Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Hundred-Year House (Rebecca Makkai)

This is one of those books I'm going to have difficulty describing, isn't it? And it's delightful that that's the case, really it is. I loved this book dearly, so thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read it in exchange for a review.

Laurelfield is an estate in the Chicago area owned by the Devohrs, an illustrious Toronto family. At the beginning of the novel, in 1999, it's owned by Gracie, who has lived there for about forty years, and the servants' quarters are occupied by her daughter Zee and her husband Doug. Zee is a Marxist theory English professor and Doug is...in progress. He's been working on a thesis about the fictional poet Edwin Parfitt for years, but he can't seem to actually get it done. He finds out that Laurelfield used to be an artists' colony, one visited by Parfitt several times before his suicide, and he becomes obsessed with the idea that there might be undiscovered manuscripts or early drafts of poems that he could use for his biography. For Doug, the secrets of Laurelfield could make his career.

Gracie's second husband, Bruce, invites his son and daughter-in-law to live in the servants' quarters, too. Miriam, the daughter-in-law, is an artist who specializes in what I guess could be called "junk art" if you're being cruel and "works made from recycled materials" if you want to be nice, collages of old fabric and things lying about the house. Doug and Miriam form a fast friendship (is it more?) and he initiates her into the mysteries of Edwin Parfitt and Laurelfield. They band together to investigate the mystery of Laurelfield's (potentially haunted) past while Y2K rushes ever nearer and their tightly-wound relationships begin to unravel.

And then halfway through the book, we're 40 years earlier, and before the novel has ended, we've jumped twice more. Of course, the cast of characters change from jump to jump. Perhaps that will frustrate some readers, but Makkai is more than capable of using the technique: each section features characters fully realized, so lifelike that you'll want to hug them and slap them for being so silly and stupid and human. I am in awe of the author's power here, because I have read too many books with a single cast of characters that is paper-thin and annoyingly unrealistic, but Makkai chews her way through several, all to the same dazzling effect.

Life Drawing (Robin Black)

Ah, so these are the times we live in. A post-Gone Girl era where everyone wants to read more books about relationships that are filled with secrets or bad feelings, a renaissance of books about people being people. I have gotten sucked into it as much as any other person, I'll admit it, because I love soapy drama if it's done right. Alas, it seems as though that's harder to come by than one might think, given the proliferation of books in this vein.

Life Drawing is about a married couple, Augusta and Owen. Some years ago, Augusta had an affair with a man named Bill, and Owen, though devastated, worked through the problem and the couple stayed together. They live on a fairly isolated farm. Gus, as she calls herself, is a painter, and Owen is a writer, and the two of them enjoy their lives of solitude. Suddenly, however, they have a neighbor, Alison, a woman who comes with her own familial baggage, including a daughter Nora who occasionally visits and never fails to keep things interesting.

The novel really heats up in its last third, and for that third, it's stunning. Seriously. It's painful and precise and perfect, and I am giving you absolutely no details about what happens because that would destroy it. Black carefully plots this part, and it feels so high-stakes and surprising and sharp--in fact, the last third is the part of Life Drawing that reminded me most of Gone Girl, so that probably explains why I liked it so much

But what about first two-thirds? It's not dreadful--clearly, since I wouldn't have finished the book if I was bored with it--but it's...frustrating. Black is clearly a good writer, because the opening of the book sketches her characters so exactly and so quickly. It's almost startling how closely I thought I was to these characters, like I was an invisible third person that had lived with them for years.

Unfortunately, after introducing them once, the novel stalls out; we have to learn and then re-learn all the details of Owen and Gus's past and personalities, which I didn't enjoy because I felt like I knew them so well already. The book is also slowed down by Gus's frequent philosophizing, which half the time was excellent and the other half not fun.

So I suppose what I'm trying to say, then, is that the books feels like it only really gets started about 67% in. I would have loved to pick up the book for the final third and followed it after the point in which the book chooses it end--certainly it would have been a different novel. Of course, all of this more reflective of my own tastes in a book: I am more for the intrigue and the bad choices than I am for the regret and the thoughtful dwelling about it later.

My final statement: Life Drawing is a good book. If you want pensive thoughts about cheating and moving on, you're definitely in luck. But if you're looking for a drama that's a little juicier, you'll get it here, too, even if it's not instant gratification.

My rating: 3.5/5
Life Drawing on Goodreads
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Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Snicker of Magic (Natalie Lloyd)

Felicity Pickle is a word collector: she sees them swirling around people and she writes them down in her special notebook. Sometimes they're real, sometimes they're not. She is also a drifter. To be more exact, her mother is a drifter--whenever she feels as though she's beginning to settle into whatever town they've wandered to, her mom is ready to take off. Felicity is tired of the lifestyle, so when they wind up in Midnight Gulch, her mother's small, Southern hometown, she can't be more excited. This, she feels, is the place where her family can settle down.

Midnight Gulch, according to our narrator, is a town of magic; the families who have lived here for centuries used to have powers, like invisibility or emotionally-evocative cooking. But the magic dried up some time ago because of two brothers who were cursed by a witch, a curse Felicity wants to break because she believes it will stop her mother's restless travelling. She plans to do so with the help of her new-found friend, Jonah, and the rest of her family.

There was a lot about this book that called out to me. The most prominent of these is the magical realism of Midnight Gulch. I loved the moments in which we discover the backstory of a particular family and their particular power. Lloyd does such a great job using this to achieve surprising emotional depths: one family in particular has the ability to go invisible, and the story is very sad. It's exactly what I want out of my magical realism, to make me feel very real emotions from situations that aren't so real.

But the setting was the only thing that, for me, sparkled. It's possible to accuse the book of being a little aggressively Southern: A Snicker of Magic didn't want us to forget we were in a quaint town where people's big aspirations are to be country music stars. There are other good things in the book--Jonah, who is the town's anonymous do-gooder, was fun to read about, and I really enjoyed Felicity's aunt, Cleo. In fact, most of the characters are interesting and enjoyable, if a little dramatic in their despair.

The glaring exception, unfortunately, is our narrator herself. Felicity reminds me of Holden Caulfield in her constant repetition of certain words and phrases. It's not a technique I'm ever fond of, and I know from my cursory skimming of other reviews that this drove other readers just as crazy as it did me. "Spindiddly" is not a word I care to hear again. Lloyd is also a bit overfond of "uniquely" spreading text over the page, often as a way of ending chapters. It felt like a cheap transitional tool.

When Felicity sees words around people, they appear in a bolded, italicized list. It veers between gimmicky and fascinating, becomes sometimes she describes how the words make her feel, and when Lloyd goes in that direction, I found myself satisfied because they are truly moments of poetic joy. But when the words appear and without commentary, I was more peeved than pleased.

Ultimately, A Snicker of Magic was a good book. It really was. There's magical realism, which is almost always enough to sell me, and a well-fleshed cast of characters and a setting that feels like something from an HBO show (which I mean as a compliment even though I've never watched an HBO show). But it bugged me a little every now and again, and that's why I hesitate to rain down praise.

My rating: 4/5
A Snicker of Magic on Goodreads
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Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Riverman (Aaron Starmer)

Aaron Starmer's The Riverman really snaked its way into me. I was totally caught my surprise and before I knew what was happening, the book had wrapped itself around my heart and started squeezing me. Wow.

Alistair Cleary is a pretty normal boy living in a normal 1970s town. His neighbor, Fiona Loomis, is a little weird, and everyone knows it. One day, she asks him to write her biography, saying that she is thirteen despite only having had 12 birthdays. Alistair, with an eye for a good story, is intrigued and agrees. The story she tells him is strange--there is a magical world, Aquavania, that she has been called to over and over since her childhood, one where the only rules are her own, where she can stay as long as she likes but never ages physically.

She can create anything she'd like, and she does. Fiona discovers that other children inhabit worlds of their own that border hers, and that one by one they are disappearing as an entity called The Riverman enters their creations and steals their souls. She's scared and alone and she needs Alistair. The only problem for him is that he doesn't believe her. He's convinced that this is all an elaborate cover story for her problems at home but, concerned for her welfare, he continues listening to her tale.

The novel is about so many other things, though. It's about being a kid and going through weird stuff. It's about hiding and secrets. I really dislike making comparisons, but this book reminded me in all the right ways of The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Black Swan Green, and that's no small compliment; Gaiman and Mitchell are two of my favorite authors, and Starmer holds his own and gleams just as brightly with these two luminaries. The idea of these secret fantasy worlds we use to regularize the world around us, and about the observations of a child as he grows up, are pitch-perfect. Delightful.

Alistair is an engaging narrator--he never sounds too precocious or pretentious. He doesn't believe Fiona's story, but his doubts and questioning feel natural: he never slips into "annoying acceptance mode" where he tells us over and over how it's impossible, but demonstrates very realistic empathy and concern for this girl who is kind of weird and friendless. Fiona, too, is a stunning character, trusting and patient and frightened. You can almost feel the panic bubbling underneath her calm.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Noggin (John Corey Whaley)

I was hesitant to read this book only because its author, John Corey Whaley, also wrote Where Things Come Back, a novel with a premise that intrigued me, a Printz medal that convinced me, and an execution that disappointed me severely. Unfortunately, this book was much the same. Alas.

Clearly, I'm a sucker for interesting ideas, and the one behind Noggin is definitely promising. Travis Coates is sixteen and riddled with cancer--he's going to die, and everyone knows it. But a medical team comes to him in his last days and offers him a crazy chance: store his head cryogenically and, in a hundred years maybe, science will be advanced enough to transplant it onto another human's body. Knowing it's unlikely but with nothing to lose, Travis and his family agree to participate.

And then he wakes up five years later, attached to a perfectly healthy body. Travis can't tell that any time has passed, but everyone from his life--including his best friend Kyle, who confessed his homosexuality to Travis in one of their last conversations, and his girlfriend Cate--have had to mourn his death and move on. So he's more than a little surprised to find out Kyle has gone back in the closet and that Cate is engaged to a new boyfriend. Stuck at 16, since he didn't age a day during his cryogenic preservation, he has to return to high school while dealing with being a celebrity/miracle.

Too bad the book refuses to go anywhere interesting. The beginning of the book is fun, sure: Travis is struggling to adjust to the world, and for awhile at least, Whaley does a good job. I have spoken several times before about the danger of making a character "special": if you give your protagonist magic powers or a superhero ability that other people don't have, you then have to find a way to let the character adjust and absorb that power into his/her understanding of his/herself. I have read a lot of really terrible variations on this, sometimes even whole books devoted to the character struggling to understand this new "version" (yes, I'm talking about Divergent).

For Noggin, coming back to life is Travis' "power." I understand that it would be incredibly difficult to re-enter a world that has existed five years without you, but it seems that Travis can't do anything but fuss about it. I wanted the book to be exciting and exploratory, but it's just a bunch of paragraphs of our narrator reminding us that "it's not fair because things are different now :(". I get it, and I sympathize, but if that's all you have to say, it's not a good novel.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird (Helen Oyeyemi)

My previous Helen Oyeyemi experience was her 2011 book Mr. Fox. It intrigued me because everyone was very excited that it was a retelling of the Bluebeard story, but after I finished it, I felt strange: certainly I had enjoyed the book, but I felt like I hadn't fully grasped it, like there were about 600 more things running underneath the surface and I had only glimpsed 9 or 10 of them.

But I was willing to give Boy, Snow, Bird a go because it was billed as a retelling of Snow White, albeit one that played as much with ideas of race as it did with fairy tale conventions: Boy Novak runs away from her abusive father and ends up in a small town in Massachusetts. Among others, she meets Arturo Whitman, who has a beautiful daughter named Snow. Everyone who meets her is delighted by her, charmed by her innocence and gorgeous appearance.

Eventually, Snow marries Arturo, and when she has his baby, she makes a discovery: Arturo's family has been passing for white for decades, but her baby, Bird, has the dark skin that reveals the Whitman secret. Boy is accused of sleeping with a man other than her husband, and her in-laws suggest that she send the baby to live with Arturo's dark-skinned sister. Outraged, Snow instead sends Snow away, convinced that her stepdaughter is not all she seems.

I can say with certainty that it's the most interesting method of retelling the story I've come across. Maybe the biggest issue I have with the book, though, has little to do with the book and a lot to do with the blurbing and publishing hype. It feels to me like Oyeyemi thought to herself "what about a Snow White story?", but by the time she finished, said "that was a great jumping-off point, but this book is something else now!" The big push when the book was released focused on the fairy tale aspects, and it forced me too hard into drawing parallels that weren't really there. It's more about archetypes than plot, as far as retellings go.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Aimee Bender)

I love Aimee Bender. I've read all three of her short story collections, which I think are just about the bee's knees. She writes the most lovely magical realism, fabulistic, speculative gems, wonderful writing I could spend the rest of my life reading. It's probably what I would choose if I could only read one thing ever again. Am I totally crazy for Aimee Bender or what!?

Anyway, her second full novel (and the first that I've read), The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake came out a few years ago and I remember seeing it then. The possibilities of what the novel might be really intrigued me--Rose discovers that she can taste feelings in her food, the emotions of whomever prepared the meal. She is terrified: she can taste every ounce of complexity in her mother's internal emotions, can sense her loneliness and dissatisfaction and the affair she is driven to.

It is a frightening situation, to be shouldered with the responsibility of knowing the deepest feelings harbored by anyone who has touched the food you're consuming, and Rose acquires the ability at a young age; she has to spend the rest of her life trying to adjust and close herself off from the secret inside feelings of people around her. It's a story of her growing up with this curse, and it's sad. She turns to processed food, food created mostly by machines--they are empty of feelings, and she can actually think about the tastes instead of the emotions.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a thinking book, and it really wants us to think about our own feelings. Where do we hide them? Who can read them? How much should we share? It's not the sort of book that wants to give us easy answers, or the kind where the characters think about everything and explain it at the end in a chapter or three of really boring conversations/monologues. It's not a novel that wants to do those things, and I didn't want it to do those things, either.

For example, I sense internet frustration that the book doesn't explain why Rose has her talent. For me, at least, that doesn't matter. The basic plot of this story could have gone in a lot of different directions--Rose could have spent a whole book trying to figure out if a fairy cursed her or if she got exposed to radiation in the womb, or she could have used her talent to save the day and stop people from killing themselves or something.

But what does Rose do instead? She tries to kick up a fuss, realizes it will only make her look crazy, and tries to live with it. Like a normal human being. She isn't a superhero, nor a plucky teen heroine stopping the evil alien lord from ending the world. She's a real person. That's one of my favorite things about Aimee Bender's writing: she will invent situations not possible in our real world, but the characters in these microcosms behave as realistically as you or me.

If you are looking for a plot-driven narrative, stay home. This is 100% character-based, and it's strange and it's weird and it's wonderful. Try out a Bender short story first (go for "Ironhead" or "Americca" for a first taste), and if you like it, hey! Congrats. You've just given yourself the gift of a full-length novel that will delight and astonish you in all the ways her shorter works have.

My rating: 5/5
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake on Goodreads
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Sunday, May 11, 2014

We Were Liars (E. Lockhart)

Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC!

I was very hesitant about reading We Were Liars. It is perhaps the buzziest YA book out there at the moment, written by a giant in the field, E. Lockhart. I am always intrigued by but wary of such books, because sometimes they really suck (Divergent) and sometimes they blow me away and I'm sad I didn't cave in earlier (Gone Girl). This one in particular was hard to judge because the plot is shrouded in mystery and we are told that we are not supposed to tell anyone about what happens! AHHHH!

But I will tell you some information. Not all, of course. I've never been the sort to spoil a story, so I won't give anything major away. Here's what you need to know to determine if you're interested. The Sinclairs are a wealthy, name-dropped-like-it's-hot kind of family. The grandfather patriarch owns a tiny island populated with huge mansions, and every summer his daughters return to fill them with their children.

The three oldest are Mirren, Johnny, and Cadence. Johnny brings his possible stepbrother, the Indian-American Gat, and the four of them are inseparable. They are the Liars, the golden children of Grandpa Sinclair and the future inheritors of all his wealth and fortune. But it's been two years since Cadence has seen the island--two summers ago, she suffered a terrible accident that she can't remember, one that left her with some serious head trauma. She finally is ready to return and struggles with the island, which feels haunted with unhappy feelings she doesn't understand.

I didn't think I was going to like this book once I started it. I am not a big fan of stories where we know we don't know something and are constantly reminded that we don't, and that's how this book opened: Cady references her accident constantly, but it didn't bother me since she also didn't know what it was. It was more like a mystery novel than a keeping-things-from-the-reader sort of story, so for that I was grateful.

Cady has a narrative style that has, according to other reviews I've read, jarred people. She speaks in short, clipped sentences, descriptions that are sometimes sentence fragments. I'm not sure why other people didn't like it; I'm not saying I loved it, but it worked. It felt like part of her character, and I have to admit that I didn't notice it until other people pointed it out. One of my favorite things about the book is Cady's use of fairy tale as a metaphor: she would give us stories of her life rewritten as fairy tales, groups of threes, rich kings, and daughters who marry princes. Anyone knows the fastest way to my heart is fairy tale stuff.

Of course, a book like this must end in a plot twist. Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you. I was genuinely surprised by the revelation, and it left me feeling really strange--upset and twisted in the stomach and quite sad. Other reviewers said they saw it coming, but I guess that means they're amateur detectives in their spare time? I don't know. I didn't find it predictable at all. It really got me. And I imagine that even if I knew what the secret was, I would still get to the end and feel like my organs had gone through a strainer.

We Were Liars was a lot of fun. It's an elegantly-constructed piece of writing, one that works really hard to draw you in, cast a spell on you, and then punch you in the gut and knock the wind out of you. What a stunner.

My rating: 5/5
We Were Liars on Goodreads
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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami)

3(!) years ago, I read Haruki Murakami's gigantic 1Q84. It was my first experience with the Japanese superstar. After I'd finished, I saw that people who had read a great deal of Murakami's work said that it's a terrible place for a novice to start, but I guess the joke's on them because I really, really liked it. I bought a couple of his more popular books and promptly did not read them because that's the kind of person I am.

In the three years it's been, I've agonized over how I ought to proceed. Should I jump into his actual masterwork, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or should I ease myself in with something equally as popular but without any of the weirdness I had enjoyed in 1Q84? I have seen Norwegian Wood described as the Murakami book for people who don't like the weirdness, and I was worried, since I like weird. But I read it anyway. What a bad choice.

The novel is about Toru Watanabe, a college boy in Tokyo. One of his closest friends, Kizuki, commits suicide, and it brings him closer to the girl his friend loved, Naoko. Toru and Naoko bond over Kizuki's absence and start going on long walks every Sunday. One night, it's Naoko's birthday, and Toru goes to her apartment and the two sleep together. Shortly thereafter, she leaves, saying she needs to take some time off from school at a sanatorium.

Enter Midori, a loud, bright student in one of Toru's classes. She is crazy and vulgar and fun, and Toru feels drawn to her even though he feels that he may be in love with Naoko. He spends time with her in between his visits to the sanatorium, where he meets Reiko, a music teacher who is also Naoko's caretaker. And there's Nagasawa, his college friend who sleeps around at every possible moment.

It's a growing up story, but it's not a particularly interesting or fun one. In fact, I'm glad I read it in such close proximity to Black Swan Green, which is everything I want out of a bildungsroman, precisely because I can have that contrast. Where Jason has a lot of insightful, thoughtful moments or revelation and realization, Toru has mopey moments. He spends a lot of the book oscillating between types of loneliness, and not in an intriguing way, either. How ensnaring can a book be if its main character plainly states he is lonely over and over?

Toru is not a really interesting character to follow, and I suspect that he's my underlying issue with the novel. He's quiet, he likes American literature, he is not the most unpopular boy in his dorm. The most exciting part of his personality is that he is in love with a really depressed girl who lives far away, but that so often fades to background noise that it's almost like a separate book. I would even have been on board with a lot of really fun vacillation between Midori and Naoko when he realizes that he loves them both, but Toru's insipidity means that he just says "I love Naoko but I also love Midori. What should I do?" There's no moments of real anguish or torment. It's boring.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Boundless (Kenneth Oppel)

As a child, I loved trains. I had a toy train set and train-themed decorations for my bedroom. I couldn't explain why I liked them so much, and I certainly can't explain it now. I thought maybe I grew out of the phase, but years later, I realized that I love books and video games and movies that are set on trains. There's something thrilling about the tight, inescapable, high-speed quarters and the implications that these constraints have on the narrative that really delights me.

I found The Boundless while browsing through a list of middle-grade books coming out this year; I knew of Kenneth Oppel but had never read him, but was excited to see that he was writing a train mystery thriller. The titular locomotive is the longest in the world, and Will's father is one of its many workers. Will and his dad are going to be taking part in the vehicle's maiden run, though tensions between the two are high: Will wants to be an artist and go to art school, but his father wants him to pursue a "real" career.

And then Will discovers that the last train on the car, carrying the corpse of the financier of the Boundless, is loaded with riches and the target of a conspiracy from a disgruntled former employee of the railway company. Accidentally implicated in the plot, Will must flee from the man after the treasure. He takes up with the circus traveling in the train, disguising himself as an Indian man with an extrasensory ability to draw (a talent relying heavily on circus trickery).

If it sounds like there's a lot going on in this book, you're right. And it's not a very long novel, so it feels like a lot of things got squeezed into too small a space. That's perhaps my biggest issue with the story: there are a lot of fun events happening, but none of them are explored to the depth that they deserve. I loved reading the behind-the-scenes circus stuff, and I loved reading the descriptions of the train and hearing about the differences between coach classes. The Boundless is a portrait of a bygone time, and Oppel's explanations are his strength.

But it's clear that he suffered commitment issues when writing about all of these topics, but none of them really gets the full treatment it deserves. I hate to say that this book could have been longer, because too often do I suffer through books with long sections that could have been safely excised. Honestly, though, I would have enjoyed a longer focus on the atmosphere of the story, which for me was far more interesting than the "confrontation-flee, confrontation-flee" setup the narrative runs through several times before the story's conclusion.

The author even tries to throw in a romance between Will and one of the circus acts, an escape artist and tightrope walker named Maren, but it is severely underdeveloped. The first time Will sees her, he falls in love with her solely because she is so mysterious, and though I waited for the rest of the book to see any kind of expansion on or justification of his feelings, I didn't get one. I of course love a good relationship unfolding, but this one wasn't satisfying at all.

Nonetheless, it's a fun book. Compressed, sure, but still fun. I wanted more circus and train stuff because what I did get was a joy. If you have children that like these topics, full steam ahead (~~PUNS!!~!). The conclusion is satisfying, to be sure (if a bit strange--no spoilers, but shoutout to Dorian Gray), and it's overall a quick, enjoyable read. Thanks to Edelweiss for the ARC.

My rating: 3.5/5
The Boundless on Goodreads
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