One-Sentence Reviews: My February & March Reads

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This morning I started my first book of spring: The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s my 17th book so far this year, as I steadily make progress toward reading 55 works of fiction and nonfiction—and maybe I’ll even try to throw in some poetry or graphic novels to keep things diverse. In January I posted mini reviews of my first five books of the year, and now seemed like a good time to reflect on the rest of my winter reading while gearing up for warmer weather and hopefully many days sitting on my porch with a good story in hand.

Worth It…

The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick: I love that this glittering, stylized novel doesn’t shy away from tough and sometimes taboo topics, all while successfully unraveling the gordian knot linking its two suffering protagonists.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden: When old beliefs are denounced in favor of a new religion, only a young gifted girl can see the terror coming to her town; this spellbinding tale of magic, folklore, and history is a new kind of fairytale that can easily hold its own among the classics.

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware: This thrilling mystery about a bachelorette party gone wrong is so compelling that I finished it in only one day, unable to rest until I had found out just what it was the narrator couldn’t remember about the murder that had taken place.

Don’t Bother…

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith:  This novel—which traces the history of a painting and its painter, and its forged counterpart and its painter—has too many subplots and could have been told in half the number of words.

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George: The only good thing about this thinly plotted novel is its original premise: a floating bookshop that doles out books like medicine (too bad the book quickly leaves that idea behind and heads instead into cliche and oft-charted waters).

The Sparrow Sisters by Ellen Herrick: I had high hopes for this book, billed as similar to the writings of Sarah Addison Allen (one of my favorite authors!) and Alice Hoffman, but its unrefined characters and muddled plot fail to generate even a shred of magic.

Starting A New Reading List

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Since January 2011, I’ve been writing notes on every book I read in one Word document. It’s gotten so long that it takes minutes to load when I open the file and even longer to scroll down to the end. This year I’m going to start a new list. My review format will include, as usual, the new vocabulary words I’ve learned, any particular quotes that really struck me, and an overall opinion and verdict on the book. But this time I’m also going to try to do a little literary analysis, and put to use some of those English Lit skills before they fade away. As a farewell to my old list and all the books I’ve read since 2011, I’m going to share six of my favorites—the best book I read each year. Only time will tell whether my 2017 reads (my goal is 55 books, 10 more than last year) will top them or not.

2011
Light Boxes by Shane Jones
Key Vocabulary Word: None
Review: This book has easily become a favorite. Filled with vivid imagery, both whimsical and macabre, the novel uses simple language to create stunning visuals that, despite their unbelievable nature, had me hooked and believing. Each little section could be its own prose poem, with enough substance to contemplate for hours, or days; each has a nugget of stark truth that can’t be denied: loss or love or protecting those we care about. I wish I could write like this.
Excerpt: “Note Found in February’s Pocket by the Girl Who Smells Like Honey and Smoke: I wanted to write you a story about magic. I wanted rabbits appearing from hats. I wanted balloons lifting you into the sky. It turned out to be nothing but sadness, war, heartbreak. You never saw it, but there’s a garden inside me.”

2012
Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway
Key Vocabulary Word: cahier (French: a notebook, journal, book; sheets of paper or leaves of a book placed together, as for binding)
Review: I’ve avoided Hemingway for as long as I can remember but finally gave him a chance with this book. I absolutely loved it. The writing really captivated me. The plain declarative sentences conveyed much more emotion and information than I’d imagined at first, each detail painstakingly selected to help build and shape the scene. Though minimalistic, the prose was hardly simple, but rather brimmed with feeling and meaning.
Excerpt: “There is nothing you can do except try to write it the way it was. So you must write each day better than you possibly can and use the sorrow that you have now to make you know how early the sorrow came. And you must always remember the things you believed because if you know them they will be there in the writing and you won’t betray them. The writing is the only progress you make.”

2013
The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen
Key Vocabulary Word: None
Review: I enjoyed this book’s easy rhythm and colloquial writing, as well as the twists that drew me deeper into the story. All of the characters rang true, and I liked the inclusion of their histories. Most of all, I liked the magical, mystical element that the author wove into the story. It ended a little too happy for everyone for my usual taste, but I found unexpected comfort in that.
Excerpt: “If anyone had been paying attention to the signs, they would have realized that air turns white when things are about to change, that paper cuts mean there’s more to what’s written on the page than meets the eye, and that birds are always out to protect you from things you don’t see.”

2014
Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman
Key Vocabulary Word: suppurate (to produce or discharge pus, as a wound)
Review: I’d never have imagined a favorite book would be a nonfiction one, but here we are. Hoffman struck a perfect balance between giving us the history of New Guinea, delving into Michael Rockefeller’s harrowing story, and telling his own personal anecdote of discovery. His settings and descriptions came close to poetry, and the landscape really felt alive. Even when he settled into explanation, the writing remained intriguing, the reader alert.
Excerpt: “The peaks trap the heavy, moisture-laden tropical clouds, and every rivulet feeds another and another, and they grow larger and intertwine and curve as the land flattens, and it flattens quickly, suddenly, and for a hundred miles to the sea this land is without a hill, a rock, or even a pebble.”

2015
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Key Vocabulary Word: eldritch (weird, eerie, uncanny)
Review: This literary fantasy skillfully weaves history, folklore, culture, and philosophy into a tapestry of magic and mystery. I loved the characters, the way disparate elements of the plot ended up connecting, and an ending that the reader could mull over long after putting down the novel.
Excerpt: “He’d lived so long in anticipation of his own death that to contemplate his future was like standing at the edge of a cliff, staring into a vertiginous rush of open sky.”

2016
Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith
Key Vocabulary Word: allopathy (treatment of disease through conventional means)
Review: This novel blew me away: lyrical, tight passages of description; intelligent dialogue; and a great sense of restraint, knowing just how many clues to give the reader and, more importantly, when to hold back. The story took on a surreal quality, and yet felt completely believable, the reader lost in an illusion so complete that only truth remained.
Excerpt: “So much of our thinking is involved with things we’ve already done and things we have yet to do. It’s almost impossible not to be thinking about some future moment or some past mistake or tragedy.”

One-Sentence Book Reviews

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When I last shared some mini book reviews with you, I was in the throes of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy. Though I really enjoyed the first book, my love of the series dwindled with each subsequent installment. But I have read some really fascinating works since then, and if you’re only going to read one of the books I’m recommending below, let it be Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith.

The novel blew me away with its lyricism and tight descriptions, its sense of restraint, giving you just enough clues to vaguely piece together the action but still retain the pleasurable tingle of a mystery waiting to be solved. In fact, I still find myself thinking back to this book, its intricately woven themes, its heart-wrenching prose. Here’s an excerpt that I really loved:

“Up the road were other abandoned parcels, barely visible driveways leading to vacant foundations, as if someone had plucked the houses right out of the ground, leaving cavities in the shape of living spaces. I could feel the house that wasn’t there, rising out of the gaping concrete mouth. The alders shivered in the breeze, a sound so familiar that I shivered, too.”

Now, without further ado, the reviews:

Worth It…

Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith: In this novel, written with remarkable precision and passion, a young woman visits an old friend on an island commune—but she soon realizes that nothing is as it appears, not even her own mind, her shadow-struck heart.

The Way of Wanderlust by Don George: This writer’s very intimate anecdotes offer great insight into travel, writing, and our own capacity for goodness and human connection.

Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey: At turns whimsical and wry, poet Novey reveals bit by bit the strange and compelling tale of a Brazilian author who climbs into a tree and disappears, and the translator who leaves behind a solid life in Pittsburgh to search for her.

The Table Comes First by Adam Gopnik: If you can look past his copious allusions and penchant for philosophical rambling, you’ll discover interesting stories and good questions about the past, present, and future of the food scene.

Don’t Bother…

Christmas Caramel Murder by Joanne Fluke: I liked the “cozy mystery” concept of this novel, but everything else fell flat: a weak and illogical plot, characters that were no more than caricatures, an insubstantial setting, and a serious dependence on telling the reader things that were quite obvious already.

Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein: I read the first volume of this series when teaching fourth grade last year and enjoyed it; however, the second book felt forced, and much of the intrigue of the earlier novel had been extinguished.

Run the World by Becky Wade: Professional runner Wade recounts her travels in order to learn about running cultures in other countries, but unfortunately the entire book just sounded like an extended high school essay.

 

One-Sentence Book Reviews

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So far I’ve read 20 books in 2016. That’s almost halfway to my goal of 50 reads this year. I’m making good progress, and I’ve found some real gems; some of the titles I’ve delved into recently were just so good that I lingered over them, not wanting them to end. Now I’m on book 21: The Magician King by Lev Grossman. It’s the second installment in his popular trilogy, which is also currently a show on SyFy. I haven’t yet decided whether I prefer the books or the TV series. In the meantime, here are some short reviews to help you decide what to pick up next: Continue reading

Winter Reading: One-Sentence Book Reviews

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This weekend more than two feet of snow settled atop New York City’s streets and resulted in a travel ban and transit shutdown on Saturday that effectively trapped me at home. Despite all that, I had a great weekend: snow shoveling led to a snowball fight and a snow angel, followed by hot chocolate laden with marshmallows and whipped cream; Todd and I finally had time to relax and catch up on season six of Royal Pains; and I baked a walnut-topped blueberry loaf.

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Book Review: The Lightkeepers

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9781619026001_p0_v2_s192x300.jpg I stumbled across The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni on a recommended reading list, where reviewers had described it as a locked-room mystery a la Agatha Christie. You have to understand: I loved And Then There Were None so much that a few friends and I tried making an amateur film version of the book. So I couldn’t resist ordering this new title and reading it as soon as it arrived—and I have to say that I’m so glad I did.

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