Saturday, October 31, 2015

Book Review: "Slade House" by David Mitchell

No one writes quite like David Mitchell. His last book, The Bone Clocks, made the list of my favorite books I read in 2014, and now I was utterly captivated by the quirky, slightly creepy, and utterly compelling Slade House.

Slade House is a bit of an anomaly. If you go looking for it most days, you won't find it—you'll simply go down the narrowest alley you've ever seen and search in vain, and if you ask passers-by whether they've heard of Slade House, chances are they'll look at you like you've gone mad. But the truth is, Slade House is only visible every nine years, and only if you've been chosen by the house's owners, a mysterious brother and a sister, will you get the chance to enter. You'll be amazed by the beauty of your surroundings, the grandeur of the house—and then you'll start to realize all is not what it seems. But by then, it's too late.

Slade House spans five decades, beginning in the 1970s, and follows an unlikely group of people as they encounter the house and its owners. A misfit teenager accompanying his musician mother for a recital, a recently divorced policeman with an eye for the ladies, a college student who joined her college's Paranormal Society to get closer to one of her fellow students, and an investigative journalist all enter the house; some have knowledge of its existence, some are totally unaware. And then it becomes difficult to distinguish what is real and what is in their minds.

I'm not going to say more about the plot for fear of spoiling it. Once again, David Mitchell has created a tremendously unique story with lots of twists and turns (and there's even a tiny overlap with a character from The Bone Clocks, but you don't have to have read that book to enjoy this one. This book has vivid imagery, fascinating characters, and even takes some trips into the territory of authors like Stephen King, Peter Straub, or Dean Koontz, but still remains completely Mitchell-ian. (If that word doesn't exist, now it does.)

Give yourself a little post-Halloween treat that won't pack on the calories, and pick up this book. Chances are, like me, you're going to want to read more of Mitchell's books afterward.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Book Review: "Hide" by Matthew Griffin

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury USA for making it available!

Poignant, beautiful, and moving, Matthew Griffin's Hide is a powerful love story that you don't often see depicted in movies, books, or television shows, but it is truly resonant and relevant.

It isn't long after World War II when Frank, returning home from military service, meets Wendell, a shy, taciturn taxidermist, in a rural North Carolina town. At this time in society, relationships such as theirs could mean being ostracized from their families, losing their jobs, shock treatments or institutionalization, going to jail, even losing their lives. But the two are drawn to each other, and decide to move into a house on the outskirts of town, where other than going to work each day they keep to themselves.

It's a solitary existence and a life filled with the fear of discovery, but their love endures for more than 50 years. And then one day, Wendell finds Frank on the ground beside his carefully tended garden—and their lives change in an instant. As Frank's physical condition worsens, and his mental acuity and mood deteriorate, Wendell faces the dual pressure of caring for a stubborn, physically incapacitated old man, and watching the love of his life decline.

They say that growing old isn't for the faint of heart, and watching the health of the person you love go downhill is tremendously difficult. Hide so beautifully captures the feelings of regret and loss, of anger and frustration, the split-second thoughts that you might be better off if they were no longer suffering. But this story is also moving because of the lives that Wendell and Frank had to live, the measures they took to avoid discovery, the sacrifices they had to make.

Griffin perfectly occupies the voices and mannerisms of his characters. While there were times that the story moved a little slower than I would have liked, I couldn't stop reading, even as I dreaded where the book might end. Hide is a moving tribute to love, and a salute to the sacrifices made by those who came before us, so we can live the lives everyone deserves to, loving the person we choose.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Book Review: "Beauty Queens" by Libba Bray

Beauty pageants are often frequent targets of satire, even if most of the aspects that are lampooned are pretty exaggerated. We love to pull out the "world peace" trope, and revisit the idea that beauty pageant contestants are dumb, even if in reality they're quite often tremendously accomplished. (And I say this as both a fan and a nearly 12-year volunteer with the Miss America Organization.)

The young women in Libba Bray's satire, Beauty Queens, a cross between Miss Congeniality and Drop Dead Gorgeous, with a little bit of the media-related commentary of Max Headroom are in a class by themselves. They're flying to the beach to compete in the Miss Teenage Dream pageant, and their every move is being captured by film crews, with the culminating event being the televised pageant itself. And then the unthinkable happens—their plane crash-lands on a deserted island, killing the majority of the contestants and all of the adults involved, and leaving a select few to fend for themselves.

From the get-go, Miss Texas, Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins, wants the survivors to keep practicing their musical numbers, keeping up their beauty rituals (despite losing most of their cosmetics, not to mention food and water and hygiene products), because Miss Teenage Dream is always prepared. But Miss New Hampshire, Adina Greenberg, who never really cared much about competing anyway, thinks it's crazy the girls don't concentrate on surviving the elements and try to get rescued. They can't have a pageant if all the contestants have starved to death or get eaten by wild animals, can they?

But what the contestants don't realize is that the island isn't deserted—it's actually the site of a top secret compound run by "The Corporation," the conglomerate that produces the pageant as well as nearly every popular television show (like Patriot Daughters," featuring a sexy Betsy Ross, and Captains Bodacious, which features a group of telegenic young men masquerading as pirates), movie, book, and record, not to mention pharmaceuticals, fashions, and beauty products. And The Corporation is about to take part in a very shady business deal with a very shady foreign dictator.

Beauty Queens lampoons so many elements of pageants, from the pushy mothers who strong-arm their daughters into competing, to the vapid contestants who know a lot about makeup and smiling but little about the world around them. And then there's the most famous Miss Teenage Dream ever, Ladybird Hope, now an aspiring presidential candidate. Her take on why the pageant is important:

"Our country needs something to believe in, Barry. They need us to be that shining beacon on the hill, and that shining beacon will not have all these complications and tough questions about who we are, 'cause that's hard, and nobody wants to think about that when you already have to decide whether you want Original Recipe or Extra Crispy and that little box is squawkin' at ya. And let me tell you something, Barry, that shining beacon will have a talent portion and pretty girls, because if we don't come out and twirl those batons and model our evening gowns and answer questions about geography, then the terrorists have won."

Parts of this book were quite funny, and the contestants' adventures were interspersed with "commercials" from The Corporation. But after a while, as the plot got more and more outlandish, it started to lose steam, and it just wasn't as funny anymore. There were only so many times the contestants could joke about the slutty one, the lesbian, and the token minorities, or the plot entailed the contestants defending themselves with everyday beauty tools and products before the book just lost its appeal. I think if this book were shorter, it definitely would have been funnier, but instead it appears Bray tried to cram as much as she could into the plot.

If you enjoy satire and social commentary about just how silly the media is and how much control it has over us, you may enjoy Beauty Queens. It's definitely amusing, even laugh-out-loud, stupid funny in places. I just wish it didn't lose steam before it ended.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Book Review: "After You" by Jojo Moyes

When I pick up a book by Jojo Moyes, it's a pretty fair bet that it's going to make me cry at least at some point, although none of the other books of hers have left me the sobbing mess I was while reading Me Before You, which was one of my favorite books of 2013.

Given how much I loved that book, I'll admit I was slightly dubious when I learned that Moyes was writing a sequel. Would it be able to capture the emotion of its predecessor without feeling like a retread? Was there more to Louisa Clark's story that still needed to be told? And perhaps most importantly, would it leave me an emotional wreck? I'd say pretty much, yes, and, well, sort of.

Since Will Traynor's death, Louisa's life hasn't been the same. She promised him she'd live boldly, and she tried, but in the end, she found herself going through the motions more than anything else. When a freak accident forces her to return home to live with her family, she is confronted by the feeling that she never made any progress with her life before she met Will, and she doesn't know what she wants—if anything—from her future.

Stuck in a job she hates, with only her family and members of a bereavement group to commiserate with, Lou feels guilty about not keeping her promise, but she isn't sure she has anything more in her. But then life—in the forms of an unexpected figure from Will's past, and the paramedic who rescued Lou after her accident—intervenes, and once again she is forced to make a decision as to whether to do what is best for her, to step outside of her comfort zone, or should she just do what is easiest, even if it means letting chances pass her by?

After You is a book about how hard it is to move on and start living again after you've lost someone you love so deeply. It's about how grief affects everything you do, and sometimes paralyzes you, and how even when you are pushed out of your rut, it can still be far too hard. It's also about whether you are willing to let yourself take chances again, even if those chances may lead to you being hurt again.

I really enjoy the way Moyes writes. Her style is breezy, accessible, conversational, and it just draws you in so quickly. I really liked most of the characters in this book, and it didn't really feel like a retread of Me Before You. I'll admit that at times I felt the book was going to veer into territory I wasn't going to like, but for the most part, Moyes kept us out of there. (There was one brief shift in the book's narration that would really have irritated me if it continued, but fortunately, it didn't.)

This book didn't hit me as hard as its predecessor, but I still found myself getting choked up. And while I didn't think this book was quite as good, it's still a really good, enjoyable, emotional read, so I wasn't disappointed.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Book Review: "Katherine Carlyle" by Rupert Thomson

This was an odd but intriguing book, with a quirky and interesting protagonist.

When a book begins with the narrator recounting how she was frozen for eight years as an embryo awaiting IVF implantation into her mother, and she recalls how it felt as she was thawed and readied for implantation, you know you've stumbled upon something unusual. And while the whole book doesn't stay at that level of uniqueness, it's clear that this experience affects Katherine in many ways.

Katherine is 19 years old and struggling. She's still reeling from the death of her mother to cancer (for which she blames herself) and she resents her father, a television reporter, for his continued absences. She's preparing to leave Rome to go to college in England, when she suddenly decides to change the course of her life, to begin "experimenting with coincidence." Overhearing a couple in a movie theater talking about a friend in Berlin with a fantastic apartment, who was recently jilted by his girlfriend, Katherine decides to abandon her plans, cut off contact with everyone she knows, and head to Berlin.

"If I'm to pay proper attention, if this is to work, there's no option but to disconnect, to simplify. From now on, life will register directly, like a tap on the shoulder or a kiss on the lips. It will be felt."

The book follows Katherine on her journey toward self-discovery. In Berlin she makes interesting connections, with friends, potential boyfriends if she was willing to settle down, even a surrogate father figure. At times her adventures are simple and enjoyable, at times they have the potential to be dangerous. She is not willing to alight too long in one place; she keeps looking for the next spot on her journey, and all the while she is wondering how her father will react to her disappearance, and mourning the loss of her mother.

Katherine's voyage takes her to Russia, and then to a remote village on the Arctic Circle. By that time she has invented a new persona for herself, and pursued a new course for her life, but she is still haunted by her mother and lives in fear that someone will make the connection to her old life and alert her father or others looking for her to her whereabouts.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect of this book. Rupert Thomson has a very lyrical style to his writing, and his imagery is absolutely fantastic. Katherine starts out as a quirky, almost madcap character, and the book definitely gets much heavier as it unfolds. The more Katherine starts wondering about her father's reaction to her disappearance, the more the book veers into imagined sequences and I had to re-read more than a few to be sure I was clear about whether what I was reading was real or a dream.

This is a very interesting read and Katherine is a very unique character. There is emotion and intrigue, but in the end, I didn't quite connect with the book the way I would have liked.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Book Review: "Carry On" by Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell is definitely an author whose books I have loved over the last few years. Her books Eleanor & Park and Fangirl both made my list of my favorite books in 2013, and her novel Landline definitely appealed to my not-so-inner sap.

Needless to say, when I heard she had a new book coming out, I was tremendously excited. And when I heard that the concept of Carry On was the expansion into novel form of fan fiction written by a character in Fangirl, I was intrigued, and wondered how this meta-concept would work.

Simon Snow is apparently the most powerful magician in the world. And that's not bad for a teenager who never knew his parents, who found himself being enrolled in the Watford School of Magicks, and was taken under the wing of The Mage, who oversees all of the magic in the world. It's been prophesied that Simon will be the magician to save the world—all he needs to do is be able to harness his magic properly.

While Simon has the support of his much-smarter best friend Penelope, and his girlfriend Agatha, he faces two major challenges: the world is being threatened by the Insidious Humdrum, a magic-eating villain who looks like Simon as a child, and Simon's biggest nemesis, his roommate Baz, is missing at the start of their last year at Watford. And when Baz returns, he and Simon enter into a shaky truce to solve a mystery that changed Baz's life and affected his entire family, if not the whole magickal world. What's the world's most powerful magician to do?

So yes, the story feels more than similar to the Harry Potter series in so many ways. In fact, I'll admit that through most of the book I couldn't shake the images of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Tom Felton, even though these characters weren't completely like Harry, Hermione, and Draco. For about the first quarter of the book I couldn't really understand why Rainbow Rowell had decided to write this particular story, and I felt that I was dropped into the story in about Book 7.

Then Baz returned, and (ironically) breathed life into the whole shebang. The dynamics between Simon and Baz were absolutely fantastic, and the action, magic, mystery, and romance all ratcheted up from that point on. Rowell once again proved she has a knack for creating memorable characters and touching your emotions, even in a story that feels a little too familiar, although with a twist. Carry On is a little braver emotionally than the Harry Potter series, although the latter definitely has more to offer in the magic-and-evil domain.

Carry On is fun, sweet, and perfect for those of us who haven't quite felt the same since we said goodbye to Hogwarts and Fillory (if you haven't read Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy, it's pretty fascinating). It's not a perfect book, and while I'm still not 100 percent sure if the gimmick worked (especially some of the slang and exclamations the characters use), I still wouldn't mind another installment in the adventures of Simon, Baz, and Penny.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Book Review: "Thirteen Ways of Looking" by Colum McCann

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Random House for making it available!

Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin was a highly heralded, award-winning novel that I never could get into. I tried several separate times to read it and could never get past the first few pages. But seeing so many glowing reviews of his new short story collection, Thirteen Ways of Looking, from a number of Goodreads friends whose opinions I value, I thought I needed to give this a shot. Haven't we all struggled to read at least one critically acclaimed book out there?

There were moments when reading the title novella which opened the collection that I wondered if for some reason McCann's writing was somehow impenetrable to me. The story of the last morning in the life of a retired judge (he doesn't know that, of course), which juxtaposed his reflections on his career, his late wife, his family, and the miseries of old age with the investigation into his death had flashes of brilliance, but I found the character a little too pompous and long-winded. After a while I grew weary of his verbosity, but the tautness of the other half of the story kept me from giving up on this collection. I also found the ending a little disappointing, but McCann's writing was at once both vivid and languid.

The three remaining stories in this collection are absolutely exquisite. I honestly don't know which of them I loved the most, because each had such beautiful, moving moments. "What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?" is two stories in one—a bird's eye view into the creative process of a writer as they develop a short story, little by little, and the actual story itself as it unfolds, a tale about a young Marine in Afghanistan planning to call home when the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve. (But it is so much more.) "Sh'khol" tells the story of a mother whose biggest nightmare appears to come true when her deaf son disappears early one morning while they are vacationing together in Ireland, and she fears the worst. In "Treaty," an elderly nun must confront a tragic period of her life that occurred more than 35 years before, when she catches a glimpse of a suddenly familiar man on television.

McCann's use of language and imagery is breathtaking at times, and I found these three stories in particular immensely moving and memorable. I almost wish each was as long as the title novella, as I wanted more time with these characters and their stories. What's even more amazing is the fact that McCann himself was assaulted while writing this collection, and as he reflects in the afterword, some stories were written before the incident and some after.

As he puts it, "For all its imagined moments, literature works in unimaginable ways." I'd agree completely. So much of this book touched me in many, many ways, and I am grateful for the opportunity to read it.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Book Review: "The Rest of Us Just Live Here" by Patrick Ness

Loved this, loved this, loved this.

There's a lot of fiction out there these days about extraordinary situations that threaten the world—usually it's an attack by aliens, monsters, or vampires, or otherwise the country is in danger because of war, dystopia, or political manipulation. It usually falls to one person, or a group of people, to save the world and solve the problems facing it.

Patrick Ness' terrific The Rest of Us Just Live Here turns that concept on its head. While a small community is under siege by mysterious forces and a group of "indie kids" (aka hipsters) have to figure out who (or what) is responsible before they destroy the world and keep killing people, Ness' book focuses on a group of friends who aren't the chosen ones. They're just a group of best friends, each dealing with their own problems, and just counting down the days until they graduate from high school and can leave their town behind.

"Not everyone has to be the Chosen One. Not everyone has to be the guy who saves the world. Most people just have to live their lives the best they can, doing the things that are great for them, having great friends, trying to make their lives better, loving people properly. All the while knowing that the world makes no sense but trying to find a way to be happy anyway."

The book is narrated by Mike, a sensitive high school senior battling OCD, who wants nothing more than to pursue a relationship with his friend Henna before they graduate and she heads off to Africa on a mission trip with her parents. His sister Mel has had more than her own share of problems but is trying to stay above water and pursue a relationship of her own. Mike's best friend Jared is more than just a smart, generous football player—he's the most complicated of them all. And Mike and Mel's problems get exacerbated when their ambitious politician mother decides to run for the U.S. Senate, since her last political campaign nearly destroyed their family.

Each chapter of this book starts with a brief description of what is happening among the indie kids who are fighting the menacing problem threatening to destroy the town. It doesn't really mention those events again unless Mike or one of his friends comes across a related situation. They're sad that the indie kids are dying, but mostly, they're just hoping their high school doesn't blow up (again) before prom and graduation.

As I've said many times, I love books that make me feel all the feels, and this one definitely did that. Ness so perfectly captured not only the typical teenage angst about how life will change after high school graduation, and falling in love with one of your best friends, but he deftly balanced that with all of the other emotional issues the characters dealt with. I totally identified with Mike's fears that he was the odd man out among his friends, and that he was the neediest one of them all.

Ness is a great writer (I'm definitely going to have to read some more of his books because he has a new fan in me) and I felt his dialogue and pacing were close to pitch-perfect. Until I understood the concept of the book I was a little confused, because I kept expecting the chapters to actually contain elements of the story that their introductory blurbs hinted at, but once I got the idea, it didn't matter. This is moving, funny, and utterly enjoyable—it's nice to read a story about (mostly) "ordinary" teenagers in the midst of extraordinary circumstances.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Book Review: "It's. Nice. Outside." by Jim Kokoris

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin's Press for making it available!

A dysfunctional family and a road trip: could you ask for anything more from a book?

John Nichols is 57. He's an ex-basketball player, ex-author, ex-philanderer, ex-husband, ex-high-school English teacher, or, as he likes to put it, "A. Lot. Of. Exes." He and his ex-wife Mary are parents to three children: high-strung queen bee Karen, rising comic star Mindy, and 19-year-old Ethan, who is developmentally challenged and autistic. Raising Ethan was the root cause of much of the friction that the Nichols family dealt with, as they tried to navigate his various phases, mercurial moods, and assorted demands, but he also provides them many moments of pure joy and unconditional love.

When Karen is scheduled to get married in South Carolina, John decides that he and Ethan will drive from their home in Illinois to the wedding. He's hoping for some good bonding time with his son—they'll visit the scene of John's college glory days, meet up with a neighbor, play some basketball—and John is also hoping the time in the car will inspire him to find a direction for the rest of his life. But the journey to South Carolina is fraught with crises and family drama, and while at times Ethan has his moments, at other times he's the easiest to deal with.

But things are about to get a lot more complicated, as John prepares to share with his family a life-changing decision he has made. It will send all of them on a road trip fraught with emotions and anger, force them to re-evaluate their relationships with one another, and be honest with themselves. This is a quirky, sweet, emotional story of what holds a family together and what tears them apart, and how sometimes the things we take for granted are the things we need the most.

I enjoyed this book, even if I wasn't necessarily surprised by the plot. Jim Kokoris has created a motley crew of characters, many of whom seem one-dimensional at first but are more complex than you think, and he makes you care about them. Ethan seems like a special person, and I think Kokoris accurately captured the push-and-pull of emotions and frustrations that come with a family member whose needs are more complicated than others'.

It's. Nice. Outside. is a book with both heart and humor (especially the conversations John creates for a group of Ethan's stuffed bears), and it will make you feel at least a tiny bit warm and fuzzy inside.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Book Review: "After the Parade" by Lori Ostlund

I recently devoured Lori Ostlund's short story collection, The Bigness of the World, which I absolutely loved. (See my original review.) I so fell in love with her writing and her storytelling ability that I very quickly jumped into reading her debut novel, After the Parade. While I don't think I loved this book as much as her stories, I continue to be dazzled by Ostlund's talent and her ability to provoke so many different emotions with her writing.

Aaron Englund has been with his older partner Walter for 20 years, since Walter rescued him from a lonely existence in his small town of Morton, Minnesota. But while the two shared a strong bond, Aaron felt that Walter always controlled him, and never let him forget that he saved him. So one day, Aaron leaves their home in New Mexico and heads to San Francisco, where he hopes to start a new life and continue his career as an ESL teacher.

"Perhaps that was the nature of love: either a person was not in it enough toc are, or was in it too deeply to make anything but mistakes."

Settling into a small garage apartment in San Francisco, Aaron begins to realize that a new life isn't all it's cracked up to be. While he enjoys helping his students maneuver their way through the idiosyncrasies of the English language, he spends most of his time alone, knowing he did the right thing in his relationship with Walter yet still missing him, and feeling ever more alone and isolated, but scared and unwilling to try and make new friends.

Through flashbacks we get a better understanding of what has shaped Aaron into the man he has become. His angry, abusive father was killed in a freak accident when he was five, and his mother vacillated between smothering and distant. He never felt he was the same as his fellow classmates, and he often was the object of ridicule and/or bullying. Throughout his childhood and young adulthood he encountered a number of people whose differences were either physical and emotional, yet he felt at home with them. And then, while he was in high school, his mother left home in the middle of the night with the town's priest, and she never connected with Aaron again.

After the Parade is a moving story about feeling isolated, feeling different, and how our relationships and personalities are shaped by the things that occur in our lives. I felt for Aaron so much as I learned more about him, his likes and dislikes, and his inability to feel comfortable letting his guard down. But at times the emotional distance at which his mother kept Aaron, and Aaron keeps the world, translated into an emotional distance for me as well, so at times I was frustrated by Aaron's inability to act, to say what was on his mind, to do something that might bring a change in his life, although I understood why.

This is a story that unfolds slowly (very slowly at times), and while the flashbacks are tremendously valuable for insight into his character, I would have enjoyed spending more time with Aaron in adulthood than in childhood. But while this isn't a book I necessarily enjoyed, it was a book that moved me, and Ostlund's talent is on full display here. It's definitely a book that has me thinking.