Feb 3, 2016

Memphis Afternoons, James Conaway

James Conaway, of Napa fame, is a beautiful writer. This self-published book of autobiographical essays transports the reader to the Memphis, TN, of Conaway's childhood and adolescence. A child of the Depression, his parents and grandparents are related lovingly yet unsparingly, revealing the devotion of a son married to the outsider's adult understanding of human nature. As the daughter of a Nashville-raised mother from around this period, I recognized elements of the southern temperament and social standards people held incredibly dear in those days. The country clubs, debutantes, high school fraternities, are all there, as is the excessive drinking, corrupt politics, and obsession with reputation and the "right people." Conaway's descriptions of his days catching fish in the muddy Mississippi and getting in fights with his frat brothers while discovering a love of language and literature that would soon take him away from the city of his birth, are hypnotizing and enthralling. His Memphis is not idealized, nor is it dissected. It is simply what it is.

Jan 25, 2016

The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie

I really enjoyed this smart, funny novel set in the Bay Area. Veblen and Paul are thirty-somethings with some baggage in the form of Mom and Dad. Veblen is named for thrifty, anti-consumerist economist Thorstein Veblen; her father is in a mental home for his severe PTSD and her mother is an incredible hypochondriac. Paul is a neurologist starting a medical trial for a field trepanning tool of his own design; his parents are inveterate hippies and his older brother is mentally disabled. Veblen has spent her entire life making sure her mother feels loved and happy and dealing with the immense stress that causes by talking to squirrels, while Paul has always struggled with his unconventional upbringing and the attention his parents pay to his brother, finding solace in traditional forms of status and wealth. After four months together, Paul asks Veblen to marry him, but the more they delve into each other's pasts and families, this seems less and less like a good idea...

But people will surprise you. Perhaps being with someone so different from each other forced them to finally come to terms with their own inconsistencies. Paul's ethics are tested when his product is illegally fast-tracked, and Veblen's conversations with squirrels really seem to be getting out of control. This is a wonderful love story, very well-researched and so enjoyable. This is the kind writing that seems effortless, making for effortless reading, which of course means the author put a huge amount of work into it. There is little or nothing to complain about this book, I highly recommend it!

Jan 20, 2016

Three Moments of an Explosion, by China Mieville

I'm afraid that I just don't get it. China Mieville is a hugely popular science fiction writer, a well-respected author and denizen of countless "best of" lists. And I just don't see it. This is the second book of his that failed to sustain my interest more than halfway through. These are short stories, which I normally love, but they seem so haphazard. It's as though Mieville's agent called him up with a demand for a new book and he said, well, I've got these bits and pieces that have never amounted to much, I guess I'll just throw them all together and call it a collection. There's no coherent thread or theme, that I can tell, at least. The stories themselves are all basically set pieces instead of real, whole stories. They are descriptors, beginning chapters of books that never quite made it. And they're kind of boring, to boot. Mieville's most famous is "Perdido Street Station," which I've never read, so perhaps I need to open that book up to see what all the fuss is about. This particular offering leaves me cold.

Jan 14, 2016

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

As fantasy novels go, this is a thoroughly enjoyable one. But it's hard to write an original fantasy story these days, and if you've read enough of them, you can name all the tropes Novik tied together to create "Uprooted." We have the different kinds of magic, the young adult who doesn't know she's special until suddenly one day she is, the vain and arrogant nobility, the corrupted natural landscape. Novik's tale isn't new, but then maybe it isn't really supposed to be. Her use of Russian-like names and recognizable characters such as Baba Yaga indicates this is more of an homage to the fairy tales of old, the gruesome, twisted Brothers Grimm-type stuff. If that's the case, she does a lovely job. My only complaint with the writing is her tendency to have our heroine (through whom the story is told in first person narration) think something in her head, then another character responds to her as if she were speaking. Was she actually speaking aloud, Novik just didn't bother to put quotations around it? Are these people all slightly psychic? Is Agnieszka's face THAT transparent? It's a device used several times throughout the book, and it's rather distracting. But it's the only thing taking away from this fun, engaging fairy tale.

Jan 11, 2016

God Loves Haiti, by Dimitry Elias Leger

Big things sometimes come in small packages; "God Loves Haiti" is one of them. Though slim, this debut novel packs a psychological punch. Set in the moments and days after the devastating earthquake nearly destroyed Haiti, we follow three main characters: Natasha Robert, a twenty-year-old artist who has just married the outgoing President of Haiti; said President of Haiti, a man forty years Natasha's senior; and Alain Destine, Natasha's young boyfriend who is head over heels in love with her. Each of the three carries their own burdens after the earthquake, holding a nation and a people upon their backs in different ways. After a rollicking start in the earthquake itself, the majority of the book's action is internal. This is not a book one can skim easily, and I could see how some people, drawn in by the action of the first chapter, might lose interest later on in the novel. But it is our desire to see lovers united, to make sure everything is okay, that pulls us through the emotional molasses of "God Loves Haiti." The denouement is unexpected, but wonderful nonetheless. This is a beautiful, lyrical debut novel that deserves high praise, but will probably not win over the action-hungry.

Jan 4, 2016

2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas, by Marie-Helene Bertino

What a lovely, refreshing book, and such a wonderful way to start the new year! This is the kind of writing I revel in - nouns turned into verbs in ways that make you wonder how no one else has done it before, indelible characters that have you rooting for them from the start - good fun, good writing, and incredibly readable. This is a love letter to the flawed city of Philadelphia, to anyone who has suffered loss, to the beauty of friendship and music and those who find joy in even the darkest corners. The star of this book is Madeleine, nine-years old with a mother dead of cancer and a father so deep in grief he can no longer be a father. Madeleine is smart and blunt, as city girls are, with a hell of a singing voice and a dream to sing at church, assemblies, clubs, anywhere they'll let her, only no one will. Singing back up is her teacher, Sarina Greene, late thirties, divorced, back home and listless in her loneliness. When her old prom date, the one who got away, shows up at a dinner party she is last-minute-invited to, her world goes sideways. We switch narrative voices often and seamlessly. This is a beautiful little book that did not get the attention it deserved in hardcover; I hope people will pick it up now it's in paperback.

Jan 1, 2016

All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

Science fiction and fantasy, though often shelved together in bookstores and libraries, are actually quite difficult to combine into a single narrative. Aliens and magic don't mix; they tend to negate each other. And yet Anders has spun an incredible sci fi fantasy story, a fairy tale about the apocalypse, a morality play without god.

Patricia and Laurence find each other as miserable middle schoolers, both with parents who do not understand them and try to force the square pegs of their souls into the round hole of society. Patricia once spoke with birds and an ancient, wise Tree; Laurence made himself a two-second time machine and is working on a sentient supercomputer in his closet. They are outcasts, pariahs, bullied to within an inch of their sanity and sometimes their lives, and though they find comfort and friendship with each other, their desire to be left alone by their peers sometimes overwhelms their bond. Not to mention the assassin who pretends to be a school counselor and tells Patrica that she must kill Laurence because magic and science are diametrically opposed, or risk "the Unraveling". It's a lot of pressure for a kid...

This book is funny, charming, moving, and inventive in the very best way. The tropes are common enough - friendship, loyalty, destiny, the whole star-crossed lovers thing - but the packaging is the kind of wonderfully original writing that doesn't come around very often. Anders is a masterful writer who isn't afraid to use unconventional techniques, and the characters are fully fleshed out human beings (and some animals). My one complaint: San Francisco nights are described as "hot and itchy." Now, I don't know how many nights Anders has spent in San Francisco, but even if it's 90 degrees during the day (which is rare), it will still drop to 55 once the sun goes down. Always. Aside from that, this is one of my favorite books this year and a must-read for any lover of fiction.