Monday, July 30, 2012

Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron

     In the spring of 1950, Coral Glynn takes a job in the English countryside as a live-in nurse for Mrs. Edith Hart, an elderly woman dying of cancer.  Life at Hart House is quiet, isolated, and uneventful, so Coral is surprised to find companionship with Mrs. Hart's son, Clement.  Clement was injured during the war and has turned into somewhat of a recluse since then.  Except for a few local friends, Clement's only social interactions consist of his polite, but awkward conversations with Coral.  When Mrs. Hart dies, Coral prepares to leave Hart House, but is stunned when Clement proposes marriage.  She has very few friends and no family, so she reluctantly accepts - but the prospect of new beginnings is darkened when Coral is identified as a suspect in a local crime.  Her quiet, simple life is abruptly shattered by a series of miscommunications, and the bizarre subsequent events send Coral on a strange journey of memory, discovery, and self-preservation.

     Coral Glynn is a very odd little book.  At just over 200 pages, the novel is short, but the changes among the few characters is drastic - especially for Coral.  Combining aspect of gothic romance, tragedy, and dark humor, Peter Cameron's novel is unpredictable, but very compelling.

     More than anything, Coral Glynn is about the consequences of social red tape, decorum, and miscommunication - specifically for women of this era.  Coral's life has been shaped by a series of traumas, and she is ill-equipped to handle the startling events surrounding Hart House.  With a lack of self-confidence and very little sense of security, Coral is easily persuaded and bombarded by conflicting advice.  Cameron's prose is succinct and the characters are sightly underdeveloped, but the book still manages to be curiously magnetic, and Coral never ceases to be a fascinating, mystifying character.

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Friday, July 27, 2012

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

     Henry VIII is one of the most discussed figures in history, but Hilary Mantel's 2009 prize-winning novel, Wolf Hall brings the famous Tudor's story to life from a rather unique perspective.  Wolf Hall begins in the early 1500s as the King begins his affair with the infamous Anne Boleyn.  It's a time of uncertainty and turmoil between Henry's court and the catholic church, and Mr. Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer, is right in the middle of these delicate affairs.  Once an advisor to Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell's current business revolves around keeping the King happy, which is not always an easy task.  Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, has yet to produce a male heir, and after 20 years of marriage, the King has requested an annulment.  With his affections turned toward Anne Boleyn, King Henry's court is greatly distressed.  Questions of loyalty, sin, dishonesty, and duty arise, and Thomas Cromwell must tread lightly in order to prevent dissent and uprisings.

     It all sounds ridiculous and dramatic, which it is, but it's also true.  Henry VIII was known as a gluttonous womanizer even during his reign, but he is most famous for his relationship with the Boleyns - especially the legal, social, and religious ramifications of said relationships.  But, as Wolf Hall shows, the King did not act alone.  He had lawyers, advisors, courtiers, scholars, diplomats, and religious figures all offering heaps of advice.  In fact, there are 5 pages in this novel reserved to identify such advisors, which, believe me, comes in very handy!

     Hilary Mantel received tremendous praise and recognition for this piece of historical fiction, and it is well-deserved.  Wolf Hall is one of the most complicated and involved books I've ever read, but well worth the effort.  I would like to point out, however, that it's not exactly a novel one can rush through - especially not without a fairly well-developed knowledge of this period in British history.  And sometimes it's difficult to keep the characters straight, considering that half the characters are named Thomas, Mary, Henry, or Elizabeth.  But Wolf Hall still manages to be completely engrossing.  It probably won't be on your list of favorites if you don't like historical fiction, but it's impossible to not be impressed by Mantel's extensive knowledge of such a fascinating area of history.  Her writing is unparalleled - I've not come across anything that compares to her unique writing style.  Sometimes it's formal, sometimes it's conversational, and other times it's full of dark, witty dialogue.  It may be a little inconsistent, but it perfectly reflects the rippling, volatile nature of England under Henry VIII's rule.

     Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Wolf Hall, and if you're still curious after reading this fabulous novel, Mantel published a sequel entitled Bring Up the Bodies earlier this year, which, by the way, is on the 2012 Man Booker Prize longlist.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

An Interview with Lytton Smith

A few weeks ago, our friends at Opinionless contacted Lytton Smith, the translator of Kristin Omarsdottir's novel, Children in Reindeer Woods for an exclusive interview.  I was able to collaborate with Opinionless by coming up with a few interview questions.  If you want to read Smith's responses, head on over to Opinionless and check it out!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

     So I'm probably one of the last people on earth to read this book.  I know....but somehow I missed it when I was a kid, or rather, I saw the Disney movie so many times I just assumed there was no reason to actually read it.  Well, now I've read it.  Actually, I read it aloud to my husband, who never got around to reading it as a child, either.  I knew it was going to be weird, but I was surprised by how funny it was...and still is.  It's one of those rare books that transcends genre.  It could be equally enjoyed by children, teens, and adults, which is probably why it's still considered a classic must-read nearly 150 years later.  There's really nothing critical I can offer for a book that has been discussed for a century and a half, so instead of doing a regular review, I though I'd share a few of my favorite Alice book cover designs instead.  Enjoy...

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith

     In Seth Grahame-Smith's newest novel, we are introduced to an alternate version of the story of Jesus's birth - and it might make you think twice the next time you see a nativity scene.  In fact, Grahame-Smith's version is anything but peaceful and calm, as the old Chirstmas carol "Silent Night" suggests.  It's violent, bloody, and gruesome.  This shouldn't come as much of a surprise to readers, though.  After all, we knew King Herod was murdering babies left and right, but we didn't have such graphic, detailed passages to really set the scene.

     Unholy Night retells the ancient story from the perspective of Balthazar, better known as one of the wise men who visited Baby Jesus shortly after his birth to shower him with gifts.  But what if their meeting was accidental?  What if Balthazar and the other two wise men were really thieves, escaping the wrath of Herod the same way Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus were escaping?  What if these thieves stole the clothes of noblemen and stumbled upon a breastfeeding Mary and terrified Joseph and soon realized that they shared the same enemy?  But what if, along the way, Balthazar realizes that, even though he is not a religious man, there could be some truth to the great prophecy - the very same prophecy that has prompted Herod to KILL ALL THE BABIES!!??

     Such is the storyline that Seth Grahame-Smith pursues in Unholy Night.   In the same tradition of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the author spices up a well known story with violence, gore, and terror.  But it that far off?  I mean, we all know that Herod was a horrible person.  He killed members of his own family for goodness sake!  He was paranoid, mentally disturbed, and likely suffering from some sort of disfiguring physical ailment.  Seth Grahame-Smith calls it leprosy, wikipedia says it was likely scabies.  Either way, it's super gross considering how much unprotected sex Herod indulged in. 

     This book is like Mortal Kombat meets the Bible.  When Balthazar realizes why Herod is killing a bunch of infants, he is infuriated and vows to stop him, which is how he ends up protecting Baby Jesus.  Plus, as Balthazar says, "there's something about that baby," and he's right.  The child seems to have some sort of protective force surrounding it.  Miracle after miracle occurs before Balthazar realizes that, perhaps in the interest of revenge, it's best to stay under this baby's cloud of protection, which is good because there IS a zombie scene.  How could there not be?

     Unholy Night is daring and controversial, but I don't believe it is blasphemous as some have suggested.  It's basically the same story, but the wise men have different motives.  Balthazar may be a ruthless, untouchable warrior, but he has his own story to tell, which is basically the whole reason Seth Grahame-Smith writes books.  We know so little about history's supporting roles, but sometimes the side characters can be just as interesting as the stars.  We all regurgitate the same version of history generation after generation, but we have to remember...there's more than one side to a story.  And Seth Grahame-Smith's side might not always be that accurate, but it's entertaining, creative, and even thought-provoking.

Overall Rating:

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

     Beth and Addy have been best friends since middle school.  Now in the prime of their youth, the girls are powerful and admired as the two most promising members of their high school cheerleading squad.  But when a new coach arrives, their hypersensitive hierarchy is disturbed.  Collette French is incredibly beautifuly, mysteriously aloof, and not afraid to push the girls to their physical limitations.  There's something about Coach French that is magnetic, especially for Addy.  The two quickly transcend the student-teacher boundaries and strike up a fast friendship.  They hang out together and confide in each other - Coach even offers Addy the occasional adult beverage and cigarette.  But Coach French doesn't realize that she's not the most powerful force on the squad.  Beth is frighteningly untouchable and she quickly grasps at the opportunity to test the loyalty of her best friend.

     As Coach French says, "There's something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls," and there is definitely something sinister brewing within the cheer squad.  When an unexpected tragedy occurs, Coach and the girls find themselves deeply woven into the circumstances.  However, none of this comes as a surprise to Beth as she calmly proclaims that all will be revealed.  As the girls inch closer and closer to the biggest game of the season, tensions run high and there's no telling where the cards will fall.  But Dare Me is about much more than jealousy, rivalry, and teenage gossip.  It's about the intensity of human relationships and the lengths to which we will go to protect or destroy them.  And Megan Abbott perfectly portrays the terrifying dichotomy that Addy faces.  Abbott writes with such precision - she has a way of describing intangible emotions and thought processes with sharp clarity and purpose.  The intensity of each scene and the urgency of the dialogue can be unnerving at times, but it gives the story a strong pulse.

     Megan Abbott must be one of the few people who didn't force herself to forget what it was like to be a teenager.  Somehow, she can perfectly pen every hormone surge, every flash of insecurity, and every exaggerated moment of pain or pleasure.  As Abbott proved in her 2011 novel, The End of Everything, she is more than capable of shaping the most elusive aspects of memory and the senses.  With her dark, gritty teenage Americana in Dare Me, she has once again overwhelmed me with the resounding intensity of her skillful language and insight.

     Dare Me will be released on July 31, 2012.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

     You've never met a literary character like Bernadette Fox.  She's a certified genius, but she's also highly eccentric.  She lives in a decaying mansion with her Microsoft engineer husband and their 15 year-old daughter in Seattle.  Bernadette is slightly agoraphobic - most of her personal errands are managed through a "virtual assistant" in India - and her condition deteriorates when the family begins to plan a vacation.  Their daughter, Bee, insists they visit sunny Antarctica, and Bernadette isn't exactly looking forward to the big trip.

     To make matters worse, she can't seem to stay out of neighborhood drama.  Their neighbor, Audrey, claims that Bernadette tried to run her over with a car, and the other parents at Bee's pre-prep school complain that Ms. Fox is not as involved with the school community as she should be.  Basically, everyone in Seattle hates the misunderstood creative genius.  Except Bee.  Bee knows that her mom is weird, but she also knows that Bernadette would do absolutely anything for her only daughter.  Bee even says that she and her mom are best friends!

     On the eve of their Antarctic Adventure, Bernadette disappears, seemingly without a trace.  But Bee knows that her mother would never abandon her family, so she begins her own private investigation of Bernadette's disappearance.  She gathers emails, letters, and other correspondences between her mother and various people to shed some light on her mother's state of mind, and possibly her whereabouts.  Told mostly through the voices of those who encountered her, Where'd You Go, Bernadette presents a wildly entertaining account of what happens when "an artist doesn't create."

     Bernadette Fox is like your crazy-cool aunt who wears giant sunglasses and a headscarf and self-medicates, but who will also surprise you by knowing the lyrics to a lesser-known Beatles song and offering witty commentary at unexpected moments.  She's fascinating, and the more I learned about her along the way, the more involved I became.  She is chic, glamorous, and stoic, but she's also charmingly flawed.  The formatting takes a minute to get used to - fragmented conversations, emails, lists, and letters - but it comes together perfectly and mimics the fragmented state of the characters.  Bernadette lives completely inside her head, but as readers, we rarely get a glimpse of her in first person.  That's ok, though, because the characters' perceptions of Bernadette are equally interesting and entertaining.

     Bernadette's adventure is both cynical and heartwarming, silly and poignant.  I am truly disappointed that the story is over because Bernadette is infectious, unpredictable, and she's definitely one of my new favorite literary characters.  But it's really not that surprising considering Maria Semple's resume (she has written for Saturday Night Live and Arrested Development).  No one is more qualified to create such perfectly quirky characters. 

     Where'd You Go, Bernadette will be released on August 14, 2012.

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Friday, July 6, 2012

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

     Nick and Amy don't exactly have the perfect marriage.  They recently moved to the small town of North Carthage, Missouri, after both losing their jobs as writers in New York City.  The couple moved back to Nick's home town where they could start their lives over and care for Nick's ailing parents, but neither of them have been very happy in Missouri.  Nick knows their marriage is struggling, but he has to idea how to confront his wife.  She's distant, mopey, and bored - so different from the bright, energetic woman he married 5 years ago.

     Just as he's gearing up for a long-overdue discussion, Nick comes home on their 5th wedding anniversary to find that Amy has disappeared.  Not without a trace, though.  The living room reveals signs of a struggle, and on top of that, Nick is presented with an anniversary gift that Amy would have given him that evening.  It's a romantic treasure hunt - leading him down memory lane and all over town in search of the next clue.  Meanwhile, the police have turned a suspicious eye toward Nick.  "It's always the husband."  Well maybe it is.  But maybe it's not.  Told through alternating narratives by Nick and Amy, Gone Girl is anything but predictable, exploring aspects of marriage, trust, manipulation, and instinct.

     Let me just say, first of all, that I completely devoured this book.  I basically didn't leave the house for 2 days and I have a crick in my neck from staring straight down at the book, feverishly turning pages and forgetting to eat!  Not many stories elicit such a physical reaction from me, so I know that Gone Girl is truly tremendous.  Horrifying, creepy, and jarring -but tremendous.  Gillian Flynn is a masterful storyteller.  It really is all about the timing - just the right amount of information to keep you wondering.  And then you're sure you've got it...but you don't.  And then you're sure again! get the idea.  Basically you have no choice but to be utterly consumed by the plot.

     Gone Girl forces readers to reconsider their own limits and capabilities and to guiltily wonder if they can every truly know or trust another person.  I know.  It's creepy.  But it's also a testament to the author's power and creativity as a writer.  The human mind is capable of many imaginings, but with Gillian Flynn, it's infinite.  And Flynn's imaginings are also well-organized, precisely timed, and completely within the realm of possibility.  If you thought American Psycho was chilling, wait until you read Gone Girl!

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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Beloved, In Case You've Been Wondering by Wayne Holloway-Smith

     At first glance, Wayne Holloway-Smith's poetry collection is quiet and unassuming.  But read through the sixteen featured poems and you'll find a brief, but well-balanced buffet of imaginings.  From undulating, sensual imagery to raw, unapologetic emotion, Beloved, In Case You've Been Wondering is far from the storebought, over-processed poetry that seems to have flooded the literary market.

     For example, the book's most vibrant imagery is dedicated to a "Miss Coco Lachaille," who is a seductress, a burlesque artist, but who will also be the first to admit that It's just an act!  Even so, one can't help but feel moved by her teasing,  pulsing rhythm as she  

bends to reveal a glimpse of what they came for, / teases the crowd forward in their seats. Accelerando! / Now the swirls throw up her petticoat's tulle tiers; / she spreads the polka-dot parasol, snaps it shut / on the splash of a cymbal. (p.10-11) 

     But there is something lurking beneath the circus-like pleasure of Coco, and we are reminded of the book's first poem, "In Camden or Camberwell," in which a thoughtful, yearning young man proclaims: 

The squeak of my very own red boots / makes me feel like a tall version of a boy who listens to Morrissey...Someone like you, all scarecrow's cock and uniform, / is somewhere, smiling, in Camden or Camberwell - like a coat hanger, / trying on so much of this London, gawping as the rosebush at blackbirds, / about to bite and taste nothing. (p. 1)
     Holloway-Smith wears many hats throughout this collection, including that of a lover, a pregnant woman, and simply an observer.  Stylistically, I'd say Holloway-Smith falls somewhere between Leonard Cohen and Sharon Olds.  The writing is more conversational than lyrical, but, like Cohen and Olds, is also peppered with sharp bursts of transcending poignancy and elegance amongst brazen sexuality.  Being that the author is a Londoner, much of the imagery is localized, but that doesn't mean a non-Londoner can't enjoy the collection.  In fact, this little book may inspire you to hop across the pond just to catch a glimpse of Holloway-Smith's effervescent, urgent London.

     My sister recently spent a semester abroad in the U.K., where she met Wayne Holloway-Smith and subsequently introduced me to his poetry.  It really makes you wonder how many brilliant, but undiscovered writers are roaming our city streets at this very moment.  And until you intersect, whether by fate or by chance, you'll never know what you might have been missing.  According to the book, Holloway-Smith is currently working on a debut novel, tentatively titled Big Time.  I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for it.

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