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Friday, November 9, 2018

Min Jin Lee, PACHINKO

Evocative and very well written, this novel was years in the development and writing, and it is ambitious. It holds in lovely tension the two narratives of epic world events (from Japan's invasion in 1910 through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s) and of the delicate turns of individual lives for members of a Korean family living in Japan. I was stunned by the racism; it's overt and institutionalized and pervasive. I was also compelled by her introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of her previous book, FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES; in it, she traces her many fumbles and challenges as a writer. I'm a new fan; I'm going to go hunt down FREE FOOD now.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Shannon Baker, BITTER RAIN

I'm a sucker for a sturdy, no-nonsense, deeply ethical woman P.I. figure. This one is a sheriff, with a fair amount of emotional baggage and some sketchy men for colleagues. Set on the border of Nebraska/South Dakota, adjacent to a Lakota "rez," this book tackles some of the problems faced by young Native Americans trying to figure out their place in the world. Fans of Sue Grafton's series will find Kate Fox a likable protagonist.

Amina Akhtar, #FASHIONVICTIM

This is one of the more unusual, original books I've read this year: darkly comic and satiric about the fashion industry. I might not have picked it up, except that the author is one on a panel with me next week; but I'm glad I did. Quite naturally the novel draws comparisons to The Devil Wears Prada ... but it lacks the easy division between evil boss/ambitious but abused and highly likable underling. Instead we have a young woman protagonist who is desperate and driven to murder by the fashion industry and the insanely #selfie world she lives in. The novel is clever, and twisted, and yet despite the number of characters whose vocabulary is mostly "OMG" and meme-y phrases (or because of them), it shines a sharp light on the kind of ruthlessness and the alienation of language from meaning and authenticity that the social media culture endorses and creates.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Jackie Copleton, A DICTIONARY OF MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING

Enjoyed this delicate, assured debut novel about a Japanese man, terribly injured by the bomb dropped over Nagasaki, who seeks his grandmother in the US after decades of separation. At the heart of the book is a man who left me cold with his selfishness, and a woman who grasped the opportunities for enacting her revenge. Some beautifully wrought prose, and the central trope of the "dictionary" in which Japanese words are defined in English, illuminating certain aspects of both cultures, worked for me. Would definitely read another by this author.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Kate Quinn, THE HUNTRESS

I enjoyed Quinn's previous novel, THE ALICE NETWORK, so I was prepared to like this one as well! It didn't disappoint; indeed, it feels more ambitious in scope and has the same level of historical detail, similarly well-developed characters, and also an awareness of the mythic structures common among different cultures, which I enjoyed. I had no idea the Soviets put their women pilots on the front lines; and the grueling schedule of bombing runs (run like NASCAR laps) that these Night Witches followed made me cringe inwardly.  The book's structure is a bit unusual because with multiple narrators, we readers often understand things before the characters do: we know who the villain (the huntress) is very early on. but watching to see *how* she's uncovered ... well, I was race-reading those last hundred pages! I was given an advanced copy; this book will be available on February 26, 2019.

Amor Towles, A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

GENTLEMAN truly is one of my favorites (as in it makes my list of the top 20 books I've ever read). The premise is unusual ... a man sentenced to a life of house arrest in a hotel in Moscow. But it is what he makes of his life that is so marvelous. It feels like an old-fashioned novel in a way: immensely readable, with clever little bits dropped in for humor amidst the chaos and trouble, wonderful characters, and a deeply satisfying ending.

Taking things out of context never puts them in their best light—but there are so many passages I underlined in this book that I want to share one. Emile is the temperamental gourmet chef who is famous for driving inept underlings out of the kitchen at the point of a knife. He and the Count (protagonist) and another friend have just been threatened with being turned over to the State by an obnoxious, rigid bureaucrat, whom they all hate. He has just left the kitchen, hurriedly.

“Andrey and the count turned their gaze from the door to Emile. Then in wide-eyed amazement, Andrey pointed a delicate finger at Emile’s raised hand. For in the heat of outrage, the chef had grabbed not his chopper but a celery stalk, whose little green fronds now trembled in the air. And to a man, the Triumvirate burst into laughter.”

I'd say, Don't miss this gem.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Marjorie Herrera Lewis, WHEN THE MEN WERE GONE

This debut is an enjoyable, quick read that recalls many of the Texas football movies and books you've seen--with the authentic passion for the game and the (mostly) feel-good ending. This one, based upon a true story, takes place in the 1940s, when the men--including the football coach for the high school Brownwood Lions--have left for war. An assistant principal, Mrs. Tylene Wilson, who learned the game of football at her father's knee, tries to find a man to coach the team, but no one will take it on. In the end, she does it herself--and only gets flak for it. It's almost painful--and (I'll own it) infuriating--to read about how her best friends shun her and her husband; how the newspapers mock her; how the football players and coaches from other team threaten not to play against Brownwood because she's coaching ... all because she wants to give these senior boys a chance to play the game, and to keep them from enlisting prematurely. The nerve of her.