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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.



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: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

22 Oct

I get really tired of explaining that I’m busy, stressed, and yes, tired. Almost as much as you get tired of hearing it, I assume, especially because who isn’t busy, stressed, and tired, and who isn’t tired of hearing about it from others?

But I digress. (See? Busy, stressed, and tired.)

So when one of my dearest friends told me I should The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – that it’s just the mental break I’m looking for – I just shrugged. I’d tried to read it before, of course. I doubt you could be a person interested in books and somehow magically avoid hearing about The Hunger Games trilogy over the past few months. But when I picked it up last year, I couldn’t get past the first 20 pages. I wasn’t expecting fantastic writing – my standards adjust accordingly when I know I’m reading YA, though there’s really no reason they should – but beyond that, I was totally uninterested in the story. I seem to recall I gave it a try because a reviewer I like and respect said it has everything: action, adventure, romance, suspense. But I didn’t see it.

Turns out, I just hadn’t read far enough. Or, I wasn’t busy, stressed, and tired enough, which is more likely.

The writing is still not fantastic. But the plot grabbed me this time. And this past Sunday, five hours after cracking the first page, I finished it pretty satisfied. (Satisfied enough, in fact, that I couldn’t wait to borrow the next two books from my friend, and instead went out and bought  Catching Fire and Mockingjay the next day. Catching Fire isn’t as gripping, but you know how it is when you’re having a busy, stressful, and tiring week.)

I do think The Hunger Games deserved to win every award it won when it first came out. I know nothing about Suzanne Collins – I don’t even know if she’s written other books – but her mastery of plot and pacing is clear here.

If I had one complaint, it’s that I dislike Katniss, the main character. This opinion seems to go against the grain of all of the Hunger Games devotees out there, but like that’s ever stopped me. I find Katniss to be obnoxious, self-centered, and overdone. Of course, this book was written for teenagers, and I was nothing if not obnoxious, self-centered, and overdone at that age, so perhaps I will cede a point to Collins, again.

The Hunger Games is not great literature. And thank god. If I never read anything The New Yorker would snub its nose at, I wouldn’t know greatness when I finally picked it up.

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This book was published by Scholastic in September 2008. The Hunger Games   For more information about the author and the trilogy, visit Scholastic’s website here. If you’d like to purchase The Hunger Games, or the following two books in the trilogy, please click the IndieBound link below in support of independent bookstores.

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

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.

Book review: Lucy by Lawrence Gonzales

4 Aug

I finished Lucy by Lawrence Gonzales in less than two days.

While that sentence is usually a promising beginning to any review, I can’t say that will be the case with this one.

Jenny Lowe, a primatologist studying bonobos in the Congo, awakens one night to the realization that the civil war in the Republic has finally reached the deeper recesses of the jungle. She flees her camp, stopping just long enough at the research station of fellow scientist Stone, where she finds everyone dead except a naked teenage girl – Stone’s daughter, Lucy. The two women escape with their lives and an armful of Stone’s field notebooks, and with only minimal legal wrangling, land in Chicago a short time later.

Jenny, of course, intends to find Lucy’s relatives in England right away, but she is distracted by the girl’s strange behavior. Chalking it up to Lucy’s growth and development in the jungle, the trauma of losing her father to insurgent violence, and the exhaustion they both feel, Jenny ignores her sense that something is not quite right about Lucy and instead curls up with Stone’s notebooks. And everything suddenly becomes clear.

Lucy acts oddly because she is the first human-bonobo hybrid in his existence. Stone, who used his own sperm to inseminate a bonobo named Leda, created her as part of a vision that she would be a “universal Eve” for a new race of people, one which would have the best qualities of bonobo genetics but also possess the power of language and human thought. Though Lucy refers to herself only once as a “humanzee,” this is indeed what she is.

The story that follows unfolds with speed and intensity: Lucy learns to be an American teenager despite everyone’s suspicions that there is something disturbingly different about her, but on a trip to the Boundary Waters, she falls ill with a disease only found in animals. Cue deleted scenes from “Outbreak.”

To go further into the plot would be to divulge the more gripping parts of the novel, and also the parts that failed. To his credit, Lawrence has managed to raise tremendous and fascinating moral, ethical, and philosophical questions within a narrative that flows quite effortlessly. I really did read this in less than two days, and not for your sakes, trust me.

Where Lawrence stumbles is in glossing over the plausibility of Lucy’s existence; the authenticity of Lucy and her best friend’s quasi-sexual closeness; and the full scope of the media, government, and military frenzy that descends on Lucy when her secret is discovered. Michiko Kakutani’s criticism that “the reader often has the sense that Mr. Gonzales is impatiently ticking off plot points on an outline, as if he were writing a movie treatment, not a novel,” is, unfortunately, spot-on.

That said, this book was not a disappointment. What I picked up expecting to put down 30 pages later was a much-needed surprise, and one I considered staying up very late for.

As an endorsement for a book, even one with major flaws, I’m not sure it gets better than that.

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This book was published by Knopf in July 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website. 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 copy of this book I borrowed from the public library.

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