Saturday, July 19, 2014

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Reading this book was a long time coming. I finally picked it up because I was going to Savannah and, well, yes, of course, read "The Book."
So I did.

I enjoyed the first half, but felt like the author's journalist background was coming out more than a cohesive story. It was more like a series of mini-biographies on various interesting people in Savannah. Like those long articles where a magazine writer meets with someone of interest over an extended period of time and talks about their interactions (there was a fascinating one with Fiona Appel in the past couple years...). I.e., it was very interesting and definitely put you in the mood of Savannah, but it wasn't exactly a story. There didn't appear to be a fluid tale coming out. It was more like "oh this person! Oh and that thing! oo, and then there was this one time... And oh yeah, she was interesting too!" And it was. Interesting. But not, as I say, a story. So the first half I'd give about 3 1/2 stars.

Except for the Jim Williams stuff which is the beginning, occasionally throughout, and most of the latter half of the book. And I'd give all that 5 stars. Berendt truly brings to life Jim Williams and his house (Mercer House), his experiences, his trade, his peoples, his parties, his personalities... I loved reading all of that. And Berendt did a fantastic job bringing to life the trialS related to Jim Williams.... without being boring or repetitive or, frankly, overly legalistic. It was just interesting and endearing and wonderful.

And what's it about? It's about Savannah. It's about the people in Savannah and the nature of Savannah and what makes Savannah, Savannah. This is apparently why the people in Savannah simply refer to this as "The Book." Because it did its job well. And it's also about a murder trial. And about big personalities. And about a journalist's discovery of a city, its people, and even himself.

And I recommend it. Just to everyone. It's a pleasure reading and a good one to have read.
FOUR AND A HALF stars.

Note: This book is true... mostly. As Berendt explains, not only have many of the names been changed, but the timeframe has also been changed, and perhaps small other details, to provide a story that's truer in "feel" than perhaps in explicit detail.

The Stone Boy by Sophie Loubiere

Review based on ARC.

Yes.

I started this book with high hopes for the French thriller that it claimed to be... So, around page 60, I was disappointed. I took time away from reading to explain to my sister what the book was about, what was happening, and what was bound to happen.

And I love that I was all wrong. And all right. And kind of nowhere in between.

I love that Sophie Loubiere was so deep in her plunge into the psyche of a declining intelligent woman. With a questionable past and an even more questionable present.

So, the book is "about" an elderly woman who returns to her childhood home to discover that things have changed. The neighborhood is not quite the same---but that is a trueism, as time has passed. But what concerns Madame Preau is the child in her neighbor's yard who appears to be neglected, abused, and crying out for help. And what concerns Madame Preau more is that no one seems to have any record of the child. Not his siblings' school, not child services, not the police.

And what concerns Madame Preau's doctor-son and psychiatrist, is that this all seems unsettlingly familiar... as Madame Preau has in her past made claims about the abuse of another child. And it is concerning to Madame Preau's son that Madame Preau claims that this neighbor-child---this "stone boy"---resembles her own grandson. Who she has not been permitted to see in over a decade.

So the question is... is the stone boy real? a hallucination? can Madame Preau be trusted? to what degree? What is happening next door? What happened in Madame Preau's past?

Although the pace of this psychological thriller seemed to be slower than I would have expected for a "thriller".... It appears as if it was just right. I really had a hard time putting the book down, even after I thought the whole thing seemed inevitable and unsophisticated (and there, I was wrong). It read quickly and smartly. It answered questions while fluidly raising others.

I admit that I did not adore the ending as much as the rest of the book.  It was a little bit of a let down after the expert weaving that had just taken place. It wasn't bad... it just wasn't perfect, in the end. But still, a highly recommended book for anyone looking for an intelligent thriller, a moving examination of an imperfect mind, an easy way to spend an afternoon.


I think this is really 4.25 of 5 stars...

Friday, July 18, 2014

Review based on ARC.

This one was very hard to rate. I fell at 3 1/2 because it purports to be a big novel and in that, it falls flat. In comparison, I confess it is better than Asylum, which I read at the same time. But it receives a slightly lower review because Asylum is, frankly, a kid's book, whereas, as I say, this purports to be more.

This is also a hard book to review because it seems that there are many out there who think it would be a terrible thing to SPOIL the.... well, what I would call the plot. So how are you to discuss it then?

About the plot, I can say these things: It is a book about many. It starts as if it is a book about a brother and sister; it continues as if it is a book about just the brother and the difficulties and crazy insurmountable challenges he will face; it further continues as if it is a book about just the sister and the difficulties and crazy insurmountable challenges she will face; it is throughout a book about love.

So, a little more practically, James Norbury and his sister Charlotte are all-but abandoned by their father in their childhood. Their mother having passed away, they are much left to themselves to grow up and attempt to learn about life. They have their private trials and tribulations, and ultimately, they seem to grow from them. And then fast forward. James is now a young man who has graduated from Oxford and is looking for a life in London. He must room with a young aristocrat who seems James' opposite in many ways. James and his aristocrat roommate make remarkable discoveries together and James finds love. (and this is one of the spoilers.... he finds love in "an unexpected quarter" is how the back puts it...)

Then tragedy strikes and James must continue his learning and life under difficult circumstances. (yes, another spoiler) And this is around where Charlotte revisits us as she attempts to assist James in his difficulties (spoiler, spoiler) and she meets someone who also is going through great difficulties (spoiler of course). They all work toward ... er, spoiler. And then spoiler, spoiler.

So yeah. JUST PURE SPOILERS. But that's ok.  Do I recommend the book anyway? I do. See below...

In review, I will say these things: It's a quick read. This 500+ page victorian-esque novel reads quickly, and you must turn the page to see what next! and how! Although I was not actually shocked by any of the so-called spoilers (it wasn't that I expected it; it's that it wasn't shocking to me), I can see why some wouldn't want it "ruined" for them. So I refrain. But Owen has written one of those dark, gritty, victorian-underworld, mystery-fantasy novels that is very satisfying to read.

Where it fails? It was scattered and choppy and overly ambitious. It was like reading the Meaning of Night... but not as good. It was like reading The Passage, but not as good. It was like reading The Map of Time (Palma), but not as good.  And it was all those "but not as good"'s that just kept adding up.  The Quick is fun, it's fast, it's interesting, but it's not great.

There's a lot of promise in Owen's writing, and I will DEFINITELY read something else by her. This being her debut novel, she starts strong and I'm excited for her additions to the world of literature.

Overall, THREE AND A HALF of 5 stars.

Oh, and for those who really want to know?  Spoiler 1: (highlight to see) In this victorian timed tale, James' "unexpected" love is another man and Spoiler 2: (highlight to see) and yeah, we're talking vampires here. But good vampires, like in The Passage, not like in Twilight. ;) 

Asylum by Madeleine Roux

I really enjoyed reading this book. The pictures weren't always overly realistic (as compared with, e.g., Miss Peregrine's Home...), the story had all kinds of holes, and the characters were weak and flat, but the story was quickly paced and creepily presented, and overall, I was very pleased to have read it.  In fact, I immediately put the sequel on my wish list.

So, the story: Dan Crawford is a 16-year-old gifted student on his way to spend several weeks in the New Hampshire College Prep program (located in an old insane asylum). where he expects to finally be surrounded by other overly-smart kids, like himself.  In fact, when he arrives, he is confronted with an overly-overly smart roommate, who is odd and off-putting. Dan finds an old photo in his desk with what appears to be a doctor whose eyes had been scribbled out, and Dan's odd roommate tells him there are plenty more in the "off-limits" portion of the college, where the asylum has not been renovated or even made safe for students.

Dan is curious about the photo and, after meeting hew new friends Abby and Jordan, he sets forward on a plan to discover what he can about the asylum, its doctor, and hopefully anything else that will explain the odd visions and experiences Dan begins to have.

Of course Abby is this perfect little quirky beautiful teen who is (of course) drawn to Dan (who kind of loves her), and Jordan is your somewhat standard genius gay kid who's just looking for a break from the oppression that is his parents. Abby, Dan, and Jordan have a fun relationship that is immediately tested and challenged, and they struggle with loyalties and suspicion when a murderer appears to be on the loose in the asylum.

So yeah, you can probably see from that brief description that there are already some holes that are bound to appear in the plot. But for me, I read through them all very quickly and got myself all nice and creeped out. I think if you read this one too carefully or too slowly (or on too bright of a day ;)), you might find it hard to ignore the flaws, but if you allow yourself the indulgence on a stormy night, you might enjoy the book anyway.

As I said, notwithstanding some of the issues, I *really* enjoyed reading this and I am definitely looking forward to the  sequel. There were definitely some questions left unanswered, which I expect to be addressed in the sequel.

And for it all, I'm intrigued by Roux and will keep an eye on other books she publishes.
FOUR of five stars.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke

I finally sat down with Clarke's second, the Ladies of Grace Adieu. I'm fairly certain I waited as long as I did because I was afraid I'd be disappointed. Because Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of my favorites.

And I kind of was and kind of was not.  The short story collection definitely did not blow me away. But it was also really well done, really well written, well imagined. Each of the stories advances the world Clarke's created, or a version of the world. It feels almost like anecdotes that you might have heard told by characters from Jonathan Strange's world... fables, tales, stories.

The writing is, of course, immaculate. The story-telling is good.. great, even. The collection read quickly, and each story felt complete in its own right. I'm not sure what more I wanted, but it seems that I did want something more. When I was done, I felt it was sort of anti-climactic.

So, I would definitely recommend to Clarke fans and people who would be Clarke fans (but who just haven't had the good sense to read her yet ;)), but with the note that it is good, really good, great, but not as satisfying and fulfilling as Strange & Norrell...

Overall, FOUR of five stars.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin

It took me about 20 pages to settle into her "voice"... the result of which was, unfortunately, about 20 pages until I decided I did, after all, like the narrator.  At first, I thought she was a kind of snarky know-it-all. But once I settled in, I realized she was a self-deprecating, well-experienced, down-to-earth cook from the mid-80s, with a very dry sense of humor. And I quite liked her sense of humor.

At the beginning, Colwin says that she reads cookbooks like novels.  This is perhaps why she's written this book the way she has... it reads like a sort of series of short stories, anecdotal short stories, but it's also a cookbook. She manages to pull off jumping around from subject to subject, from story to story, and from recipe to recipe, in a way that makes the reader want to read more, know more, eat more, and COOK more!

Some review I read said that this book is like having a telephone conversation with your best friend. I would agree with that. The way Colwin approaches not only her stories, but also the recipes, is familiar, close, intimate.

Overall, this was a lovely book that I intend to re-index (because there already IS a useful index at the end!) for my own purposes so I can use and re-use and hopefully impress dinner parties full of people...

Highly recommended for people who want to cook, who are good at cooking, who are bad at cooking, or who just like food. or who just like to eat. ;)

Monday, June 30, 2014

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Review based on ARC.

I really enjoy Bennett's imagination and creativity.  He creates whole new types of people and creatures and worlds, but still manages to make the whole story accessible and interesting.

In City of Stairs, we join Bulikov (aka City of Stairs) in the "present," after it has been conquered and re-established as an outpost of the now-powerful Saypur. Bulikov, formerly run by and taken care of by the Divinities, is now a relative wasteland, barely limping along. Somehow, historical hero The Kaj managed to kill the Divinities, free the Saypuri (Shalies) from their cruel slavery, and establish a government.

However, the Saypuri government forbids any worship or or even mention of the former Divinities, and so the story begins with the murder of a Saypuri historian who was studying the forbidden Bulikov history and Divinities.

Enter Shara Thivani, cultural ambassador from Saypur, who sets forth to investigate the murder. However, it is very quickly apparent (immediately to the reader) that Ms. Thivani is not actually Ms. Thivani at all, but rather one of the Saypuri ministry's top spies and perhaps much more well connected than initially divulged.

So yeah, it's a sophisticated murder mystery and a fantasy (think: American Gods) rolled into one. But then add the Romeo & Juliet love story, the Dreyling "man" who murders as a matter of course (and also, of course, works for the ministry), a local Saypuri "governor" with a snarky sense of humor, and a whole lot of anger and intrigue, and you've got City of Stairs.

It was complex and involved and thorough and satisfying. It drew me in right from the beginning, and I confess I was up well past "my bedtime" finishing the book. Although the first half takes a little while to really pick up pace, the character, plot, and scenic development is worth the pace. Then, when it starts to move, it MOVES.

The only real critique I have is that I wasn't ever really surprised or ... substantially moved. There is dark humor and dark romance and dark mystery, all my kind of thing and definitely done well, but those moments where you "A-Ha!" or "No!" or "Yes!!".... I don't remember having them. So it wasn't a book where I found myself attached to it, but it is one that I truly enjoyed, am glad I read, and definitely recommend.

Recommend to anyone who enjoys the meatier mysteries/fantasies, something a little smarter. Do not recommend to those who are queasy around fantasy.

FOUR of five stars.