Monday, November 16, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Elspeth dies, leaving her entire estate to the identical twin daughters of her own identical twin sister. The condition of inheritance is that the young women must live in Elspeth's flat in London, leaving their parents behind in Chicago, for an entire year. The twins' close relationship with each other is tested as they explore their new surroundings and meet their two neighbours, Elspeth's former lover Robert and the reclusive Martin who suffers from OCD. Meanwhile, Elspeth's ghost begins to haunt her former home.

That's a bare-bones description of the plot, because I don't want to give away too much of what takes place in this novel. To be honest, though, I'm not sure if I can recommend this weird gothic story too heartily; it seemed to lack essential character development which would have helped the characters' actions to make sense. Also, the setting of this story features a real Victorian cemetery in London and apparently Niffenegger spent a lot of time there doing research; this has led to a few unfortunate passages which are basically just research dumps about the cemetery and the people buried there. Aside from those parts I can say that this is a very nicely written novel; I particularly appreciated Niffenegger's compassionate treatment of Martin and her exploration of his efforts to live with his crippling mental illness. On the whole, though, I felt dissatisfied when I finished the book and wouldn't read it again.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

I'm not sure how to write about this series without my blog entry being reduced to a huge pile of superlatives, but let's just say I thoroughly enjoyed the first two books and that in spite of my very strict refusal to buy books over the past year or two I am seriously considering ordering the third from the UK rather than wait until the book is released here in May.

This is a modern series of mysteries featuring an investigative journalist called Mikael Blomkvist and a very young, brilliant woman who appears to have some form of high-functioning autism. Her name is Lisbeth Salander and she is a gifted hacker and investigator, tunneling her way into people's private lives on behalf of a Stockholm security company. Lisbeth is "The Girl" of the titles and is a truly fascinating and unique character.

I wish I had the spare time to get into a more detailed review of these books and what made them so riveting to read. Larsson has a quirky writing style which includes some potentially off-putting habits, like making detailed lists of what a character purchased in a shop or giving far too much technical detail about the computers they use. There's also a certain frustration in reading a book that contains frequent references to Swedish towns I have never heard of, without any real explanation of where they are because the author assumes that his reader is Swedish and knows what he's talking about. I honestly can't say these things bothered me much, and I think it's because Larsson so easily drew me into his world and his characters were so utterly believable and interesting.

Highly recommended. I am extremely eager to read book three.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

Gratuity Tucci (known to her friends as Tip) is an average girl whose life rapidly became not-so-average when the Boov showed up, kidnapped her mom and then took over the entire planet. As the entire population of the US is being transported to Florida so the Boov can take over the rest of the country, Tip decides that she is going to find her own way there. She already figured out how to drive the family car in the weeks after her mom disappeared, so she packs up her cat Pig and sets off to leave her New England home, bound for the swampy home the Boov have chosen for her.

Tip is less than thrilled to find herself giving a ride to a young Boov mechanic who has chosen the curious human name of J.Lo, but after he transforms her car so that it can float over the roads destroyed by the Boov, the two form a curious bond and find themselves spending long hours together in the car. Soon a new and sinister threat comes along and threatens to make the Boov invasion look like a day at Florida's Happy Mouse Land amusement park.

This book was extremely cute and utterly appealing. Adam Rex took some liberties with the format of the novel, making it a sort of scrapbook of letters, essays, drawings and J.Lo's hilarious cartoons. Normally, I might find this distracting - I'm one of those people who likes words and only words, thank you (I hate those links to news stories on newspaper websites that turn out to be videos!). In this case, the format works really well and adds to the charm of this novel.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Alone by Richard E. Byrd

After reading so much fantasy over the past few weeks, I wanted something completely different and discovered this old paperback buried on my bookshelf, loaned to me long ago by a friend. Alone was certainly different in content but no less gripping than some of the better novels I've read lately.

This is a brutally honest and yet strangely dignified account of a man's struggle to survive a dark Antarctic winter in the 1930s, alone on a remote weather station more than 100 miles from the safety of the Little America base. When his stove malfunctions and he begins to suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning, he does his best to pretend that everything is all right so that his colleagues at the base will not put their own lives at risk in an attempt to rescue him. Byrd's writing is strangely compelling as he explores the twisted paths his mind takes as depression sets in and he confronts his mortality.