The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger (2003) E

Date read: 8.27.09
Read from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Henry DeTamble travels, involuntarily, in time; Clare Abshire is the woman who has loved him since she was 6 years old, and he, displaced in time – but in his own timeline already married to her – introduces himself to her in a meadow. The Time Traveler’s Wife charts the the convoluted course of their love, and all the hazards, vagaries, joy, and anguish that Henry’s strange condition brings into their lives.

Kakaner has been begging me to read this for years. This August I finally gave her the satisfaction of receiving a barrage of emails from me exclaiming over the book as I plowed through it in a handful of days. I was absolutely sucked in, and despite her warning that she’d found the first 100 pages of the book slow going, the first half-ish of the book was actually my favorite. I loved the slow back-and-forth as Clare works her way through life to her first meeting with in-time Henry – I found the scenes of her childhood and young adulthood (and the interspersed glimpses of Henry’s childhood and his first, innocently bedazzled experiences of time travel) beautiful and singularly lush, and I loved feeling so connected with Clare as a character, so immersed in her experience of growing up, and feeling as intensely as she does the anxiety and excitement of each impending encounter with Henry. (Sucker for young love, right here.)

Continue reading The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger (2003) E

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See (2005) K

Date Read: 7.28.07
Book From: Borders Piracy
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Lily is born to a poor village family, but a prominent matchmaker notices Lily at a young age and informs her that her physical beauty may promise a prosperous marriage. To help the process, Lily is paired with a laotong (Chinese companion for life), Snow Flower, to increase her credibility and status. For their entire lives, Snow Flower and Lily share a deep friendship and endure their hardships and married life together.

Review

Back when I first reviewed this book, I wrote down “Good… awesome… but not mindblowing”. And it was exactly that. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is such an excellent book– great character development, writing, plot, historical references– but it is never one that I immediately think to recommend to people. It’s definitely a book that misses the wow factor, and as engaging as it is, fails to completely immerse the reader in the world. I found myself reacting very strongly to events in the book, but not coming away feeling attached.

Overall, many elements of the plot are a bit of a reach in that I think it was extremely unlikely that all of these fortunes would fall upon a common Chinese village girl. In this way, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan reminds me of Memoirs of a Geisha, another book that clearly knows its history and society’s makeup but reaches a bit too far to make an interesting and compelling story. However, if you focus on just the laotong relationship instead of how it came to be, it really is quite beautiful. Their dialogues really impress upon the reader the objectification, cruelty, and lack of purpose experienced by Chinese women.

It’s certainly a book to read if you are interested in historical chinese traditions. In particular, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan contained one of the most vivid accounts of footbinding I had ever read. See devotes an entire chapter to Lily’s hardships during her footbinding experience, underlining the layers of tensions between Lily and her family that accumulate because of this process. It is extremely instructive in the nature of the relationship between parent and child in older chinese cultures, as well as the female to society.

If you liked Memoirs of a Geisha, you will enjoy Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but prepare yourself for a different emotional journey.

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Lisa See

The Inside, by Isaac Marion (2008) E

Date read: 2.6.09
Read from: Originally borrowed from Kakaner; now in personal collection, via Burning Building
Reviewer: Emera

At twelve, David falls asleep on a schoolbus, and meets, literally, the girl of his dreams. In real life, he grows up, marries a woman he thinks he loves, and proceeds to destroy both of their lives. He is unable to shed the belief that somewhere beyond the world he sees every day, there’s another one that’s more vital, more beautiful – and most importantly, is home to the girl whom he still glimpses in maddeningly brief and unpredictable snatches. Soon, even his waking life is invaded by the inexplicable: radio towers appear and disappear; cryptic cassette tapes appear on his welcome mat; he wakes up in his car in places that he doesn’t remember driving to. David is terrified, infuriated, and eventually obsessed by these “messages,” desperate to take control and escape a life that seems to hold no meaning except for the conviction that love lies elsewhere.

The Inside is a strange book. Though I hate to pin it down with genre terms (I know, then why am I doing it?), it’s most easily described as part psychological horror/suspense, part romance, part weird. After Kakaner lent me her copy (I bought my own later), I was haunted by it every moment that I wasn’t actually reading it, quite as obsessed as David, and a little frightened. Ultimately, I didn’t even care so much about the eventual reveals as I did about the process of getting to them, which is absolutely absorbing, often moving, and beautiful in a crazed, pained kind of way. I do think the novel falters towards the end, which I found somewhat rushed and a little incoherent, and there are certain other moments when Marion tries too hard to maintain the book’s tone, and slips into wryer-than-thou territory. Overall, though, Marion is an extremely assured writer, with a distinctive, effective voice and good control of pacing and plot.

Continue reading The Inside, by Isaac Marion (2008) E

Lucy, by Jamaica Kincaid (1990) K

Date read: 11.17.07

Book from: Borrowed from Stephane

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Lucy is 19 when she comes to America from the West Indies to be an au pair and escape her restrictive life. Her employers are the picture-perfect family– the parents are in love, they are rich, and they have perfect children. However, Lucy soon discovers that they are not what they seem, and all the while, she searches for her own niche in society as she transitions into adulthood.

Review

This novel was perfectly delectable in so many aspects, from writing to character development to story. Lucy as a whole relies on atmosphere and instead of action to propel the story, and it is a sort of eerily muffling yet discovering atmosphere. For every experience in America, Lucy would recall either a relevant or triggered memory from her time in the Indies. This juggling of worlds created delicious tension between old and new, responsibility and free will. The tensions between Lucy and the family members, particularly the wife, were so strange that sometimes I would stop and look at the cover of the book to reorient myself and remind myself that yes, I really was reading this seemingly innocent, slim novel with an artwork of a teenage girl on the cover.

Lucy herself is an incredibly atypical heroine. She has an objective and extremely cynical outlook on life, and you only slowly learn about why this is through her past. The expert sustaining of Lucy’s character and narration, as well as the delicate yet exposing portrayal of sexism and racism, are certainly testaments to Kincaid’s literary skills. I was incredibly lured by this book as soon as I started, and could not put it down until the end– Lucy’s story is real, tangible, and heart rending without resorting to dramatics. Kincaid’s autobiographical foundations are definitely visible in this novel which probably are what make Lucy such an honest and touching novel.

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Jamaica Kincaid

The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi (2006) E

Date Read: 7.9?.09

 

Book From: Personal collection

 

Reviewer: Emera

Jessamy Harrison is eight years old, the British-born daughter of a Nigerian mother and a white British father. Extraordinarily precocious and sensitive, she spends hours by herself and often falls into inexplicable screaming fits and fevers. One summer, her mother brings her to visit her grandfather in Nigeria. Even among her cousins there, Jess feels unwanted and out of place, until she meets Titiola – “TillyTilly,” as Jess calls her – an odd, mischievous girl living in an abandoned building on the family compound. TillyTilly is soon Jess’ first and best friend, and delights Jess with her waywardness and strange tricks. However, as their pranks become increasingly vicious, Jess begins to realize that TillyTilly is becoming an uncontrollably destructive force in her life.

Helen Oyeyemi famously wrote The Icarus Girl at the ripe age of 18, while studying for her college entrance exams. (She ended up at Cambridge.) When I tell friends this, they tend  to raise an eyebrow and ask if it reads like it was written by an 18-year-old. Amazingly, it doesn’t. Oyeyemi’s writing is elegant and meticulously stylized, only occasionally venturing into the overwrought. Her portrayal of Jess is astoundingly compelling. The reader immediately and intimately enters her perspective and begins to understand how tormented and frighteningly fragile she is, despite being (or because she is) so young. Much of the impetus to read onwards, in my experience, came from the desire to see Jess safe and healed from her fears. I was increasingly terrified for Jess as the novel went on, and some of the scenes in the book reach truly nightmarish pitches of horror. The half-articulated, hallucinatory style of the darker, mythical elements actually reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Continue reading The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi (2006) E

Requiem for a Dream, by Hubert Selby (1978) E

Date read: 7.29.09

Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner

Reviewer: Emera

Requiem for a Dream, although probably better known to most through Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film, is one of the most acclaimed novels about addiction. It charts a few, terrible months in the lives of a small circle of friends and family in New York in the 1970’s, all of whom are led into addiction by their own hopes for fulfillment and wholeness.  Harry Goldfarb, his friend Tyrone C. Love, and his intelligent, artistic girlfriend Marion dream of making it big by selling heroin, only to become paralyzed by apathy, self-loathing, and dependence on the drugs that once seemed to be their ticket to success. Meanwhile, Harry’s lonely, widowed mother Sara comforts herself with chocolate and endless television. When a chance phone call seems to promise her an appearance on one of her beloved television shows, she becomes reinvigorated by the conviction that she must lose weight, precipitating an obsessive cycle of dependence on diet pills.

Requiem for a Dream is one of the most grueling, brutal films I’ve seen, and for this reason I found myself reluctant to break into the novel. Once you begin, however, you feel a sense of commitment to the characters, an obligation to hear their stories out and follow them to the end, despite the sense of doom that pervades the novel from the very beginning. Continue reading Requiem for a Dream, by Hubert Selby (1978) E

The City & The City, by China Mieville (2009) K

Date read: 6.03.09

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

The City & The City is dark, brooding, and meticulous. It is the story of Inspector Tyador Borlu who investigates a mysterious and highly delicate murder case. “Highly delicate” for Borlu soon discovers that he must invoke Breach, a mysterious judicial force that governs disputes in the rare case that they involve a crossing of the cities, Ul Qoma and Beszel. However, help is not so easily found and Borlu must undertake this investigation himself. Using not-exactly-by-the-book methods, Borlu uncovers mysteries of the murdered girl, the very archaelogy of these two odd cities, and Breach.

Review

Mieville pulls the reader in with promises of the same great and dark fantastical adventures of his previous novels– we concoct a terrible conspiracy in our minds when first confronted with the murder, we imagine the city divide must have come about as a result of a great otherworldly battle, we provide ancient magical powers for each mention of a mysterious artifact… and although these theories are shattered one by one as the novel progresses, we still imagine the epic Big Reveal will, in fact, prove all our thoughts to be correct. Instead, The City & The City is cold and harsh, and there is never a magical solution. There is definitely a depressing, suffocating atmosphere that comes from knowing that every death, every misunderstanding, every unnecessarily gruesome fact of life is caused for humans, by humans.

I have to say I harbored this niggling disappointment each time a plot turn indicated that there was in fact no magic. I was naive– I should have paid closer attention to the genre titles “noir fiction” and “weird fiction”, but Mieville has always had a way with enchanting the story no matter what genre. I found the mentions of Myspace and Chuck Palanhiuk highly jarring, but undoubtedly genius. These references really made the reader think and realize he was reading about a country off somewhere in the Middle East that existed in the same world at the same time, that if he travelled far enough he would perchance bump into the city of Beszel. This effect was definitely unnerving and brought the story closer to home.

In many ways, I found Beszel and Ul Qoma to be the darkest of any of Mieville’s cities to date. Beszel and Ul Qoma encapsulate the grimness of today’s most rundown urban centers, without the usual gems of beauty that one can find in Mieville’s other works. While New Crobuzon was covered with filth, death, and corruption, the reader was still made to understand the powerful potential of inner beauty– Lin’s amazing (although admittedly grotesque) artwork, the majestic surrealism of The Weaver, the slowly nurtured romance between Bellis and Silas– and in the end, the Baslag books were just as much about the good as they were about the bad.  And of course, the London underground setting of King Rat also contained an edgy artistically musical appeal. I didn’t see any of this hope or light in these cities– whenever I uncovered more about a good person or a seemingly magical concept, there was simply only… dirt and muck underneath. Basically, I didn’t come away seeing promise dangling on the ends of story threads in the same way I did for other Mieville works. This, perhaps more than the downward spiral to nowhere, frightened me the most and in many ways, made the story as a whole less appealing.

This is not to say that The City & The City isn’t another great work of art created by China Mieville. I was so accustomed to floating along in the waves of Mieville’s greatly fantastical settings and characters, only to find myself rudely shoved into a hard and entirely unforgiving setting. I am under the opinion that this novel is extremely mislabeled as a fantasy work…there is an explanation and a science behind everything plot turn, and ultimately, my point is do NOT walk into The City & The City expecting fantasy. Although I have not read much detective noir fiction, I can confidently say The City & The City must be among the cream of the crop– as usual with Mieville, you can see the literary quality dripping off the edges of each page and feel the weight of a great imagination.

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China Mieville

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (2008) K

Date read: 11.8.08

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Nobody Owens (Bod) lives in a graveyard, has ghosts for friends and family, and a mysterious neither-living-nor-dead guardian. As he grows up, he has to learn both the ways and secrets of the large graveyard as well as deal with the outside world. This foreign world is extremely dangerous place for Bod because the assassin of his family is still on the prowl. Throughout the journey of his childhood Bod basically learns about growing up– girls, beings which are neither living nor, and slowly, how to function in the outside world.

Review

Way to go Neil Gaiman! All those months of meticulously following the progress of The Graveyard Book on his blog certainly paid off– the day it was released, I headed over to my local bookstore, plucked one brand spanking new copy off the display, and settled into an armchair to read for the next couple hours. I read it all in one sitting, and in about a week, after procuring enough monetary funds, I immediately bought the book.

I have to say The Graveyard Book was spot on in so many respects– character development, pacing, storytelling… to name a few. Sure Bod lives in a graveyard, but his childhood frustrations and adventures  are so relatable. He has his own quarrels with his guardians, fighting against the constraints of the graveyard much like children do their own homes. The imagery is simply splendid, especially Bod’s adventures beneath the graveyard and all the different fantastical creatures. And, who doesn’t like ghosts, vampires, and other such creatures? I definitely felt transported into another world through that imaginary magic portal every child wants to travel through. Above all, I was definitely caught up in the snowball effect of the novel– you’re reading and the suspense and developments keep piling on until suddenly, you realize you haven’t been breathing for several pages. That is the feeling I’d been longing to experience again, that same thrill of reading Patricia Wrede or Brian Jacques or J.K. Rowling as a child with breathy light-headedness.

The Graveyard Book has replaced Coraline as my favorite Gaiman YA fiction. It is fantastical, yet down to earth at the same time, and strikes a wonderful balance between barreling trains of action and meandering scenes chock full of character development. Quite honestly, one of my recurring gripes with Gaiman’s works is they typically feel a bit cold, despite being terrifically written and crafted. I usually enjoy every minute of a Gaiman novel or comic, but come away feeling a bit dissatisfied, as if it didn’t successfully speak to me on a deeper level. The Graveyard Book, however, was warm and honest, and definitely a great read for any child or even adult.

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Neil Gaiman

Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004) E

Date Read: 6.13.09

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

Oskar is an alienated twelve-year-old living in a decaying Swedish suburb in the 1980’s. He is brutally bullied at school, and fantasizes often about striking back at his tormentors, keeping a scrapbook of newspaper articles about murders as his inspiration. Two new neighbors move into Oskar’s apartment complex: one an older man, and one, apparently his daughter, an androgynous girl named Eli who smells terrible, walks barefoot in the snow, and only comes out at night, but is nonetheless befriended by Oskar.

If you know anything about vampires, you can imagine where this is going. Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, translated by Ebba Segerberg) was a bestseller in Sweden when it was published in 2004, and gained further international attention when the 2008 Swedish-language film adaptation (IMDB) won a number of awards and became a surprise hit. I’m not sure now if I heard about the movie or the book first, but unusually for me, I ended up watching the movie first, and read the book shortly after. I enjoyed both immensely, but for slightly different reasons in each case. Given that, I thought I’d do a combined film and book review. Please note that mild spoilers follow.

Continue reading Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004) E

The Scandal of the Season, by Sophie Gee (2007) E

Date Read: 12.17.08

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

English poet Alexander Pope achieved his fame and success when in 1712 he published his mock-epic poem, “The Rape of the Lock,” satirizing the public disgrace of the renowned beauty Arabella Fermor. This novel follows Pope’s rise to fame, as he departs his country home to travel to the city for a season. As Pope struggles to find material for a new poem, and to cope with the hypocrisy and cruelty of London’s high society, the haughty but meagerly dowered Arabella encounters the equally attractive and clever Lord Petre. Amid the stirrings of a new Jacobite rebellion (the conspiracy to return the Catholic James VII to the throne), Arabella soon undertakes a clandestine affair with Lord Petre – an affair that will become the talk of London, and Pope’s making, by the end of the season.

I was actually able to see Sophie Gee speak about this book and the research that went into its making, and found her a very intelligent, engaging speaker, so I had this quite high on my reading priority list. Plus, 18th-century bedroom/social intrigues have been a pet subject of mine ever since I fell in love with Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Unfortunately, Gee appears to be a pretty terrible novelist. Most of her book is graceless and entirely deficit in subtlety and real character development – the only area in which she demonstrates any deftness is the sometimes witty, cutting dialogue. Erotic scenes occasionally offer a break from the plodding narration, but are executed with a mix of irritating coyness and heavy-handed, charmlessly vulgar metaphors. (Imagine the most obvious sexual innuendo possible involving swords, hilts, and sheaths. Got it? Good. You have now succeeded in equalling every sex scene in the book.)

The saving grace of The Scandal of the Season is that it’s based on real people and real events, and ones in which Gee is clearly an expert, such that the weight of their true personal histories and characters give substance to an otherwise poorly-constructed novel. As such, the only reasons I kept reading this were that 1. I bought it (damn), and 2. I really wanted to see what would happen to the characters. The end is very bittersweet and truly fascinating historically, but Gee effectively robs it of most of its emotional heft. Boo.

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Sophie Gee