Book Review: The Last Anniversary

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The Last Anniversary had it all, and I loved it all.

This is the fourth Moriarity book I’ve read, and my favorite by far thus far (and it wasn’t just because the protagonist, Sophie Honeywell, reminded me of an even more scatterbrained version of myself and a modern-day Mary Richards).

I liked that Sophie’s manhunt to have a baby before forty was more in the background than the foreground, so this was definitely not a formulaic chick lit romance.  Sophie’s love life being in the air was actually okay with me, as I think she is still trying to figure herself out. However, I did think one of her final prospects was quite weird.

I have to say, though, that when I arrived on page 13, where the story reverts back to 1932, I had my doubts; I don’t mind switching points-of-view (that seems to be the thing now), I just mind switching time periods, as one time (almost always the one set in the contemporary) is almost always more interesting than the other.  I like characters I can relate to, as well as time periods I am familiar with (or enjoy being in, which is the present time). Even though this small portion of the book was shown rather than told, I preferred the secondhand account of this time from one of the characters (a story within a story, if you will).

The “fake news” angle was intriguing; if a reporter’s first story is based on a lie (unbeknownst to him/her), does that make their career a lie?  And is a mystery, once solved, still intriguing? Is a solved crossword puzzle still fun? This is why conspiracy theories about JFK and Marilyn Monroe still exist.  Imagine what a boring world it would be if we knew everything about everything. Intellectual curiosity and the process of discovery are the herbs and spices of life.

The only thing that didn’t ring true was one of names:  Enigma. That moniker just never fit her character (she was more of a Hazel or Flossie), though I understand why she was named that–it was all to add to “the mystery” (which was really quite something in how it was pulled off).

I also struggled here and there differentiating between Rose and Enigma–their voices seemed so similar–like they were around the same age (when there were about fifteen or so years separating them).  I guess by the time you hit seventy, you sound the same as if you were eighty-five.

The coolest thing about The Last Anniversary is that something that was referenced early on (I won’t say what because then it won’t be as much fun) was referenced again in an unexpected way.  This, for me, was like finding an old photograph I’d forgotten all about but suddenly remembered upon seeing it again.

The description of the alleged crime scene and the anniversary’s festivities were so richly detailed, I felt like I was right there.  

Moriarty’s characters are multi-layered and real.  The residents of this island were like one giant, dysfunctional family.  I didn’t fall in love with them all (nor are we supposed to), but I found myself wishing I was amongst them on Scribbly Gum Island.  I even looked the island up to see if it was real.

I wish it was.

A few notes:  I thought Grace’s resolution was wrapped up too neatly, but maybe motherhood does happen that way in real life for some women (even without extra help).  However, I thought using Grace’s storybook character as a reflection for how she was feeling added a little something to the story.

The book is fairly lighthearted throughout, but one of the funniest scenes is when Veronika is trying to tell everyone her big news and nobody cares.

As for Margie, female authors really need to stop using the cliche of the self-loathing fat woman.  I doubt most fat women are happy with their bodies, but it seems like anytime a female character is fat, their weight is the biggest (pardon the pun) definer of them.  Then, when they lose weight, they magically start “coming into their own.” And it’s always about how much better they look (usually in a bikini), not how much better they feel.

In the case of The Last Anniversary, there were just enough characters and points-of-view without there being too many.  This is the first of Moriarty’s books (that I’ve read) in which I felt bereft after finishing it, for I was left not wanting the story to end.  

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Book Review: Nine Perfect Strangers

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          This book was a trip.
          Literally.
          Nine Perfect Strangers is definitely the kind of story better told from multiple-points of view.  My complaint? It started in the wrong place. It should have opened with Frances going to Tranquillum House, rather than with the antagonist’s backstory.  The reason? The way the prologue is written, we’re an observer, but with Frances, we’re a participant.
          I found most of the characters interesting enough to have their own POVs, but Masha was such an unsympathetic character, she could’ve remained in the third-person.  Even her backstory didn’t change how I felt about her. Sometimes, it’s best to leave a little to the imagination, and let the reader get to know a character the way they would get to know someone in real life–a little bit at a time without being privy to their thoughts.
          I found the characters of Frances, the Marconi family, and Ben and Jessica the most interesting as they had the most intriguing stories as to why they were willing to go to this spa to be “transformed.”
          I think Jessica, in particular, even though she was basically a plastic Instagram “star,” had some great insights about what happens when you go “from Prada to nada”–when you’re so busy working to try to make ends meet that you don’t have time to worry about anything else, but when you don’t have to worry about survival, you start to wonder if you are a good person (meaning, are you giving enough?).
          What’s more, I think Jessica represents a lot of the under-40 generation when it comes to social media–that it’s like it didn’t really happen if it wasn’t posted.  Sometimes, I think these millennials wouldn’t do half the things they do if it wasn’t for social media, so maybe it gets them to actually do more. At the very least, social media has encouraged people to become better photographers, as everyone’s a brand now.
          The lesson I learned from the fractured Marconi family is that you have to remember a person for how they lived, not just how they died.  When you can separate the two, the memories of a person can bring smiles without tears.
          I apply that same principle to this book:  The journey was much better than the destination.  After the resolution, the chapters went from multiple pages to a paragraph.  It was like the author lost interest because the conflict had been resolved.
          The only “catharsis” that didn’t make sense was Lars’s–why he didn’t want to have kids wasn’t explored deep enough (though such was the case with Frances; with her, I believe she just saw time with kids as time away from her writing).  I felt there was a much deeper for Lars’s aversion to starting a family with his partner, but it was never developed.
          Carmel was the least interesting, yet the most annoying character.  She reminded me of one of those liberals who would not defend themselves (or their family) from a crazed gunman because they were “against violence.”  Her deal? She had body-image issues. I say, who cares?
          Amazingly, even though there were a lot of characters, there were all so well-defined, I was able to keep up with them with ease.
          The story was a bit far fetched, but I’ve never minded that–it’s only when people come across as too far fetched (i.e. Masha) when it takes away from the story.
          As for the final chapters, Chapter 78 was cute but unnecessary; it made me think (rather cheekily) that Ms. Moriarty wishes unfortunate events on people who leave bad reviews of her books.  I also have no idea who Chapter 79 was supposed to be about. Frances, perhaps? What’s more, I thought the device of speaking to the reader directly (and not even as one of the characters) takes one out of the story, reminding the reader that what we read was just a story.  Such a narration device is better suited for stage plays.   
          For 22 pages, there are several mini-epilogues ranging from one week to five years later.  Ms. Moriarty should’ve just stuck with “five years later” and turned it into an epilogue with a reunion of the nine discussing what became of the antagonist.
          The beginning and the end of this book weren’t all that great, but the middle was fascinating enough to make up for it, with the “Hunger Games-like” plot device (which showed how bull!@#$ corporate-speak is) and the bizarro spa practices.
          Though I don’t think all Ms. Moriarty’s books are winners, they are certainly interesting to read.  The plots are always fun, and for the most part, her characters are real and flawed and loveable.
          That’s why I will keep reading her books, for character(s) matter.

Book Review: What Alice Forgot

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On the surface, this was a breezy, light-hearted romp about a woman who loses the last 10 years of her life via amnesia.

However, once I read past the first few chapters, I realized that it had more depth, though I found myself wanting more out of this book than it wanted to give.

The book’s overall message (to me) was that kids and shared memories are enough to hold a marriage together, even when both parties don’t change anything about themselves, but rather, just accept that such is married life. (And that sleeping with other people while separated is acceptable.  Why are you dating anyone when you’re just starting to get over a relationship, when you’re not even divorced yet?  What is wrong with being single for a while and getting your life back in order first?)

The premise reminded me of my own life, and how different I am at 37 than I was at 27–before marriage and a child–and how horrified I know I would feel to wake up at not only being married to a stranger, but a mother to a little one.

When I was in my twenties, I was rather la-di-da, but once I became a wife and mother in my thirties, it was as if I’d been under a spell that had finally broken.  It was as if something in me had snapped, and I realized I needed to get serious about my life.  My 27-year-old self wouldn’t recognize my 37-year-old self (though I think she would very much approve). 

Eerily, Alice’s progression very nearly mirrored mine.

I thought the mysterious Gina (or rather, the idea of her was more fascinating as she got so little screen time) could’ve been developed so much more, as she had such an influence on Alice.  However, I abolutely hated the parts told from Frannie’s point-of-view; her story (told through letters to her dead fiance) about her new boyfriend was boring as hell and added absolutely nothing.

The relationships Alice had with her husband and boyfriend did not interest me, as those men were crashing bores–bland, bland, bland.

Though I enjoyed Elizabeth’s story (told via letter to the even more mysterious “Dr. Hodges”), I didn’t like that her whole existence was dependent upon someone else’s.  If things hadn’t (magically) worked out in her favor, she would’ve never been able to get it together.

The ending, set 10 or so years into the future, was a nice touch, but rather unsatisfying, as there wasn’t a good case for it to end the way it did.  I felt like the book ended up being more of a “love conquers all” story than a self-love story of how a woman took an unexpected vacation from herself to become her best self.  

Overall, Moriarty gets a B-.  She did a great job characterizing the kids and some of the more minor characters.  I absolutely loved the idea about the giant lemon meringue pie made using construction equipment.

“Alice” just could’ve used a bit more editing and tighter writing.

 

Book Review: James and the Giant Peach

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Because September had a “Banned Books Week,” as part of my “research,” I had my husband check a bunch of formerly challenged/banned children’s books out of the library.

I’d tried reading A Wrinkle in Time years ago, which I couldn’t get into (I preferred Peppermints in the Parlor, though I’m not sure that’s a relevant comparison) and The Giver (an interesting plot with not-so-interesting characters); for some reason, I had my husband return all the books except for James and the Giant Peach. It sat on my nightstand for weeks, and when I was too lazy (i.e. tired) to get up and get the other book I was reading, I opened it and was instantly captivated.         

I’m the first to admit that I generally prefer children’s poetry (i.e. fun and creative) over adult poetry (which often comes across as emo and pretentious), so I was pretty sure this book would stand the test of time.

It did and was even better than I remembered.      

I liked the illustrations—it helped cartoonize the creepy-crawly characters, which made them seem less gross.     

Though James Henry Trotter was likeable, he wasn’t super well-developed. It was what happened to him that made him a sympathetic character, rather than how he handled what happened to him.

That said, the creepy-crawlies all had their own little personalities that set them apart, though I did find that the male creepy-crawlies had stronger and more memorable personalities than the female ones; however, two of the three female creepy-crawlies did contribute much more to “the mission” than the male creepy-crawlies, so even though they didn’t have the gab, they had the gumption.  

Even though the verses were cute, I would’ve preferred them to be in dialogue form. For some reason, when I see poetry in a novel, it’s like an interruption to the story.

The only thing that was weird (and not in a good way) was the ladybug marrying the Head of the New York Fire Department. Humans and animals should never marry, and that goes for creepy-crawlies and humans, as well. Ladybug should’ve married one of the other creepy-crawlies, but then, what were her choices—an obnoxious-as-hell centipede, a blind earthworm who never shut up about his disability (even though earthworms are supposed to be blind), and a grasshopper that would’ve made her a widow any day.

Despite the bizarre coupling of the man and the ladybug, James and the Giant Peach was an incredible adventure (and perhaps a premonition of Monsanto’s crimes against food).

Book Review: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

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I had expected a charming anthology of personal narratives, but instead, what I got was one of the worst books I’ve ever tried to finish (I made it to page 120; I tried to skim after that, but felt my time, and my brain, wasting away). What’s more, the title had nothing to do with the book. The author simply used it to get people to buy it—a classic “bait-and-switch.”

The first thing I read (after the synopsis) when I open a book is the copyright, no matter the genre; the first printing of this was in 1986.

I can’t imagine it was any better then.

*

I remember this man’s list from grade school years ago, printed on a poster and taped to a cinderblock, public school wall. I’d thought it cute then, but even though it was memorable in a benign sort of way, I find parts of it problematic now.

Now rather than regurgitate/retype the list, as other reviewers have done, I will just point out a few things: Share everything. Immediately, I was thinking, um, no. You don’t share your spouse, your prescription medications, or unsolicited advice.

As for take naps, the clarifier should have been as needed. If I lie down for a nap, it’s at least four hours gone. Better to go to bed early and get all your rest that way because in the real world working a full-time job, you don’t get nap breaks (you’re lucky to get a coffee/smoke break), and power naps have always made me feel worse. Time spent outside, even if the weather is lousy, is what rejuvenates me. (And going to sleep—not just to bed—early enough to get at least eight hours.)

Wash your hands before you eat. (That should be every time you go to the bathroom, before and after cooking, et cetera, et cetera; otherwise, you’re only washing your hands three times a day.)

Of course, I can think of many more, such as Keep your hands to yourself. That goes beyond just don’t hit people.

But, that’s just one example.

What’s more, I’m not sure what the author meant when he said the biggest word of all is look, as I could think of better ones, like imagine. This is a classic case of when the author knows what he’s talking about but cannot convey that to the reader.

There was some good advice, like Be aware of wonder and Flush. (I think “if you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweetie and wipe the seatie” is a good one, but this book was written by a man, after all.) Better advice would be to flush at least as many times as the job number was.

That said, this was not enough to save the book. (I did, however, share his nostalgia for the 64-pack of Crayola crayons with the built-in sharpener.)

*

A good writer can write about ordinary things in an extraordinary way, but this read like a personal journal—very random and stream of consciousness-like. None of the chapters had titles, some sentences (or fragments) were written in all caps (no need to scream, that’s what exclamation points are for), and the anecdotes were anything but anecdotal. It’s like “I saw a gum wrapper on the bus today,” and then that’s it.

He tried with some metaphors (like a box of Cheer), but none of them worked.

None.

*

The author is a minister, but I got a weird vibe. He talks about teaching his toddling grandson dirty jokes. Huh?

He liked to talk about lawn care, and some of his chapters read like the information had been lifted from Google or Wikipedia (or Encyclopedia Britannica, considering when this was published). He goes into minute detail about dandelion weeds (excuse me, flowers) and beetles (or maybe it was spiders).

There wasn’t one interesting chapter.

Not.  One.

Going back through the book, there was one “rule” that made sense—The Brass Rule—which is that it’s not the thought that counts, but the gift that counts. This, to me, means giving meaningful (not expensive) gifts. I put a lot of thought into any gift I give, because I’ve been on the wrong end of an obvious regift, which are thoughtless (and which ended up as white elephant gifts for the Dirty Santa parties with my husband’s family).

Despite this miniscule glimmer, All I Really Need to Know had little to no redeeming value. Even his abysmal attempts at levity seemed to have a veiled mean-spiritedness that I found disconcerting.

Book Review: Writing Down the Bones

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Though I like the narrative of Stephen King’s On Writing better (i.e. more concrete, less abstract), this book had many more plusses than minuses. The title fits because Goldberg takes a page from Strunk and White’s advice to “omit needless words,” not burdening hers with excessive description or detail (just a handful of unnecessary quotes). Though I checked this out from the library, I will end up purchasing it, so I can go through it with my highlighter, as I cannot possibly remember all the wonderful little tidbits.

*

Goldberg wrote in a non-academic way, which I appreciated, as well as the fact that the creatively-titled chapters were short. I don’t often get a chance to read till the end of the day in bed because I spend the day working on my own writing, so short chapters make it easy to find a stopping place.

*

Though I realize all writers have different experiences when it comes to their craft, I’ve never heard an imaginary voice telling me that I shouldn’t be a writer. Writing has always been the one thing I’m sure of. In fact, I am more likely to think something is good when it isn’t (which I figure it out a year later when I go back and reread some of my old blog posts).

If I had to choose my favorite takeaway from this book, it was making “verb columns” (page 95-97). It was such a fresh and innovative idea to make verbs pop.

Conversely, I found the excessive references to Katagiri Roshi distracting (and somewhat annoying, as it felt like proselytizing), especially since most of the quotes didn’t seem to flow into the narrative.

*

Being a huge fan of humor, I appreciated the hilarious list about why one writes (page 122). This is what Goldberg is good at—writing short. Maybe because Goldberg is a poet and not a storyteller. I consider myself the opposite. (Even my poetry tells a story.)

Through reading books from authors who fictional works I don’t particularly enjoy, I’ve discovered that we can learn not only from experimenting with all kinds of writing but how to write from all kinds of writers.

Book Review: The Arrow Finds its Mark (A Book of Found Poems)

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This is a cute little introductory volume on the concept of “found poetry.”  I love the idea of “finding a poem” because it shows that poetry is omnipresent–in dictionaries, crossword puzzle clues, book titles on a shelf (the word version of a “shelfie”), advertisements, social media posts, et cetera.

For me, the difference between poetry and prose has always been strategically-placed line breaks, but then, everyone has their own definition of what a poem is.  (It definitely doesn’t have to rhyme.)

Some of the “found poems” are a stretch (ironically, “A Bird Poetry Reading,” for example, which would drive one nuckin’ futs to read) and “Texto” (a column of meaningless texting abbreviations which were found on some teen website), but others are gems, like “Man’s Best Friend” (an excerpt in a speech by George Vest–U.S. Senator from 1879-1903–and one of the leading orators of his time) and “First Wins” (from selected words in a SPRINT newspaper advertisement).

The cover is eye-catching, the illustrations cute, the font and layout pleasing to look at, but the book is much more useful as a tool in getting an idea of what found poetry is, as well as a guide in how to find your own poetry.  (Maybe more poets should work in advertising.)

This book helped me see old things in new ways, or rather, look for poetry in the most unlikely places.