Tag Archives: literary fiction

Review: The Goldfinch

Recap: When a young boy loses his mother in a terroristic attack inside a New York City museum, it’s hard to picture where the plot will go. But then that boy, Theo, steals a painting, the famous “Goldfinch” painting, and runs off. His chance meeting with an old man after the attack encourages him to get in touch with the old man’s business partner, Hobie, and niece, who was also at the museum during the explosion. The story takes us through the next 15 years of the boy’s life, all spent with his infamously stolen painting as he continues to struggle with the loss of his mother. Along the way, Theo meets and makes new friends. Theo and the painting start their journey together in New York, living with his friend Andy, then a brief, but impactful stint in Las Vegas, where he befriends Boris, back to New York and finally one last life-altering trip. But as Theo works to put his life back together and prove to his dead mother and himself that he’s fine on his own, one question remains: what will he do with the painting? If he returns it, he faces jail time for theft. If he keeps it, he remains involved in the one of the biggest art heists in history — accidental or not.

Analysis: It’s hard to imagine that anyone could have written a 700+ page book about a painting of a bird, but it happens, and dare I say, I’m glad it did. “The Goldfinch” painting is a very obvious symbol and metaphor for Theo. Like the bird in the painting, Theo is chained down, unable to free himself from the painting or the guilt suffered from death of his mother. With both intact, it’s impossible for Theo to move on. The journey he takes to reach that moment of freedom is long and dark, but worth it for the payoff. Theo works so hard to be like his mother — intelligent and kind, but without her there, he becomes more like his father, full of lies and cheating. His life becomes a horrible cycle of bad things happening to him followed by bad choices he makes. The Goldfinch is full of metaphors, besides “The Goldfinch” itself. For instance, Theo comes to love refurbishing antique furniture, but author Donna Tarttl makes it a point to include that he most enjoys taking pieces apart and putting them back together again — the one thing he wishes he could do with his life but can’t. Theo is sad. “The Goldfinch” is sad. And The Goldfinch is sad. But in following Theo’s long, harsh story, we — along with Theo — learn what’s important in life and that it’s possible to overcome the things one doesn’t expect to have to overcome.

MVP: Hobie. One of the few completely likable characters in the novel, Hobie means well and does well. He is the only living person always there for Theo in exactly the way he needs, and in the moment when Theo acknowledges that he’s lied to and taken advantage of Hobie, my heart broke for him. Get The Goldfinch in hardcover for $18. Or on your Kindle for $6.99.


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Review: Astonish Me

Recap: Talk about scandal taking center stage. When Joan Joyce, a young up-and-coming professional ballerina, meets famed international ballet superstar Arslan Rusakov, a brief romance sets them on a journey neither of them expect. They meet in the 1970’s in Paris, as Joan is working to get her not-so-perfect ballet feet wet. While Arslan is one of the most talented, Joan is not. But there is something about her that astonishes Arslan, and he relies on her to help him deflect and smuggle him into the United States. Their romance ends soon thereafter, as does Joan’s career. She teaches ballet, but leaves Arslan, her best friend Elaine, and the world of professional dance behind.

Joan goes on to marry and raise a son, who has his own knack for ballet, in California. She teaches him ballet, as well as her son’s friend/neighbor/crush. The kids become points of pride for Joan, proving her to be a talent when it comes to teaching ballet. But both Joan and her husband have mixed emotions when faced with the idea that the children may one day surpass Joan with more successful professional dance careers, and that it could lead Joan back to Arslan at some point. While the act of ballet is physical, dance weighs heavier on the hearts and minds of these families than it does on their feet and muscles.

Analysis: When this novel came out earlier this year, all any of the reviews talked about was what a phenomenal writer author Maggie Shipstead was. Each review mentioned her debut novel, Seating Arrangements — which I immediately borrowed from a friend — and said that Astonish Me wasn’t quite as good as Seating Arrangements, but was a very close second. I have to agree.

Like Seating Arrangements, Astonish Me tells an intricate story of a family whose lives revolve around a certain categorized system of social class. In Seating Arrangements, it’s that of a prep school/Ivy League crowd. In Astonish Me, it’s a ballet crowd. And similarly to her debut novel, Astonish Me relishes in the scandals amongst its characters, in the complex weaving of relationships, almost as twisted as a pair of lace-up pointe shoes. But Shipstead’s writing makes the story less trashy and more scandalous in the way that many love-driven classic novels are written, like those by Edith Wharton or Jane Austen.

MVP: Joan’s best friend, Elaine. Even though Joan is more of the titular character, the woman around whom the novel revolves and the woman who “astonishes,” she comes across as mostly plain, drab, and unremarkable throughout the novel. Elaine is the strongest female character of the book, an independent woman who both knows and does what she wants.

Get Astonish Me in hardcover for $16.41.

Or on your Kindle for $10.99.

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Review: Seating Arrangements

Recap: The wedding between Daphne Van Meter and Greyson Duff is expected to be the upstanding New England social event of the summer. The two are delightfully perfect together, two beautiful, Ivy League graduates; twenty-somethings that come from the same stature of well-off New England families. One problem: the bride is pregnant, very pregnant, seven months along to be exact. Another problem: on the weekend of the wedding — during which the novel takes place — all of Daphne’s bridesmaids are staying at the Van Meters’ New England beach house with Daphne’s parents, Winn and Biddy. Included in the bridesmaid bunch are Livia, the bride’s sister; Dominique, the exotic former roommate; Piper, the meek friend; and Agatha, the friend who also happens to be a sexy tease to all men everywhere. Oh wait — another problem: the bride and groom’s families are getting together during the two nights leading up to the wedding, and also included at those events are the groom’s four brothers the bride’s drunk aunt.

From the beginning, the reader is informed that Daphne and Livia’s father, Winn, may be harboring feelings for Agatha, the sexy bridesmaid. We also learn Winn once dated the groom’s mother. We then learn he also once kissed his sister-in-law. Throw in the three brothers of the groom, and it’s unclear which will be more of a disaster — the night before the rehearsal dinner, the night of the rehearsal dinner or the night of the actual wedding. Can the wedding planner keep the clandestine scandals of the weekend separate from the weekend’s marital plans? Debatable.

Analysis: On the surface, Seating Arrangements sounds like an exciting, juicy, scandalous beach read, and it is. But it’s so much more than that. It feels like a classic, and is scandalous in the way that Edith Wharton (The Age of Innocence, released in 1921) novels are scandalous. Author Maggie Shipstead writes the novel in such a literary way, I kept questioning whether it takes place modern-day or in an earlier time period.

As much as the story seems like it would be about a wedding, very little is about the wedding or the bride and groom. We learn more about the bride’s father, Winn, his relationship with his wife, and his relationship with his younger daughter, Livia. This is the story of a man who’s a little neurotically insane, a man who’s trying to understand all the women in his life as he — even at age 60 — is still working to figure out what kind of man, husband, and father he wants to be versus what he should be. It’s a story about family, growing old, growing apart, letting go, and learning to love the people you’re obligated to love, even if it hurts.

MVP: Livia. She is such a sad little creature, and she has so much growing up to do. But there’s something there — a natural sense of defiance and strength that makes the reader believe, especially at the end, that she’s going to be okay.

Get Seating Arrangements in paperback for $8.48.

Or on your Kindle for $7.99.


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E-Book Version of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ Coming Soon

mockingbirdIt’s been more than 50 years since To Kill a Mockingbird was published, but the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of the classic novel has finally decided to let it be published digitally as an e-book.

According to The New York Times, Harper Lee has approved the e-book version of her novel, which will be available July 8th. Mockingbird and another classic, The Catcher in the Rye, are two of just a few classic novels left that had not yet been converted to a digital format. Mockingbird continues to sell one million copies each year and is read in schools across the country.

A digital audio version of the novel will also be available. It was be voiced by actress Sissy Spacek. HarperCollins has the North American rights; Random House has the rights in Britain.

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Review: The Fault in Our Stars

Recap: Sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster has very few friends. She’s oddly close with her parents. She takes a few college classes instead of high school, and she loves America’s Next Top Model marathons. Also, she has cancer. Every time she attends another support group session, her mom insists that she make friends, but Hazel isn’t interested. As far as she’s concerned, she’s well on her way to dying anyway.

Everything changes when she meets fellow cancer patient Augustus. He’s sarcastic and smart and well, hot. He’s also in remission. Because Hazel is new to boys and relationships and new friendships, for that matter, she forces him to read her favorite book before accepting a date with him. Augustus reads the book — one with an open ending about a girl who has cancer. Augustus joins Hazel in her frustration with the end of the novel. Soon, a relationship is formed, as is an obsession with the novel.

Augustus uses his “Make a Wish”-style wish on Hazel. Hazel opens Augustus to world of true love, not the forced “love” he shared with his ex-girlfriend. But with two young cancer patients in love, there’s only one ending. This is not a happy story, but this is a powerful one about life, love, and how we perceive it all.

Analysis: When Hazel and Augustus meet, they’re doomed, destined for death. But they’re also lucky — able to live their lives with nothing to lose, however difficult it may seem. The Fault in Our Stars tells the story of young love between two old souls, and to reinforce their deep connection, author John Green relies on literature. 

From the beginning, the two discuss their favorite books — both entirely different genres of literature. Her favorite book is a powerful story reflective of her own, and frightening in its depressingly realistic outlook; his, a graphic novel that depicts strength, overcoming the impossible, and heroism.

But the title of this novel itself, The Fault In Our Stars, is taken from a line of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The nobleman Cassius says to Brutus, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.'” This is how the teenagers suggest it is no one’s fault but their own that they are sick and doomed. But the reference to “stars” recalls yet another Shakespearean play, Romeo and Juliet, by referencing the two as “star-crossed lovers.” Theirs is a love that is not meant to last.

But the journey Hazel and Augustus take together — emotionally, physically, and literally — shows their love goes beyond death. With realistic teenaged narration from Hazel’s point of view and frank awareness of the characters’ own destiny, Green tells a story that will make you cry, but encourage you to live your life the best way you can. After all, you only get one chance.

MVP: Augustus. Through all the pain of illness and all the sadness of death, he finds the beauty of life, and gives Hazel a reason to live hers, even when she doesn’t know that it’s worth it.

Get The Fault in Our Stars in hardcover for just $7.

Or on your Kindle for $5.50.


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Review: The Art of Fielding

Recap: When college baseball player Mike Schwartz travels to South Dakota for an off-season game before his sophomore year, he doesn’t expect to meet the person who will forever change his life. But then again, he’s never met a person as unknowingly talented as Henry Skrimshander. Henry is a shortstop for the opposing team, and he moves with such a grace and ease before which Mike has never seen. He recruits Henry and works his magic to get him accepted to Westish College, where Mike plays ball. The two strike up not only a friendship, but also a mentor-mentee relationship that helps make Henry a great baseball player, not just a potentially great baseball player.

In just three years’ time, Henry’s skills as shortstop surpass Mike’s as catcher. Just when he’s about to break a record for most errorless games, Henry makes his very first error — a throw so bad, it hits his fellow teammate and roommate, Owen, in the face. That one throw changes the course of Henry’s baseball career, leaving him unable to play well for the remainder of the season. But it also steers the direction of Owen’s social life and reverberates throughout the lives of Mike, the Westish College president Guert Affenlight, and the president’s daughter, Pella.

The five of them becomes inexplicably intertwined, joined together by love for each other, for Westish College, and their own personal ambitions.

Analysis: The beauty of this book is its element of surprise as well as its depth and complexity. When I started the book, I expected it to be a story about Henry Skrimshander’s rise to fame and fortune as a talented baseball player. Ultimately, that is the main plot of the book. But as I got deeper into the story, and characters like Pella and Affenlight were introduced, I began to realize it was about much more than that. The book is about finding oneself. Affenlight, who’s in his 60’s, finds himself truly in love with another person for the first time in his life. His daughter, Pella — who does not have a good relationship with her father — also learns what it means to be in both a bad relationship and an ideal one. Mike and Henry are the lost souls of the book — fumbling around until they, too, learn what’s best for them.

This is a book about growing up and learning that often times, there are limitations to your ambitions; it’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth it to fight for your dreams, despite the holdups. Or maybe your dreams are never what you really wanted in the first place.

MVP: Mike Schwartz. Though lost — and a bit of a substance abuser — he makes complete 180, realizing that what he always wanted wasn’t necessarily what was right for him. In the end, he’s in the right place at the right time with the right people, leaving both readers and the characters satisfied.

Get The Art of Fielding in paperback for $10.19.

Or get it on your Kindle for $7.99.

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