Saturday, April 19, 2014

Book Review: "A Better World" by Marcus Sakey

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

When you read a series of books, you always hope that the next book will be as strong if not stronger than the one that preceded it. Marcus Sakey's dazzling, creative Brilliance was one of the best books I read last year, so while I was tremendously excited to read A Better World, the second book in Sakey's Brilliance Saga, I was also a little hesitant. Could it live up to my (perhaps unrealistic) expectations? Would it remain true the story Sakey so deftly created?

Having torn through the book as quickly as life allowed me to, I can unequivocally say yes to both questions.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Review: "The Quick" by Lauren Owen

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalleys in exchange for an unbiased review.

This was an interesting and well-written book, but so much of its appeal came from not knowing what to expect, so I'm going to be fairly vague in my review.

Siblings Charlotte and James Norbury grew up on an aging estate in the English countryside. With a deceased mother and a virtually absent father, they were raised mostly by servants and a distant relative, and left to their own devices. Charlotte took good care of her younger brother, serving as his teacher, protector, and occasional tormentor. But as the estate—and their family's financial position—declined, they were free to pursue their imagination and challenge their bravery.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book Review: "Family Life" by Akhil Sharma

Eight-year-old Ajay, his older brother Birju, and their mother live in India in the late 1970s, waiting for their father to send for them and bring them to America, where he has been working. While they don't truly know what to expect, they dream that America will bring them all of the luxury and privilege they are hoping for, even beyond anything they can imagine.

When their father finally does send their plane tickets, and they are forced to give away almost all of their possessions in preparation, Ajay begins to wonder whether migrating to America is really worth it.

"Till then, I had not fully understood that going to America meant leaving India."

Book Review: "Astonish Me" by Maggie Shipstead

Maggie Shipstead's debut novel, Seating Arrangements, was a funny and touching comedy of manners which chronicled a man's search for sanity and solace in the midst of the days leading to his daughter's wedding. Shipstead chose a completely different route for her second novel, Astonish Me, which focuses on the world of ballet as well as the obsessiveness of relationships and the secrets they foster.

Joan Joyce is a ballet dancer in the early 1970s. For as long as she can remember, she has lived for nothing more than to dance, and she is conscious of the sacrifices she must make to do so, knowing that time is the greatest enemy of her dancing career. Deep inside, she knows she may never be more than a member of the dance corps, but she still feels the need to give her body and her emotions fully to every dance.

"She has been trained to believe that the motions are enough. Each motion is to be perfect, repeated endlessly and without variation, strung in a sequence with other motions like words in a sentence, numbers in a code."

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Book Review: "A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade" by Kevin Brockmeier

"He has always been the kid who cries too easily and laughs too easily, the kid who begins giggling in church for no reason at all, who blinks hotly in shame and frustration whenever he misses a question in class, living in an otherland of sparkling daydreams and imaginary catastrophes."

If I had to pick a memorable year in my life to recount in a memoir, I don't know that I would have picked seventh grade, but for Kevin Brockmeier, that year in 1985 clearly resonated, for good and bad reasons. Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, Kevin and his fellow seventh graders were sent to a new school, a combined junior high and high school, so suddenly he was thrown into a world with even more uncertainty, even more potential to make him feel more uncertain about himself.

Seventh grade is an interesting year for Kevin. He falls in and out of infatuation with various female classmates, harnesses his ability to make people laugh, discovers his creative talents (which aren't always as appreciated as they should be), experiences his first kiss, and becomes infamous for his speed in getting ready for gym class. It's also the year when two of his childhood best friends turn on him for no reason and mock everything he does, when he is desperate to outsmart the bully who keeps stealing his lunch out of his locker, when he wants more than anything to fit in, to be loved (or at least liked), to not feel like he always needs to wonder if he's on solid footing.

But Kevin doesn't always make it easy for himself. His desperation to fit in leaves him prone to saying just the wrong thing at the wrong time. He's a little more sensitive and tightly wound than he should be. And for some reason, his schemes to make himself popular (such as dressing up like Dolly Parton for Halloween) make him stand out in the wrong way.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Book Review: "Past the Shallows" by Favel Parrett

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalleys in exchange for an unbiased review.

Wow, what a brutal, beautiful, sad book this was.

Joe, Miles, and Harry are brothers growing up in Tasmania. Their lives have been harder since their mother's death, and their father, a struggling fisherman, has become increasingly erratic, vacillating between hard drinking, hard working, and unpredictable rage. When Joe gets old enough to move away from their father's moods, it leaves Miles to work on his father's boat, and take care of Harry, who gets easily seasick, often daydreams, and likes finding treasures in the sand near the water.

As their father struggles with the supply of fish, his moods become more volatile, and Miles does all he can to meet his expectations and keep Harry out of their father's line of sight. He'd much rather be surfing all he can, but knows Harry needs his protection, and the more time he spends with his younger brother, the more memories of his mother's death come to the surface—as does a startling and disturbing revelation. One day during a storm, everything comes to a head. Miles knows he must protect his brother at any cost.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this book, and although at the start it was hard to figure out exactly what was happening and how the story would unfold, as the entire narrative came to light it became more and more compelling, and more and more poignant. Favel Parrett is a beautiful writer—her imagery of the sea at both calm and in fury is breathtaking, and the way she gradually unfurled the plot was very skillful.

I loved the way Parrett drew the boys' characters. Joe isn't as much of a presence as Miles and Harry, but they were all very different. George, the mysterious, damaged man whom Harry befriends, was very interesting, and I wish we had the opportunity to know more about him and what made him tick. Clearly, the boys' father was the heavy in this novel, and although Parrett gave us glimpses of the man behind the rage, he seemed a little too one-dimensional, although understandably so.

This was a short but very powerful, beautifully written book that will definitely leave an impression on you, much like the treasures Harry found in the sand. Not a perfect read, but tremendously intriguing and moving.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review: "Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea" by Dan Lopez

I've said many times before that I marvel at the way short stories can move you, or make you think, in just a small number of pages. Good stories often leave you wanting more—not that the stories necessarily feel unfinished, but rather they get you so hooked on the characters that you would love to spend more time with them.

Dan Lopez's short collection, Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea, included five reasonably short but intriguing stories, several of which I wished were longer because I wanted to know more about the characters. The stories are linked by the sea—the water and boats factor in each of the stories, as do the roller coaster ride of emotions that relationships take you on.

In "Coast of Indiana," a man must decide if he should give up his own career and life's routines to follow his boyfriend, who will be attending graduate school in a small Indiana town. Time on the beach and on a ferry gives him more time to consider this decision. "The Cruise" follows a group of gay men on a cruise who are all lusting after a deckhand, who has ambitions of his own. In "Volumes Set Against a Twilight Sky," an architect, confronting grief after the death of his partner, decides to take the man's diaries on a cruise with a friend, and must come to terms with what he reads. And in the moving title story, two men are brought together by their shared grief about losing custody of their daughters.

I don't know where I heard about this collection, but it was really beautifully written and several of the stories were very moving. I really wish that some of the stories were longer because I would have appreciated getting to know some of these characters more, and better understand what made them tick. One or two seemed to end sooner than I would have liked, and left me wondering what happened next. But Dan Lopez is a tremendously talented writer, and these stories resonate even after they're done.