As we planned and packed for our Europe trip, one of my highest priorities was making sure I had enough books to read and enough variety that if something didn't fit my mood, I had more to choose from. As you might remember, Mike got me a kindle for Mother's Day specifically because of the upcoming trip, and I spent the weeks prior filling it up with titles from my to-read list. Although I'd done a little bit of destination-specific reading before we left, during the trip itself I just wanted books that were light and fun and that would strike the right balance between "easy to get lost in" but not "hard to pull away from." So no dense nonfiction but no gripping thrillers either.
I fell in love with my kindle on this trip. This is the first e-reader I've ever owned, and I guess I'm admitting that I didn't know what I was missing before. I have much more to say about e-readers in a future post . . .
I have to admit that one of the best parts of our trip was just being able to read, uninterrupted, for hours at a time. I can't remember the last time that happened (probably on our Australia trip). When people heard how long the flight was from Salt Lake City to Amsterdam (nine hours), they gave exclamations of sympathy, but I countered with, "Oh, no, I loved it. That was quiet, peaceful, dedicated reading time." (That was the flight out there; the flight home was more brutal because I just wanted to be home.)
I've compiled all the books I read into one post and tried to consolidate my reviews a bit so that this isn't too long. I'd love to hear your thoughts about any of these that you've read (or want to read)!
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
As Mike and I were sitting on the plane at the very beginning of our trip, waiting for takeoff, Mike looked over at me and asked what my book was about. "Well," I started, "you're probably not going to believe it, but it's a Cinderella retelling" (insert indifferent nodding), "and Cinderella is actually a mechanic . . ." (insert raised eyebrows), " . . . and a cyborg" (insert a surprised guffaw, followed by my own hysterical laughter).
That was Mike's reaction. When I presented the plot to my mother-in-law later on in the trip, her reaction was one of disbelief, disappointment, and sympathy. I think she couldn't believe I would waste my time on anything so ridiculous. And frankly, neither could I. In fact, during the first couple of chapters, I thought I was going to have to abandon it. I mean, did you hear what I said? It was about a cyborg-mechanic-Cinderella!!! You have to admit, that's a bit much.
But I forged ahead, and after awhile, all the references to hovercrafts, technological interfaces, androids, and moon (Lunar) people (oh yeah, did I mention that?) didn't jolt me as much. I became wrapped up in the story: Cinder (the cyborg mechanic) lives in the city of New Beijing (this takes place years in the future after WWIV) with her stepmother and two stepsisters. A deadly plague has been slowly infiltrating earth and reaches New Beijing soon after the story begins. It shows no respect of persons: the little baker's son gets it, so does Cinder's youngest sister, and so does the king. Prince Kai is desperate to find a cure, but meanwhile, he is also trying to fend off attempts by Queen Levana, the Lunar queen, to build an alliance (through marriage) between Earth and Luna.
Strange as I found it, I couldn't deny that the whole thing was extremely clever. The underlying fairy tale was always there, but it blended into the new story perfectly. And the characters were fresh and new if, at times, just a little stereotypical. Most of all, I appreciated that it was a young adult novel that I would actually feel comfortable giving to young adults. I hope the rest of the series stays as clean.
It felt good to finally check this book off my list because it's been on there since it first came out in 2012. That was long before people were talking about it and the series became so popular. What grabbed my attention back then wasn't the synopsis (I don't think I even knew what the story was about), but that shiny red stiletto on the cover. In the years since then, I've heard other people, most notably Anne Bogel, remark on the ugliness of the cover and how it was a major turnoff for them, but for me, it was the thing that made me continue to come back to it, even though it didn't sound like anything I would like. It was just so different, and so is the story, so they actually go together perfectly.
Lizzie and Jane by Katherine Reay
Katherine Reay's books have been mentioned several times on Modern Mrs. Darcy. They sounded like cute, clean, light books, so when this one came up as a kindle deal, I snagged it.
It's about two sisters, Lizzie and Jane (yes, their mother had a deep love affair with Jane Austen and named them after the two oldest Bennett sisters) who were never close but became even more estranged after their mother died of breast cancer. Fifteen years later, Lizzie (or Elizabeth as she prefers to be called) has her own restaurant in New York City, but it is floundering. Elizabeth just seems to have lost some of her creativity and drive, especially after she finds out that Jane has also been diagnosed with breast cancer. Hoping a break will help rekindle her passion for cooking, she flies out to Seattle to spend some time with her sister and help her as she undergoes treatments. Of course, when you've kept your distance from your sister most of your life, being forced to spend time together when you're both emotionally vulnerable is probably not the best idea, but that's what makes it interesting.
For the first few chapters of this book, I thought I'd found a new favorite author: the story was interesting, the characters complex, and the writing better than average. But the longer I was in it, the less I enjoyed it. Elizabeth especially started to get on my nerves, mostly because she talked about food and cooking all the time. It was supposed to be endearing, like, Look how passionate she is! She can't even have a normal conversation with someone because she gets totally immersed in the subject of food and doesn't even realize who she's talking to. Luckily, handsome Nick thought it was adorable, but I was just thoroughly annoyed (although maybe that's how I am when it comes to books, so my apologies everyone!).
There were some sweet sentiments about dealing with trials and pursuing your dreams, but in the end, I just couldn't make myself believe this story could have actually happened . . . and it wasn't even that unbelievable of a story, it was more just that I didn't connect with it. Still, it definitely kept my interest and was a great book for reading while traveling. Like Suzanne said in our most recent Book Blab, it wasn't so good that I was tempted to read it instead of watch the views out the window, but it was good enough that I was happy to pick it up when we had down time. So take that for what it's worth.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
I have yet to read a verse novel I didn't pretty much just swoon over. Whether that means I've been lucky enough to only read stellar ones so far or just that I actually don't what is good poetry and not, I don't know, but I'm adding this one to my ever-growing list of verse novels that I love.
Although technically a novel, it is based on the author's own memories of growing up in war-torn Vietnam and making the decision to come to America with her family. The Vietnam War is not one I've read a lot about. In fact, I paused in the middle of reading to ask Mike, "So . . . why did we lose the Vietnam War?" After so much WWII history on our trip, I think I was just baffled that America could lose anything. It was a completely different war though, fighting against a different kind of enemy, and it's no wonder that tensions were so high because of it.
Reading about Hà's experiences fleeing a country she truly loved and having to adjust to a totally new culture just made my heart ache. Refugees give up so much for the hope of a better life, and I am amazed by their bravery and tenacity.
Hà and her family basically had one chance to get out of the country after the fall of Saigon, and thousands of other people had the same idea. As everyone crammed onto the ship and it threatened to sink because of the weight of so many, Hà said,
But no one
is heartless enough
because what if
they had been
before their turn?
And it's true. How could you possibly refuse passage to someone when you know if they stay, their future will be doomed?
The poetry makes the raw emotion of the story stand out in a sharp and vivid way. Like when Hà's mother decides she must sell her amethyst ring their father gave her because she needs the money. That ring is their last tangible link to their home:
"Brother Quang says,
What's the point of
new shirts and sandals
if you lose the last
tangible remnant of love?
I don't understand
what he said
but I agree."
One of my favorite poems was called "Confessions" because it brought together so many elements of the story together. Hà says,
"It's time to tell Mother
keeps pouncing on me."
She confesses to buying less pork so she could have a little money left over for fried dough. She confesses to making a little girl cry at school. She confesses to being the first one to touch the floor on Tết (an honor reserved for the oldest son). These were all events that had been introduced earlier, but now being reminded about them, especially in light of the taunting and insecurities she was facing at her new American school, made them seem especially pitiful and forlorn. "My child," says her mother, "how you shoulder the world."
I think this ended up being my favorite book I read on the trip. The other books were fun to be in the middle of, but this one actually made a lasting impression on me. It was sweet and poignant and made me see things in a new way.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
I didn't know what to expect from this book. When I first heard about it a couple of years ago, I thought it must be a funny book. Then, more recently, someone else was talking about it, and it sounded more like a serious book. But here's what I found: the plot line itself is rather heavy (Bee's mother, Bernadette, is psychologically unstable and something of a recluse; when things fall apart, she disappears), but the writing itself (witty, smart, funny) kept everything light. So depending on how you look at it, it could be either . . . or both.
When the novel opens, we know Bernadette is gone, but we don't know why. Told through 15-year-old Bee's eyes, as well as email exchanges, report cards, invoices, school notices, and doctor's bills, the evidence gradually stacks up and we're able to form a clearer picture of why Bernadette bolted, where she might have gone, and who she really is.
I don't know if I've ever shared the Goodreads plot summary in one of my reviews (I kind of pride myself on writing my own), but its description of Bernadette is just so perfect that I can't help myself: "Bernadette Fox is
notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated
partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace;
to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old
Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom."
Even though this didn't end up being my favorite book from the trip, it was definitely the one that captivated my interest the most. In fact, on the flight home, Mike asked me if I wanted to watch a movie with him, and I somewhat sheepishly admitted that I didn't know if I could pull myself away from my book.
This had to do, in large part, with the writing (as mentioned before, it's just so sharp and smart) and the way the book was set up (I love it when the story moves from the end back to the beginning, and I have to put the pieces together), but also, it was because of Bernadette. As you can probably tell from the above quote, she was just an absolutely fascinating character.
Unfortunately, the ending got just a bit melodramatic for me. I wasn't unhappy with the way it ended, but getting there felt a little crazy (but then, the whole book is actually a little on the crazy side, so I shouldn't have been surprised).
It would be remiss of me not to give you a little taste of Maria Semple's writing, so I'll leave you with one of my favorite passages, a description of icebergs (Antarctica plays a big part in the story): "White, yes, but blue, too, every blue on the color wheel, deep like a navy blazer, incandescent like a neon sign, royal like a Frenchman's shirt, powder like Peter Rabbit's cloth coat, these icy monsters roaming the forbidding black."
This book is one that really can't be replaced by a summary or a book review. It's very much about the journey, and the only way to get there is by reading it.
Content note: swearing, including the f-word, and a brief, non-descriptive affair
Have you read any of these books? I'd love to hear your opinion!