Tag: literary fiction

Advance Review: Astonish Me

Posted 25 January, 2014 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Advance Review: Astonish MeAstonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
Published by HarperCollins Publishers on April 8th 2014
Genres: Fiction, General, Literary
Pages: 368

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Astonish Me is the irresistible story of Joan, a young American dancer who helps a Soviet ballet star, the great Arslan Rusakov, defect in 1975. A flash of fame and a passionate love affair follow, but Joan knows that, onstage and off, she is destined to remain in the shadows. After her relationship with Arslan sours, Joan decides to make a new life for herself. She quits ballet, marries a good man, and settles into the rhythm of Californian life with their son, Harry. But as the years pass, Joan comes to understand that ballet isn’t finished with her yet: for there is no mistaking that Harry is a prodigy. Inevitably Joan is soon pulled back into a world she thought she’d left behind and back to Arslan.

Ugh. That blurb makes this book sound terrible to me. I promise you, it’s not. I picked up this book on NetGalley only because I knew (vaguely) who Maggie Shipstead was, because I had (kind of) wanted to read her largely celebrated debut novel, Seating Arrangements. I still haven’t read Seating Arrangements. I probably will.

Anyway, Astonish Me is not a love story, per se, but it does concern itself with the inner lives of a number of people. In this way it is a character study, with professional ballet as the backdrop. While there is action, it happens quietly almost as an aside, to better showcase the characters. I’ve never done ballet so I’m sure that I missed out on a lot of thrill that readers who have an intense interest in dance may have gotten from this novel. I can’t speak to how close to reality the situations that the characters find themselves in are, but everything that happened seemed at least plausible.

The prose is simple, yet elegant it’s told with an omniscient voice but switches the character it is focused on fairly often. Because of this device it is sometimes difficult to figure out which characters and central and which are not. True, it is primarily Joan’s story, but the reader is given insight into characters, like Elaine, Joan’s one-time professional ballet roommate who while she is necessary for action in the story otherwise seems to be a peripheral character. 

Many reviewers complain that this book is not long enough. I agree. Shipstead could have fleshed out her characters more, she was on the road for greatness and had she done that with this novel she could have rivaled J.K. Rowling or John Irving. All the characters had plenty of story left to tell, many idiosyncratic traits left to discover. Maybe next time.

The ending, while some of it not unexpected is appropriate and satisfying. 

I’d recommend it for people who generally enjoy character studies or those with a strong interest in the world of professional ballet. 

April @ The Steadfast Reader



Formidable Friday: Infinite Jest

Posted 20 December, 2013 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Formidable Friday: Infinite JestInfinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Published by Little, Brown Genres: Fiction, General
Pages: 1088

A gargantuan, mind-altering comedy about the Pursuit of Happiness in America set in an addicts' halfway house and a tennis academy, and featuring the most endearingly screwed-up family to come along in recent fiction, Infinite Jest explores essential questions about what entertainment is and why it has come to so dominate our lives; about how our desire for entertainment affects our need to connect with other people; and about what the pleasures we choose say about who we are. Equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy, Infinite Jest bends every rule of fiction without sacrificing for a moment its own entertainment value. It is an exuberant, uniquely American exploration of the passions that make us human - and one of those rare books that renew the idea of what a novel can do.

Upon finishing this book the first feeling that I had was elation that I had actually finished it. Infinite Jest is an extraordinary book, but it is difficult and you do have to want it.

Catch-22 and Brave New World seem to have influenced Wallace in writing this book. There are tons of characters and the point of view changes at the drop of a hat. This is not a book to be read casually. I read every night before I go to bed but this book requires both concentration and dedication, do not try to read this after you’ve had a few drinks, you’ll probably get lost and crash somewhere in the desert. (If you’re lucky you’ll get to talk to a cross-dressing spy.)

There are points where Wallace gets a little Ayn Rand-ish. He goes off on long tangents (usually about tennis) that don’t hold a lot of substance for the story, but I think that if you focus on it, it’s easy enough to comprehend and there were only a few times I found myself bored.

Despite all of my dread warnings, I really did enjoy this book. It delves into the meaning of entertainment, addiction, and possibly where the two intersect. This is a fantastic book, but it’s not for everyone. Most of the story takes place between an elite private tennis academy and a halfway house that share the same name in ‘near-future’ Boston. Part of what makes this book difficult are copious undefined acronyms – intentionally undefined acronyms, most of them are resolved by the latter third of the book, but trying to work out what exactly they mean both engages the reader and is kind of fun.

Published in 1998, Wallace managed to predict the rise of the internet in the life of a modern American, the War on Terror, and the continuation of vapid consumerism in our culture. It is incredibly relevant today.

 “In a 2008 retrospective by The New York Times, Infinite Jest was described as “a masterpiece that’s also a monster — nearly 1,100 pages of mind-blowing inventiveness and disarming sweetness. Its size and complexity make it forbidding and esoteric.”

This book made me fall in love with David Foster Wallace, but after reading it you have to decompress. I’m (slowly) making my way through Consider the Lobster which is a collection of his essays. If you’re unsure whether or not this book is for you try a few of his essays to see if you enjoy his writing style or not.

#84 – 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2010)

April @ The Steadfast Reader



Frightful Friday: Ectopia

Posted 22 November, 2013 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Frightful Friday: EctopiaEctopia by Martin Goodman
Published by Barbican Press on 2013-06
Pages: 272

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

A modern teenage dystopia. The world has seen no girls born for sixteen years. Karen was the last girl and Steven her twin. Their Dad's of the old school. He turns their garden into a fortress. His children may yet be the future of the world, if they can escape in time. Think HUNGER GAMES or a CATCHER IN THE RYE for the Doom Generation. Of Martin Goodman's earlier work: 'Heralds a new dawn for British writing' - Liverpool Daily Post 'Goodman's novel soars' - The Times

Wow. This book was hard. Really hard.

Think: A Clockwork OrangeThe Handmaid’s Tale, and 1984 all squashed together. I think that I really liked it. I’m still reeling a bit. I kept thinking of the old adage, ‘If men could get pregnant, then abortion would be a sacrament.’

This is a dark near-future dystopia. I dislike the term ‘gritty’ but I can’t think of a better adjective for this novel. It’s told primarily from the point of view of Stephen-turned-Bender who is an incredibly unreliable narrator. 

Gender issues and identity are expertly explored. Karen and Stephen as twins and Karen is the last girl to be born. I agree with a previous reviewer that it would have been nice to have a better fleshed out worldview in this dystopia. Why are there no more girls being born? What exactly is Cromozone? I don’t mind being left with questions but the ‘world building’ constructed in this novel left me a little empty. 

There seemed to be an overemphasis on Stephen’s teensquad and I think that cutting down large portions of those sections might have made the novel more accessible. 

It requires a careful reading and does lend to questioning what reality really is and how we define it. If you love dystopias and speculative fiction – then this one might be for you – but it is incredibly heavy and although it’s not that long, it takes time wade through the narrative. 

Also. I hate the cover art. You can decide on that for yourself. 


April @ The Steadfast Reader



Monday Madness: Requiem for a Dream

Posted 23 September, 2013 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Monday Madness: Requiem for a DreamRequiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby
Published by Thunder's Mouth Press on 1978
Genres: Fiction, General, Literary
Pages: 279

In this searing novel, two young hoods, Harry and Tyrone, and a girlfriend fantasize about scoring a pound of uncut heroin and getting rich. But their habit gets the better of them, consumes them and destroys their dreams. "Selby's place is in the front rank of American novelists. His work has the power, the intimacy with suffering and morality, the honesty and moral urgency of Dostoevsky's....To understand Selby's work is to understand the anguish of America." -- The New York Times Book Review

Requiem for a Dream is fabulous. It’s a perfect description of the subtle decline in to addiction and what a slippery slope the ‘I can stop any time.’ and ‘I would never do THAT for [enter addiction here]’.

The writing style is almost Faulkner-esque, so you have to pay attention or it’s really easy to lose who’s talking and what exactly they’re talking about (or doing). 
Highly recommended.
A short aside, I’m almost frightened to see the movie because of the power this book has, there are some horrible images that I think if presented properly in film, I would never be able to rid myself of them.
#291 – 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2010)

April @ The Steadfast Reader