Capital Region Living Magazine

Book Reviews

By Susan Taylor

Students are back to school and many book groups are resuming their schedule after the summer hiatus. Both of this month’s selections would be great book club choices, but even without a group discussion, they are worth reading.

Sara Gruen hit the big time with her third novel, Water for Elephants, published in 2006. Her newest novel, Ape House, will be even bigger. Not only does she have the tag “bestselling author” appended to her name, but she has moved from the relatively small publisher Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill to Spiegel & Grau, a subsidiary of Random House, an international publishing giant. 

Sometimes the change to a new publisher doesn’t pan out. Case in point: although Charles Frazier’s second novel, Thirteen Moons, was bought for a substantial sum by Random House, it never achieved the popularity of his first novel, Cold Mountain, published by the much smaller Atlantic Monthly Press. In this case, I think Sara Gruen and Random House have a winner. Ape House  intertwines two stories, that of John Thigpen, a journalist, and Isabel Duncan, a researcher who works at the Great Ape Language Lab, who meet when John is assigned to write an article about the lab for the Philadelphia Inquirer. After meeting the apes, watching Isabel interact with them, and actually “talking” to them using sign language, John is almost as taken with the bonobos as Isabel is. Later that evening, when Isabel is alone in the lab, there is an explosion; Isabel is badly injured and the bonobos are kidnapped by masked intruders. Thus, our story begins. Who is responsible? Has a fringe animal liberation group gone off the deep end? Where are the bonobos and how can Isabel get them back where they belong? When a reality television show called “Ape House” starts airing, Isabel has her answer and John’s investigative skills help them flesh out what really happened when the animals were abducted. There are several subplots—John’s wife is trying to forge a career as a screenwriter in Hollywood; Isabel’s fiancée, another ape researcher, is trying to interest her in another project; Celia, a worker in the lab, may have ties to an animal liberation group; and John may have an illegitimate son he knew nothing about—but the heart and soul of the story is the bonobo family and the fight to save them from human predators. Ape House raises questions about the nature of humanity and will make you think about the humanity of animals. Read and discuss!

This next book is a departure from my usual review fare. Beat the Band by Don Calame is a roisterous, riotous and ribald novel for teenage boys, and I enjoyed every moment of it. This is screenwriter Calame’s second teen novel; the first was Swim the Fly, now available in paperback. Swim the Fly is narrated by Matt, one of a trio of best friends who make a summer pact to finally see a girl naked. That is actually a minor plot point in a wonderful book about competition, perseverance, lust and love. Coop, the second of the trio (oh, please let there be a third book featuring Sean!) narrates Beat the Band, and it is just as hilarious and over-the-top as the first. Coop is assigned to partner with Helen, the class “slut”, for a health class project on contraception, and in order to shore up his sinking social status he decides he and his friends must compete in the annual Battle of the Bands at school. The ending is predictable, but the journey is so enjoyable it doesn’t matter. Perfect for reluctant readers!

Susan Taylor has been in the book business since 1982.

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