Tag Archives: Audrey Niffenegger

Isn’t It a Pity

13 rue Therese: A Novel by Elena Mauli Shapiro (Reagan Arthur Books; $23.99; 288 pages)

Initially this appears to be a beautifully presented novel based on the possessions of a woman who once lived in the early 1900s (experiencing both World Wars), in Paris.   The graphic reproductions of items owned by Louise Brunet, which came into the author’s possession as a young girl, are reproduced in a high-class manner.   Unfortunately, this story also contains some troubling characteristics which ruined the experience for this reader.

In the early 1980s, the author’s mother salvaged a small box of mementos formerly owned by Mrs. Brunet:  “This box is the sepulcher of Louise Brunet’s heart.   The story behind the objects is lost; the objects are now the story…  As I have carried this strange box through life and across the world, I have always intended to make a book out of it.   This book now exists; you hold it in your hands.”

It is a charming and promising premise – fleshing out an unknown life via the author’s imagination.   A great deal of the content involves the lives of French people, men and women, during World War I.   The read is initially quite engaging as we encounter an American historical researcher-professor, living in the present day, who comes across Mrs. Brunet’s possessions and begins – as he charts out the happenings of her life – to fall in love with her.   It will be an unrequited love except for the fact that through a miracle of time travel he comes to meet her face to face.   Having met Mrs. Brunet, the researcher is essentially freed to fall in love with a woman of his own time.

All of this has a Somewhere in Time or The Time Traveler’s Wife aspect to it, which seems wonderful on its face.   And yet, the Louise Brunet that the reader comes to identify with in the first half of the novel turns into a madwoman in its concluding portion.   This is a happily married woman – a woman who has never had a child – who engages in an affair with a married neighbor, knowing full well that it is wrong and that she takes the chance of getting pregnant; something that would destroy her marriage and world.

This female protagonist also engages in crimes and enjoys confessing her sins to a Catholic priest, to the point where she laughs hysterically after confessing her adultery.   It all seems strange and disjointed, as if the two halves of the novel do not fit together properly.   But this is not the biggest issue with the telling.

“She does not understand the power of that man’s body over her…  He is like a poison in her, all the more potent because she doesn’t want an antidote.   She welcomes this disease of desire.”

The major problem with 13 rue Therese is that the sex scenes are described in terms more than a bit reminiscent of Lady Chatterley’s Lover – rude, crude and shocking.   The polite language of an earlier time gives way to terms that appear to be deliberately intended to shock the once comfortable reader.   Perhaps this was done deliberately as an attempt to demonstrate the lack of control that overtakes Louise, a woman ready to destroy her life for a man she’s attracted to even while she does not understand that attraction.

In summary, 13 rue Therese is like one of those schizophrenic films (the movie version of Steve Martin’s Shopgirl comes to mind) that is quite pleasurable for the first hour, but hard to watch for the second.   This is a novel with great potential that simply self-destructs, and concludes in a rather mundane fashion.   It’s a pity.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   This novel was released today.

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Two of Us

The Last Will of Moira Leahy: A Novel by Therese Walsh (Three Rivers Press; $15.00; 304 pages)

Therese Walsh’s first novel is a story of twins; a pair of near mystical sisters who call to mind the twins in Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.   The twins share thoughts, a unique language and their lives until an accident with tragic consequences for the piano-playing prodigy Moira.   Maeve, the narrator, must then find the means to continue her life on her own.   She’s assisted on her journey by finding a magical keris sword, and this leads her to Europe, where she finds out special things about her life and her sister’s life.

Maeve blames herself for the accident involving Moira and the journey that she takes provides her with a new perspective and much-needed forgiveness.   This is a well-told and very entertaining read from Walsh, although the reader must be willing to suspend reality as parts border on magic and science fiction.   There’s also a tremendous amount of jumping around, jarring the reader’s patience with the lack of chronological order.  

Sticking with the story until the end will, however, reward the reader with a satisfying conclusion to this unique tale by a very promising writer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

   “This tender tale of sisterhood, self-discovery, and forgiveness will captivate fans of contemporary women’s fiction.”   Library Journal

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Book of the Year

Last year, I selected Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel by Audrey Niffenegger as the book of the year.   This year, I’m selecting a novel that is just as daring, powerful and unique – American Music by Jane Mendelsohn.   A long review of American Music was posted on this site on August 22, 2010.   To find that initial review, enter the terms Other Voices, Other Rooms (a tip of the hat to Truman Capote) in the Search It! box on the right and hit enter.

Here is a shorter review that I wrote for Sacramento Book Review:

“He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”

Author Jane Mendelsohn has produced a taut, sui generis story that should be a major contender for novel of the year.   The storyline is truly unique:  A severely injured Iraq war veteran is treated by a female physical therapist at a U.S. army hospital.   As she works on him, she sees and hears stories that radiate from his body – these stories involve events in 1623, 1936 and 1969.   What’s the meaning of these past lives, and what is their relationship to each other and to the wounded soldier?   The typical reader will want to race through the pages to find the answers.

A love of music is one common factor, from the creation of the modern drum cymbal to one of jazz’s greatest concerts.   But this is a story that involves more than just mortal humans and their musical creations, there are ghosts and guardian angels in the mix.   Suffice it to say that Mendelsohn brings to life the words of Jackson Browne, “Tracing our steps from the beginning…  Trying to understand how our lives had led us there.”   There are few writers other than Jane Mendelsohn who would tackle something this brilliant, stunning and divinely thought-provoking.

Joseph Arellano

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A Great Book Giveaway

This site picked Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger as the best book released in the year 2009.   Now, thanks to Regal Literary, we are happy to celebrate the release of this novel in trade paperback form by giving away a free copy!

How much, exactly, did we love Her Fearful Symmetry?   Well, we published not one or two but three separate reviews of the dramatic ghost story (September 23, 2009; September 28, 2009; November 7, 2009).   Here is a link to the first of the three reviews (“What Comes After”) that we posted:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2009/09/23/what-comes-after/

So, how can you win your own copy?   It’s simple, just post a comment here or send an e-mail with your name and an e-mail address to: Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, tell me why stories about ghosts and/or twins are so very interesting (at least I find them so).   There are no right or wrong answers, just tell me what you think.   You have until midnight PST on Friday, September 10, 2010 to submit your entry(s).

The winner, as drawn by Munchy the cat, will be notified via e-mail and will have 72 hours to provide a residential mailing address in the United States.   The winner’s copy of Her Fearful Symmetry will be shipped directly to her/him by Regal Literary.   The book will not be sent to a business address or a P.O. box.  This is it for the simple rules.

Good luck and good reading!

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A Simple Question

A Simple Question, Not So Easily Answered by Joseph Arellano

One seemingly easy question facing a book reviewer is – When should a book review be published?   Yet the answer varies greatly – and surprisingly – in the publishing industry.   I say surprisingly because I once wrote music reviews for a college newspaper.   At that time, if one asked when a record album review should be published, the answer would be “any time is fine.”   Record companies did not seem to care whether their albums were reviewed prior to release, on the date of release or even days, weeks or months later.   (Today you can find books with recent reviews of record albums that were released decades ago.)

Major publishers have so many different policies on book reviews that it’s a wonder they’ve been able to agree on an International Standard Book Number (ISBN).   One publisher wants no reviews posted prior to the date of release because, in their view, people get angry if they read about a new release and can’t find it at their local Barnes and Noble or favorite independent bookseller.   Another says a review is OK if it is posted one week or less before the release date.   Several publishing houses encourage book reviewers to post their reviews within the first one or two weeks following the book’s release.

If this isn’t confusing enough, a few publishers indicate that they do not embargo reviews.   In other words, if a reviewer has a galley or advance review copy (ARC) of a future release in his/her hands and wants to write about it now, that’s fine.

There’s similar confusion over posting pre-release excerpts; so-called sneak peeks.   Some publishers won’t allow them.   Some will allow them if the reviewer requests permission, and will then respond with specifics as to when the excerpt can be posted online or in print.   Ironically, some of the publishers who do not allow the posting of pre-release excerpts themselves post them on their websites or on online sites which cater to librarians and booksellers!

Confusing, huh?   You bet…

Then we have the policies of book review publications to which reviewers like me submit reviews.   Some want only reviews that they’ve received prior to the book’s release date so that they can post on the date of release.   Some review only new releases (often in hardbound form) but not the subsequent popular re-releases in trade paperback form.   Some, like this publication, review new releases and those re-releases missed the first time around.   It all means that a book reviewer needs something akin to a flow chart to track which policy applies to which publisher, and which policy applies to which publication.   Oh, my!

Why do things have to be so confusing?   I have no idea, except that if a publishing company foots the bill – and assumes all the risks of failure – it is fair to assume that the publisher can call the shots.   However, if I ran a publishing house – let’s call it Brown Cat Books for the purpose of illustration – I would have no problem with reviews of BCB releases running at any time.   Why?   Because from everything I’ve read, publishers must rely on the sale of back catalog books to keep them in business.

Think about high school and college students, and boomers who walk into a Barnes & Noble or community bookstore these days.   How many of them would you guess are buying a book that was released more than a year or two ago?   Perhaps not half of them, but it’s probably a higher number than your first guess.

Despite my view, one source has written that the expiration date for buzz to be generated on a new book is its release date.   In this source’s view, if people are not talking about it – and reading about it – on the first day it is sold, it is not likely to become a best seller; which translates into dead on arrival.   Yes, of course, there are and have been spectacular exceptions to this “rule” – two examples being The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Lovely Bones.   These are popular fiction releases that took months and years to become overnight best sellers.

This reviewer simply wonders sometimes why things are as they are in the publishing trade, but then I can’t complain.   I just need to remember to continuously update my Publishers and Publications Review Policies flow chart.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   Written for “The Critical Eye” column.

Pictured:  The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel by Maddie Dawson, which will be released by Shaye Areheart Books on August 3, 2010.

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Finding the Balance

Finding the Balance in Book Reviewing

A book reviewer needs to find a fine balance in approaching a new work of fiction, although the reviewer is not always going to deliver the product that each reader is seeking.   A review should perform a service by answering the question, “Is this book worth my money or – even more importantly – my time?”   Still, there are other considerations.

Just a Synopsis

First, there’s the knowledge that some readers simply want a synopsis of the story.   Although they could look this up at Google Books or Amazon or elsewhere, they want to know the plot and what the book’s about.   And some reviewers, often newspaper-based, just deliver this skeletal information.   But it’s about as helpful as one of those new car write-ups in which the test driver/journalist tells you everything about the car (price, features, and available options) except whether or not it’s fun to drive.   So a review needs to be more than just a summary.

Is it the Singer or the Song?

The first thing to be analyzed about a new novel is whether the magic lies in the story or in the telling.   Is it the song (story) or the singer (writer)?   If the strength is in the story, then the plot should be laid out in the review, stopping short of revealing the conclusion.   Some authors who are not necessarily the most skilled writers make their living off of great plots, great set-ups.   This being said, many new authors write debuts that start off strong but lose their focus half or two-thirds of the way though.   Good to great ideas are not always sustainable over 300-plus pages.

If the story is not much, but the writing is impressive, then that’s what the reviewer should focus on.   Audrey Niffenegger, for example, does not come up with the most complicated plots…   Her Fearful Symmetry is a ghost story.   So much for the plot, except that she writes the heck out of it; which is why she makes millions per novel.   Hand another 100 writers the same plot, and it’s doubtful that any one of them would write a tale that’s in the same league.   And that’s reality, as John Lennon would say.

Negative Reviews

Once a decision is made as to whether the book has a strong plot or rests on technique, the direction of the review should be clear.   Some novels, sadly, are not going to be excellent in either category.   This may result in what’s called a “negative” review, which may bother some readers of reviews.   It bothers the review writer, also.   Reviewers would love to love everything they devote their time to reading but, in the end, reviewers must have a commitment to truth as they see it…   And if you don’t like the reviewer’s opinion, keep in mind that it’s just that.  

What is, and should be, the reviewer’s obligation is to explain how he or she arrived at his opinion; building the case for the opinion.   You do not have to agree, but you should be able to examine the thought process that a reviewer went through in arriving at a positive or negative opinion.

Opinions

About opinions – sometimes they’re everything in life, sometimes they’re nothing.   Brian Epstein’s guess that the Beatles were a pretty good band was a pretty good opinion.   The opinion of the guy at Decca Records in London who passed on signing them (“The days of guitar bands has passed.”) was nothing.   But he may have been the guy who signed the Rolling Stones to the label.   Such is life.

A Final Issue

Should a reviewer read other reviews of the same book before writing his or her own?   It is probably best avoided until after the review is written, so that the reviewer is not influenced by the opinion of others.   Reviewing is not – and should not be – about finding consensus or mirroring public opinion.   It can, however, be helpful for a reviewer to scan other reviews in order to spot unique literary devices.   For example, earlier, I read a review in a newspaper in which the reviewer compared the novel’s story line to a bit of poetry.   I really liked that, so the very next time I read a novel, I searched for a line of poetry that seemed relevant for the review and I included it.

A nice idea and, hey, I don’t think anyone has a copyright on dead poets!

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review and San Francisco Book Review.   First in a series.

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Clarissa Gets Her Wings

How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly by Connie May Fowler

“Life is too short, the ghost knew, for a woman to waste it on a man who did not know how to love.”

This is a very entertaining novel about personal liberation.   Our protagonist is the interestingly named Clarissa Burden, a novelist who is burdened by being married to “an amoral and dangerous man.”   Clarissa lives in an ancient home in south Florida that’s also inhabited by a family of ghosts (ghosts being the biggest trend in current fiction behind vampires) and thinking animals and insects.   Fowler makes quite clear that this story of one woman gaining freedom is meant to be symbolic of something far larger:  “Hers was not so much a private, primal scream as it was a release of all the vicissitudes that all women through all time had ever experienced.   Subservience wasn’t their game.”

This serio-comic novel is uplifting while also being quite a fun read.   Not only do we have human ghosts, we also have a ghost fly that’s in love with Clarissa – the woman who killed him – and we have circus dwarfs, mistakenly referred to by Clarissa as midgets.   As with Audrey Niffenegger, Fowler saves some of her best writing for the descriptions of the ghost of Olga Villada, the first owner of the home she lives in:  “Olga spun toward the middle of the room…  She began to whirl, faster and faster…”   Clarissa stood “in the shadow of a whirling ghost.”

Clarissa’s ancient home is “full of haunts” but this is less disturbing to her than her husband’s lusting after other women (primarily young ones) and her difficulty in resuming her previously successful writing career.   She no longer experiences “the same feeling she experienced in the old days when she was writing and writing well, when she knew the next word she typed would be not simply an okay word or a good word, but the only word in all the English language that would do.”

Clarissa leads a frustrated life of writer’s block and blocked emotions until she meets a young male writer, a prior acquaintance, who shows her the path to freedom.   However, don’t fear as this tale never gets too serious or too preachy…   In fact, it concludes with a hilarious shaggy-dog story-type ending involving the dwarfs’ circus and an adventurous dog that will make a perfect ending for a film version.

Reading How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly is like taking a nice cooling shower on a hot and muggy day in southern Florida.   Refreshing!

Highly recommended.

Reprinted courtesy of the New York Journal of Books.

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Only Us

I’m coming home again, home again / And I hear you calling me home again / I am coming home again    Peter Gabriel

When the dead are done with the living, the living can go on to other things.    Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

So here is what we know about The Lovely Bones, a novel by Alice Sebold.   It was first published in 2002 and took seven full years to gain some traction.   Then it belatedly became a best-seller in book form and was made into a relatively successful film.   Some claim that the unique story was first recognized by young adults who gravitated toward the tale of a young woman who was killed by a serial murderer; a girl who monitors the search for her killer from heaven, while also monitoring the activities of her father, mother, maternal grandmother and sister.

Sebold herself has indicated that she wrote the story in order to give life to the invisible victims, the young long-haired women, killed by serial killers like Ted Bundy.   We also know, by a quick glance at a few websites where readers can post their comments, that most readers seem to experience either a love or hate relationship with this novel.   Which makes me different, I suppose…   I didn’t find The Lovely Bones to be one of the best stories I’ve read nor one of the worst.   I would not assign it an A or an F but, if placed on a polygraph, I’d give it – at best – a C+ to B- grade.

Much credit goes to Sebold for fashioning a unique story that starts off so, well, so tragically.   We feel the death of Susie Salmon and take it personally.   More than anything, we want justice and revenge.   We want to see her killer, Mr. Harvey, captured and punished and this is why we keep reading.   And this is where the problems begin.   After such a great start, the story seems to plod along for chapter after chapter.  

As with the twins in Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, ghosts are real in Sebold’s novel.   They appear to the living “like an unexplained breeze,” or an image that’s there for just a second.   But I wished so very much that this story – which at its end still felt like the skeleton of a story – had been written by Niffenegger who would have added flesh and blood.   Perhaps the biggest flaw with Bones is that the villain eventually meets, or is given, justice in an artificial manner that comes off as totally fake…  It won’t be disclosed here, but it’s an inside joke on something that occurs earlier in the telling, something juvenile.

Sebold’s strength is in creating an artificial world, if not a universe, in which the living and the dead miss each other.   She uses her story to assure us that life goes on (even in death), that love conquers all, and that unless we move forward each day, “Life is a perpetual yesterday for us.”   Yet, I doubt that I would purchase another work by this author and (based on the audio excerpts I’ve heard) I would certainly not be interested in reading The Almost Moon.

This review is based on the unabridged 10.5 hour audiobook (9 CD) version of The Lovely Bones ($19.98 U.S./ $24.98 Canada), read by the author and purchased by the reviewer.

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The Best Book of 2009

It really was not close, although Everything Matters!: A Novel by Ron Currie, Jr. is a very, very good runner-up.   Instead we have no choice but to choose Audrey Niffenegger’s follow-up to The Time Traveler’s Wife.   Yes, Her Fearful Symmetry is this site’s choice as the very best book published in 2009.

How good was it?   Well, we felt we needed to post three separate reviews to do the book justice.   Even then we likely fell short.   Our reviews were posted here on September 23, 2009 (6 days before the book’s release); September 28, 2009; and on November 7, 2009.   To revisit these reviews type the following search terms into the Search It! box on the right:  her fearful symmetry; take two…; what comes after.  

We can only hope that Ms. Niffenegger is now working on a third novel for release in 2011.   We will wait, anxiously – helplessly hoping.

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Homer and Langely

Home & Langely: A Novel by E. L. Doctorow

“I am telling you what I know – words have music and if you are a musician you will write to hear them.”

I believe it was John Updike who said, “Review the book, not the reputation.”   E.L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime, has a great reputation as a writer and it is well deserved.   In Homer & Langely, he writes beautifully – in a style that often calls to mind Audrey Niffenegger – but there’s simply so little story to be told that the words are wasted.   It’s as if a musician were given a score to play that hid all of his strengths and talents.

This is a 208-page novella that runs on too long; the basic tale could well have been told as a 30- to 40-page short story.   Two brothers, wealthy by birth, become hermits while they’re living in a mansion across the street from New York City’s Central Park.   One brother is blind and the other is either bizarre or mentally ill.   This is not only a summary of the plot, but of almost everything that happens in H&L.   The most interesting scenes come when the brothers are visited by a tribe of hippies.

Doctorow’s latest was, for this reader, a novella that was far too easy to put down.

Random House, $26.00, 208 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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