Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter - 304 pgs

Book CoverAfter losing his job as a journalist, Matthew Prior took a gamble on creating a website that mixed financial news and free verse. Needless to say, things didn't work out. Now he and his family are living under crushing debt and are about to lose their home, and their finances are in total meltdown. To make matters worse, Matt suspects his wife is having an online affair with an old lover from high school and his senile father has just moved in with the family. Then Matt makes a late-night trip to the 7-Eleven for milk and gets caught up in a very unfamiliar situation with some local thugs after agreeing to take a hit of their superior weed. As Matt winds his way through the trouble
with his finances, marriage and family, he comes to find himself disastrously enmeshed with his new friends and must find a way to disentangle himself from all his weighty encumbrances, both new and old.

I found this to be an uproariously funny book, and also one that was very economically portentous. From the moment that self-depreciating and clever Matt was introduced amid his myriad of difficulties, the humor seemed to pour off the pages in a casual and original way. I don't want to give away too much of the plot and ruin the book, but I really felt that Walter managed to create some outstandingly hysterical satire that focused on middle class American society. Although this book really brought the funny, there were some piercing and frightening fiscal portraits of today's tail-spinning economy, and it was eye-opening to see a protagonist like Matt having to navigate his way through the financial wasteland that was his life.

There were two stories going on in this book: the tale of Matt's misadventures with his buddies and the interlocking story of personal financial ruin. Both played off of each other and took focus at various times in the book, and both focused on different and specific emotions. In a lighthearted way, the author manages to fuse both the reality of today's economic crisis and the story of how that crisis reflects itself in a typical American family. I thought it was really cool that some of the story was told in poetry asides, most of which were both elegantly written and fabulously funny. Walter even managed to stay grounded in popular culture and language in the sections that focused on Matt's new friends.

Aside from being culturally significant and exceedingly funny, the book had some very touching and emotional scenes that made me snap back as a reader and take notice. There were, for example, many glimpses of conversation between Matt and his ailing father, some of which were startlingly sad and poignant, and Matt's nearly non-stop internal monologue on the slow destruction of his marriage and family. I thought that as a character, Matt was very straightforward and perceptive, and that his voice throughout the book was not only credible, but endearing. At times it was as if he was stuck in the middle of a comedy of errors, one situation building upon another as all threatened to collapse in a heap at his feet, but the fact that he never really lost his composure was something that I marveled at and admired.

The book mainly focused on the protagonist as he fought his way through the quagmire of his life, and as such there wasn't a lot of development of secondary characters. I felt that this was just right for this book because it enabled me to realize that the focus of the narrative, in fact the very point of the narrative, was to be a reflection of Matt's thoughts as he raced to find some magical cure all for his life's ailments. As such, Matt remained the only fully developed three-dimensional character throughout the book.

I also liked the fact that the book was very realistic, and that there was no license taken for dramatic effect or a more seemly narration. Matt was forced to take a real inventory of his life and face his problems in the way you or I would have to, and not everything was neatly tied up in an effortless way. Much of this book was ferociously funny, and I totally appreciated that, but what I appreciated more were the real bits of life that poked through the laughter and comedy, the real reactions and fears of the main character, who did his best trying to hold it all together.

This book was one of the most engaging reads I have had in a long time, and I think that this book is one that I am going to hold on to and pass on to others who are looking for a witty and satirical slice of life. I had a lot of fun laughing at Matt's antics and situations, but in the end, I sympathized with him a lot more than I ever thought I would. I haven't read any other books by this author but I am planning on taking a much closer look at his work. His writing is powerful and at the same time capricious, and tells the story of the everyday man who is not so different from ourselves. A great read. Highly recommended.

I read and reviewed this book as part of a TLC Book Tour. Please stop by these other sites and continue following the rest of the tour!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Guest Appearance

I'm pleased to announce that Elizabeth at As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves has invited me to do a guest post for her feature 451 Fridays. Click over and check it out!

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larrson - 608 pgs

Book CoverMikael Blomkovist has just been sentenced to prison for libel. Blomovist, part owner of the financial magazine Millennium, watches his prospects slowly swirl away from him after his disastrous attempt to uncover the shady secrets of industry leader Heins Erick Wennerstrom. Unexpectedly, Blomkovist is contacted by the distinguished Heinrik Vanger, a rich and influential businessman who wants to offer him a deal. The deal is this: If Blomkovist agrees to investigate the mystery of the disappearance of Vanger's niece, who has been missing for 36 years, Vanger will help Blomkovist out of the hole he finds himself in and will sweeten the deal with the real goods on Wenerstrom. Though at first reluctant, Blomkovist agrees to work on the Vanger disappearance, if only to have another shot at the Wenerstrom affair. Lisbeth Salander, an exceptional computer hacker afflicted with Asperger's syndrome, will eventually find her way into Blomkovist's investigation as an unlikely partner, and as the two begin to uncover secret after secret about the disappearance of Harriet, they will discover a series of violent and sadistic unsolved crimes that will threaten both their lives and their investigation.

This book was an unusual choice for me. I normally don't read suspense/thriller novels, but after hearing so much praise lavished on this series of books, I decided to put my prejudices aside and read the book. Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that this book was not really for me. First of all, it took an extremely long time for there to be even a hint of action in the story. For the first few hundred pages, the story revolved around court cases, Swedish finances, and elaborate descriptions of the Vanger family's complex history. I kept wading through all this because I knew there was a story to be found here eventually, but the amount of exposition on the business world was overwhelming. Though I tried really hard not to gloss over all these sections, it was very difficult for me to stay focused and hang on until the grist of the story actually started, and though I was eventually rewarded, I found that the actual bones of the story were not as original and stunning as everyone had made them out to be. Though there were some unique elements in the narrative, I found the story and the revelations to be pretty common and not much to write home about. In fact, I had figured out the main mystery of the story pretty early on, and though there were a few surprises, there weren't really any jaw dropping moments or times when I felt that something extraordinary was being done.

I am assuming that the main reason that this book got so much praise is because of the fact that it is more literary than other books in it's genre, and also for the inclusion of Lisbeth Salander. I will admit that Salander was pretty much the only bright spot in the story. It was really interesting to read about her and the life she created for herself despite her affliction. Though she was pretty uncommunicative and antisocial, she seemed to have a heightened awareness of social injustices and went to great lengths to mete out retribution to those perpetrators that she felt were deserving of punishment. Her demeanor was usually chilly, but underneath the gears were churning and there were complex stratagems being devised within her. Her paranoia in dealing with the world at large, especially anyone in a position of authority, was something that made her character really unique in a book like this, and the sections dealing with her history were some of the more robust and complex sections in the book. I found that the sections focusing on Salander were too few and far between, and it was clear from the way the book was arranged that the fundamentals on Salander were included in the story more as exposition for later books in the series than to satisfy the readers curiosity or flesh out the story.

One of the main things that annoyed me about this book was the ridiculous amount of detail that the author included in his descriptions. It was not enough that someone bought a particular brand of computer, he need to go into all the specs, the color, the size, how much it cost, and on and on. This would not have been a problem if it had happened, say, once or twice in the book. Instead it was everywhere, and it really detracted from smooth reading. I got so fed up with all the minuscule details and began to feel that the book would have been much more readable and enjoyable had things been a bit more concise. The details were not only furnished for electronic devices, but for almost every situation, from the multi-paged descriptions of the Vanger family history to the mind numbing repetition of the research done for the investigation into Harriett's disappearance. I thought that it was a shame to waste so much word space on these lengthy trivial details and wished that an editor had been a bit more engaged with the book.

I have read my share of suspense/thrillers, and from what I could tell, there was not much differentiation between those books and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Though I am quite sure that I am in the minority in my reactions to this book, I do think I gave it a fair shake and tried to read it without a host of preconceived notions cluttering my mind. I am not willing to go so far as to say that this was a bad book, because I do think that people who like this genre would really be impressed with it. For me it was not a groundbreaking read that I found breathtaking or thrilling, which is how it had been presented to me. There were a few aspects of the book that I thought were very well done, but overall, I think this story lacked the originality and punch that I had been expecting to find.

**The Last Dickens Winners**

The winners of The Last Dickens giveaway are:


Each have won a copy of The Last Dickens, courtesy of Random House publishing. Thanks so much to everyone who entered the giveaway, and keep checking back, as I will be hosting more giveaways in the near future.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel - 256 pgs

Book CoverConstantly on the run from her past, Lilia's life revolves around setting up temporary homes and jobs for herself, only to run and leave it all behind when her fancy for flight strikes. After arriving in New York, she begins a relationship with Eli, a young man jaded about his future prospects and friends. In fact, the only thing that seems to excite Eli anymore is his fledgling relationship with Lilia. She unexpectedly leaves him one morning, with no clues to her disappearance or contact information left behind. As Eli finds himself slipping back into depression and obsessing about where in the world Lilia has gone to, he is surprised by the arrival of a strange postcard telling him to come to Montreal, where he will be reunited with Lilia. Leaving everything behind, Eli rushes to find her. As the story of Eli's pursuit continues, it is interspersed with flashbacks of Lilia's childhood, to a time when she was abducted by her father and the ceaseless traveling began. After arriving in Montreal, Eli meets the woman who sent the postcard, Michela, a young woman with odd ties to Lilia, and who is anxious to find and question her as well.

This book seemed to have a corner market on atmosphere. From the first few pages, I felt that there was something singular about the mood of the story, and I was pleased to discover that this ambiance remained strong throughout the book. For example, there were a few scenes depicting the insomnia of one of the characters that I felt were pitch perfect, and I thought that the author had managed to capture the gritty feeling of greasiness that accompanies those long nights when sleep will not come easily. She also managed to convey the realities of the unyielding travel that Lilia had so perfected and the strangeness of being in a landscape foreign to your own.

It was these descriptions and the unique flavor that pressed dauntlessly throughout the prose that really held me to the page and made me want to see this story to the end. There was something so starkly realistic and unwavering about the way these scenes came together and the way that the plot played out that made the story within the pages seem very immediate and pressing. The book very gracefully explored the unique qualities that an unexpected absence of a loved one can take and how that absence can affect even the smallest details in someone's life.

In delving into Eli's emotional reactions to Lilia's disappearance, I felt the author was exposing some very fundamental truths about the pain of loss and the agonies of unexpected separation. When I was about halfway through the book, I realized that Lilia, being the on the other side, had never had to experience these longings and anguish. Lilia, being the perpetrator of these disappearances, dealt with other sufferings, but even these were of her own making.

Although I did really like a few of the characters, the only one I felt any emotional attachment to was Eli. I think this was intended, because he was the only one who got an ample amount of exposition and it was mainly through his eyes that the story unfolded. Initially I found him to be slightly detached, but as the story progressed he became more involved, both in his own circumstances and those of the people surrounding him. He evinced a great growth of character, which is something that is always pleasing for me to see.

I didn't feel the same affinity for Lilia or Michela, and though I tried, I couldn't get fully invested in either of their personal circumstances. I think this was due to the fact that they were much more disconnected from reality than Eli was. Lilia and Michela had some very similar character traits and behaviors, yet they were still starkly different and singular. I took some time to compare and contrast the two girls and was surprised to find similarities that I had initially not noticed.

Though the plot of the book was somewhat winding, it was not convoluted and therefore was easy to follow and get invested in. There were a lot of clever surprises hiding in the narrative that gave the story multiple levels and depth. I also appreciated the mood of the story, which was very somber and serious. The emotion seemed very consistent throughout and the characters showed a great and believable range of sentiment given their circumstances and situations. There were various aspects of emotional layering in each of the characters, particularly in the case of Michela. She was at once domineering and in charge, but also curiously lost and vulnerable in ways that did not outwardly manifest themselves. I also really liked the writing style. It was very fluid and nuanced, which gave the book a great readability and denseness, and the alternating sections were intertwined with a precision that wove the two sides of the story together effortlessly.

This was a very diverting and emotional read. I think it would be great for those who appreciate novels with both a well developed plot and set of characters, and those who really enjoy lyrical writing. Though it is a wistful and sad story, I think it deals with the themes of loneliness, abandonment and disillusionment very deftly and absorbingly, and the plot is highly original. If you are looking for something that is a bit out of the ordinary but cleverly written, I would definitely suggest this book.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, October 5, 2009

In the Arms of Immortals: A Novel of Darkness and Light by Ginger Garrett - 313 pgs

Book CoverWhen a mysterious ship lands in Sicily in 1347 bearing a handsome yet strange man, the the townspeople are curious just who he is and where he has come from. But before they have time to act on their curiosity, they begin to fall ill. First the sickness affects only a handful, but by morning, most of the townspeople are dead and more have been infected. Soon the town begins to fall apart, the Church is overwhelmed and the wolves that lurk around the edges of the village are suddenly becoming more bold. Through the confusion a handful of people begin to galvanize themselves in response to this curious tragedy: the priest who has forsaken those he loves to teach his community the word of God, the local Baron who greedily lives off of the backs of the townspeople, the Baron's proud and spiteful daughter and the outcast healing woman who some think practices witchcraft. But beyond the world of those things that can be seen, the town is being watched and aided by unseen observers, an evil presence is thriving on the town's destruction, and an unwilling visitor from another time is silently watching events unfold. As the Black Plague begins to decimate the village, the fate of it's inhabitants will be determined by the sentinels who are concealed from their view. Both imaginative and suspenseful, In the Arms of Immortals tells an extremely unique version of the most terrifying and brutal epidemic in all of history.

I wasn't sure what I was getting with this book, but by the end of the story I was very surprised that the book had made such a strong impression on me and that I was led to feel so many contrasting emotions. Although I have read many books labeled as Christian fiction, this book was unlike any of them. Usually I find that Christian fiction tends to always have the same hallmarks: non-offensive characters and plots that are studded with heavy-handed messages that can sometimes seem alienating. Not so in this book. The first thing I noticed was that there were some really opinionated and unlikeable people populating the pages. These characters weren't only depicted to be subjects of a revelation. They were at times the center of the narrative, and it was really interesting to watch them function in their natural capacity and play off of the more benign characters in the story. In this respect, the character creation demonstrated that the author was willing to be a bit ambiguous in telling her tale, which is something I really liked. There was not the usual struggle taking place inside me when reading a book of this type, no worrying that the characters and their experiences would be too unreal for me to sympathize with or that they would espouse emotions that didn't ring true. The characterizations were much more realistic and gritty than any I have discovered in most Christian fiction.

Another thing I noticed was that the supernatural elements of this story were depicted very elegantly and with almost a mythical quality. The angels and demons that watched over the village were by turns wondrous and frightening. Up to this point I had never really considered that angels might act in these unfamiliar ways, or that they might not look like those visions of beauty with glowing wings that we have all come to expect. Nor had it occurred to me that demons could exist in so many forms and be so loathsome and revolting. The creatures created in this book were vibrant and startling, and I think the author showed incredible use of imagination in capturing these images in her story.

I also liked that the messages were not expressed in an elementary and basic structure. Yes, this book did have messages, but the way in which the characters grew to understand their predicaments and fates was very multi-dimensional and couldn't be expressed or understood from oft-used platitudes and simple homilies. Here too I was pleased, for the messages didn't come bluntly or with awkwardness. There was something much more complex in the author's revelations, something that I failed to understand until I was almost at the end of the book.

From what I made of it, what made this book so unique was the author's acceptance of the fact that there is a definitive evil in the world. Instead of creating an atmosphere where only goodness and innocence existed, this story explored the realm opposite of justice and light: the darkness and unfathomability that some Christian authors are afraid to examine. The important messages in the book relating to faith and forgiveness were written in a very natural way that fully meshed with the drama and the verisimilitude of the narrative. The story put forth the idea that there are many layers and shapes to faith and showed me that not all books of this genre are created equal.

Another plus for me was the authenticity of the sections relating to the plague. I have always enjoyed historical fiction that deals with the plague, and this book was no exception; it was mainly for this reason that I wanted so much to read this book, and it did not disappoint. I found the sections dealing with the village's descent into the illness fascinating and convincing, and I was pleased that this book did a great double as historical fiction. As an added bonus to this immersive story, I discovered what the plague's impact on Christian women truly was, and how the Church was fundamentally changed by the rapid spread of the Black Death.

This is the second book in a planned trilogy which explores the historical changes that women have wrought in the Christian faith. I already own the first book in the series and I am anxiously awaiting the last, which will deal with the role of women of witchcraft in the Christian community. I was very impressed with this book and thought it was an amazing read. Though I am usually pretty lukewarm about most Christian fiction and sometimes wary of recommending it, I feel very differently about this book. I urge readers of historical fiction to take a closer look at this series of books, this novel in particular. The writing was very fluid and moving, and the story was animated and enigmatic in a way that took me completely by surprise. An unexpectedly involving read. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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