Wednesday, October 26, 2016

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
Published July 2016 by Little, Brown and Company
Source: my copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
How far will you go to achieve a dream? That's the question a celebrated coach poses to Katie and Eric Knox after he sees their daughter Devon, a gymnastics prodigy and Olympic hopeful, compete. For the Knoxes there are no limits—until a violent death rocks their close-knit gymnastics community and everything they have worked so hard for is suddenly at risk.

As rumors swirl among the other parents, Katie tries frantically to hold her family together while also finding herself irresistibly drawn to the crime itself. What she uncovers—about her daughter's fears, her own marriage, and herself—forces Katie to consider whether there's any price she isn't willing to pay to achieve Devon's dream.

My Thoughts:
Coming out, as this one did, right before the Summer Olympics this year, I found myself interested in reading about a subject I might otherwise not have had much interest in. I mean, I have never been able to do a cartwheel, let alone a back hand spring or a Yurochenko. But it being Olympic time, I suddenly become fascinated by the athleticism, grace, courage, and confidence world-class gymnasts have. And the commitment and sacrifices their families have to make to help them reach those heights.

Plus, the promise of a mystery and the lure of Megan Abbott, who I'd only heard great things about, had me eager to read this one.

The book is less about the sport itself and more about the people who make it their lives - the high cost; the fight to have the right coach, the right equipment; the strain on finances and time; the infighting and gossip. The relationships between the gymnasts' parents felt spot on - the jealousies, the group focus on the best that can unite and divide, the camaraderie. You know, a lot like teenage girls.

When she did drop down onto the gym floor, Abbott didn't always get it right, for me and it sometimes took me out of the flow of the story. For example, when her focus shifted to the athletes at work, Devon was always working on the horse. There was a reason for this, tied to the story line, but it didn't seem plausible.

Now the mystery, the mystery kept me guessing. I really enjoyed the way Abbott slowly revealed the truth about the what happened to the young man we know early on has died, the red herrings that she threw out along the way. Even more, I enjoyed the unreliability of looking at things from Katie's point of view, the question of what we might do for the people we love, and the question of how much we really know about those same people.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Ashes of Fiery Weather by Kathleen Donohoe

Ashes of Fiery Weather by Kathleen Donohoe
Published August 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
"There isn’t anything in the world that hurts like a burn.” No one knows the pain of a fire more than the women of the Keegan/O’Reilly clan. Kathleen Donohoe’s stunning debut novel brings to life seven unsentimental, wry, and evocative portraits of women from a family of firefighters.

When we meet Norah — the first member of her family to move from Ireland to New York — she is a mother of three, contemplating her husband’s casket as his men give him a full fireman’s funeral, and faced with a terrible choice. Norah's mother-in-law, Delia, is stoic and self-preserving. Her early losses have made her keep her children close and her secrets closer. Eileen, Delia’s daughter, adopted from Ireland and tough-as-nails, yet desperate for a sense of belonging, is one of the first women firefighters in New York. It is through her eyes that we experience 9/11, blindsided by the events of that terrible day along with her.

My Thoughts:
They say (whoever "they" is) to write about what you know. Raised in a family of Irish-American New York firefighters, Kathleen Donohoe took that advice to heart. Her experience in that world shows. She understands the fear, the pride, the strain on families, the bonds in the community.

In Ashes of Fiery Weather, we get the stories of the Devlin/Keegan/O'Reilly family through six generations as told through the points of view of seven women. This is one of those books that I requested based on the description (okay, partly on the cover) and then forgot what it was about when I started reading it. When I did, wow. Family drama. Irish immigrant firefighters. Dead young father. Yep, I was all in with Norah's story.

Not all of the stories grabbed me as deeply and sometimes, with 20 or so main characters, things got confusing (even with a family tree at the front of the book). Some of that has to do with me having to put the book down for a few weeks for other commitments and losing track of who was who and emotional attachments.

When I picked it up and started reading Eileen's story, I was reading the story of the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11, as seen from the point of view of a firefighter. It is an incredible piece of storytelling, emotional without being maudlin. This is as much the story of the firefighters who survived that day and had to live with the aftermath of losing 343 of their own as it is about those who lost their lives. The desperation, the terrible strain of what those who were digging found, the ash and debris and lack of communication were palpable. In this chapter, it felt like Donohoe really dug down to what it means to be a firefighter. This chapter alone made the book worth reading.
"The press kept pushing the idea that the firefighters ran into the buildings heedless of the danger. That phrase. They guys had been repeating it around the firehouse: I'm going down the basement heedless of the danger. I'm cooking these meatballs heedless of the danger. I'm cleaning these tools heedless of the danger. 
In speaking of the courage it took to run into burning buildings, the press made it sound like firefighters didn't give a f^*# about "the danger," whether it came from a smoldering hardware store that looked like an easy job or two skyscrapers hit by airplanes.  
But the guys on 9/11 had not died gladly."
"Until recently, though, Eileen had not considered what Sean would have done if he was given the choice of dying at thirty-five  or driving out of Brooklyn into a much longer life. Presented with it at twenty years old, he would have gone away. What young guy wouldn't? But suppose it was the night before the fire, when Sean had been a husband for eleven years and a father for ten? 
Eileen look now at her niece and nephew, both coming up on thirty, their lives on the courses they'd chosen, or found themselves on. She thought of Brendan and Rose, still starting out, and of Norah, who had planned to stay in New York for a year and ended up spending a lifetime, most of it grieving. 
Sean would not have chosen a life without her, a life in which his kids never existed. And he would not have run from the fire that killed him, even if he had been told it would. 
The whole job was the pull between knowing you could get killed and thinking you'll always find the way out. Knowing what will happen if you don't. Going in anyway."
Donohoe touches on a lot of themes in Ashes of Fiery Weather: family relationships, religion, abuse, poverty, infertility, homosexuality, traditions, immigration. But the overarching theme of this book is missing persons - young sons lost to illness, a husband and father lost to fire, a child given up for adoption, lost parents, a daughter and mother lost to unbelievable tragedy - and the ways people deal with that loss. Some pull in on themselves, others grow a hard shell. Some find new strength, others can never get over the void in their life. Donohoe shows readers all of this and the fallout it can have.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Life: It Goes On - October 23

Greetings from sunny, beautiful Omaha where I am trying like crazy to enjoy every bit of fall before it leaves us. We're trying to get in all the usual fall activities, enjoy the colors, the softness of the light, the smells.

We've had a busy few days with a day trip planned today as well. We were entrusted to check out a reception venue for Mini-me and Miss S on Thursday and I'm happy to report that we now have that decided. I'm already decorating the hall and veranda in my head. We went to a wedding yesterday and I was taking mental notes like crazy. I wish my phone wouldn't have died; sadly, I got no pictures.

As much fun as I had yesterday, I was bummed to miss Dewey's readathon. My apps were flooded with pictures: Twitter, Litsy, and Instagram all reminded me how much fun so many of you were having curled up with a good supply of snacks and an even better supply of books for 24 hours. It felt odd not to spend Friday night getting things prepped and crawling into bed early.

This Week I'm:

Listening To: I finished West of Sunset Friday and will start Zadie Smith's NW tomorrow. Or I'll wait another day because I really loved the narration on West of Sunset and it till be hard to live up to; I may need to give it another day or two. Perhaps some podcasts first.

Watching: This morning I'm waiting French Kiss with Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline. It's one of those movies I can't help but watch every time it's on t.v.

Reading: I'm finishing up You Will Know Me today then I think I'll start Sarah Water's Fingersmith. 

Making: Pumpkin cupcakes. Twice. Once, accidentally, without the pumpkin. Those looked ridiculous but my family insisted they still tasted good and ate them as muffins for breakfasts.

Planning: See above. My next order of business is to sew a kilt. Yes, a kilt. My family has Scottish heritage and Mini-me would like to wear a kilt in our clan pattern. Have you ever priced a kilt? They are crazy expensive, as much as the bride's gown. So I decided to sew one. How hard can it be, right? It's all straight lines and math. Yeah, I don't believe it will be that easy, either. That's why I'll do one out of muslin first.

Thinking About: How little I'm getting done around the house this weekend, which makes me a little twitchy. But we couldn't pass up all of the fun things we did yesterday or the chance to enjoy a beautiful day outdoors today.

Enjoying: Tailgating at the Husker game yesterday. We first met up with friends who have a regular spot and throw a great party every home game. Then we headed off to meet up with Lori of An Irreverent Escapade and her boyfriend. Lori and I "met" seven years ago on Goodreads and finally got to meet for reals last summer.

Feeling: Proud. Watching my daughter find her passion and really start to go after it is so much fun!

Looking forward to: Heading down to Nebraska City this afternoon for our annual trip to get apples and enjoy the trees at the Arbor Day Lodge.

Question of the week: Daylight Savings Time ends this coming weekend. I, for one, will be in mourning for that extra hour of daylight I get in the evenings but I know a lot of people are looking forward to it. What side of the debate do you fall on?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Lady Cops Makes Trouble by Amy Stewart

Lady Cop Makes Trouble: A Kopp Sisters Novel  by Amy Stewart
Published September 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
Fleurette and Constance
Kopp - Constance stood
nearly six feet tall.
After besting (and arresting) a ruthless silk factory owner and his gang of thugs in Girl Waits with Gun, Constance Kopp became one of the nation’s first deputy sheriffs. She's proven that she can’t be deterred, evaded, or outrun. But when the wiles of a German-speaking con man threaten her position and her hopes for this new life, and endanger the honorable Sheriff Heath, Constance may not be able to make things right.

Lady Cop Makes Trouble sets Constance loose on the streets of New York City and New Jersey--tracking down victims, trailing leads, and making friends with girl reporters and lawyers at a hotel for women. Cheering her on, and goading her, are her sisters Norma and Fleurette--that is, when they aren't training pigeons for the war effort or fanning dreams of a life on the stage.

The Bergen County Jail where Constance served
as matron for the women prisoners
My Thoughts:
Every bit as fun as the first book in the series, Girl Waits With Gun (my review), in Lady Cop Makes Trouble Constance is truly front and center when a prisoner escapes while she's meant to be guarding him, putting her new position as a deputy and the sheriff's freedom at risk.

Again the story is based on the true lives of the Kopp sisters, which does constrain Stewart somewhat because she does try to stick very closely to the facts of the sisters' lives. But there is plenty of room for Stewart to flesh out the characters, their relationships, the manhunt, and Constance's fight to become one of the first female law enforcement officers in the country. Consequently, we spend a lot of time in the jail and the courthouse at a time when early prison reforms were being pushed.

In fact, all of the time period comes alive - the legal system, the lives of tenement dwellers, a world on the brink of war, changing transportation modes, clothing styles, and, most importantly, the battle of women to be independent equals.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett - Part 2

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Published September 2016 by HarperCollins

Well, I finally finished this book. If you've read it, will you please left me a comment so we can talk about that ending? For me, it was just so flat. Which would have been disappointing in any book, but especially so in a book that I had enjoyed so much right up to the point when I realized how Patchett was going to end the book.

"And how might you have ended the book, Miss Smartypants, who has never written a book, let alone won prizes for them," I hear you asking. I have no idea. Maybe Patchett didn't either? Yeah, I doubt that very much, too. So I'm left wondering what I missed.

Because otherwise, Commonwealth is filled with everything I've come to expect from Ann Patchett - complex characters, complicated relationships, a slow reveal that lends an air of mystery, and incredible writing.
“Caroline was a bitch by any standard, but she was also the one who had organized all the subversive acts of their childhood summers. She hated them all, especially her own sister, but Caroline got things done. When he thought of her cracking open the station wagon with a coat hanger and getting the gun out of the glove compartment, he shook his head. He had never in his life adored anyone the way he adored Caroline.” 
I know some people have had a problem with the structure of the book, but after some confusion because of a fifty year jump in time between the first and second chapters, I really didn't. It forced me to pay attention, recall characters and details from earlier (or even later) points in time. It allowed for Patchett to look at events and characters from varying perspectives.

Commonwealth is the story of a so-called blended family. At the christening party for one of the children, an affair begins that splits up two families. When that couple moves from California to Virginia, they take with them her two daughters but leave behind his four children. The only time the six spend together is a few weeks each summer when they are all together in Virginia (hence, the title). The children don't particularly care for each other (or their own siblings, for that matter) but they are united in their hatred of "the parents" and form an unlikely "fierce team."

When the family suffers a loss, and a marriage falls apart, the children drift apart, each with his or her own baggage and guilt. But there remains a tie that binds the children and their parents together for the rest of their lives. Watching them grow as people, fail and succeed, find their places in life and circle back to each other was like getting to know real people. Patchett helps readers to see the good and the bad in all of her characters, to see how their struggles form them, and to see how families interact in ways we don't always expect.