February 20, 2014

Book Review: The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan

Posted in Book Reviews tagged , , , , , , , at 12:48 pm by The Word Jar

The Tragedy Paper CoverYou are your own worst enemy. The Tragedy Paper, Elizabeth LaBan’s novel recently released in paperback, exemplifies how this statement is never more true than when you are a teenager.

Duncan Meade is about to start his senior year at the Irving School, a private school on the East Coast. He arrives on campus anticipating and dreading two important senior traditions—the “gift” that will be in his room, left by the previous occupant, and the Tragedy Paper, a paper all seniors have to complete before graduation. But the gift is not what he expected. Duncan finds a set of CDs promising to reveal the truth behind what happened at the previous year’s Senior Game and, in the process, help him complete his Tragedy Paper.

Tim MacBeth is the previous occupant of Duncan’s room and at the center of last year’s Senior Game accident. He recorded the CDs to describe how he ended up at the Irving School and what he went through once he was there.

Tim, a teenager with albinism, meets Vanessa, the stereotypical pretty and popular girl, on his way to the school. They happily keep each other company when their flight is delayed, and Tim is amazed at his luck. But, Vanessa of course has a boyfriend, and when they arrive at school, said boyfriend intimidates Tim, so he and Vanessa are forced to maintain their budding friendship on the sly. But Vanessa’s boyfriend also makes a point of including Tim in the planning of the Senior Game. Tim believes he’s only recruited as a joke, but he goes along with everything because, for once, he’s enjoying being included.

Tim, dealing with albinism, serves at the ultimate teenage outsider. While most teenagers find some way to fit in with their peers, Tim feels his very appearance, completely unalterable, keeps others away. Or does it? The CDs reveal that much of the distance between Tim and his peers is Tim’s misperception, and this misperception–that no one would possibly accept him–keeps him from befriending others. But others do try to befriend him, and as revealed by Duncan’s narrative, some people hardly noticed Tim at all.

The Tragedy Paper alternates between Tim’s and Duncan’s point of view. Perhaps because Duncan so often plays the part of a passive listener, Tim’s quickly becomes the more engaging narrative.

While The Tragedy Paper culminates by describing the fateful accident, the scope of the accident itself lacks the tragedy built up throughout the story. The accident does have horrible consequences, but weighing it against Tim’s own thoughts and actions as heard on the CDs, the outcome wasn’t that unexpected. It felt that there was much ado about not so much. Much can be attributed to Tim’s lack of self-esteem, which has more to do with him being a typical teenager than it does with his albinism. But the book is full of teenage melodrama and angst, and teens should readily relate to the story.

The Tragedy Paper lacks the emotional depth of fellow YA narrator-on-an-audio-device novel Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher or the intricate boarding school mystery of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But it illuminates the fragile teenage psyche using an unconventional narrator and explores the notion that everyone just wants to belong and the cost of making that happen. For that, teens should find The Tragedy Paper to be a worthwhile read.

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January 13, 2014

Book Review: Being Esther by Miriam Karmel

Posted in Book Reviews tagged , , , , , , , , , at 2:52 pm by The Word Jar

Being EstherFor Hazel and Wren this month, I reviewed Being Esther by Miriam Karmel. It’s a touching look at what it means, to you and the people around you, to get older. Esther is eighty-five years old, and though she still has her wit and humor, her body is defying her. Her daughter wants to put her in “Bingoville,” and Esther just wants to grow old with dignity. Karmel captures the voice of Esther perfectly. At times it felt like I could have been reading “Being Marjorie,” as before my grandmother passed, she and my mom had several of the same conversations/confrontations that Esther has with her daughter, Ceely. It can be a heartbreaking read at times, especially if you’ve been responsible for caring for an aging parent. But Being Esther is worth the read, not only to get to know Esther, but to find out what it’s like being Esther.

(To read my full review, please stop by Hazel and Wren.)

December 12, 2013

Book Review: A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims

Posted in Book Reviews tagged , , , , , , , at 2:27 pm by The Word Jar

A Questionable Shape CoverI’m pleased to announce that I’m now an Editorial Contributor for the fantastic literary community Hazel & Wren. More about them in a future post, but do go check out their website! My main job will be to write a monthly fiction review for their “What We’re Reading” column, and my debut review went live today.

I reviewed A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims, a zombie novel that rises above the terror and gore to new philosophical heights (for the zombie genre, anyway). Have you ever wondered what it means to *be* a zombie? Have you ever tried to see the world through their milky white eyes? Vermaelen, the narrator of A Questionable Shape, has done these things and more. Helping his friend Mazoch try to find his missing, and presumably infected, father before hurricane season begins in Baton Rouge allows Vermaelen plenty of opportunity to obsess over the behaviors of the undead, and he shares all of his theories about them in A Questionable Shape.

Head on over to Hazel & Wren to check out the full review.

September 23, 2013

Book Review: The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

Posted in Book Reviews tagged , , , , , at 2:43 pm by The Word Jar

ImageIt takes a certain level of neighborliness to check on the neighbor you secretly admire when disturbing noises are heard in her apartment. It takes a whole other level of devotion to craft for her an infallible alibi when you find out she just murdered her ex-husband.

So begins The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino. Togashi hunts down his ex-wife, Yasuko, when he needs money. But after a tussle between her daughter and Togashi, Yasuko ends up killing him. Ishigami, Yasuko’s neighbor, checks on the mother and daughter after he hears the struggle through their shared wall. A mathematical genius and secretly in love with Yasuko, he offers to construct their alibis and dispose of the body, as long as they promise to follow his precise instructions. “Logical thinking will get us through this,” he assures them.

A mind-twisting crime thriller, The Devotion of Suspect X follows the investigation of Togashi’s murder. As the case unfolds, Detective Kusanagi starts consulting with a former classmate, Yukawa, a physicist and former colleague of Ishigami’s. Together, and for their own reasons, they work to unravel the true precision of Ishigami’s plan. And the level of, and reason for, Ishigami’s devotion becomes clear.

The old colleagues Yukawa and Ishigami meet up a few times throughout the investigation, making for a fascinating intellectual cat-and-mouse game. Each man approaches the issue of the murder through classical problems from their respective fields. Yukawa wants to know “which is harder: devising an unsolvable problem, or solving that problem?” They also discuss “whether or not it is as easy to determine the accuracy of another person’s results as it is to solve the problem yourself.” In other words, which is easier—Ishigami creating the solution to Yasuko’s problem by covering up the murder, or Yukawa trying to figure out Ishigami’s solution?

Although some linguistical nuance is lost in the translation, which can make some passages stilted in the reading, Higashino’s methodical reveal of Ishigami’s plan and motivation is like deconstructing a beautiful piece of origami, pulling back each fold and layer until the reader is exposed to the hidden intricacies of the deceptively simple design. It is this methodical (not to be confused with boring) unfolding of the story that keeps the reader invested in this quick read.

(Review copy source: Library)

May 7, 2012

Book Review: The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Posted in Book Reviews tagged , , , , , , , , , at 2:48 pm by The Word Jar

Nothing is hotter than Scandinavian thrillers right now, and Denmark is throwing its hat in the ring with The Keeper of Lost Causes by award-winning author Jussi Adler-Olsen. Adler-Olsen does what most recent Scandinavian imports do best—serves up a compelling, dark story with enough cruel twists to leave the reader thinking, “What is in that coffee over there?”

The Keeper of Lost Causes follows Copenhagen detective Carl Morck a few months after he has been shot on the job. When Carl returns to the force and refuses to play nicely with his fellow detectives, he is unexpectedly promoted to head up the new cold cases division, Department Q. Given only a stack of case files and Assad, a jack-of-all-trades assistant, Carl begins to investigate the disappearance of Merete Lyngaard, a rising politician.

The narrative alternates between Carl’s investigation and the real circumstances of Merete’s disappearance. The investigation bumbles along at times, with a few lucky breaks and a lot of help from unassuming Assad. But the chapters that follow Merete are tight, twisted, and intensely pressure-packed, leaving the reader wanting more but afraid to admit it (and more than a little worried that Adler-Olsen might gladly give it to them).

Adler-Olsen excels at weaving in the secondary characters and plots. While Carl comes across as a first-rate jerk and second-rate detective at times, Assad, with his secretive past and sundry talents, puts the clues together and makes a mean curry. The Keeper of Lost Causes spins an interesting investigation tale, but Adler-Olsen’s true talent is creating horrific crime scenarios. The Keeper of Lost Causes is the first* in the new Department Q series from Adler-Olsen, and he would do readers a favor by revealing more about Assad in future books, as well as keeping the terrifically twisted narratives coming.

* According to Amazon, The Absent One, the second Department Q case, is scheduled to be released August 21, 2012.

(Review copy source: Dutton via NetGalley)

November 14, 2011

Book Review: Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman

Posted in Book Reviews tagged , , , , , at 9:53 am by The Word Jar

Fairy tales provide the backdrop for Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman. But these fairy tales bleed from the dark, gothic vein of the Brothers Grimm, not that of technicolor Disney. They are filled with difficult choices and moral repercussions reflective of the tumultuous life of their author and indicative of the mysteries and struggles facing the characters of Arcadia Falls.

Centered around the mysterious death of a student at Arcadia School, a secluded upstate New York boarding school, Arcadia Falls follows two threads—the life of Meg Rosenthal, a recent widow and new teacher at the academy, and the lives of the academy’s two founders, Vera Beecher and Lily Eberhardt, through a diary that Meg finds in her cottage. Meg accepts a teaching position at the school because she needs a source of income, but the position also allows her to return to her passion of fairy tales. Her college thesis focused on fairy tales, particularly The Changeling Girl, written by Lily Eberhardt, and coming to Arcadia School allows Meg to delve into the mysteries of Lily and Vera firsthand and walk in their footsteps.

Goodman uses this book to examine the many roles of women—mother, daughter, lover, teacher. The most interesting angle Goodman examines is the notion of woman as artist. The characters of Arcadia Falls, primarily women, serve as subjects to test the theory of whether or not women can be both successful artists and mothers, or if one profession ultimately suffers because of the other. Although both sides are argued throughout, the story provides a definitive final verdict.

While Arcadia Falls wraps up quite quickly and a bit too neatly, the journey through the upstate New York woods is well worth the time. A good gothic read for the autumn season.

(Review copy source: Ballantine Books via LibraryThing)

July 12, 2011

Book Review: Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

Posted in Book Reviews tagged , , , , , at 9:34 am by The Word Jar

Alice LaPlante’s new novel Turn of Mind opens with retired orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jennifer White unsure of where she is. Sixty-four years old and suffering from Alzheimer’s, Dr. White studies her surroundings and uses social cues to figure out she’s in a police station. As she is being read her rights, she realizes something bad has happened. Although she doesn’t understand things at this point, she soon finds out her best friend, Amanda, has been murdered. Because four of Amanda’s fingers have also been surgically removed, Dr. Jennifer White is the main suspect.

The history of Jennifer and Amanda’s friendship unfolds through Jennifer’s faltering memories. As she remembers the many times she was able to confide in Amanda, Jennifer is genuinely saddened by Amanda’s death and upset that her failing cognitive abilities prevented her from helping her friend. At other times, recalling the numerous instances when Amanda schemed to reveal Jennifer’s devastating personal secrets, claiming such revelations would help Jennifer live a better life, she is secretly relieved that Amanda can do no more damage. Their friendship was a shining example of “Keep your friends close; keep your enemies closer.”

LaPlante uses Dr. Jennifer White as an unsettling narrator. Jennifer’s first-person narration gives readers a unique insight into what it could be like to suffer from Alzheimer’s—finding people in your house you don’t recognize, coming back to the present in a place you don’t remember being just minutes before, losing your dignity in a facility staffed by people who view you not as a person, but another chart to be maintained. Readers share in Jennifer’s increasing confusion and memory loss, highlighted by exhilarating memories of successful, delicate surgeries and marred by increasingly erratic and violent episodes when Jennifer doesn’t know where she is or whom she is with.

Turn of Mind forces readers to be on their toes during this heart-wrenching, poignant descent deeper into Alzheimer’s. Afterall, how reliable can a narrator be when her recall is impaired? As Alzheimer’s grip on Jennifer’s mind becomes tighter, her lips become looser. She speaks her mind to people instead of trying to play along with social games she no longer understands. The progressive dementia eats away at Jennifer’s ability to maintain the lies surrounding Amanda’s murder. As readers go on this stunning, emotional journey with Dr. Jennifer White, they find that once Alzheimer’s strips everything away, only the truth remains.

(Review copy source: Atlantic Monthly Press via NetGalley)

May 23, 2011

Book Review: S’Mother by Adam Chester

Posted in Book Reviews tagged , , , , , at 10:08 am by The Word Jar

When Adam Chester left his mother in Florida to attend the University of Southern California, he intended to leave all traces of his mother behind. He would finally be free of the woman who’d bring his forgotten sweater to him while he was still changing in the boys’ locker room. But Joan Chester would not be left behind. Not while her son needed her protection. And so she began to send him letters. Lots of letters. And Adam kept every one. Now he gets to exact his embarrassment revenge in the appropriately titled S’Mother: The Story of a Man, His Mom, and the Thousands of Altogether Insane Letters She’s Mailed Him, a collection of the best Joan Chester letters he received.

Joan Chester did not send run-of-the-mill “How’s college? Miss you lots!” letters. These missives were filled with such sage advice as “[I]f you buy U.S. Savings Bonds, you have to keep them in a safe deposit box at the bank so no one can steal them” and “Have a good time next weekend and take your stomach medication with you in case you eat onions again.” Valuable life lessons. But this correspondence was not all fun and games for Joan. She repeatedly reminds Adam—as she’s “getting on in years”—where her will and insurance policies are located if he should ever need to find them.

The letters continue throughout Adam’s adult life—after graduation, after he meets his wife, after he’s hired as an Elton John stand-in. The short collection highlighted in S’Mother jumps from letter to letter with only the shortest setup or reaction from Adam. While the letters (some complete with reproductions) are highly entertaining, this quick read could have easily fit in more backstory without slowing down the pace.

Chester freely admits that this book was meant to help readers feel better about their moms, but he has a genuine gift in all this material. For all of her mundane and inane information, Joan has provided her son with a tangible stash of motherly love. In this age of trite texts and tweets, a whole generation is growing up not knowing the joy of opening the mail box to find not only bills and solicitations, but also handwritten letters. That you can keep. Without the fear of losing them if your computer crashes or your phone ends up in the pool. Chester wrote and compiled this book for the entertainment of others, and perhaps to poke a little fun at his mom, but I’d also bet he realizes just how lucky he is.

Joan Chester may not win any Mother of the Year awards, but she can’t be accused of not caring about her son. She practically wrote a book for him. Adam cashed in on this valuable material in S’Mother and so does the reader.

(Review copy source: Abrams via NetGalley)

July 26, 2010

Book Review: Pieces of Happily Ever After by Irene Zutell

Posted in Book Reviews tagged , , , , , at 9:07 am by The Word Jar

Pieces of Happily Ever After, Irene Zutell’s latest novel, isn’t a fairy tale. It’s about real life, where you can be banished to the far-off land of Suburbia to occasionally play the role of wicked (step)mother to your own daughter, while the evil (and beautiful) Queen of Hollywood steals your husband instead of simply sending you a poisoned apple.

Alice Hirsh is the newest star of this anti–fairy tale. Alice’s husband, Alex, shatters their simple but lovely life together when he’s swept off his feet by Hollywood’s latest “It” girl. Once Alice realizes that it is now just her and Gabby, her daughter who is obsessed with all things princesses and happy endings, she finds herself in relationships she never would have dreamed of before her husband left her in Suburbia for another woman.

Zutell creates a compelling supporting cast of characters who feel like they could be found in any woman’s circle of acquaintances, friends, and relatives. An uptight neighborhood chairwoman obsesses over the neighborhood’s annual Christmas lighting display. A former adult film star tries to literally erase her past. The domineering head of an adult care home evicts Alice’s mother, who recently started cursing like a sailor. Round it out with an ogre of a paparazzo, a charming ex-boyfriend who reconnects with Alice via email, and a group of mothers who look like they have it all together on the surface and Pieces of Happily Ever After easily balances out Alice’s heavy loss with these eccentric characters who help Alice take care of herself as she struggles to take care of everyone else.

Pieces of Happily Ever After is about more than just the husband/wife relationship. It’s a charming read about the relationships women form—as mothers, daughters, friends, spouses—that help get them through both good times and bad. More importantly, it’s about the relationship women have with themselves. It’s about what they expect for and from themselves in relationships, what they’ll put up with and what’s worth leaving behind. Because when you finally determine what you are worth to yourself, you can appreciate the random moments in life—being your daughter’s knight in shining armor, spending one final moment with a loved one, learning to take a chance on yourself—that are the true pieces of happily ever after.

(Be sure to check out A Few Words With…Irene Zutell!)

(Review copy source: St. Martin’s Griffin via LibraryThing)

June 23, 2010

Book Review: One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Posted in Book Reviews tagged , , , at 9:33 am by The Word Jar

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni couldn’t have known how timely her book would be when it was released. One Amazing Thing, her new novel about survivors trapped together after an earthquake, is given a frighteningly real backdrop by the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.

Set in an unnamed American city, One Amazing Thing takes the reader through the ordeals faced by a disparate group of nine people trapped in the Indian visa and passport office after a major earthquake destroys the building around them. Uma, a graduate student planning to visit her parents in India, finds herself facing grim prospects with Lance and Vivienne, a married couple, Jiang and Lily, a grandmother and teenage granddaughter, Mangalam and Malathi, employees of the visa office, Tariq, a troubled young man, and Cameron, an ex-soldier. As tension builds, both because of the earthquake aftermath and personal prejudices, Uma suggests everyone share one amazing thing from their lives in order to take their minds off their situation.

Although the premise of the narrative is promising, this book is asked to support a lot of story. The bulk of the book is given to the character stories, and the story of survival is but the thinnest of threads trying to hold the distinct stories together. The stories offered by the characters are themselves expertly crafted and absorbing reads, but with nine characters to address, logistically there can’t be much time spent getting to know the individual characters. The characters get one chance to shine when they share their story, then they are cast to the periphery, having to balance with everyone else on that narrow survival thread. The relative absence of back story for the characters gives the book a sense of immediacy (how much can you really learn about a stranger when you are just trying to stay alive?), but offering “one amazing thing” with no frame of reference can leave the reader wondering why she should care about these people and their survival.

One Amazing Thing offers readers touching stories delivered in dire circumstances. Although this book can transport the reader and allow them to empathize with the survivors and victims of the recent real-world earthquakes, the book’s balance could be improved by either decreasing the number of characters or adding pages, allowing more time for meaningful character development.

(Review copy source: Hyperion/Voice via LibraryThing)

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