Friday, October 15, 2021
Resonance. Life is messy. We often know what we need to do but don’t have a clue how to do it. We find ways to escape or cope with what life throws at us. All those aspects of life resonate in Kristen Valdez Quade’s debut novel titled, The Five Wounds. We spend a year in New Mexico with the Padilla family and observe how they take the next steps in their lives. Quade describes their outer lives and discloses the inner lives of a fascinating cast of characters. We find hope and despair, love and loss. We accompany the family in their pain and wonder with them when the suffering will finally end. We also laugh and watch redemption and resilience play out while life continues to stay messy. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Five Wounds from amazon.com.
Redwoods. The debut novel by Ash Davidson titled, Damnation Spring, is set in the redwood country of California in the 1970s. Through the lens of the Gunderson family, we enter a world of hard work, close family ties and tradition facing sea change to their way of life. Colleen and Rich are raising their son, Chub, in a logging town. Davidson explores the depths of love, betrayal, and redemption in the setting of a tightly knit community facing life-changing losses. The prose is finely written, the characters are complex and well-developed, and the story engaging. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Damnation Spring from amazon.com.
Intensity. I still ache from the intensity of reading Richard Powers novel titled, Bewilderment. We meet Theo Byrne an overworked astrobiologist grieving the death of his wife, and trying to care for their son, Robin, who is on the autism spectrum. Robin has focused on the plight of endangered species, and we feel for him and for Theo as they seem engaged with what’s critically important but disconnected by how others expect them to behave. Father and son find solace in the wild and encounter indifference at home to the plight facing all life on earth. Theo and Robin see the world in ways that everyone should. This novel is a song of love and loss that penetrates a reader’s indifference with an intensity that cries out for our own engagement with what matters. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Bewilderment from amazon.com.
Privilege. In Hermoine Hoby’s novel titled, Virtue, we meet two interns working in New York City for an elite magazine. Twenty-two-year-old protagonist Luca finds himself drawn toward a wealthy couple, she a prominent artist and he a filmmaker, and he finds himself welcomed into their privileged lives. Intern Zara arrived at the magazine speaking candidly about injustice and creating tension in the offices of the magazine. Luca’s attraction to the allure of privilege distracted him into complacency about the actions that Zara pursues with passion. Hoby contrasts Luca and Zara in ways that lay bare the shallowness or depth of social activism in recent years. We observe choices with consequences and the ways in which young adults search for their place in the world. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Virtue from amazon.com.
Zen. The key question, what is real, is at the heart of Ruth Ozeki’s novel titled, The Book of Form and Emptiness. Protagonist Benny Oh turns twelve-years-old in the year that his father is killed. He and his mother, Annabelle, are overcome with grief and try to adjust to life after that tragedy. Benny begins hearing from objects, and the more things Annabelle collects as she begins hoarding, the louder the voices in Benny’s mind. Ozeki takes readers into aspects of Zen that flow smoothly through this narrative. We begin to find acceptance of the impermanence of things. We notice objects more closely. Even the book becomes a voice and character in the novel. We appreciate the messages from poems, and the ways in which the library provides both refuge and rescue for troubled lives. I encourage fans of literary fiction to surrender to Ozeki in this finely written novel and let her take you through an exploration that faces the question of what is real. Along the way, there’s an enchanting story and characters that we come to love. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Book of Form and Emptiness from amazon.com.
Fleurette. The title of Amy Stewart’s seventh novel featuring the Kopp Sisters, Miss Kopp Investigates, made me think that the sister doing the investigating would be Constance, fresh from wartime experience in Washington. Instead, in 1919, we find the investigator is Fleurette whose singing voice has failed her. As with the earlier novels, we find an engaging story packed with interesting and complex characters, drawn from the lives of real people. Fans of historical fiction with strong female characters will find a lot to enjoy in this novel and this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Miss Kopp Investigates from amazon.com.
Transcripts. The rocky transition of power from President Trump to President Biden could have proceeded in ways even worse than what happened. That’s one conclusion I drew after reading the book titled, Peril, by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. The authors recorded interviews with more than two hundred people, received documents, and produced over six thousand pages of transcripts for distillation to readers without attribution of who said what. We know that neither Trump nor Biden were interviewed for this book. Readers can safely assume that the reason many individuals wanted to talk to Woodward and Costa was to put themselves in the best light possible. With that context, any reader interested in the recent turmoil in United States politics can find even more cause for alarm about recent history after reading this book. Personally, I’d love to read the transcripts, especially after a subject has relaxed with food and drink at the homes of the authors. Instead, we rely on the reporters to tell us an abbreviated and compelling story. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Peril from amazon.com.
Completed. At the time of his death in 2015, William McIlvanney left an unfinished manuscript of a novel highlighting the first case of a Glasgow detective named Laidlaw developed in three previous novels. Prolific crime fiction author Ian Rankin completed the manuscript and presents the combined effort with McIlvanney in a novel titled, The Dark Remains. Set in the early 1970s, we find Laidlaw at the beginning of his career, acting in ways totally consistent with the character loved by readers of the other novels. The style and atmosphere seem all McIlvanney in this novel, meaning that Rankin subordinated himself out of love and homage to the late McIlvanney. Fans of crime fiction, especially the Scots variety, will find a lot to enjoy in this special novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Dark Remains from amazon.com.
Dog. A dog named Martin achieve pride of place in a novel titled, The Man with the Silver Saab, the third installment in the series by Alexander McCall Smith featuring Malmö Detective Ulf Varg. As Martin has lost his hearing, Varg has taught him lip reading, and Varg proudly thinks this skill is unique in Sweden. In the perpetual contest between dog and squirrel, Martin lost a battle as the squirrel bit his nose, which the vet reattaches upside down. Love for dogs changes the tone of an expected disciplinary meeting with Varg’s superior. In the background the Department of Sensitive Crime that Varg leads solves an interesting case. Along the way, we chuckle on most pages, and enjoy the characters that Smith develops in such an endearing way. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Man with the Silver Saab from amazon.com.
Friends. In her short novel titled, Martita, I Remember You, Sandra Cisneros explores close friendship. We meet three young women in Paris and savor the intensity of their brief time together. Through letters and recollection, we learn about their time in Paris and can choose to read the narrative in English, Spanish, or both. The text of their letters reinforces the depth of their relationships and how the time and place where they first met comes alive as it is remembered. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Martita I Remember You from amazon.com.
Friday, October 8, 2021
Heist. Some fiction writers return to places, characters, or time periods they’ve presented in earlier works. Colson Whitehead starts fresh with time, place, and character as if there is no connection to his earlier novels. The backdrop for his novel titled, Harlem Shuffle, is Harlem in the 1960s. The protagonist, Ray Carney, sells furniture, which Whitehead describes with glee, and he fences stolen goods on the side. The plot involves a heist, and we learn about power in the community, and tension in families as the line between right and wrong meanders. Whitehead’s prose soars in this novel, and his love for Harlem infuses every page. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and can’t wait to see when and where Whitehead takes readers next. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Harlem Shuffle from amazon.com.
Transcendental. The richness and depth of Sally Rooney’s novel titled, Beautiful World, Where Are You, blew me away. She had me with the interesting relationships among characters Eileen and Simon, and Alex and Felix. Her dialogue and description make readers feel present and engaged with their attraction and the ways they interacted. At some point I found myself exploring Metaphysics as Rooney teaches about goodness, beauty, truth and unity, those transcendental properties of being. Take this finely written novel on any level of meaning you want: it’s terrific. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Beautiful World Where Are You from amazon.com.
Luminous. Readers who appreciate outstanding writing are those most likely to enjoy the nine pieces in Jo Ann Beard’s collection titled, Festival Days. The depth of character development leads to insight about human behavior and highlights the complexity of our interior lives. Beard’s descriptions shine light on what’s often hidden in what we fail to observe. Thanks to her writing, the world become luminous. Finally, I thought the ways in which Beard reveals and constrains the emotions of her characters enhanced the depth of her insight and our enlightenment after reading these stories. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Festival Days from amazon.com.
Neurodiversity. Roy Richard Grinker writes about culture and mental illness from a place where he has lived at the intersection of both. In his book titled, Nobody’s Normal: How Culture Created the Stigma of Mental Illness, Grinker explores changing attitudes about mental illness over time, and overlays his personal connection to the topic. As an anthropologist, Grinker brings an expertise about culture to the conversation. As the son and grandson of prominent psychiatrists, he knows the history of that profession from both an academic and personal perspective. Finally, as the father of a daughter with autism, he understands the spectrum that represents human neurodiversity. Grinker examines the aspect of stigma and examines the ways in which culture can transform. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Nobody’s Normal from amazon.com.
Horrors. Many of us who enjoy short stories want to go to unfamiliar places and see human behavior from fresh perspectives. In her collection titled, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, Mariana Enriquez uses the backdrop of Argentina to open our eyes to look at the horrors she presents without flinching. Within a few sentences of each story, I found myself unsettled and uncomfortable. It was easy to become distracted by the tone which made everything presented seem typical and normal, which it is not. Perhaps when we receive the creepiness of someone else’s life in a place far away through fiction, we can put down the book and examine our own lives with joy and relief. In the time spent with these finely written stories, I was captivated by characters and situations that Enriquez presents with directness and compassion. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Dangers of Smoking in Bed from amazon.com.
Chickens. Could it really be that the meaning of life has everything to do with the chickens? Jackie Polzin’s debut novel titled, Brood, pulls readers into the story of a nameless narrator who wants to keep her four chickens alive through a brutal Minnesota winter. We have all the other building blocks of life in this novel: family, predators, and hope. We spend a year over the course of this book with interesting characters and chickens, laughing and grieving, in the cycles we experience in every well-lived life. Polzin’s fine writing will appeal to all readers who appreciate literary fiction. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Brood from amazon.com.
Home. After your everyday reality turns to crap, what will you do next? The characters in Rikki Ducornet’s finely written novel titled, Trafik, decide to f-it, and set their sights on an idyllic place and head in that direction. This becomes a journey toward that comfortable place we usually call home, but here is known as Trafik. On the journey toward Trafik, readers are treated by hundreds of finely crafted sentences that cry out to be read more than once. Sometimes, you just need to embrace the absurdity, and in reading this science fiction novel, the sooner you release all your moorings, the better the experience. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Trafik from amazon.com.
Insight. The stories in Lily Tuck’s collection titled, Heathcliff Redux: And Other Stories, reveal this fine writer’s insight into human nature and behavior. Tuck finds ways to jar us with these stories, often using just a few sentences to break open her characters for our examination. We find a cleareyed way of looking at ourselves in these stories, and not blinking at what we read. What we begin to feel might be a digression becomes the path to understanding. Fans of finely written literary fiction are those readers most likely to appreciate this collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Heathcliff Redux from amazon.com.
Artist. I’m a newcomer to the Lydia Chin and Bill Smith mystery series by S.J. Rozan, so I’ve probably missed a lot of the color contained within the novel titled, The Art of Violence. Since I enjoyed the novel, let’s assume that it can stand alone for those who haven’t read other books in this series and fans of the series may find additional reasons to like it. A serial killer has been attacking women in New York City’s contemporary art scene. Lydia and Bill have been called in to look for answers, while the bodies continue to pile up. An artist can’t remember whether he committed these murders or not. Meeting this quirky artist in print is one good reason to give this mystery your time. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Art of Violence from amazon.com.
Snapshots. Any reader whose summers were defined by leaving one’s regular house for a summer home will resonate with how much meaning and how many of life’s pivotal events can take place in such a setting. In her novel titled, The Paper Palace, Miranda Cowley Heller moves the narrative back and forth in time, slowly revealing, like flipping snapshots, the secrets of protagonist Ella’s summer home which was called the paper palace. Some of the snapshots reveal joy and humor while others display abuse. We find love and violence, fidelity and betrayal. Isn’t that the usual story at the summer house? Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Paper Palace from amazon.com.