The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fascinating, creepy short novel that feels a little bit like a grown-up version of Coraline, in that it deals wi...moreThe Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fascinating, creepy short novel that feels a little bit like a grown-up version of Coraline, in that it deals with alternate realities lurking just beneath the surface of our world and with horrors that only children can see and that must be battled without the support of the adults.
The adult narrator of The Ocean at the End of the Lane returns to his childhood town for a funeral and, without quite knowing what he is doing, drives back to his old home and then further down the road to the house at the end of the lane, where a dimly-remembered childhood friend had lived. He rings the doorbell and - still without quite knowing what he is doing - soon finds himself out back, staring at a pond that he remembers Lettie had insisted was an ocean. Something about the pond draws out old memories, and the bulk of the book is then told as a memory seen through a child's eyes.
After a lodger in his house commits suicide, strange things start happening, and the narrator's new friend Lettie takes him along to confront the bizarre creature she knows is causing the trouble. The creature turns out to be stronger than Lettie expected and manages to hitchhike back into our world, where she transforms herself into a beautiful young woman who is hired on as the narrator's family's new nanny. His parents and sister are delighted with the nanny; only he can tell there is something dreadfully wrong with her. She seduces his father and turns his whole family against him, making him a prisoner in his own house and subjecting him to tortures and terrors. He knows Lettie is the only one who can help him, but he has no way of contacting her while trapped in the house.
This is the sort of book that's both short and compelling enough that it's best to clear a few hours to read it in one sitting. It's very well done and worth a read. If you liked this, or if you just want to get a sense of the kind of creepy horror of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the short story "The Father-Thing" by Philip K. Dick is in a very similar vein and is also worth a read. (less)
I don't normally rave to people about books I'm still in the middle of reading, but while I was making my way through Five Star Billionaire, I couldn'...moreI don't normally rave to people about books I'm still in the middle of reading, but while I was making my way through Five Star Billionaire, I couldn't stop bringing it up in conversations to tell people how much I was enjoying it. It felt like a five-stars-with-exclamation-point book for me; in spite of being a book that rotates through the points of view of multiple main characters, I felt invested in each and was equally eager to learn more about what would happen to each one. It's a shame that the book ends so abruptly, because the disappointment of getting to the last page and thinking "That's it? That can't possibly be it, there must be another chapter yet" shut me up about this book in a hurry.
The main characters in Five Star Billionaire are all Malaysian by birth but are living in Shanghai. One grew up in poverty and has moved there to try to improve her job prospects and find a rich boyfriend; one grew up in a wealthy family and has been sent there to manage a job for the family business; one grew up middle-class in a family with political ties and has moved there to start a new life as a businesswoman after things turn sour for her family in Malaysia; and the last grew up in an impoverished, abusive home, became a rock star after being discovered on an "Idol" type reality singing show, and finds himself trapped in Shanghai after his drunken antics cause his tour to be cancelled prematurely. In the background is also the shadowy five-star billionaire of the title, whose story is told in brief interludes between the main chapters.
For much of the book, the main characters' stories do not intersect at all, and what we really feel is how isolating and exhausting it can be to live in a huge, wealth- and appearance-obsessed city, especially as an outsider who hasn't lived there long. For quite a while, I thought the characters might actually have nothing to do with each other or would cross paths only incidentally, and that actually felt right for this book; it didn't bother me to think that Five Star Billionaire wouldn't follow the typical pattern of gradually interweaving the different characters' lives. However, the characters do begin to meet each other, and their intersecting backstories are also revealed, and immediately the book stops being about the impersonal city and draws us into human relationships. We begin to cheer on the various romances and business partnerships; Shanghai is no longer impersonal and overwhelming; we can see how everyone could end up happy after all. I think this is the reason that the abrupt ending, which leaves not a single personal or professional relationship satisfied, feels so inadequate and frustrating. It's as if Tash Aw really did want this book to be, all along, about isolation, but he teased us with a different novel halfway through and never provided a satisfactory conclusion to that book. (less)
What if a highly communicable disease suddenly caused everyone to go blind over the course of just a few days? Blindness explores what happens in just...moreWhat if a highly communicable disease suddenly caused everyone to go blind over the course of just a few days? Blindness explores what happens in just such an epidemic, both in the world at large and within the internment center where the earliest infected people are sent.
The tale is told in a very matter-of-fact tone that softens some of the blow of the horror while making it easy to see how feasible the entire situation is. Life in the internment center begins as an inconvenience but quickly shifts to ever-increasing squalor, and the residents begin questioning whether they are even still human or whether their blindness and captivity has turned them into animals. Meanwhile, panic on the outside keeps growing; people no longer help the newly blind but turn and run in fear, and the soldiers guarding the internment center begin to shoot on sight lest the infected get too close and spread the disease.
The story is compelling, though the ending feels hasty and tacked-on. It doesn't matter that we don't learn the cause of the epidemic - the story is about how humans behave in a crisis, not really about the crisis itself - but the abrupt ending leaves the reader unsatisfied. Other than that disappointment, though, this was a very interesting and all-too-realistic tale.(less)
The concept for The Interestings sounds like something I should have gobbled up: A group of misfit kids connect at a summer camp and manage to remain...moreThe concept for The Interestings sounds like something I should have gobbled up: A group of misfit kids connect at a summer camp and manage to remain close friends into adulthood. However, while their teen selves felt real, very little of this book deals with their teen years, and their adult personalities were awful. I definitely would not have bothered finishing this book if I hadn't been reading it for my book club.
A huge part of the storyline deals with the main character, Jules, being totally unable to come to terms with her friend Ethan's phenomenal success and wealth. While I fully recognize that income disparities can create a lot of tension in a friendship and that a lot of the things Jules was struggling with are realistic concerns for someone in her position, she was so overwhelmingly neurotic and petty about it, and much of the book alternates between scenes of her being social with Ethan and Ash and then her at home telling her husband Dennis about all the cruel and pitying things she's sure Ethan and Ash are thinking about them all the time. Dennis, who is described over and over again as being strong and placid and not at all artistic like the rest of them, just sits there and listens and then comforts her.
And on that note of the recurring descriptions of Dennis: I was also frustrated at how the same few traits were always used to describe each character. Physical beauty and ugliness come up over and over again; Ethan succeeds in spite of how unattractive he is, and it's apparently constantly surprising that the beautiful Ash could have fallen in love with him, and a relief that their daughter looks like Ash and not Ethan. Jules is also frequently described as unattractive, while their friend Jonah and his boyfriend (who is almost always referred to by full name or by a reminder that Robert is Jonah's boyfriend, as if the author thought we might forget who he is otherwise) are so shockingly beautiful that we have to be reminded of their unearthly looks every time we encounter them.
Overall, each person's traits seemed overplayed to me - there was no subtlety to any of the characters. Because of this, I couldn't connect with any of them and felt like there was no one to cheer on or ultimately care very much about. I was glad when this book was over.(less)
I've seen a lot of mentions of this book recently - I think this blog post from July 2013 is the one that got the buzz started. Wired Love was publish...moreI've seen a lot of mentions of this book recently - I think this blog post from July 2013 is the one that got the buzz started. Wired Love was published in 1880 and is available for free from Project Gutenberg. It's a short, fluffy book about a woman who becomes infatuated with a person she talks to regularly but has never met - a telegraph operator working at a station about 70 miles away from her own. The buzz about the book in 2013 is, of course, due to the fact that it completely and perfectly describes the fascinations and concerns about meeting someone online. In 1880.
Nattie Rogers, age 19, works in a telegraph office but dreams of becoming a novelist. She's bored with her job, but one day another operator on the line strikes up a conversation with her over the wire. This is totally unprofessional behavior, and other operators on the wire begin to chide them about their conversations getting in the way of anyone else's ability to do business on the line - because Nattie and her new friend have started chatting nonstop from work.
Nattie is fascinated with her new friend, who signs messages with just an initial as all telegraph operators do, but she tries to deny that her feelings are blossoming into a serious crush. After all, she doesn't even know whether C. is a man or a woman! (Though it is no real spoiler to say that C.'s gender and romantic intentions toward Nattie are obvious to everyone but Nattie from quite early on.)
Interestingly, the book doesn't only play with the idea of falling in love with someone only through their words. By the book's halfway point, Nattie and C. have met, and now Nattie deals with the odd realization that she enjoys C.'s company greatly but that she got something different out of their chats over the wire than she does from their chats in the same room. The two begin to engineer ways to continue talking to each other through Morse code in addition to actual face-to-face conversations.
The whole thing is, like I said at the beginning, quite fluffly, and you'll probably get frustrated with Nattie for being so completely blind to other people's intentions (not to mention how she hogs the telegraph wire at work to flirt with another operator - I couldn't help feeling sympathy for the other operators on the line, who all seem pretty irritated that they are being subjected to so much idle chatter all day). However, it's also really sweet, and is fascinating to read just from a historical perspective. It's free and will only take a few hours of your time to get through, so it's well worth looking up!(less)
I really, really wanted to like this book. Maybe I was disappointed because I was expecting a memoir, but after the first few childhood and early care...moreI really, really wanted to like this book. Maybe I was disappointed because I was expecting a memoir, but after the first few childhood and early career anecdotes the book takes a turn toward list format, and for the most part, her lists just aren't very funny. The worst offenders are the lists of advice, which tend to reiterate tired stereotypes about men or specific racial/ethnic groups.
Lots of people seem to love this book, but it did nothing for me. I kept asking myself why I was still reading it, and to be honest I think the only reason I stuck it out was because I kept hoping it would get better, and by the time I realized it wouldn't, I was so close to the end that it seemed silly to quit then. So much of the writing felt lazy, reiterating stereotypes instead of playing with them, and it tended to raise my eyebrows much more often than it ever got a chuckle out of me. I wish this would have been the memoir I thought it was going to be, because the early sections showed a lot of promise, but the book got really tiresome really fast for me.(less)
I generally avoid the whole roster of what I've always felt were overly self-absorbed McSweeney's authors, but Jewball was free in the slim-pickings K...moreI generally avoid the whole roster of what I've always felt were overly self-absorbed McSweeney's authors, but Jewball was free in the slim-pickings Kindle Lending Library, and it sounded like an interesting story that was not about the author and the greatness thereof, so I gave it a try.
Jewball is fiction, but its premise is true, and most of the characters were real people. Pollack writes about the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association basketball team in the late 1930s - at the time, one of the best basketball teams in the country during an era when the sport of basketball was still being codified. Although not a mystery in any way, the book is written in the style of a hard-boiled detective novel, which makes it fast-paced and engrossing but at the same time holds the reader at arm's length from the characters.
Told from the perspective of star player Inky Lautman, Jewball details the team's run-ins with the Bund, an American Nazi organization, with occasional detours into Inky's love life. The genre's choppy style prevents the romance aspect from feeling suitably complex, though it works well for the conflicts between Inky, his team, and the Bund.
Overall, Jewball is fun and even a little bit educational while still staying too much on the surface to carry much of a punch. It's a great way to fill a few idle hours (it made for perfect airplane reading) but I can't really recommend it other than as an enjoyable time-waster.(less)
Do you love moralistic tales that grossly oversimplify complex situations by telling them through a childlike point of view? Do you wish y...moreOh god what.
Do you love moralistic tales that grossly oversimplify complex situations by telling them through a childlike point of view? Do you wish you could read a couple dozen pages with the spelling and lexical complexity of Crimer Show? Then "Fox 8" is your story. You will love this wide-eyed dreamer of a fox who just can't believe humans would do things like mess up the environment to build a mall, and then be cruel to a fox and think it was funny! (less)
I heard such good things and really wanted to like this collection of short stories, but a lot of it fell short for me. The writing is beautifully spa...moreI heard such good things and really wanted to like this collection of short stories, but a lot of it fell short for me. The writing is beautifully sparse, the characters are interesting, the premises are clever, but I felt like Saunders was holding me at arm's length the whole time, more showing me his prose than getting me invested in what should have been absolutely heartbreaking stories.
The first story, "Victory Lap," set me up to expect a lot from this book - it opens with a young girl reflecting on her charmed life as she practices her ballet positions at home, then takes a sinister turn when she opens the door to a strange man. We see the remainder of the story through the eyes of her neighbor, an awkward, unpopular boy whose controlling parents punish him for the slightest missteps. He struggles, paralyzed, counting off the house rules he would break to run outside and save his neighbor as he witnesses her being dragged through her yard to a van.
However, most of the remaining stories didn't carry as much of an emotional punch, though the general theme persists of messed-up/downtrodden/sad-sack people having to make decisions that could have major impacts on others. Sometimes they do the right thing; sometimes they do nothing; other times it isn't even clear whether it would make a difference or if there is a right thing to do.
The stories vary wildly in length, and as a rule the longer the story, the more impact it has. Several of the shortest stories felt throwaway, while the longest (nearly a quarter of the book!), "The Semplica Girl Diaries," is undoubtedly the most powerful in the collection, about a father who knows his family is poor but wants so desperately for his children to feel equal to their much wealthier peers. Another lengthy story, the titular "Tenth of December," ends the collection on another strong note as a dying man tries to kill himself through exposure, but is thwarted when a young boy encounters him, assumes the man needs saving, and in trying to help him ends up falling into a frozen lake and needing a rescuer himself.
Saunders is a really clever writer and there is a lot to like in these stories, but I feel like he has the capability to totally devastate the reader and doesn't actually pull that off very consistently in this collection. I'm probably being too harsh in giving it three stars but I really feel like this book should have wrecked me and instead it left me thinking more about the cleverness of the author than the actual situations and characters he was writing about.(less)
Comedy, like poetry, is one of those genres I tend to avoid and claim not to like because so much of it is so poorly executed, even though I love both...moreComedy, like poetry, is one of those genres I tend to avoid and claim not to like because so much of it is so poorly executed, even though I love both when done well. I had always written off Christopher Moore, without having ever read him, as being the bad kind of comedy writer, one of those self-congratulatory "look at me, I'm so funny" types, and I was less than excited when my book club picked his newest book for one of our upcoming meetings. I started Sacré Bleu with my eyes already rolled - and was surprised to find how quickly I was drawn into the story, which turns out to be more mystery than comedy.
The book opens with the death of Vincent van Gogh - and the suggestion that van Gogh didn't actually kill himself, but was shot by the man who had been providing him his paints. The story then moves to Paris, where we see many other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters behaving erratically - and the strange little Colorman always seems to be involved.
There is a lot of humor in this book, but there's so much else going on - rich historical details, mystery, time travel(!) - that I really wouldn't call it a comedy, even though that's how the book describes itself in its subtitle. From what I see in other reviews, Sacré Bleu is possibly a pretty atypical book for Moore, so I'm still not in any rush to go out and read more of his books, but this one surprised me.(less)
I like Murakami a lot and have read a number of his books. This one had many elements of other Murakami book...moreThis was much, much longer than necessary.
I like Murakami a lot and have read a number of his books. This one had many elements of other Murakami books, but is about twice as long - not with more story, just told at a much slower pace. And while the story is enjoyable and I was curious to see how it would all unfold, there was far too much filler. Furthermore I think Murakami took the magical realism too far in this book, including doing something almost 700 pages in that I found so unforgivable I nearly threw the book across the room.
1Q84 follows two main characters, Tengo and Aomame, as each of them experiences a disruption in their lives which causes them to realize they're living in some kind of alternate version of reality, which Aomame terms 1Q84 ("Q is for 'question mark.' A world that bears a question...the 1984 that I knew no longer exists"). Each in separate ways ends up crossing paths with a religious organization that seems to be hiding some kind of sinister secret, and the story slowly draws them toward each other as they try to make sense of their lives in this strange new world.(less)
I don't know much of anything about baseball, but I really enjoyed reading Moneyball, a book about how the general manager of one of the poorest teams...moreI don't know much of anything about baseball, but I really enjoyed reading Moneyball, a book about how the general manager of one of the poorest teams in baseball took advantage of market inefficiencies to hire players that for one reason or another were undervalued by most other professional baseball teams.
Much of the book is about Billy Beane (a former professional baseball player and the general manager of the Oakland A's) or about the players he recruits, so a lot of Moneyball reads like biography, particularly about the early careers of rookie players or the waning years of players who due to injury or age were no longer of interest to most teams. The rest of the book is about statistics, but it's written in an approachable manner that makes sense even if you don't know much about baseball or statistics.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. More than anything else, it's a story about an underdog outwitting everyone else through the power of MATH.(less)
I am torn about what to think or say about Gone Girl. It's a thriller, which is not a genre I have read widely in, but it seems like it's the nature o...moreI am torn about what to think or say about Gone Girl. It's a thriller, which is not a genre I have read widely in, but it seems like it's the nature of the genre to be something you get sucked into and want to read quickly, and that's certainly the case with Gone Girl.
The story details the slow unraveling of the marriage of Nick and Amy, two magazine writers who met and married in New York and then moved together to Missouri when Nick's mother fell ill. When Amy goes missing one day, the signs keep pointing to Nick as the guilty party; he maintains his innocence, but has a terrible alibi and is weirdly unaffected by Amy's absence. Gillian Flynn does an impressive job of keeping the reader guessing whether one of the spouses was up to no good, or whether Nick's cruel, senile father was involved, or whether any of a number of distasteful people from Amy's past had resurfaced.
Nick and Amy are both thoroughly unlikable people, and it's to the book's credit that you want to keep reading in spite of hating both of them. No matter what was going on, it's clear their marriage was in a bad place and that neither one had been willing to compromise.
Without spoiling the ending, I'll say that it made me very angry and left me with a lot of conflicted feelings about the implications of the final scene. In a lot of ways this is a two-star book - it gets cliched; the only characters you can sympathize with at all are barely-fleshed-out secondary and minor figures; the ending is designed to piss you off. However, the fact that I kept thinking about the ending for days after finishing the book is what makes me think it succeeded at what it was trying to do and caused me to be generous with the stars. It's not a great book, but if it's a page-turner that sticks in my head for days, it must have done something right.
I wouldn't recommend Gone Girl, exactly, but it's a solid choice for reading on an airplane (like I did) or at the beach or in some other kind of situation where you want a quick read that will suck you in for a few hours. Also, it would be nice to have someone to rant with about the ending.(less)
I bought this book because it was a Kindle deal of the day and sounded interesting enough to be worth the buck or two they were asking, and I'm really...moreI bought this book because it was a Kindle deal of the day and sounded interesting enough to be worth the buck or two they were asking, and I'm really glad I took the gamble.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating falls somewhere between memoir and nature writing. The author contracted a mysterious and prolonged illness that left her bedridden and so weak that she could barely turn her head. A friend picked up a snail in the woods and brought it to her on a potted plant, and the author found that this tiny creature - something she would have paid no attention to before - moved at just the right pace for her in her newly limited state. She began spending her days watching the snail, learning all sorts of things about its habits and preferences through prolonged observation.
As she slowly recovered, she began reading everything she could get her hands on about snails, and this book combines her memories of her bedridden days with the knowledge she later learned about snails. It ends up being surprisingly fascinating and educational; her illness is mostly incidental in a book that is more about the snail than the author.(less)
I originally read this book over the course of a few days in September 2012 but ended up never getting around to writing a Goodreads review. I found m...moreI originally read this book over the course of a few days in September 2012 but ended up never getting around to writing a Goodreads review. I found myself re-reading it almost exactly a year later after my book club selected it for our September 2013 novel, and it was interesting to revisit it knowing about the twist at the ending.
The thing with The Sense of an Ending is that it really works best to approach it knowing nothing about it. It's written in a beautiful, reflective style, told from the point of view of a man of around 60 looking back on his childhood. A lot of the book has to do with the nature of memory and the recording of history; as narrators go, he's actually extremely reliable, but he spends a lot of time talking about how we forget things, or reshape them to fit our limited understanding or our desires, so he'll tell a story but point out all the places he might be getting things wrong.
Even without the ending, the book is gorgeous to read and gives the reader a lot to think about without ever feeling heavy-handed. However, over the last few pages the narrator begins to piece together things about childhood friends that force him to frame several experiences in a completely different way, driving home all the more the point that our memories and even history itself are the product of limited human understanding.
The Sense of an Ending is short, somewhere between a novella and a novel, and very well worth taking the time to read. Highly recommended.
Originally read September 20-23, 2012, and re-read almost exactly one year later, September 13-14, 2013.(less)
Just Kids is a story of the lifelong love/affection between Patti Smith and Robert Mappelthorpe, written by Patti after Robert's death to fulfill a pr...moreJust Kids is a story of the lifelong love/affection between Patti Smith and Robert Mappelthorpe, written by Patti after Robert's death to fulfill a promise she made to him to write down their story. While the book is autobiographical, it isn't Patti's autobiography; the story glosses over the parts of her life where she lived apart from Robert and ends with his death.
The whole book feels like a fairy tale, which is the source of both its charm and its frustrations. Patti's version of her young life in New York is magical, and she mentions but glosses over the days they went without food or heat as they struggled to make ends meet. Even Robert's slow recognition and acceptance that he was gay didn't seem to faze Patti; she must have struggled with this knowledge, but the picture we get focuses on their love and not their hard times.
Patti Smith is, unsurprisingly, a wonderful writer, and this book is well worth a read, but go into it understanding that it is the story of a relationship and not a biography of Patti or Robert as individuals. If you're somebody who is really put off by name-dropping, this book might be a hard read because of all the people they were rubbing shoulders with in New York, but there were only a few points in the book where it really felt to me that she was mentioning people just to make sure she mentioned them. Overall I really enjoyed reading Just Kids even though it turned out to be more dreamlike and less detailed than I expected.(less)
I've always appreciated Atwood without ever quite loving anything of hers that I've read. The Kindle Single "I'm Starved For You" didn't change my opi...moreI've always appreciated Atwood without ever quite loving anything of hers that I've read. The Kindle Single "I'm Starved For You" didn't change my opinion, though it's a predictably well-written and engaging dystopian story. This one definitely took a little suspension of disbelief for me; you have to accept that the outside world has become so truly horrible that volunteering to spend half your time in prison sounds good to people. That taken, though, what you get is a tale of two couples alternately living in the same house while the other serves its time in prison every other month, and the discovery of a note that makes one of the husbands start fantasizing about what the other couple must be like. I didn't love this story, but it's classic Atwood and will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed her other works.(less)
This book made SO MUCH more sense to me when I got to the end and saw that many of the chapters had been previously published as standalone short stor...moreThis book made SO MUCH more sense to me when I got to the end and saw that many of the chapters had been previously published as standalone short stories. Egan's writing is fantastic, and reading this as a short story collection there are far more hits than misses. However, trying to fit it together as a novel just didn't work for me. The characters were interesting as short-story figures, but we never get to know any of them well enough to care about them very deeply. There are moments in the book that I really loved, but as a novel I found it a big disappointment - and the final chapter was a trainwreck of the worst elements of the other stories put together in a gibberish of text-speak. (less)
I'm not quite sure what to say about A Perfect Spy. One of the first things that struck me is how beautifully written it is - it reminded me of readin...moreI'm not quite sure what to say about A Perfect Spy. One of the first things that struck me is how beautifully written it is - it reminded me of reading Brideshead Revisited. However, the plot is sparse and nonlinear, and even though I chipped away at it regularly, it took me three months to finish the book. In spite of my early enthusiasm, I just never got sucked in.
One important thing to know about A Perfect Spy is that it really isn't a spy novel at all. It's a loose autobiography about John le Carré's difficult relationship with his father, and a reflection on the complexities of friendship and loyalty. The book is told in part from the perspective of the main character, Magnus Pym, a British spy whose loyalties to England come under increasing doubt over the course of the novel. Pym's childhood was dominated by his con-man father's massive personality, and he spends much of his life torn between wanting to please his father and wanting to cut him out of his life entirely. The book alternates between chapters where Pym is writing his own autobiography - largely in hopes that his son will understand him and not turn out like him - and scenes set in the novel's present day, as Pym's family and intelligence officers from multiple countries try to figure out where exactly he has disappeared to and who, if anyone, actually has Pym's final allegiance.
I wanted this book to work out so much better for me than it did, but it just never clicked for me. The writing is beautiful and the story is brilliant, but I never got sucked into the book in the way I expected to.(less)