The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train

girl_onthetrain

Maybe I’m the last book reviewer to read this book by Paula Hawkins, but better to read it late than never at all! I almost never read mysteries or thrillers because they aren’t my cup of tea (give me dragons and a woman with a sword and I’m happy). But my mom read this one and it hooked her, so I read the inside cover at work last weekend and couldn’t resist giving it a go.

Here’s the text that got me: “Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. Jess and Jason, she calls them. Their life as she sees it is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.
And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?”  — via Indiebound

WHAT DID SHE SEE?? Amiright? Compared to the last mystery/thriller thing I read (Gone Girl) this was SO MUCH BETTER. I wanted to like Gone Girl as much as everyone else did, but I was too disturbed to like it from start to finish. This one contained similar themes, but with an ending that didn’t have me roaring with rage.

I feel like there isn’t much that one can review without accidentally spoiling something. The beauty of a novel like this is that the reader goes in knowing almost nothing, and the author unfolds the story with surprise after surprise. So I don’t want to give too much away. I’ll just talk about the things I liked in general terms. First up: the characters. I didn’t love all of them (because you aren’t supposed to), but I certainly did like Rachel. Rachel is an every-woman’s woman. Life dealt her some pretty sucky blows, and unlike the unrealistic heroines of many popular novels, she does not have her shit together. To be real, she’s a wreck. And yet, she still ends up being the one who sorts through the tangled threads of the mystery first, all while being judged appallingly by the people who do have their shit together. So take that, haters!

Second: plot, obviously. It was a whirlwind. I couldn’t and didn’t want to put it down. I had to know what happened and who made it happen. There are multiple characters with enough sketch-factor to keep things interesting from beginning to end. And I wanted to know what Rachel would do. There were several places in the novel where I groaned out loud, and I might have even said, “Oh, my god, you didn’t, again?!” Maybe.

Third: structure. There are at least three different women who tell the story from their point of view. Each of them keeps her own secrets, has her own flaws, harbors a dark side that she hides behind a veneer of suburban polish (except Rachel, who has completely lost all semblance of polish). The perspectives also jump about in time a bit, so you have to keep an eye on that. I thought it was a clever way of doing things because you get each woman’s perspective, rather than the perspective of one and a whole bunch of speculation about the inner thoughts and hidden activities of the others.

I think you will like this book. Yeah, you. Like I said, thrillers are not usually my thing, but this is one that bridges the genre divide and is smart and interesting enough to keep readers of all genre-preferences interested.

A Circus-Themed Post

A Circus-Themed Post

I’ve recently read two novels with circus themes that I think lovers of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus would enjoy.

Gracekeepers

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan was our book club selection this month, and it was incredibly polarizing. On one side, you have those like me, who absolutely loved it, and you have those who really didn’t think much of it at all. I thought it was an incredibly lovely book. The language was lush and poetic, the setting well-structured and highly visible in the reader’s mind’s eye. It is the story of two women in a drowned, post-apocalyptic landscape. One girl travels with a floating circus, her act involving a trained, dancing bear who is also her dearest friend. The other conducts funeral rites on her lonely island wreathed in mist and surrounded by floating bird cages.

There are many story-lines happening in this novel. Perhaps the author was a little over-ambitious in such a short novel, for there are questions that were not answered to their fullest and loose ends that could have used tighter tying. Despite its minor failings, I thought the novel was so enjoyable that I couldn’t put it down. I loved North, the bear girl, especially. She is courageous and strong. Her circus, the ship Excalibur and its flotilla of coracles, sounds like a rough but adventurous life. I found myself drawn to this watery world, where trees are so rare it’s a crime (or even blasphemous) to harm them in any way. It is only vaguely fantastic, so it will appeal to readers who ordinarily stay away from fantasy stories.

BookSpeculation

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler was another incredible circus book (how I ended up reading two almost in a row, I don’t know). In this novel, narrator Simon Watson is a librarian who lives by himself in his ancestral home on the harsh coast of the Northeastern United States. The house, due to erosion, is so near the cliff’s edge that it threatens daily to go over, but that is the least of his problems. His parents are dead, and his sister is the fortune-teller in a traveling circus. Simon one day receives a book in the mail from someone he has never met–a book that shows a frightening trend in his family’s women’s tendency to drown on a particular day of the year. The women in his family are side-show “mermaids” who can hold their breath for impossibly long periods of time; Simon and his sister both possess this ability as well. The drownings lead Simon to believe that perhaps there is a curse on his family, and his sister seems to have arrived at home just in time for her own drowning, unless Simon can do something about it.

I apologize if I made this sound like a thriller. It is thrilling, but it is so much more than that. It is, in part, a beautiful homage to the written word. Simon and several other characters adore rare and antiquarian books, and it is a feeling with which many of the novel’s readers will feel kinship. It is also, in part, historical fiction, as the narration flips back and forth between first-person in the present day with Simon, and third-person following a mute circus “Wild Boy”-turned-seer in the late 18th Century. Swyler’s prose is eloquent, and her plot is so exciting that I didn’t want to put this book down. One thing I enjoyed in particular was being witness to the origin story of several of the antique relics that Simon comes across in his search for truth–an old theatrical curtain, mysterious portraits of unknown persons, and a crumbling deck of tarot cards that his sister obsesses over.

Though the supernatural is only hinted at and never quite makes a verifiable appearance, it adds enough of an air of mystery and intrigue to hook its readers. Are Simon and his family descended from an Eastern-European water spirit? Is there truly a curse, or are the family merely victims of truly bad luck? Is it wishful thinking, or does Simon truly hear his mother’s ghost in the water? What’s up with the horseshoe crabs?

These books are must-reads for lovers of somber, beautiful prose; sorrowful, nostalgic stories; ethereal setting; and the draw of a carnival atmosphere providing a light in the darkness.

Flowers in the Attic

Flowers in the Attic

891522

While I’d stop short of saying I loved this book, I will say that it did keep me in thrall. I was skeptical about how any author could make the goings-on of one room interesting for 400+ pages, but Andrews accomplished this feat.

In case you’re late to the party, this novel recounts the story of four beautiful children, nicknamed “Dresden dolls” by their neighbors for their porcelain skin and fair features. Theirs is a charmed childhood, and until the events of the novel unfold, the worst thing narrator Cathy can imagine is that her new twin siblings will usurp her place in her parents’ affections. Early in the novel there are allusions to incest, like when one of the suspicious neighbors remarks that the parents look more like brother and sister than husband and wife. After an accident rips away one member of their perfect family, the mother moves her children to her family’s estate in rural Virginia in the middle of the night. There, the children are kept in an upstairs room, where they must stay quiet, tidy, and wary of “impure” thoughts.

The children stay in the attic for years. Years. While their mother cavorts about with her money and her new clothes and her jewels and her suitors, her children moulder in the attic, awaiting the day when dear trusted Momma wins her sick father’s affections, gets written back into his will, and they can live like kings with his money. Little by little, the reader comes to realize, as do the children, that something is rotten in the state of Virginia, and Momma hasn’t been quite honest with them.

Yes, this book has incest in it. Oh dear, just get your freak-out over now. While I’m by no means “into” that sort of thing (yeah, it’s pretty gross), there are worse things in this novel about which you should express your disgust, like religious fanaticism, physical and emotional abuse, and attempted murder.

The writing gets off to a rocky start. The sentences are simple and somewhat dated. Cathy makes exclamations of variations of “great golly lolly!” throughout the book and that gets annoying, but I think the point is to drive home how very naïve and innocent these children are. Their (frankly, psychopathic) grandparents consider them the spawn of the devil and expect them manifest evil from the start, but it’s fairly obvious that the evils that eventually happen do so because they’ve been locked in an attic and told they’re evil. As the novel continues however, and Cathy grows up with her siblings, the writing becomes more introspective and mature, and I think we as readers witness author’s maturation, as well as the characters.

This book is fascinating in the same way train wrecks and car pile-ups are. In true Gothic fashion it is melodramatic and horrifying in an immensely pleasurable way. The wicked kind of pleasure that kids get from pulling the tails of cats and adults get from look at someone’s life and saying, “Thank goodness that’s not me.” I felt guilty for even wanting to read this, but actually I think it’s an important milestone in the YA canon, and so deserves to be read by people who care about literature.

Out of the Easy

Out of the Easy

11178225

I’m struggling with this book, but not for the reasons you might think. I struggle with it because it’s just SO GOOD, and, as a bookseller, I want to recommend the books that are JUST SO GOOD to all the teens that come in and ask me what to read. But this is how I picture this scenario going down:

Overprotective mom/aunt/grandparent: “I’m looking for something for my daughter to read on her vacation this summer. She likes historical books. Can you recommend something for her?”

Me: “SURE! This is a fantastic historical YA novel set in 1950’s New Orleans! I loved it!”

OPM/A/G: “What’s it about?”

Me: “A girl whose mom is a prostitute, whose guardian is a brothel madame, who gets caught up in a bit of trouble when there’s a murder, and oops, then the mob comes after her.”

OPM/A/G: *glares, shoves the books in my direction, and storms off, never to return*

Okay, so maybe that isn’t everyone I meet, but it seems like a lot of the time I’m recommending books to parents instead of kids, and it’s a rare occasion when one says to me, “I don’t care if there’s cursing and sex in it.”

There isn’t cursing and sex in this one. Let me just put that out there. For a novel about hookers and gangsters in one of the most notorious cities in the US, it’s surprisingly clean. This novel has a lot of beautiful things to offer: it portrays deep, abiding friendships; it’s headed by a heroine who wants to better herself for her own sake, and who doesn’t compromise her desires for the sake of romance; it stresses the importance of a college education; and it shows that lies just breed more lies, and if you want to maintain good relationships (not to mention safety and sanity), you should probably tell the truth.

Josie is a girl who basically raised herself. Her mother is a beautiful but vain “woman of the night,” who is in love with exactly the wrong sort of man, and whose dreams are to achieve Hollywood wealth and fame, stay young and beautiful forever, and have every luxury imaginable close at hand. Good role model, right? Josie somehow manages to grow into her exact opposite: she hates attention, she never buys new things, and she dreams of going to college and escaping New Orleans. New Year’s Eve and early 1950 is a turning point for Josie, when she meets two people who become the hinges on which her story swings.

Ruta Sepetys is one of the most underrated authors I’ve ever had the privilege to read. Both of her novels occur in periods and places of history that people often overlook because of other simultaneous events (in Between Shades of Grey, she tells the story of a Lithuanian family displaced from their homes during Stalin’s cruel regime; most people focus on the atrocities of the Nazis during the same period). And her novels are beautifully written, deeply emotional, and very well-peopled. Her characters are easy to get along with. I found myself wishing Josie were a real person, whom I could visit in her bookshop and have tea with around the corner in the French Quarter.

If you like good characters, read this novel. If you like a suspenseful plot, read this novel. If you like stories that make you cry, and then laugh, and then laugh while crying, read this novel. I cannot recommend Ruta Sepetys highly enough. Please do yourself a favor and put this author on your list.

13.23–Fuse

13.23–Fuse

Fuse is the sequel to Pure, and is perhaps even more thrilling than the first book. In it, Partridge, Pressia, Bradwell, El Capitan, and Lyda are rocketed on separate quests to save their incredibly flawed world.  More secrets about the evils of the Dome are revealed, and the reader’s hunger for justice grows as it grows within the characters.

There was so much about this book that I loved.  One of the things that stuck out the most to me was the development of the relationships between the characters.  Pressia and Bradwell learn how to navigate their complicated feelings for one another–their love mixed with the fierce desire to protect one another by denying their mutual feelings.  Lyda and Partridge explore the feelings they never got to admit to each other when they were inside the Dome.  Even El Capitan and his brother Helmud start to build a relationship–one that consists of more than mutual hatred for their nearly unbearable situation.  Helmud begins to show a personality of his own, and as twisted as it is, their relationship is a little bit heartwarming.

The plot was strong in this one.  I was constantly kept in the grip of suspense.  Because she did such a good job of establishing relationships between the characters, and of establishing the reader’s affections for those relationships, the strain and danger she puts them through is really emotionally taxing on the reader.  Partridge and Lyda, especially, separated by forces much more powerful than they are, keep the reader guessing about what will happen to their budding love.

Julianna Baggott has created a very strong second novel for her trilogy.  It did not feel like a filler, as second novels often do.  I was very impressed with her ability to make it feel like it’s own story.  That said, I really cannot wait for the third one to come out, though I know it won’t be for a long time.  Her world-building and storytelling are skillful enough that I’m dying to know what happens in the end! Too bad there isn’t even a publication date yet.  The good news is that gives you (the people who haven’t picked up and read both of them yet) the time to get caught up and breathlessly await the conclusion to the series!


13.17–The Night Circus

13.17–The Night Circus

I am so excited to review this one. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a thing of beauty. If there was a single flaw, I was completely unaware of it. It is a magical, captivating novel, and I adored every second I got to spend with it.

Goodreads Summary

“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.”

The novel is set in the Victorian Era, but has no coherent timeline. Almost every chapter is set in a year different from the previous chapter, so that the reader has to put the story line together on his or her own, a trait which I loved.  It made the novel just as elusive as the Cirque itself, and it caused me to devour every page faster than the last so I could find the next piece of the puzzle.  The time period in which it sets is part of what makes it so incredibly beautiful.  Sumptuous silks, brocades, and velvets; dancing flames and primitive electricity; trains; cities just beginning to bustle with industry; opera; theater; elegant parties and dinners…the world of the circus performers is glamorous with an undercurrent of repressed sexuality and magic.  The setting itself, even without the plot, is wholly unique and captivating.

There is something so impossible about the circus itself that makes it difficult to describe in any review.  It is more than just the fact that it opens only at night and is deserted by day, or that everything within it is black and white, and it’s full of people who can work real magic, rather than just sleights of hand.  It’s more than the two powerful magicians who oversee the work of their students.  Perhaps it’s the romance of the “love letters” that Celia and Marco create for each other, or the fact that each member of the circus is suspended in time, as is the circus itself.  Whatever it is, the pervading air of somethingness, of otherness, about Le Cirques des Rêves truly invites you in and makes you comfortable.  I found myself simultaneously wanting to find out how it would end and wishing it would never end so I could stay inside the gates of Le Cirque des Rêves as long as possible.

Speaking of ending, I loved it.  It was perfect.  Morgenstern sets up a horrible situation that it was difficult to imagine a way out of for Celia and Marco.  Yet one forgets that in this world of Morgenstern’s creation, magic is possible and the possibilities go on forever. I enjoyed her solution to the conflict.  It wasn’t perfectly happy and it wasn’t piss-your-reader-off tragic.  It was just right.  Literally everything about this novel was perfect from beginning to end, and I truly applaud Morgenstern for writing one of the best novels I’ve ever read in my life.

Sadly, I’ve discovered that it’s going to be made into a movie.  It’s only of those novels that is so incredibly perfect, and so much fun to imagine for yourself, that I don’t even want to see the trailer.  I don’t want any director’s limited vision ruining what Morgenstern has so perfectly created in my imagination.

13.16–Linked

13.16–Linked

This is the best work of YA science-fiction I’ve read in a very long time.  I was completely captivated from start to finish. By the end I was completely bug-eyed (and in tears) and skipped eating on my lunch break so I could finish it.

Linked tells the story of Elissa, who used to be a normal and somewhat popular girl.  Three years ago, however, she began to have headaches and visions, then dreams that came with enormous pain and left her with bruises all over her body.  The night she discovers that she is, in fact, mentally linked with another girl whose whole life has consisted of torture at the hands of scientists, her world is flipped on its head and she is swept away in a whirlwind of danger.

I have to give a huge nod to Imogen Howson for creating a sci-fi, futuristic world that is NOT dystopian.  I have to say, I’m getting a little tired of the dystopian concept.  While there are certainly different rules and regulations in this future, they are nowhere near the level needed to qualify it as a dystopian society.  Instead, this book takes place thousands of years in the future, on a planet that resembles Earth, but is in fact a terraformed planet–one of many in this futuristic world.  She does such an amazing job in the first chapter (or two?) of convincing her readers that the story takes place on Earth.

Howson’s world-building is extremely impressive.  I was totally convince that her society and her technologies could be real, and was pleased with all the futuristic gadgets and ships.  There is a fantastic back story on why people left Earth, and a whole interplanetary system whose planets are rated by inhabitability and quality of life, kind of like 1st-3rd world countries here on Earth.

Elissa is a great character.  She’s flawed, and the reader gets to experience her inner turmoil all throughout, first from feeling like an outcast because of her mysterious illness and then because of her uncertain feelings about the girl with whom she is linked.  Throw in an unexpected romance, and you have a great story that really grips you.  Lin, the other girl, is quite disagreeable at times because she was tortured for her whole life.  Often, Elissa is torn on whether or not she should help Lin, because Lin sometimes displays the traits of a sociopath.  But Lin is fiercely loyal to Elissa, and Elissa grows to be quite loyal to Lin.  The development of their relationship is at times painful but more often than not is heartwarming.

I definitely recommend this book to everyone, but especially females.  I feel like a lot of times science-fiction is geared toward male readers, with either a male protagonist or a sexy, badass female one.  This one is definitely a great sci-fi read, but it’s also filled with the emotion and struggle of a girl’s coming to grips with her womanhood and the person she wants to be as a grown-up.  Pick it up in June.  Seriously.