Monthly Archives: March 2014

Review: & Sons by David Gilbert

& SonsSometimes I read a book, and I know it’s a great book: ambitious, skillfully crafted, brilliantly written. And yet, ultimately, I just don’t like it. David Gilbert’s & Sons is definitely one of those books for me.

Gilbert has a gift for startlingly vivid description–the narrator describes his sister’s family “jammed together, the six of them sour yet insistent, like the richest people flying coach” and later, striving to impress, states that “like a stage mother I pushed my other self forward.” So many tasty sentences! I was loving it. Initially.

The story centers on a celebrated, now elderly, writer named A.N. Dyer. Dyer’s first book, a prep school novel called Ampersand, kicked off his lifelong fame, but he hasn’t written anything new in years. As & Sons opens, Dyer’s oldest friend, Charlie Topping, has died. It is Charlie’s son Philip who narrates the events of the book.

A.N. Dyer has been a fairly lousy father to his sons: Richard, a former addict and aspiring screenplay writer with a wife and two kids of his own; Jamie, a filmmaker fixated on images of suffering and death; and Andy, the 17-year-old product of an affair that ended Dyer’s marriage.

“Fathers start as gods and end as myths and in between whatever human form they take can be calamitous for their sons.” So claims Philip Topping, but it’s unclear whether his own father was the source of his particular calamity, or if it was his deep-seated insecurity and envy of the Dyer boys. Philip’s own life has collapsed into ruins. He has lost his job, his wife has left him, taking his two children with him, and his father has died. When A.N. Dyer offers him the use of a spare room, Philip jumps at the chance.

And here’s where things get tricky. It’s unclear whether anything in this story is true, because Philip is the one telling the tale. His motivations are at best murky, his ethics clearly compromised. He eavesdrops and pokes into the secrets of his host, but much of what he narrates must be speculation, his own projection into the respective worlds of Richard, Jamie, Andy, and their famous father.

Without spoiling anything, I have to say that I saw the ending coming and hoped right up until the final moment that the author would veer the other way. The way things ended bothered me. I didn’t like it. That’s not the literary critical analysis, obviously, but there you have it. Symbolically it all worked quite nicely, but it left me feeling depressed, despite all the genuinely funny moments in the book.

I’m not sorry I read & Sons, because there were many scenes I loved and the writing was excellent throughout. But I won’t be sorry to shrug off the anxieties and self-loathing and father-son issues weighing down most of the characters, and I certainly won’t miss the despicable Philip Topping. I don’t require a likable or relatable main character to enjoy a book, but he was unusually contemptible in his needy fixation on the Dyers. By the end, I despised him almost as much as he despised himself.

Genre: Dysfunctional family / New York writer literary fiction

Read it if: You would normally enjoy a gifted writer’s foray into the heart of generational dysfunction and the unreasonable burdens of guilt and disappointment transferred between fathers and sons.

Skip it if: You dislike unreliable narrators, creepy jerk narrators, man’s inhumanity to man depicted in all its raw unspeakable cruelty, or depressing depictions of elderly decline.

Movie-worthy: Maybe? Having a hard time picturing it.



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Review: Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Uglies by Scott WesterfeldImagine a future in which no one is judged by their appearance. Sounds great, right? In Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, everyone undergoes a transformative procedure as a teenager that makes them “pretty.”

Tally can’t wait until her birthday, when she’ll finally become pretty and join her friends across the river in New Pretty Town. Her best friend, Peris, is already there and when she sneaks in to visit him he has changed in ways she can only admire. She wants nothing more than to get rid of her ugly, distinctive features and join the fun among the new pretties.

When Tally meets Shay, another “ugly” approaching her milestone birthday, the two become fast friends. Shay teaches Tally to ride a hoverboard, and takes her out beyond the ruins, farther than she’s ever been. But when Shay suggests she may not want to become pretty at all, Tally can’t understand how anyone could want to stay ugly.

I had heard great things about this YA series, and it definitely lived up to expectations. Tally is a great character: strong in many ways, yet capable of mistakes that drive the plot and leave her with a burden of secret guilt. The ending perfectly completed the narrative arc yet set the scene for book two in the series, Pretties.

Uglies explores issues of appearance, identity and conformity within an increasingly tense and thrilling story full of hoverboard rides and daring escapades. I’m passing this book on to my oldest son to read and enjoy.

Genre: YA dystopia

Read it if: You went through an awkward phase as a teenager; you are a teenager in an awkward phase; you take issue with media representations of beauty; you think riding a hoverboard sounds incredibly cool.

Skip it if: You prefer protagonists who always make the right choices.

Movie-worthy: This would make a great movie, especially if they used CGI to make all the pretties look the same.

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Review: A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims

A Questionable ShapeZombies. Kant. Hitchcock. Hans Holbein. If most or all of these things appeal to you, I suggest you immediately locate and read A Questionable Shape, the (heavily footnoted, frequently parenthetical) story of a philosophy major in Baton Rouge dealing with the metaphysical consequences of a zombie apocalypse.

For the past three weeks, Michael Vermaelen has been accompanying his friend Matt Mazoch on a search for Mazoch’s father, believed to have been infected in his dilapidated and unsecured home. Visiting the various haunts Mr. Mazoch might be expected to return to in his undead state, Vermaelen has plenty of time to ruminate on the nature of undeath, and ruminate he does.

What I loved about this novel was the way it repeatedly startled me with playful, ridiculously erudite language. I love words, especially ones I don’t know yet, and this book was chock full of them: anamorphosis! mysophobia! echopractic! Vermaelen is always thinking, overthinking, analysing and speculating about the motives and perceptions of everyone around him, finding connections everywhere. He can find prophetic hints of the undead plague in Hitchcock’s The Birds and profound symbolic meaning in a pedestrian traffic signal. Creating a character at once so sympathetic and so absurdly caught up in his own mental hamster wheel is quite an accomplishment.

One of Vermaelen’s more endearing traits is his devotion to his girlfriend, Rachel, even if he can’t quite manage her optimistic approach to surviving the zombie invasion. Unable to read his usual fare since the outbreak, Vermaelen obsessively studies FIGHT THE BITE!, an infection prevention pamphlet from the Louisiana CDC, and ponders what the undead remember, what draws them back to the places they once knew and loved.

It is impossible to summarize this remarkable book in any way that really does it justice. I don’t even remember where I first heard about it–but I’m very glad I did. This one’s going on the keeper shelf.

Genre: Metaphysical zombie apocalypse memoir

Read it if: You loved The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker or Zone One by Colson Whitehead, or preferably both; you have a dictionary handy; you would enjoy a serious discussion involving both Heidegger and zombies.

Skip it if: You hate footnotes; you read zombie books primarily for the brain-eating and fight scenes; you would rather join the undead than contemplate the categorical imperative as applied to zombies.

Movie-worthy: Seriously, who could make a movie of this? Charlie Kaufman could probably pull it off. I’d see that movie.




March New Release Giveaway Hop!


Enter to win, then keep hopping!

Many thanks to Bo-ok Nerd for hosting this giveaway hop!

This month has some delightful new releases in YA. Just enter below for your chance to win one of the offerings below! I will also throw in a copy of my recently released YA novel, Among the Joyful, as an added bonus.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Review: The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

The Weight of BloodThe little town of Henbane, Missouri isn’t exactly Mayberry in The Weight of Blood, a tense debut thriller by Laura McHugh. For one thing, Henbane is another name for nightshade, the reader’s first clue that the town is hiding some poisonous secrets.

The story is told primarily from two alternating perspectives: Lucy Dane, a teenage girl raised by her father after her mother mysteriously disappeared; and Lila Petrovich, Lucy’s mother, newly arrived in Henbane.

Lucy’s story opens with the discovery of a mutilated corpse in a tree across from her uncle Crete’s store: someone has murdered Lucy’s mentally disabled neighbor and childhood friend Cheri, a girl no one has ever cared too much about. In the second storyline, Lila is an orphaned teenager who has aged out of foster care and is trying to find her way in the world. She hopes the two-year contract she signed to work at Crete Dane’s store and farm will let her earn some money and get a fresh start in life.

As the parallel stories progress, it’s impossible not to feel terrified for both young women and the secrets and betrayals they face. The novel includes some brutal violence and can be truly disturbing at times, but the relentless plot makes it hard to put down. McHugh particularly excels at evoking the rural Ozark setting–you feel that you’re right there with Lila and Lucy as they try to understand what’s happening around them in the stultifying southern heat.

Genre: Southern Gothic thriller with an extra helping of gruesome.

Read it if: You like your tea sweet and your reads speedy; you’re not too squeamish about depictions of violence or the concept of squirrel dumplings; you’re a big fan of Deliverance or A Time to Kill.

Skip it if: You’re sensitive to scenes of violence against women; you get annoyed when your protagonists repeatedly do dangerous things without backup; you have a teenage daughter who will be visiting the Ozarks in the near future.

Movie-worthy: Sure. This book could be translated into anything from an Oscar-nominated film to a shlocky Lifetime movie.

Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Bleak House

It gets pretty bleak, people.

I began reading the classic Charles Dickens novel Bleak House in mid-February. I finally finished it: this morning. As I closed the book, having reached the last (unfinished) sentence on page 818, my sense of accomplishment was outweighed only by my sense of relief.

Don’t get me wrong, Bleak House is a classic for a reason. It is by turns amusing and heartbreaking, gripping and painstakingly descriptive. Even the most tangential characters are vividly depicted and memorable. Not to mention the fact that in Bleak House, Dickens provides a scathing critique of the contemporary justice system and the dire living conditions of the poorest members of society.

It was just so very long. All the many, many books on my shelves seemed to be calling my name the last two weeks. Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux, The Circle by Dave Eggers, The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh, the book club books I haven’t even bothered to acquire yet–they were all crying out to be read. Meanwhile I was entangled in the interminable court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, as helpless to escape as poor Richard.

I am very glad, however, to have met the narrator of Bleak House, Esther Summerson. As a character she might almost appear too good to be true, except she clearly shows how much effort it costs her to be so generous and open-hearted. I wanted a happy ending for her more than I can say. (While it may seem silly to withhold spoilers on a book that first appeared in 1853, I won’t reveal here whether she gets one.)

And then there’s Esther’s opposite in every way, Harold Skimpole. Where Esther always weighs the impact of her actions on those around her, Skimpole rejects all responsibility for his behavior. This childlike demeanor has a certain appeal when Esther first encounters him, but by the end of the book it is clear that he has caused real damage in his pathologically selfish interactions with other people.

In summary, I am glad to have read this intricately plotted and surprisingly entertaining classic. And I am even happier to have finished it.


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