About the Book:

Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo (audiobook) (http://erinreads.com)Louis “Lucy” Lynch has loved his small-town life for the whole 60-year span he’s been living it. He’s been married to Sarah, his high school sweetheart, for two thirds of it. They’re about to take a trip to Italy when the book begins, leaving their small collection of convenience stores in the capable hands of their son while they’re away. Meanwhile, in Italy, Robert Noonan — once called Bobby Marconi and Lucy’s best friend — is immersed in the world of a successful but troubled painter. It’s been decades since he and Lucy saw one another, and Noonan is fine with that. He’s too wrapped up in his own problems to care about his roots.

It’s when Lucy decides to write down some of his childhood memories that the past starts to mingle with the present and the long, complicated relationships between the three principle characters begin to unfurl.

My Thoughts:

For whatever reason, Richard Russo is one of those authors I’ve felt I “should” read. There was a short period when I’d pick up whichever of his books crossed my path at a library sale. I ended up with two: Bridge of Sighs and Empire Falls. Of the two, Bridge of Sighs got tackled first because my library had it on audio.

I really had no idea what to expect going in. I don’t even think I knew what Bridge of Sighs was supposed to be about. Which was actually probably a good thing, because I have a feeling it’s one of those books that’s really hard to make sound interesting in a blurb. (You tell me…how’s it sound from the blurb above?) Three people well into middle age, their lives unfolding slowly in the present as they wander back through the early years they knew each other. For 600+ pages (or 21 discs, in my case). True, some books need to be long. I am, for instance, in the middle of Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True, which is even longer than Bridge of Sighs, and that story is positively gripping. But Bridge of Sighs felt long. Really long. Too long.

It wasn’t that I actively disliked the book. There just wasn’t much about it to sway me toward the “liked it” side of the line. It was more that…nothing changed. The characters grew up to be adult versions of their child and adolescent selves. The small town where they grew up stayed the same. Because three different characters were dipping in and out of history throughout the book, some events even got repeated. And not in a way that added much of anything to the event but just sort of rehashed the details I’d already gotten from someone else’s point of view. It all started to feel stagnant and tedious.

It also sort of bothered me that one character (Lucy) spoke in first person, while the other two (Sarah and Robert) shared their few recollections in the third person. I either wanted a narrator who was apart from the characters and could logically delve into each one’s experiences and memories or a single first-person narrator and all the gaps that comes with such a voice. I felt like I knew too much about Sarah and Robert for a book about Lucy, but not enough about Sarah and Robert for it to really be a book about all three.

And then the ending. I really hate it when endings don’t seem to fit their books. I’ve stopped reading Ann Patchett because of the way she consistently snaps any thread of connection I have to the story with her disconcertingly out-of-left-field endings. Bridge of Sighs wasn’t as bad as that, but it still left me rolling my eyes and reaching for a new book before the reader had finished the audiobook credits.

Speaking of the reader, Arthur Morey, though: He was good. I liked his pacing and inflection. He sounded the way I imagined Lucy would sound. That created a slight disconnect when he was reading parts about Sarah or Robert, but that wasn’t his fault.

I do have to say that Russo did a great job building up a world for his characters and populating it with memorable characters. Lucy and his father were particularly well drawn, I thought. True, not much seems to have changed in the 40+ years between the narrators’ present and the past they’re remembering, but that doesn’t make them less memorable. So there’s that.

The Verdict: Mediocre

I feel like I’m being a bit harsh. It wasn’t all bad, just sort of flat. Most likely it seemed even flatter because I was reading Black Swan Green by David Mitchell at the same time. Talk about a tough act to share the stage with! I still plan on trying Empire Falls and will hold out hope of being pleasantly surprised.

Your Turn!

What’s the last book you read that just sort of flopped?

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It’s possible Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is my favorite book of all time. I’ve been meaning to read something else by him ever since I finished Cloud Atlas, which is how Black Swan Green ended up on my TBR Pile Challenge list. It’s the first book I’ve read for the challenge.

About the Book:

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (http://erinreads.com)Black Swan Green is the story of Jason Taylor, a boy on the brink of adolescence living in a small English town in 1982. He has an older sister, a few friends, and a stammer that drives him crazy (and makes him an easy target for the meaner kids at school). The novel spans a year in which Jason will face challenges, have adventures, learn lessons, and make progress that will surprise even himself.

That might sound ho-hum, but no description I’ve found does the book justice. Black Swan Green is so much more than another typical coming-of-age novel.

My Thoughts:

Oh man. How can I even begin to describe how much I loved this book? Let’s see.

First, there is Mitchell’s ability to create amazing character voices, unique and fantastically three-dimensional and almost unbelievably believable. He managed this feat beautifully in Cloud Atlas, even though he jumped from character to character, never getting to spend too long with any one person. In Black Swan Green, Mitchell gets the chance to really settle into his character. Jason is such a vivid, real human being that I can imagine running into him someday out in the world. His word choice, diction, reactions, the way in which he tells the story, his relationships with family and friends, the details he observes and shares, his little confusions and discoveries…reading his retelling felt like reliving adolescence. Jason is someone you can really get behind and root for. You’re pulling for him the whole way, even as you’re going through everything with him. And every once in awhile, he’ll drop these amazing little bits of descriptive metaphor or nuggets of unexpected wisdom into his narration.

It isn’t just Jason who jumps off the page, though. We do get much more of his perspective, of course, since he’s our narrator. But the other characters (and there are a lot of them) come alive through his eyes. Hardly anyone who wanders across the page comes across as flat, even if the part he or she plays is brief. I can recall a plethora of individual characters. Even if I can’t remember their names, I can describe some trait or quirk or event related to them. It makes Jason’s world feel large — as I imagine it feels to Jason — even though in the grand scheme of things, it isn’t.

Zoom out one level to the narrative structure, and you find another spot where Mitchell shines. Every one of Cloud Atlas‘s six sections felt completely different, like its story had crawled into the skin of its own specific genre. Black Swan Green, in contrast, has a typical novel structure, yet it still feels like Mitchell has found yet another story style to inhabit. Like a hermit crab switching shells, or something. Here it’s a story as told by an adolescent boy. What I’m referring to is deeper than Jason’s voice, which I’ve already gushed about. There’s something about the way in which Mitchell put the book together that feels…right. Each chapter is something of a mini-epic in and of itself. But they’re not crafted to read like isolated, short-story incidents the way an adult might tell them. Instead, most of the chapters just sort of stop at odd points — seemingly wherever Jason feels he’s done relating the important bits — and you have to wait until later in the story to pick up hints about what actually happened. He zooms way into the details of a particular stretch of time, wanders off on a few tangents, then jumps to a later point. You always end up getting the information you need to make a complete story, but the skips somehow fit Jason’s character.

The story itself wasn’t particularly special, which is as it should’ve been. Jason turns relatively ordinary occurrences into adventures for himself, and the way in which he relates them makes them feel like adventures to us. It’s because we’re viewing the story through Jason’s eyes that it becomes interesting and meaningful. It’s through these ordinary events that we watch him grow, change, begin to understand. It never feels preconceived, like Mitchell is going, “Ok, now Jason will go through some event that will make him evolve as a person. Ready? Go.” Rather, it’s like Jason is unfolding as a result of his experiences, working his way through his problems as best he knows how, with no author behind the scenes pulling strings. The result is that the slightly more hopeful or emotional bits don’t feel cheesy or planned or unreal. They feel earned.

And then! Halfway through the book, I had the most delightful surprise. Mitchell drops in a Cloud Atlas reference. I won’t say more, and there’s absolutely no reason you need to have read Cloud Atlas to follow Black Swan Green, by any means. But oh my goodness, was I completely tickled when I realized what was going on. I’m still grinning, dork that I am.

Perhaps I’m making little to no sense. I’ll put it plainly: I adored this book. It’s fantastic. It took me forever to read, in fact, because I didn’t want to rush through and not savor the pages as they turned. And I’m thrilled to discover Cloud Atlas wasn’t a fluke, that at least one of Mitchell’s other books is fantastic, too! (Now I want to read them all…)

The Verdict: Amazing

As a story, Black Swan Green has a very different vibe from Cloud Atlas. Where the latter was almost literary pyrotechnics, the former is a much simpler and more straightforward story. But if you love David Mitchell’s writing style and particular flavor of talent, then go get yourself a copy of Black Swan Green. Then stop by and tell me how you liked it!

Your Turn!

What authors have you read who consistently do not disappoint?

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About the Book:

The Lobster Chronicles by Linda Greenlaw (http://erinreads.com)The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island is the story of author Linda Greenlaw’s transition from swordboat captain to lobsterman. Leaving the open sea behind her, Greenlaw moves home to a tiny island seven miles off Maine’s coast. The book follows her through a lobstering season, starting with prepping gear and ending with the traps being hauled in.

But The Lobster Chronicles isn’t just about lobsters. It’s also about the people on this tiny island, Greenlaw included — their relationships, their habits, their battles, their histories.

My Thoughts:

Don’t ask me why I picked this book off the Half Price Books clearance shelf years ago. I couldn’t tell you. I’m equally uncertain why it’s made it through several bookshelf purges and a handful of moves, including one across the country. Funny how some books just cling to you, isn’t it? All I can say is that something about the book’s premise — living off the land (or sea, really) on a tiny island in the Northeast — appealed to me.

The Lobster Chronicles didn’t disappoint in that regard. It’s not a long volume, but it manages to touch on all kinds of things: the island and its residents (both summer and year-round), the lobstering industry (from the gear to the politics and beyond), a bit of the island’s history, some of the realities of life on an island reachable only by boat, Greenlaw’s own history (both personal and familial), and even — briefly — the reproductive habits of lobsters. Greenlaw paints her chosen pictures well, drawing the reader into this tiny, isolated, yet beautiful and rich world. No single aspect receives too much time or attention. Instead, Greenlaw strikes the right balance between terms and processes on the one hand and more personal story on the other. She touches on just enough technical stuff to give you a window into the world of lobster fishing, but not so much that you’re bored or confused. At the same time, she gets lost in neither the island’s history nor its day-to-day dramas.

It’s in the execution that I started finding little flaws in The Lobster Chronicles. For starters, I wasn’t quite sure why Greenlaw chose to spend her time on the specific anecdotes she does. Some made sense, while others seemed to get more or less time than they warranted. Further, though the book covers a broad range of topics, the way in which those topics come together isn’t always clear. Transitions feel a little choppy or forced. Shifts in topic feel abrupt. I often couldn’t really see why B came after A (or why they couldn’t have been sequenced the other way around). I also felt like the way Greenlaw herself came across shifted throughout the book. Like the way she wrote didn’t match the way she wrote about herself, if that makes sense. Like her voice didn’t align with the actual thoughts and feelings she records having.

The writing itself was okay. There were moments when I really liked Greenlaw’s writing style. A few times I nearly laughed out loud; at others I was touched or moved. But then there were other moments when a sentence meandered in an odd direction, when language got in the way of the story just enough to pull me out of the narrative. It felt like the book couldn’t figure out how to settle on a tone.

The Verdict: Mediocre

The Lobster Chronicles satisfied the desire that prompted me to purchase and hang onto it. Not, in my opinion, an exquisitely crafted work, but still interesting and well enough written to make me read it all the way through. And now I can finally release it back into the world!

Your Turn!

Have you ever been inexplicably drawn to a book? Did it turn out the way you’d hoped?

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UnderstudiesA couple of weeks ago, I reviewed the short, almost poetic novel Understudies by Ravi Mangla. Here’s how the publisher describes the book:

“A high school teacher begins to question the course of his life after a famous young actress moves into town. In the starlet’s shadow, his girlfriend, his mother, his neighbor, and his students take on strange new dimensions. Told in a series of snapshots, Understudies presents a sharp, funny, and heartbreaking study of beauty, celebrity, and everyday needs.”

I ended up enjoying the book very much, as you’ll see from my original review. Mangla’s writing style, in particular, really drew me in and kept me turning the digital pages.

The Giveaway Details

To celebrate the fact that Understudies is now available as an audiobook, the author has generously offered to give away three free Audible.com downloads to Erin Reads readers! You can read about the book and listen to a sample right here.

Want to enter to win a copy? Here’s what you need to know:

  • To enter, just leave a comment on this post. Make sure you include a valid email address so the author can contact you if you win.
  • One entry per person.
  • The contest will run for a week. Get your entry in before the end of Wednesday, February 12, 2014!
  • Three winners will be randomly chosen by the book’s author (Ravi Mangla). He’ll email the winners after the giveaway closes.

Good luck…and I hope you enjoy Understudies as much as I did!

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I received a copy of Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir by Frances Mayes for review through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

About the Book:

Under Magnolia by Frances Mayes cover (erinreads.com)Under Magnolia is another memoir from Frances Mayes of Under the Tuscan Sun fame. Only this time, instead of exploring Italy, Mayes turns her attention to her childhood in the Deep South. Beginning with her early memories, Under Magnolia follows Mayes through her high school and college years, ending when she at last takes off for the West Coast.

My Thoughts:

I was a fan of Under the Tuscan Sun when it came out. More the movie than the book, but I did read and enjoy Mayes’s account of buying and rehabbing a run-down home in Tuscany. I liked the way Mayes wrote. She was good at capturing in writing the quality of remembering, the way some moments are razor-sharp while others are elusive and wispy. I was pleased to find that Under Magnolia has much the same quality to it. At the same time, though her writing is studded with the occasional literary gem, Mayes manages to avoid waxing too flowery and poetic.

Another aspect of Under Magnolia I appreciated was that Mayes did not put much effort into setting her story in the broader context of history. That may sound odd — who doesn’t like context? But I don’t think ten-year-old Frances was thinking much about what was going on in the country at large, and I found it fitting that Mayes tailored her focus to represent that.

Places and things play their part in Under Magnolia, of course. The South itself, its culture and atmosphere and geography, is a major part of what Mayes recalls about her time growing up there, and it had a strong influence on her life. But it is the people I’ll remember. There are old photographs sprinkled throughout the book — nearly all of people — which I particularly enjoyed. Mayes spends most of her time on her parents (and her mother in particular), her paternal grandfather (still living nearby), and Willie Bell, the African American woman who worked for Mayes’s family when she was a child. Mayes’s older sisters, on the other hand, barely have names, and enough boys wander through the pages that they’re hard to keep straight. It’s clear that the former were towering giants in Mayes’s early life, while the latter simply skipped across the surface. I found this pattern of emphasis to be interesting and telling in and of itself.

There is a bit of a disjointed feel to the book, particularly in the first half. It’s a little hard to get a toehold in terms of narrative and timeline. At first, this amorphous quality bothered me, and I had trouble really getting into the book. But as the stories slowly resolved themselves into something a bit more concrete later in the book, I came to realize that perhaps this style was intentional. After all, who can tell the events of their early childhood with as much clarity and chronology as they can their college years? The way in which Mayes chose to tell her story may be a reflection of just that, either intentionally or not.

The Verdict: Enjoyable

Under Magnolia is nice if you’re in the market for a memoir. It’s well-written, interesting, evocative. And if you are a fan of Frances Mayes, this newest of her books shines a light on a part of her she’s not yet known for. Overall, a good book.

Your Turn!

What memoirs are among your favorites?

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