Category Archives: book reviews

Book review: ‘Black Lake’ by Johanna Lane

Black LakeNestled in the Irish mountains on a lake so dark the locals call it “black,” the impressive and imposing estate of Dulough sits perched on a hillside. It’s home to John, the stressed but determined patriarch, as well as his wife, two children and members of staff. The daughter of a middle-class Dublin family, Marianne isn’t accustomed to a life of leisure — and can only busy herself with gardening and tutoring Kate and Philip. There isn’t much else to do.

Descended from a long line of wealthy but untitled Irish families, John can hardly bear to reveal the troubled state of the Campbells’ finances — but when he does, a solution must be found. Opening Dulough to tourists seems to be the only way to keep the estate in their possession while trying to release the grip of impending poverty, but the family’s move to a small cottage nearby ends up costing them more than they anticipated.

Johanna Lane’s Black Lake is moody, atmospheric, compelling and strange. At just over 200 pages, it’s a slim novel that still packs a wallop — mostly because of Lane’s interesting storytelling. We know right away a tragedy has befallen the family, and it’s easy to determine what’s transpired. It’s another 100 pages until the truth is finally revealed, however, and when it is? It’s almost like an afterthought. Stated as fact.

That actually worked for me. Really well.

The core of this story is a foursome struggling to find their place in the world — a “room of their own,” if you will. Before we’re given an actual timeline and history of the estate, I believed Black Lake took place in the early twentieth century. Once I realized John and Marianne’s birth dates and college years would put them closer to modern day, I was actually . . . shocked. There’s just something so stately and Downton Abbey about living in an imposing mansion; I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that this place could exist in the here and now.

But it could. I felt John’s sense of stewardship over the property acutely; it was obvious that history and tradition mean a great deal to him, and to let Dulough be sold would represent a failure. Through diary entries and the revisionist history John himself pens, we’re introduced to some of Dulough’s past owners and visitors. The epigraph puts it perfectly, in fact:

“. . . I regarded men as something much less than the buildings they made and inhabited, as mere lodgers and shorterm sub-lessees of small importance in the long, fruitful life of their homes.”

– Charles Ryder, Brideshead Revisited

The story is short, and not much “happens.” I assumed the book would revolve around a single incident, and . . . well, it both did and did not. Marianne and John are complex characters, but we’re not privy to most of their thoughts. The narration shifts several times throughout the story, from husband to son back to husband and, finally, to wife. I enjoyed getting Marianne’s perspective the most, especially because she was the most unmoored.

Though I never fell in love with these characters, exactly, I did feel as though I came to truly understand them. The Campbells are captains of a crumbling ship, and the atmosphere Lane creates is thick and palpable. It wasn’t hard to imagine myself standing on a cliff, bracing sea air whipping my hair from my face; I could easily run my fingers across the shoddy cottages or sturdy furniture moved from Dulough, or see the green-capped mountains in the distance.

Black Lake is well-written, interesting, unusual. Not like anything I’ve read recently, and definitely one that gave me pause. Fans of literary fiction, character studies and family dynamics will be intrigued by this one. Though rather sad, it’s a powerful book that would hardly qualify as a beach read . . . but is likely to be one on the lips of readers this summer.


4 out of 5!

Pub: May 20, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Twitter
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review


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Book review: ‘My Beloved World’ by Sonia Sotomayor

My Beloved WorldThings I knew about Sonia Sotomayor before beginning My Beloved World, a memoir of her youth in the Bronx and formative years as she tirelessly pursued knowledge and opportunity:

1. She’s an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
2. She’s the first Hispanic woman appointed to the Supreme Court.
3. She seems nice and no-nonsense.

And . . . well, that was about it. So what prompted me to pick this one up? Meg’s review, for one, but something else — something intangible — called to me from the library shelf. I listened to this work on audio and, though Sotomayor does not narrate it herself (she is rather busy, after all), I became so engrossed in her tale. Riveted, in fact.

I’ve come to the decision that approaching a biography or memoir blind is actually a really great idea. The best idea. No preconceived notions or prejudices, you know? And nothing is dull, boring, uninteresting. Everything is fresh and new. If you know little about the person in question, nothing blocks you from really getting to know them. You just jump in.

So it was with My Beloved World, which chronicles Sotomayor’s childhood, teen and early adult years as she grows up in the Bronx, attends college and ultimately begins her law career. The daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, Sonia’s only escape in childhood is at the home of her abuelita — but not even her grandmother can save she and Junior, her younger brother, from the effects of their father’s alcoholism. Their beautiful mother, though loving and hardworking, remains emotionally distant . . . both before and after the death of her husband. When Papi eventually dies, the family must surge forward to build something new.

Woven throughout the narrative is the story of Sonia’s own illness, too — and her attempts to understand and live fruitfully in the face of it. Diagnosed at age 7 with type 1 diabetes, Sotomayor learns to give herself the crucial shots needed daily as a young child. One of the most moving passages in My Beloved World comes early on: when Sonia recounts how she learned to inject herself with insulin as a form of autonomy. Her mother is despondent at Sonia’s diagnosis; in the 1950s, when so little was understood about the disease, they took it to be a death sentence.

It wasn’t.

From a young age, Sotomayor feels called to the law — something rare in her working-class neighborhood. She grows up in the projects with aspirations of more . . . but no clear idea of how to get there. Through books and education, however, Sotomayor continues to widen her circles and is never afraid to reach out for guidance. Even after she is selected to attend Princeton University on full scholarship and, later, to Yale Law School, she remains down-to-earth, gracious and determined.

I think she’s awesome, basically.

It would be impossible to emerge from My Beloved World without wanting to grab a drink with this woman. She is powerful, assertive and incredibly wise, but also completely able to give credit where credit is due and comes across as genuinely humble. Though some readers may feel disappointed the book ends just as Sotomayor’s career as a judge is getting started, I saw this memoir as a way to pay homage to the many people who reached out their hands, hearts and minds to guide her on an incredibly impressive path — and really loved it for that.

Sotomayor’s deep, abiding love for her family is the lynchpin holding this book together. I loved the stories of going to her grandmother’s house for big dinners and dancing the night away with the adults in the living room, basking in the warmth and love of having so much family close together. As her father’s health deteriorates when she is still a young child, that pain was palpable to me, too. Though Sonia loves her mother deeply, of course, I respected the honest way in which she recounted some of the difficulties of her youth . . . and how they’ve carried over into adulthood.

Fans of memoirs and biographies will find much to enjoy in My Beloved World. It speaks to the experience of first-generation Americans as well as the ubiquitous American Dream, and I found it incredibly well-written, quick-paced and inspirational. Women, especially, will appreciate Sotomayor’s rise in a male-dominated world — and she makes the best of everything.

After reading her story, Sonia is no longer a face I see and simply pass over on the evening news; she feels like a friend. A very powerful, kick-rump friend.


4.5 out of 5!

Pub: 2013 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonOfficial Biography
Audio copy borrowed from my local library


About the audio: Academy Award-winning actress Rita Moreno does a fantastic job capturing the nuances of Sotomayor’s serious, sometimes-gritty but ultimately beautiful prose. Her Spanish and accent are impeccable, and if I didn’t know better? Well, I would assume she was Sotomayor herself. Loved her pacing, her cadence, everything.


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Book review: ‘What I Was’ by Meg Rosoff

What I WasWhat an intriguing little book.

I knew from experience that Meg Rosoff doesn’t pen your “average” young adult fiction; indeed, How I Live Now was one of the more offbeat, compelling and disturbing YA books I’ve ever read. I finished it almost four years (!) ago, yet I can recall certain passages and turns of phrase all these books later.

In the vein of the colorful, unusual and incredibly well-written is this slim novel: What I Was. The tale of H, our relatively unnamed narrator, and his long-ago friendship with Finn, Rosoff’s story is an exploration of friendship. A confusing, focused, odd and all-encompassing friendship, perhaps, but still just a friendship at its core.

It’s hard to do this book justice — or discuss it without spoilers. So much happens, but there is little discernible “plot” in the traditional sense. H is a rapscallion (how often can one use that word?!) used to getting kicked out of prestigious boarding schools, and he expects he’ll face a similar departure from this one. Everything is a little boring, a little beneath him; he’s not interested in studying or readying himself for the future, or whatever it is young men of wealth and privilege should be doing. He simply doesn’t care.

And then, on a run with his classmates, he meets Finn. Moody, quiet and living a life of extreme independence in a small but well-cared-for hut on the water, Finn’s life is everything H wishes for himself — especially free from the prying eyes of professors and classmates. Though H doesn’t recognize his growing concern for Finn as what it truly is (until it’s too late, perhaps), we know that H has fallen in love.

It gets more complicated from there.

But not in the ways you’d expect.

Oh, the exquisite pain of wanting to discuss what happens in this book without spoiling it all for you. I will note that I had an awful spoiler-ish encounter with a review posted elsewhere, so I’m not going to do that to you. Even knowing what I knew going in (not everything, just some of it), I was still shocked by what transpired. In an impressive way. Rosoff is a master of revealing secrets slowly, then all at once . . . and you’re left gobsmacked that you could have missed something so obvious.

She’s just that good.

Though H is not a thoroughly admirable person, he’s a teenage boy. A teen boy with issues and problems and secrets weighing heavily on his shoulders, even if his natural defense is to laugh them off or lash out. I appreciated him as a narrator, enjoying his sarcasm and natural wit — and even when the chaos became too much to handle, I felt that this older-H telling us the story of this fateful year was an anchor. I held on to him.

The setting of What I Was — a crumbling British coastline — just added to the allure for me. Rosoff’s writing is rich in imagery, very atmospheric; we sense the damp and cold of Finn’s hut just as H does, and therefore appreciate the fledgling fire that much more.

Though this won’t go down in my personal literary history as a favorite, Rosoff’s story is fascinating and unique — something I’ve thought about often in the weeks since finishing.


4 out of 5!

Pub: 2008 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg


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Book review: ‘The Mad Scientist’s Daughter’ by Cassandra Rose Clarke

Mad Scientist's DaughterA robot love story about the daughter of an eccentric scientist. Maybe not my normal bag — or your average run-of-the-mill plot for a dystopian story, eh? — but . . . that’s what I liked about the premise. And Andi recommended it, so.

This book? Addictive. Weird. Surreal. A little risque, a little off-beat and even naughty. But deeply emotional and thought-provoking and sad, too . . . such a complicated mixture of emotions in a book about a being who feels none.

Or does he?

Finn is brought into the Novak home as an assistant and tutor for Cat, the young daughter of a successful scientist. Under his guidance she learns, explores and grows into a lovely but insecure young woman — one unsure of her place in her family and the wider world. Finn is handsome, articulate, thoughtful, loyal . . . because he was built that way. A one-of-a-kind being who looks and acts human, he still remains incapable of returning the love he knows Cat feels for him. Heartbroken and uncertain, Cat shies away from Finn and builds a safe life elsewhere . . . for a while. But as the changing world begins to examine the rights of and responsibilities toward robots, the staid life Cat has constructed for herself begins to unravel.

Cassandra Rose Clarke’s The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is one of those books I couldn’t wait to finish but didn’t want to end. At points I was ready to clobber Cat for her foolish selfishness; other times I wanted to wrap her up in a big hug and tell her everything would be okay, though I wasn’t sure it would be. The world was just so unkind, and often unkind to her. But she was so determined not to feel — to be as blank as Finn, as her father — that she allowed everything to happen to her.

Finn, on the other hand, was hard not to love. How could you not fall for charismatic, steadfast Finn? What we’re to believe is his inability to love or feel or hope never felt quite right; it was obvious that, regardless of what his makers may claim, he was more “human” than they’d want to believe. His back story was fascinating and disturbing, and I found his affection for the Novak family as a whole to be very moving. As life became more chaotic, his moves toward autonomy were impressive and sad.

And his love for Cat? Crazy. Nonsensical, maybe . . . but definitely there. The stolen moments the pair share were steamy and complicated, but they were also romantic. Much more romantic than I would have ever expected. And as we get to know Finn better, I couldn’t bear the thought of Cat hurting him.

But could Cat hurt him? Can you really “hurt” a robot?

A robot doesn’t have “feelings.” It doesn’t harbor grudges. It doesn’t feel betrayed, tired, burnt out, scared.

Can you fall in love with a robot?  Is it perverse and strange to “love” someone who isn’t a someone at all?

It’s just such an interesting premise. One that hooked me from the start.

Set in a not-so-distant future, it was easy to imagine the America of Clarke’s description — and to consider how artificial intelligence will one day play a role in society. Though the outlook could seem bleak, there was still an undercurrent of hope and love to the novel. It was about family, loyalty, devotion. At her core and as the title suggests, Cat owns her identity as the daughter of a mad scientist — and lets her connection to Dr. Novak be the guiding force in her life.

Though I could get frustrated with Cat to the point of wanting to dramatically shut down my Kindle (the digital equivalent of slamming a book, you know), there was never a point at which I wasn’t dying to know what would become of the characters . . . and I was pleased — nay, delighted — with the ending.

It totally worked for me. And if you’re a fan of dystopian novels, offbeat love stories and/or science fiction without a ton of world-building (no serious societal descriptions here, though we do get glimpses of this broken Earth at times), The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is an engrossing, evocative and lovely read.


4.5 out of 5!

Pub: 2013 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg


 

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Book review: ‘Clever Girl’ by Tessa Hadley

Clever GirlSometimes a character reveals her layers slowly, showing the tiniest glimpse of soul spread thin over many pages. A novel builds and builds, progressing to an explosive end, and we hurry toward it — unable to pause before we know the illustrious End.

Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl fits the first description, certainly, but this is the sort of novel — definitely literary fiction — that enfolds you gradually. There is no dynamic pay-off, no shocking reveal or plot twist. It’s quiet, enveloping, sharply-focused and beautifully written. As with The London Train, Hadley draws us deeply into the lives of her characters — and though we may not love these people or feel endeared to them, exactly, they are alive and memorable and real to us.

Stella was real to me.

From the beginning of Clever Girl to its satisfying end, we span half a century of our narrator’s life. Stella morphs from a young girl preparing to share her single mother with a new husband to an impetuous, lonely teen mother and, later, a middle-aged woman wondering where everything got so twisty. The story opens in 1960s England and progresses almost to present-day — a transition that could have felt clunky and odd in the hands of a less skilled author, but believe me: Hadley is more than up for the task.

What kept me so captivated by Stella, her sons and the strange layers of their lives was absolutely Hadley’s writing. Gripping, detailed and so focused that sometimes it took my breath away, this is not the sort of story you tear through at breakneck speed — or skim halfheartedly with “Survivor” on in the background. To look away from the text for even a moment is to miss some gorgeous, transient moment; and as Stella’s story is revealed slowly in careful insertions throughout the text, it has a very blink-and-you’ll-miss-it feel. I loved that.

An older, wiser, more chastened Stella is obviously recalling the details of her youth — and we know things about the fate of characters long before the action is revealed. In that way, Stella functions as our omniscient narrator; even in the brilliant moments, we know darkness is coming. That effect left me both curious and unsettled, and I often hurried through passages so I could finally uncover the fate of these poor people.

And poor they were. Not financially, maybe, but definitely in spirit. Valentine, Stella’s irreverent boyfriend, is a fascinating character; I didn’t guess his secret for a while, but then it was impossible to ignore. He was the typical “bad boy” arriving to both fascinate and horrify Stella and Madeleine, her best friend, and you couldn’t help but wonder what was hiding beneath that sheath of dark and dirty hair. All in good time.

While I didn’t love Stella, I respected her — and everything she’d gone through. She makes some questionable choices, yes, but it wasn’t hard to separate those calls from the overarching hippie-commune-love-fest of the 1960s and ’70s. In time, she grows into a respectable person and mother — even if she seems to need rescuing from various men to finally pull herself together.

If you love literary fiction and character studies, Clever Girl is a fantastic novel that provokes questions of love and purpose through life’s dips and turns. But if you’re a reader who leans more heavily into action-packed plots or prefer a faster pace, I could see Hadley’s novel leaving you a bit cold. For me? Well, I loved it, just as I loved The London Train.

Hadley is a truly gifted author. Honestly, I’m in awe of her skill — and will look forward to reading more of her work.


4 out of 5!

Pub: March 4, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review


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Book review: ‘The Nobodies Album’ by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Nobodies AlbumIt’s been four long years since author Octavia Frost last spoke to her only son, Milo. Now a rock star accused of brutally murdering his girlfriend, Milo’s demons and debaucheries are being dragged out for public consumption. As Octavia prepares to pitch a new book to her publisher — a collection of alternative endings to her previous novels, some beloved and others less so — she must try to repair what for so long has been broken with her broken son.

Carolyn Parkhurst’s The Nobodies Album was a slow build for me. One minute I was rolling my eyes at Octavia’s snobbery, her nonsense and selfishness, and the next I was picking up the scattered pieces of my broken heart upon learning the sad truth of the Frost family — and Octavia’s private hurts. Though Milo was certainly not always a likeable character (like mother, like son?), I found myself invested in the lives of these characters and never considered not seeing it through to the end.

This multi-layered story has a lot going on. Like, a lot. Sprinkled between present-day chapters are the chapters of Octavia’s fictional fiction, excerpts from the titular Nobodies Album . . . eh, you got all that? Basically, a book-within-a-book — and the books have nothing to do with one another, per say. Or do they? In the wake of a great tragedy only revealed toward the end of the book, Octavia has lived her life in a shadow of grief — and her writing career was, in some ways, born of this desire to sift through and move past this despair.

In trying to make sense of the senseless, Milo feels isolated and abandoned . . . and not just a tiny bit angry. Other layers of The Nobodies Album consist mainly of a “Did he really do it?” wonderment regarding Bettina’s death, which is sudden and violent and awful. As readers, we’re lured in with various scenarios, starting to question what we’ve learned and trying to put the pieces together ourselves. I had a few theories — and they all proved false. Every time I thought I’d figured it out, Parkhurst switched everything up on me. As we question what we know of the strange ways these people fit into each other’s lives, a tapestry is formed. I was impressed.

Though the story dragged in parts and I’ll confess to skipping through some of the alternate endings from Octavia’s book, I was captivated by the saga of Milo and his mother and satisfied with the conclusion. Sad but also touching, The Nobodies Album will appeal to fans of contemporary family-centered fiction and character studies. Wise, clever and engrossing, Parkhurst’s work is a memorable one.


4 out of 5!

Pub: 2011 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio book borrowed from my local library


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Book review: ‘The Heart Is Not a Size’ by Beth Kephart

The Heart Is Not a SizeBest friends Georgia and Riley don’t keep much from one another — but each is bearing a tart fruit of secrecy in different ways. When an opportunity to visit Mexico as part of a group community project comes up, Georgia longs to get away from her stagnant present before college . . . but is afraid to go alone. She convinces Riley to sign up, too — and their secrets can’t help but emerge in the baking-hot sun of Anapra.

Beth Kephart’s The Heart Is Not a Size is a story of friendship, trust and acceptance. With Kephart’s trademark lyrical language and descriptions that feel like a pierce through the heart, her young adult novel struck a chord with me — and likely will with anyone who has had a best friend.

Georgia is the sort of talented girl wracked by self doubt we all remember from our teen years — or were ourselves. I definitely relate to her body-image issues and uncomfortableness in her own skin, especially compared to Riley’s so-thin-she’s-disappearing presence. The novel is about Riley’s on-the-surface eating disorder, yes, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about self-esteem and longing and desperately wanting to belong, but not knowing how to start.

It’s Georgia falling to pieces without anyone to bolster her up, and learning to save herself . . . and also about Riley still being Riley, impossible and beautiful, and her longing to spread beauty to others when she cannot see it in herself. I wanted to smack Riley’s mother for the number she’s done on her daughter, and these self-confidence issues made me really think about how I will want to speak with and to a future daughter/child someday. My heart ached for them both, especially as Georgia struggled with anxiety and doubt. Who hasn’t?

The Heart Is Not a Size is a quick, atmospheric read that dropped me in the middle of the cracking villages of Anapra and broke my heart for its inhabitants. Kephart herself visited the village, as she notes at the end of the book, and her imagery is amazing. From the dolls abandoned atop crumbling roofs to the eager, hopeful faces of children to the wolfish dog who stalks their lodging, it was so descriptive and engulfing. For a few days, I was truly a part of their expedition.

Though I wished at times to have bonded more with Riley outside of Georgia’s lens, I think the dependency of their friendship — and how they learn to separate, just a bit — is important. I couldn’t help picturing Riley as the sort of Head Cheerleader Princess-type that tortured peons in school, but I know isn’t right. I just felt like I got to know Georgia much better than her best friend, though I guess that’s to be expected. Georgia is our narrator, after all.

Fans of young adult fiction, socially-conscious novels and lyrical writing will find much to love in Kephart’s story of acceptance and forgiveness. It was a beautifully-written work I will remember.


4 out of 5!

Pub: 2010 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg


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