Tag Archives: Sarah Waters

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!

Book review Monday: Two okay books by two good authors

I’m in the odd position this week of having read a bunch of books since I last blogged, but no books that I’m super jazzed about. Normally, I read several books at a time and am usually pretty excited by at least one of them. But over the past few weeks, I’ve read a couple of books that were just ‘meh,’ which is disappointing. Now, however, I’ve started a couple of new ones that have me hooked (Stephen King’s The Stand, for one, and Elisabeth Kostova’s The Historian — more on those in the coming weeks). So, today I figure I’ll do two mini reviews of two mediocre-to-decent books I’ve read recently: Juliet Naked, by Nick Hornby, and Affinity, by Sarah Waters. The funny thing is, these are both authors whose other books I’ve enjoyed greatly. But even the greats have their off days, I suppose.

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Let’s start with Affinity. I read Sarah Waters’ 2009 ghost story The Little Stranger a few months ago and really enjoyed it, so I figured her second novel, Affinity, would also be a good bet. Most of Waters’ books (with the exception of The Little Stranger) take place in the Victorian era, and most involve lesbian characters. Affinity focuses on the world of Victorian spiritualism (seances and dark meetings and so on). The plot revolves around two women: Selina Dawes, a spirit medium, and Margaret Prior, an upper-class lady who frequently visits a women’s prison. Miss Prior’s reasons for visiting the women’s prison are never really fleshed out, but it has something to do with wanting to have a pastime and get out of the house, since she once tried to kill herself, she’s still mourning her father’s death, and is generally Not Well. While touring the prison, Miss Prior meets Dawes, who’s serving time for a mishap that occurred during one of her seances that resulted in the death of her patron, an older lady, and the injury of a young girl. Miss Prior becomes fascinated with Dawes and the two develop an “affinity” with each other. Prior becomes convinced that Dawes is her spiritual and romantic other half and ends up going to great lengths to help her, ultimately to Miss Prior’s own detriment.

Without giving anything away, I can tell you that there is a twist in the book, and I kinda saw it coming from a mile away. I didn’t anticipate the precise twist, but its general shape was not a huge surprise. When I finished the book, I was left with the feeling that Waters had pulled a bit of a cheap party trick on her readers, much like a Victorian spirit medium leading a seance. The plot buildup of the book was much too slow to justify the weakness of the final twist. I wasn’t impressed. Maybe from now on I’ll stick with Waters’ books that have actually been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (The Little Stranger, The Night Watch, Fingersmith).

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Now, moving on to Nick Hornby’s Juliet Naked. First, I should point out that I am a big Nick Hornby fan. Some of his books have made truly lasting impressions on me (About a Boy, A Long Way Down, How to Be Good, Slam), and I love his writing style. My friend Yohanca and I once had a discussion about why we like Nick Hornby and our conclusion was that his writing feels comfortable and familiar, like you’re wrapped in a warm blanket, while still being lively and witty. His writing, in other words, is like a Slanket. And how can you go wrong with a Slanket? I don’t know, but Juliet Naked did not totally work for me. The story is about an English couple, Annie and Duncan, who are not miserable, necessarily, but who aren’t happy, either. They’ve been together for a long time and Annie has become bored and annoyed with Duncan’s nearly all-consuming obsession with an American musician, the fictional Tucker Crowe. Crowe disappeared suddenly off the music scene twenty years earlier and is believed to be a hermit, living off the grid in rural Pennsylvania, but he still has a rabid fan-base online, mostly made up of nerdy, socially challenged men like Duncan. When Duncan gets his hands on a pared down/acoustic version of one of Crowe’s most famous albums, Juliet, Annie and Duncan are brought into sharp conflict over their disparate reactions to it (Duncan loves it; Annie thinks it’s crap). Annie writes a piece criticizing the album (the titular “Juliet Naked”) and posts it on the Tucker Crowe fan site where Duncan spends most of his free time, and, to her shock, Tucker Crowe responds. Thus, Annie and Tucker Crowe begin a strange friendship that morphs into a cautious romantic relationship when Tucker comes to England from America.

There are parts of the book that did work for me. For one thing, I think Hornby captured perfectly the online fan milieu in which many people operate, the separate and apart internet communities that people live their lives in, and the rules and customs and social hierarchies that spring up in those communities. I also liked the character of Annie and thought that both she and Duncan were well developed. Some of the descriptions of Annie’s unhappiness, and her worry that she wasted many years of her life with a man who was wrong for her, are pitch perfect. For instance, when Annie starts corresponding with Tucker, she tells him she’s worried she’s squandered fifteen years of her life with Duncan. He responds:

“First of all, you have to get that number down. Make a list of all the good books you’ve read, movies you’ve seen, conversations you’ve had and so on, and give all these things a temporal value. With a little bit of creative accounting, you should be able to reduce it to ten. I’ve got mine down to about that now, although I’ve cheated here and there — I included the whole of my son Jackson’s life, for example, and he’s been at school and asleep for a lot of the time-wasting years.

I’d like to say that anything that comes in around a decade you can write off for tax purposes, but that isn’t actually the way I feel. I’m still pretty sick about what I’ve lost, but I only admit it to myself late at night, which is probably why I’m not hte best sleeper. What can I tell you? If it really was wasted time — and I’d need to examine your diary pretty carefully before I could confirm that for you — then I have some bad news: it’s gone. You can maybe add a little onto the other end by giving up drugs, or cigarettes, or by going to the gym a lot, but my guess is that those years after the age of eighty aren’t as much fun as they’re cracked up to be.”

I love that.

For all that  enjoyed about the book, however, I was left a bit cold by Hornby’s long descriptions of fictional pieces of music and the debates that the characters had over said pieces of imaginary music. I know from reading High Fidelity that Hornby takes his music seriously, but in my opinion, music commentary within a novel only works if the music is something one can actually listen to. Also, as a little nitpicky complaint, I found some of Tucker’s dialogue and speech patterns to be unmistakably British, even though the character is supposed to be American. You’d think Hornby could afford a great American editor to take a look-see and make sure the American characters aren’t saying “pip pip cheerio,” or whatever. Oh, well.

Neither of these books were bad, but neither were slam-dunks, either. If you’re looking to read Sarah Waters, check out The Little Stranger. And if you want a good introduction to Hornby, start with How to Be Good and go from there.