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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.)

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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 Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

6 Feb

Sometimes, the right book comes exactly when you need it. About halfway through January, I really needed The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.

Bender is one of my favorite authors. Her prose is tight, her voice is pitch-perfect, her style is equal parts melancholy and humor, and yet, she lets none of this confine her or box her in. Each book is fresh and inventive and uniquely hers, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is no exception. (Indeed, Bender has somehow become more Bender here. There is a depth, a maturity of craft to this novel that her previous work has lacked.)

Which is not to say that this novel is for everyone, because it’s probably not. But the story of Rose Edelstein, a girl and then a woman who can taste the feelings of others in the food they make, is one of the most beautiful, sad, and achingly tender tales I’ve read in a long time – a story of people too afraid to take steps towards their own happiness, and of all the ways they learn, slowly, to set themselves free.

Though we come to know Rose’s desperately lonely mother, her distant father, and her strange brother in and of themselves, it’s Rose who resonates. I understood her and saw myself in her, as I often understand and see myself in Bender’s characters, but there was never a moment I loved her more than when she creates a small, safe space for herself in a closet her employers set aside for her. (If you know me, this moment will make sense. That was the moment, mid-January, that I needed.)

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake might not hit everyone so hard, and it might not be the right fit for most readers. But this story about people finding something fulfilling, something that heals the wounds slowly and purely, because they finally let themselves see, was nothing short of a blessing to me.

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This book was published by Doubleday in June 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website, which includes monthly writing prompts, because didn’t I tell you Aimee Bender is awesome? If you’d like to purchase this book from an independent bookstore as well as keep me in cake (not really) as an IndieBound affiliate, click here. As always, happy reading.

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

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.

Inside Petty Magic (plus book recommendations!): An Interview with author Camille DeAngelis

5 Oct

I could not be more pleased to tell you my dear friend has a book coming out today. Petty Magic by Camille DeAngelis is easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and I’m not just saying that because I like her and because she sends me cookies, t-shirts, absinthe lollipops, and all other manner of cool things you will never enjoy.

But obviously, our friendship creates a conflict of interest for me in reviewing her book. Shockingly, as I get older and — I don’t know how this happened — more professional, I care about things like conflicts of interest. So I won’t be getting into the hows and whys and the omg run out and buy this book right nows of a review, but I will be getting into a slew of questions, because this girl can still hook you up:

Your previous novel, Mary Modern, was inspired by a photograph of your great-grandmother, and what it would be like if you could communicate with her. Petty Magic also has a fantastical storyline, yet it’s also grounded in a very real way. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

In 2007 all I had was Fawkes & Ibis (the curiosity shop where Eve’s love interest works; I had cannibalized an earlier manuscript) and the bare-bones premise: old witch makes herself young again so she can go out to bars and seduce men. I knew it would be loads of fun to write, but initially I thought it was only meant to be a short story, and (for now anyway) I write short stories only for my own amusement.

Meanwhile, I’d been working on another novel idea—written thirty or forty pages and had done quite a bit of  research—and I’d shown the first chapter to my best writer friend. We were on a walk in the Silvermines, a rather spooky set of mountains in County Tipperary in Ireland, and he was saying that he liked the chapter and that it felt very fast-paced, like a novella—and I groaned because I knew then that the thing I was working on wasn’t going to pan out. [Editor’s note: read Camille’s blog post about that weekend here]

Then I told him my little idea about a randy old witch, and he said there was a novel in that for sure. I’m telling you where I was when I committed to the idea because I think it actually flavored the story—the following year I did a bit of traveling in the Harz Mountains, where the Grimm brothers collected their fairy tales, and had that same eerie feeling as we walked through the evergreen forest in the rain and fog.

I love your main character, Eve. She’s so feisty! Is there any Camille in Eve?

For me, the fun in making people up is giving them attributes you only wish you could have yourself—Eve is adventurous and supremely confident (to the point of arrogance; of course that’s not a trait I want for myself, but in fiction as in real life, ain’t nobody perfect). I do like to think I’ve grown more sure of myself in the three years since I began writing Petty Magic, though, so maybe I’m becoming a little more like Eve as I go along.

You’ve told me that you read several really interesting books as research for this novel. How does one even go about researching such wide topics as beldames, and World War II? Here’s your chance to geek out – any favorites or recommendations?

For a good overview of the female spies of World War II, I recommend Marcus Binney’s The Women Who Lived for Danger: The Agents of the Special Operations Executive and Sarah Helm’s A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII. I found Violet Szabo’s and Virginia Hall’s stories particularly inspiring; and of course I have to mention the love affair between courier Odette Sansom and her circuit leader Peter Churchill in occupied Paris. (They wound up getting marriedafter the war, although the marriage didn’t last.)

But if I had to pick the one most useful book, it would be Joseph Persico’s Piercing the Reich: The Penetration of Nazi Germany by American Secret Agents During World War II. I’d had no idea American spies had been so active inside Germany! The Office of Strategic Services was willing to send in their agents, while the Special Operations Executive (in Britain) was reluctant because they figured they’d be sending their men into certain death. And yet many of the American spies who had begun setting up networks within Germany survived the experience. Persico’s book is completely riveting.

What I read for Petty Magic has led to an even longer list of books I still want to read—like Mark Seaman’s Bravest of the Brave, a biography of F.F.E. Yeo-Thomas, the English spy code-named ‘the White Rabbit.’ His wartime activity includes more than one highly improbable escape (though he was usually recaptured, and the Nazis tortured him horribly every time he was brought back in). So needless to say Jonah’s inspired by Yeo-Thomas.

There are several other books on espionage and World War II I enjoyed and learned a lot from, and you’ll find the full list in the acknowledgments. I also read a bit about witchcraft and folklore— scholarly works, mostly—and those were indirectly useful because I wanted to subvert and reinforce those classic tropes at the same time.

On a different note, because this is a book blog and also because this is my blog: I know you’re a great reader and lover of books. Are there any books you’re an evangelist for?

I adore Angela Carter, and I really wish she were more widely read and appreciated in the U.S. I love The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus, and Wise Children, her last novel, is probably her best—(how often can you say that of a dearly departed novelist? although she was at her creative peak, dying of cancer in her early fifties)—and if you read it you will see just how much she has inspired me. ‘It doesn’t matter if what happens next spoils everything; the anticipation itself is always pure.’ Brilliant.

The other underappreciated writer I always gush about is Sheridan Le Fanu, the Anglo-Irish novelist and short story writer whose vampire novella, Carmilla (in the story collection In a Glass Darkly), predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by a good twenty-five years. I’ve been reading Le Fanu’s biography, and a real-life ghost story involving his wife is particularly compelling—there’s a definite theme, in his fiction and in his life, of the dead coming back to claim the living. So you see, he was a gothic character in his own right; after his wife died he became a recluse, and his neighbors called him ‘the Invisible Prince.’ I’ve all but put him in my new novel. Which leads me to your next question…

What are your plans for the future? Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now?

I’m working on a young adult novel, a ghost story set in Dublin in the 1860s, which may or may not turn into a trilogy. My immediate plan—once the Petty Magic publicity stuff has eased up—is to spend a few weeks in London and Edinburgh in November, wandering through graveyards and writing in pubs. I’m also taking a lot of notes for my next adult novel, which is probably going to be the most gothic thing yet.

Thanks, Camille! Not just for the interview, either.

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Petty Magic, which you can and should purchase for yourself and all your loved ones by clicking on the giant red IndieBound link below, was publishd by Crown today, October 5, 2010. For more information about Camille and her other books, visit her website. While you’re over there, check out her blog, which is not at all one of those author-blogs that only talks about the book that was just published. And to show your love for Petty Magic (and also to rock a very funny t-shirt or two), pop over to Camille’s cafepress store.

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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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