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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Friday, August 9, 2013

What I’ve (been) Reading: August 8, 2013

I’m all over the board this week. From teen fiction, to a classic Hollywood bio, to picture books—I’m in full ADD reader mode and in desperate need of a really good book. Maybe one of the legions of books on my desk will lift my reading spirits next week, but for now here is what has been gracing my nightstand as of late.

Mustache Baby by Bridget Heos, illustrated by Joy Ang (available now)
This is a first for me, a picture book review. I don’t often have occasion to read picture books (unless my younger nephews are around, and then hello!), but I came across this one and had to mention it. Mustache Baby is a crack-up, perfect for kids ages 2-5, mostly boys. It follows the creative antics of a little baby born with a mustache. Is it a good mustache, and bad one, the mustache of a hero or villain? All will be explored in this delightfully entertaining book. It’s a quick one, and will give the parents reading it a nice chuckle. This is a really great new book for toddlers.

Lucid by Adrienne Stoltz and Ron Bass (available now)
Screenwriters Stoltz and Bass (he’s an Academy Award Winner) teamed up to create Lucid, a YA novel that runs the gamut of psychological study, coming-of-age, romance, and flirts with the paranormal. Here’s the publisher description:
“What if you could dream your way into a different life? What if you could choose to live that life forever? Sloane and Maggie have never met. Sloane is a straight-A student with a big and loving family. Maggie lives a glamorously independent life as an up-and-coming actress in New York. The two girls couldn't be more different--except for one thing. They share a secret that they can't tell a soul. At night, they dream that they're each other. The deeper they're pulled into the promise of their own lives, the more their worlds begin to blur dangerously together. Before long, Sloane and Maggie can no longer tell which life is real and which is just a dream. They realize that eventually they will have to choose one life to wake up to, or risk spiraling into insanity. But that means giving up one world, one love, and one self, forever…”

The plot was interesting to me. Which girl was real? Was there a parallel universe? Was it all a demented dream from someone confined in an institution? Those questions alone had me picking this one up (that, and I was cleaning off my desk and noticed the book had been there over a year –came out October 2012). Sadly, the book just doesn’t deliver. It’s primarily a look at each girl’s life, alternating each chapter between them. Each girl has suffered a severe loss; Maggie her father and Sloane her best friend, and each girl is dealing with a potential new relationship; so as a coming-of-age type book it’s not too bad, if a little cliché. The added element of the dreams should spruce up the otherwise bland tale, but instead it is miss-handled. The first three-quarters of the book deal with the issue subtly, with each girl mentioning the issue or the other girl’s day (Maggie is in therapy), but there is no real urgency. Then all of a sudden, in the last 30 pages or so there is this deep psychological breakdown. A sudden drop into madness that might work in a visual presentation (the book is loftily compared to Inception—balderdash), but in a written medium, does not work. The girls’ worlds start to collide and infiltrate each other. A cool idea, but it happens too late, and is difficult to convey effectively with words. Instead, I kept rereading to try and figure out where I was, and who’s voice I was listening too (not a bad effect, but the writing isn’t good enough to fully commit). It was too jumbled, trying too hard to be cool and edgy. The ending was also irritating. It is one of those ambiguous endings (Inception again), but instead of the enjoyment of actually using my brain to process the book, I was a little disgusted by the lack of finesse. This is a screenwriter’s book—maybe it would make a better movie, but the visual cuts that are implied are a filmmaker’s tools, and don’t translate into a teen book. This was an unstructured mess that tried to be hip, but failed miserably.

Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner (available now)
There was a time when I exclusively read classic Hollywood biographies. Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations many months ago I was intrigued. Fast forward about 6 months, to when I actually picked the book up of my shelf and started reading. The writing was candid, the book really exactly what it says is it; conversations between Ava Gardner and Peter Evans; and despite the fact that I’m not a huge Gardner fan; I was quickly drawn to the language (foul) and the seductress that was Ava Gardner. Originally, Evans was supposed to have been writing Gardner’s autobiography, which is how these conversations got to be recorded and how Evans very personal and insightful notes were put together, but Gardner pulled out suddenly and Evans moved on to other projects. Years after her death and a rather innocuous autobiography that Gardner did with another author (oddly enough, one I actually own), Evans decided to put together these really interesting interviews and publish them. Sadly, Peter Evans died before they could be published, but what has been culled together is unbelievably readable, and really fascinating. Gardner comes across as both brash, and unsure; seductive, and yet conscious of her partially paralyzed face (she suffered a massive stroke). She was a blazing alcoholic, manipulative, cursed like a trucker, and yet in the brief and somewhat scattered conversations, she still displays the glamour and cunning that appealed to moviegoers in the golden age of Hollywood. The book certainly put a new spin on the actress, causing me to see her in a very different light; but most of all it entertained me because it was like no other biography I had ever read before. Candid and (seemingly) unedited, Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations is a fresh style of biography, lacking chronology or structure for sure, but mesmerizing in its ability to so perfectly capture its subject. A great read for movie fans.
Natalie Wood, Ginger Rogers, Esther Williams, Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth; I’ve read more than I can’t count, and for the most part enjoyed them. I still have all those bios, but haven’t picked one up in quite some time. Yet, when I came across

The Longings of Wayward Girls by Karen Brown (available now)
The Longings of Wayward Girls is a novel that follows a woman named Sadie Watkins. Switching back and forth between 1979 and the early 2000’s, the book focuses on a precocious 12-year-old Sadie coping with a troubled mother and a mean streak that leads her to play a harmful prank on another young girl, and her thirty-something self as she struggles with emotional instability and adultery. The book is supposed to be a novel of suspense, as it slowly delves into a 1974 disappearance of a little girl Sadie’s mean girl antics with another girl who also goes missing, and her modern day affair with a man from her childhood; but in reality it is a slow moving portrait of a girl whose fragile and tragically flawed mother shaped her into her current psychological state. I’m not yet done with this book, but I am well over half way through, and am still waiting for something of substance to happen. It is slow going. Author Brown capably paints a portrait to small town New England, complete with the types of subplots that must occur in every seemingly idyllic community (straying husbands, alcoholism, neighborhood events and barbecues, precocious woman-child’s on the prowl), but the appeal of the novel ends there. I know that there is this big upheaval currently in regards to character likeability. Some critics have been outraged that bad reviews are given because a character is unlikeable, but I’m going to go there with this book. Sadie is downright unlikeable. Yes, she has had her tragedies, but she pushed on through life with selfish and narcissistic abandon, using her personal tragedies as an excuse to act without thought or caution. The novel is about Sadies and I can’t stand the woman. I don’t think that you have to love or even like a character for a novel to be good. I didn’t love Holden Caulfield, or at times Katniss Everdeen, but Catcher in the Rye and The Hunger Games are still great books. Sadie Watkins and The Longings of Wayward Girls are just not that compelling; and Sadie’s actions are despicable. This has been a disappointing and boring read, one I wish hadn’t started.

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