Friday, January 10, 2014

A Year in Review

It’s 2014 and there is a lot to look forward to in this New Year; from exciting new films, books, and television to politics, economics, and all the rest, 2014 is sure to bring forth something of interest for everyone. Yet, before we go tripping off to ’14 I’d like to take a moment to look back on what 2013 had to offer in books—the best, the worst, biggest disappointment, most under-looked—they’re all here in brief, at least according to my tastes (if you are looking for more Goldfinch, TransAtlantic, Life After Life praise, please look elsewhere).

The Best Books (or at least my favorite):

It’s difficult to take all of the books I read in a year (around 100 or so, depending on my schedule) and pick a hands down favorite. I’s too difficult to compare books of different genres to each other, and by December, I frequently have trouble remembering details of the books I read in January (I do take notes though). So, while I did end up having an absolute favorite this year, I also wanted to add a few more books from varying genres that I felt were really excellent reads.

#1. Night Film by Marisha Pessl (click here for full review)
Publisher’s Plot Synopsis: “On a damp October night, beautiful young Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Though her death is ruled a suicide, veteran investigative journalist Scott McGrath suspects otherwise. As he probes the strange circumstances surrounding Ashley's life and death, McGrath comes face-to-face with the legacy of her father: the legendary, reclusive cult-horror-film director Stanislas Cordova--a man who hasn't been seen in public for more than thirty years. For McGrath, another death connected to this seemingly cursed family dynasty seems more than just a coincidence. Though much has been written about Cordova's dark and unsettling films, very little is known about the man himself. Driven by revenge, curiosity, and a need for the truth, McGrath, with the aid of two strangers, is drawn deeper and deeper into Cordova's eerie, hypnotic world. The last time he got close to exposing the director, McGrath lost his marriage and his career. This time he might lose even more.”
I’ve really pushed this one, but that is because of all the books I have loved this year, this is the only novel that I still think about, and marvel over. Pessl’s brilliant use of multi-media images, her eerie settings, and insanely twisted plotting come together to create a novel that is spine tingling and thoroughly engrossing. It’s one of those novels that make your imagination run wild with horror, as it goes stumbling about with lead protagonist Scott McGrath, through the maze of deceit and subterfuge surrounding Cordova . Night Film is an addictive psychological thriller, a book that will have a death grip on anyone who picks it up, and begs to be read a second time. Any book that once finished, must be picked right back up, is a book that deserves to be noticed. That’s why Night Film is my hands down favorite of 2013.

Other favorites of the year:

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
A smart and funny novel with a much broader appeal than expected The Rosie Project was certainly one of the most entertaining novels I’ve read this year. For a full review…

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell
Two young sisters alone in the world, an elderly man with a shameful secret, a Glaswegian neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks, and a couple of bodies buried in the garden set the stage for Lisa O’Donnell’s cunning debut novel The Death of Bees. Told in three distinct and sometimes unreliable voices, The Death of Bees follows the paths of sisters 15-year-old Marnie and 12-year-old Nelly, who have buried their
recently and suspiciously deceased parents in the back garden and Lennie, their elderly neighbor who attempts to make sure the girls survive. A dark premise, rough about the edges, and full of the foulness of human life this novel could easily fall into an oblivion of harshness that dissuades readers, but instead O’Donnell uses a deft hand and superior writing skill to make a difficult premise darkly comical, heart-breakingly sad, and quietly touching as it explores the depths of the sister bond throughout unbelievable circumstances. Lisa O’Donnell is a fantastic writer, making Scotland street-slang appear at times, like poetry and her characters show high degrees of complexity, that make you both love and hate them, pity and fear them—a fete that only the best writers can achieve in a first person narrative. While this is not a book for everyone, I chose to highlight it here because the writing is incredibly solid, and the plot is excellently spun making it a really great 2013 debut that deserves to be noticed.

Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series: Etiquette & Espionage and Curtsies & Conspiracies
Carriger’s Young Adult series is an incredibly witty blend of steam punk and alternative history. It’s engaging, fun, full of adventure, and incredibly inventive. I’ve been a fan of Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series for several years now and am happy to say that this new series aimed at young adults might even be better than her earlier works. Carriger’s plotting and characterizations get stronger and stronger with each new book, which makes the future of this series a bright light for a reader like me. I recommend these two books as my favorite books geared toward young adults in 2013.

Most Underrated or Overlooked Books:

The Returned by Jason Mott
Why is this book not a major bestseller? The prose is poetic, yet sharp and intriguing; the plot is not only For a full review… 
riveting (the dead returning to their loved ones), but it’s similar to a French TV show of the same name that has taken the world by storm (or at least those who watch the Sundance Channel)—you would think someone would pick-up on that and grab the book. It’s my hope that with the release of the paperback in March 2014, sales will pick-up and this wonderful book will find its audience.

The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason
Much like Gail Carriger’s series, The Clockwork Scarab is a wonderful blend of steampunk and alternative history—this time the focus being the teen niece of Sherlock Holmes and the younger sister of Bram Stoker. There is a great paranormal twist to this, the first book in the Stoker & Holmes series, and enough sleuthing to keep mystery fans entertained. The characters are well-drawn and interesting, and more importantly, the plot is good. I frequently find it difficult to find good books that are aimed at teens—a more mature plot, faster pacing, older characters—but clean enough content-wise for those tough to place tween or young teen readers, The Clockwork Scarab is one of those rare books that can be enjoyed by both teens and tweens without content appropriateness being an issue. Hopefully, once a few more books are out, this series will pick-up the pace sales-wise.

Biggest Disappointments:

Allegiant by Veronica Roth
I’ve already talked about this in a previous blog, so I won’t pontificate too much, but when you’ve spent a few years with a trilogy—waited in anticipation for each new book, stayed up all night finishing it the day it is released—there is a sense of entitlement in the reader, regarding a satisfying conclusion. With Allegiant, I was let down on all fronts; it was uneven, disjointed, frustrating, and had a hurried and horrible ending. Reading this book made me regret reading the other two, and I loved Divergent. It takes a lot to really turn me off of a series, I actually don’t think I’ve ever regretted reading one before, but Allegiant succeeded where no other book has. What a disappointment!

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield
I loved Setterfield’s debut The Thirteenth Tale. It was gothic mystery at its best, but Bellman and Black fell short on so many levels. This wannabe ghost story/gothic tried way too hard to be mysterious and interesting, but the plot ended up being banal. This one was D.O.A. in terms of sales (at least from the numbers I have access to), falling flat on its over-hyped face.

Worst Book:

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani
This is my least favorite book of 2013. Here’s the publisher’s description:
At the School for Good and Evil, failing your fairy tale is not an option. Welcome to the School for Good and Evil, where best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.
With her glass slippers and devotion to good deeds, Sophie knows she'll earn top marks at the School for Good and join the ranks of past students like Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White. Meanwhile, Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks and wicked black cat, seems a natural fit for the villains in the School for Evil. The two girls soon find their fortunes reversed--Sophie's dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School for Good, thrust among handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication. But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are . . . ?
The School for Good and Evil is an epic journey into a dazzling new world, where the only way out of a fairy tale is to live through one.
I could write four pages on my dislike of this book alone, but for all of our sakes I will keep it short.
I liked this premise. It is fun, a great twist on the fairy tale (of which I’m almost always a fan), it could have been really great. Could have. Instead, what you get is a jumble of ugliness—horrid, unlikable characters (not unlikeable in a Jonathan Franzen pseudo-intellectual way, just plain unpleasant individuals), a plot that bounces all over the place, and an ending that is atrocious—not even the upcoming sequel could dispel the nasty taste left over at the finish of this book. Here’s the kicker—it’s a book for kids! I wouldn’t let a kid in my charge touch this book with a 10 foot pole! I don’t say this that often, but this was a really bad book, not worth the paper it was written on. Let the kids read Chris Colfer’s Land of Stories series, a much more suitable and better written option if they want a fairy tale twist, but keep them and your adult selves away from poorly executed piece children’s fantasy “literature”.

Honorable Mentions:

Looking for Me by Beth Hoffman
Lexicon by Max Barry
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
The Lunar Chronicles Series by Marissa Meyer
The River of No Return by Bee Ridgeway

So here it is my 2013 reading list in brief. I’m looking forward to what 2014 has to offer, and can’t wait to dive into a new book.'

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What I’ve (been) Reading: November 13, 2013

Lately, I’ve been more apt to binge watch television shows than read. This doesn’t mean that I don’t still love to read, I do, it just means that I have been lazy, and also a little obsessive compulsive when it comes to American Horror Story and, surprisingly Modern Family (can’t get enough of either right now). That being said, on October 22nd I did take the time to dive right into Allegiant, Veronica Roth’s conclusion to the Divergent trilogy, and I was able to finish and start a couple of other novels as well. So here goes nothing.

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Where to start with this one? I’ve let my thoughts on this gestate for the last few weeks. All the reviews on this one are out, so my thoughts as any type of reviewer are irrelevant, therefore I’m writing this purely as a fan. Back in 2011 I wrote a piece entitled “Dystopic Tellings” in which I took a moment to put the spotlight on a debut book called Divergent. This was one of those books I read long before it was released to the public, and loved immediately and whole-heartedly. I called it a glittering debut with a whopper of an ending. It was love at first read. One year later I wrote about its sequel Insurgent; calling it a brilliant sequel, a must read, guaranteed to keep you glued to the page. Suffice it to say I was very eager (even more so with the movie coming out in 2014) to voyage back into this world and learn the fates of the characters I had so grown to love. I also just wanted to know how this journey, started in Divergent, would end and so began my wrestling match with Allegiant.

There is no other way to say this, so I’ll just put it out there; I was very disappointed. I refuse to spoil the ending, it’s not fair for people who have yet to read it and develop their own opinions, but this book was a mess, particularly the conclusion. Characters die off in unworthy ways, after having survived ludicrous odds—we are talking surviving something guaranteed to kill—only to be put out Jesse James style; or making it through the war only to die by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yes, I understand that this is what happens in “real life”, but to do it so callously with characters your audience cares about doesn’t make a statement, it just frustrates your readers. There is no grief when your reader truly doesn’t believe the words on the page. I certainly didn’t believe what I read. Even after finishing the book, I went back to make sure I read it right and then just sat on my couch mystified by the slap hazard treatment. I’m not one to balk at characters being killed off, it can actually make for a stronger piece of work (Breaking Bad, great finale), but when the events are scattered, and the plot line becomes irrelevant and maudlin, the work isn’t stronger; it’s just trying too hard to be something it is not. A lot of people hate Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games finale Mockingjay, I happen to love it; because it feels real, deaths matter, they aren’t just devices. In Allegiant, it’s just maddening—not in a good and thought-provoking way, but in a “why did I spend three years on this series” and “do I really want to see the movie now” sort of way. It’s just not respectable. How I long for a series that is capable of beginning and ending a truly captivating story—unfortunately he Divergent trilogy is not it. If you haven’t yet read it, stay away for this trilogy, it is just not worth the poorly crafted finale. And as a fan, that statement just depresses me.

The Quick by Lauren Owen (releases June 17, 2014)
This debut starts out very well; with a pair of siblings living on an out of the way country estate in 19th century England. Their mother is dead, and their father, a man of mystery who has not been present in their lives is dying of something horrible. Add in a priest’s hole, secretive servants, a vividly gothic background, and good writing and you have all the makings of an excellent novel. Unfortunately, for the reader, the novel jumps ahead to the 1890’s, following the weaker of the two sibling characters, younger brother James (by far the least interesting of the two—he’s actually insipidly annoying) as he slogs through London, as a wannabe writer, and I mean slogs! The next hundred or so pages are boring, unexpectedly outrageous, and might I say a bit generic? I actually put the book down at this point in the text for a couple of months because I was so disappointed, and so irritated that a book with such a promising start could jump so far off track. I did pick it up again after being promised by a rep for the publisher that the book does pick-up—adding a supernatural track and veering in favor of the much more interesting Charlotte, older sister to James. Yes, the book did pick-up. Yes, the supernatural flavor added a spark of interest. No, it didn’t make the book better. Instead it made its flaws—edits that should have been made, underdeveloped characters, a rapidly thinning plotline—all the more noticeable. If the author, who is clearly a good writer, could have followed the first part of her book more closely, but as an alternative, fleshed out Charlotte more, and focused a little bit on their family background, and then blended that into the plot involving the supernatural, this would have been a really good book. Instead, it meanders, slogs, and bounces far too much to be more than a mediocre attempt at another **SPOILER**vampire story.

Citadel by Kate Mosse (releases March 18, 2014)
So as not to end on a negative note, I want to mention one more book that has captured my attention, and that is Kate Mosse’s Citadel. I really enjoyed her book Labyrinth, a book that combined epic storytelling with a touch of fantasy, without it becoming an actual fantasy genre novel. Now, with Citadel, Mosse takes the very real occupation of France, and the atrocities suffered at the hands of the Nazi’s and Vichy during World War II, and adds a touch of religious mysticism to create a thoroughly engrossing novel that follows the efforts of a group of men and women in the French resistance. This is a really great book. It’s one of those novels that make you shudder at the very real crimes against humanity that took place during this time, but also has adventure, spying, politics, and scenes that would have fit right in with the Indiana Jones flick Raiders of the Lost Ark. I am really appreciating this one, and think it will have legs across a few different genres including women’s fiction, historical fiction, WWII, and fantasy. It’s a good blend of Ken Follett, Dan Brown, Katherine Neville, and Diana Gabaldon—a wonderful blend for a variety of readers.

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Friday, October 11, 2013

What’s I’ve (been) Reading: October 11, 2013

 Get ready for 2014—I sure am, and just to prove it, I’ve spent my time delving through the pages of winter and spring 2014 book releases. Yes, reading a book not released until April of 2014 might not be the best pastime in October of 2013—there are certainly enough good books out right now, but call me forward thinking, because that is exactly what I have been doing. So as not to completely lose the 2013 reads, I’ve also thrown in a couple of current releases, giving my two cents on their worthiness and readability.

Nil by Lynne Matson (releases March 4, 2014)
On the island of Nil the rules are clear: you have 365 to escape, if you don’t, you die. When Charley Nil provides a refreshing science fiction plot. Unfortunately, despite the appealing concept, the story goes a bit flat in places, and the ending is a little too contrived. An adequate read, Nil provides a nice break from vampires and dystopian futures, but doesn’t quite come up to snuff.
disappears from a parking lot only to awaken naked, on a mysterious and decidedly dangerous island, the only thing she knows for sure is that survival means everything. When she comes across Thad, and a group of other teens; all magically transported to Nil, she learns that her stay on the island has a time limit; find a way back in a year, or die trying. This was an interesting premise and a nice departure from the loads of dystopian teen fiction crowding the shelves. Full of adventure, romance, a unique depiction of teen angst,

The Lost Sun: Book 1 of United States of Asgard by Tessa Gratton (out now)
What if the Norse Gods were real? What if those same Norse Gods were an active part of society with their own followers and fan bases? In this alternative history, America doesn’t exist; instead it is the United States of Asgard, where Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya, and all the other well-known figures from Norse Mythology are very real, and very important. Within this country is Soren Bearskin, a berserker hiding from his heritage and Astrid Glyn, daughter of a famous seer with her own crosses to bear. When Balder, the beloved son of Odin disappears, Astrid and Soren must team up to find him before panic can overtake their country.

I love mythology, and the integration of Norse gods into this alternative USA society was very well done. It made me want to revisit my old high school myth books (Marvel has rotted my brain, so I can only remember their versions of the stories). I’ll be curious to see how the rest of the series pans out, based on the fairly tidy (in myth story terms) ending of The Lost Son. I think that in general they can only get better. At this point author Gratton has painted a decent, if not fantastic portrait of this world; hopefully she takes a bit more time to flesh out the details, it will certainly add an extra layer to her storytelling, and benefit the books greatly. If the author is able to more fully develop her world (the books are really dependent on that), and move beyond some of the obvious plot contrivances, she could have a fun and unique series on her hand. It will take the next book The Strange Maid: Book 2 of United States of Asgard (out June 2014) for me to make a firm decision on whether to stick with this series of not.

In the Blood by Lisa Unger (releases January 7, 2014)
Lisa Unger returns to The Hollows (Fragile and Darkness, My Old Friend) in her latest psychological thriller In the Blood. I was a really big Unger fan after her Beautiful Lies books, and subsequent suspense novels Black Out and Die for You. Her stories are just the right amount of twisted to make you hang on and enjoy the ride. I also like her forays into The Hollows, primarily because I enjoy the familiarity of murder/mystery series, but for me, they have been some of her weaker narratives. The same could be said about In the Blood. A story that follows college student Lana Granger, a girl with a dark past and a string of lies that make up her present. When her best friend disappears she is soon drawn into a game of cat and mouse, where the awful truth of her life just might be her ending. There is a major twist in this book—one that did not take me by surprise, and ultimately worked against the book. It’s too much of a plot devise and is a little too unbelievable—especially for a first person narrative. In all, it’s not a bad book; it’s still riveting in its own way, but just not up to par with her standalones.

The Intern's Handbook by Shane Kuhn (releases April 8, 2014)
Fans of Max Barry and Christopher Moore will love this brilliant satirical suspense. Told as though it were an actual handbook for would be assassins The Intern’s Handbook follows the last mission, of uber-assassin John Lago as he lays out the laws of the land (and his corrupt agency HR, Inc.) for interning. Granted in this world interns are assassins—the perfect killers really, because who pays attention to the intern—no one. Witty, with plenty of action The Intern’s Handbook is a remarkably fun and entertaining read.

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield (releases November 5, 2013)
Diane Setterfield’s debut novel The Thirteenth Tale was a gothic suspense filled with tension, mystery, and strangeness. It was an intriguing story that stayed on the bestsellers list for some time. Now, after seven years Setterfield is back with her sophomore effort Bellman and Black. Billed as a ghost story, Bellman and Black follows the triumphant life of William Bellman after he kills a rook with a slingshot as a young boy. Blessed with good looks, intelligence, and a general likeability, William excels in life, until a set of tragedies lures him into a new and unusually dark pact. I don’t want to give away the twist, but if you are at all a comprehensive reader you will guess it rather quickly. This book was a big disappointment. The writing is very good, but the plot is very bland. It is not a ghost story, rather a gothic life story that tries to pull in the supernatural, but doesn’t quite succeed. I so wanted to love it. I did enjoy the story initially, but after I was about three quarters of the way through, I realized exactly where the narrative was going, and was letdown by the lack of originality. Setterfield is a wonderful prose writer. Her words flow effortlessly, with obvious talent, but Bellman and Black just didn’t have the brilliance of plot manipulation that was displayed in The Thirteenth Tale. Some may enjoy this, but it won’t reach any of the peaks as her debut.

The Innocent Sleep by Karen Gillece (releases February 18, 2014)
This book was just plain bad. Manufactured plot, unlikeable characters, a predictability that exceeded ridiculous—The Innocent Sleep was all of these things and more. There was no real suspense, although it claims to be a part of that genre, and the contrived, pseudointellectual characters are neither intelligent nor interesting. A bad book and a waste of my time.

Balthazar by Claudia Gray (out now)
Gray’s Evernight series started off great, but progressively lost its steam as it went on. Fans will enjoy this spin-off, featuring the beloved character, tortured vampire Balthazar, but newcomers to the Evernight world will be slightly confused, and not very enthusiastic. This is primarily a book for fans, one that will delight them, but not bowl them over.

The Clockwork Scarab by Coleen Gleason (out now)
The Clockwork Scarab is a great alternative history (steam punk) novel for teens. Following Mina Holmes (niece of Sherlock) and Evaline Stoker (sister of Bram), The Clockwork Scarab traverses all over a steam punk Victorian England as the two girls team up under the remarkable Irene Adler to solve a series of murders. Time travel, alternate history, deduction, Egyptian mythology and vampire hunters are all jam packed into this smart and highly entertaining new novel. This one is going to be a series that I will happily follow. Good for fans of mystery (female driven), I would whole heartedly recommend this. Also, for fans of Barry Levinson's Young Sherlock Holmes, look for some decided similarities in some of the plot points, just enough to give you a little fun if you’ve seen the movie (I can only imagine the author drew something from it, but if not, it’s still fun).

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Rosie Project

Genetics professor Don Tillman is a remarkable man. He’s a master martial artist, wonderful cook, an associate professor at a prestigious university, and can literally accomplish anything he programs his mind to do. So, when this paper perfect man sets out to find the perfect wife, success is inevitable—right? The thing about Don is, that well, he’s a bit different. He lives according to a rigid schedule, has a brain like a computer, and doesn’t quite see the world like the rest of us do. In fact, though it’s never outright stated, Don most likely has undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. So when Don, a man who thinks a computer survey, aka The Wife Project, can produce for him the perfect match, things are bound to go a bit awry, especially when you throw in a girl like Rosie. Rosie is everything Don is not looking for—she smokes, is a vegetarian, arrives late, and completely throws out Don’s schedules. She upheaves his entire life, drawing him into a search for her biological father using genetic testing, and showing him things he’s never taken the time to process before. In short, Rosie is nothing that Don wants, but everything he needs. Thus begins The Rosie Project.

I love an unreliable narrator, and Don is just that. Don truly doesn’t realize his own syndrome, he sees the world is such a different way—everything is black or white, fact oriented, very ‘face-value”— that his observations of the world and people around him are so far-off, so oddly naïve, that his reliability as a narrator is not there. On the flip-side, as a reader, we see the things that Don is oblivious of—social cues, sexual advances, friendship—and it is those misreads that make Don loveable and really quite fascinating. Don’s relationship with the spontaneous and emotional Rosie is a joy to read about. In some ways it’s like reading two books at once. We have Don’s story, as told by him, and then we have the story that Don doesn’t see, the world beyond Don’s social comprehensions. Author Graeme Simsion does a brilliant job of creating these layers of nuance. He capably draws in the reader by allowing us to see the world in these two ways—the innocence of Don and our own more worldly vision. It is this that first won me over as a reader, and then there’s Rosie.

If Don is like a wonderful computer, picking up information, processing it, and regurgitating it in his own language, then Rosie is a bundle of energy and passion. She is almost Don’s complete opposite; compulsive and emotional, yet she is also quietly brilliant, a perfect match for Don’s own intelligence. The two characters blend in ways that draw out their best qualities, creating an interesting and oddly compelling dynamic. Rosie and Don’s relationship is this quirky, beautiful thing, a unique and wonderful treat for the reader.

I have to admit that I don’t quite know how to properly recommend this book. It’s such a fantastic read, wrapped in a light and airy package that is it easy to dismiss as another romantic comedy. The thing is, The Rosie Project is not just another romance, it’s a character study, a story told both through the words of the narrator, and through the eyes of the observant reader unmasking the concepts not realized by that narrator; Don doesn’t even realize he’s the star of his own love story, or that love can even exist for him. It is also a coming-of-age tale, as both Don and Rosie struggle to find their places in the world, becoming the people they were meant to be, but could never see. The Rosie Project is an absolutely compulsive read. It’s layered, remarkable, and sweet; one of those books that just draws the reader into its distinctive world and thoroughly captivates until the end. This is a book that you read, and then want to read again. It makes you feel good, and it makes you want to know these characters. I can’t praise it enough, and I can’t wait to read it again. Read The Rosie Project and you too will fall in love.

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Friday, August 30, 2013

What I’ve (been) Reading: August 30, 2013

I’ve continued my slow reading slump this week, with a couple of okay teen reads and an almost promising start to a new novel from a popular author.

Tumble & Fall by Alexandra Coutts (Releases September 17th)
An asteroid is heading to Earth in one week, there is no stopping it.
Sounds like every other science fiction/dystopian/apocalyptic teen novel out on today’s book shelves, right? Like a breath of fresh air, Alexandra Coutts Tumble & Fall veers away from the doomed world, survival theme that is so prevalent in teen fiction, and uses the premise to instead set-up a character study and coming-of-age story that has less to do with survival and everything to do with finding a place. The story follows three teens on Martha’s Vineyard, all facing vastly different issues; a missing sister and dead boyfriend, a drunk mother and absent father, and a stint in a psychiatric ward after a suicide attempt; as they stumble through their last week (presumably) on Earth. The teens are very loosely connected so the narrative moves smoothly between their stories, alternating between each character on every day of the “last week”. Taking such an overworked genre, and turning it on its head was a smart move by author Coutts. Instead of the tired old “sky is falling” story, Coutts manages to turn it into a sincere look at a week in the life of a teenager, or in this case three teens, as they try to figure out just how they fit in this world and in their families. While the ultimate result was a bit stale, and slightly boring, I still need to applaud the attempt, as this book easily could have fallen into the pile of novels with very similar premises collecting dust on the floor; instead, I’m sure it will get picked out of the slush and given a chance. It might not be a great read—the storylines are a little clichéd, and the plot is a bit plodding—but I think it will get a little bit of action, if only for its stalwart attempt to be different.

The Sweet Dead Life by Joy Preble (available now)
"I found out two things today: One, I think I'm dying. And two, my brother is a perv." The Sweet Dead Life is a fun, wise-cracking book aimed at the 12 thru 15 year old bracket. The book follows Jenna Samuels, 8th grader with a wicked tongue, a vivid imagination, a love of boots, and who is quite possibly dying. The book, while witty and definitely laugh worthy—it’s told as entries in Jenna’s highly amusing journal—also deals with some deeper issues. Jenna’s father left them mysteriously years before, her mother had fallen into a dark depression that has taken her out of this world, and her brother Casey, once a promising football player, has turned into a stoner, who spends his days stoned, and his nights working multiple jobs trying to keep his family fed. While these issues definitely are at the root of the story, they get pushed back a little in favor of Jenna’s biting sarcasm, and the bigger plot point of the story which is Casey’s death, and immediate return as Jenna’s guardian angel. Convoluted, yes. Ridiculous, absolutely. Oddly humorous and decidedly not cheesy, indubitably. Yes, Casey becomes an angel rather quickly in this book. Granted he still has a craving for pot and he lusts after his ex-girlfriend, but he’s still an angel, if a slightly misguided one. This plot point might drive people away, but I hope it doesn’t. It is not nearly as silly as it sounds, in fact it does a great job of emphasizing the deep connection between the two siblings in the face of their world literally falling apart around them. Instead of a paranormal book, The Sweet Dead Life is more of a fun mystery and a sibling adventure that brushes the edges of serious. I like this book for younger teens, although I do warn that Jenna has a bit of a mouth on her, so if language is an issue take a pass, but overall it is a pretty tame, and often funny little mystery. The sequel, The A-Word comes out in May of 2014, and I hope it’s as engaging as its predecessor.

Stella Bain by Anita Shreve (Releases November 12th)
I’m not a huge fan of bestselling author Anita Shreve, but I did think her novel Strange Fits of Passion was haunting and very well-written, and should be discussed more by book groups, but sadly it is bypassed by her more famous novels The Pilot’s Wife and The Weight of Water. I’ve only just begun to read her latest, Stella Bain (I’m about 100 pages in), and I’m not quite sure yet how I feel. It started off strong, sucking me into the life of Stella, an amnesiac nurse’s aid in World War I France, sifting through the horrors around her as she struggles to recover her own identity, but it started to lose me as Stella travels to England and is taken in by a cranial doctor and his wife. From there, chapters of Freudian psychobabble, and awkward encounters between the doctor and Stella really began to deter me. I’m not reading the flashback portion, where the reader discovers what brought Stella to the front in the first place, but thus far it has drifted into a very clichéd narrative, lacking the oomph and charisma of the first chapters. I’ll add a note with my final thoughts after I’ve finished. I certainly hope Stella Bain is able to dig itself out of its middle page lull and into the promise that I first glimpsed.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

And the Dead Shall Rise...

What would you do if someone you loved, someone who meant the world to you, who made your life complete…died?

What would you do if fifty years later that person showed up on your doorstep—never having aged, without any recollection of where they had been?

That is the very dilemma facing Harold and Lucille Hargrave, who lost their son Jacob to drowning in 1966 when he was eight years old. When Jacob appears on their doorstep fifty years later with an FBI Agent, “returned” from the dead, the elderly couple find themselves unearthing old hurts, long since patched over with the trappings of everyday life as they struggle to deal with the phenomena. Is this Jacob really their son? How has he come back? Is it a sign from God? As more and more of the dead return, the entire world finds itself asking the same questions, with devastating results.

The Returned is part science fiction, part family drama, part philosophical treatise on human nature. DelvingThe Returned such an engrossing read, one you can’t help but discuss and mull over for hours after the final paragraphs.
deep into groupthink and the human psyche without forsaking a genuinely riveting story, Pushcart Prize-winning author Jason Mott creates a narrative that is compelling and heart-wrenching. As the story unfolds readers are literally held captive by the questions that arise with a plot of this nature. You find yourself wondering how such an series of events could occur—is it God, Satan, is this the rapture—but in reverse of what we’ve always thought, has the world gone mad? As the people of the world break into groups both for and against the Returned dead, family members turn against once dead loved ones, and the Returned are relegated to internment camp-like facilities, it is nearly impossible to figure out how a book like this could possibly end. The sad revelations regarding human warmth and understanding, and our capacity to cause harm to others out of fear is remarkably present here, but Mott also manages to show our great ability for compassion—a Jewish family risks all to hide a group of young Nazi soldiers killed in World War II only to Return to a new world, a townswoman hiding an entire Returned family in order to save them from the camp, a son who watches over his Returned dementia-ridden mother—all examples of our capability of showing love, even when the rest of the world is descending into a manic paranoia. It is this dichotomy that helps to make

As a reader I love sharing books, and discussing them, but I can honestly say that I have yet to have a book discussion quite like the ones I’ve had following The Returned. From concepts of faith, to morality, philosophy, and the frightening actions that arise out of fear; The Returned keeps you on your toes, and further, stimulates in a way that goes beyond the intellectual, touching your heart and moral soul. This is one book that is guaranteed to get you thinking and talking, and will leave your breathless in the end.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Night Film: Creepy, Intriguing--This Summer's Must Read

Have you ever been scared when reading a book? I’m not talking boogie man scared, not Freddy is going to get you in your sleep afraid, or hiding under the bed from the creepy clown in Stephen King’s It; I’m talking chills up your arms, tense back, and a definite notice of any and every noise in the house. No? Well get ready for it, because Night Film is coming and it is one book you do not want to miss this summer.

Marisha Pessl’s sophomore novel (after 2006’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics) is a gunshot of a book, firing from page one and blasting right through to the end. Told in the first person by disgraced investigative reporter Scott McGrath, Night Film follows Scott’s obsessive search for answers as he delves into the apparent suicide of twenty-four year old Ashley Cordova, the daughter of famously reclusive horror film genius Stanislas Cordova, the man responsible for McGrath’s downfall. As Scott follows Ashley’s trail into the rabbit hole, he is drawn deeper and deeper into the Cordova world, where the lines of reality are blurred, and the term “things that go bump in the night” has a far greater meaning than ever before.

What a book. Night Film was like a particularly addictive drug, easy to pick up and put down, but with each successive visit more and more difficult to let go of. Pessl’s world is frightening; not in the sense of the brutal and bloody horror that is so common today, but in the psychological pit she drops her readers in, making even the most skeptical of readers start to believe in the impossible. The illusive and enigmatic Kubrick-esque Stanilas Cordova is an odd mixture of 1960’s and 70’s horror directors like Polanski and De Palma with a collection of films similar to Sisters, Repulsion, and Seth Holt’s Scream of Fear. He has his own cult-like following of Cordovites, complete with a secret website called The Blackboards, conspiracy theories, and underground film showings. Cordova is an unseen enigma, leaving a path of destruction, death, and disappearances behind him, and a society begging for more, but too scared, or too sheltered to embrace him with open arms. McGrath’s compulsive investigation of Cordova borders on the fanatical as he races up and down the state of New York trying to deconstruct the life of Ashley Cordova, desperate to find answers to her haunted existence, answers that tie back to the mythical Cordova, the occult, murder, and abduction. New York ceases to become New York in Night Film, it instead becomes an extension of Cordova’s world, the inane taking on a sinister sheen, where nothing is normal, and everything and everyone is suspect.

I am almost at a loss at how to describe my reactions to this book and why I think it is one of those must reads for the summer. I can explain how I stayed up half the night to finish it, both out of a need to see where it would go, but also because I was so disturbed and fascinated by what was happening that I couldn’t stop myself. I was on the edge while reading this, and truth be told, Pessl’s writing was so good that I honestly didn’t think I could sleep unless I finished it, and once I did reach the conclusion I couldn’t let go. My racing heart, ensnared brain, and astonished emotions just needed to process what they had been through. Night Film was a juggernaut, destroying my piece of mind and preconceived notions of what a psychological thriller could and should be; it was just that horrifyingly good. I should also take a moment to note that Pessl quite brilliantly uses multimedia screen shots, pictures, and interviews interspersed throughout the text, so readers get to read and see what Scott McGrath does; we see his interviews, the scraps of paper he finds, photos of Ashley Cordova, and the chilling images of the Blackboards and it’s zealous occupants. Actually, I tried out the URL’s, sadly they didn’t work, but if they did, wow, what a mind blowing move by the author and publisher. A fully interactive site that ties directly to the book—a wasted chance to capitalize on the blending of text and tech (although I did read this in galley form, so perhaps the sites will be up at time of publication, I could only dream). This is a clever trick, utilized very capably, a perfect way to blend our tech savvy world with the literary prowess of Pessl’s written word. Another note, this is not a horror novel. It is horrifying, yes, but it is a thriller, a literary mystery, meaning it’s well-written and smart. Pessl is a talented writer, creating a unique world that sucks its readers in and holds onto them for dear life, kind of a black hole of literary virtuosity. This may sound like an overabundance of praise, but I finished the book a few days ago, and have since (reluctantly) read another book, and still find myself lingering over the details of Night Film, revisiting it helplessly. In truth, I haven’t wanted to read a new book, I just want to savor the terror of Night Film, but if I want to escape the psychological stronghold of Night Film, there’s no choice but to move on—with much lighter fare, and look toward revisiting the dark and mesmerizing abyss that is the world of Cordova in the near future. This one is a definite “read again”—the only way to really maneuver the nooks and crannies, the shadows and mysteries that make up Night Film.

Why should you read Night Film? Because it’s good. It’s chilling, it’s mysterious, it’s sad, it’s sweet, and it’s brilliant. This is not a book you want to bypass—unless you have no nerves at all—there’s too much to it, and it is too well constructed to miss out on. Get scared. Get sucked into this world. When you get out you will gulp for fresh air, and then dive right back into the muck for more. An addictive psychological thriller that has a death grip on anyone who picks it up, Night Film is one hell of a read.

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