Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review: DISTANT STAR, by Roberto Bolaño

Distant Star, by Roberto Bolaño. Published 2004 by New Directions. Literary Fiction. Crime fiction. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews.

Blood all around. That's my primary memory and impression of Distant Star, which I read back in the early spring for a crime fiction reading group I belonged to. Roberto Bolaño's novel, really little more than a novella, is about a man who infiltrates a circle of artists and poets and makes his first big splash by murdering a pair of charismatic sisters. The narrator then follows the career of this man for years until finally there is a confrontation.

Set in the 1970s after the rise of Pinochet in Chile, Bolaño creates a truly chilling picture of life in a dictatorship and how art can be used to track and trap political dissidents.

Alberto-Ruiz Tangle is the young man, a Chilean air force officer also known as Carlos Wieder. The book is an expansion on Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas but it's not just that. The narrator tries to keep track of Tangle/Wieder and document his crimes through zines, books, articles- anything he can get his hands on and at the same time the narrator and by extension the reader learns more and more about atrocities committed during Pinochet's regime.

Then the narrative moves to Europe and we also learn about the ex-patriate community there and the struggles of political refugees to carve out a new life and find community. And what happens when that community is infiltrated by one of the very people folks sought to escape.

When I saw this book on the reading list I wasn't too excited, because I tried to read Bolaño's 2666 when it came out (it was quite the hipster "it" book for a while) and found it unreadably language-driven with not nearly enough plot to keep me interested. This shorter book was a better fit for my plot-driven tastes. It kind of haunts me to this day.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, November 28, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

No big changes from last week.

I'm nine chapters into Empire of the Summer Moon, which I like a lot, and I'm continuing with The Patriots and The Sellout. I don't know what's taking me so long with The Sellout. We spent the weekend with family in New England and there wasn't as much time to read as I'd hoped, between visiting with folks and the fact that there was a "Simpsons" marathon on the teevee. So reading was not a high priority I guess.

Now that in my new job I'm spending a lot of time in the children's annex I decided I should be familiarizing myself with the middle grade books. To that end I picked up Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo, as a first introduction to the literature of that age group. I'm about halfway through and it's cute and fun. Flora is a "self-described cynic" and reminds me of a kind of nouvelle Ramona type. If you have any suggestions for middle grade books you think I would like, please feel free to leave them in the comments. Otherwise I have a few in mind. I hope to read one a month.

I hope my American readers had a nice Thanksgiving holiday and weekend. I did buy a book and pick up some galleys at my former place of employment, so there was that.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Review: A MAN OF GOOD HOPE, by Jonny Steinberg

A Man of Good Hope, by Jonny Steinberg. Published 2015 by Knopf. Nonfiction.

South African journalist Jonny Steinberg's deeply wonderful book is a combination of biography, interview and journalism examining the life Asad Abdullahi, a Somali man who moves across Africa and ultimately to the United States in search of the things most of us take for granted- a stable safe life, a family, and a future.

When A Man of Good Hope opens Abdullahi is a young teen whose family has just been destroyed by Somalia's civil war. He sees his mother killed and is charged with the care of an older female relative, which soon proves impossible. At first he goes to live with some relatives, but things don't work out, and he tossed from one makeshift home to the next to the next to the next, to one marriage, to another, to different ways of earning a living and ways of just staying alive, and you'll have to read the book to start to understand the cultural maelstroms he fights his way through, the obstacles and the odds which are never in his favor.

Steinberg tells the story mostly from Abdullahi's shopfront in South Africa, where for a time he runs a convenience store until local residents unhappy with the influx of refugees from across the continent nearly kill him. The South Africa portion of the book was the hardest for me because after everything he went through to get there and to try to settle down, it was awful to see it snatched away.

It's excruciating. What kept me reading was the reassurance, because the book is based on Steinberg's interviews with him and Steinberg makes the interview process part of the story, that Abdullahi is still alive and actually made it through what he went through. I don't know if I could take it if the end was a tragedy.

So it's a tough read but so rewarding and so worth it. It's one of those books where I learned a lot but still feel like I knew less than I did before. And those are really my favorite books- the ones that teach me something and show me how much more I have to learn at the same time. It was without a doubt one of the best books I read in 2015 and I recommend it strongly to readers interested in learning about the forces large and small that impact the lives of people with no country to call their own.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, November 21, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I finally finished A Season with the Witch, by J.W. Ocker, about a month he spent living in Salem, Massachusetts- October. He covers the witch culture in all its forms- the historical witches, Halloween, Wicca, and what it all means today. It was enjoyable and very very light. As a native of the area I enjoyed reading about my old haunts (no pun intended) and an outsider's take on a culture that is very close to my heart. The tone felt a little too flippant to me now and then but basically if you're curious about Salem it's a nice introduction and explanation of the city's contemporary culture.

Late last week I started Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. I picked this up a while back and finally started reading. It's pretty intense. After two kind of light history books, this is a big change- gritty, violent and emotionally challenging. I think I'm going to like it.

Fiction-wise I'm working my way through last week's reads, The Patriots and The Sellout. Still enjoying them! I couldn't find The Sellout for most of last week which is why I'm not further along. It's so good!

What are you reading?

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What's Hot in Early 2017

Next year is going to be a great one for books.

As we start to wind down 2016 and look towards 2017, certainly a lot of big changes are on the horizon, but one thing that stays the same is the exciting winter book season. Winter is the best time to read- nothing beats curling up with a hot cocoa or tea and a blanket while you dive into that great new book.

Here are some I'm looking forward to in the coming months.

Ill Will, by Dan Chaon. I finished reading this already and let me tell you, it's hot. Like, keep you up all night hot. If you've read him before I don't have to tell you because you already know. But if you're new to Chaon's work, you'll love his literary brand of high-density suspense. Look for it in March from Scribner.

On the more commercial side, there's Peter Swanson's Her Every Fear,  a genuinely scary whodunit which will have you locked in place too. Releases in January from William Morrow.

The Impossible Fairy Tale, by Han Yujoo, bills itself as "a fresh and terrifying exploration of the ethics of art making and of the stinging consequences of neglect." It takes place in a school where there is one child who seems to go unnoticed until she starts editing her classmates' work. I haven't read this one yet but I am really looking forward to it. It comes out March 7 from Graywolf Press.

Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga has a new novel, The Selection Day, coming out in January. I am a fan for life of his after The White Tiger. His new book takes place in Mumbai and focuses on a 14 year old talented cricket player named Manjunath whose life changes when he meets someone even better than himself, an older boy whose rival is Manjunath's brother. Coming from Scribner.

I'm reading Sana Krasikov's first full length novel, The Patriots, now, and it's a winner. It's about several generations of a Jewish family traveling back and forth from Russia and America. Her writing just sparkles. It releases in January from Spiegel & Grau.

Catriona Lally's Eggshells comes out in January. It's a fun and moving story about an Irish woman who longs to return to the world from which she believes she came, the world of fairies. From Melville House.

Also of interest is Val Emmich's The Reminders, about two misfits, one who remembers everything and one who wants to destroy every memory and what happens when they join forces to win a songwriting competition. It comes out May 30 from Little, Brown.

Finally I'm looking forward to reading Spoils, by Iraq war vet Brian Van Reet, a novel set in 2003 Baghdad and told from different points of view. It's out in April, also from Little, Brown.

What are you looking forward to in 2017? I'd love to know!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Movie Review: ARRIVAL (2016)

Arrival (2016). Dir: Denis Villeneuve. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker. PG-13.

I'm a big Amy Adams fan and I enjoy science fiction on screen, so this was probably shooting fish in a barrel for a me but by any standard Arrival is a knockout. It's based on a short story by Ted Chiang, who co-wrote the screenplay, called "The Story of Your Life." I kind of want to track it down.

Set in the more or less present day, it's about Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist recruited by the military to help translate and communicate with aliens who've come to Earth for reasons as murky as their murmured speech. Forest Whitaker plays Colonel Weber, her military liaison and ally, and Jeremy Renner is Ian Donnelly, a fellow scientist working alongside her.  They travel to Montana, one of twelve global landing sites, and chip away at the science of communication, while in the background panic is spreading and other nations threaten action.

There is more science fiction at work here than just the aliens. Along the way we experience distorted gravity, nausea-inducing visuals, ticking-clock suspense and the realization that we can be as unexpected as anything in a ship. But the aliens are something else. The high point for me was the slow reveal of their forms and the claustrophobic, crucial moments of first contact. I loved the way the filmmakers use music and sound to accentuate the suspense and drive emotional shifts, especially in white-hot moments like that. The pacing and tone almost have the flavor of a European art-house-type movie. And beyond the tech and science, Arrival is a deeply moving story about faith and the power of love.

Beyond that I don't have too much to say. I loved this movie and I think we'll continue to hear about it as Oscar season approaches. I'm intrigued to learn more about Canadian director Villeneuve but this movie belongs to Adams, and another great film in her canon it is.

Rating: RUSH

Monday, November 14, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well let's see. I finished Ill Will last week- so good, you guys. Not quite the white-hot suspense of Await Your Reply but Chaon has clearly built on that novel in this one. It comes out in January and it's going to be what keeps you up at night all winter, guaranteed.

So with that done, I was able to get started on Sana Krasikov's novel The Patriots, also out in January. I can't tell you how excited I was to find this on the galley pile. I've been looking forward to a novel from her since 2008 when I was wowed by her book of short stories, One More Year. That book won all kinds of awards and really put her on the map. I think this one will put her over the top.

And I'm finishing up A Season with the Witch, a humorous accounting of an October spent in Salem, Massachusetts. I have mixed feelings about the book so far. He gets a lot of things right, but misses a lot too. So we'll see how it ends up. I have two chapters to go.

I'm about 1/3 of the way through The Sellout, this year's Man Booker winner, and really kicking myself for not buying it when it came out in hardcover. Cause I collect Booker first editions and now those books are impossible to get.

I'm looking forward to picking a new non-fiction book off the TBR pile this week. I don't even know which it will be at this point. Maybe just something at random. We'll have to stay tuned.

What are you reading this week? Comment and let me know!

Friday, November 11, 2016

What's New On the Shelf

I've been busily adding to my bookshelves as usual. And there are so many great books to choose from right now. Always!

I was really excited to get my hands on a galley of Sana Krasikov's upcoming novel The Patriots, coming out in January. I was a big fan of her 2008 book of short stories, One More Year, and so far the novel is great. I started it as soon as I finished Ill Will this week. It's about several generations of a Russian Jewish family as they move across continents. The subject is a familiar one for me and her writing is really top-notch. Look for it!

Another galley I was excited to find is Selection Day, by Aravind Adiga. I don't even care what it's about. I'm a fan-for-life of his.

Then there's The Little Communist Who Never Smiled, a fictionalized account of the life of Nadia Comenici. It's a French novel I picked up at a local bookstore that just looked interesting to me.

Finally, I bought myself a special present- The Art of Howl's Moving Castle, a detailed book showcasing the gorgeous visuals of Hayao Miyazaki's classic film. I love the movie and the book is a delight.

That's it for me right now. What have you added to your bookshelf recently?

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Movie Review: The Eagle Huntress (2016)

The Eagle Huntress (2016). Dir: Otto Bell. Starring: Daisy Ridley, Aisholpan Nurgaiv.

The Eagle Huntress is a beautiful, inspiring documentary about a 13 year old girl, Aisholpan, who wants to become the first female eagle huntress in her long Kazakh Mongolian lineage. Eagle hunting isn't exactly about hunting eagles; it's an ancient tradition of raising them, training them, and teaching them to hunt small game. The film follows her from the acquisition of her first baby eaglet, to her efforts to win a regional contest and then a trip through the frozen wilderness with her father, who is also her coach and mentor.

In some ways Aisholpan is a typical 13 year old; she goes to school, takes care of her little sister and paints her fingernails. She gets excited about a trip to the big city and loves to put ribbons in her hair. But she's a revolutionary, too; she knows that eagle hunting is a males-only tradition but she also knows it's in her blood, and she won't back down.

Her family are entirely supportive and her parents are her biggest cheerleaders.  Her friends are proud of her and think she's great, and her confidence radiates from the screen. She has every reason to be confident; she's really good.

The film is gorgeous with sweeping shots of the Mongolian wilderness, its mountains and forests and frozen landscapes. But the real beauty of the film is Aisholpan's energy and the love between her and her family. Daisy Ridley of Star Wars fame narrates and Sia provides original music.

I highly recommend The Eagle Huntress for all ages. Look for it at an art house theater or on DVD/streaming soon.

Rating: RUSH

Monday, November 7, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I'm still on all the books I was on last week, but I started a new one for good measure.

Paul Beatty's The Sellout won this year's Man Booker Prize; he's the first American to win since the prize started including Americans last year and I couldn't be more delighted. I was a big fan of his 2009 book Slumberland and was just so happy to see him nominated; then when the win was announced the only word that applied was stoked.

So far I'm enjoying it a lot, as I knew I would. I'll tell you more later. But for now I'll just say it has plenty of his characteristic verve and jumpy, energetic writing.

Other than that, still on Ill Will and A Season with the Witch; I expect to finish Ill Will in the next couple of days and should finish Witch early next week. That's a lot of Halloweeny reading; I'll need something light and fluffy after all this tension.

What are you reading today? And if you're eligible to vote in the U.S., please do so tomorrow if you haven't already!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

BEA and Bloggers

So the news came down from Publisher's Weekly the other day that Book Expo America will be changing, and among other things limiting the number of bloggers it will be allowing to attend. Since many if not all of us bloggers who attend BEA do so under the aegis of the press pass, I presume that means BEA will not be issuing as many gratis press admissions to bloggers.

For those of you unfamiliar with BEA, it's the annual book trade conference and show, where publishers from around the world mingle with booksellers, librarians, authors and, for the past few years, a growing group of book bloggers. Like me for example, and probably others you read too. Bloggers have enjoyed meeting publishers, authors, and each other, and having access to many, many early copies of books. It's been the biggest thing on the blogging calendar for almost the last decade, and one of the biggest in the entire publishing industry for many years. Several years ago a group of bloggers started an affiliated conference for bloggers, which was bought by BEA and wrapped into itself. Now that conference will be discontinued and bloggers who aren't able to attend BEA will have the chance to attend BookCon, a consumer-focused event at the end of BEA that is open to the public.

I have to admit to mixed feelings about the changes. I've attended BEA twice, at least once as a blogger with a press pass and no other credentials. I was grateful to be allowed to attend and I think any time I've attended a book conference, whether it be the American Library Association's conference, the conference of the New England Independent Booksellers' Association or other associated event, it's helped me grow and develop as a book person. I know a lot of people from my cohort of bloggers who have gone on to become booksellers, writers, bookstore owners, literary agents and more, and I'm convinced that attending BEA helped them grow and develop too. So I'm a little depressed that today's group of up and coming book bloggers might not have the same opportunities.

At the same time I get it. The book blogging community has changed in the past ten years since I started and I get the feeling that the publishing world isn't as interested in our community as it used to be. For a while they had fun experimenting with us and we benefited from attention and access and galleys. For a while it was easy to sell people on the lure of the technology. Even having a blog at all made you stand out and folks were curious and wanted to know what it was all about. I visited publishing houses, met executives and authors, was feted with coffee and pastries, a dinner now and then, and more books.

But I wonder if over time the effort they put in proved difficult to reflect in their balance sheets and they grew disenchanted. I can't blame publishers who want to see more return on investment than we can always provide. It's not always easy to demonstrate influence in raw numbers. I know- I know- I've made an impact on my readers over the years, but I also know that even when my blog was at the height of its popularity I sold exactly zero books through my affiliate links. Zero. Publishers want and deserve better. When I last attended BEA in 2015 in NYC I noticed a distinct chill towards bloggers, even from companies I'd worked with for years. Someone would glance at my badge and turn away; I'd ask a question and get the run around.  A week or two ago I emailed a publicity department to request a paper copy of an upcoming catalog (which I've received many times) and was curtly directed to a PDF download and thanked "for my interest." Okay then!

Which is all fine, really. Flying my blogger banner alone I'm not deserving of anything and everything I've enjoyed, and we've enjoyed as a community, has been a privilege and a bonus and not a right or an entitlement. With the growth of platforms like Book Riot, Buzzfeed and other review sites, many of which employ book bloggers, maybe there's a sense that these sites are more effective at reaching large numbers. And if they're tired of us, that's their right too, and it's understandable.  But so many of us were able to take our love of books from a personal hobby to a professional pursuit thanks to the connections and relationships we made at BEA and Blogger Con and this move seems to signal that the powers that be at BEA see us as consumers and not as potential partners in the game of influence and promotion. And that they may believe our influence is less than what they used to think.

So, maybe this decision is the end of an era, or maybe it will act as a wake-up call to us in the blogging community. Maybe we keep doing what we're doing, or we figure out a better way to be relevant and influential. Maybe we need to shake up our game and find a new way to play. I'm up for it; what about you?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Review: THE LONG ROOM, by Francesca Kay

The Long Room, by Francesca Kay. Published 2016 by Tin House Books. Literary Fiction.

Francesca Kay won the Orange Award for New Writers for her The Translation of the Bones; now she's back with a sad and suspenseful story of a empty man manipulated by his delusional love for a woman he doesn't know into the betrayal of a lifetime.

It's 1981 and we're in London; IRA bombings and the Cold War are what's for dinner in British intelligence and Stephen Donaldson is in his late 20s, a "listener" whose job it is to monitor and transcribe surveillance recordings of subjects of various kinds. Stephen lives alone and is the only surviving child of a controlling single mother. His workplace, the "long room" of the title, is the center of his life when a woman named Helen comes across the wires, wife of a subject known only as "Phoenix." Stephen is besotted with this woman and her voice, and constructs a fantasy life which takes root gradually and ultimately leads to his downfall.

I was hoping for a white-hot thriller when I picked up The Long Room but what Kay delivers is more on the order of a slow-burn tragedy. It is impossible to put down but not in a heart-racing way. It's just that once you get enmeshed in Stephen's growing delusions you'll want to see it through and into what lies beyond.

He starts breaking little rules, like visiting an out-of-bounds pub, and not so little rules, like finding out who "Phoenix" really is. Then things escalate before he even knows it. A man named Alberic befriends Stephen and the association seems harmless enough- just a guy to talk to at the pub. Is there something more? Christmas is coming and with it parties and of course his mother depends on him. His infatuation effects how Stephen handles all of his obligations, and profoundly distorts his judgement until little by little there is no going back.

I enjoyed The Long Room and I'd recommend it for literary fiction readers who maybe want to dip a toe in the spy genre. Not having read a lot of spy thrillers I don't know how it compares to others but I like it as a character study of a sad, lonely man and the bad choices he makes even though he knows better. It's a sharp study of what happens in the grips of a delusion.


FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Tin House Books as part of their Galley Club program.