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Bite-sized book review: A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano

20 Sep

A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano is the exquisitely written, emotionally taut, and compelling story of four people doing their best to navigate their lives in a small Southern town. That one of these people is a fascinating and fictionalized version of Flannery O’Connor only adds to the complicated tapestry Napolitano weaves here, braiding the sins humans can commit out of boredom with the pain of a physical disease and the events of a tragic afternoon.

Napolitano’s gift is getting inside the heart of her characters, so that readers are rooting for every one of them, so that it’s possible – even when they have done terrible, selfish things – to forgive them their frailty. Her believable, research-based portrait of Flannery, channeled through the menagerie of peacocks that roam the O’Connor estate, screaming in the night and eating each flower as it blooms, heightens the sense that there is redemption to be found, to be sure, but only after we realize we all a little flawed, and a little doomed.

(If, like me, this book sends you on a mad quest for nonfiction about FC, I urge you to consider Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch.)

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: Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution

28 Mar

When Marie Grosholtz first learns that the royal family is to visit the wax museum she runs with her step-father, she is overjoyed at the publicity and money she knows it will bring. But she never expects to be asked to become a tutor to the king’s sister, and she doesn’t know that these are the first steps in a long journey that will require all her strength to survive.

Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution by Michelle Moran is only one woman’s story of the harrowing years between 1788 and 1799, when the absolute monarchy that had ruled France for more than nine hundred years collapsed as a result of a sustained assault from both liberal political groups and masses of citizens on the street. The years that followed this transformation were brutally bloody, rendering Jean-Paul Marat’s famous statement that “in order to ensure public tranquility, two hundred thousand heads must be cut off” more true than false, and resulted in a France that was forever changed.

That Marie Grosholtz – the woman who later became internationally famous, and whose wax empire still thrives today – survived is almost unbelievable, and Moran tells it for the surprising and fascinating story it is. Though her writing is quite good, she thrives on pure story, the plot progressing like a newspaper – or a wax museum – perfectly in pace with historical events. Add Marie, a ambitious, intelligent, and fiercely independent woman to this heady mix, and the excitement of revolution practically explodes off the page.

Highly recommended both for fans of history and historical fiction, Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution is an enthralling story of one country’s most tumultuous and uncertain period, and one woman’s unlikely, unexpected survival.

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This book was published by Crown Publishers in February 2011. For more information, visit the author’s website, which includes an excerpt from this novel and other fun things. Purchasing this book from an independent bookseller and supporting me as an IndieBound affiliate will help the masses keep their heads. As always, happy reading.

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book that I received from the publisher.

Book review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

14 Mar

In Audrey Niffenegger’s novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, Julia and Valentina Poole, two strange and precocious twenty-year old twins, find their world tipped sideways on the morning they receive a thick envelope from London: their aunt Elspeth, their mother’s own twin sister, has passed away and left them a flat. The conditions of the inheritance? They must both live there for one year before selling, and their parents are not allowed across the threshold.

Bordering the real-life Highgate Cemetary – home to the earthly remains of Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, and Karl Marx, to name a few – the flat is the perfect would-be launching pad for the twins, if either were inclined to launch. Instead, Julia and Valentina become increasingly involved with the lives of the people around them, including Robert, Elspeth’s grief-stricken, long-time love and Martin, an obsessive-compulsive crossword setter who lives upstairs. The twins also discover that the most elusive and devastating person in London may very well live, in a manner of speaking, in their own flat.

Where Niffenegger previously bent time in her best-selling novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, here she bends space to the same great success. Her writing is as skilled as ever, but it’s her ability to weave an inventive and intriguing  plot with compelling characters, flawless atmosphere and perfect tone that makes her such an amazing talent, and this such an excellent book.

Her Fearful Symmetry is a gripping – one might even say haunting – read.

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This book was published by Scribner in September 2009. For more information, visit the author’s websiteThink about buying this book from an independent bookstore, otherwise maybe I will haunt you, because I’m an IndieBound affiliate. As always, happy reading.

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

 

Book review: A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

17 Jan

Robert Goolrick isn’t from Wisconsin, but he should be. His descriptions of the Wisconsin winter landscape are so dead-on, so poetic, so well-written, the state should send him a certificate of achievement. (Or maybe I should print him one up in Word? No?)

In Goolrick’s novel, A Reliable Wife, the oppressive winter white of the fields and hills surrounding Ralph Truitt’s farm house is almost another character in itself. When mail-order bride Catherine Land first arrives at the homestead, the light from the snow is literally too much for her eyes. This sense of a deadening world right outside the window, coupled with the blindness that accompanies both bright light and love, are dual themes the carefully crafted story rides on, twisting around several fresh and unexpected turns as it flows.

Dark, sexual, and mysterious, this book would be an excellent choice for mystery fans looking for suspenseful, intriguing plot lines with a literary bent. This is superb writing, but it’s Goolrick’s mastery of pace and character development  that make this an engrossing read.

Every wife turns out to be someone other than her groom thought she was. The person this wife turns out to be, a person with an agenda much more sinister and complex than love or security, is the driving force behind the story. But as with any marriage, the truth – the darkness, the consequences, the redemption for many sins – is far more complicated than that.

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This book was published by Algonquin Books in 2009. For more information, including an excerpt from the opening chapter and an interesting video interview with the author, visit the book’s website. For more information about the author and his other novel, visit the author’s websiteClick here to purchase this book from an independent bookseller and to get me through the harsh Wisconsin winters as an IndieBound affiliate. As always, happy reading.

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

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