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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: 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: The Radleys by Matt Haig

25 Jan

Rowan and Clara Radley don’t know they’re vampires. Their parents, Helen and Peter, have kept the family secret for seventeen years, abstaining from their old, instinctual practices and raising their children as if human blood is not a part of their natural diet.

And everything is fine, until Clara decides to become a vegetarian, forsaking the meat that keeps her base desires at bay, until one moment, at a high school party, when she commits a devastating and life-changing act.

As funny as it is clever, The Radleys is fast-paced, heartfelt, and unique.  The darkness here is lighter than in Haig’s fantastic previous novel, The Dead Father’s Club, but his talent for rummaging around in the shade shines through nevertheless.

A quick read, but a worthwhile one, The Radleys shows just how intimate and complex – how bloody – the hidden corridors of the human heart can be.

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This book was published by Free Press in December in 2010. For more information, visit the author’s hilarious website. If your natural instinct is to purchase this book from an independent bookstore, as an affiliate of IndieBound who makes no money whatsoever from this gig but continues nonetheless, I encourage you fulfill that urge here. As always, happy reading.

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

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.

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.

(Something less than two) Book reviews: One Day by David Nicholls and The Space Between Tress by Katie Williams

10 Aug

This is what happens when you have a full time job: things get busy. You read two books in five days and they’re both fabulous, and you want to review them, you do, but you don’t have time because there are these things called paychecks and responsibilities that take up all the damn time in the world, and also (hey there!) precedence.

Loyal, patient readers, I tore through both One Day by David Nicholls and The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams, and not only because reading is my favorite mental break but because they were excellent.

Nicholls wrote an amusing, humorous, bright and sad novel that reminds me of Nick Hornby with a less distinctive style but just as much wit. The formulaic ending was, nonetheless, surprising; one that left me aching and recommending this book to anyone who’d like to get lost in the lives of two charming, interesting people before the summer ends.
Williams penned an equally engaging book, though her subject matter was much darker, more disturbing, and spot-on for readers, YA or otherwise, looking for a breath of fresh air unpopulated by vampires.

Oh, that I could create more time! But let’s face it: I’d just end up reading more.

What have you been reading? Any books you’ve been unable to put down?

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For more information about One Day, which was published by Vintage Comtemporaries in June 2010, visit, featuring some excellent YouTube “episodes” that exactly match the emotional tone of the book. To purchase this book in support of independent bookstores (which you well should), click here.

For more information about The Space Between Trees, published by Chronicle Books in June 2010, hop on over here, where you can get a free download the first seventeen pages of this gripping and excellent novel. You can also check out the author’s website here. Lastly, to purchase this book in support of independent bookstores (which you should do, again), click here.

Happy reading!

FTC Disclosure: The review of One Day was based on a copy of the book I won in a giveaway from the publisher. The review of The Space Between Trees was based on a copy of the book I borrowed from the public library.

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