Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in Review

Best Books
1. Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith
This novel was the best thing I read all year--a really touching, precise, painful examination of teenage sexuality and the end times. It put Andrew Smith on my radar, and I'm so glad: I read three of his books this year, and none of them was like the other. I'm eagerly anticipating the two books of his scheduled for 2015, which promise to be equally as wacky and true.

2. The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell
A masterwork from the master. David Mitchell is the king of voice, and he explores six different ones in this book with such dexterity and grace that you'd swear he is actual a cabal of writers using a pseudonym--each character breathes and blinks and batters you with their pure, imperfect humanity. Perhaps it's a little heavy on the sci-fi battle toward the end, but I didn't mind. I'd follow David Mitchell anywhere.

3. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Leslye Walton
This is the saddest, most beautiful book I read all year, the story of a girl with wings and love and loss. Magical realism at its finest in a delightful showcase. A word that gets tossed around too often when reviewing books is "lush," but it's definitely one of the words I'd choose for this book, along with "delicate," and "glittering." A stunner of a book.

4. The Riverman, Aaron Starmer
Childhood, secrets, love, and fear--Starmer can conquer them all. This is the first in a trilogy (and I've already read the second!), and it's potent book that scared me and made me feel old and young all at once. I can't wait to finish this group of books, which is simultaneously like learning and remembering. This book wins "most likely to crawl up your nose and inside all your organs to haunt you forever."

5. Man V. Nature, Diane Cook
Short stories that thrilled me and chilled me and mined me for all of my deep, personal inside feelings. I have read few short story collections as good as this one, with every story a total knockout victory.

Graphic Novel Super-Review

I have a tumultuous relationship with graphic novels: the first time I picked one up was in 2010, after years of speaking out against them. My first was Watchmen, which I thought was good but not that good. I continued and found some that I really loved, most which weren't serial comics: Habibi, Blankets, Asterios Polyp, Stitches. At the end of the year, I basically threw in the towel, convinced that I had read every good comic that there was to read.

Each year, there would be a graphic novel or two that piqued my interested, and I'd read it: Sailor Twain (Mark Siegel), Daytripper (Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá) and Building Stories (Chris Ware) stand out, but it was much quieter on the visual narrative front for me. 2014, however, saw a redux in graphic novels for me; I became obsessed with reading them again, starting new series and revisiting old ones. Since it's hard for me to muster up more than a paragraph per book, I thought I'd collect some of the highlights of my year here:


Graphic Novels
Ant Colony (Michael DeForge)
This is my favorite graphic novel of 2014. DeForge takes us into an ant colony to share with us the struggles and turmoil of ants. Of course, they're more than ants: they're sentient, aware of the true-life weirdness of what it means to be an ant. They question the authority of their queen, they ponder existential questions, they have hopes and fears and dreams and sex. I have really fallen in love with DeForge's art style, which I imagine is frequently compared to Chris Ware's--that must get tiresome for him. It's lots of solid blocks of color and simple shapes, and I don't know how to properly express that I love how much it adds to the overall book. This is a treasure.
My rating: 5/5

The Southern Reach Trilogy (Jeff VanderMeer)

Annihilation
This book is the first in a trilogy, one that centers on Area X. It's a mysterious, quarantined area that we don't know much about. Every so often, the government sends in an expedition, people of various professional backgrounds to scope out the land to report what's inside the territory. Unfortunately, almost all of the expeditions end badly, with everyone shooting each other or disappearing under unknown circumstances, reappearing in their homes several months later, and dying not long after.

Annihilation takes us on the twelfth expedition to Area X; there are participants this time, all women: a psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and our narrator, the biologist. We never learn any of their names, and maybe that's part of the point. The biologist's connection to Area X is particularly interesting: her husband was a member of the previous expedition, the one where they all disappeared and showed up at home without an explanation before dying of a brief illness. She's become obsessed with the world her husband died for, so much that she volunteers to go in, too.

What she finds is in turns horrifying and fascinating. The book gets pretty fantastical pretty quickly, but the images that VanderMeer makes for us are beautiful and frightening all at once. I don't want to go into much detail because everything about this book is atmospheric: it's important to let the unease creep into your bones and fill you with discomfort exactly as the author wants.

My only criticism of the book is that it gets a bit trapped in itself toward the end. It's a short book--only about 175 pages--which is a perfect length to do the kind of narrative exploration that VanderMeer wants to do while his characters are doing a physical exploration of Area X. Nonetheless, the narrator kind of collapses in on herself toward the end and I struggled to follow along, but it's clearly an intentional choice and one that I applaud even if I couldn't understand it fully. I'm very much looking forward to books two and three.

My rating: 4.5/5

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Yes Please (Amy Poehler)

At random intervals, I read a comedy humor memoir thing (Hyperbole and a Half; Let's Pretend This Never Happened; Bossypants) and I feel compelled to make the disclaimer that "this isn't the type of thing I normally read I'm not sure exactly how to review it." I don't think it will ever not be a true statement, and I find myself wanting to say the same thing for this review. Yes Please is Amy Poehler's book. I have been looking forward to it all year. It's another case of high expectations and "meh" results. Blerg.

As I have said before, I have a hard time evaluating humor books. How often should I be laughing? Is the book a failure if I don't laugh "enough?" I didn't laugh out loud very often during this book--I'm not even sure I laughed aloud at all. If that were the only criterion by which I judged, this book would have been a failure. But clearly it wasn't, because I read all the way through relatively quickly.

What I will say I enjoyed about this book is what I enjoy about most memoirs: the gooey insides. There is something attractive to me about books filled with real people's inner lives, and I want to stress here that the "something" has nothing to do with celebrities or tragedy. I don't need convincing that celebrities are "real people just like us," because they are obviously not, so that's not the attraction. I don't want to exploit people's very sad and very real problems (AKA sad porn), either.

I just like reading about people's interior lives. I don't need sordid details or emotional appeals, just odds-and-ends details about what others are doing with their time. In that regard, Yes Please is very good. Poehler does a great job of spreading her net far and wide, gathering lots of stories from her whole life; she doesn't focus too heavily on her comedy roots, on her SNL-and-after stardom, or her list of celebrity friends. I felt like I was reading a diary that was meant for public consumption, and that's the best feeling.

So what didn't I like? For one thing, the book was messy. It's divided into three very loose thematic sections ("Say Whatever You Want," "Do Whatever You Like," and "Be Whoever You Are"), none of which felt very cohesive. That is, the arrangement felt randomized and arbitrary. Chapters within each section were all over the place--more than once did I feel lost while reading. It happened first in the opening chapter: she talks about her earliest encounter with improv, as Dorothy in an elementary school production of The Wizard of Oz.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Man V. Nature (Diane Cook)

I have been reading a lot of short fiction lately. On my Goodreads page, I've been giving all these collections short reviews, mentioning stories that are highlights and perhaps pitfall stories that don't thrill me. I don't do long reviews of short story collections because it's at least four times as hard as reviewing a novel. I just lied to you, because I have written two long reviews of a collection--last year, I reviewed George Saunders' Tenth of December, and a few weeks later, Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. After I did, I swore never to review another collection at length again.

Oops.

In the last year-ish, I have read some stunning stuff: the collections of Aimee Bender, my number one short fiction author, Laura van den Berg and Alissa Nutting, Eric Puchner, Daphne du Maurier--I could go on and on here, but I'll stop. I did not feel compelled to give these collections lengthy reviews, even though I found them to be absolutely marvelous. Just yesterday, I finished Man V. Nature, the debut collection of author Diane Cook, and I knew that I needed to tell everyone about every one of her stories. So here we are. Like much of the short (and, let's be honest, long) fiction I read, Cook's narratives are often surreal; they're not strictly fantasy or science fiction, but there's something off about their worlds.

The first story is "Moving On." The day I read it, I had to close the book and walk away because I needed time to process it. It's not often that a piece of writing shuts me down that hard, but the story about widow relocation (that is, if your spouse dies, you are required to marry again) hurt. It's a quiet story, but it ate at me. Ouch.

The next is "The Way the End of Days Should Be," which is a post-apocalyptic piece (but you probably guessed that). Like a lot of this kind of fiction, it doesn't ever really explain what happened to the world, and for a lot of readers, this is frustrating: they want to know the hows and the whys, and, to be frank, I don't care. This is the story of a man at the end of the world, a very selfish man. It's a great character study.

There are several thematic siblings in this vein: "Man V. Nature" is another "we're the last people alive" story that really plays with reader perception and narrative authority and unlikeability (i.e., how far can we go on hating our main character and still invest in him?). "It's Coming" is a Godzilla-esque story, but it focuses less on the destruction of giant buildings and more on the poignant--or grotesque--emotions that come when people are faced with the end.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel)

I have a confession: I hate post-apocalyptic fiction. I've spoken on this before, specifically with regards to zombies, because it's a genre without much room to move--you survive as long as you can, but at the end of the novel you're either going to die or...die. There's no "suddenly everything was fixed" (and if there is, it's dreadful). There's just "everyone dies," which I already knew.

Perhaps my hatred comes from the sheer number of poorly-done books I've read. I still cannot figure out why everyone likes The Road. Anything with zombies is a no-go. Dystopian post-apocalyptics are just as much a drag (here's looking at you, Divergent). In spite of all of this, I can't seem to stay away. Some part of me must see promise in this type of fiction, because I always get sucked back in, and it's always a disappointment.

Until today. I can finally, with confidence and joy, announce that I have found a post-apocalyptic novel that I loved. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, is what I have been waiting for my whole life.

The Georgia Flu is a perfect killer, and it destroys everyone. Billions of people die within days of contracting the disease, and soon almost no one is left. Kirsten survives, and twenty years after the pandemic strikes, she's touring the tiny communities surrounding Lake Michigan as part of a troupe called the Traveling Symphony; they play classical music and perform Shakespeare, trying to keep the old culture alive.

This book is the story of Kirsten, yes, but it's also the story of Arthur Leander, an actor who dies in the first few pages. Kirsten is on stage when a heart attack kills him; the narrative switches between Kirsten of the present and Arthur of the past, though frequently he is focalized through viewpoints of people in his life.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Wolf in White Van (John Darnielle)

Like so many books, I came to this one under false pretenses. Blurbs are so, so devious. Fortunately for Wolf in White Van, I was actually amazed by what I found. My initial understanding, that this novel was the story told in reverse of a crazy maniac who creates and runs mail-order games, is only about half-accurate. If you thought that was this book, too, it's not. Fair warning.

It is about a man, Sean Phillips, who creates and runs mail-order role-playing games. Think D&D, but you're playing alone and mailing in your moves to Sean. He is pretty housebound because his face was badly damaged in an accident, circumstances which we initially are not sure of. These games allow him to interact with other people without having to deal with their constant horror, sympathy, and scrutiny of his injuries.

This is a great life for Sean, except when it suddenly goes wrong. A young couple engrossed in his most popular text game, Trace Italian, a post-apocalyptic survival story, starts to lose their grasp on reality. Thinking that the game is a reflection of real life, they venture out to the Midwest to find the hallowed fort that all players are struggling to reach. It goes wrong, there are serious consequences, and Sean is stuck feeling guilty and innocent at the same time.

So not at all about a maniac. And technically the story runs in reverse, in that toward the end we find out what happened to Sean, but it's more of a memory novel than a backwards narrative. I was initially disappointed to discover that my presuppositions were wrong, and then I was delighted. What you'll find if you read Darneille's debut is something way better.

Sean is a great character, one of the best I've read this whole year. He's sad, he's quiet, he's isolated, he's lonely, he's a loner. If you're looking for a thrilling, plot-based novel, then never you mind, because this is one that's all about character, and it's done deliciously. I can't express how gripping his psyche is, how enraptured the reader feels while he's lost in his thoughts. Typically, I'm not a fan of heady novels, but Wolf in White Van really did it for me.

It's a bit difficult to review, because so much of it is centered around Sean's inner dialogue. It's not even that there are spoilers (really, there aren't). It feels silly to explain how good the book is, how carefully it was written, when you could just read it yourself. It's a very short, but it's worth every page. I'm struggling more than I thought I would with a review for this book. My shortest summary then: this novel is a delight, a painful character study, and you should read it.

My rating: 5/5
Wolf in White Van on Goodreads
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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Blood of Olympus (Rick Riordan)

Conclusions are hard. I read a lot of series in my youth, so I'm very familiar with the intense pressure of ending a storyline that spans multiple books. I can think of several big-name publishing events with bad finales, some which I haven't even read: the Sookie Stackhouse books, the Delirium trilogy, arguably Mockingjay, Allegiant! There are tons. I assume you're here, then, reading this, because you want to know if Rick Riordan screwed up his series with book five, The Blood of Olympus.

Well, he didn't. At the beginning of the book, we're only days away from the awakening of Gaea. Reyna, Nico, and Coach Hedge are en route to Camp Half-Blood with the Athena Parthenos via Nico's shadow travel, which is draining him of his life: he becomes less corporeal and functional with each trip. The rest of the gang (with a gravely-injured Jason in tow) has to find the goddess of victory, Nike, at Olympia, whose warring personalities are making it hard for the demigods to win the war against Gaea and her minions.

Of course, there are obstacles in the way, the most notable of which is Orion, a hunter who once loved Artemis, was killed, and has come back to fight for Gaea. He pursues Reyna, Hedge, and Nico as they get closer and closer to New York, and it prompts a lot of interesting conflict between, for example, him and the Amazons and the Hunters of Artemis. In general, I found the Nico/Reyna/Hedge story far more interesting to follow, not in the least because Nico and Reyna are probably the two most intriguing characters in this series. Reyna's backstory is really well-developed in this novel, in a way that's touching and painful, and I am always up for more Nico, whose complexity is, in fact, unrivaled by any character in the Heroes of Olympus series. While Percy may be my favorite character (I mean, isn't he everyone's favorite?), Nico wins the prize for most-thoughtfully-constructed.

But they're only about half of the novel. What about the other half? It was okay. I again took issue with the characters who get chapters of narration. We hear from Nico and Reyna, of course, but our other two perspectives are Piper and Leo. I'm not the biggest fan of Piper, but she is better in book five. The less she talks dreamily about Jason, the better (obviously). Leo, on the other hand, remains the most frustrating character to listen to. I've been pretty vocal about my distaste before, and it's entirely because of his unfunny jokes, which are so awkward. Nonetheless, I was a little more invested in his character arc than normal, and have been ever since the Ogygia/Calypso incident.

There's a shockingly little amount of Percy, Jason, and Annabeth in this book; Frank and Hazel aren't incredibly present, either. One of my biggest problems with Riordan's writing is the moments where he tries to sound like the age group he is writing for. Slang terms, awkward sentences ("Jason nodded at Percy like 'Sup?" or something very like it appears in the book, for instance), and stilted dialogue between characters (having Jason and Percy refer to each other by their last names to demonstrate their rivalry reads like every bad '70s sports comedy) marred my reading experience. If it's bad enough to pull me out of the book, then it should have been fixed.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Cress (Marissa Meyer)

We're back! Don't read this review if you haven't already read Cinder or Scarlet, the first two books in this series. I will spoil those two books, because duh. It's book three. You've been warned.

Our focus now shifts to Cress, who is, in the world of the Lunar Chronicles, Rapunzel. A shell (if you're rusty on your terminology, that's a Lunar who can't manipulate people's bioelectricity to do the sort of illusions and persuasion we've already seen from Cinder and Queen Levana) deemed useless to society, Cress is taken by the Queen's head thaumaturge, Sybil, to a satellite to monitor just about everything on Earth. She's lived alone her whole life, become a skilled hacker and programmer--she even wrote a computer program modelled on a younger version of herself so she has company.

Mistress Sybil has asked Cress to find Cinder and give information about her whereabouts, which Cress does easily. However, she's hesitant to turn the gang over to her mistress, and not in the least because of the dreamy Carswell Thorne, whom we met in Scarlet. Instead, she signals to Cinder so that they might come to her rescue, but it backfires--Carswell and Cress end up trapped in the satellite, Scarlet is taken hostage by the thaumaturge, Wolf is grievously injured, and Cinder is saddled with a ton of guilt. And then the novel really gets going.

I will admit that I was disappointed with the second book in the series; I thought that Scarlet was an annoying character, hated how much page time she got, and felt the plot lagged too much. I was nervous to continue the series: what if The Lunar Chronicles squandered all the promise I felt in Cinder? Fortunately, that's not the case in Cress, not by a long shot. The first of my complaints--too much Scarlet, whom I didn't like--is handled by her kidnapping. She gets almost no time in this book, which for me was gratifying, and the scenes she does have are way more interesting than anything she was doing in the second book.

The plot is also far more interesting than in book two. I don't want to get into much detail for fear of spoiling more of the story, but suffice it to say that there is a huge desert sequence that has a lot of fun. It touches on ideas about marginalized communities and human trafficking in very meaningful ways that don't ever feel like smacks in the face (that is, these are serious issues and the book knows it, but chooses to subtly educate us instead of preaching about them). There's a "heist" sequence, too, and I'm always up for one of those. As is typical, we end on a really fantastic set of cliffhangers, which manage to ratchet up the excitement--I didn't realize how excited I am to see how Meyer ends everything until I got to the end of this novel.

For me, it's important that this series maintain a balance between external conflict--the fight sequences and the rapidly-approaching royal wedding--and internal conflict within the characters. I didn't feel that Scarlet achieved that balance, and I'm happy to say that I think we get that in this novel. Some of the issue relies on who is telling the story--I've already spoken about my distaste for Scarlet, but how does Cress fair?

She isn't the greatest narrator. There are things I really like about her--the early scenes of her in her satellite are touching and sad, for example. To think of that sort of extreme, total isolation is heartbreaking but fascinating, and the author does a terrific job of using the Rapunzel trope. On the other hand, Cress is a bit daffy, dreaming about love very naively and earnestly; she's perhaps at her worst when her thoughts turn to Carswell Thorne, who finally starts to breathe as a character where I felt he didn't in book two. I can't tell if these sort of loopy love scenes are reflections and commentary on the fairy tale genre or if it's maybe a systematic laziness.

Regardless, Cress is pretty well-balanced with Cinder, who far-and-away continues to be the best character in the series. Any time I get to spend with her is time well-spent, certainly. Her internal struggles remain the most interesting of any character in the book, because she's grappling with such huge decisions. It's strange to say that the more impossible her choices are, the more realistic a character she is--name one person you know in real life who finds out she's the secret queen of a world intent on destroying another. But it's exactly because of this ridiculousness that Cinder seems so well-realized.

I'm really looking forward to how this series concludes, first with an interquel (is this really the terminology? ugh) coming out in January about Levana (Fairest), and then the conclusion to the series, Winter, in November. Yay!

My rating: 4.5/5
Cress on Goodreads 
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Monday, September 22, 2014

The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell)

The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell's newest book, and that should be enough of a review to read it. I'm a big fan of his work, for all the reasons I'm about to tell you.

This book is about Holly Sykes, whom we meet in the 1980s. She's a teenager and she's dating a much-older man, who definitely loves her. Angry with her mother, who disapproves, she runs away to his house, convinced he'll take her in because they're true love. Unfortunately, he's lying in bed with Holly's best friend, so then she really runs away from home. After a strange hallucination, she finds out her younger brother Jacko, an eccentric, hyperintelligent child, has gone missing.

And then we jump forward into the next decade. This is the thing that everyone's buzzing about. The Bone Clocks is divided into six sections, each one jumping forward to the decade after the previous one. We start in the 1980s and finish in the near-future, and we track Holly through it all. Sometimes she's a main character and sometimes she isn't quite so central, sometimes appearing toward the end of a section. As her life progresses, we are also slowly learning more about a group that Holly calls the Radio People, a cabal of psychically-powerful immortals who are waging war with another group of similarly-endowed people.

I'm hesitant to say more, but like the other Mitchell books I've read, the book is less about plot and more about...well, everything. He's really a great writer. I think people sometimes get too caught up in his metafictiveness, in the interconnectivity of his novels (which is only as annoying as you let it get--I've seen several reviews that bash the author for trying too hard to make his novels all part of the same world, but I was never once bothered by it; the more you focus on it, the more frustrated you might feel, but if you let it feel organic, you won't even notice), and in his penchant for telling stories innovatively. People praise him for his to perform unending narrative acrobatics. Of course, these are all reasons to love Mitchell, to shout his names from the rooftops, but it's important to acknowledge his talent in telling every one of his tales so precisely, so perfectly.

This book is, in terms of setting, all over the place. '90s Switzerland, 2000s Iraq, a futuristic Ireland after the world has started to fall apart. The narrators are all kinds of people: a sociopathic young man, war reporters, a self-centered writer (and Martin Amis parody?). Never once are these novellas unconvincing. Mitchell slips into each voice fully, devotedly, believably. as if every perspective were his own that he has spent his whole life living. It's dazzling to have him throw an entirely new scenario at us and watch it unfold rapidly and credibly. These novellas are populated with a wide array of characters, and not once do they descend into painful, boring stereotypes.  It's fascinating, and clearly not something every writer is capable of.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Whispering Skull (Jonathan Stroud)

Thanks to NetGalley for an advance review copy of this book in exchange for my unbiased review!

One of the things I truly, genuinely loathe in this world is "scary stuff." Movies about hauntings, demonic possessions, and the like have always really bothered me, partly because I know these things aren't real, that they don't actually happen, but despite that, I still get freaked out. I avoid the movies as best I can, spent high school avoiding Halloween parties because of everyone's desire to watch them. The year Paranormal Activity came out, I had trouble sleeping for three days after I overheard someone summarizing the movie. I still haven't seen it, but hearing about it was enough to leave me frightened.

So leave it to Jonathan Stroud to dish out exactly this thing I hate so much and make it--not just once, but twice--an engaging, carefully-constructed book that blew me away. Last year's The Screaming Staircase was one of the best books I read in 2013, and the word I used to characterize and define the book was "fun." I had no doubt that Stroud was going to be able to easily and masterfully sink back into this world for a second volume, and my lack of uncertainty was well-founded. It's a winner!

In the Lockwood & Co. books, we are living in a parallel world, one in which ghosts and hauntings are very much real, regular issues that people deal with. Adults aren't particularly sensitive to the phenomena--that is, they can't see or hear the ghosts--but they can be killed by them; only young people have a sixth sense for spectres and phantoms, and as a consequence, greedy adults have capitalized on their talents and formed agencies of youth who work diligently every night to eradicate ghosts. But our protagonist, Lucy Carlyle, doesn't belong to one of these groups; she is a member of the three-person company run by Anthony Lockwood (the other member is George Cubbins).

Six months after their adventures as detailed in book one, the company is called on to be present for an exhumation of the tomb of Edmund Bickerstaff, a doctor from a long time ago who developed a reputation for trying to communicate with the dead. A mysterious mirror that he was buried with--one that ensnares anyone who looks at it, and with dire consequences--disappears not long after they exhume him, so naturally, Lockwood & Co. are on the case hoping, to increase their notoriety.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Paying Guests (Sarah Waters)

Thanks to the Penguin First To Read program for the opportunity to read this book early in exchange for my unbiased review.

Historical fiction is, for me, a dangerous game. Too many times have I been sucked into books that force heavy amounts of period detail down your throat, prose that wants to emphasize that its setting is so different from the present that it hurts. There are references to contemporaneous culture and repeated descriptions of old technology or perhaps scientific understanding of the world that, while perhaps initially engaging or surprising, grows stale by the end of the novel.

I was nervous but intrigued by The Paying Guests, so I gave it a shot. It's set just after World War I, in England, which is a time period I don't feel has been written to death (like World War II has, for example). It's the story of Frances Wray and her mother, two women left heartbroken by the loss of the men in their family to war and illness. Because Frances' brothers and father are gone, she and her mother are struggling financially--their rather oversize house is too expensive for them to afford, but they don't want to get rid of it.

With no other options, she opens her home to renters, which she refers to as "paying guests," from which we derive the title and also an idea of some of the pride and class distinction Frances has. The lodgers she brings in are a married couple, Lilian and Leonard Barber, and though it is difficult for her and her mother to adjust, the Wrays begin to accept the Barbers as a part of their daily lives. But then Frances, a closeted-by-her-time-period lesbian, falls in love with Lilian, and that's when it all starts to get interesting.

The first thing I want to address is, of course, what I mention at the beginning of this review, the danger of historical fiction. Fortunately, oh so fortunately, The Paying Guests does not sink into the trap. There are details that contextualize us, but they're written so naturally into the story that I never once felt slapped in the face with authenticity. It's the small, day-to-day things: having to heat bath water, an outhouse in the backyard, a mid-20s woman being considered a spinster. The storyworld of Waters' book is very textured and realistic, but never gets in the way of the plot.

Speaking of which, what an intricately-spun tale! I am afraid of spoiling what lies in wait for anyone who reads the book, but suffice it to say that Frances' amorous feelings for Lilian really complicate their living situation. The novel starts as a fairly straightforward (but dazzlingly-told) story of unrequited, forbidden love, but in turn morphs into a suspense novel and then a legal thriller. It also serves as a fantastic meditation on guilt: should I feel guilty about my own feelings? What about the actions my feelings have pushed me toward? It is magnificent no matter what kind of tale it's trying to tell.

What really anchors the story is the characters, especially with regard to Lilian and Frances. They are beacons of what it really means to be well-written: they're complicated characters who grapple with their emotions and the constraints placed on them by society. Their interactions are incredibly emotionally evocative: at times I could feel the burning desire, the horror, the panic as though it were my own. It is truly marvelous.

The Paying Guests is a long book--nearly 600 pages--and my only criticism is that it would have been slightly pruned. There are sequences that drag, sequences that the book probably could have done without, but it's still a gorgeous work. If you love subtle historical fiction, Sarah Waters' newest is certainly a go.

My rating: 5/5
The Paying Guests on Goodreads
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Sunday, August 31, 2014

100 Sideways Miles (Andrew Smith)

Thanks to Edelweiss for the e-ARC of this novel in exchange for my unbiased review!

And thank goodness for Andrew Smith. Seriously. All of us ought to raise him to the heights as a new leader of YA fiction because his books have perpetually stunned me. I'm so lucky to get to read his books, and we're all so lucky to have him around.

100 Sideways Miles is about Finn Easton, who is in high school and on the baseball team and generally cool and normal. Except he has epilepsy. Because a horse fell on him. The same horse that killed his mom and broke his back. His best friend is Cade Hernandez, maybe the only guy who fully understands and accepts Finn, even with his seizures. Cade is known for his charm and constant talk about his own sexual arousal.

When Finn was young, his dad wrote a science fiction novel about human-devouring angels coming to our world, a novel that upset a lot of people, including Finn. Why? Because one of the important characters is named Finn, and he has the same-colored eyes, and the same scar on his back. It makes Finn feel like he's not a real person.

Julia Bishop moves to his school, located in one of the more remote areas of California, and he falls in love with her. She's beautiful and perfect and understanding--one of their first interactions is her taking care of Finn after a seizure strikes, which always leaves Finn embarrassed, angry, and rude. And despite that, she likes Finn, too. So they have a relationship and it's cute and nice but of course something comes up (and I won't tell you what it is, so read the darn book).

Out of the three Smith books I've read (and all in the same year!), this one feels the most like a YA novel. I don't mean that in a bad way, because of course Smith takes the idea of a standard YA novel and injects it with actual, real feelings. Specifically, I was reminded of a John Green book, except it was a good book and not something that felt formulaic and boring and manufactured. Imagine that! A YA novel that deals with love and embarrassment in a straightforward way: no characters spewing pretentious statements at every possible moment, no quirky details that make you want to stab your own eyeballs, and no bossy writer behind the pages cackling and saying "Cry, you ugly fools! Cry!"

The story is realistic, and perhaps that doesn't mean sound like a compliment, but I am amazed by how realistic the relationships are. Finn knows he's not being nice to his parents but it happens anyway. There are no signs of bratty, entitled teen nor controlling parent. It's wonderful! He knows that his relationship with Julia might not work out, and he likes her for real reasons in spite of the challenges a relationship like theirs faces. I hate books that feature characters that fall in love with one another instantly, and though it would never work out in real life, they are happy together forever (at least until the book ends). But Smith is better than that, and it shows.

There's something so uniquely enjoyable about an Andrew Smith novel. The stories he tells are crazy, but they never lose their grasp on the truth inherent in their narratives. That's what amazes me every time I read one of his books: they are drenched in truth but never preach it; the characters never open their mouths and recite aphorisms that make me gag.

My point: Andrew Smith rocks. Stop wasting your life and read his books.

My rating: 5/5
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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
The Night Gardener on Goodreads
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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
Jamaica Inn on Goodreads
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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 and Edelweiss for the opportunity to read it in exchange for an unbiased 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)

Thanks to NetGalley and Edelweiss for an ARC in exchange for an unbiased review!

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
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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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