Monday, January 18, 2016

book review: Weathering by Lucy Wood

The basics:  "Pearl doesn't know how she's ended up in the river--the same messy, cacophonous river in the same rain-soaked valley she'd been stuck in for years. But here her spirit swirls and stays . . . Ada, Pearl's daughter, doesn't know how she's ended up back in the house she left thirteen years ago--with no heating apart from a fire she can't light, no way of getting around apart from an old car she's scared to drive, and no company apart from her own young daughter, Pepper. She wants to clear out Pearl's house so she can leave and not look back."--publisher

My thoughts: When Weathering came out in the UK last year, many predicted it would be longlisted for the Baileys Prize. It wasn't, but when it finally was scheduled to come out in the U.S., I was still curious to read it. I picked it up not knowing what it's about, as both the title and cover are ambiguous. If I had read the basic description, I might have realized this book might not be one I'd enjoy.

I struggled to get into this book, despite Wood's writing. I think what ultimately kept me from connecting to this book was the disconnect between the writing style and the story itself. The writing is realistic in style, as it is incredibly descriptive, but it's coupled with a fairy tale-like story that is far from real. As a reader, I struggled to suspend disbelief only partially. How could Pearl be in the river for years? Is it a metaphor? Is it an alternate universe? Is it her spirit? I can't fully explain why my reader's brain could not accept the state of Pearl in the river, but it was so distracting and in contrast with the rest of the story, it prevented me from ever immersing myself in the rest of the story.

Favorite passage: "Everything was dark: the sky, the trees, the river, her mother's jacket, creased from the journey, which seemed like it had happened so long ago."

The verdict: Despite appreciating Wood's descriptive writing, I couldn't engage with this novel's duality of realism and fairy tale. Readers who enjoy modern fairy tales will delight in it, but it didn't work for me.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: January 19, 2016
Source: publisher

Want to read it? Buy The Weathering from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Lucy Wood's website.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sunday Salon: Authors on NPR

The Sunday
These days, I tend to listen to NPR in slow bursts, mostly while I'm in the kitchen cooking or cleaning. I've started relying on the NPR One app, which predicts what stories you're interested in, but it also lets you search by topic and show, as well as mark the stories you think are interesting (and skip those you don't.) I also welcome the ability to rewind and fast forward. After using the app for several months, it finally seems to get that I really like stories about fiction (big surprise, right?), but it's been such fun this week to hear interviews with three authors whose books I've enjoyed this month. I read a lot of interviews with authors, but there's something so fascinating to me about hearing them speak. Here are links to those interviews in case you want to take a listen to:

Have you entered to win The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee yet? You can enter until Wednesday!

Hope you're staying warm wherever you are! (We might make it above zero here today. Brrr!)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Friday, January 15, 2016

book review: The Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa

The basics:  "On a rainy, cold day in November, young Victor--a nomadic, scrappy teenager who's run away from home--sets out to join the throng of WTO demonstrators determined to shut down the city. With the proceeds, he plans to buy a plane ticket and leave Seattle forever, but it quickly becomes clear that the history-making 50,000 anti-globalization protesters--from anarchists to environmentalists to teamsters--are testing the patience of the police, and what started out as a peaceful protest is threatening to erupt into violence. Over the course of one life-altering afternoon, the fates of seven people will change forever: foremost among them police Chief Bishop, the estranged father Victor hasn't seen in three years, two protesters struggling to stay true to their non-violent principles as the day descends into chaos, two police officers in the street, and the coolly elegant financial minister from Sri Lanka whose life, as well as his country's fate, hinges on getting through the angry crowd, out of jail, and to his meeting with the President of the United States. When Chief Bishop reluctantly unleashes tear gas on the unsuspecting crowd, it seems his hopes for reconciliation with his son, as well as the future of his city, are in serious peril."--publisher

My thoughts: Lately I find myself drawn to novels set in the more recent past of the 1990's. It makes sense: I'm now old enough to have clear memories of those events, and enough time has passed to give some perspective about how those events fit into history. So the premise of this novel intrigued me greatly. I recall the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, but I found I didn't know, or perhaps didn't remember, many details about them.

I'm also drawn to stories with multiple perspectives, but that's where this novel stopped working for me. The first chapter is from Victor's perspective, and he is a richly drawn character. Through him, the reader is able to learn about him and have a sense of what's happening in Seattle, even as Victor does not yet grasp what's happening. When the novel shifted to other voices, however, I didn't find them to be authentic. So much of this novel relies on the entire cast of characters that it prevented me from engaging with and appreciating this one as much as I'd hoped.

Favorite passage: "Victor, he was onto some higher math. The calculus kind of bud, the physics of dispersal, the geometry of escape."

The verdict: I didn't care for this novel, but I'm still enchanted by the idea of it, and I'm eager to see what Yapa writes next.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: January 12, 2016
Source: publisher

Want to read it? Buy Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Sunil Yapa's website, connect with him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

First Thoughts: Tournament of Books 2016

I'm a huge fan of the Tournament of Books, and yesterday we finally got the "shortlist." It's seventeen titles, so it's still quite long, but it's a list that excites me much more than the last few years, even if my three top novels of 2015 didn't make it.

What's I've Read
Thankfully, I've already read three of the titles: Fates and Furies, which I loved; The Spool of Blue Thread, which was good and fine but not spectacular for me; and The Story of My Teeth, which has flashes of brilliance and an abundance of ambition, but it wasn’t particularly enjoyable to read.

What I Haven't Read
That leaves me with fourteen books to read by mid-March if I want to read the entire bracket. Realistically, it's unlikely, but many of the titles I've been meaning to read, and the Tournament of Books may push me to do so. I hope to find time for: The Turner House, The Sellout, The Tsar of Love and Techno, The Invaders, The Sympathizer, The Whites, and A Little Life. The rest: definite maybes. I'm quite intrigued by Oreo, Ban en Banlieue, and The Bats of the Republic. If I get through all of those, I'll be close enough to all seventeen that I might power through.

What's Next?
I'll be posting reviews as I finish these titles, and depending how many I read, and how the brackets shape up, I may post commentary about some of the rounds here too. I'm also having so much fun reading backlist Baileys Prize nominees and great new 2016 fiction, so my reading life is as fractured as ever, which keeps me from ever reading ALL the books, but at least it has be reading a lot of them.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

book review: The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee

The basics: The Expatriates is the story of the large American expatriate community in Hong Kong, and it's centered around three different women: Mercy, a young Korean-American and recent Columbia graduate adrift in Hong Kong; Hilary, a wealthy housewife struggling to have a baby; and Margaret, a happily married mother of three.

My thoughts: Longtime readers of this blog know how much I love to travel vicariously through reading, so I was excited to explore Hong Kong's expatriate community in The Expatriates. The novel certainly delivers on armchair travel, but the reading experience was much deeper and richer than that. It offers so much more than an escapist read set in an exotic world of wealth. The three female narrators are both the heart and backbone of this novel. Each woman is unique, fully realized, and wholly human. I found sympathy with each, but I also found reality in their faults.

Although a smaller part of the novel, I found myself enchanted with Lee's depictions of pregnancy, childbirth and the transition into motherhood:
"This was the hardest thing she had ever done, and arguably the most important. And no one was acknowledging that it really, really sucked. A lot. This metamorphosis into that other being, that mother, was excruciating. She noticed that it got better in quarters. Three months, six months, nine months. And then suddenly she woke up and she felt better. She was not back to normal--that baseline had shifted. But she could cope with her life...And then the others came, and they were different and easier, because she had already crossed over into that other country of motherhood. She thinks about that a lot, how you get used to everything, that the first shift is difficult and horrible, and you live your life because what else can you do, and then one day you wake up and your life seems normal. You start to forget the bad times. You shift into your new self."
In terms of narrative, this passage is almost an aside. It doesn't propel the story along, but it made me understand Margaret better and differently. So, too, this passage added depth to my understanding of Hilary:
"She had taken a class in college about feminism and medicine. In it, she learned that the whole terminology around menstruation--a failure to conceive, a shedding of the lining--was negative and misogynistic and old-fashioned, teaching women that that their sole purpose in life was to have children. The lining of the uterus was not shed; it was cleansing itself to make way for a new lining. Back then, so far away from the idea of having children, the whole premise had seemed impossibly academic and precious. Now she wants to find that book again and read it. She wants to find a way to redefine what is happening to her, to own it." 
As I read The Expatriates and spent time visiting the lives and inner thoughts of these three women, I was so moved. There are bad and sad things that happen here, but those events don't shape this narrative; they aren't the emphasis. Instead, Lee keeps the focus on these three women, in their moments of strength, weakness, and the realities of life in between extremes.

Favorite passage: "Doesn't every city contain some version of yourself that you can finally imagine?

The verdict: I loved the time I spent with these three women and in their fascinating part of Hong Kong. Lee's prose and characters are beautifully formed, and both give this novel a stunning depth. I, for one, hope Lee doesn't take nearly as long to write her next book, although if it's this good, I can't be too mad.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: January 12, 2016
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Expatriates from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Janice Y.K. Lee's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter

Bonus! Enter to win this beautiful boxed galley!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

book review: My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

The backstory: My experiences reading Elizabeth Strout have been uneven. I liked Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize, but I didn't love it, mostly because I wanted more of a novel feeling than interconnected short stories. I was not very fond of The Burgess Boys, despite "beautifully detailed prose and richly developed characters." My review for Amy and Isabelle hasn't posted yet, but it was my favorite Strout to date. Until My Name Is Lucy Barton.

The basics:  "Lucy Barton, a writer, married with two young children, is in the hospital in New York City due to an infection from a simple appendix operation. (Her medical condition is incidental—it’s not about the illness). Her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in years, comes from Amgash, Illinois, to visit her, and sits by her bedside, reminiscing about people she and Lucy know from Lucy’s childhood, before Lucy went off to college and never returned."

My thoughts: I have a soft spot for big little novels. At just over 200 pages, My Name Is Lucy Barton is indeed a little novel, but it's scope, and what Strout accomplishes with it, are immense. This novel took my breath away with its span of time; coverage of past, present, future; writing, and characters. The interior voice of Lucy Barton is incredibly strong, and I marveled at her and how Strout constructs her voice. On the surface, she shares some similarities with Strout. Most notably, Barton is a novelist, but one who came to it later in life and found some success. The insight and commentary on fiction was perhaps my favorite part of the novel: "It's not my job to make readers know what's a narrative voice and not the private view of the author."

At times, My Name Is Lucy Barton reads like a memoir. At times it reads like a diary. At times it reads as though Lucy is telling the reader a story. Yet underneath all of these subtle stylistic tones is an incredibly well-developed structure. This tension amazes me.

Favorite passage: "I have said before: It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it's the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down."

The verdict: My Name Is Lucy Barton is my favorite Elizabeth Strout novel. While there are hallmarks of other Strout novels, such as a mother-daughter relationship, a titular, dynamic female character, and a nonlinear narrative, there's a freshness and rawness to My Name Is Lucy Barton. I will remember Lucy's voice most, as the way in which she writes and thinks are even more fascinating than the journey of her life.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 208 pages
Publication date: January 12, 2016
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy My Name Is Lucy Barton from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Elizabeth Strout's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, January 11, 2016

book review: American Housewife by Helen Ellis

The basics:  "A sharp, funny, delightfully unhinged collection of stories set in the dark world of domesticity, American Housewife features murderous ladies who lunch, celebrity treasure hunters, and the best bra fitter south of the Mason Dixon line."--publisher

My thoughts: I knew from the first line of the first story in this collection that it was exactly what I needed to be reading: "Inspired by Beyonce, I stallion-walk to the toaster." I was hooked. I devoured this collection in a single morning. I read voraciously and was rather despondent when I finished. I didn't know what I could possibly read after that could stand up to Ellis's voice (my only option was to pick up something completely different.)

While the stories in this collection have some similarities and share some common themes, my reading experience was filled with surprises and delight. I read with glee.

Favorite passage: "You are so bad!" is Southern Lady code for: That is the tackiest thing I've ever heard and I am delighted that you shared it with me."

The verdict: American Housewife is astonishingly good. It's smart. It's irreverent. It's hilarious. It's inventive. It's filled with stories from unique voices. I can't begin to pick a favorite, although I admit I could probably pick a least favorite. I don't often evangelize for short stories, but I haven't been this blown away by short stories ever. I haven't enjoyed a short story collection this much since I discovered Paula Bomer. The publisher's description of "delightfully unhinged" is spot on.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 208 pages
Publication date: January 12, 2016
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy American Housewife from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more?Read this article about Helen Ellis (written by J. Courtney Sullivan!) and follow her on Twitter

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Sunday Salon: Baby, It's Cold Outside!

The Sunday Salon.comI adore winter, but our current weather is getting a bit too cold for even me. When I woke up this morning, it was below zero, with windchills making it feel like it was -25. It's the perfect day to stay inside and read. Or clean, which should be done, but I doubt it will be done. I'm treating myself to the forthcoming twelfth Maisie Dobbs mystery, Journey to Munich, which I started earlier this week and hope to finish today.. My review won't post until March 29th, the book's release date, but it's a gripping read. I hope to finish during Hawthorne's nap(s) today, even though it means my next Maisie experience is back to being too far away..

I'm having a fantastic reading and blogging year so far. Despite January being my busiest month at work, I've managed to read seven books already this month, and I hope to finish the eighth today. I've also been keeping up with the blog and posting every day, at least partially thanks to the large review backlog I started the year with.

This week on the blog: I have four reviews of new releases, and I expect when the Tournament of Books shortlist is (finally!) announced on Wednesday, I'll weigh in with my thoughts.

  • Monday: American Housewife by Helen Ellis
  • Tuesday: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
  • Wednesday: The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee
  • Thursday: Tournament of Books thoughts
  • Friday: Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa
Now tell me: what are you reading and doing today?

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

review rewind: The Dogs of Littlefield by Suzanne Berne

Two years ago, The Dogs of Littlefield was longlisted for the Baileys Prize. At the time, there was no U.S. publication in sight, despite the fact that Berne is an American author. I'm thrilled to report it's finally coming out in the U.S. Tuesday, so I'm reposting review in support of its American publication, with updated links to buy it.

The backstory: The Dogs of Littlefield was longlisted for the 2014 Baileys Prize. Suzanne Berne won the Orange Prize in 1999 for her first novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood (my review.)

The basics: Set in the idyllic (fictional) town of Littlefield, Massachusetts, famous for its place on the Ten Best Places to Live in America list, as well as its disproportionately high number of psychotherapists, The Dogs of Littlefield explores the characters of this town through their own eyes and through the eyes of Dr. Clarice Watkins, a cultural anthropologist spending a year in Littlefield as a visiting scholar. Soon after she arrives, dogs start getting poisoned, and the paranoia and repercussions of these events ripple throughout Littlefield.

My thoughts: I like my suburban fiction combined with a healthy dose of satire, and The Dogs of Littlefield is full of satire. I frequently laughed as I read, but this novel's humor is all relative--these jokes don't resonate out of context. Berne achieves the delicate balance of commenting on suburban life without doing so at the expense of the characters. The world is so well built I easily pictured real people, even as the characters acted in satirical caricature.

Favorite passage: "She was trying, he realized with a stab of grief, to be interesting."

The verdict: While the mystery of what is happening to the dogs (and who is hurting them) is a central theme to the narrative, it's only as compelling as everything else that's happening in the novel. The characters are the core of this novel, and they are the reason I so enjoyed it.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: January 12, 2016
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Dogs of Littlefield from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Suzanne Berne's website.

Friday, January 8, 2016

book review: Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present & Future by Lauren Redniss

The basics:  "A dazzling fusion of storytelling, visual art, and reportage that grapples with weather in all its dimensions: its danger and its beauty, why it happens and what it means."--publisher

My thoughts: In the manner of a stereotypical Iowan, I am fascinated by the weather. I often have a hard time believing my corner of the world can have such variance in temperatures every year. When it's below zero, I can't fathom the stifling heat of summer (and vice versa.) To live in a place where weather impacts my life in so many ways, I fear I've forgotten so much of the science of weather I learned in school. I hoped Thunder & Lightning could help fill in those gaps and teach me about weather. Lest you have that same misconception: it's not really what this book is about.

I'm also fascinated by people who live at places with more universal temperature extremes (always hot or always cold) or those who lack the four seasons. There's some of that here, and I most enjoyed the first few chapters, which highlight some of the more unusual climates of inhabited places of this world. Redniss uses the stories of individuals to illustrate phenomena, and her accompanying artwork offers the visual illustration. While I enjoyed many of the stories, I always found myself surprised when the next chapter arrived. I kept expecting to learn more before moving on. I didn't learn as much about weather as I expected to, and I don't fault Redniss for not meeting my expectations; it's her book. As the book went on, I enjoyed it less. It became more abstract, which was somehow less enchanting.

The verdict: I found the storytelling to be uneven in this book. It's told in more of a vignette style than an actual history of weather. Some stories I liked, while others were somewhat dull. I suspect I'm alone in not particularly enjoying Redniss's drawing style in this medium. It's incredibly stylized, which could work well for some things, but in this instance of nonfiction, I found it distracted from reality. I'm certainly glad I read it, and some pieces of it are phenomenal. As a whole, it wasn't as cohesive as I would have hoped, and I found the art to be the emphasis, while I hoped for art to supplement the knowledge.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: October 27, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Thunder & Lightningc from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Lauren Redniss's website and follow her on Instagram

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

book review: The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela

The basics:  "It’s 2010 and Natasha, a half Russian, half Sudanese professor of history, is researching the life of Imam Shamil, the 19th century Muslim leader who led the anti-Russian resistance in the Caucasian War. When shy, single Natasha discovers that her star student, Oz, is not only descended from the warrior but also possesses Shamil’s priceless sword, the Imam’s story comes vividly to life."

My thoughts: The novel opens with the character of Natasha, and I connected immediately with her. Admittedly, I'm drawn to female academics, but she was richly drawn and mysterious: "I preferred the distant past, centuries that were over and done with, ghosts that posed no direct threat. History could be milked for this cause or that. We observed it always with hindsight, projecting onto it our modern convictions and anxieties." I wasn't particularly surprised when this novel jumps into the past, as Natasha is a professor of history, but it took me much longer to connect with the historical narrative.

At times, this novel felt like two connected novels rather than a single one. The narrative alternated between the past and present, and I mostly enjoyed the present more. There was one stunning part of the historical narrative that became my favorite part of the entire book. There was little overlap between the sections as I read, which led me to expect the two would eventually come together more than they did. In a sense, I appreciate this decision to not have a contrived coincidence meandering through, but the result was also one of disconnect. As I read, I found myself hoping the historical sections would end soon so I could get back to Natasha. The pacing of the novel made it feel longer than it is, partially because it struggled to gain and sustain momentum.

Despite these issues, there is so much worthy insight here. In some ways, I enjoyed this novel more when I wasn't reading it, which doesn't sound like a compliment, but it is. Aboulela infuses both the historical and contemporary narratives with so many ideas to ponder. I'm glad I took time to read this one slowly over several days to let its ideas seep into my mind. It's not a book to devour in a single sitting or race through for the plot, but it is one whose ideas will continue to resonate within, particularly in light of the world today.

Favorite passage: "This was one of the irksome things about being an outsider--one never knew the extent to which the rules could be bent."

The verdict: Overall, I enjoyed the contemporary story much more than the historical one. Still, The Kindness of Enemies is a powerful novel that reminds us of how much stays the same over time, as it draws parallels between the Caucasian War and a post-9/11 world.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 337 pages
Publication date: January 5, 2016
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Kindness of Enemies  from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Leila Aboulela's website and like her on Facebook.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

book review: Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt

The backstory: I read Samantha Hunt's first novel, The Seas, when it was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2011. At the time, I said, "Despite Hunt's somewhat ironic assertion that "details make a story even as unbelievable as mine believable," neither the details nor the narrative made this novel believable, yet it couldn't compel me to suspend belief and enter its world either." But I loved Hunt's writing, so I was curious about Mr. Splitfoot, her latest novel.

The basics:  "Ruth and Nat are orphans, packed into a house full of abandoned children run by a religious fanatic. To entertain their siblings, they channel the dead. Decades later, Ruth’s niece, Cora, finds herself accidentally pregnant. After years of absence, Aunt Ruth appears, mute and full of intention. She is on a mysterious mission, leading Cora on an odyssey across the entire state of New York on foot. Where is Ruth taking them? Where has she been? And who — or what — has she hidden in the woods at the end of the road?"--publisher

My thoughts: Many people get excited about a book billed as a contemporary ghost story. I am not one of those people. Honestly, I can't say I've read enough of them to have an opinion, but the presence of ghosts alone is not enough to excite me. It's everything else in the description of this novel that piqued my interest: orphans, abandoned children, religious fanatic, accidental pregnancy, years of absence, mysterious mission, etc.

When this book begins, it doesn't feel gothic. Instead, it's heartbreaking: "She doesn't even know enough about mothers to fabricate a good one. Her idea of a mother is like a non-dead person's idea of heaven. It must be great. It must be huge. It must be better than what she's got now." Even in this admittedly depressing environment, there is a playfulness about:
"At Love of Christ! children feel the Lord, and the Lord is often furious and unpredictable, so Father Arthur cowers from corrupting influences. No Walt Disney, soda pop, or women's slacks pass his threshold. No Walt Disney, soda pop, or women's slacks pass his threshold. The children milk goats, candle and collect eggs, preserve produce, and make yogurt from cultures they've kept alive for years. Blessed be the bacteria. The children remain ignorant of the bountiful mysteries filling the nearby Price Chopper."
Mr. Splitfoot features alternating storylines, both of which feature Ruth. In the first, she is a 17-year-old orphan at the Love of Christ! Foster Home, and she narrates. In the second, many years later, she returns for her niece and they begin their mysterious mission. Here, Cora narrates. In terms of structure, Mr. Splitfoot is impressive. Both storylines reference each other and build upon each other. I read carefully and spotted clues throughout. Hunt doesn't draw the lines, but she does help guide you to deeper connections. As I read, I was completely enamored with this novel. The observational humor is fantastic: "She hears his funny way of talking, using more words than necessary as if he enjoys them. Maybe he went to college. Maybe he's Canadian." The journeys, both within and of the narrative, are captivating. Yet when the story reached its conclusion, I expected a reveal of some sort. Instead, I discovered all the clues Hunt dropped that I picked up on were true, which is fine, but somewhat disappointing for a novel that's so inventive and wise throughout to end in such an ordinary way.

Favorite passage: "Motherhood," she says, "despite being immensely common, remains the greatest mystery, and all the language people use to describe it, kitschy words like 'comfort' and 'loving arms' and 'nursing,' is to convince women to stay put."

The verdict: Mr. Splitfoot is a stunning narrative journey filled with memorable characters, ideas and events. That it's ending is somewhat ordinary is its sole disappointment, even if it was the novel itself that led me to believe something magical was about to happen. In fact, it already had.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: January 5, 2016
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Mr. Splitfoot from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Samantha Hunt's website

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

book review: The Past by Tessa Hadley

The backstory: Tessa Hadley has been on my 'meaning to read' list for years.

The basics: Four adult siblings, along with their children and one new spouse, gather at their country house for a three week vacation.

My thoughts: Part of me has a hard time reading novels set at different temperature extremes than the one I'm currently experiencing. It's hard for me to remember how much I dislike the heat of summer in the middle of an Iowa winter (and vice versa), but Hadley made this summer country house come alive. The omniscient narrator is filled with wisdom, and I marveled at Hadley's ability to juggle so many characters in ways that left each one fully formed. It's a challenge to introduce a relatively large cast of characters so quickly, including those not present, but I was never confused about which sibling was which or whose children belonged where.

As rich as the descriptions and insights were, Hadley is also a gifted writer of dialogue:
"--You shouldn't say God, said Hettie.--Grandfather doesn't like it. --He isn't here. He's visiting the sick. --Thank God for the sick, said Jill. --We can swear until he gets back."
There's a necessary pacing to conversations had with adult siblings, and it's demonstrated with full effect here:
"Had  anyone, Alice insufferably said, ever yet seen her with a book? Pilar wanted to belong inside Roland's family because of Roland: she wasn't interested, really, in his sisters' separate selves, and it was obvious that she'd taken against Alice."
It subtly shifts, too, when characters less familiar with each other speak. All of this is so subtle, but it infused this novel with so much realness.

Favorite passage: "This wasn't the anodyne reading their middle-class neighbours spoke of, helping you slip over a threshold into sleep, equivalent to swallowing pills, the marker progressing through the book in modest increments. Sophy and Grantham devoured their books: reading was a freedom torn out of the day's regulated fabric.

The verdict: The Past made a Hadley fan out of me. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with this family. Hadley's characters, prose, and dialogue shine.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: January 5, 2016 
Source: publisher

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Monday, January 4, 2016

alt-ToB 2016: Under the Udala Trees v. The Story of My Teeth

I'm thrilled to be judging the first match-up in the 2016 alt-ToB (Alternative Tournament of Books.) This tournament stemmed from the Tournament of Books discussion group on GoodReads, which is not affiliated with The Morning News Tournament of Books which will happen in March. Please join us over at Goodreads to discuss all the match-ups, and follow along with the alt-ToB brackets.


When I saw I was tasked with comparing The Story of My Teeth and Under the Udala Trees, my first thought was to try to find the similarities between them. Both are the second work of fiction by a young woman whose first work of fiction received acclaim. (Luiselli’s first novel Faces in the Crowd was a National Book Award 5 Under 35 pick, while Okparanta’s story collection Happiness, Like Water was a Young Lions Fiction nominee.) Both women were born in other countries but now live in the United States. Both women set this book in the country of their birth. After reading them, I’ll add that both are talented, adventurous writers who take very different approaches to writing.

I read The Story of My Teeth first. There was something bizarrely poignant about reading a novel about teeth while Hawthorne, my one-year-old, was getting his first molar. That one tooth turned our household upside down for a week, and The Story of My Teeth haunted my reading life most of that week. It’s a slim novel, but it consumed me and demanded I take time to stop and think and make sense of the narrative.  

On the morning I started The Story of My Teeth, I was about twenty-five minutes early for a meeting. I pulled out my book and began reading. Perhaps partly because I was reading in a hotel lobby rife with distractions, more than once I said, “wait...what?” and re-read a paragraph. The Story of My Teeth is a book to start slowly. To say it is an unconventional narrative is a bizarrely conventional statement that doesn’t fit this slim novel. As I read for twenty minutes, I found myself wanting to put the book down before my colleagues arrived and asked me what I was reading. The Story of My Teeth is not a book I wanted to talk about with anyone but the most adventurous readers of literary fiction. It is not a book I’ll ever recommend to a casual reader. The opening line alerts the reader this book is something different and hard to quantify: “I’m the best auctioneer in the world, but no one knows it because I’m a discreet sort of man.” There is so much at play in this novel, and this sentence manages to capture much of it.

After that sentence, I read with the presumption that our narrator was unreliable. I’m drawn to unreliable narrators, yet I found his storytelling uneven. The auction descriptions quickly grew dull. Luiselli is being intentionally clever, I thought, but after a few, they didn’t add anything new to the story and killed its momentum. After the auction, things got convoluted and weird to the point I wasn’t entirely sure what was happening. As a reader, it’s hard for me to admit that, yet what Luiselli does next is so brilliant and unexpected, I’m not ashamed to do so.

My favorite part of the book was the part not written from the narrator’s point of view. The shift in language was initially jarring, which made me realize how engaged I was in the novel, even as I didn’t think I was. The pictures and artifacts elevate the novel to a fascinating, multi-layered piece of art. I was pleasantly surprised to have some of the ambiguity removed, and this section forced me to reevaluate my earlier thoughts. It’s a rare experience for a novel to completely change course that way, and I enjoyed the surprise immensely.

Was this book a worthwhile reading experience? Yes. Did I enjoy reading it? Not particularly. Did its risks excite me for what else Luiselli will do in her career? Absolutely.

The Story of My Teeth captured my attention in the first sentence; Under the Udala Trees didn’t really make me sit up and pay attention until Part Two. Yet I began highlighting passages on the second page: “This was the way things were before the war: our lives, tamely moving forward.” Okparanta’s writing is fluid and wise, and she drops hints from the beginning that she is writing this story from the future. I am drawn to stories told in this way, as they can offer both the immersive storytelling experience as well as the wisdom time brings. Particularly in coming of age stories, the reader can both remember the emotional weight of youth while sharing the experience of looking at those events with the perspective of hindsight.

Part One sets the stage, and it makes sense it comes first. It is the story’s beginning, and it helps acclimate the reader to Nigeria and the shift into war. When the action jumps to Part 2, I realized Okparanta is a bold storyteller telling a bold story. She has a clear point of view. It’s one that fits beautifully into Ijeoma’s story, but one whose impact can be far greater. Here, Ijeoma and her mother read the Bible and discuss each passage relevant to homosexuality. The import of these discussions exists on many layers. They serve to move the story forward and provide a key moment of conflict for the main character, but they also serve a larger role of allowing Okparanta a forum to address homophobia. As a contemporary American reader, I was struck by the connection to today’s world. We’re having the same conversations today, in many parts of the world, as Igeoma has in 1970’s Nigeria. This symmetry’s poignance will linger for a long time.

Part Three shifts back to the time between Parts One and Two. It’s an interesting storytelling decision, and it helps elevate this novel to much more than a chronological coming of age novel. Okparanta is taking risks to tell the story in this order. I found the events in Part Three to be somewhat slow, but there continue to be moments of beauty. When the time shifts again in Part Four, to high school, where Ijeoma and Amina are at the same boarding school, the novel really takes off. Okparanta’s storytelling becomes more aggressive as the stakes are raised for Ijeoma. She covers more time as Ijeoma’s story stretches into an adulthood that is both expected and unexpected. In the novel’s final pages, we discover Ijeoma is telling the story from 2014, which helps give this novel its impressive scope. The second half of Under the Udala Trees left me breathless. It begins as a coming of age lesbian love story set against the backdrop of the Nigerian civil war, but this novel stretches into so much more. The scope of the novel is immense: social justice, coming of age, life, love, motherhood, sexism, homophobia, and religious fervor. It is perhaps a less obvious ambition than in The Story of My Teeth, but it is more successful and ultimately more satisfying.

My verdict was obvious to me as soon as I finished reading, but it took me a few days to articulate my reasons. The Story of My Teeth is most concerned with trying to do something new, while Under the Udala Trees is  most concerned with trying to say something. Both are worthy causes in literature. For me, the most enjoyable reading experiences are brilliant and ambitious, but they are also enjoyable. The Story of My Teeth has flashes of brilliance and an abundance of ambition, but it wasn’t particularly enjoyable to read. Under the Udala Trees manages that reading trifecta, and it not only gets the win, it is one of my favorite reads of 2015.

Winner: Under the Udala Trees