Review: The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly

The Book of Lost Things, John Connolly

This is one of those books that I knew was an objectively good book, but I didn’t actually enjoy reading it. (So, the opposite of The Au-pairs.)

The beginning of the book reminded me of all the other precocious pre-adolescents I’ve been reading about lately: twelve-year-old David is a bright, bookish English kid whose mother is dying during World War II. She kicks it early on, and he is then subjected to a stepmother, Rose, and a new baby brother. There’s a lot of whining and a little bit of family intrigue, as David moves into the bedroom of a little boy who disappeared decades ago. In the background is the war, which draws David’s father away from home, and creates plenty of tension in the house.

All this was fine and totally enjoyable, and of course right up my alley. However, the book quickly becomes very weird as David is transported to the world of fairy tales–and not the nice Disney-fied versions, either. He’s faced with any number of terrible creatures, from a tribe of half-wolf/half-humans (the story of their creation is the weirdest of all Connolly’s weird fairy-tale reinventions) to the Crooked Man, who really wants to eat David’s little brother. David embarks on a long, dangerous journey to meet the King–who turns out to be very Oz-like in a strange and kind of wonderful way–and is helped along the way by some interesting companions (including the Knight, who is on a suicide mission to find his dead lover, and the Woodsman, who is maybe God). There’s a discomforting hint of misogyny in a number of David’s encounters, which if you’re inclined to be generous can be read as David’s giving form to his wariness of his stepmother. I suspect it will bother some readers, though, so there’s your fair warning.

I will say that I’m not a fantasy person. If I suspect that a book will prominently feature dwarves or fairies, I do not read it. So this was outside my comfort zone, in that regard, and I’m sure that my prejudices affected my reading of the book. Still, the main problem for me was that I wasn’t expecting this book to be as gory as it was. There were too many graphic depictions of torture, dismemberment, decaying bodies and so on–I didn’t realize until after I’d finished the book that Connolly mostly writes crime thrillers. Had I known that, I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up. It’s just not my taste–but for those of you who have a love of gory thrillers, an active imagination, and a taste for the literary, this book would probably be great.

So in the end, did I like this book? I have no idea. I guess I did. I thought the ending was sad, and it made me tear up a bit. Of course, I was also relieved when it was over, so maybe I didn’t like it. Maybe you will.

In short: Though not for the faint of heart (or stomach), The Book of Lost Things is an entertaining, occasionally thought-provoking visit to the realm of childhood nightmares. Thanks a lot, John.

Read it if you like: The Wizard of Oz; the David Bowie movie Labyrinth, which I was reminded of on pretty much every page; that weird Sweet Valley Twins book where they go to the theme park and a witch tries to eat Jessica or something

Review: Quakeland, by Francesca Lia Block

Quakeland, Francesca Lia Block

In short: I was sadly unimpressed by this recent addition to the usually impressive Francesca Lia Block’s oeuvre, maybe because there’s too much of Block in it. Necklace of Kisses, the most recent of the Weetzie Bat books (which I love with all my heart) shared a near-obsession with the “signs of the times” – 9/11 in that book, and Hurricane Katrina in this one. Quakeland, however, fails to transcend its depressing backdrop in the way that virtually all of Block’s other novels do. I’m not sure why: her language is still lovely, her world still magical. But there’s something broken here that doesn’t get fixed: no one is healed, and the world is strangely barren from the beginning to the end. Sure, times are tough, but this book is much too quick to give up hope.

Read it if you like: Her other work, but know that this is darker and more bitter than her usual stuff.

Review: The Book of Dead Birds, by Gayle Brandeis

The Book of Dead Birds, Gayle Brandeis

I don’t even know. I think that in the end I found this book to have been a waste of my time. Maybe that’s unfair. It’s a pretty contrived novel about a woman who is half-black and half-Korean (guess how), and the author sort of co-opts all of this history in weird and unproductive and clichéd ways, and in the end the book isn’t good enough to justify any of it. I love the Salton Sea, and I was very excited at the prospect of a novel set there, but this is just sort of a mess. There’s too much discussion of race for the book to not be about it, and yet the protagonist’s background only influences her in very, very specific ways, and it gets brushed under the rug at all sorts of points when it seems like it would be rearing its head. Ava is, as a result, a not-very-believable first-person narrator. We don’t get any real sense of who she is apart from her tense relationship with her mother, which might be the point, but I don’t really think so. She’s just not all that interesting. There’s also a romantic subplot that is really painfully dull and trite. I absolutely loathed that entire storyline and cringed whenever the romantic interest showed up.

I did, however, think that the stuff about the birds was neat – Ava’s mother keeps a diary of all the pet birds Ava has accidentally killed, and so Ava goes to the Salton Sea to rescue dying pelicans, as penance. That’s interesting. So are the women Ava meets who live at the Sea. Those scenes were great, and I thought Brandeis did a terrific job of describing that region—her writing is lovely, particularly when she’s describing scenery and wildlife. If the novel had just stuck to the birds, instead of trying way too hard to work in a subplot about the Korean mom who was forced into prostitution, this book might have been okay – the A-plot could have kept it afloat. But Brandeis tries way too hard to make a Serious Statement and spends too much time hitting us over the head with Symbolism, and the story flounders as a result.

In short: Whatever.

Read it if you like: The Salton Sea, Memoirs of a Geisha

Review: All the Sad Young Literary Men, by Keith Gessen

All the Sad Young Literary Men, Keith Gessen

In short: Mediocre. This novel is really a bunch of short stories loosely interwoven, with each of the stories told from one of the three main character’s point of view. Too bad they quickly become indistinguishable: Mark, Sam, and Keith are all jerks, all terrible with women, all Jewish, and possibly all Russian. There’s a lot of whining about the Bush administration, and hey, I whine about that too, but it doesn’t make for much of a novel. The writing is lovely in places, and the chapter in which Sam (whose mission in life is to write the Great Zionist Novel, though he’s not a practicing Jew and knows very little about the situation in Israel) actually goes to Israel and the West Bank is great, full of insight and tension. But too much of the book is concerned with the not-very-interesting characters’ not-very-interesting (and extremely convoluted) love lives, and that just gets dull.

Read it if you like: Pretension, n+1

Review: The Last Boleyn, by Karen Harper

The Last Boleyn, Karen Harper

In short: There’s really no reason to read this if you’ve already read The Other Boleyn Girl. It was actually written before Gregory’s novel, and was originally published as Passion’s Reign (a much dopier title). The main differences are that The Last Boleyn gives us a lot more information on Mary’s early life, and that it suggests (in contrast to The Other Boleyn Girl) that Mary and William Stafford were together for years before they married. But it’s not nearly as much fun to read as Gregory’s novel, mostly because Stafford doesn’t seem like a very good option. He’s very much the smug, rich, noble, handsome, promiscuous hero that’s so popular in romance novels, even though the real William Stafford was a commoner. Harper’s Stafford is too busy stroking his own ego and sweeping Mary off her feet with his bulging biceps to be an appealing alternative to the smug, rich, noble, handsome, promiscuous jerks that populate Henry’s court. Gregory’s novel is better than this, and so is her Stafford.

Read it if you like: The Other Boleyn Girl. Or if you hated it and want to see what the alternative looks like.

Review: The Boleyn Inheritance, by Philippa Gregory

The Boleyn Inheritance, Philippa Gregory

In short: Though not as good (or as sexy) as some of her other novels, The Boleyn Inheritance is still really entertaining, largely because it focuses on three historical figures that we don’t hear a lot about. The book’s chapters alternate among Katherine Howard (Henry’s very, very young fifth wife), Anne of Cleves (his supposedly ugly fourth wife), and Jane Boleyn (Lady Rochford, George Boleyn’s wife, who got Anne Boleyn and then Katherine Howard sent to the Tower).

The novel is written entirely in the first person, and the voices of the three women are distinct and engaging. Plus, Gregory manages to create tension and suspense, even though we know exactly what’s going to happen—quite a feat, really. This is a good, quick read,  and it’s fun to explore these events from the perspectives of less well-known women.

Read it if you like: Everything else she’s written

Review: The Secret Bride, by Diane Haeger

The Secret Bride, Diane Haeger

In short: One of the weaker entrants into that wonderful subgenre of historical fiction, “Seedy novels about the Tudors”, The Secret Bride chronicles the fate of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s younger sister and sometime Queen of France. Her story is fun and thrilling, as she’s married off to a much-older man, and then elopes with her beloved Charles Brandon, who’s a friend of her brother’s and decidedly not blue-blooded enough for a princess. But the writing is bad, and the historical inaccuracies glaring. We’ll have to wait a little longer for a really good book about Princess Mary.

Read it if you like: Philippa Gregory, The Tudors (which, in case you’re curious, is considerably less historically accurate than even Haeger’s novel)

Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon

In short: Look, everybody already knows that they should read this book. It’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, it’s clever, it’s even a little bit epic. It was widely acclaimed when it came out, and with good reason: though Chabon tends toward the excessively wordy (which makes this book about a hundred pages too long), this is still an immensely entertaining novel.

Read it if you like: Reading, superheroes, comic books, New York City, Jews

Review: Northline, by Willy Vlautin

Northline, Willy Vlautin

Note: This book comes with a CD of music Vlautin wrote to accompany the novel. The music is great. The book is not.

In short: From the author of The Motel Life we get another novel about people whose lives really suck. This one, however, is decidedly less interesting than Vlautin’s first novel, largely because he doesn’t seem to understand his (female) protagonist at all. She makes incomprehensible choices, and Vlautin doesn’t even try to make them seem plausible, even in the context of the story. This book is also far too short—enough happens in the story to fill at least another hundred pages—which makes the entire thing feel rushed and, frankly, a little lazy.

Read it if you like: The Motel Life, Nickel and Dimed, being depressed

Don’t take my word for it: Karin Elizabeth, Minnesota Reads, Nevada Sagebrush

Review: The Dead Fathers Club, by Matt Haig

The Dead Fathers Club, Matt Haig

So, the premise is weird – the events of Hamlet happen, in a fashion, to and around a British boy (one Philip Noble) circa the late 1990s. And the book, in my opinion, markets itself very badly, claiming to be “funny” a few times on the back cover. Nope. Not funny.

At some point, for this book to be funny, it would have to be heartless, and a lot of its charm comes from the sympathy the author clearly has for Philip. He is, after all, in a terrible situation: though he’s a good decade younger than Hamlet was, he faces the same set of problems. His father Brian dies, and far too soon afterward, his Uncle Alan starts moving in on Philip’s mother. (His parents, by the way, own a pub called Castle and Falcon, and Brian wears a T-shirt that says “King of the Castle”. Cute, huh?)  11-year-old Philip even has his own Ophelia, a girl from school named Leah.

Soon after his father’s death Philip begins seeing “Dads Ghost” on a regular basis. The ghost tells him that he is now a member of the Dead Fathers Club and is experiencing “The Terrors”, and will be stuck there forever unless Philip gets revenge. Throughout the novel, Dads Ghost instructs Philip on how to go about doing this.

It becomes quickly and painfully clear that most of what’s going on is in Philip’s head. He’s distraught over the loss of his father, so it’s no surprise that he would find a way to act out. The problem, though, is that unlike Hamlet, Philip is still a little boy, and so the horrific consequences of his misunderstanding seem that much worse. This is mitigated somewhat by the very active role of Dads Ghost, but it’s still hard to read about these events happening to a kid. (Not all of the events of Haig’s novel line up with those in Hamlet, by the way, so I haven’t given away the entire book.)

With that said, this is still a very clever update of our beloved Shakespeare’s best play, and Philip’s voice is convincing and engaging. On another level, it works as a strangely moving portrait of a kid who has experienced a really devastating loss and has to find a way to accept that loss and move on, even if he goes about doing that in pretty much the worst way possible.

In short: Weird and charming and sad, The Dead Father’s Club is worth the read, provided you can stomach seeing a little kid playing out Hamlet’s story.

Read it if you like: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, overly precocious pre-adolescent protagonists, modern updates of Shakespeare

Don’t take my word for it: The Sheila Variations, Guys Lit Wire, Puss Reboots