Thursday, December 30, 2010

FIXING DELILAH by Sarah Ockler

 Fixing Delilah by Sarah Ockler
Young Adult
Little, Brown and Company, 2010


Fixing Delilah is a story about discovering buried family secrets and mending present relationships. The story begins when Delilah Hannaford's grandmother dies, and she and her mother spend the summer in Vermont preparing for the funeral, prepping her grandmother's house for sale, allocating assets, etc. Delilah and her mother clearly have a strained relationship at the start. But we soon learn of a big family fall-out at her grandfather's funeral when Delilah was eight, between Claire Hannaford (Delilah's mother), Rachel Hannaford (Delilah's aunt), and their mother, which, Delilah guesses, had something to do with the third Hannaford daughter, Stephanie, who died as a teenager before Delilah was born.

Following all that? This story is an intricately woven web and masterfully presented. It's more difficult to try and tell someone what it is about than to simply read it and learn these things along the way. However, it wasn't until about a hundred pages into it before I felt like I had to keep reading. But that feeling did come. I finished the final two-thirds of the book in record time (for me, that is. I'm a slow reader).

Through Delilah's discoveries of the events leading to her aunt Stephanie's final moments, there is also a romance ignited between her and a boy she hadn't seen since she was eight (the last time she'd been to her grandmother's house). It's clear from the moment he is introduced that there is going to be something big between them, and because it was so obvious it fell a little flat for me. I wasn't impressed with the romance aspect of this story at all, which made some sections feel like they were dragging.

There is a huge twist near the end that I totally didn't see coming, which reveals a gargantuan secret Delilah's mother had been keeping since before Delilah was born. This scene was powerful and nearly brought me to tears. Very well done, and completely unexpected (in a good way). Don't go reading ahead to see what it is, that will ruin it. Just trust me. It's brilliant.

Cover Art: 3 stars (relevant but not very eye-catching, in my opinion)
Title: 3 stars (it gave me the impression that Delilah is severely broken, but really it was her mother who needed more fixing than anyone else. kind of misleading, but still relevant)
Writing: 4 stars (beautifully written but some areas were overworded for my taste)
Story: 5 stars (emotionally compelling from start to finish)
Characters: 4 stars (excellent but I don't like it when the supporting characters clearly outshine the main character. Delilah was bland compared to the others around her)
Ending: 4 stars (excellent climactic peak, but the denouement seemed to go on forever. I prefer a punchy ending with a quick wrap-up)

Overall Rating: 4 stars

~Lydia

Friday, December 24, 2010

LOSING FAITH by Denise Jaden

 Losing Faith by Denise Jaden
Young Adult
Simon Pulse, 2010


This was one of my favorite reads of the year, which re-emphasized why I adore Simon Pulse books (a YA imprint of Simon & Schuster). I have yet to read anything published by them that I don't absolutely love.

Losing Faith covers some heavy issues, not the least of which is the mysterious death of the main character's sister, Faith. As the story moves along, Brie copes with this loss, deals with her parents' depression, faces her own disinterest in all things Biblical, and works to unravel the events that led to her sister's death. Many claimed it was a suicide. A martyrdom, even. But even though Brie admits she and Faith weren't as close as they once were, she cannot believe Faith would ever take her own life.

Brie would have gotten nowhere in her "investigation" without the help of Tessa, a girl from school who is the last person she would have considered saying two words to, let alone becoming friends with. Tessa is the typical bad girl character, dressed all in black, but Brie soon discovers that they have a lot in common.

I'm not sure why this book hasn't received more attention. If you're shying away from it because of the religious themes, you're severely missing out. It is presented in a way that, in my opinion, does not feel preachy or shoved down your throat. The story reads like an intense mystery/thriller/suspense novel. You won't be disappointed.

Cover Art: 3 stars (beautiful, but could have had more intrigue)
Title: 5 stars (I love titles with double meanings)
Writing: 4 stars (good but some parts felt a bit dry, unstylistic)
Story: 5 stars (full of twists and intense emotion)
Characters: 5 stars (realistic and vivid)
Ending: 4 stars (satisfying but somewhat predictable)

Overall Rating: 5 stars

~Lydia


Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Book Book Reviewers' Favorite Reads of 2010

In December, of course, everyone publishes "best books of the year" lists. Here at The Book Book, we don't review only new books; we go with whatever a reviewer chooses to review, regardless of year of publication.

Below appear some of our favorite reads from our reviews of the last twelve months, regardless of when the books in question came out. The order in which the books appear below is alphabetical, by title. Each link from a book title takes you to a full review (in all but one case, at The Book Book); and each link from a reviewer's name will take you to his or her own Web site.



From Claire Dawn:

My nomination goes to Anna and The French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. It's YA Contemporary. From the review at Claire Dawn's site:

Stephanie Perkins has the strange and dubious distinction of being the first author to ever make me cry in the acknowledgements.

To her husband, Jarrod: "Thank you for being you, because you are my favorite."

If that's not a person meant to write teen romance, I don't know who is.



From Lydia Sharp:

Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver

Samantha Kingston dies in a car accident after a party one night, then keeps waking up to the same day over and over again -- the day she dies. The only way to end this cycle is to figure out who and what needs to be saved. Her life? Her reputation? Her friends? Or maybe it's that someone/something she'd never noticed until she'd been forced to relive the same events day in and day out.

I selected this book as my favorite because the story has stuck with me long after finishing the read. Oliver's writing style and storytelling skills are in a class all their own.



From Jane Steen:

In The Convent by Panos Karnezis, six nuns inhabiting a decaying Spanish convent find a baby in their midst, and the seeming equilibrium of their lives is shattered by jealousy and madness. A simply-told tale with chilling undertones.



From JES:

Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan, is nominally a YA fairy tale which you may not choose to share with your children when they're very young. (And I wouldn't blame you.) But its dark, dark surface masks a gentle and whimsical -- even playful -- heart, and it rewarded me on every page. A powerful, wrenching story, told in an exhilarating melange of not-quite-medieval English, set in a world at the very border of real and fantastic.



From Moonrat:

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

Set in 1799 on an artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan, this novel is a story of the Dutch East India Company, Tokugawa Japan, colonialism, oppressed minority Christians, slavery, love, medical history, forgotten religious sects, miscegenation, racism, and war. Mitchell flexes his brawny fictic muscles for 400 pages here, and doesn't cut his readers any slack, so don't embark lightly. But if you have the chance to read and savor it, The Thousand Autumns may rock your world like it did mine.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Portrait of a Holocaust Child: Memories and Reflections by Rita Kasimow Brown


Where I got the book: acquired through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.

Portrait of a Holocaust Child is a very personal memoir of a survivor. When she was a young child in 1942, Rita Kasimow Brown's family escaped from their Polish ghetto and spent nineteen months hiding in a tunnel dug beneath a farmhouse, unable to stand, living on scraps and crawling with lice.

Then they escaped. And Brown eventually moved to Israel. Where, in 2001, she processes the emotions still left over from her childhood experiences through writing about them and dialoguing with an imaginary character named Jay.

And that, really, is that. This is a very fragmentary memoir, made up as it is of the relived past, snippets of the present, and the dialogue with Jay, who talks a bit like a therapist. Which is not surprising because Brown is a therapist.

I'm left with the impression of a psyche caught in the past, unable to get free of the memories and move on to any kind of resolution. Brown's artwork, on color plates in the middle of the book, reinforces that impression: while the abstracts have an adult feel to them, the people in her paintings are childishly represented.

I found Portrait slightly annoying and somewhat disturbing. If you are studying severe, lifelong post-traumatic stress disorder, it might be interesting. If you're a Holocaust junkie, you might like it. Otherwise, I'd pass.

Nemesis by Philip Roth


Where I got the book: my own choice from the library.

I've only read one other book by Philip Roth, The Human Stain. And I wasn't crazy about it, although I thought the writing was superior. (And I guess a few other people thought so too, since it won a PEN/Faulkner Award.)

I liked Nemesis a whole lot more, even though I thought the novel was structurally flawed. Or is that genius, to build flaws deliberately into a novel and then get away with it? It's a fine line.

[SPOILER ALERT] Nemesis is set in Newark in the hot summer of 1944, specifically in the Jewish community in Weequahic. It begins in an expository style, explaining the origins of the polio epidemic of that year, before introducing the main character, Bucky Cantor. This young man, a superb athlete but barred from war service by poor eyesight, works as a playground supervisor and has a passion for helping children grow as athletes. He is a model citizen: brought up by his grandparents, he grew up working in their business and did well at school. He is small, tough, and respected, and his relationship with a doctor's daughter promises a rise in society.

But the polio epidemic hits Weequahic hard, and the playground is particularly badly affected. Children sicken and even die, and Bucky Cantor's faith in God is shaken as he tries to comfort the families and puzzle out why "his" children should be the victims of such a virulent strain. When he finally gives in to the temptation to leave it all behind and join his girlfriend at a camp in the mountains, Bucky's nemesis follows him and destroys his life.

This is a great story told mostly in a tight narrative style interspersed with dialogue. I loved the affectionate descriptions of the community and its people, and really got a sense of the suffering of the families. The writing is excellent: tight and compelling, it sketches scenes with great economy of detail but considerable power, and the dialogues and action are completely convincing.

Where the book fell down, for me, was the odd shock of discovering, about halfway into the book, that the narrator is not the anonymous "omniscient" so useful to novelists, but one of the polio victims; he tells Bucky's story (so that we see Bucky mostly as "Mr. Cantor") but really tells us almost nothing about his own part in it. The idea that he would have become friends with Bucky later in life and is now narrating what he has learned from him just doesn't strike true. I would have been OK with an omniscient narrator, but I find a second-hand narrative through a very minor character rather jarring.

The second thing I did not like was precisely the account of Bucky later in life, when he has turned his back on his former love and all that connected him with the playground. The embittered invalid is a familiar enough trope, but the way this section of the novel is sandwiched between the actual story and a final description of Bucky in his glory days (which strikes me as an attempt to balance out the present-day section) doesn't work for me. Bucky's anger against God is explored in this section, but I think it could have been worked more satisfactorily into the main narrative given Roth's great ability with the pen.

But I could be wrong. Maybe the flaws are deliberate attempts to break the rhythm of the narrative and shock the reader out of complacency. If they are, then I respect them. My overall impression is still of a powerful piece of writing that is well worth reading, and for that reason I'm giving Nemesis an "excellent" rating.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

FREEFALL by Mindi Scott

Freefall by Mindi Scott
YA contemp
(Simon Pulse, 2010)

Seth was the last person to see his best friend, Isaac, alive. And the first person to find him dead. Now he's dealing with careless friends and a girl he may or may not have slept with and failing grades and stagefright and no one seems to care that Isaac is dead and everything is spinning out of control...

...then he meets Rosetta. And little by little, as they're forced to help each other face their issues in an elective course called Interpersonal Communications, things start to turn around. For both of them.

This novel gripped me from beginning to end. Mindi Scott's writing style and constant story twists keep you turning pages. An amazing debut. Four out of five stars.

~Lydia

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Brontës by Juliet Barker


Where I got the book: a gift from a friend (see below).

While I was engaged in the writing marathon that is NaNoWriMo, I was also caught up in a little personal reading marathon. Juliet Barker's The Brontës, published in 1994, is a humungo 830 pages, followed by 170 pages of notes. It is frequently, so it seems, referred to as the "definitive" Brontë biography, which is why I asked my friend The Blond Knitter to buy it for me when I won her blog contest. (I like to think of the writers of definitive biographies crying "Follow that!" as they write the final line. I would.)

The Brontës totally lives up to its billing. Between the text and the notes (which I only dipped into), I really did feel that Barker had explored every possible source available to her. And yet not once, not once, I am not kidding you, was I bored. This could be due to my fascination with all things 19th-century-literature, but I think I'll put it down to good writing.

And I discovered so many interesting things, especially about Patrick Brontë, the father, and his most famous daughter, Charlotte. The book begins with the transformation of Paddy Branty, a poor but highly intelligent farmer's son, to the gentleman who outlived his wife and all six of his children; in some ways, he is the star of the narrative just by reason of his longevity.

Barker sets out to set the record straight about Patrick, who in Brontë legend is usually seen as mad and bad; in her book you get a portrait of a deeply devout clergyman (with a few foibles, such as a tendency to brag about himself and his children to the family he left behind in Ireland) who greatly loved his children, encouraged them to think and write, and was constantly worried about their ill health (which mostly seems to have been due to Haworth's generally unhealthy environment. The water supply was bad, and disease was rife in the village). Charlotte, on the other hand, comes across as less saintly than she usually does: she was rather on the bossy side, prone to outbursts and sulking, and decidedly manipulative.

Barker quotes extensively from the Brontës' letters and early poetry and prose, showing every alteration and insertion so that I got a real sense of their writing process. Fascinating. Her notes are detailed and written in just as lively a fashion as the text.

As the book advanced, it became increasingly hard to put down. A very nicely done treatment of a fascinating group of subjects. I'm actually racking my brains to think of a criticism, but the only one that comes to mind is that the collection of photos is a little idiosyncratic. But I've read enough about the issues surrounding the publication of photos in books to understand that this may have been a situation beyond the author's control.

I'm happy. Except that I have to inform you, dear reader, that this is a hard book to obtain. I was lucky and located a good copy at a reasonable price, but I see that on the day of writing we're talking about "collectible" (i.e. exorbitant) prices. I hope you have better luck.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Catherynne M. Valente/PALIMPSEST

One night, four very different individuals fall asleep to be inducted together into a world they each think is a dream. The four people are Sei, a 20-year-old Japanese woman who works as a railway employee on the Tokyo-Kyoto bullet train; November, a thirty-something San Fransisco woman who works as a beekeeper; Oleg, an ethnically Russian man who works as a locksmith in New York; and Ludo, an Italian man who collects and repairs old books. They have nothing in common except Palimpsest, the world they are brought to. When they wake up in their respective beds the next morning, each has a mark like a new tattoo somewhere on his or her body. It is a map of a tiny section of Palimpsest, the invisible dream city. The only way back is to find other marked people--and to have sex with them.

Palimpsest the city is like a strange sexually transmitted disease of the mind, an obsession with a brightly colored and strangely textured dreamworld where the thing each person is missing in their life can be found. Oleg can be with his long-dead sister. Ludo can find his beloved wife, who left him without explanation. November, an incurable introvert, can be Queen of a society ruled by insects. And Sei, who really loves nothing but trains, can devote her life to loving them. But the happiness lasts only the length of the night, and the "real" world becomes harder and harder to choke down for each of them upon return.

I had to look up the word "palimpsest" while I was reading--it was one of those words I thought I knew, but realized I didn't. A palimpsest, it turns out, is a page of a book (think old-style velum) that has previously been written or printed on, but has now been scraped or wiped blank so it can be recorded on again. I think this gets at the core idea of people trying to create their own stories while never quite managing to escape the residue of their pasts, or the pasts of others, which interfere with their lives. But also, the word kind of sounds diseased, doesn't it? I like to think that echo is deliberate.

The book reminded me in pieces of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities and Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, only much sexier, given that every chapter needs to have at least one act of sex in it to transport the character from the real world to Palimpsest. While Valente's writing is certainly sensual, though, I wouldn't describe the book as erotic--there is an increasing sense of desperation in the characters' quests for map-marked partners. Valente creates some thought-provoking implications about why humans pursue what they do, and how happy it really makes them.

The writing is lush, indulgent, and episodic. I was to some extent frustrated by the source of the world, and felt like when I got to the end I hadn't completely wrapped my head around its origins or meaning--perhaps a deliberate effect of Valente's writing, since that frustration of half-grasped information feels a lot like dream-frustration, when nothing quite makes total sense.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bob Harris/WHO HATES WHOM

Inhabitants, famously, of a country surrounded by oceans and allies, Americans have a reputation for not knowing what's going on in the rest of the world. While not exclusively for U.S. readers, Bob Harris's Who Hates Whom tackles such ignorance from an idiosyncratic angle, per the subtitle: Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up: A Woefully Incomplete Guide.

As the tone of that title (and subtitle) indicates, you should not expect from Who Hates Whom a formal -- or even TV documentary-style -- study of the causes of war, despotism, and long-simmering international hatreds. To the extent possible with such a cheerless topic, what you actually get here is a breezy race through large-scale violent current events, and the history behind them.

Harris makes no secret of his "qualifications" for writing this. He's been a television host (for a show about urban legends) and writer (for CSI, Bones, and other shows), a stand-up comedian, a successful game-show contestant (according to his Web site, he's accumulated cash and prizes worth over $350,000 on Jeopardy! and other shows), and a designer of puzzles. His educational background? Electrical engineering. His previous book, Adventures in Trebekistan, recounted his history of success (and otherwise) on Jeopardy! All of which, he notes, "qualifies me for squat. I'm lucky I'm allowed to drive."

But as I knew before picking this up, he's also an incisive commentator on current events. On the right subjects, politics and current events among others, he's less joke machine than satirist.

In working on this review, I couldn't think of a single example of the book's major shortcomings which Harris doesn't concede right at the outset. Yes, it was out of date the minute it came out. (Publication date: 2007.) True, he's a US citizen (and has lived here most but not all of his life), born in 1963, and this can't help biasing his choices and his observations. And fair enough: at 218 pages, Who Hates Whom can't present a complete picture of a single conflict, let alone dozens of them.

None of those problems prevents it from achieving its central aim: to provide a clear, concise understanding of the world's major trouble spots. "This book is meant to be handy when you see something explode on CNN but they switch to Anna Nicole Smith still being dead before you're sure what went kaboom."

Right. He jokes about Anna Nicole Smith media coverage. (And that, from the Introduction, was just the first of numerous references to it.) But that the joke is dated doesn't make it unfunny, and it doesn't invalidate the joke's point, and it didn't weaken my desire for even a superficial, not too out-of-date understanding of the subject.

The book is organized geographically. It covers conflicts, first, in the Middle East and central Asia, moves on to Africa, then to south Asia, east and southeast Asia, the Americas, and wraps up in Europe. Reading about so many different historical and current events, in so many countries, one after another, can be exhausting: it exhausts the mind (the "my brain is ready to explode" effect), and it exhausts the soul ("human beings sure are cruel and they sure are stupid"). You may begin thinking that kidding at all about such stuff trivializes it; yet you may come (as I did) to look forward to the next joke, even a weak and easy one, just for a little psychological relief.

One of the best things about Who Hates Whom, for me, was -- despite Harris's built-in and unavoidable biases -- its neutrality:
I have come to recommend strongly against looking for "good guys." Conflicts often aren't two-sided, and our capacity for rationalization means even the "right" side usually does lousy things. So be ready for conflicts with two marginally bad guys, three bad guys and no good guys, etc.
(See that cover? The two opposing forces are identical; they're differently-colored mirror images.)

If you seek ammunition for a current-events debate about which side is "right," in other words, you need to look elsewhere. Harris does note paragons of nobility and innocent victims. It's just that they all turn out, or so it seems, not to be the principal parties in any conflict. They're individuals. Exceptions and bystanders.

So do you put down Who Hates Whom in despair, believing that nowhere is safe and sane? Not if you read it through the last chapter, which notes:
Get an atlas and cross off the countries that you'd really never visit any part of because you know that they're just too dangerous. There may be dozens, but even then, you'll be surprised at how little you trim.
The book's last few lines may strike you as insufficiently cynical, given all the mass murder and insanity, fear and egotism and self-certainty in the world which you've just read about. Hope and common sense may feel like pretty flimsy weapons to be matched up against bullets and machetes. But really, y'know? They're the only things that have ever worked, consistently. And they have worked: despite official assurances to the contrary, the world has grown demonstrably safer over the course of decades and centuries.
_____________________

Note: You can preview Who Hates Whom on Google Books, if you'd like a peek before committing to the whole thing.

Monday, December 6, 2010

N.K. Jemisin/THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS


Yeine is the princess of Darr, a "barbarian" kingdom far from the administrative capital of Sky, but her life is disrupted when she is called to Sky following her mother's death. Yeine's mother had been the heir to the powerful Arameri family, who rule all of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms from Sky, but had given it all up to flee to Darr with her Darre husband. Now that her mother is dead, Yeine's grandfather, the king, has called Yeine to the capital to compete for the unwanted privilege of being his heir.

The more Yeine learns about the Arameri capital, the less she likes it--it is a city of cruelty and oppression, where no one's life is sacred and where power is maintained through a distasteful pact with Itempas, the Skyfather, one of the three gods. (In the pact, the Arameri keep a second god and the gods' children as slaves; the third god was murdered in the war for power.) And now Yeine is being forced to compete for the dubious distinction of heir to this realm, and for her life.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was recommended to me separately by several different people, at least two of whom said it was the best thing they had read this year. I definitely enjoyed it and would recommend it to all fantasy and scifi readers--it's innovative but epic, with plenty to chew on. It's adventurous, sexy, and morally fraught--basically everything one looks for in meaningful new fantasy novels. This is an idea book, with many powerful allegories, and if I had one gripe with it it was that it could have been longer and let me indulge in those ideas a little longer. But that's ok, I'll forgive the author, since she's written two more books in the series.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Knife of Never Letting Go


By Patrick Ness



This is the first Young Adult book in the Chaos Walking Trilogy. Though the MC Todd's narrative got annoying at times (he is a teenage boy, after all), this is one of the only books I have recently read that I can say is truly unique.

All of the characters, at least to start, are male, and all possess an illness they caught from the planet called, "Noise", which makes their thoughts open to all around them in both word and picture. This leads to some funny moments when the MC's thoughts (the book's narrative), are answered by the characters around him.

Even the animals can talk, and Todd's dog, Manchee, has some hilarious moments, including where he has to admit he was going, "Poo, Todd" instead of watching his back.

The positives far outweigh the negative portions, and it does take a dark turn in the last third of the book. I have to recommend it for its uniqueness and because it needs to be read to appreciate parts of the rest of the trilogy.