One-Minute Book Reviews

July 26, 2010

Wendy Holden’s Novel ‘Beautiful People’ — Trouble in Tuscany

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Beautiful People. By Wendy Holden. Sourcebooks Landmark, 420 pp., $14.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Wendy Holden’s ninth novel shows little of the satirical verve on display in her Farm Fatale and Bad Heir Day, both as fizzy and delicious as a Kir Royale. Beautiful People resembles a conventional wine from the Tuscan hills, the setting for the working-out of the romantic and professional dilemmas of its three heroines – a kind Yorkshire-bred nanny, a London-based actress from a theatrical dynasty similar to the Redgraves, and an apparently American film star whose career is tanking.

Holden serves up few savory bits for star-gazers in this international romp: Did you know that Madonna has outwitted paparazzi by wearing the same black tracksuit for three years while jogging to “make the pictures look the same as they had for the last three years and render the image unsellable”? Or that David Bowie hides in plain sight on the Underground by wearing cheap sunglasses and reading a Turkish newspaper?

But Holden drags her plot sideways by beginning her novel with a chapter on sub-lead characters, and she never quite gets it back on a fast, straight track. And even the keenest fans of her much-admired gift for wordplay may wonder: Did she really intend have two characters whose names are variations on the word “cockroach”?

Best line: “Mitch still had no idea why Belle’s studio had imagined that a film about an uptight, pyromaniac, religious nutcase was a suitable vehicle for her.” This line comes closer than any other to having the over-the-top flair that made Holden’s early novels so appealing.

Worst line: No. 1: “It takes a lot of money to look that cheap.” If you’re going to reheat a line Dolly Parton has been using for years, if not decades, doesn’t she deserve a credit? No. 2: “there were iPod earphones curling around his neck.” In the U.S., they’re called ear buds. The term may be different in Britain, where Holden lives, but if not, anybody who is writing about style-setters needs to get details like this right.

Published: April 2010

Conflict alert: Sourcebooks published my second novel, Manhattan on the Rocks.

About the author: Holden lives in England, where her novels has appeared repeatedly on best-seller lists.

Read excerpts from Beautiful People and other novels by Holden.

Furthermore: A review of Holden’s entertaining Bad Heir Day appeared on this site Dec. 19, 2006, in a post that also had comments on her Farm Fatale and Simply Divine.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 20, 2010

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Tom Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’

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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Imperfectionists: A Novel
Tom Rachman
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Tom Rachman blends comedy and tragedy in The Imperfectionists, a collection of linked short stories about the staff members and others attached to an unnamed English-language newspaper in Rome. His idiosyncratic daily is trying to stay afloat in the digital age. But it has no website because, an editor says, “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.” Can such a journalistic throwback survive? Rachman withholds the answer until the last pages of a book that reads like a collection of smartly written parables about the human illusions that lie at the intersection of work and love.

Questions for Discussion:

1. The publisher of The Imperfectionists has billed the book as “a novel,” but it reads like a collection of linked short stories. Did the book work as a novel? Why or why not?

2. A character in The Imperfectionists expresses a theme of the book when she reflects that “living overseas changes the rules.” [Page 185] What did she mean? How has living abroad has changed the rules for some of the characters in the novel?

3. Another theme of the book is that human illusions persist in adulthood and that, to some extent, we need them. Rachman’s characters typically cling to a fantasy until jolted out of it (as happens to the corrections editor who believes that he and his old friend Jimmy are “gradations of the same man” until Jimmy visits and the editor realizes that they are “utterly different”). [Page 94] How well does Rachman develop this theme? Were you persuaded, for example, that the corrections editor would cling for so long to his fantasies about Jimmy’s writing talents? Or that the Paris correspondent could be so mistaken about his son?

4. How does living abroad feed the illusions of the characters in The Imperfectionists? Would its story have worked if Rachman had set the story in a city in the U.S.? Why?

5. The stop-and-go format of linked-story collections can work brilliantly, as it does in Winesburg, Ohio. It can also make it harder for an author to maintain a steady pace, because there’s a narrative break at the end of every story or chapter. (One critic said that “desultoriness … is only narrowly kept at bay” in The Impressionists.) How would you characterize the pace of the book?

6. One critic said that Rachman serves up “a procession of biscotti-cutter characters.” Do you agree or disagree?

7. Rachman combines comedy and tragedy, qualities that are often hard to unite in fiction. His story involves the death of child but also entertainingly hapless headlines such as “GLOBAL WARMING GOOD FOR ICE CREAMS” or “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.” How well did Rachman bring comedy and tragedy together in his book? Which characters or events seemed the most amusing and the saddest?

8. Why do you think Rachman set his first story in Paris when most of the rest of The Impressionists takes place in Rome?

9. Christopher Buckley praised the endings of Rachman’s stories in his New York Times Book Review review of The Impressionists, some of which have what’s often called an “O. Henry twist.” Which endings did you find most memorable? Why did they work?

10. Several other linked short story collections have had a lot of attention recently, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Olive Kitteridge. How does The Impressionists compare to any others you’ve read?

Your book group may also want to read:

And Then We Came to the End (Back Bay, 2008, paperback) by Joshua Ferris. D. J. Taylor wrote in a Guardian review that The Imperfectionists has a “faint yet persistent resemblance” to Ferris’s novel, “much of whose obliquity and ground-down communal spirit it shares.”

Vital statistics:

The Imperfectionists: A Novel. By Tom Rachman. Dial Press, 272 pp., $25. Published: April 2010. Editor: Susan Kamil.

A review of The Imperfectionists appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on July 20, 2010.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to publishers’ guides and are intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she writes about books and often comments on book clubs.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 30, 2010

A Review of Dana Reinhardt’s Young-Adult Novel, ‘The Things a Brother Knows,’ From the Editor of the 2010 Newbery Medalist — Coming Soon

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Rebecca Stead won the 2010 Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me, edited by Wendy Lamb, who has her own imprint at Random House. In September Lamb will publish Dana Reinhardt’s The Things a Brother Knows, a young-adult novel about a 17-year-old boy whose older brother acts oddly after returning from deployment with the Marines in a combat zone. Reinhardt says he wrote the book after hearing mothers talk about sons who “came home different” from war. That made him think about the son who didn’t go: “the one who maybe thought that what his brother had chosen to do was a big mistake.” A review of The Things A Brother Knows will appear soon on this site, which reviews children’s books on Saturdays. Jacqueline Woodson dealt with a similar topic in her novel for preteens, Peace, Locomotion, the story of a boy whose foster brother returns from war missing a leg.

February 25, 2010

Complete List of 2010 Delete Key Awards Finalists

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The finalists for the 2010 Delete Key Awards for bad writing in books are:

THE ACCIDENTAL BILLIONAIRES (Doubleday) by Ben Mezrich.

BIG MAN (Grand Central) by Clarence Clemons and Don Reo.

FINGER LICKIN’ FIFTEEN (St. Martin’s) by Janet Evanovich.

GOING ROGUE (Harper) by Sarah Palin.

IT SUCKED AND THEN I CRIED (Simon Spotlight) by Heather Armstrong.

THE LOST SYMBOL (Doubleday) by Dan Brown. 

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (Quirk) by Seth Grahame-Smith.

PYGMY (Doubleday) by Chuck Palahniuk.

STORIES FROM CANDYLAND (St. Martin’s) by Candy Spelling, and MOMMYWOOD (Simon Spotlight) by Tori Spelling (tie).

THE WHOLE TRUTH (Vision/Hachette) by David Baldacci.

Honorable Mention: MENNONITE IN A LITTLE BLACK DRESS (Holt) by Rhoda Janzen.

You can read the shortlisted passage from  a book by clicking on the title on the list above. The Delete Key Awards winner and runners-up will be announced on March 15. If you would like to try to lobby for or against a title, please leave a comment on this post or any of the posts linked to on the shortlist.

Fourth Annual Delete Key Awards Shortlist in 15 Minutes

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One-Minute Book Reviews will begin to announce the finalists for the Fourth Annual Delete Key Awards for bad writing in books in about 15 minutes.

These literary booby prizes do not recognize the year’s “worst books” but give examples of many kinds of bad writing found in books published in hardcover or paperback in 2009: clichés, bad grammar, pomposity, dumbing-down, purple prose and more.

The 10 Delete Key Awards finalists will be announced in random order today, beginning with No. 10, but numbered for convenience.  The winner and runners-up will be announced on March 15 because Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, and the winners assassinate the English language.

February 24, 2010

Finalists for the Delete Key Awards for Bad Writing in Books — Tomorrow Starting at 10 a.m. ET

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How badly can you write and still get a book published in America? Find out tomorrow when the shortlist for the Fourth Annual Delete Key Awards for bad writing in books is announced on One-Minute Book Reviews starting at 10 a.m. Eastern Time. These literary booby prizes do not honor the year’s worst books but badly written sentences, paragraphs or passages, which will be posted with the shortlist. The awards recognize defects such as clichés, bad grammar, psychobabble, redundancy, pomposity, dumbing-down or overall inanity.

The Delete Key Awards grand-prize winner and runners up will be announced on March 15, and until then, you may vote for or against candidates leaving comments on their nomination on this site. You can also read about the awards at @janiceharayda on Twitter.

February 22, 2010

David Baldacci’s ‘The Whole Truth,’ a Thriller That Hits You ‘Like a Molten-Lava Tsunami’

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A profiteering arms dealer hopes to launch a new Cold War in a bestselling international thriller

The Whole Truth. By David Baldacci. Hachette/Vision, 530 pp., $9.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Discouraged by those dismal stats counts, bloggers? Take heart. You actually have enough clout to push global superpowers to the brink of World War III. Or so David Baldacci suggests in The Whole Truth, a novel that reheats the conventions of the Cold War thriller for the age of viral posts and “perception management.”

Conflicts in the Middle East are too puny to satisfy the megalomaniac ambitions of arms dealer Nicholas Creel in the post-9/11 era. So he hires a perception-management (PM) expert to start a global crisis that will bring in enough weapons contracts to keep his yacht afloat off the coast of Italy in perpetuity. Creel’s point man ignites the tension by planting on the Web a video — purporting to describe Russian atrocities — that goes viral. Fears of a new Red Menace grow when 28 people are killed at a London think tank, apparently by Russian assassins. Evidence found on a hard drive at their office implicates China in the propaganda campaign against its Asian neighbor.

As Armageddon looms, two people stand up to Creel and his scheme: a rogue security agent who uses the single name of Shaw and a washed-up reporter, Katie James. They fight him with the help of high-tech gizmos and near-superhuman feats: surviving car chases, leaping from a second-story window, dodging a syringe full of tetrodotoxin, “over a thousand times more lethal than cyanide.” 

All of it makes for a cynical tale despite Baldacci’s efforts to cast Shaw as a softie for a dead woman he loved. The Whole Truth has none of the patriotism that flavors the novels of Tom Clancy and other literary jingoists. Its writing is at times graceless and clichéd, if taut and well-paced. And Katie is one of the least credible female journalists in recent pop fiction – someone who, after two Pulitzers, doesn’t know that reporters speak of wanting their stories on “page one,” not on the “front page.”

But The Whole Truth has a big and timely idea behind it: Sometimes perceptions don’t affect reality — they become reality. And Baldacci makes his case for that view without the bluster and infestation of acronyms found in the work Clancy and many others. He also offers an interesting afterword on perception managers. “PMs are not spin doctors because they don’t spin facts,” Baldacci writes. “They create facts and then sell them to the world as truth.” He may exaggerate the perception-managers’ powers, but he’s right when he says that “a major untruth can be established so quickly and so overwhelmingly across the world” that no after-the-fact reporting can make most people believe it isn’t true: “And that’s precisely what makes it so dangerous.”

Best line: On Amsterdam’s Oude Kirk, or Old Church, the city’s oldest house of worship: “Shaw had been inside a few times. What had struck him was the series of carvings on the choir benches depicting men having massive bowel movements.”

Worst line: No. 1: “To say that this hit the earth like a molten-lava tsunami would have been the grossest of understatements.” No. 2: “Just like war, the Americans did not have a monopoly on self-serving politicians.” No. 3: “Much like the treatment of the Russians, few believed their denials.” No. 4: “on the frozen tundra.” No. 5: ” … she was now currently living in London …” 

Published: April 2008 (hardcover), February 2009 (paperback).

Furthermore: Baldacci has written more than a dozen other novels, including Absolute Power. His publisher says that the The Whole Truth, a No. 1 bestseller, is his “first international thriller.”

Janice Harayda is a novelist, award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can also follow her on Twitter (@janiceharayda). She satirizes American literary culture on her Fake Book News page (@FakeBookNews) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 21, 2009

Lorrie Moore’s ‘A Gate at the Stairs’ – What Color is Your 9/11 Novel?

Heard about the man who said after sex, “That was one for the scrapbook!”?

A GATE AT THE STAIRS: A NOVEL. By Lorrie Moore. Knopf, 321 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

At the recent 35th anniversary party for the National Book Critics Circle, I spoke with a critic I admire, who said he found A Gate at the Stairs “really annoying.” I avoid self-referential words like “annoying” in reviews, but his comment tells you something. For all of its appearances on “Best of 2009” lists, this novel is – at best – an acquired taste.

Lorrie Moore is a witty and intelligent writer who has a distinctive style and a gift for close observation of modern life – all of which, in theory, ought to endear her to every serious reader. But she resembles the more talented John Updike, whose early short stories were his best work: She’s a miniaturist whose fine-grained brush works against the large canvas of a dense novel of more than 300 pages. In A Gate at the Stairs, all of her virtues don’t enable her to create believable characters or a satisfying plot.

It’s not that she doesn’t try to adjust her scale. Far from it: Moore strains to develop a big theme: the devastating effects of the everyday carelessness that results from national, familial, or individual complacency. This is a novel is about the big risks Americans take while going to absurd lengths to avoid small ones – a trait embodied by a character who seriously neglects a child while baking library books “to get rid of the germs.”

Tassie Keltjin is a potato farmer’s daughter and 20-year-old university student in a town that styles itself as “the Athens of the Midwest” when, just after the attacks of 2001, she finds her first boyfriend and a job as a part-time nanny for a callow professional couple who are adopting a mixed-race child. Her sheltered upbringing doesn’t allow her to see quickly enough that neither the man she loves nor her employers are who they appear to be. And Tassie’s fate represents in microcosm that of the country: She’s caught off guard, just as the nation was on Sept. 11.

This is a promising set-up, but Moore aims to do more than describe an upheaval in her narrator’s life. She adds broad social commentary, particularly about adoption and race, that clashes with her natural instinct for humor, wordplay, and, at times, the cute. Until the last 50 or so pages, you don’t feel the interest in her plot or characters that you should: The big picture keeps getting lost amid the cleverness and intricate embroidery of small images.

This aspect of the novel shows up especially in Moore’s promiscuous use of color, which makes you wonder if she’s spent too much time poring over a Sherwin-Williams catalog. She tells you colors that are unilluminating – that a man’s sweater was green, for example, when it doesn’t much matter whether it was green or blue, or that a casket was “cognac-colored” when most caskets are “cognac”-colored. She tells you colors that are redundant or confusing – that someone’s gums were “the pale lox pink of a winter tomato.” Why not just “pale lox pink”? Doesn’t she trust you to know the color of lox unless she mentions the tomato? And she tells you colors that are all of those things, and distracting, too. A dead soldier laid-out in church wears combat fatigues that were “part pine, part portabella, part parsley.” Moore may intend that sentence satirically: A character in the novel says that levity eases the pain of difficult subjects. But so many of the characters use humor as a shield that in this way and others, they often sound more like stand-ins for Moore instead of themselves. Tassie comes from a town so small she has never seen a man wear a tie with jeans, as a lecturer at her university does. Yet she repeatedly uses tropes such as “I feared” instead of “I was afraid” and knows that in England “every desert was called a pudding even if it was a cake,” which you don’t believe she got from a British-lit course.

A Gate at the Stairs has many amusing lines, including a comment made by Tassie’s employer, Sarah Brink, about her husband, Edward Thornwood: “He can’t do relationships. Can’t do acquaintanceships. He can’t do people at all. In fact, really he should just staff off mass transit!” And some of its bright lines offer insights into how Americans view adoption and other subjects. But a great novel is more than the sum of its parts. And A Gate at the Stairs is less memorable for its overall impact than for one-liners such as a comment Tassie’s boyfriend makes after sex, “That was one for the scrapbook!”

Best line: “To live in New York you have to have won the lottery and your parents have to have won the lottery and everyone has to have invested wisely.” — Sarah Brink

Worst line: No. 1: “We found a metal-edged diner, went in, and sat at the counter side-by-side, letting our coats fall off our shoulders and dangle from the stools, anchored by our sitting butts.” No. 2: Tassie says of writing songs with her roommate, Murph: “Murph liked our collaborations better than such lone efforts by me as ‘Dog-Doo Done Up as Chocolates for My Brother,’ and we seemed best on the rocking ones like, like ‘Summer Evening Lunch Meat,’ a song we had written combining the most beautiful phrase in English with the ugliest, and therefore summing up our thoughts on love.” No. 3: Then there’s that description of the colors of a dead soldier’s combat fatigues quoted above: “part pine, part portabella, part parsley.”

Editor: Victoria Wilson

Published: September 2009

Furthermore: Moore is Delmore Schwartz Professor of the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 8, 2009

At Last, Someone Is Naming the WORST Books of the Decade

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Which Mitch Albom novel are YOU going to nominate?: The Guardian is asking for suggestions for the worst books of decade. If you need ideas, you might want to look at the lists of the winners of the Delete Key Awards given out annually on One-Minute Book Reviews.

October 14, 2009

Complete List of 2009 National Book Award Finalists for Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry and Young People’s Literature

Here is the complete list of finalists for the 2009 National Book Awards. You can learn more about the books and authors on the shortlist by visiting on the site for the prizes:

FICTION

Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

NONFICTION

David M. Carroll, Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Sean B. Carroll, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt)
Adrienne Mayor, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy (Princeton University Press)
T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
(Alfred A. Knopf)

POETRY

Rae Armantrout, Versed (Wesleyan University Press)
Ann Lauterbach, Or to Begin Again (Viking Penguin)
Carl Phillips, Speak Low (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon: Open Interval (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Keith Waldrop: Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (University of California Press)
T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
(Alfred A. Knopf)

YOUNG PEOPLE’S LITERATURE

Deborah Heiligman, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Henry Holt)
Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
David Small, Stitches (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Laini Taylor, Lips Touch: Three Times (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic)
Rita Williams-Garcia, Jumped (HarperTeen, HarperCollins)

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