This novel effortlessly conjured up the familiar magic of my childhood favorites — it was like reaching for a sweater and finding my old worn favoriteThis novel effortlessly conjured up the familiar magic of my childhood favorites — it was like reaching for a sweater and finding my old worn favorite pushed into my hands. I'm going to wear it gleefully for a week, no matter the weather. This concludes my garment simile. Possibly fuller comments to come closer to publication date....more
Technically this little volume is part of Tales of Outer Suburbia, if memory serves, but if you can find it in this little hardback version, it is verTechnically this little volume is part of Tales of Outer Suburbia, if memory serves, but if you can find it in this little hardback version, it is very agreeable. It works on so many levels — I read it to my kids, who are 8 & 9, and we giggle and talk about metaphor. ...more
I picked up Alif the Unseen in Oblong Books. It was the last event of my U.S. book tour and I was driving home insHow I loved this problematic novel.
I picked up Alif the Unseen in Oblong Books. It was the last event of my U.S. book tour and I was driving home instead of flying and so I had the unusual liberty of not caring about whether a book purchase would force me to check my luggage.
Mostly I picked it up because it seemed impossible to summarize. My favorite sorts of books to read and write. The back of the book begins with “In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients — dissidents, Islamists, and other outlaws — from surveillance. He goes by Alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him, and Alif’s computer has just been breached by the head of the state’s electronic security fo—“
Okay, whoa, whoa, whoa, just stop. Maybe that stuff technically happens in the novel, but that is not the tone of the book, at all. Alif is an impetuous, immature, passionate pig of a computer geek, coding and pimpled in a room in his mother’s house. He throws a massive, electronic tantrum after he’s jilted by Rich Mystery Babe, and the repercussions of the program he writes propel us through the rest of the novel. A couple of reviews call this a thriller, but it’s not, not unless American Gods is a thriller. A couple of reviews call this erudite social commentary, but it’s not unless A Wrinkle in Time is erudite social commentary.
Of course, American Gods is thrilling, and A Wrinkle in Time does indeed comment on society, but that is because they are good fantasy fiction, and good fantasy fiction is full of true things. But they both read like fantasies, and so does Alif the Unseen. If you open the book expecting that, you will not be dissatisfied. Now, because it’s been at least four paragraphs since I did a list, here is a list of four things about Alif the Unseen I think you ought to know.
1. There are so many characters to huggle. Alif is a brat, and I hated him for the first 80 pages, but that’s sort of the point. There are others to love, though: Vikram the yellow-eyed jinn, NewQuarter the endearingly spoiled and heroic prince, and Sheikh Bilal, a holy man with a good mind for a computer metaphor. The character interactions are what ensured my love of this novel. The plot became irrelevant. I just wanted to watch them frolic. 2. There is a car chase in the desert. I don’t know what else to say about this, but if you know anything about me at all, you know it takes very little to please me, and one of the things that will please me is car chases in deserts. 3. It was pretty fantastic to read some contemporary fantasy set in the Middle East, and Wilson did a great job soaking every page with imagery. 4. I really, really liked the way spirituality was worked through the book, touching everything, including the magic, in a very organic way. As someone who believes spirituality and religiosity are not synonyms, I appreciated how Wilson danced between the two. One of the most moving scenes is where a character prays over a meal with little fanfare.
Now it’s time for the problematic part. I have a huge problem with the way women are treated in most of the Middle East. It has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with equality and choice. I have a huge problem with the way women are portrayed in fiction, period. I knew it could be a very unsatisfying combination, however, I went into Alif with an expectation that Wilson would tread this ground with confidence and insight: after all, Wilson is an American woman who converted to Islam and chose to take up the headscarf. She must have heard everything I was thinking before.
But Alif the Unseen is problematic because it fails to deliver on a single female front. Dina, Alif’s childhood friend, chose to take the veil as well. And she is portrayed as plucky and often less fearful than Alif. Yet she is dragged into adventure and ultimately has to be saved. Another female character appears and does in fact save them . . . by getting mystically pregnant. And a third female character exists as a well of mystical spiritual knowledge. This is their power: they are hidden, they can make more of themselves with magical uterus power, and they, as hidden things, know about other hidden things.
This is an adventure about Alif. The women are accessories. It’s true that Vikram and NewQuarter are accessories, too, but they are unique, proactive, and lovable in a way the women are not (see #1, list of characters that made Maggie love this book). So what I think is problematic about this book is actually a global phenomenon: even women write female characters differently than male characters. Hundreds of years of boy adventurers have left us uncertain how to see a woman in a similar situation. Alif the Unseen is problematic to me not because it actively puts women down, but because it’s yet another novel that subtly and unconsciously reminds us that the boys are the ones who adventure, women are only guardians of home and hearth and mystical knowledge. It’s a novel I would have read as a teen and then closed with a sigh, wishing once more than I had been born lucky — had been born a boy.
But if you put that aside — and women readers have been putting this aside for generations — Alif the Unseen is a fantastic contemporary fantasy. My favorite of the year. ...more
When I was a small maggot, I read a lot of thrillers. My father would give me his hand-me-down paperbacks, all called things like DEAD MAN RUNNING andWhen I was a small maggot, I read a lot of thrillers. My father would give me his hand-me-down paperbacks, all called things like DEAD MAN RUNNING and POINT BLANK and AGENT ZERO. All featuring manly authors in leather jackets on the back cover, often posing with their dogs, SUVs, or Kalishnikovs.
And I liked them.
I really did. I would speed through them in a day and daydream about car chases. And then I'd go read some Diana Wynne Jones or Susan Cooper fantasies.
It's hard coming back to them as an adult, though. I'm a different sort of reader and I want different sorts of things. I want car chases, but I want to know the characters involved intimately, or I don't care. I want to see the scenery in a different way. I want an impeccably told thriller, and I don't want to hurry through it in a day. I want to be entertained, dammit.
Well, BRILLIANCE entertained me. Sakey draws his protagonist, Nick Cooper, with fond, wry strokes. He's charming and flawed, a divorced family man, a devoted government agent, a dutiful speeder (Cooper. I can't speak for Sakey). The conceit of the novel is excellent, too — in this version of the world, a small but growing population of the world has been born "brilliant," blessed with preternatural pattern recognition or somesuch thing, and the world is on fire with the shock and revolution of it. It makes for some fascinating metaphors — I love me some metaphors — and some laugh out loud moments, such as one page that talks about how the world would look if the brilliants had never come along.
It also makes this a thriller you could take to book club, because it has layers to talk about. You can read it fast or slow and there's something for both of those reads.
What else do I want to say? It's a bit slow in the first third, but I trust that my glowing recommendation will make you overlook that. And it's mostly about pretty people, but I mostly write about pretty people too, so I can't say anything. EVERYONE IS PRETTY ON THE INSIDE, DEAR READER.
Farewell. I'm glad to hear that you've gone off and ordered this. The cover's cool, too. In person it is all tactile. ...more
1. If I tell you this is a book about depression, you won’t want to read it. At least, I wouldn’t want to read it. DeprFive Things About Mr. Charwell:
1. If I tell you this is a book about depression, you won’t want to read it. At least, I wouldn’t want to read it. Depression is real, yes, but depression also tends to be static; it clogs and slows and dilutes its victim. Which makes for boring fiction. So I won’t tell you that this book is about depression (because it’s not very true, anyway). I will instead tell you that this book is about Winston Churchill, which also isn’t tremendously true. Winston Churchill struggled with depression during his life, referring to it as a black dog. Well, in this book, depression is truly a black dog, six feet tall and smelly and just there. So there you go. This is practically a dog book.
2. Also, it’s not really about depression. It’s about strength. Possibly this makes it a not-depressing book with depression as a main character. Rebecca Hunt is a very clever wordsmith, and I had to stop a few times to read sentences out loud because of how very TRUE their contents were. I love a book that makes me nod and say “that’s exactly how it is! I never thought of it that way!” (Well, I don’t really say that. I just go GAH and read it out loud. But that’s what I mean.)
3. Plus, it’s funny. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how sadness and laughter live right next door to each other. This book nails that. Hunt is well aware of the humor inherent in a six foot tall dog named Mr. Chartwell looking for a room to let, and she runs with it.
4. The metaphor is pretty stinkin’ impeccable. I really think this exchange between one of the narrators, Esther, and the black dog, Mr. Chartwell, is a great example of both the book’s humor and the effectiveness of the metaphor. She has just asked him how it is that Mr. Chartwell affects Churchill, and he replies: “It’s hard to explain. With Churchill we know each other’s movements, so we have a routine, I guess. I like to be there when he wakes up in the morning. Sometimes I drape across his chest. That slows him down for a bit. And then I like to lie around in the corner of the room, crying out like I have terrible injuries. Sometimes I’ll burst out at him from behind some furniture and bark in his face. During meals I’ll squat near his plate and breathe over his food. I might lean on him too when he’s standing up, or hang off him in some way. I also make an effort to block out the sunlight whenever I can.”
5. The novel never overstays its welcome. Short chapters fill its brief 242 pages, making for a speedy read. The conceit of a panting black dog following people around might have gotten old if Hunt had let it, but — unlike Mr. Chartwell — Hunt gives the reader precisely what is needed and then is gone before there can be an aftertaste. ...more
This is going to be a difficult book for me to talk about. I finished it days ago but I find myself a little verFive Things About The Secret History.
This is going to be a difficult book for me to talk about. I finished it days ago but I find myself a little verklempt, I’ll admit. It’s been a long time since a book has stuck with me so completely as this one, and I say that having had a quite remarkable year for memorable reading. So, the summary is straightforward and completely unhelpful: a Californian boy arrives at a private New England college where he falls in with a bunch of snooty but delightful Classics majors who happen to have accidentally killed someone during a Bacchian rite they just happened to be conducting in their spare time. That is a totally truthful depiction of some of the events in the book, but it is not what the book is ABOUT. I will do my best to convince you to pick it up in other ways. Without further ado, here are five things about THE SECRET HISTORY.
1. This is not a new book. All of your friends have already read it. You probably already have a copy of it, actually, that you picked up at some point in the last decade, and now it molders in a box in your master bedroom closet, the one that you never unpacked last time you moved. Right next to your college alarm clock and two boxes of 9-volt batteries and that shirt you can’t throw out because it was a gift. The reason why I’m pointing out that it’s not a new book is because, since reading it, I’ve been told by several people that it is their Favorite Book Ever. It is one thing for you to read a book six months before and maintain it as a Favorite Book. It is something more remarkable when a book can elicit a passionate response from readers twenty years after its publication.
2. This book is full of terrible people. Pretty much the lot of the people that our narrator Richard meets are awful in some way. Self-centered or elitist or potheads or sociopathic or just people with really loud voices in quiet places. Even Richard is not exactly a great guy. But the magic of this novel is that, somehow, you find these terrible people deeply sympathetic. I need to go back and reread it to understand this strange enchantment. How do I find them so charming? Why do I want them to like Richard? GIVE ME YOUR SECRETS, BOOK.
3. This is not a whodunit. You are told pretty much the Bad Thing That Happens in the prologue, and you can see it coming like a comet for much of the book. The effect of this, however, is to create a lovely, unbearable tension and anticipation. And when the moment comes — in a line that involves ferns — it is so deliciously awful. I actually exhaled gloriously and put the book down for a moment because I was so delighted by the actual pay off.
4. It’s long. It’s over 200,000 words long, I think, and 600 pages in my edition. It took me five days to read it. And it’s not just long, it’s dense. One of the blurbs on the inside of the jacket said that it read like a 19th century novel, and I don’t think that’s at all unearned. It takes its time developing atmosphere and character quirks and some of the days in the novel take dozens of pages to unfold. It is not a novel to speed through. It’s a novel to get stuck in. I put it down when I got too tired, when I felt like I was starting to skim.
5. WHAT ELSE CAN I SAY? I adore the characters so much. I adore the hint —the breath — of the supernatural. I adore the slow, building tension and the sense that I, as a reader, was being skillfully manipulated. Yes, that. That last one. I think that is what I love the most about this novel. I get the idea that Donna Tartt was completely in control of this novel. Everything is measured and deliberate and just perfectly done, and I trust her entirely. Fifty pages in, I knew that she was going to tell me a story I was going to enjoy, even if I had no idea what it was going to be.
Man, I just am going to flail about some more. Go read it. ...more
Wow, am I ever on a reading roll. Considering I normally adore fewer than ten novels in a year (about one in six or seven of the books that I read), iWow, am I ever on a reading roll. Considering I normally adore fewer than ten novels in a year (about one in six or seven of the books that I read), it seems impossible that I should find another novel I adore so soon after reading Where Things Come Back. But I adored The Lock Artist. Those of you who read my review of Where Things Come Back will remember that I was longing for a book about guns and helicopters and magic, but found Things instead. Turns out that The Lock Artist was the book I was looking for then. Well, if you substitute “safes” for “magic.”
Basically, it’s about a teen with a dangerous talent: picking locks and cracking safes. He gets tangled up with some dangerous people and dangerous things happen. Did you catch that? It is danger x 3.
Here, without further ado, are five more things about the book.
1. Even though it is a thriller/ mystery/ action-adventure, it’s very character-driven. Our main character (the thrillingly named “Mike”) has been silent since the age of eight, when Something Terrible Happened to Him. And by silent, I mean Quiet As The Dead And Not Like a Zombie Novel But Like a Novel Where the Dead Really Don’t Make Noise Because They Actually Are Dead. And by Something Terrible, I mean Something I Thought I Had Guessed Because I Have Read A Million Books But Actually No It Was Not That It Was Worse. Mike doesn’t speak. At all. It’s remarkable to watch how Hamilton manages this narrator who can only tell stories in his head.
2. The pacing. There is something magical going on with the pacing in this novel, and I need to go back and take it apart slowly and methodically to figure out exactly how Hamilton did it. It’s a page turner, but . . . not like that. Ordinarily I’m quiet bored by action sequences. Right, gun, sure, kick, yep, punch, okay, blood . . . are we done here? I want to get back to the plot, and action scenes are often like sex scenes — they are just hanging there, an exclamation point on the end of a sentence that we’ve already read. But, somehow, not with this novel. I HAD to keep turning the pages, yes, but not because of the action. It was because every page left me with a question, and I had to turn the page if I ever wanted to find out the answer. It meant that instead of my usual racing through an action novel, flipping pages faster and faster, I was reading with the same care and urgency at the end as I was at the beginning. I don’t know how to describe it any better than that.
2(b). The prose. This really is sort of in line with the pacing. When I first began reading the novel, I thought, man, this prose is so — easy. It just says what it says. Well, okay, whatever. I’ll just read a few more pages. And then, the next thing I knew, four hours had gone by and I’d finished the novel and I was hugging my Nook to my chest. The prose became utterly invisible. Like a very good thief, it got in, did its job, and got out, without leaving any trace of itself. I can appreciate just how hard it is to write a book that reads so easily. Well done, Hamilton.
3. Girl. You know these things always have a token girl. The one that makes the hero look noble and powerful and hetero. Well, this book also has a girl, but she is smart and unique and felt like a person. There was no thumping of chests and conquests. There was just a really wonderful and slightly uncomfortable teen romance. With comic book, menial labor, and lock picking overtones.
4. The annoying thing about thrillers is that they so rarely pay off. They’re, well, thrilling, and then you get to the end and go, yup. Well, that happened. Next? Possibly the best thing about this book is that the second half of it is as strong as the first, if not stronger, and there is one of the most psychologically horrific scenes that I’ve read in awhile in the second half. It might have something to do with the Terrible Thing That Happened to Mike. Hamilton proceeds briskly from this Terrible Scene into the denouement, which is tense and satisfying and exactly the way I wanted the book to end. That pretty much makes this book the perfect thriller in my eyes.
5. I am not the only person who has adored this book. It is an Edgar winner (that’s a prestigious award for mystery, for you muggles out there) and it’s also an Alex Award winner, which is how I found it. The ALA Alex Award recognize adult books with high appeal to teen readers, and I tend to love their choices. If you compare the list of Alex winners over the years with my five-star-books on Goodreads, you’ll see considerable overlap. Because it’s an adult book, not a YA, I should mention that there are f-bombs and violence and all that jazz. More Guy Ritchie than Tarantino, though, for the most part.
I have now managed to write a novel about this novel. If you’re looking for a book about guns and helicopters and safes, go pick it up. Or even if you’re looking for a book about guns and helicopters and magic. Because it’ll still make you happy....more
Ordinarily when I do my recommendations, I do a “five reasons to read _____,” but I think opinions will be so dividFive Things About THE NIGHT CIRCUS.
Ordinarily when I do my recommendations, I do a “five reasons to read _____,” but I think opinions will be so divided on THE NIGHT CIRCUS that I think “things about” will be more useful.
1. This novel is not what it says it is. Well, back page copy is always a weird thing anyway, as it’s not written by the author. And a weirder thing because it is essentially a glamour shot of the novel. It is not a lie. But it isn’t really what the novel looks like when it’s wandering around in its bathrobe getting coffee and trying to figure out if that smell is coming from the kitchen sink disposal or under the table. The resemblance is always a bit sketchy. THE NIGHT CIRCUS’ resemblance to its cover copy is sketchier than most.
2. This novel is about a thing. It has people in it, too, but it is mostly about a thing, the eponymous circus. It’s told in third person omniscient, which means it sounds like God is narrating the thing, if God decided he really loved black and white tents and fancy umbrellas. The voice that narrates this book is interested in humans, too, but mostly about how humans make the circus and the circus’ magic interesting.
3. This is not a romance. There is a love story in it, which is good, because love makes the world go round, but it is not a romance. If you go in imagining to be swept off your feet from page one, you can keep on imagining. The novel starts before our lovebirds have hit puberty, so you’re going to have to imagine for quite awhile.
4. The circus is not really a circus. This is fine by me, because I actually don’t care for circuses. They smell, the animals always have that look of dubious maltreatment, no, I don’t want to win a prize by shooting that thing off that other thing over there, and also, clowns look a little grubby to me. No, the Night Circus is a circus in the respect that there are tents, and there are performers, and some of them are acrobats. Mostly it is a place where pretty, pretty magic is passed off as illusion so that us muggles won’t be scared by it. I’d go to that circus.
5. This is not a thriller. This is a not an action-packed adventure. It’s not even a simmering revenge or bubbling rivalry novel. It is a novel about a thing, with love in it, and it spans over a decade. If you have a problem with that idea, it’s best you walk away now. But if you like Ann Patchett or Audrey Niffeneggar novels, or if you really thought JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL was the bee’s knees, well. WELL. You have just found your next read. Enjoy. I did. ...more
1. It is a zombie book. But not like that. In the spirit of honesty, I had this book as an advanced review copy for litTen Reasons to Read WARM BODIES
1. It is a zombie book. But not like that. In the spirit of honesty, I had this book as an advanced review copy for literally months before I picked it up. It had glowing reviews from Stephanie Meyer, so I figured it couldn’t be that gross, and a glowing quote from Audrey Niffeneggar, so I figured it had to be well-written. But . . . zombies. Hopeless gore. I have a pretty strict disinterest in zombies that I break only for Carrie Ryan’s books. I’m not going to tell you this isn’t a zombie book, because it is -- there is brain eating and arms falling off and shotguns and gray matter and OMG WHAT ARE WE GOING TO EAT FOR DINNER - YOU!? and all the traditional zombie nihilism. But I will tell you this: it doesn’t feel like a zombie book.
2. R, the narrator. What really makes this book not feel like a zombie book is that it’s told from R’s point of view -- and he’s a zombie. It’s not glorified or toned down, but R makes the book different because he’s different. Somewhere in the core of his zombie brain, there’s a bit of R left, and watching that struggle against the delightfully metaphorical zombiesm is just . . . lovely and agonizing. In a good way.
3. Did I mention metaphor? Well, let me do it again. The metaphor that the zombies stand for is not deeply hidden in WARM BODIES, and it’s equal parts lesson and warning. It also happens to be something I deeply, deeply believe in. I don’t want to say it’s about self actualization, because who even knows what that means outside of a Meg Ryan movie. It’s about living life to the fullest and feeling everything you can and not being afraid. Maybe that does sound a little like a Meg Ryan movie.
4. It’s short. It’s not that I don’t like long books -- I love ‘em. But there was something very satisfying about reading this perfectly paced slender novel in three or four hours. It makes me think I’m going to do it again.
5. The book begins with R saving a girl -- Julie -- from certain death from both himself and other zombies. Oh how easy it would be for this to descend into pure cheesiness. How easy it would be for them to stop being real people. How easy it would be for Julie to be a construct instead of a real girl worth saving. But Isaac Marion veers away from all that. If at some points R becomes dangerously sentimental, it’s noted with a wry smile. It’s all rather delightful at some points. There’s one scene that’s sort of . . . Wall-E with dead people.
6. R’s so nice. No, really. He’s like . . . nice. If he wasn’t dead, I’d be all, what a nice boy you are, playing Sinatra for your girlfriend.
7. Pretty prose bonus round! “I dream my necrotic cells shrugging off their lethargy, inflating and lighting up like Christmas deep in my dark core. Am I inventing all this like the beer buzz? A placebo? An optimistic illusion? Either way, I feel the flatline of my existence disrupting, forming heartbeat hills and valleys.”
8. There’s a Mercedes convertible in it. As if we even NEED reasons 1-7 or 9-10 anymore.
9. No, really, really, it does not read like a zombie book. Your mom would read it. Probably. Well, it really depends on your mom. Back up. Have I steered you wrong before? No. No, I haven’t.
10. You’ve been looking for a book where you finish it with a smile on your face, haven’t you? I know it. Well, this is it. ...more
I have just this moment closed the cover of THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, after loitering rather longingly over the acknowledgments and possibly the back jacketI have just this moment closed the cover of THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, after loitering rather longingly over the acknowledgments and possibly the back jacket flap as well.
I don't think I can manage a proper synopsis or review of this book -- about an orphaned boy who is raised by a graveyard of ghosts -- so I think I will just have to say that I love it very, very deeply. For so long I refused to pick it up because I thought it sounded quaint and possibly twee, but it was neither. It pushed all the buttons that Maggies love to have pushed: archetypes, humor, high stakes, personal stakes, and a deep ingrained sense of folklore that only comes from the author having grown up with rather than researched it.
Add to all that and I have to say it was, for me, the most well-written of all of Gaiman's books that I've read. I kept seeing things that I associated as Gaimanisms, but they felt absolutely right here. Weapons wielded by someone for so long that they've become part of their arms.
Just ahhh. Loved it. If there are Susan Cooper fans out there longing for that sense of other from the Dark is Rising books, pick this book up. ...more