& Review: The Vacationers by Emma Straub

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

“Families were nothing more than hope cast out in a wide net, everyone wanting only the best.”

Book Title: The Vacationers
Author: Emma Straub
Pages: 208 digital pages
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Group
Date Published: May 29th, 2014
Date Read: July 7th, 2014
Format: ebook on my nook
Cover Love: Simple, escapist, very summer-y. Makes me want to go find a pool or Caribbean beach somewhere and take a swim!
Given Synopsis: “For the Posts, a two-week trip to the Balearic island of Mallorca with their extended family and friends is a celebration: Franny and Jim are observing their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, and their daughter, Sylvia, has graduated from high school. The sunlit island, its mountains and beaches, its tapas and tennis courts, also promise an escape from the tensions simmering at home in Manhattan. But all does not go according to plan: over the course of the vacation, secrets come to light, old and new humiliations are experienced, childhood rivalries resurface, and ancient wounds are exacerbated.”
What I’d Add: They make it all sound very high stakes, almost mystery-like. Is someone going to get murdered here? The answer is no, and I go into detail about all the characters at play here, but keep in mind there’s nothing too shocking here (and by “here,” I mean the world of the book).
It’s Sorta Like: If a reality TV show family went to Spain and spent most of the time arguing and being moody?
My Grade: C
Review: How many times have I seen this book on a “Perfect Summer Reads” list, or a “Books You Should Be Reading Right Now” section on a website or in a magazine? It’s release was perfectly timed, in that sense: write a book set in an exotic location, put lovable, dysfunctional characters in it, call it The Vacationers, and release it at the peak of America’s summer travel season. Brilliant. It’s a story about a broken/breaking family attempting to go on vacation together for people in real life to bring on their own family vacations with their own dysfunctional family members.

All that being said, I bought this and brought it on summer vacation with my family.

(Which is not to say they’re dysfunctional. My family’s awesome. Really).

Here are the dynamics: Franny’s husband, Tim, cheated on her with an intern. Franny’s best friend of 20+ years, Charles, is married to Lawrence (who is sometimes awkwardly abbreviated to “Lawr”). The two of them are trying to adopt a child, but there are flaws in their marriage as well: Lawrence is jealous of the bond Charles and Franny share. Bobby, a textbook man-child, is Franny and Tim’s son. He has been dating Carmen, a much older, more mature personal trainer. People find their age difference unsettling, even though Charles and Lawrence are a decade apart as well. Finally, Sylvia is the youngest, Franny and Tim’s daughter who participates in much eye rolling and is a little obsessed with wanting to lose her virginity before going off to college in the fall.

So these are our players. Franny cooks elaborate meals and eats her feelings. Sylvia laments her out of commission iPhone. And Tim reminisces about the intern’s long hair and young body. And they’re all stuck in a rented house in Spain together for two weeks.

If I were Jewish, I’d say oy vey convincingly.

Unfortunately, the story and characters never really got off the ground for me. These are problems we’ve seen in characters before. Especially those of the Dysfunctional Family Variety. The Cheating Patriarch. The Sullen/Disconnected Teenager. The Man Child. Tim, Sylvia, Bobby. They don’t do anything that shocks me or that goes against their archetypes. I root for a couple of them, but overall, no one’s likable. I don’t root for Bobby to get out of debt or even for Sylvia to find romance.

A climactic scene at a beach, where feelings are finally expressed and people yell and scream and even punch…it’s not exciting. Everyone acts like you’d expect them to. I didn’t get surprised or relieved. I just turned the page with a shrug.

I kept going because it’s not terribly written. Although there weren’t many shining bits of prose (the book ends in an airport, with a comparison of families and turbulence ahead – cheesy and predictable), Straub can write a scene. I particularly enjoyed the ability of hers to keep track of seven main characters. Even in once scene, she could dip into each of their thoughts and I was okay with it. I appreciated that everyone got a little time to show their true colors. Most of those colors were annoying and/or selfish, but you couldn’t blame the characters – it’s just their archetypes.

The ending is tied up too neatly. Everyone accomplishes something. Everyone will move on to bigger and better things. I’m not gutted by anything, or anyone in this story. I didn’t feel for them or care for their remaining issues. All in all, it’s a book you can mindlessly read while on vacation. Nothing awful will happen, and no one will die. But I would have preferred more spunk, more spark, more wit. Although I guess I’m a little jealous that they went to Spain…but I’m equally as frustrated that the house could have been any vacation home near a beach. Not enough setting, not enough character development and fulfillment here.

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& Post-Vacation Reading

I’M BAAAAACK!

Hello! You know, I truly did miss this place. I even went so far as to write two whole reviews on the books I read over vacation on vacation (!!). That’s dedication, my friends. I didn’t get to all the books on my reading list (and it will be months until I get through House of Leaves. That thing is DENSE), and I substituted one or two, but reviews are forthcoming….soon….ish. Definitely by next Monday.

Seeing as I’ve been back for an entire week, seven whole days, and my suitcase is still unpacked in the middle of my bedroom….it’s safe to say I’m a little behind on things.

Plus I’ve rediscovered The Sims. All extra time = WASTED. But I’ve built a lot of mansions.

So! Reviews on some vacation reading forthcoming, but there are a few books that I thought I’d share about wanting to read RIGHT NOW, just ALL AT ONCE, to see how great/terrible they are due to their hype.

California by Edan Lepucki

California by Edan Lepucki

California by Edan Lepucki has been plastered all over my Facebook newsfeed because a local bookstore had a big hand in the preorder/presale of the book, and it was mentioned on The Colbert Report as part of the whole Amazon debacle/discussion. And it sounds really awesome. It’s dystopian, it’s adventure, it’s a completely normal person thrust into an impossible situation. Los Angeles is no more, and a couple are trying to survive in a shack in the wilderness, attempting to live a life that’s even a fraction as comfortable as their old situation. I’ve read the first few pages in an ebook sample, and Frida suspects she’s pregnant in the first couple of pages. Uh-oh! Sounds very Walking Dead if you ask me (love that show…).

 

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

You want your breakout novel to be a success? Get Emma Watson to play your main character in the movie of it.

You want your breakout novel to be a success? Get Emma Watson to play your main character in the movie of it.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen has an ENORMOUS amount of buzz surrounding it. You can hardly see the book for the fog of buzz around this thing. That’s mostly because (well, at least I’ve heard of it because) it’s already being made into a movie. And a little known actress named Emma Watson is playing the protagonist. No big deal. A nineteen year old girl, in hiding all her life, is pulled from her foster parents to travel to her kingdom and rule as queen. But, of course, many people want to kill her, including her uncle. Her mother, the previous queen, isn’t as virtuous as she’s built her up in her head to be. Plus, you know, a magical witch lady is in shaky alliance with the kingdom. For some reason, I kept thinking it was a YA title. The synopsis maybe? The cover? But nope, it’s in the adult sci-fi/fantasy section.

thesilenthistory

The Silent History has not one, not two, but three authors: Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby, and Kevin Moffett. This would be weird, and I would be concerned, but the concept of this novel is very World War Z: case studies and interviews of an epidemic sweeping the country. This means the different voices and styles between authors might help rather than hinder a cohesive story: every case study/interviewee gets their own voice. Instead of a scourge of the undead, a generation of children are born without speech. It gets concerning, then alarming, then cause for ostracism, violence, even deification. Very intriguing. I want to see where the authors take it.

 

Whew! So while I agonize over what to read next, and try desperately to stop playing The Sims, here are a few pictures from my wonderful vacation (you know, as a justification of my absence…)

Lampposts along the boardwalk in Halifaz, Nova Scotia

Lampposts along the boardwalk in Halifax, Nova Scotia

Faneuil Hall, Boston, Massachusetts

Faneuil Hall, Boston, Massachusetts

Harbor in Baddeck, Nova Scotia

Harbor in Baddeck, Nova Scotia

The gorgeous views from a vantage point in Acadia National Park (Bar Harbor, Maine)

The gorgeous views from a vantage point in Acadia National Park (Bar Harbor, Maine)

One of my favorite things about the trip was the incredible architecture everywhere! Houses, business, government buildings, etc.

One of my favorite things about the trip was the incredible architecture everywhere! Houses, business, government buildings, etc.

& Review: The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

Book Title: The Divorce Papers
Author: Susan Rieger
Pages: 480
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Crown
Date Published: March 18th, 2014
Date Read: June 20th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, borrowed from work
Cover Love: Cute, clever. A little girly, what with the pink background and twirly font. Interesting, and definitely could have been worse.
Given Synopsis: “Twenty-nine-year-old Sophie Diehl is happy toiling away as a criminal law associate at an old line New England firm where she very much appreciates that most of her clients are behind bars. Everyone at Traynor, Hand knows she abhors face-to-face contact, but one weekend, with all the big partners away, Sophie must handle the intake interview for the daughter of the firm’s most important client. After eighteen years of marriage, Mayflower descendant Mia Meiklejohn Durkheim has just been served divorce papers in a humiliating scene at the popular local restaurant, Golightly’s. She is locked and loaded to fight her eminent and ambitious husband, Dr. Daniel Durkheim, Chief of the Department of Pediatric Oncology, for custody of their ten-year-old daughter Jane—and she also burns to take him down a peg. Sophie warns Mia that she’s never handled a divorce case before, but Mia can’t be put off. As she so disarmingly puts it: It’s her first divorce, too.

Debut novelist Susan Rieger doesn’t leave a word out of place in this hilarious and expertly crafted debut that shines with the power and pleasure of storytelling. Told through personal correspondence, office memos, emails, articles, and legal papers, this playful reinvention of the epistolary form races along with humor and heartache, exploring the complicated family dynamic that results when marriage fails. For Sophie, the whole affair sparks a hard look at her own relationships—not only with her parents, but with colleagues, friends, lovers, and most importantly, herself. Much like Where’d You Go, BernadetteThe Divorce Papers will have you laughing aloud and thanking the literature gods for this incredible, fresh new voice in fiction.”
What I’d Add: This is a very wordy way to describe this book! I’d subtract, rather than add to this summation of events (we don’t really know how WASP-y the Durkheims are, or how exactly Sophie is swayed to stick with it. You read the book to find out that stuff).
It’s Sorta Like: It’s reminiscent of Where’d You Go Bernadette, but it comes off as far less clever and way less funny. It’s the fun, modern epistolary novel if it were smashed together with the mail room of a law firm.
My Grade: C-
Review: The blurb says this book is “told through personal correspondence, office memos, emails, articles, and legal papers.” The numbers might not come out exactly to this, but it definitely feels like the story is told 25% in e-mails between best friends Sophie and Maggie, letters between family members involved in the divorce, and e-mails (mostly business-minded) between Sophie and her boss, and then 75% legal papers…mind-numbing legalese whom no one wants to slog through. Not even lawyers, I think. There are offers and counter-offers, pages of Narragansett law as it pertains to divorce and division of property, and case studies. Yep, full case studies of past cases that will supposedly help Sophie win her case. And they’re not summaries of these documents, they’re the whole shebang. Sometimes in teeny-tiny print.

There are twinges of plot, of human interest in this legal slog. Sophie’s own parents are strict and divorced. Her best friend, who had terrible parents, keeps her in check in regards to complaining about her parents (which does not stop Sophie from whining about them). Sophie has a couple of love interests, a little drama that runs parallel to her case. I was often (scratch that: always) more interested to find out about Sophie’s flawed friends and boyfriends than skimming through another legal-heavy document. You do a lot of skimming here, which is never what an author wants or a book deserves. Unless you’re interested in the legal system (maybe you’re a part of it yourself or you gobble up cop and lawyer shows like there’s no tomorrow), the legal parts of this legal-heavy book aren’t interesting.

The book also suffers from a lack of story arc. Sure, a divorce starts, a divorce ends, feeling are hurt in between, yadda yadda yadda. But there is no climax. There is no moment where tension ratchets up, where something truly bad is going to happen and someone saves the day. Really, nothing remarkable happens. The Durkheims are privileged. The word “WASP” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. I’ve always known it’s short code for snobby people, but I always forget it’s actually an acronym for something) is mentioned more than once. Their struggle is disliking each other and wanting a divorce. Sophie’s main struggle is that she has Parental Issues, which differ from Daddy Issues because she also has issues with Mommy. At some bits where there were interesting plot points, they get dropped. There’s a sobering storyline having to do with Sophie’s mother and Sophie’s boss….and it’s never resolved. At one point it’s just never mentioned again. Which is so frustrating, because it’s the personal stuff that gives you a break from reading another legal paper. There’s too much court order, not enough personality.

I normally love the modern epistolary form (I say modern because in the epistolary novels I had to read in college, it was all 17th and 18th century goings-on). Night Film by Maria Pessl incorporates some epistolary form nicely. But it was a narrative first, and the articles/musical pieces just added color to the mood of the novel. Divorce Papers is too padded with law. There’s not a story here, even though the synopsis claims there to be one. The idea is nice – a divorce told through letters – which sounds like it might humanize the legal system, tell the story of the families involved, both on the lawyer side and client side. But it does quite the opposite. By including ALL papers needed in a divorce, all you’re reading is one big court case. As someone who casually watches Law & Order when its showing reruns on TV, I’m not one to pour over legal documents, trying to suss a story from it.

& Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Book Title: The Circle
Author: Dave Eggers
Pages: 500
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Vintage
Date Published: April 22nd, 2014
Date Read: June 4th, 2014
Format: Paperback
Cover Love: I’m a sucker for those graphic covers! I much prefer the hardcover design though. It’s just the logo, title, and author. No blurbs. I dislike the assault of praise from other publications – we get it, people like it! Now let me like it too, on my own.
Given Synopsis: “When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO. Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in the world—even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public. What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge.”
What I’d Add: As The Circle expands, and its innovations encroach on more and more of public life, Mae has to decide if she can continue to go along with what the company is becoming.
It’s Sorta Like: It reminded me a bit of The Word Exchange  by Alena Graedon (which I reviewed and didn’t like so much), but better executed, and more chilling/harrowing.
My Grade: B-
Review: I find Eggers to be an intriguing author. I’ve only read one of his other novels – A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – and it was dense. There were great big sections that I just didn’t get, and thus that I felt were unnecessary to the greater story. From what I gather, his works vary greatly – in scope, in topic, in genre. The Circle is a straight fiction piece, a novel that doesn’t break the fourth wall, gives a definitive beginning, middle, and end. And it’s good. Actually pretty dang good. Except for a central flaw with conflict, I really enjoyed this book and its chilling implications.

Let’s start with the good. The story is set up without chapters. Normally it would perturb me to not have a natural stopping place at the end of the night, but the lack of chapters helped the flow of the story. A chapter didn’t fade to black when the protagonist went to sleep. And this is one of those books whose tension comes from something other than threat of bloodshed and danger – I genuinely felt uncomfortable and tense about how the story would resolve itself, in regards to this growing company which seemed to start to control every facet of every life. I loved the conclusion in a way I didn’t think I would (which is all I can really say about the conclusion, without giving everything away).

And now for the lackluster. Mae herself is annoying. She’s what I’d call a “shell” character: someone who can and must be filled with someone else’s opinions. She’s a pushover to a T, someone who nods along with everyone else, seldom if ever forming an opinion entirely her own, and she is obsessed to the point of pain with being liked. It makes you want to get up and shake her, hard, by the neck. Which is kind of Eggers’ point: we should be wanting to shake these people by the neck. But I would have much preferred if Mae had a little backbone, maybe questioned things a little more. She does resist full involvement in The Circle’s culture at first, but is too easily pulled in and consumed. I guess most of us are easily pulled in and consumed by things such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. but it still doesn’t make for a likable character.

Which brings me to my biggest gripe: nowhere, in this story, was there enough opposition for The Circle. Because let’s get real, the internet trolls are never going away. There’s a line in the book that insists that lack of anonymity will cause trolls to forever stop their trolling. And I scoffed. You’ll never cure some of the human race from being jerks just for the hell of it. It’s the same with The Circle’s program to “end crime forever,” or “put an end to corrupt politicians!” that stuff is still going to happen. The Circle introduces these programs and it’s just taken as fact that they work, 100% completely, right away. It’s just…it’s not feasible. And the story would have definitely benefited from the tension that would come from opposition from others. There should have and would have been those within the company who debate it, who question its practices, if only to stir the pot. The couple of times that it does happen – at one point Mae walks into a press conference where a politician claims that the Circle needs to be broken up to avoid a monopoly – and nothing happens. What, nobody believed her? Mae’s ex-boyfriend pipes up a couple of times, verbally and in letter-form, against the dangers of knowing everything about everybody. Mae brushes him off and insults him at every turn.  The Circlers are sheep to an absurd degree. NO ONE on that “campus” wants a private moment to themselves? Not one out of the 10,000+? I don’t buy it.

I understand to a point that this is Eggers’ allegory. If this company existed and if everybody bought it and the world was that malleable, this is what would happen. I’m taking it a little too literally here, applying it too much to the world outside of fiction. But it did kind of irk my reading of the novel, as I kept going “Umm, someone should be fighting this?!” That’s probably Eggers’ point, to get that reaction from me. Well then, well played.

And just one more thing: the sexual encounters were unbelievably awkward and unsexy, even the supposedly good ones. At one point Mae obsesses about a guy touching her sacrum. She says it over and over again, and all I could think was What the hell is a sacrum?! That’s an unbelievably unsexy word. There’s got to be a better way to put that! It turns out that the sacrum is the “triangular bone in the lower back formed from fused vertebrae and situated between the two hipbones of the pelvis.” (says a quick Google search) Oooookay. Touching Mae’s sacrum gets her hot. Who would have thought… The lackluster sexual encounters (because of course Mae has more than one suitor: the guys like ’em pliable!) are worse. You cringe for everyone involved. It’s not a good time, all around.

SO. The Circle is pretty dang good. I loved the arc and how it elicited a worried, even frenzied reaction in me to this breach of privacy and Headed-Toward-World-Domination-Company. When I tried to match its fictional world to the real one, I found some problems. But I’d recommend it to anyone who likes their fiction and dystopian speculative, and anyone who looks at Facebook and thinks what if?

& Review: Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

Book Title: Bellweather Rhapsody
Author: Kate Racculia
Pages: 340
Genre: Literary Fiction (with a heavy dose of Mystery, I’d say…)
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Date Published: May 13th, 2014
Date Read: June 8th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, borrowed from work
Cover Love: It’s different…the hotel, set against an ominous red background, looks like you’re attempting to look at it without your 3-D glasses. The trees and snow are very flat and 2-D, while the piano makes you believe someone is going to go out during a snowstorm to play the piano (they don’t). It’s graphic enough to be eye-catching, and the title stands out for being simply unusual.
Given Synopsis: “A high school music festival goes awry when a young prodigy disappears from a hotel room that was the site of a famous murder/suicide fifteen years earlier, in a whip-smart novel sparkling with the dark and giddy pop culture pleasures of The Shining, Agatha Christie, and Glee.

Fifteen years ago, a murder/suicide in room 712 rocked the grand old Bellweather Hotel and the young bridesmaid who witnessed it. Now hundreds of high school musicians, including quiet bassoonist Rabbit Hatmaker and his brassy diva twin, Alice, have gathered in its cavernous, crumbling halls for the annual Statewide festival; the grown-up bridesmaid has returned to face her demons; and a snowstorm is forecast that will trap everyone on the grounds. Then one of the orchestra’s stars disappears—from room 712. Is it a prank, or has murder struck the Bellweather once again?

The search for answers entwines a hilariously eccentric cast of characters—conductors and caretakers, failures and stars, teenagers on the verge and adults trapped in memories. For everyone has come to the Bellweather with a secret, and everyone is haunted.
What I’d Add: The synopsis covers most of the main characters (Rabbit and Alice, the bridesmaid all grown up), BUT there’s also the concierge, the Hatmaker’s chaperon, and the eccentric Scottish conductor (whose dialogue is only written in brogue once in the whole book, but he’s referenced as being Scottish constantly?), who all get a backstory and POV chapters along the way. That’s a lot of people to keep hear from and keep track of. And that snowstorm isn’t just forecast, it snows everyone in, adding to the suspense.
It’s Sorta Like: I’m sure they only put Agatha Christie and The Shining on there because they are mentioned rather heavily in the book (a character reads and admires Christie, someone has a formative moment during The Shining). And it’s not really like Glee…I’m sure they just put those there to grab people who like those things (although people who like The Shining and Glee equally? I don’t know if I’ve met such a person).
My Grade: B+
Review: This book is wonderfully written. But stops just short of being earth-shattering, overall. Which is unfortunate, because I loved it until the last 50 or so pages. I was prepared to give it an A, a glowing review, a standing ovation, if you will. But the conclusion of the mystery is just a little clumsy, the loose ends tied up a little unbelievably, and the mash of characters just a little unwieldy.

I have a personal connection to a few of the characters and the setting, as I was involved in performing arts in middle and high school. And I was totally nerdy about it; I went to competitions and did singing warm-ups in hallways (just to drive the point home: on the last day of classes as seniors, my friends and I belted “We Go Together” from Grease through the hallways as we left. Yeah. We did). I had friends very similar to the flashy diva, the quiet band geek (we all knew those, right?), and the burned out chaperon. I knew what it was like to have a performance deeply mean something to you, how the beauty of a well-performed song could make you want to cry, and the oft-bad combination of hormones and performance art. Racculia writes about these moments wonderfully. I reread passages again and again because they were so well done.

But I also feel that you don’t have to have been in band in high school or an aspiring soprano to appreciate the prose. Racculia knows how to draw you in and care about an annoying, needy diva child (Alice), and sympathize/root wholeheartedly for the traumatized bridesmaid returned to the core of her greatest childhood trauma. The characters each get their moment to shine. They’re all a little bit heartbreaking, and it makes for some lovely moments.

But it’s when you have to bring all the characters, their stories and their motives, their fears and insecurities and actions both in the past and in the present moment, that things get a little clumsy. In the climactic scene, it’s a little hard to keep track of five key players doing and saying things all at once. And after that scene, you’re left with a lot of questions, whose answers prove unsatisfying and thin by the novel’s close. And even after this scene, there’s a moment that tries to be even bigger, that leaves you scratching your head, going can that even happen?

The problem with this problem is that you cannot eliminate a character from this equation. Every one of the players is key. The solution to the mystery has plenty of implications for every single character. They’re all so vital, that they deserved a more vital, vibrant, perhaps more gradual end.

I did truly enjoy this book. I’d recommend it to anyone. Just pay particular attention to it’s final moments, it’s moments of chaotic action. They can be a bit hard to sort out.

& Review: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

theleftovers2

Book Title: The Leftovers
Author: Tom Perrotta
Pages: 384
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Date Published: May 22nd, 2012
Date Read: May 21st, 2014
Format: Paperback
Cover Love: There are actually two different covers – men’s shoes and women’s shoes. The image is powerful – smoking, empty footwear. I think it conveys the premise of the book nicely.
Given Synopsis: What if your life was upended in an instant? What if your spouse or your child disappeared right in front of your eyes? Was it the Rapture or something even more difficult to explain? How would you rebuild your life in the wake of such a devastating event? These are the questions confronting the bewildered citizens of Mapleton, a formerly comfortable suburban community that lost over a hundred people in the Sudden Departure. Kevin Garvey, the new mayor, wants to move forward, to bring a sense of renewed hope and purpose to his traumatized neighbors, even as his own family disintegrates. His wife, Laurie, has left him to enlist in the Guilty Remnant, a homegrown cult whose members take a vow of silence but haunt the town’s streets as “living reminders” of God’s judgment. His son, Tom, is gone, too, dropping out of college to follow a crooked “prophet” who calls himself Holy Wayne. Only his teenaged daughter, Jill, remains, and she’s definitely not the sweet “A” student she used to be.

Through the prism of a single family, Perrotta illuminates a familiar America made strange by grief and apocalyptic anxiety. The Leftovers is a powerful and deeply moving book about regular people struggling to hold onto a belief in their futures.”
What I’d Add: Yep, that’s pretty much what it’s about. Nothing to add.
It’s Sorta Like: Remember that TV show about people disappearing and then reappearing years later? The 4400. It was a good show! (And hey, The Leftovers is being turned into a TV show too! It’s scheduled as an HBO fall release. So you know it’ll have a ton more nudity and swearing than the book ever did.) And the recent book, The Returned by Jason Mott, is about the dead suddenly reappearing in their family and friends’ lives, having not aged since their death. It’s a big book and television trope: what happens when the people we love simply disappear, without an explanation? And what happens when they come back? The Leftovers only deals with the former.
My Grade: C-
Review:
It’s a book that you want so badly to be good. Excellent. Eye-opening. The lens of the story is a great idea: viewing this inexplicable phenomenon through the eyes of a single family. Mrs. Garvey leaves to be in a cult that smokes cigarettes to prove their proximity to death and follows people around town just to creep them out. The son, Tom, is trying to pick up the pieces from the dissolution of a different cult, the leader of which “married” a lot of underage girls, claimed to heal people with his hugs (seriously), and has now been thrown in jail. The daughter, Jill, was the Perfect Student, the Perfect Daughter, but is now going to parties with a Bad Influence Friend, not studying, and fooling around with a group of people and dudes she doesn’t really know a lot about. And Mr. Garvey is at home, trying to pretend that everything is okay and that no, he’s not all that lonely. He’s fine. Really.

But it’s just one set of eyes too many. It’s a lot of storylines and points of view to keep track of. And because there is so much background necessary for each family member’s storyline – the book takes place three years after the disappearances, so that’s three years of story to cover before the book’s present events can happen – action for each character is hindered. A character makes plans to go on a spur of the moment vacation, and the chapter ends. The next chapter begins weeks after that vacation. We don’t see the vacation. The plot skips over these important moments to grow and have characters interact with each other because it has to return to a different family member.

Plus, there are two cults going on. It makes sense that after such a traumatizing event, multiple groups like that would develop. But the book not only goes into too much detail for both groups, it introduces a third alternative-lifestyle – the Barefoot People – while detailing Tom’s adventures. It’s too much. Focusing on just one of these groups would have given the characters more of the attention they deserved.

And poor Tom. I just didn’t really care for his story. He could have not been a part of the story and I don’t think I would have missed him. Sorry, Tom.

Finally, I spent most of the book wondering where it was going. Were we going to get an explanation for the disappearances? (No, for the record. Don’t read this book if you’re looking for that answer). Would another Disappearance happen, and would this town just be wasting away? (OH! And another thing – were the Disappearances only in Mapleton?! If it were a worldwide thing, where was that perspective? Why weren’t government officials crawling all over the town still, analyzing it and trying to get to the root of the problem so maybe it wouldn’t happen again? Where was that tension?? It would have really helped…) The book responds to this with a series of minor events that don’t even feel like a plot point until 50 pages before the novel’s close, when a family member finds themselves at the center of the mystery. It’s not enough. The book isn’t about enough, despite it’s attempt to encompass so many different stories.

And the book needed 50 or so more pages to continue the conclusion. It did that thing where it ended where it should have begun telling the real story. If it had spent less time covering everything in the beginning sections, it could have built up the central mystery, and really created tension. I could have rated it a lot higher.

Overall, after reading this, I am skeptical about the show to be based off of it. It’s a strong premise, but the practice falls short. I really wish I could have gotten into it more! But it didn’t do it for me 😦

 

& Review: The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

Book Title: The Bone Season
Author: Samantha Shannon
Pages: 466
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Date Published: August 20th, 2013
Date Read: September 2nd, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Cover Love: It’s a great, bold cover. Very ominous and important looking. 
Given Synopsis:
It is the year 2059. Several major world cities are under the control of a security force called Scion. Paige Mahoney works in the criminal underworld of Scion London, part of a secret cell known as the Seven Seals. The work she does is unusual: scouting for information by breaking into others’ minds. Paige is a dreamwalker, a rare kind of clairvoyant, and in this world, the voyants commit treason simply by breathing.

But when Paige is captured and arrested, she encounters a power more sinister even than Scion. The voyant prison is a separate city—Oxford, erased from the map two centuries ago and now controlled by a powerful, otherworldly race. These creatures, the Rephaim, value the voyants highly—as soldiers in their army.

Paige is assigned to a Rephaite keeper, Warden, who will be in charge of her care and training. He is her master. Her natural enemy. But if she wants to regain her freedom, Paige will have to learn something of his mind and his own mysterious motives.

The Bone Season introduces a compelling heroine—a young woman learning to harness her powers in a world where everything has been taken from her. It also introduces an extraordinary young writer, with huge ambition and a teeming imagination. Samantha Shannon has created a bold new reality in this riveting debut”
What I’d Add:
It’s Sorta Like:
My Grade: D
Review:
I was REALLY excited to read this. It got great reviews in my usual review sources – my work, magazines, media, etc. The plot sounded intriguing. And the (vastly premature) comparisons to J.K. Rowling were promising.

So I was therefore so very disappointed when it turned out so poorly. I am slightly baffled by the glowing reviews. Flawed worldbuilding and story holes aside, I didn’t find it to be well-written – a vital requirement that was this novel’s damning downfall.

Some reviews complain of infodumping – explaining away the world and the magic involved at the expense of story action. While I agree that this is the beginning of The Bone Season‘s problem, the larger problem is that this infodumping doesn’t then tell you anything. You get snatches of unimportant details about Scion and Scheol I – like the new cultural trend of oxygen bars, and this weird historical twist where King Edward was really Jack the Ripper AND the first clairvoyant – and then leaves out ginormous chunks of hugely important information about the actual clairvoyants and what they do and how they do it. The heart of the problem is that there is just SO MUCH information to include, TOO MUCH going on in the story and the plot and the background that I am sure Shannon has memorized. But the reader cannot possibly memorize it as well.

So Samantha Shannon plops us in this world and expects us to figure stuff out. That’s cool. Plenty of other authors have done that. But they helped out a bit – allowing you to infer by context or gradually giving you telling details making up this new world. But not Shannon. You live in Scion London now. Here’s a ton of made-up vocabulary, a new system of government, society, culture, and a new race even the main character didn’t know existed. Good luck, because you’re not getting any more help understanding any of it.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Time is very fluid in Shannon’s storyline. So fluid, in fact, that I have no idea how long any character is doing anything. How long are they in Scheol I? How long between this event and the next chapter has passed, because everyone seems healed and in on some secret plan that is never explained? It’s impossible to say.

You have to work so hard to deal with this world. And maybe that effort is working for some people. Maybe they just get Shannon’s vision. I just don’t see how they can, with the narrative the way it is. This story is too large, too inclusive of too many things, to be successful. The characters show little emotion, little depth, and there’s too much information force-feeding without giving actual story to make this enjoyable. The only reason I might continue the series is if other skeptical reviewers such as myself read and review the second installment and it turns out to be a complete 180 from this one.