A sprawling set of stories about individuals related by blood, war, and happenstance, AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED reveals how we learn to live “with the most unimaginable things.” The inexplicable loss of a sibling. A luxurious life derived from the spoils of an Afghani drug lord. Giving up a college education and lifelong career dream to care for an ailing parent. Hosseini avoids the easy answers and the preachy. There are no capital “H” happy endings or heroics to erase the missed opportunities, rationalizations, loss, and grief. It sounds depressing, but it isn’t. The triumphs may not be Hollywood style, but when they arrive, they are solid and meaningful.
So it turns out there really are guardian angels, but they aren’t exactly looking out for us humans. Instead, these “Gibborim” are modern day bodyguards and mercenaries, protecting the interests of the “Nephilim” – angel/human hybrids – that walk among us. No golden halos here, apparently. Angelology takes whatever comforting, sweet, protective images you may have of angels and casts them in a whole new light. The characters are vividly drawn, appealing, and they develop over the course of the entire story (Dan Brown, take note!). It is a serious page-turner, even though it sometimes relies fairly heavily on academic lectures and medieval manuscripts. In fact, there is so much gripping action (or just plain weirdness), it is tempting while reading to just focus on the question of, “what happens next”. But, there is also much in this book – including questions of faith, science, redemption, religion, and class – that made me pause and ponder. There is, quite honestly, a ton of stuff packed into this book, and you do have to pay attention. If not, you’ll start confusing your Nephilim with your Gibborim, or embarrass yourself with your friends by swearing that Orpheus’s lyre is in the Bible.
Annihilation: A Novel (Southern Reach Trilogy)
I won’t pretend I understood even half of this book. Maybe I know what happened, but as soon as I try to explain it with actual words, I suspect my theories will unravel. And yet. I found myself unaccountably gratified by all those inexplicable details, banal and bizarre, the unreserved wackiness, the complete non-pandering. It’s like watching an episode of Doctor Who . . . or the entire series of Lost. Minute by minute, you fool yourself that you get it. Of course you don’t. But you love it anyway.
Thank goodness Book 2 is only a month away.
Zzzzzzz. Seriously, April, what are you thinking?? Zzzzzzzz. I think that pretty much sums this one up for me! There is a good nugget of a story in April and Oliver, but the plot is pretty thin and I found April herself to be a superficial and ultimately disappointing exploration of a woman burdened by her history of sexual and physical abuse. These are obviously distressing and sympathetic circumstances, but other than this painful history, little is provided to explain why those who love April go along with her self-destructive behavior . . . much less why everyone, especially Oliver, is so darned enamored with her. As a result, while reading, I alternated between boredom, because so little was happening with the story, and frustration with April and those around her. Some of the supporting characters are more compelling: I would have enjoyed a book about “Nana & Al,” more than this one, I think.
What a yummy mix of reality and the "other stuff." And fun to read a conflicted character who is not a woman!... though HE is written by a SHE.
How the story was woven together with bits of the past, magic, the search to for where to go next, and agriculture. I also loved the style of the writing. Joanne Harris just has a great way of sucking you in. It was also fun to see the characters from "Chocolat" remerging again.
I would have liked a slightly different ending, but at the same time I like the choice.
A great title (Alex Haley with a twist), a quality story (plot is not sacrificed for the sake of conveying a message), and plenty to discuss with your fellow readers. And, wow, do I wish I had Evaristo’s gift with language and narrative! In one horrifying scene, with just a handful of sentences, she vividly describes how Doris’s kidnapper wrenches her from innocently playing tag with her sisters into her life as a “stolen one.” As Doris puts it, “It was as fast and shocking as that.” It is a challenge to take the subject of slavery, a subject that we have all been taught about since grade school, and try to break through our accumulated feelings and beliefs on the topic. This book approaches that challenge by re-imagining the victims of slavery as white Europeans. It’s more than just a simple role reversal, though. Evaristo also seems to shake up time – some scenes and references are clearly historical, but others are clearly contemporary. This was very disorienting, which is actually the perfect state of mind to take in this new world order. Were these contemporary references also a reminder that many of the irrational beliefs and cruel practices have not been left behind in history?
I adore the Tina Fey I have come to know through media interviews and the woman behind Saturday Night Live Weekend Update and 30 Rock. Bossypants reads like a jaunt through that woman's brain. Funny, self-deprecating, and straightforward - just what you would expect from what you have seen of Fey on TV. Fey liberally sprinkles big sister advice throughout. Don't feel bad about how you look, that you are a working mom, or that you did not breastfeed, along with tips on how to be a good boss and how to put things in perspective. This starts to get irritating after a while and after the 10th "how to" list, I realized this pseudo self-help is possibly just meant to take up the space that she apparently chose not to fill with more biographical details. There are no major revelations here. No real intimate details about her life. Not even any major name dropping. Other than an ode to the awesomeness of her father and some reflections on motherhood, she writes very little about her family. We don't even learn about how she met her husband. These omissions give the book a shallow feel, but if you don't go into it actually expecting to learn more about Fey you will probably still find it a fun read.
Try not to skip over any of the amazing detail of this biography. It is like getting a first class ticket back in time. Step firsthand into all aspects of life in Alexandria during Cleopatra’s reign. Experience the full luxury, and bureaucratic tediousness, of Egyptian royal life. Take pleasure in the astounding feast and over-the-top gifts prepared for Marc Antony in Tarsus. Often, though, I struggled to maintain my interest while I was reading. The book’s pacing is plodding and unexciting. I know it’s one of the critical favorites of 2010. I agree that it’s impressive how the book tweaks traditional Roman historians, and, how it rescues Cleopatra from the demeaning myth of “seductress,” and restores to her the full range of traits at her disposal as a ruler, politician, and woman. I am glad I read it, but I’m not sure this will be one of my top books of 2011.
Very humorous adventure. I am glad I was along for the ride.
1. It was funny.
2. I just love the idea that there is something out there beyond our everyday lives/knowing.
3. How a supposedly inanimate object could influence our will to do things.
4. The guys. So quirky and lovable.
I thought the discussion on past intellect and healing methodologies being lost was very interesting. It does make you wonder what knowledge has been lost as modern science advances, and how we might be able to learn from those "folk remedies" and past ways of doing things.
The ending! Hello, we have been with you for 270+ pages you end it THAT quickly! It was concise and for the most part informative, but I would have liked a little bit more elaboration.
Cryptic Spaces: Book One: Foresight
A fun read that leaves no myth, legend, or unsolved mystery behind. The more the better. As far as I’m concerned you cannot go wrong with Nessie, Nostradamus, or any of their brethren. The only unsolved mystery in this book that I have a problem with is this: who decreed that all young adult fiction must be serialized rather than resolved in one novel? Why leave us hanging like that Ferrell? Is Book 2 out there somewhere? I have to believe.
At first, I really liked this book. If you have read Klosterman’s non-fiction, you are familiar with how he wields the pop culture reference, ironic snark, and list-making to maximum effect. Generally, I’m all for this kind of thing, and I was laughing and nodding along for the first few chapters. He uses his distinct style to give the reader a good sense of small town Owl: “Her apartment was on the far side of town, which meant it was a three minute drive;” the locals discuss, among other topics, “The implausibility of specific plotlines on the television show Dallas;” and one of the most deeply polarizing events in the town stems from the decision to rename the Owl high school team something other than the “Owl owls” to eliminate the redundancy. The plot primarily focuses on several months in the lives of three characters – a high school football player, a twenty-something newcomer to town, and a late-in-life widower. Ultimately though, Klosterman’s hip tone left me too detached from the characters to care much about what was going to happen to anyone. I felt like Klosterman was possibly more interested in showing off how cool he is than in letting his story develop and speak for itself.
Enlightenment for Idiots: A Novel
Very fun book! It is one of those good books that you can't wait to get to the end so you know what happens, but at the same time you don't want it to end because you are enjoying it so much.
The characters were all very fun, unique and at the same time - familiar. Like all true friends they had their quirks, but that added to their greatness and by doing so also added to each other's lives. Those are truly friends to cherish. The ones who think differently from you make you better because of it.
I loved how the whole book progressed with her pregnancy (was that suppose to be a surprise?). Pregnancy can be soo hard. There is no way I would have wanted to go through mine having to do all that she was doing. I was hard enough as it was. Granted I would like to do a lot of what she did - just not pregnant!! The traveling through India part, makes you want to go visit there. The seeking enlightenment sounds heavenly.
Most of all I loved the ending. I won't give it away, but I thought it was very well done and developed. Which is something you don't always find.
The story line with Matt was a tad predictable, but don't we all have someone from our past like that?
I’ve been around long enough to remember when Judy Blume’s masterpieces were the only books “young adults” had. I miss those days when just the fact of hitting puberty, or wondering about sex, or having a common medical condition were enough for a fictitious character to feel out of step from the rest of her peers (Hey, Margaret! Hey, Deenie!). Now it is pretty much all about being a teen vampire, loving a teen vampire, or struggling to survive past your teen years in a dystopian future . . . possibly one populated by vampires. So I appreciate the refreshing change of pace set by Farsighted for having nary a vampire. Just your basic blind, teen psychic struggling through the perils of high school and coming to terms with his gift of “sight.” Seriously, though, this book really does standout from the usual YA fare for its diverse characters and cultural influences, honest portrayal of male and female teens, and for not shying away from an angry protagonist or an ambiguous ending. A good read for YAs and for those of us old enough to remember when YA was not even a genre yet.
FLORENCE GORDON begins with an astonishing act of tactlessness that will surely divide readers into two camps: those who are appalled by Florence, and those who wish they had her gusto. I was quickly captivated by Florence’s brutally honest ways. Good humor and sharp writing make for an entertaining read and do raise the story above its basically schlocky premise – will her granddaughter unlock the heart we know lies within cranky, old Florence before it’s too late? But, essentially this is just another entry in the “cranky codger with a heart of gold” genre, and Florence herself would wonder why anyone would want to read that.
I loved this book from start to finish, but it’s hard to say much about it without resorting to spoilers. Here are a few “safe” tidbits that made it a stand out. Some of the most disturbing, spine-chilling opening lines I’ve ever read. A storyline that defies expectations: I dare you to presume you have unraveled the plot before you have read the very last page. This is an A+ thriller, breathlessly paced, page-turner, but it’s also packed with double meanings and deeper significance. The story, and your faith, shifts constantly between Nick and Amy’s points of view, and as Amy says, “Isn’t that what every marriage is, anyway? Just a lengthy game of he-said, she-said?” True, not every marriage encounters these high stakes circumstances. But, Nick and his gone girl are really just dealing with the same questions that “stormcloud over every marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?” Every marriage has its own high stakes.
A decent read about a decent family come undone. The instigating problem is a teenager's self-doubt, insecurity, and rebelliousness, and the very bad choices she makes as a result. This plot line, like most teenage drama, drags on, strays into melodrama, and eventually, it's just not that interesting. But one character, younger sister Justine, kept me turning the pages. Her own transition from baby of the family, to ignored adolescent, to the only true adult in the family is sweetly depicted and made my heart break for her.
LANDLINE lands at just the right time of year – a breezy summer read, easily digested in one plane trip, or broken up into bite size bits whenever you can find the time. The light, humorous tone matches its easy pace and sets an unexpected, but effective contrast to the marital discord at the heart of the story. I will gladly pass the book on to others, but overall I’m left with a sense of disappointment. Everything wraps up so neatly, and it’s all so heartwarming . . . just like on the sitcoms the main character, Georgie, despises. That’s all well and good for a summer read, but I’ve heard exceptional praise about Rowell’s prior books. I expected more than just a good summer read.
Let's Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir)
DISCLAIMER: This review may or may not accurately reflect the genuine quality of this book. Honestly, I was pretty tired while I was reading it and my iguana was being really needy.
I adore Jenny Lawson’s blogs. She is clever, outspoken, and enjoyably strange. At first LET’S PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED was everything I expected based on Lawson’s blogging. Smart and snarky (“Call me Ishmael. I won’t answer to it, because it’s not my name . . .”). Funny (“I grew up a poor black girl in New York. Except replace ‘black’ with ‘white’ and ‘New York’ with ‘rural Texas.’”). Really, really weird (“Most people have never stood inside a dead animal.”).
Not too far along, though, I found myself engaged in this debate:
Me: The play-formatted dialogue, along with all the bullet points, lists, and footnotes seem overdone and just plain lazy writing.
Me: Is it lazy or just the natural evolution of writing? Haven’t you ever read a blog?
Me: But this is a book, not a blog. If this is the evolution of writing, what’s next? Text messaged books?
Me: And BTW sometimes I feel like Lawson relies too much on her (admittedly spectacular) sense of humor and (sometimes clever, but a touch annoying) tangents, asides, and footnotes to distract us from the fact that this is some pretty tragic, emotional stuff she is writing about. I’m all for relying on humor to get through hard times, but what reads as wonderfully light and delightfully absurd in a short blog seems more like a dance around the truth – and just a bit brittle – at full book length.
Me: Whatever. I LMFAO.
EPILOGUE: I just reread this review. I love how it presents different viewpoints and let’s you, the reader, decide whether this book is for you. This is America. This is a democracy. This is how it should be. Happy Independence Day.
ERRATA: The editors of BookBundlz have implored me to give you, the reader, an "actual point of view" about this book. Fine. You should read this book. You will laugh and you will learn the secret word.
Are you tired of all the media discussion about your personal privacy being tampered with by government and commercial surveillance? Do you consider the topic just more fodder for nutters and conspiracy theorists, all wrapped up in vaguely understandable techno-babble that is nonetheless intensely non-comprehensible? Then I urge you to pull up your comfiest chair, settle in with LEXICON, and launch straight into an exhilarating spin through the matter. The beauty of LEXICON is that it really does delve into these concerns enough to make you ponder them, but not enough to get bogged down by them. Like any good thriller, the story is what matters. Like any good read, the story is enriched by powerful ideas. The characters were what really hooked me, though. The chapters alternate between Emily and Wil, and each person’s tale and personality is so distinct and engrossing that each time I started a new chapter I was seriously unhappy to leave whoever I had just been reading about. LEXICON is a rare combination of page turning thrills, provocative ideas, and heart-tugging sentiments. A must read!
A first-rate story and brain tease. What does it mean to live your life again and again? Is it an opportunity to correct the things that went wrong before – to finally “get it right” for yourself, for those you love, for the whole world? But how can that be if you can unintentionally undo these improvements in another round? Perhaps the point is in the details that comprise each life – our lives? The first kiss you want to remember forever. The first kiss you wish you could forget. The decision to go abroad before studying. The decision to forego travel altogether. Buying your first bottle of wine to make a boeuf bourguignon. A quick goodbye to your father at the end of a visit. A life is the sum of all of its details, good and bad, major and minor, each of some consequence. This story immerses you in Ursula’s details in a wonderful way. I couldn’t put it down, and now that I’ve finished I keep thinking about Ursula and what her life, her lives, really mean.
Looks Easy Enough: A Joyful Memoir of Overcoming Disease, Divorce, and Disaster
In the introduction to his book, Scott Stevenson takes some time to explain his perspective on “the Truth.” In brief, we are all here to learn, our spirit learns over time by choosing different human lives to lead, and when we experience illness, loss, happiness, etc. it is because we chose that experience to learn about it. Stevenson advises that this is “not a corny book about spirituality,” however, just “a story about fully experiencing all that life has to offer . . . and coming out smiling.” Well, the book actually is pretty corny, but that is its charm. I felt like Stevenson was sitting with me telling his story in person. The intimate and straightforward tone of the book renders his voice crystal clear. Stevenson’s “Truth” is not entirely my cup of tea, but the main failing for me is a sense that, while Stevenson is doing his best to help his family to fully experience life, perhaps he is not always being fully honest with us – or himself – about his own experience. The chapter in “The Pit”, where he cannot square his extreme emotions with “the Truth” and he disavows Susan’s explanation (that maybe his anger stems from setting aside his retirement dreams to help Susan and his sister), stands out as a possible example of refusing to acknowledge the obvious – that he actually is frustrated about deferring his retirement plans. While Beth and Susan’s individual stories and insights were truly inspiring, this is Stevenson’s memoir – and for him I wonder if this memoir isn’t just scratching the surface.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932: A Novel
A good read, but slightly disappointing. It’s not the ending that disappoints. In fact, the ending will breed some lively debate for book groups. It’s that the story fails to keep up with the characters who inhabit it. A sampling: A cross-dressing, lesbian, race-car driving, Nazi collaborator; a fabulously talented, mama’s boy Hungarian photographer who opens the Parisian’s eyes to Paris; and two (!) beautiful French resistance fighters, one rich, one poor, both fabulous and in love with the Hungarian photographer. Amazing creations all, and all do a wonderful job in describing the ecstasies and agonies of living in Paris prior to, and during World War II. Beyond that things start to fall a bit flat. The dramatic plot just cannot compete with the melodramatic characters. Still, I found this a worthy read. The multiple narrators keep things interesting and they are each fascinating in their own way – holding just enough back to keep you curious and wanting more.
Mermaids in Paradise: A Novel
I feel like I was just hit over the head with a bag of nasty meanies. I am a proud, long-standing member of the Ironic-Sarcastic-Negative Thinkers Club. I have no problem with arch commentary. I adore cynicism. I can always find the dark cloud peeking around the rainbow. But it took less than a chapter of Deb’s endless commentary against middle America, the bridal industry, and her own fiancé to wear me out. Trotting out the “satire” label doesn’t fix anything. The book is hardly provocative. A corporation sees mermaids as an opportunity to make money! A government acts ineffectually! Shocking. I only bothered reading to the end to find out what happens to the mermaids, and the unexpected ending is no “aha,” just “whatever.”
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel
MR. PENUMBRA is the ideal read to accompany you through the holidays. It has a light and frothy prose – like the most delicious, buttery mashed potatoes. It has an unexpectedly charming, mildly heroic narrator – kind of like that surprisingly helpful toy store clerk who finds you the very last Flying Super Grover 2.0 (#1 on on little Ceci’s Christmas list) in your town. And, it tackles some of the more challenging questions of our modern life, but still remains charming and inoffensive – like the perfect holiday dinner conversation (you wish you could have) with all your relatives. If your book group has time to meet over the holidays, it will provide plenty of conversation about things like old versus new technology, immortality, and the need for a satisfying quest. Even if your group isn’t meeting, give yourself a little gift and read it on your own. I finished it with a warm, fuzzy glow, and we all can use a little more glow this time of year.
This book is filled with items that normally drive me crazy – deep thoughts, lingering descriptions of nature, and a bad mommy to rival Joan Crawford. Fortunately, Frazier firmly roots all of these elements to his story and his characters, and makes what could have been laughably trite, engaging and meaningful. Luce and the children are at the heart of that, but other characters, make memorable appearances, too. My favorite was Sally the elderly pony, who (deep thought alert) keeps her “ears aimed forward, alert and hopeful for the next significant thing to appear,” while treading the same circular pattern, watching the same scenery go by again and again. I also enjoy a well-done, slow reveal, and Frazier does a good job of this by interweaving “present” day events, flashbacks, character narratives, and utilizing odd, but oddly right, tone and phrasing (“Luce’s new stranger children”, for example – “stranger” both because Luce has never met them and because they are quite peculiar). The pace is slow and maybe a bit sprawling at times, but I actually found myself looking forward to its relaxed rhythm. Still, you know, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. I suspect some might find my satisfying “slow reveal” to just be painfully slow.
Olive Kitteridge: Fiction
This was a well-written, absorbing read. I liked it, and it’s one of those books that stayed with me and that I liked even more as I continued to think about it after I finished reading it. The book consists of a collection of portraits of the characters populating a small town in Maine and follows the minor joys and upsets of their daily lives, as well as the more cataclysmic events. The focus is on Olive K. – each of the chapters is either directly from her perspective, or from another character’s, who has some connection to Olive. Some of my favorite chapters are about the characters that are further out of Olive’s orbit: e.g., her former student who returns to town as an adult and encounters Olive as he’s on the verge of a life altering decision; a couple in town who see Olive and her husband at a Christmas concert, the same night of a sad revelation in their marriage. Even these seemingly minor characters illuminate Olive’s story and character, and the constantly shifting points of view humanize her and undermine the impulse to simply label her as unlikable and write her actions off as unreasonable. Still, she is hard to like, and so for me this book does depend on the company Olive keeps. Every character is so well written, they could be a book in themselves. They are so well crafted and realistic they could walk out of the pages, and maybe that’s my one complaint. These people are a little too realistic . . . everyone is a walking bundle of damage and neuroses. This book could be a teaching text for future therapists!
My scanner started malfunctioning recently. It refuses to replicate a document as a whole, unified document. Instead it breaks it into numerous, discrete elements– paragraphs, pictures, captions, sentences, etc. – from within the document. Like my scanner, Our Tragic Universe, is fixated on multitudes of individual elements. Multiple plotlines stop and start. Some resolve, some don’t. Some are relevant to the main storyline. Some are not. Meg and her friends get together for meals, lectures, and holidays to discuss narrative structure, magic, knitting, immortality, dog behavior and psychology, and other topics weighty and mundane. Storylines move back in time, then in to the present again. It is all very dynamic, entertaining, and sometimes even fascinating. But through it all, I kept wondering, “where is this going?” and “what does it all mean?” I suspect these are not questions I am supposed to be focusing on, but I think I may just be the kind of person who always looks for some kind of meaning in the universe. Meg, on the other hand . . . she would probably ask me, “Is the scanner broken?”
Of course, it's great. Jane Austen told such a beautiful love story that you often see it repeated in subtle and not so subtle ways in so many other books.
The idea that things/people are more then they may seem at first. The idea that Elizabeth could have more on her mind then just marriage, and that that could lead to the perfect match.
My grandma was married for the first time when she was 28 years old. And this was back in the 40s, so that was considered VERY old. I once asked her why did she get married so late in life? She schoffed and said, "Well, I was busy!" I imagine Elizabeth saying the same... just in much more flowy language. ;)
That one of my little ones spit up on my book and it smells like carrots. Other then that... can't really think of anything.
Fun and easy! Which is about all I can handle most of the time. :) I absolutely love that it is based on the author's real life. I didn't love that she had to go through it, but that she went through it and made something of it!
Seriously, VERY easy to read. Very easy to relate to getting totally screwed up by some guy, whom was probably no good for you anyway. And who hasn't wanted easy answers sometimes? Whether that be a psychic or a friend?
The character is a little too into the idea of being in a relationship to be happy, but I guess that is part of her struggle.
As I was describing this book to a friend and telling her how much I liked it, it took me a while to register the look of horror and disbelief on her face. “How could you stand reading something like that . . . about that?” was her reaction. Oops. Unlike the savvy publisher that constructed the dust jacket summary, I made the mistake of beginning my description with a summary of the basic plot – a ripped-from-the-headlines story that would give anyone nightmares. But it is difficult not to linger now on these basic plot facts because I still cannot get over how rarely I lingered on the horror of them while I was reading the book. That in a nutshell is the wonder of this book for me. Through Jack’s perspective, horrible circumstances are mundane and even joyful. Mundane and joyful is terrifying, or at least perplexing. Not because anything is wrong with Jack. This is just how his life is. Jack’s voice is so innocently clear, strong, and matter of fact that it is almost impossible to completely withdraw back into your own point of view while you are reading. This is one of the most unusual, original, and well-written books I have read in a while. It will be a great conversation piece for book club.
So Brave, Young, and Handsome: A Novel
One of the best books I’ve read! The narrator of this book, Monte Becket, is a best-selling author of a work of popular fiction book, and I’ll just make use one of his favorite book reviews, because I cannot describe it any better, to say that this is “an enchanting and violent yarn spun in the brave hues of history.” The book lightly shadows the literary touchstone of Don Quixote, with Becket as the Sancho Panza, everyman sidekick – first, joyfully following Glendon Dobie/Hale on his quest to find his former love, then miserably, accompanying the detective Charles Siringo on Siringo’s quest to capture Glendon, and finally, on his own, searching for Glendon. The book chronicles the men’s journey/chase from Minnesota to California, and Enger’s description of the exploits along the way is vivid and compelling – e.g., the 60 pound snapper turtle caught to be dinner that saves itself by outsmarting Becket, and then ends up saving Becket’s and Glendon’s lives, Hood Roberts’ mythic ride on the wild horse Spook – many of these are borderline tall-tales, just pushing the boundary of realism, but never annoyingly so. Enger’s language and turns of phrase are beautiful, precise, and true. “. . . vanity is a devious monkey. “You are no failure, on a river. The water moves regardless . . . .” “. . . fatigue lay on him like blown dirt.” “She believed romance was no mere ingredient but the very stone floor on which life makes its fretful dance.” That last line, I think, is what this book boils down to, by the way. Glendon has finally learned it. Siringo never does. And this is what Becket learns from the two men.
In the end, what I really liked about this book is how much there is to say about it. It’s a love story disguised as a western. No, it’s about male friendship. No, it’s about the perils of vanity. Let’s trace the imagery of Don Quixote. Let’s talk about the symbolism of water. Hood Roberts, hero or villain? This is a perfect book club book!
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Like the title itself, this book has an unusual rhythm. Practically every sentence is a line of poetry, packed with elaborate, vivid images, and the meaning is not always obvious on first impression. It is a challenging read, not a page-turner, and it has a style and tone unto itself. I found it sort of lovely, which may sound funny for a “scary” novel, but this is not the type of scary that keeps an adult reader on pins and needles. I read this book when I was a kid. Then, it was that scary. Mysterious carnival. Menacing witch. Scary men. People disappearing. Being chased . . . constantly. As an adult reader, though, more commonplace fears propel the story – growing old, losing our friends, losing love, feeling misunderstood. These do not make for page-turning suspense, but aren’t they the monsters that really do keep us up at night?
Starvation Lake: A Mystery
This was a great read. Smooth and easy prose, which I definitely appreciate! It’s a mystery with an emphasis on character and setting that you don’t always find in that genre – and not just a mystery, but a multi-mystery. It has your standard whodunit twists and turns (to the nth degree!), but it is also a “what did he do?” and “how is he ever going to get out of that?” because in addition to the unfolding murder mystery, the narrator, Gus Carpenter, has his own secrets to reveal about how far he went to win a Pulitzer prize and what brought him back to Starvation Lake when he worked so hard to get out of there in the first place. My favorite thing about the book was the devoted attention given to developing the characters, not just the main characters, but the entire small-town cast. Interesting and unexpected details are provided about everyone (some important to the plot, some not) – Gus’s mom’s fast talking, Joanie’s dislike of swearing, Coach’s refusal to step out on the ice with his right foot – and no one’s life history goes untold. It’s just as I imagine life would be in a small town. Everyone knows everything. The oppressiveness that comes along with this is obvious, and we see its affect on Gus. But ultimately it’s many of these same characters who help Gus see the truth that he’d been “walking around in the middle of” for years and help him put his own past in perspective.
It’s the end of the world as we know it. Again. This is our sixth time around the end-of-world in the BB Club House (see list at end – all recommended reads), and our BB sampling is just the tip of the iceberg. Does this end-of-days publishing zeitgeist suggest we all have some issues to work out? If so, I understand the collective need to face the fear. STATION ELEVEN lands in a summer full of ominous, real world events that provoked a chill I have never experienced before while reading this particular genre. The story circles around the essential elements of any classic disaster tale – that fine line between before “the end,” and after; learning who we really are; and figuring out what truly matters. What really won me over, though, is that the characters are completely normal people. No superheroes and no girl power (Kirsten, an exceptional knife thrower, does have a little). Just real people responding to incredible events. If anything does ever happen in our world, I hope I’m with someone like Jeevan, whose day-to-day anxiety disorder translates into an instant understanding of true catastrophe. Among other feats, he manages to transport, one at a time, on foot and in the snow, seven shopping carts of groceries from the store to his brother’s high-rise apartment - before most people even realize anything is wrong. STATION ELEVEN will make you sweat, but it may also give you some hope that you might survive an apocalypse . . . and, that you actually might want to.
Other BB Book Club END OF WORLD reads:
1. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
2. Lexicon by Max Barry
3. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
4. The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
5. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
It makes a certain kind of sense that the same country renowned for bringing us Steig Larsson’s spectacularly violent GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO series and Henning Mankell’s gruesome, dark and brooding KURT WALLENDER series (and see also, Jo Nesbo, Lars Kepler, etc., etc.) would also produce this novel. Ruthlessly upbeat, mind-numbingly boring, and itself unaccountably disturbing, it’s the Prozac antidote to the unending flood of Swedish crime thrillers. I’ll take my fiction dark and broody, thank you. This Swedish Forrest Gump is way too perky for me.
A woman in peril, a death, the hiring of an investigator. This standard mystery setup, along with a twist of ghost, nicely kicks off THE ANATOMY OF GHOSTS. Although “kicks” is probably too vigorous of a description for the pace of this mystery, which takes its time in laying out its ingredients, bringing them all together, and then, finally, delivering a kicker of an ending. For quite some time, I wondered, “Where is the mystery . . . and that ghost?” So much time is given to introducing so many characters, university politics, and seemingly minor details. But then I remembered I was not watching Law and Order. Not every story needs to be introduced, developed, and resolved in just 60-minutes. The fascination of this story is that slow-build, the layering of detail, the interaction among the characters, and the unexpected twists and loops that occur in both plot and character. All those characters, politics, and seemingly minor details? They matter – do not overlook any of them.
The story raises some very provocative questions, which was enough to keep me hooked through the whole book: When is life so bad that you would be grateful for the upheaval of war? To what lengths would you go to restore the life war made for you once the war is over? Is there any basis to justify that? Generally dull writing, inconsistent characters, stereotypically stupid men, and weirdly indiscriminate use of the F-word otherwise made this a plodding read, though. Some standout, strong moments did save the book from being a stinker. The prologue, written in Sari’s voice, is wonderful and energetic. I wish the whole book had been written from this perspective. Sari is a bit dull in the third-person. Another standout chapter is later in the book, written from the perspective of one of the village husbands, and providing some heartbreaking nuance and emotion to that side of the story. Not my favorite read ever, but much to ponder and debate – so still a good pick for book clubs.
This is a story about David Martin’s salvation. Or possibly his damnation. If you like a story with a clear resolution and a shiny, happy ending this may not be your book. If you appreciate the tense anticipation of wondering what might be lurking around the corner, roaming in the dark through a crumbling urban landscape, and the “Russian roulette of literature,” then I think you will find this book worth reading. It’s a book that takes books – and the art of storytelling – very seriously. It has twists and turns and pimples breaking out on subplots, and it has a phonebook size cast of characters coming and going, but once I settled in, the book turned out to be a good, old-fashioned page-turner with some mildly thought provoking reflections on the nature of writing, literature and religion, and a mind-twisting ending that asks you to reconsider everything you just read. While I sometimes found myself laughing at the sheer craziness of the plot, it was still compelling. The scenes are so vividly written and smartly paced that they practically play out in front of your eyes like panels in a comic strip or scenes from a film. All in all, it was definitely fun reading this book, sort of like well-written pulp fiction. I also can’t help but appreciate a story that is premised on the sanctity of the book (hey, this is a “book” club!). David is instructed that, “upon adopting a book you undertake to protect it and do all you can to ensure it is never lost.” In that spirit, I say to you, give this one a try!
The Art of Racing in the Rain
Garth Stein does a perfect job giving voice to the thoughts of canine narrator, Enzo . . . or, at least, Enzo says exactly what I would like to think my dogs are thinking. Enzo is a philosopher, a wry observer of human and animal behavior, loyal, kind, true, and always striving beyond his limits. He even babysits. How could I not love this dog? His companion Denny, a racecar driver spends most of the book learning to apply the lessons of racecar driving to the unexpected twists in life. The metaphors do hit you like a ton of bricks in this book, and there are some inexplicable character actions . . . but I’m not going to dwell on those. Enzo is a gift, and I would always be happy to take one more lap with him.
The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart
I thought the book was very good. I really enjoyed how each part of his life set him up for the next part of his life. For instance, how his sling shot training prepared him to be an expert marksmen. How having time to learn the harmonica gave him his career in show business. Living in the woods gave him something to base his writing career on. He did not learn something as a means to an ends. He did things because they felt right, then turned his new talents into something of use. I love that idea of following were life leads you, instead of trying to force your life in specific directions all the time.
I don't know if it it is just a publishing trend or the making of a new literary genre, but it seems like everywhere I turn there is another novel with a plot revolving around books. The Borrower is the latest entry in this pack, but it stands out by avoiding trite messages about the wonder of literature. Books can soothe, invigorate, and empower us. Sadly, though, books may not be able to save you from life's hardships. Even though we might like to think otherwise. This message brought to you by Lucy, an accidental librarian, who accidentally kidnaps/rescues Ian, a young book lover with an apparently troubled home life. I loved Ian from the moment he confessed that he had to tell his mom the library reading group was reading Little House in the Big Woods rather than Matilda because "she didn't even like Fantastic Mr. Fox." Poor kid. Lucy is less lovable, but her wry tone and lovely Russian mob family are just as entertaining. There are some lulls here and there, but overall great characters, snappy dialogue, and enough suspense to keep you hanging in there.
Everyone is under the spell of the prison in THE ENCHANTED, whether they know it or not. It “freezes” you, says the unnamed narrator, an inmate on death row. Even those who are physically free to come and go from the prison are just as enchanted as the inmates themselves. The only difference among them, perhaps, is that the inmates, with no possibility of freedom, have no hope of “thawing” until they die. The book never resorts to moralizing or advocacy, but you can’t help but reflect on human nature, free will, destiny, and circumstance as you get to know the different characters. The lady, haunted by shame from a neglected and abusive childhood, and sharing an upbringing eerily similar to many of the inmates, now works to save those inmates from death. The defrocked priest seeks atonement for his crimes by sending himself to prison, offering forgiveness to the inmates in their last moments. The warden prefers to be in the prison, which is a solace compared to his life at home as a grieving husband. I was captured by the story of whether these three would find their particular freedoms, and pleasantly surprised by the thoughtful exploration of human nature and redemption, even for the death row inmates. As in life, there are no obvious answers.
The Girl on the Train: A Novel
A solid thriller with standout characters, I probably would have loved this book if it hadn’t been completely oversold by some marketing genius as the latest GONE GIRL. It does have some things in common with GG: alternating perspectives, not just one, but two unreliable narrators, marriages that aren’t all they seem to be. But as good as it is, it’s not hard to see where THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is heading, and it lacks any of GG’s more subtle contemplation of marriage and its high stakes. That’s okay. I don’t expect that in a thriller. Just don’t set me up for it by telling me I’m getting a GG level thriller. Read this book without that expectation, and I expect you will quite like it.
The Girl with No Shadow (published in the UK as The Lollipop Shoes)
Loved it!! I just love thinking that magic does exist and watching it interweave in the lives of these interesting characters. Better still is sharing their experience and their relationship to their own magic.
How you had no idea who's perspective you were reading from till you were at least a paragraph into each chapter. And how that became actually more difficult as it went. Which I felt was a brilliant way to tell the story.
Zozie's true character and back story was a bit out there for even me.
Let’s just cut to the chase. This book is long – very long. For some, that automatically disqualified THE GOLDFINCH from your reading list. For those not put off by the length, who have strong arms, or just dashed off a new year’s resolution to increase your arm strength, continue with me. This book is not pointlessly bloated like a summer blockbuster movie. Its heft is the very point. Hold the book for a minute. Feel how heavy it is? That is just a fraction of the unending burden of shame, guilt and grief that Theo carries throughout his adolescence and into adulthood. The novel’s length also leaves room for countless characters, providing them plenty of opportunities to stretch, surprise, and disappoint. It’s a captivating cast, major and minor, and thank goodness for that because, while Theo is one of the most affecting and resonant portraits of grief I have read, his “poor me,” “what if?” naval-gazing can be a bit annoying at times. (Although a pretty accurate depiction of a teenager, now that I think about it.) I also can’t help but appreciate the wit of this weightiest of novels being named for such a tiny bird. Of course, a goldfinch is not merely a bird, but the work of art that is a keystone in Theo’s self-identity, and there’s much to contemplate about that whether you are reading on your own or with your book club. The Goldfinch painting, often a plot device (that “fateful object”), often a launching point for deep thoughts on art, life, and morality (“Can’t good come around sometimes through some strange backdoors”), and never just a painting, is a character in its own right. But, enough from me. Don’t spend your time reading reviews – read the book!
It’s no spoiler that Hildy Good is a not-exactly-recovering alcoholic. Hildy’s story is in the “not exactly” part and her conviction that she can drink only a little bit. I know, I know, I know. This is a classic rationalization. We’ve all seen the after school special, and we all know how it ends. What’s different in this story is, while I knew Hildy was just making excuses, and I knew how it would all end up for her, I also felt the lure of the alcohol and I (almost) believed the rationalizations. Kind of scary to walk in those shoes, but very cool to read a story that can so completely take you out of your own head and into someone else’s.
The Heretic's Daughter: A Novel
It’s a brave author that tries to tread on the same path as Arthur Miller and his Crucible. Kent tries out a different take on the Salem witch trials by viewing it through the eyes of a young girl and her relationship with her mother/accused witch. As the mother of a 5 year-old daughter who already thinks she’s smarter than me, I can’t say that I didn’t take some pleasure in Sarah’s discovery that her mother was actually a selfless and noble figure, not the “witch” she thought had no tender feelings for her and the rest of her family. Some interesting details of Puritan life are described, and the prison scenes are pretty harrowing. Overall, though, I thought the writing level might be more suitable for a young adult novel.
The Hierophant of 100th Street
Hold on to your hats, Hierophant readers, there is MUCH to take in with this book: philosophy, religion, spirituality, classism, racism, cultural conflicts, war, jail, sex, drugs, and more. No question, there will be plenty of things to discuss in book group. At its core, this is an appealing story. The idea that we are all here for a reason of our own choosing (although we may not remember the reason or the choosing) is not necessarily new, but seeing it play itself out among many of the characters was definitely interesting. Often, though, the characters seem to be just mouthpieces for narration and lecture, not characters in a story. One standout character was Clifford Bias. The chapters devoted to him do a nice job of conveying his humor, weariness and wisdom – as well as his transformative effect on those around him.
A semi-sprawling, multi-character saga that reads well, but ultimately does not deliver. Uninspired plot points pulled straight from current events – school shootings, unemployment, home foreclosures – are somewhat differentiated from your morning news because you are dropped into the heads of some emotionally complex characters, and their complicated relationships with each other. Almost every character, though, is flavored with at least a dash of quirkiness, as if eccentricity is a requirement for those residing in the vicinity of San Francisco. Bottom line – it’s not hard to guess how and where these characters will end up, and to the extent there are any surprises, that’s mostly the result of contrived coincidences cooked into the plot.
Reading this novel is like taking part in an archaeological dig and watching the present-day get progressively further buried under layers of history. The trick, of course, is in how to interpret those layers. The narrative framework creates moments of revelation (mysteries are solved!), flashes of insight into the truths, lies, and myths spawned by each generation of residents, and – as the present gets buried deeper and deeper – a great deal of satisfaction in no longer having to read about the frankly bizarre, mostly baffling, and completely unlikable Zee, the present day representative of the Devohr family, owners of the nominal house. Aside from this complaint with Zee, I have no others. Fun, thoughtful, and thought-provoking, this book will help you make a smooth transition out of your summer vacation and back into the complicated work of life.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
There are very few medical advances that we do not owe to Henrietta Lacks and her immortal HeLa cells. Have you ever heard of her, though? Probably not, and that’s why Skloot is out to finally get all the facts on record. In the process, she provides a first-rate education about advances in science and medicine, the development of patients’ rights and informed consent, the sordid history of medical testing in African American communities, and whether we have a property right in our own body parts. She also puts you through an emotional wringer, describing the perseverance and heartbreaking circumstances of the Lacks family. Like all my favorite non-fiction, this book is meticulously researched and fact-checked, but still reads like a page-turning novel that you can’t put down. This is due just as much to Skloot’s clear, compelling prose as to the, sometimes unbelievable, elements of the story she is telling. Skloot lays it all out and leaves it up to the reader to draw our own conclusions about what happened to Henrietta Lacks and her family and what should happen with the future of bioethics. I’m still thinking about this book days after I finished it.
The Interestings: A Novel
It begins with the christening of “the Interestings,” a handful of teens gathered at a performing arts camp who name their group partly in jest, partly from insecurity, and partly because it would be so gosh darn gauche to identify themselves by what they really aspire to (and just maybe believe they already are) – the specials, the amazings, the extraordinaries. It is a scene that is funny, cringe inducing, and sympathetic all at the same time. Who hasn’t been a teenager? Who didn’t have these same earnest conversations with their besties, bursting out with unintentionally pompous pronouncements like, “This will sound pretentious . . . but I want to not think about myself so much.” Ouch. What happens when the Interestings grow up (or do they grow up?) is the rest of the story. It is an interesting story. Funny. Engaging. Well-written. But also tedious. The self-centered, naval gazing that was so entertaining and understandable when the characters were teens is just annoying when they no longer have their youth as an excuse. I’m sure the childish behavior of grown-ups is part of the point, but by the end I was just too irritated to care.
Like the title, the whole story is written with a curious, but somehow totally appropriate, blend of humor and tragedy. One example: a list of so-called celebrities who are among the departed, concluding with a statement from the Food Network that, "the small world of superstar chefs had been disproportionately hard hit." Another: "a chorus line of karate kids," participants in the first annual Departed Heroes' Day of Remembrance and Reflection. Am I the only reader to picture a row of miniature Ralph Macchios? However, it is the tragedy that stays with me after finishing the book. To say this is a book about grief is stating the obvious, but the overall mood is still matter of fact, the tone straightforward and undemanding. Is this to underscore that all grief is unique? Or, maybe to avoid any hint of judgment? Each character represents a particular response to loss, and while other characters judge and react to that response, I had no inclination to judge any of them. Food for thought. And there is plenty more of that in this book, making it an excellent choice for book club.
The Maid's Version: A Novel
You will be hard pressed to find a single flaw among the well-chosen words, beautifully drafted sentences, and surprisingly hilarious observations that comprise this short novel. At first, too caught up in the master craftsmanship, I was not at all taken in by the book. But, after two seemingly underwhelming chapters, I decided to start over from the beginning, and the second time around I realized the key to this short novel is that it can – and should – be read from start to finish in just one or two sittings. Read like that, it’s as if you are listening to a fireside tale. All the social conflicts, sibling solidarity, and small town pettiness, rivalries, and unexpected kindnesses weave themselves into the real life fairy tale/nightmare told by Alma and her grandson. THE MAID’S VERSION is not a page-turner. It’s not intended that way. In the end, the answer to “who-done-it?” really is just the “maid’s version” after all. We are meant to savor every word and hopefully feel as satisfied at the end of the story as Alma’s boys are after eating a bowl of her ramshackle stew. I definitely was. If others aren’t, well that sounds like the making of a great book club discussion.
This book was a real page-turner, but only because I was in such a hurry to get it over and done with. It starts out promising, with a teaser intro from the energetic Go-Go. It even stirs up some lovely, nuanced moods. Remember when we used to play for endless hours, unsupervised, with our friends? Lippman evokes that blend of exhilaration and trepidation as the kids explore beyond their “safe” neighborhood boundaries, as well as the tolerance and guilt of the parents that look the other way to avoid knowing whether their kids are actually breaking the rules. Unfortunately, we never hear directly from Go-Go again after the intro, which is a disappointment as his is the most engaging voice of all the characters. Instead, the story hiccups among mostly indistinguishable characters, the plot unfolds without any tension or excitement, and in the end “the most dangerous thing” really isn’t all that dangerous or interesting.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel
Blood and gore, a suddenly absent mother, an unexpectedly monstrous dad, actual monsters, and even a little bit of sex, but somehow this book still reads like a tender fairy tale. Like any good fairy tale, its surface layer is a straightforward lesson. Simply taken, “Children, do what you’re told (don’t let go of Lettie’s hand).” Dig deeper, though. There’s so much more to contemplate. What does it mean to leave childhood behind? To love? To have a hole in your heart that leaves you restless and yearning for another place? I enjoyed OCEAN on all levels and was a little sad to depart its terrifying and magical universe.
I wasn’t too far into The Other Life before I was longing to do almost anything other than read this book. Alternate universes, parallel lives, and the road not taken (or taken after all) are usually irresistible catnip for me. But this story was less subtle than a daytime soap opera. With rare exception, the characters are so obvious in their flaws and virtues that it is clear from the outset which life Quinn will choose – which life she has to choose. Try Lionel Shriver’s, The Post-Birthday World, for a 5 out of 5 story that explores similar themes.
The Editor’s introduction identifies two thoughts that perfectly capture my reading experience. First, that David Foster Wallace "set out to write a novel about some of the hardest subjects in the world - sadness and boredom - and to make that exploration nothing less than dramatic, funny, and deeply moving." Second, that "there is no question that The Pale King would be vastly different had [DFW] survived to finish it." My whole time reading, I could not stop thinking about that second point as I made my way through this engaging, but often challenging book - is this the book that DFW intended me to see, and how different is it from what might he have "finished"? But maybe that's more of a philosophical question or a readers' ethics debate, as there is much to appreciate and enjoy in this book. The spot on portrayal of today’s desk jockey ("True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space." "Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemerally, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui - these are the true hero's enemies, and make no mistake they are fearsome indeed. For they are real.") The many and varied ways in which utter tedium and mind-numbing repetition is brought to life, fought, vanquished, and sometimes not vanquished (One character tries to focus his concentration by imagining a beach scene, which evolves into "solid cement instead of sand and the water was gray and barely moved, just quivered a little, like Jell-O that's almost set . . . . Unbidden came ways to kill himself with Jell-O.") The slow reveal of each of the characters, and their painful, particular problems (e.g., "Fear of spiral notebooks, the kind with the spiral or wire down the spine; fear of fountain pens - though not felt-tip or ballpoint pens, unless the ballpoint is one of those expensive ones with an aspect of permanence - Cross or Montblanc, the kind that look gold - but not plastic or disposable ballpoints"). And the funny. Sometimes laugh out loud funny (one character's life changing epiphany comes while watching the intro to the soap opera, As the World Turns, hearing the voiceover intone, "you are watching, As the World Turns," and realizing "that the announcer was actually saying over and over what I was literally doing."). Reading David Foster Wallace has been on my to-do list for a very long time. Although the "Unfinished Novel" may not have been the best place to have started, I will most definitely be reading more.
You can’t help but root for Hadley Hemingway. She managed to break away from a cheerless, tedious Midwestern life for a great love and great adventure only to find herself in the grip of Ernest Hemingway’s whims, vanity, and uncontrollable mood-swings. What type of woman survives being cast off by Hemingway as his first wife, but still inspired him to write a tribute to her as his last novel? As depicted in The Paris Wife, the passion and self-regard that propelled Hadley out of her cocoon in St. Louis dissipates into self-pity, passive aggressiveness, and co-dependency once she’s married. Truth or fiction? We cannot know, but this fictionalized Hadley is kind of pathetic, one-dimensional, a stereotype of the long-suffering artist’s wife, and kind of a waste of fictionalizing. While this book is generally a nicely written account of the Hemingways’ life and travels together, and their pet names for each other, I would look for other sources to explore Hadley Hemingway’s character.
Much happens in THE PAYING GUESTS, much of it pleasantly unexpected. It just happens very slowly. I was sometimes breathless with anticipation wondering what would happen next for Frances and Lily and Leonard Barber, but I could have passed out while the story meandered along to resolution. A little tension building is wonderful. Lollygagging deflates that tension like a day-old party balloon. Waters’ gorgeous writing did ease my pain. When Frances first recognizes the shift in her relationship with an acquaintance to something more: “It was like the white of an egg growing pearly in hot water, a milk sauce thickening in the pan. It was as subtle yet as tangible as that.” Then, when Frances fears that relationship has ended: “Would she return to her old life . . . like a snake having to fit itself back into a desiccated skin?” The entire book is like this – spot-on, insightful descriptions, clean, crisp dialogue, and a smooth interweaving of social, economic and political issues. But oh, the exquisite misery of a beautifully written, but slow-going story. As much as I appreciated and enjoyed the standout materials of this book, I still heard my internal voice shouting “get on with it” a few too many times.
“We don’t have to make a career out of it.” How many times have I spoken similar words to soothe a sense that I’m about to step into something that isn’t quite right? The main pleasure of THE PROFESSIONALS is seeing this spin out in the extreme. Will this kidnapping “profession” actually work out as planned, or end an epic fail? Just enough twists and shocks are included to keep you from feeling certain you know the answer. Although the characters are essentially preset for this kind of story (the brain, the beauty, the cop, the mobster), they are given just enough heft, flaws, and humorous dialogue to rise above the level of cliché. As for the story . . . there are, possibly, some lessons to be learned. Maybe it’s that my boring desk job isn’t so bad after all? However, this book doesn’t really scream “deep thoughts.” It is simply a quality, fun read – perfect for plane travel or summer reading.
The Pursuit of Other Interests: A Novel
At first, this book seems to be the typical story of a workaholic who has sacrificed his family life for career advancement. But wait, Charlie Baker is not just your typical workaholic. To add insult to injury, he’s not even good at his high powered job – the ad agency he runs has tanked under his direction, and he spends his lengthy days at the office obsessing over how to get his employees to lose weight, the location for the annual summer outing, and how to wrest back control over the agency book club he established. Despite his best mad man efforts to sell this as “work” (his memo about how everyone should lose weight is titled “Project Shape Up”; the book club is pitched as an “effort to improve morale” . . . actually that last part sounds accurate!), he is fired. And thus begins his long and foible-filled journey back to his family and his better self. Yes, the plot is a bit predictable, but the characters, dialogue, and scenes are all sharply written and laced with humor. Overall, I liked the book, but something seemed off. The end strikes an odd note of indulgence and luxury, especially in contrast to all the other characters we meet. I get it that this book is about Charlie learning to cultivate the non-work parts of his life, but I would have also liked to see Charlie buckle down and deal with those finances that he spent much of the book worrying about. But, maybe that’s just because I’m not in his $400k income bracket ;-)
Vampires again. Suburban, British vampires. Given the vast quantity of vampire lit and entertainment that already envelops us, it takes something truly innovative to contribute a fresh idea to the mix. The Radleys doesn’t quite get there, but it is still an entertaining read. The point, after all, of any vampire book isn’t really the vampire. It’s what the vampire reflects back to us about our humanity. Self-acceptance and the meaning of family are the lessons offered here. Sounds a little corny, but fast-paced writing, good humor (vegan vampire), and just the proper level of gruesomeness set the right tone for these vampires.
Here’s one with a little something for everyone. Mystery! Romance! Adventure! Travel! Medieval times! Hildegard is the Nancy Drew of the convent set. She crosses the Alps in the heart of winter and survives a blizzard. She practices archery, intuits fine points of law, and never gets seasick. In her spare time she tends to lepers. And, every man she meets falls in love with her, wishes she was his mother, or wants to kill her. The subtitle of this book is “A Mystery,” and I have to say, this was one mystery that really kept me guessing. Unfortunately, I think that had more to do with my ignorance of the political deception surrounding young King Richard II’s reign over England, than with this being a particularly well-crafted whodunit. I definitely appreciate any author’s decision not to pander to her readers, but I wonder how many readers will be able to get through this one without resorting to a little side research.
The Sense of an Ending (Borzoi Books)
Nothing sets me on edge like an unreliable narrator. Done right, it gives a powerful, and sometimes surprising, perspective to a story. Done wrong, it’s just misleading, pretentious, or even pointless. So with the immediate announcement that "what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you witnessed," and a practically page-by-page reminder that we should treat his memories and perceptions with skepticism, I was not kindly inclined toward this book. And, for goodness sake, if you bother to take this approach, then, at least, grant me the favor of an awesome payoff when you reveal what the narrator missed. Here? Meh. This plot would not even warrant a storyline on any of the soap operas that still play on daytime television (RIP All My Children). That said, I did actually enjoy the book. Its language is wonderful, and it is wonderfully compact. It expertly captures the simultaneous idiocy and wisdom of adolescents, the pain and grace of aging, and the small ways we hurt each other and ourselves. I don’t think I needed to be beaten over the head about Tony’s untrustworthy memory, but as annoyingly unreliable Tony is as a narrator, he does perfectly illustrate how moments of self-clarity often simply sink back down into a giant ocean of self-delusion. In the end, there is even a pretty good payoff to the book. I'm just not sure I can trust it.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: A Novel
I should hate this book. It’s sentimental, trite, and predictable. Curmudgeon with a heart of gold? Check. Will this curmudgeon’s golden heart be revealed to the world? Naturally. Will this reveal be abundant with clichés? Indeed. But from start to finish, clichés and all, I loved it. I was in fact a crying mess by the end. I am a huge cynic (see: “I should hate this book”), so kudos to Zevin for expertly hitting all the marks and yanking my rusty heartstrings. There is no guilt in this pleasurable read.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
This is a fun murder mystery (and how many times do you see “fun” and “murder” right next to each other, really?). It’s steeped in the basic traditions of English mystery novels, but spiced up with modern touches like serious sibling rivalry, post-traumatic stress disorder, and English class disparity. Oh, and the narrator is a brutally precocious 11-year old. Now, there was a time that I loved the traditional murder mystery, but that time has passed – they tend to be pretty formulaic and after a while you catch on. However. This one does receive decently high marks from me as a standout due to the fabulously funny voice of Flavia de Luce, and the fact that trying to figure out her own family is as much of a mystery to her as the murder itself.
p.s. If you can, do read the Delacorte Press hardcover edition of this book. It’s much smaller than your typical hardcover. Every time I held it I was sent straight back to my days of reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, which when I was a kid, were also published as these tiny hardbacks.
The Thieves of Manhattan: A Novel
It is easy to launch into Oprah-like rage about someone passing his fiction off as memoir. More interesting, though, is to consider why did James Frey go there in the first place. And also, why did Oprah get so mad? This book goes all those places and beyond. It is also a weirdly high-speed page-turner that somehow left me feeling cold and slightly unsatisfied. Perhaps it is all the inside references about the publishing business? All in all, though, I liked it for the provocative questions it raises. What does it mean to be authentic and what does it matter?
The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise: A Novel
The book jacket proclaims that this book is “brimming with charm, whimsy and wonder,” and I was unsure that I would be able to handle such unrelenting cuteness. My fears were put to rest shortly along in the story, however, as soon as the Tower’s ravens bit off Mrs. Cook’s tail following an hours long, slow motion military advancement on the poor tortoise. Charm, whimsy and wonder are present and accounted for, but all are fortunately balanced by a pleasantly dark humor. Take, the Tower chaplain. He devises ingenious deathtraps to eradicate the rats that have so solidly infested his chapel they actually nibble on his robes while he kneels in prayer. He also has an award-winning side career in erotic fiction. But, he’s actually very sensitive and just looking for love. Most of the characters are written in this same manner – funny, but sympathetic portraits of individuals dealing with life’s major and minor disruptions. Stuart also manages to generate a nice blend of melancholy and merriment as the characters work to connect, or not, with others. Can’t we all relate to Hebe Jones’ “horizontal position of defeat” as she grapples with the chasm that has risen between her and her husband, but don’t we all wish we could also occupy that position in a magician’s box like she does? For clever writing like that, as well as the outstanding decision to include the zorilla, sugar glider (small flying possums that get depressed if you don’t give them enough attention), and glutton in the Queen’s menagerie, I recommend this book. By the way, do not worry about Mrs. Cook. If you recall your fables, you know the tortoise will prevail.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: A Novel
Harold Fry’s “unlikely” decision to just keep walking to deliver his note to a terminally ill friend, rather than mail it, has all manner of intriguing elements – a mysterious break in the past with said friend; a mysterious lack of communication between father and son; and a mysterious (or maybe not so mysterious) lack of communication between Harold and his wife. The meandering way that all is revealed fits the long, somewhat roundabout journey that Harold takes through England, and culminates in a surprisingly satisfying, emotionally wrenching ending. Getting to the end, however, was touch and go due to the absurdly obvious pronouncements that repeatedly punctuate Harold’s journey. Everything that happens is pre-digested, re-stated, and spoon-fed back again: “The past was the past; there was no escaping your beginnings. Not even with a tie.” “Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.” “But it was never a race. It was the journey that mattered.” Was the author worried that the reader would be too young, distracted, or stupid to understand the events and interactions they just read about? Harold’s irritating tic of stating the obvious did make me consider giving him a toss, but I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t. The guts of the book are good, Harold is basically a sweetie, and the end does totally deliver.
Chick lit for the English lit crowd. An entertaining read with eccentric characters that generally manage to charm rather than annoy. The sisters’ stories are predictable, but still satisfying. I’m not sure all the Shakespearean bits were entirely necessary. If so, their import often passed me by, and I felt gratified that the sisters, too, admitted they often did not understand what their father meant with his Shakespeare quotes. It is the sisters’ voices, separately, and sometimes grouped together into a single narrative “we” that really gives the book a distinctive spark. Here is the complexity of sisters in a nutshell – each completely (sometimes infuriatingly) different, but with a common family history that inescapably binds them together.
The Year of the Flood: A Novel
What if all those “twisted fanatics who combine food extremism with bad fashion sense and a puritanical attitude towards shopping” are correct – what if society and the world as we know it really are on a path towards destruction? The Year of the Flood presumes, “yes” to that question and provides a glimpse into such a future. The future is not as someone once said, plastics. But it might be maggots (not as gruesome as you might think, and also something folks debating the current high costs of health care might want to look into). If you have read Margaret Atwood before, you will recognize many of her trademark touches here – multi-dimensional female characters with sometimes questionable judgment, men who cannot be counted on (though you still cannot help but like them), a sharp eye for the arbitrary nature of societal stratification, and a strong sense of humor that’s used just as often to make a point as it is to make you laugh. I like all of those things. Especially enjoyable in Flood are the complex, imperfect characters and their relationships with each other. The main narrators, Toby and Ren, could easily have been caricatures of female empowerment or victim-hood, but they rarely come across that simple. I loved, for example, that after displaying feats of self-reliance and heroism to save herself and others, Toby learns that a past unrequited love is still alive and can’t help but think, “Did he look for me?” One disappointment I did have, is that about 20 pages in, I realized that Flood was related to Atwood’s previous novel, Oryx and Crake, and after reading on, I realized it’s not just related to that book, it is deeply interconnected with it. While Flood is a satisfying read in itself, I think that the two together provide a richer development of several of the characters, as well as a more fulfilling exploration of questions raised in each book about science, nature and spirituality. I wish that Flood had been explicitly identified as a companion to Oryx and Crake, because I ended up feeling a bit misled, which needlessly undermined my overall enjoyment of the book.
This collection of short stories may cause you to scream in exasperation or fury, but do not let that stop you from finishing the book. Your screams will be directed at Yunior, who appears in almost every story. He’s a smart man, but oh so foolish in matters of the heart. No, foolish is too generous. More like immature, reckless, irresponsible, and arrogant. But somehow, still enthralling. Maybe it’s that he doesn’t dwell on his actual accomplishments or try to recast his failures as victories. Instead, he painstakingly recounts his heartbreaks and failed relationships and spares no gory detail in pinpointing his own responsibility forthose failures. He rarely offers excuses. The same cycle of love and failure plays out again and again, but this seems to be just as much because he yearns for love as it is because he fails to correct his poor behavior. I was rooting for Yunior the whole time I was screaming at him. And I adore any book that finishes faithful to its story and dares to end without “they lived happily ever after.”
This thriller tries to rise above the rest with complex characters, non-human points-of-view, and by boosting the fright and gore to 11. Sometimes it works. Jason, disagreeable, disgruntled, and altogether unlikeable unraveling into self-preserving panic as grave after grave is discovered in his yard, and then evolving into something . . . better. Sometimes it doesn’t. Dog-human telepathy? Plot holes, coincidences, and oversights the size of sinkholes. Yes, this was one intense thriller, but the only the thing that has stuck with me after reading it is the nursery rhyme that apparently inspired the title. Get out of my head black sheep!
I was immediately caught up and carried away by the book’s slightly comical set-up (Hey, what a wonderful birthday gift . . . my dead Uncle’s journal?), and the alternating chapters narrated by Uncle (Mike) and Nephew (Sean). The back and forth between Mike and Sean is pretty technically marvelous, actually, as they describe their personal journeys and respective trips to Ireland in different eras. At times, I found myself losing track of whether I was reading about Mike or about Sean, but as the story develops, it seems that this confusion might be part of the point. Somewhere along the way, I did find myself starting to get a wee bit bored. Maybe it was being forced to read the Reincarnation 101 lecture twice-over, as first Mike, and then Sean, is stirred from disbelief to enlightenment. If Mike and Sean and Kate and Declan are right, this probably isn’t the first time I’ve heard it anyway. The story, the characters, and the witty Irish retorts kept me happily hanging in until the end, though.
Walking to Gatlinburg: A Novel
About a quarter along in his journey to Gatlinburg (and into the novel itself), Morgan Kinneson worries that he is “adrift in a world compared to which the most fantastical depictions in E.A. Poe’s stories seemed ordinary.” Agreed. This novel rivals Apocalypse Now in creepy crazies and dark hearts. However, these ghoulish elements invigorate what might otherwise have been a fairly standard tale of a boy becoming a man. In this version, we consider the following: You can keep the boy out of the war, but can you keep the war out of the boy? Although Morgan himself seems a bit too unbelievably naïve (especially with the ladies) and also just a bit too physically amazing, he is accompanied on his journey by an engaging, diverse supporting cast of characters, including an extremely loyal elephant. The novel also has a great appreciation for landscape. The mountains, valleys, caves and waterways Morgan travels are characters in themselves. Actually, so is Morgan’s rifle. Four pages are devoted to the handcrafting of “Lady Justice” – and this is actually compelling reading. Plus, did I mention there are creepy crazies?
When Mystical Creatures Attack! (Iowa Short Fiction Award)
Sometimes, the most interesting part of a short story is what is left unwritten. That great economy of words leaves much interpretation to the reader, and that can be a source of delight or frustration, depending on the story – or on your personality. WHEN MYSTICAL CREATURES ATTACK is the best of all worlds. A series of short stories following the same characters, each story is like a laser cut jewel, with its own particular shine. No explanatory backstory. No context. But, cumulatively that backstory and context gradually emerge, revealing the meaning that runs through all the stories. Well, at least the meaning I thought ran through all the stories. The sign of any good book is a good argument over what it means, and my book club had a hearty debate on the subject, as well as what happened at “the end.” This book had me laughing out loud and near tears. Whether you will be debating it with your book group, or reading it on your own, do read it.