This One’s a Winner!: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (AUDIO)

I take back everything I’ve ever said about authors narrating their own audiobooks (don’t, please, don’t!) after listening to Libba Bray‘s incredible performance on Beauty Queens. She brings to life her own satirical look at advertising and news media, corporate ethics, commercialism, and pop culture, through the darkly humorous story of teen beauty pageant contestants who survive a plane crash onto a jungle island. (Only a small percentage of the original fifty states’ contestants survive. Miss Massachusetts is not among them, although her gown does come in handy at one point.) The airline staff, the camera crew…all dead. As if in a reality show without the show, the girls appear to be on their own with only few supplies other than some waterlogged bags of airline pretzels and a surfeit of beauty aids.

With this year her last chance to win before she ages out, the bold and brassy Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins, representing Texas, takes charge, insisting that the girls keep up their pageant routines while Adina (Miss New Hampshire) sardonically observes that shelter, food, and water should probably take priority, but is ignored. Each of the main characters has a story that gets revealed as they begin to trust each other, but there’s no time to sentimentalize each girl’s individual discovery of strengths she didn’t know she had, as the author throws the girls into one dangerous situation after another, and not just snakes, tropical storms, slumbering volcanos, or other jungle threats. The author’s wild subplots involving terrorist, politics, reality shows, and more, keep the action and humor going strong. And, yes, some hot boys do eventually come into the picture, so there’s romance too, but with a few twists on the usual YA romance fare.

Like the Miss Teen Dream contestants themselves, who are not all as they present themselves to pageant judges and each other, this young adult novel is more than meets the eye. Under the hilarious satire, skewering everything from product placement to international arms dealing, lie serious themes that readers of both sexes can think about and form opinions on. The salty language, frank talk about sexual desire in teens, left-leaning politics, and the distinctly Sarah-Palin-by-way-of-Tina-Fey voice of Ladybird Hope (former Miss Teen Dream now presidential candidate) might make this book slightly less humorous to social conservatives than to more liberal-leaning readers. But I was impressed by the author’s even-handedness in many parts of the book where she avoided the common pitfall of only being open-minded about opinions that match our own, allowing for the girls from both red and blue states to experience some brief, eye-opening moments of understanding before switching the story over to crazed villains or hot pirates.

The audiobook production – with its distinctive voices for each contestant, sound effects signaling the end of a CD, and Saturday Night Live-worthy “commercial breaks” – is far more than just a reading of the book. It deservedly won this year’s Audie Award for best narration by an author. An interview with Libba Bray at the end of the audiobook is also humorous and enlightening.

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A Thread of Sadness: The Untelling by Tayari Jones (AUDIO)

Cover image of The Untelling audio editionIn The Untelling, an emotional roller coaster of a second novel by Tayari Jones, author of the critically acclaimed novel Silver Sparrow (Algonquin, 2011), only Aria Jackson’s prickly mother calls her by her given name, “Ariadne,” a too-grand name from Shakespeare that Aria – who already stuck out in school due to entering puberty very early – never felt comfortable with.

Aria and her sister, Hermione, along with their mother, survived the single-car accident that killed their father (the driver) and six-month-old baby sister Genevieve when Aria was only nine and the family was on the way to her dance recital. At age 25, Aria has graduated from college, gotten a job, and is sharing an apartment in an un-gentrified neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia with a friend, but she still remembers the accident vividly – how her father swerved to avoid an oncoming car, how the cake she was holding in her lap was ruined, and how “silent and impossibly bent” Genevieve looked in her mother’s arms as her mother hurried out of the front passenger seat, leaving Ariadne in the back.

This traumatic car accident left the Jackson family broken, financially and psychologically. The Untelling is the story, narrated by Aria, of how she tries to go on to have a normal life, despite being permanently branded as different from girls with whole families. Reading between the lines, the reader gathers that Aria has never felt that she really belongs, has few friends, struggles to act natural around people, and regrets not having the close-knit family she had before the accident.

The audio edition of The Untelling (AudioGo, 2005,) is narrated very well by Michelle Blackmon. It must have been hard to figure out how to pitch Aria’s voice because of her unusual personality – a mix of naivete and defensiveness; the reader can’t be sure how perceptive she is about her roommate, her boyfriend, her mother, or even herself. Other characters in the novel range from Cynthia, a neighborhood crack addict, to Lawrence, Aria’s boss at the nonprofit literacy agency she works at who wants to adopt a baby with his partner, and Michelle Blackmon differentiates the voices well, without making the male voices unnaturally gruff or deep. All of the main characters in the book are African-American – an interesting perspective for readers outside of the black community who are accustomed to reading white-centric fiction – but race isn’t a theme of the novel.

Readers who liked The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate (also a first-person story of a woman with a messed-up family) or who like realistic novels about women’s lives of quiet desperation will be moved by Aria’s story in The Untelling. (Most mainstream reviews I’ve seen give away a lot of the plot, so beware of spoilers, even visiting the publisher’s Web site.)

I haven’t read Silver Sparrow yet, but plan to soon.

The Untelling
Jones, Tayari
Narrator: Blackmon, Marjorie
AudioGo
ISBN-13: 978-0-7927-3638-7
Unabridged
Length:  8 Hr 25 Min, on 7 CDs

Finding Family, New & Old: So Far Away by Meg Mitchell Moore

Cover image of So Far AwayFor Meg Mitchell Moore‘s second novel, So Far Away, she has created historical diary entries from an Irish immigrant maid’s found notebook, as well as believable contemporary characters ranging in age from 57-year-old archivist Kathleen, to Kathleen’s 30-something friend and coworker Neil, down to 13-year-old Natalie, who travels by bus from her suburban Newburyport home to Boston to visit the Massachusetts Archives in Boston on her own. She brings a crumbling notebook filled with handwriting too spidery for Natalie to read that she found hidden away in her basement – which turns out to be a gripping personal account from a Bridget O’Connell Callaghan (writing in 1975 as an elderly woman) about her position as a young maid just over from Ireland in a Boston doctor’s household.
Natalie (whose parents have separated and haven’t been showing much interest in her life) is investigating her family history for a school project and as a way of escaping bullying classmates who are tormenting her with malicious text messages. Kathleen, living alone with her dog Lucy after losing her teenage daughter years ago, becomes concerned about Natalie, but isn’t sure whether or how to intervene.
The author skillfully brings together several different story lines – historical and contemporary. Readers who liked The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve, or novels by Laura Moriarty or Joanna Trollope, will also like this moving novel about how easily families can break apart and how hard it can be to create new ones.

So Far Away
Moore, Meg Mitchell
Reagan Arthur (Little, Brown)
May 29, 2012
978-0-316-09769-7
$25.99

Disclosure: I received an advance reading copy of So Far Away from Little, Brown through NetGalley, but plan to purchase my own hardcover copy at an author signing at the Mattapoisett Free Public Library this month. Additional disclosure: I’m friends with the author’s mother-in-law, but I don’t think that influenced the review!

Other opinions of So Far Away (mostly good):
Amused by Books
Coffee and a Book Chick
Devourer of Books
Everyday I Write the Book
Jenn’s Bookshelves

Wartime Women: Next to Love by Ellen Feldman

Cover image of Next to LoveWorld War II and the pre- and post-war years from the perspective of women in small-town America have already been well mined for fiction, but Next to Love by Ellen Feldman evokes the time and its social upheavals more subtly than The Postmistress by Jennifer Blake, although not quite as masterfully as Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh. Next to Love is set in the fictional western Massachusetts town of South Downs, but doesn’t have a strong sense of place. it is more of a universal story than a Massachusetts story; events similar to the ones in Next to Love were happening in small towns all across the country, and times were changing everywhere.

The title comes from the first epigraph in Next to Love, a quotation ascribed to a 1914 British war correspondent and lexicographer: “War … next to love, has most captured the world’s imagination.” The author doesn’t recreate battle scenes or women’s experiences overseas but imagines and describes the mostly unspoken-about psychological damage of war on soldiers and their families, in particular their wives and mothers, when husbands, sons, or close friends go into combat and come home changed or don’t come home at all.

Babe (known by this childhood nickname instead of by her given name, Bernadette) is the girl from the wrong side of the tracks with the funny last name (Dion) – the one who isn’t invited by her friends’ mothers to stay for dinner and the one whom the local librarian wouldn’t trust to check out more than one book at a time. She’s also the one whose boyfriend doesn’t propose marriage before leaving for the war while she’s bridesmaid at one friend’s rushed wedding after another before the young men of South Downs enlist or are drafted and also the only one of her circle of friends to take a wartime job. Having fallen in love with Claude Higgins, a local boy, Babe thinks, after traveling to meet him in North Carolina for a last-minute marriage before he ships out, that if it weren’t for the war he might never have crossed the class barrier and braved his parents’ disapproval to marry her, despite her intelligence and long legs.

Over the years during and after the war, she and her two childhood friends, Millie and Grace, remain loyal to each other, shedding some prejudices and overlooking others, trying to be good wives, mothers, and friends without losing too much of themselves. Here’s Babe, reflecting on their friendship, close to the end of the book:

They love one another with an atavistic ferocity, though, it occurs to Babe sitting in the sunporch, these days perhaps they do not much like one another. But she is asking too much of them. Friendship, like marriage, is not all of a piece. Sometimes she thinks she would kill for them. Sometimes she wants to kill them.

This novel would make a good book discussion book, touching as it does on issues of racial discrimination, anti-Semitism, feminism, and other topics on which there was a seismic cultural shift during the post-war decades. Next to Love is a bit too dark to be called women’s fiction – Babe’s outsider’s perspective and fettered intellect reminded me at times of Elizabeth Strout’s character Olive Kitteridge – but readers who enjoyed Laurie Graham’s book The Future Homemakers of America (as I did) or Baker Towers will probably like Next to Love.

Next to Love
Feldman, Ellen
Spiegel & Grau
Trade Paperback pub date: May 15, 2012
978-0-8129-8241-1
320 pp.
$15.00

Disclosure: I received an advance reader’s copy of Next to Love from Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers‘ program.

Other opinions on Next to Love (mostly good):
Fluidity of Time
Man of la Book
nomadreader
So Obsessed With

Guilty English Pleasure: More Than You Know by Penny Vincenzi

English author Penny Vincenzi‘s books are like granola bars – not much more nutritious than candy, but their mini chocolate chips and tiny marshmallows or sweetened dried cranberries satisfy a candy craving, with a few nutritious oats and nuts tossed in.
None of the author’s later books have ever appealed to me as much as The Spoils of Time trilogy, a saga of the Lytton publishing family in London. (The start of the trilogy, No Angel, was the first of her books to be published in the U.S. – in 2004 – and several books later, that’s the one that’s still mentioned on the cover of this one.) But I still find her books addictive, and whip right through each new one.
In More Than You Know, fashion journalism and fashion design in the sixties (which the author had first-hand experience of) form the backdrop of the drama that plays out when headstrong career-girl Eliza Fullerton-Clark – whose shabby genteel parents are struggling to maintain their large village house, Summercourt – falls for the working-class, chip-on-his-shoulder Matt Shaw – who is well on his way to making his first fortune in property development. Money and class; marriage and career; tradition and changing times…all these make for a stormy relationship between Eliza and Matt, eventually bringing them to the brink of the vicious child custody battle alluded to at the beginning of the book.
But that’s just one of the multiple story strands that readers of More Than You Know will be following. Along with the relationship ups-and-downs of Eliza’s brother and Matt’s sister (not together), Eliza’s ex-beau Jeremy (handsome and rich, like Matt, but from Eliza’s upper-class world), and friends of Matt’s or Eliza’s, there are soaring or flattening career arcs – with Eliza caught between motherhood and her burgeoning fashion journalism career and Matt working with cutthroat competition (sometimes within his own office) – the siren call of the kinds of temptation that the swinging sixties and seventies were rife with, parenting struggles, and too many other plot threads to mention, all switching back and forth across each other.
Penny Vincenzi is a master of the sexy, literary potboiler. More Than You Know will be devoured by her fans, but it might not be the one to hook a new reader unless the London fashion scene is a big draw. I still recommend No Angel if you’re trying to decide whether you’ll like Penny Vincenzi or not.

Disclosure: I received an e-galley of this book from Doubleday through NetGalley.

More Than You Know (published as The Decision in the U.K.)
Vincenzi, Penny
Doubleday
Pub Date: April 3, 2012
978-0-385-52825-2
608 pp.
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Food equals Love, Parisian style: Chez Moi by Agnes Desarthe

The title of Chez Moi, a novel by Agnes Desarthe, refers to a restaurant of sorts that the main character, Myriam, decides to open with no help, no business experience, and not much money. Forty-three years old and estranged from her family, her husband, and her only son Hugo for reasons she doesn’t reveal, Myriam pours her whole self and all her passion into cooking, a conduit for the love she can’t give her son. Her sole passion is to provide her new restaurant customers with the experience of home-cooked meals, but she doesn’t have the first clue about how to run a restaurant.
Chez Moi is translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, and was published in English in 2008. (The French title is Mangez-Moi, which didn’t get translated literally as “Eat Me” due to its connotations.) It has a je ne sais quoi (You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?) quality about it that’s hard to describe, like A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé. Chez Moi has what I imagine to be Parisian reserve; it doesn’t try too hard to win the reader over. On the other hand, Myriam is a very down-to-earth character, unpretentious; she describes herself as the “biggest f**ker-upper the world has ever brought forth.”
Readers have to accept Myriam as she presents herself: evasive, eccentric, lonely, depressed, gnawed by guilt, grieving lost love, and doomed to fail dramatically in her restaurant experiment if she doesn’t get help fast. She is in a fog much of the time when she’s not drinking herself into a stupor – avoiding thinking about her life beyond the need to make food for customers who may not even show up, given Myriam’s erratic restaurant hours, unconventional menu, sketchy table service, and nonexistent marketing skills.
There’s not much action in Chez Moi, and some of what does happen is surreal, as in a French movie with strangers walking in and out saying cryptic things. Myriam slowly reveals her past, musing philosophically whenever she’s not succumbing to despair, but she has a caustic wit that slices through her fatalism often enough to keep readers from getting too bogged down, and she also has that irrepressible love of food to keep her going.
To sum up the review, if you’re looking for a psychological novel set in Paris about an imperfect woman with a past; you enjoy sensual descriptions of cooking (including meat); and you aren’t expecting magical realism because you saw this book compared to Like Water for Chocolate in a review, then pick up Chez Moi and let me know what you think!

Read an interview of Agnes Desarthe here. [WARNING: Interview contains some spoilers.]

Other opinions of Chez Moi (mostly good):
Books on the Brain
Fleur Fisher in her world
Urban Domestic Diva

Disclosure: I read a public library copy of this book.
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A Good Book: The Good Daughters by Joyce Maynard

Joyce Maynard has a way of writing about a fluky event, crazy coincidence, or lurid crime scenario and making the plot believable — almost inevitable — given the characters she creates. (Some critics disagree with me on this.)
For example:

Labor Day — An escaped murder convict is given shelter by a single mother and her young son.
To Die For — A wife hires a contract killer on her husband.
The Good Daughters — Families of two girls born in the same small hospital a few hours apart are strangely connected.

Her taste for the sensational plot premise and toxic family secrets, her open embrace of publicity, her willingness to admit that she’ll write (gasp!) for money, the general tendency of critics to dismiss books about families that are written by women, and (probably more than anything) her daring to write about her relationship a long time ago to creepy literary darling J.D. Salinger — all tend to make her work harshly criticized or, at best, reviewed as simplistic women’s fiction. (Which I guess the publisher doesn’t mind: a blurb from Elizabeth Berg is featured prominently on the cover of The Good Daughters.) But Joyce Maynard deserves to break out and gain a wider readership.
The Good Daughters is a novel that spans five decades of two women’s lives. Ruth and Dana were “hurricane babies” and “birthday sisters” — born on the same day in the same hospital, just about nine months to the day after a hurricane blew through their small New Hampshire town. Though Dana’s flighty family moves from place to place and Ruth’s is firmly rooted in a family farm that goes back generations, both girls grow up feeling like outsiders in their families (which are both dysfunctional in different ways), wondering what is wrong with them.
Readers of The Good Daughters figure out well before the characters do what happened in the past to screw up so many lives so royally, without knowing exactly how or why until the end. Some reviews complain about this. But the author is speculating on “what would happen if…” She’s not building up to a surprise plot twist, à la Jodi Picoult. The Good Daughters explores the human capacity for denial; the natural, human desire to belong and be loved; and the nature vs. nurture debate by slowly revealing how Ruth and Dana and their families develop and intertwine over time.

Other opinions about The Good Daughters (mixed), some from a recent blog tour:
Beth Fish Reads
Book Addiction

Jo-Jo Loves to Read
The Lost Entwife
S. Krishna’s Books
Slate

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