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SDR Book of the Week: The Good Luck of Right Now, by Matthew Quick

The Good Luck of Right Now, by Matthew Quick. Harper, 304 pp.

When everyone was caught up in the amazingness that was The Silver Linings Playbook, I closed the final cover of that book with a resounding “meh. The movie was better.” I don’t know if I’d be able to say that with this book.

Bartholomew Neil is thirty-eight years old, and has just lost one of the two people in his life: his mother. His grief counselor tells him he needs to find other people to include in his life; he needs to simply go to a bar and have a beer with a friend.

Then Bartholomew finds a “Free Tibet” letter his mother received from Richard Gere around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He starts to document his life experiences, from his memories of his mother to his efforts to cope with her passing, in a series of letters to Mr. Gere. He has never met the actor, but he feels a kinship to him through his mother’s affinity to him. Toward the end of her life she even began to call Bartholomew “Richard.”

Through these letters, Bartholomew begins to break free from the life he’d always known and pave a new, independent way for himself.

What I appreciated most about Quick’s latest novel is that it wasn’t too complex. Many times, I feel, novels try to be everything to a reader. The Good Luck of Right Now is whimsical and tender, and accomplishes its mission well of entertaining and heart-warming. I smile even thinking back to this book.

Aside from The Silver Linings Playbook, The Good Luck of Right Now is the only book I’d read of Quick’s. I would like to read his other work, however. The Silver Linings Playbook was his debut novel, and The Good Luck of Right Now is his latest. To say he has grown as an author is an understatement.

SDR Book of the Week: The Swan Gondola, by Timothy Schaffert

The Swan Gondola, by Timothy Schaffert. Riverhead, 464 pp.

Sometimes I start to get into a book and I really love it, for the first half. This was the case with Timothy Schaffert’s The Swan Gondola. Written in loosely the same thread as Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (which I loved), I thoroughly enjoyed the relationship as it played out on the page.

Ferrit Skerritt is a ventriloquist, who travels around with his doll attached like a cape around his neck and trailing down his back. He’s also a con man, and he sees the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair as an opportunity to capitalize on both his talents.

Cecily is an actress whom Ferrit meets first at an impromptu performance before the fair begins. She’s a part of a traveling show, and he follows their caravan until he finds her again at the Chamber of Horrors in the midway. She spends every evening playing Marie Antoinette at the moment she loses her head.

Cecily and Ferrit have an unusual, and whirlwind, romance. I enjoyed their back-and-forth. But their relationship is cut short halfway through the novel, and at this point I paged through the rest of the pages wondering how Schaffert was going to continue this love story for an extra several hundred pages without one of the two key players.

It was a little strange, I’ll admit. At the beginning of the novel, I didn’t really like Ferrit. He seemed a little obsessive to me, someone too concentrated on getting what he wants, especially when he wants is someone who may not necessarily want him in return. I think I grew to like him because I liked her. And after they’re parted, I saw Ferrit revert back to his obsessive self. He cannot let her go, and he probably should have.

The story ended nicely, in a way I halfway predicted, but I still enjoyed it. And I also enjoyed the backdrop of the Omaha World’s Fair. Here in northwest Iowa, we’re infiltrated each year by the Clay County Fair, and I was able to relate a little. It was really interesting. But The Swan Gondola could probably have been a few hundred pages shorter and still been a good book, perhaps even a better one.

SDR Book of the Week: Call Girl Confidential, by Rebecca Kade

Call Girl Confidential: An Escort’s Secret Life as an Undercover Agent, by Rebecca Kade. Gallery, 230 pp. $26

It seems a little strange to go from Harry Potter to high-class escort, but I’m willing to go there.

I was originally interested in reading Call Girl Confidential because I think the concept alone sounds like a USA original television series: A smart, sexy escort who goes undercover to take down a very successful–and elusive–madam. And the best part about this entire thriller is it’s all true.

According to Rebecca Kade, the author of the memoir she became an escort to pay for the legal bills she was racking up in order to gain custody of her daughter, Isabella. Isabella’s father, a rock star named Mike, kidnapped the girl under the ruse that he was going to take her out with her grandfather and then to a Broadway show. Not long after, Kade was served papers notifying her that Mike had filed for full custody and was prepared to show the judge how she was an unfit mother.

Later, one of Mike’s exes confided to me that what he really wanted was to stop having to pay me child support. It would be easier on his wallet if his new wife looked after Isabella, supplemented by a cheap nanny who ultimately ended up watching Isabella most of the time, as he was always out nights or away on tour.

She found her first madam, Kristin Davis–or “The Manhattan Madam” as she was called by the media after her arrest–on Craigslist. Later, after understanding the escort business a little further and realizing the danger she was in by staying with Kristin, Kade moved on to Anna Gristina, the “Soccer Mom Madam.” Gristina was so over-the-top cautions with her operation it borderlined paranoid. It also, however, kept her off the government’s radar for nearly 15 years.

It was Kade that helped bring Gristina down, through various recorded conversations and manipulated situations. She was tied to Davis, and she was told she could either cooperate or find herself convicted. As with every decision in her life, she thought of her daughter first.

Call Girl Confidential is certainly an intriguing book, and a story that would be difficult to find elsewhere. It’s not graphic–Kade doesn’t go into detail about her sessions with her clients–though it does give the picture of her life as an escort.

As good as it was to read, however, I felt Kade played the victim card too much. She came from a super-strict Southern Baptist family; she is taken advantage of by the first man she meets and falls in love with; said man kidnaps her daughter; she turns to the escort business; etc. I won’t go much further without risking ruining the ending, but the woman she portrays herself as and the woman who writes the book seem different. In the book, Kade is strong and sexy. She’s intelligent–a quality that appeals to her clients and allows her to move up in the industry. She becomes respected by not only her madam, but by her clients as well. And yet the “author Kade” explains her decision to enter into the escort business and details her experience there and as a confidential informant with an expounded, “I had no other choice.” In every part of her life outside of the characters she creates for her clients, she is a victim, backed into a corner with only one option out.

Despite this disconnect between author and subject, Call Girl Confidential is entertaining and enlightening. It’s very interesting to read another angle to an often-stereotyped industry, and inspiring to read the story of a woman who will go to any length for her child and still come out on the other side.

SDR Book of the Week: The Pagan Lord, by Bernard Cornwell

The Pagan Lord, by Bernard Cornwell. Harper, 303 pp.

I’m going to just come out and say it: I am not Bernard Cornwell’s intended audience.

I’m not fascinated by the Middle Ages, nor about one man’s quest for any crown. While I’ve been wanting to read/watch Game of Thrones because of its popularity, I don’t feel deprived in any way from not partaking (I do know about the Red Wedding, but more because I read a HuffPost article on it the day after it aired).

With all that in mind, I really can’t find anything negative to say about Cornwell’s The Pagan Lord. The writing was solid, the characters were “fleshed out” (pun intended), and the story was well-developed and interesting.

My favorite parts of this book were the characters, hands-down. I loved how Cornwell allowed Uhtred–the protagonist–to be both battle-hardened and gentle. He’s a warrior with his men and against his enemies, but he’s clearly in love with his women. I loved his relationship to Aethelflaed.

Speaking of Aethelflaed: she’s fabulous. She is, by all definitions, Uhtred’s partner. She goes both into battle and into bed with him. She’s completely bad-ass, and she commands control in a time and a culture that didn’t necessarily give women the opportunity for power. She demanded it anyway, and she got it.

Was I completely enraptured by this book: No. But I didn’t expect to be. I honestly didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did, because this isn’t the kind of book I usually like. I was intrigued, however, especially after Cornwell’s 1356 did so well on the New York Times charts. And, from what I can tell of The Pagan Lord, rightfully so. As unlikely as it is that I will ever truly love medieval-fiction, I could definitely see myself picking up another of his books and enjoying it.

SDR Book of the Week: The Exiles Return, by Elisabeth de Waal

The Exile’s Return, by Elisabeth de Waal. Picador, 319 pp. $26

As its title suggests: Elisabeth de Waal’s novel, published posthumously with help from her grandson, Edmund (author of The Hare With Amber Eyes) is a novel of return. In three separate-yet-connected plot lines, her characters find themselves searching for a return to their past, for what was in earlier days.

Professor Kuno Adler, a Jewish scientist who fled Vienna to America fifteen years ago, finds himself coming back to his former home. He anticipates picking up where he left off, and finding that while the Vienna in his memory remained the same, the Vienna he finds has changed dramatically in the aftermath of World War II.

Theophil Kanakis, by comparison, comes to Vienna to pick up the pieces the war left behind. He wants to restore Austria to its former beauty and grandeur, and hopes that in the process his own standing in society would rise further. He is a middle-aged man, nearly forty years old, though he surrounds himself with people much younger than he in part to emphasize his wisdom and experience, and in part to live forever in his youth.

Marie-Theres, or Resi, is sent to Vienna to live with her aunt. In America, where she was born, she lives rather apathetically, and her mother–a former Princess–hopes sending her daughter to her own home might help spark some life in the teenager.

Sprinkled into each of the stories is the Grien-Lauterbach family–Nina and Lorenzo, or “Bimbo.” Earlier generations of this family was considered royalty, though now the titles “Princess” and “Prince,” respectively, are worth little more than the letters they include. Nina is happy to move forward; she goes by “Frauline Grien” rather than the more decadent “Princess Nina.” In contrast to his sister, Bimbo wants to restore the impact of “Prince” to his name and his family.

What I found compelling about The Exiles Return, however, is a far deeper element of redemption de Waal has written into the story. Much as the characters return to something they’d lost, Austria is searching to rebuild itself after the war. What was formerly a noble country has been reduced to rubble, and now the time has come to pick up and begin again.

Elisabeth de Waal wrote five novels throughout her life: three in English and two in German. As stated by Edmund in the foreword, she was a member of the Ephrussi family, a “dynastic Jewish family that had adopted Vienna as its home thirty years before” her 1899 birth year.

The Exiles Return is a novel of great vividness and great tenderness, which at its heart depicts what it might mean to return from exile. Within its pages it reflects a truly ambitious writer and a woman of considerable courage. Elisabeth returned to Vienna weeks after the Anschluss in 1938 in order to save her parents in their moment of greatest need. She managed to get her father to England in 1939. And she returned immediately after the war to find out what had happened to her family. She fought for a decade to get justice for the wrongs that had been done, battling the intransigence, hostility and derision of the authorities in Vienna. Yet she did this without losing her ability to live fully in the present and not be held hostage by the experience of being a refugee.

While Elisabeth was never published in her lifetime, she continued to write. Her first novel, The Exiles Return, was published in London seventy-five years after the Anschluss, the “cataclysmic, convulsive act when Austria allowed Hitler to enter unopposed into Vienna.” Edmund notes the significance of this anniversary in his foreword, and I’m sure this novel may serve as yet another reminder to the world that Austria–and, really, Europe as a whole–has returned.

SDR Book of the Week: Organize & Create Discipline, by Justin Klosky

Organize & Create Discipline: An A-to-Z Guide to an Organized Existence, by Justin Klosky. Avery, 320 pp. $26

In this coming new year, I only made one resolution: get organized. Sure, there are other things I’d like to do. I’d like to focus more on growing lifebythebooks and posting new content every day. I’d like to run at least three times a week. I’d like to publish some of my fiction. But, when I think about what will best help me in the future, my number one dream is to be organized.

Really, that’s why I wanted this book. And believe me, it doesn’t disappoint. Justin Klosky is a professional organizer who has helped countless people find peace in their lives through organization. And now he’s taken all of his wisdom and knowledge and produced Organize & Create Discipline, an anthology of tools to organize over 300 different elements of our lives.

Klosky was diagnosed at an early age with OCD, and he’s taken this often debilitating condition and created an empire from it, which he calls the OCD Experience. To be honest, even the formatting of this book is organized.

2014 01 03 Organize + Create Discipline 02

If you notice, under “Junk Drawers”, the words “Office,” “Drawers,” “Receipts,” “Keys,” “Batteries,” and “Tools” are bolded and in all-caps. This means that each of these words listed under “Junk Drawers” also have their own categories within the book. I don’t necessarily need to remember that there is a section dedicated to office organization, because anywhere the mentions offices in this book will tell me. All I need to do is flip to “O,” which is easily found in the outside margin above the page number, and look for “Office,” because all of the categories are listed alphabetically. I promise, it’s a magical experience.

I would like to think that I could be the type of person that is organized. I know that even in the few weeks I’ve had this book (It was released Dec. 26) I’ve already managed to knock out a few high-traffic areas of my life. It’s freeing to know that, even in a small way, I can utilize my time and energy more peacefully and efficiently. With the help of Organize & Create Discipline, I look forward to extending this feeling of freedom through the rest of the year.

Book of the Week: The Longest Ride

photo from goodreads.com

The Longest Ride, by Nicholas Sparks. Grand Central, 398 pp. $27

Usually, when I write the “Book of the Week” post, I expand on the review I wrote for that week’s Spencer Daily Reporter. The reason is largely spacial: I write a weekly book review and music review for the newspaper, and there’s only so much space I have for both. Most weeks, I try to write a shorter review for the paper that I can work with and draw out here. This week, however, I finished my review for Nicholas Sparks’ The Longest Ride, and I realized I couldn’t shorten it. As a result, I scrapped the music review and ran the book review in its entirety.

With this in mind, I’m going to include the review for the “Book of the Week” as I wrote it for the Daily Reporter. If you’re still on the fence, check out my “Sneak Peak” of the book.

I admit it: Nicholas Sparks is my guilty pleasure.

I read the books and I watch the movies. Every time a preview for a new one comes on TV, my face lights up like a Christmas tree and I feel Nic’s eyes roll from across the room.

In my opinion, Sparks is a Thomas Kinkade-parallel to commercial fiction. His stories are always heartwarming, they tend to reflect a similar pattern, a lot of people find him kitschy, but he’s made a lot (read: a lot) of money doing what he does.

I get it all. I understand that many of his books follow a similar basic plot structure. But, that being said, if I could sell millions of copies and make millions of dollars writing the same thing over and over again, I totally would.

The Longest Ride dips into the world of professional bull-riding. Sophia is a college student at Wake Forest University, deflecting every advance of her still-clingy ex-boyfriend as best she can. At a party one night, however, she is approached again by Brian, this time drunk. She has trouble convincing him that she is, indeed, done with the relationship. Fortunately for her, the mysterious guy she had seen staring across the meadow comes up and forcefully tells him to step down. Luke is a professional bull rider who continues to ride despite his mother’s objections. Their relationship has been cold for months.

Meanwhile, Ira Levinson has run himself off the road during a snowstorm and now fights for his life amidst excruciating physical pain. His late wife, Ruth, appears to him and retells their own love story as a means of keeping him alive as long as possible.

Oddly enough, I found the male character development a little lacking. Usually, the characters of the same gender as the author are more fleshed out because the author can use his or her own experiences in their development. In The Longest Ride, I felt more of an emotional pull from Sophia and Ruth than I did from Luke or Ira.

Like many of Sparks’ books, The Longest Ride has already been greenlighted for a film, coming 2015. I enjoyed the book, but I’m going to venture out a little early and say the movie will probably be better. Some of his books, namely Safe Haven and A Walk to Remember, carried emotional and psychological elements the movies couldn’t. Others, including The Lucky One and The Notebook, were enhanced by the visual interpretation.

Book of the Week: Fangirl

photo from rainbowrowell.com

Read the review in today’s Spencer Daily Reporter.

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell. St. Martin’s Press, 433 pp. $18.99

I was really going to pace myself with this one. I waited so patiently to read it–I had to read a few other books for review before I could get to that one–but when I was finally able to open the cover and begin I told myself that I wanted to take my time. I wanted to savor it.

Screw that. I was done in five hours. And every page was delicious. When I finally finished, I set the book aside, checked my emotions, and tweeted simply:

Oh my god, @rainbowrowell. I have no words #FanGirl.

I think I fell in love with Rowell after reading Eleanor and Park, and when I heard she had a new book coming shortly I could barely contain myself. I was super excited.

What I loved about Eleanor and Park was its simplicity. It’s the story of two “outcasts” who fall in love, a young adult story about first love told without vampires or end-of-the world hardships. There is nothing earth-shattering that draws Eleanor and Park together. They are not the last two people on the earth. They simply sit next to each other on the bus, and fall in love. It’s beautiful.

I wouldn’t necessarily classify Fangirl as young adult fiction. Sure, it’s got its elements: Cath is a fan fiction junkie who’s own fic, Carry On, Simon sees about 35,000 hits per post. She is obsessed with Simon Snow, a fictional character who, in my mind, seems somewhat Harry Potter-esque. 

But I think this book appeals better to those between young adult and adult fiction. Cath herself is heading off to college, and trying to navigate her newfound life while simultaneously keeping up with the demands of her readers. It isn’t easy. Her twin sister, Wren, has all but written off Simon Snow–practically treason in Cath’s eyes–and wants to have a full college experience. Her roommate, Reagan, doesn’t understand why Cath doesn’t leave the room. Reagan’s “boyfriend,” Levi, always seems to be around and actually shows an interest in what Cath seems to be working on, which annoys Cath. On top of it all, her English professor truly believes fan fiction to be a form of plagiarism

What makes Rowell so good is the way she develops her characters. The prose sucks you right in, but it’s the characters that keep you wondering what comes next? When I finished the book and realized it was finished, a little part of me was sad. I wanted this story to be true, and I wanted these people to be real. I still wanted to find out what happened, but I guess that’s what fan fiction is for :).

Needless to see, I’m a fangirl of Fangirl. (I just had to, I’m sorry).

SDR Book of the Week: Billy Moon, by Douglas Lain

photo from goodreads.com

For this week’s book review, I chose Billy Moon, by Douglas Lain. While I read it at least a week ago, the images Lain creates are still with me. This is the kind of book that creeps up on you: you may not see it’s power right when you read it, but it’s lasting impression makes it a worthwhile read.

I’d highly encourage anyone to pick up Billy Moon and give it a go. Check out my review in the Spencer Daily Reporter and, if you want, you can read a brief excerpt of this book in my “Sneak Peak” just last week.

SDR Book of the Week: Babayaga, by Toby Barlow

Photo taken from booksmith.com

Babayaga, by Toby Barlow. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 383 pp. $27

To read the review in the Spencer Daily Reporter, click here.

I didn’t know what to expect when I started this book. I had never read Sharp Teeth, though I knew it was a huge book and got tons of press. It had sounded interesting, and I thought, at the very least, this book would be enjoying.

Babayaga has it all: It’s got crime and investigation, it’s got CIA spies, it’s got romance, fantasy and even a little folklore. And it all takes place in 1959 Paris.

I think it was the crime element of the novel that drew me in. The clear structure of good guy/bad guy is very easy to read, and usually sucks you in pretty good. You want to find out whodunit as much as the chief inspector does. Only here, we know exactly whodunit right from the beginning. The mystery then became whether Inspector Vidot would track her down and, when he did, what would happen.

This book had twists and turns I wasn’t expecting. I don’t know much about Russian folklore, or about babayagas in general. But I like stories that can take a thread from real history or legend and turn it into something equally great.

I did expect the love story that emerged. Did I expect it to play out like it did? No. Not at all. And it was so exciting to realize what was going on, and realize that I had not seen it coming.

Let’s face it: I read at least a book a week. By this point, I’m pretty versed in story structure and character development. Good books play out as I expected in clever and unique ways with well-written prose. Great books catch me off guard. I bet you can guess which category I placed Babayaga in.

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