Thursday, July 4, 2019

Obsessed with Ruth Ware

While browsing at our school's Spring Book Fair, I came across The Death of Mrs. Westaway.  I'd never heard of Ruth Ware, and the back cover of this book didn't exactly provide a summary of the book - which normally irritates me.  I don't like when it's just a bunch of endorsement quotes from random authors (though I admit that I have bought books in the past based on endorsements from random authors).  But, I think I liked the cover, and was in the mood for a creepy mystery.  So, I took my chances.  And, I'm very glad that I did.

The book opens with the passing of Mrs. Westaway, and a strange letter to a girl named Hal telling her that she is a beneficiary in Mrs. Westaway's will.  Hal is convinced they have contacted the wrong person, but deeply in debt following the death of her mother, with only her income as a tarot card reader to rely on, Hal responds to the letter in the hopes of swindling her way into an inheritance.  When she arrives at the will reading purporting to be a long lost niece, she finds that she hasn't just be given a small amount of money - instead, Mrs. Westaway had bequeathed her an entire estate.  As Hal attempts to come to terms with her deception, she finds that nothing is quite as it seems, and as her own lies begin to unravel, so do the secrets kept by her own mother and her connections to the strange Mrs. Westaway.  This book was suspenseful and creepy - not the kind of thing I wanted to be reading on my own late at night, but completely unable to put down.  When it was finally over, I requested all of Ruth Ware's books from the library right away!

The Woman in Cabin 10:  This one seems to be the most well-known of Ware's novels.  A young travel writer is assaulted in her apartment on the eve of one of her biggest assignments.  Still reeling from the trauma, she boards a luxury yacht and begins mingling with the exclusive clientele.  On her first night at sea, she's convinced she seems someone in the cabin next to her throw a body overboard.  And yet, everyone on the boat appears alive and accounted for.  As she insists on convincing others that a tragedy has occurred, her own sanity is called into question - and she begins to wonder if she really saw something, or if it has all been a trick of her hypervigilant imagination.  As with many of these books, there was some sense of irritation as a reader - the main character is incredibly unlikeable - while she has a right to be distrustful and shaken due to the traumatic experience in the opening chapter, her rudeness and social awkwardness seem unrealistic.  Or maybe completely realistic - just obnoxious.  She also makes some odd choices in terms of who to share information with, and what information to share -but given the circumstances and her increasing paranoia, perhaps this makes sense.  It just becomes a little frustrating.  From an entertaining/thriller perspective, this was another enjoyable read.

The Lying Game: The premise of this one is a bit annoying from the start - a group of four private school girls play a game to see who can get away with the most lies.  From the start you know these girls are mostly self-centered brats...but they've grown up and suddenly one of them needs the others to come to her rescue. It's clear some sort of death/murder/foul play has occurred, but no one is telling the complete truth.  The four women spend several days together in a remote beach house, reliving their pasts, and trying to understand what or who is out to uncover their darkest secret (which we only understand in bits and pieces through the book).  If this had been my first Ruth Ware novel, I may not have come back for more, but while not particularly liking any of the characters, I found it to be a generally good story - a bit creepy, as with her others, always a few moments of dread to keep the story going.  And, I did want to read to the end to find out how it all wrapped up.

In a Dark, Dark Wood: Nora wakes up in the hospital one day and can't quite remember what's happened.  It's clear there's been an accident, but why is there a police officer sitting outside her room?  The book flashes back to Nora agreeing to attend the bachelorette party of a friend from school that she hasn't seen in over 10 years - why she's been invited is a mystery, but her curiosity gets the better of her.  She trudges out to a house (in the dark, dark woods) with the bride to be and several other friends. Nora is a runner, who doesn't seem to mind running alone at dusk in an area she's not at all familiar with - an area that doesn't appear to get very good cell phone service - clearly a recipe for impending disaster.  With Ware's usual twists and turns, this one kept me guessing until the end in a fun (and creepy) way. 

I read through these four books in less than a month, so it may be time for me to take a break from Ware.  I think she has one more available for me at the library, The Turn of the Key.  I've requested it and look forward to reading it in a well-lit crowded area when it comes in.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Diversity Book Club: Books about Crossing/Mexico/Mexican-Americans

The Diversity Book Club in my office seeks books that will help open up our discussions with each other about race.  We've mostly chosen books based on recommendations from members or books that seems to be in the news.  In my quest to find good choices, I've also picked up a few books that I might not otherwise have read.  Here are just a few on the top of crossing the Mexico-United States border, and families living lives in the in-between:

The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande: This is the memoir of Reyna Grande, whose father left her, her mother, and her siblings behind in Mexico, while he crossed the border in search of a better life.  Shortly after, he sends for his wife, but Reyna and her siblings are left in the care of their seemingly unloving grandmother.  Unable to care for them, Reyna's grandmother is dependent on the money sent to her by Reyna's parents in the United States.  Reyna is made to feel like a burden to her family in Mexico, while she lies awake at night wondering if she has been abandoned, or whether her parents will ever come back for her.  Ultimately, Reyna makes her own journey to "El Otro Lado" (the other side), with all the trauma, heartache, and unfulfilled promises that brings.  This is a true story of what it means to be a child left behind, and raises the questions - so prevalent in all these books about crossing - of what price is too high to pay for the destruction of family bonds, and how desperate must a parent feel to be willing to give up so much - or to feel like there is no other choice.

Across a Hundred Mountains by Reyna Grande:  After reading her memoir, I was interested in reading Grande's fiction.  It's clear that she writes what she knows, and even after reading the emotionally exhausting The Distance Between Us, I was still moved by this fiction account of two women - one crossing to the United States to find her father, and one following her husband across the border into Mexico.  Like her memoir, this book raised even more questions about the journeys people make for love.

Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario:  This memoir begins in Honduras, but ultimately requires the brutal crossing from Mexico into the United States.  Like Reyna Grande, Enrique's mother leaves him behind when he is only five years old, so that she can make her way north to a better life.  She promises to send for him, but the years pass, and his mother can only tell him to be patient.  Life without his mother is excruciating, and at the age of 16, Enrique decides to take matters into his own hands.  With only a phone number for his mother (in North Carolina), Enrique sets off to make the dangerous journey.  What becomes clear through this narrative is not just the conditions that one chooses to leave behind when they make the decision to cross, but truly the horrific trauma that people endure in the journey alone - from extreme weather conditions to physical and sexual assault to brutal robberies and near starvation, there is nothing glamorous or easy about getting to the border, much less across it.  This is an incredibly written account - one that I wish everyone would read - particularly anyone who just thinks people are coming across without exploring every other option available - for those who think for even a second that the decision is easy or that the separations of family isn't completely devastating and detrimental for generation upon generation. Enrique's Journey was first published in 2005, but it is an important book for understanding and better developing a conversation about immigration issues, and how greatly our humanity is implicated in our treatment of children and families.

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight - Jennifer E. Smith

I used to be a big fan of YA fiction - and I still am, but I think I'm moving more and more into the "Middle Reader" book section - books that I think are more for 8-12 years olds (or so), and don't focus much on young love, which is a topic that I don't much have the stomach for - but of course is all-appealing and all-consuming for actual real YA readers.  So, while I'm glad these books exist for the readers for whom they are intended, I shall keep my distance in the future (I think).

I don't recall why I picked this one up - probably the cover, and the font on the cover.  It reminded me somewhat of the movie "Before Sunrise" with Ethan Hawke.  In this version, an American girl misses her flight to her father's second wedding in London.  She happens to meet Oliver - a charming British teenager sitting in her row.  They spend the evening talking and connecting and (maybe?) falling in love.  But, when they finally arrive in London, the chaos of the moment causes them to lose each other.  Is that the end of this budding romance?  How can they possibly find each other again in a bustling city with millions of people?  Is it possible that Oliver just might turn up at this infamous wedding?  Only time will tell what fate has in store for these two.  It's a book filled with cliches and a pretty predictable ending, but it's very cute - and just right medicine for any teenager out there who just needs a little hope when it comes to finding the love of their life.

Wild Robots!

As my kids are getting older, I'm discovering how many wonderful books there are out there to read out loud to them.  While I've loved sharing some of my childhood favorites with them (anything by Roald Dahl), it's been wonderful to discover new books together.  While shopping at an independent bookstore in Truckee, Word After Word Bookstore, I purchased The Wild Robot, a book I'd seen many times before.  Of course, I love the cover - and I am a sucker for an enticing bookstore display!

The Wild Robot is a beautifully written story of a robot who finds herself shipwrecked on what appears to be an uninhabited island.  The Robot (who comes to call herself Roz) is a quick study, as she finds herself adapting to survive in her new environment.  She learns how to acclimate to the ever-changing weather, and how to win over the animals on the island - teaching them also how to adapt to their surroundings.  The book explores the constant struggle between nature and machine - how they can each help each other to become more "human" and more "humane" - and how becoming more wild is the secret to living one's best life.  I read this to my 6-year-old daughters who loved all the animals in the book and their interactions with Roz, but also felt the profound sadness in Roz's desire to belong.

After falling in love with Roz in The Wild Robot, my girls and I were eager to see what happens next in The Wild Robot Escapes.  The factory robots that created Roz has finally located her on the deserted island, and they are not leaving until she is destroyed or she comes back with them to the factory to be reprogrammed.  In a heart-wrenching scene, Roz is torn from her animal family and brought back to civilization where she is ripped about and reconstituted to become a service robot for a farmer and his two young children.  But, despite the forced changes, Roz remembers who she once was. She works to win over the trust of the children, and to formulate a plan to return to the island.  This book wasn't as fun for my girls - not as many wonderful interactions with animals - but there were some tender moments between Roz and the children.  My girls also feared that Roz might not make it back to the island, and how sad it would be if she were separated forever from her family - even if she managed to make a new family.  Throughout, this book created an overwhelming sense of dread, which was a bit tough to read through night after night.  But, again, it explored some interesting themes about industrialization and society's (over)reliance on machines.  Roz is a wonderful and easy to love character - we were rooting for her all the way!

Reading through an oeuvre: Liane Moriarty

It's comforting to find an author who tells a good story, but isn't a slog to work through - someone with quite a number of books that you can rely on in times when you're in a reading slump.  Years ago, before the show came out, I read Liane Moriarty's novel Big Little Lies and loved it.  It's the story of a group of women whose children all go to school together - and they represent the best and worst of a small community with too much wealth and too much time.  They each have their secrets - the small lies they tell each other to get through the day, and the big lies they tell themselves to get through their lives.  I loved the backstories of each individual woman - and seeing how their relationships with each other and their partners came together - of course in a tragic conclusion.  It was a definite summer read page turner, and yet when I was done with it, it didn't really occur to me to looks and see if Moriarty had written any other novels. 

Then more recently, I overheard a few people talking about her other books - and that led me to the fiction shelves at the library.  And another strange fact occurred to me.  I rarely just look through the stacks at the library - I mostly hear of books I think I want to read and then I request them.  Unlike when I go to a bookstore and I tend to roam around and pick up what looks good.  I should do that at the library more often.  But, anyway, I went to the "M" section, and decided I would pick up whatever Moriarty book(s) they happened to have...and there were a few.  The first I read was The Husband's Secret.  This book starts out with Cecilia's discovery of a letter written by her husband divulging his deepest darkest secret.  The revelation, of course, causes Cecilia to question everything she has assumed about the quality of her spouse, as well as the life she believes she deserves to be living.  Understanding the nature of the letter leads her to become intertwined with a number of other women - each dealing with their own secrets - as Cecilia grapples with whether it's more important to reveal the truth or to protect her own seemingly perfect life.

Next, I picked up What Alice Forgot, which a few Moriarty fans assured me is her "best" novel.  The book begins with 39-year-old Alice, slipping at the gym and knocking herself unconscious.  When she comes-to in the hospital, she believes it is 10 years earlier - and thinks she is happily married and expecting her first child.  The reality is she is in the middle of a nasty divorce, and her three children can't believe she can't remember them.  It's clear that the years have changed Alice - and she has to figure out how to navigate her current situation and figure out if she can start all over again.  Parts of this book were incredibly painful - just the idea that one might not remember - both the good and the bad - of such a large period of time.  But, also the realization that one's outlook on life can change (for the worse) in such as short period of time.  It did get me thinking quite a bit about where I am, where I thought I would be.  While I'm not someone who ever possessed youthful optimism, I wonder if there are still things we accept as we grow older that our younger selves would have been better equipped to overcome.  As promised, this probably is my favorite of the Moriarty novels I've read - definitely the one I've thought about most after finishing - always a good sign!

Next, I moved on to The Hypnotist's Love Story.  I tend to enjoy books with a little supernatural suggestion.  While hypnotism isn't exactly fortune telling, it still lends a bit of the creepy factor to any story.  You never know what memories - true or false - are going to surface.  Ellen O'Farrell is the hypnotist in the story - she runs her business out of her home on the beach.  Just as she finds herself falling in love, she has also started seeing a new patient that she finds herself connecting well with.  As her new boyfriend tells her that he is being stalked by his ex-girlfriend, Ellen thinks she can handle it - and is in fact just slightly amused by the concept.  But, as strange things start happening all around her, she finds that perhaps the stalker is a little too close for comfort, and that it's not just fun and games when people take their obsessions a little too far.  I find the concept of a stalker slightly frustrating - it's annoying that the object of the stalking can't simply be left alone to live their life.  And while I feel heart-broken for a stalker who seems intent on believing that they can get the object of their fantasy to fall (back) in love with them, I also of course find them incredibly invasive and rude in their willingness to ruin another person's life for their selfish idea of happiness.  All in all, it's a tangled situation, and certainly no book premised on a stalker relationship can end well - so I think I felt that dread throughout reading this book.  But, it was suspenseful and engaging - not my favorite of Moriarty's but certainly entertaining.

My final Moriarty read (for awhile, but not my final of all her books that are out there) was The Last Anniversary.  I took a break after this one because I found myself having trouble keeping track of all the characters. While not all of her novels are this way, Moriarty's novels do tend to have lots of separate characters who then find themselves coming together throughout the book.  It is a clever storytelling technique, and it is fun as a reader to wonder how it will all come together.  But, it can also get exhausting keeping track of everyone, and how everyone knows (or doesn't know) each other.  In this book, Sophie finds herself strangely and unexpectedly inheriting the small island home of her ex-boyfriend, Thomas.  Sophie moves to the island to start a new life amidst many of Thomas's relatives - many of whom are suspicious as to how she inherited the home, and all of whom have secrets of their own.  The premise of this one was a bit far-fetched, but it did make for some interesting twists and turns.  Again Moriarty played with the themes of "what if" - what if Sophie and Thomas had stayed together?  What if each family member had revealed their secrets at an earlier moment or to a different person/group of people?  How might their decision trees have changed and ultimately affected (or not affected) their lives?