Genre: Contemporary fiction
Setting: Brooklyn, New York City
Narrator: Third person, focusing mostly on Vaclav and Lena
First line(s): “’Here, I practice, and you practice. Ahem. AH-em. I am Vaclav the Magnificent, with birthday on the sixth of May, the famous day for the generations to celebrate and rejoice, a day in the future years eclipsing Christmas and Hanukkah and Ramadan and all pagan festivals, born in a land far, far, far, far, far, far, far distance from here, a land of ancient and magnificent secrets, a land of enchanted knowledge passed down from the ages and from the ancients, a land of illusion (Russia!), born there in Russia and reappearing here, in America, in New York, in Brooklyn (which is a Borough), near Coney Island, which is a famous place of magic in the great land of opportunity (which is, of course, America), where anyone can become anything, where a hobo today is tomorrow a businessman in a three-pieces-suit, and a businessman yesterday is later this afternoon a hobo, Vaclav the Magnificent, who shall, without no doubt, be ask to perform his might feats of enchantment for dukes and presidents and czars and ayatollahs, uniting them all in awestruck and dumbstrucks, and thus, one day in the future years, be heralding a new era (which is a piece of time) of peace on earth.”
Quick summary: Two nine-year-old Russian immigrants, Vaclav and Lena, become best friends despite their very different circumstances. Vaclav, who dreams of one day becoming a famous magician with Lena by his side, lives with his parents, who came to America so that Vaclav could have a better life. Lena, however, is a skinny, neglected orphan living with her stripper aunt. One day, Lena disappears from Vaclav’s life, but she is never far from this thoughts. Where did she go, and will they be reunited?
How did I feel about the character(s)? These are two kids whose pasts and presents are so well-drawn that you can’t help but feel for them. Maybe it’s not exactly the most plausible thing for these two to have been in love since they were children, but it works within the context of the story.
What did I like most about the book? There are just some flat-out wonderful passages, such as:
“Of course they were with each other the whole time. Even when they weren’t looking, they never had to check. She was always there; he was always there. Outside her bedroom, somewhere in the darkness, like the moon.”
“He is refusing to believe. He is refusing to understand. He is the silence before a bomb explodes. He is the tick, tick tick, tick before the boom.”
Other thoughts? I’ve read other reviews that said the author’s depiction of Russian immigrants isn’t exactly accurate, but I can’t really speak to that. Sure, there are a lot of stereotypes (i.e. the borscht-eating and vodka-swilling father), but the crux of the story is the relationship between the two kids, which I thought was well-developed and sincere.
Also, I heard that the author wrote this while her husband was dying of cancer and that he didn’t live to see it released. Heartbreaking stuff.
Why did I read it? I saw the book on the front table at the local book store, and the cover caught my attention. I thought the overall premise sounded sweet, and thought the disappearance aspect was interesting.
Who do I recommend it to? People who like books focused on precocious kids, maybe like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. The very quotable writing also kind of reminds me of Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love.
Will I read the author’s other works? Maybe not solely based on this novel, but if the plot of her future works sound intriguing, I’ll give them a shot.
Do I like the cover? Like I said before, the cover is what initially drew me to the book. In the book, Vaclav makes a magician’s hat out of paper, and I think the cover kind of alludes to those paper craft projects we do as children.
How long did it take to finish? Seven days, but it is a much quicker read than my slow progress would indicate.
Total Books Read in 2012: 4
Genre: Historical fiction
Setting: New York City, 1938
Narrator: Katey Kontent, a 25-year-old Wall Street secretary
First line: “On the night of October 4th, 1966, Val and I, both late middle age, attended the opening of Many Are Called at the Museum of Modern Art—the first exhibit of the portaits taken by Walker Evans in the late 1930s on the New York City subways with a hidden camera.”
Quick summary: After meeting a young successful banker named Theodore “Tinker” Grey on New Year’s Eve, Katey Kontent, together with her roommate and best friend Eve Ross, is introduced to the upper reaches of New York society. In a year that changes everything for the people involved, Katey discovers what wealth and station can bring, but also at what cost.
How did I feel about the character(s)? Katey is awesome. She’s smart, witty, confident, and an all-around great narrator.
What did I like most about the book? As I was reading this and telling other people about it, I just kept saying, “It’s so fancy!” I loved that. I loved seeing the world of the rich and successful through the eyes of someone more relatable. (It doesn’t hurt that we have the same first name, either). The parties, the clothes, the cars…it was just how I’d pictured that era, at least for those who made it through the Depression unscathed.
Other thoughts? They eat a LOT of canapés (but what would you expect). No, but seriously, the writing is wonderful. Take, for example, “In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions—we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep that card and discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have just made will shape our lives for decades to come.”
Why did I read it? I had been watching (so, so much) Downton Abbey, and I wanted to read something where the kind of lifestyle was similar. I know the two are set two decades apart, but both offer a glimpse into the world of privilege and opportunity.
Who do I recommend it to? Other people who watch Downton for the reasons above. Maybe also to fans of The Great Gatsby. It’s really just a great book, though, so I highly recommend it in general.
Will I read the author’s other works? It doesn’t look like he’s released anything else, but his future works will very likely make their way to my to-read list.
Do I like the cover? For sure. “It’s so fancy!”
How long did it take to finish? Six days.
Total Books Read in 2012: 3
Genre: Classic, Gothic, Mystery
Setting: Victorian England
Narrator: Varies, but mainly first-person accounts from Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe
First line: “This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and of what a Man’s resolution can achieve.”
Quick summary: Walter, a drawing-master from London, finds himself employed at Limmeridge House in the country, where he is to teach his skills to the two young women who live there. Before he departs, however, he has a chance encounter with a woman in white, who has just escaped from an asylum. During their conversation, he mentions the place he is traveling to, and finds that she is familiar with it and the people there.
Did anything surprise me? I’ve heard that this was the first sensational novel, so I suspect many of the plot twists were surprising to readers during the 19th century, but those of us reading today are more accustomed to literary devices, such as foreshadowing. That isn’t to say that I saw where the book was going from the beginning, because I definitely didn’t, but there was only one moment when I was really and truly shocked.
Other thoughts? I don’t know if it’s because my reading time was spread out over so many short sessions or because it really is lengthy, but this book seemed so long. As I was reading it, I just wanted the
Who do I recommend it to? Fans of Gothic or crime literature, as well as people who read and enjoyed Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night and The Glass of Time.
Why did I read it? This was one of the books I chose for the Back to the Classics reading challenger, for the 19th century category. I’d had it on my shelf for so long, and figured it was time! Plus, I really loved Michael Cox’s books, which several people have said were influenced by Wilkie Collins. I definitely see some of the similarities, as well.
Will I read the author’s other works? I’ve heard good things about The Moonstone, so I will probably read that at some point, but possibly not for a long while.
Do I like the cover? I love the cover of the Penguin hardcover classics edition, designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith, which a friend gave it to me for Christmas one year. I read the Kindle edition, though, which has a plain, boring cover.
How long did it take to finish? Three weeks, and only because I started taking the bus to work, so now I have that extra reading time. Too many 12-hour work days meant I barely had any other opportunities!
Total Books Read in 2012: 2
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Setting: Present day, Brazil’s Amazon rainforest
Narrator: 3rd person, focusing on Dr. Marina Singh
First line: “The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationary and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope.”
Quick summary: After receiving the news of her co-worker’s death, Dr. Marina Singh is sent to Brazil retrace his footsteps and finish the job he was meant to do: find her former teacher, Dr. Annick Swenson, who is developing a fertility drug in the Amazon, and convince her to move her work back to the U.S.
How did I feel about the character(s)? Marina is clearly a smart and well-respected doctor, but she didn’t always come across that way. Obviously a lot of that is because she was dropped into an environment completely different from her native Minnesota, but the questions she asked of Dr. Swenson and the others she met made her seem naive. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the reader is new to most of the details, as well, but her personality seemed to changed a lot as soon as she set foot in Brazil.
What did I like most about the book? I loved Easter. He’s a smart, brave kid who quickly charmed everyone, including the impervious Dr. Swenson. He learned to overcome his disability (deafness) in such a way that it essentially became a non-issue, and he is relied upon heavily by Marina and several others. It was easy to see why they care for him so much.
Did anything surprise me? I didn’t see the ending coming at all, but I won’t spoil that for anyone.
Other thoughts? This isn’t a fluffy book, and the pace isn’t exactly fast, but it was enjoyable, nonetheless. The descriptions of the Amazon, while somewhat repetitive, successfully created a picture of the untamed setting and its native inhabitants. Although the book was largely character-driven, it also addresses several ethical questions. The fertility drug Dr. Swenson is working on would increase the age at which women could conceive, eliminating the “biological clock.” But is it right to put the body through that at those later stages in life? What becomes of the children born to women who conceive at 60, or even 70?
Who do I recommend it to? People who have read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or who like books with determined female characters.
Why did I read it? I didn’t read very many books written 2011, and wanted to try to fit this one in at the very end of the year. I had seen it’s placement on several top ten lists, and thought it sounded like an interesting loose take on Heart of Darkness, which I read nine years ago for a class in high school.
Will I read the author’s other works? I had previously been interested in reading Bel Canto, and I would say I’m more likely to read it now, though I’ve heard mixed reviews about it.
Do I like the cover? The cover is probably one of the reasons I didn’t read the book sooner, because it came across as a typical, serious novel written by a woman.
How long did it take to finish? Six days, although I read more than half of it in one day.
Total Books Read in 2012: 1
Genre: Contemporary fiction, Jewish
Setting: Chicago, Illinois. November 14 to 17, 2006
Narrator: Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, a 10-year-old student at Aptakisic Junior High, who may or may not be the messiah.
First line(s): “There is damage. There was always damage and there will be more damage, but not always.”
Quick summary: Gurion is a brilliant and devout Israelite who has been kicked out of three Jewish schools, and is now in the Cage, a program for disruptive and violent students at his new secular school. Over the course of four days, he falls in love with a girl named Eliza June Watermark, wrestles with his destiny, and attempts to overthrow “the Arrangement” (the teachers and jocks), with the help of his friends in the Cage and his army of Torah scholars.
How did I feel about the character(s)? Gurion is a piece of work, that’s for sure. Spouting off dialogue that makes him seem closer to 30 than 10, he has a lot of expectations heaped onto him. His fellow scholars call him Rabbi, his friends in the Cage look to him as their leader, and he himself suspects (and hopes) he is the messiah. Gurion is tough and more than willing to fight for what he thinks is right, but he can also be uncertain and will analyze the actions of himself and others to an often excruciating degree. I wouldn’t say I agree with many of his actions, but he is definitely a good talker and explains himself well.
Did anything surprise me? Not to ruin anything, but there was a moment 160 pages from the end where I might have audibly gasped while reading on the bus. Let’s just say it was near the start of the Gurionic War and it had to do with Boystar. Yikes. Really, though, I was very surprised by the seriousness of Gurion’s opinion of himself. I really didn’t expect that level of follow-through.
Other thoughts? I think the book’s length has less to say about the author than it does about Gurion. This is his story, and he’s going to tell it how he wants. The book covers only four days, but is a THOUSAND pages long. To say that he dissects every day to its smallest detail is an understatement. Some of that slows down the pace a bit, but the engaging dialogue between the pre-teens makes up for it. He calls the book his scripture, but it really acts more as his defense, and he needs every bit of it.
Who do I recommend it to? This is probably obvious, but anyone who likes the work of Jonathan Safran Foer, particularly Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, would be remiss to pass this by. Gurion’s serious precociousness reminded me a lot of Oskar, and both characters are Jewish.
Why did I read it? I’m all for books about wiser-than-their-years kids. One about a boy who legitimately thinks he is the messiah kicked the interest up a notch. I also liked the idea that part of the story is told through letters, e-mails, and transcripts.
Do I like the cover? Definitely. The book was originally released in five different hardcovers, and I received the white one. The design is simple, but made elegant with plain type and gold foil. It still catches my eye when I see it on a shelf.
How long did it take to finish? 11 months and 20 days, but that’s seriously skewed. I bought the hardcover version in January and read it fairly consistently until March, but the size just got annoying. Then, in November, I discovered that it had been released for Kindle, so I was finally able to finish it!
This is a super (SUPER) belated review, but I actually wrote most of it right after I finished the book back in October. But work got busy at the beginning of November, and since then, I’ve just been…lazy. (The internet and my phone are huge distractions.) But here it is, finally:
I know that zombies are pretty prevalent in American culture at the moment, but I’m kind of a newbie to this sub-horror genre. I’ve seen exactly one zombie movie (Zombieland), two episodes of The Walking Dead, and, now, I’ve read one zombie book.
A plague has created “skels” (zombies) across the planet, effectively wiping out most of humanity. The federal government has relocated from Washington D.C. to Buffalo, New York, and is currently clearing an area of Manhattan to be repopulated by the survivors. Unfolding over three days, the novel follows a civilian sweeper, Mark Spitz (which isn’t his real name, but a nickname he earned during an event that is eventually described), as he and the Omega unit search for skels and stragglers, building by building and floor by floor, within the zone. As they work their way through the zone, Mark Spitz recalls the events that led up to the present day: the arrival of the plague, how he survived, and his relationship with another survivor.
Though the book is in third person, the writing was very stream-of-consciousness. The narrative jumps from present day to a memory without warning, and often this was a little hard to follow. I understand that it was structured this way to illustrate the Mark Spitz’s PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder), and that non-linear form is probably what contributes to its reputation as a literary novel, as opposed to a genre novel, but it was still confusing. I’m willing to forgive that, though, as the writing was captivating and quite highlight-able:
“He was a mediocre man. He had led a mediocre life exceptional only in the magnitude of its unexceptionality. Now the world was mediocre, rendering him perfect.”
“Best to let the broken glass be broken glass, let it splinter into smaller pieces and dust and scatter. Let the cracks between things widen until they are no longer cracks but the new places for things. That was where they were now. The world wasn’t ending: it had ended and now they were in the new place. They could not recognize it because they had never seen it before.”
I’m going to preface this by saying I’m going to waste as little time and effort as possible thinking and writing about The Night Circus. If you are at all excited about this book, you probably shouldn’t read what I have to say about it. If you are hesitant about reading it, I hope you learn from my mistake.
I was really excited about this book. I even referred it to friends before I bought it, because I was so sure I’d love it. It had tons of glowing reviews, was set during my favorite period to read about, and had a unique premise: During the late 1800s, two magicians (Marco and Celia) are trained all their lives to square off in a duel within a magical circus, Le Cirque de Rêves, which is only open at night. If that was what actually happened in this book, it would have been somewhat exciting. What it ended up being is a drawn out, completely cheesy bore. (I literally fell asleep reading it multiple times.) There is no face-to-face battle between these two magicians, and instead they work for years and years (did I mention YEARS?) passively one-upping each other in a game no one understands. In fact, they collaborate on several tents within the circus, building elements expressly for the other person. Yet it’s somehow supposed to be a fight to the death? But there are no consequences for not actually competing? Throughout the whole book, I got the feeling that the author had no idea what was going on or how to explain it. For example, Celia can heal herself, but not other people. Marco can keep people from aging, but no one ever notices, even “rêveurs” who follow the circus for years. There’s a lot more, but it makes me annoyed just to think about it.
Predictably, Marco and Celia soon fall inexplicably in love. The impossibility of it all made me want to throw my Kindle across the room, but all I could do was highlight a passage and write the note “BARF”:
“Marco lifts his hand to brush a stray curl away from Celia’s face, tucking it behind her ear and stroking her cheek with his fingertips. Her eyelids flutter closed and the rose petals around their feet begin to stir. … The air between them is electric as he leans in, gently brushing his lips against her neck. In the next room, the guests complain about the sudden increase in temperature.”
Are you kidding me? Did someone really write that and think it was a good idea? What kind of Harlequin Romance fantasy is she trying to fulfill, and is it is necessary to impose it on the rest of us? The love story between these two characters is absolutely one of the most contrived and ridiculous things I’ve ever read. Dare I say it was worse than Twilight?
What I don’t understand is how this book could possibly have a rating of 4.18 on Goodreads, with more than two thousand 5-star ratings. Did we read the same thing? How is my opinion so disparate from 95 percent of the other people who read it? Sure, sure…to each their own. But there is no way I will ever recommend this book to anyone, regardless of their reading tastes.
In summary, I hated it. It took me three weeks to read, solely because I didn’t want to be subjected to it. I hate abandoning books, though, and that’s the only reason I made it all the way through.
On the shore of Lake Michigan lies Westish College, a small liberal arts school whose biggest claim to fame is that Herman Melville once gave a lecture there. That discovery became such a big deal when it was revealed that the school’s identity was rebuilt around it. Their mascot changed from the Sugar Maples to the Harpooners (after Moby Dick), and a huge statue of Melville was erected facing the water he found so fascinating. Enter Henry Skrimshander, a shortstop with the ability to truly put the school on the map. A scrawny kid with an uncanny ability to predict a ball’s path off the bat, he’s recruited to Westish’s baseball team by his fellow teammate, Mike Schwartz, who becomes his mentor and drill sargeant. As his swing strengthens and his errorless-game count increases, the scouts come a-knocking, putting on the pressure.
The book isn’t only about Henry, though. There’s his openly gay roommate, Owen, who is also on the baseball team and becomes its sort of moral compass. Then there’s the college’s handsome president, Guert Affenlight, who surprises himself by falling in love with Owen, putting his career and reputation at risk. Things are further complicated when his daughter, Pella, arrives for the first time in years after leaving her husband, an older man she dropped out of high school to marry. As father and daughter struggle to repair their fractured relationship, she meets Schwartz, who—as a senior—is also at a turning point in his life, with few available options come graduation day. The two begin a relationship as they each try to figure out what to do next.
What a great book! All of the characters bring so many layers to the story, so while it is mostly about baseball, it delves into much more, such as understanding one’s identity, dealing with expectations, and the importance (and consequences) of sacrifices. Like Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick, Henry completely and endlessly pursues one goal: perfection on the baseball field, with unfortunate consequences. Owen, whose perspective is only shared via interactions with the other characters, acts as a sort of anchor for them all. Unwilling to conform and completely comfortable with his sexuality, he is static throughout the book, while those around him change and grow.
It took me nearly three weeks to finish this book, but it wasn’t at all because I wasn’t interested. In fact, in the time since I finished it, I’ve wished I was still reading about Westish and the people there (though maybe that says more about the next book I picked up). It’s well-written, well-constructed, and well-worth your attention.
Rating: 4.5 stars (I try not to do half stars, but had to)
Finished: September 27, 2011
Total Pages: 520
Kindle Locations: 8,243
Date Published: September 7, 2011
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Buy It: Print or Kindle