The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier – Book Review

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier
Published by Crown Books, an imprint of Random House

In the fall of 2011, Elizabeth died in a freak plane crash. Most of the country forgot very quickly about this crash, though, a few weeks later when airplanes went from being something that might mysteriously crash once in awhile to things that could be used as human-filled missiles. Of course, Elizabeth’s family didn’t forget, and neither did her best friend, Kate. Between Elizabeth’s death and the 9/11 attacks, Kate is anxious in a way she had never been before, obsessed with all of the things that could unexpectedly go wrong, and trying to be prepared for them and for her family’s safety. Now, the summer after that horrific fall, Kate discovers that Elizabeth willed her her entire collection of journals, for Kate to do with as she sees fit. Elizabeth’s only request is that Kate start at the beginning. Elizabeth’s husband Dave, however, resents the bequest, particularly as a glimpse at Elizabeth’s last journal after her death led him to believe that she was not on her wait to a painting clinic, as she claimed, but to meet a lover. Now Kate must decide what her obligation is to Elizabeth and her memory and come to terms with the fact that she may not have known Elizabeth nearly as well as she thought she did.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is a beautiful and well-plotted debut novel. Bernier weaves Kate’s story together with Elizabeth’s journals flawlessly, allowing the reader to understand how this summer of Elizabeth’s journals helps Kate better understand not only Elizabeth, but herself as well.  Kate is a very genuine character, real and flawed and very sympathetic. Her fear and pain make you want to hold her and tell her that everything will be alright, and yet she never crosses the line into obnoxious or pathetic, instead she continues to be someone with whom you would wish to spend time – which is good, because you have some 300 pages to spend with her.

What really makes The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. worth reading, though, is the tension between the person that Kate believed she knew, and the person she is discovering in Elizabeth’s journals. How much of the disconnect is because of the face Elizabeth chose to present, and how much of it was Kate simply seeing what she wanted to see? This and similar questions make the novel bigger than simply Kate and Elizabeth’s stories, and spark questions relevant to the reader’s own life. As such it would make a wonderful book to discuss with a book club.

A great book for book clubs or to read on your own. The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. will draw you in quickly, and keep hold of you until the end. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
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Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner – Book Review

Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner
Published by Dial Press Trade Paperback, an imprint of Random House

Vaclav and Lena are both the children of Russian immigrants, as well as being best friends. Vaclav and his parents are the closest thing Lena has to family; although she lives with her aunt, she barely meets Lena’s basic needs, let alone any of her emotional ones. Vaclav, though, has promised her that one day they will be married, no matter what. For now, she is the beautiful assistant in his magic act – until, at least, the day before their big performance at Coney Island. That day, Lena doesn’t show up at school, nor at Vaclav’s house in the afternoon. When she even fails to meet him at Coney Island, Vaclav knows that something is terribly wrong and, indeed, she will be completely out of his life for the next 7 years, when they are 17.

Vaclav & Lena is, in the beginning, somewhat underwhelming. Vaclav and Lena have a cute relationship and Vaclav’s passion for magic is endearing, but for the first 50 pages nothing is moving the story along. Once Vaclav and Lena have been separated, though, Tanner’s story really takes off. Vaclav and Lena each becomes their own, more fully-developed person, without ever forgetting what it was that held them together all those years ago. By the end, Tanner has created a beautiful and very moving story of a love encompassing both friendship and romance.

Although it starts slowly, Vaclav & Lena ends brilliantly. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
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Source: Publisher, via Netgalley.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close – Book Review

Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close
Published by Knopf, an imprint of Random House

The post-college years can be a relationship minefield. You begin to drift away from the friends who marry and have children significantly before – or after – you do; finding new friends and lovers becomes more difficult as you are no longer routinely thrown together in school with people in a similar age bracket and with similar interests. It is this limbo in which Isabella, Mary, and Lauren are firmly stuck. They are out of college and on their own: in nice apartments in Chicago and crummy shoebox ‘apartments’ in New York; in good relationships and dating idiots who cannot spell their names correctly; in nice, stable jobs and the worst of the worst waitressing jobs. In the middle of all this, they are scraping up cash for bridesmaids dresses, wedding shower presents, wedding presents, and baby shower presents, as it seems that everyone they know seems to be moving into that settled state of coupledom and familydom.

Girls in White Dresses is less a cohesive narrative than a collection of anecdotes about Isabella, Mary, Lauren, and their friends as they attempt to navigate young adulthoood. Rather than causing the readers to feel disconnected from her characters, though, Close’s structure lent her story a sense of universality. No matter what your post-college path or choices, it is likely that you will identify with one or more of the girls’ stories. Many of the vignettes in Girls in White Dresses are laugh out loud funny, as is this scene at a bridal shower when the bride’s mother’s friends all begin singing My Favorite Things:

They kept singing and started swaying back and forth. Abby was standing unfortunately close to the woman who’d started the singing, and the woman wrapped her arm around Abby’s shoulders, forced her to move in time with the music, and looked at her with an encouraging smile until Abby started to sing along with her. A few of the women were snapping their fingers. Lauren looked at Isabella and Mary and said, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me, right?” -p. 171

Others, however, are poignant and thoughtful, as when Lauren and Isabella discuss a recently-divorced friend who has elected to keep her married name:

“Why wouldn’t she go back to Beth Bauer?” she asked Lauren. “She doesn’t have any kids. It’s so weird.”
“I don’t know,” Lauren said. “Maybe she’s afraid no one will remember who she is.”
“Maybe,” Isabella said. The thought left her uneasy. -p. 249

Close’s humor and grace is intensified by her lovely and engaging prose, creating in Girls in White Dresses a book that readers will be hard-pressed to put down.

Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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The Lost and Found Pony – Saturday Story Spotlight

Welcome to Saturday Story Spotlight, my feature where I discuss books my husband and I are reading with our son, Daniel. These are books that he, we, or all of us particularly enjoy.

The Lost and Found Pony by Tracy Dockray
Published by Feiwel & Friends, an imprint of Macmillan

The eponymous and unnamed pony is small, but she (or possibly he, along with being unnamed she is never explicitly given a gender, but let’s just make her a she for the sake of argument) is perfectly happy with herself. That happiness is even more pronounced when she is given to a young girl as a birthday present. She and the girl are a perfect match, until one day it becomes apparent that the girl has outgrown her, and the girl’s parents replace our dear pony with a larger horse.

The pony is sold off to the circus, which is not a bad life, but she misses the girl each and every day. Still, life goes on – until the circus  begins to lose money and the animals are sold off. This is perhaps the scariest time in our pony’s life, but it results in a reunion with her girl, now all grown up.

This is just a lovely book. Dockray’s illustrations are absolutely gorgeous. I wanted to reach into the book and stroke the pony’s muzzle in the early pages. The circus illustrations are particularly vibrant, the ones of the circus’s dissolution still beautiful but tinged with despair. The story is incredibly sweet as well. The pony knows love and won’t give up on it, but also makes the best of the situation at hand. Her reunion with her long-lost girl makes me go “awww.”

My only real problem with The Lost and Found Pony – which is not a fault of the book itself, but evidence of a slight mismatch between the book and my family – is the fact that it is far too long for even my book-obsessed two year old’s attention span. Although I assumed she would be reunited with the girl, I never actually made it all the way through until I reread it prior to writing this review. Still, he enjoys the half or so of the book he’ll sit through, and absolutely adores the pictures (horsey! elephant!).

The Lost and Found Pony will definitely be keeping a place in our permanent collection, so we can continue to revisit it as Daniel grows older and can perhaps even sit through to the ending.

Buy this book from:
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Source: Review copy
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Joy for Beginners by Erica Bauermeister – Book Review

Joy for Beginners by Erica Bauermeister
Published by Putnam Adult, an imprint of Penguin

Kate is officially clear of cancer, but is now facing something potentially even more terrifying: whitewater rafting through the Grand Canyon with her daughter. When her friends gather to celebrate her recovery, though, they convince her that she should take advantage of the years returned to her and go for it. If Kate is going to face her fears, though, she is determined that the rest of her friends – a very heterogeneous group of women, who originally befriended one  another during a baby holding circle for Sara and her twins.

Bauermeister is a master of connected stories that read more like a single, complete unit than disparate pieces. Her debut novel, The School of Essential Ingredients, followed a group of people taking cooking lessons with a very special woman. Joy for Beginners is even more wonderfully cohesive; all of the women are friends, so their lives intersect and intertwine in lovely, natural ways.

Part of what worked so well about Joy for Beginners is the fact that each of these women were at different stages of life, and in different places in their life. There is something for nearly every woman to identify with. Even better, however, is the fact that all of the women are real and genuine enough that the reader can empathize even with the ones whose lives least closely resemble her own.

An absolutely lovely book. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, at request of the author.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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