Thursday, November 28, 2013

City of Lost Dreams by Magnus Flyte

City of Lost Dreams follows a musicologist named Sarah as she tries to save Pollina, a young piano prodigy, from a serious illness. With the help of her friends, an immortal dwarf and a Czech prince, Sarah looks for a missing doctor; her search gets complicated and dangerous as the past and present bleed together on the streets of Vienna and Prague. 

This is the second book in a series and the first series where I’ve read the sequel first. There are plenty of references to an eventful history but I generally didn’t find myself confused or missing out. However I'm definitely going to find the first one, City of Dark Magic, soon.

City of Lost Dreams is a vibrant story where even minor characters are colorful and deep. The grandiose cities seem otherworldly and the blend of science, history, and magic are really charming. There are a number of images and sensations that recur throughout the story and are described so well that they stuck with me, from an automated golden galleon to the music of a glass armonica to a horse barn on fire. There are some scenes that are so heavily visual and abstract that I did have trouble imagining them, but for the most part, Flyte (who is actually two authers) writes so vividly I feel like I’m still in that mystical version of Europe.

You can get City of Lost Dreams on Amazon here.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Who Asked You by Terry McMillan

When I need to describe a good book, I usually use words like ‘enjoyable,’ ‘fascinating,’ ‘well-written,’ but I don’t really think of books as ‘fun,’ not because I don’t like reading them but because ‘fun’ makes me think of riding roller coasters.  But Who Asked You is just a fun book. It was a blast to read, and what makes that even weirder to say is that it touches on some sad, serious problems like addiction, divorce, and crime. There are some real heartbreaking parts but the book is, overall, optimistic and charming.

Who Asked You tells the story of an extended black family in California during the early 2000s. The first character we meet is Betty Jean, who’s taking care of her grandsons after their addict mother drops them off. The narrative soon expands to include her sisters, their families and some of their friends. There are quite a few narrators, in and outside the family. Some of them appear just once and one doesn't even get a name. The occasional chapter by a child narrator adds some levity and I appreciated the variety of voices, from Quentin’s mildly pretentious vocabulary to Lee’s short, fractured trains of thought.

I'm used to a traditional story structure of rising action and a climax, I was a little lost when I finished the book and found that hadn’t happened. There are dramatic events but they don’t really build to a boiling point. They just kind of happen, one after another with no particular plan, just like they do in real life. For a book that mimics the pace of the real world so well, the ending was oddly neat and convenient. Almost everyone gets an extremely happy ending. The way it wraps up doesn’t leave a lot to think about but left me with a nice feeling at the last page.

Terry McMillan has written a couple other novels, including How Stella Got Her Groove Back. If you want to read this book, leave a post with contact info and I'll pick a random commenter in a few days. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain

Admittedly, I didn't finish this book so keep that in mind with this review. I really tried but eventually it felt like too much of a chore to open it and I gave up at about 300 pages. I feel like I just didn't get it. It gave the impression it has a lot to say about capitalism, culture clashes, and being an American abroad; maybe someone more familiar with philosophy and history would have found something to sink their teeth into. Mostly, I was bored. It was impossible to read more than 20 pages at a time. I had no problems with the prose style and sometimes Crain paints a charming scene, it was just a tedious story. There’s no urgency, intensity, or weight to the protagonist’s situation. Jacob floats from scene to scene without appearing to feel much or care about anything and I was not at all invested in him or his friends. The book is a long string of self-contained scenes: Jacob buys a hamster, Jacob gets a boyfriend, Jacob goes to Berlin, Jacob tutors some Czech children, and so on- you could just cut most of them up and put them in any order without changing the story’s impact. Some of the snapshots do sparkle with real tension or tenderness but most of them seem inane if pleasantly written, with no bearing on each other or the greater arc of the story. 

One thing I can say is that I liked the dreamy, almost fantasy-like portrait of Prague. In an interview, Crain quoted another author as saying “Every writer needs a fairyland” – not a Middle Earth or Hogwarts exactly, but some setting that is almost but not quite like the real world. To me and probably to a lot of Americans, Crane’s Prague is certainly that, with its unpredictable food shortages and numerous linguistic quirks. It just wasn’t enough to outweigh the carefully-maintained detachment that colors every character.

If you want to see for yourself, leave a comment and I'll choose one person to receive a copy.  

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker

New Jersey native Nora, stinging from a recent breakup, stumbles through a portal into the clutches of the Faitoren, a race of capricious illusionists with sinister plans for her.

A novel with a solid, classic fantasy feel. Even the cover looks vintage, like a sword-and-sorcery paperback from the 80s and the story carries some of that influence as well, complete with its own flavor of magical mechanics and quite a few constant-heavy names. It’s got a relaxed pace and tension that builds at a really slow boil, making it a comfortable book I looked forward to reading before bed. What little romance there is serves as a nice accent rather than a the main attraction and it feels authentic in its evolution. I do wish Nora had been a little more active in her own fate, not because her passivity didn't make sense in the context of the story, just because I wanted her to control her own direction a bit better. At one point, she (almost) sets out on her own and that was an exciting turn of events but it didn't pan out. The other characters are provide interesting glimpses of a much larger world and a dense history. I hope there are more books in the future that expand on this as well as the next part of Nora’s journey; the story ends with a cliff hanger and there’s a lot that needs to be wrapped up. Some of it would have been better done in this book because there were some questions I thought shouldn’t have gone unanswered, but it does make me look forward to the next book.

There is a copy of this book available for giveaway. If you'd like it, leave a comment with a way to contact you and in a week or so I'll randomly pick a winner.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Never List by Koethi Zan

I got my hands on this book late yesterday morning and finished it by 10:00 PM. It was immediately gripping and I barely put it down. The Never List centers on Sarah, one of three women who survived years of unimaginable torment in the cellar of a sadistic criminal. When the date of her torturer’s parole creeps up on her, she is driven out of her cocoon to look for one last bit of closure.

The book moves along so smoothly you barely realize you’re reading, although parts of it are stomach-turning and heartbreaking, especially considering how similar the fictional events are to the recent crimes in Cleveland. Sometimes, we brush up against the scary complexity of the psychology of both sociopaths and their victims, but never quite dig into anything truly and memorably insightful. Nevertheless, I was definitely entertained and I think this would be a great book to bring on a weekend vacation or a long airplane trip. If you happen to have one of those coming up, comment on this blog before the week is over over with your email and you might win a free copy. Let's be honest, your odds are pretty good.

Here is a Spotify playlist provided by the author, in case you really want to get yourself in the mood while reading this book. 

The Lemon Orchard by Luanne Rice

Because I only come to town once or twice a week, my book reviews are stacking up so you get three in one day! Here's the second.

The Lemon Orchard:

Julia and Roberto, two people from vastly different lives, are able to connect through the pain of losing their children. As they find comfort in each other’s company, Julia becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of what happened to Roberto’s daughter.  

The star of this story is the landscape. The seaside lemon orchard in California gets a glowing tribute, especially during the a wildfire and the dusty Santa Ana winds. Maybe it’s just because I’m in the middle of a Louisiana forest in June but I’ve never wanted to be in the ocean more than I do when I’m reading about Julia and her daughter Jenny on the beach.

But there are two relationships that should be the backbone of this book: Julia and Roberto, and Julia and Jenny, but I found both of them lacking in sincerity and authenticity. Their interactions are too blatantly tailored to a predetermined arc rather than true to the way people naturally communicate and get to know each other. A particularly jarring example was during Roberto and Julia’s first meeting, when he presses her to tell him who Jenny is, despite her obvious discomfort and the fact that she’s basically his boss. It seems to me like something that might happen if a story was meticulously planned before characters were fleshed out to act in it. Julia and Roberto’s relationship continued to lag in believability and development until it turned into a chore to read about them. At the same time, the story of Rosa unfolds into a far more interesting plotline and I was tempted to skip the ‘romantic’ parts to find out what happened to her. I was often baffled by a character’s thought process and didn’t really follow a lot of the motivations. In the end, the resolution of Rosa’s disappearance was satisfying, but Julia and Roberto continued to confuse me until the very last page.  

If you would like to find out for yourself, you can! Comment on this entry with your email and on Monday I will pick a poster at random and get in touch with them to send a free copy of The Lemon Orchard.

Glow by Jessica Maria Tuccelli

Glow starts as the story of one woman and her daughter, caught in the danger of organizing a civil rights protest. It spirals outward to connect characters over hundreds of miles and several generations, using multiple narrators from the present and past to span the gap. Willie is the brightest part of the story and by far my favorite narrator, despite her introduction as a minor character. Her chapters are electric, encompassing some of the most heartbreaking and earnestly happy scenes in the book. All the other narrators expertly tell their own stories in engaging voices, except for one, who was so verbose I would often get lost, but only one chapter is from his point of view. Glow deals with the complex spectrum of early American racism, showcasing characters who are slaves, Native Americans, people of mixed parentage, or children of immigrants. It’s a painful and wistfully beautiful book with a heavy dash of the supernatural.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Virgin Soul by Judy Juanita

“God, San Francisco was such a thief. A lady of the night, a sorceress with her hands out...we had to pay to get in, pay to get out, pay for every little thing. ... Pay for the Pacific Ocean and the beach. I am expensive, the city always said, so pay me for my wonderful dark treats..."

Virgin Soul is set in the San Francisco of the 1960s, a tumultuous time and place in American history and, unfortunately, not one I know much about. I procrastinated on this review a bit because what can I possibly say about its accuracy or its authenticity? I have a feeling I wasn’t as emotionally connected to the actual people and events in the books as I should have been, because I couldn’t tell what was real and what was fiction until I looked it up later. But I can tell you the driving force of this novel for me is the heroine’s frank, simple appeal. I was on her side as soon as she peed in the elevator of a decadent clothing boutique. I can tell you the book made San Francisco seem like a hungry living thing and the narrator’s voice gives the whole story an electric feeling like something big is always about to happen. And I can say I found common ground with Geniece’s big ideas, the same I think any progressive kid from college would even if they came from a different background.

Although I don’t have much of a context to fit this story into, I appreciated the issues Geniece faces and the chance to read about the beginning of the black power movement. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

“As early as he can remember, the hopelessly unreliable- yet hopelessly earnest- narrator of this remarkable debut novel has wanted to become a writer.

From the jazz clubs of Manhattan to the villages of Sri Lanka, Kristopher Jansma’s irresistible narrator will be inspired and haunted by the success of this greatest friend and rival in writing, the eccentric and brilliantly talented Julian McGann, and endlessly enamored with Julian’s enchanting friend Evelyn, the green-eyed girl who got away. After the trio has a disastrous falling-out, desperate to tell the truth in his writing and to figure out who he really is, Jansma’s narrator finds himself caught in a never-ending web of lies.”

I got this book in the mail a few days ago and tossed it on my bed. Later, after a housewarming party, I came in and started reading it. Even though it was late and I was kind of drunk, it wrapped me up right away.  Immediately engaging, it begins with the narrator describing how he lost a manuscript- the first of many- in the airport terminal where his mother left him while she worked as a flight attendant. It follows his high school days working in a museum cafĂ©, his meeting with Julian and Evelyn and his travels all over the world. Pieces of his own fiction crop up here and there, perfect complements to the truth but often indiscernible from it.

Writers and artists will especially like this book for a couple reasons. First, for the fantasy it presents as the lives of career writers who spend their time drinking Zubrowka vodka, going to Iceland, and quoting Hemingway at each other. Second because I think we can all identify with the jealousy of a friend with more talent. 

It’s a deceptively fast read with clean prose that hides a lot of insightful ideas and I felt a bit of a different  person after I finished it. I was reading about the narrator in Manhattan, Dubai, and Luxembourg, and I was thinking about how much I wanted to be in those places too, how I'd finally do interesting things and meet exciting people if I could only go to other places. Then there's a scene at the Grand Canyon and the narrator says out of all the wonders of the world, this is the only one that lives up to the hype. I only live a few hours from the Grand Canyon and I've never seen it. I live right next to other beautiful places I ignore and I live in a huge city full of people who are as interesting as people anywhere, but I don't even try to find them, I just keep waiting until I can go to France or whatever, which I'm not even sure I can ever do. So I booked a weekend trip to Sedona because I've never been there either and I'm bringing this book with me to read again. I don't know if this is a permanent change or just me feeling restless from reading so much about other places, but either way, I'm looking at my life in a new light and I think that's one of the most incredible things a book can do.

The Unchangeable Spots of the Leopard is Jansma's debut novel.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie Jr

Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, written by Ron Currie Jr., is about a man named Ron Currie Jr. Both are writers, both lost their fathers to illness, and apparently both are tragically in love with a captivating but unattainable woman. To escape, Ron Currie Jr (the character, not the author) retreats to a tropical island to drink and fight; there, he accidentally fakes his death, making his failed manuscript into a bestseller.
It might seem like I gave away most of the book in the first paragraph. But even though that storyline boasts more depth and late-game surprises than I expected, it’s overshadowed by the narrator’s musings about the Singularity, his father’s illness, and Emma, the woman he loves. These asides are frequent, often right in the middle of the action, but mostly they’re authentic; moving memories of his life or fascinating bits of technology history (did you know that robots once made the stock market crash more than 1000 points in just minutes?)

Sometimes, Currie the author slips into a self-conscious style, in which I can imagine him thinking a lot about people reading his book and what they might feel about it. I can understand that’s a hard mindset to break but it just served to disengage me here and there. Some of the characters seem too obviously crafted to fill a particular role in the story, sometimes even Emma, on whom the book spends a lot of time. On one page, we’re assured she’s not sad, she’s happy. On the rest of the pages, she seems very sad and impossibly beautiful and magnetic and every guy wants her but no one can have her, and I’ve seen that kind of character too many times.

Sometimes I think I would have preferred the book if it were distilled to the narrator’s relationship with his father, but I liked where Emma’s storyline led him and us, geographically and emotionally.

More from the author: Ron Currie Jr has two previous novels, God is Dead and Everything Matters!

If you think you want to read this book really soon, you can! In a week or so I’ll pick a random commenter from this post and send them a new hardback copy of this book. I’ll even autograph it. (Just kidding, I won’t, I know you don’t want that.)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Darlings by Cristina Alger

For New Years, I decided to read more and hopefully have more content for the blog. Good timing because Penguin Books recently sent me a copy of a book in exchange for a review. 

“Necks still dripped with jewelry, the kind that spent the rest of the year locked away in a safe. Town cars and chauffeured Escalades idled out front. Of course, it was all an illusion…there wasn’t a single person in this room- not a one- who could claim they weren’t worried. They all were but they were dancing and drinking the night away as they always had…it was like the final peaceful moments at the Alamo.”

The Darlings by Cristina Alger centers around one of the wealthiest families in New York: Carter and Ines Darling, daughters Merrill and Lily and their respective husbands, Paul and Adrian. Set just after the market crash, it begins with a death that jars the already tense upper class of the finance industry. The Darlings are gradually sucked into the ensuing scandal and the crisis shines a light into the depths of each member’s relationships with their family.

There’s a considerable amount of financial jargon and most of it went over my head, so I might have missed out on some valuable tension because I didn’t understand some of the company relationships. But that’s not really the focus of the story; corporate corruption and scandal mostly serve as a backdrop to human problems like infidelity, fraught marriages, loneliness and fear of failure. Many of the characters have more money than I can imagine and there is a lot of worrying over an uncertain financial future while vacationing at a second home or throwing an opulent charity benefit. This was, at first, alienating. By the end, a few of the characters like Paul and Carter become very human; others such as Duncan, lawyer Sol and his wife Marion, provide a quick glimpse into something touching and identifiable, and others still feel so much like strangers that I can’t even remember them right now. There's  a fairly large cast of characters that continues to grow till the end of the book. True to real life, but a little disorienting for a novel.

The book boasts some glowing setting descriptions, from the view of an apartment on the Hudson River to the East Hamptons on the brink of winter. After a few pages of some awkward dialogue (an upper-class adult man repeatedly says “bro” and refers to beer as “mother’s milk”), Alger gets into her groove and for the rest of the book, character interactions become more natural, well-paced and serve to slowly build the tension. The ending- again, much like real life- didn't really close the story with a 'bang.' Part of me appreciates the realism in that decision and part of me was a little unsatisfied. 

Overall, while I wished for a little more closure, I enjoyed the immersion into the grandiose lives of big city millionaires and the attention given to complex familial connections.