Niffenegger, Audrey. Her Fearful Symmetry. Scribner, 2009. ISBN 978-1439165393 416 pp. $
This intertwined story revolves around three couples who reside in the same apartment building in London on the border of Highgate Cemetery: Julie and Valentina, a pair of American twins; their dead aunt Elspeth and her lover Robert; and Martin, whose OCD has driven his wife Marjike of many years back to the Netherlands. Elspeth is haunting the flat, and only Valentina can see her.
This has a slow start, and the characters, while interesting, are hard to warm up to. The plot is convoluted and meandering, and not entirely unpredictable. Glad I read it, in 2010.
Martinez, A. Lee. Monster. Orbit, 2009. ISBN 978-0316041263 304 pp. $
This funny tale of a cryptobiologist (think dog catcher, but for kobolds and yetis) reminded me a bit of Christopher Moore’s work, with angels and humor figuring into the plot.
Out of the blue, magical creatures seem to popping up around a grocery store clerk. The aptly named Monster (whole daily skin color change results in new magical abilities thing) and his smart and well read sidekick Chester, a paper gnome who can fold himself into a variety of origami shapes, are unique and engaging characters as they corral a variety of beasts.
The first chapter was brilliant and had an excellent hook, but Martinez didn’t sustain the crispness, and the novel became very episodic, like a television series–I started reading it aloud to my (ex)husband (I think we read ch 1 & ch 12 together, he tends to fall asleep and then I continue, on my own) and he pegged it as “Buffy, but not as good.”Encounters and characterizations get repetitive though, in spite of the fast pace and cinematic quality of the writing.
I didn’t like the ending, and felt the last chapter was sort of an “screw you” to the reader–“I’m not going where you think I am with this, hee hee.” And then one of the main characters COMMENTS on this phenomenon. I can appreciate unpredictability, but I want a satisfying ending, whether I see it coming or not.
The clever cover art looks like a poster advertising Monster’s services: vivid yellow, with a devil horned skull silhouette and a blood red lettering; little handselling will be required, and it’s a great readalike for fans of horrific magical realism with a dash of funny, like the film Zombieland.
Kamkwamba, William and Bryan Mealer. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope. William Morrow, 2009. ISBN 978-0061730320 273 pp. $
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind chronicles the story of a determined young man from an impoverished African village where people who go to bed at 7:00pm when it gets dark, who teaches himself how to build a windmill that will generate enough current to light up a lightbulb and charge cell phones. Kamkwamba overcomes adversity, schooling himself with books found in the local library, and is eventually invited to come give a TED talk in the US.
I found The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind very readable and relatable. It’s hard not to like a book about a self-motivated student who discovers the library when he can’t afford a formal education!
I liked the tone in a lot of places, like where Kamkwamba says you’ll learn more about maize reading this book that you thought possible, or something like that. There was a lot of good natured, self-deprecating humor. I also liked that he wasn’t explicit about things like prostitution, there seemed to be an underlying subtlety to some of the storytelling, that I appreciated, not that I’m one to shy away from gory details. I especially love his description of Vegas ” …women in their underpants serve free soda.”
Reading about the famine was heartbreaking and horrifying. The science stuff didn’t bother me, I liked reading about transistor radios. Processes like the scientific method are clearly and simply explained without using scientific terms, I don’t think youth will have any problems with it. I love how “What will spin the pedals so I can dance?” becomes a scientific inquiry. I did have a little trouble picturing the bird trap with the rope and rubber and bricks, even with the illustration.
I did spend some time wondering when were getting back to the engaging scene presented at the beginning of the book, where the protagonist tests the windmill for the first time. There was a VERY slow build, but given that he talks about how his father would make up stories that went on for hours, I recognize this as both a cultural thing, and maybe as a learned experience thing, and that deterred my enjoyment of the
narrative. It did pick up around chapter 9, and I found the whirlwind (ha!) of events leading up to the TED talk interesting and inspiring.
King, Stephen. Under the Dome.
One random afternoon, an invisible, impenetrable dome seals off the town of Chester’s Mill, Maine from the rest of the world. The car salesman selectman who runs the town is determined that the meth lab he’s masterminded won’t be discovered, and will go to any lengths to do so in this novel of small town politics gone awry that seems to be a microcosm for life in post 9-11 US.
King says in his author’s note that he got the idea for Under the Dome 35 years ago, but it certainly resonates well in our current martial/political climate. He made the many characters vivid enough and unique enough that I didn’t have any trouble keeping them straight, which was admirable, and he followed them all through to their ends, making it a satisfying, if horrific, read.
I think Under the Dome would be pretty appealing for the content, and the length won’t deter fans. What I WAS bothered by the authorial intrusion and tense changes to present tense–maybe I didn’t notice them earlier, but I picked up on it about 75% of the way through the book. It was inconsistent and thus jarring for me, and he or his editor should have caught it. The ant metaphor was clever, but kind of heavy handed, and I felt like he spoon fed me a lot that I would rather have figured out on my own; he’s just not subtle or deft, to me (EDIT: In discussion, someone pointed out WHY he chose to change POV, and I’m adding another star).
Welch, Diana. The Kids Are All Right. Crown, 2009. ISBN 978-0307396044 352 pp. $24.99
Not long after their father is killed in a car crash, their beautiful actress mother develops cancer and wastes away. Although she has the foresight to set up a trust and try to place her children with friends, the siblings are separated. The Kids Are All Right follows the coming of age of the four orphans: hippie Amanda, preppie Liz, alienated Dan and lonely Diana.
The story felt unique and fresh, and it was dramatic, but in a straightforward way, not a self-pitying one. The narrative, told chronologically in four alternating voices, hooked me right in, and the question of whether they would really be all right, and how they got there, sustained my interest.
I especially liked the back and forth that happened from chapter to chapter in some spots, as the siblings recalled events differently; I wish there had been more of that, it lent a cohesiveness to the spots where it occurred. I thought the writing was good overall, but not consistently stellar. I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more investigation into the father’s death, frustrated that there were not repercussions for Dan and Diana’s mistreatment, and thought the tale ended very abruptly. A companion website includes a book discussion guide, playlist, Flickr photostream, blog, and media clips