Category Archives: Book Review

Coming to a Bookstore Near You…

Okay Guys!

I’m wading into the whole Gatsby Movie Tie-In Edition Debate. A lot of people are none too happy about everyone’s favorite book when they were a High School sophomore getting star-spangled movie tie-in cover- as evidenced by this New York Times article. I hate to disagree with any booksellers (because I ❤ booksellers & they are doing what I deem to be God’s work), but I have to call B.S. on this supposed outrage. Because, c’mon (!) whenever a book gets made into a movie the publisher *has* to make a tie-in cover.

For Schindler’s List they even had to change the name of the book:


Also more recently, another Spielberg movie that you might have heard of, caused the same thing…


“Ah, but that book wasn’t really a ‘classic’ so it’s not the same” you tell me.


Okay, so is Les Miserables enough of a classic?

But you could make the argument that this is actually an OK cover- very affecting little girl with piercing blue eyes, and all…


…So how about this cover of National Book Award winning, Sophie’s Choice, that makes the book look like it’s a 99 cent romance novel?

But you make a good point that this is from, like, a long time ago when book covers were pretty lame…


Okay, so how about this version of Little Women from the ’90s- which is not as terrible- but does manage to make it look like Winona Ryder wrote the book?

You’re still not impressed?

Alright, the ’90s WERE a long time ago as well. Plus you tell me: “Little Women isn’t very *literary*. The reason the tie-in cover is so insulting is because The Great Gatsby is a literary marvel!”


To which I say: “Have you seen the cover of a little book called Cloud Atlas (that I believe is fairly marvelous) that was turned into a movie quite recently? I can’t help but feel it is waaaaay worse than this:


Which, granted, isn’t that great and  I’m not going to buy it anytime soon. But it’s no worse than we’ve seen before. PLUS, if some people that otherwise wouldn’t have bought the book see it and buy it because Carey Mulligan is so pretty or whatever… that’s cool with me.

Conclusion: Is this a GREAT book cover? Hell no. Is it a great movie tie-in cover? Probably not (I’m not even sure that there is such a thing with the exception of The Lord of the Rings). But is it an unprecedented insult to the memory of F. Scott Fitzgerald? I think not.king

For your viewing pleasure, and the one movie tie-in I’ll admit to purchasing

All covers were pulled from Goodreads (thx, GR)


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June: Historical Fiction

All of the stories for this month were nominated for the UK’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

In this grim picaresque novel we follow the Charlie and Eli Sisters as they make their way to San Francisco  from Oregon City to kill a man. They are notorious criminals working for the shadowy “Commodore” and this is all part of the job.

Thankfully this story is told from the point of view of Eli, the less blood-thirsty of the two brothers and the reader is able to see how he quickly grows weary of this life on the road and on the other side of the law. Eli’s narration is remarkable in that he is so far removed from your typical gun-for-hire. While most of the story he tells is blood-soaked murder, (with the rest consisting of crippling hangovers, spider bites, whores, and a creepy little girl who poisons a dog) the story actually is a calm and easy read told from his point of view.

The novel comes together in an unexpected way when they meet Mr. Warm, the man they are supposed to kill and the Charlie and Eli Sisters find themselves re-thinking their loyalty to their boss and imagining a better life.

Without going too much in detail as this is one of those stories where I wouldn’t want to give everything away, I will say- as you can imagine- it’s not a typical happy ending for the brothers. Those that live by the sword die by the sword, right? But DeWitt does manage to leave a little room for hope and much needed redemption at the end of the a very bloody story.

Goodreads rating:****

Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

At it’s best, Half-Blood Blues truly sings. And that’s not something you can say about many novels, even ones about music. Edugyan creates melodic prose worthy of Langston Hughes, and when she’s describing her characters music sessions and love of Jazz, even someone like me can hear the wailing trumpets and rhythmic beat of the drums.

Half-Blood Blues tells the story of a ill-fated Berlin-based Jazz group at the beginning of World War II, focusing on the three black members who leave for Paris just as war is breaking out and make the eponymously named record, which goes on to create a legendary status for one of them- Hiero, the trumpet player who rumor has it died shortly after leave a Nazi prison camp.

Yes it’s not a cheery story and it’s starting to create a theme for good historical fiction- it’s quite sad. Granted, when your characters are Black people in Berlin and Paris at the begining of WWII, you’re probably not going to have light and fluffy story. But this is a story of friendships, and aside from even Hitler and Vichy government the truly heartbreaking moments come when these friendships are betrayed. At the end of reading Half-Blood Blues that’s basically what I felt- it’s beautiful and wonderfully written and terribly sad.

Edugyan deftly weave betrayal and loyalty, the beauty of Jazz and the filth of Nazi propaganda, so it’s a little bit of a let down when the attempt at a love interest in the story falls flat. I guess we’re supposed to like Delilah- at one point I did and then later I didn’t and by the end I didn’t care about her any more. In all honestly I feel she could have been completely written out of the story. So it’s not the perfect novel, and the end is not the most satisfying, but as I’ve mentioned above, when it’s good, it’s real good.

Goodreads rating:***

Pure, by Andrew Miller

In what I see now is true “historical fiction style” Andrew Miller tackles quite an unseemly topic in Pure- The removal of a centuries old cemetery that is polluting the surrounding Parisian neighborhood. What is interesting, though, is the true tenderness and warmth (and even love) evidenced in what at its  outset appears to be a gritty novel. Our main character, the young engineer charged with this grim task, and the motley cast of friends he assembles (or looses) by the novels end, are not mere 2-dimensional historical figures. They see themselves as ‘modern men’ and are thoroughly relatable to this modern reader.

This is a truly great book for various reasons from its voice, cast of characters, and compelling story- with what I’m sure is great historical accuracy (Of course I’m not the best authority on that topic). What sets Pure apart, though, is more than just mere historical accuracy, it is Miller’s ability to truly place the reader at the center of these events and these times. The novel is set right at the cusp of the French Revolution and there is a certain poised stillness that the reader can feel- a city tensely waiting, knowing but not knowing what is about to come- a city on the brink.

In the scenes set at the cemetery (which is to say the majority of the novel) Miller is able to truly evoke the putrid air of the place- I even could taste it as I read. To say that Pure is ‘atmospheric’ seems like a bit of a weak and over-used description, but it is- in the finest sense of the word. Not to be missed.

Goodreads rating****

Also read this month: Swim the Fly, by Don Calame; and Monument 14, by Emmy Laybourne

Next Month’s theme: “Pulitzer Novels”

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May: Classics

So I finally got around to “Classics” this month- Cheers all around! Gave up on Moby Dick (I’ll try again next decade), but here are classic novels I finally got around to reading that I should have probably already read:

Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Like most people I have read Fitzgerald’s other- and more famous- classic The Great Gatsby, but I always felt bad that I hadn’t read Fitzgerald more extensively since he’s supposed to one of the Great American Writers, and all.

In Tender is the Night you get all the Fitzgerald touchstones: pretty people with no jobs and a lot of money, drinking, adultery, and depressing endings.  And of course it’s all written very well too. Yet, what attracts most people to The Great Gatsby: the eloquent encapsulation of the Jazz Age- a real time commentary on the era hurtling unknowingly for a huge crash- is not evident here. Instead we have something after the crash- in America, and for Fitzgerald’s life personally, and it’s older, perhaps a bit wiser, but mostly melancholic.

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the book was inadvertent. In an example of synchronicity, shortly after finishing the book I watched the film A Dangerous Method which was very evocative of the novel. In it Michael Fassbender plays Carl Jung who is mentioned in Tender is the Night as contemporary of the main character Dick Diver (a promising Psychoanalyst practicing in Switzerland) and his wife Nicole is a privileged and troubled patient of the sanitarium (with serious Daddy issues), akin to Keira Knightley’s character in the film.

Of course the actual inspiration for Nicole was Zelda Fitzgerald who also a patient of European sanitarium. The main draw of the book is reading the thinly veiled account of the eventual dissolution of the Fitzgerald’s marriage. In this way, even though Dick Diver is not a sympathetic character (actually more just pathetic by the end), I have to commend Fitzgerald for what is a really honest look at such a grim topic. Of course with that said- bearing in mind that the story is largely autobiographical- Tender is the Night is amazingly unemotional and detached- as so many books from this generation of writers are. This might be something you like (especially if you are a guy- sorry about the sexism) but is not really my cup of tea. Beautifully well-written, and hauntingly sad, but ultimately left me cold.

Goodreads rating:***

Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger

As with the previous book this was another “lesser” work by a Great American Writer I wanted to get to know better. Just like every angsty teenager I read Catcher in the Rye in the hope to find a kindred spirit with Holden Caufield. While I more or less liked the book I don’t think I really identified with Caufield like so many others do. So, it was a treat to be introduced to the eccentric brother and sister: Franny and Zooey. Franny is the idealist and is in the middle of a nervous breakdown- a sort of extreme ennui, Hamlet times ten… you get the picture. In the first story bearing her name we see her on a date with her beau right before  she has the breakdown, and in the second story, “Zooey” we are introduced to her older brother and later see his attempts at explaining to Franny our role in this crazy mixed up world, a sort of answer to “What’s it all about?”.

In this story I was delighted to see characters that I connected with in spite of the fact that they are completely dissimilar to me. Perhaps because they are a bit older than Mr. Caufield their philosophizing don’t seem too percocious, or perhaps it’s just the intimate time frame of the stories- each happening ostensibly in real time (Damn, this would be a great play!) that make even Franny’s breakdown believable (who among us haven’t spent an afternoon on their parent’s couch moping?)

As a side note, in yet another example of synchronicity, just a few months ago I read The Marriage Plot by Jeffery Eugenides, in which the character Mitch becomes obsessed with the Jesus Prayer. Of course this is a reference to Franny and Zooey, and it is this prayer that drives Franny to her breakdown as it is a prayer that is meant to be repeated over and over and over until it becomes automatic and the prayer is no long what one does but who one is.

Either way you cut is Salinger is a gifted writer- a storyteller trading in emotions, intellectual musings, and relationships over plot-evident in both The Catcher in the Rye, and Franny and Zooey. What more could an English major want?

Goodreads rating:****

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen

Completing the list of authors I read in High School that I’m catching up with now is… Jane Austen! As a bit of a Janite I’ve read all of her other books, but somehow never got around to finishing Northanger Abbey, the first one she wrote, and the last one that was published. And what a special book this is. It is certainly set apart from the rest of the Austen cannon- even though all the main parts are there: a marriage, a misunderstanding, proud upper-class elders and social commentary galore, Austen offers up a slightly different story here.

It is a joy to see the novel that Austen sets out to write-  a sort of loving send up of the gothic romaces she read as a young woman (which were terribly popular at the time) but with a more realistic, modern, British twist; compared to what the book becomes- the germ of the type of novels she will become known for.

It’s almost as if you can see Austen as she’s writing the story getting more and more engrossed with making fun a the particular foibles that one see with certain types of people that frequent Bath- a city in which Austen lived for some time. After devoting over half the novel to this she then realizes, “Oh yes gothic novel parody- must get back to that!”. Quite late in the story our heroine finally makes it to the eponymous residence and Austen is able to poke a little fun at her romantic notions of living in a Abbey for a few pages, before finishing the story in the type of tidy ending that readers will see from her in her following efforts

It sounds like such a fan-girl thing to say, but it is truly fun to see Austen becoming the writer we now know her as. The next book  she would write after Northanger Abbey is Pride and Prejudice and it is here that we see Jane Austen come into her own- casting off her influences from the 18th century novels she loved so much and creating something wholly her own and truly novel.

But before she writes that book we have Northanger Abbey– a book that would have probably gotten lost in the shuffle if it weren’t for the famous name attached to it, but is still wonderful in its own way. And for those readers who love to make fun of the romance plots in Austen novels, please read this book. It is here that you can see even an Austen novel with very little romance (yes there is Catherine and Henry- but as much as we love Henry theirs is not a romance for the ages) can still be charming and delightful thanks solely to Austen’s playful language and delightful social commentary

Goodreads rating****

Also read this month: Insurgent, by Veronica Roth; Anya’s Ghost, by Vera Brosgol; Cinder, by Marissa Meyer; Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs; and Baby’s In Black, by Arne Bellstorf (Clearly I was catching up on my Teen books!)

Next Month’s theme: “Historical Fiction”… more specifically, nominees of the UK’s “Walter Scott Prize”

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Galley Way: The Kissing List

The Kissing List, by Stephanie Reents

In this new collection of loosely connected short stories (one of the first offerings from new imprint- Hogarth) Reents explores the lives of a several different young women. Some of the stories are sweet, some peculiar, and a few are truly heartbreaking, but  the common element of all is that unnameable, unfixable longing that comes upon the type of  modern women in her 20’s after college and moving to the big city; after getting the job or finally quitting the job; after finding ‘the one’ or suspecting he’ll never show up….

Not surprisingly, There have been some comparisons linking The Kissing List to HBO’s The Girls, and while this is a fair parallel to draw, to me TKL has a much quieter yet harrowing sensibility. Most of the ‘girls’ in these stories are not your lovable fuck-ups, bumbling along and essentially knowing nothing, because, “come on! their dumb 20-something girls!”, but instead (with certain exceptions) most are women that seem terribly familiar, and ones that seem to be making all the right moves. Most are responsible women who still find themselves at a loss when reaching this great crossroad into adulthood.

In this book, the stories are not played up for comic effect, but instead together form a conversation on the that favorite post-graduate topic of “When am I going to get my shit together?”. And, happily with the final story Reents seems to suggest that there is light at the end of the tunnel for most of these women.

This debut effort, while being evocative of the works of Miranda July, or Sloane Crossley (and, yes, Lena Dunham) stands alone as a unique and eloquent voice, and one we will hopefully hear more from.

Note: I received this book as a giveaway from Shelfawareness

Goodreads rating:****

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Galley Way: The Red Book

The Red Book, by Deborah Copaken Kogan

As the purpose of this blog is not to be overly negative about any book- this entry will be brief. The Red Book, by Deborah Copaken Kogan begins with an interesting and compelling premise: four college friends reunite and come to terms with the realities of their life over a Harvard reunion weekend.

Unfortunately, for me, that’s about where the interest leaves off. While obviously penned by a competent and eloquent (perhaps at time overly-so, if that’s a thing) writer, the story falls completely flat. By the close of the book each woman, while having a “totally different” life, faces the same exact set of problems (and not terribly original ones at that): money and infidelity. And, as one can gather from my previous review of  Restoration, by Olaf Olafsson, I’ve already grown weary of infidelity as a plot point.

Suffice it to say I could go on, but I feel no need to. As the old adage goes, “If you don’t have anything nice to say….” Although I will say from the reviews I’ve seen Kogan’s other effort, Shutterbabe, a book based on her experiences as a photojournalist, seems to be better worth your time.

Note: I received this book as a giveaway from Shelfawareness

Goodreads rating:**

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April: YA Books

So this month was supposed to be my month to catch up on all those classics I never read, but things being as they are… the month got away from me and I decided to read YA books instead (one great thing about teen books- quick to read).

Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas

This book is coming out this summer so keep an eye out for it (hopefully with a new cover?). It’s being touted as Hunger Games meets Game of Thrones, which- not having read or seen G o T– still seems pretty apt. Our heroine, Celaena, is not your typical damsel-in-distress, she’s a highly trained assassin who, when we first encounter her, has just spent a year mining salt in a labor camp. She’s an outlaw and an unrepentant killer. Fortunately, she is soon sprung from the prison camp to go the capitol and compete to become the king’s “champion” (read: killer who has to do all his dirty work in his quest to take over the world).

And so the story progresses from there, with Celaena competing against the country’s most dangerous thieves and murderers in order to win her freedom- if she fails to become the champion it’s back the salt mines for her. And along the way we encounter a mysterious eastern princess, ghosts, and hounds of hell; a handsome prince, and a rugged and demanding captain of the guard.

It took me a little while to get into the story but once I did it was pretty fun- a nice escapist treat. I don’t want to give to much away, as this book isn’t out until August, but one of my favorite things was reading that Sarah J. Maas got the idea for the story when she thought- what if Cinderella doesn’t go to the ball to dance with a handsome prince, but to stop an assassination?

Goodreads rating:****

Chopsticks, by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral

Obviously the most remarkable thing about Chopsticks- a recently released YA effort by Jessica Anthony and designer Rodrigo Corral- is its format. It’s a multi-media presentation: a story told not only in words but in photographs, and wine bottles; paintings and programs for recitals (also in YouTube clips and songs if you opt to check out Chopsticks online)

The “novel” does succeed in that it is very aesthetically pleasing with interesting photographs. It also has an interesting hook at the beginning, and clever twist at the end. But ultimately the story fell a little flat for me. Due to the nature of the bare-bones storytelling style- and the fact that the book can be read roughly in the amount of time it takes to watch an episode of Glee– you don’t get invested in the characters or even know quite who they are. And, unfortunately, the promise at the start of the book: of a mystery to be solved- never really bares fruit.

Ultimately it’s an interesting idea that was executed quite nicely, but this style can’t beat the regular old words-on-paper way of storytelling (but I would like it if there’s someone out there who can try this again and prove me wrong).

Goodreads rating:***

The Silver Blade, by Sally Gardner

In this follow up to The Red Necklace, Gardner clearly shows her gift for storytelling as well as that flair for that illusive quality (especially when it comes to teen fiction)- originality.

Essentially picking up where the previous novel left off, The Silver Blade begins with the heroics of the magical gypsy boy, Yann Margoza, and his efforts to ferry various nobles to safety away from the deadly guillotine, as the French revolution rages in Paris. At the same time the reader knows that, contrary to our protagonists beliefs, evil-villan-to-end-all-evil-villains, Count Kalliovski, has not died, but instead has made a deal with the devil to save his life and is living underground is the catacombs of Paris in, quite literally the most creepy and macabre residence ever- featuring walls made of human bones covered in gold foil.

Along with the action- poising the characters between the evil plottings of Kalliovski and the righteous fervor of the the French Revolution run amok- the readers are treated to the passionate and unlikely romance between Yann and Sido.

It is a sad truth for American YA readers that Sally Gardner is not as well known as stateside as she is in her native England. With The Silver Blade like The Red Necklace and I, Coriander before it, Gardner deftly weaves historical fiction and magical realism in a way that is particularly suited for teen audiences while also not talking down with them. With Gardner you always get a completely unique and vivid voice.

Goodreads rating****

Lexapros and Cons, by Aaron Karo

Hmmmm… What to make of a book that starts with a description of the narrator’s masturbation tally? And yes, you read that right.

In all seriousness though, Karo’s narrator describes life as a teenage boy with a frankness (while at times can a bit TMI) that is quite refreshing. Chuck Taylor (yup, just like the shoes- you got it) is a High School senior who in typical angsty fashion has a lot of things bothering him, but the number one thing he is facing is his OCD (hence the self-abuse tally marks). His OCD interferes with his life so much that he can’t fathom going on the Senior class camping trip (Dirt, and bugs, and nature? No way!) and he even sabotages a chance to kiss his dream girl.

Even with some of the more awkward or crude passages from the book, you can help but admit that the Karo is only being true to what teens boys are really like. Lexapros and Cons is like a reader’s version of movies like Superbad– that at times have cringe-worthy moments, but most importantly have charcters that are truly kind-hearted and endearing. It also has to be pointed out that the novel, along side the likes of South African novel, Spud, by John Van De Ruit, answers that all too apparent dearth of quality teen books for boys (that aren’t about slaying dragons). In the end Lexapros and Cons is a cute quick read that manages to capture life as a teenager today (as part of the “facebook” generation) without being to hokey or clichéd.

Note: I received this book as a giveaway from Shelfawareness.

Goodreads rating****

Also read this month: The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick; Juggling, by Barbara Trapido; The Marriage Plot, by Jeffery Eugenides; and Every Contact Leaves a Trace,  by Elanor Dymott.

Next Month’s theme: “Classics”. I will actually get to these books next month, come hell or high water!

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The Galley Way: Restoration

Restoration, by Olaf Olafsson

Restoration weaves together the stories of Alice- a British  Ex-pat in Italy during WWII, and Kristin- a talented art student that mysteriously arrives at Alice’s country villa one afternoon. Both women are beautifuly and realistically rendered by Olafsson. Each has her own flaws yet still remains sympathetic. Remarkably, Olafsson is able to tell a very original WWII era story (quite a well-worn topic for historical ficiton)- not hurt in the least by an Icelandic main character, Kristin (Not enough Icelanders in literature, I say!).

During the time that Kristin is staying with Alice, the Tuscan villa becomes the literal front line in a WWII battle, and throughout the war those in the villa, and surrounding farms, are trapped between loyalists and resistors; German and American forces. If that weren’t enough there is also a fascinating subplot to do with a mysterious Caravaggio painting with dubious provenance.

There are also the subplots of each woman’s extramarital romantic entanglements. However, the main drawback of this book, for me, is that tales of adultery just don’t sit well with me- I’m actually quite tired of them. This is not so much from a moralist perspective, but mostly because every time it’s almost EXACTLY the same story- or at least one of the three or four tales of adultery that are constantly retold. The funny thing is, I think that art imitates life in this respect- with each novelist feeling that their story is somehow the exception, akin to a doting mistress thinking that her relationship is somehow different (and yes, he will leave is wife!).

Fortunately the affairs are only one part of the story, and the truly captivating tale that is told, is that of these two women’s capacity for survival. Both facing personal demons and family tradgedy they are forced to take action when the villa and all the people that depend on it are endangered- with thouroughly captivating and satisfying results.

Note: I received this book as a giveaway from Shelfawareness

Goodreads rating:****

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