cup of tea, or rather, coffee.

Happy reading?

Review: Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw