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: 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 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: 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.)

nerdy girl reads: the art forger

Oh hey, a book review! It’s been awhile. Don’t worry, I’m back with a good one. A great one even. I am so totally in love with B. A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger, I can’t even stand it and I can’t believe I waited so long to read it. (An admission: I read an Advanced Reader’s Copy of the book, even though it came out awhile ago. My “to read” list is a long and lengthy tome.) I mean, it is pretty much written expressly for me. Art? Yes. History? Yes. Mystery and theft? Yes and yes. Love story? YES.

art-forger

You see what that little review blurb says up there on that ridiculously beautiful cover? It’s all true. The Art Forger is so twisty and gripping and fascinating. At its core, the book follows the same general plot line(s) as The Bookman’s Tale. Like, spot on. Which is great for someone who adored that book. Anyway, we have three stories weaving together: our heroine’s story today, her past, and the history of the Degas’ masterpiece that was stolen from the Gardner Museum in 1990. Claire Roth is our struggling young artist, paying (most of) her bills by reproducing famous artworks for an online store and working on her own series on the side. Obviously, she knows she can do better…but no one will give her a show. She’s been snubbed for years thanks to a handsome professor, a MoMA show, and a major scandal…one that can magically go away, hottie gallery owner and major love-interest Aiden Markel says, if she helps him with one teeny, tiny, insignificant project: forging a Degas.

That reaction you have right now? Complete disbelief? Yeah, I think everyone had that reaction. Because there’s no way in hell someone can successfully rip off a Degas and fool all the historians. But remember, Claire makes reproductions for a living…so she is an expert forger and for a one-woman show, she’d do anything. When the stolen Degas painting is delivered to Claire’s studio, however, she begins to suspect that it may itself be a forgery. Thus beginning the fabulous twists and turns of her search for the truth about the painting and its past.

I really enjoyed this read. As an art lover, I gobbled up all the art history (obviously, Degas is awesome) and found all the forgery details incredibly fascinating. I honestly knew nothing about the Gardner heist (I mean, I was 4 when it happened…). How exciting! I mean, it’s not cool that we’re missing priceless works of art. (Understatement much?) But it’s amazing that they haven’t been found. As a historical fiction lover as well, I really appreciated how Shapiro used letters from Isabella Gardner to tell the story of the original Degas and help Claire discover its hiding place. I thought it was original and helped keep the three story lines distinct and well-paced. However…as good as this book is (and it’s really, really good), parts of the plot are pretty predictable and some are completely superfluous. It’s fairly obvious what’s happened to Claire that’s made her blacklisted from the art world after a few chapters and she volunteers at a juvenile detention facility, something given a fair amount of attention in the plot without having any connection to the rest of the events. To this day, I have absolutely no idea why it was included. But in the end, none of those frustrations matter because 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.

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

As you can tell, I love historical mysteries about art or literature like The Art Forger or The Bookman’s Tale. Have you read one you loved? Share in the comments!

nerdy girl reads: night film

There’s really no rhyme or reason behind the books I decide to read or review. Some I write about because they’re just SO GOOD I want everyone to love them and some books are so popular, I feel like I’d be missing out if I didn’t throw my two cents out into the interwebs. And most of the time, I can go weeks after reading before finally getting to my review. But some books. Some books become an insidious weed in my brain and I can’t do anything else until I clear it all out here. Night Film is definitely one of those.

night-film

Marisha Pessl’s Night Film was published last year, I believe, and isn’t one of those ultra-popular reads every book club known to man is going to pick up. Mostly because it’s creepy as hell and ridiculously over-the-top in the best possible way. The book follows Scott McGrath, a disgraced investigative journalist who lost all his credibility years earlier when he tried to take down the brilliant, mysterious, and reclusive horror film director, Stanislas Cordova. Cordova’s enigmatic daughter Ashley has apparently committed suicide, but Scott thinks that’s just too convenient. He starts digging deeper into her death with the help of a ragtag team of people who knew Ashley and were the last to ever see her alive. The path they take winds them through mental institutions, voodoo curses, summer camps for wayward teens, a secret internet fan site for the “Cordovites,” foot chases through Manhattan, and, finally, a night or two within the military-fenced walls of The Peak, Cordova’s massive estate (a.k.a., the WORST acid trip ever).

I won’t lie, as far as crime novels or thrillers go, this one is a slow burner. It’s not one to cause obsessive 2 a.m. reading from word one. But what it lacks in initial fire, it makes up for it in spades later on. It is probably one of the most detailed stories I have ever read, fitting since the subject of the investigation is known as a meticulous and exacting creative genius. Cordova is such a great villain! He’s always just out of the picture, hiding in the shadows and pulling all the puppet strings to fit his narrative. Or so Scott believes because actors never talk about their work with him and the secrets all point to dangerous and deadly things happening behind those walls. Pessl truly created an enigma in Cordova – he is in turn evil and magical, brilliant and horrific. And he’s not the only great character. Nora and Hopper, the rest of the ragtag justice league, are so clearly depicted that you really feel their hope and sadness throughout the relentless search for the truth. Usually the characters are my favorite part (in the absence of a love story, obvi) but in Night Film I LOVED the inclusion of fake newspaper and magazine articles and photos and webpages from Scott’s investigation. So brilliant! It was like you got to be detective too and added so much to the narrative.

Ostensibly, Night Film is very simple. It follows pretty classic crime novel moves. But thanks to Pessl’s attention to (and inclusion of) all the details, it gets pretty deep. I found myself thinking about the book long after I would finish reading (and not just in some pretty effed up dreams it made me have), thinking about how in the search for the truth about Cordova, Scott is really searching for how he/you/me/everyone defines “truth.” If you fiercely believe that something is true, it becomes a part of your reality. In the book’s case, Ashley believed she was marked by the devil and Scott believed Cordova was an evil murderer. Were either of these things true? Can you really say they were false? I for one can’t say for certain and it makes me wonder what other “truths” out there are as malleable. Like I said, deep.

I really enjoyed reading Night Film and think it’s perfect for anyone who likes crime mysteries that veer a little to the creepy. Perfect before Halloween! (Just make sure to read the part in The Peak during the daytime!)

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

nerdy girl reads: the vacationers

I know, I know. Stop the presses! Another book review so soon? I got off my lazy butt (just kidding, I’m writing this on my ipad while watching Orange Is The New Black and drinking wine…it’s a hard life I lead) to write you a special review of a book you simply HAVE to read before the summer’s over. And time is ticking guys! We’ve got like a week and a half before Labor Day – the perfect amount of time to race through Emma Straub’s The Vacationers. Though you probably won’t need it, it’s that good.

the-vacationers

I know I say this about every book, or at least the ones I deign worthy of a review, but I loved this book. It is absolutely perfect to read at the end of summer. It’s light and funny and packs a heartwarming emotional punch that leaves you nostalgic and so, so happy. It’s simple in theory; The Vacationers follows the Post family on a two-week vacation in sunny Mallorca. First of all, it sounds like pure paradise. A gorgeous private villa in a small Spanish island town surrounded by mountains and cliffs and spotless beaches. Uh, yes please. I can catch the first flight in the morning. But of course, life for the Posts is not paradise. Jim and Franny are trying to figure out how to deal with the aftermath of his affair (and disgraceful lay-off) after 35 years of marriage. Their daughter Sylvia just wants to get through the last few mind-numbing weeks before college – oh, and lose her virginity if at all possible. Their son is secretly hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and stuck in a dead end relationship with a woman ten years his senior who no one likes. Soooo tension. Add a super hot Spanish tutor and a famous tennis player (modeled after Rafa Nadal perhaps?) to the mix and things are ripe to blow up into some delicious family drama.

This book is oh so fun. The characters are delightfully flawed and just the perfect amount of self-absorbed. And you can tell Emma Straub really loves them. I loved them too. Sylvia is quick and sarcastically witty, obviously hiding her vulnerability in teenage surliness. Franny loves to cook enormous amounts of delicious food to try to keep everyone together and make them love her. Carmen (the noxious girlfriend) avoids her disappointment in her life in endless burpees (shudder). They are so complex and truly make this character drama sing. As if it could get any better, Straub’s writing is so buttery-smooth and enjoyable to read. This Goodreads review says it so well because there’s so much to enjoy: “I loved many, many other things about this book—the food, the weather, the atmosphere, the dialogue, the sexy moments, the characters’ wonderful little quirks. (I’d love to quote you some specifics, but immediately handed the book over to my mom upon turning the last page.) But one of the things I loved the most is that all the braided plotlines were resolved in really satisfying ways, and it felt like everyone absolutely got what they deserved—both good and bad. That was really a relief for me; maybe I’ve gone soft, but I’m sick to death of reading about crummy characters who win, or wonderful characters who get fucked (in the bad way). ” I agree. The ending is so great and I want everyone to experience it too.

In the end, this is a story of the sides of ourselves that we choose to show and those we try to conceal, of the ways we tear each other down and build each other up again, and the bonds that ultimately hold us together. It makes you love your family and appreciate the imperfect life you’ve made for yourself. And of course, the occasional trip away to strip away the all the lies. Go read it. NOW.

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

nerdy girl reads: the secret history

As I am often wont to do, once I find an author or series I like, I will read all of them at once in one giant obsessive binge until I finally surface for air and have to face reality again. You say it’s sad and compulsive? Ok, maybe a little. Maybe a lot. It’s not for everyone, and really not advisable for every author. Like Donna Tartt for example. After reading the brilliant, but VERY heavy The Goldfinch, I immediately picked up her other book The Secret History for book club. You guys, she is good. So good. But two straight dark and serious novels does not a happy summer make.

secret-history

The Secret History reminded me a little of the movie The Skulls. Do y’all remember that one? I don’t think it was very good in reality, but pre-teen me loved it. Plus Paul Walker was super hot. And maybe Pacey was in it too? It was about a secret society at one of the Ivies (Yale?). Clearly I paid much more attention to Pacey than to the plot. But I digress. So, our narrator Richard Papen arrives at Hampden College in Vermont straight off the bus from a small town in California and parents who pretty much didn’t want him around. Obviously, he doesn’t quite fit into his prep-school surroundings and therefore, is easily seduced by an elite group of five students – Henry, Francis, Charles, Camila, and Bunny. All Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. But they take him in and Richard gets to live the elite life for awhile, going out to country club lunches and taking long weekends at summer homes. As Richard is drawn in by their flashy friendship, he figures out a secret they share…a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life…and led to a gruesome death. Yeah, you guys. They pretended to be Greek and I guess decided that meant killing someone. Insane right? And that was just the beginning. Things devolve into madness and while I wish there had been some hysteria, instead there’s lots of alcohol abuse and silent mania.

Remember how I said this was a fun summer read?!?

Actually I would love to have read this book now, as the promise of fall is lurking in the wings and school is starting again. This book is intense, there’s no getting around that. It’s not light and fluffy, but it is really a terrific read. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a mystery because well, these super smart kids like to lay out very elaborate plans and it’s easy to figure out the ending, but it is so dramatic and tense that it gives you the same feel. The suspense is slow burning and masterful, reaching several crests before the final few pages leave you racing through each line. Seriously, I dare anyone to stop reading in the middle of the last chapter. It’s impossible. Tartt is so, so good at it. All of it, any of it. Just like in The Goldfinch, she sucks you in with these remarkably well drawn out characters who aren’t really good and aren’t really bad, they just make the decisions they think are best at the time (or in some cases, let others make decisions for them) and then have to punt a lot…as we all must do. I was fascinated and horrified by this semi-secret society (especially Henry, what a strange and complicated and effed up character) and found the book so smart and entertaining. Also, it’s not a million pages long like The Goldfinch. It’s only like, 500.

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

nerdy girl reads: short summer reads

Last night I realized that these sweet summer days are quickly passing us by when the husband got a text about his fantasy football draft in a few weeks. What the what? I can’t even. (Though let’s be real, I am super pumped for football season and already want pumpkin beer. It’s a sickness.) But thankfully, we do still have more than a month ahead of us before Labor Day’s arrival – plenty of time to soak up the sun and get some reading done before the pool closes! Because I love you all so much, I’ve read a bunch of shorter reads you can fly through in a weekend or two and reviewed them all here. Hope it helps you find a new fave!

A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams
A-Hundred_SummersIn the mood for some pure chick lit fun? A Hundred Summers is for you. I first read Williams’ work in Overseas, and was excited to check this one out. Set in a beach town in Rhode Island in 1938, we follow socialite drama at its best. Lily Dane is shocked and hurt when Nick and Budgie Greenwald show up unexpectedly for the summer. They are her former best friend and her former fiancé, now recently married. Sucks right? Budgie insinuates herself back into Lily’s friendship with an overpowering talent for seduction…and an alluring acquaintance from their college days, Yankees pitcher Graham Pendleton. But because it’s chick lit and a little formulaic, Lily and Nick can’t stay away from each other, and the two are drawn back into their long-buried feels, despite their heartbreak. I really enjoyed this story and despite its somewhat sappy and contrived plot, I was hooked because I love love stories and historical fiction. Williams does a great job of weaving in flashbacks to the main story and you really will love Lily and feel her heartbreak. Like I said, pure chick lit fun for the summer!

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

Trains and Lovers by Alexander McCall Smith
Trains_and_LoversI can’t believe I had never read an Alexander McCall Smith book before this year! Not only because he’s written SO MANY, but also because they are all so British and I love British things. Anyway, Trains and Lovers. You guys, it is so cute. I know that sounds lame, but there’s really no other way to describe it. The book itself is tiny in size and the cover is an adorable watercolor of a train with pretty hand-lettered type. And the story is just as sweet. Basically, four strangers meet on a train and tell each other their love stories on the journey. It is incredibly sentimental and not for anyone who isn’t the most hopeless of romantics. There’s really not much in the way of plot – the characters are just riding a train after all – but the writing is so gentle and intelligent that this quick read is like sitting by the fire and enjoying a pleasant warmth. It sticks with you much like the rocking of a train and makes you happy to be in love.

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

Lonely Planet A Fork in the Road
Fork_in_the_RoadI love travel writing, especially if it involves food. The best parts of Eat, Pray, Love are by far when she talks about the food she eats in Italy and The Sweet Life in Paris was a wonderful romp through French cuisine. So when A Fork in the Road‘s cover caught my eye in a library display, I snatched it up. It’s not really a story, more of a collection of essays written about the intersection of food and travel and its impact on famous foodies’ lives. I’ll admit, it wasn’t my favorite read of the summer. Some of the essays sparkle with life and wit and some fall pretty flat. I naturally loved the stories from well-known chefs and authors like Curtis Stone and Michael Pollan, but some of the hidden gems were from people I had never heard of talking about disastrous stays at a Tuscan villa, a comedic family lunch in a small town in France, and how an exotic dish brought a girl and her estranged father together despite her uptight Asian family. If you are a fan of the genre, you will enjoy its humor and sentimentality and it is perfect for when you only have 10-20 minutes to read because you can skip around the chapters as you want, knock out an essay, and feel immense amounts of wanderlust!

Rating: 6, Above average (Recommend with reservations. Entertaining, but lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.)

Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues by Martin J. Blaser
Missing_Microbes
Ah yes, a learning book. And a kinda scary one at that. But hear me out! Not everyone likes all this schmaltzy stuff! And this isn’t like the summer reading you had to do in high school – it’s waaay more interesting than Machivelli or Greek plays. (Anyone else have to suffer through that?!?) I saw Blaser on The Daily Show and knew I had to get his book. After waiting forever to get it from the library, I hustled through this quick science-y read. I love learning about our human biology, especially when it comes to bacteria and our digestive system and our health. (See Cooked and this past month’s edition of Eating Well for more fun!) As someone who is also suspect of taking any and all medications, I wanted to learn more about the damage that overuse of antibiotics is doing to our health, you know, small things like contributing to the rise of obesity, asthma, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer. Gah! For hundreds of thousands of years bacterial and human cells have lived in a peaceful Garden of Eden that is responsible for the health and equilibrium of our body and we’re ruining it! Blaser skillfully combines technical data from the lab and his conclusions without getting to science-y for the lay reader and offers really good solutions for how we can start to fix it. I’ll warn the hypochondriacs out there that there was a chapter I had to stop reading in the middle because it was freaking me out (antibiotic-resistant MRSA anyone?), but I think this is a worthwhile read for anyone who wants to make smart decisions about their health and medicine.

Rating: 8, Excellent (Memorable and above par, highly entertaining.) (Ok, maybe not entertaining, but important!)

Goodnight June by Sarah Jio
Goodnight_JuneOk, back to the schmaltz! Y’all know I love Sarah Jio. Blackberry Winter is still one of my fave chick lit reads. Unfortunately, I think her editors are doing her a disservice by having her crank out at least one book a year because her two latest have felt under-developed to me. Goodnight June could have been great because the story premise is great: burned-out and heartbroken financial guru June moves to Seattle to take over her deceased aunt’s failing bookstore and finds out she was confidantes with Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight Moon, and inspired the famous story, thus saving the store and finding love. Like I said, sounds great, yes? The writing is a little flat though, especially when it comes to the love story. You know it’s unmemorable when you can’t even remember the love interest’s name! But, it’s worth reading if only for the letters between June’s aunt Ruby and Margaret. They come alive and their friendship really becomes the love story and heart of the novel. I loved the literary bent of the book and I credit Jio’s imagination for coming up with such a clever and beautiful backstory for such a beloved book. Again, perfect to pick up and read by the pool for some easy-going chick lit!

Rating: 6, Above average (Recommend with reservations. Entertaining, but lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.)

What are you reading this summer?

nerdy girl reads: the goldfinch

I always hesitate to write reviews of really popular books or classics because there are simply so many out there – on blogs, on Goodreads, from professional critics (which I am clearly not). I never really know what to say or what to add to the conversation that hasn’t been said before. I am especially hesitant to review The Goldfinch because, really, how can you sum up a nearly 900-page Pulitzer-winning tome in a 1,000-word blog post?

This book is daunting (both in its reading and its reviewing). It’s long and sprawling and at times so dark it’s hard to see that there will ever be light again. But oh man, is it a pretty book.

the-goldfinch

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch starts with our main character Theo and his mom taking a stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before a parent-teacher conference to see her favorite Dutch painting (the novel’s namesake). There’s an explosion. Theo manages to escape – with the painting – but without his mother. At first, he lives with the family of a friend, adjusting to his “new normal” of people who don’t know how to talk to him, grieving his mother’s death, and of course, keeping secret his theft of the painting. He’s then shuttled off to live in a mostly-vacant suburb of Las Vegas with his grossly negligent father. Here’s where we enter a wasteland of teenage boredom and grief and copious recreational drug use facilitated by Theo’s new Russian bestie Boris. It’s a really bad time, guys. So much so that it lasts for like half of the book (or at least it feels that way). I’ll get to the book’s editing problems in a minute…anyway, Theo eventually moves back to New York, living with Hobie, an antique furniture restorer who was the partner of one of the other explosion victims. He learns the antiques trade, though thanks to his moral-free teenage years, isn’t exactly honest, and finds himself at the center of an unsavory circle of underground art dealers (and worse) and grasping to the one thing he holds dear – the painting.

It’s so hard for me to explain my feelings about this book. I swing from “meh” to “LOVE love” to “it’s complicated” depending on the day (or minute). Donna Tartt is clearly a very talented storyteller, and on the whole, this book is beautiful. The last chapter alone is worth the Pulitzer in my opinion. But could this book have been at least 100 pages shorter? MOST DEFINITELY. The endless depressing drunken teenage cavorting with Boris could easily have been cut in half. Tartt’s attention to detail is remarkable and she manages to capture places and moments and emotions and characters so vividly…but yeah, more editing would have made for a much more cohesive and effective novel, with pacing that was more even (i.e., not going from a loping stroll to full out sprint in a matter of pages).

Theo is one of those characters that you wish you could grab by the shoulders and shake, yelling at him about his stupid life decisions. God, he makes so many! He is tragically flawed through his grief and obsession and clearly, it’s a potent combination that usually doesn’t end well for him. This book is truly about surviving the whims of fate, who in Theo’s case is a cruel and ruthless master. Tartt asks if we can rise above all the crap that happens to us, accepting the pain and heartbreak that comes with being a human, and still finding moments of joy. In a way, the themes of The Goldfinch remind me of The Bookman’s Tale (though the similarities definitely end there). In both novels, we’re presented with a character strung out on obsession and self-destruction who ultimately learns to, in the immortal words of Dory,  just keep swimming. Theo’s one saving grace is his relationships, which Tartt describes so vividly. Whether it’s his raucous and desperate friendship with Boris or his unrequited love for his idealized Pippa or his absolute devotion to his painting, his relationships drive the story when the plot decides to take a few breaks now and then.

Despite its heftiness (physically and topically), I am so glad I read The Goldfinch. It IS beautifully written with characters as complicated and nuanced as real people. Situations alternately lovely and bleak. Story that (thankfully) tightens up as you are nearing the finish line. But parts of it I loved and parts I hated. Sometimes I want to praise it, other times I am at a loss for anything good to say about it. I would never recommend it to all readers, for sure, but I do think it’s worth your time to dig your way through.

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