Wednesday, September 30, 2015

audiobook review: Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

narrated by Mindy Kaling

The backstory: I thoroughly enjoyed Mindy Kaling's first memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), so I was eager to listen to her new memoir too.

The basics: Why Not Me? is a memoir in essay form.

My thoughts: I picked up Kaling's first book on a whim while I was pregnant and mostly in the mood for something not depressing to listen to. I loved it and immediately started watching The Mindy Project (we still watch it.) This time, I had expectations and also fears. Would Why Not Me? be as good (it is.) The two books are obviously similar, but they felt different to me. Why Not Me? feels less like a memoir and more like a collection of essays, many of which are memoir-like.

Perhaps what I liked best about this book is how surprising it is. I find Mindy Kaling to be laugh out loud funny. We have similar senses of humor, and this book definitely made me laugh out loud. What surprised me were the moments of deep contemplation and insight. Kaling effortlessly weaves insights with humor, but she isn't afraid to just be serious and thoughtful sometimes, and I appreciate that. She's also not afraid to just be silly sometimes.

I loved almost everything about this book. My annoyance: Kaling more than once maligns reading and brags about not having read a book since college. Maybe she's kidding, but if it's not clear, and you're bold enough to write a second book, why say it?

The verdict: Why Not Me? is an entertaining book that made me laugh and made me think. Kaling's narration once again shines. It's smart, funny, wise, and surprisingly poignant--all while making me laugh.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 4 hours 57 minutes (240 pages)
Publication date: September 15, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Why Not Me? from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Mindy Kaling's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

book review: The Wallcreeper

The backstory: The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink's first novel, was named a 2014 New York Times Notable book.

The basics: The publisher uses this Keith Gessen blurb as the summary, so I will too: "Who is Nell Zink? She claims to be an expatriate living in northeast Germany. Maybe she is; maybe she isn't. I don’t know. I do know that this first novel arrives with a voice that is fully formed: mature, hilarious, terrifyingly intelligent, and wicked. The novel is about a bird-loving American couple that moves to Europe and becomes, basically, eco-terrorists. This is strange, and interesting, but in between is some writing about marriage, love, fidelity, Europe, and saving the earth that is as funny and as grown-up as anything I've read in years. And there are some jokes in here that a young Don DeLillo would kill to have written. I hope he doesn’t kill Nell Zink."

My thoughts: The Wallcreeper has one of the most memorable narrators I've encountered. Tiffany is hilarious and terrible and brilliant and honest: "If I have one talent in the world, that's probably it. Looking innocent enough to make whatever it is I'm doing appear legal." There are some terrific jokes I loved, like this one: "'I was supposed to go to Bryn Mawr after my junior year, but it was too much money, so I took a scholarship to Agnes Scott.' He shuddered appreciatively." I assume there are many more jokes I don't get.

I admit: I was disappointed to discover the titular wallcreeper is a bird. Given the cover and the title, I presumed something very different. I still love it, however, particularly as I was familiar with the story of how Nell Zink came to publish this novel. (The short version: she and Jonathan Franzen began corresponding because they are both avid birders.)

I finished The Wallcreeper months ago, and I'm still thinking about it. I'm still not quite sure what I think about it as a whole. There are moments I was convinced it would become my favorite novel. There were also moments I found myself wondering what I was reading, and I love The Wallcreeper for being simultaneously genius and off putting. Ultimately, as a reader, I've resigned myself to having conflicting opinions about it. It's brilliant, and it's hilarious, and it's sometimes bizarre. It's unique and beautifully written, which in the end, is enough to satisfy me.

Favorite passage: "She wanted to be sardonic but conveyed only vain indignation. Incapacity for irony was another thing keeping her from coming across, where Stephen was concerned, as anything but horny."

The verdict: The Wallcreeper isn't for everyone. Zink's writing left me breathless. At times I loved this novel. At times I found her choices bizarre. In the end, I liked it, and I wanted to talk to everyone who read it. It's a book that begs to be dissected and discussed.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 200 pages
Publication date: October 1, 2014 
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Wallcreeper from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Friday, September 25, 2015

book review: Local Girls by Caroline Zancan

The basics: Set on one night in a dive bar in Orlando, Florida, Local Girls is the story of three recent high school graduates and best friends, Maggie, Nina, and Lindsey, who find themselves talking to a movie star on what will be the last night of his life.

My thoughts: How fabulous is the set-up to this book? I first heard about it as a "re-imagining of the last night of River Phoenix's death," but as I read I realized how common the accidental overdose death of talented young actors is, and I found myself imagining Cory Monteith in Sam Decker. I felt the emotions of Maggie, Nina, and Lindsey--it felt like the greatest night of their lives, even as the reader can see the signs of trouble in Sam Decker.

I'm drawn to stories about big, momentous nights. Most nights are incredibly ordinary, but some nights change your life and become part of your story. The night in Local Girls is one of those nights, albeit in different ways for each of the four main characters. Zancan balances the conversation and character insight well. Too often, however, there are lengthy flashbacks to middle school and high school. I found these passages overly long and increasingly dull. Mostly, the flashbacks weren't nearly as interesting as the interactions with Sam Decker. I kept wanting to get back to that night.

The verdict: I enjoyed the parts that took place on the night, but the flashbacks bogged down the narrative momentum. While the execution of this novel fell short for me, Zancan is a talented writer, and I look forward to seeing what she'll do next.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: June 30, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Local Girls from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Follow Caroline Zancan on Twitter

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

audiobook review: Early Warning by Jane Smiley

narrated by Lorelei King

The backstory: Early Warning is the second installment in Jane Smiley's Langdon family trilogy. I enjoyed the first installment, Some Luck.

The basics: Each of these novels cover thirty-three years, with each chapter covering a year. Early Warning begins in 1953 and ends in the 1980's.

My thoughts: I really enjoyed Some Luck, but I didn't always love King's narration. I planned to read this one instead of listen to it, but I'm so glad I decided to listen instead. King's narration improved in this installment, and her different voices helped me re-acclimate to this large family. I'm often leery of audiobooks longer than twelve hours, but I breezed through this one. On a personal note, there's something enchanting about listening to an Iowa family saga while driving around Iowa with my baby in the car. One character in this volume lives very near Hawthorne's day care.

It took me a few chapters to get re-invested in some of the Langdons. For whatever reason, some characters resonated more with me, and others I had forgotten. Once I got my bearings, however, I listened at every opportunity. In Early Warning, I found myself gravitating to different characters over time. Because Smiley devotes only one chapter to each year, not every character appears each year, and some have bigger moments in some years than others. As time passes, I noticed I most enjoy the generational tipping points--when the children become teenagers and start to leave home.

Smiley includes some beautiful moments of surprise in this novel. In between listening times, I found myself remembering old characters and wondering if and when they might reappear or be mentioned. In this way, Early Warning mimics life. We don't know when old friends and old loves might reappear in our lives in surprising ways over time. While some of those reunions are joyous, others are not--but in fiction, they sure are fun to experience.

The verdict: I liked Early Warning even more than Some Luck, partially because Some Luck set the stage. As time passes, the Langdon family grows and stretches out across the country in fascinating ways. It's sobering to remember it all began on a small, Iowa farm in 1920.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 18 hours 11 minutes (496 pages)
Publication date: April 28, 2015 
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Early Warning from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Golden Age, the final volume in this trilogy, comes out October 20. Pre-order it today from Amazon (Kindle edition.) I've already reserved the audio at the library, and I'll be listening to the final installment too.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

book review: Family Life by Akhil Sharma

The backstory: Family Life won the 2015 Folio Prize and was named one of the 5 best books of 2014 by The New York Times.

The basics:  "We meet the Mishra family in Delhi in 1978, where eight-year-old Ajay and his older brother Birju play cricket in the streets, waiting for the day when their plane tickets will arrive and they and their mother can fly across the world and join their father in America. America to the Mishras is, indeed, everything they could have imagined and more: when automatic glass doors open before them, they feel that surely they must have been mistaken for somebody important. Pressing an elevator button and the elevator closing its doors and rising, they have a feeling of power at the fact that the elevator is obeying them. Life is extraordinary until tragedy strikes, leaving one brother severely brain-damaged and the other lost and virtually orphaned in a strange land. Ajay, the family’s younger son, prays to a God he envisions as Superman, longing to find his place amid the ruins of his family’s new life."--publisher

My thoughts: I knew very little going into Family Life. It begins as a conventional immigrant coming of age story. When tragedy strikes (early on), I was shocked. It was a very different novel after that moment, which of course mimics the Mishra family's life as very different.

As I read, I was wowed by Sharma's precision in describing characters:
"My father is two years older than my mother. Unlike her, he saw dishonesty and selfishness everywhere. Not only did he see these things but he believed that everybody else did, too, and that they were deliberately not acknowledging what they saw. My mother’s irritation at his spitting blood, he interpreted as hypocrisy."
This novel is slim, but Sharma covers a lot of ground, both in story and time. While telling the story from Ajay's perspective offers some fascinating insights and emotions, at times I wanted windows into the thoughts and feelings of the Mishras. I've since read that this novel is somewhat autobiographical. Sharma's older brother had an accident in a swimming pool and died three years ago, after being bedridden for thirty years. Reflecting on the novel as Sharma writing from his own perspective is interesting, and I wish I would have known the backstory as I read. 

The verdict: Family Life is a haunting coming of age story. Sharma's writing is precise and cutting, and I'm eager to read his previous novel and will eagerly await his next one.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 240 pages
Publication date: April 7, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Family Life from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

audiobook review: We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

narrated by Emma Bering and Robbie Daymond

The backstory: Vanessa Diffenbaugh's first novel, The Language of Flowers, has been on my TBR list since it came out, yet I never got around to it. When I saw her speak at the American Library Association conference this summer, I was wowed, and vowed to read both her books.

The basics: We Never Asked for Wings is the story of Letty, an American born to Mexican parents in the U.S. She works as a bartender, and her parents have largely raised her two children, Alex, fifteen, and Luna, six. Life is hard for Letty and her children, and she vows to find a way to move to a good neighborhood in the San Francisco area before Alex starts high school.

My thoughts: It took me about twenty minutes to get my bearings in We Never Asked for Wings. It's hard for me to tell sometimes if that's the novel or the act of listening on audio, and Diffenbaugh is intentionally vague in the opening scene. In this case, it may also due to the fact that based on her comments at ALA, I knew this novel was about education. Once I figured out what was happening, I became enchanted with this novel. It did take some time for the education themes to come in, but these characters and their situation captivated me. I listened to this novel compulsively. Any time I had a spare thirty seconds, I listened. (Seriously, when watching a show with Mr. Nomadreader, and he left the room to refill our wine, I listened.)

I didn't just listen because of the story. From hearing Diffenabaugh speak and from seeing how she set up the story, I was as interested in how she would attach emotional heft to the weighty themes of the American dream, education, immigration, and opportunity. These themes are all powerful for me, and thankfully, Diffenbaugh uses these characters to tell a story that is much bigger than them without oversimplifying the myriad complexities that present themselves in this story.

The verdict: Diffenbaugh deftly uses these characters to explore big issues. She takes the issues to expected and unexpected places, and the result is an emotionally authentic look at education and immigration. This book is enchanting, even if a few plot points seemed a bit too convenient. We Never Asked for Wings is a dynamic novel that will stay with me for a long time.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 11 hours 41 minutes (320 pages)
Publication date: August 18, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy We Never Asked for Wings from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Vanessa Diffenbaugh's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh speaking at ALA 2015.
As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, September 21, 2015

book review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

The backstory: All the Light We Cannot See won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award, was named one of the top five books of 2014 by The New York Times, and won the 2015 Carnegie Medal. Update: It was also the 2015 runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

The basics: Set during World War II, All the Light We Cannot See tells the interwoven stories of Marie-Laure, a young Parisian girl going blind whose father works at the Museum of Natural History, and Werner, a young German teenager growing up in an orphanage, where he develops a fascination with radios.

My thoughts: Over the years, I've grown weary of World War II tales. I find it a fascinating time in history, but I've read so many great novels about the time and so many good novels about the time that most new WWII novels have a hard time sticking out. Admittedly, if I read this one several years ago, I might have enjoyed it even more than I did.

What makes All the Light We Cannot See so good are the writing and the characters. Doerr is both a great storyteller and a masterful sentence constructor:
"Up and down the lanes, the last unevacuated townspeople wake, groan, sigh. Spinsters, prostitutes, men over sixty. Procrastinators, collaborators, disbelievers, drunks. Nuns of every order. The poor. The stubborn. The blind."
This novel is one to be read slowly. It's a pageturner, but it's a novel to savor. As much as I enjoyed Doerr's writing, it's the characters who really drew me in. Marie-Laure 's circumstances were heartbreaking and fascinating. Her relationship with her father, and her father's devotion to raising a self-sufficient blind woman, moved me. Similarly, Werner's circumstances were also heartbreaking and fascinating. Although it was easy to guess how their lives might cross, I still enjoyed reading it.

Doerr smartly moves this novel back and forth in time, in ways that added layers of meaning and also provided some relief from the depressing tone of the war.

Favorite passage:  "Over time, thinks Marie-Laure, events that seem jumbled either become more confusing or gradually settle into place."

The verdict: All the Light We Cannot See is a beautifully written tale of World War II. Doerr uses the story of these two different characters to tell a story that is both singularly fascinating and a larger tale of the ways war strips us all of our humanity.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 531 pages
Publication date: May 6, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy All the Light We Cannot See from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Anthony Doerr's website. I was lucky enough to meet Doerr at the American Library Association conference last summer, and he was as sincerely delightful and interesting as his characters.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, September 14, 2015

book review: The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami

The backstory: The Moor's Account is on the 2015 Booker Prize longlist, was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, and was a 2014 New York Times Notable book.

The basics: The Moor's Account is "the imagined memoirs of the first black explorer of America—a Moroccan slave whose testimony was left out of the official record. In 1527, the conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez sailed from the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda with a crew of six hundred men and nearly a hundred horses. His goal was to claim what is now the Gulf Coast of the United States for the Spanish crown and, in the process, become as wealthy and famous as Hernán Cortés." (from the publisher)

My thoughts:  Lalami uses language to differentiate our narrator from his captors: "How strange, I remember thinking, how utterly strange were the ways of the Castilians—just by saying that something was so, they believed that it was. I know now that these conquerors, like many others before them, and no doubt like others after, gave speeches not to voice the truth, but to create it." Yet this distinction also serves as a bully pulpit of sorts. As a reader, If thought Lalami was speaking through the narrator rather than the narrator speaking through her. In this sense, The Moor's Account felt like an academic exercise rather than a story. Indeed, Lalami (or her narrator) tell the reader this very thing in the opening pages: "my countrymen will hear about my wondrous adventures and take from them what wise men should: truth in the guise of entertainment." Yet as a reader I found this novel long on truth and short on entertainment. In fact, it felt long period. I read an ebook version, so I was surprised to see this novel is just over 300 pages. Left to guess, I thought it was at least a hundred pages longer.

I feel as though I'm being hard on The Moor's Account, and I am. I came to it relatively late, and it's been nearly universally lauded. I had high expectations, and while I think it's of a high quality, I had to slog through parts of it. As interesting as the idea is, the novel itself isn't that interesting. It didn't feel new. I wanted to like it so much more than I did. Perhaps if it weren't in the style of a memoir, an approach that felt inauthentic to me, it would have worked better for me.

Favorite passage:  "When I fell into slavely, I was forced to give up not just my freedom, but also the name that my mother and father had chosen for me. A name is precious; it carries inside it a language, a history, a set of traditions, a particular way of looking at the world."

The verdict: The Moor's Account is a fascinating concept and storyline, yet I didn't really enjoy the experience as a reader. I liked Lalami's language, but I felt she was trying to make statements rather than tell a story. As an intellectual exercise, it was enough to keep me reading. For a book about a moralistic view of humanity and race, I felt no emotional connection to the character, which prevented my enjoyment for this novel.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: September 9, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Moor's Account from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Laila Lalami's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

book review: Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy

The backstory: Sleeping on Jupiter is on the 2015 Booker Prize longlist.

The basics:  From the publisher: "A train stops at a railway station. A young woman jumps off. She has wild hair, sloppy clothes, a distracted air. She looks Indian, yet she is somehow not. The train terminates at Jarmuli, a temple town by the sea. Here, among pilgrims, priests and ashrams, three old women disembark only to encounter the girl once again. What is someone like her doing in this remote corner, which attracts only worshippers? Over the next five days, the old women live out their long-planned dream of a holiday together; their temple guide finds ecstasy in forbidden love; and the girl is joined by a photographer battling his own demons."

My thoughts: Roy is an author I've been meaning to read for years. I have copies of her earlier books on my shelf, so I was thrilled to see this book, which I had not heard of (there's no announced U.S. release). From the first page, I was enthralled. Nomi, the young woman who is in some ways the center of this novel, is a fascinating character. The first scene is powerful, as are the flashbacks to Nomi's time living in Jarmuli. Although the novel itself stretches for only five days, the reader gets many glimpses into the past.

Roy incorporates a lot of ideas into this novel, and although they are themes I typically respond to, I couldn't shake the idea that in the opening scenes it felt like this novel is about Nomi. I didn't enjoy the scenes with the three old women vacationing as much, and at times felt Roy was writing two different novels. Despite loving one thread of the story and admiring Roy's writing, this novel never quite came together for me. It's good, but it's a shame the whole wasn't as great as some of its parts.

Favorite passage:  "Their train was just a parcel of people rushing through a landscape they had no connection to."

The verdict: Roy's writing is beautiful and makes Jarmuli come alive. Nomi and her story were the highlight of this novel for me, and I wished she had been more of the focus. Parts of this novel are exquisite, but the emphasis shifted too much towards the issues and peripheral characters for my taste.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: April 2, 2015 (UK--no U.S. publication yet)
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Sleeping on Jupiter from Amazon.

Want more? Visit Anuradha Roy's website and like her on Facebook

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

book review: Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

The backstory: Satin Island is on the 2015 Booker Prize longlist.

The basics: I'll let the publisher describe this one for you: "U., a “corporate anthropologist,” is tasked with writing the Great Report, an all-encompassing ethnographic document that would sum up our era. Yet at every turn, he feels himself overwhelmed by the ubiquity of data, lost in buffer zones, wandering through crowds of apparitions, willing them to coalesce into symbols that can be translated into some kind of account that makes sense. As he begins to wonder if the Great Report might remain a shapeless, oozing plasma, his senses are startled awake by a dream of an apocalyptic cityscape."

My thoughts: The cover of this novel is awesome. Many things are crossed out: a treatise, an essay, a report, a confession, and a manifesto. What remains: a novel. Maybe. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone paying attention that McCarthy has written a compelling, unconventional and demanding novel. Phil Hogan's review in The Guardian sums up the novel beautifully:
"At 176 pages, Satin Island isn’t as short as it looks. There’s barely a page where you don’t find yourself coming up for air – yes, sometimes to admire McCarthy’s swashbuckling prose or to digest some startling cerebral insight, but often just to wonder what he’s talking about."
As a reader, I not only found the novel disjointed, but I found the reading experience disjointed. I would read in moments short and long, and I would sometimes find myself re-reading and re-reading and re-reading and wondering what if anything was actually going to happen. Satin Island is a slim novel, but it's also a boring novel. For a novel of ideas, it needed more of them. There are some great ones, but unlike with C, the only other McCarthy novel I've read, the seemingly disparate parts never came together for me here. In some ways it was like I was like I was having a conversation with U himself, and while a few things he said stuck with me, I left feeling as though I don't quite understand him.

The idea of this novel still enchants me: an all-encompassing ethnographic document that would sum up our era? Sign me up! But even as I read that description, I wouldn't match it to this novel. Instead, I'd say U is talking about trying to write such a document rather than actually writing it. It's this very disconnect that is the novel's weakness to me. McCarthy picks an anti-structure as his structure, but it isn't really the product of its prompt.

Favorite passage: "But this didn't trouble the believers. Things like that never do. People need foundation myths, some imprint of year zero, a bolt that secures the scaffolding that in turn holds fast the entire architecture of reality, of time: memory-chambers and oblivion-cellars, walls between eras, hallways that sweep us on towards the end-days and the coming whatever-it-is."

The verdict: To me, it's a given McCarthy is brilliant and a brilliant writer, and there are certainly flashes of brilliance in this novel. But the idea of it is so much more interesting than its execution. For all of the fascinating moments and ideas, there were a lot of dull ones that never developed into something more for me. Recommended for literary fiction fans who enjoy experimental novels.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 208 pages
Publication date: February 17, 2015
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Satin Island from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Two very different reviews: Phil Hogan for The Guardian and Jeff Turrentine for The New York Times. My response is almost identical to Hogan's, which makes me happy because I adored his most recent novel, A Pleasure and a Calling. I appreciate Turrentine's review for its insight into a completely different response to the novel.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

book review: Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

The backstory: Did You Ever Have a Family is on the 2015 Booker Prize longlist. Update: it was also longlisted for the 2015 National Book Award.

The basics: On the night before her daughter Lolly's wedding, June Reid's Connecticut home bursts into flames, killing four people. Lolly and her fiance, June's ex-husband, and June's boyfriend Luke.

My thoughts: Despite not loving Bill Clegg's memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, I did appreciate the quality of his writing, and I was curious to see how his first novel would fare. When it made the Booker Prize longlist, I admit to being surprised. The premise sounds grim and depressing, yet this novel manages to veer towards hope rather than wallow. This shift in tone stems from Clegg's wise choices in timing. It isn't told in a strictly linear way. Most of the focus of the novel is after, but not immediately after. This emotional distance helps the novel feel more redemptive without ignoring the horror of such a loss.

I read Did You Ever Have a Family in a day. I often read novels with multiple narrators quickly, as each switch in narration brings something new and interesting. Clegg has a particular gift for succinct characterization:
"What she saw that Lolly was something she never imagined her to be: an artist. Maybe not a great one--if great could even be designated with empirical accuracy--but someone with an artistic soul who needed to abstract what puzzled her to find the answers." 
Did You Ever Have a Family is ostensibly a mystery, as the narrative is driven by questions: what started the fire? Why was June outside? But as I read, I was less interested in these questions than I was in the questions of after: how will June feel whole again? What does it mean for life to go on? Clegg made me care about these people. The novel is filled with expected narrators and unexpected ones. I delighted in seeing the expected and unexpected ways in which they were connected. Literature is a great connector in my life, and I love escaping into novels that explore the connections of lives.

Favorite passages: "I've never been one to go to church, but I've always believed in a creative intelligence behind the ongoing riddle of the world."

"The world's magic sneaks up on your in secret, settles next to you when you have your head turned."

The verdict: There's a timeless, classical sense to Did You Ever Have a Family. There aren't many markers tying it to a specific time. As I read, it reminded me of the experience of reading Oprah's early book club picks in the 1990's. Did You Ever Have a Family fits in with the themes that tied those disparate books together. It's tragic but redemptive. It offers insight into the ways a wide variety of people think. It explores the lines between social classes. This novel isn't perfect, but I couldn't put it down. It made me feel and it made me think, and what more can I ask novels to do?

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: September 1, 2015
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Did You Ever have a Family from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

book review: Girl at War by Sara Novic

narrated by Julia Whelan

The backstory: Girl at War is on the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize longlist. Update: Girl at War has been longlisted for the 2016 Baileys Prize.

The basics: In 1991, Ana is living a typical ten-year-old's life in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, when the Yugoslavian war breaks out.

My thoughts: I'm about the same age as Ana, so I was immediately drawn into her story. As a ten-year-old, she doesn't understand what's happening, and as a reader, neither did I. I've heard of the war, but my knowledge of it was slim at best. While coming of age stories set against a war backdrop are hardly new, Novic takes Ana's story in unexpected directions.

We enter the story in 1991, but the story is told in several nonlinear parts. The action next jumps to New York City in 2001, where Ana is in college. Novic skillfully moves locations and times in a way that enhance the story, both emotionally and in structurally. Again, I could have been one of Ana's peers in college at that time. I wouldn't have known what country Zagreb was in or the significance of what it meant to be Zagreb. Watching Ana negotiate these social and educational situations was fascinating. She's such a complicated, smart, and flawed character, and I loved spending time in her worlds.

Audiobook thoughts: Julia Whelan's narration was extraordinary. She featured different accents for different characters, which helped bring the Croatian sections to life even more vividly for me. The performance was so well done I had to remind myself it wasn't done with multiple narrators. After listening to it, I came across this essay Novic wrote about what it's like to be a deaf novelist and not be able to experience the audiobook version of your book. It's fascinating!

The verdict: Every so often I read a novel so good that has me gushing with cliched superlatives like haunting and lyrical. Girl at War is indeed a haunting, lyrical novel. It's also smart and beautiful. It's a window into a place and a time I was embarrassingly ignorant about, but it's also a deft depiction of a fascinating character who is both heroine and anti-heroine, extraordinary and ordinary. This novel is one of the best I've read this year, and I hope it becomes a modern classic. It's a novel that reminds me why I so love fiction--it can educate, connect, and remind me of the vastness of our shared humanity.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 7 hours 32 minutes (336 pages)
Publication date: May 12, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Girl at War from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

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