Book Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. PenumbraWhen Clay Jannon lands a third-shift front desk job at a strange 24-hour bookstore in San Fransisco, he doesn’t suspect that an adventure would soon unfold. Low on cash, unable to find work in web design, and discouraged by the recession, he takes what he can, even if it’s dreadfully boring.

Quickly, he can’t figure how the place stays afloat, particularly since the bookstore seems to work more like an eccentric library – curious people borrowing curious books at all hours of the night. Mr. Penumbra requires little of Clay. Simply, record everything you observe in a log book. Keep the store open and help whomever comes in. Mr. Penumbra, like his patrons, is a mystifying yet simple man whose business ethic, as far as Clay can discern, is not a money-making industry. The whole thing is an enigma.

So he pokes around. Clay explores the bookstore. He inquires about its patrons. With the help of a sharp, young Google employee, he starts to decipher just what in the work is going on at  Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. In short, Clay becomes engrossed in a secret society of knowledge seekers, a centuries-old group of sleuths who long to decode a message from its first member. What began as a dull graveyard shift at a bookstore morphs into a literary adventure of a lifetime.

This book offers an extra bonus of intrigue for those who enjoy the creation and aesthetic of typography.

Part fantasy, part mystery, part comic relief, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore brings together technology and books in a creative, imaginative way. It takes readers on a thrill ride from dusty bookshelves to Google offices to an underground cave filled with cryptographers. Whether you read on a Kindle or prefer to smell the musty pages of an old library book, this is a charismatic novel written for story lovers of all kinds.

Buy Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore here.

Book Review: You

You by KepnesTwo things:

1. This is a psychological thriller, emphasis on the psycho.

2. It is vulgar.

Now that I’ve made those things clear, perhaps you will know whether or not this book is for you.

The entire story is in first and second person. When narrator Joe Goldberg says, “You,” he means Guinevere Beck, the young writer he’s stalking. He works in a small book shop in New York City and one day Beck, as she prefers to be called, walks in. Immediately, he is rapt, and thus begins a long, twisted story of how he follows her, studies her, and eventually connects himself to her.

Joe is a disaster, as his thought processes prove. We are in Joe’s brain, we are alongside his behavior, we watch a scary story unfold. Initially, we want to warn Beck, but then… we don’t.

Here’s what I love about this book. First, it’s entirely fresh. It’s new and different and unlike anything I’ve read. Second, Kepnes’ character development was near flawless. Each person was uniquely individual. (This is a skill I long to develop.) Third, I didn’t know how it would end. My suspicions were confirmed, but I wasn’t confident. I wasn’t sure. That’s a wonderful feeling when reading a thriller. You want to live in the tension of not knowing. 


I don’t usually post pull quotes from books, but here I think it’s help to know how the narrative flows. This is the last paragraph of the first chapter, the first interaction between Joe and Beck:

“You didn’t walk in here for books, Beck. You didn’t have to say my name. You didn’t have to smile or listen or take me in. But you did. Your signature is on the receipt. This wasn’t a cash transaction and it wasn’t a coded debit. This was real. I press my thumb into the wet ink on your receipt and the ink of Guinevere Beck stains my skin.”


Buy You here.

Book Review: The Devil in the White City

Devil in the White CityI’m late to this game, and not just because it was published in 2003. Last year I noticed a handful of people I knew reading and raving about it, so like any avid reader, I put it on my TBR list.

When I read nonfiction, it’s usually during Lent (which starts next week), with the occasional book here and there, often related to creativity. If you are like me and prefer works of fiction, do not let this book’s nonfiction status deter you. This story is as screwball as any fiction book I’ve read.

Erik Larson takes us to Chicago in the 1880s when the city was experiencing rapid growth. It was the Gilded Age. Industry was booming, but so was poverty and crime. It was in this setting that the city underwent an overhaul to plan and construct the greatest World’s Fair the world had seen yet. Ever-present in the minds of the architects was the primary goal: Be better than Paris.

The group of architects was a mixture of local men and a group from New York City, folks like Fredrick Olmsted, the designer of Central Park. They toiled under a short deadline, and when the park opened in May 1893, it wasn’t complete. It was finished enough to let in fair goers, but elements like the Ferris Wheel (designed by creator George Ferris himself) took extra time to complete. For all intents and purposes, the fair was a success, despite all of its troubles (and there were many). History buffs will love every chapter about the fair.

Coinciding with the fair’s construction is the rise of serial killer H.H. Holmes, a charismatic and crafty man who built a World’s Fair Hotel as a kill house. Inside its haphazard walls and deep basement were gas chambers, dissecting tables, and a makeshift crematorium where he could kill and dispose of victims secretly. It is this piece of the fair’s timeline that had me captivated until the end. The existence of H.H. Holmes proves that evil is real. 

Larson separates these two timelines by chapters and toggles back and forth, mostly in sequence, so you get an idea of how they parallel. There are additional timelines, though not as prominent, such as the story behind Mayor Harrison’s assassination.

Again, this is nonfiction so all of these crazy events actually happened. Larson’s research is extensive and he provides a lengthy bibliography in the back for those who want to explore them further. Though we aren’t privy to every conversation these people had, Larson uses deductive reasoning to paint a full picture of what went down in Chicago at the turn of the century.

Truly, this book was hard to put down. I read it in 23 hours between Friday and Saturday when I had little else to do. (That’s not true. I had plenty to do. I just chose not to do it.) Leonardo DiCaprio bought the rights to the film several years ago and word has it that Martin Scorsese will direct it. Opening night, people. I’ll be there.

Buy The Devil in the White City here. 

Book Review: Between Shades of Gray

between shades of grayWhen you think of Europe during World War II, the reign of Hitler and his persecution of the Jewish people come to mind. Much has been made of the Holocaust, and rightfully so.

But only history buffs and folks who retain more than average information from history class will remember that the people living in the Baltic States suffered greatly under Joseph Stalin and Soviet rule. Between 1941 and 1952, more than 130,000 people were deported by force and sent to labor camps across northern Russia and around the Arctic Circle as part of Stalin’s effort to weaken the resistance and cleanse Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia of those who opposed him. They traveled like cattle in train cars where disease, infestation, and starvation took hold. Families lived in exile, separated from one another, some surviving, many dying, awaiting rescue from anyone who cared.

Between Shades of Gray is a fictional account of a mother and her two children, teenage Lina and her younger brother, Jonas, starting on the night they were taken from their home by Soviet law enforcement (NKVD). The novels begins with a chilling scene: “They took me in my nightgown.” The story is told from Lina’s point of view, an artistic girl who survived and documented the experience through sketching.

Author Ruta Sepetys dug deep into her Lithuanian heritage to bring light to a part of history many people didn’t know existed. I certainly didn’t. Amid an already difficult event, there are a handful of scenes and themes that leave me troubled, but I am sure Sepetys only scratched the surface of what the deportations and labor camps were really like.

Because I prefer all-encompassing, engrossing historical fiction from writers like Ken Follett,  I found Between Shades of Gray to be lacking in greater detail regarding the political and historical climate of 1940s Europe. However, when I realized this novel was presented initially as a YA book, it made sense to focus on Lina’s experience rather than lay out the multi-faceted map that was World War II. That is the difference between Follett’s thousand-page trilogies and Sepetys’ quick 300-page read.

Even without the padding of historical detail, Between Shades of Gray is an account worth reading, if only to gain perspective on a group of people largely excluded from the retelling of who suffered and died under mid-century communist rule. This is book deserves a permanent spot on high school reading lists everywhere.

 

Book Review: Hausfrau

hausfrauAnna Benz is an American ex-pat living with her Swiss husband and three children in Zürich. She doesn’t work outside the home so she has plenty of time to explore the city, enjoy her Switzer Deutsch class, and spend time with her family in the evenings when they are home from work and school. By every standard, the housewife should be happy.

But she is dreadfully unhappy and terrifically bored, and instead of overeating or overspending she feeds her boredom through one thing: extramarital affairs, and as a result, compulsive lying.

Now, from what I’ve just told you, this sounds like a dime store romance novel or some frilly Chick-Lit book with equal parts crying fits and comical escapades. Hausfrau is neither. In between Anna’s retelling of her life in Switzerland we get snippets of her therapy sessions where her psychiatrist prods her patient to dig deeper, to really evaluate why she falls prey to reckless behavior. We see inside the meaningless affairs. We watch as she and her husband, Bruno, exist in the same house but have no connection. We watch her suffer through motherhood, unable to feel any real joy about their existence.

Anyone can read this book and know without a doubt that Anna is depressed. Why this woman wasn’t put on seratonin-reuptake meds right away is beyond me. I supposed that wouldn’t have made for a very long book. She would’ve snapped out of it, made an effort, and moved on.

Though the story is well-written and potentially relatable for some, I didn’t enjoy the book the way I hoped to, and after thinking about it for a couple of days, I realized that it’s because none of the characters are likable. Not one. Not one single character did I like enough to root for. I didn’t care that Anna was being reckless because I didn’t feel an allegiance to Bruno. I didn’t care that Bruno was being cheated on because Anna wasn’t a fabulous wife to begin with. He can do better. As for the kids, in the few pages they show up, I just felt sorry for them.

The redeeming qualities of the novel have to do with Anna’s efforts to learn proper German and her insightful visits to Doktor Messerli’s office. The book is set up by month instead of chapters so we go on the journey with Anna as she hones her language skills, discerns her own ability to make better choices, and figures out how to mop up the mess she makes.

Buy Hausfrau here.

Book Review: Station Eleven

After seeing the final Hunger Games movie with Jeremy the last week of December, I decided that I’m really, quite done with apocalyptic stories. I need a breather from end of the world stuff. Like any trend, it will eventually wane and I decided to get a head start.

Station-ElevenThen I picked up Station Eleven, and for a split second, I thought about swapping it for something else. It’s been on my TBR (To Be Read) list for a while, collecting a little dust on my shelf, so I thought, okay – one more go around with our existence on the fringe.

I already told you my five favorite books from 2015, and that list hasn’t changed, but if I had written a top ten list, I would’ve put Station Eleven on it.

The story begins in present day Toronto with the unfortunate death of an actor – Arthur Leander – while he’s living out his last King Lear performance. He’s tended to, unsuccessfully, by what become pivotal characters, and immediately after the curtain closes we learn that an epidemic has turned into a pandemic. The Georgia Flu is wiping out the world. Within weeks of Arthur’s unrelated death, 99 percent of the population will be dead.

Fast forward 20 years and the world has reverted to a place with no electricity, no gasoline, no transportation, no internet, no phones or TVs or email. There are camps of people living in old gas stations and airports and emerging cult religions. There are people who remember how life used to be before the flu and young people born after the flu who don’t know the hidden power of a light switch.

There is also the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors committed to taking music and theater to those who enjoy it. In that group is Kirsten, who was eight years old and backstage when Arthur died and carries around a remnant from the old world – a futuristic comic book set in outer space called Station Eleven.

Here’s what the book has going for it: The characters are acutely defined and enjoyable. I cared where they went, what choices they made, and was curious to know who’d survive and who wouldn’t. The plot, too, was a streamlined sequence of events, mostly out of order, that linked various camps of people together in surprising ways.

Finally, author Emily St. John Mandel created a stark and believable future without rewriting the basic fabric of our humanity. I really appreciated that.

If I had to give you a negative, then I’ll reiterate my original complaint about the current over-saturation of apocalyptic entertainment we have on our bookshelves and in our movie theaters. It’s everywhere, exhaustively, and though people are interpreting the end of times differently (zombies or no zombies?), Emily St. John Mandel is handling the issue with her feet firmly planted in reality. She wrote a book that makes you think, “Oh yeah. This could totally happen.” And that’s what makes it so good.

Buy Station Eleven here.

Book review: All the Light We Cannot See

This is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. It spent two years on the NYT Bestseller list. On Goodreads, it averages 4.3 out of 5 stars.

And yet, I did not love it. I wanted so badly to love it that I spent more than two weeks reading it, more time than I spent on any one of Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy books, which hover around a thousand pages each. I tried very hard to dig my heels in the story, but in the end, I was glad it ended. I was glad to move on.

It isn’t that the story isn’t lovely or moving or beautifully written, because it’s all of those things. In fact, the way in which Anthony Doerr knits together words is one I admire. I’d love to be poetic like he is, but alas, I am not, and perhaps that’s not the sort of writing for me anyway.

All the light coverAll the Light We Cannot See is a dual-plot story set in occupied France and Germany during World War II. In 1934 Paris we meet young Marie-Laure, the daughter of a museum locksmith. She is going blind by six years old. Her father makes a miniature replica of the city and teaches her to read braille. When Hitler decides to collect a valuable stone from the museum, the curator sends the stone away with the locksmith and he escapes with Marie-Laure to Saint Malo where they hope to keep safe from the Nazis.

Meanwhile, a young German orphan named Werner becomes entranced and eventually entrapped in the Hitler Youth. Even at his young age he is a brilliant mechanic and is valued by the regime for his knack for circuitry. He repairs radios and is relied upon for relaying secret messages being swapped across the air waves.

The lives of these two young people go on precariously on either side of the Nazi regime. You know their stories will intersect when Marie-Laure and her father settle with an old uncle in Saint-Malo who has a radio transmitter on the top floor of his seaside home. All signs point to Marie-Laure and Werner connecting. Here’s my one spoiler: You will spend many pages waiting for that intersection to occur.

The thing the kept me from giving this book four out of five stars on Goodreads is its pacing. The slow build, the chiseling away of each detail, the long steady climb to the climax… it was all so glacial. It is the exact opposite of Marilynn Robinson’s tight narrative. Perhaps I’m an impatient reader. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to walk that long, slow road. Those who enjoy historical fiction might enjoy this book, but those who prefer a quick read might not.

Buy All the Light We Cannot See here. 

Book Review: Big Magic

I finished reading my fiftieth book of the year last night and it was a good one. In the most fitting and providential way, Big Magic came around at the same time as NaNoWriMo and it has served as my everyday source of nugget-sized encouragement to keep writing throughout the month. (I’m at 37,000+ words right now.)

Big Magic coverElizabeth Gilbert had this book on her brain for years, but it wasn’t until she finished The Signature of All Things that she felt ready and able to speak on behalf of creativity.

Normally, her work is heavily researched and quantified, but Big Magic is basically a personal letter to me (and other creatives) that reads something like, “Here’s what I know about creativity and fear after twenty-some years of writing and forty-some years living.”

Of course I loved every bit of it.

Though the books isn’t exclusively for writers, it’s definitely geared towards the right-brained mind. Artists, musicians, makers of anything, people who have untapped energy to DO SOMETHING but are afraid of failure. This designation – people who make stuff – casts a wide net though, because generations of people have been making things since the beginning of time. Creativity is why we still exist. People had ideas and then they had the courage to go public.

Part of the book gets personal with a collection of Liz’s own experience in publishing, prioritizing, and following curiosities down unforeseen roads to see where they lead. (They led to book ideas, by the way.) But there are also other accounts of exploring creativity, quotes by Picasso and John Lennon, anecdotes of roads other people traveled to reach their own level of personal success.

I’ll spare you the entire road map. Instead, I’ll share with you a few of my favorite parts and leave it there.


“I’ve watched far too many brilliant and gifted female creators say, “I am 99.8 percent qualified for this task, but until I master that last smidgen of quality, I will hold myself back, just to be on the safe side.” Now I cannot imagine where women ever got the idea that they must be perfect in order to be loved or successful. (Ha ha ha! Just kidding! I can totally imagine: We got it from every single message society has ever sent us! Thanks, all of human history!) But we women must break this habit in ourselves — and we are the only ones who can break it. We must understand that the drive for perfectionism is a corrosive waste of time, because nothing is ever beyond criticism. No matter how many hours you spend attempting to render something flawless, someone will always be able to find fault with it…. At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it.”


“Maybe I won’t always be successful at my creativity, but the world won’t end because of that. Maybe I won’t always be able to make a living out of my writing, but that’s not the end of the world either, because there are lots of other ways to make a living besides writing books — and many of them are easier than writing books… So let’s try to wrap our minds around this reality: There’s probably never going to be any such thing in your life or mine as ‘an arts emergency.’ That being the case, why not make art?”


“The fun part is when you’re actually creating something wonderful, and everything’s going great, and everyone loves it, and you’re flying high. But such instances are rare. You don’t just get to leap from bright moment to bright moment. How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren’t going so great, is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation, and how equipped you are for the weird demands of creative living.”


And finally,

“Fierce trust asks you to stand strong with this truth: ‘You are worthy, dear one, regardless of the outcome. You will keep making your work, regardless of the outcome. You will keep sharing your work, regardless of the outcome. You were born to create, regardless of the outcome. You will never lose trust in the creative process, even when you don’t understand the outcome.’

There is a famous question that shows up, it seems, in every single self-help book ever written: ‘What would you do if you knew you could not fail?’ But I’ve always seen it differently. I think the fiercest question of all is this one: ‘What would  you do even if you knew that you might very well fail? What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant?‘”


So there you go. Buy Big Magic here. 

Book review: Gods in Alabama

Reading has slowed down considerably this month on account of several things, but I hope to get back to normal in October, particularly since I have a stack of scary, suspenseful books to read.

First, a word about Joshilyn Jackson. If I were to analogize my own writing style to someone and draw parallels about theme and setting, I would compare my stab at fiction to Joshilyn Jackson. In fact, while I was writing my first novel two years ago, I haphazardly picked up Between, Georgia. Thirty pages in I had to put it down because the similarities were so glaring that I didn’t want anyone to accuse me of imitating her. I still haven’t finished that book.

Gods in AlabamaThe plot of Gods in Alabama goes like this: Arlene is from a small Alabama town that she left far behind after high school. A decade has passed and she’s enjoying her well-established life in Chicago. She’s in a celibate, mixed-race relationship, she goes by Lena instead of Arlene, and she doesn’t lie. Not even a little. It’s part of deal she made with God after doing something awful as a teenager.

She killed Jim Beverly. He was a bad boy. A boy who very well deserved to die.

But part of her getting away with it was telling God that if He hid the evidence and kept Alabama at bay, she would 1) not lie and 2) not sleep around. So far, so good.

Then the old girlfriend of the boy she killed shows up on her apartment door step. Alabama came to Chicago. Apparently God broke His end of the deal.

A whole slew of things unfold as the book goes on. We toggle back and forth between real time and Lena’s memories about growing up in racist, backwoods Alabama. We learn that her father died when she was young and her mother was never the same. We learn that she was raised by her aunt and uncle and revered her cousin, Clarice, more like a sister. We learn that she acted out and lied and hurt people because she was doing what made sense at the time.

When Lena (and her black boyfriend) arrive in her hometown, so begins the untangling of Jim Beverly’s death, the onslaught of tension over Lena’s life choices, and the unfolding of truths that even Lena didn’t know.

There is a twist at the end that wasn’t as shocking as Gone Girl (has anything been as shocking as Gone Girl?), but it was still a satisfying way to wrap up the story. Things tie up neatly, which I appreciate, and there’s some level of atonement that leads me to believe that Lena and God finally understand each other.

Buy Gods in Alabama here.

Book Review: Wildwood

WildwoodIt took me a while to finish this book, and not just because it’s 540 pages. Granted, the book is not the standard 5.25 x 8.25 and is instead an odd 6 x 7.75, which makes the pages short and stubby. Plus, there’s a smattering of really gorgeous illustrations that I’m tempted to pull out and frame.

Still, it’s a long book and I’ll say right now that if it was 200 pages shorter, I would’ve enjoyed it more.

In an attempt to be extremely brief, Wildwood is an adventurous tale of 12-year-old Prue who’s in charge of her one-year-old brother, Mac, and he’s abducted by a murder of crows. (Did you know a flock of crows is called a murder? Neither did I. Great imagery, no?)

Mac and the crowsWhen Prue heads into the Impassable Wilderness, the random woodsy acreage outside of Portland, Oregon, she’s followed by a classmate, Curtis, whose awkwardness is palpable yet endearing. Prue can’t shake him, so he joins her in the Impassable Wilderness in search of Mac and that murder of crows.

They soon learn that the Impassable Wilderness is called Wildwood, a magical place where animals are talking citizens and they are currently entangled in a civil war. The pair get separated after a run-in with an army of coyotes and they remain separated for much of the book. Curtis is under the influence of the Dowager Countess, while Prue continues the search for her brother and finds counsel among the aviaries.

prue-and-penny-3

Did I mention how lovely the illustrations are?

Eventually Mac is found and a huge background of information unfolds. We find out his abduction wasn’t altogether unexpected. I’ll leave you with that.

Did I like it? Well, sure, I guess. It’s a children’s book – I’d say middle grades – so it was easy to read, and I always enjoy a world where animals can talk. Prue is a headstrong girl who’s determined to do the right thing and has no time for nonsense. My kind of girl!

Plus who doesn’t love a devoted sister who descends into another world, risking her own life, to save her baby brother? (Um, Labyrinth?).

Prue McKeelSpeaking of, there are very clear reflections of other well-known fantasies (Chronicles of Narnia, the Wizard of Oz), so much that I ended up looking for those parallels within the story rather than enjoying the story on its own. One could argue that there are no original stories, that every work is derived from ancient tragedies and comedies, but it’s far too easy to read Wildwood and think, “Wow. Curtis and the Dowager are just like Edmund and the White Witch.” It’s unoriginal to distraction.

Yet, maybe that’s the point. Maybe Meloy wanted to weave these themes and tropes together to capture their all-encompassing magic into one work. Maybe he wanted to harness the essence of Portland and expand it through enchantment. Maybe he wanted children to experience a soft opening to other fantasies while letting adults sink in with familiarity. I dunno. How’s that for literary criticism!

Speaking of the author, one of the reasons I wanted to read this book (aside from its gorgeous cover) was because Colin Meloy is a singer/songwriter and member of The Decemberists, a folksy band out of Portland. I enjoy their music, so when I heard one of the band members was writing fiction in his down time, I was all over it.

My final verdict is that Wildwood was lovely departure from reality and it came along at the right time in my stack of books to be read. The distraction from real life was necessary, and even though it dragged in some parts, I was still curious enough to know whether or not Prue would ever find her brother, what would become of Curtis, and whether or not Wildwood would be exposed to the outside world. There are two other books in the series, and though I don’t have them yet, they are on my list to purchase – if only for the illustrations.

Buy Wildwood here.

Book Review: Animal Farm

animalfarmAt first I didn’t think I’d review this book since I figure everyone read it in school, but considering I didn’t read it in school it’s a fair assumption that Animal Farm wasn’t on everyone’s summer reading list.

First, Animal Farm is a novella. It’s super short, which makes it a great choice for someone who’s trying to read 50 books in a year while homeschooling her children, freelancing, writing a novel, and a training for a half marathon. Time is valuable, so a quick read here and there is helpful.

Second, Animal Farm is an allegory – a narrative with a hidden meaning, particularly of religious or political significance. The main characters in the story are farm animals who are tired of being used and abused by humans and seek an autonomous existence from their tyranny. Once they establish themselves as self-ruling, they create a pseudo-utopia and strive to live in peace with one another according to the Seven Commandments:

1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.

2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.

3. No animal shall wear clothes.

4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.

5. No animal shall drink alcohol.

6. No animal shall kill any other animal.

7. All animals are equal.

Of course, the dream starts to fade, as they are likely to, when leaders arise from the pool of equality. The pigs are self-appointed leaders of Animal Farm (formerly called Manor Farm) and they quickly move into a dictator position.

George Orwell (pen name for Eric Blair) was openly supportive of and a believer in socialism, and Animal Farm is specifically written as an allegory of the Russian Revolution. Mr. Jones, the human owner of Manor Farm, is the czar of Russia who could not keep his country organized during World War I. Old Major, a prized elderly pig, is Lenin, an idealist who planted the ideas of a rebellion in his people. Napoleon (Joseph Stalin) is a young pig who rivals another young pig, Snowball (Leon Trotsky), for dominion. Squealer, a third young pig, is Napoleon’s chief officer and master of persuasion, a key character used to kick Snowball off the farm.

There are work horses are repeat mantras to themselves all day, a quiet, wise donkey who knows what’s coming, a parroted raven who serves as a mega-phone for the pigs, slave-driven hens who must produce eggs and then more eggs, and so on. Each animal represents an ideology or social class, and there are other human characters that mirror historical figures, like Fredrick, a farmer from a neighboring field, who forges an alliance with the pigs to rule Animal Farm. You know, like Adolf Hitler.

Other elements of farm life hold significance too, like the barn (the working class) and the windmill (the pigs’ ability to manipulate the other animals).

It’s helpful to have some sort of working knowledge about the Russian Revolution and subsequent power plays across Europe to fully grasp the point of Animal Farm – which is, socialism works as long as no one gets greedy. As long as no one puts himself above the others, a world of leveled class structures is possible.

Some are more equal

As with humans, inevitably greed surfaces and the power-hungry make new rules. The pigs rule the farm and declare that while all animals are equal, “some animals are more equal than others.” Classes are once again separated and oppressed, yet some hang on like desperate believers that the pigs know what’s best for them. There is truth in allegory. 

I’m not sure why I never read this book in high school, but it’s never to late to hit the old summer reading list. For what it’s worth, anti-Marxist material is much more enjoyable when acted out by animals.

Buy Animal Farm here. 

 

 

Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

we are all completely beside ourselvesYou guys. THIS BOOK.

I don’t even know where to begin. Rosemary, the narrator and main character, doesn’t even start her story at the beginning but rather the middle, and that’s because she’s only recently pieced together what really happened in her childhood. She only just learned why her sister, Fern, disappeared and her brother, Lowell, left right after, and why her parents never talk about any of it. Everything changed in what felt like an instant and her memory was clouded by confusion. What’s a five-year-old to think of such things anyway?

Rosemary Cooke is both a victim and a perpetrator, a young woman who cannot maintain relationships beyond the surface, someone who is so marred by her past that the present feels barely real. Her sister was “her other half,” twin-like, but not, so when Fern disappeared, part of Rosemary disappeared too. Her older brother’s departure felt like abandonment. Suddenly she was an only child in a new house with very quiet parents.

It would be a disservice to you if I said any more about it. The flow of this book is perfection, bits of information fed and digested in proper time. Karen Fowler is an award-winning author who writes with clarity and fervor. All of her accolades feel justified and this is the only thing I’ve read of hers.

Though this seems like a random warning, it’s not: if you have a heart for animals, take caution and bring a tissue.

Buy We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.

 

Book Review: And the Mountains Echoed

There are a handful of writers who have a place in my default folder of “People Whose Stuff I’ll Always Read.” Khaled Hosseini is one of them. When I read The Kite Runner, sometime in 2005 or 2006, my first thought was that the book should be required reading for all high school seniors. (The subsequent film in 2007 was equally gripping.) Then came A Thousand Splendid Suns and it had the same jarring effect. Hosseini’s stories are the closest I’ve ever gotten to the Afghan people and twice I’d been left wanting to know more, to meet the characters, to better understand them.

I just finished And the Mountains Echoed and I’m there all over again.

And the Mountains EchoedThe novel is like a woven set of short stories. We hear from five main characters who are all interconnected, and we are privy to their point of view depending on what part of the story we’re in. Starting in the fall of 1952, Abdullah, 10, and his sister Pari, 3, embark on a two-day journey with their father and neither child knows where they’re headed. As it turns out, Pari is being given away to Nila, a woman in Kabul who cannot bear children, a most difficult decision from which Abdullah never recovers and his father never speaks of it. Old enough to know what has happened, he spends the rest of his life missing his sister. He and his wife name their daughter Pari in her honor.

Then there’s Nabi, Abdullah’s uncle and the one who arranged the adoption. He works for a wealthy but private Afghan man whose petty wife all but asks for some bargain to be made. Nabi is the one who hands Pari over Nila and suffers the guilt of bearing such a secret throughout his life. Nila takes the child and heads to Paris, leaving behind her husband and his caregiver.

Dr. Markos, a Greek physician who lives in Kabul, becomes Nabi’s confessor. In a deathbed letter, Nabi tells Dr. Markos where to find Pari (living in France with her Afghan-Parisian mother) and also where to find Abdullah, now living in America. Dr. Markos has his own family crises, but connecting a long-lost brother and sister becomes a priority.

And finally, there’s the other Pari, the daughter who knows she was named after someone special. She’s an artistic American-born Muslim caught between familial duty and the desire for freedom. Her father, Abdullah, is aging and the weight of his care falls solely on her shoulders.

The narrative is elegant and compassionate. Despite knowing so little about life in the Middle East, these characters come alive and become people who I love. One doesn’t have to know the terrain of Afghanistan or understand the traditions of Islam to connect with people who are hurting. Yet again, Hosseini created a story that we all should read, if only to realize that we’re all the same inside. If I were rating these book reviews, this one would get five out of five stars.

Buy And the Mountains Echoed here. 

Book Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Man, I’d love to know what Gillian Flynn thinks about right before she falls asleep.

Sharp ObjectsSharp Objects was her debut novel and my favorite of the three (the others being Gone Girl and Dark Places). The story unfolds over a couples of weeks from the first person point of view of Camille Preaker. She is a journalist in Chicago and a recovering cutter who is sent back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on the murders of two young girls. The incidents happened nine months apart, but based on the fact that both girls were strangled and their teeth were removed post-mortem, police think the crimes are connected.

Camille is anything but prepared to go home. She grew up unloved and promiscuous, living in the shadow of her middle sister’s early death, counting the minutes until she could leave for college and a life far, far away. Wind Gap is the kind of small town that cannot keep its people in check. Gossip, secrets, fraught with the kind of boredom that breeds drugs, alcohol, and abuse of all kinds. Camille faces everyone and everything with hesitation – former friends who feign interest, locations that hold ferocious memories, and the ever-present cold rejection from her mother. There’s also the bewildering behavior of her youngest sister, a half-sister, who behaves one way at home and another way when she’s out. It’s Crazytown.

There’s very little I can say without getting deep into the plot. At 250 pages, it’s a quick read and the pace is stellar. The characters are ripe, a few being the epitome of a psychopath by possessing a trio of perverse behaviors: sexual deviance, cruelty to animals, lack of empathy. Sharp Objects is vulgar in every way. It exposes the way we hurt ourselves to gain sympathy, the way we hurt others to relieve our own pain, and the way we rationalize warped behavior because we’re desperate.

A quick note: By page 48, I knew the guilty ones. On page 195, Camille had figured it partially. Neither Camille nor I knew exactly how the crimes played out until the very end.

Flynn writes in a way that leaves nothing out, nor does she add what’s unnecessary. We are brought to the point on every page and strung along with her garish and graphic language. In Sharp Objects, I’m reminded of Chuck Palahniuk. It’s not full-on Chuck Palahniuk, but it’s a whiff. There is plucking, gouging, scraping, and, of course, cutting.

For those who want a peek into that world, I highly recommend this book.

Buy Sharp Objects here. 

Book Review: Faithful Place by Tana French

Faithful PlaceWhen I read In the Woods, I didn’t know it was part of a series about Dublin murder cases, but alas, it is. In Faithful Place, Frank Mackey is our grouchy protagonist who went into police work after running away from his ghetto neighborhood at nineteen years old. He intended to run away to England with his girlfriend, Rosie, but when she didn’t show up on the get-away day, he assumed she lost her nerve.

Her body is discovered years later in an adjacent townhouse and Frank is determined to find out what happened to his first love.

A few things I loved: the crazy family dynamic, the gruffness of Frank’s discontent, the poetic way Tana French describes each scene and character…

The thing I didn’t like: The lack of suspense. Just as soon as the investigation got underway I knew who killed Rosie. It poured out of the pages with such clarity that I was sure a twist or turn would yank away my suspicions. But no. The person who I thought did it actually did it, so when the confession came, I wasn’t blown away. (That wasn’t the case for In the Woods, by the way. That one had me on edge.)

Don’t get me wrong – Tana French is a beautiful writer. Case in point, this first paragraph of Chapter 4:

The rain had slackened off to a faint damp haze, but the clouds were getting denser and darker; there was more on the way. Ma was pressed up against the front-room window, sending out curiosity rays that practically burned my eyebrows off. When she saw me looking in her direction, she whipped up a J-cloth and started furiously cleaning the glass.

French writes with careful cadence, the sort of rhythm that makes each sentence easy to read. I don’t know a thing about living in Dublin but French makes me think I do. Everything is so well described that almost nothing is left to the imagination. Not everyone loves that sort of writing, but I do. I want to submerge myself in a setting so that I actually live there for the duration of the book.

Perhaps it was her attention to detail that made the criminal so obvious. The character jumped off the page immediately, so much that I even thought, “Surely it’s not this person. That would be too obvious.”

In the Woods was a better book, but French’s writing is impeccable all around.

Buy Faithful Place here.

Book Review: The Heights

The HeightsThe Heights caught my attention primarily for its cover. One cannot underestimate the power of a beautiful book cover! Other than author familiarity, the cover (including the spine) is the thing that sparks curiosity about the content.

Oh, look! Something beautiful! I wonder what’s inside…

On the cover were the second and third things that caught my interest – the short teaser “A witty and honest take on marital claustrophobia” and a tiny blurb underneath the writer’s name, “author of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” Then I learned that Peter Hedges wrote the screenplays for About a Boy and Dan in Real Life, and then I was sold.

The Heights is about Kate and Tim, a happy and settled couple living in a tiny apartment in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Tim is a history teacher at a private high school and Kate stays home with their two young boys. Unable to make all the ends meet, Kate lands a high-paying job that enables she and Tim to swap roles. It sounds like this swap spurs conflict, but it doesn’t. They are a team, so no matter who earns the money and who stays with the kids, contentment and security is the only concern.

It’s Anna who causes the upheaval. Anna, with her perfect skin and fat wallet and dynamic new apartment in the neighborhood. She seems desirable in every way, and though everyone knows there’s something off about her, Kate and Tim don’t see it until they are too intertwined in Anna’s magnetic world.

What follows is a test for Kate and Tim’s marriage, the entrance of a wealthy old flame, and the temptation to dip a toe in the life of extravagance.

The Heights is a short read, and though the plot seems straight out of a dime store novel, I assure you the narrative is smart. Like Dan in Real Life, you have complex characters who don’t know what to do with their own desires. There’s an ever-present fear in both Kate and Tim, a longing curiosity that asks, “What if this is all there is? And if so, is it enough?”

By the end of the book, they get their answer.

Buy The Hedges here. 

Book Review: The Senator’s Wife

the senator's wifeHmm. What to say about this one…

To start, I picked it up at the Charleston County Library last week. It was on sale for one dollar. For a beautiful cover such as this, it was worth a dollar. As for the story, I suppose it was worth a dollar too. Maybe two dollars, maybe three.

In truth, I hesitate to be critical of any book because I’m not published. It’s as simple as that. When I’m sitting among published writers as an equal, perhaps I’ll be more comfortable with giving negative reviews, but until then, I must be judicious.

The Senator’s Wife revolves around two women in 1993 and 1994 – Meri, a thirty-something newlywed who buys a semi-detached with her husband, Nathan, in a quiet New England town. On the other side is Delia – the seventy-something wife of former senator, Tom Naughton, a man known for his infidelities. Delia and Tom are informally separated and speak little of his indiscretions. He lives in Washington (where at the frivolity is) and Delia splits her time between New England and Paris. Their adult children aren’t thrilled about the arrangement.

Meri and Delia develop a friendship that includes the swapping of advice and comfort. Meri is still trying to figure out what marriage and family is all about (she and Nate eventually get pregnant) and Delia is there with little nuggets of wisdom.

So why is this book not my favorite?

1. It’s painfully detailed. Normally, I embrace the details. Details help paint the setting. They color the characters. They put you smack dab in the middle of the story. However, Sue Miller seemed to add every tiny snippet of detail whether or not it mattered to the story. Towards the end, I was tempted to skim paragraphs because I just didn’t care to follow Meri or Delia around on their daily tasks. It became tedious.

2. Nathan is a red herring when he could’ve been a big player. Miller sets up Meri’s husband to have potential. He’s self-centered, a touch controlling, and oddly quiet. He was ripe for conflict! But, no. He’s just there.

3. The conclusion was unsatisfying. Not in the way Gone Girl was unsatisfying, mind you. I didn’t want to throw The Senator’s Wife across the room. Instead, I sat there and said, “That’s it?” Sure, there was conflict. There were bad decisions and embarrassing moments and one scene in particular that was horribly uncomfortable.

But – I wanted more. I wanted a big kaboom! I wanted to say, “Wow, I totally didn’t see that coming!”

I didn’t say any of those things.

That list aside, I can say that the format and overall narrative was fine. It was a fine book. It was okay in the way that a beach read is okay, minus the humor. The story trucks along and then it ends.

The real loss here is that I’m not tempted to read more from Sue Miller. Anyone can write a so-so book, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect an author’s entire body of work. Maybe The Senator’s Wife is the only ho-hum book in the lot, but maybe it’s supposed to be one of her better ones. This not knowing gives me pause.

Buy The Senator’s Wife here. 

Book Review: The Patron Saint of Liars

PatronSaintofLiarsI’ve not read anything by Ann Patchett before but I’m going to remedy that soon. She’s a lovely storyteller and The Patron Saint of Liars was her debut novel.

The story begins with Rose from California. She’s married and newly pregnant and decides to leave her husband in the night and drive to St. Elizabeth’s in Kentucky. It’s a home for unwed mothers, run by nuns, and by definition a place you stay until the birth of your baby, who is subsequently surrendered to adoption, and then you leave.

But Rose doesn’t leave and she doesn’t give up her child. By the name of the book, you can presume that Rose is full of lies and pieces together stories to make herself more comfortable. Eventually her past catches up with her and the people she’s become close to want answers.

The book is split into three points of view: Rose, Son (the groundskeeper at St. Elizabeths’), and Cecilia (her daughter). Patchett did well to create three voices that are clear and distinct, therefore drawing a collection of emotions fueled by the inner thoughts of each person. I’m curious to know how her other books stacks against this one, so I’m off to research her other works and see which one I should read next.

An interesting fact – it was made into a TV movie in 1998.

Buy The Patron Saint of Liars here.

I’m just like Wally Lamb.

That’s a stretch, I know, but hear me out.

I just finished reading We Are Water, Wally Lamb’s latest piece of brilliant storytelling, and stumbled upon an interview with him printed at the end of the book. Two paragraphs into the interview, I gasped. He described the first time a character arrived in his brain. It was unsolicited and strange and exactly the way it happened to me. It occurred the night his son was born.

He says, “I was up all night in the room with my wife, and she went to sleep and Jared went off to the nursery. I’d counted all his fingers and toes and everything looked good, so I went back to our home to take a shower and I was going to call the relatives — and while I was in the shower, this voice that wasn’t exactly my voice started complaining about his summer job as a Mister Softee ice cream truck driver.”

He continues, “Now at the time, I didn’t know that I wanted to write fiction. I didn’t know that it was a character who was speaking. But I did have the impulse — I got out of the shower, and even before I got dressed, I wrote down the two or three lines that the voice and said. And then I forgot about them.”

He rediscovered the lines a month later, tended to them, and ended up writing his first short story. Eleven years later, he published She’s Come Undone, which is in my Top Ten favorite books of all time.

It’s a dose of reassurance to know that other writers experience the bizarre manifestation of characters the way I did. Quite unsolicited, if I may add. One day, Leona was not here, and the next day she was. Have I ever mentioned her name before? I can’t recall. Leona Fisher. She’s my first protagonist, the one who started all of this upheaval in my brain. She showed up, introduced herself, and talked about her family. Once I realized I was meant to tell her story and was not suffering from schizophrenia, I listened clearly and typed.

I’m up to eight rejections now. So prickly it hurts. I’ve not lost all hope and I’m not quitting. Instead, I’m continuing with Novel No. 2 (unrelated to Leona) and trying very hard to not to take every little thing so personally.


 

we are waterA quick review about We Are Water:

If you are a fan of Wally Lamb, you will likely read this book on your own accord. You won’t be disappointed. Everything is just as it should be.

For others, I offer a brief description: The story surrounds one family and is told by each member’s perspective.  After nearly 30 years of marriage, Annie and Orion have gotten divorced. No one saw it coming, especially their three children, twins Arianne and Andrew, and the young impetuous Marissa. At the crux of the story is Annie’s decision to remarry – this time to Viveca, a wealthy art dealer in New York City, just as gay marriage becomes legal in Connecticut. Dipping back and forth in time, Lamb pieces together everyone’s point of view, including others from the past, to weave a story that explains why we do the things we do. Painful truths come out in desperation, a reminder that nothing can ever be fully buried.

There is such sadness in this story, but it isn’t without bits of redemption in the distinct voice that makes Wally Lamb’s work so unique. To weigh it by comparison, it’s not as good as She’s Come Undone, but I enjoyed it more than I Know This Much is True and The Hour I First Believed.

Buy We Are Water here. 

Book Review: Left Neglected

The synopsis of Left Neglected prepares you for the accident. Sarah is a busy working mother of three, living the high life in Boston, working her tail off to give her children private school, a house in a prestigious neighborhood, and a vacation home in Vermont where they ski in the winter months. Her job demands her attention all day, every day, so much that she’s doing business in bed at night and in the car on the way to the drop-off line. And so it goes: Sarah crashes her car while fiddling on her cell phone and suffers a traumatic brain injury.

Left Neglected

Originally I thought Sarah would have the sort of brain injury that led to paralysis and perhaps she’d end up neglected by family members or hospital staff, but that’s not how it turned out. Her injury resulted in what’s called Left Neglect, a condition in which your brain quite literally does not recognize the left side of anything, including your own body. You don’t eat the food on the left side of your plate, you don’t see the left side of a room, and your left arm and leg become lifeless (not paralyzed, just ignored). It is a condition closely connected with stroke victims, but it’s entirely possible to have Left Neglect as a result of illness or a traumatic brain injury.

But back to Sarah. Of course her life is turned upside down from this event. She was speeding through life and it was brought to a complete halt. The book chronicles the year following her accident as she navigated rehab, relationships, and accepting the inevitable: her life was never going to be the same.

The story is written in first person, so we spend a lot of time in Sarah’s head, an essential component for a story about brain injury. Though there’s a bit of predictability at the end, I thought it was a well-writing cautionary tale about what life could look like if we all don’t slow down.

Buy Left Neglected here.

Conclusions on Gone Girl

GoneGirlWhen I read this book last year, I was hooked on every word, relishing the twists and giddy over all of the things I didn’t see coming. It was brilliant – right until the end. Then, like a sucker, I had fallen for a story that left me unsatisfied and ripped off, like I’d been taken on a fabulous date only to be dumped on the doorstep. I took to the internet and found solace with others like me who rejected Gillian Flynn’s ending. I also discovered that there was another group, just as strong, who defended the book in its entirety. We were at an impasse.

Before I dig in, I’m going to give you an out. For those who’ve not read the book (or seen the movie), turn away NOW so you aren’t exposed to spoilers. If you don’t care either way, go ahead, but I’m going to talk plainly about this story so consider yourself warned.

Continue reading “Conclusions on Gone Girl”