Monthly Archives: September 2013

Review: Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois

CartwheelIn Cartwheel, Lily Hayes, a young American student on a semester abroad in Buenos Aires, is accused of the murder of her roommate, another American girl named Katy Kellers. Although the idea for this novel was sparked by the notorious case of Amanda Knox, an American student tried for murder in Italy, author Jennifer duBois has written a subtle and psychologically astute exploration of human nature, not the sensational true crime thriller one might expect.

Lily is an odd girl, her emotional intelligence considerably less evolved than her academic abilities. She bops around Buenos Aires, playing the starring role in the ongoing production of her life, uncertain why she sometimes evokes such negative reactions in other people, like her landlady, Beatriz Carillo. Beautiful, studious Katy Kellers, on the other hand, knows how to stay out of trouble and win people over. It is this striking contrast between Lily and her alleged victim that works against her from the start.

The story jumps back and forth in time, from the moment Lily’s father arrives in Buenos Aires to visit his incarcerated daughter, to the events of the month preceding the murder, and alternates perspectives, offering very different glimpses of Lily and her situation.

Lily’s father, Andrew, has already suffered the greatest loss imaginable: his first child, Janie, died of aplastic anemia as a todddler. He and his now ex-wife Maureen have handled this devastating tragedy by assuming the worst, bracing for impact at all times. Yet nothing could have led him to imagine this possibility for his second, and favorite, surviving daughter.

Sebastien LeCompte, Lily’s improbably named sort-of boyfriend, resides in the deteriorating mansion next door to the couple hosting Lily and Katy. Still mentally reeling from the death of both his parents three years before, Sebastien has developed an affected style of communicating that keeps others at a distance, and he rarely leaves his house except to purchase necessities. He falls in love with Lily, but she doesn’t take his declarations seriously; understandably, since almost everything he says is freighted with irony.

And then there is Eduardo Campos, prosecutor. It is his zeal for justice, his firm belief that Lily is at heart a sociopath, that drives the case against her. He struggles with depression, and the erratic behavior of his beautiful, unstable wife Maria, but for him this case is an area of clarity. Once he is certain that Lily is guilty, nothing will persuade him otherwise.

So much complexity is revealed inside the minds of these characters, yet how others interpret their actions, what motives they attribute to them, can be wildly, tragically wrong. Even Lily, maybe especially Lily, hardly knows why she makes some of the choices she does. Why did she do a cartwheel in the interrogation room when she thought no one was watching? What does that say about her? In the end, you have to wonder if she is being tried for murder, or for some failure to meet the world’s expectations of normal behavior, her oddity enough reason to suspect her capable of any crime imaginable.

Genre: Gripping psychological literary fiction

Read it if: You enjoy ambiguity, multiple perspectives, and fascinating insights into the human mind, or you’re looking for a perfect book club pick.

Skip it if: You’re looking for a lurid novelization of the Amanda Knox trial.

Movie-worthy: Only if they cast actors gifted enough to convey a wealth of information in a single glance; so much of this book goes on in the minds of its characters.

Review: Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Oleander GirlKorobi’s name means “oleander,” and the question of why Korobi’s mother named her after a poisonous flower is only one of many secrets at the heart of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s expertly paced family drama. Korobi knows only that her mother died in childbirth, heartbroken at the death of her husband a few months before. Raised by her stern but loving grandfather and her sweet, long-suffering grandmother in Kolkata, Korobi has led a traditonal life secluded from the influences of the modern world. Only when she becomes engaged to the dashing but vulnerable Rajat, the son of affluent art gallery owners, does she begin to pull the thread that will unravel everything she thought she knew about her family and herself.

Although Korobi has led a sheltered life, she is determined to uncover the truth and willing to make sacrifices to get the answers she needs, even putting her engagement at risk. The author weaves numerous Indian social issues into the fabric of the story–sectarian violence, union activism, classist and racist attitudes, the interaction of employer and domestic staff–yet much of the basic plot would be familiar to Jane Austen. Can a love match survive family secrets and financial pressures? Will social considerations trump the motives of the heart? Can the engaged couple survive the deceit of others and their own miscommunication?

What I particularly liked about this novel is that the author gives even the secondary characters depth and complexity; no one is easily categorized as completely good or bad. For example, Rajat’s mother, Jayashree Bose, sometimes makes choices that are based on snobbery and suspicion, but she also clearly loves her family and wants them to be happy. You understand why she makes the choices she does, even when they are bad ones. Rajat’s parents’ marriage is also a lovely example of two people who complement and bring out the best in one another, a true love match that has succeeded despite initial family opposition and financial strain.

For Korobi, no decision is easy. India and the values she grew up with pull her in one direction, while the lure of America, where her parents met, offers a whole new world of challenges and opportunities. She struggles to balance her own needs, the ties of family, the promises she’s made, and the commitment to honesty that drives her. This anchors what could have been a sensational tale in real and believable emotions, thoughtfully portrayed.

Genre: Fast-paced family-secret fiction

Read it if: You are interested in Indian society and culture, but would prefer your knowledge wrapped in a suspenseful and interesting plot.

Skip it if: You have a strong aversion to first person present tense narration, or you wince at the idea of a dream/ghost mother giving her daughter tips on major life choices.

Movie-worthy: Sure, this could be a really interesting and visually arresting movie.

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My First Giveaway: the Banned Books Giveaway Hop

Banned Books WeekI can’t think of a better theme for my first ever giveaway: banned books! Using the American Library Association’s list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books of 2000-2009 as a reference, I would like to offer the winner his or her choice of my top ten favorite frequently banned books.  And here they are:

Depending on which book the winner chooses, I will throw in a surprise bonus book that explores similar ideas and (who knows?) might be banned somewhere any time now. For example, if you select Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, you will also receive When She Woke by Hillary Jordan.

Many thanks to I Am A Reader Not A Writer and BookHounds for hosting this blog hop!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Decalino Jr. Review: The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

The Last Dragonslayer

The Last Dragonslayer is a book about a girl named Jennifer Strange, who lives in the Ununited Kingdoms. She is the owner of a rare quarkbeast, and she is the manager for Kazam Mystical arts, a refuge of Wizards. Yes, magic exists, and has for thousands of years, but is now fading, and the wizards are having a hard time getting money.

A new boy, Tiger, is sent into Kazam, and after that things start getting weird. A prophecy is told by all the Pre-Cogs (fortune tellers) in the land. It is told that a Dragonslayer will destroy the world’s last dragon, and the only reason they would do that is if the dragon violated the rules set out by the great Shandar, who made peace between the humans and dragons. Rather than worry about this, the people of the Ununited Kingdoms are happy, for they want Dragondeath.

They want it because the dragon owns a huge land, surrounded by a forcefield, that the greedy people of the world want desperately. Once the dragon, whose name is Maltcassion, dies, the force field will go down and the land will be ripe for the claiming. Jennifer suspects she is tied in with the whole problem some how, but her true role is one no one would expect. She is forced to make a decision that could change the world… will she do what’s right?

With Tiger, the Quarkbeast, and the Magicians of Kazam at her side, she chooses to fight for justice, but she doesn’t realize there may be major losses of great friends along the road. The Last Dragonslayer is on of the best books I’ve read, with a very interesting and complex plot, and amazing characters. The book was so extraordinarily funny, it had me laughing every other sentence! It had brilliant twists and turns, and things you would never expect.

Genre: Funny Magic Fantasy

Read it if: You love jokes, dragons, and Quarkbeasts

Skip it if: You like full throttle action with lots of death

Movie-Worthy: Definitely

 

Review: The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya

The Sly Company of People Who CareQuick, tell me what you know about Guyana! I’m going to give you a second, because I suspect this is not an easy question for most people. Is it an island? Nope. Is it in Africa? Wrong again. (That’s Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and/or the Equatorial Republic of Guinea you’re thinking of.)

Guyana is a South American country that borders Suriname, Venezuela and Brazil. In The Sly Company of People Who Care, a young man from Mumbai travels to Guyana for a year, intent on rekindling a feeling he experienced on a previous, much briefer visit. The unnamed narrator is, like the author, a journalist who covers cricket. His work had brought him to Guyana for only a week or two, but he felt he’d glimpsed a deeper truth there and felt compelled to return.

Reading more like an exquisitely written travel memoir than a novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care takes its time, unspooling stories about people and places without any sense of urgency. Normally this would drive me crazy. I tend to be that reader who skims bland descriptions of scenery in favor of people and action. Yet in this case I was happy to slow down and savor the author’s remarkable prose and eye for the striking detail. The languid pace of the novel matches the pace of life in Guyana, where hanging out is an art form and waiting lacks the competitive tension of India.

The narrator’s openness to experience sometimes leads him into situations a more cautious traveler would avoid at all costs; for example, he goes diamond hunting (“porknocking”) with a con artist named Baby, a man who claims to have served time for murder. He attends weddings with a man known throughout Guyana for attending weddings. He listens to a wide variety of Rasta music, about which he is passionate. And as the book and his trip approach their conclusion, he embarks on a spontaneous trip to Venezuela with a young Guyanese woman he barely knows.

Along the way, he relates the history of Guyana, the legacy of Dutch and British colonialism, slavery and imported labor that has resulted in a country with a mixed population of Amerindian, African and Indian origin, with a little Portuguese, Chinese and random other thrown in for good measure. The narrator explores and comments on the ways that Indian nationals in Guyana maintain their culture and the ways it departs from what he knows from home. At one point he mentions the moment when he told his family in Mumbai that he would no longer wear the sacred thread indicating his caste; clearly he has become disaffected in his homeland, but whether he finds what he’s seeking in Guyana, whether it’s possible to find it at all, remains unclear.

While I found the writing almost hypnotic and the stories intriguing, the extended use of Guyanese patois and unfamiliar terms made the dialogue a bit oblique at times. I could have used a glossary for the wildlife alone. (It might be worth keeping the Guyana Wikipedia page open in front of you while you read. A kraieteur is a golden frog. Who knew?) I also wonder if this book would resonate even more if I’d read some V.S. Naipaul beforehand. The narrator mentions Naipaul’s work more than once and it might provide some context for his attempts to connect. Regardless, I was happy to go along on this beautifully aimless wander year in Guyana.

Genre: A novel that reads like a travel memoir (or vice versa?)

Read it if: You know nothing about Guyana and would like to know more; you can’t imagine heading into the bush with an untrustworthy diamond hunter, but would enjoy experiencing that vicariously through literature.

Skip it if: You are looking for a fast-paced, action-packed adventure story; you would prefer not to know the Guyanese terms for various body parts and curse words.

Movie-worthy: It would be a strange and beautiful movie, but I suspect they’d have to come up with a stronger narrative arc.

 

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Rant: What’s Wrong with Jonathan Franzen?

In an essay that appeared on The Guardian’s website last week, critically acclaimed author Jonathan Franzen railed against the technological trends of modernity, citing as prescient a turn of the century Austrian satirist named Karl Kraus (aka “The Great Hater.”) Kraus had a problem with the newspapers of his day, and Franzen has a major problem with the Internet. And Twitter. And self-publishing. And authors with a gift for self-promotion (he specifically mentions Jennifer Weiner. I couldn’t help imagining her looking up from her computer screen and muttering a Seinfeldian “Franzen!”) Oh, and he compares Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Although not quite as old as Mr. Franzen, I remember the days before tweeting, texting, iPads, Kindles, PCs and Macs. I remember typing simple programs on my Commodore 64 as a kid, and saving the games on a cassette tape (!). I remember questions left unanswered because they were not specifically addressed in my set of 1984 edition World Book Encyclopedias. In those days, I read whatever I could find on the shelves of my local and school libraries. Knowledge was limited to words on paper within my immediate vicinity.

Those days are gone. When my kids ask me a question about the world we live in, I can find what is known about that subject and share it with them. We talk about identifying trustworthy sites and credible sources, applying critical thinking and carefully chosen search terms. Would they be better off knowing only the facts they could memorize? I doubt it. The ability to answer their questions hasn’t made them stupid; it has facilitated their insatiable curiosity and interest in the world.

That doesn’t mean we’ve given up on books. Our home is teeming with books, stacked in shelves and closets in, literally, every room of our house. Thanks to Amazon, I can get my hands on virtually any book at will, from the latest bestseller to the most obscure title by a little known author. That doesn’t stop me from going to bookstores, where I love to browse and make spontaneous impulse purchases. I get that Amazon has effected a sea change in publishing. Yet there must be other readers like me, who choose to read books in a variety of forms, from a variety of sources.

Mr. Franzen, however, waxes nostalgic for the days when gatekeepers barred inferior works from reaching the hands of hapless readers. He bemoans the fact that in the near future, readers will have no one to guide them through the thickets of self-published and fake-reviewed drivel (I suspect he’s not talking about Oprah). From my perspective as a reader, the idea that there are too many books and not enough good ones does not seem like a valid problem. So many brilliant, fascinating, inventive, orginal books come out each year that even reading as frantically as I can, there’s still no time to get to them all. It’s an embarassment of riches.

Surely Mr. Franzen must acknowledge that throughout history, talented authors have been overlooked by the gatekeepers. Today, at least those authors have a shot at directly connecting with the reading public. Which brings us to Twitter.

Mr. Franzen snipes at Salman Rushdie, an author he believes “ought to have known better,” for engaging on Twitter. I guess he forgot to slam Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood and countless other novelists for doing the same thing. Twitter is a tool. What you do with that tool, how thoughtfully or carelessly you use it, is entirely up to you. Why does Mr. Franzen feel compelled to lash out at people who choose to communicate in the public forum of social media simply because he prefers longform essays in established newspapers? (An essay I only read because I clicked a link.)

Mr. Franzen also agrees with Kraus that decorative, aesthetically pleasing design should not be valued over content, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Although I work on a desktop PC myself, I’m fairly certain content created on a Mac would have the same inherent value (or lack thereof). What thoughtful, elegant design can do is eliminate the barrier between intent and action; pounding out words on a sticky typewriter will not make your writing any better, but it may be so frustrating you won’t keep it up for long. With a sleek and powerful MacBook, you really don’t have any excuses for not producing that Great American Novel. It’s not the MacBook’s fault if you don’t.

Socrates, of course, was against writing anything down, because it would eliminate the need for memory and cheapen the value of knowledge. If Mr. Franzen had been alive in those days, he probably would have agreed. In light of the fact that his personal apocalypse takes the form of Amazon and the Internet in general, I suspect he would have found some apocalypse to go apoplectic about in any age, from the time of Karl Kraus and his Viennese newspapers to the advent of the printing press. In the wise words of someone, somewhere: haters gonna hate.

For all I know the apocalypse may well be upon us. But I’m pretty sure it’s not because of my Kindle.

Category: Rant

Review: The Miracle Inspector by Helen Smith

The Miracle InspectorIn The Miracle Inspector, a young couple in London struggle with communication issues–and life in a totalitarian state. In this alternate or future version of the city, women are not allowed to leave home without wearing a head-to-toe cover and veil; even then, they are only permitted to visit female relatives. The authorities claim this is for their own protection. Similarly, children no longer attend school, in order to keep them safe from pedophiles. This is no country for old men: they’ve all been taken into custody for some infraction or other, and effectively disappeared. No one trusts anyone else, constantly fearing a trap or a test by the authorities.

Lucas and Angela have a nagging sense that this isn’t right, but they have only the vaguest ideas of what the world used to be like. As the Inspector of Miracles, handsome, selfish Lucas has an enviable position in the Ministry. He regularly investigates reported miracles, with no expectation that he will ever find a real one. No one at the Ministry knows of his connection to Jesmond, a poet of the revolution, one of the few old men still around.

When Jesmond leaves his journal and a packet of letters with Angela, she begins to read them, slowly, in order to savor the unexpected experience of knowing another person. She yearns for something more than her narrow, circumscribed life but she can’t articulate what it is that she wants. Lucas promises that someday soon they will attempt to leave London for the imagined paradise of Cornwall, land of the ocean and freedom.

It doesn’t end well, and it’s hardly a spoiler to say so. Smith repeatedly offers tantalizing glimpses of stories, only to cut them off abruptly. When Lucas visits the home of a woman named Maureen, who has reported a miracle involving her young daughter, Christina, Lucas daydreams through her entire explanation of the supposed miracle. We never learn what Maureen believed to be miraculous about her disabled child. Through the deft use of deceptively simple sentences, Smith creates a feeling of foreboding and dread even while staying in the heads of her ignorant and all too human characters. They have no idea what they’ve lost, or what they’re likely to find.

This haunting and deeply disturbing book reminded me of the truly classic dystopias like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. It’s a story that makes you glad to look around and realize you’re safely home, that you can wake from the nightmare.

Genre: literary dystopia

Read it if: You are still haunted by the ending of 1984 and would now like to be haunted by something else.

Skip it if: You just love happy endings.

Movie-worthy: Very hard to imagine how anyone could do it justice.

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Review: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Night FilmDon’t you love it when a book lives up to the hype? Night Film has been reviewed and raved about everywhere, until I felt I was missing something if I didn’t drop everything and read it right away. Luckily, that’s exactly what I did.

In Night Film, journalist Scott McGrath has never recovered from a scandal involving his coverage of famed, reclusive film director Stanislas Cordova. Cordova’s movies are classic horror masterpieces, starring actors who later refuse to talk about the experience of shooting his films. When Cordova’s daughter Ashley is found dead, McGrath can’t resist pursuing the story, no matter what it costs him. Along the way, he picks up two sidekicks who appear to share his obsession with Ashley Cordova and her untimely death: Hopper Cole, a handsome two-bit drug dealer; and Nora Halliday, a nineteen-year-old coat check girl and aspiring actress.

McGrath is convinced that Cordova did terrible things at his family retreat, The Peak, and as he pursues leads in order to piece together Ashley’s final days, he begins to question whether rational explanations suffice to explain what happened to Ashley. This tension between the rational and the occult increases throughout the book, and Pessl expertly guides the reader across a tightrope between the two ways of interpreting everything that occurs.

The world of Cordova fandom, the detailed descriptions of his movies and the recurring signature Cordova images all play a significant role in McGrath’s efforts to solve the puzzle. They also make this book a true delight to read, along with the fascinating and vividly drawn secondary characters McGrath and his associates encounter along the way.

When McGrath loses himself in the artificial world of Cordova’s movies, the reader genuinely does not know how much of what is happening is objective reality, and how much a product of McGrath’s own fixation. It is a wild and intriguing ride, a journey into the dark heart of genius and obsession.

It is also downright creepy in parts (e.g., doll parts). At one particularly tense and sinister moment, I felt something crawling on my leg in real life and had a brief terror spasm. (It was an ant. A really big ant.) So while the imagery of Night Film is dark indeed, I highly recommend reading it by the light of day if you are easily creeped out.

Genre: Psychological cinematic thriller with literary street cred and supernatural twists (or not!)

Read it if: You love Hitchcock movies, ambiguity, awesome characters, cinema, complexity, and/or good creepy fun.

Skip it if: You don’t like even the suggestion that maybe something supernatural is going on, or maybe something gory happened.

Movie-worthy: What a movie this could be! But you’d need a Cordova-level genius to film it, obviously.

 

Review: Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

While I wDissident Gardensas on vacation back home in the US, I went to a bookstore in North Carolina that offered a free Advanced Reader Copy with purchase of a new book. I looked at the various ARCs on offer and was absolutely thrilled to pick up a copy of Dissident Gardens. I loved Fortress of Solitude, thought Motherless Brooklyn was astonishing, enjoyed Chronic City and gave As She Climbed Across the Table nine stars on bookcrossing.com!

So I fully expected to love this book, and maybe that was part of the problem. For you see, I did not love it. I finished it, because I’m pathological that way, but love never bloomed in my reader’s heart. This was disappointing on multiple levels. I’m a liker at heart, the exact opposite of a hater. I want to like you! I want to like your book! What happened between the two of us? Was it me? Was it you?

Even more frustrating is the fact that I can’t pinpoint what it was that turned me off. This novel was full of things happening, a story told in non-linear fashion with plenty of  artfully crafted sentences. The characters were multi-dimensional, vividly drawn, quirky, etc. I may not have liked them, but I don’t normally need to; unfortunately, I didn’t care about most of them either, and that’s kind of crucial.

And were these characters ever characters: Rose, the bitter matriarch, her steely will and forceful personality wasted on a lost cause that didn’t even want her; Lenny, the crude and unpleasant random cousin (the Lincoln scene left me nauseated); Cicero, Rose’s pseudo-son, a man of vast appetites who nevertheless experiences everything in life at a contemptuous academic remove; Tommy, Rose’s son-in-law, a strangely hollow would-be folk-singer of the proletariat; and Sergius, Rose’s grandson, whose muted Quaker-influenced existence seems to owe little to his family’s revolutionary tendencies, until it bursts out in an ill-timed moment of anti-authoritarian unruliness.

And then there’s Miriam. Rose’s daughter defines herself in opposition to her mother’s every choice, yet these choices lead her into the same thwarted life, her gifts wasted on a cause that, from the perspective of 2013, seems faintly ridiculous. She is by far the most charismatic, vivacious character in the book and I did care about her, a lot. One of my favorite scenes in the book involves Miriam’s appearance on a quiz show while stoned; once again, she wastes her intelligence and fails to live up to her potential. Or maybe it’s arrogance on her part, the belief that she is so clever, knows so much more than anyone else, that she can win any battle, any argument, no matter what the odds. Ultimately, she is proven terribly wrong.

I wanted to love this book, but in the end: I just didn’t. I’m sure it will find plenty of readers who engage with its characters and themes more fully than I could (especially after the New York Times F-bomb brouhaha.) Sometimes you don’t connect with a book. There’s just no chemistry. It’s not you, it’s me.

Genre: Literary failed revolutionary/folk singer fiction

Read it if: You wonder what happened to all those old Communists after it wasn’t really a thing anymore, or you are reading this post from an Occupy campground.

Skip it if: You are me, and have a time machine to make that possible.

Movie-worthy: I’m going with a no on that. (The Lincoln scene! Oh, the horror!)