Thursday, March 19, 2020

Catching Up (b/c social distancing should mean tackling some to dos...and reviews are more fun than laundry...): The Astonishing Life of August March (Jackson) and A Good Marriage (McCreight)

I'm sitting here with awkward, semi-usable time on my hands. We, like much of the U.S. and much of the developed world, are working remotely amid concerns about COVID-19. I've told my team that I'm here, but have no current assignments ... ironically, in part because others are too busy to do what needs to happen before I can do my job (and I've offered to help with their duties too). I'd RATHER be working, in part b/c I want to demonstrate that I can work effectively on a fully remote basis and partly b/c I just feel like I should be. But after trying to do some relevant reading much of yesterday, my boss and I agreed I'd be actively on call. So I'm not necessarily doing work, but I'm ready to jump when called upon (and was once today)...

So, it's a good time to try to catch up with myself a bit...that is, for my reviews to keep pace with my bookshelf. Honestly, I simply don't have it in me most nights (maybe it is odd, but (for me) reviews do require energy). I'm going to start with two of my most recent reads from the kind folks at Harper -- the first was finished in the era when reading on the couch is suddenly good for humanity, I feel like I read the second in another world (which is to say, about a month ago). I'm hoping to go back and share at least some passing thoughts on other books on my "to review" list, including some I purchased or that came from the "anyone want this" table in the office pantry, but I may eventually decide to sweep off the self and start anew. Or compromise with a few super quick ones on Goodreads. I'd rather say nothing or keep it short than have a review that is less than genuine because my memory is less than accurate.  (Note: As I finished up the second review, work is coming my way. Which is very much a good thing and not just because I don't have to make that decision yet.).

August is a child of the theater. He quite literally grew up in one. His mom was an actress in post WWI London. She played her role, gave birth backstage, and made it to the curtain call. A seamstress found him and raised him...she loved him but her parenting style was freer than free range and she left him behind every night (see below re suspension of disbelief). His life carries him from the theater to the streets to a fancy prep school and beyond (I'll avoid going further than the blurb does). He finds a mentor and a woman does enter the scene eventually.

This was a fun read, albeit one that didn't go all that deep. At times, it seemed like the author was asking a bit much...I understand suspending disbelief, but it goes a bit farther afield than this reader could comfortably travel (at least for a book that wasn't of the fantasy or even magical realism genre). I didn't really develop an affinity for August, but I still found his story fun to "watch." I appreciated August's sense of loyalty...and his anger when he felt it wasn't being returned. I enjoyed August's childhood and his somewhat unconventional love story, but didn't care as much for the years (and the pages) in between. 

It would require some time travel, but I have this lovely mental image of a young Freddie Highmore (think Finding Neverland) as young August tucked away in a tiny forgotten nook and watching in awe as his mentor-to-be took the stage and made August truly fall in love with drama. I'm not quite sure I see Highmore in the adult role...he feels a bit too distinct to fit the bill...but I imagine the author already has someone in mind. 

3.5 stars. A solid read. Enjoyable escape but didn't envelop me enough to go beyond my "good not great" score. And I'm now thinking it might be a rare case where the film (screenplay by the author) could outshine the book. Many thanks to the publisher for supplying an advance copy in return for an honest review.

Lizzie is an unhappy big firm attorney (gosh, that sounds familiar) who left behind a career she loved as a prosecutor when her husband's drinking problem left them in dire need of more than her public service salary (to be clear, that part was NOT my story). She gets a call from an old friend from law school who may be technically in jail for a scuffle with a cop but is really there as a suspect in his wife's murder. The case leads Lizzie into the world of New York City's elite and the perfect couples that populate her client's world. We also follow the wife in the weeks leading up to her death, which we obviously see coming while she's preoccupied with continuing to play her part in a world that is wholly unfamiliar to a girl who grew up poor with a devil of a father.

Were there always this many twisty thrillers out there or did the genre explode after Gone Girl? Regardless, this fits into that world. Each character comes with doubts about the person they appear to be and the person they really are. Each person...and each marriage...has its secrets. The book mixes in the murder mystery with the legal and relationship drama. And there are more twists than a country road.

Ultimately, you get what you expect from the genre. The characters have dimensions because they have secrets, but there are almost too many storylines and too many secrets to keep track of them all without notes. It goes a bit too far. It is...and these books are supposed to, but I couldn't fully give myself over to it because keeping it all straight became too much work. I did enjoy picking it up and I did want to find out whodunit. Yes, no person and no marriage is exactly as it appears from outside...but I didn't need the point made quite so many times and the ending didn't really satisfy me (I did like the very last turn, but the main mystery reveal was both disappointing and overly complicated).

3.5 default "good but not great" rating. It'd keep you busy during an airplane ride, but you need to be willing to page back a bit now and then to catch up (and not just because the beverage service and your seat neighbor's bladder distracted you). Thank you to the publisher for the advance copy in exchange for an honest review.