Tag Archives: book reviews

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: Good Eggs: A Memoir by Phoebe Potts

14 Jan

Good Eggs: A Memoir by Phoebe Potts was what every graphic novel memoir should aspire to be: touching and poignant and funny, sad and hopeful, with a truth all its own, with a voice that takes as much from the visual aspect of the drawing on the page as from the writing itself.

Potts’ book might have been called Infertility: A Love Story, not because there’s anything to love about infertility and not because Potts loves the numerous painful processes she and her husband endure for many months, but because she tells her story with love. In showing the reader her desire to be a mother, she shows also the underbelly of being in a family, the difficulties of growing up and finding one’s calling in life, the complicated road toward faith (in Potts’ case, Judaism), and of the myriad ways that we disappoint ourselves and others. Her honesty, rendered openly in her drawings, reveal a tender soul, a loving person, and most heartbreaking, someone who would make a great mother.

Recommended for fans of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel or Blankets by Craig Thompson, for anyone who likes an intimate view of another person’s “normal” life, for women struggling to get pregnant (or in pain over simply not being pregnant, capabilities aside).

Potts’ book is beautiful. Good Eggs is, very simply, a good egg.

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This book was published by Harper Collins in 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website. For a cool sneak-peek slide show of the inside of the book, stop by the Huffington Post. If you’d like to purchase this book from an independent bookstore and support me as an IndieBound affiliate by sending a few eggs my way, by all means, do so. As always, happy reading.

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

Book review: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

4 Jan

If one day you told me, “You can be a powerful queen and ruler, you can have riches beyond imagining, you can possess an exceptional brain, a confident manner, a loyal nature, a brave soul, and gifts for both pageantry and persuasion, but…you must also withstand being misunderstood as a seductress, a succubus, and a whore for 2,000 years and counting,” I might have some inkling of what is was like to be Cleopatra. (I might still also agree to the bargain.)

In her 2010 biography, Cleopatra: A Life, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff peels away the dual layers of time and history to reveal the multi-faceted woman behind the myth, and in doing so, she has written an excellent book.

For any lover of non-fiction, this is a rich and engaging read, but Schiff’s real talent is making Cleopatra’s story as accessible as fiction. Accompanying Cleopatra from the time she ascends her throne at age 18, through years of uncertainty and triumph, through both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, until her suicide (which did not happen the way you think it did) at 39, Schiff offers a portrait of a real woman. An accomplished writer, with a clear sense of pitch and timing, Schiff renders her subject matter not merely interesting, but downright fascinating.

That Cleopatra was a complicated and compelling woman is undeniable. That her true story – rather than the one that has endured – is just as complex is a riveting and welcome surprise.

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This book was published by Little, Brown, and Company in 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website. To purchase this book from an independent bookseller and to marginally support me as an affiliate of IndieBound, please follow this link and pat yourself on the back. As always, happy reading.

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

Book review: Google’lize Your Life by Jeff VanDrimmelen

20 Dec

When I first received Jeff VanDrimmelen’s book, Google’lize Your Life, I was terribly excited. The book whispered, “Do you want to Google’lize your life?” Predictably, I screamed, “Hell yes!”

This was the first warning sign. (You get pretty familiar with warning signs when you are an obsessive organizer and someone who uses obsessive organization as a way to manage your chronic anxiety.) Yet I decided to ignore this, and also the fact that I’ve been using Google products since Gmail first came out in 2004 – eons, in internet years – and probably didn’t need the advice.

Yet I stick with these tools precisely for the same reason, I assume, VanDrimmelen wrote an entire book about them: they work. And because I’m a more productive person thanks to these products, because I value their consistent simplicity, and because I can never consume enough information about the things I love, I was interested in the little hacks and tweaks that might take me to the stratosphere.

And that was a great plan, except that Google’lize Your Life didn’t rock it, at least not for me.

To his credit, VanDrimmelen writes in an easy and accessible way that would benefit any Google beginner, and I would recommend his book to anyone who is unfamiliar with Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Tasks, especially if they’re looking to get a lot out of a straightforward productivity system.

However, my major complaint is that the screen shots for Google Tasks that VanDrimmelen provides in-text don’t match any screen shots in real life. I don’t know how he’s getting his Tasks list to look like this, and he doesn’t tell me. I would have loved to access this feature, and was greatly disappointed when I got online and found I couldn’t expand my Tasks this way. (So disappointed, in fact, that I’ve put off writing this review so that I could calm down enough to assess it fairly.)

Google’lize Your Life is a good starting point for people who are considering the basic Google products. It’s just not enough for someone who has already Google’lized to the power of Google, with a big Googly smile on her face.

Update: A day after this post was published I received an email from the author. To access the canvas view of Google Tasks, log into Gmail and follow this address: https://mail.google.com/tasks/canvas. Thanks, Jeff!

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This book was elf-published by the author in 2010. For more information, visit the Google’lize website. This book is not currently available through independent booksellers. As always, happy reading.

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

Book review: You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin

6 Nov

No one ever tells you what a bloodbath marriage can be. Of course everyone says it’s hard, and you hear all these comments about how it’s a slog, how it’s unimaginably difficult, how crazy it can make even the most sane. But you never really believe all of that, because it’s hard to grasp when you’re on the outside, and it’s hard to imagine when you don’t really want to. You’re too busy being sure nothing will change after it happens. You’re too confident you’ll be the couple that rises above.

But it’s true. All of it. Some days it’s all you can do to wake up next to your spouse and resist the urge to hold a pillow over their face, or yours. Sometimes, even though you’d never admit this to anyone, you consider simply not showing up and doing all you can every day. There are fantasies of what it used to be like when you were Independent George, or what it could be, daydreams about freedom from everything heavy or unmanageable, thoughts that stay a little too long and detail a little too carefully the loopholes in the sheer hard labor that marriage requires.

Victor Aaron, the main character in You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin, is a man who has forgotten completely these truths. He sees the marriage he shared with his dead wife, Sara, as “a perfect, if tumultuous, duet between two opposite but precisely matched souls.” Until one day, he discovers a series of notecards Sara wrote as part of a couples therapy session, detailing the major shifts in their 30-year relationship, and the tectonic plates of Victor’s beliefs start to slip apart.

Peppered with a cast of characters who possess real depth and variety, You Lost Me There is a cornucopia of the complexities of what it means to be human – how our memories can betray us, how our bad habits can bog us down and hold us back, how our connections to other humans can break us utterly and yet still set us free.

Baldwin knows marriage, and it’s a little heartbreaking to read, if you know it, too. But his terrific writing, coupled with his amazing ability to splice scenes so that we are watching two characters in a conversation while one is experiencing something different in his head, save this novel from being overly sentimental, or even too bittersweet. 

For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, this is a nuanced portrait of one man’s grief and of his journey towards, through, and out into the other side of change.

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This book was published by Riverhead Books in August 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website. You can also listen to the prologue by watching the book trailer. If you’d like to purchase this book and support independent booksellers at same time, click the IndieBound link that follows, and as always, happy reading. 

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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 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: Postcards From a Dead Girl by Kirk Farber

4 Sep

Admittedly, Postcards from a Dead Girl by Kirk Farber has a cute title, but that’s not why I bought it. Despite that fact that I often feel like a dead girl, I never buy a book for its title alone. No, I bought it after I stood in Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville, Kentucky, and read these lines on page 3: “I’m a thrower. Coffee cups. Chairs. Inanimate objects that may have wronged me. Things that get in my way.”

Yes, Kirk Farber, yes. I too am a thrower! I’ve immediately identified with your character, Sid Higgins! I will purchase this book despite the fact that I am broke and practically suffocating underneath my to-be-read pile.

So, of course, that’s exactly what I did. This is a small book, but I mean that in the most valuable way. 

I loved the main character, Sid, a quirky hypochondriac whose world kind of caves in when he begins receiving postcards from an old girlfriend. His investigations into the origins of the postcards are alternately humorous and sad, and continue until Sid ends up in a homemade mud bath in his backyard, and we finally learn what really happened to his girlfriend, and his heart.

I suppose, in the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you Kirk Farber is from Wisconsin, so he automatically gets extra points because this is my blog and I can do things like that whether you like it or not. But I should also stress that even if he was from, say, Illinois or Minnesota, or god forbid, Michigan, I would have gotten over that after reading his amusing – and just a bit heartbreaking – book.

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This book was published by Harper Perennial February 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website. The IndieBound logo below will allow to you to purchase this book and throw a couple dimes my way, all while supporting independent bookstores.

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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: Numb by Sean Ferrell

21 Aug

If the title character of Sean Ferrell’s first novel were blindsided with a two-by-four, he wouldn’t feel it. He is “the man in scars and jeans who worked with hammers and nails but no wood.” 

From the moment Numb, a man who feels no pain and has no memory of his past, stepped into a circus ring with a lion, I was invested in him. When he moved to New York City with his best friend; when he rose to fame for nailing himself to bars; when he started living with a sweet, blind artist; when he gave in to a sado-masochistic relationship with an actress; when the tragedy and ugliness of celebrity twisted the puppet strings of his life; when he, and his emotional pain, finally fell apart; I pulled for him.  

Ferrell’s gift here is an inventive, creative story. The plot is perhaps a little light on the details – the reader must give up on the details of every who, where, when, and how – but the swift pace is somehow perfect. To slow down would be to feel perhaps a little too deeply how much everything hurts a person who feels no pain. 

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This book was published by Harper Perennial in August 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website. Clicking on the IndieBound logo below will help support me, as an affiliate, and independent bookstores. That’s called good karma, people. Happy reading.

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

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