It’s a snowy night in 1910 and Ursula Todd is struggling to breathe as the umbilical cord chokes her to death before she can barely experience birth. Darkness falls.
It’s a snowy night in 1910 and Ursula Todd is born with the help of Dr. Fellowes, who has arrived in time to help mother Sylvie with this tricky birth. And so Ursula’s life begins, until she drowns on a beach trip as a child. Darkness falls.
It’s a snowy night in 1910 and Ursula Todd is born, continuing to relive her life. Each time she instinctually learns to avoid what troubles occurred in a past (or parallel) life, feeling merely like déjà vu. Kate Atkinson’s newest novel Life After Life is a trippy, humorous exploration of life and fate. Ursula’s continuous lives take her through both World Wars, with devastating and intriguing consequences. Atkinson effortlessly captures each time period, with a sharp wit reminiscent of Forster or Waugh.
If the premise sounds too gimmicky, I can assure you it doesn’t read as such. Atkinson makes it easy to get involved in this single life, with crossover themes, characters, moments, that only serve to enrich each new chapter instead of making it feel like a tedious retread of the same events. If Dan Brown’s Inferno is an obvious, thriller page-turner, Life After Life is one of those rare literary page-turners that will keep you up into the wee hours of the night.
I’ve already declared The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards as the best novel of 2013—or at least my favorite book of the year—but Life After Life could easily rival it. Both are entertaining, addicting, witty, incisive, and thought-provoking. I continue to think about the lives of Ursula and their implications, and I’m already eager to reread the novel.
Posted by xoxojk on June 10, 2013
Dan Brown has certainly outdone himself this time. After that less-than-stellar Robert Langdon offering, The Lost Symbol, Brown takes his favorite protagonist back to Europe for Inferno. Set mainly in Florence, this new thriller is instantly cinematic and piping with energy. It takes not 10 pages to instantly suck you in.
Langdon awakes in a hospital and is informed by a beautiful woman, Dr. Sienna Brooks, that a bullet grazed his head and he is now suffering from acute amnesia. He is quickly distracted from his surprise upon learning he is in Italy (his last memory from a couple days ago is being at Harvard) by the arrival of spiky-haired assassin Vayentha who shoots up the hospital in pursuit of Robert. Sienna flees with him, leading him to her apartment where they regroup. There he discovers a small cylinder with a biohazard symbol in the lining of his jacket. Opening that cylinder sets him on his newest symbol-driven quest, this time to prevent an ominous Black Plague lurking in the near future.
As can be construed from the title, the framework for the mysteries in this novel are centered around Dante’s Inferno. Once again, Brown seamlessly intertwines mythology and symbolism with classic architecture and settings and modern technology. As the fourth Langdon novel, Inferno may seem poised to be a tiresome retread; but Brown breathes new life into this character, subverting many of his quirks in a fun, winking way. While nothing could ever match the sheer enormity of The Da Vinci Code, Inferno is possibly Brown’s best novel—at least his most captivating. This is one page-turner that you should definitely read this balmy summer, maybe right after you book your flight to Florence.
Posted by xoxojk on June 7, 2013
Fans of The Devil Wears Prada have been eagerly anticipating Lauren Weisberger’s follow-up novel (or at least some of them have). Weisberger herself has said that she’s been eager to revisit her beloved characters from her hit debut novel—even going so far as to say that she’s forgotten where her characters end and the film’s characters begin. And so Revenge Wears Prada was conceived. Unfortunately, it seems that the Prada brand is fading.
It’s been almost 10 years since Andy Sachs told Miranda Priestly to “fuck off” in Paris, and Andy’s life hasn’t turned out so bad. She is the editor-in-chief of the high glamour wedding magazine The Plunge with publisher Emily Charlton (yes, that Emily), who also happens to be Andrea’s current BFF. And she is about to marry the handsome, society darling Max Harrison. Yet she is still haunted by that damn ringtone (and rightfully so).
But there are some surprises lurking in Andy’s future. Since Weisberger (and even the novel’s inside flap) have been mum about what happens beyond the first chapter, I’ll refrain from many “spoilers.” Amidst a series of personal surprises, Andy faces a very important business surprise in the form of the devil herself, Miranda. Now the head of Elias-Clarke (and still editor-in-chief of Runway), Miranda is intent on adding The Plunge to Elias-Clarke’s catalog, a thought that gives Andy night tremors. Now Andy must face some life-changing decisions in a whorl of contradictory advice from her friends and family.
And therein lies the biggest problem with Revenge Wears Prada. Andy’s decision regarding Miranda’s acquisition of The Plunge is the backbone of the entire novel. Except that for Andy, it’s an easy answer: no. She never again wants to be working for Miranda, at her every beck and call and whim, losing all creative control of this magazine that she built from the ground up. Unfortunately, Andy is too meek, too people-pleasing to straight-up confront Emily about their conflicting ideas regarding the magazine’s future. Instead, she postpones the decision for over 200 pages, resulting in a very dramatic climax that comes far too late in the game to redeem the story.
While I enjoyed catching up with all the characters—and I especially enjoyed the budding friendship between Andy and Emily—the story itself gets lost in all the mess. Weisberger stalls Andy, inserting throwaway stories about celebrity brides being interviewed for the magazine that resemble her other novels more than the world of Prada. She does attempt to instill some of that Runway glamour into the novel, but those parties and events are weighed down by all of Andy’s insufferable fretting and rehashing of feelings. You want to just scream at her to make a decision (instead of standing there stuck “on the steps of the palace”).
There are certainly some great chapters intermixed with the bad that will appease and entertain fans of Weisberger and/or Prada, but the book certainly doesn’t feel cinematic enough to warrant it’s own filmic adaptation. And the title Revenge appears to be a misnomer as there is no one seeking malicious vengeance (even though I spent the entire novel predicting devious motivations for Miranda’s actions). Revenge Wears Prada is a disappointing sequel and a disappointing addition to Weisberger’s writing.
Posted by xoxojk on June 6, 2013
Everyone is familiar with Henry VIII’s story, one way or another. Whether from TV (The Tudors) or film (The Other Boleyn Girl) or just plain old history class, we all know about King Henry’s driving desire for divorce in his quest for a male heir. But acclaimed author Hilary Mantel approaches the story from a different angle in Wolf Hall. She tells the story of Henry VIII and England in the early 1500s through protagonist Thomas Cromwell.
Cromwell rose from his working-class family and abusive father into the tutelage of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, feared advisor of the King. Learning from the master of manipulation, Cromwell takes over after Wolsey’s death, assisting the King in obtaining a divorce so he can marry Anne Boleyn. What results is a character study hidden within a game for the throne and Henry’s heir.
Mantel’s Wolf Hall is just the first in a planned trilogy following Cromwell in England’s history. She has a very unique voice that takes some acclimatizing to. While told in the omniscient third person, everything unfolds from Cromwell’s perspective with Mantel referring to him constantly as “he” in similar fashion to a first-person narrator referring to themselves as “I.” This removed yet personal perspective gives you a new outlook into the world of England at this time while still providing humorous moments and observations.
For anyone in love with English history, this a new take on an old story. Because Wolf Hall is a part of a trilogy, much of the novel is spent developing Cromwell as a character and setting up many of the other royal characters. It takes nearly 2/3 of the book before it feels that something is really happening with the Anne Boleyn plot, and the ending (dealing with Thomas More) feels anticlimactic. Yet I still find myself eager to read Bringing Up Bodies (the sequel), so it appears that Mantel is at least a captivating storyteller.
Posted by xoxojk on May 10, 2013
A Nearly Perfect Copy tells two very different yet tangentially connected stories about copies—one involving cloning, the other art forgeries. Reeling from the devastating loss of her young son, Elm falls down a rabbit hole of science-fiction proportions when she discovers a way to potentially clone her son, thus returning him to her. Meanwhile, struggling painter Gabriel Connois gets involved in a lucrative art forgery plot as he puts to use his skills at creating paintings in the style of his great-grandfather, the renowned painter Marcel Connois.
Both stories could be compelling, fully-imagined stories in their own right; but author Allison Amend mashes these two stories together in a very trite and arbitrary way. While both characters are well developed, the parallel worlds they inhabit are hard to jump back and forth between. And Elm’s professional life as an art expert in an auction house distracts from her cloning plotline as Amend tries to make her career relevant to Gabriel’s life.
In the end, A Nearly Perfect Copy suffers from trying too hard. Amend is desperately trying to engage the reader in a conversation about copying, whether in art or in our personal lives. And although she has some valid arguments to present, her convoluted novel is not the ideal setting for such a discussion—especially with such depressing storylines weighing down the central characters and the novel’s tone.
Posted by xoxojk on May 9, 2013
Attention Upper East Siders, Gossip Girl here…or rather, gRaCeFULLY here, your guide to the scandalous lives of Grace Hall prep school’s elite. So goes Kimberly McCreight’s addicting debut novel being rightfully hailed as this year’s Gone Girl. When Amelia jumps off her school’s roof after being charged with plagiarizing her Virginia Woolf paper, her lawyer mother Kate takes it upon herself to investigate her daughter’s death—since Amelia had zero suicidal tendencies and a passion for Woolf. Plus, Kate gets an anonymous text saying, “Amelia didn’t jump.”
The chapters jump between Kate in the present, uncovering her daughters’ secrets and Amelia’s past leading up to her death. Interspersed are text conversations, gRaCeFULLY posts, email exchanges that further illuminate the secrets these women are hiding. It’s an immersive structure that is imminently readable while also providing compelling commentary on the social media conversational gap between parents and children. There are also a lot of relevant plot points involving school bullying, Internet friendships, and adults’ responsibilities towards teenagers.
McCreight weaves in plot twists left and right that are both unpredictable and satisfying. Though not as dark and psychologically disturbing as Gone Girl, Reconstructing Amelia is a great, swift read that’ll keep you up until the wee hours, trying to uncover all the secrets. This is one novel that should be at the top of your summer reading pile (right after this and this, of course).
Posted by xoxojk on May 9, 2013
“When you haven’t had sex in a long time, it feels like the worst thing that could ever happen. If you’re living in Germany in the 1930s, it probably isn’t.” So begins the blurb to describe Ned Beauman’s The Teleporation Accident; and for theatrical set designer Egon Loeser, having sex is the seemingly most important thing—more important than following current political plots. But when he reconnects with Adele Hitler (no relation to Adolf), his obsession with sex focuses solely on winning over this captivating girl.
He follows her from Berlin to Paris and Los Angeles in a quest to win her love, but in the process he gets inadvertently caught up in the political machinations of the time. Surrounded by a cast of hilarious, satirical characters including the blond Brit hack writer Rackenham; gay best friend and budding Nazi Achleitner; and reclusive, disturbed scientist Bailey, Loeser’s adventures take some surprising twists as he spends nearly a decade trying to bed Adele.
Sprinkled throughout the novel are circular references to the famed teleportation accident by stage designer Lavicini in 1679 that inspired Loeser’s recreation of said accident in a sprawling play about Lavicini’s life. Beauman’s inventive story-within-a-story is more akin to Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin than David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but either way he’s in good company. The Scotsman newspaper accurately attributes his style and influence in this quotation, “It’s as if the English tradition of humorous novels (P.G. Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh) and American crime fiction (Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth) have had their molecules recombined.” And if that isn’t a glowing enough recommendation, then I don’t know what to tell you.
If you enjoyed the winding, winking storytelling of Kristopher Jansma’s The Unchangeable Spots of the Leopards then you’ll easily get sucked into Beauman’s novel. Both are the best novels I’ve read this year, making it nearly impossible for any other author to surpass the wit expressed within these pages (but I certainly dare authors to try).
Posted by xoxojk on May 8, 2013
What if you had special powers—but only temporarily? The family at the center of What the Family Needed chooses to use their powers for almost selfish reasons. Author Steven Amsterdam draws from the pop culture obsession with superheroes to tell a tale that’s far more down-to-earth and personal. Their powers may only come for a small time, but they way they use them affects their lives, generally for the better.
Each chapter focuses on a different character, chronicling the family over a couple of decades. Some of the chapters are duds—I almost shut the book when I read the dull chapter about the dad who flies, trying to escape his rut of a life. But some of them are highly engaging—young Giordana turns herself invisible and spies on those closest to her (including watching her brother have sex with their cousins’ babysitter). Amsterdam easily captures each character’s voice in his chapters, allowing you to get inside their thoughts. But what really keeps you engaged is trying to uncover what is going on with troubled child Alek (his chapter, the final one, definitely made up for what I disliked about the rest of the novel).
What the Family Needed is ofttimes too earnest to be enjoyable. The characters all want to be such good people. But Amsterdam’s tight, insightful prose makes up for all the forced poignancy. If you’re looking for a short, personal novel, then this one will suffice—especially if you’ve always wanted X-Men-like powers.
Posted by xoxojk on April 12, 2013
Jonathan Dee’s new novel, A Thousand Pardons, explores second chances and the ever-changing concept of the American Dream. Starting with cliché suburban couple Ben and Helen Armstead and their adopted daughter Sara, Pardons follows the detonation of this family and their attempts to find some form of a livable existence. While at times humorous, the novel fails to reach any true level of enlightenment.
When Ben’s drunk driving accident brings shame on his family, he divorces himself from their lives and clocks in some time in jail. Having to work for the first time in nearly two decades, Helen struggles to find a job in a completely different market from what she’s used to (computers and social media are not her forte). And teenage Sara is just so disillusioned with her parents’ drama and inevitably falls for the rebellious boy at her new school.
Dee does a great job of starting with a—painfully—cliché premise and taking it to an interesting place. His insight into the character’s psyches is at times fascinating while also lending itself to the methodical style of John Grisham. Although Helen’s storyline goes into an interesting direction (involving a nuanced PR tactic of apologizing for wrongdoing), the rest of the characters fall flat. But as the novel moves into thriller territory, Pardons seems to lose its own identity.
Maybe in the hands of a different writer, these characters could’ve been more engaging. Tom Perrotta could’ve really brought them to life, I’m sure; and had Grisham actually written it, the climax would’ve been a lot more thrilling. Sadly, Pardons never quite reaches its potential; making it just another mediocre novel about American life.
Posted by xoxojk on April 9, 2013
Kristopher Jansma’s debut novel The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is the first great book of 2013 (and will probably be my favorite for the rest of the year). Tackling themes of identity and truth, Leopards follows a writers’ life as he attempts to pen a great novel. Everything he writes is based on truth, but slanted truth; and the more he continues to slant the truth the more his own personal truth becomes slanted.
Without ruining too much of the novel (since seeing it all unfold is a treat in itself), the story focuses on this unnamed writer, his best friend and rival writer Julian McMann, and the beautiful actress Evelyn Lynn Madison Demont. Their eccentricities bring them together but could potentially lead to personal destruction.
Jansma uses these characters for his own exploration in storytelling. Jansma’s story resembles those of John Irving—just substitute leopards for bears and Luxembourg for Vienna—but with light, crisp prose in lieu of Irving’s denser style. His writing can be equally devastating and humorous—usually on the same page. And the book’s matroshka doll structure is reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas by way of Brideshead Revisited. There are so many layers and recurring motifs used throughout that you’ll want to reread the novel immediately to see what you missed (in similar fashion to Michael Ondaatje’s fascinating novel Divisadero).
Leopards can best be described as Jansma inadvertently (or maybe intentionally) writes in his novel: “It is the rare of sort of book that resembles nothing else and yet somehow seems intensely familiar. From the first line you feel your own heart begin to beat differently. Once it’s over you want to begin it again.” This perfectly sums up how reading this novel feels, and I definitely encourage you to devour this novel as soon as possible.
(Other) Similar Reads:
Posted by xoxojk on April 8, 2013