Tag Archives: Neil Gaiman

Book review Tuesday: six quick book reviews

As usual, I’ve fallen behind on my blogging. My excuse is that it’s Bachelorette season, which means I’m covering the carnage for Previously.TV, plus I’m revising my mystery novel (more on that later, hopefully!), so things are relatively busy. But, in the last few weeks that I haven’t touched my blog, I’ve read a bunch of books, and want to talk about some of them. So, without further ado, here are six quick book reviews.

Her: A Memoir, by Christa Parravani: A devastating and beautiful memoir written by a woman who lost her identical twin sister to a heroin overdose. Parravani is a photographer who often featured her sister, Cara, in her work. Throughout their adult lives, Christa and Cara Parravani, both artists, struggled with addiction and maintaining healthy relationships, but after being violently raped, Cara’s drug use spiraled out of control. As Cara fell deeper and deeper into self-destruction, her relationship with Christa became increasingly strained. Over and over, Christa would attempt to help Cara and then become frustrated with Cara’s refusal to try to help herself. The cycle repeated itself until Cara’s untimely death. The book explores the tension between loving a person more than anyone else in the world while also resenting (and at times even hating) that person. As Christa writes in one passage about Cara’s struggles, “Not only did she not want to suffer alone, she demanded co-suffering from all who dared love her.” I teared up reading this book. Some of it was difficult to read. But I’m so glad I read it. (Here’s an NPR interview with Parravani).

Source: NPR

Source: NPR

Harbor, by John Ajvide Lindqvist: I love a dark, Nordic thriller, and so I picked up Harbor, the story of a mysterious Swedish island whose inhabitants have struck a bargain with a sinister force. The author, John Ajvide Lindqvist, also wrote Let the Right One In, so I figured his creepy pedigree was strong. The book starts off with a family — two parents and a young girl — skiing from their cottage on the small island where they live to a lighthouse in the middle of a frozen channel. Within a few minutes of reaching the lighthouse, the little girl has disappeared. There are no other people around, no trace of a body, no hole in the ice. The girl appears to have been swallowed up into thin air. The book follows the girl’s desperate father as he searches over the coming years for his missing daughter and unravels the island’s dark secrets in the process. Harbor is not so much a thriller as a supernatural horror story: think a Stephen King novel set in small town Sweden instead of small town Maine. It’s weird, and creepy, but it can be a bit ponderous, at times. Overall, though, it was an engaging read, and something different from your standard Dean Koontz-style horror novel.

The Visionist, by Rachel Urquhart: My mom was the one who recommended this book about a Shaker community in 1840s Massachusetts. First, a disclaimer: I don’t always like historical fiction because I find it can be a bit dry, a bit draggy, or a bit too infused with modern sensibilities (which is why I love Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series so much, because it avoids all of these pitfalls). The Visionist, like much other historical fiction I’ve read, was a bit draggy at times. However, the book’s detailed portrait of life inside a Shaker community kept me engaged. I knew next to nothing about the Shakers before reading this novel, but now I feel like I know what it would have been like to live among them. The titular “visionist” is a teenage girl, Polly Kimball, who is sent to live among the Shakers after she leaves her abusive father to die in a house fire. Her mother wants Polly and her brother to have a better life than she can provide, and so she leaves them at the City of Hope, a Shaker community headed by the severe Elder Agnes. When Polly gets carried away during a worship meeting, the Shakers assume she is receiving divine visions and elevate her to the position of “visionist.” The ensuing tension that unfolds between Polly, a suspicious Elder Agnes, and Sister Charity, Polly’s trusting friend within the community, feels both sad and inevitable.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. The less I say about this brilliant, funny, and touching book, the better, because it’s quite easy to spoil. Please do yourself a favor and just read it. Now. You’re welcome.

Source: NPR

Source: NPR

Sleeping Murder, by Agatha Christie. As I may have mentioned, I’m writing a mystery novel. To get my brain in fighting shape for the task, I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries. In terms of expertly crafted, tightly written, clever sleuth novels, no one beats Agatha Christie. Reading her novels is a great object lesson in What To Do while writing a mystery. The woman was a genius! I’ve enjoyed every Christie book I’ve read, and Sleeping Murder is no exception. This was the first Miss Marple mystery I read and I will be reading more; the character is a delight (and she knits!).

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. Speaking of geniuses, Margaret Atwood is one of the most inventive authors of our time, especially when it comes to imagining post-apocalyptic hellscapes wrought by human arrogance and foolishness. Oryx and Crake imagines a world in the not-too distant future in which humankind has been effectively wiped out by a human-manufactured disease. The world before the disease was dominated by Monsanto-like corporations that cranked out horrific animal hybrids and mutations such as Chickie-Nobs: headless, brainless, motionless chickens harvested in labs for their meat. Atwood’s dire vision of our potential future is gloomy, to put it mildly, and can feel heavy-handed at times, but it’s also fascinating, and so well written that I kept turning pages, even as I was horrified by what I was reading. Even more incentive to read Oryx and Crake: it’s part of a trilogy of novels that’s being turned into an HBO series!

Source: Amazon

Source: Amazon

What are you reading these days? Any recommendations? I’ve just started Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (and am loving it so far) and next in the hopper is Christina Garcia’s King of Cuba. Happy reading!

Book review Monday: eight short book reviews

It’s been a while since I’ve written any book reviews here; this isn’t because I’ve stopped reading, but more because I’ve allowed myself to slip into indolence with my blogging. It’s much easier to read a book and move on to the next than to have to recall that book’s details and ruminate on its meaning. Ruminating can be so exhausting. But it seems a waste to read so many books and then not even share my opinions on them with anyone. So, as a sort of stopgap measure, here, in no particular order, are eight very brief reviews of some of the books I’ve read over the past few months. Since I read some of these in January, which was eons ago, I’ve forgotten some of the details, hence my brevity. But hopefully these short reviews will get to the heart of the matter.

  1. Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, Anne Lamott: A slim little book in which Lamott documents her son’s first year of life, in sometimes excruciating and often funny detail. Lamott was a thirty-five year-old single woman when she gave birth to her son Sam and was by turns apprehensive, terrified, enraged, enthralled, exhausted, and overwhelmed by the experience. While the book chronicles some of the minutiae of raising an infant, Lamott also gets philosophical about life, late 1980s politics, gender, motherhood, religion, mortality, and family. While Lamott’s flights of fancy about God and angry tirades against George Bush (the first George Bush, at that) can border on the hackneyed and the dated, respectively, there’s a lot of universal stuff in here about the experience of being part of a family, and the difficulties involved with being a human grappling with unanswerable questions. operating instructions
  2. The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst: After reading (and loving) The Line of Beauty, I just had to get me some more Hollinghurst. Unfortunately, The Stranger’s Child was a disappointment. Following several intertwined stories spanning several generations, and somewhat centered around the characters’ connections to a young poet named Cecil Valance who died in WWI, The Stranger’s Child is a meditation on the unreliability of memory and the subjectivity of the past. Hollinghurst’s writing is, as always, spectacular. But fantastic writing is not enough to save this book, I’m sorry to say. The plot was complex and “layered,” yes, but needlessly so. The time-shifting, often done without explication or table-setting, was jarring and exhausting. The characters, many of whom had the same or similar voice and interests, became muddled together. By the middle of it, I began skimming, and I never skim. Well, almost never. I enjoyed the unreliable narrator Paul Bryant, and I think I get the point Hollinghurst was trying to make with all of this, which is that ALL narrators are unreliable, and memory is a tricky thing, and the past is not a monolith, and whatever, but could he not have done it with a more streamlined and plot-driven vehicle? I just kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did.
  3. The UnAmericans: Stories, Molly Antopol: I read a glowing review of this book on NPR and since I love sinking my teeth into a good collection of short stories, I thought I’d give this one a whirl. Unfortunately, I came away a bit disappointed by The UnAmericans. My basic problem with the collection was not with the writing, which, sentence to sentence, was excellent. I found Antopol’s stories inconsistent in terms of character development and relatability, which meant that, while reading several of the stories, I found myself bored and disengaged, despite the marvelous descriptions of setting. There is a lot of good work in this collection. Some of the stories, like “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” about Eastern European Jewish refugees during World War II, are gripping and vivid. Others, though, like “Duck and Cover,” about communists in Southern California during the McCarthy area, left me cold. All of the stories feature Jewish protagonists, many of whom are struggling with questions of identity – religious, national, familial, or otherwise. These are broad questions and provide fertile ground for interesting storytelling, and sometimes, Antopol nails it. But the stories varied too widely for me to wholeheartedly recommend this book.
  4. Dear Life: Stories, Alice Munro: It’s hard to say much bad about Alice Munro. Part of her gift as a storyteller is her ability to take seemingly mundane situations in less-than-fascinating settings (often, rural, mid-20th century Ontario) and create compelling, emotionally rich stories. One of the most interesting things about this collection is Munro’s inclusion of four final works that “are not quite stories,” but are essays that are “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” These four semi-fictional works form a mini-memoir at the end of the collection of stories and give a window into Munro’s own upbringing and early family life. dear life
  5. Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews: Somehow, despite being born in the early 1980s, I totally missed reading the 1979 classic Flowers in the Attic. I was aware of it, of course, but by the time I fully grasped that it was a “young adult” book with sexy bits in it, I was too old and world-weary to bother reading it. Then, I read this piece by Tara Ariano, one of my editors at Previously.TV, about what the book meant to her as a kid, and I decided to read it, for the first time, as an adult. As everyone in the world who has read FITA will tell you, it’s terribly written, outrageously cheesy, laughably unrealistic, and completely weird on every level. But the weirdness is kind of what works about the book. It’s so creepily bizarre that you can kind of get past the terrible writing and just enjoy the craziness. This book certainly isn’t going to win any literary accolades, but it is going to last, because it’s just the kind of macabre, taboo love story that teens (and, okay, adults) eat up. If you want to give your brain a rest and be weirded out at the same time, give FITA a go.
  6. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman: My husband’s youngest brother gave me this book for Christmas this year. I had never read any Gaiman before, but as soon as I got into the story, I understood why people enjoy his writing. This story is small, and quick, but it sticks with you. Told from the perspective of a man revisiting the English village where he grew up, it’s a reflection on magic, family, and the fluid interplay between childhood safety and danger. I loved Gaiman’s simple, evocative writing and the sense of magic and promise in this story. ocean at the end of the lane
  7. The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara: The People in the Trees is an interesting and disturbing read. It tells the story of (the fictional) Dr. Norton Perina, a Nobel Prize winning immunologist who was arrested in 1995 for sexually abusing one of his 43 adopted children. Told from the perspective of Perina himself, as well as his trusted confidante and defender, Ronald Kubodera, the story traces Perina’s early life and career as a scientist before getting into the meat of the story, Perina’s journey in 1950 to the (fictional) Micronesian country of U’ivu, where he discovered, on one of its islands, people who had seemingly found the answer to eternal life. Perina’s subsequent handling of his discovery and his ensuing notoriety form a large part of the story, but it’s not until Perina begins to adopt children from U’ivu that things get decidedly twisted. The New York Times review can be found here.
  8. The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan. I’m a huge, lifelong Amy Tan fan. The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, and The Hundred Secret Senses are among my absolute favorites, but I’ll read anything she writes. Her latest effort, The Valley of Amazement, while an impressive work of historical fiction, didn’t move me the way that some of her earlier books have. As always, Tan is an expert at capturing complicated mother-daughter relationships. But in The Valley of Amazement, the story wanders so much from the central relationships, and contains so many twists and turns (not all of which are particularly interesting) that I found myself bored and wishing it were more streamlined.

These eight aren’t the only books I’ve read over the last three months, but they’re the ones I felt like writing about, maybe because, in one way or another, they stuck with me (even the ones I didn’t care for). Have you read any of these? What did you think?