Abhorsen: A Review

Abhorsen by Garth NixLirael has finally found a place for herself as the Abhorsen-in-Waiting. She has even found unexpected family and friends in Sam and the Disreputable Dog. But with this new knowledge comes an immense responsibility.

A necromancer is trying to awaken Orannis the Destroyer with the help of Chlorr–a Greater Dead creature–and Sam’s unwitting best friend Nick. Only one barrier keeps Orannis from unleashing its terrible power. Orannis must be stopped. Lirael does not know how, only that she has no choice but to find a way in Abhorsen (2003) by Garth Nix.

Find it on Bookshop.

Abhorsen is the conclusion of Nix’s original Old Kingdom trilogy. It is preceded by Sabriel and Lirael. The book is followed by Nix’s recent prequel Clariel.

Abhorsen picks up shortly after the conclusion of Lirael. Lirael and Sam are still struggling to prevent Orannis from awakening. Everything Lirael has learned both in the Clayr’s glacier and without will be put to the test as she races to find a way to bind the Destroyer.

Nix once again delivers a high action fantasy adventure here. Lirael in particular comes into her own in this story as she embraces her past and everything that her new role as Abhorsen-in-Waiting entails.

Abhorsen is a nail-biting conclusion to an excellent trilogy. While the story ends beautifully, readers will still want to see more of these characters long after the book is done.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Fire by Kristin Cashore, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

Geography Club: A Review

Geography Club by Brent HartingerRussel Middlebrook is the only gay kid at Goodkind High School.

He has to be.

In a school so small, in a town so remote, Russel is convinced he’d know if there was anyone else navigating the same minefield of classes and locker rooms and pretending.

Russel is alone.

At least, he thought he was until a chat room buddy turns out to be not just a fellow student but someone Russel actually knows.

And then he finds another friend who has been secretly dating her girlfriend for years.

And her girlfriend has another friend.

These kids have nothing in common except a desperate need to have someone to talk to–someone who understands. The only problem is that having nothing in common also means they have no reason to get together on a regular basis without attracting attention. It’s not like they could start a club. . . . unless it’s a boring club no one would want to join because it talks about geography at every meeting. Russel and his friends think they have all of their bases covered but things get way more complicated when their boring, unappealing club starts to get a lot of attention in Geography Club (2003) by Brent Hartinger.

Geography Club is a standout book that is celebrating its tenth anniversary and is being adapted into a movie. It is also the first of Hartinger’s books featuring Russel and his friends. (You can see more of them in The Order of the Poison Oak, Split Screen (which is two-stories-in-one) and the latest The Elephant of Surprise which came out this year).

Books about gay protagonists and books featuring support systems like a Gay-Straight Alliance are much more common now, in 2013, than they were when this book was originally published in 2003. However Geography Club more than stands the test of time.

More importantly, Geography Club is just a good story. Russel is a likable, witty narrator and Hartinger imbues his writing with humor and optimism even when Russel winds up in quite a few messes (who knew going on a date with a girl could cause so many problems down the road?).

Geography Club is a quick, thoughtful read in which Russel answers a lot of hard questions and makes quite a few good jokes along the way.

Possible Pairings: Keep Holding On by Susane Colasanti, Skinny by Donna Crooner, Fat Kid Rules the World by K. L. Going, Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan, Drawing the Ocean by Carolyn MacCullough, Sprout by Dale Peck, Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, Freak Show by James St. James, The Inside of Out by Jenn Marie Thorne

You can also read my exclusive interview with Brent Hartinger starting April 2, 2013.

A Great and Terrible Beauty: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Great and Terrible Beauty coverAll Gemma Doyle wants for her sixteenth birthday is to go to England and to see London. Though she comes from respectable English stock, Gemma has never seen the country raised instead in India where it is too hot, too dusty and entirely too boring.

Gemma does get her wish, but not the way she had hoped. Instead of a glamorous return to England with her family, Gemma is sent to an austere finishing school after her mother’s tragic death under mysterious circumstances.

Spence Academy is meant to take Gemma and the other young students and make them into ladies ready for their first Season and, more importantly, ready to become respectable wives and make good matches for their families.

But Gemma has no desire to be finished if it means never knowing what really happened to her mother or, for that matter, what’s really happening to her.

Much as she tries, Gemma isn’t like the other girls at Spence. She has her own wants that go beyond a respectable husband and a quiet life as someone’s wife. She has her own thoughts. And she sees things; things she shouldn’t be able to see, places that shouldn’t exist.

A mysterious man has followed Gemma to Spence from India telling her she must stop the visions and close her mind to her powers. But her powers are also the only way to make sense of her mother’s death. A world of magic lies at Gemma’s feet, its great and terrible beauty there for the taking. But only if Gemma is ready to choose it in A Great and Terrible Beauty (2003) by Libba Bray.

A Great and Terrible Beauty is the first book in The Gemma Doyle Trilogy.

Set in 1895, this book is a satisfying blend of historical fiction and fantasy. Gemma is very thoroughly grounded in the daily life of Spence even as she learns more about her powers and the mysteries surrounding them. It is also a novel about choice as Gemma and, later in the story, her friends negotiate what it means to be a young woman in Victorian England and try to quiet their own misgivings about their places in that privileged world.

The fascinating thing about A Great and Terrible Beauty is that it’s also a novel about frustration and hopes and, surprisingly, a novel about feminism–set in a time when no one even knew what feminism was. As much as this story is about Gemma Doyle it is also about the silent scream so many women kept bottled in at being commodities to be married off and sent away like so much merchandise being bought and sold.

A Great and Terrible Beauty is part character study, part fantasy, and mostly good storytelling. Rich with historic detail, fantasy, and strong characters, this is the captivating start of a story that continues in Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing.

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Chime by Franny Billingsley, Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, A Breath of Frost by Alyxandra Harvey, Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, The Ruby in the Smoke by Phillip Pullman, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud, The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Grand Tour by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

Green Angel: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Green Angel by Alice HoffmanAfter a disaster destroys the city she loves and kills her family, fifteen-year-old Green is left with nothing; the life she once had turned to ashes just like the ashes covering her once lush garden.

Shocked by the loss and destruction, Green turns inward. Her clothes become armor. She closes her eyes against the loss and the rebuilding taking place all around her. She closes her heart to love or friendship.

But, little by little, love and friendship make their way into her life. As she struggles to survive Green finds unlikely friends, love, and redemption in Green Angel (2003) by Alice Hoffman.

Find it on Bookshop.

Hoffman is one of those interesting authors who has written books for every conceivable audience (and did so before anyone was writing about kid lawyers if you know what I mean). Several of her books have also been turned into movies, including Practical Magic–one of my most favorite films.

Despite all that, this is the first book I have actually read by Alice Hoffman and it’s so unusual that I have no idea if it’s indicative of her work or not.*

First things first, Green Angel is a tiny book. Weighing it at less than 130 pages, there are some novellas that are longer than this book. For that reason, the normal narrative rules don’t really apply.

Hoffman’s writing is sparse (obviously) and melodic. With dialog presented in italics and the plot broken into parts instead of chapters, Green Angel reads more like an extended prose poem than a traditional narrative. Given that caveat, it is a good story.

Hoffman blends elements of poetry and traditional fairy tale tropes like kindly animals and wise old women to create a story about survival and reconstruction in the face of unthinkable tragedy. Sometimes gritty, sometimes florid Green Angel is a brief story that will stay with readers long after the story ends.

Green’s story continues in Green Witch.

Possible Pairings: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, The Window by Jeanette Ingold, Madapple by Cristina Meldrum, Evermore by Alyson Noel, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

*I saw her at a reading/signing for Green Witch (the sequel to this book) and I didn’t know much about her or her books. But I fell in love with the beautiful cover and decided I had to read it. So of course I had to read its predecessor too.

Exclusive Bonus Content: Elizabeth B. Parisi, the mastermind behind the cover designs for The Hunger Games trilogy, also designed this book. And boy howdy is the design fantastic. The front and back covers are illustrated, as are the pages demarking each new section of the story. If you pick Green Angel up for no other reason, pick it up to look at how it was all put together. Matt Mahurin created the cover art which also adds to the book’s physical charm. I might be incredibly slow, but I also just realized that Green with her thorns and choppy hair is shown on the back of the book so . . . there you go.

Falling Through Darkness: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Falling Through Darkness by Carolyn MacCulloughSeventeen-year-old Ginny’s life feels like a waking dream. Or maybe a nightmare. It all seemed so different when Aidan first came crashing into her life.

Beautiful, vivid, reckless Aidan is nothing like Ginny–a quiet, good girl more comfortable blending in than standing out. But Aidan makes Ginny different. He makes her want more. Makes her feel more. In the end, he makes her feel too much.

There was a crash. Something everyone else is calling an accident. Aidan is gone. But Ginny is left behind to piece together the shattered moments of her life with–and now without–him in Falling Through Darkness (2003) by Carolyn MacCullough.

Falling Through Darkness is MacCullough’s haunting first novel.  This is a story about depression and falling apart, but it is also a story about grieving and acceptance. Ginny would be perfectly happy to stay in this fugue state, sleep walking through life. That is until a new tenant moves in forcing Ginny to confront all the things she knows about Aidan, and the accident, but never wanted to admit to anyone–especially herself.

Ginny’s depression after the accident is palpable in MacCullough’s writing. Equally compelling are her portrayals of Aidan’s frenetic energy. Even when Ginny falls into his dangerous habits it’s easy to understand how she would be sucked into his jet stream. The story shifts seamlessly between Ginny’s present and memories of meeting Aidan and their subsequent, whirlwind, relationship with writing that is evocative and beautiful.

Possible Pairings: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Where She Went by Gayle Forman, Last Night at the Circle Cinema by Emily Franklin, And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, If I Fix You by Abigail Johnson, The After Girls by Leah Konen, Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, Fracture by Megan Miranda, This Song Will Save Your Life by Lisa Ann Sandell, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, The Edge of Falling by Rebecca Serle, My Private Nation (album and single) by Train

The Amulet of Samarkand: A Banned Book Review

The Amulet of Samarkand coverThe Amulet of Samarkand (2003) is the first book in Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy. (Find it on Bookshop.) This trilogy has the unique honor of having been banned in its entirety for the books’ presentations of the occult. They also feature magnificent cover art by Melvyn Grant (who also has a ridiculously clever website). For many readers, that would be enticement enough. I didn’t know about the book banning, but the cover art and blurb pushed it onto my ever-increasing “to read” list. A recommendation from a trusted YA librarian pushed it over the top.

Nathaniel, one of the novel’s main characters, lives in London. Like most large cities, many of London’s movers and shakers are to be found in government positions of influence. What most people don’t know is that these powerful men and women get up to more than politicking when behind closed doors. They all have power, certainly, but very little (none depending on who you ask) belongs to them. Not permanently at least. Working in obscurity, under strict rules of engagement (with stricter punishments should something go awry), demons are the real power behind London’s elite.

Nathaniel is six when he is torn away from his birth parents and sent to live with his new master, another magician.

As in many fantasy novels, the power of naming plays an important role here. Demons are summoned with the knowledge of their real names. If you know the demon’s real name, you can control them. Similarly, if a demon learns the true name of a magician (in this case their given name) the demon has the same level of control. No magician knows their true name in order to avoid just that kind of problem.

By the age of eleven, Nathaniel has adjusted to his life as an apprentice and eagerly anticipates two events: the day when he will pick his name as a magician, and the day he will become a great magician, like his idol William Gladstone, remembered by all. Nathaniel does choose his name in due time, but his dream of greatness, is put into serious question when Simon Lovelace, a prestigious magician, publicly humiliates Nathaniel.

Enraged, Nathaniel bides his time learning spells and waiting until the day he will be ready to exact revenge. Enter Bartimaeus, the novel’s other main character, and a djinni with a fondness for footnotes in his first-person narration. Initially summoned as an instrument of revenge, Nathaniel soon learns that Bartimaeus is not easily contained.

When Nathaniel’s brilliant revenge becomes murder, espionage and conspiracy djinni and boy strike an uneasy detente to see if both of them can survive the machinations Bartimaeus has set in motion under Nathaniel’s orders.

The Amulet of Samarkand alternates viewpoints, sometimes being told in witty first-person by Bartimaeus (filled with references to his 5000 year career as a brilliant djinni), other times following Nathaniel in a third-person voice. Combined, the narrations make for an original fantasy that is witty and sharp.

More interesting, especially as the trilogy continues, is the dynamic between Nathaniel and Bartimaeus. While the djinni is more entertaining of the two, Nathaniel is often more compelling. Watching him mature from an innocent boy to a calculating magician in his own right, Stroud creates tension as readers are forced to wonder will Nathaniel be a villain or a hero by the end of the story?

Possible Pairings: The Demon Catchers of Milan by Kat Beyer, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, Rise of the Darklings by Paul Crilley, Exquisite Captive by Heather Demetrios, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, Death Note Tsugumi Ohba, Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, The Fire Artist by Daisy Whitney

Eragon: A Review

Eragon by Christopher PaoliniIn 2002 I was 16 and a sophomore in high school. I was the Manhattan finalist for a storytelling festival. I was writing, mostly poetry. The year before I had been named runner up in a contest held by the Poetry Society of America and had the poem I entered read on the radio. I used to feel pretty good about those accomplishments until I read Christopher Paolini’s bio on his first book.

In 2002 Christopher Paolini was 15 and a high school graduate. So, of course, the next obvious step was to write a novel. Which is why readers now have Eragon, the latest in a long line of dragon-centric fantasies (I just made that term up). This novel is the first in the Inheritance Trilogy. It was also made into a movie in 2006 that I enjoyed quite a bit even before I found its excellent tagline: “You are stronger than you realize. Wiser than you know. What was once your life is now your legend.”

The reason I mention the movie at all is because this is one of the only books I can think of where I saw the movie adaptation before I read the book. I really liked both and found it interesting to be motivated to read a book because of the movie. Before I review the book I just want to get this out of my system: Eragon was really good and I enjoyed it, but it did at times sound like it was written by a fifteen-year-old. I’m not saying that to be petty or because of sour grapes–I just really think that’s the case.

In addition to mentioning his age, Paolini’s back flap bio mentions that he has an abiding love of fantasy that subsequently motivated him to write his own fantasy novel. For that reason, Eragon owes an obvious debt to some of the fantasy big shots. Like Tamora Pierce’s books (and Gail Carson Levine’s), this one has a medieval-esque setting. The most obvious similarities that I noticed lie between this book and Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books (and The Hobbit too). Obviously, then, if you like those books you will like Eragon. At the same time, though, these similarities did leave me wishing there were more “acceptable” ways to write a fantasy setting. Maybe that’s me.

More than an event book where events are central to the plot and the story moves from event to event, this is a journey book. Stuff happens, but most of the novel is spent traveling. In a sense, the entire book is a journey to the end which I assume leads to more revelations which will be found in the second book in the trilogy.

The book’s journey starts with its title character, Eragon, a fifteen-year-old youth living in a rural town in the land of Alagaesia. Once a place of glory where dragons and their riders kept peace across the country, the Empire is now ruled by a cruel king called Galbatorix. Such concerns are far from Eragon’s daily concerns though. Living with his uncle and cousin, Eragon’s days are spent helping his family farm their land and prepare for winter.

All of that changes when Eragon returns from a hunting trip with a mysterious stone. Soon enough, he realizes the stone is actually an egg. A dragon egg. The presence of this new dragon will not only change the course of Eragon’s life but also the path of the entire Empire. Thus Eragon is set on a new path with only his dragon, an old storyteller and a mysterious sword to help him find his way.

And that, really, is what this book is about: Eragon finding his way as he learns what being a Rider, and dare I say being a hero, really means. One of the subtler things I liked about the writing is that when Paolini begins this story, his protagonist is clearly a boy even if by Alagaesian standards he’s only a year from manhood. By the end of the novel, though, Eragon is a man. The writing changes subtly to reflect this important change from beginning to end.

Eragon is literally finding his way too–the novel features a lot of long, perilous journeys and long, dangerous battles. All of which were good to read but did leave me burnt out when I finally made my way to the end of my paperback copy (on page 497). Sometimes it’s just surprising how long it can take to read a long book.

For fear of providing accidental spoilers, that’s really all I have to say. Once I got over the fact that I did not graduate high school at fifteen or write a novel, the book was not at all depressing. Eragon features some great characters (Brom to name one) and some of the scariest villains seen in recent fantasies. I have high hopes for the next installment in the trilogy once I get my hands on it.

Possible Pairings: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey, Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Eyre Affair: Looking at literature from the inside out

The Eyre Affair by Jasper FfordeJasper Fforde (with two F’s, really) is a superstar in the world of contemporary literature. The Eyre Affair (2003) is the first in Fforde’s series of Thursday Next novels which, with the release of Thursday Next: First Among Sequels last year, recently came back from a publishing hiatus. My general opinion is that anyone who reads books in English should pick up a copy. The book’s refusal to fit neatly into one genre (I’ve seen it catalogued as sci-fi, mystery, general fiction, and young adult fiction) supports my feeling that The Eyre Affair has something for everyone. (Find it on Bookshop.)

The novel is narrated by a woman named Thursday Next who lives in England. The year is 1985. But Thursday’s England is not one that many readers will recognize. To name but a few differences: Cloning has been viable since the 1970s when home cloning kits for Dodo’s were released, cheese is illegal, and Wales is still an independent republic.

Law enforcement in Fforde’s novel also takes a unique turn with the Special Operations Network that was created to “handle policing duties considered either too unusual or too specialized to be tackled by the regular force.” There are thirty departments in the network ranging from SO-12—a unit called the ChronoGuard that polices time travel and “chronuption” while trying to maintain the Standard History Eventline—to SO-27: the Literary Detectives who have to deal with problems like Baconians who preach that Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays along with more mundane problems like “illegal traders, copyright infringements and fraud.”

Thursday Next is a Literary Detective.

The real problems for our intrepid heroine start when Archeron Hades (the third most wanted criminal in the world) begins kidnapping characters from great literary works. When Jane Eyre disappears from the pages of her novel, thereby leaving it unreadable, the pressure is on to rescue her before one of England’s greatest novels is destroyed forever.

As that summary might suggest, Fforde packs a lot into this tome (the hardcover runs 374 pages). The beauty of all of The Eyre Affair is that he makes it look so easy. The Thursday Next novels work together with a dynamic almost unheard of in other contemporary series as Fforde seamlessly connects plot points and refers back to past events between novels to create a tight, engaging narrative that remains entertaining long after the first read.

Furthermore, Fforde isn’t afraid to have a little fun. Everything is up for grabs in this novel where vampires, time travel, and literature all play their part in the narrative. Fforde also takes known historical and literary facts and turns them upside down (as with Wales not being a part of the United Kingdom). It sounds like this tinkering would make the book confusing for readers without the proper background, but it really doesn’t. Some of the story’s subtleties might be lost but the main story doesn’t suffer in the least.

Part of the allure of The Eyre Affair and the rest of the series is that Fforde asks the hard questions about literature. Later novels look at the writing and reading process in such an inventive way that the adjective “mind-blowing” is a justified description. At the same time, Fforde looks at plot points in classic novels like Jane Eyre and tries to explain the reason behind the strange bits such as Jane and Rochester’s fortuitous reunion at the end of the story—often with the help of the characters in question. (Jane Eyre and Rochester both make appearances here.)

In the world of novels, this one is something completely new combining satire, sci-fi, mystery, and a touch of pop culture to create a book like no other. Fforde uses clear, succinct language to create an utterly convincing alternate England that readers will want to visit again and again (don’t worry, the series has five more novels with the promise of more to come).

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Geek Fantasy Novel by E. Archer, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon, Ibid: A Life by Mark Dunn, Kind of a Big Deal by Shannon Hale, My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows; Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, Or What You Will by Jo Walton, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Alice, I Think: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Alice, I Think by Susan JubyAlice, I Think (2003) is Susan Juby’s first novel. It is also the start of her Alice series (not to be confused with Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice series). Before going into the details of plot and why I love this book, I want to address some of the issues I saw in negative reviews by saying this: The book is fiction and it is in the vein of satire. Juby uses hyperbole, sarcasm, and caustic wit to create this story. That doesn’t always create realistic situations or accurate portrayals of “real” people. But it does create a good novel. As long as readers go into this novel with what the film industry would call a willing suspension of disbelief, I genuinely believe most of them will be able to find something to like about this book. So, why am I saying all of that? Because Alice is awesome of course.

Alice MacLeod, our intrepid Canadian hero, read The Hobbit when she was very young. This led to a strong desire to attend her first day of school as a hobbit which is well and good creatively, but doesn’t work out so well in actuality. In fact it works out so badly, that Alice’s non-conformist parents decide to pull her out of school and teach her themselves at home.

Flash forward to the present. Alice is fifteen and talking her new therapist Death Lord Bob at the Teens in Transition (not trouble) center in town. In a misguided attempt to cheer Bob up, Alice finds herself agreeing to return to “normal” school among but one of many items placed on a “Life Goals List.”

As Alice leaves the shelter of her home, she embarks on a search for a new haircut, new clothes, a boyfriend and lots of other things. These hunts lead to hilarity of a high degree along with not a little bit of mayhem. In the end, Alice comes out maybe a little worse for wear but no less enthusiastic about checking items off of her list in the future. As Susan Juby suggests on her newly designed website, Alice shows that sometimes oddballs make the best characters.

As I started reading, I was surprised that I liked Alice, I Think as much as I did. (Although I am not alone in my enthusiasm. The book inspired a Canadian TV series as well as the entire trilogy receiving heaps of praise and award nominations.) The novel is written in a diary style, which usually doesn’t appeal. But Juby handles the style creatively, not letting it limit Alice’s narration or how events are conveyed to the reader and, most importantly, Juby still includes lots of hilarious dialogue.

Juby’s characters are also amazingly handled. Yes, a lot of them might sound more like cartoons than true-to-life people. But that’s okay. In a novel this funny, a lot of things have a cartoonish exuberance to them. Aside from that, the characters are endearing no matter how silly they might be.

As Alice works through the issues inherent to starting at a new school and tries to find new friends, readers watch her simultaneously learn how better to engage with the world at large (a revolution that continues in this novel’s two sequels Miss Smithers and Alice MacLeod: Realist at Last). Then there’s the fact that it’s literally a laugh out loud funny book. Definitely worth a look for anyone who wants a good, funny, entertaining novel.

Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen, Skinny by Donna Crooner, Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks, The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow, Bad Kitty by Michele Jaffe, Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson, Don’t Expect Magic by Kathy McCullough,  I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, Define “Normal” by Julie Anne Peters, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee

The Namesake: A Review

The Namesake by Jhumpa LahiriYou’ve heard this story before. Junot Diaz, Julia Alvarez, Anzia Yezierska, and Edwidge Danticat are just a few of the authors who have told their own versions. The story they all have in common: The immigrant experience in the United States. Each of the above authors tackles this subject from a different enthnographic perspective, but the pull between the old (native) culture and the new (immigrant) one is always present.

Pulitzer prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri adds to this conversation with The Namesake (2003) the epic story of the Ganguli family’s arrival and assimilation into the world of the United States.

Find it on Bookshop.

The story begins when Ashoke and his wife (of an arranged marriage), Ashima, come to Massachusetts where Ashoke is a graduate student at MIT. The year is 1968. At the beginning of the novel Ashima is pregnant with her first child, a son.

In Bengali culture, it is common for people to have a formal name and a pet name (nickname). Ashoke has no problem coming up with a nickname for their son: Gogol. Unfortunately, due to a variety of mishaps and misunderstandings, the formal name proves harder to settle on and even harder to enforce. So Gogol Ganguli grows up with only a pet name–one that is not American, or Indian, or a first name.

No one really cares that Gogol’s name is so unique, except Gogol whose anxiety over his name is bothersome enough that no external taunts are necessary. Gogol eventually resolves to rename himself, but not after learning the life-changing story that inspired his father give Gogol his name in the first place.

Despite the vast period Lahiri writes about, the novel’s focus remains narrowly focused on the characters, especially Ashima and her son. Despite the authenticity that Lahiri brings to her main characters, certain scenes remain naggingly artificial–feeling simultaneously improbable and contrived.

Lahiri’s writing here (I’ve yet to read her short stories) is beautiful without being pretentious or overly self-aware. The story feels authentic and compelling despite the fact that so many of the cultural references remain worlds away.

Even more interesting is the fact that I enjoyed almost the entire novel despite having a strong dislike of Gogol and several of the secondary characters. (I’d say more about what this means in terms of the writing style/skill but I still haven’t figured out how that happened.) Despite my misgivings throughout the novel, Gogol does work toward redeeming himself by the end of the story.

Regardless of my nitpicks, The Namesake remains a must for anyone interested in the immigrant experience in America. Lahiri’s narrative hearkens back to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex which has a similar scope, tracing three generation’s relationship with Detroit.

The Namesake deals with common themes but, as any good book should, Lahiri makes these subjects new and original with her unique characters and wonderful writing.

Possible Pairings: The Secret Side of Empty by Maria E. Andreu, Drown by Junot Diaz, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, A Step From Heaven by An Na, The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan, The Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska