nerdy girl reads: the girl you left behind

Just in case getting a little scared while lounging on your beach towel isn’t quite your thing, here’s another option for a little summertime reading: Jojo Moyes. Y’all know I love her. Me Before You…just gah. The woman knows how to write a great story. I picked up one of her latest, The Girl You Left Behind, on a whim one day while I was trolling around the library stacks. Obviously her name alone was enough to pique my interest, but the cover is gorgeous as always, and it was lust at first sight.

Which quickly turned into love at, oh, about page two. What can I say, I’m easy that way.

girl-you-left-behind

Thankfully, The Girl You Left Behind is nothing like Me Before You. In a good way. It’s still incredible, but my tear ducts were very appreciative not to have quite the same workout. As with so many of my favorite pieces of chick lit (Sarah Jio, I’m looking at you), the story is actually two stories woven together. The novel opens in 1916 with Sophie Lefevre, a Frenchwoman whose artist husband Edouard has left her to fight in the war. With her sister, she runs the family hotel and restaurant despite the fact that the town has nothing. When it is occupied by German soldiers, they are forced to host the soldiers, and in an effort to maintain some semblance of normalcy, Sophie has kept a portrait of herself, her most prized possession painted by Edouard, hanging on the hotel wall. The local Kommandant is drawn to it and they strike up what is something close to friendship, or at least as friendly as you can be with an enemy soldier who has a crush on you but could still take you and your family out at a moment’s notice. Sophie uses her influence to risk everything to find Edouard again – at the cost of her dear painting.

We then meet modern-day Liv, whose husband has suddenly died, leaving her alone…with Sophie, the only work of art they had in their one-of-a-kind glass house in London. Trying to break out of her glass cage of emotion, Liv goes out and meets Paul, a retired American detective who now helps uncover stolen art. Yadda-yadda-yadda, he sees the painting that conveniently is part of his new case. What follows is Paul and Liv’s search into the past, Sophie’s past to be exact, to try and uncover the truth behind the painting’s journey. A legal battle ensues with the couple on opposing sides, Liv fighting alone to keep the one thing she loves most and to hold on to the memories of her husband.

I was totally sucked in by this book. Like read-it-in-a-weekend hooked. I was completely charmed by Sophie and loved her part of the story – it was dramatic and full of heart. Sophie herself is strong and brave, even when the townspeople turn on her and she has nothing left. The details and complications of daily life during the German occupation were gritty and thought-provoking and of course I won’t lie, the Edouard and Sophie love story was riveting. We all know, epilogues are tricky and some are simply not great (Mockingjay, anyone?), but this one was perfect for the hopeless romantic I will always be. Trust me, it is exactly the ending you would want for people who suffer so much. The last half of the book moves at a breakneck pace to wrap up both Liv and Sophie’s stories and I found myself wanting to pump the brakes so I wouldn’t finish so quickly. But of course I couldn’t and now I’m itching to reread it. Though not as heartbreaking as Me Before You, I did feel the losses of the two women and loved how despite their grief, they both found strength to make hard decisions and fight through their consequences.

All in all, The Girl You Left Behind was touching and powerful. Like I said before, Jojo Moyes knows how to write a great story weaving polarizing topics, different plot strands & well developed characters together into a great escapist read.

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

Advertisements

nerdy girl reads: vampires in the lemon grove

It’s not often that a book truly, breathtakingly surprises me. Sure, plot twists and character turns will shock me along the way and books can unexpectedly turn out better (or worse) than I had hoped. But Karen Russell’s latest, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, completely startled me in the best possible way. It is hands down the best book I’ve read in months and maybe one of my all-time faves. Crazy, right? And I didn’t even want to read it!

vampires-in-the-lemon-grove

Russell’s last book Swamplandia! garnered her a ton of attention when it was nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer, aka the year that they decided no one was good enough to actually win it. Since I love to read reviews and top ten lists and all of that, I had heard of her work for years, but never wanted to pick them up. Vampires was no exception, as all signs pointed to me disliking this book. 1) I originally thought it was all about vampires and that is so a few years ago. And 2) being the super snob that I am, I didn’t like the cover. Sometimes I’m so dumb. I literally had no idea what the story was, I just “hated” it on principle. I didn’t even know it was really a collection of short stories (which would have been strike three anyway). Then, I was working on some ebook promotions at work and the new cover (above) popped up. We had a digital copy available so I snatched it up since it was nice and pretty. (Seriously, I may be dumb [sometimes] and snobby [most of the time], but that cover is totes mcgotes beautiful.)

All in all, I was definitely not destined to love this book. But I couldn’t put it down. Finished it in less than 24 hours.

Russell seamlessly blends the fantastical with reality in her brilliant and startling short stories about subjects ranging from a massage therapist who takes on her war veteran’s pain through manipulating his tattoo to women who turn into silkworms to a very haunting scarecrow to the titular vampires who live in an Italian lemon grove. Each of the eight short stories vie for my favorite – I loved the sarcastic humor of tailgating for “Team Krill” in Antarctica and the bizarre stabling of our dead presidents as horses put out to pasture. They are all complex, witty, and intelligent and all together, a little creepy. Nothing is outright scary, but the parts of each story that bend reality are quite unnerving and disquieting. In SUCH a good way. I left each story a little confused and in a bit of a “book hangover,” which definitely means Russell did her job and sucked me in from the start.

I think one reviewer on Goodreads says it perfectly when he writes that this collection, “packs some serious emotional punches. Each story has some kind of a supernatural element, but like the best imaginative fiction, the fantasy elements really serve to enhance the universal human emotions that really form the backbones to each tale.” I don’t think I have read a more imaginative, creative, or engrossing book and I can’t wait to reread them. Luckily they’re short, right?

Rating: 10, One of the best books ever!

nerdy girl reads: ready player one

This fall, an amazing thing happened. My husband read a book.

I know.

The man devours news articles and blogs like nobody I’ve ever seen, but books? Definitely my territory. He usually clocks in at one per year during our beach vacation. But after I came home with a big bag full of new books, he patiently listened to me describe each one of my spoils in detail and perked up when I described the plot of Ready Player One.

ready-player-one

A crumbling futuristic America where an eccentric billionaire video game designer leaves a fortune to whoever can find his “Easter egg” first?

A complete virtual reality that’s basically a cross between World of Warcraft and Second Life?

A super nerdy teenage hero? 80s pop culture?

Yeah, my gamer husband was definitely in.

After he raced through the book (seriously, he even took it to work to read on his lunch break!), I had the chance to dive in. Without a doubt, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline was one of my favorite books I read in 2013 and is one of the most imaginative books I’ve ever come across. It was simply so much FUN to read. RPO was published in 2011 and has tons of Goodreads reviews, so I doubt I can add much original thought to the dialogue on this book, but I can’t help it. Cline’s book really is fantastic.

The story is told by Wade Watts, a nerdy teenage “gunter” (shortened form of egg-hunter) who is obsessed with the OASIS and the puzzles its creator left. See, America in 2044 apparently isn’t a very nice place and this virtual reality is where most people find work, socialize, and go to school. I’m not looking forward to it. Wade has devoted his life to studying the life and pop culture obsessions of the OASIS’ creator to escape his real life where he is orphaned and living in a stack of mobile homes with his aunt. He stumbles upon the first clue and finds himself and his friends in a race against time and the evil “Sixers” to take the prize.

I won’t give you any more of the action-packed plot because it’s too good to give away. It may be a little predictable given that it’s essentially a dystopian hero quest, but Wade and his friends are so funny and the nerd culture is so much fun that it doesn’t matter. What other quest would make the hero become part of a Brat Pack movie and force him to recite all the lines (with bonus points for accents!) to get to the next clue? And of course, being me, the best part is the love story. Always the love story!

The husband thought that was lame. But secretly I know he liked it, the big romantic.

Underneath the puzzles and arcade games, Ready Player One does bring a lot of heart. It reminds us that in human nature, there is always greed and a desire for power and it will always corrupt a few of us. But it also reminds us that there will always be many, many more of us who are willing to stand up to greed and fight for what is right. Even if it means killing your game character. Wade also reminds us in the end that we must live, really live. We all have our form of the OASIS. For me, it’s books. For the husband, it’s gaming. For some, it’s reality tv. That something that, while we may love it, takes us away from making connections to others and living as much as we can. Fantasy is not reality (fortunately? unfortunately?) and living and loving as much as we can is truly so much better.

Please check out Cline’s Ready Player One as soon as possible. Your inner gaming-nerd (no matter how hidden it is) will thank you!

Rating: 9 (Just Shy of Perfect)

nerdy girl reads: a tale of two love stories, part 2 {me before you}

And here we are on part two of my back-to-back love story review with a fabulous book by Jojo Moyes, Me Before You. (Catch up on part one, a review of The Rosie Project, here!) I’m gonna start you right off with a spoiler: This review might be a little sad. And serious. It’s just…I finished this book over two weeks ago and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m pretty sure it’s the best book that I read this year. As happy and witty and optimistic as The Rosie Project was, Me Before You was equally as poignant and heart-wrenching and in a way I would have never imagined (but will explain later), unbelievably sad yet still optimistic. Incidentally, it’s also going to be a movie…and if they get it right it will be incredible.

So, here we go. Remember when I read The Fault in Our Stars and was so completely and earth-shatteringly feeling all the things? Remember when I ran into the computer room, ugly crying all the way, to tell the husband that he can’t possibly ever die because feelings?

Yeah. Me too. It was an awkward time. But, uh, I think I did that about five more times while reading this book.

me-before-you

(BTW, gorgeous cover right?)

Me Before You follows a young woman named Louisa who is pretty much content with being bored for the rest of her life. She has a very small life – lives at home with her parents, never went to college, never traveled, has a nice (but boring) boyfriend, no life ambitions to speak of. She loses her job and ends up agreeing to work as a caregiver for a man named Will Traynor, sight unseen. Will was once a man who had a big life – wildly successful at work, traveled the world, athletic and adventurous – but ended up in a wheelchair after a freak accident. He barely has use of his hands. So these two are stuck together despite their wishes. And at the beginning, their wishes would be to be as far from each other as possible. But as this is a love story, obviously life happens.

I’m going to try so very had not to give away anything else about the actual story line and the characters’ circumstances because I think it’s best to go at this book a little blind. That way, it will totally hit you upside the head with how good it is. In addition to being a great love story, Me Before You is also a social commentary that isn’t preachy and poses so many thoughtful questions about love and sacrifice and what it means to fully live, not exist. (Again, I want to tell you about it SO HARD, but I also really don’t want to ruin it for you.) Is it perfect? Not, of course not. Some parts of the plot are a bit contrived to make the story work. Feminist Katie hated how lame and empty and childish Louisa was at the beginning, only to be changed by a man. And I absolutely hated Louisa’s family. I’d be as insecure and worthless as she was if my family as that mean to me too (Feminist Katie is also capable of compassion…this time). But their romance is real. It is slow and thoughtful and deep, cute and sexy and smart. It’s also funny. Will is a sarcastic smart ass and it makes everyone (me) love him just a little bit more. His character seems to be one of the most criticized parts of this novel, and not without reason. He makes what many feel like is a very selfish decision and has been called close-minded and self-centered…but I don’t know.

I see all sides of the argument and I can’t judge. He might be selfish, but everyone else might be too. FEELINGS.

Ultimately, the ending is a good one. Not happy. Trust me, you will sob with everything you have in you. (Or maybe that’s just me? But seriously, if you don’t cry, I don’t think I even want to know you.) But as Kurt Vonnegut says, “And so it goes.” Life always moves forward, whether we want it to or not, and as Will says, it is actually our duty to live our one and only life as fully as possible, regardless of the circumstances of fate or our past. I find that so completely optimistic, even through all the tears. By the time you close the back cover, the two main characters find what they are looking for, hence the good ending. Peace. Opportunity. Healing. Passion. While much of the book discusses death, this book is actually a book about living. It’s about those who fight for what they want. It’s about the unfairness of it all. About leaving a mark in the world and on those we love.

Some books inform. Some books make a commentary. Some books purely entertain. And that’s all fine because it’s their purpose and they fulfill the truth of reading, that the reality of a book is not our reality and the characters in it do not live anywhere besides in between the two covers. But in some books, they do. Some books become important. Some books leave scars.

nerdy girl reads: a tale of two love stories, part 1 {the rosie project}

How’s that for longest title ever? A few weeks ago, I took a trip to my local book shop. Alone. It was a very stupid thing for the husband to let me do. I was sent to get ONE book for a present. I came home with four. All things considered, it could have been way worse. Luckily we’re getting close to Christmas and my personal shopping guilt is at astronomical levels, or you know I would have come home with at least double that. It’s a problem. Anyway, two of the three books I kept for myself happened to be love stories that came highly recommended, not just by everything I’ve read online and through the Library grapevine, but by the people in the book shop who stopped me on multiple occasions to exclaim how much they loved both of these. I read them back to back and can honestly say they were two of the most different love stories you could possibly imagine…and I desperately loved them both.

I decided that since I loved them so dearly and I read them in succession, I’d review them in a small series. Fun! Let’s get started with my first read, The Rosie Project.

rosie

In short, Rosie is wonderful. After reading it, I am SO bummed that I missed this year’s Books by the Banks (a yearly book/author festival in Cincinnati that the Library helps put on) because Graeme Simsion was there and I could have met him and told him just how wonderful the world of Rosie and Don that he created is. Sadly, that freakish fangirl moment only exists in my imagination. Probably best that way.

Rosie was chosen as our December book club read and it was absolutely perfect. We’d been reading a bunch of heavy titles – The Aviator’s Wife and The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert to name a few – so this was a welcome break into the world of romantic comedy. Seriously, the book read exactly like a chick flick. A smart and witty chick flick that is. I found out later that it was written as a screenplay first and is going to be a movie…so it makes sense. (Side note: If they cast this movie well, it is going to be AMAZING!) The book follows genetics professor Don Tillman who, after one of his three friends moves to a nursing home, decides he needs a wife and undertakes “The Wife Project.” But Don knows dating is problematic for him as he is whip-smart…but also severely regimented and picky and unaware of most social cues…as a result of what the reader presumes to be Asperger’s. He designs a questionnaire for women to take and his friend sets him up with those who are a good match.

Enter Rosie. Rosie is pretty much the exact opposite of everything on the list of Don’s “perfect wife.” She’s late. She smokes. She’s spontaneous. She’s not an academic. But after a very funny scene involving a dinner jacket and a few punches, somehow manages to intrigue Don. She also presents him with “The Father Project.” (Another side note: There are a lot of projects in this book.) Rosie wants to find out who her real father is and Don agrees to help her with genetic testing, though it could (and does) get him in a lot of trouble and it goes against everything he finds comfortable in his stable and disciplined life. Seriously, the guy only has a few outfits that he wears on repeat and makes the same seven dinners every week. Discipline. While the plot is not all that surprising (especially if you watch a lot of romantic comedies), it is supremely charming and witty. Rosie is full of truly funny scenes, like a few involving a skeleton (just imagine someone learning to dance…and do a few other things…) and one hilarious night at a college reunion where Don is a bartender extraordinaire. But Rosie is also full of a lot of emotional character growth, which thankfully keeps it from being all fluff.

Don’s character goes through a pretty drastic change, from the super regimented Asperger’s life he built believing that he can’t love and that no one would love him (So sad right? Thanks bullies!) to finding love; learning to accept that he doesn’t have to cling to his self-imposed rules and life is infinitely more enjoyable with a little love and laughter. I really enjoyed seeing the world through his eyes because I know there are people out there just like him. While we don’t get a glimpse into Rosie’s thoughts (since the story is all told through Don and he lacks a lot of empathy), her journey is important too because I think we all understand wanting to find out who we are and learn where we came from. I was pleasantly surprised by who her real father is and loved that element of the story. I also think it’s really brave to love anyone, let alone someone who you’re not sure is even possible of loving you back, so I totally respect Rosie.

Like I said before, I absolutely adored The Rosie Project to pieces. If you’re looking for a light, romantic read, this one is perfect and will have you laughing out loud!

I’ll be back next week with part two of my love story series!

nerdy girl reads: the death of bees

Sooo…I wasn’t going to write a review on The Death of Bees (which explains my lack of a review post last Friday…sorry), but it kept gnawing away at me. Bees is an interesting book. I hate the word interesting, it’s so overused, don’t you think? But it’s one of the only words I can think of for this novel. I mean, what other piece of fiction starts with two kids burying their father in the backyard and ends with the reader rooting for an old sex offender and a drug dealer? Not any that I’ve come across.

the-death-of-bees

I’ll admit, it was that cover that got me interested. The illustration is simply stunning. But O’Donnell’s story is pretty great too. Bees centers around two sisters, Marnie and Nelly (15 and 12), who wake up on Christmas Eve to find their parents are dead. I use the term parents loosely, as Izzy and Gene are painted in a very poor light, and the girls’ childhoods seem horrific. Knowing they’ll be split up in the system, Marnie buries their parents and pretends they are simply missing (as they were wont to do in the past) until she turns 16 and can legally be in charge of herself and her sister. Luckily, the girls’ lonely, elderly neighbor Lennie sees they are alone, and takes them in, providing them with food and shelter and more love than they ever had. Sweet, right?

Except he’s known around the neighborhood for soliciting a little boy for some fun in the park…

No, really, Lennie is sweet and mostly harmless and his dog provides some much needed comic relief throughout the book.

The writing in Bees is fantastic. You would be hard pressed to find two clearer character voices than Marnie and Nelly. The sisters are about as different as you could be; Marnie is smart and brash on the outside (though inwardly she’s oh-so-vulnerable as I fear most “tough” kids are), while Nelly is straight up weird and caught up in this strange inner world where she has perfect manners and speaks like she’s a missing character in an Austen book. They both, however, are old beyond their years and deeply wounded from years of neglect. While I was reading Marnie’s chapters (the book is split into chapters told by the two girls and Lennie), I instantly drew a comparison between her and the character of Krystal in The Casual Vacancy. Both are tough talking and troubled and have ill-advised love affairs. Luckily for me, Krystal was maybe the only character in The Casual Vacancy that I actually liked, so it was a similarity I relished.

I won’t lie to you, this book is gritty and it has its heartbreaking moments. Sadly, there are children who live like this and who do have to make the kinds of decisions that Marnie and Nelly (who really isn’t as naive and out-of-touch as she comes off) make. Given that, this book is not depressing (nor is it really that gross like some of the negative reviews say) and it even turns out to be hopeful in the end. The characters accept their situations and try their best to make it better for themselves and more importantly, those they love. As the reader, we’re given a glimpse into the resilience and resourcefulness of the human spirit and the power of family, both the one you’re born into and the one you make for yourself. 

And the ending is really quite sweet. While it might not necessarily be the realistic happy ending, it is a happy ending nonetheless, and like I said, you really do root for the old sex offender and the drug dealer. Life is strange, in reality and in fiction.

If you’re looking for a witty and poignant read, check out The Death of Bees. I’m going to be on the lookout for O’Donnell’s other novel Closed Doors!