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Bite-sized book review: The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

11 Aug

These days, it seems all I require from my books is that I am able to lose myself inside of them. So, despite my high hopes that The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown would be positively packed with Shakespeare, and instead it was, for me, not-quite-packed-enough, I still read this novel happily in one sitting.

I suppose for anyone who has a less obsessed relationship with literature, there would have been plenty of Bill and more. But this is ultimately the story of three sisters, each searching in their own way: the oldest for freedom and the bravery to find it, the middle for salvation from her considerable sins, and the baby for roots that will hold her steady.

The reward, here, is not the well-chosen quotes from plays and sonnets woven into the text nor even Brown’s deft handling of the multi-faceted plot, but the fates that unfold after a push through the first 50 somewhat awkward pages: what happens to the Weird Sisters while they struggle to accept who they really are, rather than the stories they have told themselves about who they should be.

 

Bite-sized book reviews: The Help, What Alice Forgot, Russian Winter, and Swamplandia!

2 Aug

Okay, so:

The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Go read it. It’s as good as everyone you know has said (wailed, screamed) it is. As if it wasn’t enough to write a compelling novel about a very real time in American history, Stockett has the nerve to be an excellent writer who created vivid, interesting characters and a delicately suspenseful plot. Skip whatever else you’ve got on the TBR pile. Go read this now.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty is the kind of book I dream about finding on the shelves. (You know the ones. They suck you in and keep you there, blissfully, for days.) I don’t know why I bother mentioning that Moriarty is a good writer, given that I don’t bother reading anything by anyone if it’s not well-written, but she is a good writer. This novel’s creative plot, coupled with realistic and complicated family dynamics probably anyone can relate to, makes this story about one woman’s unexpected and accidental amnesia a perfect one to disappear inside.

Russian Winter by Daphne Kolatay. My grandmother told me to read it, and really, she’s never wrong. Kolatay has crafted a fascinating and atmospheric historical novel, and I’m not even into ballerinas. That she manages to jump through both time and perspectives with no loss of momentum or character development is a testament not only to her writing ability but to the pull of a great story. I’m also pretty sure that right about now you’re willing to read anything that involves winter.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is the best book I’ve read so far this year, and it will take a lot to change that opinion by December 31. The only thing more breathtaking than the haunting, imaginative, and sad tale of the Bigtree siblings is Russell’s tremendous talent. This was some of the most incredibly creative writing I’ve read in years, with line-by-line inventiveness that positively ripped my head off (read the first few pages to see exactly what I mean). My grief at the end of this expertly woven, heartbreaking novel was palpable.

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So hey, you may have noticed this post is different from the ones that came before. Congratulations. You’ve figured out that things around here are going to change. Turns out I am better with short and sweet, especially if you’re into short more than sweet. (This surprises no one, I’m sure.) Anyway, thanks for your patience.

Book review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

14 Jun

Looking for a book full of creepy photos of 1940s-era children? Look no further than Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a quick, exciting, and well-written YA novel from author Ransom Riggs.

Set briefly in the U.S. — home to 16-year-old Jacob, who has just witnessed the violent death of a beloved member of his family — the tale moves to a small, foggy island off the coast of Wales, and time immediately gets tricky.

Peppered with a motley cast of “peculiar” children and the people who surround them, Riggs weaves a taught and haunting fantasy as clever as it is dark. Recommended for fans of the Beautiful Creatures trilogy by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, The Sister by Poppy Adams, or The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, Miss Peregrine’s Home is an excellent place to repose on a hot summer day, provided you don’t mind periodically looking over your shoulder.

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This book was published by Crown Publishers in February 2011. For more information, visit the author’s website, which includes a properly creepy book trailer. (FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book that I borrowed from the public library.)

 

 

Book review: You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin

6 Nov

No one ever tells you what a bloodbath marriage can be. Of course everyone says it’s hard, and you hear all these comments about how it’s a slog, how it’s unimaginably difficult, how crazy it can make even the most sane. But you never really believe all of that, because it’s hard to grasp when you’re on the outside, and it’s hard to imagine when you don’t really want to. You’re too busy being sure nothing will change after it happens. You’re too confident you’ll be the couple that rises above.

But it’s true. All of it. Some days it’s all you can do to wake up next to your spouse and resist the urge to hold a pillow over their face, or yours. Sometimes, even though you’d never admit this to anyone, you consider simply not showing up and doing all you can every day. There are fantasies of what it used to be like when you were Independent George, or what it could be, daydreams about freedom from everything heavy or unmanageable, thoughts that stay a little too long and detail a little too carefully the loopholes in the sheer hard labor that marriage requires.

Victor Aaron, the main character in You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin, is a man who has forgotten completely these truths. He sees the marriage he shared with his dead wife, Sara, as “a perfect, if tumultuous, duet between two opposite but precisely matched souls.” Until one day, he discovers a series of notecards Sara wrote as part of a couples therapy session, detailing the major shifts in their 30-year relationship, and the tectonic plates of Victor’s beliefs start to slip apart.

Peppered with a cast of characters who possess real depth and variety, You Lost Me There is a cornucopia of the complexities of what it means to be human – how our memories can betray us, how our bad habits can bog us down and hold us back, how our connections to other humans can break us utterly and yet still set us free.

Baldwin knows marriage, and it’s a little heartbreaking to read, if you know it, too. But his terrific writing, coupled with his amazing ability to splice scenes so that we are watching two characters in a conversation while one is experiencing something different in his head, save this novel from being overly sentimental, or even too bittersweet. 

For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, this is a nuanced portrait of one man’s grief and of his journey towards, through, and out into the other side of change.

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This book was published by Riverhead Books in August 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website. You can also listen to the prologue by watching the book trailer. If you’d like to purchase this book and support independent booksellers at same time, click the IndieBound link that follows, and as always, happy reading. 

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FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book that I borrowed from the public library. 

Book review: Postcards From a Dead Girl by Kirk Farber

4 Sep

Admittedly, Postcards from a Dead Girl by Kirk Farber has a cute title, but that’s not why I bought it. Despite that fact that I often feel like a dead girl, I never buy a book for its title alone. No, I bought it after I stood in Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville, Kentucky, and read these lines on page 3: “I’m a thrower. Coffee cups. Chairs. Inanimate objects that may have wronged me. Things that get in my way.”

Yes, Kirk Farber, yes. I too am a thrower! I’ve immediately identified with your character, Sid Higgins! I will purchase this book despite the fact that I am broke and practically suffocating underneath my to-be-read pile.

So, of course, that’s exactly what I did. This is a small book, but I mean that in the most valuable way. 

I loved the main character, Sid, a quirky hypochondriac whose world kind of caves in when he begins receiving postcards from an old girlfriend. His investigations into the origins of the postcards are alternately humorous and sad, and continue until Sid ends up in a homemade mud bath in his backyard, and we finally learn what really happened to his girlfriend, and his heart.

I suppose, in the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you Kirk Farber is from Wisconsin, so he automatically gets extra points because this is my blog and I can do things like that whether you like it or not. But I should also stress that even if he was from, say, Illinois or Minnesota, or god forbid, Michigan, I would have gotten over that after reading his amusing – and just a bit heartbreaking – book.

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This book was published by Harper Perennial February 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website. The IndieBound logo below will allow to you to purchase this book and throw a couple dimes my way, all while supporting independent bookstores.

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FTC Disclosure: This review was based on my own copy of this book.

Book review: Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

28 Aug

A quarter of the way through Mr. Peanut, I’d decided not to review it. The story had already twisted into a double helix, the ideas about marriage and its ever-changing kaleidoscope of emotions had already set my mind spinning; I knew I couldn’t do it, and what’s more, I didn’t want to try.

But to not tell you about this book would be a disservice to this blog and my master plan to take over the — no, I just wanted to tell you what I can about this complex, dramatic, ruminative novel by a talented writer with one dark mind.

The jacket copy of Mr. Peanut describes the novel as “structurally and emotionally” complex, and for once, the jacket copy is right. The frame from which the book hangs is the story of David and Alice Pepin, a video game designer and a counselor for troubled kids who have been together for 13 years and through many, many of Alice’s desperate and destructive diets. But when the Pepins’ story turns complicated – Alice is found dead in her kitchen, covered in the peanuts she is deathly allergic to, and David’s fingers have been down her throat – we are suddenly sucked into the stories of the two detectives involved, as well. Ward Hastroll, whose wife Hannah has not gotten out of bed for five months for no apparent reason, and Sam Sheppard, the Sam Sheppard, each have their own stories of marital woe.

Almost every review of Mr. Peanut references Ross’ first lines: “When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn’t kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God.” Which sums up the rest of the book both succinctly and inefficiently, as statements both enough and not-enough at the same time. (Just like anything that can be said about marriage, really.)

If the plot and the characters sound a tad challenging, it’s because they are. Ross is a gifted writer, but even his talent might not have carried this book. What kept me reading – indeed, what has already made me describe Mr. Peanut as “great” – were the sections where he broke down marriage, as much as anyone can.

Page 256:

‘She said, “Prove it.”

“Prove what?”

“That it’s going to improve.”

It required nothing miraculous of him. He simply had to be there, for Marilyn and for his son. There, as in inhabiting his life at home. There, as in treating now first. On a practical level it was the simplest thing: He took the boy off his wife’s hands when he returned from work. When she asked him for something – a favor, a last-second errand, or help with a household chore – he gave it. When she came to bed they talked. But spiritually and psychologically it was entirely different and required what couldn’t be faked: he was there. Whereas before he’d seen his wife and son as a kind of encroachment on his life, their needs as something that halved and rehalved the distance between him and what he wanted, and he’d therefore at every turn resisted every little thing asked of him, now he did the opposite. And he could feel the small joy it added to everything, and which in turn added accrued interest. It was so simple, really.’

That it’s not that simple – not that simple at all – is what sets this subtle, circuitous, and curious novel apart, all on its own. 

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This book was published by Knopf in June 2010. For more information, including an excellent Q & A, visit the author’s website. And if you click the IndieBound logo below to buy your own copy of Mr. Peanut, you’ll support independent booksellers, me, and your own loving and murderous marriage. 

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FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book that I borrowed from the public library. 

Book review: The Colony by Jillian Weise

18 Aug

Reader, I had to mine my Gmail archives from two months ago to find the exact nuances of my hatred for The Colony by Jillian Weise.

My dear friend, a fabulous author, knew how excited I was to read this novel. I first heard about it on twitter, and the premise fascinated me: Anne Hatley, a native of North Carolina with some rather caustic personality traits, was born with genetic mutation that gave her only one leg. In 2015, at age 25, Anne attempts to take a mental leave of absence from the hefty chip on her shoulder and a fiancé who drives her the bad kind of crazy by participating in cutting-edge medical research at a lab on Long Island. She lives for several months with four other people who also possess genetic deficiencies. In a surprise twist of cookie-cutter expectations, hilarity does not ensue.

So, like the kind and thoughtful person my dear author friend is, she sent me the galley her publisher had sent to her. I started it a few days after it arrived with only the highest of high hopes, because I am nothing if not a little old ant who thinks she’ll move a rubber tree plant. (Please note: my deep cynicism forces me to admit the previous statement is wholly untrue.)

I’ve included the full, unabridged text of my email response to my dear author friend below. I did modify two or three or seventeen all-caps sentences, for calmness’ sake:

“I forced myself to get to page 122, because this is a book you sent me, and because I want to give you a fair assessment:

1. I hate the narrator. I hate, hate, hate her. She’s annoying, vulgar, and completely unlikable.

2. I almost threw the book against the wall when Weise was describing Nick, the character from Wisconsin. If she meant to portray a stereotypical farmer, there is a difference between a cowboy and a farmer and I swear to god, I am actually offended. Wisconsin is not (entirely) some backwards hick-ass place. Weise is from Houston, so she must think Texas = Wisconsin but I tell you, it. does. not. If you don’t know my state, don’t for god’s bloody sakes write about it. Wisconsin is John Deere and Case IH and Carhartt, and cowboys have nothing to do with milk cows, and my god, should I go on?

3. The “genetic mutation story” seems to be totally underdeveloped – like it’s a backdrop for the greater pseudo-drama of this screwed-up character, and her dealings with everyone else in the colony. I was excited because I thought this was a fantasy-science story, but it’s not. It’s just this grating-ass woman with no morals who clearly has bigger emotional issues than her computerized leg.

I haven’t decided whether or not I’m going to finish it. It makes me so mad I almost want to see how it ends.”

But I stopped reading it, because I don’t need more rage. And because it doesn’t get much more eloquent than “grating-ass,” you know?

Except I kept thinking about this book. And I don’t mean I remembered it when I was reading an article online about Mendelism and quantitative traits, because I totally do that all the time. I kept coming back to the idea of scientific advancement, of metaphorical  – but also increasingly literal – leaps and bounds.

I’m more of a biochemistry girl myself, which is to say, I spend more time than your average wonk thinking about how my brain is working, or rather, not. But this book got me thinking about the human genome, and the scope of science, and what will happen when we inevitably reach the point where we can grow limbs for people who are missing them, or alter their genes so they won’t commit suicide, or mess with their molecules to keep them from getting obese.

Toward the end of the novel, Anne suggests that what the Colony is doing to her and the other patients is tantamount to eugenics, and it is. I still disliked her – she was still the same crass, emotionally stunted character from page 1 – but Weise suddenly did a much better job delving into the psychology of Anne’s situation. At the same time I started seriously contemplating the consequences of scientific “progress,” I started seeing Anne for the lost, anguished woman she is.

Weise can write a clever scene – Anne strikes up a close and honest friendship with the presumably resurrected Charles Darwin, and they have a memorable dinner together at Applebee’s, for instance – but my email to my dear author friend is still a pretty succinct round up of how I feel about The Colony. Weise got the character from Wisconsin and the little details about Madison unforgivably wrong, and probably more importantly to you, she takes far too long to get to her big, meaty ideas. Yet, as a reviewer from The Faster Times succinctly put it, “the book won’t be done with you even though you might want to be done with the book.”

The Colony wouldn’t be done with me, and in the end, I’m glad for that. I appreciate the questions this novel raised in my mind. Even – perhaps especially – the unanswerable ones.

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This book was published by Soft Skull Press in February 2010. If you’d like to purchase this book, why not support independent booksellers? Follow the link below, and happy reading.

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FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a galley copy I received from a friend, who received it from the publisher.

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