Thursday, December 18, 2014

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands-Chris Bohjalin

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands- Chris Bohjalin

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 288
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2014
novel

After a nuclear disaster in the NorthEast Kingdom (VT) that may have been caused by her parents, Emily is forced to fend for herself on the streets.

Wow, this was the perfect antidote to the flood of gimicky YA novels based in dystopia. This may be more accurately described as an apocryphal novel but it takes the typical formula-world in crisis, plucky heroine- and turns it into something much more. Emily is such a great teenaged protagonist. She finds reserves in her that she was not aware of but remains, at her core, a teenage girl who just wants to become a poet. The setting of the scene and build up makes it clear that Emily would always have had to deal with some tough stuff but then setting her coming-of-age amongst the all-too-realistic chaos of a massive disaster was gripping. She’s self-destructive and so you can find yourself sometimes frustrated by her life choices but she is also resilient in a way that comes from rising to the responsibilities she is confronted with along the way.

So really the real star of the novel is how skillfully Bohjalin writes emotional pain-conveying the agony of confronting things outside of your control through carefully chosen prose that never comes across as constructed. The tone and pacing is disjointed because Emily’s life is chaotic and disjointed but the prose drags you in with her.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Good Children-Roopa Farooki

The Good Children-Roopa Farooki

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 403
gender: F
nationality: Pakistan
year: 2014
novel

A family epic. 2 sisters and 2 brothers had a childhood utterly tied to their autocratic mother who browbeat/oppressed her sons and spoiled/oppressed her daughters.


A very good handling of the various concepts of pain and the overcoming of it. The four siblings really have mother issues but each conceived the others’ pain differently and acted accordingly. There’s a heavy burden of guilt and disappointment that each holds differently in their approach to duty. Their widely disparate adulthoods all hold a germ of indecision, this pain, and a drive to be themselves as much as they could. There is such a complexity given to each sibling that it makes for hard reading sometimes because you genuinely learn to like each one and their missteps, neuroticism, and frustrating behaviors feel like you’re watching them in person. The tone is maintained throughout the shifting narrative voices-a solid choice. You never forget the overarching influence in these peoples’ lives-the tyrantical mother-even as they search, the hard way, to their own version to success. Though, the downside is that the narrative voices are distinct more in the burden of duty/guilt than in voice. However, Farooki’s pose carries the day as she explores how painful it can to return home. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Boy in the Book-Nathan Penlington

The Boy in the Book-Nathan Penlington

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 320
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2014
narrative non fiction

Nathan Penlington is an obsessive collector. After he purchased a 506 book set of Choose-your-own-adventure books that he loved as a child, he set out to find the original owner, Terence Penderghast, of the collection based upon a few annotations and a ripped out page from a diary.


It took me a ridiculously long time to realize this book was non fiction so take that as you will. This was such a familiar literary trope of obsession that leads to slightly creepy behavior over the smallest detail that I spent half the book marveling at how real this book had made it and the last half astounded that it was actually a real story. Be prepared, obsession always seems a bit creepy to those who do not go the distance on their own obsessions. But there is a universality to this story, we all wonder why and what if about people we don’t know. That’s what people watching is, isn’t it? And so, the adventure of reaching/searching for a connection with people in whom you can genuinely see similarities to yourself is almost normal curiosity. Penlington gets caught up in his curiosity and writes in a very self-aware way about his behaviors and uses them as a jumping point to muse engagingly about the meaning of life and how adventure can be found in the smallest things. He is also exploring how our childhoods influence our adult lives and ends up talking to a very diverse set of experts and people along the way. In a way, the book functions as an ode to how life becomes interesting when you follow every path into an unknown. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Removers-Andrew Meredith

The Removers-Andrew Meredith

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 192
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2014
memoir

After his father’s disgrace, the family moves to Northeast Philadelphia and becomes involved in the undertaking/removing business. This is Andrew’s memoir about how handling dead bodies allowed him to understand the living.

There’s two main threads in this book. The often absurd but also tragic undertaking business whose macabre aspects are treated with a lively humor and the author’s own driftlessness and attempts to reconcile the unhappiness of his parents. I have to admit, I didn’t really understand Andrew’s problems. He is haunted by father’s unhappiness in a way that I could not relate to. I felt like anyone could foresee that you’d drop out of the same college that your father was suspended from-pretty much slow moving self destruction-and I don’t know, he sometimes felt melodramatic about the dissolution of his parents’ marriage.

But that’s not really the strength of the memoir-instead its strength lies in how by helping others during the worst moments of their lives, he was able to come to a peace. This is a redemptive kind of memoir in which the grim details of the business of death are mused over to discuss life. Meredith writes well evoking his images well and manages to balance the tones of his subjects well even if they were in the same paragraph. I was kept reading effortlessly and it was mostly Meredith’s writing and the removing business.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Theft of Life-Imogen Robertson

Theft of Life-Imogen Robertson

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 342
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2004
novel

Set in 1875, the body of a West Indies planter is found pegged out much like the ways planters punished their slaves.

I was always frustrated, living in England, by the holier-than-thou attitude many would adopt about British early abolition of slavery versus American timelines. I can recount countless pub debates at unconscionable hours of the night in which it was explained to me, quite earnestly, that it’s been illegal for so long that it no longer affects society. I’d be so overwhelmed with how that was so far from the truth and anyway COLONIALISM that my tongue would be paralyzed.


So I infinitely enjoyed this novel about the effects of slavery on British society because as the author says in her prologue, it's not discussed enough. Robertson writes in a sympathetic evocative prose delicately tracing her way through the classicism, sexism , and racism of the time to deliver a good murder mystery in with the social commentary and amazing setting of the scene. The investigators-Westerman and Crowley- are excellent drawn characters, one being an unusual kind of woman and the other an eccentric man. And while the beginning might be a little slow with the multiple narrative threads, the plot really picks up with non-sensational twists. Really, just a stand out mystery with an amazingly done setting.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Black Lake-Johanna Lane

Black Lake-Johanna Lane

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 224
gender: female
nationality: UK
year: 2014
novel

The story of an Irish family forced to take drastic steps so as to not lose the family estate/legacy.


A beautifully contemplative novel about what slips between the cracks of a family when exposed to the slow stress of loss. The pacing is slow and thus it becomes atmospheric-like my memories of my own trip to Co. Donegal. The tragedy has occurred in the beginning of the book so this is more of an exploration of the various stories and responses of the family members. There are rich flashbacks explaining how the family got to this point but it’s not really tell-not-show prose, rather it’s more like the reader gains a 360 degree perspective on the various ways the estate has affected the family’s lives. And it’s infinitely interesting since the various points of view vary drastically in terms of responses and unhappiness. Their surroundings influence every thing as well-the gardens, the weather, the ocean, etc. This is a bit of a sad novel but Lane’s prose style carries you on because she packs such layers of meaning on every page. The current family’s stories are interwoven with the stories of the previous owners of the estate which makes for interesting reading for the sort of person who likes visiting historical houses but has always found the presented history a bit sterile. This is actually the type of book I’d reread.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Snow in May-Kseniya Melnik

Snow in May-Kseniya Melnik

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 272
gender: female
nationality: Russia
year: 2013
short story collection

Set in Magadan, Siberia-a short story collection focused upon people.

I got chilly reading this book. The prose is so well done and evocative-pared down much like I imagine the tundra does to your dreams. You learn a lot about Magadan, this former work camp, Melnik’s hometown in a way that feels natural-like getting to know someone and hearing about their hometown. You hear the great things, the annoying things, and the things that make you want to leave. The stories blend together and interplay-the struggles of communism, the struggle to survive in such a harsh climate, and the social changes all collide and integrate story by story. The stories vary in length but all of them give you a character. The details are Soviet/Russian but the themes of trying to follow your dreams no matter what are universal.


Absolutely delightful. I usually end short story collections not sure what I will write (some stand outs, many that...blend together) but this one-I recommend wholeheartedly.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Precious Thing-Colette McBeth

Precious Thing-Colette McBeth

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 384
gender: female
nationality: UK
year: 2014
novel

A successful TV news presenter learns on the job that her best friend is missing.


So, this whole thriller is predicated on the issue that you can never know another person like you know yourself. And so, with this timeless dilemma, what happens if the person you trust is the wrong one. These two, Rachel the TV presenter and Clara the disappeared friend,  have a strangely obsessive relationship and I think we can all guess what obsession leads to in novels-bad things. Yes. Secrets and near-hatred. This is well handled, I think. McBeth sprinkles in enough detail to give a sense of atmosphere and the twists and betrayals are never quite baldly stated and so the novel actually gets genuinely creepy at times. The ending in particular was well-handled-a rarity. There is just so much cleverness in this novel overall. The flaws all stem from some pacing issues and the...love interest? the friend with benefits? which I didn’t quite enjoy being suddenly there.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Man: Klaus Klump-Gonçalo M. Tavares

A Man: Klaus Klump-Gonçalo M. Tavares

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 144
gender: male
nationality: Portuguese
year: 2003
novel in translation

A man is in a country at war, conquered, and then the war is over.

Klaus Klump is basically without morals, a man without much engagement with the world, which is okay because he is in a country that is being invaded. There is a chilling spareness to Tavares’s prose that lends much to the imagination as his analogies, non sequitors, and random observations never really tell you what is going on. Except that the country is in turmoil, horrible things are happening, machines are there and it’s all pretty awful. This is a short novel that you have to read in one breath, one long held breath, bludgeoned by impotency against alienation. It’s disorienting and the violent scenes are barely distinguishable from the scenes held in peacetime.


It is a hard read in that you have no idea what's really going on and I despised Klaus Klump. Which is quite remarkable given the sparseness of the entire novel.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lives of Others-Neel Mukherjee

Lives of Others-Neel Mukherjee

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 416
gender: male
nationality: India
year: 2014
novel

Family saga/epic set in Calcutta. Told in two threads-that of the Naxalite son and another of the various life stories of the rest of his family.

Dense. Really dense. There’s a lot of detail and a lot of melodrama. Of course, there’s actual drama too-the Naxal subplot is never going to lack that. There is a lot of change happening, to the family as well as to the country and the book definitely focuses on the personal impacts of national events. Each family member serves almost as an allegory for the national problems-drugs, marriage, caste etc.  And it’s all told with detail-lots of detail. For me, too much detail but I won’t deny that it was the details that brought the book alive. It really overall functioned as a constant exploration of class/caste and the inequalities of the society

However, I guess it really just wasn’t for me. I seem to not particularly care about family dramas- I can’t get into characters who are quite so bitter like family dramas require. And while a lot happened in the novel, I finished it with the sensation that not much was resolved or done. Which is a bit ironic. Maybe it was the pacing which was kind of meandering-there’d be moments of fascinating changes and the like and then it’d all slow down. I ended feeling like I was pushing myself to read the novel-like it was a chore only lightened by Mukherjee’s sometimes beautiful prose.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Murder Bag-Tony Parsons

Murder Bag-Tony Parsons

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 384
gender: male
nationality: UK
year: 2014
novel

Seven public school mates (private school to my American friends) (i.e. there’s money) have begun to be killed in grisly ways. Dectective Max Wolfe is trying to find the killer before all seven end up dead.


A very well done procedural crime thriller. The details are what set this apart from the rest of its genre. The tour of the Scotland Yard’s Black Museum, the murder bag mentioned in the title, and the atmosphere (London, of course) are all in the details. The procedural details are precise and carry the novel forwards. The pacing accelerates which is good since I think most readers can solve the mystery rather quickly. Wolfe is made more interesting as he is a single parent so there is a distinctly human feeling to him. He’s not just a tough guy detective but a sensitive father as well. To be honest, I can’t find much to say about this novel, it’s well done but not too well done and so it proves an entertaining if not entirely memorable read.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Like Sand in the Wind-Sonia Raule and Vasken Berberian

Like Sand in the Wind-Sonia Raule & Vasken Berberian

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 503
gender: F & M
nationality: Italy/Armenia
year: 2011
novel in translation

Following the 1988 earthquake in her country (Soviet era Armenia), Lena is forced to go to Italy where she works as a nanny for Alice. Alice is the wife of a prominent Armenian doctor but is staunchly Italian. Despite this, the two form a strong bond.

Predictably I was fascinated by the history of places I’ve never known and by the Soviet issues. That the earthquake clearly exposed the worst of the Soviet rule was fascinating and the authors are clearly critical of the cost-cutting that made the earthquake so devastating. The absolute desperate poverty that made the after effects more devastating are depicted in this sparse way that evoked descriptions of post-bomb Hiroshima in a way.


The story set in Italy is somewhat less unusual. There is the familiar narrative of the picture-picture marriage is actually damaged as well as the tension between immigrant and natives played out on a domestic stage were not unusual. However, both Alice and Lena are developed clearly and so you end up rooting for their relationship and that becomes the most interesting part of the story.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Kept-James Scott

The Kept-James Scott

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 368
gender: male
nationality: USA
year: 2014
novel

Strangers have shot a family to death while the mother is away. The surviving child shoots her when she returns (thinking she’s the shooters come back to finish the job). Revenge and the revealing of secrets kept drive the rest of the novel

What a bleak novel. The opening scene is on a massacre and it is bleak. The landscape is bleak. The characters and their ability to develop is bleak. The ending is bleak.


And that is its strength as a novel. That doesn’t make it easy to read but you do have to be impressed by how much bleakness can be packed into 350 pages without driving a reader to drink. I don’t quite know how Scott managed it-perhaps it was the sparse, precise prose or perhaps it was the pacing-but this was not the most depressing thing I’ve read...though admittedly, it’s up there. There’s a lot of the elements of a traditional Western here-the horror of being in the middle of nowhere, transgressive characters, carving a space for your own, revenge, etc,-but set against the northern winter. So you have the typical gruesome details of the genre within a landscape as brutal as the desert and the usual lack of proper parenting which leads to a showdown kind of scene. I felt like I was reading a wintry Cormac McCarthy actually. Goodness, this novel was brutal but starkly beautiful albeit not for the soft-hearted.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Triangle-Hisaki Matsuura

Triangle-Hisaki Matsuura

the facts
satisfaction: down
pages: 350
gender: male
nationality: Japan
year: 2001
novel in translation

Otsuki, a recovered drug addict, is drawn into a project by the calligrapher Koyama featuring a pornographic movie.


I could not handle how bizarre this novel was. So bizarre. So weird and full of unlikeable characters and strange situations. And how bleak and so-very-not-nice the world was painted as-metaphysically. And the women in the book...objectified, harridans, and presented as worthless. I despised the main character whose flaws were never really explained seriously-just “issues with his family” type-and so I didn’t care about his downward spiral. Really just didn’t care, I have little sympathy for people with parasitic lifestyles it seems. There’s like no attempt to have a plot that makes sense and so, yes, there’s loads of plot holes and no attempt to resolve them. So his labyrinthine nightmare of narcissism, unseen malign forces, and misogyny left me cold and uncaring. The only thing of interest I took away from the novel was the concept of tomoe-a spiral that indicates harmony and stability-and its opposite.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The One Safe Place-Tania Unsworth

The One Safe Place-Tania Unsworth


the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 295
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2014
children's novel


In a dystopian future, a boy fresh off the farm ends up in a mega-city where he falls in with orphans and ends up in an orphanage where not all is as amazing as it seems.


Okay so this ended up being genuinely creepy. I read a lot of dystopia. A lot. For decades now. Now it’s much easier to be a big dystopia fan because there’s a lot of dystopia now on the market and so, unfortunately, things get a bit samey. This one stands out. So set in an unspecified future with more extreme temperatures and a wicked wide wealth gap (so, in other words, rather soon), Devin was once a super sheltered kid living on a farm-so sheltered he has never met anyone other than his grandfather. So he doesn’t know things like the synesthesia is unusual or whathaveyou. But since this is young adult/middle grade genre, all the adults in his life die and he ends up going to the mega-city to find someone to help him. Unsworth doesn’t do anything showy about describing the differences between the farm, the mega-city, and the eventual creepy orphanage Devin is in. Rather, it is all rather matter of fact. The horror of the merciless city, the tranquility of the farm, and the odd behavior of the kids in the orphanage are described in a way that your imagination fills in the details. The ending is well handled and I commend Unsworth on the open endedness.

So why the side? I just couldn’t place this book. The writing was middle grade style I suppose which was too simplistic for the utter intensity of the plot. I could’ve done with the plot being told in an expansive, more young adult kind of way because really, it was so interesting.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Accident-C.L. Taylor

The Accident-C.L.Taylor

the facts
satisfaction: side/down
pages: 404
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2014
novel


After her daughter ends up in a coma, Sue attempts to find out why.


I spent most of this book feeling like I must lack empathy/maternal instincts because Sue was so incomprehensible to me. I felt like this novel ended up being one, far, far, far, too long panic attack for the woman. I kept putting it down because her hysteria was so completely irritating AND shooting herself in the foot. I mean, she spends half of the novel shrieking shrillingly questions at people. It is like the least effective investigative technique to be hysterical and shrieking. No one is going to feel comfortable telling you things you don’t want to hear if you begin  the conversation already on such a panicked edge. Her suspicion felt completely unreasonable and this is from the perspective of first person! She made everything so much harder than it warranted and so I spent almost the whole book wondering why I was supposed to care. I ended up not grasping any menace and though I recognized that parts were supposed to be chilling, they passed me by. The only thing that horrified me about this novel was how little Sue could make the people around her believe her thanks to the stigma of mental illness. But then again, I can picture her in my head and I end up not blaming them.


Goodness, this review makes me feel like a bad person.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant-Joanna Wiebe

Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant- Joanna Wiebe

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 272
gender: female
nationality: Canada
year: 2014
novel, YA

Anne Merchant ends up going to a very strange boarding school for the wealthy. Fees are not discussed because they are too high and there is a guardian that makes sure you are always living your mission in every way possible so that you may become valedictorian.

I ended up enjoying this despite its flagrant flaws. Predictable? Somewhat, yes, you could give good guesses at what was going on before Anne got even half way through. Stilted prose? Somewhat-could have done with some more editing for flow. A preponderance for cliffhangers? Undoubtedly. A bit too focused on being secretive? Yes but it’s a hard thing to balance.

But I ended up genuinely enjoying reading this. It was the atmosphere-very creepy, subtly painted. It was everywhere, the fog, the architecture, everything suitably creepy at times and carefree and beautiful at others. The romance thread was actually quite interesting-a rare thing for me to say-primarily because it was steeped in distance and secrets. I guess it was because I genuinely liked Anne Merchant-the narrator and main character. She is flawed but innately curious in a way that is quite approachable and relatable. 

Cuckoo Song-Frances Hardinge

Cuckoo Song-Frances Hardinge

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 409
gender: female
nationality: UK
year: 2014
novel, YA

Triss awakes but might not be herself...or human.

Amazing really. This is an excellent interpretation of the legends of changelings and what a world in which there are changelings would also have. Set between the world wars, there is still that typical British preoccupation with the cost of WWI (the death of sons and fiancés feature heavily in British post-WWI literature) but with this fantasy world interposed. I didn’t even realize it was a long book, I was so enjoying the changeling narrator, her sister’s misadventures, the gray-area characters (is the changeling-hunter a villain or just misguided), and the villain which wasn’t quite an adult. Engrossing doesn’t do it justice, you’re swept along with all the new revelations and dangers which often are genuinely creepy.


I don’t know what else to say without running into any potential spoilers-well paced, good prose, excellent plot-I recommend this to anyone.