Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Night Gardener (Jonathan Auxier)

In my continuing series of "books that people are excited about in 2014," I picked up The Night Gardener a few months ago. I hadn't yet read Auxier's previous novel, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, but then I did. I enjoyed it very much and looked forward to his second book with a strange amount of glee, especially because it sounded so weird and unsettling. Also, a shiny, silvery cover.

Molly and Kip are two kids from Ireland who are basically orphans--their parents have been indentured into piracy, or at least that's what Molly's saying--leaving Molly in charge of Kip, who has a lame leg. They take a job working as caretakers of an old English estate for the Windsor family, who, because of recent financial difficulties, have re-inhabited the abandoned home. The mansion is rundown, overgrown, and is maybe making the family sick. There's a mysterious figure that appears in the house at night, or so Molly thinks, and she's starting to feel very unsettled, especially because the Windsors are oddly attached to the old tree on the property.

The Night Gardener is a middle-grade fantasy that aims in a lot of directions and successfull hits all its targets. On the one hand, this story succeeds in being a creepy "estate horror" like The Turn of the Screw or (to a lesser extent) Rebecca; there are a few passages that are genuinely perturbing, which is a great demonstration of how in control Auxier is of his mood, atmospherics, and suspense writing. The descriptions of the Windsors growing ever more wan are quietly frightening, and the scenes featuring the titular Night Gardener read almost like the pages of a scary movie script.

In another direction, it's fabulistic--there's magic and wishes and consequences and lessons for everyone. It feels very much like a fairy tale, a gruesome one, one that teaches about being satisfied with what you have. I, of course, love the aesthetic, which Auxier once again nails; there's a story within our story about the tree on the Windsor estate, a pseudo-fable that is very thoughtfully arranged (by which I mean it reads like it's been around for centuries). The message of the story bleeds into the character's lives as they realize maybe they're part of the narrative, another element that adds to the creepy feeling of the book.

A common thread in the author's two books is its inclusion of characters with disability. Here, it's Kip, who has a severely twisted leg. The inner dialogue that Kip has about his own physicality is engaging and painful. This year has been a year where people push for diverse literature, and so it's refreshing to experience a middle-grade novel with a disabled character that isn't necessarily keen to remind us at every turn about his disability, but can have serious, sophisticated monologues about himself. Like every other character in The Night Gardener, Kip is very thoroughly dimensional. All these characters, just like us, are driven by their fears: never being seen as normal, never seeing our parents again, being powerless in the world. He belongs to a cast of characters that is fascinating and breathing.

But that's not all. The meditation that this book offers on stories and storytelling is delightful, too. Molly and Kip meet an old woman who has dedicated her life to collecting and telling stories, and it inspires Molly, a character we are told early on has an almost supernatural ability to persuade people through her fictionalized versions of reality. Auxier wants us to consider how powerful stories really can be, how they can not only represent the world but shape and alter it, depending on how we wield them.

The Night Gardener is a fantastic novel, one that really pushes and presses the reader to think. Auxier's writing always feels like it's expecting--perhaps even demanding--more from its readers than the average middle-grade book. The book feels stunningly adult, whatever that means. He never lets the plot be clouded with puerile ideas or writing, and that was very refreshing for me. It's lovely to see books that work for all ages, instead of working so hard to tailor themselves to one age group. This is is for certain a keeper.

My rating: 5/5
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Monday, August 11, 2014

California (Edan Lepucki)

Here's a book that garnered quick buzz and made me angry for staying hidden from my radar. Thanks, Stephen Colbert for messing with my understanding of book buzz, for it's he that pushed this novel into the spotlight and made me run out to the bookstore for it.

Cal and Frida are a couple living in the wilderness in a post-apocalyptic California. Earth has started to fall apart--extreme weather all over the United States, reduced resources, etc. The two options for survival are on your own, like them, or in very exclusive, expensive gated communities. Frida realizes that she's pregnant and, unhappy with the prospect of raising the child in their isolated woodland location, they leave their little house in the hopes of finding other people, perhaps a settlement, that can take them in and help them nurture their new life.

At first, I wasn't interested in reading California, because really how many literary dystopias can I read before I stab myself in the eyes, but I read the first few pages in Barnes & Noble and was drawn in by the Lepucki's gentle, soothing, eye-opening writing. The novel opens with Frida longingly examining artifiacts of life from before the big crisis, like her long-dead cellphone. One item she pays tribute to is an expensive, unused turkey baster: a soliloquy to a kitchen implement isn't by any means a common way to engage a reader, but it certainly was an effective one.

There is a phenomenon involving books that happens to me very rarely--it's the desire for the book to go in a different direction than the one it did. It actually happened earlier this year with The Flight of the Silvers, an action-y novel that decided to move toward one plot when I desperately wanted it to go in another. It's hard for me to talk about Lepucki's narrative choices because it would spoil the whole plot, and I try hard not to be a spoiler. Let's just say that Cal and Frida find a settlement and the book is mostly about their time at the settlement; I would have much more enjoyed a story about them wandering, I think.

The thing is, Lepucki is a great writer. The reason I stuck with her book is because her prose is just so good; most of my reviews don't bother mentioning the actual word stylings, but this author's is good enough to merit a mention. I'm not a big fan of characters spending paragraphs philosophizing, but she does such a great job writing their thoughts on the page that I actually enjoyed it. Her characterization is pretty stellar, too. Cal and Frida are flawed creatures forced into terrible, dire circumstances, but they are never grotesque caricatures. They feel very grounded, and though they did get on my nerves from time to time (Cal, shut up about what might have been!), even that felt authentic.

But it's hard for me to fully enjoy a book that, in terms of its storyline, frustrated and bored me. I wanted to know more about the world Cal and Frida lived in, and less about the one microcosm they encountered; if this had been more of an episodic novel, featuring our main characters moving from settlement to settlement, I would have been more pleased. And I know it's not fair for me to criticize a book for the author's choice in, of all things, plot, but I can't help it. There was a lot of potential here.

California is made up of some really good pieces (the writing oh my goodness), but it doesn't really add up for me.

My rating: 3/5
California on Goodreads
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Saturday, August 9, 2014

Nightingale's Nest (Nikki Loftin)

Little John Fischer's sister Raelynn died in a backyard tree-climbing accident and his family isn't doing well: mom is delusional, talking to and about the deceased member of the family all the time. She can barely leave the house and is almost always hysteric. Dad, who owns a tree and brush removal service, has started spending his meager paychecks on alcohol to drink away his despair; this leaves the Fischers in some dire straits financially speaking, and to compensate, John's dad makes him come to work with him.

The summer agenda: cutting down Azariah King's dying pecan trees. Mr. King is something of a celebrity, the owner of a chain of local dollar stores, and Little John's dad hates him but needs the money so reluctantly agrees to prune his property. Next door is the Cutlin family, notorious abusers of the foster care system; their latest child is Gayle, a very strange girl who watches Little John from the tree in their backyard.

The thing about Gayle is that she seems more bird than girl: she's frighteningly small, she clings to the (rotting) tree like it gives her life, and mostly importantly, she sings. But it's not an amateur, warbly voice. No, Gayle sings an enchanting song that has supernatural powers. It instills joy in nearby listeners and even heals a broken leg on a fawn, and once Little John hears it, he's hooked. So is Mr. King, and John can't help but feel that his desire to record Gayle's voice is somehow sinister.

So what did I think of the book? The reason I picked it up is because I heard it was based on a fairy tale, though I admit that prior to my reading Nightingale's Nest, I'd never come across Hans Christian Andersen's "The Nightingale" (and to be completely honest, I still haven't read the original). But since I was unfamiliar with it, I had to quickly throw any comparisons or expectations out the window, which was I suppose refreshing because for once I could judge the retelling only on its own merits.

In terms of the plot, there's a lot going on--it took me three paragraphs just to give the opening summary--and I'm not sure Loftin was able to keep a grip on all her disparate elements. The thing about the book that's most interesting (that is, the relationship between John and Gayle) is often put aside to pursue plotlines about John abandoning his friend Ernest after his sister's death or about his family's almost-eviction.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Jamaica Inn (Daphne du Maurier)

About one year ago, I became obsessed with Daphne du Maurier. I don't know why--I had owned a copy of Rebecca for a few years and got very excited about the prospect of reading it, so to celebrate how much I wanted to read it, I bought seven or eight of her other novels. It doesn't make sense, and I know that. But it happened. This summer, I decided to read another of her novels, and so into Jamaica Inn I went.

Mary Yellan is a farm girl. As her mother dies, Mary promises to live with her Aunt Patience and, hesitant to deny her mother's last wish, she goes off. She is warned by other travelers to stay way before she even arrives at Jamaica Inn, the establishment owned by Patience's husband, Joss Merlyn, and when she does get there, Mary is surprised to find her once-vibrant aunt more a shadow than a person. There's something going on with Joss, something that only happens at night in a locked room in the inn, and it may involve his equally sinister brother, Jem.

Here's the thing about Jamaica Inn--it's a suspense novel low on suspense. I take issue with that because the story relies on our shock and surprise to build the plot up, but I found myself less-than-engaged in finding out what was going on in the inn. The reveal of "something sinister" wasn't particularly exciting, either, and I'm not sure if that's because, living in 2014, I'm desensitized to the kind horror to be found in du Maurier's 1930s novel which takes place in the 1820s; there's also a "whodunnit" element that isn't surprising because crime and mystery novels have been around for long enough that making the guilty person someone who we'd "never suspect" is a tired, pretty transparent tactic.

But the crazy thing is, I still really liked the book. There's a lot of good going on for it: atmospherically, du Maurier hits it out of the park, just like she did in Rebecca. Things are spooky and weird and unsettling, and you feel that way because she wants you to feel that way. She's totally in control of how foreboding the inn seems, and she exercises her power over the reader frequently and always to good effect. There are scenes where Mary is wandering in the night and it's like every scary movie you can think of. Seriously, I was stunned.

Her characterization is equally potent: Joss truly is a terrifying figure, overpowering and vicious. Every conversation in which he participates feel overwhelming, unjust, and frightening. Mary is perfectly drawn as a resilient but out-of-her-league protagonist, like a determined candle that will not be burnt out. Without getting too comparative to Rebecca (which I just really loved, okay?), Mary Yellan is stronger protagonist than our unnamed narrator--she's more compelling and more forceful. Think a somewhat meeker Jane Eyre, and you've got this girl. And I really liked her; I surprised myself by how much I rooted for her.

It's a curious book. It feels dated but still frightening, boring in plot but still engrossing in all other respects. I found out that the BBC adapted it as a miniseries just this year, and I'm probably gonna check that out because I'm curious to see what sort of spooky they manage to conjure up. I would maybe even read it again! Who knows?

My rating: 4/5
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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why We Broke Up (Daniel Handler)

Why We Broke Up is a book that I have thought about reading over and over--as soon as it came out, I was drawn in both by the author (I had never read something of his not written under a pseudonym) and the concept: the novel is a catalog of all the things held special in a relationship, explained one-by-one. It's the sort of book 16-year-old me would have bought and devoured immediately. I continually put it off (even after it won a Printz Honor!) because I saw a lot of lukewarm reviews

And then I took the plunge anyway. Min is 16 and basically a misfit--she loves classic films and thrift stores and genuinely doesn't understand or like basketball. But for some reason, Ed, the king jock, has begun to pursue Min...and she likes it. Their romance is whirlwind in the way that 16 year olds do, but we know even before we start the book that it's going to fall apart, so we buckle in and we watch.

I wasn't really a fan of Why We Broke Up. The most pressing issue with the book is just how annoying Min is; she constantly references classic movies, films that are not real, which frustrates me so much--there's no way we can possibly catch allusions to things that don't exist, so why bother? I might have been into the technique if I could watch the movies she's talking about, but no such luck. She's quirky and different but hates when people tell her so. Min loves coffee and she needs it and she loves this one out-of-the-way store that's only open one day a week in the early morning for a little bit.

What I mean is this: Handler has done such a good job writing in the voice of a high school hipster that it was as annoying as the real thing. Just like I wouldn't be able to be around someone like Min in my real life, I didn't want to be around her. So it's praise but also a problem. In the opposite direction, however, is Ed, who doesn't feel nearly so well-made. He's annoying to read about, but mostly because he doesn't seem to be more than a parody of a collection of stereotypes: he likes sports, he's dumb, he doesn't talk to girls who are smart, he's in it for sex. There's not much to work with in Ed.

As for the narrative gimmick...it gets old. There are a lot of items and quite a few very short stories that go with them. I would have liked to have seen "top ten things from our relationship and why" or something, because the vignette feel of so many objects is tiresome. There's a rubber band that Min uses in her hair, for example, and it's a tiny episode that I didn't want to read about. The strangest thing, however, is that the book doesn't need its crutch--if the book were just a straightforward narrative, it would function exactly the same way (and perhaps might have been a little less annoying).

So how do I sum this up? Why We Broke Up is a book that gets everything right about that time in your teenage years where you look back now and want to smack yourself for being so annoying, and it's not necessarily a pleasant experience. It relies heavily on a technique that wears thin rather quickly. But if you're 16, maybe you'll think it's the greatest thing. I don't know.

My rating: 3/5
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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
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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
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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.