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Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

I know what you’re thinking: “Middlesex? What is this, 2001?”  And to that I have to say, don’t sass me. I don’t get around to reading all the cool books when they come out. But this one remained in the back of my mind ever since I heard the first sentence: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan.” H-wah? How does that…? I don’t even…

And such was the incentive for reading this book. I heard murmurings around the interwebs that it had something to do with hermaphrodites or sex-changes or something, but generally tried to stay away from spoilers. And boy am I kinda glad that I did. But only kind of.

Calliope Stephanides was born twice. But before she tells you the exact circumstance of her births, she gives the most detailed back story since the Bible. No, not the Bible. Since…my high school U.S. History textbook. (Ask me how tall President Polk was. Go ahead.). But there is a reason for all this detail. Jeffrey Eugenides wants this story to be educational, heart-wrenching, and endearing. Eugenides can’t accomplish this by simply throwing the reader into an opening scene similar to The Hangover, where everything is in chaos and lacks explanation. If Eugenides does that, then the story becomes more about entertainment. Eugenides doesn’t want to entertain. He wants to change minds.

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Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Maira Kalman

Why We Broke UpI read this book in one night instead of sleeping.

Things you should know: Daniel Handler also writes children’s books as Lemony Snicket, best known for A Series Of Unfortunate Events.  Maira Kalman is an artist who has published books of her own work along with illustrating books written by other people.  (We previously reviewed one of her picture books here.)  Together they create a physically beautiful book, with glossy pages, full color illustrations, and gorgeous endpapers.  There was basically no chance I wouldn’t buy myself a copy.

The story itself is a letter from a teenage girl, Min, to her boyfriend-for-six-weeks, Ed.  It starts with a box of things that symbolize the relationship to her, which she is unceremoniously dumping on his doorstep.  Each chapter starts with a full-page illustration of an item from the box, followed by a somewhat stream-of-consciousness retelling of how it became important.

If a six-week relationship seems insignificant to you, and definitely not worth being heartbroken over, you may be an adult with a very bad memory of what it’s like to be a teenager.  Min and Ed’s story is full of firsts and lasts, at times painfully awkward while otherwise being perfectly sweet.  Mistakes are made, lessons learned the hard way – and yet, from an outside perspective, the experience gained in six weeks of Min’s Junior year is invaluable.

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The Girl With The Crooked Nose by Ted Botha

The Girl With The Crooked NoseI watch a lot of NCIS, where 40 minutes and one amazingly talented forensic scientist are enough to solve even the most horrific of crimes.  Real life, however, takes longer and doesn’t always yield such clear-cut results.

Enter Frank Bender.  He came upon his calling as a forensic artist almost accidentally, when he attended an autopsy in lieu of taking an anatomy course to help with his sculpting.  In the storage room, there was a body of a woman who had not been identified – he was told, “We have no idea what she might have looked like.”  Looking at her skull, however, Bender realized that he did know what she looked like.  And he asked permission to sculpt a bust of her face.

Five months after he completed her bust, the woman was identified as Anna Duval, a missing persons case from Arizona.

With a successful ID came more skulls needing faces.  Bender learned more about forensic reconstruction and streamlined his technique.  He visited the Mütter Museum to study differences in skulls (and later exhibited some of his completed busts there – leading to the identification of yet another victim).  He set up a studio for his unusual hobby.  And when the Mexican government asked the U.S. for help in identifying some of the more than 400 women killed since 1993, Bender was a natural choice for the task at hand.

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Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (and Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?Everyone should go find a copy of this book if for no other reason than just to see the picture of Ms. Kaling as a child. I literally lol’d when I saw it. Aside from the innate hilarity of the picture, it shows just what lengths Mkale is willing to go to in order to make people laugh. And that’s kind of the theme of this book.

Mindy Kaling loves comedy. Like, seriously. When we were spending our times watching inane cartoons, collecting stickers, playing video games/sports, or ogling the guys in the latest issue of Seventeen, Kaling was putting on skits that she co-wrote with her weekend-friend (Oh, it’s a thing. Read the book.) for her family.

There are two chapters in the book that I absolutely loved. The first one is titled, “Chubby for Life,” where Kaling discusses her weight. According to her, she’s always been chubby except for two periods in her life: 1) when a middle school classmate embarrassed her into eating less and 2) when she exercised regularly in college with the help of an incredibly generous friend who seemed to have a lot of time on her hands. Otherwise, Mindy Kaling = Chubby. And she’s okay with that. Really. The point of this chapter is to show how unsupportive Hollywood is. I know what you’re thinking: duh. But Kaling explains it like this: in Hollywood, it’s okay for people to be skinny or fat. But if you are somewhere in between, you’re frustrating. Stylists don’t know how to dress you and people have a hard time casting you. Mindy gets around this problem by writing her own characters (e.g. Kelly Kapoor in The Office).

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The Wikkeling by Steven Arntson, illustrated by Daniela J. Terrazzini

The Wikkeling

You can tell this book is unusual just by looking at it.  Its shape is a perfect square, it is bound in cloth with no dust jacket, and the cover art is strangely wonderful.  The contents do not disappoint – this is a tale of children living in a dystopia, looking for adventure and causing a bit of mischief.  It also defies a brief description or easy packaging, but I’ll try.

The world of The Wikkeling is really just an exaggerated version of the rapidly accelerating and expanding world we currently inhabit.  Schools are standardized to the point of homogeneity, with constant, instantaneous performance evaluations.  If any student or school falls behind, the consequences are dire.  Children are kept “safe” and “secure” through continuous monitoring to account for their movements throughout the day, an elaborate seat belt system on the bus, and even a camera trained on their beds to watch over them in sleep.  Old houses are destroyed to make way for plastic edifices and books are done away with completely in favor of computers.  Traffic never lets up, with near-total gridlock even in the middle of the night.  It all adds up to a scary, but not completely unbelievable, vision of the future.

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Party Wolves in My Skull by Michael Allen Rose

You probably haven’t heard of Bizarro Fiction. I know I hadn’t.

As an established genre, Bizarro is a relatively new concept, though the form and ideas have been around for a long time. As the official Bizarro website states, ‘Bizarro, simply put, is the genre of the weird.’ Combining logic of the absurd with twisted, occasionally pornographic, and always macabre themes, it brings to mind the writings of Christopher Moore, Franz Kafka, and even Lewis Carroll, just to name a few.

Since it is such a new genre, Bizarro is always looking to further the art form and release new talent on an unsuspecting world. One of the eight books released this year by the New Bizarro Author Series, Party Wolves in My Skull by Michael Allen Rose is a shining example of what it means to be shelved in the Bizarro section.

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The Burning Soul by John Connolly

The Burning Soul by John ConnollyWithout checking, I think I can safely say that John Connolly is the most-mentioned author on this blog.  But that’s for a very good reason – he’s one of my all-time favorite authors and people.  Plus he’s been kind enough to publish two books per year recently and still finds the time to tour and do interviews to talk about them.  So we, in turn, keep reviewing his books and posting his interviews.

Normally I don’t like to review books in a series, unless it’s the first title.  I’m the kind of person who has to start a series from the beginning, and unfortunately I often abandon some series because they have too many books and I too little time.  This being the 10th Charlie Parker PI novel that Connolly has put out, I can understand that it’s easy for people to feel overwhelmed if they haven’t read any of his previous mystery novels.

Have no fear.  You can start the series at the beginning, with Every Dead Thing, and enjoy your way up to the newest installment.  But The Burning Soul, more than any of the others in the series, I believe, can be read on its own without the preceding books.  Of course, once you’re done, I still recommend spending the next year reading the series from the beginning in anticipation of his next release, but hey – I’m biased.

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The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road by Cormac McCarthyFirst of all, please don’t think I picked this book up because of the Oprah endorsement. I’m made of meatier things than can be swayed by an Empress. But when it comes to Viggo Mortensen, I’m JELLY. It might have something to do with his hair/face/body. Anyhoo, I remember seeing the cover of the book whilst shelving at the unnamed bookstore I worked for and thinking, “Oh, Viggo, when will we stop playing these games?” At around the same time my brother saw No Country for Old Men and was all, “I’m scared to sleep alone.” That movie being based on a McCarthy book paired with Viggo on the cover of THIS book slayed me. So I began the reading.

And let me tell you. It is not a happy read. Clinically depressed people and people prone to over-sympathizing, stay away. You will not have a happy thought for days. Not exaggerating.

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Richard Castle’s DEADLY STORM: A Derrick Storm Mystery

Deadly StormThe immortal Oscar Wilde said that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” It’s all I can think about when I read a Castle book.

Castle is a show on ABC about a mystery writer, Richard Castle, who is on a perpetual ride-along with NYPD detective Kate Beckett.  Being a fan of the mystery genre and writers in general, this show appeals to me quite a bit.  It’s generally a good mix of drama, comedy, and good old-fashioned sleuthing (though I could do with a bit less drama at times).  It doesn’t hurt that Nathan Fillion (of Joss Whedon’s short-lived but much beloved Firefly) plays the title character.

But what made me really fall in love with the show is that they have been publishing the books that Castle is supposedly working on each season.  And they have become bestsellers, these books written by a fictional author.  (I always wonder if real, live mystery authors get upset about that.)  With so many shows and movies ripping their stories from books, or series of books, it’s a fun change to see the show itself producing an original series of books as a tie-in.

That series is the Nikki Heat series.  Book 3, Heat Rises, was released in September and is on my “currently reading” stack.  This year they went even further, however, and released two books.  Deadly Storm is a graphic novel interpretation of Richard Castle’s novel of the same title – the first in a series that supposedly shot him to fame and fortune.  Except the original novels don’t exist, making this “adaptation” yet another layer of fabrication.  Have we gotten stuck in a metacognitive loop yet?

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Posted by on November 1, 2011 in Book Reviews, Graphic Novels

 

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A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls by Patrick NessA monster calls on Conor just after midnight in the shape of a yew tree looming over his bedroom window.  But Conor is not afraid.  “I’ve seen worse,” he says.  And he has – his waking life is filled with helping care for his mother during another round of cancer treatments, a father who has largely disappeared to be with his new family in America, a gang of bullies at school, and losing faith in his one true friend.  Amid all this turmoil, it is almost a relief to be visited by the yew tree at night.  Or at least it’s a nice change of pace from the monster in his other nightmare – the one that truly frightens him.

The idea for this book came from a Young Adult author named Siobhan Dowd, who unfortunately passed away from breast cancer in 2007.  (I am not familiar with Dowd’s work, but will certainly be looking it up now.)  Patrick Ness was called in to shape the idea into book form, along with illustrator Jim Kay, and the result is something special.  The language is simple but haunting, and Conor’s pain and uncertainty show in stark and heartrending ways.  The illustrations are dark, textured, and expressive, and add immeasurably to the overall atmosphere of the book.  Simply put, this is a beautiful volume in terms of story, prose, and presentation.

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