Monday, October 31, 2011

REVIEW: Nightmare Alley, by William Lindsay Gresham

Nightmare Alley, by William Lindsay Gresham. Originally published 1946; this edition 2010 by NYRB Classics.

Need a good suspenseful creep-out for Halloween? There's nothing truly supernatural in William Lindsay Gresham's neglected classic Nightmare Alley but there's plenty of grit, murder, lust, suspense and bitter black humor. Set in the 1930s in the American backwaters among the swindlers and small-time hustlers of the time, the book opens in a traveling carnival, where young Stan is learning the ropes of the carny life.

Hungry for opportunity, money and women, he takes up with Zeena, a beautiful performer and wife of an alcoholic showman; it doesn't take Stan long to rob them both of their trade secrets and go into business for himself, along with pretty showgirl Molly, a guileless ingenue.

They set up shop as spiritualists, taking advantage of a trend sweeping the country as desperate people grasp at whatever straws they can reach. It's the Depression, and times are hard; folks will listen to anyone who can sell them a morsel of hope. Stan and Molly become very successful, but it's never enough for Stan, who, with some help, sets his sights on a rich industrialist with a secret.

When it goes wrong, it does so quickly and irrevocably. Gresham, a man with his own sad life story (he committed suicide in a fleabag hotel after two failed marriages and a history as an addict and abuser), knew a lot about the world of carnivals and magicians; he coauthored a book about Harry Houdini with James Randi and was a lifelong skeptic of Spiritualism and other similar religious movements. He was also a vigorous and spellbinding writer; Nightmare Alley is a compelling page-turner with a vivid setting and crazy characters. Gresham peppers the story with carny slang, many words like carnival geek appearing here in print for the first time. A gripping, compulsively readable noir, Nightmare Alley will have you in its spell long after its devastating and ironic conclusion.

I read this for Jenn's Bookshelves' Murder, Monsters and Mayhem Challenge.

Rating: BUY

I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales. 

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

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sunday Salon- Taking It Easy Today

Today I'm sleeping in. I've just finished my first week as a bookseller and what a week it was. But today is a day off and I'm going to carve a pumpkin and maybe go out for brunch.

I've been reading a ton this week. I tried two galleys that bored me so I put them aside, then went for Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child. Both were terrific, creepy short reads and highly recommended. Today I'm reading Victor Lavalle's Big Machine, a science fiction award winner I picked up at Readercon last year.

See that? That's my shelf of staff picks at the bookstore. I love that I get to do this and talk to people all day long about great books. A lot of what I do is ready reference- find this book, etc., but every now and then I get to recommend a personal favorite or find a great book for someone. So fun.

But today I'm home and staying out of the snow and mess that's covering the roads. Tomorrow's Halloween and I'll put on my Star Trek costume to hand out candy. My husband is carving a Star Trek-themed pumpkin this year; I don't have a picture yet but you'll see it when I do! What are you up to today? I hope you're having a great day and a happy Halloween.

More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday Finds: What a Week in Bookselling Will Do

So, if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter you know my big news- I started working this week as a full-time bookseller at the New England Mobile Book Fair, the venerable independent bookstore in Newton, Mass. Open since 1957, it's a gigantic warehouse of books. It's wonderful, and I get to go there nearly every day. Well, spending my days in a warehouse of books where I get an employee discount is not going to be good for my book habit- or, it's going to be very good indeed. Here's what I picked up during my first week.
Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. I got it on Monday after I heard the announcement come over the loudspeaker "Steve Jobs is here."
Red Shift, by Alan Garner, is a science fiction/fantasy book about the same location in England over several hundred years. I understand there's a time-travel element and the book even includes a cipher at the end that the reader has to solve, to understand the ending. It's incredible looking and just intrigued me, so I had to pick it up.
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I've never read this classic about orphaned Mary who comes to live with her uncle in a mysterious, foreboding castle. Penguin has a new line of books called Penguin Threads- three books with embossed, embroidered covers. The other titles in the series are Emma by Jane Austen and Anna Sewell's Black Beauty. Look these up at your local indie- they really are gorgeous and would be a wonderful addition to your paperback library.

Serve the People! by Yan Lianke is a satire on Chinese politics. It was banned in China and anything banned or scandalous sounds like it's worth checking out.
What I Saw and How I Lied is the first of two young adult titles I picked up on the recommendation of my friend Nikki, a Scholastic rep. It's about a teenage girl and family secrets during World War 2. The other one is
Revolution, by Jennifer Connelly, about the French Revolution and another teen girl. All of these books look great and almost all of these books have been on my wishlist for a while. Red Shift and Serve the People! were the only impulse buys. But I can't wait to dive into every one!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

REVIEW: Everything Happens Today, by Jesse Browner

Everything Happens Today, by Jesse Browner. Published 2011 by Europa Editions. Fiction.

When I started reading Everything Happens Today I wasn't sure I was going to like it. It's the story of Wes, an affluent highschooler in New York City, and his various angst and problems. The story takes place over the course of one Saturday, the day after Wes has lost his virginity to the school flirt, a girl named Lucy. Wes has a number of problems. Although he has slept with Lucy, he's in love with a standoff-ish redhead named Delia. His mother is chronically, terminally ill, and it's the nurse's day off. His father is alienated from the family. And Wes feels responsible for the well-being of his beloved little sister Nora. On top of that, he has a paper to write, dinner to cook, and a dog to walk.

The book sort of comes across as a more-privileged version of that other teen-boy angst book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Browner's book lacks the other book's profanity but there's still plenty of sex and drugs, not mention angst. As Browner charts Wes's interior life in vivid detail, the narrative also covers exactly what happened the night before, which is not what we're lead to expect at first, and the history of his relationship with Delia. A somewhat typically self-absorbed teenager, Wes's perceptions are not entirely accurate, as we come to see as we get to know the characters. Wes becomes more sympathetic as his understanding of these people sharpens. By the end, Browner brings into the story a sort of gentle wisdom, chiding Wes but still very affectionate towards him.

I have a feeling I am not the ideal reader for this book. I think it would appeal more to readers closer in age to the protagonist for one, and to fans of young adult literature more in general. Up to the minute in terms of social and technological references and brimming with the energy and urgency of youth, Everything Happens Today has the potential to be a coming of age cult classic but I have to admit teen-boy-angst is not my own favorite subject. So it's another book where I'm going to leave it up to you. I think it does what it does well and I think fans of these kinds of books will enjoy it.

This counts towards the Europa Challenge.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

REVIEW: The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje

The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje. Published 2011 by Random House. Literary Fiction.

I haven't read anything by Michael Ondaatje in a long time, not since probably 1993 or 1994, when I first read The English Patient, his Booker Prize winner about people caught up in the maelstrom of World War 2. The Cat's Table examines a more intimate corner of the post-war world, one of migrations and movements, of the after-lives of that world. Eleven year old Michael is on board the Oronsay, a ship traveling from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to England, where Michael will join his mother and start a new life. He will be on the ship for three weeks. Joining him is an array of personages; he is nominally looked after by one Flavia Prins, a first-class passenger who rarely interacts with her charge. He meets two boys around his age, Ramadhin and Cassius. Ramadhin is a delicate boy with a heart condition who dies young; Cassius is a boisterous trouble-maker like Michael, and together the three boys run around, have adventures and get involved in the various goings-on aboard ship.

The narrative travels back and forth through time and the shipboard segments have a picaresque quality. We see the passengers and their activities through a child's eyes and so we don't always get a full picture of what's going on. There's a single woman named Miss Lasqueti who reads romance novels and seems to be transporting pigeons, a silent red-scarfed tailor, Michael's glamorous older cousin Emily and an enigmatic prisoner only seen at night. These characters and others are connected in a shadowy drama that emerges slowly, both for Michael and for the reader. In the meantime Ondaatje treats the reader to the details of shipboard life- the food, the boys' activities, their wanderings and their various escapades.

The "cat's table" is set up as the opposite of the Captain's Table, where the rich and powerful sit. The cat's table is for the marginalized, the least-desirable passengers:
In any case, it seemed to us that nearly all at our table...might have an interesting reason for their journey, even if it was unspoken or, so far, undiscovered. In spite of this, our table's status on the Oronsay continued to be minimal, while those at the Captain's Table were constantly toasting one another's significance. That was a small lesson I learned on the journey. What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.
Ondaatje's style of writing is understated and sort of delicate. At the Boston Book Festival Ondaatje said he edits his work with a "microscopic" attention to nuance and he does write with the precision of poet (which he is).  There is a lot of emotional content to the book. It's a story about not just what happens aboard ship but aboutt the lifetime it takes Michael to process everything that's happened and how others, especially Emily, Cassius and Ramadhin, have been affected by their time on the Oronsay. Not to mention himself.

So I wouldn't describe The Cat's Table as a page-turner. It was a slow read for me, in part because I always struggle through picaresques and in part because that carefully-wrought writing just demands a slow reader. I admired this book; I didn't love it, but I might love it more on a second reading. I would recommend it for readers seeking an intensely emotional, finely crafted book over which to linger. I enjoyed it and I'm glad I read it, but I'll let you decide for yourself if it sounds like the right book for you.


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

Monday, October 24, 2011

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well, after this weekend's Read-a-thon, I was able to finish up a small stack of books and start a new one. Now, I'm reading
  • The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carleton, which I'm loving,
  • Growing Up, by Angela Thirkell, a during-the-war novel set in rural England, a wonderful treat of a book, and
  • I'm starting The Prague Cemetary, Umberto Eco's new book, later today.
And I'll be buying the Steve Jobs biography this week the minute it hits the shelves!

I can't wait to tell you more about The Moonflower Vine. I know a lot of you would really like it! I'm trying not to blaze through it but it's a wonderful read, one you don't want to put down and don't want to ever finish.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted at BookJourney.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sunday Salon - Read-a-Thons and Other Stuff

Yesterday was the 24 Hour Read-a-Thon and I decided at the last minute to participate. I used the opportunity to finish three books that I'd been reading simultaneously; it was a great day of reading and relaxing and blogging! Now I'm deep into Jetta Carleton's The Moonflower Vine, republished recently by HarperCollins after being out of print since 1962. It's a wonderful family story set during the early 20th century in Missouri. But it's not a sappy heartwarmer; it's about a family full of turmoil and conflict, beautifully written. I don't do sappy heartwarmers, generally speaking.

I want to extend my thanks to everyone who helped organize the Read-a-Thon and to all the cheerleaders and commenters. The Read-a-Thons are great community events and it's always so much fun to participate, when I remember they're happening!

Challenge-wise, I read my two Europa Editions for October- Everything Happens Today and Poisonville. The review for Everything will be forthcoming this week. For next month, I think I'll read The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, by Beryl Bainbridge, and Days of Fear, by Daniele Mastrogiacomo. I've been meaning to read more nonfiction and Mastrogiacomo's book about being held captive by the Taliban sounds really fascinating.

Activity-wise it's been a slow week for me. Life is about to get busier but I'll have more on that next week. In the mean time this evening I'm looking forward to a big family birthday party and some more reading today, in between bouts of housework.

Just for fun, here's a picture of my Pandora-kitty enjoying her yellow chair. Is she cute or what?

I started a blog on Tumblr. Come follow me! I'll post miscellaneous bookish stuff there from time to time- random stuff that catches my attention.

What are you up to today? Sorry for the brief post but there's not much to talk about today! I hope you're having a great Sunday. More Sunday Salon here.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Read-a-Thon Dinner Break Update

So, I finished Everything Happens Today, by Jesse Browner and thanks to your suggestions have started the (so far) luminous The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carleton. This was another one of those books, like Nightmare Alley, that I just picked up in the store. Sometimes the best books are the ones no one's told you to read!

Now? Gonna eat a slice of pizza and maybe a slice of my husband's chocolate birthday cake, then get back to the book!

Read-a-Thon Lunch Break Update

Okay! I finished two of my four Read-a-Thon books and I'm looking for something new to start once I've finished at least one more.

Done are:
The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje. Liked, didn't love.  A book to admire for me, not one to swoon over. Full review on Tuesday.

Nightmare Alley, by William Lindsay Gresham. Not to put too fine a point on it but OH MY GOD I LOVED THIS BOOK. It's a noir thriller perfect perfect perfect for your Halloween reading pleasure. It's got murder, lust, lies, and the carnival. What more can you ask for?

Some things I'm choosing from for my next read:

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away, from Christie Watson and Other Press.

Vestments, by John Reiminger, about a Catholic priest and a crisis of faith.

The Meaning of Night, by Michael Cox, a Victorian murder mystery. More Halloweeny fun?

The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carelton, a recovered classic from the Depression era.

You tell me what to read next & I'll do what you say! Right now? I'm throwing on some jeans and a hoodie and getting me a hamburger.

24-Hour Readathon- A Late Entry

I just heard about the 24 Hour Read-a-Thon yesterday and decided to participate late last night. My stash? I'm reading four books right now:
  • The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje (almost done),
  • Everything Happens Today, by Jesse Browner (3/4 done),
  • Nightmare Alley, by William Lindsay Gresham (2/3 done), and
  • Growing Up, by Angela Thirkell (1/3 done).
So I'm going to work on these books and if I finish something, I'll grab something short out my TBR pile. I'm going to start around 9 am this morning and then I'll just keep going.

I'll check in every now and then with my fellow participants and cheer them on. You do the same if you can- this is a great community event in the book blogosphere! I'll see you back here later.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Four Finds for Friday

The Great Northern Express, a writing memoir due out in the spring from author Howard Frank Mosher, and Walking to Gatlinburg, his recent novel, came from a publisher-rep friend who wants me to get to know this author better. So I will!

Have you read Howard Frank Mosher? What do you think of his work?

I attended the Boston Book Festival last weekend and had a great time; among other things, I spent some time browsing the publisher stalls and who did I find but one of my favorite small presses, Melville House! I came home with two books from them too:
Faithful Ruslan, by Georgi Vladimov, is part of their Neversink Library series, a series which aims to bring back overlooked classics; this book is about the Soviet prison system and the dogs that worked with the prison guards.
He Died with His Eyes Open, by Derek Raymond, is a crime novel that came highly recommended by the Melville House folks at the festival. How could I say no?

What's new on your shelf this week? Have a great day. More Friday Finds at

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

REVIEW: Poisonville, by Massimo Carlotto and Marco Videtta

Poisonville, by Massimo Carlotto and Marco Videtta. Published 2009 by Europa Editions. Crime Fiction. Translated from the Italian by Anthony Shugaar.

I know I said that I'd probably never read another Massimo Carlotto book after the downer that was Death's Dark Abyss but something about Poisonville just pulled me in (and I liked Death's Dark Abyss but, well, read my review). Anyway, this second visit to Carlotto's corrupt, messed-up world was less violent and sexually disturbing than the first, and offered up a fun mystery, too.

Set in an economically-struggling northern town beset by corruption and ruled by a closed-in class of aristocrats, a young lawyer from a disgraced family is found dead along with evidence that she's been having a degrading sexual affair. Francesco is her fiance and the scion of a respected legal family; he is first a suspect then the self-appointed lead investigator into her sordid death. Along the way he must revisit the scandal that ruined her family, expose various secrets and confront some very uncomfortable truths about the things and people he holds dear.

I figured out who the killer was pretty quickly, I will admit, thanks more to my soap-opera training than to any deductive skills.  Like a good crime novel, Carlotto and Videtta include a colorful cast of extras, like Giovanna's plucky best friend, her crazy ex and his controlling mother to liven up the proceedings. Carlotto and Videtta try hard to make the book about something bigger than sex and scandal by tying Giovanna's death to local pollution, corruption and sex-trafficking activity that has absorbed nearly all of the city's elite. But at its heart, Poisonville is good trashy fun that crime readers of all stripes will enjoy, right to the very bitter end.

I read this for the Europa Challenge and for Jenn of Jenn's Bookshelves Murder, Monsters & Mayhem Challenge.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

REVIEW: Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, by Danielle Evans

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, by Danielle Evans. Published 2010 by Riverhead. Literary Fiction. Short Stories.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Danielle Evans' debut collection, knocked my socks off, spun them around in the laundry and hung them out to dry.

Need to know more? Evans' book is a collection of eight stand-alone stories told by very different people in very different walks of African-American life. "Virgins" is about teenage girls playing with their fire of their burgeoning sexuality and getting themselves mixed up in dangerous territory; it's as scary and thrilling as the girls' own adventures. In "Harvest" we get to know undergraduate who envies her white friend Laura, who makes a lot of money selling her eggs. "Snakes" is about Tara, nine years old and mixed-race, visiting her white grandmother for the first time. Her grandmother favors Tara's cousin Allison and scares Tara with stories about giant snakes running loose through the woods.

But the story I'll always think of when I think about this collection is "Someone Ought to Tell Her There's Nowhere to Go," about Georgie, a veteran returning from overseas to an ex-girlfriend and her little girl named Esther, not his, but whom he loves like she was. He starts taking care of her- taking her to the mall mostly- while her mother is working. They're poor but Esther wants to go to a tween pop star's concert, a ticket to which costs over two hundred dollars. Georgie enters her in a contest under false pretenses, with disastrous results.

Reading Before You Suffocate wasn't like reading stories- it was like reading eight miniature novels. Words like "vivid" and "detailed" are often used to describe well-crafted short stories and these are both, but what really makes this collection stand out is the emotional immediacy that Evans creates, the way she makes such believable, relate-able and sympathetic people often in very difficult-to-fathom situations. As appalling as Georgie's actions are, they're also completely understandable; I pitied him but I could see exactly how he ends up where he does, and why Esther's mother reacts the way she does, too. All of the stories have these flawed, richly drawn characters struggling alone through some kind of morass, mostly of their own making. It's an incredible collection, highly recommended. You can bet I'll be first in line for her novel. If you read just one volume of short stories this year, better make it this one.

Also, please check out my friend King Rat's review here. His review sold me on the book.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Musing Mondays: Judging a Book by its Cover

This week’s musing asks…
Do you judge a book by its cover?
All the time! Who doesn't? Cover art sets the tone, gives you a clue about the theme, subject or setting of a book. If you're writing about about, say, Marie Antoinette, and you put a movie-tie-in picture from the Sophia Coppola film with Kirsten Dunst in a floppy hat, that's going to make a pretty different impression than, say, her portrait by Vigée-Lebrun. And those choices are deliberate and done to attract different kinds of readers. I paid $15.99 for the trade paperback of one book because I liked the cover and the overall packaging better than the $7.50 mass market version. Books are products like anything else, and of course the outside matters. The inside is what really counts, but who doesn't love a pretty thing?

More Musing Mondays at

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sunday Salon- Lots of Book Events

I'm at the end of a week simply packed with books, bookstores and bookish events. I may be headed towards bookish burnout if I'm not careful! (I don't think that will happen though!)

On Monday my husband and I did some book shopping on the North Shore- we went up to Manchester By The Book, a used-and-rare bookshop to browse. I bought a book of old poetry and a paperback- no big deal. I visited another store, New England Mobile Book Fair, twice. Then on Thursday I went to a reading by the very charismatic Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow at the Harvard Book Store. Jones is a fellow at Harvard University and had a large audience of fans and friends in attendance. Then on Friday, I went to the New England Independent Booksellers' Association trade show, where I got to say hi to friends and find lots of new reads. I stopped by Occupy Boston on my way to the train Friday morning and snapped this picture:

Saturday was the 3rd annual Boston Book Festival. I bumped into lots of pals, including authors Steve Himmer and Holly LeCraw and the folks from Melville House who were there selling books (yes, I bought one, Faithful Ruslan, a Soviet-era prison novel). As far as events, I got to see Gregory Maguire, Alison Bechdel, Seth and Daniel Clowes, among others, and because I ponied up for reserved tickets, Jeff and I got second-row seats to Michael Ondaatje's keynote. He was amazing. But I learned something about myself. I really dislike squeezing into tiny chairs in dark rooms. I can't tell you in much detail about any event save Ondaatje's, because at everything else I went to, there may have been some napping at some point.

Ondaatje didn't have time to pose with me, but I still got to get my picture taken with an A-list celebrity, as you can see.

Today I'm switching gears completely and going to the King Arthur Renaissance Fair! No books at a Renaissance Fair!

October has sort of slipped away from me reading-wise. Today I'm working on three books: Silver Sparrow, Growing Up, by Angela Thirkell, an English country novel I'm reading for fun, and Ondaatje's The Cat's Table. Next up will be my Halloween pick, Nightmare Alley, by William Lindsay Gresham. I'm supposed to be reading Everything Happens Today, by Jesse Browner, for the Europa Challenge, but I may have to pick something else. We'll see. Then I'm just going to pick something at random off my overflowing bookshelves, which is what I recommend all of you do, too.

What are you up to? I hope you have a great Sunday. More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday Finds- Lots of New Books on the Shelf

The Cantor's Daughter, short stories by Scott Nadelson about Jewish residents of a New Jersey suburb, arrived via Bookmooch.

I picked up G. by John Berger at a local indie. It's a Booker Prize winner and one of the last I have to collect. After this I think there are only three or four that I don't have or have read.
One Hundred Great Jewish Books, by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, arrived from Meryl Zegarek Publicity. Hoffman is an acclaimed scholar and this book looks like a lot of fun.
Moffie, by Andre Carl van der Merwe is about a gay man in the South African military during Apartheid, and was a little present to myself that I picked up at a local indie. It's one of two new Europa Editions books I added this week.
The second is The Father and The Foreigner, by Giancarlo De Cataldo. Both Europas look great! I've been meaning to pick up Moffie since it came out but The Father was an impulse buy.
Finally, I got Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones' acclaimed novel about a family formed through bigamy. I got see Jones speak last night and read from the book; she was terrific and I've started reading this great novel already. I'm really enjoying it!

By the way, speaking of Europa Editions, today on the Europa Challenge blog we have an interview with Editor in Chief Michael Reynolds about Europa's new Tonga imprint. Check it out!

What did you add to your shelf this week? More Friday Finds at