Saturday, April 2, 2016

Books Read in March

March was a month of extraordinarily enjoyable books. If every month were like this one for reading, I would never get anything done. Ever. And yet… I only hope that April brings as many fantastic reads.

 Me Before You by JoJo Moyes.
The Story: Although she’s in her late 20s, Louisa takes her very ordinary life day-by-day. She really has no goals or plans for the future. She’s happy with the status quo, which includes living with her parents, her sister, and her baby nephew; continuing her long-term, comfortable though dull relationship with Patrick; and working at the coffee shop. And then the coffee shop closes, and she has to find a new job. She answers an ad for a companion for a quadriplegic, a job for which she is terribly unqualified. She knows nothing about medical care and nothing about the world that once belonged to Will. She’s never left her tiny English village; he traveled in the world of millionaires, seeking extreme adventure whenever he wasn’t closing multimillion dollar business deals. Will is trapped by his paralyzed body, depressed, angry, and suicidal. Louisa finds him rude and cold, but she desperately needs the money. Eventually, they learn to respect and depend on each other, and ultimately they fall in love. But is their love enough to convince Will that life is worth living?
Me: This was our March book club pick, partly because the movie is coming out soon, and it made for great discussion. I must admit that I never before considered what it would be like to live as a quadriplegic. I’m not convinced that Will’s argument was valid: he insisted that his life as a quadriplegic was worse than many other people’s because he lived for high adventure. He was really kind of a selfish jerk. Louisa notes that he never would have even noticed her in his old life—that she would have been part of the woodwork.  The book was full of topics for discussion. Moyes probably tried to encompass too many subjects and used too many stereotypes, but she knows how to write a great page-turner. We’re looking forward to the movie in June!

The Story: The story takes place during World War II in France and Germany. Marie-Laure has been blind since childhood. Her father, the locksmith for the Museum of National History in Paris, takes tender care of her. Because he wanted Marie-Laure to have some independence, he constructed a miniature replica of their neighborhood so that she could memorize each twist and turn, eventually learning to navigate the real neighborhood. Their lives are happy enough until they are forced to flee Nazi-occupied Paris and move in with her great-uncle, who suffers from agoraphobia brought on my PTSD, to Saint-Malo in Normandy. Werner grew up in a German orphanage and is discovered by the Hitler Youth to be a genius at electronics. He is forced to track the Resistance movement. He is disgusted at his part in the war but is too weak to take a stand, which disgusts him even more. Eventually his story converges with Marie-Laure’s, and the results are unforgettable.
Me: Ahhhh. Now this was a beautifully, masterfully written book. I like a good sentimental plot-driven novel now and then, I’ll admit. But what I really love are beautifully written books with a poetic bent to them— books that make me ache with the sadness and the goodness in the world, with the wonder at how people survive terrible, true ordeals. This is a story of survival, of just how good people can be in the darkest of situations. This was a great month of reading, but this was by far the best of the reading list and will no doubt be a contender for my #1 spot this year.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart.
The Story: Cadence Sinclair, age 18, begins the story: "Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family. No one is a criminal. No one is an addict. No one is a failure. The Sinclairs are athletic, tall, and handsome. We are old-money Democrats. Our smiles are wide, our chins square, and our tennis serves aggressive. It doesn’t matter if divorce shreds the muscles of our hearts so that they will hardly beat without a struggle. It doesn’t matter if trust-fund money is running out; if credit card bills go unpaid on the kitchen counter. It doesn’t matter if there’s a cluster of pill bottles on the bedside table. It doesn’t matter if one of us is desperately, desperately in love. So much in love that equally desperate measures must be taken. We are Sinclairs. No one is needy. No one is wrong. We live, at least in the summertime, on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts. Perhaps that is all you need to know.” But, of course, there is a lot more to know beneath the surface—more than Cadence can possibly remember. Every summer of her whole life, Cadence and her cousins spend the summer on their family complex on Beechwood Island. They call themselves the Liars: Cadence, Mirren, Johnny, and Gat. They are the privileged children of a privileged family, rich and coddled and completing unraveling. Something happened the summer that Cadence was 15, but a traumatic brain injury prevents her from remembering. The novel moves in and out of her memory, flashing back from summer 18 to various summers, puzzling especially over summer 15. It’s a coming-of-age story of young love, family secrets, and carelessness.
Me: I whipped through this young adult novel in an afternoon or two. I seriously could not stop reading it. Lockhart is a beautiful writer: poetic and oh-so-lovely with powerful language and vivid images.  I had absolutely no idea what was coming and had to go back and read several chapters to see what clues I might have missed. I almost didn’t read this book because of the cheesy description: “beautiful, privileged, damaged. We are the Sinclairs.” But I am so glad I did. The writing was beautiful and the story riveting. Great for adults and older teens.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
The story: Victoria is a lost soul. She’s just aged out of the foster care system, and, at 18, is ready to live on her own. She is tough, distrustful, and angry except when it comes to flowers. During one year of her young life, she lived with Renata, a woman who taught her the language of flowers: that yarrow, for example, is a cure for a broken heart; that winter cherry indicates deception; that a wisteria stands for welcome. In a lifetime of foster care, this year was the only one in which Victoria was truly loved and accepted, and so, because it’s the only thing Victoria knows how to do, she sabotages her future as Renata’s daughter and heads back into the foster care system. Upon her emancipation at 18, she slowly begins to trust herself and trust people as she discovers that knowing the language of flowers can change lives.  She meets Grant, a young man who also understands flowers, and together they begin healing and restoring their brokenness.
Me: This was a fascinating book. I loved the lesson on the language of flowers and the thought of what carefully chosen flowers can do for people and relationships. (Bonus: Victoria’s “Dictionary of Flowers” is included at the end of the book.) I thought this was a fantastic portrayal of the challenges of foster care, for the child with an attachment disorder, for the social worker, and for foster parents. Victoria sabotages her happiness over and over again because she considers herself so unworthy of love, not because she wants to hurt other people. Her story is handled with tenderness but without romanticizing her future and the lengthy healing process. And I loved the charter of Renata, the woman who loved Victoria as a daughter. Highly recommended—but warning: you’ll want to have flowers in your house all the time, and you’ll wonder what they are saying about you.

The story: The novel tells of two young people whose lives become intertwined. the sections switch between Coralie, the mermaid girl, and Eddie, the finder. Coralie’s father is the owner of The Museum of Extraordinary Things in Coney Island in the early 1900s. He is a collector of unusual things, like a dwarf albino alligator, and of unusual people: Siamese twins, a wolf-man, the Butterfly girl, the bird lady. Coralie is unusual too: she has webbed fingers, which she keeps hidden always beneath white gloves. On her tenth birthday, Coralie’s father presents her with her destiny: she is to be the museum’s “human mermaid.” For a while, she becomes the star of the museum, but then things change.
Eddie, born Ezekiel, is a young Jewish man who has renounced— or tried to renounce— his faith and his name. As a child, he and his father escaped their Ukrainian village during a pogrom and made it to Brooklyn, where they are employed as tailors in a factory. Eddie, full of anger at their circumstances, strikes out on his own in a business he things his father would be ashamed of: he works for a “fortune teller.” His job is to track down lost people, errant spouses, missing children. He is good at his job, and for years he mingles with the dregs of society, listening to “loathsome” tales and encountering all kinds of things that a young boy should never see. But in his late teens he encounters a photographer who changes the course of his life, and he quits finding lost people on seedy streets and instead begins finding beauty through photography.
Me: I loved this novel. There are some graphic parts in Coralie’s story that are truly horrifying and difficult to read. Her father is an unscrupulous monster who will do anything for money. But Coralie is a precious, lovely character with an innocent heart and a great capacity for love. Eddie is a rough character at times, but his heart ultimately matches Coralie’s. There are so many kind and compassionate characters in this novel that her father’s cruelty is ultimately defeated. I think I can say that without giving away too much of the book. This was a fascinating story. There were parts that were extremely disturbing, but the triumph of good over evil is clear and satisfying.

Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry.
The story: On a ferry ride, a young woman named Troy sees a child in the water, presumably fallen from a passing ferry. Without thinking, she dives into the water and rescues the child. The little boy seems to be an orphan at first, but gradually the story comes out that he was kidnapped. Troy finds his rich father eventually, and she takes the little boy back to him. The mystery, then, becomes finding the kidnappers. Somehow, Troy takes this into her own hands to do. Ultimately, she does discover the mystery and nearly dies doing so. Yawn.
Me: Meh. I liked the narrator/main character, Troy. I liked the little boy and his Dad. But the whole story just fell kind of flat for me. I kept thinking that something really exciting and surprising was going to happen as I slogged through details of Troy cleaning and repairing her bike, teaching computer skills, and shopping. I was looking forward to that "Ah! I didn't see that coming" moment, as I wondered why this rich father and the police weren't able to locate his son during his 5 months of captivity. Instead, the story became laughable when all is revealed. I think I actually shook my head in astonishment, and I know I rolled my eyes. It was all so contrived and so neatly wrapped up in about 10 pages at the end. What?? I had to go back and skim a few chapters to see if I'd missed a bit of foreshadowing or something. Nope. Apparently this is the first in a series featuring Troy, and I will not be reading the series.