Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Review: Room

Room by Emma Donoghue
5 stars

Reasons for reading: I've loved her other books, sounded intriguing

Description: "To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it's where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it's not enough...not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son's bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.

Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, ROOM is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another."

My thoughts:
I actually remembered about this book when a patron asked me about it - she knew the author and knew it was about kidnapping. I was able to Google it and vaguely recall hearing about it. When I read the description, I was fascinated. Plus, I already knew I was a Donoghue fan, although I've only read her historical fiction, so I wasn't sure whether this would be my cup of tea.

Well, I don't know if this subject is anyone's "cup of tea" but I could NOT put it down. I started reading it before bed one night (even though I knew I shouldn't) and was up til 1:40am before I could force myself to turn off the light. I finished it the next day.

I don't want to give any spoilers, so I can't tell you much. But the narrator is 5-year-old Jack, who has lived his entire life with his Ma in an 11x11 room. He has never spoken to another human being, he has only ever glimpsed one other human being, their captor. When he was tiny, Ma explained that their life in Room was real and everything on TV was fake. But once Jack turns 5, she knows they can't keep living like that.

Jack is extraordinary but also an ordinary little boy. He has an amazing vocabulary and math skills, because Ma has basically spent every moment of his life teaching him. But he thinks Dora the Explorer, Rug, and Meltedy Spoon are his friends. He thinks the tiny bit of sun he can see through the skylight is God's yellow face. He has no idea what it's like to own as many books, toys or clothes as you can afford, he's never tasted many foods or been to a playground. He loves his Ma with his entire being, yet gets mad at her when she can't give him what he wants, like all kids do. Normally I don't like child narrators, because I find authors make them way too precocious or saintly or wise and have clearly never interacted with an actual child. But Donoghue clearly remembers what it was like when her kids were five and has managed to make Jack believable while still being the product of completely unusual circumstances.

And while it's heartbreaking to read, Donoghue doesn't pull any crappy tricks like making everything okay once they escape. Sometimes it's even harder to be out in the world than it is to be in Room, it certainly is for Jack, who is away from everything he's ever known and being bombarded with new, well, everything every moment of the day.

Donoghue's writing is amazing, but this paragraph struck me, because I had just been speaking to a friend about how true this is in today's society. Imagine if you were a boy who had spent his entire life with undivided parental attention (obviously not feasible outside of Room, I know!) and you saw how many parents in the outside world treat their kids (he observes this right after they've been to the library for the first time, maybe that's why it struck me, I see it every day):

Also everywhere I'm looking at kids, adults mostly don't seem to like them, not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute, they make the kids do the thing all over again so they can take a photo, but they don't actually want to play with them, they'd rather drink coffee talking to other adults. Sometimes there's a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn't even hear.

That shows you Jack's voice and also that maybe we need to take a few hints from a small person who's seeing the world for the first time!

The reviews for Room use words like remarkable, flawless, original, and absorbing and they're all right. I agree with this one: "But be warned: once you enter, you'll be Donoghue's willing prisoner right down to the last page." (Newsweek Malcolm Jones )"

Review: Keep Your Mouth Shut and Wear Beige

Keep Your Mouth Shut and Wear Beige by Cathleen Gilles Seidel
3.25 stars

Reasons for reading: Colourful Reading Challenge; recommended by a friend

Description: "Darcy Van Aiken is doing just fine, thank you. She’s an ICU nurse with an “amicable” divorce from her ex-husband, Mike, two great kids, and a prescription for Ritalin. Then her older son, Jeremy, gets engaged to Cami Zander-Brown---daughter of a wealthy New York family---and her world gets turned upside down. The source of her trouble, much to Darcy’s surprise, is not in the form of Rose Zander-Brown, Cami’s elegant and accomplished mother. Nor is it in the form of Guy Zander-Brown, Cami’s charismatic and wildly successful literary agent father. Instead, lurking in the shadows of Mike’s new life is the beautifully dressed Claudia, a self-described “managed perfectionist.” The Zander-Browns have money. Lots of money. The plans for their daughter’s dream wedding grow more fabulous by the day, and loving every minute is Claudia. With her perfect taste, Claudia can’t help thinking she would make a much better mother of the groom than Darcy. This wedding is her chance to entrench herself in Mike’s life---and take credit for the two sons Darcy has worked so hard to raise right. It’s a battle of will and wits. . ."

My thoughts: My friend Vidalia recommended this book and I believe she had just been the mother of the groom at a big society wedding (I doubt she wore beige, though I think she worked very hard to keep her mouth shut against some rather ridiculous in-laws-to-be). This book seems fairly realistic - Claudia's "managed perfectionism" is extreme, but you can imagine having to deal with someone like her. Darcy and Mike seem to have had a fairly amicable divorce but issues still come up and one of their younger sons is more trouble than the stellar first-born. The Zander-Browns' youngest son is mentally challenged and suffers from life-threatening food allergies. All pretty plausible stuff. One of the interesting themes about this book was that of friendship for older women - how it's harder to make friends, how you've got an image of yourself that keeps you at a distance from people, and how having children with serious problems can change you in ways your friends might not be able to handle. I also thought it was interesting that Mike still sort of acted like they were married, expecting Darcy to handle the little details of family life that he had never bothered with, like his mother's travel arrangements, even though he had apparently left Darcy because she wasn't organized enough for him.

It's definitely a good (Darcy) vs evil (Claudia) story, although perhaps Claudia isn't actively evil - she just really doesn't seem to know how normal people behave and while she knows everything about style, colours, table-settings and hem lengths, she doesn't have much common sense or courtesy. Darcy has lots of both, but is lacking in Claudia's stylishness, which makes her feel ill at ease.

The secondary characters were well done, except maybe for the older son, the groom - almost everything he said was the he wanted his bride-to-be to be happy, which was sweet. Little Finney Zander-Brown was a lovely little boy and the author portrayed his mental disability with skill, he was never either a cariacture or too precocious. Annie Zander-Brown developed nicely - starting as a beautiful princess but turning out to have her own problems and worries, mainly about her family. Darcy's retired pediatrician father was even great, he would be a welcome addition to anyone's family!

I wasn't blown away by the book, but I did root for Darcy and also Rose, two women who need friends. And the title is a hoot! Probably a better read for anyone who has grown kids who have gotten married, but still entertaining even without that background.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Review: Big Red Tequila

Big Red Tequila by Rick Riordan
4 stars

Reasons for reading: took it on my recent trip to San Antonio

Description: "Meet Tres Navarre...tequila drinker, Tai Chi master, unlicensed P.I., with a penchant for Texas-size trouble. Jackson "Tres" Navarre and his enchilada-eating cat, Robert Johnson, pull into San Antonio and find nothing waiting but trouble. Ten years ago Navarre lefttown and the memory of his father's murder behind him. Now he's back, looking for answers. Yet the more Tres digs, trying to put his suspicions to rest, thefresher the decade-old crime looks: Mafia connections, construction site payoffs, and slick politicians' games all conspire to ruin his homecoming. It's obvious Tres has stirred up a hornet's nest of trouble. He gets attacked, shot at, run over by a big blue Thunderbird--and his old girlfriend, the one hewants back, turns up missing. Tres has to rescue the woman, nail his father's murderer, and get the hell out of Dodge before mob-style Texas justice catches up to him. The chances of staying alive looked better for the defenders of the Alamo...."

My thoughts: I had no idea that Rick Riordan had an alternate life as a writer of adult mysteries! I only knew him from the Percy Jackson series. Well, no matter what he's writing, I think he does it well.

I didn't get the name of the book at first - we don't have Big Red here in Canada, we basically only have red cream soda, so we just call it cream soda. But I noticed it all over the place in Texas and I liked how the beverage kept popping up throughout the book.

I really liked Tres - he reminded me a bit of Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden (minus the wizardry) obviously for the PI angle but also because he was so sarcastic and bad-ass, yet good-hearted. And I really enjoyed that he was both a martial arts master and the holder of an advanced English degree.

The actual mystery involved all kinds of worlds colliding - the Mafia, shady wealthy people, a former (or is she?) girlfriend, both friends and enemies of Tres' late sherriff father... It was quite a ride. The secondary characters are really well-done, too, especially the Red Zinger-drinking cop who helps Tres because he knew his father and Tres' rather fab girlfriend back in California, Mai.

The book describes San Antonio really well and, as I always am, I was delighted to read about places we'd just visited, such as the pinata-festooned Mi Terra bakery and cafe. And the Riverwalk. I love his description:

"About a hundred thousand people were strolling the flagstone banks past the fountains, stone bridges, and pricey new restaurants. The kitchen smoke of ten or fifteen different cuisines drifted up past the yellow and green patio umbrellas. Tourists with cameras and souvenir sombreros, basic trainees on leave, rich men with high-priced call girls, all happily spilling drinks on each other. This is what a San Antonian thinks of when you say 'river.' I remember how much trouble I had reading Huck Finn as a child, trying to imagine how in the hell that raft made it past all those restaurants and crowds, in water only three feet deep and thirty feet across, without anybody noticing the stowaway slave. Maybe that's why I became an English major - sheer confusion."

I also like this passage because it shows that where you grow up really does influence how you see the world (Tres tried to make a life in San Francisco, but couldn't stay away from home forever) - I was totally shocked that the San Antonio River is so small! I live near a river that, while not the Mississippi, is a large, working, float-log-booms-down-it river. The San Antonio is a trench compared to that, but it's still at the heart of the city.

I'm looking forward to reading the next book, The Widower's Two-Step.

Okra Picks Challenge

For full challenge details, click here.

Hooray, a challenge with Southern books - I love 'em! The challenge is to read books selected as Okra Picks (I love it, what a hoot!) by the Southern Independent Booksellers Association.

I'm going to choose the Goober level and read 3 books.

1. The Perfect Love Song: a holiday story by Patti Callahan Henry
2. Love, Charleston by Beth Webb Hart
3. Virals by Kathy Reichs

Off the Shelf Challenge

Off The Shelf!
Click for full details.

Hooray, a challenge to help manage the books that have been languishing in to-be-read-land! Most of my books aren't actually on my shelf, as I'm mostly a library girl, but I have a huge TBR list in LibraryThing.

The challenge is to read books you've already bought/put on the list before the challenge starts on January 1. I'm going to do the Trying level, which is 15 books, but maybe I'll be able to bump it up later in the year.

1. The Debutante Divorcee by Plum Sykes
2. A Much Married Man by Nicholas Coleridge
3. What Comes After Crazy by Sandi Khan Shelton
4. Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson
5. The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry
6. The Future Homemakers of America by Laurie Graham
7. Bitsy's Bait and Barbecue by Pamela Morsi
8. Miss Julia Hits the Road by Ann B. Ross
9. Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron
10. How to be Bad by E. Lockhart, Sarah Mlynowski and Lauren Myracle
11. One Day by David Nicholls
12. When a Man Loves a Weapon by Toni McGee Causey
13. The House on Tradd Street by Karen White
14. Revenge of the Wrought-Iron Flamingos by Donna Andrews
15. Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner