Monday, September 22, 2014

The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell)

The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell's newest book, and that should be enough of a review to read it. I'm a big fan of his work, for all the reasons I'm about to tell you.

This book is about Holly Sykes, whom we meet in the 1980s. She's a teenager and she's dating a much-older man, who definitely loves her. Angry with her mother, who disapproves, she runs away to his house, convinced he'll take her in because they're true love. Unfortunately, he's lying in bed with Holly's best friend, so then she really runs away from home. After a strange hallucination, she finds out her younger brother Jacko, an eccentric, hyperintelligent child, has gone missing.

And then we jump forward into the next decade. This is the thing that everyone's buzzing about. The Bone Clocks is divided into six sections, each one jumping forward to the decade after the previous one. We start in the 1980s and finish in the near-future, and we track Holly through it all. Sometimes she's a main character and sometimes she isn't quite so central, sometimes appearing toward the end of a section. As her life progresses, we are also slowly learning more about a group that Holly calls the Radio People, a cabal of psychically-powerful immortals who are waging war with another group of similarly-endowed people.

I'm hesitant to say more, but like the other Mitchell books I've read, the book is less about plot and more about...well, everything. He's really a great writer. I think people sometimes get too caught up in his metafictiveness, in the interconnectivity of his novels (which is only as annoying as you let it get--I've seen several reviews that bash the author for trying too hard to make his novels all part of the same world, but I was never once bothered by it; the more you focus on it, the more frustrated you might feel, but if you let it feel organic, you won't even notice), and in his penchant for telling stories innovatively. People praise him for his to perform unending narrative acrobatics. Of course, these are all reasons to love Mitchell, to shout his names from the rooftops, but it's important to acknowledge his talent in telling every one of his tales so precisely, so perfectly.

This book is, in terms of setting, all over the place. '90s Switzerland, 2000s Iraq, a futuristic Ireland after the world has started to fall apart. The narrators are all kinds of people: a sociopathic young man, war reporters, a self-centered writer (and Martin Amis parody?). Never once are these novellas unconvincing. Mitchell slips into each voice fully, devotedly, believably. as if every perspective were his own that he has spent his whole life living. It's dazzling to have him throw an entirely new scenario at us and watch it unfold rapidly and credibly. These novellas are populated with a wide array of characters, and not once do they descend into painful, boring stereotypes.  It's fascinating, and clearly not something every writer is capable of.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Whispering Skull (Jonathan Stroud)

Thanks to NetGalley for an advance review copy of this book in exchange for my unbiased review!

One of the things I truly, genuinely loathe in this world is "scary stuff." Movies about hauntings, demonic possessions, and the like have always really bothered me, partly because I know these things aren't real, that they don't actually happen, but despite that, I still get freaked out. I avoid the movies as best I can, spent high school avoiding Halloween parties because of everyone's desire to watch them. The year Paranormal Activity came out, I had trouble sleeping for three days after I overheard someone summarizing the movie. I still haven't seen it, but hearing about it was enough to leave me frightened.

So leave it to Jonathan Stroud to dish out exactly this thing I hate so much and make it--not just once, but twice--an engaging, carefully-constructed book that blew me away. Last year's The Screaming Staircase was one of the best books I read in 2013, and the word I used to characterize and define the book was "fun." I had no doubt that Stroud was going to be able to easily and masterfully sink back into this world for a second volume, and my lack of uncertainty was well-founded. It's a winner!

In the Lockwood & Co. books, we are living in a parallel world, one in which ghosts and hauntings are very much real, regular issues that people deal with. Adults aren't particularly sensitive to the phenomena--that is, they can't see or hear the ghosts--but they can be killed by them; only young people have a sixth sense for spectres and phantoms, and as a consequence, greedy adults have capitalized on their talents and formed agencies of youth who work diligently every night to eradicate ghosts. But our protagonist, Lucy Carlyle, doesn't belong to one of these groups; she is a member of the three-person company run by Anthony Lockwood (the other member is George Cubbins).

Six months after their adventures as detailed in book one, the company is called on to be present for an exhumation of the tomb of Edmund Bickerstaff, a doctor from a long time ago who developed a reputation for trying to communicate with the dead. A mysterious mirror that he was buried with--one that ensnares anyone who looks at it, and with dire consequences--disappears not long after they exhume him, so naturally, Lockwood & Co. are on the case hoping, to increase their notoriety.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Paying Guests (Sarah Waters)

Thanks to the Penguin First To Read program for the opportunity to read this book early in exchange for my unbiased review.

Historical fiction is, for me, a dangerous game. Too many times have I been sucked into books that force heavy amounts of period detail down your throat, prose that wants to emphasize that its setting is so different from the present that it hurts. There are references to contemporaneous culture and repeated descriptions of old technology or perhaps scientific understanding of the world that, while perhaps initially engaging or surprising, grows stale by the end of the novel.

I was nervous but intrigued by The Paying Guests, so I gave it a shot. It's set just after World War I, in England, which is a time period I don't feel has been written to death (like World War II has, for example). It's the story of Frances Wray and her mother, two women left heartbroken by the loss of the men in their family to war and illness. Because Frances' brothers and father are gone, she and her mother are struggling financially--their rather oversize house is too expensive for them to afford, but they don't want to get rid of it.

With no other options, she opens her home to renters, which she refers to as "paying guests," from which we derive the title and also an idea of some of the pride and class distinction Frances has. The lodgers she brings in are a married couple, Lilian and Leonard Barber, and though it is difficult for her and her mother to adjust, the Wrays begin to accept the Barbers as a part of their daily lives. But then Frances, a closeted-by-her-time-period lesbian, falls in love with Lilian, and that's when it all starts to get interesting.

The first thing I want to address is, of course, what I mention at the beginning of this review, the danger of historical fiction. Fortunately, oh so fortunately, The Paying Guests does not sink into the trap. There are details that contextualize us, but they're written so naturally into the story that I never once felt slapped in the face with authenticity. It's the small, day-to-day things: having to heat bath water, an outhouse in the backyard, a mid-20s woman being considered a spinster. The storyworld of Waters' book is very textured and realistic, but never gets in the way of the plot.

Speaking of which, what an intricately-spun tale! I am afraid of spoiling what lies in wait for anyone who reads the book, but suffice it to say that Frances' amorous feelings for Lilian really complicate their living situation. The novel starts as a fairly straightforward (but dazzlingly-told) story of unrequited, forbidden love, but in turn morphs into a suspense novel and then a legal thriller. It also serves as a fantastic meditation on guilt: should I feel guilty about my own feelings? What about the actions my feelings have pushed me toward? It is magnificent no matter what kind of tale it's trying to tell.

What really anchors the story is the characters, especially with regard to Lilian and Frances. They are beacons of what it really means to be well-written: they're complicated characters who grapple with their emotions and the constraints placed on them by society. Their interactions are incredibly emotionally evocative: at times I could feel the burning desire, the horror, the panic as though it were my own. It is truly marvelous.

The Paying Guests is a long book--nearly 600 pages--and my only criticism is that it would have been slightly pruned. There are sequences that drag, sequences that the book probably could have done without, but it's still a gorgeous work. If you love subtle historical fiction, Sarah Waters' newest is certainly a go.

My rating: 5/5
The Paying Guests on Goodreads
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Sunday, August 31, 2014

100 Sideways Miles (Andrew Smith)

Thanks to Edelweiss for the e-ARC of this novel in exchange for my unbiased review!

And thank goodness for Andrew Smith. Seriously. All of us ought to raise him to the heights as a new leader of YA fiction because his books have perpetually stunned me. I'm so lucky to get to read his books, and we're all so lucky to have him around.

100 Sideways Miles is about Finn Easton, who is in high school and on the baseball team and generally cool and normal. Except he has epilepsy. Because a horse fell on him. The same horse that killed his mom and broke his back. His best friend is Cade Hernandez, maybe the only guy who fully understands and accepts Finn, even with his seizures. Cade is known for his charm and constant talk about his own sexual arousal.

When Finn was young, his dad wrote a science fiction novel about human-devouring angels coming to our world, a novel that upset a lot of people, including Finn. Why? Because one of the important characters is named Finn, and he has the same-colored eyes, and the same scar on his back. It makes Finn feel like he's not a real person.

Julia Bishop moves to his school, located in one of the more remote areas of California, and he falls in love with her. She's beautiful and perfect and understanding--one of their first interactions is her taking care of Finn after a seizure strikes, which always leaves Finn embarrassed, angry, and rude. And despite that, she likes Finn, too. So they have a relationship and it's cute and nice but of course something comes up (and I won't tell you what it is, so read the darn book).

Out of the three Smith books I've read (and all in the same year!), this one feels the most like a YA novel. I don't mean that in a bad way, because of course Smith takes the idea of a standard YA novel and injects it with actual, real feelings. Specifically, I was reminded of a John Green book, except it was a good book and not something that felt formulaic and boring and manufactured. Imagine that! A YA novel that deals with love and embarrassment in a straightforward way: no characters spewing pretentious statements at every possible moment, no quirky details that make you want to stab your own eyeballs, and no bossy writer behind the pages cackling and saying "Cry, you ugly fools! Cry!"

The story is realistic, and perhaps that doesn't mean sound like a compliment, but I am amazed by how realistic the relationships are. Finn knows he's not being nice to his parents but it happens anyway. There are no signs of bratty, entitled teen nor controlling parent. It's wonderful! He knows that his relationship with Julia might not work out, and he likes her for real reasons in spite of the challenges a relationship like theirs faces. I hate books that feature characters that fall in love with one another instantly, and though it would never work out in real life, they are happy together forever (at least until the book ends). But Smith is better than that, and it shows.

There's something so uniquely enjoyable about an Andrew Smith novel. The stories he tells are crazy, but they never lose their grasp on the truth inherent in their narratives. That's what amazes me every time I read one of his books: they are drenched in truth but never preach it; the characters never open their mouths and recite aphorisms that make me gag.

My point: Andrew Smith rocks. Stop wasting your life and read his books.

My rating: 5/5
100 Sideways Miles on Goodreads
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Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Night Gardener (Jonathan Auxier)

In my continuing series of "books that people are excited about in 2014," I picked up The Night Gardener a few months ago. I hadn't yet read Auxier's previous novel, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, but then I did. I enjoyed it very much and looked forward to his second book with a strange amount of glee, especially because it sounded so weird and unsettling. Also, a shiny, silvery cover.

Molly and Kip are two kids from Ireland who are basically orphans--their parents have been indentured into piracy, or at least that's what Molly's saying--leaving Molly in charge of Kip, who has a lame leg. They take a job working as caretakers of an old English estate for the Windsor family, who, because of recent financial difficulties, have re-inhabited the abandoned home. The mansion is rundown, overgrown, and is maybe making the family sick. There's a mysterious figure that appears in the house at night, or so Molly thinks, and she's starting to feel very unsettled, especially because the Windsors are oddly attached to the old tree on the property.

The Night Gardener is a middle-grade fantasy that aims in a lot of directions and successfull hits all its targets. On the one hand, this story succeeds in being a creepy "estate horror" like The Turn of the Screw or (to a lesser extent) Rebecca; there are a few passages that are genuinely perturbing, which is a great demonstration of how in control Auxier is of his mood, atmospherics, and suspense writing. The descriptions of the Windsors growing ever more wan are quietly frightening, and the scenes featuring the titular Night Gardener read almost like the pages of a scary movie script.

In another direction, it's fabulistic--there's magic and wishes and consequences and lessons for everyone. It feels very much like a fairy tale, a gruesome one, one that teaches about being satisfied with what you have. I, of course, love the aesthetic, which Auxier once again nails; there's a story within our story about the tree on the Windsor estate, a pseudo-fable that is very thoughtfully arranged (by which I mean it reads like it's been around for centuries). The message of the story bleeds into the character's lives as they realize maybe they're part of the narrative, another element that adds to the creepy feeling of the book.

A common thread in the author's two books is its inclusion of characters with disability. Here, it's Kip, who has a severely twisted leg. The inner dialogue that Kip has about his own physicality is engaging and painful. This year has been a year where people push for diverse literature, and so it's refreshing to experience a middle-grade novel with a disabled character that isn't necessarily keen to remind us at every turn about his disability, but can have serious, sophisticated monologues about himself. Like every other character in The Night Gardener, Kip is very thoroughly dimensional. All these characters, just like us, are driven by their fears: never being seen as normal, never seeing our parents again, being powerless in the world. He belongs to a cast of characters that is fascinating and breathing.

But that's not all. The meditation that this book offers on stories and storytelling is delightful, too. Molly and Kip meet an old woman who has dedicated her life to collecting and telling stories, and it inspires Molly, a character we are told early on has an almost supernatural ability to persuade people through her fictionalized versions of reality. Auxier wants us to consider how powerful stories really can be, how they can not only represent the world but shape and alter it, depending on how we wield them.

The Night Gardener is a fantastic novel, one that really pushes and presses the reader to think. Auxier's writing always feels like it's expecting--perhaps even demanding--more from its readers than the average middle-grade book. The book feels stunningly adult, whatever that means. He never lets the plot be clouded with puerile ideas or writing, and that was very refreshing for me. It's lovely to see books that work for all ages, instead of working so hard to tailor themselves to one age group. This is is for certain a keeper.

My rating: 5/5
The Night Gardener on Goodreads
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Monday, August 11, 2014

California (Edan Lepucki)

Here's a book that garnered quick buzz and made me angry for staying hidden from my radar. Thanks, Stephen Colbert for messing with my understanding of book buzz, for it's he that pushed this novel into the spotlight and made me run out to the bookstore for it.

Cal and Frida are a couple living in the wilderness in a post-apocalyptic California. Earth has started to fall apart--extreme weather all over the United States, reduced resources, etc. The two options for survival are on your own, like them, or in very exclusive, expensive gated communities. Frida realizes that she's pregnant and, unhappy with the prospect of raising the child in their isolated woodland location, they leave their little house in the hopes of finding other people, perhaps a settlement, that can take them in and help them nurture their new life.

At first, I wasn't interested in reading California, because really how many literary dystopias can I read before I stab myself in the eyes, but I read the first few pages in Barnes & Noble and was drawn in by the Lepucki's gentle, soothing, eye-opening writing. The novel opens with Frida longingly examining artifiacts of life from before the big crisis, like her long-dead cellphone. One item she pays tribute to is an expensive, unused turkey baster: a soliloquy to a kitchen implement isn't by any means a common way to engage a reader, but it certainly was an effective one.

There is a phenomenon involving books that happens to me very rarely--it's the desire for the book to go in a different direction than the one it did. It actually happened earlier this year with The Flight of the Silvers, an action-y novel that decided to move toward one plot when I desperately wanted it to go in another. It's hard for me to talk about Lepucki's narrative choices because it would spoil the whole plot, and I try hard not to be a spoiler. Let's just say that Cal and Frida find a settlement and the book is mostly about their time at the settlement; I would have much more enjoyed a story about them wandering, I think.

The thing is, Lepucki is a great writer. The reason I stuck with her book is because her prose is just so good; most of my reviews don't bother mentioning the actual word stylings, but this author's is good enough to merit a mention. I'm not a big fan of characters spending paragraphs philosophizing, but she does such a great job writing their thoughts on the page that I actually enjoyed it. Her characterization is pretty stellar, too. Cal and Frida are flawed creatures forced into terrible, dire circumstances, but they are never grotesque caricatures. They feel very grounded, and though they did get on my nerves from time to time (Cal, shut up about what might have been!), even that felt authentic.

But it's hard for me to fully enjoy a book that, in terms of its storyline, frustrated and bored me. I wanted to know more about the world Cal and Frida lived in, and less about the one microcosm they encountered; if this had been more of an episodic novel, featuring our main characters moving from settlement to settlement, I would have been more pleased. And I know it's not fair for me to criticize a book for the author's choice in, of all things, plot, but I can't help it. There was a lot of potential here.

California is made up of some really good pieces (the writing oh my goodness), but it doesn't really add up for me.

My rating: 3/5
California on Goodreads
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Saturday, August 9, 2014

Nightingale's Nest (Nikki Loftin)

Little John Fischer's sister Raelynn died in a backyard tree-climbing accident and his family isn't doing well: mom is delusional, talking to and about the deceased member of the family all the time. She can barely leave the house and is almost always hysteric. Dad, who owns a tree and brush removal service, has started spending his meager paychecks on alcohol to drink away his despair; this leaves the Fischers in some dire straits financially speaking, and to compensate, John's dad makes him come to work with him.

The summer agenda: cutting down Azariah King's dying pecan trees. Mr. King is something of a celebrity, the owner of a chain of local dollar stores, and Little John's dad hates him but needs the money so reluctantly agrees to prune his property. Next door is the Cutlin family, notorious abusers of the foster care system; their latest child is Gayle, a very strange girl who watches Little John from the tree in their backyard.

The thing about Gayle is that she seems more bird than girl: she's frighteningly small, she clings to the (rotting) tree like it gives her life, and mostly importantly, she sings. But it's not an amateur, warbly voice. No, Gayle sings an enchanting song that has supernatural powers. It instills joy in nearby listeners and even heals a broken leg on a fawn, and once Little John hears it, he's hooked. So is Mr. King, and John can't help but feel that his desire to record Gayle's voice is somehow sinister.

So what did I think of the book? The reason I picked it up is because I heard it was based on a fairy tale, though I admit that prior to my reading Nightingale's Nest, I'd never come across Hans Christian Andersen's "The Nightingale" (and to be completely honest, I still haven't read the original). But since I was unfamiliar with it, I had to quickly throw any comparisons or expectations out the window, which was I suppose refreshing because for once I could judge the retelling only on its own merits.

In terms of the plot, there's a lot going on--it took me three paragraphs just to give the opening summary--and I'm not sure Loftin was able to keep a grip on all her disparate elements. The thing about the book that's most interesting (that is, the relationship between John and Gayle) is often put aside to pursue plotlines about John abandoning his friend Ernest after his sister's death or about his family's almost-eviction.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Jamaica Inn (Daphne du Maurier)

About one year ago, I became obsessed with Daphne du Maurier. I don't know why--I had owned a copy of Rebecca for a few years and got very excited about the prospect of reading it, so to celebrate how much I wanted to read it, I bought seven or eight of her other novels. It doesn't make sense, and I know that. But it happened. This summer, I decided to read another of her novels, and so into Jamaica Inn I went.

Mary Yellan is a farm girl. As her mother dies, Mary promises to live with her Aunt Patience and, hesitant to deny her mother's last wish, she goes off. She is warned by other travelers to stay way before she even arrives at Jamaica Inn, the establishment owned by Patience's husband, Joss Merlyn, and when she does get there, Mary is surprised to find her once-vibrant aunt more a shadow than a person. There's something going on with Joss, something that only happens at night in a locked room in the inn, and it may involve his equally sinister brother, Jem.

Here's the thing about Jamaica Inn--it's a suspense novel low on suspense. I take issue with that because the story relies on our shock and surprise to build the plot up, but I found myself less-than-engaged in finding out what was going on in the inn. The reveal of "something sinister" wasn't particularly exciting, either, and I'm not sure if that's because, living in 2014, I'm desensitized to the kind horror to be found in du Maurier's 1930s novel which takes place in the 1820s; there's also a "whodunnit" element that isn't surprising because crime and mystery novels have been around for long enough that making the guilty person someone who we'd "never suspect" is a tired, pretty transparent tactic.

But the crazy thing is, I still really liked the book. There's a lot of good going on for it: atmospherically, du Maurier hits it out of the park, just like she did in Rebecca. Things are spooky and weird and unsettling, and you feel that way because she wants you to feel that way. She's totally in control of how foreboding the inn seems, and she exercises her power over the reader frequently and always to good effect. There are scenes where Mary is wandering in the night and it's like every scary movie you can think of. Seriously, I was stunned.

Her characterization is equally potent: Joss truly is a terrifying figure, overpowering and vicious. Every conversation in which he participates feel overwhelming, unjust, and frightening. Mary is perfectly drawn as a resilient but out-of-her-league protagonist, like a determined candle that will not be burnt out. Without getting too comparative to Rebecca (which I just really loved, okay?), Mary Yellan is stronger protagonist than our unnamed narrator--she's more compelling and more forceful. Think a somewhat meeker Jane Eyre, and you've got this girl. And I really liked her; I surprised myself by how much I rooted for her.

It's a curious book. It feels dated but still frightening, boring in plot but still engrossing in all other respects. I found out that the BBC adapted it as a miniseries just this year, and I'm probably gonna check that out because I'm curious to see what sort of spooky they manage to conjure up. I would maybe even read it again! Who knows?

My rating: 4/5
Jamaica Inn on Goodreads
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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why We Broke Up (Daniel Handler)

Why We Broke Up is a book that I have thought about reading over and over--as soon as it came out, I was drawn in both by the author (I had never read something of his not written under a pseudonym) and the concept: the novel is a catalog of all the things held special in a relationship, explained one-by-one. It's the sort of book 16-year-old me would have bought and devoured immediately. I continually put it off (even after it won a Printz Honor!) because I saw a lot of lukewarm reviews

And then I took the plunge anyway. Min is 16 and basically a misfit--she loves classic films and thrift stores and genuinely doesn't understand or like basketball. But for some reason, Ed, the king jock, has begun to pursue Min...and she likes it. Their romance is whirlwind in the way that 16 year olds do, but we know even before we start the book that it's going to fall apart, so we buckle in and we watch.

I wasn't really a fan of Why We Broke Up. The most pressing issue with the book is just how annoying Min is; she constantly references classic movies, films that are not real, which frustrates me so much--there's no way we can possibly catch allusions to things that don't exist, so why bother? I might have been into the technique if I could watch the movies she's talking about, but no such luck. She's quirky and different but hates when people tell her so. Min loves coffee and she needs it and she loves this one out-of-the-way store that's only open one day a week in the early morning for a little bit.

What I mean is this: Handler has done such a good job writing in the voice of a high school hipster that it was as annoying as the real thing. Just like I wouldn't be able to be around someone like Min in my real life, I didn't want to be around her. So it's praise but also a problem. In the opposite direction, however, is Ed, who doesn't feel nearly so well-made. He's annoying to read about, but mostly because he doesn't seem to be more than a parody of a collection of stereotypes: he likes sports, he's dumb, he doesn't talk to girls who are smart, he's in it for sex. There's not much to work with in Ed.

As for the narrative gimmick...it gets old. There are a lot of items and quite a few very short stories that go with them. I would have liked to have seen "top ten things from our relationship and why" or something, because the vignette feel of so many objects is tiresome. There's a rubber band that Min uses in her hair, for example, and it's a tiny episode that I didn't want to read about. The strangest thing, however, is that the book doesn't need its crutch--if the book were just a straightforward narrative, it would function exactly the same way (and perhaps might have been a little less annoying).

So how do I sum this up? Why We Broke Up is a book that gets everything right about that time in your teenage years where you look back now and want to smack yourself for being so annoying, and it's not necessarily a pleasant experience. It relies heavily on a technique that wears thin rather quickly. But if you're 16, maybe you'll think it's the greatest thing. I don't know.

My rating: 3/5
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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Hundred-Year House (Rebecca Makkai)

This is one of those books I'm going to have difficulty describing, isn't it? And it's delightful that that's the case, really it is. I loved this book dearly, so thanks to NetGalley and Edelweiss for the opportunity to read it in exchange for an unbiased review.

Laurelfield is an estate in the Chicago area owned by the Devohrs, an illustrious Toronto family. At the beginning of the novel, in 1999, it's owned by Gracie, who has lived there for about forty years, and the servants' quarters are occupied by her daughter Zee and her husband Doug. Zee is a Marxist theory English professor and Doug is...in progress. He's been working on a thesis about the fictional poet Edwin Parfitt for years, but he can't seem to actually get it done. He finds out that Laurelfield used to be an artists' colony, one visited by Parfitt several times before his suicide, and he becomes obsessed with the idea that there might be undiscovered manuscripts or early drafts of poems that he could use for his biography. For Doug, the secrets of Laurelfield could make his career.

Gracie's second husband, Bruce, invites his son and daughter-in-law to live in the servants' quarters, too. Miriam, the daughter-in-law, is an artist who specializes in what I guess could be called "junk art" if you're being cruel and "works made from recycled materials" if you want to be nice, collages of old fabric and things lying about the house. Doug and Miriam form a fast friendship (is it more?) and he initiates her into the mysteries of Edwin Parfitt and Laurelfield. They band together to investigate the mystery of Laurelfield's (potentially haunted) past while Y2K rushes ever nearer and their tightly-wound relationships begin to unravel.

And then halfway through the book, we're 40 years earlier, and before the novel has ended, we've jumped twice more. Of course, the cast of characters change from jump to jump. Perhaps that will frustrate some readers, but Makkai is more than capable of using the technique: each section features characters fully realized, so lifelike that you'll want to hug them and slap them for being so silly and stupid and human. I am in awe of the author's power here, because I have read too many books with a single cast of characters that is paper-thin and annoyingly unrealistic, but Makkai chews her way through several, all to the same dazzling effect.