Fiction

Reader’s Journal: Girl Waits With Gun

Girl Waits with Gun (Kopp Sisters, #1)Charming is a word I would like to see restored. These days when people say “charming” they often mean quaint, or old, or precious. For me, the word evokes the idea of having grace and spunk in equal measure, and knowing when it’s appropriate to use more of one and less of the other, or—to use a gun metaphor—when to fire from both barrels.

Amy Stewart’s debut novel Girl Waits With Gun is a charming book based on a true story that Stewart uncovered when doing research for her non-fiction book, The Drunken Botanist. The Kopp sisters—Constance, Norma, and Fleurette—live alone on a farm outside Paterson, New Jersey. The story begins in July 1914, when their horse and buggy are struck by a motor car driven by one Henry Kaufman, a wealthy hooligan who owns one of the silk factories in town. In the street, Constance asks nicely for—and then demands—compensation for the accident. Kaufman and his thug friends scoff at her and then threaten her. All of this sets off a chain of events that upset the quiet lives of the Kopp sisters, but Constance in particular refuses to back down and fights for justice for herself and her sisters. Her case falls on deaf ears at the local prosecutor’s office, but the sheriff of a nearby town becomes her ally, offering the Kopp sisters protection and even teaching them to shoot revolvers.

A less skilled author could have made caricatures of the Kopp sisters, but Stewart does a terrific job of making them each interesting and distinct. At one point, Constance, who narrates the story, describes them as three women with nothing in common and little to say to each other. That they love each other and are fiercely loyal to one another is without question, but Stewart cleverly uses their singular responses to events and their interactions with one another to show how times are changing (but also lagging)—especially for women. Their late mother, an Austrian who never cared for America or bothered to pursue citizenship, had a habit of sharing news headlines about women who were disgraced, injured, or killed in some way, all to convince her daughters that the world was a terrifying place and they were better off at home:

I can’t look at our childhood samplers without remembering the disgraceful fate of Laura Smith, age seventeen, who was lured away from her home by the grocer and ruined by him, or that of thirteen-year-old Lena Luefschuetz, found dead for reasons having to do with her “undesirable companions.”

This upbringing affected the sisters in vastly different ways. Norma, 31, dislikes any and all intrusions from the outside world, preferring to spend time with the homing pigeons she raises on the farm (she trains the pigeons by fastening news headlines—for example, ”Girl Scalded in Kitchen,” on a day when Fleurette is cooking—to their legs). Fleurette, 16, is such an ingenue that it almost seems she believes the stories she reads in the paper are actually fictions just awaiting her embellishment. And Constance, the oldest at 35, is at once restless and pragmatic. With secrets of her own, she is aware of both the lack of opportunities for and the very real threats to women that the world holds. However, she longs for something more than what she has, even daring to picture a life for her independent self apart from her sisters.

Aside from the threat presented by Henry Kaufman and company, a bit of a mystery occurs that draws Constance further into danger and helps develop her relationship to Sheriff Heath in an interesting way. The mystery also brings Constance’s past into play, which helps to explain why she reacts the way she does at the accident scene in the beginning of the story.

Somehow this novel manages to be both lighthearted and serious at the same time. Stewart manages to create comic situations about women in very real peril–and not as a result of Henry Kaufman so much as from being a woman in a society still clinging to Victorian ideas. The sisters’ quirks offer some comic relief. Fleurette is forever twirling and selecting special outfits to suit the occasion, even when that occasion is being the well-dressed target of a kidnapper, and Norma is fully devoted to her pigeons. Constance even has the occasion to manhandle Henry Kaufman to comic effect. However, even in moments of humor, we’re always reminded that the sisters face serious trouble. They are running out of money and have no foreseeable means of making income, which means that they may lose their farm–and if they lose their farm, what will happen to them? Fleurette is young enough still to find a husband, but she knows very little of the world as she was schooled at home and has been kept away even from people her own age. Norma and Constance are both essentially spinsters who are not trained in any skill, and Norma especially would rather not spend time with other people if she can avoid it. As the oldest, Constance feels the most responsible, but Stewart makes it quite clear that the options for her are limited on almost every front except the most unexpected.

This book was absolutely so delightful I did not want it to end. Halfway through the novel I was already sorry about saying goodbye to Constance, Norma, and Fleurette, so I was very happy to learn that Stewart is writing a sequel to Girl Waits With Gun called Lady Cop Makes Trouble, to be released in September 2016. Keeping my fingers crossed for a series!

Top Ten Tuesday: With Love, From Me to You

For today’s Top Ten, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, we’re asked to list our favorite top ten romances (or top ten literary crushes, or something similarly Valentine’s Day themed). I don’t read romance or chick lit, and I don’t get crushes on characters in books (although I do get crushes on books themselves, for whatever that’s worth). I also realize that for many people Valentine’s Day is just another commercial joke, and for other people it’s just another reason to feel shut out of a culture that’s obsessed with couples. Instead of worrying about all that, I offer you ten books I love that are about love of all kinds.

Our Souls at NightOur Souls at Night, Kent Haruf. Addie Moore and Louis Waters are neighbors. They are also both widowed, with grown children who live elsewhere. They live in a small town in Colorado with people who are prone to judge and talk, but despite that they form a touching relationship. Heartfelt and heartbreaking, like all of Haruf’s work.

Just KidsJust Kids, Patti Smith. This book isn’t just about Smith’s relationship with her love and best friend Robert Mapplethorpe—it’s a love letter to a culturally revolutionary place and time, and to self discovery.

The Art of FieldingThe Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach. Several years ago, I had this to say about The Art of Fielding: “It tells a timeless story of love, the ways we’re interconnected, whether through love or friendship or what we sometimes even think of as destiny.” This is most definitely a book about how love—not just romantic love, but that too, shapes our lives. One of my favorite books ever.

You Are One of ThemYou Are One of Them, Elliott Holt. Sometimes we hang on to romantic ideas, because they infuse everyone and everything with interest, including ourselves. Sarah Zuckerman believes her fascinating childhood best friend Jenny is dead, but a mysterious letter makes her think otherwise. As I said in my short review in 2013, “it also considers the mysteries of friendship, why we are drawn to certain people, why we often rely so much on others to define who we are.”

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History, Donna Tartt. Narrator Richard Papen looks back to tell a tale of murder, and of the people and place he loved that changed him irrevocably. This is one of my favorite books of all time. I never reviewed it here, but I did create a soundtrack that speaks to all that love and loss.

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler. Rosemary Cooke is heartbroken. Her beloved sister Fern is missing. Her beloved brother Kevin is wanted by the FBI. To mend her heart she must confront an awful truth. This book is one of a kind.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild, Cheryl Strayed. To recover from her mother’s death (and all her own subsequent personal little deaths of the heart), Cheryl Strayed hiked most of the Pacific Coast Trail. Some people called this book (and Strayed) self-indulgent, but I thought it was a beautiful account of love and grief and imperfection all together.

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante. Friendships, especially those from childhood, are probably some of the most intense relationships we have, because we are in the process of discovering who we are and who we are not. Elena and Lila are sometimes friends, sometimes almost enemies, but no doubt their lives are entwined and their feelings for each other are strong.

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Lorrie Moore. In this wistful and slim novella, Berie recalls her best teenage friend Sils and the summer they were both fifteen.

Reader’s Journal: The Pursuit of Cool

The Pursuit of CoolI don’t know how I came across Robb Skidmore’s self-published novel The Pursuit of Cool, but all I had to do was read the description and I knew I had to read it:

A novel that uniquely captures the 1980s, The Pursuit of Cool tells the story of Lance Rally and his turbulent college years. He faces pressure to live up to his super-achieving family and is fueled by grandiose ambition. He wants to become a success but is easily distracted and obsessed with pop culture. He also has a deeply romantic nature and though inept he is sincere and falls in love quickly…This coming-of-age journey is a funny and emotional ride through album covers, dance techniques, all-nighter revelations, and corporate internships gone bad. The story comes alive with music and movies which give Lance solace as he questions his beliefs and his heart gets crushed. He tries to capture that illusive quality, that magic of youth, the essence that is ‘cool.’

In 1986, Lance Rally leaves his Washington, D.C. area home, bound for the fictional Langford College on the outskirts of Atlanta. His grandfather, father, and older brother all attended Harvard, but Lance’s grades weren’t quite up to Ivy League standards, so he’s headed to a second-tier school to study economics in the hopes of getting into a really good business school after college. But here’s the thing: Lance doesn’t really understand economics, and the famous professor who runs the department (and whom everyone suggests Lance pursue as a mentor) is a crank whose opaque lectures Lance struggles to understand. So Lance begins to float…He befriends a punk rocker from California named Ian LaCoss, who’s majoring and drama and introduces him to, well, punk rock, and a squirrely genius named Charles Boyd. He eventually begins to date a popular dancer who is majoring in psychology, and he struggles (and often fails) to comprehend her subtle hints and moods. He gets a summer internship with a high-powered consulting firm. A few other things happen, but because he’s more of a dreamer than anything, Lance drifts through the rest of his time, and the reader drifts with him.

If that sounds dull, it isn’t. In fact, it’s charming. Skidmore is confident storyteller who clearly cares about Lance, who is compelling and endearing in his confusion. Lance is an all around genuinely nice guy, a good kid. He’s a dreamer. He loves to read. He loves movies. He can spend hours and hours listening to music. He’s observant and slightly obsessive when it comes to going over situations (usually involving his girlfriend Lynn) in his head. He’s constantly trying to figure out how to be. He’s picked the wrong major, but he can’t bring himself to change it for fear of disappointing his father. And besides, he has no idea what he wants to do until the very last page of the book (the very last day of college, incidentally), when everything becomes abundantly clear to him.

It’s highly possible I enjoyed this book because I identified with Lance in many ways. Although I didn’t have any family legacy to live up to, I had talked a big game all through senior year of high school about how I was going to New York to become a playwright. When I wasn’t accepted by the two schools in New York where I actually managed to complete applications for by the deadline, I decided to start college closer to home and transfer after my first year. Five years and five majors later (drama, communications, back to drama, fashion merchandising, and finally English literature) I graduated from that same university. Like Lance, I was a distracted romantic who wasn’t sure where I fit in, who was likely to spend way more time reading novels, listening to music (or going to see bands, my favorite college pastime), or obsessing over friendships and guys than I ever spent studying. It took me two-and-a-half years to settle into a major and apply myself, and another four years until one of my best friends really helped me clue into the same realization Lance has at the end of The Pursuit of Cool.

Another reason I probably identified with this book so much was the time: Lance goes to college in 1986, and I went to college in 1987. My guess is that Robb Skidmore went to college around this same time, because he gets so many things about the time spot-on, especially the music, while managing to avoid so many Eighties cliches. If you like campus novels, if you’re interested in the 1980s, or if you just like a well-told coming-of-age story, I recommend The Pursuit of Cool.

And because music plays such an important part in The Pursuit of Cool, I decided to make a playlist. Instead of adding songs from the book (the playlist would be at least three hours long and range from Led Zeppelin to The Clash to The Pixies), I decided to put together my own “greatest hits” that I loved in college. It’s hardly comprehensive, and to stop myself from going on and on, I picked twenty songs (listen on Spotify or YouTube).

What were your favorite songs from college and/or the 80s? Better to share music than tragic fashion! Happy reading!

Reader’s Journal: Our Endless Numbered Days

Our Endless Numbered DaysWhat am I going to tell you about Claire Fuller’s beautiful, heartbreaking debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days, which won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for most prestigious first-time novelists? My first five-star read of 2015, it feels like one of those books that defies reviewing. It’s deep. It’s haunting. It’s pretty. It’s enraging. All these things.

In 1976, when she is eight years old, Peggy Hamilton is taken from her London home by her father, James. Up until that time she has lived a relatively normal life as the only child of two somewhat eccentric parents, her aforementioned father James, who does not work but instead obsesses about the end of the world, and her mother, Ute Bischoff, a famous German concert pianist. Peggy goes to school. She has a best friend named Becky. She is attached to her BBC recording of Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children, and even at the age of eight still sometimes relies on her doll Phyllis for company. She loves Ute, but her mother is also larger than life, and is not willing to share that most vital part of her–the piano–with Peggy. Her father belongs to the North London Retreaters, a group of men who gather to drink (heavily) and discuss the best ways to survive the end of days, whether from nuclear apocalypse or some natural disaster. James seems to take things seriously, going so far as to build a shelter underneath their house and outfit it with food and supplies, putting Peggy through regular drills (of which Ute wants no part) where she has only minutes to pack her rucksack and report to the shelter, where at the end of the drill her father inspects the items she has chosen to bring along.

Things seem normal enough. Like any eight-year-old child, Peggy is both fascinated and confused by her parents and their friends. She stays up late to spy on their parties, to listen to the long arguments the men maintain over the best survivalist techniques. She senses a strain between her father and Ute, but through everything she maintains her version of normal, until Ute leaves to go on a two-week concert tour. During those weeks Peggy begins to spend more time outside her normal routine and camping out with her father in the garden. She tells the school her mother has died. More time passes and still Ute does not return. And then Peggy awakens one morning to her father’s sharp whistle. He tells her to pack her things. It’s time to go. He’s promised her a holiday.

He takes her across the Channel and deep into the continent. They are going to a place called “die Hütte,” a place Peggy heard her father and his friends (especially one in particular, named Oliver Hannington) discussing during their late nights. She imagines the place to be something from a fairytale. She is wrong, but not long after they arrive there, her father tells her the world has ended, and that they are the only people left in the world, and nothing exists beyond what he calls the “Great Divide,” referring to the world on the other side of the mountains that surround their valley.

We hear the story directly from seventeen-year-old Peggy, who alternates between her time in die Hütte with her father and present day London where she is back in Ute’s house. In their exile, Peggy and her father struggle to survive. In the woods, they become not Peggy and James, but Papa and Punzel. They have not brought enough food; they have not brought the right supplies; and die Hutte is not equipped as promised. The threat of freezing or starving to death is always an issue. Yet Peggy offers her audience many, many moments of great beauty and grace, such as when Papa teaches her to play the piano with the one book of sheet music he has taken from home, Franz Liszt’s “La Campanella.” He builds her a wooden piano and she learns to sing the notes. She makes up a narrative to guide her through the music:

When I played, my father would sometimes sing the bass line while I was the bell, or the bird; one of us sang the treble clef with the other joining in on the high notes to create the chords. By page six, the bird was joined by a cat, and the fluttering became more desperate. The bird circled higher and higher, trying to escape the open maw that followed its flurries at the window. When the bird tired and swooped too low, the cat jumped, feathers were lost, and I despaired for the creature. In the final refrain, as if sounding an alarm call, the bird began to fight back. The animal I had taken for a sparrow or wren became a fiercer creature, showing its talons and curved beak so that fur flew as well as the feathers.

While Peggy/Punzel loves her father, and while she comes to love things about the woods and she begins to forget her old life, she always has a real sense of danger. And while much of the danger is very real–she is afraid of water, for example, and cannot swim–she knows something else is off kilter. But she has only her Papa to rely upon, and so she makes what life she can.

It wasn’t until well after I had finished Our Endless Numbered Days that I began to associate it with another beautiful, yet also tragic and disturbing book, Bonnie Nadzam’s Lamb. In both books, a man abducts a girl (because yes, even though James is Peggy’s father, what he does is abduction, stealing her away from her life and other family) for incredibly complex reasons of his own and takes her away to a solitary place, where he feels in control, not just of the girl but of something bigger: life, maybe. And like David Lamb, Peggy is an unreliable narrator, not just because she is a child, but because she is in a sense broken forever by being taken away. No doubt about it, what happens to Peggy is clear-cut child abuse. For me, this was the most difficult thing about the book. I had very little empathy for James (although I did have a strange empathy for David Lamb, but I wonder if I would have had the story been told from the girl’s point of view). Aside from the abduction, even in real life, I have no patience for survivalist types. While so many readers (and movie fans) found Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild tragic and romantic—promising young man yearns for more authentic way of life, so gives up all worldly possessions and hits the open road—I saw someone who was quite possibly mentally ill and breaking down. That’s also what the reader sees in James/Papa, no matter how Peggy presents him. And while he cares for as best he can, he is also prone to mood swings, and we know always what he has done to her—and to Ute.

Yet this is still Peggy’s story, and she must be allowed to tell it in her own way. We will never really know what she endured in the woods. It’s the beauty of Fuller’s writing that makes this book so difficult to put down. This novel is so remarkable for a debut, and the author was 47 when it was published, which just goes to show that not every talented, promising writer is under 25 (or 30). And on that note, let’s have some music.

Reader’s Journal: Brilliance

Brilliance (Brilliance Saga, #1)I’m not going to lie to you. I bought Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance because I heard that Gillian Flynn liked it a couple of years ago. And even after hearing that Gillian Flynn recommended it, I didn’t buy it right away. I waited until it was $1.99 on Kindle and thought, “Might as well.” It took me more than two years to get around to reading it, even with people heaping praise on it left and right. And now here I am, ready to heap praise.

Nick Cooper is an agent in the Equitable Services division of the Department of Analysis and Response. Beginning in 1980, large groups of children with abnormally high intelligence were born, a trend that continued to increase over the following decades. At first thought to be a benefit, these brilliants begin to manipulate systems created by normal people, who start to see them as threat. After a brilliant takes over the stock market and causes global financial systems to collapse, the divide between normal people and abnorms, as the brilliants become known, begins to grow.

Defending national security, Cooper hunts abnorms for Equitable Services. The thing is, Cooper himself an abnorm. A series of deadly events cause him to go underground to hunt the abnorm terrorist the agency believes is behind a series of escalating attacks, but in the process, Cooper learns some difficult truths about the abnorm movement that make him call into question just who the good guys are and where his loyalties really lay.

I don’t know what it was about this book, but I could not put it down. At first, it bothered me because while Sakey is a solid writer, he also uses some tired techniques and tropes that typically irritate me enough to put a book down. For example, why do so many thriller writers use characters’ full names, even after they’ve been introduced multiple times, or even been referred to by a single name in a preceding sentence or paragraph? Example:

He went looking for Valerie West—there’d been no need to snap at her that way, especially when it sounded like she had something—and found the whole team together and frenetic…Luisa Abrahams leaned over her shoulder, talking fast into the phone. Bobby Quinn, bulky with a vest, was checking the load on his weapon.

This is on page 106, people. The reader has already been introduced to these characters a dozen times. Just a couple of pages before, they were simply “Valerie” and “Luisa.”

And then there are the sections in italics, to show that Nick Cooper (see what I did there?) is talking to himself. This isn’t terrible, but Sakey often starts these sections mid-sentence, like so:

About six foot, long hair, and a black t-shirt, a shotgun in his hand, the barrel swinging and—

Shotguns are bad news; the wide spread of buckshot cuts down your edge.

But the holes in the door were small, fist-size.

He’s firing double- or even triple-ought shells. Call it six nine-millimeter pellets in each. Incredibly lethal, but intended for tactical operations, which means a full choke in the barrel for precision. The lead will only spread about eighteen inches over fifty yards.

And he’s not even ten feet away.

—his finger tightening on the trigger, and Cooper stepped sideways ten inches as a blast of fire bloomed from the barrel  of the shotgun and the metal shards hurtled through the space he had been standing in.

A little annoying, but as the pages fly by (and they do fly, for the pacing is absolutely spot-on) you get used to it. The only other thing was that when it comes to sex, it’s like Sakey turns into a sixteen-year-old boy writing a letter to Penthouse. For example, he actually uses the phrase “he rode her.” No joke. So just…yeah.

But purple prose and annoying tics aside, Brilliance really is a hell of a story. I should mention that Sakey doesn’t make Cooper go through all this alone—he gives him an abnorm counterpoint, a woman named Shannon, and Sakey creates just the right chemistry between these two characters: they compete, they bicker, they joke, and while they don’t completely trust each other, they need each other. And so even though he can seem silly and sexist, I give Sakey credit for creating Shannon, because she’s likable and strong in her own right, and Cooper really does admire her.

So I’m a little all over the place and not heaping quite as much praise as I thought, but really, trust me: If you’re looking for a page-turner (and a trilogy, because this is book one) and you like thrillers and/or dystopian fiction, you cannot go wrong with Brilliance. I give it four solid stars.

If Books Were Wishes: 10 Recent Adds to the TBR

For today’s Top Ten (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish), we’ve all been asked to list the top ten recent additions to our TBR queue. Now I don’t know about you, but I have two TBR queues, really: one for books I want to read, and one for books I own, but because I don’t automatically read books as I buy them (because that would just make sense), today I’m going with a sample of books I recently added to my wishlist over the last couple of months. Some of those books were in my Top Ten post last week (2015 books I missed), so I’m not going to repeat those here. Instead, you get a fresh, shiny new list! I’ve compiled these from my Goodreads To-Read list and my Amazon Wishlist. (I’m slowly trying to move my wishlist over to Goodreads, but there are over 400 books on that list, so…yeah.)

Girl Waits with GunGirl Waits with Gun, Amy Stewart. I’ve heard so many great things about this book, and I find the description really charming. “Constance Kopp doesn’t quite fit the mold. She towers over most men, has no interest in marriage or domestic affairs, and has been isolated from the world since a family secret sent her and her sisters into hiding fifteen years ago. One day a belligerent and powerful silk factory owner runs down their buggy, and a dispute over damages turns into a war of bricks, bullets, and threats as he unleashes his gang on their family farm. When the sheriff enlists her help in convicting the men, Constance is forced to confront her past and defend her family — and she does it in a way that few women of 1914 would have dared.”

DocDoc, Mary Doria Russell. Because you all know I am a sucker for Westerns. I can’t believe I didn’t know anything about this book (or its follow-up, Epitaph) until a week ago. “Born to the life of a Southern gentleman, Dr. John Henry Holliday arrives on the Texas frontier hoping that the dry air and sunshine of the West will restore him to health. Soon, with few job prospects, Doc Holliday is gambling professionally with his partner, Mária Katarina Harony, a high-strung, classically educated Hungarian whore. In search of high-stakes poker, the couple hits the saloons of Dodge City. And that is where the unlikely friendship of Doc Holliday and a fearless lawman named Wyatt Earp begins–before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral links their names forever in American frontier mythology when neither man wanted fame or deserved notoriety.”

The Kind Worth KillingThe Kind Worth Killing, Peter Swanson. Got to have a great thriller on the list! It amazes me that ten years ago, I never would have even looked at some of the books that have become favorites of mine, just because they weren’t “literary fiction.” “On a night flight from London to Boston, Ted Severson meets the mysterious Lily Kintner. Sharing one too many martinis, the strangers begin to play a game of truth, revealing intimate details about themselves. Ted talks about his marriage and his wife Miranda, who he’s sure is cheating on him. But their game turns dark when Ted jokes that he could kill Miranda for what she’s done. Lily, without missing a beat, says calmly, ‘I’d like to help.'”

Crossing to SafetyCrossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner. I own Angle of Repose and read about a third of it many years ago. I don’t know why I put it down, but I’d love to read both of these books this year. “Called a ‘magnificently crafted story . . . brimming with wisdom’ by Howard Frank Mosher in The Washington Post Book World, Crossing to Safety has, since its publication in 1987, established itself as one of the greatest and most cherished American novels of the twentieth century. Tracing the lives, loves, and aspirations of two couples who move between Vermont and Wisconsin, it is a work of quiet majesty, deep compassion, and powerful insight into the alchemy of friendship and marriage.”

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling). I read The Cuckoo’s Calling in December and enjoyed it so much that I added this and Career of Evil to the TBR instantly. Fun fact: that was my first Rowling. Does it count? “When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days—as he has done before—and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.”

 

The Tsar of Love and TechnoThe Tsar of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra. This could have easily gone on last week’s list, too. I haven’t heard a bad word about it, and I’ve also had his novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, on my TBR since it was published. Oy. ” A 1930s Soviet censor painstakingly corrects offending photographs, deep underneath Leningrad, bewitched by the image of a disgraced prima ballerina. A chorus of women recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town. Two pairs of brothers share a fierce, protective love. Young men across the former USSR face violence at home and in the military. And great sacrifices are made in the name of an oil landscape unremarkable except for the almost incomprehensibly peaceful past it depicts.”

Days of AweDays of Awe, Lauren Fox. Honestly, from the description, this doesn’t sound like a book I would pick, because it seems justthisside of chick lit. I’ve read so many compelling reviews, though, I thought I should give it a chance. “Only a year ago Isabel Moore was married, the object of adoration of her ten-year-old daughter, and thought she knew everything about her wild, extravagant, beloved best friend, Josie. But in that one short year: her husband moved out and rented his own apartment; her daughter grew into a moody insomniac; and Josie — impulsive, funny, secretive Josie — was killed behind the wheel in a single-car accident. As Isabel tries to make sense of this shattering loss and unravel the months leading up to Josie’s death, she comes to understand the shifts, large and small, that can upend a friendship and an entire life.”

OreoOreo, Fran Ross. I had never heard of this re-issued novel (originally published in the early 1970s) until I saw it on the Tournament of Books list. I’m interested because it was written so close to both the Civil Rights and the Women’s Rights movements, but then is also written to recall Greek mythology. “Oreo is raised by her maternal grandparents in Philadelphia. Her black mother tours with a theatrical troupe, and her Jewish deadbeat dad disappeared when she was an infant, leaving behind a mysterious note that triggers her quest to find him. What ensues is a playful, modernized parody of the classical odyssey of Theseus with a feminist twist, immersed in seventies pop culture, and mixing standard English, black vernacular, and Yiddish with wisecracking aplomb. Oreo, our young hero, navigates the labyrinth of sound studios and brothels and subway tunnels in Manhattan, seeking to claim her birthright while unwittingly experiencing and triggering a mythic journey of self-discovery like no other.”

Watch Me GoWatch Me Go, Mark Wisniewski. Some modern noir for the list. “Douglas “Deesh” Sharp has managed to stay out of trouble living in the Bronx, paying his rent by hauling junk for cash. But on the morning Deesh and two pals head upstate to dispose of a sealed oil drum whose contents smell and weigh enough to contain a human corpse, he becomes mixed up in a serious crime. When his plans for escape spiral terribly out of control, Deesh quickly finds himself a victim of betrayal—and the prime suspect in the murders of three white men. When Jan, a young jockey from the gritty underworld of the Finger Lakes racetrack breaks her silence about gambling and organized crime, Deesh learns how the story of her past might, against all odds, free him from a life behind bars.”

The Sparrow (The Sparrow, #1)The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell. Yes, another book from Russell, but this one completely different. I have heard so many people sing this book’s praises that I decided I have to find out what it’s all about. Of everything on this list, this is the one I am most likely to request at the library in April, after my three-month exile. “In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet that will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question what it means to be human.”

Your turn! Have you read any of these books? Do you have any of them on your TBR—or will you be adding them now? Happy reading!

Reader’s Journal: A Brief History of Seven Killings

A Brief History of Seven KillingsI’m sorry to say that Marlon James’s Man-Booker Prize winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings is my first DNF of the year.  I got all the way to page 314 (with lots of skimming) before giving up the ghost.

On the one hand, James is a fantastic writer, and the book’s premise—an imaginary, close look at the people and events surrounding the very real 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley in Kingston, Jamaica—is fascinating. On the other hand, when you first open the book you’re provided with a long list of characters. Typically this doesn’t bother me at all, but in this novel, the continuous switching between points of view of that long list of characters kept me at a distance. Added to that, several characters speak in the local patois. James is a skilled and sure enough writer that every single one of those characters sounds absolutely unique, but in some ways that makes it all the more difficult to pick up the rhythms of speech and slang. Beyond that, characters are sometimes high and riddled with adrenaline and relaying action through stream of consciousness or even as a form of rap. Instead of making me feel more immersed in the story, all of this just distanced me from it. I felt too aware of the writing to be aware of the story, and while I connected with some of the characters (Papa Lo, Nina Burgess, Josey Wales), others left me feeling flat (Bam-Bam, Barry DiFlorio), or just annoyed (Alex Pierce).

One thing that made me keep reading as long as I did was that James made me feel Kingston, Jamaica. I’ve never wanted to go there—I have trouble with the idea of exploiting a place for its beauty when there is so much poverty—but that doesn’t mean I am not keen to learn about what it’s like beyond the fences of whatever all-inclusive resorts most people visit or beyond the typical college student’s idea of beach shacks and Rasta and reggae music. James presents a vivid portrait of the city through many different view points, and the place comes alive from the ghettos to the high rises built by Americans and Europeans.

One reason I wanted to read A Brief History of Seven Killings was that I’d seen it compared favorably to The Wire (one of the best television shows of all time, in my humble opinion) in several reviews. It’s an apt comparison, because they are both complex, many layered stories with a large cast of characters, but also because James’s novel is cinematic. This is the rare novel I think would work better as an HBO mini-series than it does as a written narrative. The ability to see and hear the characters directly would, at least for me, remove some of the distance I felt from the story because I could focus more on the complex characters and intriguing story. I feel weird saying that because a common gripe of mine when it comes to reviews is that everyone (even me) talks about plot or if they like the characters, but very seldom do they talk about the writing  all the way down to the sentence level. And don’t get me wrong, James is a skillful and talented writer, but for me, the writing got in the way, and was ultimately what made me decide to put the book down. Here’s hoping that David Simon is looking for material for a new show…