Book review: eight short reviews to round out 2014

It’s almost the end of the year and the internet is bursting with comprehensive end-of-year book round-ups. This post, I must warn you, will not be one of those. If you want a great list of recent books to check out, the NPR Book Concierge is a fun, interactive collection of book recommendations that I used to find some of these very books that I’m about to review. This post, on the other hand, will be a list of eight books that I’ve read recently, in no particular order. So — you know, forewarned is forearmed.

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

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A friend from high school, Erin, recommended this book to me (as well as some of Patchett’s other books, including This is the Story of a Happy Marriage), and I’m so glad she did. The premise — a famous opera singer is taken hostage, along with a number of other people, during a birthday party at the home of the Vice President of an unnamed South American country — did not immediately grab me, but I was soon sucked in by Patchett’s beautiful writing and vividly drawn characters. The book is told from the perspective of a number of these characters — both hostages and kidnappers alike — which, in another author’s hands, might have come out as clunky or overreaching, but Patchett pulls it off seamlessly, easily flowing out of one character’s head and into another’s. The result is that we get to know these people deeply and intimately, and we really care about what happens to them, even the ones who seem, at first glance, completely unsympathetic. The ending of the book is both wrenching and lovely, and will stick with you the way only a truly satisfying ending can. Highly recommended.

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

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When I was a freshman at Stanford, I was lucky enough to take a creative writing class taught by Julie Orringer, who at the time was a Stegner fellow and is now a successful novelist (please check out her gorgeous novel, The Invisible Bridge). One day, as a special treat, she brought our entire class to her house in the Haight district of San Francisco and invited over her friend Adam Johnson, who read aloud to us one of his short stories from his collection Emporium. I remember sitting on the floor, eating strawberries, and listening to him read. Then, twelve years passed and I never read anything else Johnson wrote, until I became aware, two years after it was published, of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son. “Oh yeah,” I thought, “that’s the guy who read to us at Julie Orringer’s house. I should check out that book.” Anyway, all of this is to say that as I was reading The Orphan Master’s Son, jaw ajar, I kept reminding myself that, oh my God, Adam Johnson READ ALOUD to me and a few other students twelve years ago, and how awesome is that? The Orphan Master’s Son is a truly impressive piece of fiction. It takes place in North Korea in the 1990s and 2000s and manages to capture the overwhelming brutality of daily life in that regime while still telling quite a beautiful story of love and hope. I’ve read non-fiction about North Korea before (see, e.g., Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy), but Johnson’s fictional version of the place felt even more real, even more oppressive and urgent, than the real-life stories I’ve read. This isn’t a lighthearted beach read, by any means, but there are quite a few moments of humor and lightness. Highly recommended. NYT review here, for those interested.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

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I was a big fan of Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, so I was eager to pick up The Bone Clocks, which follows a similar structure of interwoven, temporally distinct stories told from different characters’ perspectives. It’s hard to succinctly describe the plot of The Bone Clocks, since it spans sixty years and a host of characters and sub-plots, but suffice it to say the main action revolves around a metaphysical war between the good guys (the Horologists, a group of immortal souls who are eternally reborn into different bodies) and the bad guys (the Anchorites, a group of evildoers who manage to evade death by drinking the lifeblood of humans with “psychosoteric” abilities). Now that I’m writing this out, the Anchorites sound a lot like the bad guys in Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, don’t they? Anyway, in my opinion, the drawn-out battles between the Anchorites and the Horologists were the least interesting part of The Bone Clocks; I preferred the smaller scale stories about the mortal humans caught in the middle of the larger war. As always, Mitchell’s writing is a delight — who else could coin the term “gentle-twat?”– and even the convoluted fight scenes among the warring forces were pretty fun to read. Recommended for fans of Cloud Atlas who are itching for something else weird from Mitchell’s brain.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

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This book got a lot of buzz this fall, and as soon as I started hearing about it, I knew I’d buy it since I’ve read and enjoyed (for the most part) two other books by Sarah Waters. This one might be my favorite so far. The Paying Guests, which takes place in 1922 London, explores the reverberating consequences of a series of bad decisions involving love and violence. The plot includes a torrid lesbian love affair, betrayals, money woes, the justice system, lying, scheming, cheating — it’s a page-turner! As always, I love Waters’ writing; she has a gift for capturing universal truths in little snippets of prose. When describing the main character’s solo wanderings through London, she writes: “She loved these walks through London. She seemed, as she made them, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery, to become charged. Yes, that was it, she thought, as she turned a corner: it wasn’t a liquid creeping, it was a tingle, something electric, something produced as if by friction of her shoes against the streets. She was at her truest, it seemed to her, in those tingling moments — these moments when, paradoxically, she was also at her most anonymous.” Recommended.

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

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Like The Paying Guests, The Light Between Oceans is another story about the lasting consequences of a series of bad decisions — in this case, the misguided decision by a childless couple living in a remote lighthouse off the coast of Australia to keep a baby who washes ashore in a boat, rather than alerting the authorities on the mainland. I have mixed feelings on this book. On the one hand, I was absorbed in the story as I read, but on the other, when the story ended, I felt quite let down by the patness of its conclusion. There’s a tough balance to be struck by an author in resolving a plot satisfactorily — tying up loose ends and answering big questions — and tying everything into such a neat bow that the story feels less authentic as a result. I think M.L. Stedman veered too far into “happily ever after” territory in concluding this story, which, at its heart, should have recognized the fact that sometimes, things do get ruined, and you can’t go back to how things were before.

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

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I love a good story about a mysterious disappearance. This story, set in 1970s small-town Ohio, revolves around the disappearance of one Lydia Lee, the eldest daughter of James and Marilyn. The Lee family sticks out in their small college town because James is Chinese-American and Marilyn is white and their children, consequently, are considered oddities at their otherwise all-white high school. When Lydia goes missing, speculative articles in the local paper wonder about whether Lydia’s status as one of the only “Orientals” at her school could have led to her committing suicide. The circumstances leading up to Lydia’s disappearance, we come to understand, seem to have something to do with her unhappy family and social life, but it remains unclear what, exactly, happened until the very end of the book. Along the way, Ng tells a complex tale about family dynamics affected by racial and cultural tensions. My only real complaint about the way the story is told has to do with Ng’s tendency to pepper her story with “ripped from the headlines” real news items, as if to remind the reader that, yes, we’re still in the 1970s. It adds nothing to the story of Lydia Lee to be reminded that “1976 was a topsy-turvy time, [ ] culminating in an unusually cold winter and strange headlines…” Otherwise, the story is well told, moving, and keeps you guessing until the end. Recommended.

The Fever, by Megan Abbott

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The Fever may be one of my favorite books that I’ve read in recent months. It is a deeply creepy, beautifully rendered look at what happens when a mysterious affliction sweeps through a high school, sending girls — and only girls — to the hospital en masse. What’s causing it? The HPV vaccine? Environmental causes? A virus? Or something else entirely? I flew through this book, enjoying how utterly creeped out I was by it, and didn’t read a single review until today, when I read the New York Times review and realized that, yes, there were some troubling assumptions about female sexuality baked into this story. But even accepting that Abbott’s starting point about young women and sex might be problematic and recognizing that her portrayals of female and male characters are somewhat skewed, this book sucked me in and spat me out. Highly recommended for lovers of dark mysteries.

Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage, by Molly Wizenberg

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This is a slim little memoir about a couple who opened a pizza restaurant in Seattle, and the trials and tribulations they faced along the way. It’s also sprinkled throughout with some scrumptious sounding non-pizza recipes. I enjoyed reading about the nitty-gritty involved with launching a business, and a peek behind the scenes at the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the day-to-day operation of even a small restaurant. Recommended for food lovers and those looking for a light, quick non-fiction read.

What have you read this year that you couldn’t put down? Let me know; I’m always looking for my next read!

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