Friday, September 26, 2014

Young Adult Fiction: Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

Today I am covering the most recent young adult novel by Nina LaCour, Everything Leads to You. I first became a fan of LaCour's after reading The Disenchantments, and I was able to read her first novel, Hold Still, earlier this year. I once again looked forward to grounded and relatable characters against a colorful California backdrop.

The Situation: Although Emi Price may have just graduated from high school, she is already working hard at making a name for herself as a talented young production designer on movie sets. She may have the occasional doubt about how good she actually is when she thinks about how her brother got her the job, but she can't deny the kind of trust people have placed in her. And when a friend of her ex's asks her to design sets for a new movie, it is an opportunity too good to pass up, despite this being the summer before college. Also, while her brother is off exploring Europe, he's letting her live in his apartment for the summer, but under one condition: she must make something epic happen there while he's gone. If all of this wasn't enough to keep her busy, she and her friend Charlotte end up finding a mysterious letter tucked away in an old record album cover they found at an estate sale for a Hollywood film legend. Soon Emi is caught up in the mysterious past of the now deceased Hollywood icon, and her summer is shaping up to be very epic indeed.

The Problem: While Emi loves designing sets, what she doesn't necessarily love is constantly running into her ex-girlfriend, Morgan, who works on the same projects. It doesn't help that this is actually the sixth time Morgan has broken up with her, and even though Emi knows she should move on, she desperately wants Morgan to take her back. Then enter Ava. The broken and somewhat lost granddaughter of Clyde Jones. The letter that Emi and Charlotte found was addressed to Ava's mother, and as his only living relative, she is entitled to the full inheritance. But finding Ava isn't the end of Emi and Charlotte's adventure. Ava has a checkered past of her own that she isn't done with. And while her life isn't really Emi and Charlotte's mystery to solve, they continue to take it on anyway, causing their summer to go in a direction they never imagined. Emi is enjoying the adventure, but begins to wonder what life will be like when Ava moves on, especially as she finds herself wanting to be more than just her friend.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel with a lesbian as the protagonist and narrator. In the beginning she is attempting to move on from a fairly messed-up relationship with a slightly older woman (by three years) and finds herself falling for a girl her age, but with a less than ideal family history and living situation. Since Emi is a novice production designer, there is a lot of talk about movies and sets and casting and scouting...the full deal. Charlotte also works on movies, but is more of a numbers girl than an artist. A lot of the book talks about not only designing and decorating sets, but also negotiating with stores to lower the prices on specific items that Emi thinks would be perfect for specific scenes, as well as negotiating with owners of houses and other locations so the movie can be shot there. I don't have any kind of intimate knowledge about what actually goes on when a movie is being made, so I can't attest to the accuracy of what appears in the book. But what LaCour portrays is a job that often takes a lot of time and begging when the two things that are guaranteed to be limited are time and money. There is also a heavy focus on family and what a difference it can make in someone's life to have the support of just a few key people. Emi and Charlotte are fortunate to have their family's full support and to know their own history. Ava and her friend Jamal are not so lucky. 

My Verdict: Overall, this is a good story with solid characters. The parts that talk in detail about set design and what it takes to make a movie were never boring. And the characters are both relatable and interesting. However, there were many parts of the book where I felt like LaCour was trying too hard. At what, I am not entirely sure. But some details, such as Emi's mother being a professor of black studies and gender studies, felt unnecessary. It was almost like it was added for credibility's sake, when there wasn't really any need for it. Other details felt forced, such as Emi's encyclopedic knowledge of the greater Los Angeles area and how to navigate it, although it does make sense that she would have that since she has to search for materials for sets all of the time. Meanwhile, other seemingly important scenes feel rushed, like Emi coming to terms with the state of her and Morgan's relationship, and Ava receiving her inheritance. The book just often felt off-balance to me, and I am having a hard time really pinpointing why.

Favorite Moment: When Ava learns about her mother from Frank and Edie, and elderly couple who manage the apartment where Ava's mother lived. It isn't an ideal story to hear about the mother Ava doesn't remember, but Frank and Edie are the perfect people to hear about it from.

Favorite Character: Emi's best friend Charlotte is the kind of friend we would all want around when a relationship intervention is needed. Charlotte is not afraid to say what needs to be said about Morgan, even if it may hurt her friend's feelings.

Recommended Reading: I recommend LaCour's second novel, The Disenchantments. It follows a girl band as they go "on tour" through Northern California the summer after high school graduation. The characters and scenery are just so colorful and beautifully described that even in the more tense moments of the book, you kind of wish you're on the road trip with them. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: Harbor Island by Carla Neggers

I was sent Carla Negger's Harbor Island, which is the fourth book in her series of novels featuring art crime expert Emma Sharpe. I figured it would be somewhat difficult giving this book a fair review seeing as how I am coming into the series at book #4 and wouldn't have time to go through the first three. But I was willing to give it a shot and see if this was a series I would be willing to follow through to the end.

The Situation: Ex-nun and art crime expert Emma Sharpe recently became engaged to Colin, a deep-cover FBI agent that she works with. They've had somewhat of a whirlwind romance, and they're keeping their engagement a secret as it can cause problems in an already complicated situation. Emma is already the granddaughter of the great art crime detective Wendell Sharpe, and a thief that he had investigated ten years ago has become active again, so all eyes are on Emma. Most of the time, having Emma on the team is seen as a good thing, but they are also aware that if she wasn't on the team, the focus would not be on them as this mysterious art thief continues to cause trouble.

The Problem: It is problematic enough that the thief occasionally steals art and has recently sent small replicas of a piece he stole to key people that have been involved in the investigation. But now it looks like the thief has turned to murder as Emma stumbles upon the body of Rachel Bristol just minutes after being asked to meet her on Bristol Island in Boston Harbor. The deeper Emma and the team digs, the more it looks like Rachel may have gotten a little too close to the truth about the art thief, and the question becomes whether her death was an accident and had nothing to do with the thief, or whether the thief has moved on to homicide and the small cross-inscribed stone was a warning to the others. While Rachel may have been working with her step-daughter Maisie on a movie project, it looks like she had gone out on her own in an attempt to take the project in a different direction, a direction that included not only Emma and her grandfather, but also internationally renowned Irish artist Aoife O'Byrne, her long-time friend Father Bracken, and the British mystic Oliver Fairbairn. Rachel may have gotten in over her head, dragging her step-daughter as well as her ex-husband in with her. Now her murder is another piece of a decade long puzzle surrounding the elusive thief.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that is #4 in a series of mystery/crime novels involving an art thief. In this particular book, the action is almost equally split between both Boston and Ireland, as Emma's grandfather currently resides in Ireland, and Emma and Colin's boss, Matt Yankowski, is currently in Ireland with his wife, who has somehow gotten involved with the investigation by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Naturally, because this is a mystery novel, there are a great deal of secrets being kept and traded, as well as a lot of guessing going on by everyone as to what is true and what is actually relevant to the case. And then there are the complications that come from Emma having a personal connection to the case as both an FBI agent and a member of the Sharpe family. It is a complicated situation only made even more complicated by Emma and Colin's engagement. And they aren't the only ones who may be hampered by their personal relationship. There is also a connection between artist Aoife O'Byrne and Father Bracken; the young Hollywood producer Maisie Bristol and her bodyguard Danny Palladino; and naturally, Matt Yankowski and his wife Lucy. Relationships are complicated enough without people being murdered around you. And then there is the inclusion of both Emma's and Colin's family. Wendell Sharpe may be retired, but his knowledge about the art thief is still valuable, making him an important figure in the book.

My Verdict: I'm normally not that into mystery/crime novels, especially if they are part of a series like this one is. While I enjoyed the book well enough, it isn't something I would pick out on my own or really make a point to finish in order to find out what happens. Even if I had the opportunity to follow Emma and Colin in a different book series I doubt I would take it. On the one hand, it just isn't for me. But on the other hand, I was slightly confused by the character of Emma. She's supposed to be the main character, the primary focus, but she seemed to be one of the least dynamic characters in the entire book. Maybe more of her has been showcased in the previous novels, but I just didn't get much from her in this book. I found myself more drawn to the stories behind Father Bracken, and the relationship between Matt and Lucy Yankowski. Emma just didn't interest me at all, but the events surrounding her family and the art crimes were still interesting. I would still recommend this series to those who enjoy serialized mysteries, but I doubt it will be something I follow through on.

Favorite Moment: Despite being engaged to her and naturally wanting to use his skills to protect her, there were many moments when Colin was able to trust Emma's ability as an FBI agent in her own right to protect herself when she went somewhere without him, or when she had to speak to a person of interest without his help. 

Favorite Character: Father Bracken is a man who came to the priesthood late in life after suffering an unimaginable tragedy. Despite his history and attraction to the beautiful Aoife O'Byrne he manages to stand by the vow he made while still being a comfort to her. He also made Irish whiskey in his former life, and that is always interesting to hear about someone who is now a priest. 

Recommended Reading: When it comes to mystery or crime fiction, I recommend The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith, which was found out to be the pen name of none other than J.K. Rowling after the book's publication. The second installment, The Silkworm, is also available in bookstores, but it haven't been able to read that one yet.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

I decided to go back a little bit to Rainbow Rowell's first novel, Attachments. Like Landline, Attachments is one of Rowell's novels written for adults, unlike Eleanor & Park and Fangirl. I was excited to check out her very first novel after being so delighted with nearly everything else she has written.

The Situation: Lincoln O'Neill works for the local newspaper as the IT guy, fixing computers that aren't connecting to the network and monitoring the young group of kids that were tasked with making sure everything in the office is Y2K compliant. It is the later half of 1999 and the office for The Courier newspaper only recently became connected to the Internet, which also means inter-office email for the staff. Beth Fremont, the movie critic, and Jennifer Scribner-Snyder, a features copy editor, joke around about the possibility that someone is monitoring their email, but that doesn't keep them from writing to each other back and forth during work hours. Because their conversation isn't work related, it is constantly flagged by the system and sent to Lincoln for review. His main job it to more or less read people's email. Normally, the next step would be to send both Beth and Jennifer a warning, but he never does. And the emails keep coming. And he keeps reading them. 

The Problem: Lincoln keeps telling himself that he'll stop reading Beth and Jennifer's exchanges. Especially when he realizes he is developing feelings for Beth, and he has been reading her emails way too long for reasonable explanation. If they were to meet, his options would be to either keep his already fairly intimate knowledge of her and her friend a secret, or tell her the truth and risk ruining the relationship before it even began. Plus, she has a boyfriend. And he lives at home with his mother and still isn't completely over the one serious relationship he has ever had that ended terribly nine years ago. It has always been hard for Lincoln to meet new people, and outside of his regular Dungeons and Dragons group, and an old friend from college who has become obsessed with the band that Beth's boyfriend plays lead guitar for, he has his mom and his sister. And he isn't unattractive, which is evidenced by the petite blonde who makes it a point to run into him at work. But she just isn't the one he wants to run into. And the more time goes by without Lincoln saying anything, the less likely it is he'll have any chance, however small, with Beth.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in late 1999 early 2000, just when the Y2K paranoia was at its highest, and then proved to be not worth the hype. There is some talk of characters stocking up on toilet paper and canned goods in order to be prepared to ride out the oncoming apocalypse, and with Lincoln being in IT, he has to deal with making sure the newspaper computers are prepared from the numbers to roll over. Attachments is able to take a look at a time when the Internet hasn't quite become the pervasive force it is today. The first email exchange Lincoln reads between Beth and Jennifer is dated August 9, 1999, and over the next few months he'll go from curious, to interested, to practically in love, and all without becoming too creepy about the whole invasion of privacy thing. Essentially, it is a romantic comedy (there were parts where I laughed out loud) in book form. Beth could easily be played by Amy Adams, with Lee Pace as Lincoln.

My Verdict: If this book were made into a movie, I would totally watch it the weekend it came out even though I am actually not that into romantic comedies. Attachments is really just that good. I shouldn't have been surprised, I mean, this is a Rowell book after all. But it isn't just that the story is cute, and sweet, and funny. It is all of those things, but also without overdoing it or becoming too sappy. And there are real issues that come up in the story as well, stuff beyond poking fun at Y2K and Dungeons and Dragons. Everything in this book seems to be in a healthy balance, including the characters. No one is overly irritating, even the characters that are obviously supposed to be the ones the reader rolls their eyes at. It is just a good fun book, which I am starting to believe is simply Rowell's specialty.

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When Lincoln and Beth finally run into each other in a movie theater after months of him reading her email and her knowing who he is and having a crush on him, despite her having a boyfriend.

Favorite Character: Despite his social awkwardness and somewhat stunted personal growth, Lincoln is actually a really great character. Once he actually puts himself out there and begins meeting new people, he discovers he is better at socializing than he thought and people actually like being around him.

Recommended Reading: You really can't go wrong with anything written by Rowell. Fangirl is my personal favorite, but is more for young adult readers, as is Eleanor & Park. Landline is her more recent novel written for adults, and also has an element of reaching into the pre-millennium past. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

I am a huge fan of Rainbow Rowell's young adult fiction, so I was both excited and a little scare to read her newest novel written for adults, Landline. I had only read Rowell's young adult fiction, so I wasn't sure how much I would like her writing when it is geared towards adult. But because I enjoyed her other books, I decided I was willing to risk having my adoration of Rowell's writing potentially tainted by what could have been a mediocre book.

The Situation: Georgie McCool is a TV comedy writer living in LA with her two kids, and her stay-at-home husband Neal. Her writing partner and best friend, Seth, has actually known Georgie longer than her husband as they have worked together since college, before Georgie got up the nerve to walk into the production room of the college paper and speak to Neal. After getting married and having their first kid, Neal decided that sending their daughter off to be taken care of strangers while they both worked wasn't for them. Knowing how much Georgie loved her work, and that he hadn't quite figured out what he wanted to do with his career, he became the one who cooked, cleaned, and took care of the kids, while Georgie worked with Seth, making people laugh. Now it is Christmas 2013 and the family has had plans to go to Omaha, Nebraska to visit Neal's mom. And then Georgie and Seth are given the opportunity they have been hoping for since college.

The Problem: As she sees Neal and her daughters being driven away to the airport without her, Georgie already knows that she has made a mistake deciding to stay behind and work. Her marriage was already in trouble, and now it feels like she has put the final nail in the coffin. Seth knows something is up - he is her best friend after all - but Georgie can't bring herself to talk to him about it. So as he worries about the upcoming meeting they are busy working on in the final days before Christmas, Georgie continually obsesses over her perpetually dead phone and how she hasn't heard from Neal in days. And after deciding she doesn't want to stay in an empty house, she sleeps over at her mother's house, who isn't exactly helpful as she keeps insisting that her daughter is on the verge of divorce. But, Despite her mother's insistence that her marriage is practically dead, Georgie keeps trying to reach Neal in Omaha, even resulting to plugging in an old landline telephone into a phone jack in her old room. While Georgie manages to reach Neal, what she gets from the conversation is something she can't quite believe, let alone ever expected.

Genre, Themes, History: Unlike Rowell's two previous books, this is a fiction novel written for an adult audience as opposed to young adults. The book starts off with George's marriage already in trouble, and her believing she has finally taken that step that will cause her husband to leave her. The issues in their marriage aren't anything terribly dramatic: no one is being unfaithful; there isn't any history of physical abuse; and no one is addicted to anything that can cause stress on a relationship. I suppose it could be argued that Georgie is addicted to her work, but even that isn't really the problem. The problem isn't even Seth, Georgie's best friend and workmate who doesn't like Neal any more than Neal likes him. It would be easy to blame Seth as he is the one whose constant presence in Georgie's life sends Neal over the edge, but really, the issue is that Georgie continually chooses Seth and her work over Neal and her family. Another big issue is communication, or lack thereof. And in this book, it isn't just the fact that no one is stating the obvious, but also that Georgie can't seem to get a hold of Neal once he is in Omaha. Even if her cell phone is charged enough to make a call, Neal doesn't pick up, or his mom does. Sometimes she even ends up getting one of her daughters instead of her husband. Georgie has to somehow push aside her work, her meddling family, and failing technology if she is to reconnect with Neal. Oh yeah, and then there is the time travel...or sort-of time travel. That landline I mentioned earlier that Georgie uses because her cell phone is manages to reach Neal, but it isn't 2013 Neal. Instead, whenever Georgie uses the landline, she ends up reaching Neal's house as it was 15 years ago, before they were even married. So then the age-old time travel questions must be asked: if you could go back and change the past knowing what you know now, would you? And would it make any difference?

My Verdict: I can't say I was as crazy about Landline as I was about Fangirl. But to be fair, there really aren't too many books I like as much as I like Fangirl, so there's that. Even so, this is a really good book that does what is always so hard to do when dealing with time travel, or even pseudo time travel. Instead of giving too much detail about it or trying too hard to convince the reader that this is possible and not absolutely absurd, and therefore ruining the illusion, Rowell simply presents the concept in all of its ridiculousness, without pushing it, and somehow it works. It didn't cause me to think about it too much, and instead I was able to just read the story while suspending a little disbelief. I think Georgie has a pretty realistic reaction to the situation as well. While it would be hard to believe that her mom's landline was somehow calling 1998 Omaha, I can understand Georgie being desperate enough to save her marriage that she ultimately would go along with it, if anything just to see what happens. I also feel like this is the kind of book everyone should read before getting married. The issues between Georgie and Neal are issues I see a lot in marriages today, and Rowell makes it clear that it isn't just about Georgie working all of the time. Fangirl is still my favorite Rowell book, but Landline deserves a place on the shelf too.

Favorite Moment: When Georgie finally admits, out loud, why she and Neal have been so unhappy for so long.

Favorite Character: I suppose my favorite character would be Georgie. She isn't perfect by any means, but she is trying and promises to continue to try.

Recommended Reading: It should come as no surprise that I recommend Rowell's Fangirl to anyone who hasn't read it, adults included. It is certainly more quirky than Landline, and I do love young adult books that attempt to use college as a setting as opposed to the often used high school backdrop.