Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Office Girl by Joe Meno

Cover imageOdile, one of the main characters in Chicago author JoeMeno’s new novel Office Girl, is the type of free-spirited, quirky, twenty-something female character people might be familiar with from movies such as Garden State, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and 500 Days of Summer. As quirky if not quirkier than the female leads in those movies, Odile rides around Chicago on her bicycle even though it is winter. An art school dropout, she uses a silver marker to draw on—or deface, depending on your view— various signs and advertisements around the city. She also goes to art gallery openings mostly to express her distaste for the work on display. And, like the female leads in the aforementioned movies, she is beautiful.

The other main character in the book, Jack, also rides his bike around the city regardless of the season. Where Odile scribbles on signs, he rides around with a tape recorder. Sometimes he tapes actual sounds of the city, sometimes he turns on the tape player to record odd, and often silent, things such as a pink balloon rising up into the sky. He is a few years older than Odile and has recently split up with his wife. He is still reeling from this blow when Odile crosses paths with him.

Once the two cross paths while they are both working at an elevator music company called Muzak Situations, Office Girl could easily become a Wes Anderson movie on steroids. However, Meno makes the wise decision to fully develop both characters. The third section of the novel, simply titled “Odile and Jack,” is more from Jack’s point of view. He is entranced by Odile and follows her around hoping they might have some sort of relationship. He assists her with an art movement she has been planning for some time. This movement does not consist of them painting or sculpting. Instead, it revolves around them doing odd things in public like reenacting a scene from Jaws on the L or dressing up as ghosts on a crowded city bus. This is not a movement that will rival the surrealists as much as it is Odile’s effort to do something creative that will wake people up. The book also includes renderings of some of Odile’s drawings and pictures of scenes referred to in the book. This gives it the random feel of a zine and helps to further establish the feeling of the late nineties in which the book is set, a time when Facebook and Twitter did not exist.

Office Girl can’t be considered an action packed novel, but it is obvious from the get go that huge revelations and shocking plot twists were not Meno’s goals here. Despite the low key vibe, I did care about what became of Odile and Jack’s relationship as well as the struggles both of them went through in balancing rapidly approaching adult responsibilities with the freedom of youth.


Monday, July 23, 2012

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier

When Kate inherits her late friend Elizabeth’s trunk of journals, she finds herself caught up in the life of someone she struggles to recognize. Dating back to 1976 when Elizabeth was about 12, the journals portray a life totally unknown to Kate and nothing is as she realizes she had imagined it to have been. Even when she reaches their introduction and growing friendship, a wholly different perspective of shared activities and interactions is brought to light, causing Kate to re-evaluate not just her relationship with Elizabeth, but with others important to her as well. In meeting the evolving Elizabeth, learning of her dreams and desires, the choices she made throughout her life, and the life she ultimately saw herself living, Kate finds herself reviewing her own world and its priorities and options.

In today’s mobile society, it is possible to have known another person 5-10-15 or more years, to feel well acquainted and familiar, and yet know nothing of that person’s history before crossing paths. Who we are, where we came from, and how we evolved into the people others see today is as open or hidden as we choose to make it. Things said or unsaid, patterns of behavior, all lead to assumptions about us by those with whom we connect. The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. explores this and more. Well written and engaging, for me, this book has triggered many thoughts far beyond its story.


The Shifting Fog by Kate Morton

Cover imageRarely do I ever make a recommendation on an audiobook over a book, but I am making an exception with The Shifting Fog. The audio is outstanding! Originally published as The House at Riverton, this novel is a family drama about two sisters and their maid. Going back and forth between the early 1920s and the late 1990s, this is the story of Grace, who goes to work for the aristocratic family that live, love and work at Riverton Manor. This novel is full of secrets, most kept by Grace. At the end of her life, Grace is asked to recall her time at Riverton Manor for a movie that is being made. Of course, recalling the past can be very painful...


Read-alike author: Taylor Caldwell

Wedding Cake for Breakfast: Essays on the Unforgettable First Year of Marriage

People plan for their big wedding day. But how many people plan for the days after? Probably not many. Wedding Cake for Breakfast includes 23 essays from female writers on the year after the big day. This collection chronicles the lessons learned, the turmoil, the joy, and the emotions of that first year. Is the first year of wedded bliss actually blissful? These acclaimed writers will tell you.

I enjoyed this book. It reminded me of my own first year. Each writer has a unique view of their first year of marriage. For some, that year was blissful, for others, it was not. The one essay that stuck with me the most was by Daphne Uviller, whose wedding took place the weekend before September 11, 2001. Hers is a heartbreaking story of a shared anniversary.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Lemur by Benjamin Black

Cover imageBenjamin Black’s The Lemur is a character-driven mystery full of surprises. John Glass, a once-respected journalist, is hired to write the biography of his father-in-law, “Big Bill” Mulholland. Mulholland played a prominent role in the CIA during the cold war and has since become a successful businessman. Glass does not have the integrity to turn down the biography assignment altogether, but he does feel enough guilt about the obvious conflict of interest to hire researcher Dylan Riley, who Glass refers to as the Lemur, to do a substantial amount of work on the book. After barely starting the research, Dylan calls Glass to tell him that his services will now require more money due to some sensitive information he has uncovered. Riley does not say if this information is about Glass or Glass’s wife’s family, but Glass is worried as he has some things to hide. Before Glass has even begun to figure out how to deal with Riley’s extortion attempt, Riley turns up dead with the police claiming that Glass was the last person he talked to.

The pace slows down a bit from there, but I thought this was a good decision on Black’s part as it allowed him time to develop the main characters. As the plot thickens it becomes clear that any number of characters might have had reason to kill Riley. It also seems possible that the same characters might have had nothing to do with the murder. This was an enjoyable novel from beginning to end that struck a nice balance between plot and character.


Knights of the Sea by David Hanna

Cover image2012 marks the bicentennial of the War of 1812.  History teacher Hanna helps us to understand the conflict by focusing on the naval war.  He has chosen one particular sea battle between the HBMS Boxer and the USS Enterprise that occurred on September 5, 1813.  The title Knights of the Sea refers to the commanders of the respective ships - Samuel Blythe and William Burrows.  The book serves as a dual biography and shows how they each went to sea as boys and worked their ways through the naval ranks.  Their lives converged on the fateful day off the coast of Maine as they both lost their lives in the only naval battle witnessed by people on land.  Hanna also provides an overview of the War and quotes liberally from Theodore Roosevelt's account of it.  However, the real focus is on the conflict between the U.S. and Royal navies and how the officers maintained an code of honor among themselves, even as they were broadsiding and boarding each other's ships.  The book is a fascinating account of America's first effort to assert itself militarily against England.


If you enjoy this book, you will want to read the classic sea novels by Patrick O'Brian

Monday, July 9, 2012

Southern Charm by Tinsley Mortimer

Cover imageThe title of this debut novel, Southern Charm, could not be more perfect. This is sweet and funny chick-lit that is sure to charm all who read it. Minty Davenport (here we go with those southern belle names) leaves her home in Charleston to make it in New York. Quite by accident, she is photographed by a famous magazine and is suddenly thrust into the New York social scene. She is also lucky enough to become an assistant to one of the most powerful PR agents in the city. And, just to complicate her life more, she rekindles a romance with a childhood sweetheart. Set against the backdrop of glitter and glamour, Minty struggles to hold on to her southern manners and roots. Simply fun!


Read alike: The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon

Cover imageForty-something Alice Buckle is just not happy any more. Her marriage is just a bit dull & routine, her teenage children only tolerate her, and her part time job is just not that fulfilling. When Alice has the opportunity to become part of an online survey on marriage, she jumps at it. She then becomes the anonymous "Wife 22". She is paired up with "Reasearcher 101" and much of the story from then on is in the form of online chatting and text messaging. Alices feels very comfortable telling Researcher 101 everything; perhaps a little too comfortable. Alice's friends are concerned that she is relying too much on this, but Alice refuses to listen. And that's when the problems really begin!

Wife 22 is light but not fluffy, sad but not depressing, and can be amusing as well.


Read alike author: Elin Hilderbrand

Year of the Gadfly: A Novel by Jennifer Miller

Cover imageThere is so much going on in Jennifer Miller's debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly, that I hardly know where to begin. The setting is the very posh, very private Mariana Academy in a small town in Massachusetts. 14-year-old Iris Dupont and her parents have just moved there from Boston following a tragedy involving Iris's best friend, hoping for a fresh start.

Unfortunately for Iris, this new environment she is thrust into is not going to help her at all.

 Iris wants to be the next Edward R. Murrow, and decides that the only way to get involved at school is to go poking into Prisom's Party, a secret student society named after the school's founder. As she gets further into her investigation, she finds out her favorite teacher, Mr. Kaplan, was once a student at Mariana. Not only was he a student, but he may have been a member of Prisom's Party. She also discovers that the home where she and her parents are staying was once the home of Lily Morgan, another student of Mariana Academy who left the school twelve years ago and has never returned.

Iris is not sure exactly how this all ties together, but she is determined to find out. However, sometimes it is best just to leave the past behind...

Although the main character is a 14-year-old, this psychological thriller is definitely for adults. Jennifer Miller is an author to watch!


Read-alike: The Secret History by Donna Tartt