Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The UnAmericans

Cover image for The UnAmericans : storiesThe UnAmericans
by Molly Antopol
W. W. Norton & Company, 2014. 261 pages. Fiction.

The UnAmericans is a brilliant collection of stories that take you from present day Isreal and America to periods of strife and struggle in Belarus, Russia and beyond. Each setting gives a sharp focused window to people deeply shaped by pivotal historical times and events. Each story is distinct, yet themes of political unrest, persecution, and human connection, and disconnect prevail. There is a visceral emotional quality to each story and it is easy to understand and empathize with the well drawn characters. The pain, fears, triumphs, humor and insights gained through their experiences makes each story feel almost like reading a novel.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and each story drew me in completely. From the brothers struggling for the love of the same woman, to the young woman striving to reinvent her career as a journalist rather than marrying and settling as her parents wish I felt their yearnings, sorrows, and complex emotions. This is a collection I can see myself returning to again and again like old friends. ZB

Barefoot Dogs: Stories

Barefoot Dogs: Stories
by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho
Scribner, 2015. 146 pages. Fiction.

Mexico City at the start of the new millennium was one of the most colorful and exciting cities in the world. It was also one of the most violent. Kidnappings were common and the kidnapping of José Victoriano Arteaga, patriarch of a well-connected family in the city is the center point of the stories penned by Ruiz-Camacho. In each one, the reader sees the fear and uncertainty of different family members as they struggle with their new status - refugees from the violence that claimed father and grandfather - and seek to find peace in a world that greed and hate have shattered.

This book may be short, but it packs a powerful punch. The stories are both deeply moving and deeply disturbing, contrasting love and hate, fear and power in poignant ways. Ruiz-Camacho is especially adept at using the naivete of children in the stories to counteract the fear of the adults who surround them. This is a masterpiece of storytelling and brings an intimate voice to a powerfully distressing aspect of Mexican society.


Emma: A Modern Retelling

Emma: A Modern Retelling
by Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon Books, 2015. 361 pages. Fiction.

In this modern retake of Jane Austen's classic, Emma Woodhouse, the youngest daughter of the anxiety-ridden Mr. Woodhouse is home for the summer after completing her university degree. At loose ends, Emma decides to make it her business to improve the lives of the people around her. But does her interfering cause more harm than good? This is the third book in the Austen Project, a writing challenge where some of Britain's top authors are creating modern versions of Austen novels.

I think Emma is one of Austen's most difficult books to adapt to a modern setting, especially for an author who simply focuses on the romantic aspect of the book. Austen herself felt that Emma was a character that no one but she could ever love, most likely because what really motivates Emma the majority of the time is a good-natured selfishness. It is hard to figure out why Mr. Knightley would ever fall in love with the self-centered Emma, when romance is made the central theme of the book. The genius of McCall Smith's adaptation, then, is that it is not a romance novel he is writing; he writes a coming-of-age (or, better, a coming to awareness) book that happens to have some romance on the side. As McCall Smith himself says, this a book where Emma gains moral understanding and kindness - gaining George Knightley in the bargain is just a side benefit. By following Austen's original premise and focusing on social issues and personal growth, the author is able to keep the same feel of the original while encapsulating it in modern storylines and characters. The writing is pure McCall Smith and his regular readers will love hearing his voice in a new type of novel.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure

The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure
by C.D. Rose
Melville House, 2014. 175 pages. Fiction.

We hear a lot about published authors - those who have achieved fame and, sometimes, fortune through their production of the written word. However, the traditional biographies have traditionally shied away from including the almost published - those who had potential to write, but never actually achieved their goals. In this book, C.D. Rose seeks to redress this wrong, bringing to light 52 authors who had the genius to achieve greatness but who, through a variety of circumstances, never managed to succeed. From avant-garde literary movements that never got off the ground and magnum opuses written in lost languages, to lost manuscripts and artists still gathering material, words, or a building sufficiently grand in which to house their future works, this tome is a celebration of all the books that could have been, but never were.

Even though the biographies in this book are completely fictional - after all, who remembers writers who never actually produce anything readable - the collection actually makes the reader think about the nature of writing and why good writing is so valued. Beyond that, the writing is just good, clean fun and easy to relate to. This is a fun book for people who have thought about the mechanics of writing and the road to literary fame.


Friday, April 24, 2015

The Start of Me and You

The Start of Me and You
by Emery Lord
Bloomsbury, 2015. 376 pages. Young adult fiction.

Paige Hancock is ready to start her life anew, more than a year after her boyfriend was drowned in a tragic accident. Tired of being just "The Girl Whose Boyfriend Drowned," she decides it is time to take her life into her own hands - joining new groups, going out with her friends again, and dating. She decides that she is going to set her sights on her long-time crush, Ryan Chase. Things get complicated, however, when she finds herself becoming more attracted to Ryan's cousin, Max.

This was a really interesting book. Lord does a great job dealing with the effects of grief on teens and learning to find joy in life again. It is also a fabulous example of how real relationships develop. Even though she's "loved" Ryan from afar for years, it is not until she starts spending quality time with Max that she understands how pale her love for Ryan really was. All in all, this was both a fun and satisfying read. It may have had a few instances of strong profanity, but they were so rare that I don't even actually remember them.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Cat Out of Hell

Cat Out of Hell
by Lynne Truss
Melville House, 2015. 163 pages. Fiction.

Alec Charlesworth, grieving the sudden death of his wife, finds himself in a lonely seaside cabin with just his dog, Watson, his laptop, and a series of strange files his wife, Mary's, colleague has sent telling the story of Wiggy, his missing sister, and a talking cat named Roger. As Alec's investigation becomes more personal, he learns about a group of interconnected nine-lived felines whose intentions for human-kind may not be well-intentioned.

I will admit that there was nothing about this book that was expected. Satanic cats controlled by Beelzebub? Anti-human conspiracies? An all-powerful Cat Master? This book definitely delivers surprises and I'm still waiting to see how I feel about it. It was a very creepy book (I may never own a cat as a result, for my own safety), but combined with a good dose of very dry humor that kept it from taking itself too seriously (if that is even possible to do - we're talking about talking cats controlled by the devil). There was some strong language and more graphic violence than I would have preferred, but I am notoriously unable to stomach violence, so it may not be that graphic to other people. And, if you have read her outrageously funny grammar book, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, you will be glad to know that her grammar and punctuation were both impeccable.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Royal We

The Royal We
by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
Grand Central Publishing, 2015. 454 pages. Fiction.

Rebecca Porter has never been one for a fairy-tale ending, but when her study abroad at Oxford ends with her dating the heir to the British throne, everything in her life changes. Bex must learn to adapt to a life in the spotlight and discover if her love for Prince Nicholas is enough to counteract the constant intrusions of the paparazzi.

This was an interesting take on a theme that has exploded since the marriage of Prince William and Lady Catherine in 2010. Rather than focusing on the sheer romance of marrying a prince, this book looks deeply into how hard it would be to adjust to a life in the public eye and to carry on in the face of misinformation and sensationalist journalism. It made me feel quite sorry, actually, for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (although I don't actually know that this will stop me from admiring the Duchess's wardrobe when pictures come out online - I know, I'm feeding the beast). It covers a long period of time (8 years), so the reader is really able to explore the feelings of Bex as her life changes completely. I did feel that it seemed to run on about 150 pages longer than necessary, but, other than that, it was an interesting read.


Saturday, April 18, 2015


Cover image for Bark : storiesBark
by Lorrie Moore
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 192 pages. Fiction.

Bark is a much anticipated second collection of short stories by Lorrie Moore, heralded as one of America's premier short fiction writers. In these eight stories Moore plumbs a host of heartbreaking situations and the raw emotions of her characters as they navigate divorce, disappointment, mental illness, loss and even a ghost.  Her writing is poetic and in some places almost stream of consciousness, which results in the reader feeling as though they are right in the room/place with the characters. The heavy themes are broken up with strange absurd hilarity and dark humor that sheds life on the idiosyncrasy of American life today.

As you can imagine from that description, this is not a sit down and enjoy it all in one session. These stories are heavy and sometimes painful to read, but Moore is a master of exploring complex dynamics and keeping the reader engage to mostly empathetic characters. That being said it took me awhile to get through this collection, while I enjoyed the writing, I was not excited each night to grab my book and read the next story. ZB

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

How the Light Gets In

How the Light Gets In (Three Pines #9)
by Louise Penny
Minotaur Books, 2013. 405 pages. Mystery.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of homicide for the Surete de Quebec, receives a call from his good friend, Myrna, in Three Pines, asking for his help to discover the sudden disappearance of a friend who never showed up for Christmas. But this is not everything going on in Gamache's world. Forces are at work in the Surete, determined to destroy Gamache and his department. His second in command and long-time friend, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, has turned on him and the rest of his department has been parceled out in various parts of the Surete. Gamache is in a race against time to find what happened to Myrna's friend and the darkness at the bottom of the changes in the Surete, before it is too late.

Wow. I mean, wow. This book blew me out of the water. Penny has taken the gorgeous prose and supremely human and relatable characters that have been the hallmarks of her books from the first and combined them with some intricate plotting to pull off this coup of a mystery. This is a series you will definitely want to read in order, as issues you thought were resolved early in the series suddenly reappear, not as resolved as you thought they were. And there were several twists at the end that had me gasping in surprise. You don't even realize how much of a long game Penny has been playing until you finally see the resolution at the end of this book. Be warned that there is a fair amount of swearing in the series, but the mysteries are never graphic and there is no sexual content. If you like beautiful writing and intricate plotting, this series is definitely for you.

Also, this is an awesome audiobook series with a fabulous reader. Side effects of reading include a sincere conviction that you speak French (or, at least a few words of French - I feel like I'm a pro with Jean-Guy's name now and can use the word Quebecois in a sentence) and an overwhelming desire to go to Montreal and the Quebec countryside, as well as some serious plot obsession. 


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Dreaming Spies

Dreaming Spies (Mary Russell #13)
by Laurie R. King
Bantam Books, 2015. 331 pages. Mystery.

Mary Russell, back in Oxford after a long time away from her studies, is startled to find a young and injured Japanese woman in her rooms. But Haruki-san is not there for a social call; she has come to finish a case that started a year earlier, when Holmes and Russell are enlisted to help Haruki and her father, Sato, recover an item for the Prince Regent Hirohito. Haruki was pivotal in helping them acclimate to Japanese culture and succeed in their venture. Will the second half of their venture prove to be equally successful?

King has shown an amazing amount of forethought in her Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell series by leaving holes in her narratives that she can later go back and flesh out in full-length stories. Thus, while the series does not move in a linear fashion, she is able to keep her characters at a regular and believable age. In this book, King has gone a step further: the first half of the book is set in the time between the books The Game and Locked Rooms, which received only a brief mention at the time; the second half of the adventure is set after the narrative in Garment of Shadows. (So don't try to read this one out of order!) The writing in this book was spectacular and the adventure really set the stage in pre-WWII Japan, introducing the world to the enigmatic young man would would one day become the Sun Emperor. This is a great addition to the series. I would consider this a mostly-clean read. There were just one or two instances of strong language, but nothing more.