Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Confessions of a Hater, by Caprice Crane

Caprice Crane, Confessions of a Hater. New York: Feiwel and Friends (an imprint of Macmillan), 2013. 358 pages. ISBN 9781250008466.

As much as I like YA publishing, I tend to stick to fantasy and science fiction, so this book was a little outside my usual reading patterns. It's about a young girl, Hailey, who finds her older sister's diary, and begins to follow its rules for how to be popular. Hailey has just moved to Hollywood from New York, so she can start fresh with a whole new set of friends. As she builds her influence, she begins to realize that she has become the type of person that she always resented, the popular girl who bullies others. After she pulls a prank that went too far, she has to find a way to make it up to everyone who cares about her. Complicating everything is the undercurrent that her parents are not happy and there's a rift developing between them.

I enjoyed reading Confessions of a Hater; it's a fast read and I was eager to see how it all turned out, although it was a little predictable.

For more reviews, check out

Monday, November 25, 2013

On Reading Tom Wolfe

Recently I was reading an article that mentioned something that Tom Wolfe wrote and published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1989. Wolfe’s article was about the decline of realistic novels in 20th century American fiction, and was written soon after he had published his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. Since I’m a big fan of realistic fiction, I looked up the article and read it. It’s called “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” and in it he recounts how he was planning to write a novel set in New York City for many years; this would be a novel in which the city itself is a major character. He wrote about how it’s difficult to come up with imaginary characters or events when there are such outlandish characters and events in the news every day, but claims that we should still try. I recommend this article to anyone who’s interested in trends in contemporary fiction.

I first read Tom Wolfe when I was in college. I was lucky enough to make some friends who had read a lot of what was popular among college students in the early 1980s. I particularly remember one conversation that took place at a party. A friend of a friend was there; I remember what he looked like, but can’t remember his name at all. He recommended that I read Carlos Castenada’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I spent the next few years reading these and other books by the same authors. I read Wolfe’s Radical Chic, and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, and much later, Bonfire of the Vanities. I liked his non-fiction a lot, and while I enjoyed reading Bonfire, I did think that he went on for too long in many places; he could have condensed the book somewhat, without losing anything. I bought A Man in Full, but I never read it; I think the size has put me off. One of these years I’m going to get to it!

I’ve seen Tom Wolfe speak in public a couple of times. I attended a reading and lecture at the Three Rivers Lecture Series in Pittsburgh back in the 1990s. This may be how I ended up with the copy of A Man in Full. I also attended a presentation by him that was hosted by Book Expo American around the time that he came out with I am Charlotte Simmons. That appealed to me a bit less, and I do not have that book. There was something a bit off-putting about a man his age who was so interested in portraying the life of college students and the hook up culture they enjoy… Nevertheless, he’s an amazing writer!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Swamplandia, by Karen Russell

Karen Russell, Swamplandia. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. 316 pages. ISBN 9780307263995.

I know I'm two years behind everyone else who read and loved Swamplandia when it was first published. Every time I read a review of it I was sure that I had it at home. I never found it, and I guess it seemed so familiar because it was reviewed frequently and positively, and seemed to make it on a lot of lists for best books of the year. It was listed in the New York Times 10 best books of 2011 list, and was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (sadly, none of the books won that year).

Swamplandia is about a family in difficult financial straits after their mother dies; she is their amusement park's star attraction. Their father, Chief Bigtree, takes off for the mainland, and the oldest brother, Kiwi, leaves in an attempt to earn money at another amusement park in order to save his own from financial ruin. This leaves the two daughters, Ossie and Ava, who are 16 and 13, respectively, to fend for themselves and to take care of the park's dozens of alligators. Ossie is suffering from romantic delusions, and runs away to get married to an imaginary lover. Ava sets off to find and rescue Ossie, pairing up with the Bird Man who promises to help her. The tension increases as Ava begins to realize that she may have made a mistake by trusting a stranger.

I found this book to be highly imaginative and very readable. I appreciated how the author delved into the characters of all three children, especially Kiwi and Ava. Kiwi's a scholar who has read only outdated books that he's found on an abandoned library boat. He learns how to navigate the real world when he goes off to earn his keep. Ava is a trusting and naïve young girl who is wise beyond her years. I highly recommend this novel.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Pocketful of Poems: Vintage Verse, volume 1

David Madden (ed.), A Pocketful of Poems: Vintage Verse, Volume 1. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006. 221 pages. ISBN 1413015581.

The Pocketful series was designed to provide students with low-cost textbook options. They are much smaller than many anthologies, yet contain a significant amount of material. These books are intended to be used as the sole textbook for a course, but could also be combined with other books.

I received this copy at Book Expo America many years ago, and have just read it a month or so ago. I'm not an expert by any means on poetry; I like reading it, but I find that poetry is fun and interesting to read at the time, but most of it doesn't stick with me for long. I suppose it's meant to be read over and over, but there are too many other things I want to read, so I'm reluctant to read the same thing over again.

There were many poems in this book with which I was already familiar, but also many that were new to me (not surprising since I don't read poetry very often). Selections ranged from the 16th century to the present.

These books are well-designed; the cover is a glossy black, and the paper is good quality and  substantial, unlike the paper in many denser anthologies. It should hold up long after the semester's over! I would recommend this book and series to anyone who enjoys literature or poetry.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Rustication, by Charles Palliser

Charles Palliser, Rustication. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013. 323 pages. ISBN 9780393088724.

I found this book to be compulsively readable. The main character, Richard, has been kicked out of Cambridge for opium use and debts. He arrives home for the Christmas holidays to find his family in difficult circumstances due to a scandal surrounding his father's dismissal from his life's work and his subsequent death. Richard behaves erratically, and draws suspicions upon himself when anonymous letters begin to appear and violent crimes against animals are discovered.

The book is written in the form of a journal, so the reader is left wondering throughout whether Richard is responsible for these crimes. In the meantime, Richard is ostensibly trying to find the culprit, his suspicions falling on one neighbor after another. The reader will be left guessing until the end, and even then, one wonders about the conclusion.

This is an excellent mystery; I recommend it to anyone who likes atmospheric, gothic-style mysteries.

Quiet Dell, by Jayne Anne Phillips

Jayne Anne Phillips, Quiet Dell. New York: Scribner, 2013. 456 pages. ISBN 9781439172537.

I really enjoyed this historical mystery, set in Chicago and West Virginia in 1931. It tells the story of a Chicago widow who is in dire financial straits. To secure a future for herself and her three children, she puts an ad in a matchmaking publication, begins a correspondence with a man, and makes plans to marry him and move with him to West Virginia. It's clear from the beginning of the book that this doesn't turn out well for her or her children, so this isn't a spoiler. The story is told from multiple perspectives, including her children, her boarder, her banker, and the reporter who investigates the story and learns the truth.

Quiet Dell is wonderfully written and thoroughly researched; it is based on a true story, although the author creates some of the characters as a way to tell the story. The only part of the book that I didn't like as well were the dream sequences and the scenes in which one of the dead children seems to be watching the action. But that's a small detail, and it doesn't take away from the power of the narrative.

Ms. Phillips has published six previous novels, although this is the first book of hers that I've read. I recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction, mysteries, and true crime. It's being heavily promoted and will likely turn out to be a best seller.

The Ha-Ha, by Dave King

Dave King, The Ha-Ha. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2005. 340 pages. ISBN 0316156108.

I remember reading book reviews of The Ha-Ha when it first came out, but I'm sorry to say that I didn't read the book until just a few months ago. When I moved into this house in December, I took the opportunity to reorganize my fiction collection and put everything in order by the author's last name. That's how I discovered that I had two copies of The Ha-Ha, in two different editions, both purchased at the AAUW annual used book sale in State College, probably in different years. I gave one copy to my sister Denise, who is a total reading fanatic, and she read it right away and really liked it, so I read it soon after.

The Ha-Ha is about a man (Howard) who lost the ability to communicate after an injury to his brain during the Vietnam war. Twenty or more years later, he has a quiet life, living in the home that he inherited from his parents, and renting rooms out to several acquaintances. Everything changes when he is asked by a former love interest to take care of her son while she goes into drug rehab for several weeks. Those few weeks turns into several months during which Howard comes to care for the boy and learns that there are good reasons to want to communicate. He has shut people out for decades, but recognizes that he has feelings that must be acknowledged. He struggles with his own demons, including alcohol and drugs, and hits bottom before his friends can help him up.

This book is funny and sad; it's impossible to put down and makes the reader root for Howard, Ryan, and the other characters. The only quibble I have with the book is that when Howard hits bottom, he stays there for too long! I got a little impatient with the book at that point. But that is a small detail, and I would recommend this book to anyone.

For those who might be interested in the AAUW book sale, it's one of the largest used book sales in the country. More information about it can be found at this web site:

Next year's sale is going to be May 10 through 13, 2014. Books are half price on the third day and go for $5 a bag on the last day.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Visitation Street, by Ivy Pochoda

Ivy Pochoda, Visitation Street. New York: Ecco (an imprint of HarperCollins), 2013. 304 pages. ISBN 9780062249890.

Visitation Street is the first book published under Dennis Lehane's purview at HarperCollins. As a big fan of Mr. Lehane, I was interested to see what kind of book he selected for his line. I am happy to say that I wasn't disappointed with this book. It tells a story that weaves the actions of a number of characters together. Set in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, Visitation Street tells us about the events that lead up to and follow the mysterious disappearance of a young girl named June. An immigrant shop owner, an alcoholic musician, and a schoolgirl and other local characters provide much of the action. Everyone wants to know what happened to June and they try various ways to learn more about her fate, which is revealed in the final pages.

Visitation Street is Ms. Pochoda's second novel (after The Art of Disappearing), and it is well written and engaging. Readers will have a hard time putting this book down. I'll be looking forward to more books by Ms. Pochoda, and more books discovered and brought to us by Dennis Lehane.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2103. 321 pages. ISBN 9780316243919.

Burial Rites was the inaugural book of my book club, and it turned out to be popular among all three of us. It's a historical novel, set in Iceland but written by an author from Australia. I heard about this book at Book Expo America, New York, in May 2013. The author spent part of her college years in Iceland and heard the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. The story remained with her for years until she decided to write a novel about Agnes' situation.

Because there were no prisons in Iceland, people who were accused and convicted of committing crimes were placed in households until their sentencing. This happened to Agnes, who was placed in a farmstead for several months prior to her execution. While communications between officials about her sentencing plays out, Agnes becomes more integrated into the life of the household. Readers are able to see Agnes' impact and influence on others in the home as well as the priest who is assigned to hear her confession. Although this is a work of fiction, it is bolstered by actual documents and letters associated with the case. These short interludes provide a chilling touch of reality to the reader who is treated to instructions for how the axe that will be used in her execution should be made, and how much will be allotted to pay for it.

This is a very strong first novel; I recommend it for anyone who likes historical novels.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

Liane Moriarty, The Husband's Secret. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2013. 396 pages. ISBN 9780399159343.

This book will draw you right in as it did me. First I had to know what the secret was, and then I had to know what the wife was going to do about it. The Husband's Secret is really the story of three women whose lives intersect at a crucial point. Cecilia learns something about her husband that she would never have imagined, Tess finds out that her husband is in love with her cousin, and Rachel is still trying to find out who killed her teenage daughter decades ago.

I found this book impossible to put down. The writing is clear and engaging, the characters are well-developed, and the plot is irresistible. I hadn't ever read anything by Ms. Moriarty before, but I will be looking for more of her books (she's already published four novels). I was lucky to have gotten this book at the May 2013 Book Expo America convention, held in New York City's Javits Center, although I didn't meet the author. The setting is primarily Sydney, Australia, which was also a refreshing change for me, since I haven't read many Australian authors.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens. New York: Doubleday, 2013. 364 pages. ISBN 9780385534932.

I was very much looking forward to reading the latest book from Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens. I had heard Mr. Lethem give a reading and talk at the New York State Writers Institute visiting lecture series, which is hosted on the University at Albany campus, where I work. I had enjoyed his reading and the question and answer session that he held afterwards. I had gotten a copy of Mr. Lethem's book when I attended the Book Expo American convention in New York City's Javits Center in May, and gotten his signature on the title page at that time. I was very fond of two of Mr. Lethem's books that I'd read in the past: Motherless Brooklyn, and Fortress of Solitude, especially the former.

So I was a little disappointed when I realized that I wasn't enjoying this book quite as much. It took me a while (days) to get even a few dozen pages into it, but I attributed that to being distracted with some work-related reading that I was trying to fit in at home. Once I did get more fully engrossed in the book, I realized that I didn't like the characters very much, and I didn't like the plot very much either. Some of the members of my book club felt that there were too many characters and the author shouldn't have gone into so much detail with every one of them. I didn't feel that way, but I just wished there was a character that I liked at least a little bit and whom I could root for.

Each of the characters is selfish in his or her own way. Albert runs off when his daughter is very young, and never returns. Rose is a stubborn, melodramatic, protective, and possessive mother who argues about everything. Miriam is a stubborn, reckless, and careless woman who goes off to join a revolution, leaving her young son behind. How is that different from her father, whom she criticizes for abandoning her? Cicero is an unlikable man who hurts everyone around him. Sergius grows up resenting the only grownup who ever really helps him, and the book ends with him making one foolish decision after another.

Jonathan Lethem has a deep knowledge of 20th century culture, history, music, and literature, and that comes through loud and clear in the book which is jam-packed with one factoid and cultural reference after another. It's a bit exhausting! At times I wished he would just tone it down a bit.

One thing about this challenging book: if you finish it, which I did because of my commitment to my book club, it certainly gives you a lot to talk about!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Diane Setterfield, Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story. New York: Atria Books, 2013. 337 pages. ISBN 9781476711959.

As a big fan of Ms. Setterfield's first book, The Thirteenth Tale, I was really looking forward to reading her new novel. It had a promising start, with a young boy who kills a rook, setting in motion...something. We're never sure what exactly, except that one by one, everyone around him dies. But this action takes place over decades, and isn't that what happens to everyone over time? When William, the boy in question, kills the rook, he thinks that he sees a young boy near the dead rook. Since the book is subtitled "A Ghost Story" it seemed to me that this mysterious boy would come to haunt William. But the story goes in another direction, with a mysterious man appearing at funerals, and William is the only person who can see this "Mr. Black." I thought for a while that Mr. Black is death himself, the grim reaper, coming to claim his victims. It never really becomes clear, and the story meanders all over the place. The ending is unsatisfying.

Ms. Setterfield is a good writer, but I wish she had come up with something a little more substantial for her second effort. I'm afraid that most readers will be slightly disappointed in this book.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Hit Me by Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block, Hit Me. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

When I started this blog I thought that I would only write positive reviews, but I realize now that I will occasionally have to write reviews of books that I'm less enthusiastic about. This is one of those times. I've read at least one Lawrence Block book in the past; it was one of his Bernie Rhodenbarr books, I believe, and I remember liking it a lot. However, when I started reading this book I was immediately put off by the premise and plot.

The premise is that Keller, Block's protagonist in this series, is a hit man and a stamp collector. The entire book consists of him going off to stamp conventions where he makes big purchases with the money he earns from his hits, which are always conveniently close to a stamp convention (are there really that many?) He's very sweet to his wife and daughter, teaching them about stamps, but one of the cheesiest parts of the book is his wife's reaction when she finds out he's back to killing people for money (you'll have to read it yourself to see how bad it was).

I don't know if the reader is supposed to empathize with Keller, but I found it a little hard to do. The worst thing one of his victims appears to have done is be mean to her maid. Even Dexter had a code that allowed the viewer to not feel bad about the victims; he killed people who were much worse than he was: murderers, rapists, etc. But Keller will take just about any job, as long as it's not a kid. I guess that makes him ok...

I found the writing to be simple, made all the worse since I had just finished a Jonathan Lethem book that was more difficult to get through.