So Many Books, So Few Reviews

Please forgive my unintentional hiatus. I went away on a Friday in July, fully intending to return on Tuesday, and then I just didn’t. I have reasons, but most of them are boring. Nothing dramatic, nothing earthshaking. Let’s just say that summer takes it out of me, and I am so happy to see the light changing and getting tiny, tiny hints of fall in the air now and again.

I’ve been away from the blog, but I most certainly have not stopped reading. In fact, I’ve kept up what for me is a pretty decent pace considering my limited reading time. I believe the last book I mentioned reading was (Man-Booker long-listed) We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I finished that in early July and since then I’ve read:
Stoner, John Williams
Lucky Us, Amy Bloom
The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets, Diana Wegman
The Children Act, Ian McEwan (Pub date Sept 9)
The Secret Place, Tana French (Pub date Sept 2!!! Yes, multiple exclamation points!! It’s so good!!!)
Canada, Richard Ford

(And I know I’ve had A Man Came out of a Door in the Mountain listed as “On My Nightstand” for like six weeks. And it was on my nightstand. I just wasn’t reading it. I am reading it now. Really.)

Lucky Us CoverWith a couple of exceptions, all of these really deserve their own reviews. One that doesn’t warrant a full review for me is Amy Bloom’s Lucky Us, which I thought was just okay. Lucky Us is the story of two half-sisters, Iris and Eva, told through alternating points of view by Eva in the first person and other characters through third-person POV and letters. The story takes place in the United States during the late 1930s and through the 1940s. The book begins well enough—Eva at least is a compelling narrator—but if the heart of the book is really the two sisters, it seems to lose its way. An accident estranges Iris from Eva, but something about the accident–something about the whole plot–just never came together for me. Bloom writes smoothly and Eva is a compelling narrator in her sections, but ultimately it’s rather dull. (But look at that lovely cover! Away also had a lovely cover, and was also…well, read on.)

I discovered Amy Bloom when I read her debut short story collection Come to Me in graduate school. In fact, it was probably one of the first short story collections I ever read, as at the time I was a stranger to short fiction. For several years, I named it as one of my favorite books. I hesitate to say I was wrong and just didn’t know any better at the time, mainly because I haven’t read it in at least 15 years. But then again, I haven’t read it again in the last 15 years, and I HAVE re-read (many times) plenty of other collections I read back then. I tried to read her novel Away, but I never finished it. As with Lucky Us, nothing was wrong with it—I simply found it ho-hum. If you’ve read my blog for any period of time, you probably know that I am all about character-driven fiction. I’ve seen many of my favorite authors’ books—Kent Haruf, Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson—labeled boring. So if I say something is dull…well, maybe chalk it up to my mood. (Or maybe it’s just dull. I’ll let you decide for yourself.)

Alright, enough about that. I need to get busy writing reviews of all those other books. Believe me, if I can do them justice, you definitely won’t want to miss some of them!

*Image and links from Powell’s; links are unaffiliated. I received my copy of Lucky Us from NetGalley.

The Fever: A Playlist

While I wThe Fever, by Megan Abbottas reading Megan Abbott’s The Fever, I kept thinking of a particular Radiohead song on OK Computer, called “Climbing up the Walls.” I decided to listen to it, and the next thing I knew I thought of another song, and then another, until this playlist was conceived. I tried to choose songs that would match the sort of sinister, frustrating atmosphere, but that would also match the new, raw power and sexual tension at play in the novel. I’ve done my very best to avoid anything spoilerish in the explanations below. I hope you enjoy it!

“Blasphemous Rumors” – Depeche Mode. “I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumors / But I think that God’s got a sick sense of humor / And when I die, I expect to find him laughing.” This is possibly the most teen-angsty song of all time: Everyone is struggling to understand what has happened, especially Deenie.
“Teenage Lust” – The Jesus and Mary Chain. “She’s taking hold of her sins now for the first time / Well, she’s been told about sins now but it feels fine.” At the very beginning of the novel, Deenie loses her virginity, and she spends much of the book working through her sense of ambivalence and awakening and how it all relates to the events at hand.
“Call the Doctor” – Sleater Kinney. “They want to socialize you / they want to purify you / they want to dignify, analyze and terrorize you.” All of the high-school girls, afflicted and unafflicted, are subjected to scrutiny after the fever begins to spread. Everything about their lives is analyzed for a root cause. If they are afflicted, they must be to blame. If they are still okay, they must be to blame. It’s a no win situation.
“Climbing Up the Walls” – Radiohead. After the second girl, Gabby, has a mysterious seizure, Gabby’s mother Lara tells Deenie’s father Tom that the world is infused with so much danger that they can never protect their children from. This song is about an actual male predator, but it fits so well with Lara’s view of how sinister everything is: “So lock the kids up safe tonight / And shut the eyes in the cupboard. / I’ve got the smell of a local man / Who’s got the loneliest feeling.”
“Somebody That I Used to Know” – Gotye. I picked this one specifically for Deenie’s parents, Georgia and Tom, who divorced two years’ prior to the events in the novel, but it also applies to Deenie and her mother (they are basically estranged–Deenie’s preference). It also applies to Deenie and Gabby, who has been spending more and more time with another friend Deenie doesn’t like much.
“Do Me A Favour” – Arctic Monkeys. “Curiosity becomes a heavy load / Too heavy to hold, will force you to be cold / And do me a favour, and ask if you need some help! / She said, do me a favour and stop flattering yourself!” Deenie’s brother Eli is worried about his sister, worried about her friends. He’s mystified at how they’ve grown into such unknowable, unfathomable beings, and the fever makes them more mysterious than ever.
“The Sky Is a Poisonous Garden” – Concrete Blonde. “They knew with the dawn / They knew with the day / They knew what they had / Would be young naked prey / And attacked from all sides / By a world filled with / Poison and hate” The fever happens just as spring is beginning to burst forth. On a night when the PTA holds a meeting to discuss the fever and what to do about it, the weather turns strangely warm and the sky takes on a strange glow, and Tom is no longer sure about the town and his or his childrens’ place in it.
“Jealous Girls” – The Gossip. “Jealousy won’t get you anything that you lost / Jealousy it will never be what it was / Jealousy well I’m afraid of what I’ve become / Jealousy it feels like everything’s come undone” Deenie, Gabby, and Lise have been best friends since junior high, but things have changed. The balance has shifted. Lise seemed to become the center of male attention overnight; Gabby has a mysterious new friend she shares her secrets with; and Deenie also has a secret of her own.
“Evil’s Sway” – Japandroids. “A candle’s pulse is no companion / When all you see is sexual red
You burn away your dreams inside a journal / And leave those primal words unsaid” Gabby’s mysterious friend Skye irks Deenie and somewhat fascinates Eli. She talks about energies and spells and incantations and seems immune to any harm.
“You’ve Been a Friend” – The Jesus and Mary Chain. “What if I say / I couldn’t take another day / Aw if I told you would you stay / And I’ve got you / And you’ve always seen me through / Aw if I told you would you stay” Deenie goes to visit Lise, who is in a coma at the hospital. She has to tell her something, something she hopes will wake her up–but that also might mean she will lose Lise anyway.
“Talk Amongst Yourselves” – The Grand National. “So talk amongst yourselves / While I try to figure it out / Figure it out / I’ll let you know in my time” One of the afflicted girls makes a YouTube video where she points the finger at Deenie. Deenie herself worries that she has somehow caused everything that happens, but she’s more interested in uncovering the truth than in anything else.

The Fever by Megan Abbott

The Fever, by Megan AbbottI first picked up a book by Megan Abbott back in 2009. That book was Queenpin, the story of a nameless narrator’s apprenticeship under a 1950s female mob boss named Gloria Denton. I was immediately hooked and went on to read Bury Me Deep, based on the true story of Winnie Ruth Judd, the “Trunk Murderess” of the 1930s who murdered her husband and shipped him from Arizona to California in a steamer trunk. Here’s what I said in my original review of Bury Me Deep: “While fiction hardly lacks for strong female protagonists, one of the things I like about Abbott’s books is that her women are so very pragmatic. These aren’t intellectual heroines, plucky young women defying convention by sneaking into the boys’ club or determining not to marry and instead pursue a life of the mind.” (Always quote yourself whenever possible, people. All the cool kids do. Like Kanye.)

In 2011, when I read about The End of Everything, the story of a 13-year-old girl whose best friend disappears, I was excited to see how Abbott’s ability to create such compelling heroines would translate to a more modern, more conventional plot line (let’s face it—many, many novels have been written about missing girls). Sadly, when I read the novel I found it didn’t seem to translate at all. In fact, I felt like I had picked up a book by another author entirely (and maybe in some ways I had). While I didn’t dislike The End of Everything, it lacked the darkness and the gumption of her earlier books.

I hoped for better when I read the blurbs about her 2012 novel Dare Me, which while entertaining enough felt like little more than Mean Girls meets psychological thriller. While she successfully brought back the darker atmosphere of her earlier works, the characters—popular, oversexed cheerleaders with so much raw ambition they make Cersei Lannister look like an amateur—felt like caricatures.

I admit, I approached The Fever with some trepidation. I say some because the truth is, Abbott is a terrific writer with a unique voice, and so she’s one of those writers who will always make me jump at the chance to read what she’s written, even if I’m just hoping for better than last time. Luckily, The Fever did not disappoint—not by a longshot.

In The Fever, Abbott maintains her own unique style while somehow also channeling the empathy of Judy Blume and the edginess of Joyce Carol Oates. Deenie Nash’s best friend Lise is struck by a mysterious seizure at school one morning. The next day, Deenie and Lise’s friend Gabby is also struck by a seizure during a school orchestra recital. As the days go by, more and more girls at the high school are affected by a mysterious illness that includes symptoms such as uncontrollable twitching and violent vomiting. Parents and teachers are panicked, the whole small-town community of Dryden in an uproar.

Only the girls are afflicted. The boys are fine. Some parents believe a (semi) mandatory vaccine is to blame, others believe pollution in the town lake is the problem, while others still blame demonic possession. The book alternates points of view, from Deenie to her father Tom, a chemistry teacher at the school, to her brother Eli, a popular Senior hockey player. This shift is effective because while Tom and Eli are directly affected by the town’s hysteria and their concern for Deenie, their sections provide a broad viewpoint of Deenie and her friends, creating a less insular experience than the ones Abbott created in her previous two novels. Deenie (named for Blume’s Deenie, perhaps?) also has some of the pragmatism and gumption of Abbott’s early heroines. Abbott also does such a terrific job of—how else to say this?—showing what it means to be a girl. Not a cheerleader, not a prom queen, but not Carrie, not an outcast. Just a girl, with all those mysterious feelings about herself and her friends, all the changes taking place physically and mentally, the safety of staying in childhood and the excitement of becoming something more, something else, and how all that shifts alliances and balances of power in relationships that once seemed so easy. “She thinks I need her but she’s the one who needs me,” Gabby says of Deenie. “I make her feel more interesting.”

Abbott does a terrific job of drawing out the suspense and creating a palpable atmosphere of hysteria. Although the subject matter is completely different, it reminded me of an Australian film (from long, long ago) called Picnic at Hanging Rock, a psychological thriller about the mysterious disappearance of several girls and a teacher and the hysteria that ensues. It’s a frightening movie because it never resolves anything, and the audience is left to wonder whether a crime was committed at all, or if perhaps the missing women were simply the victims of an accident while hiking in the rocks. And if The Fever has a weakness, I would say it’s the ending, which is not implausible but perhaps a little too neatly tied off, at least for my tastes. I would have preferred that Abbott maintain the mystery right through to the end. Four out of five stars.

Full disclosure: I received my copy of The Fever from NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top 10 Books of 2014 (so far)

Yesterday I had the stunning realization that I read only ONE book in May: The People in the Trees. Lucky for me it was a really terrific book, but honestly, it’s bad enough that I generally only average three books a month. Definite room for improvement.

Today’s Top Ten, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, asks us about our ten favorite books so far this year. With such a short list for the year, I don’t have ten books, but I do have six, and here they are:

The Tie That Binds Cover


Where'd You Go, Bernadette Cover


Big Machine Cover




The People in the Trees Cover



The Rise and Fall of Great Powers

9780679643654I was highly impressed with Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists when I read it back at the beginning of 2011. When I saw the e-galley for The Rise and Fall of Great Powers come up for grabs on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to read it, and I’m so happy that I did.

In spirit, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers has much in common with one of my favorite novels from last year, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. When the novel opens, we meet Tooly, née Matilda Zylberberg, reading a biography of Anne Boleyn in her pub-turned-bookshop in Wales. (Interestingly, Rachman describes Tooly as slight and somewhat tomboyish, with a black-haired bob, so I pictured Tartt as the protagonist the whole time I was reading.) She is called away from Wales suddenly by an old boyfriend, Duncan, who has been caring for an elderly, ill man named Humphrey that he believes is her father.

Who Humphrey actually is to Tooly, and who the other adults are who shaped her unusual life, is revealed slowly by moving back and forth across three points in time: 2011 (labeled as “The Beginning”), 1999-2000, and 1988 (labeled as “The End”). We learn that Tooly was removed from her family as a child and was taken from place to place (continent to continent actually—from Australia to Asia) by a man named Paul, who worked for the government designing and implementing network security. We also learn that at some point she was somehow passed from Paul to group of Bohemian types that includes Humphrey as well as a con artist named Venn and a drifter named Sarah, and that she traveled with them from place to place (from Asia to Europe to the US) until she landed in New York City in 1999. At that point Tooly meets Duncan and begins a relationship with him, but she always believes that Venn will return for her so they can complete a “big project.”

In mostly non-romantic terms, Venn is the love of Tooly’s life. She has moulded herself in his image, adopted what she believes are his life tenets, and is always awaiting his return. In 2011, she has not heard from him in almost ten years. The journey back to New York to see about Humphrey unlocks questions and memories for Tooly, until eventually she is driven to find Paul, Sarah, and Venn to understand exactly who they are, who Humphrey is, and most of all who she is herself.

I’ve seen some descriptions online about this being a book about a bookseller. If you’re looking to read this book because you think it’s going to be about that, then let me set you straight: the bookstore has almost nothing to do with the primary story at hand, although books are an important part of Tooly’s life and especially her bond with Humphrey (and also her bond with her only employee, Fogg). The frequent mentions of Dickens in this novel, as well as its circuitous plot, are also earning this novel the term “Dickensian,” which I suppose it is, in the best sense. Tooly, though, like a lot of bookish people, confuses being well-read with being worldly. In other words, even through all of her travels, most of what she has learned about the world, and the ways in which she evaluates and understands people in her life, comes from what she’s learned from reading novels. This both helps and hurts her, because while she’s intelligent, her reactions to people as characters often keeps her from understanding what is really happening in the relationships she forms.

The book gets off to a slow start, and at times the chapters that cover Tooly’s girlhood in Bangkok drag a little bit, but nothing ever slows so much it actually stalls. Rachman does a terrific job of letting out little bits and pieces of information, feeding us clues about Tooly’s life and the people in it that she fails to pick up herself, so even as the nature of her relationships becomes fully clear to Tooly herself we are also still grasping the full truth. Some people who found The Goldfinch too long and/or implausible might actually prefer The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. It’s not without its own gaps and hiccups, but as much as I loved The Goldfinch, I liked Tooly better than I liked Theo if for no other reason than she is far less prone to navel-gazing, self-pity, and self-destruction.

Highly recommended. Four out of five stars.

*image from Random House; I received my copy of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers from NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion

Reader’s Journal: The Word Exchange

The Word Exchange CoverI am definitely a person who believes that technology can help us improve our lives. Access my music from the cloud, anywhere or anytime? Sign me up! Geo-location services that help me know where I am or where my loved ones are and help to alleviate worry? Sign me up! Self-driving cars that mean an absence of road rage and accidents based on poor human decisions? Sign me up! Hundreds of books in my hand wherever I travel? Sign…oh, you get the idea.

Of course, people like me who are excited about these advancements have their counterpoint in technology luddites whose arguments are alternately based in (sometimes very real) fear (Hackers can get access to my information!) or aesthetics (Stories must be printed on paper! I love the way books smell! Trees be damned!).

When I first received an invitation from NetGalley to review Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange, I was afraid it would be a treatise against technology disguised as a novel, and to some extent, it is. Although it can be a bit heavy-handed at times, overall The Word Exchange is truly a literary thriller, and a highly entertaining one at that, and it also makes some very valid points about language and technology in society.

As the novel opens, Anana Johnson discovers that her father, Douglas Samuel Johnson, has disappeared. Doug is the chief editor of one of the last remaining print dictionaries, the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL). (For those of you who might worry, the other physical dictionary still in existence in The Word Exchange is the Oxford English Dictionary.) Although the NADEL is approaching the publication of its third edition, its existence is threatened by an application called The Word Exchange, which provides words and definitions of words through an individual’s Meme, a personal device similar to a smartphone with predictive capabilities. For example, a Meme can order another drink for you if you need it, call for a cab when you are too drunk to drive, or, whenever the occasion is warranted, provide the word that is right on the tip of your tongue. (By the way, this kind of technology is already a thing.)

As more people have become dependent on their Memes, it seems they have also started to spend less time thinking for themselves. This dependency is exploited by a virus introduced into The Word Exchange, whereby people searching for or trying to think of a word are being given entirely new words with new definitions. These words are slipping into everyday speech and making communication anywhere from difficult to impossible, depending on the severity of the case.

Anana enlists the help of her Doug’s close friend, Bart, another NADEL employee, to help find him. For his part, Bart is in love with Anana, who is quietly suffering from a break up with a mutual “friend” of Bart’s. And really, folks, this is about all the information I can give you because: A) the plot is incredibly intricate, which most of the time lends to the fun but occasionally causes it to become bogged down with scenes designed to show (again and again) how the infected technology is affecting the population; and B) the book is a thriller of sorts and I’m not willing to spoil the fun.

The novel is arranged by chapters that each start with a letter of the alphabet and provide a clue about the chapter contents:

Bartelby \bâr-tǝl-bē)\, n 1 : a scrivener 2 a : a man with many friends and casual acquaintances : BART b slang : life of the party ; a person who is never lonely, especially not on Friday night

The chapters alternate between Anana’s and Bart’s point of view as they try to uncover what has happened to Doug. Anana’s are straight narrative, while Bart’s are told through a series of journal entries. The language disease that affects the characters is sometimes serious but also used to great comic effect:

The driver was gruff. My adrenaline had worn off enough that I was starting to feel the first boln of an emotional hangover after what I’d said to Ana’s family. But most of all I was disconcerted by her mention of a doctor. And what she’d teedom about a device also had me kind of spooked; it got me started worrying a bit about the Meme. While I was shyoxing, I pold a text from Ana on my phone. It said, “I rain chuang kist you away. Sorry tic konдooлeeteч display. Stop u hui dome tode.” And then a message appeared with the blue “WE” Word Exchange logo: “Would you liek the meaning? Yes/No.”

In truth, the “new” words infecting people in the book can be a bit distracting, but even though Graedon uses them comically they never become a joke. The Word Exchange is also peppered with wordplay and literary references that deep readers will enjoy. Likewise, if you’re interested in or familiar with the culture of technology start ups, you’ll recognize some of the characters Bart gets mixed up with. (In fact, I finished reading this right around the time Silicon Valley premiered on HBO, and even before I started watching the show I was already picturing warm, hapless Bart as the actor Zach Woods, whom some of you might also recognize as Erin’s boyfriend from The Office.)

As a person who still refuses to use most popular abbreviations or shortened words (“u” for you, “tho” for though), even on Twitter, the parts about the disintegration of language bothered me a bit. While I was reading the book I remembered a news story about vocabulary words that were being removed from the SAT test and replaced with more “relevant” words that kids experience in everyday life and classrooms. (I can’t find any examples, but I seem to remember seeing another article that said “uncommon” words such as sagacious and plethora were on the list. And in fact, Google Drive has marked sagacious as misspelled as I type this—it isn’t—and offers no replacement or suggestion. Shudder.) To be sure, the dumbing down of our vocabulary has already started, but I for one am disinclined to blame technology, the same way I do not fault my car for my lack of muscle tone. Luckily, Graedon only gets a bit heavy-handed on a few sections of the book, and she herself readily admits to a bit of smartphone addiction.

Overall The Word Exchange is a fun, intelligent mystery novel. Four out of five stars.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of The Word Exchange from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Where'd You Go, Bernadette CoverI’m going to keep this one short and sweet, mainly because Bernadette is already back at the Sandy Springs Public Library. If you’re in Atlanta and you’re looking for her, that’s the last place I saw her, so you might start there.

Several years ago I was contacted by a PR person for Maria Semple (or for her publisher–I can’t remember) and asked if I’d like to read and review her debut novel, This One Is Mine. I agreed, and I read the book, but I never reviewed it. I didn’t like it. It came across as both glib and implausible, and even if I did laugh out loud a few times while reading it, I spent most of my time rolling my eyes and believing that Semple only managed to get a book deal because she was so well-connected. After all, she wrote for television shows including Mad About You, Saturday Night Live, and Arrested Development. I mean, duh. But I don’t really like to write negative reviews (although I guess I kind of just did), so I never posted a review.

Given my experience with This One Is Mine, I wasn’t exactly one of the first people to line up for a copy of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? when it was released. I wasn’t even one of the first million, most likely. I resisted all the positive reviews, all the 2012 year-end best-of lists, all the recommendations from friends. And then, several weeks ago, I was at a low, low point, and I was casting about for something to read that wasn’t too serious, so I decided on a whim to check out Where’d You Go, Bernadette? from the library.

And I’ll be damned if every positive review, every 2012 year-end best-of list, and every friend wasn’t right: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is a highly entertaining and funny book. It isn’t perfect–it drags a bit in spots, and the plot is preposterous—but ultimately everything works. You probably know all this by now, but in case you don’t: Bernadette has gone missing, and her fourteen-year-old daughter Bee has decided to reconstruct events using emails, letters, police reports, etc. to see if she can figure out where her mother went. Because of this, the point of view shifts frequently, from sections narrated by Bee to correspondence between a crazy cast of characters that include a self-righteous neighbor and an administrative assistant at Microsoft to emails between Bernadette and her virtual assistant.

Bernadette is fantastic—she’s neurotic, depressed, terrified, intelligent, hilarious, and generous. She’s completely flawed, wholly unlikeable, and totally loveable, all within the space of a few paragraphs. The parts that tend to drag a bit are the parts where Bernadette is missing and we hear less of her voice…up until the end her husband Elgin feels more like a plot device than a real character, although the exaggerated tales of life at Microsoft (where Elgin is a top executive) lend a bit of their own hilarity. Overall, because Semple has done such a great job with Bernadette, the other characters, although well-drawn and funny in their own ways, pale a bit.

All in all, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is not without its flaws, but it is a quick and fun read, and it made me laugh out loud. Four out of five stars.

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