Missing the Hype Around Two Buzzy Books

Sometimes, the blogosphere goes crazy over a book, and you read it and fall in love. But sometimes a book that garners tons of praise leaves you feeling underwhelmed. The second thing happened to me with two books in recent months.

Tender | The Martian

Tender by Belinda McKeon

(Goodreads)

Set in 1990s Dublin, Tender is told from the point of view of Catherine, a sheltered girl leaving home for the first time to attend university in the big city. She quickly develops an intense friendship with James, a charismatic photographer struggling with what it means to be gay in a culture that doesn’t accept open homosexuality. It’s a compelling psychological novel, and I loved how it pulled me into Catherine’s growing obsession — right up until the end. Just when the story reaches peak intensity, McKeon pulls away for an ending that provides a tidy resolution without showing readers how the characters got from point A to point B. I would have liked to see more of that character development on the page, and the last chapter felt like a let-down after the rest of the book’s dark power.

The Martian by Andy Weir

(Goodreads)

Six days into the first manned mission to Mars, a dust storm forces the crew to evacuate. On their way to the Mars Ascent Vehicle, debris strikes Mark Watney, leading his crew to believe him dead and to leave the planet without him. But Mark, the mission’s botanist, is still alive, and now he must find away to survive on a planet that is trying to kill him. With immense patience, extreme cunning, and a healthy does of gallows humor, he solves problem after problem. But will it be enough to get him home? Honestly, I liked The Martian better as a movie. This novel reminded me why plot-driven novels aren’t typically my jam; for most of the book, I was just wondering how many more problems Mark would have to solve before NASA inevitably rescued him. Additionally, as a visual learner, I had trouble following some of Watney’s engineering fixes; I was able to understand them more easily on the screen than on the page. This wasn’t a bad book; it just wasn’t for me.

Book Review: The First Book of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz

Safely secluded from the Outside world by a massive stone wall, Calamity Leek and her 12 sisters spend their days tending roses in the Garden, embroidering petal-stuffed cushions, and learning the skills they will use when they are old enough to go to war against the demonmales. In the place of textbooks, their dedicated, deformed caregiver Aunty instructs them from her multi-volume Appendix, a document made up of a Showreel; beauty rituals; and bizarre myths about the sisters’ purpose, life Outside, and the nature of the world. (Those cushions they sew? They’ll be used to cover the sky lid to protect the girls from the damaging heat of the Sun. And why are the cushions stuffed with petals? To perfume the sky so they won’t be poisoned by His polluting farts, naturally.) But when one sister seeks out the truth about what lies beyond the Wall, she sows the seeds of doubt that will topple their orderly lives.

I’ve been slumping pretty hard for the last six months, unable to muster much enthusiasm for the books on my shelf. I’ve been trying to #readmyowndamnbooks, but when I came across this novel in my work at the library, it seemed like just the right amount of weirdness to capture and keep my attention. It didn’t let me down! The First Book of Calamity Leek alternately made me laugh and gave me chills. I loved the way Lichtarowicz slowly, subtly reveals details in the observations of a girl who has no idea of the significance of what she’s reporting.

Delightfully strange and deeply unsettling, The First Book of Calamity Leek calls into question the stories we tell ourselves — and our stubborn adherence to these stories even as their holes are revealed. It’s a book that combines The Handmaid’s Tale‘s twisted version of female safety with The Beautiful Bureaucrat‘s inventive plays on language to fantastic effect. Like Our Endless Numbered Days, it asks more questions than it answers, making it a great book club pick.

Notable Quotes

“On the television, the demonmale was stepping up to seal the deal good and proper with poor Cinderella, or, how they say it so females should know to set off running, if they haven’t already started, Forever and ever OUR MEN. ” p 79-80

“Course, them demonmales shook their beards and laughed when Annie told them — which she was a total loonhead to do — about our Appendix. One of them said he had his own book with different stories in it about how everything started. The other one said the plain truth was the Sun was just a ball of fire, and we all grew out of fish, and hadn’t Annie heard that?” p  267

Four Favorite Fall Releases

Although I’ve stepped back from reviewing new releases in the last few months, the fall books I have managed to read so far have been excellent! Here’s a quick look at four of my favorites:

Fortune Smiles by Adam JohnsonFortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

Publisher: Random House
Release Date: August 18, 2015
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher

Fresh off the heels of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Orphan Master’s Son, Anthony Johnson is back with an excellent short story collection. In “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” a former warden of an East German Stasi prison denies the crimes of his past and tries to convince tourists that no wrong-doing was committed. In “Dark Meadow,” a pedophile grapples with his desires while using his computer skills to fight child pornography. Mixing humor with darkness and despair, Fortune Smiles is sometimes deeply uncomfortable to read but compelling nonetheless.

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Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill CleggDid You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

Publisher: Gallery/Scout Books
Release Date: September 8, 2015
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher

The night before her daughter’s wedding, June Reid loses everyone she cares about in a horrific gas explosion. Devastated, she sets off across the country to heal and start anew. Although this story alone would make for a beautiful, gut-wrenching book, Did You Ever Have a Family isn’t just a portrayal of a woman dealing with tragedy; using a rotating cast of memorable characters, Clegg paints a portrait of a small Connecticut town with it’s tangled relationships, unique social dynamics, and racial tensions. One of my favorite books of the year, this novel is heartbreaking, poignant, and ultimately uplifting.

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Fates and Furies by Lauren GroffFates and Furies by Lauren Groff 

Publisher: Riverhead Books
Release Date: September 15, 2015
Pages: 392
Source: Publisher

One of the biggest books of fall, Fates & Furies is a dazzling portrait of a marriage. When the novel opens, Lotto and Mathilde are newly married and passionately in love — but as the decades pass, the cracks in their relationship, the secrets and resentments roiling beneath the surface, are revealed. Although the first half of the novel, told from Lotto’s perspective, is less than spectacular, the second half, presenting Mathilde’s point of view, blows it out of the water. Wildly inventive and poetically written, Groff’s newest novel takes on a legendary feel with its vibrant characters, unique format, and and mythological allusions.

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Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye WatkinsGold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

Publisher: Riverhead Books
Release Date: September 29, 2015
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher

In a near-future California devastated by drought, Luz and Ray squat in an abandoned mansion, avoiding evacuation to a camp for as long as possible. Living on love and rationed cola, the couple are content eking out a meager living until they cross paths with a baby with strange blue-gray eyes and translucent skin. To give the child a better life, they set out across the desert in search of greener pastures. Emily St. John Mandel‘s post-apocalyptic vision meets Karen Russell‘s sparkling sentences to make Gold Fame Citrus a stunning work of fiction. Although the ending doesn’t quite hit the right note, this is a gripping novel with heart-stopping twists and a hearty dose of environmentalism. It’s totally bonkers and crazy good.

What’s the best new book you’ve read this fall?

Book Review: Speak by Louisa Hall

Speak, Louisa Hall’s richly imagined and beautifully written sophomore novel, tells the story of the rise and fall of artificial intelligence through six intertwined narratives that span centuries.

  • In 1663, thirteen-year-old Mary Bradford writes a diary about her sea crossing from England to America with her Puritan family, her trusty dog, and her unwanted new husband.
  • Between 1928 and 1954, renowned mathematician Alan Turing writes letters to the mother of his deceased best friend.
  • Spanning from 1968 to 1988, correspondence between Karl and Ruth Dettman reveal the growing distance between the couple, as Karl, a Jewish refugee, pulls away from the talking computer he created and Ruth demands the computer be given memory.
  • In 2040, Stephen R. Chinn writes his memoir in prison while doing time for creating intelligent babybots that caused children to forsake relationships with other human children.
  • A 2035 Supreme Court document presents the online chat transcript of a conversation between Gaby, a young girl physically paralyzed by the loss of her babybot, and MARY3, a chatbot that uses a complex algorithm to participate in meaningful conversations.
  • And in the back of a vehicle full of confiscated robots classified as excessively lifelike and marked for disposal, one robot muses upon its destiny and the lives stored in its memory.

Each of these characters is searching for connection, and their stories call to mind themes of memory, voice, story-telling, and what it means to be human. Like David Mitchell’s Cloud AtlasSpeak weaves a universal story through characters whose lives are intricately connected despite living centuries and continents apart. Each character has a distinct voice, and I loved that Hall let each of her characters use different formats to tell their stories.

“It was then that I dreamed of the seduction equation. I dreamed of a pattern, reaching backward in time, producing a new term for the present. I saw the cycle that links us to the terms that came before we were born: our parents, our grandparents, the first settlers who came to our shores. We’re linked to histories we can’t ever know, forgotten stories that form our most intimate substance… I saw that links aren’t actually chains, but rather widening spirals, delicate as the ripples that build into waves, the shoots that grow into branches on the most magnificent trees. I knew then that I was a branch, no less connected than anyone else. I encountered the dreamers I came from, and understood that I was the link between them and the world as it would become in my lifetime.”

I haven’t seen much buzz about this book, and that is a huge shame! Speak blew me away with its eloquent writing, connected narratives (each of which are compelling in their own right), and eloquent musings about whether technology makes us more or less human. This is definitely going to be a contender for my list of favorite books at the end of the year. I would high recommend it to fans of Cloud Atlass connected narratives, Station Eleven‘s portrayal of a post-apocalyptic world, and Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles‘s post-modern questions about the Singularity.

This post contains affiliate links you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

Mini Reviews: Saint Mazie and Land Where I Flee

Something must be in the air, because I’ve been in a major reviewing slump for the last month. I’ll read a book, have many thoughts about it, and then move on to something else, unable to find the motivation to sit down and write. Today, I’m going to try to get back into the groove, little by little, starting with mini reviews of two books that came out this week: Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg and Land Where I Flee by Prajwal Parajuly.

Book Review: Saint Mazie by Jami AttenbergSaint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

Plucked from an abusive household by her married older sister, Mazie Phillips grows up under the roof of a man who always has plenty of money — even if he can’t reveal how he obtained it. One thing that is for sure, though, is that he owns the Venice, a movie theater in the Bowery neighborhood of New York City. When Mazie is old enough to work, she is sent to work the ticket booth, where she spends her days people-watching and chatting with the colorful characters who pass by her window. But spending her days trapped in a tiny cage isn’t enough; she longs for a big life, and she spends her nights galavanting through Jazz Age New York with a number of men, with one of whom she forms a life-long entanglement.

But the revelry can’t last forever, and when the Great Depression hits, Mazie dedicates herself to helping those who have lost everything, opening the doors of the Venice to people who can’t pay and feeding the homeless whatever she can. Based on the life of a real woman, this novel tells the compelling story of Saint Mazie, Queen of the Bowery. Big-hearted and full of moxie, she is an easy character to fall in love with, and her story, with all of its heartbreak, yearning, and kindness is going to stick with me for quite a while.

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Book Review: Land Where I Flee by Prajwal ParajulyLand Where I Flee by Prajwal Parajuly

To celebrate Chitralekha’s landmark 84th birthday, her three Westernized grandchildren travel to Gangtok to be reunited for the first time in decades. Flying in from New York is Agastaya, a successful oncologist dreading the inquiries into why he isn’t married — and terrified that people will find out the real reason. Manasa is coming from London, where despite living a life of wealth, she is the miserable caretaker of her wheelchair-bound father-in-law. And Bhagwati, fearful of her reception nearly twenty years after eloping with a man from a much lower caste, is joining them from Colorado. Adding to this cast of characters are Chitralekha’s servant Prasanti (a female eunuch or “hijra”) and two unexpected guests who turn the party upside down.

I really loved the cultural perspective of this book; it is set in a Indian town nestled between the borders of Nepal and Bhutan, and it deals with everything from caste and social status, to gender and sexuality, to national identity and refugee life. Prasanti’s story, in particular, sent me down a Wikipedia black hole — and I love it when a book sparks that kind of curiosity. I also can’t resist a good dysfunctional family reunion novel, and this family has long-simmering grudges and misconceptions out the wazoo. However, I had a hard time really caring about or feeling interested in most of the characters, and the lack of development made Land Where I Flee fall a bit flat.