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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: 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: Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss

15 Feb

When Dwight Garner of The New York Times described Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss as “a deeply unusual and forceful thing to have in your hands,” he wrote the truth.

Redniss’ graphic book, an illustrated biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, is a fascinating, almost preternaturally delicate and beautiful creation. Her use of cyanotype printing – ethereal and spooky photographic images created in white on bright blue backgrounds – balances so perfectly with her writing that it’s difficult to choose which better mirrors and influences which: the art would be less without the writing, and the writing would be less without the art.

Whether you know anything about the Curies or not, whether you even care is irrelevant: Redniss weaves a captivating narrative, equal parts science, love story, and passion for life. Her great skill here is not only in her ability to tell an interesting tale, but luring us into truly understanding, perhaps for the first time for many of us, the unequivocally tremendous contribution the Curies made to science. She shows us, in a fresh and poignant way, how they changed the future.

It’s not often that a book is as visually bewitching as the words on its pages, but Redniss has somehow achieved this. Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout is its own miraculous discovery.

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This book was published by It Books in December 2010. For more information, including the author’s explanation of why she was interested in the Curies, visit the author’s website. I’m an Indie Bound affiliate, so if you’d like to purchase this book, please consider doing so from an independent bookstore. As always, happy reading.

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

Book review: The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn

2 Aug

I’m tempted to say that any reader with even a modest familiarity with the mystery genre and half an eye will see right through the thin secrecy of The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn, but I’d better not. I wouldn’t want to offend those hermits who have never heard of Agatha Christie, nor the half-eyed. (In fact, if you are reading with only half an eye, I commend you.)

Thankfully, the mystery is beside the point. The best part of this novel, published in July 2010, is the subtle, urbane way O’Flynn examines and contrasts the dreary exterior atmosphere of Birmingham, England, with the melancholy interior atmosphere of her characters.

The News Where You Are tells the story of Frank Allcroft, an awkward yet well-meaning local TV news presenter, whose preoccupation with the abandoned of the world colors his daily life. His main focus is delving deeper into the mystery of his predecessor, Phil Smethway’s freak death, but as he uncovers clues from several sources, he’s unsure what to do with his discoveries. Increasingly, he spends more and more time on his hobby, finding the next of kin of people who die alone in his city, prompting his affable wife Andrea to tell him, “Don’t turn weird, Frank. Don’t get all obsessed.” Additionally gripped by a strong need to understand and witness the demolition of his father’s “uncompromising, thuggish-looking” post-war architecture, Frank’s attention is turned more often to the past than the present.

If this all sounds oppressive and depressing, it’s surprisingly not. O’Flynn’s success in painting Frank with a light touch is deft and talented. Frank’s loving and playful conversations with Andrea are often humorous; his mindfulness in each moment with his pre-teen daughter, Mo, rings touching and true. Even his often-frustrating visits with his mother, a morose woman who chose to move into an assisted living center before the age of 70 to wait out her death, reveal him to be, at his core, a tender man.

O’Flynn’s talent for the soft and subtle was part of the brilliance of 2007’s What Was Lost, a fascinating and poignant story about a missing young girl. My love for that novel (and it was love) was the reason I picked up this one. However much The News Where You Are did not quite live up to my great expectations, O’Flynn is still at work here, still soft and subtle in only the best way, still spinning sensitive stories even those who’ve never heard of Agatha Christie (and, of course, the half-eyed) can truly appreciate.

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This book was published by Holt Paperbacks in July 2010. Visit here to read an interview with the author. 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 my own copy of this book.

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