Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Um, wow.  This book was just awesome.  I mean, there is a lot of great YA out there, but this is some of the best I’ve read in a while.

In a future where the Gulf Coast is characterized by its drowned cities, the divide between rich and poor is wider than ever, and a few powerful trade families control it all, Nailer is at the bottom of the totem pole.  Nailer works as a ship breaker on “light crew,” stripping grounded oil tankers for copper wiring and brass fittings, anything that will help them fill quota.  When he isn’t risking his life at work, Nailer must constantly try to keep his abusive, drug-addicted, and very dangerous father happy – not an easy task.  He knows when his dad is “sliding high,” and knows well enough to avoid him when he can.

When Nailer’s beach is pounded by a terribly powerful hurricane – what has become known as a “city killer”  – he and his friend Pima come across a grounded clipper ship, full of more wealth than they thought possible.    It’s their ticket to a better life, if only they can keep it a secret for long enough to strip the scavenge from it and claim it as their own.  But when they find it has a survivor, the wealthy and beautiful Nita, Nailer has a choice to make.  The gold rings on her fingers alone are worth more than any scavenge they could get from the ship – Pima insists that the smart thing to do would be to kill her, and Nailer knows she’s right.  Yet having had a close brush with death himself only days before, Nailer can’t bring himself to let Pima do it.  To let her live would be to risk everything – not only the scavenge, but his life as he knows it – and it’s the most important choice Nailer will ever make.

I just couldn’t put this one down.  Fast-paced and full of action, it also manages to ponder some serious issues.  To make the leap from today’s reality to the dystopian society in Ship Breaker isn’t all that difficult – in fact, it’s probably not that far off from the way thousands live in third-world countries.  To see places so familiar to us with those economic and social conditions is what makes it scary.  One thing I really liked about the world he’s created is that the scope is revealed to us bit by bit, rather than all at once.  From revealing the fate of New Orleans to showing just how disparate the distribution of wealth is, the world that Nailer inhabits is always gaining another layer.

Speaking of Nailer, he’s a great character – over the course of the book, he grapples with the meanings of family, wealth, and humanity itself, adding some real meat to the story.  It’s a bit dark, but very well written – Bacigalupi has a style that’s almost stark, and it worked very well for the book as a whole.  I enjoyed every page of this book from the time I was sucked in on the first page, and it’s one you should definitely keep on your radar!

*FTC disclosure – review copy received from the publisher.

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Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

I was a little apprehensive in picking this one up after reading some mediocre (and less than mediocre) reviews – and I only had a few days to read it before it was due back the library, and I was worried I’d slog through it.  Perhaps my low expectations had something to do with it, but I was pleasantly surprised, and really enjoyed this.

I absolutely loved the atmosphere of the whole thing.  Niffenegger does a wonderful job of setting the stage for the novel.  It starts out with a realistic depiction of our world, with a slight creepy factor due to Highgate Cemetery neighboring the flat.  And then, of course, there’s the haunting.  From the summaries I’d read, I wasn’t sure how literal this haunting would be – just an overbearing sense that Elspeth still “owned” the flat?  Her belongings and what she left behind keeping the twins from feeling like it was their home?  The hold her memory still has on Robert and the others she knew?  Or the actual presence of a ghost?  It turned out to be the latter, and I thought the “haunting” factor was very well done.  It’s gradually built up so that it’s almost believable, with Elspeth beginning as a weak, vaporous spirit and eventually becoming capable of moving small objects, etc., and the atmosphere is a big help in allowing the reader to suspend disbelief.

Speaking of which, the reader’s ability to do just that is important for this one, I think.  A lot of other reviews I read said the ending took it too far, pushing it past the point of believability.  I can see how; there are several twists at the end, some more far-fetched than others, and one that I saw coming from early on in the book.  Nonetheless, I think she ended it the only way she could, if that one big twist (if you’ve read it, you know which one I’m talking about – I don’t want to give anything away!) is something she was aiming for through the whole novel, and I get the impression that she was.   One the whole, it was beautifully written, and with great characterization (I especially liked Martin, and it was interesting to see how his journey – or lack thereof – paralleled Elspeth’s).  There were a couple of things that bothered me about the ending, but on the whole I really enjoyed this once I allowed myself to get lost in it.

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

51jim7NTY8LI haven’t read much Byatt since I finished my thesis last spring, and I didn’t realize how much I missed her writing. This was somewhat different (for me, at least) from her other works that I’ve read, in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. It spans social and political changes over a rather large period of time, centering primarily on the Wellwood family and others that have entered their social circles at some point or another. The large cast of characters could make it a bit difficult to remember who was who at some points, but overall I think I enjoyed all of them – they all had their roles to play in the big picture.

Now, my thesis was on her use of fairy tales and fairy tale elements – if she’d written this novel a few years ago, I probably could have centered the whole thesis on it! Fairy tales are vital to this story. Olive Wellwood is a writer of children’s stories in Victorian (and later, Edwardian) England, and her fairy stories and themes almost define her family.

I especially loved her portrayal of women in this novel. Olive’s children (and their childhood playmates) are growing up in a time when it is becoming accepted for “respectable” women to hold “real” jobs – but often at the cost of any romantic desires or chances of marriage. Dorothy (who wants to pursue the career of a doctor/surgeon) is perhaps the most affected by the double standard, observing that although there are female doctors with husbands, those are few and far between. Griselda and Florence grapple with this decision as well. One can pursue a career, but by the time her studies are through in her late 20’s, she would be considered something of an old maid. One of my favorite passages in the novel that sums this struggle up nicely comes on page 495:

“Florence was in a turmoil. She had promised herself to Geraint, and she was now promising herself to years of study. She did not think Newnham College would care for married students. She wished to disturb her father, at some ferocious girlish level, and felt – she was not really thinking – that the engagement would do that.
And yet – like Griselda, she did want to think. And she did see her future as, perhaps, the choice between thinking and sex.”

Byatt has always done a wonderful job of exploring the roles that women play in various situations, past and present. This novel is no exception.

The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan

51-GmB+jGVLReally lovely – well written, and the story pulled me along the whole time.  Buchanan’s descriptions of the river are fantastic.  Although I’ve never been to Niagara Falls, the danger and power that underlie its beauty were easy to imagine.

I do wish I got to know Tom better – throughout the novel, he almost seemed more of a legend than a man.  Part of this probably comes from the chapters he is absent, away at war.  When he returns, he has more depth to him, clearly changed and disturbed by what he saw.  After that subsided, and he became himself again, I realized I wasn’t really sure what that meant.  I really liked him as a character, I only wish I knew more about him – how he was in everyday life, not just in his daring during (and his modesty after) a rescue that we saw so often.

Bess is a strong character.  We see her go from living the life of luxury to having to work to support herself, and the bumps she hits along the way.  Even years later, she wants that house on May Avenue, even if it’s more than they need.  She seemed very real to me.

I really enjoyed this novel.  A beautifully written account of a family’s life in Niagara Falls, and how the river becomes irreversibly intertwined with their lives.

*Review of ARC

Between Here and April by Deborah Copaken Kogan

51y1unarD0L._SL500_This was one of those books that was really tough to put down. It was a quick read that kept me interested and engaged throughout, and I can’t really think of a place where it slowed down.

The author does a fantastic job of intertwining and juxtaposing two very different, yet also very similar stories. Adele Cassidy’s story is echoed throughout the novel by Elizabeth’s own relationship with her mother, and again by her relationship with her two daughters. Although Elizabeth and her mother did not react to the struggles of motherhood as severely as Adele, it is becomes easier for the reader to sympathize with Adele, and to see her as something other than a monster.

*Spoiler Alert*

Although the ending was poignant, it left a few holes to be filled – most notably, how Elizabeth and Mark saved their marriage. Did they go to therapy? Does he know about her infidelity? Did she tell him about her rape, and if so, did it help him to understand her hatred of his bedroom behavior and/or was she able to get past that experience as a compromise? I know it’s a somewhat trivial thing to wonder – they clearly worked out their problems for the time being at least, I just couldn’t help but wonder how they worked through them successfully. And of course we do know what he did about his job, and that she was able to go back to some semblance of her career. But anyways, enough of my rambling about what I’d like to know about a fictional relationship 🙂

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was a page-turner, and one with substance that really made me think. I found it easy to relate to the characters, even without having (yet) the experience of being a mother.

*Review of ARC

The Sister by Poppy Adams

41-O8RenE4LThis novel is a fascinating exploration of the ways in which the mind can work, distort, and deteriorate. At the outset, this seems to be a fairly simple story of estranged sisters reuniting in their old age. While I could tell from reading the jacket that the real story would probably come in the possible scandal or heartbreak of their estrangement, I wasn’t expecting the instability of the narrator.

It’s the little things that tip you off gradually to what is happening here. Once you realize that Adams is using the classic technique of the unreliable narrator, it’s impossible not to look beneath the surface of everything that she sees and remembers for the truth. It’s also amazing how easily you can understand or sympathize with Ginny’s logic, as twisted as it is – almost frightening once you realize how easily a mind can warp the truth.

The novel is a little slow to start out, but the story really picks up fairly soon. The descriptions of the moths and the processes that come with studying them may seem a little tedious, but I think they are necessary to completely immerse the reader in Ginny’s mind – especially at the end of the novel. Adams includes little details in all the right places.

This is definitely a novel worth reading. Adams does a fantastic job of mapping the way Ginny’s mind works, and also of manipulating the story. It’s fascinating to see things from Ginny’s point of view, all the while trying to figure out what’s truly happening outside of her comfort zone and under the surface. This really is an impressive first novel – Adams certainly did her research, and knows what she’s doing when it comes to her narrative.

*Review of ARC

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

10441At the outset, I really enjoyed this book. I was sucked into the premise, and I could see that it had a lot of potential to be an incredible book. But somewhere along the way, Edwards dropped the ball.

For me, the most disconcerting thing about this novel was the characterization. After nearly an entire book filled with page after page of these characters’ thoughts, emotions, inner struggles, etc., you would think the characters themselves would be leaping off the page at you. But about 3/4 of the way through the book, I suddenly realized I didn’t know Norah at all. The young wife from the beginning transformed into this assured, powerful woman so suddenly that her character just didn’t make sense. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn’t really know any of the characters. Although you spend so much time inside the heads of these characters, all the little details don’t quite add up into a believable whole.

The premise and the plot were very well-conceived, although it could move a bit slowly at times. I can see that Edwards is creating a study on the way lies can form and break relationships and lives, and there are some beautiful passages and some great truths to be found here. But after finishing it, my first thought of …”Eh. That wasn’t bad,” told me that Edwards could have done something more with this novel.