Thursday, March 6, 2014

Review: The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

Title: The Enchanted
Author: Rene Denfeld
Publisher: Harper 
Date of Publication: March 4, 2014 
Pages: 256

Thank you to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for providing this review copy! "The Enchanted" will be on tour for the next couple of weeks; check it out here.

Two Sentence Summary: In a crumbling, low-tech maximum security prison, an anonymous Death Row inmate narrates a bleak tale of suffering and corruption,(both within "the system" and in the characters' past) with surreal tinges of beauty and hope.  A woman simply referred to as "The Lady," graces Death Row with her insight and empathy, working to investigate the lives of the imprisoned in the hope of saving their lives and illuminating the paths that have led to tragedy.

Things I Think: The author of this book has a fascinating background: in addition to being a reputed novelist and journalist, she has also worked as a death penalty investigator. This lends her subject matter not only a huge amount of clout, but an impressively realistic vision that books on a similar topic lack. 

Most impressive, though, is the gracefulness with which the plot reveals itself. Amidst descriptions of food so foul it made my stomach turn, amidst senseless brutality, torture and psychological abuse, Denfield has planted tiny seeds of strange beauty. They primarily manifest in the mind of the narrator, a man whose crimes are so horrific that he won't mention them, for fear of promulgating the idea. In fact, he has lost the ability to speak at all. In his solitude, though, he has constructed intricate explanations for the goings-on of the prison system (wild horses living beneath their "dungeon," for example).

I was most in love with Denfeld's avoidance of an imposed morality. Even those on Death Row are deserving of The Lady's (and our) consideration, deserving of a second look to identify their humanity, and their trajectory to this terrifying place. There is no enforced alignment of actions with "goodness" or "badness" - things simply are, things simply have occurred, and forward motion (emotionally, mentally, physically if possible) becomes the most powerful response. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: "What I Had Before I Had You" by Sarah Cornwell

Title: What I Had Before I Had You
AuthorSarah Cornwell
Publisher: Harper
Date of Publication: January 7, 2014
Pages: 288

How I Heard About It: Another great find from a tour hosted by TLC Book Tours! Thank you to the publisher for the review copy! You can check out the rest of the tour here.  

"The past, I feel in this moment, is something that parents dangle in front of their children, something hoarded and valuable that we can never touch. They pretend to share, pulling out the old albums at Christmastime, but under their breath, they are saying, This is what I had before I had you."

Two Sentence Summary: Olivia has just gone through a messy divorce and must leave her beloved home in Austin with her two children (a teenage girl and a bipolar 9 year old son). As she returns to her hometown of Ocean Vista, she is haunted by memories of her past there (largely centered around her mother's denial about the death of her sisters and unexplained disappearances), and Olivia's struggles to parent her children become intricately overlaid upon her own childhood struggles.

[[author Sarah Cornwell]]

Things I Think: Sarah Cornwell has had several short stories published (and has won myriad awards) but this is her first novel. To use the word "engaging" falls short of the mark in describing the braided plot, with its hints of ... what? magical realism? mania? that perpetually overturn expectations.

This book is very much of patterns: Olivia's mother, a psychic, cycles through lengthy phases of manic productivity and near catatonia. Her son is officially diagnosed as bipolar. As Olivia reminisces about her mother's sporadic evacuations from their home (with no notice, no way to reach her, and no explanation upon her return), she finds that her son has wandered off on the Ocean Vista boardwalk and can't be located. 

Cornwell explores Olivia's position as a seeming "hinge" between these two, unraveling landscapes, and in doing so creates a mesmerizing tension, rapidly transitioning between timelines and trials. The writing is lyrical, but not in a manner that overshadows/grinds against gritty circumstance. I'm on a quest now to find more of this author's work!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review: "Taking What I Like" by Linda Bamber

Title: Taking What I Like
Author: Linda Bamber
Publisher: Black Sparrow Press
Date of Publication: July 31, 2013
Pages: 256

How I Heard About It: I'm reviewing "Taking What I Like" as part of the book's extended tour, hosted by TLC Book Tours. Thank you to the publisher for the review copy! You can check out the rest of the tour here.

Two Sentence Summary: A collection of short stories revolving around well-known literary characters and plots, "Taking What I Like" is a successfully humorous re-imagining of the classics. The relationship of Shakespeare and other authors to each story differs (characters placed in new contexts, or peripheral characters explored more deeply, for example), and when combined with the sharp intellect and comedic undertones of Bamber's voice, these well-known figures are refreshed and gain interesting new dimensions.

Things I Think: I was immediately drawn to the concept behind this book, it's aim to "reinvent classic texts." It has the feel of a project piece, something I've experimented with and encountered frequently in the poetry world. For this reason, I decided to read and review "Taking What I Like" and am certainly glad to have done so. 

As other bloggers on the tour have pointed out, the author's life as an academic has clearly been influential here. Not only does the nature of the content point to professorial literary love, but settings and characters also reflect an involvement with / interest in the academic scene. And while Bamber clearly has an extensive knowledge of the classics, I feel certain that readers less-versed in Shakespeare, etc. have been provided ample keys to appreciate the stories as well. In "Casting Call," which features the cast of "Othello" as a collegiate faculty, the characters fully recall their sordid previous lives, and as readers we're given glimpses of the past tragedy in conjunction with their current position.

I still have more stories to savor in this book and am greatly looking forward to them. NPR has already featured Linda Bamber for her work in "Taking What I Like" and I anticipate more press for this book in the near future. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Review: "I Take You" by Nikki Gemmell

Title: I Take You
AuthorNikki Gemmell
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Date of Publication: December 31, 2013
Pages: 289

How I Heard About It: I've previously reviewed other work by this author, "With My Body." I'm reviewing "I Take You" as part of the book's extended tour, hosted by TLC Book Tours. Thank you to the publisher for the review copy!

Two Sentence Summary: After Connie's husband is severely injured in a skiing accident, their relationship (particularly it's treatment of intimacy) becomes increasingly... experimental? Thrilling at first, Connie and Cliff's sexual escapades gain a somewhat alarming momentum and Connie starts to question her role as object, play thing, prop.

"I want to think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interrupted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing to another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle. I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard desperate facts."

Things I Think: As mentioned in my earlier reviews of Nikki's work, I've been a fan of hers for many years, ever since a good friend recommended "The Bride Stripped Bare." I have loved her poetic diction and unique take on prose, her tendency to divide lengthy tales into tiny snapshots (separated by well-placed quotations.) 

A key component of the author's works I've read has always been female sexuality; discovery of, exploration of, deviation from... "I Take You" is certainly no different in this regard, but pushes the envelope much further in terms of eroticism. At times making direct reference to "The Story of O" and the more mainstream "Fifty Shades of Gray," "I Take You" holds absolutely nothing back in terms of the erotic (much like its characters). 

Making this book different than its predecessors ("The Bride Stripped Bare" and "With My Body") is the distinctly dark nature of the married couple's eroticism. An opening scene of marital experimentation involves a "surgical" process that truly turns Connie into property of her husband, an inadvertent sacrifice of bodily control at the husband's directive (and for the entertainment of others). The overly of the horrific with the sensual is certainly riveting and disturbing, as is the reader's difficulty to connect with our protagonist's thoughts on the matter. Connie's feelings vacillate rapidly and are relatively unclear from moment to moment; it's unsettling, in that we are driven to react with as much reticence and confusion as the character.

My concern with this narrative is a concern I experience with many "sexual liberation" tales - Gemmell's characters seem, over the course of the three books I've mentioned, to consistently rely exclusively on men to teach them how to utilize and appreciate their bodies and their lives. While this is an occurrence that can be based in reality, the fact that it is so heavily present time and time again in Gemmell's novels began to feel redundant in "I Take You." I found myself yearning for just one sturdy, take-charge female to break up the pattern a bit. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Review: "The Color of Light" by Helen Maryles Shankman

Title: The Color of Light
AuthorHelen Maryles Shankman
Publisher: Stony Creek Press
Date of Publication: October 31, 2013
Pages: 575

How I Heard About It:I'm reviewing "The Color of Light" as part of the book's extended tour, hosted by TLC Book Tours. Thank you to the publisher for the review copy!

Two Sentence Summary: It's the early nineties at the American Academy of Art, a school known for its unique adherence and reverence towards all things classical. When a simple sketch by art student Tessa piques the interest of Rafe (the handsome, Byronic head of the school) for reasons rooted in his past, the book takes a exciting turns for both the historical and the fantastic in equal measure.

"When I'm asleep, dreaming drowsed and warm,
They come, the homeless ones, the noiseless dead.
While the dim and charging breakers of the storm
Rumble and drone and bellow overhead,
Out of the gloom they gather about my bed.
They whisper to my heart; their thoughts are mine.
-Siegfried Sassoon"

Things I Think: "Atmospheric" is the word dying to come out of my mouth every time I think or talk about this book. Shankman has placed "The Color of Light" in the familiar cross-section of an elite art scene and a community's menacing underbelly, but the stunning creativity with which she's infused the plot make neither of these things feel rote. 

From the gorgeous descriptions of the school ("white-washed walls thirty feet soar[ing] from ceiling to floor...moveable white walls and white drapes... dozens of fluorescent lamps tricked out with reflectors..." to the invocation of two distinct eras (the early 90s in New York City, as well as the Holocaust, the book carries a tangible feeling of suspense (one my mind associates with both the isolation and yearning of autumn). 

I'm usually a "characters" girl, so it feels strange/new to be this obsessively impressed by a general ambiance. That's not to say that the characters aren't riveting as well. Again, Shankman pushes against a potentially rusty trope of current fiction (vampires) and infuses it with an element of legitimate historicism that makes the topic compelling (HA!).

This would be a fun read for the holidays. Despite the epic page count, it's easy to fly through and definitely entertaining.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Review: "The Explanation for Everything" by Lauren Grodstein

Title: The Explanation for Everything
Author: Lauren Grodstein
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Date of Publication: September 3, 2013
Pages: 352

How I Heard About It: I found this book through Netgalley, and publisher Algonquin Books kindly provided a digital copy for review. 

Two Sentence Summary: College professor Andy Waite has built his life, his research, and his academic syllabus around a fixation on his wife's murder by a young drunk driver named Oliver. When student Melissa recruits him to advise her independent study on intelligent design (an "anti-evolutionary creationism"), Andy finds that his spirituality and attempts at recovery are called into question and, for the first time, fall under a different type of microscope.

Author Lauren Grodstein

"He had never grown used to her absence, but he had learned to endure it, and to ignore her ghost, who was often waiting for him around the corner, or behind him in the office when he thought he was alone. He used to talk to her; during his first several years in New Jersey he talked to her several times a day. She would smirk or nod or roll her eyes, as expressive in death as she had been in life."

Things I Think: Very rarely do I dive into a new read without any background info. It's a strange delight, but one I don't often feel inclined to experience. (When you have a "TBR" pile as big as I do, taking a risk on the unknown can sometimes be a saddening loss of time.) I also typically avoid books with religious tones (over- or under-), so prior knowledge of the plot would have perhaps caused me to stay away. In the case of "The Explanation for Everything," the risk was well worth it.

Making morality a key character in a novel is a dangerous choice, but also brave: one false move can drive away 50% of a writer's audience in a heartbeat. So how to straddle, delicately, the infamous fence between creationism and evolution? Grodstein's tactic is to represent both sides equally. Characters in each camp are equally redemptive, equally flawed, perfectly balanced in terms of basic, believable, humanity.  Further, characters like Sheila (Andy's friend and neighbor) are realistically indifferent, do not seem affected by or interested in the debate. As a result, there is no silent champion. The space Grodstein creates is safe for a spectator, free from proselytizing or judgment.

The individuals, unique in their circumstances, come into focus because of the great debate, instead of the other way around, and this is what makes "The Explanation..." riveting. 

For everyone in my neck of the woods, Lauren will be making a few stops in San Francisco on her nation-wide book tour:

October 16
Google event with Adam Mansbach
345 Spear Street, San Francisco CA
Time TBD
October 18
Book Passage
51 Tamal Vista Boulevard, Corte Madera CA
7 pm
October 19
Women’s National Book Association Panel
Books Inc. Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA
1 pm
October 21
The Booksmith: In-conversation event with Adam Mansbach
1644 Haight Street, San Francisco CA
7:30 pm

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review: "The Fountain of St. James Court..." by Sena Jeter Naslund

TitleThe Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman
Author: Sena Jeter Nasland
Publisher: William Morrow
Date of Publication: September 17, 2013
Pages: 448

How I Heard About It: My interest was greatly piqued when TLC Book Tours asked me if I would review this hot-off-the-presses novel by best-selling author Sena Jeter Naslund. Sena taught a creative writing workshop while I was an undergraduate, the first of many roundtable workshop classes I would go on to join. 

Two Sentence Summary: The novel weaves together the lives of two female artists in different time periods. Kathryn is a novelist of today in her sixties, living in Louisville, KY and wrapping up the first draft of her most recent creation; Elisabeth is a post French Revolution portrait painter known for her humanizing portrayals of key historical figures from her era. 

Sena Jeter Naslund
Things I Think: This is a very different type of review for me, as "The Fountain..." is the first book in a while I can chalk up as a DNF (Did Not Finish)*. There are a few reasons for this. 

Naslund's prose is uniquely hers: a lyrical, lengthy treatment of sentences; a quietness of plot and pace; intense dedication to three-dimensional description. These stylistic pieces feel consistent with other work of hers that I've read (primarily "Ahab's Wife", which garnered her first big bout of attention and, reputedly, no small amount of money.) 

In the case of "The Fountain..." these elements felt ramped up to a degree that was distracting. The lyricism of the sentences and descriptive pieces, for example, felt almost florid to excess. 

The plot, on the other hand, had little meat on its bones. Kathryn's storyline in particular experienced this lack of momentum, a single action or thought often meriting an entire chapter of its own. Coupled with the intricacy of the sentence structures themselves, the story lost its breath and lost its connection with me.

I hate abandoning books, but the length of this novel plus my difficulty finding purchase in its pages made me move on despite reservations. 

On to the next! 

*I've decided not to post a rating, since I didn't make it to the end of this one.*