nerdy girl reads: the likeness

Howdy. Did you miss me? Sorry for my absence. Chalk it up to writer’s block and some good old fashioned burnout. I can’t promise I’ll be back every week, it is spring and every moment not at work should be spent outside, but I’m finally feeling inspired enough by a book to share.

Guys. You already heard me extoll the genius of Tana French here. I super loved The Secret Place (her most recent) and immediately picked up In The Woods. While I didn’t love it quite as much (uh, there’s no boarding school, duh) and the character of Rob is very unlikeable, I still raced through it breathlessly until the spectacularly self-destructive and wonderfully written ending. Every word French uses is elegant and perfect, even the Dublin slang thrown into each story for good measure. Since I love them SO much, I have been pacing myself with the Murder Squad, delaying starting the next story until now. Ugh I wish I hadn’t waited so long!

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The Likeness picks up six months after the end of In The Woods, and is told by Cassie Maddox, former undercover and the partner of Woods‘ Rob. Cassie has left the Squad to work in Domestic Violence, craving something more stable after the clusterf*ck of her last case with Rob. She’s bored and restless, unhappy with the relative boredom of her job and bucking under the stability of her long-term relationship with Squad member Sam. One morning she gets a frantic call from him to come to a crime scene — where she finds the body of a woman who is essentially her identical. And oh yeah, she’s using Cassie’s former alias. Undercover cop Frank Mackey convinces Sam to tell everyone she’s alive, and Cassie to return to undercover work for this investigation, infiltrating the home of Lexie Maddox and her four best friends who are considered suspects. Cassie gets to know them and becomes a part of their “family,” while learning that Lexie wasn’t anything but the smoke and mirrors of a girl with a past. As she pokes and prods, Cassie finds the cracks in the “family” and does everything she can, in every shade of moral-gray, to catch her man.

Like The Secret Place, I super loved this book. Cassie was a complex and relatable character and I thought French did a fantastic job weaving her past with her present. When she becomes Lexie, the words dance off the page and I never wanted it to end. While I loved Cassie, this book would be nothing without its supporting cast. On the one hand, you have Sam and Frank, coaching through the investigation and providing her with the links she needs (though she doesn’t always think so) to stay tethered to the real world, and on the other you have the housemates. Gah, they are the best collection of weirdos ever. All are grad students and all are escaping pasts they’re trying desperately to forget. Daniel, the quote-unquote patriarch, inherited the house and is a super socially-awkward guy. For reals. Abby is the quiet and caring mothering type, perfect to play off Lexi/Cassie’s wild streak. Justin is the sensitive gay one (and the only one who goes a little too heavy on the stereotype). Rafe is the hot and hot-tempered one from England. And of course there’s Lexie, the character who drives it all. She is reckless and free, secretive and dangerous. With all this damage, they can definitely live in their own utopia, right? Right. Totally sustainable.

I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again (when I allow myself to embrace my destiny and bellyflop into the series and finish it in one fell swoop — it’s only a matter of time), my favorite part of the French novels is the complexity of the characters and their relationships. The richness with which she writes takes a simple mystery (step one: girl is dead, step two: investigate crime, step three: find killer) and elevates it to a story that haunts you. I found myself sitting at work thinking about the characters and what it would be like to be in their situation. I wanted to fully immerse myself in the world she created. French effortlessly weaves in the themes of family, commitment, freedom, and sacrifice and leaves the reader wanting more, more, more. And of course the ending is perfect. Suspenseful as can be and completely satisfying.

Rating: 9, Just shy of perfect (Can’t put it down! Well rounded with exceptional characters and style.)

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nerdy girl reads: first impressions

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife…” … is really the only line in Pride and Prejudice I care to remember. I know, I KNOW, I am pretty much the only romance-loving woman who is not seriously into Jane Austen. I don’t get it either. So I kind of rolled my eyes a little when I realized Charlie Lovett’s new book was a mystery about good old P&P. I was SO looking forward to it because his debut, The Bookman’s Tale, was so wonderful. But I shouldn’t have despaired because in the hands of a good writer, even a Jane Austen-hater can be convinced.

first-impressions

As in The Bookman’s Tale, the narrative follows two story lines, one present and one past. In the present, we meet Sophie Collingwood, a recent Literature grad who (like most Literature grads) has no idea what she wants to do with her life. Her beloved uncle dies in a suspicious “fall,” and while attempting to restore his library (sold off to pay for the family estate, naturally — there had to be SOME British stereotypes!), she begins to work at an antiquarian bookshop in London. In the span of a day or so, two different customers request the same obscure book: the second edition of Little Book of Allegories by Richard Mansfield. Her search for the title leads her into a mystery that questions the author of her favorite book, Pride & Prejudice. In the meantime, we follow a young Jane Austen and her friendship with Richard Mansfield, an aging cleric who encourages her writing and is a deep influence in her life. It is during their friendship that she gets the idea for an epistolary novel about a young man and woman named Darcy and Bennett who make disastrous “first impressions”…or was it really his?

As a book and mystery lover, I was pretty much already going to love this book, despite my anti-P&P bias. The mystery was well-paced and suspenseful, the reader is left guessing whether Sophie can save Jane Austen’s reputation and who is really coming after her and the book until the end. While I liked Sophie, my main critique of the novel is that she felt very one-note throughout the book and as a whole, the character development was a bit shallow. Her love triangle is entertaining, if not predictable. Just how does one choose between the hot smooth-talking book publisher who wines and dines you and the confident and attractive American literary scholar who writes you funny and romantic letters from his travels? Of course, you’d have to believe her “first impressions” of these suitors…

Under the mystery, the book is all about love…romantic love, familial love, the love between close friends, and the love of books and the worlds they transport us to. Reading the book is as pleasant a journey as a stroll around the English countryside, perfect for spring. Bibliophiles rejoice, if Charlie Lovett keeps writing beautiful love letters to literature like First Impressions, we’ll all be very happy indeed.

Rating: 7, Darn good (Highly recommended book that is well paced and enjoyable with a few flaws.)

 

nerdy girl reads: the invention of wings

I’ll confess: I didn’t want to read Sue Monk Kidd’s latest, The Invention of Wings. It was a book club pick and I put off reading it as long as possible until our meeting this week forced me to crack it open (the long library hold list helped me on this…guess I should have trusted its popularity). I don’t know exactly why I was dreading it, but let’s just call it the reverse Oprah-effect. I wasn’t feeling historical fiction and I think I went into it thinking it was going to be cheesy for no real reason at all. Good news: I was super wrong.

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The Invention of Wings is the true story of Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a layer and slave owner in Charleston, South Carolina, and one of her family’s slaves, Handful. Growing up, Sarah was known for her intelligence, not her beauty, and was indulged by books and extra lessons from her father. On her 11th birthday, Sarah is given Handful as her present, which is deeply unsettling to her. She tries to set her free to the dismay of her overbearing and unloving mother. When she fails, Sarah decides she’s going to be the first female lawyer in Charleston so she never has to feel that helpless again. As you can guess, it doesn’t go over well, she is publicly humiliated by her family, and develops a speech impediment as a result. Sheesh! Sarah listlessly floats through the next few years until she moves north. Her move away from her family, thankfully, is the catalyst for her personal growth. She becomes a Quaker, and ultimately finds her voice as an abolitionist writer and speaker and a champion of women’s rights along with her younger sister Nina. For her part, Handful lives up to her name and leads a life of quiet subversion. Handful, in real life, was a Grimke slave, but died very young. In Kidd’s imagination however, she follows in her mother’s footsteps, becoming the Grimke’s seamstress and doing her part in the building slaves’ riots and working everyday to escape. Kidd weaves in Handful’s family history throughout the novel as Handful and her mother sew it into their quilts. It is heartbreaking and I’m sure all too real.

In the end, I really enjoyed this book. It is powerful and beautifully written and an important story to be told. I loved how the narrative jumps between Sarah and Handful and I really loved the character growth. But I didn’t love the book. I had a very hard time getting into the story and there are SO MANY TIMES I wanted to shake Sarah. I’m sorry to be so awful to a woman who did so much work to end slavery and advance women’s rights in a time when doing so was dangerous and nearly impossible, but Sarah is the Edith of the Grimke family, just in Charleston instead of Downton and in way worse clothing. I kind of said “Poor Sarah/Edith” for awhile and got so sad that her family is so callous and everything seems to go wrong at the worst times and no man will ever love her…but then I just stopped caring. It’s not until Nina joins the crusade, and they find their wings together, that I was swept up in the plot and really felt that Sarah’s part of the story blossomed. On the other hand, I was caught up in Handful’s story from the beginning and never found it to be cheesy or maudlin. It was gritty and hard to read and yet still hopeful, and I am glad I learned just a little bit more about the worst part of American history from Handful’s perspective.

I’ll be honest, this is not a light, fluffy beach read. It’s perfect for the last dreary days of February when you want to sink your teeth into something that will make you a better person for having read it. I can’t wait to discuss the book later this week with my book club; I have the feeling that everyone in our diverse group will have taken away something special from this special book. You know, special for an Oprah book…

Rating: 8, Excellent (Memorable and above par, highly entertaining.)

 

 

nerdy girl reads: the martian

So I read this little book called The Martian. IN LESS THAN 24 HOURS. I’m pretty sure my review on Goodreads just says “I can’t even with this book.” I just can’t guys. After a string of so-so reads, this one blew me away.

the-martian

Andy Weir’s The Martian was recommended to me a few times so I picked it up, not really knowing anything about what it was about or the type of book. I mean, I figured it was sci-fi because, duh, Mars, but I didn’t know if it was an alien-comes-to-earth kind of sci-fi (something I would only maybe be into?) or if it was a mystery or anything. Well sure it’s sci-fi, but definitely not veering into the fantasy world. It is a heart attack in a book from page one and the action continues until the very last sentence.

The book begins with a failed NASA expedition to Mars due to an abnormal wind storm. Botanist/mechanical engineer/astronaut Mark Watney is hit by debris and his suit is damaged, leading the rest of the crew to believe he is dead and leaving him on Mars. But, uh, he’s not dead. What follows is an epic tale of survival told through Watney’s daily logs and the efforts of NASA to rescue him. And I don’t mean “epic” as in “bro that story was totally epic,” I mean like the guy goes through every possible disaster completely alone (for most of the novel he has absolutely no way to communicate to Earth thanks to the aforementioned wind storm) in an unknown and terribly inhospitable environment. Every single sol (Mars day) brings new chances to starve, blow up, run out of oxygen or water, freeze, and suffer through 70s TV shows. Page after page brings threat after threat and the pacing of the novel leaves you breathless and exhilarated. Because Watney is a botanist and mechanical engineer, he is able to do seriously impossible things. I wish everyone were as smart and ingenious as he is. The world would be a much better place.

And did I mention he is maybe the funniest fictional character I’ve ever met? Because he is a riot. In between biting my nails in anxiety I was laughing out loud. The husband thought I was insane. But that may have been because every five minutes I was telling him he HAD to read this book after I finished. Oops. I get a little excited sometimes.

Anyway, because I am not an astronaut or mechanical engineer, a lot of the lingo was new to me and I won’t lie, I haven’t taken a math or science class since high school, so a lot of Watney’s “work” on Mars went over my head. However, I never felt like I had to suspend my disbelief. I totally believed that he was able to grow potatoes in the Hab and outfit the rover to carry him across the surface of Mars to repair an old communication system and create the millions of things he had to just to live. Weir is a self-proclaimed “lifelong space nerd and a devoted hobbyist of subjects like relativistic physics, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight” and it’s obvious he did tons of hours of research. Truth is, I don’t even care if all of Watney’s MacGyver-ing wouldn’t really work; I was picking up what he was selling. I also know that I am certainly not scrappy enough to survive on Mars. So sad.

While most of the story is told first-person by Watney, and he is obviously the central character to the drama, the cast of characters on the ground in NASA were also well-drawn, smart, and funny. If you do read The Martian, and I SERIOUSLY hope you do, please do yourself a favor and DO NOT look up the cast of the movie that is coming out on Thanksgiving. (Side note: Sorry family, dinner’s going to have to be late this year, I’m going to be busy…) Most of the casting is absolute perfection, but of course the pictures in your head will be better unbiased.

The non-stop action eventually does give way to a story full of heart. Without a doubt, it’s a story about the persistence of mankind to survive. It wouldn’t be very exciting if Watney just gave up and OD’ed on morphine on Sol 6. But it’s also about the incredible generosity and goodness of mankind, the people who devote sleepless days and weeks and months for rescuing one stranger. I know it’s a bold statement for February, but The Martian might end up being the best book I’ve read and will read in 2015. That’s how freaking much I loved this brilliant and funny story of the first guy to colonize Mars.

Rating: 10, One of the best books ever! (Thoroughly captivating and re-readable. Complex and without flaw.)

nerdy girl writes: the hangman’s daughter

With a title like The Hangman’s Daughter, you’d think the book would be about the hangman’s daughter, right? But no. The first of many disappointments ahead, be forewarned. I had heard about Oliver Potzsch’s book a few times in the last few years and the cover caught my eye in the library used book sale. It’s pretty, right?

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The Hangman’s Daughter is set in a small German town, Schongau, in the mid-1600s. Like I said, you’d think it would follow Magdalena Kuisl, the hangman’s duaghter, but the action instead follows her father Jacob and the young town doctor (and Magdalena’s forbidden love-interest) Simon Fronwieser. Early one morning, a child turns up dead near the river marked with “a washed-out purple circle with a cross protruding from the bottom.” So basically the woman sign. But back then, it equaled witchcraft. Jacob is forced to arrest the town midwife and use “enhanced interrogation techniques” to get her to confess, though another child is killed while she’s in jail. Before the aldermen decide to hang her, Jacob and Simon must figure out who really is killing the children so justice can be served. And Simon has an ulterior motive: if he can prove he’s smart and able, he hopes to marry Magdalena. Potzcsh, it turns out, is a distant relation of the Kuisl hangman clan and tried to stay as true to family history (the Kuisls were known as being very well-read and respected healers despite the fact that they were still generally shunned in society) as possible. One of the creative licenses Potzsch took paid off – the villain of the story is truly and wonderfully evil. He’s known simply as “the devil” throughout the novel and has a fake arm made of crushed bones. It’s awesome.

I’m not sure whether it’s a poor translation (written originally in German), a product of the overly-formal 17th century time period, or just poor writing, but the first 300 pages are sloooooowwwww and disappointing. There are a lot of (German) names. A lot of Jacob and Simon running around the town. A lot of Simon fighting with his father about new and old medicine. A lot of Simon trying unsuccessfully to get with Magdalena. I think I came into the book expecting that Magdalena would have a central role — that she was the one who solved the murder mystery or she was the one who bravely came to her father’s or the midwife’s rescue. She doesn’t. It’s disappointing. I don’t think she was a strong character, and certainly not important enough to have a book titled after her. But then you get to the last 100 pages and it’s nonstop action – chases throughout the town, fights in pitch black tunnels, daring river escapes. It’s great. But getting there takes a lot of work.

I really wish I could give the book two different ratings because the ending really is exciting and satisfying, but as a reader you have to be really committed. Definitely not for everybody.

Rating: 4, Sub par (Bad. Just enough good to avoid complete disaster.)

nerdy girl reads: yes please

True story: I want Amy Poehler to be my older sister. Or at least my awesome older friend. You know the one I mean. She’s always witty and comfortable in her own skin, gives the best advice, and knows how to have the best time at a party AND the best way to deal with the hangover the next day. I’ve read the other two recent funny-lady memoirs (Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling and Bossypants by Tina Fey) so there was no way I wasn’t going to read Amy’s first book Yes Please. Because I think comparison is the thief of joy or whatever that saying is, I’ll try my best not to pit these equally fabulous and different ladies against each other because I think it’s possible we can all be supportive of each other and still succeed. Anyway, all the books are great and unsurprisingly, I loved Yes Please as much as I thought I would.

(And sidenote: How great were Tina and Amy at the Globes? They killed it as usual.)

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What separated Amy’s book from the rest, for me, is probably what separates and makes her great in person: she’s just so charming. I don’t even feel like I needed the audiobook (though I might still give it a listen since I’m sure she is hilarious) because her voice comes through loud and clear in her writing. The book is set up as a series of essays, not a continual narrative, and she jumps topics in each one, covering her childhood, her life before SNL, and some of the lessons she’s learned along the way. It’s essentially a list of dos and don’ts from Amy’s life. I loved learning about how she grew up and I’ll admit, she endeared herself to me even more (if possible) when she admitted she too liked school because she liked learning and that’s where she saw her friends. See? We’re destined to be nerdy besties. While I didn’t enjoy the chapters where she focuses on her journey in improv theatre as much as others, they stressed to me her whole concept of “yes please,” of always being polite, hard-working, a little over-optimistic, and open to the opportunities that you’ve created.

In her words, “The talking about the thing isn’t the thing. The doing of the thing is the thing.”

One of the things I most admire about Amy is that she never plays anything halfway. She always puts it all out there, and if you don’t like it, that’s your loss. It’s why she did so well in improv and on SNL. I won’t get all Feminist Katie on you, but I fully support all the things she says on the subject and love her initiatives like “Smart Girls at the Party.” So yeah, there are little nuggets of advice about working hard, self-confidence, and growing up sneaked in throughout the book. You can say you’re “reading it for the articles,” but mostly you’ll laugh. A lot. Amy includes tons of pictures and mementos in between the chapters and they always made me laugh out loud. There’s also a chapter by Seth Meyers, notes from her parents, and a chapter about Parks and Recreation she had “edited” by the writer and creator of the show. It’s so great and I am so sad the final season starts today…I might need to drown my sorrow in waffles.

I fully admit that I probably wouldn’t like this book as much had it been written by anyone else. There’s a lot of confirmation bias happening here and I’m ok with it. But if you’re a fan, I think you’ll like Yes Please. And if you like to read funny words that occasionally have little hearts of truth, I think you’ll also like it.

Rating: 7, Darn good (Highly recommended book that is well paced and enjoyable with a few flaws.)

nerdy girl reads: top 10 books of 2014

I read 60 books last year. I know compared to some that number is paltry, but 60 seems huge to me. More than one a week, even with a full time job and a (maybe somewhat lame) social life. I read some really great books, and much more diverse than it felt like at the time. These definitely aren’t going to be the books on all the fancy NPR or NYT lists, but they are the books I enjoyed the most and the ones that have stuck with me long after I closed the back cover. Got a new year’s reading challenge? Get started with one of these I know you’ll love.

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The Secret Place by Tana French
You can give me a book about a murder at a boarding school any day and I know I’ll love it, but it won’t have the brilliance of French’s The Secret Place. While simultaneously following the murder investigation of a teenage boy and the lead up to his murder, you’re really reading a smart and unexpected look at friendship, loyalty, ambition, and growing up. I loved the cast of characters and couldn’t get enough of French’s spot-on teenage dialogue.

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
On the blog, I try very hard to either review a series as a whole or not at all. Most of my favorite series are not ones you can simply pick up in the middle, but I can’t not put The Magician’s Land on this list. The Magicians series follows Quentin, a brilliant debbie-downer of a guy, as he enters the world of magic, first at an exclusive school and then in the magical world of Fillory. Imagine a mix of Harry Potter and Narnia, narrated by Holden Caulfield. If you are AT ALL a fan of the fantasy genre or books with magic (I clearly am), the series is well worth your time, especially the final installment, which perfectly wraps up the magic.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
I’m not known for choosing books that really push my boundaries — I have a few genres I like and tend to color within the lines. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is so far out of the lines for me, but Karen Russell’s writing is absolutely captivating. I have never been a fan of short story collections, usually the characters and descriptions fall flat for me in their brevity, but there wasn’t a story in Vampires that I didn’t like. From the eponymous vampires of the title to women who turned into silkworms, each story is surprising and supernatural and full of smart and quirky storytelling. Seriously, I can’t choose a favorite, even months later.

Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte
Find yourself wanting to slow down and cut back on the busy this year? PLEASE pick up Overwhelmed. Brigid Schulte looks at how we balance (or don’t balance) our work, family, and play time in this book and I think it is an essential read for anyone who feels like they are too busy to have any fun. I’ll admit I’m not the busiest person (I did read 60 books this year after all), but that is by design. I hate feeling busy, which is, as pointed out in this book, different from actually being busy. I believe in policies that enable more flexible workplaces and love Schulte’s emphasis on finding and making time for meaningful play — the thing that makes us human and able to do everything else that much better. The strategies laid out are easy to implement and make a huge difference!

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
I am 100% this book’s demographic. Art? Yes. History? Yes. Mystery and theft? Yes and yes. Love story? YES. Three stories weave together in this gripping and twisty-turny read: our heroine Claire’s present-day story, her past, and the history of a Degas’ masterpiece that was stolen from the Gardner Museum in 1990. As Claire begins to forge the Degas, she begins to doubt its authenticity and the tangled web begins to weave. As an art history lover, I couldn’t get enough of this book. I said in my review that Shapiro’s writing is excellent, the mystery of the painting is enthralling, and the suspense of will-they-or-won’t-they-be-caught keeps you turning the pages well into the night and I stand by all of it months later.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
All I can say is this book though. It’s just so beautiful — both the story and the prose. A Tree Grows is the only classic I read this year (reading a few more is a goal for this year) and I didn’t write a review of it this summer because it’s so hard for me to put into words what this book means to me. I am SO glad I read it now and not in high school when the husband did (for the record: he loved it too) because it felt like it came to me at the most perfect moment. Both heartbreaking and heartwarming, the story of Francie Nolan reminds us how complicated and beautiful this life we have is.

The Intern’s Handbook by Shane Kuhn
Are you a fan of Dexter? Yes? Go get The Intern’s Handbook. Now. It’s got all the makings of a fun thriller (I know, kind of an oxymoron there.): a sarcastic and witty assassin-turned-intern as a narrator, a plot that moves at breakneck speed, and twists and turns on every page. Plus a love story and a brilliantly designed cover (a skull and crossbones made out of office supplies! gah!) for some extra goodness. Both the husband and I couldn’t put this book down. Trust me, it’s no literary masterpiece, but it reads like an exciting screenplay (it’s already being adapted for a movie!) and is pure entertainment.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
OMG this book. If you’re looking for a literary masterpiece, The Shining Girls is not it. If you’re looking for a very creepy and deeply engrossing thriller about a time-traveling serial killer and the one who got away, hot on his heels in investigation, this is definitely it. Beukes’ characterizations are remarkable – I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a more evil or gruesome character than Harper. You’ll love the quick pace and suspense, dotted with the interactions with the “shining girls,” which act like short stories within the narrative and are a haunting look at women through history.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Every list needs a little chick lit yes? Big Little Lies is chick lit done right. This schoolyard drama following three women’s daily lives leading up to a shocking murder keeps you on your toes until the very end. As I said in my full review, you never know who has been killed and the storytelling effortlessly jumps from funny to dark and back again. It’s a fun read that has it all: humor, well-drawn characters, high-speed plot, and emotional depth.

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel
As I mentioned in my full review of The Astronaut Wives Club, I really knew nothing about the early astronauts, much less their wives, and I completely gobbled this book up. I loved reading about the lives of these women, how they coped with the highs and lows, and how they used their positions of popularity and power to make a little history themselves. Koppel’s book is a little bit history and a little bit gossip and a completely fun way to learn a little American history. There’s also going to be a TV show based on it released this year and you better believe I will glued to my seat when it starts!

Honorable mentions: The Vacationers by Emma Straub, Missing Microbes by Martin J. Blaser, 11/22/63 by Stephen King, and The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (like she wasn’t going to be on the list).

Fun fact: Least favorite books of the year were Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (ungodly boring), Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (funny how she can be on both of these lists – this book I just did not get), and Tenth of December by George Saunders (awful). All of these have either won or been nominated for book awards like the Booker Prize and the Pulitzer. I don’t want to know what that says about me…

What was your favorite book you read last year?

nerdy girl reads: big little lies

I will straight up tell you I judged this book by its cover:

big-little-lies

While it is beautifully designed and the imagery is striking, it is very clearly some form of chick lit, right? So I judged it and put off reading it. I guess I was trying to be literary? Ugh, so pretentious! Then I had to wait a million years (a month or two?) for my hold to come in at the library. Guess what? It’s totally chick lit. But Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies was one of my favorite books of this year. Sure it’s no heavy, full-of-lessons tome like The Goldfinch, but once I started reading, I never wanted to stop.

Big Little Lies follows the over-the-top schoolyard drama surrounding three women in suburban Sidney: Madeline, who is funny and smart and always holds her grudges…and whose ex-husband and his yogi new wife have moved into the hood, meaning their daughter is in the same kindergarten class as Madeline’s youngest; Celeste, who is always the most beautiful woman in the room, but is also always covering up her bruises; and sad single mom Jane, who is so young that the other mothers mistake her for the nanny and so worried she’ll never move on from her disastrous one-night stand six years ago. Everything leads up the final scene, a drunken school trivia fundraiser, where we’ve learned through the (hilarious) police interviews scattered in between chapters that a murder has occurred. As the reader, you don’t even know who the victim is until the fateful trivia night, and it is a whirlwind ride getting there. The story jumps effortlessly from light to dark to light again, which is why when I’ve recommended it to people, I’ve said it’s an incredibly fun and funny read…that deals with murder and domestic abuse and elementary school drama. USA Today probably says it best: Reading Big Little Lies “is a bit like drinking a pink cosmo laced with arsenic… [BIG LITTLE LIES] is a fun, engaging and sometimes disturbing read.”

As I’ve said, I definitely didn’t want to put this book down. The quick pacing and shifting of narration keep you on your toes and some of the plot lines (especially Madeline’s) are so absurd, you can’t help but laugh out loud. I also read Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret (another good read, but lacks the same spark that BLL has) this year and it’s obvious after the success of the two novels, she prefers this three-character format. It definitely works for her and I’m amazed at how richly and realistically the characters are portrayed in so little page time. This book honestly had everything I love in a book: Real characters, great plot, tons of humor, suspense, witty emails/police documents. You know. On the surface this was about a group of parents acting badly. But under the surface are the ooey-gooey issues — bullying, abuse, trauma. Considering everything that was tackled in this book it should not have worked but it did, and that is to the author’s credit. I have recommended it to anyone and everyone who has asked me for new reading suggestions and do the same here. You’ll love it. I want to go back in time so I can read it for the first time again, that’s how much I loved it.

Rating: 9, Just shy of perfect (Can’t put it down! Well rounded with exceptional characters and style.)

nerdy girl reads: egg & spoon

Did y’all like Wicked? I feel like this is a very loaded question. I’ve found myself in major debates over it, no lie. It seems there are two camps concerning Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (and the rest of the series) and the musical: one camp loves the books but not the musical, and the other loves the musical but despises the book. I fall into the former. I know it seems blasphemous, but I really can’t stand the musical AT ALL (nor Idina Menzel — please don’t hate me interwebs) and I absolutely love the books. They are so dark and gritty and imaginative. I don’t know why, but I really haven’t picked up anything of Maguire’s since A Lion Among Men (number three in the series) until I walked by a display of new books at the library and saw this:

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That cover though. I can’t even with this people! It is SO gorgeous. I honestly didn’t know a thing about the book, I just picked it up hoping the story would be as beautiful as the cover and be a nice break from all the dark mysteries I’ve been reading recently. And, ugh, of course it was wonderful (and for those who don’t like the book Wicked, completely different).

Gregory Maguire sets out this time to retell Russian fairy tales, through the adventures of two little girls, Elena and Ekaterina, in the golden age of the tsars. Elena lives in the impoverished countryside. To put it lightly, her life is not good. Her father is dead, one of her brothers has been conscripted into the Tsar’s army, the other taken as a servant, and her mother is dying. Oh yeah, and there is no food. Seriously, in one scene the villagers cup up a raisin or something ridiculous to share. It’s so sad! But then a train gets stuck in the village, a train carrying treasures, food, and a noble family on the way to impress the Tsar — a family that includes Ekaterina (or Kat). When the two girls’ lives collide, an adventure is set in motion, an escapade that includes mistaken identity, a prince traveling incognito, a firebird and an ice dragon, and of course, Baba Yaga, witch of Russian folklore, in her ambulatory house perched on chicken legs.

Being a work of fantasy, Egg & Spoon is very fanciful and full of incredible imagery, but it takes awhile to get there. The narrator is an old imprisoned monk who plays a big role in the end of the story, but like most old men telling stories, takes his time setting up the (somewhat boring) details of Elena and Kat’s lives. It’s not until the train leaves the station (literally) that the story takes off and the magic begins. My favorite part of this lovely little book is Baba Yaga. She is a hoot. I did some research on the fairy tales while I was reading and she is a real figure in Russian folklore. Like all witches who live in the woods, she kidnaps pretty young women and eats children and causes immense amounts of mischief. She is also nearly-immortal and Maguire cleverly weaves in references from contemporary culture to add in humor. My point being, I know you’ll want to, but don’t give up on this book until after you’ve met Baba Yaga. Like I said, the imagery is vivid and the adventure will leave you breathless, whether you and the characters are attending a royal ball on floating barges in St. Petersburg or marching through the arctic circle with larger-than-life matryoshka dolls on the way to meet an ice dragon who just won’t go to sleep and is messing up the world’s magic.

And just like all fairy tales and folklore, there’s much more to the story than the simple adventures of two girls and their friends. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but feel that the book itself is a matryoshka. Each story layer slowly opens to reveal the deeper purpose of the book. I can’t speak for the author obviously, but to me, the story was about finding your identity and always doing what you can to help make the world a better place, even if you are Baba Yaga. The unlikely friendship between Elena and Kat is heartwarming, and the ending really is a happily ever after. While Egg & Spoon is labeled YA, Maguire is a masterful storyteller and I think it’s a great read for all ages.

Rating: 8, Excellent (Memorable and above par, highly entertaining.)

nerdy girl reads: the secret place by tana french

It’s no secret by now that I have a thing for mysteries and thrillers. I try not to pick them up too often, because let’s face it, most of the time they’re about as substantial as the latest CSI: Wherever, but I always come back to them like a junkie needing a hit. And besides the Robert Galbraith (aka, JK Rowling) series and the occasional Stephen King, I shy away from the bestsellers like good old J. Patt and John Grisham, even though I’m sure they would be highly addicting and I doubt I’d be able to stop gobbling them up once I started. Which is why I hesitated to read any of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. I needed a little more substance under the usual fluff of a thriller and didn’t think she’d be able to deliver, despite numerous recommendations from library staff and my own mother-in-law who may be one of the two or three people who read as much as I do.

Well, I was wrong, and I should have picked up these books from the minute they hit the shelves.

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The Secret Place follows Detective Stephen Moran who has been biding his time, waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—basically the rock stars of the Dublin police. It’s where all the cool kids are, obvi. One morning, sixteen-year-old Holly, daughter of a Murder Squad detective and a witness to one of Moran’s previous cases, brings him a photo showing a boy who was found murdered, a year ago, on the grounds of the girls’ boarding school she attends. It says, “I know who killed him.” The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is basically your average mix of teenage gossip and mean-girl cruelty, which is why the card stood out and the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome Chris Harper is resumed. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

In the course of a day, yes the book takes place in one singularly riveting day in basically one or two rooms, everything Moran and Conway uncover leads them to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. As the publisher says, “Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.”

Gah, right?

I won’t lie, I read this book in a matter of days and by about 300 pages in I was thankful I was on vacation and could read for hours to my heart’s content because I was not putting it down for anything. I loved the boarding school setting — it provides such a neat little bubble of drama and intrigue, especially when you add in the teenagers. I thought French did an immaculate job capturing the attitudes and wild emotions of the girls, especially in dialogue. I could precisely picture and hear their phrasing and tones of voice. For being a novel centered around hours and hours of interrogations, the pacing is lively and the flashbacks to the months before the murder (I loved Ms. French’s repeated turn of phrase: “Chris Harper has three months and six days to live.”) help give the reader insight to the characters and their motives. I’ll admit that I figured out who the murderer was before the detectives, but it was still shocking and satisfying.

Underneath the murder, The Secret Place is a beautiful, if not dark, exploration of friendship and loyalty. The friendship between Holly and her friends was touching and made me (and Detective Moran) nostalgic for those perfect early-teen friendships where you exist in this tightly-knit cocoon and everything you need is right there. Obviously it’s not healthy, nor sustainable, which is why we grow out of them. But it’s nice to look back. One of my favorite parts of the story is when the girls make a pact to simply stop giving a damn about boys or makeup or fitting in because they don’t want to change who they are just to fit someone else’s mold of beauty or their expectations of what they should be. I wish I had known people like this growing up because even as an adult, it was incredibly affirming. I also loved the relationship between the detectives. At first Moran was hesitant to work with Conway because she seemed to be everything he wasn’t. He loves beautiful things and uses his rough, poor past to motivate him to be better and more refined, where she embraces her equally bad upbringing and is abrasive, tough, and has been alienated in the squad. They definitely do not trust each other and neither want the other as a partner…at the beginning. The dynamics shift and though I like that French’s series focuses on different detectives in each book, I’d like to see how they get on together.

All in all, if you like mysteries and thrillers or like novels set in boarding schools (and who doesn’t?), you will love The Secret Place. When I finished I immediately began In the Woods, the first in the series, and it’s fantastic too. I just can’t stop, guys.

Rating: 9, Just shy of perfect (Can’t put it down! Well rounded with exceptional characters and style.)