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Monday, November 28, 2011

The Family Fang

The Family Fang
Kevin Wilson
Ecco, 2011

For as long as Buster and Annie can remember, their parents have been weird. They could have coped if their parents had been the normal kind of weird that most kids complain about. You know, like wearing black socks with sandals or arguing in public. Instead they were stuck with the kind of weird parents called public performing artists who created mayhem and chaos in public places just to watch other people’s reactions and record it as art. Which was fine when it was just Caleb and Camille Fang creating public scenes, but it seemed that the only reason they had their children was just to use them as props their parents’ performance pieces? Or at least, that’s the way Buster and Annie felt.

For as long as they can remember, the children starred in their parents' madcap pieces, but now that they are adults, they are having a hard time coping in a normal world. When Annie and Buster make a series of bad decisions that affect their careers and their lives, they have nowhere to go but home, where they discover that Caleb and Camille are planning one last performance – whether the kids want to help or not. Can Annie and Buster cope with what they see as the ultimate betrayal, or will they understand that for their parents, art is more important than they are?

If you like to squirm uncomfortably while reading your novels, then this book is for you. Chapters alternate between the circumstances surrounding the past performance pieces, where young Annie and Buster are reluctant and sometimes resistant participants, to current situations involving adult Annie and Buster, who find themselves still reluctant and resistant to playing the same game with their parents. This odd and compelling novel will leave you with a lot of conflicted feelings and moral questions about parental love and damaged children. And yet, it has an odd appeal – maybe because we can all identify with having fairly odd parents to some degree.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne (2006)
Thanksgiving at the New England home of the second of three sisters marks a reunion between the three Fiske sisters and their long-estranged father, in a portrait of the unraveling of a family.

The Field Guide to Burying Your Parents by Liza Palmer (2009)
As a child, Grace Hawkes was abandoned by her father; as an adult, she feels abandoned when her mother dies unexpectedly. Not knowing what to do, Grace runs away. Five years later she reunites with her siblings at her father's deathbed and confronts her past.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (2010)
The idyllic lives of civic-minded environmentalists Patty and Walter Berglund come into question when their son moves in with aggressive Republican neighbors, green lawyer Walter takes a job in the coal industry, and go-getter Patty becomes increasingly unstable and enraged.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

This Beautiful Life

This Beautiful Life
Helen Schulman
Harper Collins, 2011

When 15-year-old Jake rejects the sexual advances of an eighth grader, then forwards a pornographic video she made for him to his friend, the beautiful life that his mother Liz and his father Richard created for him and his younger sister disappears. As expected, the video goes viral and immediately puts Jake’s future in jeopardy as well as disrupting the family’s well-being. Jake and his friends are questioned by the police and suspended from school; Liz has a breakdown of sorts; and Richard’s new job in New York is up in the air. If only, Liz laments, they had never left their idyllic life in Ithaca. If only, Richard wishes, he had made more time for Jake. If only, Jake thinks repeatedly, he had deleted that email without even watching it.

Set in a pre-9/11 Manhattan full of excessive wealth and a strange kind of innocence, this story could happen to anyone, which is what makes it so compelling. Liz and Richard make lots of mistakes along the way, not the least is their lack of parenting to their older child in order to concentrate all their time and energy with the younger one, who, ironically, becomes ignored during the family crisis. Still, it is hard to watch this unraveling of what seems like a perfectly happy family, who will never the same after this event. Readers expecting a happy ending will want to read something else, because this is a sobering, thought-provoking and somewhat depressing story.


Other novels by this author:
P.S. (2001)
A Day at the Beach (2007)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian (2004)
After a decade of spending a delightful summer week at their country house in New Hampshire, the members of the extended Seton family are confronted by a terrible accident, testing the values and relationships that hold them together.

The Summer Guest by Justin Cronin (2004)
Nearing the end of his life, financier Harry Wainwright journeys to a rustic fishing camp in Maine and leaves a profound legacy for a haunted young man, a Vietnam draft evader, and a spirited young woman who holds a key to the past.

Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry (2002)
In mid-1990s Bombay, Nariman Vakeel lives in a crumbling apartment with his two middle-aged stepchildren--the mild-mannered Jal and his domineering sister, Coomy, who plots to turn over the care of her stepfather to her younger sister, Roxana.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Rosamund Lupton
Crown, 2011

Beatrice and her sister Tess have always been close, so when Beatrice doesn’t hear from Tess for several days she begins to worry. It turns out that Beatrice is right to worry. Tess, who is single and pregnant, is officially missing. Beatrice quickly travels home to London to find out what happened, and she is shocked to learn that Tess’ baby died several weeks earlier. Not only that, but Tess had been stalked by someone who left frightening messages on her phone and watched her through her windows at night. Then, when Tess is found dead of an apparent suicide, Beatrice starts to investigate on her own, convinced that Tess would never take her own life.

Part psychological drama, part medical thriller, and part mystery, this fast-paced suspense story will keep you alert and interested in the outcome. Beatrice seems driven by a combination of guilt over moving away from her sister in London and determination to prove the police wrong about her sister’s death. When Tess’ therapist tells the police that Tess suffered from hallucinations brought on by illicit drug use, Beatrice works even harder to prove that she was murdered. She feels so close to a motive, but every turn seems to result in a dead end. Could it be that Beatrice is starting to lose her own grip on reality? Everyone else seems to think so.

If there is such a thing as a quiet suspense story, this would be it. The book’s structure has alternating chapters between a letter that Beatrice narrates to her sister and an interview that Beatrice has with an attorney explaining her every step to solve the mystery. While I was not as riveted to the book as others were, I found the story compelling and the premise intriguing enough to keep reading. A surprise twist at the end, however, left me feeling a bit betrayed and disappointed.


This is the author's first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Water’s Lovely by Ruth Rendell (2006)
A decade after the killing of her stepfather, Ismay is still haunted by nightmares of his murder and of seeing his naked body floating in the bathtub and her sister, Heather, standing over him.

The Vanishing of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell (2007)
Iris Lockhart receives news that her great-aunt Esme is being released from Cauldstone Hospital, where she has been confined for more than sixty years, and soon discovers that Esme holds the key to long-hidden family secrets that could change her life forever.

The Secret Smile by Nicci French (2004)
Discovering that her sister has become involved with a deceptive man whom she herself dumped weeks earlier, Miranda becomes increasingly apprehensive when her sister begs Miranda to let them both live with her while they find a place of their own.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Dovekeepers

The Dovekeepers
Alice Hoffman
Scribner, 2011

This fictionalized account of the first century massacre at Masada unfolds through the voices of four women: Yael, the hated daughter of an assassin; Revka, a baker’s wife determined to protect her orphaned grandsons; a girl who fights battles disguised as a warrior; and her mother, a woman of mysterious powers. What unites all these women in this community is their assigned duty as dove keepers, where they learn to forgive each other in order to survive in an increasingly hostile time.

Hoffman fans may struggle through this massive volume, because it is a significant departure in style and content from many of her previous works. She spent a great deal of time researching the history behind the event, and this shows through the extensive detail and background that accompanies each character’s story. However, the long paragraphs and slow plot make this a tedious work to get through. Some may find it rewarding – but others may elect to just give up. After finishing it myself, I’m not sure it’s worth the long, hard slog to the end.

By the way, isn't the cover fantastic? It makes me wish I liked the book more!


Alice Hoffman has numerous novels to her name. Check them out at!

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley (2010)
Carrie settles into the shadow of Slains Castle in Scotland, creates a heroine named for one of her own ancestors, and starts to write about the Jacobite invasion of 1708. When she can no longer tell the difference between today and centuries ago, is she dealing with an ancestral memory-- a memory that might destroy her?

Innocent Traitor by Allison Weir (2006)
A fictional portrait of Lady Jane Grey, the great-niece of Henry VIII, follows her turbulent life against the backdrop of Tudor power politics and religious upheaval, from her youth, to her nine-day reign as Queen of England, to its tragic aftermath.

Madame Bovary’s Daughter by Linda Urbach (2011)
A continuation of Flaubert's classic finds twelve-year-old Berthe cast off by society in the aftermath of her mother's suicide and sent to live with her impoverished grandmother, from where she eventually rises through the ranks of Charles Worth's famed fashion empire.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lost Memory of Skin

Lost Memory of Skin
Russell Banks
Ecco Press, 2011

The Kid is a young sex offender who has no choice but to live with other outcasts in a makeshift homeless camp under a south Florida freeway. He and the other sex offenders are required to live outside society because of a law which restricts them from going within 2500 feet from any school, church, daycare, or virtually any other place that children or teens may frequent – which pretty much rules out every place except the underpass.

The Kid has a job, a bicycle, and a tent, so he can get by. He and the other ex-cons have figured out ways to charge their ankle bracelets with a generator (for a fee, of course); they know the best locations to dumpster dive for groceries; they have learned how to survive in a society that has only contempt and disgust for them. The Kid, who was kicked out of the army, had a troubled upbringing but he doesn’t blame his mother for leaving him alone for long periods of time. Although some people would accuse her of neglect so profound it could be considered abusive, The Kid figures she was doing the best she could, and it wasn’t her fault he discovered online pornography at a young age, which led to his subsequent downfall and current situation. If anything, The Kid was so na├»ve and trusting and desperate for human contact, that he did a stupid thing that he will pay for the rest of his life. He knows the score.

When the Professor shows up, the Kid is naturally suspicious and does not let his guard down for even a minute. The Professor teaches sociology and thinks he can rehabilitate The Kid as a social experiment. He gives The Kid money and counseling sessions, but the Professor is not everything he seems and his past starts to haunt him. He enlists The Kid to help him, which he does despite his misgivings, and the two men develop a relationship based on trust and friendship – something The Kid has never before experienced in his life.

I never thought I would feel such compassion and caring for a character like The Kid. He is definitely a victim of his own mistakes, and while I certainly would never condone his choices, I kind of understand why he made them. Many lonely people survive in this sad world without resorting to doing wrong. In fact, The Kid makes no excuses for himself. He doesn’t expect any special favors, nor does he bemoan his condition, but he does get tired of living in a tent under the freeway with other lowlifes like himself. This book is not a feel-good story: it raises many questions about rehabilitation and sexual predators and societal pressures. It will make you wonder about sex offenders trying to survive in a world that hates them and what, if anything, we should do about that. But it’s The Kid -- a young man who finally learns how to love someone else -- who will stay with you long after the book ends.


Other novels by this author:
Affliction (1989)
Rule of the Bone (1995)
Cloudsplitter (1998)
The Darling (2004)
The Reserve (2008)
Outer Banks: three early novels (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers (2006)
Twenty-seven-year-old Mark Schluter, suffering from a rare brain disorder that causes him to believe his sister to be an impostor, endeavors to discover the cause of the motor vehicle accident that resulted in his head injury.

Invisible by Paul Auster (2009)
Poet and student Adam Walker meets the enigmatic Frenchman Rudolf Born and his silent, seductive girlfriend, Margot, sending Adam into a perverse triangle that leads to a shocking act of violence that will alter his life.

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (1999)
In a novel set in post-apartheid South Africa, a fifty-two-year-old college professor who has lost his job for sleeping with a student tries to relate to his daughter, Lucy, who works with an ambitious African farmer.

Thursday, November 10, 2011



Jennifer Haigh
Harper, 2011

When her older brother Art--a Catholic priest and the popular pastor of a large suburban parish--finds himself at the center of a scandal, his younger sister Sheila McGann returns to Boston to help the family and fight for Art’s reputation. The problem is: Sheila isn’t absolutely convinced that Art is innocent of any wrongdoing.

Sheila has been estranged from her Catholic family for years, but she has always been close to her brother, Art. She and her younger brother Mike have tried to keep in touch, but Mike’s wife made it clear that she didn’t approve of Sheila, so she kept her distance. As Art struggles with his immediate ouster from the parish and relocation to a dismal apartment, Mike communicates his distrust of Art, and warns him to stay away from their family home. Gossip, innuendo, and outright lies run rampant, and Sheila despairs of every learning the truth until Mike decides to take matters into his own hands with disastrous results.

Sheila narrates a story that could be taken directly from the Boston headlines a few years ago. Her detached writing style is hard to warm up to, however, and left me only mildly interested in discovering the “truth” about Art and his accusers. We suspect, rightly, that there is more to the story than meets the eye, and while I didn’t quite guess the exact ending to the drama, I was correct in some of my assumptions. I would classify this one as mildly interesting, only somewhat compelling, and while not entirely forgettable, not something I enthusiastically recommend, either.


Other novels by this author:
Baker Towers (2005)
Mrs. Kimble (2006)
The Condition (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Priestly Sins by Andrew Greeley (2004)
Assigned to his first parish, Father Herman Hoffman witnesses child abuse in the parish rectory and reveals the situation to the local pastor, only to discover the fate of a whistle-blower.

An Act of Love by Nancy Thayer (1997)
When Linda McFarland's daughter attempts suicide and then accuses Owen McFarland's son (her stepbrother) of raping her, the happily married couple find their lives torn apart at the seams.

The Astral by Kate Christensen (2011)
The Astral is a huge apartment building in Brooklyn, which has been the happy home of the poet Harry Quick and his wife, Luz, who raised two children in their rambling top-floor apartment. However, the aging Astral's glory is beginning to fade- and as the building crumbles around him, a series of events forces Harry to face the reality of his own fractured family.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Everything Happens Today

Everything Happens Today

Jesse Browner
Europa, 2011

Wes is a seventeen-year-old who lives in Greenwich Village in a dilapidated town house with his terminally ill mother, remote has-been author father and precocious younger sister. This novel is the record of what happens to Wes In the course of one day: he accidentally loses his virginity to the wrong girl; he tries to rewrite an English paper on War and Peace , and he prepares an elaborate dinner for his mother. As Wes struggles with his conflicting feelings about the girl he hooked up with the night before, he juggles grocery shopping, texting his friends, taking his sister to a movie, and doing his homework while contemplating such issues as sex, love, song lyrics, innocence, friendship, God and French cuisine.

Long sentences and longer paragraphs provide a stream of conscience approach to the atypical brain of a bright young man who seems overwhelmed with too many responsibilities for a teenager. No doubt Wes has a lot on his mind, but most readers would be questioning why Wes is the one who has to the caregiver of both his mom and his little sister. Where is his father? And why hasn’t anyone called Protective Services? These issues are not addressed, however, and then, frankly, I stopped caring. Although I felt sorry for Wes, I really didn’t care to read his every passing thought and detail of every minute of his one day. Yes, a lot happened to Wes today, but much of it did not make compelling reading and in fact, was a little boring and more than a little forgettable.


Other novels by this author:
The Uncertain Hour (2007)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Dearly Departed by Elinor Lipman (2001)
The untimely death of her single mother, Margaret Batten, brings Sunny back to small-town King George, New Hampshire, the scene of her unhappy adolescence, where she discovers old family secrets and a possible half-brother she never knew she had.

Trepass by Valerie Martin (2007)
Chloe Dales's growing dislike of her college-age son Toby's romantic relationship with Salome Drago, a Croatian refugee who is a seductive but somehow toxic blend of the old world and the new, threatens to alienate her from her tolerant husband and besotted son.

A Multitude of Sins by Richard Ford (2002)
A collection of short stories that explores the theme of love and intimacy looks inside the relationships between men and women--both in and out of marriage--and the sense of right and wrong.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Night Circus

The Night Circus

Erin Morgenstern
Doubleday, 2011

The Night Circus opens at midnight and closes at dawn. It travels around the world and there has never been anything like it. Spanning a time period from 1973 to 1903, this complicated and ambitious story is about a competition between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in "a game," in which each must use their powers of illusion to best the other. Their battling arena is the Night Circus, a world renown magical place that inspires a cult following. Unbeknownst to them, this game is a duel to the death, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.

Celia’s father is Prospero, a famous magician. When she turns up after the death of her mother, he is amazed and delighted to see she was gifted with certain talents that he could develop and use in the competition. Marco was an orphan, picked up by Prospero’s opponent, in order to be trained as a worthy adversary. Marco’s job was to manage the circus, carefully and unobtrusively manipulating the people, acts, and illusions in order to attract – and then overpower – his opponent. As the two battle each other within the elements of the circus, they grow to care about each other in ways their mentors never expected.

This novel is extremely unusual, sometimes confusing, and may be too complicated for some. It alternates between characters’ perspectives and time periods for each chapter, which meant I was doing a lot of paging back and forth to keep track of the timeline and plot. Rave reviews of this fantasy make it worth reading; just be prepared for an intense journey that requires much brain power to keep everything straight. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it as much as I appreciated the author’s skill in keeping all the balls in the air at the same time.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)
In nineteenth-century England, all is going well for rich, reclusive Mr Norell, who has regained some of the power of England's magicians from the past, until a rival magician, Jonathan Strange, appears and becomes Mr Norrell's pupil.

Mister B. Gone by Clive Barker (2007)
A medieval devil speaks directly to the reader, his tone murderous one moment, seductive the next, in a memoir allegedly penned in the year 1438. The demon has embedded himself in the very words of this tale of terror, turning the book itself into a dangerous object, laced with menace only too ready to break free and exert its power.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal (2010)
In a Jane Austen-inspired alternate universe, two sisters, one beautiful and the other skilled in the glamour arts, test the limits of their gifts on an unscrupulous suitor.