Friday, August 30, 2013

August Reading Roundup

From a reading perspective, August had to be one of the strangest.  It's like I had lots of reading time, but couldn't seem to find a way to get through too many books. Between The Kills and Jeff VanderMeer's The Weird, these weighty tomes are sucking up my time.  Normally it's so many books, so little time, but this time it's so much time and so few books!  This month it was a matter of random reads, and it definitely seems to have come out that way.  The lowdown follows:

Red Sparrow, by Jason Matthews
Letters from Skye, by Jessica Brockmole 
Night of the Rambler, by Montague Kobbé
A Very Recent History, by Choire Sicha (for TLC book tours)
Night Film, by Marisha Pessl 
(I just finished this one, so I'll discuss it shortly, but this was one hell of a ride, and I read it marathon style, which is to say that I didn't stop reading until finished)
odd/weird fiction 
The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Tales, Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer (eds) 
(I might add that I should really get credit for at least 2 books with this one -- 1152 pp, double-columned) 
This House is Haunted, by John Boyne (an ARC -- so my discussion of this book won't be until October, as agreed upon with the publisher, but let me just say ...  I couldn't put this one down either) 
purely for escape purposes
well, nothing this month really unless you count The Weird (above)

crime fiction/mystery
Jerry Tracy, Celebrity Reporter by Theodore Tinsley 
Holy Orders, by Benjamin Black

White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin, A Memoir, by Michael W. Clune (for TLC book tours)

still reading
The Kills, by Richard House
just stuck my nose into
Lost Luggage, by Jordi Punti
Petite Mort, by Beatrice Hitchman 

And now, the  other book-related stuff:

1) Books I'm giving away this month -- for US readers only.    -- Unlike many other things in life, for you, this deal is absolutely 100% totally free;  I'll even pay postage to get it to its new home.  All you need to do is to be the first to leave a comment here, and then email me at with contact info INCLUDING A HOME ADDRESS, PLEASE!! 1st come, first served. No address email, no book:

books are posted on the side, but if you can't see them, here they are:
1. The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes
2. State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett -- signed
3. Holy Orders, by Benjamin Black -- ARC
4. Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel -- ARC
5. Running the Rift, by Naomi Benaron -- signed
6. Inferno, by Dan Brown
7. The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman
8. Schroeder, by Amity Gaige

--crime fiction --
1. Countdown City, by Ben Winters
2. The Last Policeman, by Ben Winters
3. Holy Orders, by Benjamin Black (ARC)

--nonfiction--1. The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times, by Jennifer Worth

 2) Added to the  wishlist this month (subtitled: huh? never heard of those!):
     crime fiction:
Andean Express, by Juan de Racaoechea (from Bolivia)
American Visa, by Juan de Racaoechea

      general fiction:
Don't Look Now: Selected Stories of Daphne du Maurier, the NYRB collection
Black Narcissus, by Rumer Godden
Burnt Island, by Alice Thompson
Helium, by Jaspreet Singh (whose novel Chef was an absolute masterpiece if you ask me)

  the weird, the strange, supernatural etc:
nothing this month

 nothing this month

 3) Books bought this month (subtitled: I read strange books)
  • The Deliverance of Evil, by Roberto Costantini  -- crime fiction
  • No One Loves a Policeman, by Guillermo Orsi -- crime fiction
  • MadAdam, by Margaret Atwood  -- scifi/fantasy
  • Shriek: An Afterword, by Jeff VanderMeer -- Fantasy
  • Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy), by Jeff VanderMeer -- scifi/fantasy (preorder)
  • Black Water:  The Book of Fantastic Literature, by Alberto Manguel -- fantasy
  • The Goddess Chronicle, by Natsuo Kirino
  • The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares -- Latin American fiction
  • Petite Mort, by Beatrice Hitchman -- Fiction
  • Night Film, by Marisha Pessl -- Fiction 
  • Lawrence in Arabia, by Scott Anderson -- nonfiction
  • Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan -- nonfiction
and, I received an ARC of Perfect, by Rachel Joyce, from Random House, which I'm looking forward to reading.

4) Currently reading: 
The Kills, by Richard House
Lost Luggage, by Jordi Punti
Petite Morte, by Beatrice Hitchman

5) The book group is still on hiatus for the summer, although the plan for September is American Rust by Philipp Meyer.

So, happy reading, a lovely Labor Day holiday, and I'm off to read again!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Night of the Rambler, by Montague Kobbé

Akashic Books, out September 3, 2013
256 pp

Another ARC preventing me from those lovely books I have stacked on the office floor ready to read, but definitely well worth it.  My thanks to LT early reviewers and to the publisher for my copy.

On June 10, 1967, a thirty-five foot boat named "The Rambler" left the island of Anguilla for St. Kitts carrying 16 passengers (including three American mercenaries), a minimum of provisions, and 500 pounds of guns and ammunition. The group was going to be part of an effort to establish a coup to get rid of Robert L. Bradshaw, the premier of the new "state" of St. Kitts/Nevis/Anguilla. Only his ouster, did the Anguillans involved in the operation believe, would call international attention to Bradshaw's neglect of Anguilla and its people. The mission failed and failed badly, but oddly enough, the results of that day actually led the way toward Anguilla's independence. In Night of the Rambler, a work of historical fiction, the author  reimagines the events leading up to that night and what drove a mere handful of people to make such a gutsy move. While there are a couple of issues that nagged at me while reading, overall, the author tells a really good fictional story behind some real events that I never knew took place.

One of the things that strikes me as some of the best work here is the author's focus on his two main characters Alwyn Cooke and Rude Thompson. While it may not be easy at first to fathom why the author seems to jump around in time and place, he's actually setting up the backstories of these characters, which reveal much about their present lives. Thompson was working in Aruba during the time of the protests against Venezuelan dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez and learned a great deal from a young anti-Perez-Jimenez engineer fresh from university, and also came to understand a kind of patriotism where you "step back, see things from a distance, and ask what can be done ..."  He comes to realize that sometimes violence might be necessary when peaceful solutions don't work. Alwyn Cooke, who lucked out and received part of a prosperous estate as an inheritance, loves Anguilla and its people, but unlike Thompson, hopes for a nonviolent solution for the sake of the island's future. When they finally come together, Cooke and Thompson are what the author calls "two of the most important ingredients necessary for change blended into one," and as the story progresses, he clearly reveals how these two people with very different responses to their collective predicament finally realize there's much more at stake than individual personalities. Another important character, Solomon Carter, has an interesting backstory as well: he was a sugar-cane worker in the Dominican Republic who saw firsthand the attacks on Haitian and other black immigrants during Trujillo's "Parsley Massacre," and saw the blood of thousands of victims run like a river. Since then, he's sworn that he would do everything in his power to see that nothing like that could ever happen in Anguilla, taking a stance against the use of extreme violence.

Another positive: the author sets the action of his story within the context of the British-speaking Caribbean of the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, when the area was a "hotbed of insurrections and revolts," and carefully sets out why the Anguillans would reach the point of aiding a coup on St. Kitts. By 1966, when the individual countries wanted internal self-governance, they first became "associated states" of the UK, and plans for the full "statehood" for St. Kitts/Nevis/Anguilla were in the works -- but the Anguillans wanted no part of it. They were neglected by their nominal leader, Bradshaw of St. Kitts, who didn't even bother to help after Hurricane Donna of 1960 decimated houses, buildings, & livestock. There was no hospital on Anguilla, no running water, no telephone service and not even a harbor. It was like these people were stuck there to fend for themselves -- you can sense the Anguillans' frustration throughout the book.

What I didn't care for so much was the narrator's interjection into a story where he played no role except as omniscient observer -- sometimes the smart-alecky remarks were annoying, or once he even notes that it's "well past" his bedtime. It totally interrupts the flow and pulls the reader right out of the historical setting. However, the story is so good, and in the long run well told, so I can sort of overlook this annoyance. I would most certainly recommend Night of the Rambler, especially to people who are interested in the Caribbean islands and their histories.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City, by Choire Sicha

Harper, 2013
256 pp

arc -- my thanks to the publisher and to TLC book tours!

Very Recent History is kind of a strange little book, but  I'm fond of strange books  so it was a good match for me. The place is "a very large and very famous city" of over eight million people, with a mayor who served three terms. It wasn't difficult to figure out we're looking at New York here, but the way the city is presented to the book's readers is in looking back on it supposedly from the future. 2009 is the year under investigation here -- another year of economic downturn in a city run by the wealthy.  The main character, "John," (who is most likely the author in a thin disguise) sets his story and that of a group of his friends against this backdrop, and shows how all of them were affected by the recession --  although he refers to it throughout as the "contagion" --  during this year.

I loved the snarky observations about pretty much everything -- wealth, power, politics, social media, employment, the high costs of apartments that only the super-rich could afford, etc.  The author also makes the point very clearly that in this city where the mayor (who is obviously Bloomberg) is the richest man in the whole place, and where John's young boss marries a princess with her own empire,   there is more than just capital at work -- that there are "things that lie beyond profit and loss and order and economy."  As he notes:
"And everything else that was free, the people you spoke with and the people you slept with, those were strategies of filling a need you could not address in a system of capital. Which is to say, the good news was that no matter how hard the City tried, or the owners in the City tried, it could not make absolutely everything about profit and need.
     People's lives would always seep out toward freedom, trashy or hilarious and messy or sexy or whatever -- toward things that lie beyond profit and loss and order and economy."

John and his friends definitely get involved in the "messy or sexy or whatever" while they sort themselves out over the year, all the while contending with their own problems created by the recession.  And while John  might be shallow, irresponsible with his debt and the little money he makes, and on about the same level as a teenager in his love life,  there's a point: he believed, as he told one of his friends, that
"... if something happened, you just had to move on. Not dealing with finances was a way of putting off dealing with all of these things. It was a way of putting off adulthood. Being an adult might be stressful, but so was being a child, and being childlike. That anxiety, and its constant presence, was what kept John on the run."
While one reviewer saw this book as an ongoing account of gay men trying to hook up, and another noted that it reads like chick-lit, I actually liked this one.  It's offbeat, quirky and snarky -- three components I love to find all together in a book.  While there are a few moments of grown men saying things such as  ""  or being overly concerned with adderall buzzes and other things that seem beyond stupid, on the whole it seems like a personal observation on a New York City run by the super rich and powerful -- and a firsthand look at the lives of a few living outside of that privileged world. While this book definitely won't be everyone's cup of tea,  it made me laugh a lot, and I liked it.

my thanks to tlc book tours,
and you can find the rest of the tour here, at the tlc website.

Monday, August 12, 2013

White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin, a memoir by Michael W. Clune

Hazelden, 2013
260 pp

my copy from the publisher -- thank you! 

At the time the author wrote this book, he'd been free from his heroin addiction for ten years. White Out is his story of his addiction and then how he came to kick it.    I won't got into great detail about what he wrote per se, because this is a book that actually has to be experienced --  it reads like he sat down at his computer and just let everything pour out of himself.

While a grad student at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore,  starting at age 21, Michael Clune lived the life of a heroin addict for years, until he got to a point where on a visit to his parents in Chicago he was picked up by the police, thrown in jail and then given a choice of prison or recovery.  In between those two times, his experiences and his feelings often flow here in stream-of-consciousness-like prose, where he also reflects on memory, addiction, and time.  The book gets into his introduction to heroin, his addiction (and the denial that he's an addict) and his ongoing relationships with his demons. In fact, other than the central metaphor of "white," one of the themes that runs consistently through this narrative,  he spends a lot of this book talking about "the first time."  As he tells his readers, the first time is "dope's magic secret."

"Then I see a white-topped vial. Wow. I stare at it. It's the first time I've ever seen it. I know I've seen it ten thousand times before. I know it only leads to bad things. I know I've had it and touched it and used it and shaken the last particles of white from the thin deep bottom one thousand times. But there it is. And it's the first time I've ever seen it."
“It might seem like I’m kind of obsessed by the first time I did dope. No shit. If you’re writing a book about this, and you don’t use at least this much space writing about the first time, you’re not being honest.”
Well, honest is what you get in this narrative, written in a style that can often come across as repetitive, but one which tries to convey what it was like for the author during the addiction years. His writing style seems to mirror his inner unraveling, but it makes sense and coheres in a bizarre, offbeat sort of way.  Through it all he reminds his readers that the heroin  is still "right over there" which, if you think about it, is pretty frightening. 

I liked this book.  I'll probably never really gut-level understand what Mr. Clune went through, and for someone like myself who picks up a personal account like this, I don't think it's fair to say that his experience can be entirely comprehended within the scope of a couple of hundred pages.  That's not a negative -- this is his unique story, a way for him to try to relate his unique experience which was pretty frightening,  even considering the positive outcome.  But I think this book is probably best suited for readers who are close to someone who is an addict and who may want to try to glean some insight from Mr. Clune's experiences. It's definitely an account I'd turn to in that situation.

my thanks to TLC book tours

Thursday, August 8, 2013


My copy of Eleanor Catton's book The Luminaries came today, and even though it's 800+ pages,  it looks like something I'm going to absolutely love!

I'm excited, and had to share.

Letters from Skye, by Jessica Brockmole

Ballantine, 2013
304 pp

ARC from publisher -- thank you!

If you've ever been involved in a long-distance relationship, kept up mainly via correspondence with the occasional visit, then this book just might appeal.  As it happens, I met my spouse via the internet about sixteen years ago.   We stayed exclusively on line -- no telephone calls or visits -- for months.  Neither of us was really looking for anything except sharing online great conversation and a sarcastic  sense of humor that showcased our mutual propensities for geekdom and snark.  Once we met, we felt like we knew everything there was to know about each other -- and a year and many plane rides later, the fat lady sang on the long-distance aspect and here we are today.  In Letters From Skye, it's roughly the same sort of scenario, done through letters and the occasional telegram.  There are two different time periods at work in this novel: first, from 1912 to shortly after WWI; second, 1940.  The time periods are interwoven -- the earliest letters and correspondence are between the two main characters David and Elspeth; the later ones are between Elspeth's daughter Margaret and others.  In terms of how to describe it, I'd say that the book is probably most suited to romance readers, although the marketing blurb on the back of my book says it was being promoted to historical fiction readers as well.  Not that I'm sexist or anything, but imho, Letters From Sky  falls easily within the category of women's fiction, and  while I'm not a fan of either romance or women's fiction, it's a light and easy summer read which I'm sure will sell very well to those who like that genre.

The story begins in 1912, when David, a young college student in Illinois, writes a letter to poet Elspeth Dunn to express his admiration for her recently-published book of poems. Elspeth writes back to thank him, and those two letters begin a correspondence that lasts for years, David telling her about his life in college, his girlfriend and then engagement, his problems with his father, and finally, his decision, after the beginning of WWI, to become an ambulance driver overseas to do something for the war effort.  Her correspondence is largely about her life on the Isle of Sky, a place she's never been away from.  As  you might guess, eventually the letters turn into something more, and with David in Europe, eventually plans to meet up are in the works. In 1940, Margaret, who works to help evacuate wartime children to safety, keeps a running correspondence with her boyfriend Paul and with her mother, who cautions her against getting too close to Paul during the war. The two threads merge when  Margaret finds one of her mother's old letters, addressed to someone named "Sue;"  shortly afterwards, Elspeth disappears without a word.  Her absence prompts  Margaret begins another correspondence to find out about her mother's early life, thinking that perhaps it holds a clue as to how to find her.

The idea behind the novel is a really good one and I could relate to the problems and frustrations of maintaining a long-distance relationship mainly by correspondence.  At the same time, I was a little disappointed because once things that I can't reveal cropped up, I figured out how things were going to go and it was just a matter of time just waiting out the obvious.  A few other things niggled:  first,  while David, Elspeth and Margaret take center stage, there were other characters whose contributions to the story  seemed just as important, but they have only more or less walk-on parts here which I thought was a real shame.   Second, thinking of the time period in which the letters between Elspeth and David is set, I had a very hard time imagining some of these conversations  taking place in 1912 -- like for example, Elspeth's response to an early letter of David's going off about women and motherhood.  And speaking of that, it seems like Elspeth's character started out strong, someone feisty and sure of herself, but as time went on, she became more overwrought and simpering, which just plain drove me crazy.  Sadly, while the author takes the time to talk about things like the blowing winds on the Isle of Sky and the beautiful artwork Elspeth's brother created in her mantel piece that incorporated local legends, I really never got that sense of place that transported me there.  And as much as I love historical fiction, this one leaned heavier on the romance and while there are a few decent descriptions of David's time as an ambulance driver during the war, there just isn't that much history incorporated into the story. 

To be very fair, this book is getting really high ratings and rave reader reviews, but as I noted, I'm not the best audience for this one.  However, this is the author's first novel, and I can appreciate all of the research and effort that went into its creation.  I'll recommend it as an easy summer read, and my guess is that it will do very well. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Red Sparrow, by Jason Matthews

Scribner, 2013
429 pp


Just as an aside, summer reading is so liberating!

Red Sparrow is kind of like those old Cold War spy novels I used to devour.  I rarely read current spy novels -- with only a few exceptions, American spy fiction these days is all about al-Qaeda, some splinter terrorist groups, Navy SEALS, or Army special ops type stuff, etc -- none of which I really want to read.   So, when I heard about Red Sparrow, I bought it in a hurry, because once again, the espionage action heats up between the US and Russia.  While the Cold War era may officially be over, one of the main ideas that runs through this book is that while Russia's system of government may have changed on the outside, underneath the facade the same old apparatus is still in place.  Considering that the author put in 33 years with the CIA, he obviously knows what he's talking about.  There's a really good story here, and for the most part I had fun reading this novel, but it has its frustrating moments. 

Nathaniel (Nate) Nash is a CIA field agent who for some time has been in charge of handling an important Russian department chief, code name MARBLE.  MARBLE is a terrific asset: he's a mole who for personal reasons, decided to get back at the then Soviet government and began passing Langley some "incalculably valuable intelligence," none the least of which are the names of Americans who were spying for the Russians.  In Russia, Nate's job is to pick up intelligence from MARBLE; he is also in charge of his safety before, during and after their meetings.  After one such meeting, Nate's cover is blown -- and somehow the Russians figure out that he is in charge of the mole. They don't know who MARBLE is, but they decide to send in a secret weapon to take care of Nate. Their asset comes in the form of Domenika, a promising up and comer in the ballet until an accident leaves her unable to dance, who is then recruited by her uncle -- ultimately becoming a "sparrow," the name for agents skilled in the arts of eliciting secrets from high-level targets through sex.

There is  a good story in Red Sparrow, complete with amazing spycraft details, turf wars between agencies, creepy Russian characters,  and a beautiful woman (the "red sparrow" of the title). The author succeeds in developing an atmosphere of mistrust and fear, which is one of the best things about this book, along with  several intense moments where things could go one way or the other, where what's going to happen next is up in the air.  If you're a fanatic spy novel reader, you'll also notice a nod to Le Carre that's unmistakeable. Characterwise, the Russian baddies are perhaps a little stereotyped, and for me, using Putin in here as a character didn't work so well.  The portrayal of the deep cover character SWAN is a little over the top, but otherwise, the characters are drawn well and credible, especially that of MARBLE -- probably the best character portrayal in the entire novel. When Matthews writes about the CIA and spycraft in general, he's at the top of his game, although sometimes the inner monologues and dialogue tend to get a little flaky.  What really bothered me the most, leaving me wondering at the outset if I should bail,  was that it seems like every time the action was heating up toward the end of the chapter, the author inserts a recipe,  which sort of kills the suspense that's been building. I seriously couldn't help but think of all of those cozy mysteries where the author sticks in recipes and I just didn't see the point here -- for me, it was a letdown.  While the author notes in an online interview that he felt "a serious spy novel with recipes at the end of each chapter would be different and provocative," and that "The recipes are elliptical and abbreviated. They're more like clues than formal recipes," they seriously interrupted the reading flow to the point of frustration. They're also hard to gloss over or ignore (although I did end up doing just that) because  they're set apart in a box that reminiscent of an index/recipe card, so ignoring them is a little tough -- at least at first. 
To be really honest, the blurb on the back that says that this book should "take its place alongside leCarre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" led me to believe that something absolutely stunning was to be found here,  but I think the blurber (Doug Stanton) was a little overambitious in his praise.  Considering that this is Matthews' first novel, it was for the most part, very well done and I wouldn't hesitate at all to recommend it to other readers of spy fiction, keeping in mind my comments above.  I'm happy I stuck with it, because as it turns out, it's an  entertaining novel, and I'll definitely be keeping my eye out for the author's next book. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

August: She reads the Booker longlist -- usually, but not this time!

I'm breaking with tradition here.  August and September are usually reserved for tackling that baker's dozen of the Booker Prize longlist, but not this year.  I'm still in summer mode, and I'm not quite ready to pick up pen or paper for taking notes while I read.  So I'm going to be lazy for another month, and pick up the Booker books when the shortlist comes out.  

If you haven't heard yet, the longlist this year is as follows:

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki
 Almost English, by Charlotte Mendelson
Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw 
Harvest, by Jim Crace
The Kills, by Richard House
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton 
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, by Eve Harris
The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan
The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín
TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann
Unexploded, by Alison MacLeod
We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo 

 I've already started on The Kills, which I actually ordered before the longlist came out because it sounded very offbeat and weird -- kind of right up my alley. I've finished We Need New Names (which I really loved) and TransAtlantic (which I really liked); and I have a lot of these books in my library or they've already been preordered.  

In the meantime, I'm staying in pure summer mode, reading down the tbr pile -- if one or two of these novels gets thrown into the mix, well, good enough.  I'll be back in September to read the shortlist.  For now, though, it's the last days of summer, and I'm going to be lazy.

Five Star Billionaire Tash Aw (Fourth Estate)
Unexploded Alison MacLeod ( Hamish Hamilton) 
TransAtlantic Colum McCann (Bloomsbury) 
- See more at:
Five Star Billionaire Tash Aw (Fourth Estate)
Unexploded Alison MacLeod ( Hamish Hamilton) 
TransAtlantic Colum McCann (Bloomsbury) 
- See more at:
Five Star Billionaire Tash Aw (Fourth Estate)
Unexploded Alison MacLeod ( Hamish Hamilton) 
TransAtlantic Colum McCann (Bloomsbury) 
- See more at:
Five Star Billionaire Tash Aw (Fourth Estate)
Unexploded Alison MacLeod ( Hamish Hamilton) 
TransAtlantic Colum McCann (Bloomsbury) 
- See more at: