Thursday, April 30, 2009

the know-it all one man's humble quest to be the smartest person in the world by a.j. jacobs

part memoir and part education (or lack thereof), the know-it all chronicles NPR contributor a.j. jacobs hilarious, enlightening, and seemingly impossible quest to read the encyclopedia britannica from A to Z.

to fill the ever-widening gaps in his ivy league education, a.j. jacobs sets for himself the daunting task of reading all thirty-two volumes. his wife, julie, tells him it's a waste of time, he friends believe he's losing his mind, his father, a brilliant attorney who once attempted the feat and quit somewhere around borneo, is encouraging, but, shall we say, unconvinced.

your book folded into my life quite nicely, in an unexpected way. i always wanted to read your other title, my year of biblical living but thought i should start with your first book. the know-it all is a bit long, but then again, so are thirty-two volumes of the encyclopedia, and this was a pleasant read. at times you were a little too WASPy and self-indulgent, and i am forced to wonder if your wife is charming, unflappable, mildly neurotic, and well-balanced as you portray her. regardless, i didn't roll my eyes that often and i was amused. it was the right book to be reading when i read it. if you're having a rough week, your book was an easy distraction.

in short, you amuse me so i'll seek out your other titles.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

the dud avocado by elaine dundy

the dud avocado follows the romantic and comedic adventures of a young american who heads overseas to conquer Paris in the late 1950s. edith wharton and henry james wrote about the american girl abroad, but it was elaine dundy’s sally jay gorce who told us what she was really thinking. charming, sexy, and hilarious, the dud avocado gained instant cult status when it was first published and it remains a timeless portrait of a woman hell-bent on living.

dear elaine dundy,

where have you been all my life? i adored the dud avocado. this book is witty, charming, nostalgic. if the hepburns  (audrey or katherine) ever starred in a book, not a movie, this would be the book. sally is gracefully awkward, clumsily charming, and adorable. it's literally like reading a romp of an old classic movie. your characters are wonderful, surreal, and highly entertaining. i cannot rave about this book enough. you are the list of great books for 2009. bravo!

i'm thrilled to know your titles are coming back into print in the upcoming months. in the meantime, i have the ever reliable and amazing new york public library to keep me swimming in your writing.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

post script: i love your book's cover. 

Monday, April 20, 2009

kick me by paul feig

written in side-splitting and often cringe-inducing detail, paul feig takes you in a time machine to a world of bombardment by dodge balls, ill-fated prom dates, and other aspects of public school life that will keep you laughing in recognition and occasionally sighing in relief that you aren't him. kick me is a nostalgic trip for the inner geek in all of us.

dear paul feig,

cute. there are some great moments in your book. my personal favorite? the elf scene. done. i giggled. loved it. and i do like you. just not for this book. i'll take a episode of freaks and geeks over kick me any afternoon. no offense. i don't think it's your fault. i swear, it's not you. it's me. totally me. okay, and george tabb. his books playing right field was everything you wanted your book to be, but compared to him . . . well, yours fell a little short.  i'm sorry. i read his book first and loved it. i laughed. his memoirs were larger than life and hilarious and embarrassing and completely geeked out. yours were silly and charming, but not as engaging. i'll admit, i was skimming by the end. and i hoped you'd end on a really funny or brilliant note, but it quietly faded. i wanted george and instead i got paul. i'll know better for next time.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Thursday, April 16, 2009

the gargoyle by andrew davidson

the narrator of the gargoyle is a very contemporary cynic, physically beautiful and sexually adept, who dwells in the moral vacuum that is modern life. as the book opens, he is driving along a dark road when he is distracted by what seems to be a flight of arrows. he crashes into a ravine and suffers horrible burns over much of his body. as he recovers in a burn ward, undergoing the tortures of the damned, he awaits the day when he can leave the hospital and commit carefully planned suicide—for he is now a monster in appearance as well as in soul. 


a beautiful and compelling, but clearly unhinged, sculptress of gargoyles by the name of marianne engel appears at the foot of his bed and insists that they were once lovers in medieval germany. in her telling, he was a badly injured mercenary and she was a nun and scribe in the famed monastery of Engelthal who nursed him back to health. as she spins their tale in scheherazade fashion and relates equally mesmerizing stories of deathless love in japan, iceland, italy, and england, he finds himself drawn back to life—and, finally, in love. he is released into marianne's care and takes up residence in her huge stone house. but all is not well. for one thing, the pull of his past sins becomes ever more powerful as the morphine he is prescribed becomes ever more addictive. for another, marianne receives word from god that she has only twenty-seven sculptures left to complete—and her time on earth will be finished. 


dear andrew davidson,

a gorgeous cover inspired me to pick up your novel in the bookstore. it was haunting enough that i remember to add it to my library queue when i got home. your story is a unique one with familiar elements. you've spun something that's captivating and mesmerizing. yet, i applaud you for never making it cheesy. never once did i roll my eyes and think, cue bad movie music here. there is something about marianne that kept me turing the pages. your narrator was engaging enough as well, but sometimes he felt too heavy handed. or perhaps it was the way he seemed so detached from his history in the adult film industry. or maybe it was just that it kept coming up. he brought up porn one too many times. you've woven a plot the unwinds at a pace that pulls a reader along with just enough tension to keep me wondering how marianne is going to explain their relationship. i didn't stay up and devour it in one night, but it was solid and tantalizing enough. either way, simply a great debut and i look forward to your next book. 


dutifully yours,

a lone reader


Monday, April 6, 2009

the guernsey literary and potato peel society by mary ann shaffer and annie barrows

january 1946: london is emerging from the shadow of WWII, and writer juliet ashton is looking for her next book subject. who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she's never met, a native of the island of guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by charles lamb. . . . 

as juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends -- and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. the guernsey literary and potato peel pie society -- born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the germans occupying their island -- boasts a charming, funny, and deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.

what a charming little book! this was a delightful way to spend my evening. i enjoyed drowning in a nostalgic and whimsical story. and i even loved the bow you wrapped it all up in. i adore letters, and something about your collection was heartwarming and endearing. i was even tempted to sit down at my underwood and dash off a piece of proper correspondence to you. (perhaps this seems a bit ironic or strange coming from a girl who writes letters she never mails -- i prefer to leave them on the internet and wait for others to discover them. but i assure you that i truly own a gorgeous, shiny, black underwood.) 

i simply adored the title 84 charing cross road by helene hanff and your novel has a lot in common with it. granted, ms. hanff's collection of letters was pulled from her own correspondence, but the atmosphere of both books is similar. and it tugs at my heart, which craves pen and papers. which craves finding letters in my mailbox. if you need an evening to whisk you off your feet with romance and words, either of these books will do the trick quite nicely.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

the sandman -- two volumes by neil gaiman

the sandman, volume 1: preludes & nocturnes introduces readers to a dark and enchanting world of dreams and nightmares -- the home of the sandman, master of dreams, and his kin, the endless. this first collection of neil gaiman's multi-award-winning title introduces key themes and characters, combining myth, magic and black humor.

in the sandman, volume 2: the doll's house rose walker finds more than she bargained for -- long lost relatives, a serial killers' convention, and, ultimately, her true identity. the mast of dreams attempts to unravel the mystery, unaware that the hand of another, far closer to home, is pulling the strings.

dear neil gaiman

before i begin, let's first give a huge round of applause for your illustrators -- dave mckean (perhaps the only artist who i feel depicts the madness in my head), mike dringenberg, malcom jones III, chris bachalo, michael zulli, steve parkhouse, and sam keith. bravo!

the first two volumes are utterly awesome. truly. i never thought i'd be a "comic" reader. sure graphic novels can be fun, but it's like a new thing for a reader like me. and i never thought i'd go seek out "graphic novels" that were actually comics when they first came out. but oh. my. god. this series is fabulous. the queue at the new york public library is long, so it's going to take me quite some time to finish it. i devoured the first two volumes in three days. somehow the insane art and the story and the characters -- it works. and i don't know how or why. but it does.

the art is a wild blend of color and style and forms. you'd think it would be rough, confusing, a mess. except, it's not. i love when the panes slowly morph into some new style of illustration and it so perfectly fitting. i think i literally mumbled, "damn!" a number of times while reading these two collections.

i am in awe. i have no idea how one goes about writing a comic/graphic novel. call me and tell me how you do it. the only thing i can nitpick in the series is the grammatical errors in the text. but! i get it. this is from the 1990s, i doubt vertigo wasn't up to making sure the grammar was up to the top notch standards. and the time constraint of turning out a monthly comic (akk!). and let's add in the hand lettering and it's cool. it does inspire me to want to see if i can go copyedit for vertigo. put in a good word for me, would you? 

i'm almost tempted to leave my current cushy publishing gig to become a graphic novel/comic book editor. if anyone could get me to do it, it's you neil. the suspense for volume 3 is killing me. i'll die in sweet anticipation. anything for you and your books.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

post script: it's pretty obvious that i have a wicked crush on you, right? 

Saturday, March 28, 2009

sharp teeth by toby barlow

an ancient race of lycanthropes has survived to the present day, and its numbers are growing as the initiated convince L.A.'s down and out to join their pack. paying no heed to moons, full or otherwise, they change from human to canine at will -- and they're bent on domination at any cost.

caught in the middle are anthony, a kind-hearted, besotted dogcatcher, and the girl he loves, a female werewolf who has abandoned her pack. anthony has no idea that she's more than she seems, and she wants to keep it that way. but her efforts to protect her secret lead to murderous results.

why free verse is my first reaction. i thought perhaps this wasn't necessary. but now i find i am okay with it. i don't entirely understand the use of the format for this story -- but it sort of works. it keeps your story from becoming to silly. it keeps it serious and engaging. once i got into the flow and ebb of your writing, it just moved along.

i was entertained by this story. i've read a lot of werewolves stories in the past few years -- okay, who hasn't? and this was a good one. i was a bit disappointed by the ending. it wrapped up too cleanly, too nicely. these are bloodthirsy characters with no mercy and i wish i could say the same for you as an author. still, i'll keep you on the list of authors to read list. you earned enough gold stars with this debut to warrant keeping an eye on. 

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

when i was five i killed myself by howard buten

burton rembrandt has the sort of perspective on life that is almost impossible for adults to understand: the perspective of an eight-year-old. and to burt, his parents and teachers seem to be speaking a language he cannot understand. this is burt's story as written in pencil on the walls of the quiet room in the children's trust residence center, where he lands after expressing his ardent feelings for a classmate.

your book is one i read in desperation. i was going on a long subway ride and i had nothing else to read. i actually wandered my apartment, eyeing the shelves for ten minutes, before snatching your book and rushing out the door. this isn't my book, and i didn't even ask to borrow it, but since my roommate was out of town and i had to go, there it was, tossed in my bag. (thank you, wonderful roommate!)

let me begin with your opening letter to the reader -- you are not as funny or clever as you think you are. that letter made me want to put the book down. but i was on the train and it was either put the book back in my bag and be forced into conversation with strangers, or plow on to the story itself. i plowed.

i had a hard time with this. maybe because i work on children's books for a living, and while this is not a kids' book, it has a child protagonist. and i didn't like burton. at all. and it was so obvious from the beginning what he (and jessica) did to get him chucked into the kids' crazy house. 

your story telling tactic is interesting and you utilize flashbacks quite well without it getting confusing or obnoxious. but the structure of your plot left something to be desired -- like a satisfying conclusion. you end with incident with jessica and burton, but honestly, what the heck happens to burton? he spends the entire book resisting therapy and we never find out if he's committed for the rest of his youth, or if he convinces them he is well enough to live among the sane again. nothing concrete comes of his time in this center, so it feels like a waste that you bothered to write about his days and events there at all. 

oh well. it passed the time on the subway fine enough. and that's the only expectation i had for your book.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

north of beautiful by justina chen headley

it's not hard to notice terra cooper.

she's tall, blond, and has an enviable body. but with one turn of her cheek, all people notice is her unmistakably "flawed" face. terra secretly plans to leave her small, stifling town in the northwest and escape to an east coast college, but gets pushed off-course by her controlling father. when an unexpected collision put terra directly in jacob's path, the handsome but quirky goth boy immediately challenges her assumptions about herself and her life, and she is forced in yet another direction. with her carefully laid plans disrupted, will terra be able to find her true path?

this was an unexpected read. it was sent to me by a good friend (for the record: it was sent not based on his recommendation, but because i have read your other books.) so i threw it in the pile of books on my desk. i enjoyed your first novel nothing but the truth (and a few white lies) a lot. . . like a more normal version of millicent min (of millicent min, girl genius fame).  but then i found myself with nothing to read so i reached for your newest novel.

the design is gorgeous. the premise interesting. but i had a hard time with it. your writing has moments of purity. but then at times, it's too rough. too much confusion slips between the words. i wanted to like terra, and for the most part i did. but she never fully bloomed for me. i wanted her to have at least one bold moment, one empowering sense of self by the end. she came close, but never quite got there. 

as for her family . . . her father's character felt forced, like you were trying to hard to convey his personality. and i never understood his motivations. and terra's relationships with her brothers. . . . they felt coerced into being distant and abandoning the cooper women. and jacob, i thought he was great. the perfect boy for girls to dream about. but did you have to give him his own deformity? i mean, it works in the story, but i was disappointed that a normal, not "freak" boy, didn't fall in love terra for all she is, all she wants to be. a freak for the freak, i suppose. mrs. cooper stole the scenes, quietly. and in this timid way, like she didn't want to steal them and she knew she was supposed to be in the background. but somehow, her moments shone through everything else. 

your plot was sweet, but it felt too hard to believe. i'm sorry, but it did. it's not a terrible story at all, i swear. but it was a contrived and terra's journey was too easy. even her father didn't resist her too much. she managed to overcome every obstacle thanks to someone else, and usually their money. i also wanted her to really stand up for herself, and her beauty, to her lame boyfriend. like actually get angry with someone and let them know they had angered her. but she never did. terra has quiet, passive moments like her mom, but even her mom figures out how to stand on her own two feet in a way that terra didn't. yet, i never managed to convince myself to put the book down. it never occurred to me. so perhaps just this title didn't speak to me and some time in the future you'll wow me again.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Monday, March 23, 2009

fried green tomatoes at the whistle stop cafe by fannie flagg

folksy and fresh, endearing and affecting, fried green tomatoes at the whistle stop cafe is the now-classic novel of two women in the 1980s: of gray-headed mrs. threadgoode telling her story to evelyn, who is in the sad slump of middle age. the tale she tells is also of two women -- of the irrepressibly daredevilish tomboy idgie and her friend ruth -- who back in the thirties ran a little place in whistle stop, alabama, a southern kind of cate wobegon offering good barbecue and good coffee and all kinds of love and laughter, even an occasional murder. and as the past unfold, the present -- for evelyn and for us -- will never be quite the same again. . . . 

your novel was a gem that i never sought out. it never occurred to me to read. i don't even think i thought of it much.  ever. sure, i've heard of the movie, but i've never seen it. yet your novel randomly ended up in my hands, compliments of a lady with excellent reading taste. she did not fail with this book, nor did you.

i adore your version of the south. i am a vegetarian but i so wished i wasn't while reading this. i wanted the comfort food -- fried okra, biscuits, collard greens. well, until a certain barbecue recipe came up. then i was glad i avoided meat. (and hats off to whoever decided to include some recipes in the back!)

mostly, i wanted to be hanging out with mrs. threadgoode. or, sitting at one of the tables at whistle stop cafe with ruth or idgie. oh, and dot weems's newsletter -- a wonderful little bonus to the story. i adore her and wilbur. these characters were ones i'd want to come home to. i'd want to have dinner with and spend my afternoons on the porch listening to their tall tales. i wanted them to enfold me in a hug in the warm summer southern sunshine.

i recommend this book, and a nice glass of old-fashion lemonade to wash it down with. a delightful way to pass the afternoon.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Sunday, March 22, 2009

the book thief by markus zusak

narrated by death, markuc zusak's groundbreaking new novel is the story of liesel meminger, a young foster girl living outside munich in nazi germany. liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she discovers something she can't resist -- books. soon she is stealing books from nazi book-burning, the mayor's wife's library, wherever they are found.

with the help of her accordion-playing foster father, liesel leans to read and share her stoem books with her neighbors during bombing raids, as well as with the jewish man hidden in her basement.

markus zusak has crafted an unforgettable novel about the ability of books to feed a soul.

i was a little uncertain of this book when i first began. it was a bit jarring the way the story was being told and i had a hard time believing in your character of death. but that quickly faded and i was in. i was in for every last word on every last page. at every free moment i had, i felt myself reaching for this book. i wanted more. from liesel. from rudy. from papa. from max. even death himself won me over. and i wanted so bad to believe that death is compassionate, not just void of all emotions. 

the book max writes for liesel, absolutely moving. it reminded me that there is something so pure in all the horrors that happen. as small as a tiny, homemade story can be -- it can also save. 

it's been a long time since a book has brought me to tears, but you managed to do just that. i sat on my floor and sobbed. i had to take a moment to get a hold of myself so i could keep reading. i was utterly broken by this story. but somehow, this story filled me with such hope it was overwhelming. so if you want to write more books as beautiful as this one, i'll be the first in line to pick up a copy. 

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Thursday, March 19, 2009

summer of naked swim parties by jessica anya blau

fourteen-year-old jaime will never forget the summer of 1976. it's the summer when she has her first boyfriend, cute surfer flip jenkins; it's the summer when her two best friends get serious about sex, cigarettes, and tanning; and it's the summer when her parents throw, yes, naked swim parties, leaving jamie flushed with embarrassment. and it's that forever changes the way jamie sees things that matter: family, friendship, love, and herself.

you are clearly channeling judy blume, while smoking pot. which is perfectly fine for your mildly entertaining debut. it's a mindless read, and that's okay. i didn't expect anything else, and you delivered. it was exactly what i needed.

i will say that i am disappointment in jamie's character development. she was clueless, awkward, and somewhat adorable in the beginning. i saw my sexually clueless self in her. but she sort went a little crazy by the end. did you have to make her go down that obvious path of sexual stupidity? like all she learned from flip was that sex was a form of affection and approval. and i hated when he twisted things to get his kicks. like he manipulated her to get his jollies. and suddenly, i don't want kids. i don't want kids like the ones in your book. it make me uncomfortable, pissed off, and sad. was that your point, or merely an accident?

(don't worry gary d. schmidt, i still want a holling hoodhood kid.)

also, you went on a little too much about her mom's boobs hanging out all over the place and their perfectness ginormousness and her dad's penis. it was a little unnecessary.

i'll be honest, while i enjoyed your book for what it is, i'll probably forget it and it will never come up in conversation again.  (let's face it, i actually read this novel about eight books ago and totally spaced on writing you a letter -- oops?)

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

the astonishing life of octavian nothing and the known world

in this fascinating and eye-opening revolution-era novel, octavian, a black youth raised in a boston household of radical philosophers, is given an excellent classic education. he and his mother, an african princess, are kept isolated on the estate, and only as he grows does he realize that whole he is well dressed and well fed, he is indeed a captive being used by his guardians as part of an experiment to determine the intellectual acuity of africans. as the fortunes of the novanglian college of lucidity change, so do the nature and conduct of their experiments. the boy's guardians host a pox party where everyone is inoculated with the disease in hopes that they will be immune to its effects, but, instead, octavian's mother dies. he runs away and ends up playing the fiddle and joining the patriot's cause. he's eventually captured and brought back to his household where he's bound and forced to wear an iron mask until one of his more sympathetic instructors engineers his escape. 

set in manchester county, virginia, twenty years before the civil war began, the known world is a masterpiece of overlapping plot lines, time shifts, and heartbreaking details of life under slavery. caldonia townsend is an educated black slaveowner, the widow of a well-loved you farmer named henry, whose parents had bought their own freedom, and then freed their son, only to watch him himself a slave as soon as he had saved enough money. although a fair and gentle master by the standards of the day, henry townsend had learned from his former master about the proper distance to keep from one's property. after his death, his slaves wonder if caldonia will free them. when she fails to do so, but instead breaches the code that keeps them separate from her, a little piece of manchester county begins to unravel.

dear m. t. anderson and edward p. jones,

you both have something in common: i didn't finish your novels. i did not finish you critically acclaimed, award-winning novels. and i am disappointed in you for that. you both have such a great premise for a story. i wanted to love your works. instead, i was bored, horrified, and felt incredibly stupid for my lack of interest. 

m. t., your narrator is so dense and so obtuse that i wanted no part of him. octavian can keep his intelligence, and pretension, for another reader. also, did you need to make this two volumes? i highly doubt it. i am boggled as to how you won any awards and earned so many starred reviews.

edward, your story was so all over the place, i needed a map. i'd start warming up to a character and then suddenly, i was in another person's life at a completely different point in time. and i had no idea why you were working around your story in this way. why couldn't it be a bit more linear and plot driven, instead of a plot hidden in flowery narration and an abundant cast of characters? i am not pleased with the pulitzer prize committee for picking you.

sadly, i will not likely pick up anything by either of you again. although, it might not be you. it might be me. 

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Monday, March 16, 2009

the last town on earth by thomas mullen

set against the backdrop of one of the most virulent epidemics that america has ever experienced -- the 1918 flu epidemic -- thomas mullen's powerful, sweeping first novel is a tale of morality in a time of upheaval.

deep in the mist-shrouded forests of the pacific northwest is a small mill town called commonwealth, conceived as a haven for workers weary of exploitation. for philip worthy, the adopted son of the town's founder, it is a haven in another sense -- as the first place in his life he's had a loving family.

and yet, the ideals that define this outpost are being threatened from all sides. a world war is raging, and with the fear of spies rampant, the loyalty of americas is coming under scrutiny. meanwhile, another shadow has fallen across the region in the form of a deadly illness striking down vast swarths of surrounding communities.

when commonwealth votes to quarantine itself against contagion, guards are posted at the single road leading in and out of town, and philip worthy is among them. but what happens when a mysterious man seeking refuge refuses to turn away when denied entrance? how far can one town go to save itself? the encounter that ensues will have deafening reverberations throughout commonwealth, escalating until every human value -- love, patriotism, community, family, and friendship -- not to mention the town's very survival, is imperiled.

your novel kept me up late into the night. i devoured it. i couldn't put it down. you took the essence of a stephen king premise and then ran in the opposite direction of every book he's ever written. (i do adore stephen king, so this is not an insult to you or him.) truly awesome. you've made this your own and i applaud your first novel. i've been disappointed with some of the adult novels i've read lately. stories have been running wildly away from their authors and no one seems to care. you plotted. you thought. you crafted. and i was there the whole way. never once did your story waiver. never once did i question your motive for an action, a scene, an incident. it flowed so effortlessly, but i could tell you did your research. and your writing was lovely. just lovely.

the town, the men and women in the town, the history, the setting -- spot on! each element and character lent itself incredibly to the story and pushed it to a new level, driving the plot and adding to the tension. if the twilight zone ever had a literary episode, this would have been it. this is book i will recommend to anyone and everyone. 

can you right another novel? now please. i cannot wait until 2010 for your next book. 

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Saturday, March 14, 2009

the wednesday wars by gary d. schmidt

holling hoodhood is really in for it. he's just started seventh grade with mrs. baker, a teacher he knows is out to get him. why else would she make him read shakespeare . . . outside of class?

the year is 1967, and everyone has bigger things to worry abut, especially vietnam. then there's the family business. as far as holling's father is concerned, the hoodhoods need to be on their best behavior: the success of hoodhood and associates depends on it. but how can holling stay out of trouble when he has so much to contend with. rats, for one thing; cream puffs, for another. then there's doug swieteck's brother. and that's just for starters. in a series of mishapes and adventures over the course of the school year, fate sneaks up on holling again and again.

gary d. schmidt has written a novel that is at turns comic and compelling, down-to-earth and over-the-top. in the wednesday wars, he offers an unforgettable antihero holling hoodhood, a kid from the suburbs who embraces his destiny in spite of himself.

dear gary d. schmidt,

if i reproduce, i secretly hope my offspring have a lot in common with holling hoodhood. he is as awkward, hilarious, endearing as any kid could be. he's snarky without wounding. gracious without being a goody goody. and hilarious without ever realizing that he's the punchline. he is one of the most unassumingly dynamic characters i've come across in a book, children's or not. seventh grade would have been way more interesting if holling was in my class. 

your ability to string together daily life and encounters that seem to have nothing to do with one another is fantastic. too often i read a story that feels like a series of isolated incidents for a character and i don't understand why they got a novel, instead of an inclusion in a collection of short stories. not so with you. holling's days, weeks, and months feed in to each other.

please write more. and in the meantime, i'm putting lizzie bright and the buckminster boy and trouble in my reading queue.

oh, and i've totally begun to make up shakespearian insults. 

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Monday, March 9, 2009

a round-up of notes

i've gotten a bit behind in my letters and i apologize. but to catch up, i'm going to do quick notes to the authors. . . .

from louis may alcott's beloved classic little women geraldine brooks has taken the character of the absent father, march, who has gone off to war leaving his wife and daughters. riveting and elegant as it is meticulously researched, march is an extraordinary novel woven out of the lord of american history.

i swoon. i weep. i wasn't prepared. march is one of the most superior historical fiction novels i've ever read. and it's part of another brilliant writer's literary canon. i enjoyed little women but you have given louis may alcott's story such depth, tenderness, and heart in a most unexpected way. i wanted to hug you as i read the last word. and say, thank you. i wait in anticipation of your next literary venture.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

standing on the fringes of life offers a unique perspective. but there comes a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor. this haunting novel about the dilemma of passivity verses passion.

dear stephen chbosky,

your debut is tragically lovely. this book means more to my soul than any other young adult novel i've read (re-read). and i didn't read it as a teen. charlie is so tender and sweet, with his own demons that given him a powerful fierceness. i ached for him as i re-read his letters, his life. i wish i had been smart enough to send letters into the abyss. like letters in a bottle. sometimes, we just need to know the words are on paper. that they are alive. that we are alive. there is a safe and comforting feeling i get knowing this slim book is on my shelf. i admire all your characters. sam, patrick, brad, and bill. how i wish i had a bill for myself, even now. 
your novel has broken my heart into pieces and made me feel. please write more books.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

once the toast of good society in victoria's england, the conjurer edward moon no longer inspires the awe that he did in earlier times. despite having previously unraveled more than sixty perplexing criminal puzzles, his is washed up. still, each night he returns to the stage to amaze his devoted, aided by his partner, the somnambulist. but even the brilliant and strange can be stumped by a crime so intricate and detailed. . . .

dear jonathan barnes,

i have a thing for zombies. and before you interrupt, let me say that i have a wide definition of this category. and the somnambulist sneaks its way in. the somnambulist stole the book. every scene belongs to him.

this is a creepy tale and your setting is perfectly rendered. i could see the dark nights and creepiness lurking in the alleys. i was with you for most of the story. . . but love, love, love, and love plot line was a bit much. you had some fantastic twists to your story. like when a mysterious woman reveals who she is. or when the narrator's unveiled. but as the clues came together and the resolution built, i faltered. i was lost in the ending. maybe you'll better next time?

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

in an unnamed city charles unwin wishes only to escape his good fortune. unwin is inexplicably promoted to detective, a rank for which he lacks both the skills and stomach, when the detective he works for disappears.

you had me at your opening line. i was in, and lusting for each new sentence. then you lost me around chapter 14. you got a little too carried away and i wasn't prepared to follow. i witnessed it all spin out of control. but i was a calm observer, not actually caught up in the spin. you tried to pull it back together for the end, but it was enough. you, however, show the courage and conviction that it takes to be one of the author's readers will remember. so don't frown. try again. i'll be here, willing to give you another shot.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Sunday, March 1, 2009

island of lost girls by jennifer mcmahon

while parked at a gas station, rhonda sees something so incongruously surreal that at first she hardly recognizes it as a crime in progress. she watches, unmoving, as someone dressed in a rabbit costume kidnaps a young girl. devastated over having done nothing, rhonda joins the investigation. but the closer she comes to identifying the abductor, the nearer she gets to the troubling truth about another missing child: her best friend, lizzy, who vanished years before.

from the author of the acclaimed promise not to tell comes a chilling and mesmerizing tale of shattered innocence, guilt, and ultimate redemption.

i don't have much to say. your novel was entertaining and a solid read. it's like jodi picoult meets tana french's in the woods. yet, i didn't become obsessed with your story the way i do jodi's. she's my guilty pleasure reading. i think maybe because your mystery wasn't as strong, it felt a little forced. when the "bad guy" is revealed i kind of went, huh. didn't see that coming. and not because you'd given so many great, and possible, red herrings. it just felt like a stretch. lizzy, peter, tock, and rhonda have a great, and creepy story. i got a lot from them. not so much from ernie. she felts like a random victim and the motivation for her kidnapping wasn't as good as it could have been. i also didn't really care about her, or finding her. she was just a meaningless name. a girl on the milk carton.  but i will say that you are good with the twists. oh! and your warped inclusion of fairy tales and childhood stories, like peter pan was pretty awesome. 

you shall remain on my list of authors to keep around. perhaps some of your other books deliver the "who donnit?" better. i have faith in you.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Saturday, February 28, 2009

the professor and the madman: a tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the oxford english dictionary by simon winchester

it is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of english letters. the creation of the began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 44,825 precise definitions. but hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascination and mysterious story -- a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking. 

professor james murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. dr. william chester minor, an american surgeon from new haven, connecticut, who as had served in the civil war, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. but minor was no ordinary contributor. he was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of crowthorne, fifty miles from oxford. on numerous occasions murray invited minor to visit oxford and celebrate his work, but murray's offer was regularly -- and mysteriously -- refused.

thus the two men, for two decards, maintained a close relationship through correspondence. finally, in 1896, after minor has sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled murray set out to visit him. it was then that murray finally learned the truth about minor -- that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, minor was also a murderer, clinically insane 00 and locked up in broadmoor, england's harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.

the professor and the madman is a an extraordinary tale of madness and genius, and the incredible obsessions of two men at the heart of the oxford english dictionary and literary history. with riveting insight and detail, simon winchester crafts a fascinating glimpse into one man's tortured mind and his contribution to another man's magnificent dictionary.

i have this one ambition in life. it's perhaps very tiny, and one i am not sure i'll fulfill. i want to own the complete oxford english dictionary. in print. i don't really know why since it's much more practical to utilize it online. and it's quite costly to purchase all twenty-two volumes. and let's not even discuss shelf space. still, it's an aspiration -- however pie in the sky. so you can imagine my intrigue and excitement over your book.

your book has more excellent qualities than it does shortcomings. your writing is accessible and engaging. the story full of rich details and clearly well researched. your characters as close as one can to inside the minds of the crazy and scholarly (and dead) men. it's a great subject and you had a lot of material to work with. hats off to you for condensing it down.

i will say that it was a bit more brutal at times than i expected. i was quite started by some of the turn-of-events. you know which i mean! (how ever were you able to write those pages?!) and while that is not your fault . . . i will say that i was also not wholly surprised by the plot. why? because it's basically spelled out for me on the back cover. i give you credit for not using that space for just reviews and praise, with no mention of synopsis (a pet peeve of mine), but did you, or your editor, have to give so much plot away? talk to galt niederhoffer. or her editor. she'll have some tips for keeping the mystery to the flap copy. it's all about the art of seducing a reader. 

my other disappointment is that i kind of wanted to know more about the actual creating of the OED itself. perhaps this wasn't that book and i was mistaken to think so . . . but this was so much about murray and/or minor. which was fascinating but at times, i could also forget about the dictionary. the actual making and compiling of it didn't come across nearly as complicated as i would think it to be. it could be that the making of it was so dry and boring no one but a true obsessed fan of the OED would care to read it.

overall, you've got a nice book here. for the true freaks of the OED it might be a little disappointing but it's worth the read. and to normal readers, well . . . they might not find themselves disappointed.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

the magic toyshop by angela carter

a startling tale of the redemptive power of physical and emotional love

one night melanie walks though the garden in her mother's wedding dress. the next morning her world is shattered. forced to leave the comfortable home of her childhood, she is sent to long to live with her relatives she has never met: aunt margaret, beautiful and speechless, and her brothers, francie, whose graceful music belies his clumsy nature, and the volatile finn, who kisses melanie in the ruins of the pleasure gardens. and brooding uncle philip loves only the life-sized wooden puppets her creates in his toyshop. this classic gothic novel established angela carter as one of our most imaginative writers and augurs the themes of her later creative works.

where to begin? i want to gush. to rant. to rave. you are brilliant. hands down one of my favorite storytellers ever. the bloody chamber -- a fantastic and terrifying collection of stories. and the magic toyshop was an amazing novel. i hung onto your every word. i would have followed your characters anywhere just to stay with them. your quiet and strange plot was captivating. and the twist at the end -- i didn't see it coming! you subvert everything and blow my mind. it was pretty amazing.

i want the fifteen-year-old version of myself to be friends with melanie. i lust for finn's attentions. i am in rapture of aunt margaret's beauty. i struck by uncle philip's clever toys and bizarre rage. i find myself softening in francie's presence. i am indifferent to john and victoria, but that's okay; i'm supposed to be.

i can see why so many authors have tried to recreate the style of your prose, the imaginative depths to your worlds, the heart behind your characters. it seems so simple and obvious when reading your books, but it's a trick of the light. you've poured so much into your novels. shirley jackson, while arriving on the scene first and truly wonderful in her own right, has nothing on you. and lemony snicket -- oh what a foolish writer he appears now. he spends thirteen snarky and twisted novels trying to do what you've done from your first sentence. he is the poor man's version of you, but let's not judge him in this letter. we can't really compare the two of you. different audience, different forum. but still. i want more. i wish i hadn't finished it. i could have stayed with melanie for another two hundred pages. easily. 

i wish you were still with us. i really do. i will cry the day i run out of new titles by you to read. this isn't a long letter because i don't want to give anything away. but the magic toyshop will go on my list of absolute favorite reads. right up near the top.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Monday, February 23, 2009

the romantics by gail niederhoffer

laura and lila were once as close as could be -- college roommates at the center of a tight-knit group of friends.  but the friendship has wilted a bit. now six years after college, the friends -- and the boyfriend they share -- have reunited for lila's weddng at her family's seaside estate in maine.

laura is reserved, single, an the only jew in the group, while the bride, lila, is a WASPy, moneyed golden girl, and the groom, tom, a swim-team star from a working class catholic background, is a perfect paradox of confidence and confusion. as the wedding draws near and the wine flows faster, the disappointments and desires of the reuniting friends come quickly to the surface. a drunken game on the estate's dock goes awry when the revealers are pulled out to sea by the current. when they swim back to shore, they are short one -- the groom. the search throws the group's shifting allegiances into relief and results in new betrayals as well as confessions.

with lila's picture-perfect maine summer house as the backdrop, laura not only sees her friends old friends in new light but reassesses herself as well: is she the only one of the group destined to be unmarried in her thirties? was it always this obvious that she was the only jew in a pride of WASPs? struggling with the traditionally thankless role of maid of honor -- not to mention contending with lila's formidable mother, augusta -- laura also realizes she can't stop thinking about her complicated, long, and intense relationship with the groom. but isn't that relationship in the past?

a wry observer of cultural and social mores, galt niederhoffer creates a pitch-perfect group of characters and a winning novel about friendship, class, and love.

dear galt niederhoffer,

i loved, LOVED, a taxonomy of barnacles. loved it. if wes anderson wrote a book, that would have been it. your debut was spectacular. thank you for such a lovely, charming, and hilarious book. it's a book that i am sure i'll read again and again. 

but here i am, utterly devastated by your sophomore novel. it's weak and spinless and trite. did you even try? or did you just think since your first book was so awesome you didn't actually have to put any effort into this one? oh, and i don't know who wrote that flap copy, but i could skipped reading your sad little novel and known everything that happened. have you heard of mystery? why give away the goods for free in the flap? and if your description of the novel extends on the back flap, then you know it is too long. too long! (if your editor wrote this, them my apologizes. please pass along my criticisms.) i was so broken-hearted reading this book. but i had optimism that it would get better. i was wrong. so wrong.

your characters are one dimensional, stereotypical, and loathsome. they are racists and elitists and smug. for no reason. even laura. she is ashamed of her culture and her religion. it's horrifying. and the swapping of romantic partners isn't sweet because the friends are mixed up and confused. it's repulsing and incestuous. and tom -- who wants to date him anyway? he's the least likely romantic lead in any book i've ever read. i can't imagine two women wanting him. and lila refuses to settle in life, so what is she doing here? i don't buy the flimsy motive that marrying tom is a safe rebellion for her. she doesn't love him and he doesn't worship her. if lila is going to settle in love, she strikes me as the type of girl who will settle for the man head over heels in love and adoration with her. and lila. oh good god please. could she have, even just once, said something honest? or spoke her mind to at least lila. and without promptly apologizing two seconds later. apparently not. 

the plot is obvious. it's contrived. and you have brought nothing original to the table in this story. in fact, i'm pretty sure you stole this story directly from a yale co-ed's summer weekend. there is nothing pushing the story along. the tension and suspense is forced and limp. you overwrite, over-describe, and over-extend everything. it's like you think your readers are morons. not everything has to be spelled out for us. learn the reveal details over the story. don't hand it to us in the first chapter.  we're not idiots. we can make the commitment to stick with a book for almost 300 pages. you underestimate the reader and that's insulting.

what happened to you? i had bigger hopes for the romantics and you disappoint on so many levels. if i wanted to be painfully submerged in vain, obnoxious characters and a weary, recycled story like this one i would have hopped a train to the upper east side. i could have at least had an over-priced cup of coffee with my view of pretension. 

i expect to be blown away with whatever your next novel is. otherwise, this might be it for us.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader