Monday, February 3, 2014

One Last Look at 2013, Books That Pleasantly Surprised Me

In talking to a fellow bookaholic the other day about a book from 2013, I realized that I talked a lot on the blog about series books and Bouchercon authors from last year that thrilled me, but there were a few stand-alone  novels that pleasantly surprised me, too.  One of the great reading experiences is being proved wrong about a book, thinking that you probably won't care for it, and finding that it was an amazing read.  The books that fall into this category for me from 2013 were We Are All Simply Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, and The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes.  It's not that I didn't think that they would be good reads, just that that wouldn't be great reads.  I'm so pleased that I was wrong.  I had read books by Fowler and Atkinson and enjoyed them, but, for me, these two authors reached a more intense depth of writing than before.  Their new offerings to the reading world are simply special.  I hadn't read anything by Beukes before, and this appears to be a departure from her previous writing, too.  All three of these books were "different," dealing with either subject matter or format that was outside the box.  That in itself appealed to me, but the fact that they carried it off was what impressed me and made the novels memorable.  Not everyone agrees as to their specialness.  Indeed, the friend with whom I had the discussion about one of these books differed with me in her rating and satisfaction level.  I actually like the fact that the books stir up different feelings, as it prompts me to vocalize my support in more specific terms.  So, I am posting the reviews I did for each of these three books here in the hopes that other people might be stirred to read and embrace them.


We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although this novel is assigned six parts to it, for me it is separated into two parts, before the big reveal and after.  At first, I was bothered by the big reveal, and it annoyed me in the sense of having been tricked or snookered into believing that the book would be about one thing, and, then, a huge monkey-wrench (only the-already-have-read-it will truly appreciate that term) is tossed into the perceived story to come.  That the reveal comes almost 100 pages into the book seemed particularly unsporting.  However, after getting over my initial shock and disgruntlement, I began to realize what all the hullabaloo over this novel was about.  There are quite simply important issues at hand in Rosemary Cooke's narrative of her life, her unusual early childhood and her confused state from age five to early adulthood.  Unfortunately, so much cannot be related in this review unless I fill it with spoilers, which I try diligently to avoid in reviews.   

At the heart of this story is Rosemary Cooke and her family, who experience the closest knit love of togetherness and the consuming grief of unexpected separations.  As a loquacious child, Rosie's (Rosemary) father advised her to start in the middle of what she wanted to say, and so it is this very manner in which she proceeds to tell the story of her family from her perspective.  It is only after she is in college that she begins to know and understand the perspectives of her other family members.  So much is unspoken, too much that Rosie has had to fill in for herself, and not all of her version is accurate, due to missing information.  Not to worry.  Along with the great reveal are other reveals that plug the holes of faded and selective memory.  Rosie might start in the middle, but the beginning and ending (up to a satisfactory point of ending) are disclosed, too.  The title is well chosen, as the family is indeed completely beside themselves with a despondency that exists primarily because the deep voids of information are left unresolved for so long.  I kept wanting to shout, just ask why or what happened.  Alas, Rosie must take her own path (and sweet time) to lift herself out of the fog that encapsulates her.

Without giving anything away, because it is to important for each reader to discover the hidden beauty and ugliness of the tale for him/her self, I need to at least remark on the fact that this book will most likely make you want to know more about experimentation by scientific institutions on animals, past and present, and the unconscionable treatment of animals by the food industries. It doesn't preach about the wrongs, but you may want to after reading it. Several quotes from the book concerning this issue of animal treatment made an impression on me.  " ... a number of states are considering laws that make the unauthorized photographing of what goes on in factory farms and slaughterhouses a felony." Unfortunately, I believe this legislation has already been enacted in some places.  —“I’m unclear on the definition of person the courts have been using.  Something that sieves out dolphins but lets corporations slide on through.”  A thought provoking assessment.  “No Utopia is Utopia for everyone.” Ain't that the truth. 

So, Karen Joy Fowler, you have done yourself proud with this novel that touches our hearts and minds in a most profound way.  Kudos to your excellent writing, which includes a richness of vocabulary last encountered by me in my earlier years of reading the apposite-worded Agatha Christie novels. I feel rather as if I sucked the pages of your story dry, in that I gleaned so much worth retaining.  You, Ms. Fowler, have reached a level of distinction in your writing that demands attention, not to mention awards. 





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Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First thought in describing this novel during and after reading is how innovative a vehicle Kate Atkinson created in presenting the story, or so it happens, stories.  Reincarnation is alive (pardon pun) and well in this latest by Atkinson.  I feel it is a major achievement in this author's writing career, a progression to higher thinking, so to speak.  The novel starts and stops with the birth of Ursula Todd, or with major events in her lives, as she lives many variations of her life throughout the novel. 

I was a bit uncertain as to what my attachment to Ursula would be in the first of the book, as her birth on a snowy evening in February 1910 and her early childhood seemed to be stuck in a repetitive cycle unable to proceed.  However, once the bump past her childhood was achieved, the person who is and was Ursula becomes interesting and emotionally connective.  Much time is spent in London during the blitz of WWII and a lesser amount of time in Germany.  It is the time in London that I found more historically interesting and revealing about Ursula.  Deja
vu becomes a large part of Ursula's lives, as she is able to relate to or vaguely remember things from her previous lives.  For certain, there are some of Ursula's lives that are more palatable than others, ones I was happier with for her and other members of her family.  Born (albeit many times) to Sylvie and Hugh Todd, she is the third of five children and the second of two daughters.  Her family is hugely important in her life, and one of the compelling reasons that she has an inconsolable desire to "get things right."  Many philosophical questions are raised in the repetition of her lives, and it rests with the reader to determine if any satisfactory answers are arrived at by the end of the book.

I was completely immersed in this novel and its revolving door presentation.  Although the atmosphere of it was mostly dark, there were bits of humor interspersed that helped round out an existence that was temporal at best.  The ending was somewhat less than satisfying for me, but I'm not sure it was fair of me to expect such an ending for a circular story such as reincarnation is.  I do consider it an amazing read that does what all amazing reads should do, push me out of my comfort zone of what the world is and consider what the world might alternatively be.




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The Shining GirlsThe Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We know who the killer is.  We know who the victims are.  We know who the lone survivor is.  We know all of this information fairly quickly.  What we don't know is if the killer will ever be caught or if the survivor will remain so.  Of course, there is a complication for the police and the survivor.  The killer is a time traveler, using a ramshackle house in the depression era 1930's to find his way to and from the future.  The house is itself alive with its urges to kill that must be obeyed by the depraved man who stumbles upon the evil and who is more than compliant in his devotion to carrying out the nefarious deeds.  Harper Curtis has chanced upon his soul mate in the form of the grotesque dwelling. Kirby Mazrachi is trying to ferret out her would-be killer whom she doesn't realize leaped from 1931 to 1989 to stalk her and strike her down.  To Curtis, she is simply one of his "shining girls," one of nine predestined to die.

For Kirby, it is 1993, and she has taken an internship at the Chicago Sun-Times with Dan Velasquez, sports reporter, but formerly homicide reporter who covered her case.  Her placement with Dan is deliberate on her part, as she is attempting to uncover any information about her case.  Her goal is to expose her attacker and link him to at least one previous murder.  Kirby detects a pattern, but she is unable to support it with evidence.  She enlists Dan's aid in digging through materials, both old and new, connected to her attach and similar murders.  Is it possible to make sense of the implausible, to even arrive at its connection to reality?  To stay alive, Kirby will have to entertain her wildest thoughts as the key to catching a ruthless, elusive killer.

Lauren Beukes has written a brilliant novel, a full-on creepy novel that will shock you with brutality, but at the same time, it will spellbind you with the suspenseful genius of a story you cannot read fast enough. (I would have read straight through on it, but I had to be of town the day after the night I began to read it.)  In fairness, the brutality is brief in its telling, but knives are always a particulary grisly method of death.  Beukes achieves the back and forth of the time traveling with deftness and intrigue.  As a fan of time travel, I am impressed with her ability to create a story that flowed so smoothly with so many different time frames involved.  I feel certain that this book will be short-listed for several awards and included on many summer's hottest reads lists.   




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