Man in the Empty Suit by Sean Ferrell

Man in the Empty Suit
Sean Ferrell

This review is based on a finished copy of the book sent to me by SOHO Press.

The Premise: Every year, a time traveler travels to the same time and place: the Boltzmann Hotel, Manhattan, 1st of April, 2071, and celebrates his birthday with different versions of himself. It’s a tradition he started when he was eighteen years old and invented his time travel raft. On his thirty-ninth birthday, the party is different. This time he discovers what the elder versions of himself have been hiding from the younger ones – that there’s been a murder, and the victim is his forty-year old self. Unfortunately, no one over forty can remember exactly what happened, and they are panicked. The time traveler has to solve the murder before he becomes the victim.

My Thoughts: I loved the convoluted mystery implied by the premise of Man in the Empty Suit. With one man the center of everything – the future victim, the investigator, and all the suspects, I thought I was going to experience something very surreal, like an M.C. Escher image where everything loops cleverly back to the beginning. This story starts promisingly down this vein, but doesn’t quite complete the circuit.

This is how it all begins in the first fifty pages: the time traveling narrator enters the hotel and he’s persuaded to go above the third floor (a rule he had previously not broken) with an older version of himself. Then the older him sneaks off by taking the elevator back down and is found dead despite being supposedly alone in the car. Suddenly our narrator is surrounded by the older contingent of his birthday party, the Elders, who are all ‘helpfully’ giving him information about the murder and laying the whole problem in his hands. Our narrator, surrounded by himself has to mentally nickname his future selves based on their distinguishing features: Screwdriver, Yellow, Seventy, the Body. They all form a sort of secret club within the party, helping the narrator as he scrambles from the body to the ballroom and up and down the floors, trying to find clues while keeping his younger selves ignorant. This was all very weird, in an awesome way, but then all of a sudden there’s this paradox thrown in. And then a woman.

Somehow, the focus is taken away from the murder, and what I’m reading isn’t really a murder-mystery. This is more like a strange tale that examines this one character, his relationship with himself, a woman, Time, and whether everything he’s doing is predetermined or if he can change his fate. In theory I should be having a great time, but in reality I found myself sort of drifting through the pages. This wasn’t a difficult book to read (I was never confused about what was going on), nor did it drag, but I did feel like there wasn’t really a point to everything and the plot was just muddling along. I think if I was the sort of reader who could be content with what I got, which was personal growth, independent agendas, and time travel strangeness, I would have fared better, but my problem was that I had expectations that weren’t met. That this was a murder-mystery, first of all. If that wasn’t going to happen, I would have settled for some clever Möbius plot. Neither really panned out for me, and this left me discontent. For a long time after I finished Man in the Empty Suit I wondered if I had actually missed some vital piece of information that would have satisfied these expectations, but I have flipped back and forth through the last hundred pages and haven’t found it yet. Maybe I should be satisfied with the quiet and reflective ending instead of wanting a flashier one, but I’m not. To me, the way the story ended revealed that there was no plan. I felt like this story was pants-ed and not plotted, and it bugged me.

If plot is something that doesn’t quite work for me, sometimes the characters make up for it. In this case, our narrator (he never gets a name by the way, which I actually like), isn’t the easiest to relate to.  I mean, who is the type of person to use their time-traveling raft to do nothing really special but study history, not for humanity, but for his own curiosity, and who likes to spend his birthday (for years and years!), with no one but himself? He’s so self-involved, that he wants to be the center of attention at the party where all the attendees are himself:

“Thoroughly frozen now, I rubbed my skin dry with my palms and then pulled my new clothes out of my travel bag: a suit, the Suit. At last my turn to wallow in the shit of self-adoration.
[...]
Every year the entire party — all my selves– paused in respect when the Suit made the Entrance into the ballroom. All my other visits to the party were tainted. I always tried too hard to be the center of attention, even with myself. Especially with myself. But the Suit was beyond that; everyone paid attention to him without any effort on his part at all. A few times I tried to get close to him, to get a sense of when I might be him, but I had never been able to get his attention. It was as if he were attending a party to which no one else was invited.”

This self-absorption is reflected in every character that is him. Granted, the younger members of the party are immature in obvious ways (drunk throughout the party, or openly resentful), but while the Elders are more concerned about the welfare of the group, they are still selfish in their own ways. And does our protagonist grow in this book? Well he’s forced to go through a period of growth and eventually sees his own flaws, but it takes him a long time. So long that I spent most of the book not liking him.

Maybe this review sounds like a rant, but I’m trying to work through what’s not working because there’s something here, something that could be really good, but it’s not enough. I’m really close to having some undefinable list of personal requirements met that would leave me satisfied, but this story and I, we didn’t quite click.

Overall:  My expectations led me astray on this one. I wanted one thing (crime solving, or time travel awesomeness), but I got something else (I’m not sure what to call it). The way this story bucked expectations is a positive, and I don’t think I could say I’ve ever read anything like this, but in the end I’m more of a feeler than a thinker when it comes to my reactions to things, and I just wasn’t getting what I wanted out of this story.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Seeing Me Naked by Liza Palmer

This was a surprise gift from generous fellow blogger Chachic over the winter holidays (thanks Chachic!). Seeing Me Naked is a book I’d been eying for a while and it arrived just in time to fulfill a craving for contemporary story with a bit of romance.

Seeing Me Naked
Liza Palmer

The Premise: Elisabeth Page is the pastry chef for a fancy restaurant in L.A. Her five-year plan was to one day open her own patisserie, but after the five years come and go, and then another five, Elisabeth wonders if that will ever happen. With a father who is world renowned novelist Ben Page, and a brother who is a publishing wunderkind, Elisabeth feels the pressure of unfulfilled expectations of her intellectual family. Her romantic life is no better than her professional one. Her relationship with Will, childhood-friend turned world-traveling journalist consists of a few nights of passion when Will breezes into town, then months of separation while Will is following a story. Then Daniel Sullivan wins the basket of pastries and private baking classes that Elisabeth donated to one of her mother’s charity events, and Elisabeth’s career begins to go in an unexpected direction. Can Elisabeth let go of her own expectations and try something different?

My Thoughts: I had to think a little bit to put Seeing Me Naked into a category.  Even though this story has an obvious romantic arc, Seeing Me Naked is a lot more focused on Elisabeth and her personal growth than it is on the relationship to be a strict Romance. It does focus on a single woman and her career and relationship with her family but it isn’t quite lighthearted enough to be put into chick lit (although there is some humor in it). I think the closest term might be “women’s fiction”, but that feels like it could be too big of an umbrella term. Really, this gave off the vibe of a mix between a literary novel and chick lit.

At first Elisabeth’s life was rather bland and lonely. She lives alone in an apartment close to work, follows a set routine every day, and doesn’t really socialize. Her life revolves around her stressful job making desserts at a high end L.A. restaurant with a tyrant for a boss. When she goes home to see her parents in wealthy Montecito, the dynamics there are similarly overshadowed by her father, a literary giant with a matching ego. While her high society mother (heiress to the Foster Family Fortune) is supportive of her children, Ben Page is a tougher, more critical parent. Dinner is a battle of wits and intellect with the great Ben Page presiding.  As for her relationship with childhood friend Will, Elisabeth hardly sees him and is tired of them leading separate lives.

As we say our goodbyes in the foyer, I look around at all that defines me. The rubric for success in my family has always been about legacy–what imprint will you make on this world. I have tired to live by these standards all my life. Measuring success and love by the teaspoon, always falling short, the goal constantly out of reach. My five-year plan has become an unending road to nowhere, both professionally and personally.

Despite all this, Elisabeth wasn’t actively trying to change her life. Instead she continued on while the stress made her stomach hurt. Elisabeth struck me as a steady type of character with a quiet creativity, a love of food, and gently sarcastic voice. But I was worried about a certain amount of ingrained judgementality she had. Maybe judgementality isn’t the right word — it was just that she seemed to have a self-imposed set of restrictions on herself and was trying to adhere to what she thought were her family’s unspoken expectations. For example, it felt like there was an assumption of who she should be and who she should be with. Any relationship outside these parameters is assumed to be temporary, like all of her brother Rascal’s “giant lollipop head” girlfriends. When regular guy Daniel enters the picture, he seemed to me like the most honest person in her life, but I wasn’t sure that SHE saw that. I think that this first impression could turn some readers off. I’m thankful that the back blurb of this book hints that the story is about Elisabeth having “the guts to let others see her naked…and let them love her, warts and all” because that made me trust that this story would go to a better place. That, and the setting of the story which kept me interested by giving me fascinating glimpses into a life that’s set in L.A. and revolves around food.

Seeing Me Naked takes its sweet time, but there is satisfaction in reading Seeing Me Naked all the way to the end. It’s enjoyable to sit back while the nature of the characters is revealed organically, their dialogue and actions and Elisabeth’s own reactions to them deftly sculpting clear personalities. And then there’s Elisabeth’s own character. She doesn’t actively seek change, but Elisabeth is smart enough not to fight it when a good things fall onto her lap. And the best part is she works to keep these good things. If you can handle Elisabeth in her rut, you will be rewarded by a very cathartic last few pages.  Where things ultimately go left me quite content.

Overall: I enjoyed this one but I can understand why this is an under-the-radar book. It’s not quite literary fiction, not quite chicklit, and not just about self-discovery, but it has elements of all three, so it falls in a difficult to categorize place which can mean you’re unsure as a reader what you’re going to get. Also, the story doesn’t start in the best point of Elisabeth’s life and rolls forward quietly, without much fanfare — so the reward of reading isn’t immediate. It’s much later in the story that the big gestures happen, so you have to be OK with waiting and watching characters grow, enjoying the way the writing builds the story layer by layer, experiencing food and L.A. through Elisabeth’s eyes and trusting that things will get good. They do though.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Chachic’s Book Nook – “I didn’t expect to get emotional over Seeing Me Naked but I’m glad that it surprised me.”
Angieville – “The characters are complex and carefully rendered. There is no black and white in the intricate web of family relationships they navigate.”
The Book Harbinger – ” wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Seeing Me Naked to casual and seasoned readers who like complex, multivalent chick lit.”

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

This review is of a book sent to me by the publisher, Viking (Penguin).

Shadow of Night is the second book in the All Souls trilogy. This is a series that begins with the discovery of a lost manuscript at Oxford’s Bodleian library, by Diana Bishop, a witch and scholar. Pretty soon, the world of daemons, witches, and vampires is following Diana, and she has to ally with vampire Matthew Clairmont, with whom sparks fly. I reviewed the first book, A Discovery of Witches here: http://i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/livejournal_com.gifhttp://i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/wordpress.jpg , and it proved to be one of my more popular reviews last year. This series has a lot of fans.

**** This review will have spoilers for Book #1, A Discovery of Witches!
If you haven’t read it yet, please click the icons above to read my earlier review(I do recommend you read this series in order) ****

Shadow of Night
Deborah Harkness

The Premise: Picking up right after A Discovery of Witches left off, Shadow of Night begins with Diana and Matthew’s search for two things: the elusive manuscript Ashmole 782 (in particular three missing pages), and a witch who can teach Diana how to use her unpredictable magic. With their enemies closing in on them, their solution is to use Diana’s timewalking ability to go to Elizabethan England, thinking they will find what they need there. But when they arrive, it’s clear that Diana does not fit easily in with the locals, and her strangeness during a time when witches are persecuted does not bode well. Then there are Matthew’s friends, the School of Night, and his family — all of whom are used to a very different Matthew than he is in modern day. Accepting of his new wife and the differences in his behavior is not an easy task for everyone. And this is all before Diana and Matthew have begun to do what they set out to do.

My Thoughts:  Much like A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night is a hefty volume, weighing in at 584 pages, but it has a very different feel than the first book.In Discovery, the burgeoning romance between Matthew and Diana is a big part of the story, and then the stories focus widens into a greater conflict between supernatural creatures. In Shadow, the romance and the conflict are still there, but they are impacted by the era the hero and heroine are living in. Time’s effects are felt almost from the first page, when the couple arrive at Matthew’s Old Lodge. The year is 1590 and Diana and Matthew are immediately presented with servants (vampires) and a succession of guests — all who happen to be well-known members of the School of Night. Diana meets Christopher (Kit) Marlowe within moments of their arrival, swiftly followed by George Chapman, Thomas Harriot, Henry Percy, and Walter Raleigh. These men and the time period bring out old chauvinistic habits in Matthew that Diana does not like, but it won’t be the first time in this story that Diana sees a different side of Matthew. As the story continues, his relationships and responsibilities of the Elizabethan era come up time and again. His family, his friends, his position amongst the Congregation and in current politics, all come to bear.

While being in the past is a dream for a History aficionado like Diana, she wasn’t expecting it to be as hard as it is, and she feels sorely out of place. It all starts off badly: as much as she tries, her speech and mannerisms are immediately flagged as unusual, and she has to stay hidden to keep her from raising everyone’s suspicions. There is some consolation in being able to meet a lot of historically famous people, but she’s immediately disliked by Kit Marlowe, who is insanely jealous that she married Matthew, and wants only to cause trouble for the woman who married the love of his life. Diana’s troubles are added to when she realizes that her magic is more difficult for her in the past and she needs a witch help her control her power.

This feels like a well-researched book, written with a lot of regard for history and this time period. There were interesting tidbits and scenes between Diana and the people of the past, but I think there will be mixed responses to the amount of history that infuses the book. When it was relevant to the story and to the setting, I enjoyed it, but I struggled with trying to find the plot in the parts where Shadow of Night overindulged. I do think that someone more interested in the Elizabeth period would enjoy the history lessons, I wanted the narrative to focus on the plot and I was frustrated by the added bulk. I wondered if it was really necessary for Diana to meet so many members of The School of Night, for example. They were a window to Matthew’s character as a vampire with his thumb on the pulse of history, but this could have been done without having to meet them all. I had the same issue with other characters and scenes. I felt that they weighed the story down making it move less fluidly than the last book. Transitions felt abrupt, as if the story was written in snippets and then stuck together. This is in stark contrast to A Discovery of Witches which I thought had a better balance between the action, conspiracy, and romance.

Speaking of the romance, there is something of a change in Matthew and Diana’s relationship in Shadow of Night. There is some focus on relationship bumps caused by Matthew’s personal pain and the particular stresses in being a vampire and witch in love. I enjoyed the way being in 1509 gave Diana a unique viewpoint to who Matthew was, and how this was incorporated into the story. The book is divided into six parts, each each part set in a different location. The section that involved France and Matthew’s home was particularly interesting. But, again, I had trouble following the transitions here. It seemed that in every location there was some new revelation about Matthew’s personality which added angst to the story, but they felt out of the blue. I think this was because usually Matthew and Diana seemed happy and in love until some issue would suddenly appear. Maybe the issue is that the story was from Diana’s point of view and Matthew keeps his emotions well-hidden, but the hints that there was anything wrong were too subtle for me as a reader and it made Matthew seem very inconsistent.

As for the main plot and Diana and Matthew’s goals of finding the three missing pages of Ashmole 782 and of educating Diana on witchcraft, there is some progress here. Shadow of Night answers some questions I had at the end of A Discovery of Witches, and the book flashes forward to the future/present (in short interludes between the six parts of this book), and tell the reader how it has been affected by Matthew and Diana’s trip. I liked having some sort of update on the characters we met in A Discovery of Witches and seeing some new-to-me members of Matthew’s family, so I enjoyed those interludes (I especially liked Marcus and Phoebe). I just wish that there was more to say about the series plot from this book, because overall, I felt like while there were a lot of scenes and situations, there was little forward movement in the overarching plot.

Overall: My reaction is lukewarm. I felt like Shadow of Night was the story equivalent of hitting pause on the series while the hero and heroine go off to strengthen as a married couple and prepare to go back into the fray. There is good reason for going into the past — to find out more about Ashmole 782, and for Diana to get help with her witchcraft, but once they are there, these goals faded into the background and being in the Elizabeth era came to the forefront. There was a lot of churn in this story caused by the timeline and I think a reader’s reaction to it will determine how much they like the book. While I felt some of it was necessary, I was disappointed with how much felt like chaff. I had trouble with the focus and flow of the story, and with how little forward movement there was to the series plot, and because of this, I preferred the first book over this one. I hope I’ll fare better when Diana and Matthew return to present day.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
S. Krishna’s reviews – “Harkness sets the stage for a brilliant and explosive conclusion to the series”
The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader – 3.5/5 ” I closed the book and wondered what precisely the point of everything that the characters had gone through was.”
Books Without Any Pictures – “If you liked the first book, then by all means continue with the second.  I think that it’s the better of the two”
Devourer of Books – “Shadow of Night picks up exactly where A Discovery of Witches left off and, is perhaps even the better book.”

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Erin Morgenstern was signing the new paperback edition of The Night Circus at BEA, and I picked up one for myself based on the good reviews I’ve seen online.

The Night Circus
Erin Morgenstern

The Premise: (from the back blurb) “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.”

Read an excerpt of The Night Circus here

My Thoughts: This story is all about the magical atmosphere of the Le Cirque des Rêves (aka The Circus of Dreams), which is a circus unlike any other circus in the world. This is a circus of Wonder, swathed in black and white. One tent holds a garden made entirely of ice, another holds a vast labyrinth of rooms. The carousel animals breathe, and the food always tastes better than one remembers. Guests move from tent to tent, sampling performances and marvels, but one visit is never enough to see everything. Adding to the special atmosphere of the circus is that it appears as if from no where and is only open at night.

Of course, if the Night Circus seems impossible, that’s because it is. Unbeknownst to the regular people who visit the circus and even to the people that work in it, the Circus is actually a dueling ground for two magicians from opposing schools of thought. Their weapons are their students, Celia and Marco. Since childhood, these two were trained by their respective teachers in the art of magic. Celia’s teacher is her father, Hector Bowen, who goes by the stage name “Prospero the Enchanter”. Marco is an orphan chosen by a mysterious man in a grey suit and the initials “A. H.” Each is taught by an indifferent (and sometimes cruel) father figure, and each is told that one day they would use their knowledge against an unknown other. All they know is that they are bound to someone, and when the circus comes, the game begins.

The Night Circus is a different kind of story, mostly because this is one of those books that actually feels setting-driven. It is all about the circus. All the character’s stories revolve around or are pieces of the circus’s history. The battle between the two magicians is the propellant for its birth, but once it starts to grow, that’s when the cast of characters surrounding it grow too, and they are often as surprising as the circus. First there are the creatives that gather at midnight dinner parties at the eccentric Chandresh Christophe LeFevre’s house planning its execution — a retired prima ballerina with exquisite taste, two fashionable sisters with fine-tuned observational skills, a renowned architect/engineer, and Marco and Mr. A. H–. When the circus is opened, Celia becomes part of the endevour as the Circus’s illusionist, and she is joined by the circus folk. Some of these people seem to have a touch of magic as well, including a mysterious contortionist, a fortune teller who reads the future, and twins born on either side of midnight on opening night. Celia and Marco’s relationship grows alongside the circus itself in a complicated game of one-upman-courtship.

The sign proclaims something called the Ice Garden, and Celia smiles at the addendum below which contains an apology for any thermal inconvenience.
Despite the name, she is not prepared for what awaits her inside the tent.
It is exactly what the sign described. But it is so much more than that.
There are no stripes visible on the walls, everything is sparkling and white. She cannot tell how far it stretches, the size of the tent obscured by cascading willows and twisting vines.
The air itself is magical. Crisp and sweet in her lungs s she breathes, sending a shiver down to her toes that is caused by more than the forewarned drop in temperature.
There are no patrons in the tent as she explores, circling alone around trellises covered in pale roses and a softly bubbling, elaborately carved fountain.
And everything, save for occasional lengths of white silk ribbon strung like garlands, is made of ice.
Curious, Celia picks a frosted peony from its branch, the stem breaking easily.
But the layered petals shatter, falling from her fingers to the ground, disappearing in the blades of ivory grass below.
When she looks back at the branch, an identical bloom has already appeared.

The timeline of The Night Circus spans several years. It starts with a wager in 1873, and the bulk of the story spans a few decades after that. The narrative jumps back and forth in time, and dates and locations are provided at the beginning of each chapter. Very cheekily, there are interludes between chapters, without a date, but the point of view is secondary — “you” are in one of the tents of the circus (perhaps the date is now?) experiencing the anticipation, the pool of tears, the house of mirrors and other circus tents yourself. There is also a secondary story, beginning 11 years after the circus opens, about Bailey — a dreamer and one of many that loves with the circus. His story dovetails nicely into the main narrative as the story expands.

So remember how I said this was a setting-driven story? It’s so focused on atmosphere that The Night Circus is like a wonderful, comfortable dream. Like a dream, I was spirited off to a place where amazing things happened, but there was a buffer between me and what was going on. I was having a grand ol’ time marveling over the very visual descriptions of the circus and being charmed by the unique and likable characters, and while I did care when bad things happened, but I wasn’t gutted by them. I do not think that this is a failing of the book — it just felt to me that this book was more an imaginative treat than it was something real that I was supposed to connect to emotionally. That’s OK. Sometimes I want to read something that just takes me away to a beautiful place for a while and be told a pretty story. It was a fairytale basically.

Overall: Very lovely story where the circus is the star. Reading this book was like gorging myself on a buffet of artisan chocolates, marzipan, and Turkish Delights. It was just so lush in description, and it felt like the story had much the goal of a circus: to entertain and amaze. The Night Circus was a fairytale steeped with visual wonder, but like all fairytales, even though there was love, loss, and even impending doom, I felt removed, like I was reading it through the lens of “this couldn’t possibly be real”. It really is a circus of dreams.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers (joint review): 9 (damn near perfection), and 8 (excellent)
Books Take You Places – 5 out of 5
Fantasy & SciFi Lovin’ News & Reviews – 4 out of 5 (“Whether or not one enjoys “The Night Circus” will likely have a lot to do with whether or not the reader prefers a story that enjoys a romantic dreaminess”)
Once Upon a Bookcase – “It’s not just a story, it’s an experience”
The Canary Review – 3 canaries (out of 5) (“It sounds wonderful, and dreamlike, which is the intent, but after a certain point I am jaded enough to have my doubts”)
Sophistikatied Reviews – DNF
The Hiding Spot – “If this magial place was real, I think I’d run away to join the circus.”
Babbling about Books and More – A
The Allure of Books – “I definitely recommend picking up this novel if you’re a fan of fantasy”
For Love and Books – 5 hearts (out of 5)

Extras:
The Night Circus Deleted Chapter
The Night Circus game

White Horse by Alex Adams

This review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher, Emily Bestler Books/Atria.
 

White Horse
Alex Adams

The Premise: Zoe is a woman traveling across Europe.  War and disease have decimated the world, and Zoe has to contend with the few survivors – the immune and those who mutated into something else.  There are dangerous people on the road, but there are also those who haven’t lost their humanity, including Zoe — which is why she rescues a young blind girl and brings her along. As they travel, Zoe remembers the past eighteen months that brought the world to where it is now. For her, all began when she worked as a janitor at Pope pharmaceuticals and came home one day to find that someone had bypassed her home security and left a mysterious jar in her living room.
 
Read an excerpt of White Horse here
 
My Thoughts:  The narrative in White Horse alternates between THEN, when Zoe first finds the malevolent jar in her apartment and the world slowly begins to slide into chaos, and NOW, when Zoe is traversing Europe on foot amongst the rubble and death. Both timelines promise to answer lingering questions as Zoe narrates – what is Zoe’s destination and why, in the NOW, and what was in the jar and what is this new illness in the THEN. These questions do get their answers, but in the meantime, Zoe is the pragmatic hero holding on to her sense of decency during a terrible time.
 

“When I wake, the world is still gone. Only fragments remain. Pieces of places and people who were once whole. On the other side of the window, the landscape is a violent green, the kind you used to see on a flat-screen television in a watering hole disguised as a restaurant. Too green. Dense gray clouds banished the sun weeks ago, forcing her to watch us die through a warped, wet lens.There are stories told among pockets of survivors that rains have come to the Sahara, that green now sprinkles the endless brown, that the British Isles are drowning. Nature is rebuilding with her own set of plans. Man has no say.

It’s a month until my thirty-first birthday. I am eighteen months older than I was when the disease struck. Twelve months older than when war first pummeled the globe. Somewhere in between then and now, geology went crazy and drove the weather to schizophrenia. No surprise when you look at why we were fighting. Nineteen months have passed since I first saw the jar.”

THEN, Zoe mops floors at her job at the drug company and has normal family – her two parents, and her married sister, Jenny. Zoe’s biggest problem was boredom and dealing with her relatives’ annoying matchmaking. Then the jar shows up, and Zoe begins to see therapist Nick Rose and has her friend James (a assistant museum curator) examine it. Acquaintances start to get sick, and seemingly incongruous events begin to take on alarming significance. NOW, Zoe is in Europe, trekking through gutted villages. She is determined to get to a specific destination, and her day-to-day worry is about survival. In both worlds, there are secondary characters that come and go, some making more of an impact than others, but everyone is dealing with the same things Zoe is. Relationships are sketched out quickly – there is the sense that they may be ephemeral once disease strikes, but it’s always clear how Zoe feels about the other characters, and it’s easy to empathize with her feelings.
 
THEN is filled with a sense of foreboding, that something terrible is beginning to happen. NOW is dreary and bleak – the horrors so many that Zoe has become somewhat numb. Both sides of the narrative are peppered with unsettling details. Like a lot of Horror stories, White Horse makes it impossible to feel completely comfortable with the story. Fire alarms along a white hallway are linked to menstrual blood on a sanitary pad, and crumbs flying from a mouth are described in icky detail. As for the gory stuff, we get glimpses of the monsters that were once men along Zoe’s journey, but the story doesn’t focus on them. The things people do to each other and to themselves is just as gruesome – there is a rape and assault within the first fifteen pages, plenty of death (some of it very brutal), and a creepy judgmental character stalks our protagonist through Europe.
 
While there is this pervasive thread of Horror throughout White Horse, Zoe herself manages to keep her moral compass, and she finds other people who do the same. There is a lot of hope in this story, if you can grit your teeth through the rest of it. There is even a love story in there.  Although it’s not delved into as much as I would like, the romance lifts the dark mood of the story somewhat.
 
Overall: White Horse is a post-apocalyptic survival tale focusing on a woman named Zoe before and after the world-wide cataclysmic event. Zoe’s tell-it-like-it-is voice and my curiosity about what happened and what will happen kept me flipping the pages. Although I wouldn’t normally pick a Horror-infused story for myself, there was just enough hope alleviating the darkness to appeal to me. That said, I give you fair warning — this is a very dark and often gruesome tale. It’s difficult for me to predict how much the unsettling bits will affect you.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
Let me know if I missed yours
 
I like the cover of the UK edition of the book:

Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty

Three Wishes
Liane Moriarty

To tell you the truth, I bought this book on the strength of the Moriarty name alone. There have just been so many good things floating about online about the Moriarty sisters that I couldn’t resist putting this in my cart. And since Holly and Chachic both had this book in their TBRs, we decided to do another readalong!

The Premise: At the thirty-third birthday of Australian triplets Lyn, Cat, and Gemma, they have a huge fight at a restaurant. A fight so big that it has the rest of the restaurant reporting on it to their friends the next day. It all started, say the Kettle sisters, when Lyn was having spaghetti with her husband Dan. That was the day, they say that Dan admitted that he had a one night stand. And thus begins the narrative from spaghetti to the big fight, covering the individual and combined lives of the three sisters.

My Thoughts: Well it doesn’t look like we are having the best luck in our readalong choices. So far the books we choose end up being much less cheerful that we expected them to be! Based on the cover (I know, I know, I shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover), with it’s cupcake and color scheme of pink and teal, I was expecting something lighthearted. The blurbs that said things like “joyful, bighearted valentine to sisters” (Patricia Gaffney), and “Quirky and lovable” (Publishers Weekly), and “family comedy” (back blurb)  made me expect more humor than there actually was. Maybe I don’t have the right sense of humor.

The thing is, I wasn’t expecting Dan’s infidelity, and it is the storyline that anchors the whole book. The story really begins with Dan confessing to his wife Cat (page 13 in my edition),  that he had been unfaithful. The narrative does not pull it’s punches, giving us every horrible detail of the confession and Cat’s reaction. Funny? Not so much. Nor is the story of close sisters dealing with the wake of the affair’s aftermath. Cat is going through too much to be seen in a flattering light. She is prickly throughout Three Wishes, and as a reader I felt like my emotions were closely linked with whatever she was going through. Even though it felt like all the sisters have about the same amount of face time in the story, her sisters stories were like satellites to Cat’s black hole.

Lyn, who is identical to Cat, is the list-making, ambitious, by-the-book triplet. On the surface, she has a life many people would want –  a successful business,  nice house, a smart and loving husband, and two daughters (one her own, one she raised as her own), but Lyn’s need for keeping everything under control (including a chart to keep track of her friendships), is taking its toll. She can’t control her daughters’ moods or what her sister is going through. Before long she’s having a panic attack in a parking lot with her toddler in the back seat. Gemma, the triplet from a different egg, is the sensitive but flaky bohemian sister who wants everyone to be happy. She seems the sweetest of the bunch, but the almost defiant way she refuses to be tied down to a man, home, or career has a reason — one she has never told her sisters and has never fully worked through.

With a family going through all that the Kettles go through, you’d think my emotions would be ones of soft sympathy, but most of the book had me angry and depressed. I can’t decide whether I was so caught up in Cat’s story I couldn’t separate my emotions from hers, or the story was depressing me and I was getting mad at it for doing so. It may be a bit of both. The thing is, there was something about each of the sisters that just turned me off. I didn’t love Cat’s anger. It made her character feel hard and closed off even though I think she has reason to be. I didn’t love that she and Lyn were always to take their emotions out on Gemma. Gemma on the other hand, would usually just let her sister’s behavior slide and was often indecisive. There were a lot of little things like that that gnawed at me. These sisters had a lot of issues. The narrative underlines this by both what they’re going through now, and by flashbacks to not-so-happy memories. And I can’t help comparing my relationship with my sister to these sisters, and I feel like this book is missing some vital element in my believing in their sisterly bond. Something is missing from their relationships I can’t put my finger on.

And then there’s the plot. After Cat finds out about the infidelity, a couple of events happen that just twist the knife further. After an incredibly low point in the story, perhaps midway through the book, I threw my hands up and predicted where the plot was going to go. I based my guess on the worst thing that could happen to Cat – the thing that would make her suffer further. At that point I was just feeling emotionally manipulated. My predictions turned out to be correct, but not to the degree I feared. What saved this book was after the first two-thirds of general misery, that the last third was a slow climb out of it. It was like the dawn after a storm. I felt much calmer once I got to the end, but it wasn’t enough to make me feel more than just “it was OK” about the book. The writing is excellent, but for me and my aversion to angsty drama, this is just the wrong book to read.

Overall: There are a lot of people who saw humor in this one, but I just didn’t get it. If a book chronicles the dissolution of a marriage because of infidelity (and more).. I ain’t laughing. I think a big part of that was that I just found the characters difficult to like or connect to. This just wasn’t to my personal taste.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
See Michelle Read – “utter winner”

Such a Girl by Karen Siplin


 

Such a Girl
Karen Siplin

As a lover of Jane Austen retellings, I HAD to read this book when I heard that it was a retelling of Persuasion. Unfortunately I was disappointed in this one, and I think the big issue I had has to do with my personal aversion to angst in the books I read.
 
The Premise: Kendall Stark is a phone operator in a well-known New York City hotel. Nine years ago, she left the love of her life, Jack Sullivan, because her college friends didn’t think he was going anywhere. Now he’s a successful owner of a brewery who is visiting Kendall’s hotel, and Kendall is stuck in a lowly job and in an unfulfilling relationship with a married man.
 
My thoughts: When I began Such A Girl, expected it to be a light story based on the other modern-day Austen retellings I’ve read, but this story isn’t quite that. It begins with Kendall taking a smoke break and seeing her ex, Jack Sullivan crossing the street towards her. There is an awkward exchange as Kendall realizes that while Jack has done well for himself as the owner of a brewery, she’s still stuck where she is. In the hotel hierarchy, a job as a phone operator is low on the totem pole, and from Kendall’s descriptions of it, it’s a job with backstabbing co-workers, a micromanaging boss, and lots of angry guests screaming in your ear.
 
Kendall’s life of listening in on the hotel guests, hating her job, and her relationship with a man who was married was a big downer. Instead of amusing anecdotes from working at the hotel there is nothing but negative stories about the place.  I hoped that the tone would change as the story progressed, especially when Jack reenters her life, but this was not so. Instead Jack stays at Kendall’s hotel and begins to pay visits to her friend’s dinner parties, as a way of showing off his success. As a result there are arguments between the two (usually when Jack puts his foot in his mouth), that are really uncomfortable to read. Kendall seemed to divide people into those who are like her — living paycheck to paycheck but not looking to do more, and people who do have money, like the guests in her hotel. Jack did not help. I found Jack’s behavior passive aggressive, and Kendall’s reaction defensive. After these fights (which were frankly not sexy at all), I could believe that these two dated nine years ago, but that there was anything still there was harder to buy. Either way, neither Jack nor Kendall acted particularly likable and I had a hard time buying any chemistry between their characters.
 
At this point I figured out that: this is a really loose retelling of Persuasion. The only thing it takes from it is the story of two lovers who are separated and reunite years later, but all the side plots and side characters from that story are not here. Instead of the Elliot family, Kendall has her friends, Amy, Nick, and Gary, who didn’t think Jack’s antisocial and unambitious personality was right for Kendall, who was a sunny girl with goals in college (something she is not now). The rest of it isn’t there. Instead it’s replaced by numerous stories of hotel guests treating employees badly and conflicts with management, or Kendall and Jack’s repetitive fights that go no where.
 
Outside of Kendall’s life at the hotel and dealing with Jack’s return, are her home and love lives, and neither are tranquil. Her home is an apartment she and Gary rent, but a disruptive neighbor moves into the apartment upstairs making Kendall’s life even more miserable. I think I was supposed to side with Kendall, but frankly, I thought she was just as much in the wrong as her neighbor. Their conflicts just made me feel secondary rage. And as for her romantic relationships, Kendall has a casual relationship with Sage, a married man that she doesn’t love. Basically there was no where in Kendall’s life where she wasn’t unhappy or doing something self-destructive.  Things ultimately work out for her at the end of this story, but the ride was not easy.
 
Overall: This is a very readable story but at the same time it is very real.  I think it is best not to approach Such a Girl expecting a light-hearted retelling of Persuasion, because that’s not what this is. I really wanted to like this one because of the promise of a retelling, but every facet of Kendall’s life felt dreary to me.  I couldn’t connect to it.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Stories for Nighttime and Some For the Day by Ben Loory

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day came to me from the publisher for the purpose of reviewing it. Although I love the cover (the sea, the sky, a tentacle, and a spaceship!) this is a book that I wouldn’t have found on my own. So chalk it up as one of the nice things about book blogging – getting to read good books outside your usual purview.

Read one of the stories, “The Girl In the Storm” here

Now, how do I describe this book? The one sentence summary is that this is a set of weird little stories. Very short, simple stories that feel like someone is relating a dream to you. Nameless and indistinct figures are the central characters. There was “a man”, “a woman”, “a moose”, “a tree”, “a boy”, or “a girl”, and then this very strange thing happens to them. Maybe they encounter an alien, or an ominous hat starts following them. Maybe they find a fish in their teapot. The story continues from there, and you keep reading because you have no idea how the story is going to end, and with 40 stories in 210 pages, each story is only a few pages long. And you have to know. Then you begin the next story. It’s the literary equivalent of eating potato chips. Before long, you’ve eaten the whole bag.

This book grew out of a horror writing class, but I didn’t find any of the stories very frightening, there’s just the dread of the unknown about some of them. They end in a way that suggests something bad has just happened without explicitly telling the reader what that was. To tell you the truth, most of my favorites had this sort of end. My other favorites were the stories that were just about living life – the stories in which someone or something decides to see the world, and what happens when they do, or the stories that had characters finding a friend or a love. I liked the sweet endings and the uncertain endings, although there were of course the endings that were neither.

Most of the stories were good, but every so often I hit one that fell flat. Usually these were the ones where I just didn’t get their point and as a result they became forgettable. I feel like either I’ve failed as a reader for not appreciating the meaning in the story, or the story has failed to actually convey a meaning. I can’t decide which.

Overall: I’d say I liked this one and it is a compelling read, but I also felt a little bit like these stories rely on a sort of Quirky-Kooky formula. It would have been nice to have stories in the mix that did not rely on this. I’d recommend it to people who have an appreciation for the offbeat.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers – 8 (Excellent, and a notable read of 2011)

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians
Lev Grossman
This is a book that has been on my radar for a couple of years. Actually, ever since I noticed a friend reading it. I’ve known this friend for over 15 years, so I trust his opinion and he was pretty enthusiastic about The Magicians. When Penguin contacted me about possibly reading The Magicians and The Magician King, I checked back with that friend, who was just as enthusiastic and had pre-ordered the second book.  That was good enough for me, and off I went to email Penguin with a “yes, please”.
 
The Premise: Quentin Coldwater is a mopey but brilliant seventeen year old, preparing to enter some Ivy League school and already a little depressed by how predictable his prosperous life is going to be. To escape, he obsesses over a series of children’s books, Fillory and Further, about five British children who cross over to a magical world called Fillory.  Then one day, Quentin crosses over himself – but not to Fillory. Instead he is on the grounds of Brakebills College of Magical Pedagogy, somewhere in upstate New York. So begins Quentin’s new life – one in which magic exists.
 
Read an excerpt of The Magicians here
 
My Thoughts: Quentin is a teen-aged “ridiculously brilliant” overachiever with a melancholy air, who lives in Brooklyn with his parents. His life seems set until an incident at a college interview derails him from his expected path and sends him wandering into the grounds of a school for magic, where Quentin is one of twenty students selected for the new freshman class. Suddenly, delightfully, everything Quentin knew has been turned on its head. Magic is real, but it’s also extremely difficult to do – requiring not only talent but the right circumstances and tedious repetitive study. But obsessive Quentin, a person who enjoys practicing a thing until he has a perfect grasp of it, and who rereads his favorite series of books, Fillory and Further every chance he gets, it is the perfect fit. So too are the other students, just as smart as Quentin and just as  dissatisfied, if not more, by the world they inhabit. Magic seems like just the right thing for these kids. Quentin finds himself happy for the first time in his life, and easily leaves his parents and old friends behind to spend as much time as Brakebills as possible.
 
The first 200 pages are a sugar high of the strange and unexpected, taking us through a series of vignettes that highlight the years at Brakebills. It was a lot of fun living vicariously through Quentin’s experiences – from the exam that he passes to get into school to the semester in fourth year that involves a never-talked-about rite of passage. This went by at a happy reading clip, but there are glimpses of a dark underbelly throughout the first pages, like a disturbing death at the school and ominous comments about whether humans were ever supposed to know magic.  Then I hit the midway point of the book, which is the start of Book II – after graduation from Brakebills. The sense of wonder and amusement that Quentin had becoming acquainted with Brakebills seems sucked away by the idea of trying to find a goal in life, and Quentin returns to that aimless unhappy state again. He and his friends have it all – youth, endless money, magic, and no responsibilities, but for the most part they act like over-privileged, miserable, jackasses. I felt a cold lump of disappointment in the characters, and I wasn’t sure I could continue. And I remembered that my friend’s favorite Harry Potter was my least favorite, because of the angst (Order of the Phoenix by the way). But a new distraction appears – the existence of Fillory and the possibility of actually getting to it.  The second half of the book brings the story back up from its downward trajectory, but with the reader and Quentin both wiser about the flaws in his character and the real danger of magic.
 
Throughout the book, the writing is absorbing. Even when things were dismal, they were dismal because the story had me so involved in the characters. And the story has the habit of taking unexpected little detours along the way to telling the whole story that I was always entertained. Many of these turned out to be important later on, but a lot of it seemed like the strange detail that makes up the world of magic. And what’s also fun about it is how much of the story references other books. Since this is a story in which a unhappy boy stumbles into a world that coexists with ours, but has real magic, Harry Potter is the first place the mind goes, which probably explains the “Harry Potter with college students” one-line summary, but that’s the most obvious comparision.  I saw more allusions to the Narnia series than Harry Potter, but it seems to nod at a lot of classic children’s fantasy books. Besides Narnia, I thought I saw whiffs of Alice In Wonderland, The Once And Future King, and Peter Pan, and I’m sure, many more. But this is not really a children’s book – it takes the warm memories of childhood that those books represent and then wipes away the innocence.
 
The Magicians is marketed under “fiction” but I think it crosses genre boundaries. It could be considered contemporary or urban fantasy, but with a literary, non-escapist feel. Sometimes I felt like it could be a candidate for the Horror shelves. I wouldn’t call it young adult (although Quentin is seventeen when the story begins), or New Adult Literature (although it spans Quentin’s years at college).  The portrayal of human nature in this tale makes it feel more “adult”.
 
Overall: This is a tough one. I’ve been telling everyone my personal reaction, which was: blown away by the beginning, dismayed by the middle, and a mixture of those two by the end, but I think The Magicians is a book where I’d find it hard to call who is going to like it and who won’t. I think most people will find this book really well-written and unique, and if you are a reader who enjoyed books where a child protagonist discovered real magic when you were growing up, you’ll appreciate all the allusions The Magicians makes to those stories. But! Along with the sense of wonder and amusement, there is also a very dark undertow, and this is not a comforting read.
 
P.S. Since Brakebills is mentioned as being on the Hudson, somewhere in the Poughkeepsie-West Point area (an area I know), I’ve been obsessing over its exact (theoretical) location this past week.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
bogormen – 4/5
Fantasy Cafe – 8/10
Stefan Raets for Tor.com – positive
fashion_piranha – 3.5 out of 5 stars
temporaryworlds – 3 stars (out of 5)
 
Interesting Links:
A Brief Guide to the Hidden Allusions in The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen

The Sugar Queen
Sarah Addison Allen

[Yup, quiet yet again, and I fear end of June is the light at the end of the tunnel, but I'm trying to break the sad hiatus over here ]

I remember seeing positive reviews of Sarah Addison Allen’s books, but what kept me away was knowing that they had a bit of magical realism in them. This is my confession – high school has ruined magical realism for me. It made me hate magical realism. I have avoided it for a very long time since, but because the cruise library had a very small section, The Sugar Queen was the only book I was remotely interested in, so I picked it up on a whim. It was fortunate that limited choices led me to this one, because I ended up really liking it despite my prejudice.

The Premise: Josey Cirrini is trying to resign herself to a life of obedience to her mother Margaret. They are one of the richest families in Bald Slope, North Carolina, thanks to the late Marco Cirrini, who made his fortune in turning a nowhere town into a popular ski destination. Josey spends her days trying to make her mother happy, while secretly hoarding a cache of candy, romance novels and travel magazines in her closet. Then one night, Josey discovers local waitress Della Lee Baker hiding in her closet too, and Della refuses to leave without fixing up Josey’s life. Soon Josey finds herself befriending cafe owner Chloe Finley, who has problems of her own – she just kicked out her boyfriend Jake Yardley after discovering that he cheated on her. Slowly but surely Josey and Chloe’s lives intersect and change, causing a ripple effect on those around them.

Read an excerpt of Chapter 1 of The Sugar Queen here

My Thoughts: It’s hard to come up with a premise for this book that doesn’t sound like it has some very plot points that go off in seemingly non-related tangents. This story begins without any preamble and drops us into an odd situation – Josey finding Della Lee hiding in her closet. If you were to make any assumptions of where this is going you’d likely be wrong, but the unpredictability of the narrative is part of the charm of this novel, along with it’s infusion of odd magics.

Let’s start with Josey, because the story begins with her. Her life is regimented by her mother’s schedule and not much else. She’s constantly told what colors to wear (not red!), what to do and how much trouble she was as a child. It’s a dreary existence, despite it’s well-to-do trappings, and she could be a meek, pitiful daughter because of it, but Josey has resilience. She has her pocket of escapes and happiness – her candy and reads, her love of winter, and her secret crush on mailman Adam. Then Della Lee’s interference pushes Josey out of her rut. She tells Josey to wear a bit of makeup and that she does look good in red, that she should leave Bald Slope and see the places she dreams about, and she nags Josey to go to the courthouse to buy a grilled cheese sandwich. This leads Josey to cafe owner and excellent sandwich-maker, Chloe. It’s a hard time for Chloe too, because she just kicked out her boyfriend, but she’s still happy to befriend Josey. In fact, their friendship seems to come as easily as breathing, and it’s just the thing for both of them.

The narrative flows easily, albeit in a route that’s difficult to foretell. We spend some time with Chloe, discovering the back story of her current problems, and even spend some time with Margaret, Josey’s mother and discover what she’s hidden behind the aging beauty’s strict adherence to propriety. The women are the central characters here, but we also spend a few moments peeking into the minds of their respective paramours, Jake and Adam, both whom are caught by surprise from the women they took for granted.

“Why hadn’t he seen it before? Three years. Why hadn’ he known she was in love with him? “Are you sure you don’t want to keep this scarf?” he called after her.
“No.”
“No, you don’t want to keep it? Or no, you’re not sure?”
She looked over her shoulder at him and smiled slightly. His breath caught.
He felt a strange stirring, something he hadn’t felt in a very long time. It felt a little like when a limb falls asleep but then slowly surely, there’s a tingling, an almost uncomfortable sensation… of waking up.

Throughout it all, wondrous things happen. Della Lee is part of this magic, like the way books suddenly appear when Chloe needs them, the way water boils when Jake and Chloe get close, the way Josey came feel that Adam is nearing her house. It’s a rather quirky and charming species of magical realism; not the kind I’m used to, which is a good thing, and this charm permeates the rest of the book.

Overall: I liked it, and maybe I’m a bit surprised I did but it charmed away my misgivings about reading a book with magic realism in it. I find it hard to describe – simple, yet clever, slice-of-life, yet magical, twisty, yet genuine. I found it landed on the feel-good side, so I think I’ll be returning to Sarah Addison Allen when I’m looking for a nice read that will leave me with a small smile on my face.

Buy:  Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Angieville – positive
Stephanie’s Written Word – positive
Good Books and Good Wine – positive
Books and Other Thoughts – positive
Chachic’s Book Nook – positive

Other links:
Extras @ Sarah Addison Allen’s website