Romancing Mr. Bridgerton (CBR7 #91)

I bring you today another review of a Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series book. The book, it should be noted, was quite lovely. The first three books in the series: The Duke and I, The Viscount Who Loved Me, and An Offer From a Gentleman all take place in quick chronological proximity. Book number four – Romancing Mr. Bridgerton – takes a jump forward in time, about seven years in fact. The younger siblings are now grown and interacting with the older ones, and at least one Bridgerton has been married and widowed in the intervening years (she shows back up in book six I believe).

This story however focuses on Penelope Featherington, wallflower extraordinaire, and third brother Colin Bridgerton. Penelope has been in love with Colin for twelve years, and it started as a rather cursory love. One typical of the age she was upon first laying eyes on him (don’t we all fall hard and fool heartedly at that age?). Colin has been unable to settle down into the life of a younger brother of a titled family and has taken the luxury provided to him by his father and brother’s forethought and spent much of the past six years travelling around Europe.  He has returned just in time for the season, a boring one at that, just in time to be placed back into relatively constant contact with Penelope. He’s not intending to get married and settle down to life in London, but that just may be what happens anyway.

This novel has two stories interweaving throughout: Colin and Penelope and their discovery of who the other truly is in tandem with the social upheaval of Lady Danbury offering a thousand pounds to anyone who can uncover the anonymous gossip columnist Lady Whistledown, who features heavily in the first four books of the series. Everyone has their guesses, but who is the mysterious writer?

I truly enjoyed this book, and Colin’s preoccupations with having a life’s work and not just resting on his laurels. His decision to marry Penelope arrives quickly, but makes sense. The one drawback of this book? Not a whole lot of sexy times.

If you, like me, have not read this series now’s the time. Get to it!

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Into Thin Air (CBR7 #90)

I became a history major because I love a good story, and at its core that’s what I have always viewed history to be – a series of really great stories. These stories have larger meanings in that we are able to take our experiences and use them as a method for understanding the forces at play for, and the decisions made by, those who came before us. I’m lucky enough to be able to have the types of conversations in my work as a museum educator since for the past 5 and a half years I have worked at historic sites.

What does that have to do with my five-star rating of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air? Nearly everything. Krakauer summited Mount Everest May 10, 1996. That same day eight over people lost their lives in that same attempt, four of whom had been members of his team. At the time of the storm in May of 1996 it was the single deadliest day on the mountain, it has since been surpassed.

Krakauer was on Everest on assignment for Outside magazine investigating the commercialization of climbing the world’s tallest peak. Was it safe? Was it fair? Is it sustainable? What he came away with, and what he shares with the world in his 1996 book are the lessons he learned and the larger forces at play in any decision that is made in climbing Everest.

The story is absolutely griping. I had put off reading this book not because I didn’t trust the positive reviews, but more so because I didn’t have a natural interest in mountaineering. I personally think they are all a bit nuts. But what Krakauer excels at here, and what I’m sure I’ll find as I progress through his work, is that he has a way of pulling back the details and revealing universal truths. He gets to the really good story.

So if you’ve not read this book yet, go for it. Learn about the extremes we push ourselves to, learn about how even small decisions can have enormous ramifications, and learn about the majesty of Everest, and her darker, deadlier side.

in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking above all else, something like a state of grace.”

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

The Shameless Hour (CBR7 #89)

In trying to review this book I now know why some of my fellow cannonballers wait to review these series in one fell swoop instead of individually. In praising this effort from Bowen I find myself tempted to just repeat myself from previous reviews. In the fourth book in the series, Sarina Bowen has found her sweet spot and is continuing to write feminist bent romance and in many ways appears to be gunning to be the Courtney Milan of the contemporary new adult genre (as much as I love Milan, I was disappointed in her effort in this genre, Trade Me and if I had been more honest probably would’ve rounded down to a 2 star rating. I have hope for her next work in the series Hold Me next year).

What does Bowen continue to do well in this work? Well, she’s got fleshed out leads. We met Bella in the previous book in the series, The Understatement of the Year and she’s still dealing with the fallout from that book’s events as she starts her senior year at Harkness. We are introduced to Rafe, sophomore at Harkness, and are plunged into his world. Bowen also does my favorite trick that Milan also did in her Brothers Sinister series, she gender-swaps the tropes. In this book Rafe is the wallflower – he’s the quiet, respectful, occasional doormat guy who is trying to figure out how to be him, and also a gentlemen, and perhaps a relationship that works for him. If it’s with Bella, all the better. And Bella is the rake. It’s reinforced in this book, but we learn of her sexual appetite and casual promiscuity. If she wants to get naked with someone, and they return the sentiment, then she is all about it. While this attitude can make it difficult for her to interact with other women who are concerned about Bella’s possible interactions with their boyfriends, Bella owns her choices and builds her life the way she wants it. This is all good.

Rafe and Bella end up having a one night stand when Bella finds him sitting on the stairs in their dorm (can I just mention I drool whenever Bowen writes about the architecture of fictional Harkness? I would have killed to go to school at a campus like this) drinking champagne he is supposed to be having with his now ex for their birthdays. Bella sees someone in need of (platonic) company and takes him upstairs where they each share their tales of woe and the bottle of champagne. Then, because this is a romance novel, things get a lot less platonic.

There’s a LOT of story that follows that moment, the awkwardness from Rafe since he doesn’t do casual, and he certainly didn’t mean to lose his virginity to Bella that night. Rafe’s home life, their class project, and finally Bella’s victimization by a fraternity on campus and its aftermath (note, she is NOT sexually assaulted, but that doesn’t make reading what she went through any easier). Here however, is where the wheels came off a little for me, and while I did enjoy this book quite a bit (you’ll notice a four star rating of this book) it was my least favorite of the series so far. I have not yet read the final book of the series The Fifteenth Minute but it was just released and a lot of the cannonball ladies who have already read it have pointed out some concerns with how Bowen handles that book’s plot fulcrum and I knew about it before I read the final 100 pages of this one. And I can’t help but admit that it colored how I viewed the actions and reactions of Bella and Rafe.

When Bella finally starts to get back to herself following her attack, her neighbor Lianne (Hollywood teen star and computer hacker type) helps her get her revenge. Bella doesn’t want to report her attack officially, but she does want to exact some vengeance. The plot they concoct, and eventually deploy only works for me by halves. The part with the models and the signs, and the pictures – grrr. The part with handing out mugs to everyone in the stands with a warning about being possibly drugged at that particular fraternity and what the code words are for an unsafe drink? Brava!  Normally I would also moan and groan about how the laziest plot device is not having your two characters just talk about their issue or misunderstanding, but Bowen subverts that by having Rafe plan to talk to Bella before things go haywire, and then when things do there really isn’t a moment – until there is and they do talk. Then things fall a little too easily into place, one of the frat members finally reports the rest of the guys for their activities following Bella’s prank, Bella and Rafe are called into the dean to testify, and Bella’s fairy godmother nurse practitioner gives her career and grad school advice which means that she gets to stay at Harkness.

This book is good, and my issues with the back third, which I’m having trouble putting into words (but are mostly focused on Bella’s initial reaction to Rafe’s not wanting to be casual and how she phrases her argument to him), aren’t actually that big. I will be reading The Fifteenth Minute soon and I’m sure I’ll have lots of thoughts on that, but for now I’m done writing because my word count is healthily over 900.

Dr. Mutter’s Marvels (CBR7 #88)

I want to thank my fellow ‘ballers for bringing this book to my attention. I work in museums, and I have two conferences this month in Philadelphia. This meant that if I timed some things correctly, and gave myself a day, I could actually go to a couple museums in Philly. Let it be said that after living less than three hours away from the city for over 6 years I finally managed to go sightseeing in Philadelphia this week. Go me! As part of my trip I was able to go to the Mutter Museum, and I decided reading this book needed to be part of my experience. I’m so glad I did.

It’s tough to work in the museum field, particularly in the northeast, and not be aware of the Mutter. They are rock stars of the field in a lot of ways. They bring in huge numbers, most of who are millennial (an almost un-gettable demographic) and they both embrace their cabinet of curiosities history, while moving past it. I was a little in love before I even got to the museum doors. But how did they get their start, and who was Mutter anyway? Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz set out to answer those questions and frame the beginnings of what we know as modern medicine, all because she loved the Mutter and its former director.

In the vein of books like Devil in the White City, Aptowicz weaves in the personal story of one man, in this case Thomas Dent Mutter and the larger story of the modernizing of the medical profession and its education during the mid-1800s. By carefully interweaving the two, and generally sticking to short chapter lengths Aptowicz was able to take the evolution of how we deem someone ready and able to treat us, along with the basics of medical care and teaching hospitals, all while giving us the story of a truly unique and visionary individual who pushed the frontiers of medicine, particularly reconstructive and plastic surgery, and unfortunately died too young.

Most of the book focuses on the history and the story of Mutter’s life, just the end focuses on how his teaching collection ended up bequeathed to the College of Physicians and available to the public as one of the United States’ first medical museums.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Far From the Madding Crowd (CBR7 #87)

Following the praise of the audio version of Far From the Madding Crowd read by Nathaniel Parker by Malin and bonnie this year I decided that I would attempt my first Thomas Hardy. While I had a pretty good foundation in literature at school there are definitely some classics, or classic authors, that have escaped my purview (looking at you Charles Dickens). I don’t remember if I’d heard good things or bad, but I was definitely a little wary of this undertaking.

I should not have been worried at all.

The logline for this novel was simplistic, but the story is not. From Goodreads: “This is the story of Bathsheba Everdene, who inherits her uncle’s farm, then surprises the villagers of Weatherbury by deciding to run it herself rather than hire a manager. Three men vie for the affections of this independent young woman.” Sounds like a basic romance novel set-up, right? But it’s not. I also argue that Bathsheba, while the hub at the center of the narrative wheel, is not truly the main protagonist. Perhaps that was Hardy’s goal, but the parallel story of Gabriel Oak (the first of the aforementioned three suitors) is at least as strong, if not stronger, than Bathsheba’s.

What I found to be truly engaging about this work, some 140 years after its original publication, is that Hardy uses the characters to explore the dynamics of marriage, courtship, and selfhood. What defines each of these people? For Gabriel it’s the losses he experiences early in the book, and then the success later. For Bathsheba it’s her decisions to be independent, and then the circumstances which change that reality. For Sergeant Troy it’s the capricious nature of the decisions he makes about his life, which will eventually be its undoing. For Farmer Boldwood it’s abandoning his preconceived notions of himself as a confirmed bachelor. By giving each of these characters a linchpin hardy really digs into what long-term consequences come of both the small and large choices they, and by extension we, make.

I also loved the title of this book once I got used to it. In the pubic consciousness we don’t usually use the word madding anymore. For a very long time I thought this book’s title was Far From the Maddening Crowd and have to remind myself it’s not every time I talk about it (I’ve been singing its praises to my local peeps).Upon a little research I discovered that the phrase madding crowd is used to indicate especially the crowded world of human activity and strife. Then Weatherbury should indeed be far from the madding crowd. However, this novel is all about the basic human activity and strife we all experience, regardless of whether or not there are throngs of people near us.

Definitely a 4.5 read. Give it a chance.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Understatement of the Year (CBR7 #86)

I have been continuing with The Ivy Years books by Sarina Bowen and they continue to be delightful. Delightful feels like such a weird word to use about a series that focuses on such relatively heavy topics and subjects. As I’ve discussed previously The Year We Hid Away and The Year We Fell Down each tackle heavy topics with a deft hand, and The Understatement of the Year, the third full novel in the series, does the same, this time venturing into the dynamics of being an out athlete, or not.

The Understatement of the Year is the story of Mike Graham and John Rikker. Graham and Rikker had been best friends in middle school, and then their friendship grew into a sexual one. During their freshman year of high school the pair were attacked the first time they slipped and showed affection in public. Graham escaped the brutality that day, Rikker did not. This story picks up five years later as Rikker and Graham see each other for the first time since the incident when Rikker walks into the locker room of Harkness College’s hockey team.

Bowen uses her three hundred pages to examine the costs of being out, or being closeted in college and specifically on a sports team. Graham has spent the past five years hiding this part of who he is – getting himself just drunk enough to hook up with women (Hi Bella! Looking forward to finishing your book soon!) and putting up his shields and not betraying his true feelings to anyone, including his family. Rikker has spent the intervening years living with his grandmother in Vermont and been out. He put himself back in the closet at his first university, but was outed and forced off his hockey team. Given the illegality of that, he was granted a transfer to Harkness. But that also means that in order to explain this unprecedented transfer, he’s now one of the first out hockey players at the college level. Bowen represents the variety of responses people have to Rikker, and his various ways of coping.

But the crux of the novel is whether or not Graham and Rikker can learn to be friends again, and if they can be together. As I have sometimes complained about in other romance novels, Graham is very one note. Admittedly, his note is huge, and real, and deserved of attention. But even in Bowen’s skilled hands I wanted to shake some hope into the kid. Thankfully for him, Rikker was way more patient than I am. What I did really like is that this book, along with Blonde Date, and The Year We Hid Away gave a much fuller look at the same year from a variety of angles. I’ve actually gone back and moved my rating of The Year We Hid Away up a star. That’s one of the reasons I really enjoy series books, the world expands naturally.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War (CBR7 #85)

I think I might need to face the fact that I enjoy reading memoirs more than I thought I did. Because, I’ve read a bunch this year, and I can’t think of a single one I didn’t enjoy. The stories they tell are varied and real. When done well a memoir can and should help reveal the truth of the human experience and give the reader something to ponder. I don’t always think I’m pondering exactly the thing that the author intends, but I’m always thinking.

This time I’m reading photographer Lynsey Addario’s It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War. Addario is about a decade older than me, and while I was spending September 11, 2001 huddled in my apartment off campus of Florida State while the capital was on lockdown (Jeb was governor at that time and President George W. Bush was in the state reading to school children) Addario was already into her late twenties and embarking on a career as a photojournalist. That event and the wars it predicated turned Addario, and generations of reporters, into a war journalist while it gave me pause about pursuing my initial field of study. I eventually changed course slightly and now in my thirties work in informal learning. Addario and I are both sure that we made the right choices.

It is a little difficult to describe the scope of Addario’s book. She is telling her own story – how a girl raised by hair stylists in Connecticut turned into a woman self-possessed enough to move around the globe and push her way into her chosen field – and also a story about the political realities of the past 20 years. As she has traveled and photographed the world around her, she has also documented the world for us. I entirely suggest reading this book in its hard cover version, the book is filled with Addario’s work and it is keenly interesting to see the progression of her craft while simultaneously having the visual added to the story. Non-fiction books should have more photographs.

I am thankful for Sophia putting this book on my radar, and suggest it heartily.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Elephant Vanishes (CBR7 #84)

I’m at a loss for how to review this book. Earlier today on Facebook I quipped that some reviews just boil down to read it if you want, here’s a plot description. This might be one of those reviews. I had received suggestions to read Murakami based on other authors I liked and a sense of getting out of my own rut. Great! The suggestions were warranted. I did enjoy Murakami’s style, I just didn’t necessarily enjoy the fact that it was encapsulated in short story format.

I have struggled with short story collections in the past, and this year I gave it an honest try to attempt a variety and see if I couldn’t find something that worked. While I wouldn’t rate any of the ones I’ve tried this year below a three (Get in Trouble  and M is for Magic each have some great moments) I don’t love the style or methods that are often applied.  My roommate Ale suggests that people are either short story or novel writers, I also think we’re either short story or novel readers. I am a novel reader.

But, with my personal issues taken out of the equation I think this book is very likely worth your time and a good place to start. It does show its age in some of the technology referenced, but if you want to get an idea of Murakami’s style before diving into one of his novels, this would be a good way to do just that.

Okay, I think I’m done with this review, here’s your synopsis from Goodreads, and happy reading!

With the same deadpan mania and genius for dislocation that he brought to his internationally acclaimed novels A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Haruki Murakami makes this collection of stories a determined assault on the normal. A man sees his favorite elephant vanish into thin air; a newlywed couple suffers attacks of hunger that drive them to hold up a McDonald’s in the middle of the night; and a young woman discovers that she has become irresistible to a little green monster who burrows up through her backyard.

By turns haunting and hilarious, The Elephant Vanishes is further proof of Murakami’s ability to cross the border between separate realities — and to come back bearing treasure.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.