Monthly Archives: August 2013

Review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining GirlsWhat would you do if you found a time portal? In Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63, one man uses a time portal to buy supplies for his restaurant at low, low 1960s prices; another uses it to try and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. When Harper Curtis finds his way to the House in 1930s Chicago, he takes advantage of its time portal to seek out and brutally murder young women across six decades.

Something about the House calls to Harper, and one room in particular seems to imply that he has already committed horrible crimes, that his acts of violence exist outside of time. He targets women based on the extraordinary potential he sees in them–they shine in a way that perhaps only he can see.

The Shining Girls is creepy and seriously disturbing, not least because the glimpses we see of the murdered women feel like American Girl doll stories gone sickeningly wrong. It’s to the author’s credit that she leaves so much unanswered about them. We never know what these women could have achieved, what accomplishments their talents might have produced. Thanks to Harper, no one will ever know.

When Kirby Mazrachi survives the attack that was meant to kill her, she becomes convinced that her would-be murderer has killed before. With the help of a veteran journalist, Dan Velasquez, she searches for answers. This is a familiar element of many a serial killer thriller, but Beukes raises the stakes in terms of both her exceptional writing and the unique abilities of the murderer. It also helps that Kirby is a great character, resilient, stubborn and fiercely independent, yet also genuinely sympathetic. Seeing her through Dan’s eyes only increases the reader’s concern for her safety.

Beukes never explains the origin or nature of the House, leaving it to the reader to folow the Moebius strip of cause and effect. Asking how the House came to be what it is might be as pointless as asking how Harper can be human without the slightest trace of empathy or conscience. Some questions can’t be answered.

Genre: Intense, graphic thriller with a sci-fi twist

Read it if: You can’t resist the idea of a time-traveling serial killer,

Skip it if: Well, let’s put it this way: disembowelment. You probably know whether you should skip it at this point.

Movie-worthy: I get the chills just thinking about a movie of this book. I mentally cast Josh Holloway from Lost as Harper. “Sweetheart…”

Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsUnder normal circumstances, I would rather roll around in broken glass than read a book about teenagers with cancer. I don’t like sad for its own sake, I can’t stand books and movies that intentionally reduce readers and viewers to soggy sorrow-wallowers. Yet there was no escaping John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars; it was critically acclaimed, mentioned repeatedly by reviewers and bloggers, recommended by friends. Finally, I succumbed and suggested it for book club, thus forcing myself to read it.

I loved it. I loved Hazel and Augustus and their arch teenage banter, their drama and philosophical musings and passion about books. The Fault in Our Stars isn’t really a book about cancer, it’s a book about life, and trying to find meaning in it even when it’s cruel and unfair and so wonderful you never want it to end.

John Green has done something seemingly impossible with this book. It is never sentimental or maudlin, never condescending. It is about teenagers, and one thing about them is that they have cancer. Yet what you remember about them is their humor, their joy, the intensity of their feelings for life and for each other.

I particularly loved what Augustus told his friend Isaac at a moment that should have been crushingly depressing. “I have wonderful news!,” he says. “You are going to live a good and long life filled with great and terrible moments that you cannot even imagine yet!”

We should all be so lucky.

Genre: Funny, heartbreaking YA

Read it if: You want to know why every single human on the planet who’s read it feels compelled to go tell someone else to read it.

Skip it if: You prefer books about sick children that are emotionally manipulative and deliberately tear-jerking.

Movie-worthy: It’s coming soon to a theater near you.

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LaneWhen I was ten or eleven, my cat rubbed all the fur off the front of his neck. When I took a closer look, I saw a round hole, and in the hole something seemed to be moving. I hadn’t thought of that for years, maybe decades, but reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it all came back. I remembered holding my struggling cat while I poured alcohol in the tiny hole and tried to catch the worm’s bobbing head with a pair of tweezers. My parents didn’t really believe in cats as pets; we had dogs, but they were bird dogs, for hunting. Mom and Dad didn’t want to waste money taking a cat to the vet. I think they’d already made quite a large concession just buying cat food. In the end, my siblings and I counted and rolled a large coffee can’s worth of pennies and a neighbor helped us cash them in at the bank so we could take my cat to the vet and have the terrible, horrifying worm removed from his neck.

It is bizarre that a memory so strong and powerfully disturbing can simply sink to the bottom of your mind, disappear so completely from conscious thought that you are genuinely surprised to recall it and know that it is real. The Ocean at the End of the Lane evokes that feeling, of childhood forgotten and remembered, of the towering power of adults, of magic and terror sublimated and rationalized.

The things that happen in this novel should leave the reader feeling incredulous, but that’s not the case. Gaiman’s storytelling is so subtle that what happens to the unnamed narrator has the force and inevitability of a fairy tale, or a dream. I had to laugh when the narrator wonders, “Why do I find the hardest thing for me to believe, looking back, is that a girl of five and a boy of seven had a gas fire in their bedroom?” That is indeed hard to believe.

Genre: Neil Gaiman (I tried to think of a more fitting category, but I’m sorry, that’s all I’ve got.)

Read it if: You don’t remember what you were afraid of as a child, or you do.

Skip it if: That story about the worm in my cat’s neck was a little too disturbing for you.

Movie-worthy: How? I don’t think it’s possible.

 

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Review: The Longest Road by Philip Caputo

The Longest RoadIn The Longest Road, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Philip Caputo sets out to drive from the southernmost tip of the United States–Key West, Florida–to the northernmost point, Deadhorse, Alaska. Caputo’s choice of transportation for the trip says a little something about what’s on his mind: he leases a vintage Airstream Globetrotter, as curved and shiny as a UFO from a sixties sci-fi movie. Caputo isn’t just making this trip for the heck of it, or to see America. He turns seventy while on the road, and he’s seen many of these cities and states before. Instead, Caputo is intent on asking the people he meets along the way what it is they believe holds America together, despite the vast differences between its citizens, people who sometimes seem to have about as much in common as polar bears and palm trees.

No two people give the same answer to his question. What holds America together?  Is it a shared hope for the future? A common willingness to jump in and help when neighbors are in trouble? Is it the fact that each person has the space to live their life and pursue their dreams? Caputo ultimately chooses a metaphor from the cosmological concept of “dynamic disequilibrium,” the idea that gravity and thermonuclear fusion work in opposition to keep a star from either collapsing into a black hole or exploding outward. Caputo describes a similar tension between what he calls the Jeffersonian force, pushing to expand individual freedom, and the Hamiltonian force, demanding a stronger federal power. The conflict creates tension, but it also keeps both forces in check, preserving the country in the process.

Most of the people Caputo encounters on the long road from Florida to Alaska are decent and friendly, trying to make their way in life and maybe help someone in need if they can. It’s a generally positive picture as Caputo chats with those he meets, Studs Terkel-style, about their lives and their aspirations. Occasionally he lapses into cranky cantankery a la Andy Rooney, bemoaning the fact that the young people of today lack the adventurous spirit to hitchhike and hop freight cars (!), or falling into a funk after reading a newspaper article about the disproportionate influence of wealth in public policy.

Luckily, Caputo is accompanied on his trip by his wife and his pair of English setters, Sage and Sky. They bring companionship and levity to moments that otherwise might have led to some serious melancholy as the author deals with rough weather, wrong turns, and the peculiarities of the Airstream.

In his encounters with people from all walks of life, each with a story to tell, Caputo may not solve the question of American unity for all time. But his story certainly brought back memories of my own cross-country trips, east to west and back again. Just reading about the author’s days on the road made me want to throw my stuff in a car and go, to see the natural wonders and glimpses of history that Caputo records, from the Natchez Trace to Willa Cather’s hometown, from the Florida Keys to the Arctic Circle. It is a distinctly, if not uniquely, American impulse, and one I hope to indulge in again someday. Maybe south to north next time.

Genre: Travel, Airstream-style

Read it if: You enjoy both Gator Boys and Ice Road Truckers, and wonder what happens in between.

Skip it if: You use the phrase “flyover states” and mean it.

Movie-worthy: Actually, it would make an interesting documentary. The variation and extremes in the scenery alone would be worth it.

 

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Review: Proxy by Alex London

Proxy by Alex LondonDoes the name Sydney Carton ring any bells? It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… The protagonist of Alex London’s intriguing YA dystopia shares his name with a character from the Charles Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities. In fact, Proxy is a tale of two cities: the Upper City, a place of wealth and luxury, where money can protect you from almost anything, even the consequences of your actions; and the Valve, where the poor bear the weight of crushing debt, their lives reduced to contractual servitude, their worth measured only in terms of what they owe.

Syd arrived in the city as an orphaned refugee from the wastelands beyond, his literary name randomly assigned by a computer. At sixteen, he is receiving an education of sorts, but the cost is massive debt. A wealthy man from the Upper City owns Syd’s debt, and to pay it off, Syd acts as a proxy for the wealthy man’s son, Knox.

Knox has known since childhood that any trouble he gets into will result in punishment–for Syd. As a proxy, Syd has repeatedly suffered both physical punishment and hard labor for acts that Knox has committed. In essence, Syd is a whipping boy for a spoiled princeling. When Knox goes too far, crashing a stolen car and inadvertently killing his passenger, Syd faces a sentence so extreme that for the first time, he questions the system and his place in it.

I really enjoyed this fast-paced thriller that recalls the unjust, data-driven world of M.T. Anderson’s Feed, only with more fight scenes. Proxy emphasizes the humanity of both Syd and Knox, and goes in unexpected directions. My one quibble: too much smirking. A little smirking goes a long way.

Genre: YA dystopian

Read it if: You always wondered what the world would be like if Objectivism was the main religion and Ayn Rand was revered by all.

Skip it if: You are allergic to smirking.

Movie-worthy: You bet.

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Review: Lost by S.J. Bolton

Lost SJ BoltonIf I had known exactly what this book was about, I never would have read it. A serial killer is targeting young boys in London, and the police are mystified. As the mother of three boys, the horror hit a little too close to home.

That being said, once I started reading it was too late; I had to know what would happen to Barney, the quirky eleven-year-old at the heart of Lost. Barney has an unusually perceptive mind and a knack for spotting patterns. His attempts to identify the killer were both daring and, as a mom, terrifying. (Do children really wander unsupervised through the streets of London? What the heck?) I was also intrigued by Lacey Flint, a damaged detective recuperating from a harrowing experience on a previous case, who happens to be Barney’s neighbor.

The tension increased to almost unbearable levels as the story proceeded. Bolton does a masterful job of casting suspicion on various plausible suspects, to the extent that I still had no sense of certainty about the killer’s identity until the very end of the novel.  At one point I seriously considered putting the book down so I wouldn’t have to know, in case my worst fears were confirmed. The conclusion, when it came, felt both shocking and inevitable, exactly as it should.

I could tell from the way Lacey interacted with other members of the police force and one particular prison inmate that this must be part of a series of books, but Lost was fully successful as a stand alone. (And now I have a whole new list of books to add to my reading list. Basically everything S.J. Bolton has ever written.)   Interestingly, this book was entitled Like This For Ever in the U.K. Why the difference? In this case, the British title sounds much more intriguing than the deceptively generic Lost.

And finally, a shout out to bookreporter.com for sending me this book as part of their Suspense/Thriller contest. Thanks for introducing me to another great author!

Genre: Relentless psychological thriller. With kids.

Read it if: You love Elizabeth George or Tana French, and you aren’t afraid of a little blood.

Skip it if: You have a pale, blond ten-year-old and you want to sleep at night.

Movie-worthy: It would make a great movie, but I don’t think I could watch it!

Review: Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

SisterlandDisclaimer: this novel isn’t exactly about what I thought it was about. Twin sisters with psychic powers is the easy description, but the story focuses less on supernatural abilities and more on the contrasting strategies the sisters employ to deal with the fact that they are not like other people.

Kate, shunned after revealing her psychic powers in school, crafts her entire life around the goal of fitting in, not standing out. She even drops her first name, Daisy, when she enters college, believing her more normal and sensible sounding middle name will provide a clean break with her past. Her twin, Violet, feels no such compunction to blend. She drops out of college and ultimately finds somewhat regular employment as a full-time psychic.

When Violet predicts an earthquake, Kate is initially mortified, alarmed that she could be associated with her flamboyant sister’s seemingly outrageous claims. In the end, the prediction is much less important than the impending changes in Kate’s placid, passive life.

Maybe because I had different expectations for this book–powers! predictions!–I was bemused by how the author chose to resolve the story. Instead of nodding in comprehension, I found myself saying she did what? And now that’s happening? Wha….? In some ways, Kate reminded me of Lee, the protagonist of Sittenfeld’s excellent first novel, Prep. Both Kate and Lee share a deep-seated insecurity, a passive stance toward the world, and a penchant for poorly thought out and potentially self-destructive/liberating acts.

As a mother, I sympathized with Kate’s reasons for attempting to shut down her own psychic abilities, but her domestic situation ultimately felt a little too Darin and Samantha for me. Violet was by far the more sympathetic character, and more than once I caught myself wishing I were in her head instead of Kate’s. I suspect it was a much more entertaining place to be.

Genre: Domestic drama with a soupçon of the supernatural

Read it if: You enjoyed The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.

Skip it if: You prefer your tales of psychic powers with a little more emphasis on the psychic and the powers.

Movie-worthy: Perhaps. I bet they’d change the ending.

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Review: N0S4A2 by Joe Hill

N0S4A2When I first began reading N0S4A2, I kept telling myself it would probably be good, but not as good as Horns, Joe Hill’s astonishing 2010 novel. How could it be? Better to keep those expectations in check.

By the end of this gruesome, disturbing and fascinating thrill ride, I wasn’t comparing N0S4A2 to anything; in fact, for the last hundred pages, I ignored direct questions from my own family. All they got was a finger held up distractedly as if to say, talk to me when I close this book and not a minute before.  I had to know what would happen to Vic and her son Wayne. I refused to come up for air until it was over.

Oh, Vic. My heart ached for her by the end. As a child, she was free and true to herself, but the power that enables her to ride her bike across a covered bridge to recover lost things also causes her to lose something precious and irreplaceable. She is damaged by her gift, as is Maggie, an eccentric librarian who scries the future in Scrabble tiles. Anyone would envy them their abilities, but the long-term effects are tragic, the harm irreparable.

Yet ultimately only Vic and Maggie are capable of understanding the horrific truth about Charles Talent Manx and Christmasland, the warped corner of his imagination stocked with soulless children and nightmarish versions of fun, the hellish destination he has in mind for Vic’s kidnapped son.

N0S4A2 has many grim and terrifying moments, but it’s also poignant and sometimes even funny, making it all the more compulsively readable. I particularly loved the references to the Frobisher sextet from David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and the Treehouse of the Mind, from Hill’s own Horns. It created the impression that N0S4A2 takes place in a plane of reality intersecting with our own at unpredictable angles.

Like The Passage by Justin Cronin or The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan, N0S4A2 combines a genius for horror with truly gifted writing, revealing the human capacities for cruelty and for love in equal measure. The result is a story that feels so real I couldn’t forget it if I tried.

Genre: Literary horror

Read it if: You aren’t squeamish and sleep is not a priority.

Skip it if: Christmas is your favorite holiday and you’d like to keep it that way.

Movie-worthy: Sure, but there’s no way I’d see that movie! Scary books I can handle; scary movies make me a nervous wreck.

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Review: Lexicon by Max Barry

LexiconAlmost every time you turn on the TV or visit a website, someone is trying to convince you to make a purchase, choose a party, click a link. Max Barry takes that persuasive force to the next level: the level of the poets.

The poets use every persuasive means at their disposal, including an understanding of human personalities and neurolinguistics that gives them power over anyone they can correctly classify. Trained at a secretive and highly exclusive Academy, the poets must hide their true natures from each other in self-defense. They must learn to show no emotion, to want nothing. To be known is to be vulnerable. It is a tragically high price to pay for their abilities.

Wil Parke is the outlier, a man apparently immune to the poets’ influence, even to the “bareword,” a weapon of biblical proportion, said to be responsible for the fall of the Tower of Babel. His immunity makes him dangerous, and the poets will do anything to control him.

On one level, Lexicon is an artfully paced thriller about an apparently unremarkable Everyman caught in a vast conspiracy, and the poet who hunts both Wil and his protector. On another level, this novel is an intriguing exploration of language and the power it possesses, the myths and beliefs associated with words, and the fine line between speech and magic.

In this respect, Lexicon made me think of “Solitude,” a story by Ursula K. LeGuin (see my review of the anthology, Diverse Energies, in which it appears.) In “Solitude,” a society has developed cultural norms and traditions to ensure that no adult will ever have power over another. Visitors from a technologically advanced society deride the inhabitants’ fear of “magic” as mere ignorant superstition; what they fail to understand is that “magic” entails the power of charisma, the ability to persuade others and bend them to your will. This is exactly the magic practiced by the poets of Lexicon, with an added dose of neurolinguistic firepower for good measure.

Genre: Linguistic thriller

Read it if: You have a healthy respect for the power of language, and you know the difference between Yeats and Eliot.

Skip it if: You think the Academy sounds fun, like Hogwarts (it’s not.)

Movie-worthy: Sure, I’d see it! The guy who plays Jason on True Blood would make a good Wil Parke, I think.

Review: Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

Dark EdenThis is what science fiction is all about. In Dark Eden, Chris Beckett takes us to a strange and distant planet, where the descendants of two stranded humans have formed a small but rapidly growing society. The exotic setting, a world of darkness populated by bioluminescent plant and animal life, makes for a fascinating backdrop, but the heart of the story is what it means to be human.

The inbred family of humans huddles together, outgrowing the confines of their settlement, yet afraid to move. They follow the instructions left behind by their ancestors, Tommy and Angela, to stay in that particular spot until rescuers can arrive from Earth to save them. Tommy and Angela’s stories have evolved into a mythology, misunderstood and accepted without question.

Until John Redlantern, a teenage boy with a sharply curious mind and a leader’s vision, disrupts the traditions of his society and forces a change. As John Redlantern leads his tiny band of followers beyond the boundaries of the known world, it hit me that exactly this must have occurred time and again throughout human history–a leader, his followers, and a journey taken on faith, that there must be something else out there, that it must be better than wherever you are, that it’s worth risking lives to know the truth.

This novel ranks with The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell as one of my all-time favorite books that take you to an unfamiliar world only to show you an emotionally true and powerful glimpse of the human heart and human history.

Genre: Science fiction

Read it if: You like your sci-fi with an anthropological twist

Skip it if: You’re afraid of the dark

Movie-worthy: Yes, absolutely.