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.
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Posted by xoxojk on April 8, 2013
J.K. Rowling’s latest tome isn’t a book about a young wizard but instead about the political machinations of a small British town. Doing her best to channel contemporary British author Zadie Smith (a great choice of a writer to emulate), Rowling’s novel tackles class, race, and ethics in this small community of characters. Despite her efforts to make The Casual Vacancy an adult book (which it certainly is), it is the group of adolescents that provide not only the backbone for the story but also the more compelling characters in the story.
When beloved Barry Fairbrother dies, a casual vacancy is left open on the parish council. As the citizens of Pagford scramble to find a replacement, a malicious campaign for the vacancy ensues. And as The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother mysteriously begins posting rumors on the council website, some of these characters’ darkest secrets are exposed.
The sheer number of characters in this novel makes starting the story feel almost exhausting. Being in such a small town, they are all linked to each other, which makes it both difficult to grasp at first but also easier to keep track of them all later in the story. Fortunately, unlike other long novels, Rowling starts advancing the story early, making it much easier to get engrossed in this sprawling novel. She has also populated Pagford with engaging characters whose eccentricities build up to a terrific boiling point.
While at times Rowling’s intricately detailed story may feel exhausting, it becomes clear she knows exactly where the story is headed, effortlessly leading you to the climax. She’s able to weave her complex story through various character perspectives that jump not only through each chapter but sometimes within the chapters themselves (sometimes requiring a very close reading as she jumps around a large gathering). All of this works in your favor as you reach the very rewarding ending.
I’m hopeful that Rowling will continue to write these adult-oriented novels as she continues to develop her writing voice (a few of the techniques she uses throughout the novel prove that she has a lot to offer). I’m also hopeful that the upcoming BBC miniseries adaptation will prove to be an equally complex and engaging story, bringing to life these great characters.
Posted by xoxojk on March 26, 2013
Tom Wolfe brings his signature style to the racially diverse world of Miami in his newest novel Back to Blood. Following Cuban cop Nestor Camacho’s riotous exploits, the story expands into an ensemble look at the various ethnic groups and social classes that populate this city. By the end of the novel, you’ll be prepared for your own Miami vacation—that is, if you want to eat pastelitos, visit restaurants frequented by Russian mobsters, or attend a regatta orgy.
The first third of the book is comprised of a series of portraits of the various characters that populate the city (and the story). They are all very loosely connected, if at all, and can make reading the novel feel taxing (especially as the writing begins to feel excessively repetitious in exploring the minutiae of this world). But once Wolfe gets into the main narrative, all of the setup feels worthwhile (what else would you expect from a 700-page novel?). The final two-thirds are a compulsively readable adventure into the lives of these characters.
Wolfe’s writing style oozes onomatopoeia mixed with internal character monologues, really setting it apart from anything else you’ll have ever read. It provides a sharp contrast between the clashing social classes and ethnicities while also providing relevant cultural commentary ranging from YouTube fame to the snobbery of the art world. Even someone thoroughly obsessed with New York City (as I am) could derive enjoyment from this almost-foreign American city.
Posted by xoxojk on March 14, 2013
Percy Jackson and Co. are back for another terrific adventure in The Mark of Athena. In the third installment of Rick Riordan’s The Heroes of Olympus, the demigods must fly to Rome to save Nico from some twin giants and find Athena’s statue that will unite the Greek and Roman camps. After spending books 1 & 2 introducing the demigods and establishing the stakes of the overarching quest of the series, all seven characters are now united together, making this the most crowded of Riordan’s novels.
Riordan continues his trend of four consecutive chapters narrated by one character as the story shuffles from person to person. Fortunately, he doesn’t give all seven of them chapters; but, instead, focuses on Annabeth, Percy, Leo, and Piper, emphasizing their characters arcs in this novel (saving us from the tedium of Hazel and Frank chapters that bogged down the previous novel, while providing fodder for their unlikely love triangle with Leo). Unfortunately, Riordan gets into a frustrating structural loop with the four chapters per person cycle. The first two are dedicated to expositional and travel purposes and the other two build up to a battle scene with gods or monsters. The perspective then switches to the next character and the cycle is repeated. It quickly becomes both predictable and tiring, which makes slugging through the middle of the book a challenge on par with these demigods’ quest.
But Riordan knows how to tell an engaging story, and all his plot threads tie up perfectly. And this series is so well thought out, that he can already hint to the events to come in the next book—giving each of these books a great cliffhanger ending. So far, I find the Heroes of Olympus series a much more fascinating and rewarding read than his original Percy Jackson and the Olympians series (which I also absolutely adore).
Posted by xoxojk on February 5, 2013
Bernadette, a reclusive yet insightful architect, has vanished, seemingly into thin air. Her husband, Elgin, seems more concerned with developing his revolutionary new Microsoft program than finding her. Thus, it falls on her daughter Bee’s shoulders to discover where Bernadette disappeared. Told through e-mail and snail mail correspondence between characters, the mysterious circumstances around Bernadette’s disappearance became hilariously apparent.
Author Maria Semple is familiar with comedic dysfunctional families through her involvement with Arrested Development and Mad About You, and she applies this knowledge perfectly. The fully-realized characters that inhabit this novel are both absurd and relatable. And the whimsicality of the story and writing make this both a swift and entertaining read. Not since I read Sophie Kinsella’s I’ve Got Your Number have I been so amused by a novel.
Humorous novels are hard to pull off. Reading does not lend itself to LOL levels of comedy. But Semple’s perfectly crafted story combines so many random elements that you can’t help but laugh when you see how all the pieces fit together. Bernadette is definitely one novel that you’ll want to devour some lazy weekend.
Posted by xoxojk on January 28, 2013