Entries tagged with “Book Review”.

By David Ebershoff

enjoyable to read, capably written, this novel approaches the history and present of multiple marriage within the LDS church.

a fan of historical fiction, i appreciated the extensive research and attention to detail the author afforded his subject matter. while the mormon church enjoys a wealth of documentation due both to its relative youth as an organization and its doctrinal position that keeping records of heredity and history are critical functions of the church, these records are not usually available to “gentiles” and the more controversial the subject matter the more difficult these records become to access. Ebershoff even uses this circumstance as a literary mechanism within the context of this interestingly structured novel.

the book is portioned such that there are really three threads running concurrently throughout. there is the reconstructed memoir of Ann Eliza Young, the notorious 19th wife of Brigham Young, there is the modern-day murder mystery set in the backdrop of the sect of the LDS church which still practices polygamy, and interspersed are vignettes in the form of recreated newspaper articles, personal letters, and archived documents pertaining to one tale or the other.

the stories herein are interesting enough to have kept me entertained, if not especially inspired. the novel was well-constructed but lacking a certain resonance of tone considering the powerful emotional themes broached therein. themes of faith, human dignity, and the dangers of theocracy are approached, but not plumbed.

overall a fair piece of historical fiction. worth reading, especially for those with any curiosity about this particular aspect of the Mormon historical record.

By William F. Buckley

plucked this one off of an endcap at the library and was hoping for better.
written in an approachable, easygoing tone, this novel took a different tack than the typical Washington Scandal Book, most of which are rigid, intense, and gripping. here instead we had a scandal, cover up which resorts to arson and murder, and the ruination of a presidential candidacy all discussed with a remarkable lack of engagement or urgency.
this lackadasickal emotional approach translated into a rather unengaging read. action was interestingly conveyed, but improbably casual. even the reactions of many of the characters to the circumstances in which they found themselves seemed disingenuously detached and unemotional.
the end comes rather suddenly and without the drama one would expect from the events as they unfold. i expected to find at least 3 or 4 more chapters after the last page and was left feeling a little perturbed. not so much because i was so interested in the story as to long for its continuation, but because i was incredulous that it would end with such percipitance.
i felt like the underlying plot was interesting and could have made for a gripping Washington Scandal Book but was poorly handled and incompletely developed. ( )

Harper Paperbacks (2008), Paperback, 288 pages

by John Updike

i realize this is meant to be a modern classic, but dudes, this is a weird little novel.

into what would otherwise be a poignant and well written character study, Updike has entwined strange tendrils of Greek mythology.

the opening scene is exemplary of this trend; we have our main character, a high school teacher, shot with an arrow by one of his students through the leg and trailing a bloody hoof.see, he’s a centaur, apparently. once he reaches aid in the form of a mechanic able to cut the arrow, he goes back to class and struggles to complete his lecture under the jaundiced eye of his in-school nemesis, the vice principal.

the point of making any of these characters mythical creatures is completely lost on me and the execution seemed inconsistent from both a psychological and practical sense. a centaur that drives? how many legs do they have again?

to my mind this choice distracted from what would have otherwise been a solid, if somewhat gray, snapshot of a father-son relationship captured over the course of a handful of wintry days.

not bad per se, a little bizarre. perhaps just not to my taste.

Ballantine Books (1996), Paperback, 320 pages

(Bantam Spectra Book) by Neal Stephenson

i’ve had quite a few people prod me to read this novel and finally over one weekend, i did. thank you prodders.

i consider myself tech fringe; by which i mean while i am not a tech person myself, so many of my loved ones and friends ARE that i am relatively comfortable with broad concepts, and a fair amount of jargon. i’m pretty good with jargon. as such, i found this book easy enough to immerse myself in despite its rather techie bent.

set in an indeterminate future where capitalism has finally unraveled the fabric of government and where society calls upon “franchulates” to provide the services and protection we would normally expect to receive from an administrative body. not strictly dystopian in feel, there is certainly a simultaneously chaotic and invasive feel to the way society has drifted. there are not, precisely speaking, laws to provide the structure one typically encounters in culture. however, there are certainly mores and norms which seem based on whatever sub-set of values each person chooses to buy into. in the most literal sense.

written in a rollicking and energetic prose, this is a novel for the intellectually curious and spiritually unbiased. for interwoven into a wry and playful examination of the effect of technology and consumerism on human society, is a reflection on how spirituality can be fundamentally invested in these expressions of culture. how we find transcendent meaning in technology, and how this can easily be corrupted. i found it utterly refreshing to see this subject taken up by an astute participant in a socio-techological dialogue. attempting to convey a cerebral experience of modern life with room for the unexplained and mystical is remarkably difficult, and often leaves one unable to confidently communicate understanding of either. this work does so convincingly and with a deft command of language.


By Steven Millhauser

this was a strange little book all around. charged with an understated but tangible fervor for capitalism, architecture, and sex it hinted ineffectually at the themes and thrust of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.”

and though it purports to be the “tale of an american dreamer” no dreams emerge from the imagination of our main character. it seems young Martin Dressler can do no wrong. everything at which he sets his hand is wildly successful. as such, he seems to have no character or depth. he has standards to which he adheres, but they seem to have no real origin or function.

as he sails through his strange life, Martin mounts new heights of success and attempts increasingly ambitious undertakings along the way. yet all of this happens without any apparent motive force driving his actions. it is almost as if things vaguely occur to him, he does them, and then they are wildly successful for no apparent reason. it is a singularly uninteresting way to watch events unfold.

near the end of this novel it takes on a strangely esoteric tone which is totally out of step with all that came before it in the book. we foray from a fairly believable 19th century landscape into an improbable past where nothing we have been led to expect seems true any longer.

even the eventual ruin of the main character leaves one feeling ambivalent at best. since triumph came so easily, it is hard to muster much sympathy for his fall. his unswerving devotion to his last venture seems strange and without real purpose, except to see to the end of his unbridled success.

i read this book in the course of one evening and found it almost utterly without merit. had i had something else at hand, i doubt i would have bothered to finish it.

my initial moments reading this book were filled with eager anticipation and mild confusion. i owe this both to the skill of this first-time novelist at capturing the particular and compelling timbre of a corporate creative environment with uncanny accuracy, and the peculiar manner which he employed to do so. once i was able to comprehend the mechanism of the “first-person-plural” narrative voice, and stopped waiting for the narrator to identify as a singular individual, rather than what i like to call “the global we” i was better able to settle to the meat of the story.

never having been a corporate creative type, i do count some of my closest friends among them, and i can easily sense the rightness of Ferris’ portrayal of this group of people and their surroundings. the petty alliances and betrayals, the contempt and dependence grown from too much familiarity, the currents and eddies of myriad social and occupational entanglements; all of these resonate with a genuineness and authenticity one can judge even without having experienced it firsthand.

Ferris deftly captures the crawling unease amongst the characters caused by the drift of layoffs and quiet corporate calamities mounting around them. the responses of this group to these pressures are fascinating and absurd. they turn on each other with a mixture of scorn and compassion that is singularly convincing. moreover the array of individual reactions are fascinating, unpredictable, and utterly compelling. all this told with the unabashed lack of objectivity in vaguely stream-of-consciousness meandering, complete with temporal shifts, repetitions of scenes and exchanges that perfectly depict the storytelling style of the consummate office gossip.

amusing and well-told, fundamentally interesting and poignant in its honesty.



The Good Thief

Hannah Tinti

Publication: The Dial Press (2008), Hardcover,

336 pages Publication date:2008

This review is of the as-yet unreleased “The Good Thief”, a novel by Hannah Tinti and published by The Dial Press. It becomes available in the fall of 2008. I obtained an advance copy via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. Thanks to The Dial Press for its participation in the program as well as LibraryThing for making it possible.

This novel represents the first full-length offering from the author Hannah Tinti. It shows, from its very beginning, some fair promise. Yet though many elements of this book revealed this potential with intriguing language and vivid imagery, the hand of a first-time novelist seems all too apparent as the course of our tale unfolds.

We follow Ren, an orphan who begins in the care of the monks of St Anthony’s. They seem like a harmless bunch, if less than totally compassionate to the plight of their charges; those children not adopted are conscripted into the military and rather forcefully consigned to this fate whether they will it or no.Young Ren stands out even amongst the other orphans as an especially difficult case since he is missing one of his hands. We are treated to a poignant scene of one of the brothers discouraging a kindly seeming farmer from taking Ren away due to his infirmity. “You won’t want that one.” This seems, forgive the unavoidable pun, rather heavy handed. Ren seems fairly resigned to his condition, having known no other, but his fear of being left unchosen manifests in a tendency for petty theft which sometimes earns him the lash.

Then one afternoon, the miraculous happens and Ren is claimed by a stranger purporting to be his uncle. The fellow asserts the missing hand is proof that this lad is in fact the child he seeks. The monks let this character have off with Ren with nothing more than a faretheewell and a copy of a book Ren had been idly inclined to swipe during the interview between the monk and supposed long-lost uncle. Once the pair leaves the orphanage it becomes apparent rather quickly that Ren’s “uncle” may not be exactly what he claims, and that indeed he is a bit of a reprobate. His interest in the orphan child seems to be rooted primarily in the sympathy Ren’s missing hand can arouse in the common passerby. More, he is delighted by Ren’s apparent aptitude for theft since, as it happens, our good man Benjamin Nab (cringe) happens to be quite the burglar himself.

From this still rather engaging beginning, things somehow go astray. What at first seems to be a novel capable of interesting scope and questions of morality against a backdrop of desperation instead becomes a tale narrow in the extreme and focused to a rather distracting degree on all things grave; by which I do not mean serious.

We are shuttled in time and place between a boardinghouse, a graveyard, and a mousetrap factory, with the sometime addition of the hospital where the remains our heroes have begun to unearth for profit are to be delivered. The intensity with which this novel focuses on the details of graverobbing make it not for the faint of heart, and yet rather than seeming truly creepy or eerie, instead just feels awkward. Like lingering too long over a consoling embrace.

Ultimately I feel this novel loses its focus, or rather, that its focus becomes diffuse and something it ought not have been. If what we were looking for was an amusing tale of orphan scamp makes good, many of the detours in the tale were unnecessary and distracted from that vein. Likewise if we were seeking the heartwarming tale of orphan scamp finding his true family, we are not presented with an account that really wins our loyal attention. Finally, if we were meant to be engaged in the story of orphan scamp learning the trade of graverobbing, we could have done without the heart-of-gold-makes-good-finds-his-family element.

A not unworthy effort for a first novel, it would have benefited from a clearer sense of identity and a lighter touch.

Rating: ◊◊½

by Claire Davis

This novel had a sinuous way about it similar to its eponymous creature. Quick to slip away from scrutiny too intense or a light too bright being cast upon it, it still made for an enjoyable read.

The prologue of this book may be its very best bit: haunting, beautiful as a reflection on the transitory miraculous nature of love. That being said, there is plenty more worth coming across in the rest of the novel.

Nancy is our main character and a biologist by training. She makes her way through the canyons pursuing snakes and cataloging their behavior: a task that would send most people screaming into the night, but perhaps unsurprisingly to anyone who has one, many times she prefers a nest of serpents to her own family.

There is a strange and ineffable dynamic between Nancy and her younger sister Meredith that develops as a thread of narrative focus. Though their interactions seem authentic and resonant, I think the story would have been better served by a deeper exploration of the sibling relationship between these sisters.

Apart from Nancy’s sister, there is also Ned, her husband. Blythe and harmless on his face, there is still something vaguely disturbing about his apparent lack of depth. When we begin riding around in Ned’s mind rather than observing him externally, stray thoughts begin to confirm something is amiss. Ned’s behavior devolves over the course of the tale and many of those niggling doubts about him we feel initially are justified.

I find it a little difficult to quantify what it is I think this novel is “about”; it seems part never-to-be-solved-mystery, part character study, part portrait of family dynamics. All of these elements appear, but none takes a dominant place as the clear theme of the tale. Despite this diffuse plot tendency, I still found the writing to be engaging and enjoyable to read.  Bonus points for vivid descriptions of Hells Canyon and environs.

St. Martin’s Press (2005), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 288 pages

by Stef Penney

picked this novel up off a table piled high over at the costco. as i am well aware, the origins of a book are not always indicative of  their quality, in this case, i will say i was happily surprised.

set at the twilight of the 19th century in a remote Canadian village, the tale follows the murder mystery that unfolds in the tiny community. a local trapper is found dead and shockingly scalped and the village is rocked by the evidence of this violence in their midst.

perspective in this novel switches from first person in the entity of Mrs. Ross who discovers the body initially, to a third person voice following various other important players in the drama. the inner life of this trapper is inexorably revealed during the course of the investigation, and everyone in the community is touched in some way by his life or eventually, his death.

to my mind the most compelling character in the novel is our Mrs. Ross and feel the story suffers somewhat from leaving her behind. it seems, in what i interpret as an attempt to keep the book from being typified as a frontier murder mystery cum romance, the author might have sacrificed some measure of consistency. chapters which give us an eye into the minds of the other characters are interesting and absorbing to varying degrees, but the way we go from being inside Ross’ mind to merely observing these others seems a strange choice which interferes with the flow of the tale.

gripping vignettes describing the ruthless Canadian winter and the effect the elements have on the action makes the environment its own character. depictions of landscape and weather have a remarkable immediacy. language is used effectively and deftly throughout the novel.

some minor complaints about a tendency to stray and leave some points raised but answered persist, but since this is a first novel, i think on the whole, they are easily overlooked within the context of an otherwise starkly satisfying story.


Simon & Schuster (2007), Hardcover, 384 pages

by Marisha Pessl

I can bestow on this book the highest compliment I have: I want to own it so I can write all over it. I borrowed it from friend Lyza after reading her review and inhaled it. At 500 pages, it was well under 24 hours in my hands.

Written from the perspective of a precocious book-wise teenager, I found her voice resonant and familiar (though in possession of an infinitely better education). Her narrative is self-aware and liberally dosed with quotations and references from books, magazine articles, and movies. And any child this scholarly and still relatively sane and down to earth has my admiration, if not, perhaps, my unmitigated credulity.

Our narrator Blue VanMeer clearly and unabashedly orbits her brilliant and eccentric father both intellectually and emotionally. Gareth VanMeer, who seems to have no compunction about carting his young daughter all over the landscape, still never fails to see to her instruction during countless hours of auto rides and semi-ritualized moments in places scattered from coast to coast. Having decided to finally settle in North Carolina so Blue can complete her senior year at the exclusive St Gallway, the VanMeers begin to feel the gravity of other bodies in the wider universe. Blue is drawn into a clique of privileged students who seat themselves as acolytes to one Hannah Schneider, the film studies teacher at the school. Though they seem initially resistant to her inclusion in the select group, eventually these people begin to influence Blue in ways both subtle and overt: her frame of reference widens in tandem with her wardrobe.

But the appearance of normalcy in this group is fleeting indeed. Ultimately a custom of secrecy and deception begins to reveal itself from beneath the veneer of benign mentorship in Blue’s relationship with Hannah and the others. Inexplicable and bizarre stories swirl between the students about their teacher, as well as tales told by Hannah about her disciples. And disciples are just how these adolescents are portrayed: dazzled by Hannah’s allure and deeply possessive of the intimacy she has afforded them despite the misgivings they frequently recount to one other in her absence. The conflicting stories, coincidences, bizarre behavior, spying and conflict that brews within the group creates a sense of mounting tension and a deepening mystery as the novel progresses. And to Blue’s increasing confusion and dismay there seem to be strange concordances even from within her own unorthodox life that make some elements of these mysteries seem to mean something more to her than to the other teens in the circle.

Eventually a schismatic event completely dismantles any relationship between Blue and her compatriots. When she discovers Hannah’s lifeless corpse, the momentum built in the novel to that point is unleashed in pursuit of answers that become increasingly personal for Blue as the truth begins to out.

Though there were some mechanisms in the story I found a little too pat for complete conviction, overall I found this a compelling and enjoyable read. I found the rhythm of the narrative woven with the citation of sources from classic literature to pop culture rich and satisfying, even if many of said references flew right over my wee little head.

Penguin (Non-Classics) (2007), Paperback, 528 pages