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Tag: Shelf Life Book Club (1-10 of 10)

Keith Richards' memoir 'Life': The Next EW Shelf Life Book Club pick

keith-richards-lifeThe book club took a little hiatus, but we’re back! First up for discussion — this Friday,  Nov. 19 —  is Keith Richards’ autobiography Life. And then, on December 10, check back for a discussion on Allie Condie’s Matched, the novel being touted as the next Hunger Games.

Michael Connelly's 'The Reversal': The Shelf Life Book Club

michael-connelly-the-reversalLet me start this entry by saying that I’m a huge Michael Connelly fan — I think I’ve read everything he’s published (and have a shelf full of grubby, well-thumbed paperbacks at home to prove it). His are the best hard-boiled cop novels in the business.

But. But. I didn’t love last year’s Nine Dragons, and our reviewer Jennifer Reese didn’t either. It read like a rush job to me, as if Connelly just cranked the novel out to meet a deadline. I missed his usual crackling dialogue, his deft hand at marshalling a complicated plot. (And I was really rankled at  the fate of one of the recurring minor characters, which struck me as purely a cheap, attention-getting device). But anyway — we’re not here to pick apart Nine Dragons. And besides, every author has ups and downs.

But given Nine Dragons, I approached The Reversal with trepidation, especially since it combines Connelly’s two trademark characters: the crabby, difficult LAPD detective Hieronymous Bosch (known just as Bosch) and his half-brother, flashy, a little-too-smooth defense attorney Mickey Haller. (The Mickey Haller novel The Lincoln Lawyer is without peer in the legal thriller genre, in my opinion.)

The premise of The Reversal grabbed me: After 24 years, a convicted child murderer is given a new trial on the basis of DNA evidence. The Los Angeles DA wants to hire Haller as a one-time special prosecutor, saying they can’t handle the case themselves because it’s “tainted.” And they want Bosch on the case, too. That makes sense to me, since Bosch has staked his reputation on solving cold cases. But Haller “fit in as well at the DA’s office about as well as a cat did at the dog pound,” as Connelly says. Anyone besides me find the very premise of the book a bit strained? I just don’t but the temporary marriage of Haller and the DA. I think Connelly could have come up with a more graceful way to put these two together.

The case proceeds with Connellyesque twists and turns. But to me, the pace is a little halting. I was immediately thrown by the whole “alternating chapter” narrative, with Bosch telling one, then Haller, and so on. I think Connelly sort of is Bosch, and those chapters, to me, revive the Bosch of long-past books I loved so well, keenly observant, ascerbic, often downright unpleasant. Nothing gets past him –the man notices everything. In contrast, Connelly doesn’t seem quite so at home in Haller’s skin. Thoughts on this, anyone? I actually finished the book wishing that Bosch had narrated the whole thing, and that Haller had remained peripheral.

There’s a reason that can’t happen, though, and it’s because this is more of a legal thriller than a straight cop thriller. So what we have, in essence, is Bosch playing second fiddle, and that bothers me. Connelly has created these two indelible characters, and by throwing them together, he takes away something from each of them. I think they’re stronger standing on their own. Anyone else feel the same way? More specifically, does anyone prefer Haller over Bosch as a character?

I don’t want to give away what ultimately happens in the book, but I will say this: Other than the dual narrator issue, the big problem for me is that there isn’t much of a mystery in The Reversal. It’s all about procedure, both in and out of the courtroom. And frankly, the villain is practically pallid when compared to most of Connelly’s other baddies.

Our reviewer Thom Geier didn’t love The Reversal and gave it a B. I think I’d give it about the same, maybe a trifle lower.  (Though I’d give the dialogue an A, as always.) How about all of you? Weigh in — tell us how this book compared to past Connellys for you, whether you thought the pairing of the half-brothers worked  (or whether, like me, you thought Haller’s appointment to the case was ludicrous). And did the mystery itself work for you? I’m curious to know what you think.

Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's 'The Fall': Shelf Life Book Club

the-fall-del-toro-hoganThere are two sides to every vampire. The first is the sensual, sexual half; the one that plays off the implied innuendo of exchanging the ultimate bodily fluid: blood. Then there’s the beast, the animalistic predator with an insatiable thirst and no soul or moral qualms to get in the way of its instincts. Nearly all depictions of bloodsuckers fall somewhere along this spectrum. True Blood favors the sloppy, sloshy, they-may-be-dead-but-their-libidos-sure-aren’t version, and so does Twilight, although there the sex and fang-hickeys are replaced by doe-eyes and lip biting.

Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain reached for the other end, with a vision of vampirism as a horrifying parasite not unlike its depiction in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend or the more recent The Passage by Justin Cronin. Their creatures of the night, for the most part, don’t invite you into their castle for dinner or implore you, “Have more vine, it’s a vonderful vintage.” Rather, they’re more like the hinge-jawed monsters of del Toro’s Blade II: just out to kill. And where The Strain was the beginning of del Toro and Hogan’s reimagining of the Dracula mythos—a Boeing 777 subbing for the DemeterThe Fall picks up right where it left off.


Emma Donoghue's 'Room': The Shelf Life Book Club

If you’ve read Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel Room, you’ll want to talk about it: As many critics have pointed out, the book is nothing if not unsettling. I’ll admit right off the bat that I wasn’t as impressed by the novel as others have been, including Entertainment Weekly’s own reviewer, who pinned an A on it. But I was certainly transfixed by the first half of the book–so much so that maybe nothing Donoghue did in the second half could have satisfied me. Anyway, I’ll give you my thoughts, and then encourage you to let fly with your own. If you haven’t read Room yet, this is your last chance to jump ship before spoilers start rearing their heads. And do read it, by the way–it’s the rare book worth fighting over.

OK, so let’s talk about the tense, claustrophobic, extraordinary premise of the novel: A young mother is raising her 5-year-old boy, named Jack, in a single room. The boy knows nothing whatsoever about the outside world, and, in a technical feat that truly knocked me out, he narrates the novel. Early on, we don’t know why or how Ma and Jack wound up confined to a single room. I wondered–maybe hoped is a better word–that they lived in some futuristic, Margaret Atwood-y dystopia. But of course the backstory turns out to be much more grim and real and immediate: Ma has been imprisoned for years by a man who repeatedly rapes her. The man has impregnated twice. The first child did not survive. The second child is Jack, who sleeps (or tries to) in a wardrobe as his “father” returns to rape his mother regularly. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that, thanks to Donoghue’s extraordinary prose, all this is told in the most elliptical and poetic way imaginable. Otherwise, who could tear through pages filled with such horrors?

I loved that, as readers, we were essentially like Jack: we had no idea what the world outside the Room was like either, or whether or not we’d ever see it. For my money, Donoghue kept us locked indoors exactly as long as was bearable. I was ready to see what was out there, and of course I wanted to see Jack and his mom free. The scene where Jack’s mom tells him precisely how he can escape and get help–and the following sequence where he actually pulls it off–are riveting, and will play like gangbusters when the book’s adapted for a movie.

After the great escape, the novel sagged for me. I’ve read or seen plenty of wild-child stories, so Jack’s entry into society felt familiar and dreary. And nothing could make me believe that Jack’s mom would try to kill herself and leave him alone in the world. Nothing. I don’t know why Donoghue spent so many pages building a nuanced and lovely bond between mother and son if she only wanted to pull the rug out. The last criticism I’ll toss out there is that–while I respect that the author wanted to avoid an obligatory courtroom drama–she never really found an ending that matched the power and inventiveness of her novel’s opening. For me, the book began as an A, but ended as a B.  That leaves it at a B+, in my estimation.

Now, it’s your turn. So tell me: am I being too tough on Room? What’d you think of the second half of the novel? Is it too upsetting a book to recommend to friends, or is it cathartic? Were you as moved by the mother-son bound as I was? What other novels did it remind of you? And if you read this whole post but haven’t read the novel yet, does it sound like you want to?

Jonathan Franzen's 'Freedom': EW Shelf Life Book Club

In the month or so since Freedom has come out, it’s been obscured by all the baggage surrounding it: the hype, the reviews, the controversy, the whole Oprah thing. We’ve sort of lost sight of the novel itself, and that’s too bad. I don’t, like some reviewers, think it’s one of the best novels of the year (let alone the “novel of the century,” as one newspaper called it). To me it’s one of those big, old-fashioned novels, the kind you can really lose yourself in, the very opposite of the spare and bloodless kind of fiction so in style these days.

But. First things first. What I liked most about Freedom was Franzen’s ability to paint a portrait of a marriage. The opening pages–setting the stage, penciling in Walter and Patty Berglund in broad strokes that grow ever finer and more detailed–were, I thought, almost compulsively readable. I was sucked right in. But then Franzen did a couple of things that knocked the novel off its tracks for me.

First, he inserted that lonnnnggggggg autobiography Patty wrote at the behest of her therapist. I get why he did it; as readers, we need historical detail to place Patty in context. And at least it’s more creative than using a flashback, possibly the most tired & overworked literary element there is. But did the memoir throw anyone else for a loop? For one thing, it was written in that jarring (for me, anyway) third-person. And for another…I didn’t buy it. It didn’t sound like Patty we’d come to know in only a few short pages; it sounded like Franzen. (“Based on her inability to recall her state of consciousness in her first three years at college, the autobiographer suspects she simply didn’t have a state of consciousness.”) Thoughts?

After Patty’s memoir, Franzen gave, basically, third-person accounts of the marriage from three different people: Patty’s best friend Richard Katz; Walter and Patty’s son Joey; and finally, Walter himself. Okay, fine. So what’s missing here? Or, rather, who’s missing? I’d argue that it’s the one person who’s curiously absent from the entire book: Walter and Patty’s daughter Jessica. If you’re describing a marriage and a family through different viewpoints as Franzen is–and he’s going to a lot of trouble to do so–it seems odd, and wrong, to leave someone out. Anyone else agree? Or am I alone on this one?

About some of the other criticism heaped on Franzen, eh. I don’t mind that the novel is occasionally blowsy and overdone, or that a good hundred pages probably could have been whacked in the editing process. I loved the dialogue, the descriptions, the lush language. How about the rest of you? If you’ve finished Freedom, do you like it? How do you  think it compares to The Corrections? And please, weigh in on the issue of Patty’s memoir and Jessica’s omission from the plot. I’m curious to know what people think.

EW Shelf Life Book Club: 'Ape House'

Ape-House-by-Sara-GruenI can’t think of a single female friend who hasn’t read Water for Elephants. (I’m sure there are countless men out there who similarly fell for that rollicking tale of Depression era circus life but I’ve yet to ooh and ahh with one over my beloved Rosie.) Sara Gruen’s  novel was a delight, even if I had quibbles about a romance I thought demanded another 25 pages or so of development. So when I got my hands on Ape House, I tore through it in two nights.

The novel, about an enormously endearing family of bonobos apes and the humans who both advocate and endanger them, is quick, momentum-fueled read. Every single person I’ve spoken with about it, regardless of how much they enjoyed the novel as a whole, fell hardest for the bonobos themselves. Truth be told, some of the human characters in Ape House drove me nuts. John’s wife Amanda struck me as more tedious than sympathetic and his hand-wringing about having kids felt half-baked. The eeeee-vil reporter Cat was perhaps more caricature than character. I thought the book really came most alive when we were back in the room with the bonobos. Several Shelf Life readers wrote in with questions regarding Gruen’s affinity for animal characters, to which the author was gracious enough to respond.


Reminder: Shelf Life Book Club on Friday. Send your questions for author Sara Gruen!

Just a reminder that the Shelf Life Book Club meets again on Friday, this time to hash out Sara Gruen’s Ape House, the long-awaited follow-up to Water for Elephants (which is currently being made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson).Gruen will be answering some of your questions, so fire away. What is it you want to know–how she creates such compelling animal characters? what it’s like watching a beloved book get made into a movie? how you write a followup when your last book was such a success? Let me know!

Shelf Life Book Club: 'Ape House,' the new novel from 'Water for Elephants' author Sara Gruen

Given the positive feedback from the first installment of the book club–where we debated the merits of Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay–we’re moving forward. I heard from a lot of readers who thought that a weekly book club was simply too much, that given our busy lives no one has time to consume a book a week. We’re still going to have the club once every week or two, but to make it easier for everyone we’re going to do is post the book club schedule three or four weeks at a time. That way you can have plenty of advance notice and time to read.

So going forward, here’s where we stand:

Friday, September 24: Ape House, by Sara Gruen

Friday, October 1: Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Friday, October 8: Room, by Emma Donoghue

Most of you remember Gruen, whose 2006 novel Water for Elephants–the tale of a Depression-era circus–was a huge grass-roots hit, selling 2.9 million copies. (The movie version, starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, is now in post-production and due out next spring.) Though Ape House is the contemporary tale of a group of apes–bonobos–and their trainer, it has much the same feel as Water for Elephants, mostly because of Gruen’s ability to write animal characters that are as compelling (if not more compelling) than the humans who surround them.

So pick up a copy of Ape House, which goes on sale today, and come back on Sept. 24 for a rousing discussion of the book. But first things first: As part of the book club, Sara Gruen will be answering some of your questions. Is there anything you want to know from her? How she does her research, how she does chooses which animals to focus on, why it took her so long to write this novel? Tell us below.

EW Shelf Life Book Club: 'Mockingjay'

Like many of you, I’ve finished Mockingjay–tearing through it at top speed, just as I did The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. And I have to say that although I loved it, and thought it brought the whole trilogy to a perfect end, I know not everyone does. That’s what this book club will be about–not so much reviewing a particular book, but hashing it out, talking about things we liked and didn’t like, speculating on what an author really meant by a certain plot twist or development. I’m curious to know what all of you think.

So, with that in mind, here’s where I’m at, a few days after finishing Mockingjay. (Anyone who hasn’t finished the book, STOP HERE! There are SPOILERS below.)

There’s a lot out there in the media about the violence and brutality of the book. Sheryl Cotleur, who works for a California bookstore, wrote in an op-ed piece, “It seems to me [the books] go beyond the usual mayhem….Now we have not only children killing children, we have electrocution, drowning, burning, stabbing, being injected by virulent venom and more torture than I can recall in any young adult novel I’ve ever read.” For her part, Collins told Library Journal recently, “One of the reasons it’s important for me to write about war is I really think that the concept of war, the specifics of war, the nature of war, the ethical ambiguities of war are introduced too late to children. I think they can hear them, understand them, know about them, at a much younger age without being scared to death by the stories. It’s not comfortable for us to talk about, so we generally don’t talk about these issues with our kids. But I feel that if the whole concept of war were introduced to kids at an earlier age, we would have better dialogues going on about it, and we would have a fuller understanding.” She also says that she hopes readers will come away from the books with “questions about how elements of the books might be relevant in their own lives. And, if they’re disturbing, what they might do about them.” For my part, I think that yes, the brutality is graphic–it occasionally made me flinch–but I also think Collins would not have been able to make her point about the futility of war unless she described it honestly. And real war isn’t  guts and glory. It’s unspeakably horrible. People (often people you love) go out and kill other people.

So: your thoughts on the violence? Too much for the book? Were you ever bothered by Katniss’ ability to kill ruthlessly? How did you feel about the combat scenes?

I’m reading a lot–mostly on various blogs–about the outcome of the Katniss/Peeta/Gale love triangle. Some readers seem incredibly disappointed that Katniss ended up with Peeta, not Gale, and they think the book ended with a whimper. When I first read it, I thought it was a little flat. But it’s grown on me. For one thing, it’s realistic. In war, even the “winners” don’t really win; they’ve sacrificed so much and seen so much and lost so much. Both Katniss and Peeta are injured (both physically and emotionally) and worn down. In retrospect, Katniss’ quiet resignation in the final pages seems fitting to me. But let’s hear it: Who thought she should have ended up with Gale? Why? What did you all think of the ending itself?

Finally, taking the trilogy as a whole, I’m left not just with Collins’ powerful anti-war message but with an indelible image of Katniss in my head. I honestly think she’s a fictional character for the ages, that these books are going to be around for a long, long, time. You?

'Mockingjay,' by Suzanne Collins: Our first pick in the EW Shelf Life Book Club!

I’ve been wanting to do a book club on’s Shelf Life blog since it first launched. First, the fact that we’re here together means we share a love of books and enjoy reading and talking about them. But unlike the traditional book club forum, which requires being some place in-person at a designated time regardless of how we felt about the book, here on the Web, you can just skip (or defer) a discussion if you’re bogged down with work, family, Mad Men — or if you flat-out didn’t like what you read that week.

So how will the EW Shelf Life book club work? Each Tuesday we’ll assign a book. You’ll have a week to read it, and then we’ll meet back here the following Tuesday for a discussion — what we liked, what we didn’t, etc. We’ll pick them from a broad range of genres — thrillers, literary fiction, short stories, memoirs — and we’ll also periodically put a future selection to a vote, letting you, the readers, pick what book we tackle next. Some weeks we’ll have the selected book’s author join us, either by taking questions submitted ahead of time here on the blog, or by participating in a live chat discussion.

To kick things off, we’ll talk about Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay, which went on sale this morning. It’s a smart, brainy read that straddles the teen and adult fiction worlds, laced with the kinds of issues and questions that make for lively debate. And — maybe the most important of all — it’s just a great story. So crack open your copy of Mockingjay — like you haven’t already! — and join me here next Tuesday, Aug. 31. We won’t have Suzanne Collins (though we’ll mine from an interview we recently did with her) — but there’s still plenty to talk about. And let me know: What kinds of books would you like to see here?

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