#43 Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

25814512Everyone Brave is Forgiven is the newest book from Chris Cleave, author of the highly acclaimed Little Bee (which I liked but didn’t love).

Set in London during World War II, the story centers on Mary North, a beautiful young socialite turned ad hoc teacher who falls in love (with the best friend of the man she’s dating) amidst the upheaval of war.

The premise sounded promising: young love, heartbreak, conflict, war, a distant era… But the book didn’t wow me. With a constant stream of snappy chatter and chummy condescension, the book reads like a movie from the 30’s starring Barbara Stanwyck, only less charming. While the narrative was peppered with some really elegant bits of writing, and the war scenes were harrowing and evocative, the romantic plot just wasn’t convincing and the emotional exchanges left a saccharine aftertaste.

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#42 Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen

28449127The blurb from author Kevin Hearne on the back cover of Lila Bowen’s Wake of Vultures reads: “I don’t care what else you’ve seen in the bookstore today. Buy this book.”

YES.

Wake of Vultures is a thoroughly kick-ass, relentlessly awesome book. It’s the first in the Shadow series featuring one of the most original characters I’ve read, the half black/half “Injun” boyish young girl Nettie Lonesome. Nettie is tough as nails; she swaggers, tames wild ponies, slays vampires and other beasties, and braves the dangers of the old west where nothing is quite what it seems and everything seems like it’s out to get her.

Bowen writes with verve, creating a gritty, fantastical world that is as fierce as it is fun. I cannot wait to get my hands on the next book in the series: Conspiracy of Ravens.

#41 The Vegetarian by Han Kang

25489025Han Kang’s Booker International Prize winner, The Vegetarian, is a dark, illuminating, and at times grotesque book about objectification and the body.

Broken up into three sections, each with a different narrative perspective, the story tracks the repercussions of one woman’s choice to become a vegetarian.

It’s a quick read; I read it in one sitting on a flight from San Francisco to Hawaii last week. Did I love it? No. There were times I had to skip over sentences because the descriptions made me slightly nauseous.

However, I appreciated Kang’s seamless writing, the 3-section structure with disparate voices, and what the book reveals about how we/society view women’s bodies and food. Kang’s vegetarian is positioned as an object, and because we are seeing her through the eyes of her husband/her brother-in-law/her sister she is an object to the reader as well, of disgust, of desire and lust, of creation, of fear and perversion, she is an object to control, to feed, to persuade, to manipulate. And we are complicit.

A powerful read overall.

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#40 The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

2549385325489134The Bear and the Nightingale, the debut novel from Katherine Arden, grabbed me from page one.

It reads like a fairy tale, complete with a strong-willed girl, a horrid stepmother, a fear-mongering priest, pagan magic, forest demons and water sprites. This book isn’t for everyone.

But if you read that description and are thinking “sounds freaking awesome,” you will be enchanted. Beautifully written and well-paced, it’s a darkly captivating story set in medieval Russia about a young girl, Vasya, born with the sight. She sees spirits in her house and stables and creepy demons in the snowy woods that surround her village.

When a new priest arrives in the village and turns the community against the old ways, against making offerings to the spirits, the spirits get angry. Crops fail, hunger spreads, and winter lasts longer and longer. Young Vasya is called upon by the spirits and demons to right these wrongs, to do so sacrifices must be made.

This is the first book in what is bound to be a great trilogy; the next will be The Girl in the Tower. Also, a book cover and package can really sell a book or do it harm. I almost didn’t buy this book because of the cover, it reads too dark and too juvenile. I prefer the bright and tapestry-like UK cover (left/top) to the American version (right/bottom). Thoughts?

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#39 The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

33163219Pub month: June 2017

Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop is a quick, idiosyncratic book. While reading it, I wondered, as I often do with books that have been translated from one language to another, what was lost or untranslatable, what cultural quirks couldn’t be conveyed adequately or precisely.

The narrative takes place within the Nakano Thrift Shop and centers on Hitomi, the naive young woman who works the counter, and around her coworker Takeo, the owner Mr. Nakano, and Nakono’s sister Masayo, plus a host of other odd characters who enter their store. A romance, if you could call it that, develops between Hitomi and Takeo but is fraught with bizarre miscommunication and is built upon unsubstantiated feelings.

There is a blatant sexual underscore to the book. Nude photos are examined matter-of-factly, an erotic text is discussed openly and plainly, a romantic tryst takes place without much heat, yet the lack of sexual or emotional connection between the two characters you are meant to feel for makes for a somewhat boring and rather lackluster read.

#38 Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

616830Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred has long been on my to-read list.

Powerful and terrifying, the story follows Dana, a young black woman in 1970’s Los Angeles, who is “called” back to antebellum Maryland when her white ancestor, Rufus, almost drowns. She saves him and is returned to her own time, to her life as a writer, to the home where she lives with her white husband. Over the course of the novel she is summoned again and again to save this ancestor; she forms complicated relationships with Rufus and his parents who own the plantation, and with their slaves. Even though she saves this young white “master,” Dana herself is treated like a slave, forced into physical labor, threatened and physically abused.

The passages that take place on the plantation are stronger than those set in 1970’s Los Angeles, the characters are more developed, the story both brutal and riveting. Because the narrative is told from the vantage of a free, modern, educated black woman, the horrors of slavery are exposed with a modern lens, the cruelty of the white owners and the powerlessness of the slaves are juxtaposed with Dana’s loving and seemingly equal bi-racial marriage. Overall, a fascinating, fast-paced read.

#37 A Separation by Katie Kitamura

30407998Katie Kitamura’s A Separation (isn’t that cover great?!) is the second book I’ve read this year in which a translator of books goes searching for someone who is missing. The first was Idra Novey’s elegantly written book Ways to Disappear which I read and reviewed back in January.

In A Separation, we follow Kitamura’s narrator as she travels to Greece, to a conflagration-charred landscape, to track down her unresponsive, unfaithful husband at the behest of her mother-in-law. We learn that she and the husband are separated, have been for months, but have kept the dissolve of their marriage a secret. The smoking Greek landscape, an apt setting, offers a visual representation of a marriage gone up in flames.

Kitamura’s translator, like Novey’s, searches for answers and understanding while “translating” her experience, communicating amidst an unfamiliar language, intuiting emotions of grief and longing, and reading into foreign interactions and expressions to glean meaning.

Here, the narrator straddles an awkward divide, she seemingly cares for her estranged husband because of the past they share, but is emotionally vague, neither saddened nor relieved, angry nor scared. “She,” never given a name or a description in the book, is a passive character whose cool remove heightens the sense of foreboding, feeds the estrangement, and structures the tension at the center of the plot.

 

#36 Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

28503870Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others was highly recommended by a local bookseller I know, and the blurbs sing Chiang’s praises. Junot Diaz calls the stories “shining, haunting, mind-blowing.”

The thing that stood out about this collection was Chiang himself. He clearly put so much work into researching and crafting each story. Whether writing about problematic mathematical theory, or building the linguistic foundation of an alien language, or imagining the Tower of Babel winding up to the sky and cracking the realm of heaven, Chiang’s expansive mind is on display.  And it’s impressive.

I liked these stories. The way that Chiang pairs humanity with far-reaching ideas lends the ideas an accessibility, however there is a remove, an almost clinical coldness to the storytelling which left me emotionally disengaged from the stories themselves.

My favorite of the lot was “Story of Your Life,” in which a woman recounts to her child, “you,” how learning an alien language changes her understanding of life and time. Sound familiar? It was made into, with many changes, the movie Arrival.

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#34 Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth

29939138Deb Olin Unferth’s stories read like the layers of an onion, with each sentence the narrative is built up and peeled back, meaning is revealed, the story is changed, keeps changing, until the reader gets to the funky, quirky core. A nugget of surprise lingers at the center, waiting to be discovered, embedded to shock.

Highlights of the collection: A struggling adjunct teacher longing to tell her sad breakup tale to students invites them to share the worst thing that’s happened to them with unexpected results in “Voltaire Night.” A perpetually wandering, confidentially clueless couple gets led into the jungle at gunpoint in “Stay Where You Are.” In “Wait Till You See Me Dance,” an unremarkable teacher with unremarkable students tries to find self worth and purpose.

Amid these standout stories were a number of shorter pieces. The back cover calls these “intoxicating,” but they didn’t resonate or have the same impact for me as the longer stories.

I love Graywolf Press. I discovered Wait Till You See Me Dance on their Instagram feed; and Graywolf just kills it, consistently publishing awesome books, including: Citizen, The Argonauts, LOOK, The Empathy Exams, and 300 Arguments and Ongoingness, to name a few.