A Gentleman in Moscow

“Here, indeed, was a formidable sentence–one that was on intimate terms with a comma, and that held the period in healthy disregard.” (A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles)

Poor Mr. Towles. I’m going to do what every sophomore novelist of a bestselling debut fears: compare the recent work not to the past work, but to a vaguely recollected feeling about the past work. The details of Rules of Civility have faded in my memory – a few scenes about a love triangle, some jewelry, a bored woman playing cards – while the wonder remains. I loved it so much that I couldn’t even write a coherent review, so much that I pre-ordered A Gentleman in Moscow the day news about it hit the library review journals.

When I picture this book as a novel, I imagine a viscous liquid dropped on a flat surface: at first you think it will assume a shape, but then it spreads out, thin and borderless. If you think of A Gentleman in Moscow as a collection of short stories, however, or a long book of exquisite vignettes about one character and one place, then you can focus on the brilliance of the language instead of the faults in plot arch. For Towles, more than anything else, more than history or philosophy or musing, loves words. He loves them in footnotes, in conversations between family members, in chapter titles and in poems, and when you read him, he reminds you that you love them too.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 480
Ending: vague
Incidental Learning: Russia, 1920’s – 1940’s
Further Reading: another rich historical fiction, which is apparently a genre a rarely read in, so the only recommendation I can think of is Rules of Civility.


“Everyone in the world has suffered. But you have not suffered precisely because you are an American Black.” (Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

This book is an intellectual experience first and foremost. The story, once you extract it from the over-abundance of tertiary characters and social commentary, is simply about a love lost and then found again. You never become familiar with, or particularly attached to, the main characters; they merely hold together Aichie’s points so that readers can examine thoughts about race in the more palatable form of fiction instead of as a collection of essays.

Adichie adds a new character the same way others might insert adjectives or adverbs: any time a sentence feels lonely, she drops one in.   While the plethora of characters do serve to form a layered background, they also create a fog of clutter that prevents the reader from getting to know the protagonists as full people. Though literature lovers will see through the ploy to dress up social activism in a fiction costume, this book is a worthy read for the way it forces you to acknowledge reality.


Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 588
Ending: tidy conclusion to love story
Incidental Learning: Nigeria, immigrant experience, race in America, Obama campaign
Further Reading: I followed this up with Things Fall Apart, since it was mentioned in the book. Two entirely different reading experiences.

Never Let Me Go

“That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing, because this was Norfolk after all, and it was only a couple of weeks since I’d lost him.” (Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro)

This book has not aged well; It happen sometimes with sci-fi. Science fiction can age marvelously even if the author miss-predicts small details, yet, if the author misses something fundamental, the whole book ages out. I can suspend my disbelief about clones: that’s not the problem. The problem is that the book in no way addresses how the media (social and traditional) would react to the existence of clones harvested for their organs. I find it unbelievable that a clone-capable world would not also be in the information age, which would mean that those clones would be able to tell their story.

Ishiguro writes a completely consistent first person narrative, never for a moment stepping out of the consciousness of a 30-something female clone who calmly accepts her fate and status. Each description, each character, is seen only through her eyes, with her personality, with her unreliability and biases. Ishiguro doesn’t over-explain, but waits to reveal facts as the narrator feels comfortable telling them. This is gorgeously written literary sci-fi and worth reading for that reason, even if it does miss the sci-fi relevancy mark.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 288 pages
Ending: understated; acceptance of tragedy
Further Reading: As I try to think of read-alikes, I’m drawn to contemplative literary fiction, as opposed to science fiction, like Willa Cather or The Summer Book.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

“I’ve given what happened next a good lot of thought, and I’ve come around to thinking that it was bound to be and would have happened one way or another, at this time or that…” (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey)

one-flew-over-the-cuckoo-nest-book-cover3‘Predictable’ has always been one of the worst adjectives I can think of to apply to a book. I save it for particularly gruesome cases, when the plot isn’t just humdrum, it’s so non-innovative I probably used it when I wrote my first (and only) book at age 7. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey proves that predictability can be more than just a byproduct of lazy plotting, it can be wielded as a technique to heighten emotion. From the first scene with McMurphy, the reader senses that the book can only end in one way. Every single time he triumphs over Ratched, every time he throws his big personality around, every time he laughs at an unlaughable situation, you despair over his inevitable fate. The tragedy builds so painfully that, when it finally happens, you feel less anguish, and more relief, than you would have thought possible.

This is also a book to convince you that first person narratives can work. Kesey uses the first person not just as a storytelling viewpoint, but as a way to illustrate the narrator’s mental state. He starts off mad, incomprehensibly so, and ends strong, defiant, purposeful – his voice clear and focused. We get to see his healing take place not through specific events, but through language.

Writers beware: the best way to make sure no one reads your book in the future is to write something ingenious and then turn it into a blockbuster.
Readers: defy the trend that consigns this book to high school classrooms: it will restore your faith in reading.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 272 pages
Ending: relief, redemption
Incidental Learning: 1960’s asylums and psychiatric treatments
Further Reading: Infinite Jest is the closest I can come to a read-alike, and it’s an imperfect one at best.

Today Will be Different

“Smell the soup, cool the soup,” Timby said. “Huh?” “It’s what they teach us in school when we’re upset. Smell the soup.” He took a deep breath in. “Cool the soup.” He blew out.” (Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple)

Though I’ve vowed to never again finish a book I dislike, sometimes it’s more work to stop reading a bad book than to keep up the momentum and get to the end. If you stop, you’ll have to go through all the bother of choosing a new book, searching through your many library systems to see how and when you can get it for free, and potentially even making a trip somewhere (which, with a newborn, is easier said than done). Then, you risk again choosing incorrectly and ending up with a second, third, or even a rut of bad books. And, let’s face it, you’re already filled with motivation-sucking bad-book-blues, so it’s probably easier to just stay seated on the couch and try to eke what little enjoyment you can from your current choice.

That’s right, I’ve said it – and judging by the litany of complementary reviews, I might be the only one – Semple’s new book is bad. If you want to get a bit more creative with your adjectives, you could also go with unremarkable, over-plotted, scattered, too-tidy, absurd, hasty, or nonsensical. Additionally, it bears a startling surface resemblance to Where’d you go Bernadette: both novels feature a crumbling marriage where one partner is temporarily missing; both marriages have one child; both female protagonists have old-timey names; both are set in Seattle, etc, etc. The reader can’t help but wish that Semple’s new book resembled her old one for the sake of its inner qualities – its humor and unique characters – rather than its superficial ones.

Fortunately, with its large typeface, thick pages, and thin spine, you only have to sit with it for a few hours until it’s over.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 272 pages
Ending: not an ending
Incidental Learning: Seattle
Further Reading: If you haven’t, read Where’d you go Bernadette immediately.

The Fifth Wave

“Aliens are stupid. I’m not talking about real aliens. The Others aren’t stupid. The Others are so far ahead of us, it’s like comparing the dumbest human to the smartest dog. No contest. No, I’m talking about the aliens inside our own heads. The ones we made up…” (The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey)

Some books make you feel like a reading fortune-teller. After the first few chapters, you find yourself making predictions and being right, right, right. At the end of the book, you kick yourself for not having placed bets on how it would turn out because you were just so damn right. If money could be made through reading, you tell yourself, you’d be a millionaire. Or at least a thousandaire. In any case, better off than you are now.

Unfortunately, I don’t know any bookie who would take a bet on book endings. This either has to do with the fact that you could always skip to the last chapter… or that I don’t know any bookies. Too bad, because this book was 100% predictable. If you read it, read it for the teenaged, irreverent narrative style – not the plot. And don’t bother hoping that Yancey will dig YA literature out of the love-triangle/defiant heroine rut it has wallowed in since Twilight. He won’t.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 512 pages
Ending: predictable
Further Reading: Any other best selling YA novel would be an excellent follow up if you’re looking for more of the same.

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

“If I ever get reincarnated, it occurred to me, let me make certain I don’t come back as a paperclip.”
“Death leaves cans of shaving cream half-used.”
(Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami)

Reading fiction is a misnomer. You don’t read books, you see them in your mind’s eye; words just happen to be the vehicle that gets you to that inner visual. Mirukami takes advantage of this fact by playing with light and dark, blinding his readers with flashes of brightness and hours of pitch black. He returns again and again to the eyes, bogging down the middle of the book with a subterranean adventure, leaving us suspended in hope and brightness at the end. He forces us to develop our other reading senses in the absence of our reading sight – we find ourselves not seeing this book so much as smelling, feeling, hearing it.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland is an unexpected humor, one that makes you laugh simply because it is so itself. With a lot of genre fiction, it seems like anyone could have written the book – each instance is interchangeable with another. If you took the cover off a Joe Abercrombie and put it on a Flanagan, only the most dedicated fan would notice. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, however, from its title to its unnamed characters, is a book that no one else in this world, or any other, could have written.

Recommended Action: Buy – Borrow Now– Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Length: 416
Ending: not expected
Further Reading: Either you’ll want to read all of Murakami, or never read him again. Though I loved this book, I still can’t decide which one I’ll do. I don’t think I could bear it if his other works were similar to this one; in my mind, everything he writes is 100% unique.