Posts filed under ‘Becky's Picks’
In the midst of this bleak, gray winter wasteland, I decided to read…a novel set in the post-apocalypse. Am I a masochist? Possibly, but hear me out. Was this a relentlessly bleak and depressing reading experience? Actually, not at all.
Station Eleven, the debut novel by Emily St. John Mandel that was a National Book Award finalist, seemingly does the impossible: it’s a beautiful, plausibly-rendered and yes, uplifting novel about the end of life as we know it due to a flu pandemic. But this novel is also about relationships, acting and theater, celebrity and the specter of fame…you know, our everyday concerns in our mundane, pre-apocalyptic world.
In the novel’s opening scene, we meet Arthur, a famous actor currently appearing onstage in Toronto in a production of King Lear. Suddenly, Arthur collapses onstage, suffering a heart attack. An audience member hurries onstage to administer CPR, but it’s too late – Arthur has died. Coincidentally, that same night, a Russian plane carrying passengers infected with a deadly flu virus lands in North America. Soon, 99% of the theater-goers in Toronto and the rest of the world that night will have something in common with Arthur – they’ll be dead.
Station Eleven is about various people connected to Arthur in the years before and after the flu pandemic. The audience member who lept to Arthur’s rescue is Jeevan, an ex-paparazzo-turned-EMT who shares a history with Arthur. He manages to barricade himself in an apartment after being warned by a friend. Kirsten, a child actress onstage with Arthur in the King Lear production, also manages to survive. Twenty years later, Kirsten is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a nomadic theater troupe traveling landscape that has been drastically altered by the flu pandemic.
The novel jumps back and forth in time, and I appreciated this framing device. Large portions of the book focus on Arthur’s life, his prior marriages, how he became interested in acting. Woven in with those portions is the story of Kirsten’s life with the Traveling Symphony, and the challenges presented to them. It was almost like reading two different books, except that Mandel kept enough threads running between the two different worlds that it worked beautifully. And, I found it realistic – after all, if a flu were to befall us next month, that does not mean celebrity gossip, social media, and all the petty things that sustain us day-to-day never existed. Mandel does an excellent job bridging those two worlds.
One of the things that I found most refreshing about Station Eleven is its lack of judgement regarding the flu pandemic and the collapse of society. Mandel does not spend her time dwelling on what society may have done to cause the pandemic, how it may have been prevented, etc. The flu–and subsequent wipeout of 99% of humanity world-wide–simply happens, and the lives of a few people are examined decades after, and decades before, this event.
Fans of dystopian, post-apocalyptic and futuristic fiction will undoubtedly enjoy Mandel’s debut, but even if this type of fiction is not your usual thing, check this one out. Mandel has created a world that is at once chilling, hopeful, and above all, recognizable.
Jodi Picoult is an extremely popular author here at the library, and, well, pretty much everywhere else. She is one of those authors that has cranked out one book per year for the last fifteen years or so. I started reading her a couple of years ago; the audio versions of her books hooked me because they are all brilliantly performed by a full cast. Her books do follow a bit of a “form:” told from multiple first-person perspectives, about current controversial or hot-button issues, and usually involving legal situations. Picoult fans, used to her books coming out in the Spring of each year, had to wait a bit longer for this latest book, which was released this Fall. But…was it ever worth the wait!
Like most of Picoult’s books, Leaving Time is intricately plotted and emotionally wrought. It deals with a very specific subject many of us know little about: animal behavioral science, specifically of elephants. If nothing else, reading this book will give you great insight into the emotional lives of elephants. What sets this Picoult book apart from others, though, is a delicate balance of science and supernatural. At its core, Leaving Time is a ghost story.
Alice Metcalf, a scientist who studies elephant behavior, has been missing for ten years. One night when Alice’s daughter, Jenna, was a toddler, a late-night altercation at the family elephant sanctuary left one person dead (presumed to be trampled to death by an elephant) and one person – presumed to be Alice – missing. Now thirteen, and still searching for her missing mother, Jenna enlists help in the form of Serenity Jones, a washed-up former celebrity psychic, and Virgil Stanhope, the detective who worked on her mother’s case. As Jenna, Serenity, and Virgil navigate the past, they finds things to be less and less as they appear.
The spooky story winds its way through tales of infidelity, police cover-up, fiercely protective elephants, and the mind of Jenna’s brilliant but mentally-ill scientist father who is languishing in an institution. Picoult keeps us guessing until the end, and I was impressed by the way she tied the story together. If you’re new to Picoult, this would be a good one to pick up, and if you’re a long-time fan, you won’t be disappointed. Leaving Time is a striking book that is not quite like anything out there.
Pub Date: October 2012 Fiction (Adult) 368 pgs. **The Art Forger is the TTL Book Club selection for November. We will meet tomorrow night, Thursday November 6, at 7pm in the library meeting room. All are welcome and refreshments will be served. If you have read this book, please stop by!** I am no artist. I possess little artistic talent, and although I enjoy visiting art museums from time to time, the technicalities and intricacies of fine art don’t interest me greatly. With that said, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed The Art Forger and how much I learned. Claire Roth, a young artist living in Boston, makes a living forging great works of art, legally. She works for a company called Reproductions.com, painting exquisitely accurate copies of famous art works. She is also tinged by scandal, after her affair with her older graduate school professor ended with his suicide and the question of who actually painted his acclaimed new painting hanging in the MOMA. Three years later, Claire finds herself faced with an intriguing prospect. A rich, charismatic gallery owner approaches her to paint a reproduction of a famous painting in his possession by Edgar Degas. A painting that was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. But Claire, with her expert eye, suspects that the apparently stolen painting may be a forgery itself. From here, Shapiro takes on an incredibly interesting ride. Her story is brimming with rich characters and unfolds at a good pace. You will learn a lot about techniques of art forgery, and it’s all fascinating! Shapiro inter-cuts her narrative with juicy letters – alas, wholly fictional – written by Isabella Stewart Gardner herself, as well as flashbacks to Claire’s relationship with her professor, Isaac, three years earlier. She twists together several narratives, throws in some mystery, and it all works beautifully. One of the best parts is the local setting, featuring places with know and love: South Boston, Newbury Street, and especially the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I have actually never been to the museum myself, but after reading this book, I can’t wait to visit. -Becky
Pub Date: July 2013
416 pgs. / 12 audio discs
What Alice Forgot:
Pub Date: January 2009
496 pgs. / 13 audio discs
Lately I have been listening to more and more audio books (with a toddler, I would love to be able to sit down and read more often but that is easier said than done!), and recently devoured this double-serving of Liane Moriarty, an author new to me. She is now one of my new favorite authors and I am eagerly looking forward to her next book (Big Little Lies, just published this month!).
I started with What Alice Forgot, on the recommendation of a patron. The narrative follows Alice Love, 29 years old, happily married and about to give birth to her first child. One day she wakes up on the floor of her gym after a fall and a bump on the head. She sees friends and family members she recognizes, but they react to her strangely. Instead of commenting on her pregnancy, they are talking about her three kids, her impending divorce, and her upcoming 40th birthday. What happened to Alice’s life? How did she get here?
What follows is Alice’s attempt to piece together the previous 10 years. Moriarty’s novel is well-paced and by turns funny and poignant, thought-provoking and engaging. Tamara Lovatt-Smith’s narration is delightful. She deftly portrays the point of view of not only Alice, but also Alice’s long-suffering sister Elisabeth and their heartsick grandmother Franny. Not to mention I could listen to her lilting Australian accent all day. I almost couldn’t bear to turn the novel off!
The Husband’s Secret, one of last summers most buzzed-about titles, is three intertwining narratives of three separate women: Cecelia, Rachel, and Tess. Cecelia accidentally comes across a letter written to her by her husband to be opened only in the event of his death. Cecelia’s husband is still alive….and Cecelia can’t stop thinking about the letter. Like Pandora before her, Cecelia opens it. And the consequences for the three women begin.
This was a darker book that has elements of a thriller in parts, but retains Moriarty’s engaging, well-written female (and male) characters and her gift for depicting complicated relationships. The audio version’s narration by Caroline Lee is equally captivating. Fans of Jojo Moyes, Kristen Hannah, and Sue Miller would enjoy Moriarty’s books.
The Aviator’s Wife follows the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh and an aviator herself. The story is narrated in the first person by Anne, and Benjamin offers a unflinching, honest look at a complicated marriage. We follow the Lindberghs from Charles’ historic flight and their marriage in the 1920s, to Charles’ death in the 1970s. Benjamin mixes historical details of aviation in the ’20s, Lindbergh’s Nazi ties in the ’30s, and life during wartime, with a deeply personal narrative of Anne Lindbergh’s life at home with her children and with and without Charles.
This was a deeply moving book. Benjamin keeps you fully in Anne’s psyche as she navigates the years of her life that she spends with Charles and their children. You spend a lot of time with Anne, and she is a fascinating, fully realized character. Benjamin offers her readers pieces of information not necessarily readily known to those who’ve heard of “Lucky Lindy.” For example, did you know that Anne herself was the recipient of numerous prestigious aviation medals and awards, and was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame?
The biggest appeal factor of The Aviator’s Wife is character, specifically the characters of Anne and Charles. I devoured this book, both in print, reading in bed at night, and in audio, on my daily commute. (The audiobook is wonderfully performed by Lorna Raver.) The setting and plot also feature here, as several sensational things happen to the Lindberghs, but I would recommend this book to readers wanting to delve into the marriage and personal life of one half of a famous twentieth-century couple.
As Freddie Mercury once sang, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” For some, the physical “real world” is supplanted by another world, the virtual world. Property is purchased, relationships are formed, and lives are lived mainly online. In Lottie Moggach’s fascinating first novel, we meet twenty-something Leila, who lives in a depressing London flat, works a data-entry job and spends most of her time caring for her ailing mother. After her mother passes away, reclusive Leila goes from spending most to all of her time online. As Leila withers away in her apartment, she blossoms online. In online forums, she finds she is more comfortable participating in discussions and expressing her opinions than she’s ever been in so-called real life.
When Leila discovers a debate forum called Red Pill, she quickly makes a name for herself as one of the top commenters, and gains the attention of the site’s founder, the mysterious Adrien. When Leila and Adrien meet in person, Adrien offers Leila an intriguing opportunity to change her identity. Leila is asked, essentially, to become another person.
Tess is a beautiful, charismatic, troubled woman. She is preparing to commit suicide but wants to spare her friends and family pain. After her death, Leila will assume her online identity. This requires lots of intense research on Leila’s part, which she throws herself into whole-heartedly. Before long, Leila becomes consumed with details of Tess’s past and present. But what actually happened to Tess?
Moggach’s novel could be considered a psychological thriller. It’s an intense study of “reality” versus “illusion,” complete with an unreliable narrator. Although the subject matter is very current, Kiss Me First is an old-fashioned mystery at its core. It is not a warm-and-fuzzy book, but a shrewd, meticulous, and intriguing read with twists and turns to keep mystery fans happy. Give this unique novel a try.
The title may sound…familiar. It may even seem like you can’t pick up a magazine, turn on the TV or get a good book recommendation lately without hearing about it. And with good reason. Shades of Grey is the wonderfully clever, inventive new novel from Jasper Fforde, author of the beloved “Thursday Next” literary fantasy series. I assure you, you’ve come to the right book.
In Britain more than 500 years in the future–centuries after the ominous-yet-vaguely-titled “Something That Happened”–the world has become a Colortocracy, its hierarchy based on the amount of pure color perception one has. Our narrator, Eddie Russett, is a Red. Reds happen to be the second-lowest color on the totem pole, above only Greys, who have no or very little color perception at all. Nonetheless, Eddie cheerfully accepts his lot in life, following the ridiculous Rules laid out by “Munsell” centuries before, and planning his marriage to Constance, a union that will guarantee Eddie a lifetime of cushy complacency.
But then Eddie and his father are unexpectedly sent to the Outer Fringes, ostensibly to conduct a “chair census,” and Eddie meets a feisty, disagreeable Grey named Jane. Eddie is instantly smitten. Jane, less so. Soon, Eddie finds his worldviews challenged and his eyes opened to a vibrant underground network of Grey dissidents and other like-minded radicals. Eddie finds himself in love with Jane, although she attempts to kill him, multiple times, and even ends up pitching him into the mouth-hole of a carnivorous tree. How does that turn out for Eddie? You’ll have to read on to find out.
This book blew my mind. It’s the only book I have ever felt compelled to read twice in a row, in two different formats. First, I listened to the audiobook version–it’s a treat on audio, voiced with acerbic perfection by John Lee, a renowned British voice actor. I enjoyed the audio immensely but felt like I was missing something, and immediately obtained the print version after the audio was over. I’m so glad I did. The audiobook whet my appetite, but this is a book that can really be savored in print–Fforde adds so many absurdist touches and clever details that I got so much more out of it the second time. Also, some may fear dystopian novels like Shades of Grey to be too dreary or heavy-handed—but then, they haven’t read Fforde. Shades of Grey manages to be satirical, absurd, serious, insightful and extremely funny all at once.
So go on, pick up Shades of Grey, and see what everyone’s talking about. And then tell all your friends–you’ll be glad you did.