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.


January 17, 2014

Resolved: Read More in 2014

Posted in Book Talk tagged , , , , , at 11:06 am by The Word Jar

Read more. The eternal resolution for book lovers everywhere. But this year I mean it. I’m not a data-crunchin’ kind of gal, but I do keep track of the books I’ve read, and the number for 2013 was embarrassing. I can’t even mention it. I probably started and dropped more books than I actually finished. I probably have more excuses than books finished.  So I won’t mention numbers. Instead, I will focus on the future and all the good titles to come in 2014. Here’s what I’m excited to read (so far) this year!

*     *     *     *     *

Books I Started in 2013 But Stopped for Whatever Reason and Now Plan to Finish in 2014

Cartwheel CoverAmity and Sorrow CoverThe Absent One Cover

Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois

A story loosely based on the Amanda Knox case. I never really paid attention to the details of the Knox case, but this story is riveting.

Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley

A mother tries to free herself and her two daughters from a polygamist marriage/cult. Excellent characters.

The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen

I previously reviewed The Keeper of Lost Causes by Adler-Olsen and couldn’t wait to read his other books. The Absent One provides yet another disturbing crime that has to be solved by Detective Carl Morck.

New Books I’m Excited to Read in 2014

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour CoverI Am China CoverLeaving the Sea CoverI'll Be Right There Cover

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

From publisher’s website: “Paul O’Rourke is a Manhattan dentist with a thriving practice leading a quiet, routine-driven life. But behind the smiles and the nice apartment, he’s a man made of contradictions, and his biggest fear is that he may never truly come to understand anybody, including himself.

Then someone begins to impersonate Paul online, and he watches in horror as a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account are created in his name. What begins as an outrageous violation of his privacy soon becomes something more soul-frightening: the possibility that the online “Paul” might be a better version of the real thing. As Paul’s quest to learn why his identity has been stolen deepens, he is forced to confront his troubled past and his uncertain future in a life disturbingly split between the real and the virtual.

At once laugh-out-loud funny about the absurdities of the modern world, and indelibly profound about the eternal questions of the meaning of life, love and truth, TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR is a deeply moving and constantly surprising tour de force.”

I Am China by Xiaolu Guo

From author’s website: “In a flat above a noisy north London market, translator Iona Kirkpatrick starts work on a Chinese letter: Dearest Mu, The sun is piercing, old bastard sky. I am feeling empty and bare. Nothing is in my soul, apart from the image of you. I am writing to you from a place I cannot tell you about yet…

In a detention centre in Dover exiled Chinese musician Jian is awaiting an unknown fate. In Beijing his girlfriend Mu sends desperate letters to London to track him down, her last memory of them together a roaring rock concert and Jian the king on stage. Until the police stormed in.

As Iona unravels the story of these Chinese lovers from their first flirtations at Beijing University to Jian’s march in the Jasmine Revolution, Jian and Mu seem to be travelling further and further away from each other while Iona feels more and more alive. Intoxicated by their romance, Iona sets out to bring them back together, but time seems to be running out.”

Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus

From publisher’s website: “From one of the most innovative and vital writers of his generation, an extraordinary collection of stories that showcases his gifts—and his range—as never before.

In the hilarious, lacerating “I Can Say Many Nice Things,” a washed-up writer toying with infidelity leads a creative writing workshop on board a cruise ship. In the dystopian “Rollingwood,” a divorced father struggles to take care of his ill infant, as his ex-wife and colleagues try to render him irrelevant. In “Watching Mysteries with My Mother,” a son meditates on his mother’s mortality, hoping to stave off her death for as long as he sits by her side. And in the title story, told in a single breathtaking sentence, we watch as the narrator’s marriage and his sanity unravel, drawing him to the brink of suicide.

As the collection progresses, we move from more traditional narratives into the experimental work that has made Ben Marcus a groundbreaking master of the short form. In these otherworldly landscapes, characters resort to extreme survival strategies to navigate the terrors of adulthood, one opting to live in a lightless cave and another methodically setting out to recover total childhood innocence; an automaton discovers love and has to reinvent language to accommodate it; filial loyalty is seen as a dangerous weakness that must be drilled away; and the distance from a cubicle to the office coffee cart is refigured as an existential wasteland, requiring heroic effort.

In these piercing, brilliantly observed investigations into human vulnerability and failure, it is often the most absurd and alien predicaments that capture the deepest truths. Surreal and tender, terrifying and life-affirming, Leaving the Sea is the work of an utterly unique writer at the height of his powers.”

I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-sook Shin

From publisher’s website: “Set in 1980s South Korea amid the tremors of political revolution, I’ll Be Right There follows Jung Yoon, a highly literate, twenty-something woman, as she recounts her tragic personal history as well as those of her three intimate college friends. When Yoon receives a distressing phone call from her ex-boyfriend after eight years of separation, memories of a tumultuous youth begin to resurface, forcing her to re-live the  most intense period of her life. With profound intellectual and emotional insight, she revisits the death of her beloved mother, the strong bond with her now-dying former college professor, the excitement of her first love, and the friendships forged out of a shared sense of isolation and grief.

Yoon’s formative experiences, which highlight both the fragility and force of personal connection in an era of absolute uncertainty, become immediately palpable. Shin makes the foreign and esoteric utterly familiar: her use of European literature as an interpreter of emotion and experience bridges any gaps between East and West. Love, friendship, and solitude are the same everywhere, as this book makes poignantly clear.”

*     *     *     *     *

I’m really looking forward to these books because I’ve loved some previous books by these authors–The Unnamed and Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris; Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo; The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus; and Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin. All great books you should look into, in addition to these upcoming titles.

It feels good to be excited about my reading material again. I hope it lasts. Let the good books roll!

How is your 2014 reading shaping up so far? Have you finished anything you’d like to recommend? What books are you looking forward to this year?

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.

May 7, 2013

Teaser Tuesday May 7: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Posted in Book Talk tagged , , , , , , at 12:05 am by The Word Jar

Teaser Tuesdays asks you to:

* Grab your current read.
* Let the book fall open to a random page.
* Share with us two “teaser” sentences from that page.

You also need to share the title and author of the book that you’re getting your teaser from…that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

As always, please avoid spoilers!

*   *   *   *   *

I’d have never thought of Yellow 5 again without Ben reminding me. I wanted to tell him to make a list of things to recall, memories I couldn’t pluck out of my brain on my own.

After devouring Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, it seemed imperative to read her earlier works. These lines are from Dark Places, and I feel they may hold the key to figuring everything out. I’d love to meet Gillian Flynn someday, but only in a large crowd. I wonder what kind of person comes up with these kinds of novels. Love them, but not sure I want to be in a room alone with her!

What are you reading this week?

(Teaser Tuesday is hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading. Check it out for more teasers!)

June 5, 2012

Armchair BEA: Best of 2012

Posted in Book Talk tagged , , , , , , at 2:51 pm by The Word Jar

I’ll admit it. I cannot keep up with the Literary Joneses. I will never in my lifetime finish my “to read” list, yet I add to it almost daily. I add old books; I add new books. I read old books; I read new books. Yet I can’t seem to get my act together enough to read the “it” books when everyone else does. Case in point: I added The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern to the list when I heard about it during BEA 2011, and I’m just now getting around to reading it. Not that I haven’t been salivating to read it all year, it’s just that other books, equally saliva-inducing, pop up, too. With this disclosure, I offer up my list of the Best of 2012, in no particular order and with no particular guarantee that they will be read anytime soon.

Stay Awake by Dan Chaon–This is the only 2012 book I’ve read so far, and it wouldn’t matter what year it was published in, this would make the list. A collection of ethereal dream-like short stories. Simply entrancing.

The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker by Janet Groth–A tell-all from a receptionist at the New Yorker? I think this sounds better than any Real Housewives of [Fill in the City]. But that’s how this bookworm rolls.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson–A memoir by The Bloggess must be required reading for bloggers, right? I’ve only heard great things about this one, but even if it doesn’t live up to expectations, how can you not love that cover?

What I Did by Christopher Wakling–A story about a little boy who runs into a busy street and the consequences of that action, told from the boy’s POV.

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz–I read part of one of the stories in this collection in the BEA Buzz Books from Publishers Lunch (via NetGalley), and the voice was fantastic. With a line like “she treats me like I ate somebody’s favorite kid,” I’m in.

Be sure to let me know what you’ve loved or what you’re looking forward to this year. I’ll be stopping by other Armchair BEA blogs, but the more suggestions, the merrier.

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)

January 24, 2012

Teaser Tuesday January 24: Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman

Posted in Book Talk tagged , , , , at 10:29 am by The Word Jar

Teaser Tuesdays asks you to:

* Grab your current read.
* Let the book fall open to a random page.
* Share with us two “teaser” sentences from that page.

You also need to share the title and author of the book that you’re getting your teaser from…that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

As always, please avoid spoilers!

*   *   *   *   *

I sit down and am prepared to feel the appropriate amount of anxiety, but I’m interrupted by a knock on my door–my open door. In my career, I’ve found that only annoying people knock on open doors.

Take one man stuck in a mind-numbing career as a copywriter for a soulless corporation. Mix with his dream of being a novelist. Stir in the fact that his father has just won the Pulitzer Prize. Add a dollop of marital strife, a spoonful of an office crush, a spot of Daddy issues, and one neurotic dog. Blend well and you have Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman, a fun read with an unapologetically witty and clever male protagonist. (That’s a good thing!)

What are you reading this week?

(Teaser Tuesday is hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading. Check it out for more teasers!)

November 15, 2011

Teaser Tuesday November 15: The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Posted in Book Talk tagged , , , , at 10:53 am by The Word Jar

Teaser Tuesdays asks you to:

* Grab your current read.
* Let the book fall open to a random page.
* Share with us two “teaser” sentences from that page.

You also need to share the title and author of the book that you’re getting your teaser from…that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

As always, please avoid spoilers!

*   *   *   *   *

As he sat in the airport bar and drank glass after glass of lemon-lime soda and ate handfuls of peanuts and pretzels, he had decided that, should someone ask, he was not a real child but a robot built and designed by a scientific genius. A childless couple had ordered him and he was now being delivered to them in Florida. Beep-bop-boop.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson is about a family with performance artist parents, Caleb and Camille Fang, who insist on including their reluctant children, Annie and Buster, in their very public performances. So far their performances have included Annie snitching on a woman (Camille) who is stealing candy from a candy store and Annie and Buster horrifically singing while trying to earn money, street-performer-style, for “their dog’s” operation, with Camille and Caleb in the surrounding crowd shouting about the kids being horrible performers. The scene I’ve taken my teaser from shows the family’s preparations before they all separately board a plane, with fake IDs, for an in-flight performance. As noted in the book, the date is July 1988–well, before our current airline security measures were implemented. These performances are interspersed between chapters about adult Annie, an actress, and Buster, a down-on-his-luck writer, and how their lives were affected by these performances.

An interesting read so far. Oh, and the boy’s name is Buster? Who doesn’t love a boy named Buster? (Fans of Arrested Development, anyone??)

What are you reading this week?

(Teaser Tuesday is hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading. Check it out for more teasers!)

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)

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