Monday, August 18, 2014

7th Blogiversary and Big News

Happy Blogiversary to me! Seven years, wow. I love you guys. And I love books and blogging. I can't say how much this project has enhanced my life and given me so many friends, opportunities and good times.

That said, I'm about to go on hiatus.

My husband got a job in Manhattan and we are moving to New York, like, now. So, I need to take some time off from the blog, not that I've been posting much lately anyway. But I'll be back!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Throwback Thursday Review: THE FORGIVEN, by Lawrence Osborne

The Forgiven, by Lawrence Osborne. Published 2012 by Hogarth Press. ISBN 978-0307889034.

 I think I need to read everything Hogarth Press publishes.

Hogarth is a new imprint of Random House, named after the press founded in 1917 by Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf. Our Hogarth Press is a new home for edgy, voice-driven fiction, and it produces about four titles a season. I've read three Hogarth titles now and each has been outstanding in its own way. The Watch, by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, was a brilliant indictment of the war in Afghanistan; The Dead Do Not Improve, by Jay Caspian Kang, was a comic crime novel set in San Francisco among hipsters, gangbangers and surfers, and now there's The Forgiven, a searing, atmospheric story of lust and death in the Moroccan desert.

David and Jo Henninger are a wealthy British couple on their way to a weekend bacchanal at a lavish estate; Richard and Dally, their hosts, spare no expense to give their friends a getaway filled with bountiful meals, free-flowing wine, and sex, and drugs, and whatever else they want. But David has had too much to drink and the couple gets lost on the way. They hit and kill a young Moroccan man named Driss, who may or may not have wished them ill, but who is, nonetheless, very dead. David and Jo arrive at the party with the young man's corpse in tow. Richard and Dally and their servant Hamid wait to see what will happen next, which is that Driss's father shows up and makes David an offer he can't refuse.

In the mean time, the narrative alternates between the party and Driss's short life, including his adventures in France, which story may or may not be true. Osborne, a travel writer, excels at creating atmosphere and mood; the plot is enough to keep you going but it isn't really the point. What's interesting to watch is the way the characters develop, the way each reacts to the crisis and how the grow and change. The characters' interactions and reactions to each other make up so much of the action, their prehistoric prejudices collapsed into modern day post-colonialism and post-9/11 anxiety. The Moroccans in the book make their living selling fossils, the characters' attitudes towards each other as old and as integral to who they are as the ammonites and trilobites they buy and sell. Both sides are stained to the marrow with hostility and hatred; neither side can do anything to please the other, except, maybe, the one thing David refuses to do.

So, I loved it. Even though the plot is far from razor-sharp, I was riveted to this book which manages to be both slow to savor and quick to read. It's intoxicating and langorous but at the same time I really wanted to know what was going to happen. The answer, which doesn't come till the final line, is devastating. I strongly- strongly- recommend this to literary fiction readers and anyone else who would enjoy gorgeous armchair travel combined with a haunting, and haunted, narrative of lost souls.

Rating: BUY

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Review: TAKE THIS MAN, by Alice Zeniter

Take This Man, by Alice Zeniter. Published 2010 by Europa Editions.

Sometimes I think Europa ought to take a handful of its titles- just a handful- and try pitching them to a Young-Adult or New-Adult audience because I bet some titles would work well for that demographic, and they never get to those readers because they are shelved and marketed as adult literary fiction. Given that the distinction is often one of marketing and not merit, since YA is used to distinguish many fine novels by audience, books often miss appreciative readers because of where they are shelved. Recently Europa readjusted its strategies with its mysteries, grouping them into a World Noir line, and I wonder if it would be worth their while doing something similar with a select group of titles for teen readers.

And yes I think Take This Man would be an excellent candidate for just such a move. Set in modern day France, it tells the story of a couple, if you can call them that, Alice and Mad, French twentysomethings about to get married. They have been best friends since forever- they've always known each other and they love each other dearly- as friends. But Mad is from Mali and not a French citizen, and he is about to be deported, at least for years and possibly for the forseeable future. In a last-ditch effort to stay in France and get on the path to legal residency or citizenship (I am unclear on this point) Mad asks Alice to marry him. Alice loves him and considers herself a "child of socialism," a Mitterand-era-raised liberal and biracial child of a Caucasian French mother and Algerian father. She understands racism, despises the conservative trends in French political and social culture and jumps at the opportunity to do something concrete.

Alice's voice is what makes this book so distinctive. Author Zeniter writes Alice as energetic, vibrant and full of life; her sentences run on, she goes back and forth in time with anecdotes, relates all kinds of details and stories. Sometimes she seems very immature; she refers to her parents as "Mommydaddy" and most of her time seems occupied with social life. The move to marry Mad can come across as ill-considered and impulsive, the act of a child. But she also expresses a lot of angst, concern and real trepidation over the consequences of the decision for her and her friend even if she spends a lot of time congratulating herself too. She comes back time and again to the panic over losing Mad, his anxiety over having to leave France, and how this is something she has to do, like she's trying hard to convince herself and the world this is the right decision.

I enjoyed the book because I liked Alice and cared about what happened to her. The style of writing with its run-ons and associations and endless anecdotes about parties and friends and teenage life was not really my cup of tea but I liked the social message and politics and the guts it takes to really put yourself on the line for what you believe in. It has a certain lightness about it if you will even given the serious subject matter and one disturbing incident of racial harrassment suffered by Alice and her parents when Alice was little. It's a neat look at modern French life and the energy and verve of the writing is more than enough to get you through.

This is my ninth book for the 2014 Europa Challenge.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review: CLIMATES, by Andre Maurois

Climates, by Andre Maurois. Published 2012 by Other Press.

Climates was originally published in 1928 but not brought out in English until 2012. Author Andre Maurois was an acclaimed biographer, historian and writer who wore many hats; this novel is a somewhat melodramatic story of a marriage, or two marriages, each destined to founder due to nothing more than the vagaries of the human heart.

The novel is told in two parts, the first from the point of view of French industrialist Philippe Marcenat, who falls in love with the mercurial, beautiful Odile and makes her his wife. But the lively and changeable Odile can't content herself with bourgeois life. Philippe watches while she falls for another man and their childless marriage comes to an end. Philippe is devoted to Odile but is almost passive as she moves in society and takes a lover right under his nose.When she leaves him, it's almost like she was never there.

And yet she remains a strong presence in his life, a ghost who infects his subsequent relationships. The second part of the book is told from the point of view of Isabelle, Philippe's second wife, who could not be more different from the playful and outgoing Odile. Isabelle had a harsh childhood that has rendered her into an introverted and un-confident adult, a woman who dreads social engagement and wants above all to live a quiet life with her husband, whom she adores. She also watches her beloved fall into an affair with the very Odile-like Solange Villiers, a married woman and formidable society figure who does as she pleases, seeing her husband only a few weeks each year. But Isabelle isn't so passive as Philippe after all, and her fate is going to be different from either that of her husband or his first wife.

Climates is a very engaging and psychologically astute novel, about love and the sacrifices people are willing to make for their beloved and for their ideal of love, as well as how they handle the reality of love. It reminded me of a soap opera in that it is primarily about people who have little to do except worry about their love life, about women with little to occupy them to who turn to intrigue and gossip, and people who let their imaginations run wild with jealousy and the constant struggle to interpret their beloved's every word and action. It is a very romantic book in that it depicts the vagaries of romantic love, its moods and appetites and the different ways it shows itself. Solange Villiers is a very intriguing character, a sexually frank woman who controls her life rather than letting it be controlled, and such a contrast to either the girlish Odile or the pathologically timid Isabelle. Climates would be a wonderful literary beach book- smart and fluffy at the same time, perfect for daydreaming on a languorous summer's day when you don't have a care in the world.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I received this book from Other Press.

Monday, July 28, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Whew. Well, as predicted I finished a few books at once this past week. I finished and reviewed Alan Hollinghurst's magnificent The Line of Beauty; what a book. I said goodbye to Climates, by Andre Maurois, a melodramatic French novel from the 1920s about life and love. And I finished up Take This Man, a novel about a Frenchwoman who marries her Malian best friend to keep him from being deported. Reviews for both of these are scheduled; I'm trying to get into the habit of writing my reviews as soon as possible after I finish the book, so that I don't forget to write them. It does mean my reviews will be a little more on the raw side but that's OK.

But now I have started new books!
Red Joan, by Jennie Rooney, is a novel based on the true story of an elderly British woman who in the late years of the 20th century was revealed to be the oldest living KGB operative in Britain. I've always been fascinated by spy stories, and I'm about to start Ben Macintyre's new book about Kim Philby. And, I'm loving this one so far. Great writing, great story.

My new Booker Prize book is an old one, Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils. I've never read Amis before and so far (I'm just through the first chapter) I'm liking this a lot. It's got a lot of energy; it tells the story of more elderly Brits, this time a Welsh couple and their friends and the effect on them of the return of one of their own, now a famous poet. So far, so good!

I'm looking for one more to round out the selection, probably the Macintyre book. I'll keep you posted! What are you reading?

More at

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review: THE LINE OF BEAUTY, by Alan Hollinghurst

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst. Originally published 2005 by Bloomsbury USA. 2004 winner of the Man Booker Prize.

Reading a book like Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty really spoils you for other books, and no matter when you read it, you wonder what took you so long to get around to this luminous, sad and melancholy treasure.

Set in the 1980s among the political and social elite of London, it's basically a coming of age story about a character named Nick Guest, a gay man living in the home of his Oxford friend Toby Fedden. The Feddens are the epitome of political and social elite; father Gerald is a Tory MP whose star is on the rise, and it's the heyday of the Thatcher era. Toby and his friends are rich and carefree; they party, do drugs, have sex. Nick's background is more modest but he seems to fit right in. He's closeted, which in this time and place goes without saying, and coming out during the first flush of the AIDS crisis. But he's also anxious to be part of the gay life of London and begins a relationship with a man whom he meets through a personal ad. Later he and a member of the Feddens' set have a relationship too.

Nick is at the Feddens' because during college he was enamored of Toby and the two were friends, though nowadays it's Toby's sister Catherine to whom Nick is closest, and she's the only one who knows he's gay. She is also unstable and will cause the avalanche that brings everything down in the end.

Reading other reviews, the biggest problem other readers seem to have with the book is how unlikeable the characters are, and this is not a book to read if you're looking to meet your next literary best friend. But that consideration is as shallow as some of the characters in the book. This is a book in which the characters are just who they are, flawed and imperfect, just trying to make the best of things. Nick's boyfriends are the most sympathetic characters, to the extent anyone is. The Feddens are pretty much terrible people, with paper-thin loyalty and wholly beholden to public opinion, not the least because Gerald's career is that of an elected official. Nick is alienated from himself, trying to keep up a front while also trying to figure out who he is in the world.

What makes the book is Hollinghurst's incredibly beautiful writing, his detailed characterizations and his command of psychological nuances. It's like a Victorian novel set among 80s party kids. I can't pull out individual quotes because it's such a whole, every sentence flowing into the next. Reading it I just felt like, why can't every book be this good? It's definitely going to be among my favorites for the year and it's one of my favorites among the Booker winners, too. The story is tragic and sad, a love letter to an era that had its share of joy and pain, but it's that writing that will get you hooked and move you and make you feel for these deluded and difficult characters. It's so worth your time to read.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Challenge for Challenge Blogs

I participate and/or manage two group blogs- the Complete Booker Challenge, where I'm a participant, and the Complete Europa Challenge, which I started with a friend (who no longer participates) several years ago. Both blogs have been extremely active in the past- lots of members, frequent posts, etc., but in the past year or so participation in both has dropped off. The new manager of the Booker blog is looking for ideas, and so am I.

I love group blogs because you get lots of points of view and one place to read reviews on a theme. Doing the Europa Challenge has helped me get to know awesome people at a great publisher and has just been a lot of fun. Both blogs have helped motivate me to read great books and share my thoughts and get others' opinions. I love that I have places where folks like to read the same things I do, and we all talk about them together.

But as I said, things have been slow on both. Both blogs have loyal posters but there are an awful lot of tumbleweeds too.

Do you participate in a challenge or multi-reader blog? Do you have any tips or suggestions about how I can re-energize these? Are there any resources out there for leading group blogs?

How do folks run blog challenges these days? I don't really even know what's out there anymore. In the past I've done Irish literature challenges, Jewish literature challenges, World War 2 literature challenges, Pinterest challenges, etcetera. Granted I'm not a big joiner and sometimes I forget what I sign up for. And then my priorities change too.  So I understand what happens. But what can I do about it?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review: DOUBLE NEGATIVE, by Ivan Vladislavić

Double Negative, by Ivan Vladislavić. Published 2013 by And Other Stories Press.

A while back the publisher of And Other Stories Press came to visit the bookstore where I work, to tell us about his company and the kinds of books they publish. And Other Stories is a small press based in London which specializes in translations and literary fiction- in other words, just the kinds of things I read. Double Negative is a recent novel by South African writer IvanVladislavić, about a photographer dealing with post-Apartheid South Africa through the lens of his camera, and that other another and more famous photographer whom our protagonist, Neville Lister, met when he was young.

Neville didn't just meet the famous photographer, one Saul Auerbach. He went out on a shoot with Auerbach and watched as Auerbach photographed ordinary people in their homes, in a particular poor area of Johannesburg. Auerbach asks Neville to choose three houses to visit and they visit two of them. The stories the residents tell are beyond sad. The photos become famous, and Neville becomes a professional photographer although a commercial one and not an artistic one (or so he claims). Years pass. Neville moves away from South Africa to avoid military service and returns when Apartheid has been overturned. He has the opportunity to meet Auerbach again, at an exhibit of Auerbach's work. And he has become an unofficial archivist in his own right, holding a collection of dead letters. But over the years he's remained curious about the people they visited that day, and the one house they never did.

Author and photographer Teju Cole wrote a great introduction to this book where he talks about how Vladislavić uses metaphor to underscore the themes of memory, loss, growing up and coming to terms. The plot in this book is very thin; it feels like a memoir, like someone just telling you what happened, without adornment. The structure of the book and the use of metaphorical language throughout undercuts this plainness though. The book is a very carefully crafted meditation on truth and identity, but couched in a way that allows the reader to relax.

I enjoyed reading Double Negative a lot and I want to read more of Vladislavić's books and more of And Other Stories' books too. It didn't have the big emotional impact on me that books set in South Africa tend to- it lacks melodrama and harshness that one can find- but it was well worth reading and I look forward to more from Vladislavić and his publisher.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, July 21, 2014

What's New On The Shelf?

I don't have any new reads to tell you about- I'm still reading all the same books I was reading last week (maybe I need to just read one book at a time?) so I thought I would tell you about some new things that I've bought or found lying around.

Red Joan, by Jennie Rooney, is a newish book from Europa Editions based on a true spy story, about an elderly woman who was found to be one of the oldest living KGB operatives at age 87. It sounds really great! Europa sent this to me for review and I'm going to start just as soon as I finish Take This Man.

Naming the World is a book of writing exercises edited by Bret Anthony Johnston, author of Remember Me Like This and husband of my friend Jennifer. I'm hoping that it will help me get my own writing kick-started.

The Patron Saint of Ugly, by Marie Manilla, is about a red-haired Italian-American girl living in Sweetwater, West Virginia, who becomes the object of both veneration and fear for her healing powers and a trauma visited on her town. It seemed quirky and different and the reviews have all been glowing, so I decided to give it a chance.

Fluent Forever is a galley I found at work. Gabriel Wyner's book is a how-to on learning a foreign language efficiently and well. I've read the first few chapters and it's really interesting. I'm going to finish reading it and put its suggestions to use- and then report back to you! Language learning is a hobby of mine and I'm fascinated by different approaches and I definitely believe anyone can do it if you only put in the effort. So we'll see!

That's it! My book-accumulating has slowed to a trickle lately.  What are you reading today, or what have you picked up lately?

Friday, July 18, 2014

ThrowBack Thursday Review: THE LAST POLICEMAN, by Ben H. Winters

The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters. Published 2013 by Quirk Books.

The Last Policeman is the first of a trilogy and tells the story of Concord, New Hampshire detective Henry Palace, recently promoted after 15 months on the force. He's investigating the death of one Peter Zell,  an introverted accountant found hanged in a McDonald's bathroom. It looks like he killed himself. I mean, it really looks that way, and everyone thinks Palace's crazy to investigate, because these days everyone is killing himself. It's the end of the world, after all.

No, it really is. In the book, scientists have predicted that a mammoth asteroid is six months away from destroying life on Earth. Anarchy is settling in. People are pulling up stakes, going "bucket list" to do the things they always wanted to do. Cults are forming. Hopelessness abounds. And suicides are way, way up, so much so that no one even questions Zell's death. No one does, except for Palace.

The Last Policeman is more than just a mystery. It asks some searching questions about the choices that people make- would make, could make- when faced with the collective, inevitable, date-is-on-the-calendar end. It also asks us about our own lives, since each of us faces the inevitability of death with or without an asteroid. Society's steady dissolution is a major feature of the book; Palace struggles with the cynicism around him and inside him as he pursues Zell's killer. He almost gives up. Who could blame him? It looks just like a suicide; maybe it is.

I was totally glued to this book from page one. It was a staff pick of a fellow bookseller and I'm so glad she recommended it because I don't think I would have picked it up otherwise. I liked the combination of pre-apocalyptic science fiction and crime, and the setting of small-town New Hampshire was perfect. When the world ends, it won't just end in New York City; it'll end for all of us and Winters makes us consider the figurative impact of this asteroid through different levels of society and in places that don't normally come to mind when we think of catastrophe. And he wraps it up in a truly riveting mystery that will keep you guessing. Highly recommended!

P.S. Volume 2, Countdown City, is out now; there is no release date that I know of for #3 but I plan to read them together. I have to know how it all ends!

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.