Adult Fiction Roundup

A huge review roundup of all the adult fiction novels I've read over the past four months. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’ve read a large amount of adult fiction novels over the past couple of months. Typically, children’s and MG fiction is more my style, but since joining a book club in December, my adult fiction consumption has gone through the roof. Several of the books I review in this post were book club reads. From historical fiction to fantasy, from mystery to comedy, there’s something for everyone in this roundup. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

Uprooted from their family home in the Dominican Republic, the four Garcia sisters – Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia – arrive in New York City in 1960 to find a life far different from the genteel existence of maids, manicures, and extended family they left behind. What they have lost – and what they find – is revealed in the fifteen interconnected stories that make up this exquisite novel from one of the premier novelists of our time.

The Garcia girls each get a chance to tell their story, weaving from the present to the past and back again. Their lives in New York and in the Dominican Republic take very different paths, and each of them has to come to terms with what each culture means to them. There are some uncomfortable moments in this book, but on the whole it does a great job of taking you on a journey with the Garcia family.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Frida

Capturing the essence of a ferociously gifted woman, Frida is a daring and brilliantly inventive novel about one of the most celebrated female artists of the 20th century.

This was one of our early book club reads. I knew a small amount about Frida Kahlo before reading this book, but I learned so much more as I made my way through. Frida offers an interesting fictionalized look at Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and their politics and art as seen from Frida’s sister Cristina’s point of view. You will probably hate both sisters and Diego most of all (I certainly did), but the knowledge I gained about these famous artists, their work, and the political situation in Mexico at the time made my time reading worth it.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Bees

Born into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean her orchard hive. Living to accept, obey and serve, she is prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. Yet Flora has talents that are not typical of her kin. And while mutant bees are usually instantly destroyed, Flora is reassigned to feed the newborns, before becoming a forager, collecting pollen on the wing. Then she finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers secrets both sublime and ominous. Enemies roam everywhere, from the fearsome fertility police to the high priestesses who jealously guard the Hive Mind. But Flora cannot help but break the most sacred law of all, and her instinct to serve is overshadowed by a desire, as overwhelming as it is forbidden…

This book is so weird! It’s about a dystopian bee society in which Flora is created to be a sanitation worker but has special skills meant only for the upper classes of bees. She can talk and produce Flow, so she is sent to work in the Nursery. She meets the Queen, becomes a forager, and even starts illegally laying eggs. Everything in this book is seen from the viewpoint of bees, and according to the guy in our book club who has a fascination with beekeeping, the author does a great job of incorporating real bee behavior into the story.

If you’re looking for an off-beat dystopian novel, or if you’re really interested in bees, this is the book for you.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Big Over Easy

Jasper Fforde’s bestselling Thursday Next series has delighted readers of every genre with its literary derring-do and brilliant flights of fancy. In The Big Over Easy, Fforde takes a break from classic literature and tumbles into the seedy underbelly of nursery crime. Meet Inspector Jack Spratt, family man and head of the Nursery Crime Division. He’s investigating the murder of ovoid D-class nursery celebrity Humpty Dumpty, found shattered to death beneath a wall in a shabby area of town. Yes, the big egg is down, and all those brittle pieces sitting in the morgue point to foul play.

I love every Jasper Fforde book I’ve ever picked up, and this one was no exception. This series is tangentially related to the Thursday Next series, but there’s no time travel here. Instead, we get a detective who investigates fairy tale crimes. This book has the same tongue-in-cheek humor and fun fantasy as all of Fforde’s books, and it features funny, great characters as always. Pick this up if you enjoyed the Thursday Next series, or if you’re just looking for a fun, quirky fantasy.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Dead Man’s Folly

Ariadne Oliver, Queen of Crime Fiction, has been asked to devise a “Murder Hunt” for a fête at Nasse House, the home of Sir George Stubbs. But she begins to suspect that someone is manipulating the scenario of her game and fears that something very sinister is being planned.

She sends for her old friend Hercule Poirot. At first he is not inclined to take her very seriously but soon a series of events propels him to change his mind.

Then suddenly all Ariadne’s worst fears are realised when the girl playing the part of the murder victim is found strangled in the boat-house. For Hercule Poirot, the Murder Hunt has become a grim reality.

This Agatha Christie is a fun mystery set during a fete. Hercule Poirot must discover who took advantage of Mrs. Oliver’s murder hunt and why. It’s one of those classic Christie mysteries that will keep you guessing until the end. Not my favorite (that honor goes to one of these other Agatha Christies), but it was certainly enjoyable.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Fans around the world adore the best-selling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and its proprietor, Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s premier lady detective. In this charming series, Mma Ramotswe—with help from her loyal associate, Grace Makutsi—navigates her cases and her personal life with wisdom, good humor, and the occasional cup of tea.

I just started reading this series, and now I’m obsessed with it. It offers simple but lovely writing and small mysteries interspersed with backstory about life in Botswana. Mma Ramotswe is a wonderfully practical and kind detective, and the setting is one I have yet to get tired of reading about. If you enjoy the first book (and I bet you will), good news! There are currently 17 books in the series.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Doomsday Book

For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.

But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin–barely of age herself–finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.

As always, Connie Willis is great. This book is sad–it’s about the Black Plague and a modern-day influenza epidemic–but still enjoyable. If you have read and enjoyed any of Connie Willis’s other historical fiction time travel series, you must add this one to your list.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Ruby Lennox begins narrating her life at the moment of conception, and from there takes us on a whirlwind tour of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of an English girl determined to learn about her family and its secrets.

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is one of my all-time favorite books, so it’s surprising that I waited this long to read any of her other work. Atkinson does an amazing job of intertwining the members of Ruby’s family, going back and forth from Ruby’s life to the history of her ancestors. Many are foolish, hurtful, or worse, but there’s a lot of humor too. The dark mysteries of deaths and disappearances are slowly revealed in such a way that you think you must have known it all along.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant and charismatic father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family.

The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.

(I’m sneaking this book on this list, even though it’s actually a memoir rather than adult fiction, because it was our latest book club read.) This book made me so angry! Jeannette’s alcoholic father and irresponsible mother let her and her three siblings starve, freeze, live in filth, and even be molested without giving up their vices of liquor, chocolate, and luxuries. It’s one of those memoirs that you can’t put down because it’s such a train wreck. Amazingly, Jeannette learns to rise above her upbringing and tells her story with grace and kindness, even toward her parents.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

American Gods (author’s preferred edition)

Locked behind bars for three years, Shadow did his time, quietly waiting for the magic day when he could return to Eagle Point, Indiana. But just days before his release, Laura and Shadow’s best friend are killed in an accident. With his life in pieces and nothing to keep him tethered, Shadow accepts a job from a beguiling stranger he meets on the way home, an enigmatic man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. A trickster and rogue, Wednesday seems to know more about Shadow than Shadow does himself.

Life as Wednesday’s bodyguard, driver, and errand boy is far more interesting and dangerous than Shadow ever imagined—it is a job that takes him on a dark and strange road trip and introduces him to a host of eccentric characters whose fates are mysteriously intertwined with his own. Along the way Shadow will learn that the past never dies; that everyone, including his beloved Laura, harbors secrets; and that dreams, totems, legends, and myths are more real than we know. Ultimately, he will discover that beneath the placid surface of everyday life a storm is brewing—an epic war for the very soul of America—and that he is standing squarely in its path.

This book has intimidated me for years, partly because of the length and partly because, in an aborted attempt to read it, I came across a weird sex scene that truly icked me out. This scene is still there (obviously), and there’s a fair amount of cursing, so please be aware if you decide to pick this book up.

Still, if you can get past that, there’s a lot to like. This has all of the rambling, strange, fantastical elements that Neil Gaiman is so good at describing. Shadow was an interesting character, as were all the gods. Even if you’re not familiar with all of the mythologies discussed in the book (everything from Norse gods to Hindu gods to gods I didn’t recognize), you’ll be drawn in as they map out the United States as their battleground. My favorite part was the Rock City battle, because Gaiman does such a good job of describing the beautiful and strange experience of being there.

I’m not sure how to recommend this book. Give it a shot for the first few chapters and see if it’s for you.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Bridget Jones’s Diary

Meet Bridget Jones—a 30-something Singleton who is certain she would have all the answers if she could:

a. lose 7 pounds
b. stop smoking
c. develop Inner Poise

Bridget Jones’ Diary is the devastatingly self-aware, laugh-out-loud daily chronicle of Bridget’s permanent, doomed quest for self-improvement — a year in which she resolves to: reduce the circumference of each thigh by 1.5 inches, visit the gym three times a week not just to buy a sandwich, form a functional relationship with a responsible adult, and learn to program the VCR.

This is a modern day classic, so even though I didn’t like the movie, I knew I’d have to pick it up someday. Honestly, I felt the same way about the book as I did about the movie–it’s sort of funny, but definitely outdated. I wouldn’t bother reading it unless you, like me, feel the need to experience this cultural touchstone for yourself.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Adult Fiction Mini Reviews

Mini reviews of some of the adult fiction I've been reading lately--everything from Neil Gaiman to Agatha Christie. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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A quick note before we get started on today’s mini reviews. You may have noticed that I’ve recently revamped the blog, including a new logo and everything! I’ve moved all the information about my editing services to this blog, and I’ve updated almost every page. Take a look around and let me know what you think!

M is for Magic

The best part about listening to this as an audio book like I did is that it is narrated by the author, who is a fantastic narrator. This collection of short stories by Neil Gaiman is so representative of his style. It’s classic Gaiman creepiness without really being scary. Each story stands alone (something I generally dislike, but it worked here), and they run the gamut from fascinating (the months of the year personified hang out and tell stories) to ridiculous (a hard boiled detective story set in the land of nursery rhymes). The collection also includes a long excerpt from The Graveyard Book, Gaiman’s wonderful Newbery book.

The one bad thing I have to say about this book is that I’ve forgotten pretty much all the stories in the book, other than the ones I’ve mentioned here.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Secret Adversary

You already know how I feel about this book, since it made my best of 2016 (so far) list. I enjoy Agatha Christie in general, and Tommy and Tuppence are my absolute favorites. This story, written about the couple’s very first adventure, is more action-packed than most of Christie’s murder mysteries, but it is still suspenseful, well-written, and filled with awesome characters. I was slightly disappointed for a moment when I thought I had figured out the solution, but never fear, Agatha Christie subverted my expectations like the master mystery writer she is. If you’re a Christie fan, this book is not to be missed.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed

“I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed “is the story of Kyria Abrahams’s coming-of-age as a Jehovah’s Witness — a doorbell-ringing “Pioneer of the Lord.” Her childhood was haunted by the knowledge that her neighbors and schoolmates were doomed to die in an imminent fiery apocalypse; that Smurfs were evil; that just about anything you could buy at a yard sale was infested by demons; and that Ouija boards — even if they were manufactured by Parker Brothers — were portals to hell. Never mind how popular you are when you hand out the Watchtower instead of candy at Halloween. When Abrahams turned eighteen, things got even stranger. That’s when she found herself married to a man she didn’t love, with adultery her only way out. “Disfellowshipped” and exiled from the only world she’d ever known, Abrahams realized that the only people who could save her were the very sinners she had prayed would be smitten by God’s wrath. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This book, a humorous memoir about growing up in the Jehovah’s Witness church, sounded like it was going to be amazing. And parts of it were–there are some truly funny stories about the strange beliefs and activities Kyria had when she was a kid. But there’s an awful lot of sex and drugs and abusive relationships in here; it’s a little darker than I had hoped it would be. Proceed with caution if you decide to check out this book.

Rating: Meh

Washed Hands

Breaking up can be one of the hardest things a person can do, something that the dedicated team at Washed Hands, Inc. thoroughly understands. Whether one’s soon-to-be-ex is manipulative, violent, or anything else that makes a clean break difficult, the company’s rejection counselors ensure that the split is established and maintained in no uncertain terms. And in the toughest cases, no one’s better at this than Monica Deimos.

Brought in on what appeared to be a relatively straight-forward domestic nightmare, Monica realizes all-too-late that she has been set up to take the fall for the murder of a wealthy socialite. As the police close in, Monica needs to discover who she can trust, who wants her out of the way, and why she was framed. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Did I pick up this free Kindle book just because the MC’s name is the same as mine? Maybe. I honestly don’t know, because this has been languishing on my Kindle for at least a year. Monica is a jaded agent for Washed Hands who isn’t really interested in making friends. But when she is set up to be framed for murder, she has to quickly figure out who she can trust and why she was set up.

This was a surprisingly good mystery (filled with a lot of swearing, just FYI). Monica’s prickly nature makes it difficult for her to find someone to help her solve the mystery before the cops find her, but her skills–akin to those of a detective or secret agent, despite the fact that her job is ending bad relationships–help her as she tries to uncover who set her up. I enjoyed the characters and was surprised by the solution. What more can you ask for in a mystery?

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Book Pairing: The Phantom Tollbooth and Stardust

This book pairing is a fun mix of magic, drama, and adventure. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m continuing my posts in the Reading to Distraction book pairing challenge (you can read the previous posts here, here, and here) with another couple of books that I truly enjoyed, even before I thought of putting them together.

The books in this pairing are The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster with illustrations by Jules Feiffer and Stardust by my favorite, Neil Gaiman. According to BuzzFeed, here’s the connection:

It’s the playfulness of The Phantom Tollbooth that wins over its readers (and, really, it’s one of the children’s books that warrants revisiting), and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust captures that same sense expertly. When Tristan Thorn embarks on a quest to find a fallen star, he encounters witches, elf-lords, a captain of a flying ship, and all manners of eccentrics that will stay with the reader long after the book is finished.

The Phantom Tollbooth

Milo mopes in black ink sketches, until he assembles a tollbooth and drives through. He jumps to the island of Conclusions. But brothers King Azaz of Dictionopolis and the Mathemagician of Digitopolis war over words and numbers. Joined by ticking watchdog Tock and adult-size Humbug, Milo rescues the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason, and learns to enjoy life. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I read this book several times as a child and loved it, even though parts of it always creeped me out. I always loved reading about other worlds in which everything was neatly organized into specific countries (I was kind of a weird kid), and this book filled that need for me. The Phantom Tollbooth is also full of wordplay, which both children and adults can enjoy. The illustrations work perfectly with this strange, magical story.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Stardust

Hopelessly crossed in love, a boy of half-fairy parentage leaves his mundane Victorian-English village on a quest for a fallen star in the magical realm. The star proves to be an attractive woman with a hot temper, who plunges with our hero into adventures featuring witches, the lion and the unicorn, plotting elf-lords, ships that sail the sky, magical transformations, curses whose effects rebound, binding conditions with hidden loopholes and all the rest. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Not only a great book by Neil Gaiman, but also a pretty funny movie. (Do be forewarned, though, that if you watched the movie first, the book will be quite a bit darker and more “adult” than the movie was.) This is one of the less creepy of Neil Gaiman’s worlds, but it still has that dark, not-quite-earthly flavor that Gaiman is so good at producing. There’s adventure, humor, and lots of magic as Tristan makes his way through the land beyond the wall in an attempt to bring back a star.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Both of these books show their heroes making the leap from the dull, ordinary world into a world of magic and adventure–Milo through a tollbooth, Tristan through a wall in a seemingly empty field. Both are well written and lots of fun. If you’re into magical adventures with a sense of humor, you could do much worse than this book pairing.

Have you read either of these books? How do you think they stack up to each other? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Good Omens

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett join forces to tell the story of the funniest apocalypse you'll ever see. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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According to The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (the world’s only completely accurate book of prophecies, written in 1655, before she exploded), the world will end on a Saturday. Next Saturday, in fact. Just before dinner.

So the armies of Good and Evil are amassing, Atlantis is rising, frogs are falling, tempers are flaring. Everything appears to be going according to Divine Plan. Except a somewhat fussy angel and a fast-living demon—both of whom have lived amongst Earth’s mortals since The Beginning and have grown rather fond of the lifestyle—are not actually looking forward to the coming Rapture.

And someone seems to have misplaced the Antichrist . . . (Summary via Amazon.com)

I don’t really know how to classify this madcap ride of a novel, but it is hilarious. Neil Gaiman is a favorite author of mine, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Together, they wrote the funniest apocalyptic novel I’ve ever gotten my hands on.

The angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley have been on earth for so long that they have formed a reluctant alliance. And when they learn that the forces of heaven and hell are sending the Antichrist to earth in order to set the apocalypse in motion, they realize that they have grown much too fond of earth to allow it to happen. So they, along with a cast of unusual characters, keep a careful eye on the Antichrist, hoping to sway him away from totally destroying the world. But they soon find that they’ve been watching the wrong kid, and they have only days to avert the apocalypse by any means necessary.

Good Omens pokes fun at many aspects of Christianity, so even though it’s not meant to be taken seriously, it helps to have at least a passing knowledge of the biblical accounts of Adam and Eve, Revelation, and so on. The characters are quirky and interesting, and the writing is fast paced and often hilarious. (The footnotes are particularly great.) If you’re a fan of either Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett and somehow haven’t yet read this book, you must read it. If you love funny, offbeat stories and you don’t mind a not-so-serious look at the end times, you should also pick it up.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

31 Days of All Things Books by NewberyandBeyond.com
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The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes

In Neil Gaiman's comic series, The Sandman, I found plenty to like--but I'm still not sold on comics. | A book review by Newbery and Beyond
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I read this collection on a recent road trip for a friend’s wedding. In the bits and pieces of downtime that I had, I would sit down and read a comic or two from this book. Despite my timid forays into the world of graphic novels and comics, I’m a big Neil Gaiman fan, so I was cautiously optimistic about my success with this book.

The Sandman story line follows Dream, a powerful being who is trapped for 70 long years when an occultist attempts to trap his sibling, Death. When Dream is finally freed, he must traverse the world (and other realms as well) in order to regain his power. The story touches on both mythology and superhero lore, and I would probably have gotten more out of these comics if I knew much about either of those things.

Some stories are graphic; others are sweeping; still others are almost touching. Many left me feeling unsettled and uncomfortable, but I always wanted to continue reading and see where the story went next. I don’t know much at all about comic book and graphic novel art, so I can’t say much about it one way or the other, but I found it very fitting to the story, as it’s dark and sharply drawn.

It took me a while to decide what I thought about these comics; in fact, I didn’t really come to a conclusion until I wrote this review. These comics are unsettling (as are many things that Neil Gaiman writes), but they are entertaining and interesting. Although I’m still not fully sold on the idea of comic books and graphic novels, these held my interest enough that I think I’ll continue the series.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane | Newbery and Beyond
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I had forgotten how scary Neil Gaiman’s books can be!  This book was compulsively readable, but parts of it terrified me.  It captured in less than 200 pages a whole other world–I was fascinated by the Hempstock women and their farm.

The plot of this book is hard to explain, but I’ll try to provide a short summary: The main character (I don’t remember his name, and to be honest, I’m not sure it was ever given), a middle aged man, returns to his childhood town for a funeral, and he finds himself making his way back to the Hempstock farm, where his friend Lettie used to live.  As he sits by the pond on their farm–one that Lettie had called the ocean–he begins to remember strange events from when he was a seven-year-old boy.  Everything started with a man’s suicide on the Hempstocks’ land, and from there Lettie and her mother and grandmother show the little boy a terrifying dimension, closer and more real than he could ever have imagined.  Through an unfortunate mistake, things from this other world begin seeping into our own.

I can’t say much else without spoiling the plot, and I’m not sure I could anyway.  Neil Gaiman has the ability to make unimaginable things and places seem real, and it sucked me in even when I didn’t understand exactly what was happening.  Some of the things that happen in the book are genuinely frightening–not just to a seven year old, but to me also–and some of the things are disturbing only for adults (the little boy catches a glimpse of his father having an affair).  Needless to say, although the book focuses on the little boy and his eleven-year-old friend Lettie, this is not a book for children.  Not in the slightest.

If you’re looking for something magical, frightening, unusual, beautifully written, and easy to read (I finished this book in less than three hours), The Ocean at the End of the Lane is for you.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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