CBR-V Review #47: When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

So I think I may be a little burned out on Kate Atkinson novels. This one was my fifth of hers since May, so I’m probably going to take a bit of a break from her for a while.

When Will There Be Good News? is the third in the Jackson Brodie series (although I’m reading it last) and was definitely my favorite of the four. Atkinson likes to take seemingly disparate storylines and weave them together, to show how lives overlap in unexpected ways, and that can often get unwieldy and be unsatisfying for the reader, as she creates these connections with varying degrees of success. This was by far the most cohesive of the series, and it worked better than any of the others for that reason.

As always, it’s difficult to discuss a mystery without giving much away. To give a basic plot summary: Jackson Brodie finds himself, once again, at the center of a web of mystery and violence after his involvement in a deadly and devastating train crash. His life is saved by Reggie, an orphaned sixteen-year-old, who has her own problems to deal with: Dr. Hunter, her beloved employer, has gone missing, and no one seems to care. Also involved is Louise Monroe, who played a large role in the previous book; she’s trying to keep tabs on two murderers, while dealing with her less-than-satisfying new marriage–and her lingering feelings for Jackson.

I felt like the pieces of the puzzle just worked here. I was totally satisfied by the ending and never once felt like the connections Atkinson makes between the storylines were implausible (which is a problem I had with books #2 and #4 and, to a certain degree, #1). These stories don’t just bounce off of each other–they’re integral to one another, and that’s the difference between this and the other books. I also felt like this book had more of a central theme (that of loneliness), which helped bind the plotlines together. The mystery was also far more compelling than in #2 and #4.

Overall, this was a very good mystery and book on its own, and the best in the series overall. Read it if you like well-written mysteries or if you’re an Atkinson fan.


CBR-V Review #46: Every Day by David Levithan

So I picked this book up with the intention of just starting it…and finished it two and a half hours later. This is a seriously addictive book!

Every Day is the story of A, an undefined entity/being/soul that wakes up every morning in a new body, basically supplanting the being  that the body belongs to. It has always been this way, since A can remember–A has no body of its own, no family, no true identity. A does, however, have its own thoughts and feelings and even its own email address that it uses to keep track of the bodies its inhabited and the things it has experienced. For the most part, A just floats along and does its best to not disrupt the lives of the people it inhabits, until one day it wakes up as Justin, a teenage jerk who just happens to have a beautiful, near-perfect girlfriend, Rhiannon. A falls in love with her, and the rest of the novel is its attempt to preserve that relationship and keep her close while still shifting from body to body.

This is a beautiful story–a true love story–that, I’m not ashamed to admit, had me in tears by the end. A is a really well-developed narrator, one that I felt for and cared about, and the pain that A experiences (and A’s true loneliness) really came across. I was completely invested in the story and just had to keep reading to find out who A would “be” next and how its story would play out.

It’s a totally implausible scenario that Levithan gives enough gravitas to feel real and possible, and I commend him for never devolving into gimmicky-ness. I really enjoyed the broad spectrum of people that A “encounters” from day to day, as each had their own story to be told. A improves the lives of some, and inevitably hurts the lives of others (especially as he becomes more and more involved with Rhiannon, and more desperate to keep her), but clearly respects all of them. I think these observations of the new bodies sometimes felt a little too much like afterschool specials (a depressed/suicidal girl, an obese guy, a drug addict), but Levithan generally is mindful of that and doesn’t cross the line too often.

My other (minor) complaint is that Levithan doesn’t delve into the why and how of A. He touches briefly on the idea of there being others like A, but leaves it largely unexplored. I would have been really interested to learn more about this phenomenon and to understand who these beings are. Not knowing didn’t ruin the book for me by any means, but I was definitely left curious and wanting to have more information.

Anyway, there’s not much else I can say about this book. It’s a very good read, especially if you like well-written YA fiction, and it’s surprisingly heavy for a book that goes so fast.

CBR-V Review #45: Rebecca by Daphne duMaurier

Well, I’ve officially found my favorite book of the year! This also just might have earned a place on my all-time favorites list, too–it’s just that good.

Loosely based on Jane EyreRebecca is the story of an unnamed young woman who, while working as a companion to an older woman in Monte Carlo, meets the handsome and mysterious Maxim deWinter, a recent widower. After a whirlwind romance, he marries her and brings her to Manderlay, his estate home, where she soon finds that Rebecca (his deceased wife) is still very much alive in spirit and still manages to influence the household from the grave.

I’m a sucker for these types of twisted romances, and given my love of Jane Eyre (I’ve read it probably 5-6 times), I knew there was no way I wouldn’t love this book, too. Like Jane Eyre, there are some themes and character actions that warrant some skepticism from a modern, feminist point of view (the Twilight-esque justifying of borderline abusive behavior as romantic and manly, for example) but this can be explained away by the times (this was written in the 1930s) and the narrator’s naïveté about the world and didn’t really ruin my enjoyment of the book. It’s exciting and shocking and so much fun to read–I wasn’t expecting to be so engrossed in it, but I had a really hard time putting it down.

duMaurier is a brilliant writer and really excels at creating a gothic, spooky atmosphere without going overboard. I didn’t realize this until Wikipedia-ing her, but she also wrote The Birds (the short story the movie was based on) and just based on the movie, that makes a lot of sense–her works are truly creepy. I was always guessing about what was going to happen next, and this book never ceased to surprise me. It’s kind of a mystery, and in some ways a bit of a ghost story, and it makes a lot of sense that Hitchcock would have chosen to adapt this into film (I haven’t seen the movie, but now I really want to) as it’s extremely Hitchcock-ian.

The one thing I didn’t really like about the book (and this kind of goes back to my minor complaint above) is that the narrator is pretty weak and pathetic at times. I get why her character needed to be that way, because a stronger-willed person wouldn’t put themselves in or stay in the situation she’s in, but she annoyed me a little bit at times. Despite that, I ultimately felt bad for her and that sort of overcame my irritation.

This is a perfect book to read on a rainy day, wrapped up in blankets with a hot mug of tea. I can definitely see this book becoming one of my most-read–I’m going to buy myself a copy–and has definitely earned its place next to my worn-out copy of Jane Eyre on my bookshelf. Go read it! Now!

CBRV Review #44: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

I have a confession: I’m totally obsessed with advice columns. I don’t know what it is about them, but I’m addicted. I’d heard rave reviews about Tiny Beautiful Things, which is a collection of columns written by Cheryl Strayed for a feature on “The Rumpus” called “Dear Sugar,” and had a gift certificate to a bookstore burning a hole in my pocket, so I decided to give it a shot.

Strayed kind of revolutionized the advice-column genre with “Dear Sugar.” Her responses to the letters published in the collection–some of them dealing with trivial topics, some of them dealing with the deepest of sorrows–are pieces of literature in their own right, containing both advice and insights into Strayed’s own life and past experiences. Her stories (some more obviously relevant to the issue at hand than others) are heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny and make this book one to be cherished and read over and over again.

I LOVED this book. Strayed is just about the wisest, coolest, most insightful human on the planet and comes across as a badass older sister or aunt who just wants to look out for you. I just adore her after reading this. I think the thing I admire most about her is that she’s someone who has experienced more real and true tragedy than I think most people do (abandonment by her father, the early death of her mother, drug addiction, divorce, poverty, loss of friends and loved ones) and yet she seems so together. I freak out about my own life a lot and this book gave me an incredible sense of strength and perspective, like someone knew exactly what I was going through and more, and was giving me the power I need to persevere. This book will make you cry (genuine, ugly crying–it’s just devastating at some points) but will also make you laugh and cheer and want to go out and live your life to the very fullest. It’s a self-help book in some respects, but it’s never cheesy and never resorts to platitudes or false encouragement. It’s genuine, it’s inspirational, it’s fantastic.

Seriously–go read it. Now.

CBR-V Review #43: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

I’d only read a couple of short stories by Diaz before, and have been meaning to read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao for a while now, so this was my first real introduction to his work. I was really impressed and I’m definitely going to seek out more of his writing.

This is a collection of short stories, all of them linked thematically and many of them featuring Yunior, a character who frequently appears in Diaz’s work, as their protagonist. These are the stories of Yunior’s heartbreak and his relationships with women and, at their core, Yunior’s desire to be loved. Underneath his macho exterior, Yunior is a broken kid, a boy facing loss and uncertainty and an inability to form real, lasting relationships. Each story focuses on a different woman, most of them Yunior’s own romantic conquests, but also highlight Yunior’s fractured relationship with his older brother and meditations on masculinity, on loss, and of course, love in its many forms.

Diaz is seriously one of the most beautiful writers working today. His prose is stunning and lyrical and reads more like poetry at times than fiction. He captures voice and culture like no other author I can think of, perfectly replicating slang and tone and accent on the page. You can tell that the world he describes is one he knows intimately and loves dearly, and yet he’s not afraid of pointing out its flaws. I loved how this book (because it’s really more of a book than a collection) is fragmented yet cohesive, with the individual stories/chapters able to stand alone and yet compliment one another and flesh each other out, each one adding deeper meaning and understanding and subtext to the others.

This is a gorgeous book and one that I really couldn’t stop reading. If this is your first Diaz book, it’s a good place to start–if not, and you’ve read other things by him, I’m sure you’ll love this too.

CBR-V Review #42: One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

Yet another Kate Atkinson book! She’s kind of become my go-to for entertaining, well-crafted mysteries. Sometimes I just need a fast, easy read as a palate cleanser when I’m reading a couple of harder books, and hers always do the trick.

This is the second book in the Jackson Brodie series (I’ve previously reviewed #1, Case Histories, and #4, Started Early, Took Your Dog). I liked this one less than the first one but much more than the fourth. As with all of the books in this series, Atkinson takes on several different plotlines that appear to have no connection to another and weaves them together to form a complex, compelling mystery. Brodie once again finds himself at the center of a web of crime after witnessing a road rage incident turn violent in Edinburgh, where he is staying with his girlfriend, Julia. This seemingly random event sets off a chain of events that involves the discontented wife of a real estate tycoon, the timid author of best-selling crime novels, and a tough single-mother policewoman.

As always, it’s difficult to discuss a mystery without giving much away, but I can say that this was a pretty satisfying book, all things considered. Brodie is, again, a great anti-hero–he’s flawed and interesting and it’s easy to root for him. Atkinson does a very good job of balancing Brodie’s personal life with the mysteries surrounding him, and the moments during which she discusses what’s going on with him and his inner feelings serve as strong moments of respite from the otherwise tense narrative. I liked how the mysteries in this book were much more interconnected than they were in other books in the series, and this installment was much more cohesive (and believable) than any of the others. It is, however, a bit less gripping than at least the first book in the series, but not so much so that it loses its entertainment value.

I’m going to keep this short and sweet and just say that if you like well-written crime fiction, Atkinson is one of the best in the genre. I also would recommend reading these books in order, as it definitely helps to understand some of Brodie’s background (although if you don’t–I read #4 first–it’s not a huge issue).

CBRV Review #41: The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

So this is a book I’ve been wanting to read for probably 10 or so years–my mom read it a while back, around when it was first published, and loved it (and got to have lunch with Susan Orlean, because her friend won some contest or something, and she said that Orlean is awesome in person). I also love Adaptation and have seen it a million times, although I did know before reading it that the book and the movie are not really alike at all. Like, AT ALL, so if you’re planning on reading this with the expectation that it’s just like the movie…you will be extremely disappointed. No crazy twin rivalries and freaky love affairs with rednecks and people getting eaten by alligators here!

You may know Susan Orlean as a frequent contributor to The New Yorker–she’s basically one of the masters of long-form narrative journalism, and she rocks. This book reads like a really long version of a New Yorker article, which makes sense, because it started out as a short piece for the magazine and was expanded after it got a lot of buzz. The book is about orchids and the people that love them, specifically John LaRoche, a Floridian with an orchid obsession who was arrested along with several Seminole Indians for poaching rare orchids in the Everglades. Orlean follows the trial, but also delves into the concept of passion and obsession, exploring the bizarre lives of the people across the state and across the world who are captivated by the flowers.

It’s definitely a really interesting book, even though I have no prior knowledge of/interest in orchids. Orlean does a really good job of capturing the passion that dedicated orchidists have and describing it in a way that feels tangible–I found myself totally engaged in her descriptions of the different breeds of orchids, of the drama and scandals surrounding cross-breeding and orchid ownership, of the lengths people will go to (and all that they lose) in their pursuit of these gorgeous yet strange flowers. LaRoche is a really interesting character and helps to ground the narrative, as she uses him as a centerpiece and a recurring symbol of the orchid obsession. He’s quirky and entertaining without ever devolving into a caricature, which I appreciated. The story also really benefits from Orlean’s outsider perspective–she is respectful of this world and these people who are so different from her, inserting skepticism and humor where needed but never judging.

This is a really good book–it’s so much more than a book about flowers. Highly recommended to fans of well-written literary journalism.

CBR-V Review #40: Tampa by Alissa Nutting

A guy working at my favorite bookshop recommended this to me after seeing me perusing shelves for 30+ minutes, and after hearing me point out Herman Koch’s The Dinner to my boyfriend and gushing over it. He promised me that if I liked that book I’d love this one, and so I bought it, won over by his enthusiasm and the cool cover of the book (the book jacket is made out of velvet).

I was honestly a little disappointed. This wasn’t a bad book by any means, but I feel like it loses a lot of its novelty about halfway through.

Tampa  is the story of 26-year-old Celeste Price, a beautiful young schoolteacher who has a dirty little secret: she’s attracted to pre-pubescent boys. She sees her new job as an English teacher at a middle school as her opportunity to find the perfect boy to seduce and fulfill her sexual fantasies, and she’s right–soon after starting, she meets Jack, a sweet, naive 13-year-old who falls head over heels for her. Soon engaged in regular trysts, Celeste must find a way to keep her affair going while keeping her dull and dim-witted husband appeased and while heading off the advances of Jack’s father, who has also expressed an interest in her. This is an examination of a sociopath, a cold and calculating woman who has everyone fooled.

I definitely see how this could be compared to The Dinner, but I actually think a comparison to Gone Girl is more apt. I’m not going to spoil that book here, but if you’ve read it, you’ll understand how a certain character is extremely similar to Celeste. Celeste is ruthless and deceptive and driven solely by her lust, and was, 100%, a completely unlikeable narrator. I kind of liked that–it’s unusual to have narrators that are so despicable and so hard to relate to/sympathize with. Seriously, Celeste has no redeeming qualities. It’s kind of creepy to see how well Nutting inhabits the mind of a sociopathic pedophile, and it definitely made me sick to me stomach at points. I also think taking on a reverse-Lolita situation was an interesting choice, and I liked how Nutting touches on societal perceptions of male vs. female sexual predators.

That being said, I had a lot of issues with this book. Number one is the level of sexual content. Honestly, I’m a really open person and I’m definitely not a prude when it comes to sex scenes in my reading/watching material. But this book seriously went a little bit overboard, to the point where it just got boring. It felt like 75% of the book was sex-related, and I found it excessive. I get that the point is that this woman is driven by lust and obsessed with sex, but it got repetitive. I also think that Nutting misses the mark a bit by not highlighting how young Jack is–she kind of seemed to forget that he was just a kid, and although she throws in random scenes here and there to emphasize his age/naiveté, he mostly comes across as a love-struck equal to Celeste…which was wrong. I hated the fact that I kept forgetting how sick the situation was simply because of how he was characterized, and I think it could have been a more powerful book if we were really introduced to age/power dynamics, which were kind of lacking here. Finally, I found the end to be rushed and unsatisfying, and I thought that the last quarter needed to be expanded to have any real impact.

Overall, it’s not a bad read, and it’s definitely one of those “have to keep reading, what the hell is going to happen next?” novels, but in terms of a nuanced, captivating portrait of a sick mind (obviously, Lolita comes to mind here–one of my all-time favorite books) it falls short.

CBR-V Review #39: The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

This is a re-read for me: my father read the whole Narnia series to me when I was little, and I’ve reread a few of the books since then. This has always been one of my favorites of the series, and I wanted to revisit with adult eyes.

This is the first book in the series chronologically, but was one of the last to be written. It basically is the “world-building” book that introduces us to the concept of an alternate/magical world and sets the stage for the action of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which takes place many years later. Digory Kirk is a young boy who, with his very ill mother, moves into his aunt and uncle’s house in turn-of-the-century London. He soon befriends Polly, his neighbor, and they begin to explore the adjoining houses along their road. During one of their explorations, they come across Digory’s uncle doing experiments in the attic of their home; as a result, Digory and Polly are sent to a “wood between worlds,” from which they can explore a number of other universes and, in doing so, discover true evil–an evil that, unintentionally, crosses back into the human world with them.

This is a short, fast read that is somewhat distinct from the other books in the series. The plot is definitely a bit less engaging than some of the other books in the series, mainly because the world is so new and much of the story is there to explain elements of the old, familiar world that appears in the rest of the Chronicles. It’s a much less memorable story than, say, The Lion…, but it’s still enjoyable and entertaining. The stakes seemed to be much lower in this book, and the evil (in the form of the White Witch) is played for laughs, rather than fear as it is later on down the road, so I’d say this book is tonally very different. Digory and Polly are good protagonists–they’re not as fully-formed or as easy to like/hate as other main characters in the series (Lucy and Edmund, for example)–but they’re still solid and sweet.

I enjoyed this book on a deeper level, too, because you can see a lot of the religious allegory very clearly here. I’m by no means religious, but it was fun to try and pick out religious themes and symbols and understand their purpose and meaning. I’ve never subscribed to the belief that the Chronicles are merely Christian books–of course, the religion plays a lot into the subtext, but it doesn’t diminish the pleasure of a secular reading of the book. I loved these books so much when I was younger without ever being aware of a deeper message; I think that for kids it’s more of a story about good and evil and what that means. So if that’s holding you back from reading this and the other books in the series, I’d highly recommend rethinking your stance and giving them a try–this is a great book, and the ones that follow are even better.

I might actually recommend reading this one last, or at least after reading The Lion…, because although it is technically a prequel, a lot of the enjoyment you get out of it comes from understanding certain references to landmarks/people in later books (the lamppost, for example).

Overall, a good book. Not as good as others in the series (not sure why I’ve always thought of it as a favorite) but still worth a read, especially when read in context with the other books.

CBR-V Review #38: The Dinner by Herman Koch

I’d heard some buzz about this book on a couple of book-related blogs, and then my dad came home from a business trip gushing over it and told me he’d read the whole thing on a plane ride. I immediately got it at the library and finished it within a few hours–it’s that good.

The narrator of The Dinner is Paul, a seemingly typical middle-class man out to dinner with his wealthy brother (a rising star in the Netherlands’ political scene), and their respective wives. Their sons are connected by a dark and violent secret, one that brings the two couples together for dinner: the goal of the evening is to discuss what happened and to decide what to do. Paul peels back the layers of deception and denial surrounding the situation over the course of the evening, . Cleverly, the action is broken up according to course/phase of the meal, starting with the aperitif, ending with the tip. Of course, flashbacks and inner monologue are used extensively to flesh out the real-time action.

This is a fast, exciting read in the same vein as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl–a sharp, smart and extremely dark thriller that keeps you guessing and is (as cliché as it sounds) impossible to put down. It’s not a mystery, exactly, but it’s certainly shocking and intense in its own way, with plenty of secrets being revealed along the way. It’s hard to discuss it too much without giving away the plot, but suffice to say that it’s very well-structured and feels like a new (and noteworthy) addition to the genre. It’s not particularly deep, but I think it does delve into human nature and the shades of grey of morality in an interesting way.

I also really enjoyed Koch’s use of an unreliable narrator in Paul–I love a good unreliable narrator, as I find they make stories automatically much more complex and interesting. Figuring out “the truth” sort of becomes the goal, and it’s fun to compare the narrator’s version of events with the objective reality (or as close to it as you can come) based on information gleaned by actions and attitudes of other characters. This book was particularly satisfying in that regard, and it becomes immensely entertaining–and horrifying–to see the hidden layers of self-denial and complicity in Paul’s character.

Overall, this is a really enjoyable book that gets into your head and keeps you on your toes. If you like dark thrillers, this is an obvious choice for you.