Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein (4 out of 5)

•July 31, 2014 • Leave a Comment

 

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I got this copy courtesy of Algonquin Books and my new contact Amy. I’m a sucker for a great cover, and this is no exception. I also had read the synposis and thought that for some reason, this book reminded me a lot of a book that I read several years ago and loved to death (check it out – Jonathan Evison’s The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving). When I get that vibe, it’s best to not ignore it. I’m glad I didn’t, because I really enjoyed this book. Light, funny, and yet heartrending in parts, it was a quick read and a pleasant surprise. 

Andy Waite is a biology professor who’s teaching a class in evolutionary biology and conducting independent research on it, and religion really is one of the last things he wants to talk about. Andy wants to talk even less about his continual grief over his deceased wife Wendy, who was killed in a car accident with a drunk driver fifteen years ago. The driver is up for parole, Andy’s daughters are starting to ask questions about that driver, and into Andy’s office walks Melissa Potter, a student who challenges him to advise her study of intelligent design. Although this is the last thing on planet Earth that Andy wants to do, he’s compelled by her charismatic, somewhat persistent arguments to join in her intelligent design study. Andy’s got a kid in one of his courses who’s a loner and on his third or fourth go-round with Andy’s course who likes to pick fights with Andy(to give you an idea, the kid is a Campus Crusader for Christ. Take it from there!), and that kid plays quite a part in this little tale. Andy’s still wrestling with his grief, with teen and pre-teen daughters going through hormonal changes, and begins to question everything he’s believed in all these years. Science and being a Darwinist seem to go out the window by the end of the book, and that was somewhat unbelievable to me, as Andy is a hard-core Darwinist and unyielding in his beliefs. You want to believe that Melissa asking him to do the intelligent design study makes him doubt what he’s seen as truth all of these years, but even that is not quite clear. By the end, you’re torn. You love the whimsical nature of the book, the characters and the interactions of science and religion, and the hopeful attempts of Andy to move on with his life without his beloved wife. 

Here’s what I liked: pretty much everything. I think Andy is a crazily entertaining, good guy whom I was really rooting for, even as his ironclad beliefs suddenly seemed to be tottering in the wind of change. His relationship with the kid, his students, and Melissa are realistic and yet hilarious at moments. His heartbreak over his wife is palpable, even after fifteen years. His struggle as a widowed father is also paramount, but you feel like rooting for him when he starts to notice the opposite sex again. There are some pretty interesting sides to both stories here, and you get both of them from Grodstein, who has obviously done her homework in the field. I did not really care for how Andy’s beliefs suddenly aren’t so rock solid, and he starts doubting those things he’s believed in and led him through the primrose path of the collegiate field all the years he’s been a professor. It seemed a little forced to me. Overall, though, I can’t say i didn’t love this little book. it was a great read, and a book club would go nutty over this one because it raises a lot of pertinent questions, as well as the father-daughter relationships with Andy and his girls. A great read overall. 

 

The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker’s Journey by Lawrence Osborne (2 out of 5)

•July 30, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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This is precisely the sort of book I usually love to read. I heard about this through Blogging For Books. I love to read the occasional travel essay, travel memoir, armchair travel; really, the list of names for this sub-genre never quite end. I requested it and received my copy. I sat down earlier this evening and tore through the small, lightweight volume rather quickly. What did I come away with? Not too much, unfortunately.

I think the moment the phrase “sickness of the soul” is used to describe drinking in the text of the book, I expected more of a psychological study to ensue. Lawrence Osborne does his best to hit every corner of the globe and witness how different people, different geographical locations, different age groups, and different cultures embrace, and often shun, the past-time that many enjoy- drinking. There’s a little bit of history here, a little bit of country, not much rock n’ roll. Osborne takes us through the paces, depending on where he’s hanging his hat and whip that evening. Not too much in the way of funny, witty repartee, but tons in load of his observations. Most of them appear to be spot on. Osborne certainly delivers his prose in funny, seasoned language of a man who’s traveled the globe and knows his geography. However, he is clearly taken aback in some parts of the world with the attitudes toward drinking. You learn a bit about different parts of the country, but again, these experiences seem truncated somewhat. I expected a bigger book and more tales to follow, so when I received the book and saw it, I was disappointed. He packs a lot of locales into the book, but its short on lengthy tours of duty.

Again, I think a lot of my disappointment stems from the fact that I expected there to be more psychology here, in addition to the colorful adventures that Osborne shares with us in his travel diary. I was also glad to note that since he’s writing so extensively about the subject matter, that Osborne himself likes to tipple. At least he’s methodical in his research! The book is well written, easy to read, and is refreshingly honest. However, it’s just missing those several key elements that I spoke of. Once you plug that in, it would have rated higher, had it reached those plateaus. Although honest, well researched on all angles, and a subject matter that I haven’t yet run into in book form, it just was not deep or exciting enough to keep my interest for long. I did finish it, as I am one of those people who have to read the whole book once they have started it, but it didn’t pop any corks with me. 

I received this book courtesy of the Blogging For Books website.

Q&A! Q&A! Q&A! With Mr. Nick Harkaway

•July 29, 2014 • Leave a Comment

                                                       

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The man above is one Mr. Nick Harkaway, author of the novels The Gone-Away World, Angelmaker, and the newly released Tigerman. Through a series of ridiculous luck and multiple rambling emails between myself and the lovely Brittany at Knopf, a rapport was established and an opportunity that this little blog has never had. A Q&A with a published author, and one whose work I truly admire! That published author is Mr. Nick Harkaway. The questions that are submitted are courtesy of my friend and co-worker Dan G, who is a huge fan of Mr. Harkaway and has also read his works (although he is currently working on Tigerman). Since he is the one who introduced me to the Gone-Away World and I already reviewed the book yesterday, I asked Dan to come up with some questions for the author. The following question and answers are in no way abridged or censored and are directly answered by the author. Enjoy.

 
 
With the Gone-Away World, Angelmaker, and now TIGERMAN, how much fun are you having writing science fiction?  How are you able to blend genres together so effortlessly?
 
I have no idea what to call what I write anymore! But yes, I’m having so much fun. That’s really important, actually – iif I’m not having fun, it seems obvious that you won’t either. If I’m not enjoying writing more than the other things I could be doing – watching TV, playing video games or whatever – then why on earth would you spend any time with it at all? I mean, I have a vested interest in finding my own ideas interesting – you don’t!

 
 io9 called Angelmaker “existential pulp.” Do you feel that is an apt description for your novels?  If so, what other novels have you read and enjoyed that you would also consider to be “existential pulp?”

I really love that existential pulp label – I get to pick anything from anywhere and put it in my books, play with it. We’ll see whether they think the new book is still in that category, or whether they make me a new one… A week ago I was called a fantasy novelist for the first time, that was a surprise. Tigerman… I have no idea what genre it belongs in. I feel I was aiming for the same in-between space as William Gibson’s Hubertus Bigend books or Louis de Bernières’ Latin American trilogy – but not quite. I think part of the blending thing is that I don’t quite know where I am – and I’m fine with that. Genres are shelving conventions, and they’re useful commercially, but I don’t see that they have any particular value to an author in the writing process, and they can potentially be harmful: “oh, no, I can’t do that, it’s not genre-appropriate!” You have to take the story where it wants to go and make that work, not try to shunt it around to suit your convenience. Stories have momentum, character, natural direction once you get to a certain point. Mess with that at your peril – the audience can feel you putting your thumb on the scales and they won’t like it.
 
 
With your experience in the film industry, have you considered turning/writing any of your books into a screenplay? If so, who would you want to direct the eventual film?
 

With my experience in the film industry I have an especially strong desire not to! Being a novelist is a great gig. The screenwriter is a totally different animal, and – except in rare cases – a much less well-loved one. Also, I have to make room for the possibliity that I was bad at it. But also, I made myself a three-rule guide to engagement with the movie and TV world:

 
1. no one will want the rights
2. if they buy the rights, they will never make the show
3. if they make the show, you will hate it.
 
To get past all of these you have to be massively lucky, and if any of them hurts too much you shouldn’t even consider selling your adaptation rights. That’s the way it is. 
 
I’m not sure that adapting your own work is necessarily a good idea. It may be. Directing is different – it’s weirdly more like being a novelist conceptually, but you have to have a particular skillset with visualising, and with working with actors… I don’t hanker for it, which you sort of have to, but I suppose you never say never, either. And of course I’d do any of it if that was the price of getting a movie made that I was excited about – for the right fee. Moviemaking is a money-driven operation, and you have to demand your paycheck, and it should ideally be outrageous. That way your words carry weight.
 
 
When did you realize should be an author?  Is it something you always aspired to be?
 

I’ve always enjoyed stories. I don’t know about “should be”. “Could be,” for sure. And I’m an author now and I plan to remain one, but you can never tell. You might hate my next few books and suddenly I need a new job. I’d still be a storyteller – just for my kids, maybe – but I’d also be a whatever. A brand consultant. A maître d’. Whatever. I came to novels late, when I just couldn’t cope with movies anymore… Too grim for me as a place to live.

 
  Different editions of books (UK, US, various other countries, hardcover, paperback) end up having different covers. Do you have a favorite cover for each of your books?
 
I fall in love with all my cover designs. I’m completely fickle. At the moment I’m besotted with some of the South East Asian editions. They’re completely different from anything I’ve seen before, but they still express the book. It’s weird and wonderful to see your work through someone else’s eyes. But that’s this week – last week it was the UK edition of Tigerman, which is stripy and tactile, incredibly gorgeous. I haven’t held a US copy, so I haven’t properly had the opportunity to lose my heart to it, but I know I will. I’ve already seen the digital result of Chip Kidd and Ryan Heshka’s work, and the physical version will be stunning. I love the convenience and availability that comes with digital editions, but for love, I think you need a real book.
 
 
*THANK YOU TO THE LOVELY BRITTANY AT KNOPF FOR THIS CHANCE TO SPEAK WITH NICK.*
**THANK YOU, NICK, FOR TAKING THE TIME TO ANSWER SOME QUESTIONS FOR THE BLOG’S READERSHIP. IT IS MUCH APPRECIATED**
 

TIGERMAN by Nick Harkaway (5 out of 5)

•July 28, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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There are a lot of good books being released tomorrow; July 29, 2014. Out of all of those titles that I have had the pleasure of reading before they were released, this one is my favorite. Nick Harkaway is an author whose previous books I had read and enjoyed. I think, however, of the three I have read (Gone Away World, which I enjoyed and Angelmaker, which I loved), Tigerman is my favorite of the three. I think Harkaway is one of those authors who gets better with each new book he writes. Thank you to Brittany at Knopf (PenguinRandomHouse) for the advance copy. By the way, fellow readers, check back to this space tomorrow for an exclusive Q&A with Mr. Nick Harkaway himself!

Sergeant Lester Ferris is almost finished with his career and has just finished a tour of duty in Afghanistan that did not go well. He’s then sent to Mancreu to keep the peace on an island where peace is anything but a five letter word. Mancreu is slowly disappearing under a toxic waste (the “Mancreu Cauldron”  that is messing with the wildlife, the vegetation, and worse yet, the residents! The toxic Discharge Clouds (get used to the capitalization, it’s a thing throughout the novel) have created dangerous mental conditions among those who have succumbed to the toxic gasses being emitted. Lester really is turning a blind idea to all the shady criminal activity and tries to keep his nose clean, spending most of his free time hanging out with and forming a mentor-type relationship with a local boy whose main joy in life is his comic book obsession and a thirst for American pop culture. A huge boot kick of reality makes its way to Lester when his friend is murdered in a bar, and he asks the boy to be the communication channel to possibly help him figure out who was behind the murder, and help bring them to justice. What happens next…well, is quite the story. The whole book itself? Is quite a story. One that you need to pick up when it’s released and read with gusto, the way that Lester and the young boy take to the streets of Mancreu to solve crimes and try to save the island and the people still on it.

All I can say is that I love this book. Definitely my favorite of his books. All three of Harkaway’s works are distinctly different, but this one has a different cut than the other two. There is such a wonderful relationship that develops between Lester and the boy (Robin), and the paternal love that starts seeping from Lester’s pores in the presence of the young man, well, it’s heartwarming. There is spunk, wit, and dazzling prose set in an otherwise unstable enviroment, but you are captivated from page one, despite the fact that Mancreu and what Lester is walking into being far from idyllic. I love the fact that the young man calls himself Robin (THE Robin? As in Batman and …? Of course..what other Robin is there in comic book lore?) and takes to Lester as if he’s been searching for this father figure his whole life. Robin talks not in riddles, but in pop culture metaphors, and instantly the reader is charmed. Lester, despite his ability to turn a blind eye to the initial shadiness going on, really does come across as a hero. There are some great action scenes and a good deal of funny moments, but it’s really that pseudo father-son relationship that takes the reader on a sentimental journey that really does a number on the heartstrings. And that,dear reader, is why this book rocks. Give it a shot, you won’t be sorry. 

The Todd Glass Situation by Todd Glass (2 out of 5)

•July 23, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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Let me start by saying I’m sure Todd Glass is a nice guy. Really. I hadn’t heard his material, but I love to read any books by comedians about the comedy scene. From those I have read in the past, I am fully aware it is not an easy scene to break into (that’s putting it mildly). And that’s why I was excited to read this book. The publisher was awesome enough to send one to me. I really, really, really wanted to love it. I also really, really, really wanted to love Sally Field, but that didn’t quite happen either (at least not in the movie she finally won the Oscar for). It’s not the worst book I have ever read, by any means. It simply didn’t catch me. I read it and laughed at a few parts, and there are moments of nice levity in there, but it just wasn’t gripping. I like a whole lot of insane and there isn’t much of that here. Todd Glass is surprisingly normal, considering he’s in the entertainment industry.

Glass grew up in Philly in the 70’s and had a relatively simple life. Getting older and deciding to be a comedian was definitely an inspired choice, and adding to it was the secret he carried for many years- he’s gay. There, I said it. Glass had a hard time saying it, and kept it secret for many years, including tons of fake girlfriends to keep it from becoming a known fact. Glass has a ton of great advice for those who are gay, and have a hard time coming out. For those who are reading this book, it’s going to be a huge help to you in coming out and admitting it (and I do know a few male friends of mine who should read this, it may help them out in their feelings of indecision about it becoming a known fact). I feel as if his true message is to help those who are having a hard time with the idea of coming out and admitting they are gay, not so much about the career and path of a comedian. I had hoped to read more behind-the-scenes about the comedy scene, and there is a fair share, but the lion’s share of this book is about his attempts to balance out his secret life and his professional one. I give him mad props for that, but I wish there had been more about the actual life choices in front of you when you decide you want to be a stand-up comic. It felt like his message was one of being honest about your sexuality and not letting it hold you back.That’s an admirable message to deliver to the public masses. More power to you, Mr. Todd Glass.

As I said, a book with a powerful message. Unfortunately for my tabloid-loving, sleazy mind (ask me how much I love Andrew Dice Clay), it was not as much about the backstabbing industry that is the comedy scene, and more about the implications of hiding who you really are and who you choose to love. Running into that was a pillar I couldn’t knock down. I liked the book, I just didn’t love it. 

 

The Anatomy of Dreams by Chloe Benjamin (2 out of 5)

•July 22, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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It’s the late 90’s when Sylvie Patterson, a quiet, academic student at a California boarding school, meets and falls head over heels for her mysterious, effusive classmate Gabe. Complete opposites do often, and in this case, totally attract and they bank on a relationship, while many of their friends are falling in and out of love the way some fall in and out of jobs. The head of the school, Dr. Adrian Keller, is an enigmatic, somewhat eccentric and secretive medical professional who does research into (as well as banking everything, including his reputation), on the healing powers of lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming? What is lucid dreaming, you may ask? Teaching those who are sleeping to become conscious during normal sleep patterns, which should relieve stress, chaos, and emotional, physical, and mental traumas that they have been battling in their normal, waking hours. Sounds like a lot? The premise is great, it’s just the execution of it that lost this reader somewhere toward the beginning of the book. Yes, the beginning. That’s when you know it’s a tough sell. 

The duo become trusted hands to Dr. Keller, following, eating, sleeping, and yes, dreaming his every moment of research and discovery over a number of years following the good doc while he tries to sway the medical community, among others, to hop on the bandwagon with his research and results. Keller heads off to the quiet woods of the East Coast, and of course his dilletantes Sylvie and Gabe follow him out there. The dream caravan ends up in the Midwest and a strange fascination with their neighbors leads Sylvie and Gabe into a strange situation with the good doc. Sylvie begins to snap out of her reverie (brainwashing, that’s what it seems like to me, at least) when they begin a friendship with the couple, questioning what Dr. Keller’s “research” really does and whether it brings harmony or harm. Sylvie and Gabe’s relationship may not survive this newest challenge, as she begins to question more often than not, driving a wedge in between her and Gabe. Dr. Keller, to my eyes at least, seems like he exerts a Svengali-type influence over Gabe. There are points in the book where I questioned whether there was a relationship between the two men that extended beyond mentor and student. There are points in the book where I questioned, well, everything. Sylvie, instead of rousing my pom-poms in a cheer when she starts to wake the hell up, annoyed me. I’m not sure why. It’s a hard book to roll through once you have decided that you really don’t want to see how it turns out, unless the doc gets his comeuppance. Does he? Do Sylvie and Gabe make it out of this intact, or does he get a room at the Motel 6 with “Dr. Dream”? What role do the neighbors play in the unraveling of the doctor’s medical showboat? What, if anything, keeps you rolling on toward the end? 

So, to sum it up, a great premise that starts out promising, but the characters begin to drive you crazy. I had a ton of hope for Sylvie, I was hoping once she woke up, I would start to really dig into this story. I did, and I finished it, but it wasn’t as much fun as I had hoped, and it didn’t ring any happy bells for me when I did get to the finish line. Something is just off here, in this book. It is well written, it clips along at a good rate, and you want to read it to see what exactly the doctor is doing, and if he gets what’s coming to him. You also want to see if Gabe and Sylvie live happily ever after. I just wanted to see it end, regrettably. It didn’t do a lot for me. 

 

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino (5 out of 5)

•July 20, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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This book was exactly what I needed to read. Quirky, quick, and funny. There’s a lot of heart beating in this story, and most of it with nine-year old Madeleine Altamari. Madeleine’s a little firecracker. She’s recently lost her mom, and her father is swallowed up by her grief, so for all intents and purposes, she’s parent-less at the moment. She’s the butt of jokes at school, and one can only take so much rejection before one begins to rebel, even at the tender age of nine. The Eve of Christmas Eve looks to bring her many gifts she wasn’t planning on, and the same goes for the other members of this book. Most of the action takes place around the floundering jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas. Lorca, the owner of the jazz club, is nailed and given $30,000 worth of citations. If he doesn’t raise the money, the club, and those who play a part in its being, goes bye-bye. No one or nothing is going anywhere until the 24-hours in this day are played out- in memorable and hilarious fashion- over the course of this book. Does Madeleine’s determination to sing at the club win out? Do her prissy and bratty classmates see her for the heartbroken little cuss she really is, and let her be? Does Lorca find a way to save his club? Does he win his estranged wife Louisa back? Does his son Alex get his wish and get to play at the club, despite Len (the basically useless, jerk policeman who writes up all the citations that put the club at risk) putting a strict “no performances to minors” order on the club? Do the star-crossed lovers find a way to be together?  Does Pedro the dog find his happy ending, in a neighborhood where his elusive female dog girlfriend is now dwelling (yes, even a bit of a love story for the pooch.) Does this end happily or does the club close? You have to read to find out. And you won’t be sorry you have to read it.

Madeleine is a revelation. I haven’t seen a kid with this much spunk in literature since Evelyn in Laura Moriarty’s The Center of Everything. She thinks nothing of using foul language, smoking her deceased mom’s cigarettes, flipping off her errant classmates, and speaking back to the school principal, who has it out for her because Madeleine’s mom bested her in school many years before. Despite her spunk, you can feel Madeleine’s heart breaking as she cannot seem to draw her father out of his cesspool of grief. There are several scenes in the book where you are tearing up reading about her sadness. There are more scenes, however, where you are laughing aloud at her hijinks. There are no shortage. You hope so wildly for Madeleine to conquer her fears, her sadness, and take The Cat’s Pajamas by storm. All of your supporting characters are memorable in their individuality, and there really aren’t any bad guys. There are a few, but you realize that they aren’t bad guys as much as they are just doing their jobs. There isn’t a lot of this book that won’t warm the cockles of your heart, and make you hope that there’s a return to Madeleine’s world sometime in the future. Definitely a warm, funny, wonderful book. 

*I received this book from “BLOGGING FOR BOOKS” in return for a honest review.*

 
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