Friday, October 31, 2014

October 2014 Reading Wrap-Up

October was an excellent reading month for me, I'm happy to say! After experiencing a hellacious Reading Slump earlier in the year, I don't take a good reading month for granted anymore. Nope--instead now I know to be very grateful to the Reading Gods! Here are the books I read in the past month:

Here are the titles, with links to my reviews if I've posted them yet:

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Without You, There is No Us by Suki Kim

Ship of Brides by Jojo Moyes

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Certainty by Victor Bevine (review to come on Nov. 5 as part of a blog tour for TLC Book Tours)

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood

Reunion by Hannah Pittard

Eleven books in one month . . . I couldn't get the twelfth in?! Seriously, this may be some kind of a personal record for me (well, that is, if I don't include college and graduate school. Eleven books read strictly for pleasure and not because they were assigned--that would be the record). I'm certainly reading at a faster pace since I started blogging. I don't know if that's because I feel like I should read more to add content to the blog, or if it's simply because through blogging I have become aware of-- and have access to--so many great books!

And my favorite book for the month of October? These were all good reads, so that is a tough question. But I'm going to say Some Luck by Jane Smiley, which I found to be a very satisfying and engrossing family saga.

I hope October was a great reading month for you as well. Onward to November, intrepid readers!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Some Discussion Questions on Ghost Horse by Thomas H. McNeely

Last week I posted a review of the novel Ghost Horse, by Thomas H. McNeely. Published this fall by a small, indie publishing house called Gival Press, Ghost Horse is a gripping and intense book about a young boy coming of age in 1970s Houston as his family falls apart. It is a compelling story that unsettled me at times, but I suspect will stay with me--and I recommended it for readers who love literary fiction and complex family stories. You can read my review here. I had the opportunity to read this novel through a blog tour at TLC Book Tours.

The author of Ghost Horse, Tom McNeely, was kind enough to stop by my blog and comment on my review. He left some discussion questions for readers of the novel, and I thought I would highlight them here. I do think that Ghost Horse would provide plenty of conversation topics for book clubs or reading groups, and I know from my own experience with book clubs that some thoughtful, guided questions can help generate deeper discussion among the group members. Here, then, are Tom's suggested questions:

Ghost Horse concerns a family in the 1970s which is breaking up in a divorce. How do you think divorce affects children in families? How do you think attitudes toward divorce have changed since the seventies? Do you think it is easier or harder for children of divorce now?

In Ghost Horse, three boys vie with each other to control a home-made movie that takes many shapes. How do you see children today using media to connect, and sometimes to harm each other, as in various cyber-bullying cases? Do you think children see themselves and their relationships differently because of their exposure to media today?

Ghost Horse explores the effects of class and racial tension in Houston, Texas, in the 1970s. How do you think attitudes toward race and class have changed in America since that time? Do you see a greater or lesser distance between races and classes now or then?

Thought-provoking questions, indeed, for a thought-provoking novel.

I'd like to add a few discussion questions of my own for readers of Ghost Horse. Here they are:

Children, of course, are greatly affected by their parents' attitudes towards other family members. They can overhear conversations they aren't meant to overhear, and misunderstand adult situations. As a parent, have you struggled with this? Have your children ever overheard a fight between you and your spouse, or a fight among other adult family members? Have you tried to temper your attitude toward other family members for the sake of your children?

On this same theme, children often mimic the actions of their parents. In Ghost Horse, do you think that both Buddy and Simon re-enact some of the actions of their fathers? How so?

What do you think Buddy will be like as an adult? How do you think the experiences related in the book will affect him as a father, if he chooses to have children? How can parents who have endured difficult childhoods leave those experiences behind in their own relationships with their children?

Please feel free to leave any comments, whether you've read Ghost Horse or not. And if you have read the novel, feel free to suggest additional discussion questions.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Review of Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
Publication Date: September 16, 2014
Length: 268 pages
Source: Library

Margaret Atwood’s new collection of short stories is sharp, imaginative, juicy, and strange—quintessential Atwood, in other words! The nine tales of Stone Mattress all deal, in some way, with the theme of growing older, but Atwood also considers relationships, marriage, identity and art. Atwood is both darkly humorous and deadly serious in these stories. For Atwood fans, this collection is an absolute must-read. And for those who have never read Atwood before (and, oh my goodness, why is that?), her latest short fiction may provide the perfect entry to her work.

The Stories: Every one of these nine stories is well worth the read, but I will just highlight a few of my favorites. In the title story, “Stone Mattress,” Verna, while on a cruise of the Arctic, meets up with a man who had humiliated her high school five decades ago. She plots her revenge in the icy landscape of 1.9 billion-year-old stromatolites. In the strange and highly affecting “Lusus Naturae,” a girl born with genetic abnormalities is believed by her family and village to be a vampire. Atwood revisits the memorable characters from her 1993 novel The Robber Bride (one of my favorite Atwood novels) in the story “I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth;” Atwood brings Tony, Roz, Charis, and even Zenia (!) back to life perfectly, and creates a highly satisfying epilogue to the original story. In the powerful final story, “Torching the Dusties,” Atwood follows an older man and woman trapped inside a retirement community while a violent, anti-elderly protest rages outside the gates.

My Thoughts: I don’t read short fiction very often. Like many readers who love novels, I sometimes find short stories overly abrupt. I fear getting emotionally involved with characters and then having my ties to them cut too quickly. But lately I’m finding that short fiction can be a welcome alternative to a novel. I read this collection just after Dewey’s 24-Hour-Readathon, and I only tackled one or two stories per night. It proved to be the perfect way to ease myself back into books after the post-readathon reading hangover. Short stories, I’m learning, can also help you sneak in a little fiction reading at times when you feel too stressed or busy to commit to a novel.

In any case, I loved this collection—maybe because I’m developing more of an appreciation for short fiction, or perhaps I was just so darn happy to read something new from Atwood. To me, these stories represent a return to the vintage Atwood of the 1990s, the era of Alias Grace and The Robber Bride—meaning a return to fiction that is psychologically insightful and emotionally gripping, but not overly fantastical. I highly recommend Stone Mattress for readers of literary fiction.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Review of The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Publisher: Hogarth
Publication Date: October 28, 2014
Length: 512 pages
Source: Publisher, through NetGalley

Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is an unusual and disquieting novel about love, faith, alienation, and the nature of humanity. Faber’s book, a genre-bending mash-up of literary and science fiction, is full of “strange new things,” indeed. Strange, perhaps, sometimes even outlandish, but always oddly enthralling, this original and thought-provoking novel is one I will not soon forget.

The Story: Faber begins his story as Peter, a minister, prepares to leave his home and his beloved wife Bea and embark upon a mission. Like countless missionaries before him, Peter hopes to convert the natives in a strange land to Christianity. But unlike all the missionaries who have gone before him, Peter’s destination is another planet. A rather shadowy global corporation known as USIC has recruited Peter to travel to their colony on the planet Oasis and to minister to the aliens who live there. As Peter struggles to adjust to life on Oasis and to bring the word of God to the native Oasans, he begins to receive troubling messages from Bea back on Earth.

My Thoughts: I have to admit I that I’ve procrastinated something fierce on writing this review, because I felt like I was still grappling with the issues raised by The Book of Strange New Things a few weeks after completing it. In all honesty, I think I am STILL processing it. This novel is full of big ideas, and possibly it would take me another read to sort all of them out.

For some readers, the meaning of religious faith—and how much a person’s faith can truly be tested before they lose it--may be the most important theme in the novel. But to me, Faber’s exploration of love, emotional distance, and alienation are what really hit home. As Peter gets increasingly involved with the strange alien creatures on Oasis, he begins to adapt their ways of talking, living and thinking . . . and becomes increasingly emotionally distant from his wife Bea on Earth. This growing alienation between the couple, at first so united in their missionary zeal and support for the project, seemed to me a perfect representation of the alienation that any couple can experience over time. At the end of the book, the reader roots for Peter and Bea to overcome the forces pulling them apart, and somehow find their way back together--both physically and emotionally--again.

On the press tour for The Book of Strange New Things over the past few days, Faber has indicated that he does not intend to write another novel. While completing this book, Faber’s wife Eva died of cancer, and he has said, “I wanted this to be the saddest thing I’d ever written.” Knowing about Faber’s loss adds another layer to my interpretation of the novel; it is clear that the grief of loved ones forced apart is a key theme to the book.

I have a few minor quibbles that keep me from rating The Book of Strange New Things as a 5 star book. I felt like some of my questions about the USIC and the purpose of the Oasis colony were never fully answered, and the novel, while mostly absorbing, is a touch long and became plodding in a few sections. I would rate the book a 4 out of 5 stars.

But overall, the novel is a fascinating read that I think will please fans of both literary and science fiction, and leave many readers (including myself) hoping that Faber will, indeed, write another novel—perhaps even a sequel. In the meantime, it is quite clear to me that I need to read Faber’s much acclaimed novel about a Victorian prostitute, The Crimson Petal and the White.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher, Hogarth, for review consideration, through NetGalley.

Monday, October 27, 2014

It's Monday, October 27 . . . What Are You Reading?

Good morning, fellow readers! This post connects to the "It's Monday" meme hosted by Sheila at BookJourney. I hope you've been enjoying a season of wonderful reads--I certainly have! As usual, the TBR pile threatens to topple over, but I've been reading along at a good, steady pace lately. Hooray--reading slumps, please stay away!

Last week on the blog, I posted reviews of these books:

Lila is Marilynne Robinson's latest novel, which has been longlisted for the National Book Award. It is a beautifully written, character-driven novel about a woman's journey from suffering and abandonment to love and redemption (the link to my review is in the title).

Ghost Horse by Thomas McNeely is a powerful novel, set in Houston in the 1970s, about a boy coming to terms with his parents' awful divorce. It's a coming-of-age story as well as a novel about adults behaving badly in the midst of a family crisis, and it is a moving book that will certainly stay with me. I read Ghost Horse as part of a blog tour for TLC Book Tours.

I also re-posted my review of this book:

Lily King was the recipient of the very first Kirkus Prize for Fiction, which was announced last week, for her novel Euphoria. I read and loved this book, about a love triangle of anthropologists in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s, when it was released over the summer. I didn't think Euphoria received the attention it deserved earlier this year, so I was very glad to see King win the Kirkus Prize. You can read my review of Euphoria here.

In the past week, I read these books:

Another Margaret Atwood! I don't tend to read a lot of short stories, but Stone Mattress is truly Atwood at her best, so if you are a fan, I recommend it. Review to come soon. I read Certainty by Victor Bevine for TLC Book Tours; I will host the tour on November 5th.

And currently, I am reading . . .

Reunion by Hannah Pittard looks to be a good, juicy story of family dysfunction; I'm always fond of those! It's starting off well--that's always a good sign.

This week I hope to get some reading done and even a few reviews posted, but I'll also be spending a few days in NYC with the family. We'll be seeing a Broadway show that the kids have been desperate to see, and spending some time at MoMA and in Central Park, if the weather cooperates. I love New York in the fall!

I wish everyone a great week in reading!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Review of 2014 Kirkus Prizewinner Euphoria by Lily King

Last night the first winners of the Kirkus Prizes were announced. This is a brand new set of prizes in the literary world, with one of the richest awards--$50,000 each for the winners of the fiction, nonfiction, and young readers' literature categories.

And the very first winner of the Kirkus Prize for Fiction is Euphoria by Lily King, a wonderful novel that I read and loved over the summer. This intelligent and satisfying novel, published on June 3, 2014, by Atlantic Monthly Press, is loosely based on a real-life love triangle of anthropologists studying tribes in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s. I am so glad this book was recognized with a major new literary award; I feel like it flew a bit under the radar this summer. Therefore, I decided to re-post my review of Euphoria, which originally ran on this blog on July 13th of this year. I highly recommend this novel to readers of both literary and historical fiction.

Euphoria by Lily King is an intriguing and sophisticated novel about three anthropologists studying tribes in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s. Loosely based on a real-life love triangle involving Margaret Mead, this piece of literary historical fiction offers an exhilarating mix of the cerebral and the passionate. King considers love, marriage, jealousy, as well as issues of cultural relativism and cultural imperialism.

The Story: King opens the book with a married team of anthropologists beating a hasty retreat from a violent New Guinean tribe called the Mumbanyo. As the couple departs by canoe, a tribe member throws something at them. “'Another dead baby,' Fen said. He had broken her glasses by then, so she didn’t know if he was joking.”

The man and woman are Nell and Fen, clearly modeled on the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead and her second husband, Reo Fortune. Nell has recently achieved fame from her work, and Fen struggles with resentment at her sudden success. Searching for another tribe to study, Nell and Fen meet up with another anthropologist, an emotionally damaged Brit by the name of Bankson (based on Mead’s real-life third husband, Gregory Bateson). The three social scientists begin an intense intellectual collaboration and, soon, fierce desires threaten the balance between them.

My Thoughts: I found Euphoria to be an interesting and deeply satisfying read. The subject, to me, was fascinating; I’ve retained an interest in anthropology since college. King thoroughly researched the lives and work of Mead, Fortune, and Bateson, and ably represents the controversies and issues in the field of anthropology in the 1930s.

But the novel isn’t completely focused on anthropology—far from it. King includes plenty of messy human emotions and complicated relationships. I think this is why the book resonated with me so much. It isn’t often that a literary novel combines big ideas with such an engrossing plot and fascinating set of characters.

Novels based on the lives of real people can be a tricky proposition. Of late, I have found some of these sorts of novels to be disappointing because, often, the writer seems constrained by the real-life trajectory of the characters’ lives. King makes the decision here to deviate from the facts of Mead’s life and create a new ending for Nell, Fen, and Bankson. I will admit that I did not particularly LIKE the ending King chose for her characters, but regardless, I appreciated the suspense of not knowing exactly what would happen.

Euphoria has been compared to Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, and Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski, all novels in which anthropology plays a central role. Of these other works, I have only read State of Wonder, and I think that Euphoria is the better novel—it is tighter and more focused than Patchett’s book. I do want to read the novels by Yanagihara and Berlinski.

I would rate Euphoria a 4 and a half out of 5 stars. I highly recommend it to those who read literary fiction.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review of Ghost Horse by Thomas McNeely

Ghost Horse by Thomas McNeely
Publisher: Gival Press
Publication Date: October 6, 2014
Length: 260 pages
Source: Publisher, through TLC Book Tours

Ghost Horse by Thomas McNeely is a powerful debut novel; it is both a deeply moving coming-of-age story and an intense psychological portrait of a family in crisis. McNeely weaves an intricate web of a plot against the backdrop of the racial and class tensions of Houston of the 1970s, and explores themes of love, lost innocence, loyalty, and broken families. The tale of eleven-year-old Buddy over one unsettling year of his adolescence makes for a compelling and worthwhile read.

Synopsis from Publisher: Set amidst the social tensions of 1970s Houston, Ghost Horse tells the story of eleven-year-old Buddy Turner's shifting alliances within his fragmented family and with two other boys--one Anglo, one Latino--in their quest to make a Super-8 animated movie. As his father's many secrets begin to unravel, Buddy discovers the real movie: the intersection between life and he sees it and the truth of his own past. In a vivid story of love, friendship, and betrayal, Ghost Horse explores a boy's swiftly changing awareness of himself and the world through the lens of imagination.

My Thoughts: Ghost Horse is beautifully written. McNeely’s dialogue is sharp and believable, and he skillfully creates a suspenseful, dark atmosphere that fits the intensity of the story perfectly. The characters are richly drawn; Buddy’s two grandmothers, each controlling and difficult in her own way, his hardworking and hopeful mother, his volatile father swinging wildly from one extreme to another, the cold-eyed bully at Buddy’s new school—they all come startlingly, fully to life.

Importantly, McNeely gets Buddy’s adolescent voice exactly right. Buddy is on the cusp of change, sitting at that precarious transition between childhood and adulthood; I’ve read precious few novels that capture that charged passage so exactly. Buddy's anxiety and angst, as he struggles with difficulties at home and at school, are palpable. As the adults all around Buddy make bad decisions, tell lies, and prove themselves to be mostly unreliable, Buddy must learn--at far too young an age--to make his own choices and guide himself through the rough times ahead.

McNeely touches on many themes in Ghost Horse—race, class, sexuality, lost friendship, bullying, and abuse, to name a few, and I could hold forth about how McNeely sheds light on all of these. But one issue that struck me in particular as I read Ghost Horse was that of broken families, and the tumult that divorce causes for children. Divorce felt like a great and terrible scourge to those of us who grew up in the 1970s; at least half of the kids I knew suffered through the break-up of their parents, and the rest of us feared it. McNeely demonstrates how Buddy tries to make sense of his parents’ arguments and actions, but of course he can’t fully understand the complexity of their emotions. He’s trapped in a chaotic situation that is none of his own making, forced to choose between his parents and to deal with issues that no child should have to consider. As a reader, I wanted leap into this story and hug this boy, and give him back a carefree childhood with no greater concern than creating an animated movie with his best friend.

And the “Ghost Horse” itself—what a haunting image. The Ghost Horse, from the Super 8 movie that Buddy and his Latino friend Alex create, appears like a mythological creature . . . symbolizing, perhaps, escape, freedom, and strength. The Ghost Horse represents a world in which things are still black and white, while Buddy’s world has turned to confusing and constantly shifting shades of grey. If only the Ghost Horse could fly in and save Buddy; but Buddy, must, of course, find a way to save himself.

I could go on, but this is becoming a lengthy review, indeed. Let me sum up by saying that Ghost Horse is a gripping read—I turned the pages feverishly, desperate to know what would happen and if Buddy would be okay. This is a story that unsettled me at times, but will stay with me. I highly recommend this novel for readers who love literary fiction and complex family stories.

I received a complimentary copy of this novel from Gival Press. Thank you to TLC Book Tours and Gival Press for the opportunity to read Ghost Horse and participate in this blog tour. You can visit the other tour stops on TLC’s website here.

About Thomas McNeely: A native of Houston, Texas, Thomas H. McNeely has received fellowships from the Wallace Stegner Program at Stanford University, the Dobie Paisano Program at the University of Texas at Austin, and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as from the MacDowell Colony, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Vermont Studio Center. His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and Epoch, and has been anthologized in Algonquin Books’ Best of the South and What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. His non-fiction has appeared in Ninth Letter and The Rumpus. Ghost Horse is his first book. He teaches in the Emerson College Honors Program and the Stanford Online Writing Studio, and lives with his wife and daughter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Find out more about Thomas at his website.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Waiting on Wednesday: Mermaids in Paradise

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming released that we're eagerly anticipating. Fall is always a season full of great new releases in fiction, and there are still a number of books I'm waiting for. Here is one I'm especially looking forward to . . . .

Mermaids in Paradise is the latest novel by Lydia Millet, and it's set for release on November 3rd. Here is the official synopsis:

Mermaids, kidnappers, and mercenaries hijack a tropical vacation in this genre-bending sendup of the American honeymoon.

On the grounds of a Caribbean island resort, newlyweds Deb and Chip--our opinionated, skeptical narrator and her cheerful jock husband who's friendly to a fault--meet a marine biologist who says she's sighted mermaids in a coral reef.

As the resort's "parent company" swoops in to corner the market on mythological creatures, the couple joins forces with other adventurous souls, including an ex-Navy SEAL with a love of explosives and a hipster Tokyo VJ, to save said mermaids from the "Venture of Marvels," which wants to turn their reef into a theme park.

Mermaids in Paradise is Lydia Millet's funniest book yet, tempering the sharp satire of her early career with the empathy and subtlety of her more recent novels and short stories. This is an unforgettable, mesmerizing tale, darkly comic on the surface and illuminating in its depths.

This struck me as, potentially, a very entertaining read; I haven't read Millet before and I'd like to. "Darkly comic on the surface and illuminating in its depths"--that sounds marvelous (although I know, I know, you have to take the publishers' official write-ups with a grain of salt!). It sounds like a comedy of errors with a sort of a Carl Hiaasen vibe. Plus, Karen Russell blurbed the book with these words: "I laughed so hard all over town . . . I am awed to know there's a mind like Millet's out there--she's a writer without limits, always surprising, always hilarious." I'm an ENORMOUS fan of Karen Russell's, so if she was impressed, you can bet this book is on my list!

Does Mermaids in Paradise sound like a novel you'd like to read? What upcoming releases are you anxiously awaiting?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review of Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Publication Date: October 7, 2014
Length: 272 pages
Source: Library copy

Marilynne Robinson’s newest book Lila is a beautifully written, character-driven novel about a remarkable woman and her journey from suffering and abandonment to love and grace.

The Story: Quite simply, Lila is the story of a woman named Lila who has lived her life on the road as a poor, itinerant laborer. Lila doesn’t know her real name; a tough woman named Doll stole her away from her neglectful home when Lila was a small girl. Doll and Lila eke out a hand to mouth existence filled with much hardship, and sometimes with joys; but as an adult, without Doll, Lila finds mostly loneliness and desperation.

Sometime in the 1940s, Lila arrives in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, and forms an unlikely friendship with the town’s minister, Rev. John Ames. Although Ames is much older than Lila, and although Lila has lived a life untouched by religion, these two lonely souls marry, surprising the residents of the town as well as themselves. Lila, uncertain she can bear to remain in this settled life, so different from her rough past, soon finds that she is carrying her husband’s child.

My Thoughts: I’ve never read Marilynne Robinson before. Some readers and reviewers have suggested that you should not attempt Lila before reading Gilead, because Lila is in fact a kind of prequel to Robinson's 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Robinson has also written another novel, Home, with some of the same characters. But to be honest, Gilead never appealed to me; the novel is written as a letter by Rev. Ames, now dying at the age of 77, to his 7-year-old son. Despite the praise and critical acclaim, I simply didn’t feel drawn to the subject matter.

When I read about Lila, though, I felt compelled to hear the story of Lila’s strange and nearly feral upbringing. I wanted to experience her story and know something about her process of coming in from the wild, so to speak, and how she decided to marry a man several decades her senior.

If you know anything about Robinson, you know that religion is a major theme of her work. There are many of scriptural references in this novel (Ezekiel and Job—not, perhaps, the most accessible Biblical stories), and Lila wrestles with the concepts of baptism and salvation, and the question of whether those she loved in her previous hardscrabble life would be harshly judged by God. The religious elements, truthfully, weren’t what kept me deeply engrossed in Robinson’s story.

Instead, it was the beautifully drawn and nuanced character of Lila herself that interested me throughout this book—Robinson skillfully brings this woman to life. Lila’s surrogate mother Doll is a wonderful, richly drawn character as well. I was fascinated by Lila’s childhood on the road, by her complex relationship with Doll, and by her difficult experiences as a young woman in a St Louis brothel. I found myself absolutely riveted by the question of whether Lila, a survivor of much trauma and too little kindness, could learn to give and receive love and lead an ordinary domestic life.

And Robinson’s writing is a delight—subtle and fluid, but with many layers of meaning. Some reviews have faulted Robinson for telling Lila’s story in the third person, suggesting it would have had more power as a first person narrative, similar to Ames’s direct first person voice in her previous book. I can’t compare Lila to Gilead, but I thought Lila’s story as Robinson chose to tell it was enormously powerful indeed.

And, let me say, I disagree that you must read one of the other Gilead novels before Lila; I think Lila can stand alone as a work of fiction without connection to the previous novels. I would recommend this novel, but mainly to those who love literary fiction and are comfortable with character-driven novels. I would rate Lila, which has been shortlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction, a four out of five stars.

Monday, October 20, 2014

It's Monday, October 20 . . . What Are You Reading?

Good morning, fellow book lovers! This post links up with the It's Monday meme, hosted by Sheila at Book Journey. I haven't posted on It's Monday for a while, but I do have a few things to update, so . . . .

Last week I posted a new discussion topic for book bloggers and other book lovers: Do Literary Prizes Influence Your Reading Choices? I started thinking about this issue last week when the winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2014 was announced. Please make a comment if you have any thoughts!

I posted reviews of these books last week . . .

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is Karen Joy Fowler's moving and powerful novel from 2013 about family, memory, and what it means to be human. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize--the first novel by an American woman to have that honor. You can read my review here. And I also reviewed Jane Smiley's latest novel Some Luck, a multi-generational family saga of an Iowa farm family. You can read my review of Smiley's novel, which I found unexpectedly riveting, here.

I also posted some Mini Reviews of Fall Reads--just a few thoughts I had on reading Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel and How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran. I have learned that sometimes I have to post mini reviews rather than lengthy full reviews; otherwise I will get so behind in reviews that I will never catch up!

On Saturday, for the first time, I participated in Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-thon! It was fun; a day to celebrate reading is always a good thing. I didn't keep a page count, but I read most of two full books and a good chunk of a third. That was fine--I hadn't set any specific goals for myself, other than enjoy myself and see what the read-a-thon was all about. There are a few things I'd do differently next time:

1. Plan out the food, and make sure the spouse is in town to handle all the parenthood responsibilities!

2. Use the read-a-thon to catch up on some lighter books, YA, or graphic novels! I was trying to read a very deep, intense literary novel much of the day, and that just clearly doesn't work best for a long haul reading session.

3. I want to come up with a good way to link my read-a-thon to raising money or collecting books for a literacy charity, maybe for a Head Start center or an underfunded school library in my area.

The coolest thing, for me, about this whole experience was that my 12-year-old son said he wanted to join me in the next read-a-thon! Of course, I won't let him stay up all night. But a middle schooler wants to spend his Saturday sharing his love of reading with me? That's awesome. :)

I wish everyone a great week in reading!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Read-a-thon: Random Update

Some thoughts as we head into the evening ....

1. It's great to feel part of something that celebrates reading, and that so many other book lovers are participating in at the same time! I am pretty darn sure that I am the only person in my town who knows about this, though.

2. I've heard that some of you do this as part of a fundraiser for a charity. How do you go about that? I'd love to add that element in next time.

3. I don't know how some of you keep active on twitter and your blogs--but at the same time keep up your concentration for reading! I can either follow stuff on twitter, or read books . . . not both at the same time. Perhaps I am too old for this! :)

4. I should have picked up some graphic novels and YA books instead of trying to read a really deep, intense, literary fiction novel! Going to be one of many lessons learned today.

5. Best snack ever: Apple cider donuts from Solebury Orchards in New Hope, Pennsylvania! Folks in my neck of the woods go crazy for these things every autumn, and rightfully so.

Happy Reading to everyone who is participating in the Read-a-thon today! If you are not officially participating, I hope you can carve out a little bit of time with a good book sometime this weekend.

Readathon Challenge: Book Staging

Read-a-thon Challenge for Hour 5: Book Staging! The basic idea is to take a photo of your book with something that relates to the cover or the content of the book. It is hosted by On the Wings of Books.

This is the novel I'm reading right now--Lila, by Marilynne Robinson.

Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon: Opening Meme

The Read-a-thon has begun! I'm figuring things out as I go . . . I just woke up and starting reading! Ha--didn't realize the thing to do was post an opening. Ok, onward!

1. What part of the world are you reading from today? A small town in New Jersey by the beautiful Delaware River.

2. Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to? I'm really enjoying Lila by Marilynne Robinson, which I had already started. So I'd like to just keep going with it .. . although it's probably not the perfect kind of novel for reading in one day or getting a high page count. It's a book you really need to sink into and savor every sentence. My goal is just to get a good chunk of it read today; it doesn't matter if I finish it or not.

3. What snack are you most looking forward to? Oof, I am so new to this, and I didn't pre-plan awesome snacks! We have the usual in the house ... some nice looking watermelon and gala apples! For lunch, I'll be picking up sandwiches from an amazing deli in our town.

4. Tell us a little something about yourself! Well, this is my first read-a-thon--that is probably obvious! My favorite things in life are books, coffee, travel, and family activities with the kids.

5. If this is your first read-a-thon, what are most looking forward to? I'm just trying to get the hang of it and have fun!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-thon: My (Kinda Lame!) Plans!!

Tomorrow is Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-thon! Book bloggers the world over unite twice per year and demonstrate their astonishing mental abilities by reading books for, yes, 24 hours straight! Except when they take breaks to post updates or go on Twitter or eat or nap . . . at least this is what I understand. You can read all about it on the official website here.

I haven't done this before; during the last read-a-thon, I was a brand new blogger and had NO IDEA what was happening on Twitter when I saw all the tweets about it. Well, now it has come around again . . . And I can think of tons of reasons why I should NOT do this. For example:

1. I like to sleep. A sleep-deprived me is a pitiful, easily confused creature who walks into walls and pours orange juice into the coffee-maker. I try not to let this being out.

2. The offspring have various places to go on Saturday--as always!--and I'll need to chauffeur them hither and yon.

3. My husband is returning from a trip on Saturday and might, I don't know, want to chat with me or something. I can guarantee he'll want to go out to dinner. (What is the official read-a-thon protocol for bringing books to restaurants?)

Ah well, to hell with such quotidian obstacles! They are simply hurdles to clear. I've signed up!

So my first read-a-thon plan was just to, you know, read a lot on October 18th. Whoa, then I saw all the posts from fellow bloggers and my bubble was burst! I have now seen many photos of lovely stacks, with books carefully selected for the read-a-thon . . . often a thoughtful assortment of fiction, non-fiction, with short stories and graphic novels to help breaks things up. Um, what a good idea! And then I starting reading great posts about meal and snack planning for the read-a-thon. Oh yeah--I didn't think about how I would eat if I was supposed to be reading all day. Yes, it is clear I have no idea what I am doing here.

Alright, then, I must admit that I have no elaborate strategy for tomorrow's event. Well, that's ok--there's a first time for everything, and I will kind of wing it . . . and maybe in the spring, I will form a better plan of attack. I did, at least, take this photo of my stack:

I do have a a non-fiction book in there (Suki Kim's Without You, There is No Us about her time teaching in North Korea), as well as Margaret Atwood's Stone Mattress, which is a collection of short stories. I am currently reading Marilynne Robinson's Lila, and the writing is beautiful . . . but I think it may not the best novel to sit and read for hours on end. If I want to switch to something different, I thought I might start Victor Bevine's Certainty, which I have an ARC for and need to read for an upcoming blog tour.

On my Kindle, I have a copy of Reunion by Hannah Pittard, which I am hoping might provide some humor. And I've been reading Jojo Moyes's The Ship of Brides on my e-reader as well, so I might tackle some more of that.

Well, that's more or less my plan! I am approaching this read-a-thon with a bit of trepidation, but I think I'll enjoy participating. Are you taking part this fall's read-a-thon, and have you made any advance plans?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Discussion Topic: Do Literary Prizes Influence Your Reading Choices?

It's literary awards season! Well, kind of. Of course, the Pulitzer Prizes are awarded in the spring, and the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) in early summer. But this week has felt like a Literary Prize Extravaganza, with the announcement of the shortlists for the National Book Award, and of course, the awarding of the Man Booker Prize. Here's the book that gets to have a sticker announcing it as the 2014 Man Booker Prize winner . . . .

Australian writer Richard Flanagan took home the prestigious prize for his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This got me thinking, because none of the readers I know, either in real life or in the blogosphere, have mentioned wanting to read this book. I haven't felt particularly compelled to pick up the novel myself. I have read a few critics' reviews of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and they have been mixed. Flanagan's story about Australian POWS during World War II who are forced into grueling slave labor by their Japanese captors sounds very bleak and brutal . . . maybe it's a novel that needed to be written, but I can't say that it's one I especially want to read.

Earlier this year, I was very interested in following the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. The shortlist this year was pretty darn stellar--Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, Audrey Magee's The Undertaking. I read all of those except The Lowland (although I've previously read and loved Lahiri, and I do hope to read it). But none of these books won the prize; the winner was this book:

Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is written in a stream-of-consciousness style. From what I've read, many readers have found the prose confusing and inaccessible, and the content to be an unrelentingly sad tale of betrayal and abuse. Ron Charles of The Washington Post wryly noted that McBride's book is an "extraordinarily demanding novel that will fascinate dozens of American readers." Dozens. Ouch. It may be very worthy, and perhaps it's important for experimental fiction to be recognized at times (in fact, I am sure that IS true), but I haven't noticed a tide of readers taking McBride's novel on since the Baileys prize was announced. I think I will be taking a pass on this one myself.

Now, I know that many factors go into the selection of the winners for a literary prize. Of course, I am not going to like all of the books selected as winners, and neither is any one individual reader. But these last couple of literary prizewinners did make me wonder how many readers out there consider the awarding of a literary prize to be something that influences their choice to read a book or not. And lately, has there been a disconnect between the prizewinning novels and what most readers actually want to read?

For myself, I will say that I DO pay attention to the literary prizes. It always interests me to know which books make the longlists and shortlists, and certainly which ones take home the prize. I've read many prizewinning novels over the past two decades, and I can count some of them as my favorite novels (for example, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, Zadie Smith's On Beauty, Ann Patchett's Bel Canto). Some other novels I've loved have made it to the shortlists of the big awards.

So I do pay attention . . . I usually at least read a description and a few reviews of every novel that makes it to the shortlist of one of the big literary prizes. This can be a great way to learn about novels that might be highly literary and deserving, but haven't experienced commercial success.

At the same time, clearly, winning a prize is not enough to make me read a novel. If a prize-winning novel strikes me as compelling, I will likely read it. But, as with A Girl is a Half-formed Thing and The Narrow Road to the Deep North, simply winning the prize alone will not help the book find its way onto my bookshelf.

What about you . . . do the big literary prizes influence your reading choices, and if so, how?

Review of Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Some Luck by Jane Smiley
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: October 7, 2014
Length: 416 pages
Source: Library copy

The Story: Some Luck, the new novel from Jane Smiley, is the first of a planned trilogy called “The Last Hundred Years” about the Langdon family. The five children of Walter and Rosanna Langdon, each very different from one another, grow up on an isolated farm in Denby, Iowa in the 1920s and ‘30s. Their childhoods are spent leading the same kind of rural life that their parents and grandparents did, bound by time-honored agricultural rhythms. The country is on the brink of sweeping social and economic change, however, and the Langdon children will find themselves spreading out from the Midwestern heartland, experiencing things that their parents could never have imagined.

By the end of the book, in 1952, some of the Langdons have found themselves in Washington DC, New York City, and San Francisco, while some remain in Iowa. Their experiences have been as enormously diverse as their personalities. Three of the Langdon children have married and now have children of their own. With the Langdons, Smiley provides an intimate, and often poignant, portrait of an ordinary American family through the decades.

My Thoughts: I’ve read quite a number of Jane Smiley’s novels, most of them back in the 1990s (strange that the 1990s seems so long ago now!). I’ve always appreciated Smiley as a natural storyteller, and for the fluid nature of her prose. A good Smiley novel--like A Thousand Acres, my favorite of her books--immerses you completely in the lives of her characters, and you don’t want to leave that world when the novel ends. But the last Smiley novel I read was disappointing for me (Ten Days in the Hills). When I heard that Smiley had written a new novel, a multi-generational story about an Iowa farm family, I knew that I wanted to experience it.

And fortunately, Some Luck is a marvelous, engrossing read. I found this story of one family’s life through the years to be unexpectedly riveting, and I wanted to savor every last bit of it.

Smiley doesn’t follow the familiar structure used in many novels, of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, etc. Instead, each chapter of Some Luck covers a year in the life of the Langdon family, starting with 1920 and ending in 1952. Every year Smiley gives you a good sense of the rhythms of the Langdons’ lives with a few vignettes about some of the characters. Sometimes a big change happens in a particular year, and sometimes not; small moments sometimes reveal themselves to be significant only with the passage of time. I thought Smiley’s year-by-year structure was a brilliant device to allow readers to fully immerse themselves into the experiences of her characters.

I imagine that some readers will find this structure hard to take, and will wonder, “but where is the PLOT?” Well, to put it simply, the plot is these characters’ lives. As in most real people’s lives, there isn’t one climactic moment that changes everything or a single dramatic resolution. Rather, Smiley seems to say, for the Langdons, as for all of us, there is life, every year—life, with its day-to-day struggles and joys, with its continual cycle of births, passions, and disappointments--until finally, there is death. What greater plot, really, is there?

I would rate Some Luck a 4 out of 5 stars—not a 5, because I do think the start is a little slow. I recommend Some Luck to readers of literary and historical fiction, especially those who like to sink their teeth into a good multi-generational family saga, and I will look forward to the next book in Smiley’s trilogy about the Langdon family.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Waiting on Wednesday: Us by David Nicholls

"Waiting on Wednesday" is a weekly event, hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. Autumn is usually a season with great new releases in fiction, and this year appears to be no exception--there are lots of fall books I'm itching to read!

Here is one book I am looking forward to . . .

Us is the latest novel from David Nicholls, and it will be released in the United States on October 28. It earned a spot on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize. Here is the synopsis from Goodreads:

"I was looking forward to us growing old together. Me and you, growing old and dying together."

"Douglas, who in their right mind would forward to that?"

Douglas Peterson understands his wife's need to "rediscover herself" now that their son is leaving home.

He just thought they'd be doing their rediscovering together.

So when Connie announces that she will be leaving too, he resolves to make their last family holiday into the trip of a lifetime: one that will draw the three of them closer, and win the respect of his son. One that will make Connie fall in love with him all over again.

The hotels are booked, the tickets bought, the itinerary planned and printed.

What could possibly go wrong?

This book really caught my attention, even though I haven't read anything from David Nicholls before. The reviews I've seen have said it is humorous, as well as thought-provoking--always a promising combination for a novel. Maybe I'm interested because I'm at the stage of life that a dissection of a long marriage, and the empty nest syndrome, are topics that have some relevance for me.

Does Us sound like something you would read? What new releases are you eagerly awaiting?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
Publication Date: May 30, 2013
Length: 310 pages
Source: My own copy

Plot Synopsis from The Man Booker Prize 2014 Website: As a child, Rosemary used to talk all the time. So much so that her parents used to tell her to start in the middle if she wanted to tell a story. Now Rosemary has just started college and she barely talks at all. And she definitely doesn’t talk about her family. So we're not going to tell you too much either: you'll have to find out for yourself what it is that makes her unhappy family unlike any other. Rosemary is now an only child, but she used to have a sister the same age as her, and an older brother. Both are now gone - vanished from her life. But there's something unique about Rosemary's sister, Fern. So now she's telling her story; a looping narrative that begins towards the end, and then goes back to the beginning. Twice.

My Thoughts: Oh, I loved this novel, and I’m having a very difficult time expressing why. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a work of literary fiction that is both intelligent and highly readable. Fowler tackles some very big, thought-provoking topics—What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to take responsibility for our loved ones? How can we atone for our inevitable failures? Big topics, indeed, and those are just a few. There is also much to think about in this novel about memory, family, and the ethics of scientific research. And yet, with all of that, Fowler keeps the plot moving quickly, with plenty of action (even some almost mad-cap comedy), and manages to keep the tone lively and even jaunty at times. The result is a witty and engaging novel that entertains as well as makes you think.

This is a book that I couldn’t put down, and it hasn’t left my thoughts since I finished it a few weeks ago. It is a terrific achievement for Fowler, and I’m glad the novel received a spot on the Man Booker Prize shortlist (first time for an American woman, folks, so that alone will, I hope, encourage more fiction readers to give this book a try).

I think one reason I have hesitated about writing a full review is that too many reviews have spoiled the surprise—and, in fact, even the back of my paperback copy spoils it! I can’t understand why the publisher, and then many reviewers, didn’t allow Fowler to reveal key plot elements in her own way. This is why, after worrying about whether I could write about this book without spoilers, I decided to use the short synopsis from the Man Booker Prize website. I’d recommend that anyone interested simply read the book, without looking at any further reviews or descriptions beforehand. I will say, though, that I knew the “surprise” before starting the novel, and I still loved it. Nevertheless, I would have loved to experience the reveal (or really, series of reveals) as Fowler no doubt intended.

My rating for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is 5 of 5 stars.

Mini Reviews of Fall Reads

Lately, my reading seems to be far out-pacing my blogging, and I’m behind on writing reviews. In order to catch up a bit, I decided to post mini reviews for a few of the books I’ve read recently, so I can at least record my thoughts. I’m gradually coming to the realization, which I know some of my fellow book bloggers have discovered, that I may not be able to post a lengthy, well-considered review of every single book I read.

So here are a few thoughts about some of my recent reads this fall:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I have certainly NOT been in the market for more post-apocalyptic/dystopian novels; in fact, I am quite ready for some POST-post-apocalyptic fiction! Please, writers, please. But I decided to read Station Eleven after Mandel’s book landed on the National Book Award longlist. And I do see why this novel has received mostly flattering reviews. Mandel’s premise of a traveling troupe of Shakespearean actors and musicians, moving about the countryside and performing two decades after the great flu pandemic has decimated the population, is absolutely fascinating. In fact, I wanted to hear more about the woman who established the group (the Conductor) and the other itinerant players in the Traveling Symphony. I felt like Mandel had an amazing idea but didn’t fully develop it.

Instead, she takes the story back and forth between the Traveling Symphony and the time before the flu pandemic, but to me, the sections in the novel before the flu lacked interest. The characters in the pre-flu period seem to exhibit a great deal of malaise and unhappiness; no doubt Mandel is making a point, but it doesn’t make for very gripping reading. The heart and great strength of her story, I think, lies with the players of the Traveling Symphony and their efforts to not merely survive, but to create art and beauty in a harsh and unforgiving world. These sections make the novel a worthwhile read. My rating for Station Eleven is about a 3.5 stars out of 5.

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran’s coming-of-age novel was released in August of this year, amid much fanfare (a bestseller in the UK! Gushing blurbs from Lena Dunham and Helen Fielding!). Moran, of course, is known for her essay collection, How to Be A Woman, which I have not read. How to Build A Girl was for me, a perfectly pleasant read. Sometimes I found it laugh-out-loud funny, and that is always a welcome surprise in a novel. I think, though, that perhaps the buzz for the book outpaced the novel itself, and at times I felt that the plot and characters were lacking something. I felt, too, that it seemed less like a novel than a sort of fictionalized memoir of Moran’s teen years in the 1990s. I appreciated Moran’s voice, but it didn’t quite click with me as a work of fiction—at least, not as much I had expected. I would rate it as 3 out of 5 stars, but still note that I think many readers will find it an amusing and enjoyable read.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Review of Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis
Publisher: Soho Press
Publication Date: September 9, 2014
Length: 246 pages
Source: Library copy

A teenage bully, a talented artist, a loyal friend, an abandoned daughter, an abused child—Rainey Royal is all of these things. In her new novel Rainey Royal, Dylan Landis tells 14 stories about her title character and her passage to adulthood. But this hypnotizing and unnerving novel is more than the tale of one girl; through Rainey, Landis sheds light on the complex, precarious experience of girlhood.

The Story: In 1970s Greenwich Village, teenage Rainey Royal lives in a deteriorating brownstone with her father Howard, a jazz musician so revered that young acolytes arrive to learn from the master . . . as well as to sleep in the master’s home (often in the master’s bed), share his drugs, and eat his pizza. A musical commune is a strange place indeed to raise a child, and Howard’s approach to parenthood is one of, at best, benign neglect. Residing in the townhouse is also Howard’s good friend and fellow musician Gordy, with whom Howard “shares everything,” even, apparently, his wife, Rainey’s mother . . . that is, before she abruptly de-camped to an ashram in Colorado. Now Gordy comes unwanted to Rainey’s bedroom at night, to brush her hair and give her back rubs.

While Rainey fights off creepy Gordy’s advances, she finds solace in visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in pleas to St Catherine of Bologna, the patron saint of artists, and in her friendship with a tough girl named Tina. Together, Rainey and Tina torment weaker girls at school, cause mischief great and small, and experiment with their blossoming sexual power (“engaging with the male teachers” inappropriately, as the school psychologist delicately puts it; Rainey and Tina call it The Private Game).

Landis follows Rainey--fierce, reckless, wounded Rainey--through her teens and early twenties, as she acts out, tries on different personas, and . . . somehow . . . survives her strange childhood and begins to grow into the woman and artist she was meant to be.

My Thoughts: I galloped through Rainey Royal, mesmerized by the intensity and heart of this book and wanting to consume every word of Landis’s fluid and elegant prose. Landis’ portrayal of Rainey is deeply nuanced and absolutely spot on; she has created a character that practically leaps off the page. Her Rainey is, quite convincingly, both prey and predator. Landis perfectly captures the crazy combination of deep vulnerability and sharp cruelty that teen girls can have. Rainey and Tina are nauseatingly, frighteningly powerful as they run emotional roughshod over classmates, and even teachers, at school, and delve into even more terrible behavior outside of school. They are desperately in need of adult guidance; without it, they must, in a sense, create themselves.

For me, Rainey Royal was a wonderful and entertaining read, although I felt the novel lost some of its power when Landis shifted the focus away from Rainey herself. Landis tells several of the final stories from the perspective of Rainey’s friends Tina and Leah, and while I appreciated those voices (especially Tina’s), I longed for more of Rainey’s singularly compelling voice as the novel drew to a close.

I hope Landis will write another novel book with these characters; I would love to know what happens to them as they pass out of new adulthood and into their thirties and beyond. Landis’s story collection Normal People Don't Live Like This, published in 2009, focused on Leah and her mom, and of course Rainey is the star of Rainey Royal; perhaps in Landis’s next book, it will be time for the young Dr. Tina Dial to take center stage.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Review of A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: September 30, 2014
Length: 416 pages
Source: Publisher through NetGalley

Garth Stein's A Sudden Light, a multi-generational family saga set in the Pacific Northwest, offers a promising premise, but Stein fails to deliver a nuanced and compelling novel. An improbable plot and unconvincing characters make this novel one that all but the most devoted of Stein's fans should probably skip.

The Story: It is the summer of 1990, and fourteen-year-old Trevor Riddell is hoping to save his parents’ troubled marriage. While his mother returns to her native England for the summer, Trevor has traveled to Seattle with his father, Jones, to prepare the family’s ancestral estate on Puget Sound for sale. Trevor’s great-great-grandfather Elijah Riddell, he learns, earned a fortune in the timber business, and built a massive home, Riddell House, out of giant, whole trees. Still living in the crumbling mansion are Trevor’s grandfather, who seems to be either senile or perpetually drunk or both, and his sultry, manipulative aunt Serena. There is dysfunction aplenty in this strange family, and tensions among its members mount as they attempt to sell the estate to developers. And it turns out there are other complications as well . . . namely, the ghost of a former ancestor who wants the estate returned to forestland. Trevor seeks to unlock the mysteries of Riddell House and his family’s past.

My Thoughts: When I read the publisher’s description of A Sudden Light, I thought the story seemed to have all the elements of a big, juicy novel: a coming-of-age story, a multi-generational family saga, and a Gothic, possibly haunted, house full of secrets to discover. I was interested in the Pacific Northwest setting, and imagined an interesting view into the timber industry of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But despite the promising premise, these elements never come together to create a cohesive novel.

Trevor’s voice is never fully believable as that of a fourteen-year-old, so the novel falls flat as a coming-of-age story. The other characters are one-dimensional and sometimes sink to the level of mere caricature; the character of Trevor’s aunt Serena, especially, the only major female character, struck me as utterly implausible and, frankly, ridiculous. Stein’s dialogue is stilted; the characters interact in odd ways and periodically launch into soliloquies, but none of it sounds like something actual people might say.

The plot, moreover, seems to be missing something essential. Elijah Riddell, the family patriarch, has allegedly cursed the family with his many sins . . . but Stein never spells these sins out. Ok, he was a timber baron and cut down a lot of trees—that alone isn’t much to hang a good curse on. I couldn’t help thinking of Philipp Meyer’s excellent novel set in Texas, The Son; Meyer clearly unveils the family patriarch’s transgressions, and the fact that his actions reverberate through subsequent generations makes sense. In A Sudden Light, readers are asked to take for granted that Riddell’s ancestors must all pay the price for his unnamed actions.

As for the ghost . . . well, I don’t read many novels with supernatural elements, I’ll admit, so perhaps I’m not the best judge. But for me, in any case, the ghost story part in A Sudden Light didn’t come together very convincingly. The ghost seemed to me mostly a device to further the plot whenever a little additional explication was needed.

Although much in this novel didn’t work for me, I do think there are positive elements here. I was interested in the story of Ben, his lover, and his surprisingly understanding fiancĂ©e—I wanted to hear more about them, and perhaps to travel back in time into their world. It seemed to me that these characters alone might have made an intriguing basis for a novel. Stein writes movingly about nature and conservation; clearly he is passionate about the environment.

I haven’t read Garth Stein before. His previous novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, of course, achieved phenomenal success, but I have to admit I can’t tell from A Sudden Light what endeared Stein to so many readers. With all of the wonderful new books available this fall, I would not recommend this novel.

I received a complimentary copy of this book for review consideration from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, through NetGalley.