Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Beauty by Frederick Dillen

Carol McLean grew up outside of Detroit, fixing up nearly beyond-repair cars, not pretty, just one of the guys.  Well into middle-age, she's chasing the dream of running her own company by shuttering companies just like the factory her blue-collar father worked for when she was growing up.  Her bosses at New York City corporate behemoth Baxter and Blume have promised her that if she pushes just one more failing company into its grave, she will finally be given a company of her own to oversee, so when Carol arrives on Elizabeth Island in Massachusetts, she's ready to take care of business and put the small town's fish factory to bed, ending her days as the "Beast" at Baxter and Blume.

Unfortunately, her bosses didn't attain power and wealth with honesty, and when they pull the rug out from under her, they bring Carol to her knees, and that's where she finds Ezekiel "Easy" Parsons.  Easy's a middle-aged fisherman trying to make ends meet off of too few fish left to catch off New England's shores, and he sees something in Carol that she doesn't ever remember seeing in herself, beauty.  With Easy's help, she realizes that maybe the seafood factory she was sent to shut down could be turned into the factory she always wanted to run, but first she has to figure out whether the factory can be saved and at what cost.

Beauty surprised me.  After the first few chapters, I wasn't sure if I would continue with it.  Carol starts out as a cold, uncompromising character, shuttering factories with little regard for their employees.  She seems to have turned her back on her blue collar roots in favor of personal gain. This is not to mention all the corporate jargon that comes with the territory which verges on begin totally overwhelming to lay readers struggling through the opening chapters.

Then a wonderful thing happens.  Carol gets fired, meets Easy, and begins to transform.  Instead of coldly shuttering factory doors, she's seeing promise in the remaining women who work the factory floor at the Elizabeth Island plant.  Instead of seeing the "Beast," Easy sees a beauty.  Suddenly, in Dillen's capable hands, a women who forgot how to love and how to hope is fighting for a small town and its livelihood.  She's discovering new love that she never expected, and she's using all the lessons she's learned working for the "the man" to return to her blue collar roots and rejuvenate a factory and a community that is finally seeing her for who she is and who she can be.

By the closing chapters of the book, I was rooting for Carol to beat all the challenges thrown at her and make her adopted factory work, and in so doing, save the man and the community who would call her their own.  Beauty is an inspirational story about a woman who sees beauty in broken down cars and obsolete factories, a community that is more than the sum of its parts, and a man who would risk his heart for a stranger. 

P.S. I won't spoil it for you, but if I could, I'd quote the last sentence of the book here because I thought it was just right.

(Disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publicist, but, never fear, my review is as honest as if I'd bought it myself.)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern

How excited was I when a copy of Say What You Will landed in my mailbox?  Very excited, I'd say.  It would have been extremely excited except for the cool cover art didn't make it onto the ARC.  Just the same, I'd heard the comparisons to Rainbow Rowell's books that are so very popular right now and seen the cool cover art online, and I was very excited to crack the cover on this one.  So excited, in fact, it didn't even make it to the purgatory of the middling size pile of books I need to review, I just started reading it straight away during the Bout of Books.  Bottom line?  It was good, but I came away a bit disappointed.  Cue unpopular opinions of a dissident blogger! (There are some very light spoilers in the following review, so beware.)

Amy has cerebral palsy.  She can't walk without a walker, can't speak in a way that people can understand, and struggles to feed herself without making an embarrassing mess.  Despite appearances Amy is smart, has a knack for writing, and an optimism about her life that verges on the unbelievable.  Matthew has had classes with Amy since they were kids and one day he blurts out the truth, as he sees it, that Amy has no friends and the messages she's sending about her life aren't quite true.  Amy's encounter with Matthew changes her whole perspective and she decides that in order to be ready for college, it's time for her to make friends her own age, so for her senior year, her parents hire a flock of student aides to help her at school.  Matthew's hired to help Amy, but he's dealing with a disability of his own.  As the unlikely pair becomes friends, Amy realizes that she can help Matthew, too, and they both realize that they might want to be more than just friends.

Say What You Will is a quick read with a pair of different, interesting, and lovable characters.  For the first half of the book I was enchanted by Amy and Matthew's budding friendship and their slow realization that maybe they could have something more regardless of their respective disabilities.  Each challenges and helps the other to step outside of a life defined by disability, and it was touching to see them discover that when you love somebody, they become beautiful to you despite and sometimes even because of the failings of their bodies.  

After that, a strange thing happened: Amy couldn't stop her expectations from rising.  She imagined herself transformed and beautiful, like Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, with her homemade dress and mysterious lace boots.  She pictured her hair in an upsweep of loose curls.  In the fantasy, her prom face looked like the one she only wore asleep, loose and relaxed.  She imagined a photographer asking her to smile and, for the first time in her life, being able to do it.  

I felt like I saw where McGovern was headed with her story and liked it, but then came the prom and the whole thing just started coming off the rails for me.  What started out as a pleasing slow steady climb of a story quickly took a sudden turn down a roller coaster hill.  After a build-up, prom is come and gone within only a chapter bringing with it all kinds of plot points that could have been dug into, but were instead quickly glossed over.  Characters started acting, well, out of a character, and what should have been a major plot event zipped by quickly, without the attention it seemed the warrant. 

And then, wow.  Then there's a plot twist that really came out of left field, and left me feeling pretty disappointed.  It's as if, instead of letting the book follow the good and natural progression that she'd started, the author decided that something major had to happen to keep readers turning pages, and that something turned a sweet romance on its head and sent it tumbling into after-school special territory. I wanted to love this book, and the beginning showed all the potential I'd hoped for, but the unnecessary theatrics caused me to disengage from the characters just enough that by the time the payoff came that I'd been waiting for through the whole book, there was no way it could deliver. 

(Thanks to HarperTeen for sending me a copy for review.)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Top Ten Books I've Read So Far This Year

This week's Top Ten Tuesday at The Broke and the Bookish asks us to share the top ten books we've read this year.  I would say that overall, my reading thus far this year has tended toward the lackluster, but looking back, there have definitely been a few highlights.  Here they are!  

1. Whistling in the Dark by Lesley Kagen - This book has a dark premise but a great child narrator that balances things out.

2. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card - Yep, I finally read Ender's Game this year.  I actually liked it more until I went to book group and everybody reasonably pointed out that Ender maybe shouldn't have been as sympathetic a character as he was.

3. Falling Under by Danielle Younge-Ullman - This is a book that I'd barely heard of until I was reading it.  It's about an artist dealing with lots of issues in her past and a host of anxieties in her present while she is in search of the happiness she's afraid to find.  The dialogue really pops, the main character is very sympathetic, and flashbacks to her childhood are written in the second person which is an interesting device that really works. 
4. The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson - Interconnected short stories about one mid-western family very successfully convey a sense of the past few decades of the American experience.  I liked this much, much more than I expected.

5. Beauty by Frederick Dillen - A girl from a blue collar background grows up to be in the business of burying failing companies for her bastard corporate employers.  When the rug is pulled out from under her, she sets her sights on resurrecting a company instead.  Corporate jargon made the beginning kind of a slog.  A winning main character and a small town with spunk turned it around.

6. One Hundred and Four Horses by Mandy Retzlaff - I loved this memoir of a couple saving the abandoned horses of Zimbabwe during Robert Mugabe's plundering of the nation.  It's full of heart and feels like hearing the very personal story of an old friend.

7. Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink - This non-fiction about the horrible situation at Memorial Medical Center in the wake of Hurricane Katrina definitely lived up to all the hype.  Fink's re-telling of the events during and following the hurricane kept me on the edge of my seat, often with my mouth dropped open in horror.  It's a big book, but the pages fly by, and Fink does an admirable job of conveying both sides of the story, so that the complexity and scale of the failures that occurred there could never quite be blamed on any one person or entity, nor is anybody absolved of all guilt.

8. The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis - I don't go in for the whole graphic novel thing very often, and I'm still not sure how much of a children's book this is, but, the bottom line is that I loved it.  Sis's story and his drawings do a remarkable job of depicting the resilience of the human spirit, even under a totalitarian regime determined to squelch it.  Maybe I should go in for this graphic novel/children's book/whatever this is thing a little more often!

9. The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood - It's not the psychological thriller I was expecting, however it is an excellent character study and thoughtful consideration of what it is that constitutes "wickedness."

10. Bright and Distant Shores by Dominic Smith - Okay, I'm totally cheating because I'm still reading this now.  Smith alternates between late 19th century Chicago and a trading ship in the South Seas.  The book is full of colorful characters, perfectly set scenes in all manner of exotic places not to mention Chicago itself, and Smith's beautiful writing.  I'm not sure where it's headed, but I'm liking the journey.

What's the best book you've read so far this year?