Losing (it)

Kate Hollis is a successful professional working in sustainable development when she gets a four a.m. call from her long-time best friend, Laura.

“He’s here,” Laura succinctly informs Kate, who doesn’t even need to ask who. Laura means, of course, Jake Sharpe, international rock star, who’s made a career out of singing songs about Katie, and personal details about their first love high school relationship.

Jake vanished just before senior prom, leaving behind a distraught and heart-broken Katie and a confused group of friends, including his band, with whom he’d collaborated to write many songs.

Songs he vanished with, and songs he rode to stardom.

When he comes home thirteen years later for an MTV Christmas special, he returns to people who have never forgotten him or what he did. Because of his fame, they haven’t been able to.

This is the main storyline of Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin’s newest book, Dedication. I think of this book as a case of beginnings, middles and ends not meeting up terribly well. The book begins in the present, without adequate detail of the past, so the character’s emotions and actions make little sense.  I started by thinking the main characters were a little immature and superficial. The second chapter is a flashback to Katie’s sixth grade year, the year she moved to Croton and met Jake Sharpe, and the rest of her friends. The chapters alternate between scenes in the present and a progression of years in the past.

Although it keeps the book sharply on point, in a way the character of Katie isn’t well-served with the book focusing exclusively on her trip home and down memory lane because the authors don’t balance it with a well-developed current life. Katie comes across as stuck in high school, completely, in all ways.

I don’t agree with the idea that one must have complete closure to move on; most of us have some degree of unresolved issues in our past, which might hold us back to some degree, but most of us have moved forward. So I’m unable to suspend my disbelief that even though she is troubled by how things went, she’s held on to her anger for over a dozen years to the exclusion of any current life. Her friends who are suing Jake for royalties and recognition of their contribution to the songs he rode to fame make more sense and are more believable.

Briefly mentioning a successful career—which, by the way, she appears willing to lose over this drive to find closure with Jake—doesn’t create an image of an established and healthy woman. I think that would have added a  lot to the character of Katie, who otherwise appears to be completely losing it over the song Losing, which Jake wrote about their first sexual experience.

However, the characters are charming enough that I cared, and the story compelling enough that I kept reading. The writing eloquently captures the intense emotions of the tween and teen years, with fantastic flashbacks that aren’t overt and out of place bits of trivia, but are instead smoothly woven into the story, bolstering it. I wanted to like Katie and I did, and somehow I built up enough trust that she wouldn’t fall completely off the deep end.

I’m not a fan of the last portion of the book and the turn the story takes. It seems out of place with the rest of the story, like am amateurish tool to make a point.

So…beginning, I had a hard time getting going, middle I truly enjoyed, and end, I struggled with and am still not sure what to say.

People who enjoyed the authors’ other books, The Nanny Diaries and Citizen Girl, are mixed about whether they liked this one, as well. I haven’t got a basis of comparison.

However, if you enjoy rather light stories with some wit and some insightful writing that can be eloquent, do read this. I don’t wish for the time back, and can say I enjoyed the story.

Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert

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Stardust…the movie

I admit I didn’t read the Neil Gaiman book upon which this movie is based, but I am intrigued to read it now.

I liked the movie. I didn’t expect to—and low expectations probably helped me have a more favorable opinion—but the writing, acting, directing and story were pretty high quality.

It was entertaining, and at the end, I didn’t feel like I wished I could have a full refund of my money and time. In fact, I felt glad I had taken the time to escape and enjoy this film.

I kept waiting for the characters to deteriorate into one-dimensional stereotypes but the talent of the writers and actors prevented that from happening.

Critics have compared Matthew Vaughan’s adaptation of the fantasy novel by Gaiman to The Princess Bride and Willow. Stardust did have romance, action, adventure, a little braininess, and a lot of light-heartedness. I’m not sure it can quit hit the classic level that Princess Bride did, but it did have a a fair share of enjoyable moments and lines. For example, Michelle Pfeiffer’s character confronts her aging body with equal parts acceptance and humor, even as her entire quest is centered around restoring her youth. When viewing the age spots on her hands that her sisters point out, she quips something along the lines of only having done something paltry, hardly worth the result.

The main male character, Tristan Thorne (Charlie Cox), is wide-eyed naive without being annoyingly flat or stupid. Yvaine (Claire Danes) is charmingly noncompliant to all the various plans to capture her without recklessness and thoughtlessness. Their romance is believable without being eye-rollingly inevitable.

Robert De Niro’s pirate Captain Shakespeare is well-developed and so charismatic that he’s funny and not at all the caricature he could be.

Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) is hilarious in her single-minded “never mind who I trample and I might take a bit of pleasure as I squash you like a bug” pursuit of the star. She’s also a bit human. I appreciated how they kept her character consistent instead of trying to apply some theological reckoning, even if she did get the typical theological consequence.

The supporting characters were equally well-done.

If you did read the book, be prepared for a different ending. Gaiman admits he did contribute to the new ending, and acknowledges that the writer and director had many similar ideas for adapting his book to film as he had. He suggested that they film his ending as well, but the filmmakers decided not to.

Stardust is a nice bit of escapism. It’s not cookie-cutter fantasy, although it does contain the traditional elements of Western myth.

I think the quality of contributors—original story, actors, writers and director—firmly guided this film into something good instead of sappy, one-dimensional and stereotypical. Best of all, it wasn’t predictable.

If you like this genre, I recommend seeing Stardust.

Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert

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Brother and Sister by Joanna Trollope

Nathalie, adopted as an infant by her parents, and her brother David, adopted after tragically losing his adoptive parents in a car accident, have grown up in a loving family. Initially resentful of the new toddler David, Nathalie grows to love David and David grows to depend on Nathalie. As adults, with their own partners and children, their sibling bond remains tight and close.

Attempting to unravel the complex, multi-dimensional, and emotive relationships in Trollope’s novel would take as long as the book itself. Suffice it to say that the characters and their interactions are as marvelously done as in every other one of Trollope’s novels.

David and Nathalie are the central characters upon which the main plot point revolves, but they aren’t the only plot generators or even the only fleshed out characters. In fact, I hesitate to call them the main or central characters, although truthfully they are.

Their spouses get full voices. The supporting characters and the various parents in the novel get ample space with their point of view, as well.

As in every Trollope novel, the story works its way to the pivotal moment: in this case, Nathalie becomes interested in her birth mother. Her decision to find and meet her birth mother is the catalyst for the rest of the story, and the thing that prompts life changes for every character.

Moving, real, honest, and relateable, this novel is written with Trollope’s usual fluidity and poetry of language. She develops every character with multi-facets, creates believable dialogue, and manages the complex task of multiple viewpoints masterfully. From beginning to middle to end, I enjoyed this book.

I highly recommend it.

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert

The Wreckers: Stand Still, Look Pretty

My husband and I alwasy thought Michelle Branch was talented with great potential, which she occasionally (often) realized, but had more room for growth.

I believe she has found it teamed up with Jessica Harp to form The Wreckers.

Their album Stand Still, Look Pretty has made its way into my daily CD rotation, despite the fact that the title song makes me think of Paris Hilton. It’s moving and meaningful anyway.

The tunes alternate from ballads to upbeat, and are all enjoyable—a rare compliment from me on a single artist album.

If you like Dixie Chicks, you’ll like this duo.

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

I recently finished reading Nick Hornby’s latest novel, A Long Way Down. It’s a dark comedy about four suicidal strangers who meet on the top of a building, where each had gone to jump. Their impulse to save each other forces them to realize their own self-preservation instinct. After walking down, the four bond into an unlikely band of friends.

‘If Camus had written a grown up version of The Breakfast Club, the result might have had more than a little in commmon with [A Long Way Down] … a brave and absorbing book. It’s a thrill to watch a writer as talented as Hornby take on the grimmest of subjects without flinching, and somehow make it funny and surprising at the same time’

Tom Perotta, Publishers Weekly

JJ, described as a “tall, cool, American, looks like a rock-star (was, in fact, a rock-star before his band split) – who’s weighed down with a heap of problems and pizza,” was the character who most struck me. At an adult developmental leap point in life, he’s trying to decide whether he can choose to leap forward, or if he ought to just leap off.

Early on he’s explaining his story, how he ended up on the roof, and references it all back to when his band, Big Yellow, split up:

When Big Yellow played live, it was like some kind of Pentecostal service; instead of applause and whistles and hoots, there’d be tears and teeth-grinding and speaking in tongues. We saved souls.

But we used to have these messages boards up on our Web site, and I’d read them every now and again, and I could tell that people felt the same way we did; and I looked at other people’s boards, too, and they didn’t have the same kind of fans. I mean, everyone has fans who love what they do, otherwise they wouldn’t be fans, right? But I could tell from reading the other boards that our guys walked out of our shows feeling something special. We could feel it and they could feel it. It’s just that there weren’t enough of them, I guess. Anyway.

As usual, Hornby has created four very flawed characters who nevertheless engage you, and to whom you relate (even if in varying degrees).

The story requires no suspension of disbelief, flows easily and entertainingly, and is well worth your time.

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro, I’ve noticed, always incorporates elements of letting go, self-sacrifice, and sense of self in his books. He usually explores the line of where one person ends and another begins by creating dysfunction and imbalance in both the situation and in the characters, who usually are in a position of serving others to the point of near or total self-loss—although, that might be a misunderstanding, perhaps instead it is our issue of trying to understand how a person can be whole when his or her identity is formed through serving another/others.

He continues that theme in his book, Never Let Me Go (Random House, 2004).

Reviewers describe this book with terms like, “devastating,” “quiet desperation,” “deceptively simple,” “existential crisis,” and “emotionally shattering.”

The book doesn’t hide anything from you. It opens with the main character, Kathy H., telling the story of her life. She states the facts in the first sentence: she is 31, grew up in a school called Hailsham raised by a slew of guardians, and has been a carer—one of the best—of donors for more than eleven years. Upfront Ishiguro has revealed that this is a book of horror, for all that it is about a compelling story of a love and friendship triangle between Kathy and her two friends Ruth and Tommy. But you are so drawn in to the people and their relationships that it takes time to process that these people were created to serve as organ donors for the rest of the population.

After I read this book, I begged for someone to talk to me about it because it was burning a hole in my mind and soul. Thankfully, Mary-LUE was willing and able. We both found that this story grew and grew, more and more, the horror dawned on us increasingly after we had read the last page and closed the book. It takes a few days for it to all sink in. For me, it was the next day as I was driving on the highway. I glanced to the person in the car next to me, and suddenly I was overwhelmed by humanity, and I choked up thinking about it, and about the book.

It is devastating. But also gorgeous, moving, enthralling, and enlightening.

It’s horror, a parable, science fiction, a mystery, as well as a tale of characters growing and evolving—probably, believe it or not, the most compelling part of the book. It’s a story that is thick and rich, so dense you might normally read a couple of chapters and set it down to process, but you can’t because the story—the mystery and suspense—makes it a “read it all in one sitting page turner.”

I haven’t provided any spoilers.

You know where this book and its characters are headed from the opening line of the first page.

But you can’t accept it. You can’t let them go.

Or, at least I can’t.

If you like well-constructed fiction, go…read.

Ask Again Later by Jill A. Davis

Ask Again Later by Jill A. Davis slowly drew me in, and made me care about the character.

I read it because in the review, Richard Russo, one of my all-time favorite writers gave it a thumbs-up and because I’d enjoyed Davis’ other book, Girls’ Poker Night.

“Books as breezy and effortlessly funny as Jill Davis’s new novel sometimes lack weight, but Ask Again Later is both serious and emotionally resonant. It rewards at every level.”

—Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Empire Falls

Russo’s review is spot-on. Although I admit when I started the book, I had my doubts. The main character came across as flighty and spacey. But Davis built her out, masterfully, as she did the story.

It had been a while, though, and I had forgotten Davis’ style. She writes brief articles of a story in a moment-by-moment way. Her characters are quirky, slightly stereotyped, but mainly because they initially interact on the “take you for granted” level. However, over the course of the book, the walls fall and the characters become more three dimensional. Her dialogue and characters are real, they get in sticky situations but not in a contrived way. But most of all, you care. There is no huge climax or build to climax, but the story engages you and keeps you reading, as does the rapport you feel with the characters. If you like books that are not too deep, but not too superficial, and pretty standard for the real day-to-day life we lead, this is a good read for you.

At the end, I liked it. It had closure, in all respects, so I wasn’t left wishing for more or missing the characters. In a way, they sort of rode off into the sunset for me. I was glad we’d crossed paths, and wished them well.

Summary from Jill A. Davis.com

ask again later
A Novel by Jill A. Davis

Emily has a tendency to live with one foot out the door. For her, the best thing about a family crisis is the excuse to cut and run. When her mother dramatically announces they’ve found a lump, Emily gladly takes a rain check on life to be by her mother’s side, leaving behind her career, her boyfriend, and those pesky, unanswerable questions about who she is and what she’s doing with her life.

But back in her childhood bedroom, Emily realizes that she hasn’t run fast or far enough. One evening, while her mother calls everyone in her Rolodex to brief them on her medical crisis and schedule a farewell martini, Emily opens the door, quite literally, to find her past staring her in the face. How do you forge a relationship with the father who left when you were five years old? As Emily attempts to find balance on the emotional see-saw of her life with the help of two hopeful suitors and her Park Avenue princess sister, she takes a no-risk job as a receptionist at his law firm and slowly gets to know the man she once pretended was dead.

Buy Ask Again Later on Amazon

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert