Sunday, August 17, 2014

I got the mid-month, no-time-for-reading blues

An influx of family from the west coast is leaving zero reading time for the rest of this month, except what little I can snag after everyone's gone to bed.   I feel like an addict in withdrawal lately.  And forget about grabbing solid hours of computer time ... nope. Ain't gonna happen.

All has not been lost, though -- I've managed to finish The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber so that's a plus, and I'm planning on starting Lan Cao's The Lotus and the Storm tonight after everyone falls asleep, if I can stay awake long enough.   Crimewise I've finished The Panda Theory by Pascal Garnier and Savage Night by Jim Thompson, only because they're both really short.  That's about it; everything else I planned to read over the summer is getting pushed to September, when Larry's away for three weeks and all family has returned home.

And then there's those pesky Booker shortlist novels which should be announced that month... so many books yet no freakin' time.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

a rollicking good yarn that just happens to be true: In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, by Hampton Sides

Doubleday, 2014
454 pp


Once in a great while I come across a book that is so good that I have to recommend it to everyone I know -- and this book is one of them.  It's In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, by Hampton Sides.  I love anything remotely related to polar exploration to begin with, but the way that Mr. Sides delivers this true account puts him up there in the ranks of finest storytellers ever. For once each and every author blurb on the back was right on the money, not at all overrated.  To try to convey just how enthralled with and immersed in  this book I was,  my months-ago-preordered copy came yesterday at around 1:00 in the afternoon, causing me to drop everything, open it it up and start reading. I skipped dinner, and literally did not set it down all night, finishing it this morning at breakfast.  It's that good. I've written more about it  at the nonfiction page of this reading journal,  "The real stuff," where I say in part that the book literally reads like a novel, complete with cliffhangers, moments for rejoicing, and above all, page-turning scenes making it impossible to set the book down.  It's an ultimate true "rollicking adventure" story, one that should be on everyone's reading list.  Go and get a copy. Now.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

july reading roundup

Florida in the summer means rain. Normally it's a brief shower from 3 pm on, so regular that you can set your watch by when the rain starts, but this summer it's been a lot of big thunderstorms.  While that means less time swimming, it's more time reading. The getting up at 5 a.m. to have peace and quiet also adds to reading time, so I did very well this month. Keeping in mind that I read for my own entertainment and not because I want to be one of those readers who write the  "lengthier, more considered critical judgments we used to have time to write and read,"  as per Thomas Mallon, I'm having a good time with my book choices.  


The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner
The Farm, by Tom Rob Smith
In the Wolf's Mouth, by Adam Foulds (read, not yet discussed)

The Cold, Cold Ground, by Adrian McKinty (read, not yet discussed)
Herbie's Game, by Timothy Hallinan
The Stone Boy, by Sophie Loubière
Resurrection, by Wolf Haas
Silent Kill, by Peter Corris
Sorrow Bound, by David Mark


weird fiction/horror/fantasy/sci-fi
The Elementals, by Michael McDowell (the Valancourt Books ed.)
Worlds of Hurt, by Brian Hodge (just finished today so no discussion yet, but yowza!)

Now the rest:

1) Wishlisted books:
      A) Crime Fiction:
Motor City Burning, by Bill Morris
The Household Traitors, by John Blackburn
Blue Octavo, by John Blackburn

       B) General/Literary Fiction
Will Not Attend: Lively Stories of Isolation and Detachment, by Adam Resnick
Call it Sleep, by Henry Roth

       C) The Weird, the Strange, the Supernatural, etc.
nothing this month
      D) Nonfiction: 
Unruly Spaces: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities and Other Inscrutable Geographies, by Alastair Bonnett

2) Books bought this month: 

      A) crime fiction  
The Mad and the Bad, by Jean-Patrick Manchette
A Cut-Like Wound, by Anita Nair
The Glass Cage, by Colin Wilson
*Come Sweet Death, by Wolf Haas
*The Boneman, by Wolf Haas
*Resurrection, by Wolf Haas
*The Accidental Pallbearer, by Frank Lentricchia
*The Dog Killer of Utica, by Frank Lentricchia
*A Very Profitable War, by Didier Daeninckx
*Nazis in the Metro, by Didier Daeninckx
I Hear the Sirens in the Street, by Adrian McKinty

      preorderedLast Winter We Parted, by Fuminori Nakamura

*thanks to Melville House's 40% off sale! 
   B) general/literary fiction
*We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
*To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris
*The Lives of Others, by Neil Mukherjee
*The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth
*History of the Rain, by Niall Williams
Tigerman, by Nick Harkaway
All That is Solid Melts Into Air, by Darragh McKeon

      preordered:  The Lotus and the Storm, by Lan Cao
                              Augustus, by John Williams
                       The Dog, by Joseph O'Neill
                      The Disunited States, by Vladimir Pozner

* thanks to the booker prize longlist judges coming up with these

      C) the weird, the strange, the supernatural, sci-fi etc.  
North American Lake Monsters, by Nathan Ballingrud
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson
Lai-Wan: Tales of the Dreamwalker, by C.J. Henderson
Sesqua Valley and Other Haunts, by W.H. Pugmire
Weird Inhabitants of Sesqua Valley, by W.H. Pugmire
        preordered: nada

     D) spy fiction
A Most Wanted Man, by John LeCarre

      E) nonfiction
The Explorers: A Story of Fearless Outcasts, Blundering Geniuses and Impossible Success, by Martin Dugard
     preordered : nada

3) Indiespensable, Book Passage Signed First Edition, and Politics and Prose Signed First Edition  books for this month:
Indiespensable: #48:  The Great Glass Sea, by Josh Weil  -- arrived and I'm so ready to read it, but other obligations are pushing it out further
Book Passage:  Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
Politics and Prose:  The Zhivago Affair, by Peter Finn and Petra Couv

4The book group is on hiatus, coming back in September with Boris Fishman's A Replacement Life

5) Currently reading:
weird fiction:  just starting North American Lake Monsters, by Nathan Ballingrud
regular fiction:  The Antiquarian, by Gustavo Faveron Patriau
nonfiction: starting Dr. Mutter's Marvels, by Christin O'Keefe-Aptowicz (but I can't post about it until September)
crime fiction: The Devil's Road to Kathmandu, by Tom Vater (crimewave press)

 this month I gave away two giant bags of books, two boxes of books, and several others.  Thanks to all who gave them new homes. My husband Larry thanks you as well.

still storming -- so I'll just go read now.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

just another month of summer left -- don't miss The Farm, by Tom Rob Smith

Grand Central Publishing, 2014
352 pp


"It was a contradiction that she'd always shielded me from trauma, yet when it came to fairy tales she'd willfully sought out more disturbing stories, as if trying to compensate, giving me in fiction that which she'd tried so hard to take away from real life." 

I've seen a number of  descriptions  of  The Farm that have labeled it as a thriller, and there is a lot of merit in  wanting to pigeonhole it as such, but once I finished it, I realized that there was much more besides the stuff of thrillers going on here.  It's really a multilayered story within a story within a story that is slowly peeled back like the proverbial onion until you reach its core.  That is not to say that there are no thrillling moments in the novel -- on the contrary,  there are a number of moments where I turned pages quickly to see what possibly could happen next, and where in my head, I believed I'd figured out the "conspiracy" taking place in the Swedish forest where the action is set. And then, of course, there's that wonderful opening sequence. The narrator, Daniel, receives a call from his dad Chris telling him that his mom Tilde is sick, that she's been "imagining things -- terrible, terrible things," and that she's been sick all summer. Now she seems to be "suffering from a psychotic episode," and is now voluntarily committed.  As Daniel gets ready to make the trip from London to Sweden, his father calls him again to tell him that there's a problem -- Tilde, it seems, is not there; she's evidently convinced the doctors to let her go and now Chris has no clue where she may be. He does inform his son that he is among the people Tilde's been making accusations against, and that "none of what she claims is real."  While Chris rings off to check their joint bank account, Daniel gets a call from his mother saying that she'll be landing in London in just two hours and that
"Everything that man has told you is a lie. I'm not mad. I don't need a doctor. I need the police."
From there, Tilde and Daniel sit for hours and hours while she goes through a satchel filled with what she calls evidence of her husband's involvement in a horrible criminal conspiracy; while Daniel wants her to get the point, she insists on going through each exhibit one by one, in chronological order.  The story she tells reveals much to Daniel about herself and her husband, and by the time the story reaches its conclusion,  Daniel comes to realize a lot about himself.


The Farm is a twisty novel, one that really plays on reader expectations.  The reader, up to a point,  takes the same position as Daniel here, having to decide whether or not Tilde's version of things is true and his dad is guilty of terrible crimes,  or whether she really does need to be back in a hospital receiving treatment.  Daniel faces the unenviable task of serving as both judge and jury,  while in the meantime he begins to realize that there are a number of things about his parents he never knew,  leading to the idea that maybe we don't know people as well as we think we do -- most especially members of our own families.  I can't really say much without giving away the show.

This is another one of those books where I had to take time to let things come together in my head, but I have to say, I ended up liking it.  The Swedish setting with its forests, lakes and snow-covered ground provides the perfect backdrop for Tilde's chilling and highly-atmospheric story.  While there are some spots where the pace seems sort of sluggish, each time Tilde took something out of her satchel things started to heat up again and I was drawn back in and  ready for whatever might happen next.  The ending comes fast, sort of out of proportion to the big buildup that proceeded it, but it is a bit of a shocker. It also hit home the idea that as much as you may want to ignore the past, sometimes it might be better to confront it.  I also felt that since Daniel has such a weight on his shoulders here, he might have shown as much energy throughout the story as he did toward the end, but in the long run, The Farm is a really good summer read that will leave you thinking about those closest to you and the secrets they carry. It's also a heck of a ride.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Forever Man, by Pierre Ouillette -for TLC book tours

Alibi, 2014
kindle edition
316 pp

from Netgalley and the publishers - thank you

Portland, Oregon, is one of my favorite cities in America -- not just because of Powell's Books but because it's beautiful and has a lively and diverse population. In  the dystopian thriller The Forever Man, the diverse population is still there, but now it's divided mainly between the haves and the have-nots. The haves live in beautiful, luxurious gated communities while the have-nots struggle to keep non-permanent jobs and to keep their families fed. As the author notes,
"The national safety net was now completely unraveled and the populace left in free fall. No Social Security, no pensions, no Medicare, no Medicaid, no welfare."
 Then there are the criminals who run most of the city and the cops who try to keep order in this chaos.

One of these cops is Lane Anslow - he's a contract policeman also struggling to stay afloat financially, and has just been told that he's become too old for the job to continue. Lane has a genius but bipolar brother Johnny, who is involved in some very cutting-edge genetic research. Not too far into the story, Johnny tells Lane that their problems are about to come to an end, and that Lane would not have to worry about money ever again. After he returns from a trip to New York, he says, they'll both be set for life.  But Johnny's plans are thwarted and he disappears, but not before he manages to get one phone call to his brother from his hiding place, sending Lane out on a quest to find him. However, there are people who are not so keen on Lane's interference -- most especially the members of  a shady group who are pursuing their own interests on Mount Tabor, interests to which Johnny holds the key.   Aside from the dystopian element, the author explores scientific advances that can prolong life -- for those with the cash, that is -- and the questions that arise out of the success of these advances.

Let me just say this straight up - The Forever Man was just not for me. I don't normally read books like this, but sometimes when all I  want is brain candy, I'll pick up the occasional thriller or two.  I always expect that I'm just going to have to toss all disbelief out the window, especially in a futuristic setting such as the one here, but this one was just way too over the top - the setting might be plausible as one future road this country could follow, but the  action and the dialogue were just too much.    It also reminded me of a screenplay, ready to roll the minute someone picks up the option. Most of  the book is written in present tense and reads like a series of screenplay directions, including flashbacks.  Once I got that in my head, combined with how over the top it was, it was a struggle to finish -- not even the debate about prolonging life could hold my interest. I hate, absolutely hate being so negative, but it's what it is. Not my cup of tea. However, the book is garnering some fine reader reviews, so it's probably just me.

my thanks to Netgalley and to TLC book tours, where if you click on the link, you'll see where this book is headed next.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Not for the easily disturbed: Summer House With Swimming Pool, by Herman Koch

Hogarth, 2014
400 pp
originally published as Zomerhuis mit zwembad, 2011
translated by Sam Garrett


"Sometimes you run your life back to see at what point it could have taken a different turn. But sometimes there’s nothing at all to run back – you yourself don’t know it yet, but the only button that’s still working is forward.”

There are very few novels that have ever a) made me squirm while reading them and b) made me feel like I really ought to go and wash my hands each time I set the book down, but this one succeeded in doing both.  At the same time, the novel is compelling enough so that I couldn't not pick it up again -- the characters are so repulsive that I just had to keep reading.  

The story is told from the point of view of a general practitioner named Marc Schlosser, who begins his narrative describing his revulsion to human bodies, especially naked ones.  As part of his self-introduction, Schlosser reveals how he fantasizes about death at the same time his patients are pointing out their physical ailments during an examination:
"No, I don't want to see. I pretend to look, but I'm thinking about something else. About a roller coaster in an amusement park that has a green dragon's head mounted on it. The people throw their hands in the air and scream their lungs out. From the corner of my eye I see moist tufts of pubic hair, or red infected bald spots where no hair will ever grow again, and I think about a plane exploding in the air. The passengers still belted in their seats as they begin a mile-long tumble into eternity: It's cold, the air is thin, far below the ocean awaits. It burns when I pee, Doctor. Like there are needles coming out ... a train explodes just before it enters the station..."
and more.  While the reader understands that Schlosser is disturbed, from the outside, his patients don't have a clue. Not only is he a popular physician, an "ideal family doctor" whose "selling point" is that he gives  patients twenty minutes of his time so that they feel like they're "being taken seriously," since, as he notes,  patients can’t tell the difference between time and attention,” he's also known for being " fairly accommodating with prescriptions,” since "Medicines are what boost the quality of life."  His reputation for being easy about prescriptions first led him to cross paths with actor Ralph Meier, who'd heard about him from a colleague, and who, eighteen months later as the novel opens, has also just been buried. Schlosser is awaiting a hearing from the Board of Medical Examiners the next day for what he says is a "medical error," but obviously he has been summoned before them because of some sort of malpractice regarding Meier's death.  The rest of the novel follows as Schlosser recounts the events of the last eighteen months that have led up to this moment. It all begins with an invitation to Schlosser and his wife Caroline to attend Meier's performance in Richard II that ultimately leads the good doctor, his wife and two daughters to the titular summer house with swimming pool. They're there along with the Meiers, their two teen boys, Stanley Forbes (a somewhat sleazy photographer and film director), and Ralph's girlfriend Emmanuelle who seems much too young.  What seems at first like a comedic look into the hedonistic summer fun of  the upper middle class quickly turns serious when tragedy strikes.  But who is responsible -- and what should be done?  

 Summer House With Swimming Pool leaves the reader to examine the motivations of each and every character in this novel, especially those belonging to Schlosser, who as narrator is the only source for what actually happened.  The reader knows from the outset that there's something not quite right with him; as he goes about dispensing his own observations on his world, he interjects the teachings of one of his old university profs whose own bizarre beliefs got him tossed out of the academic world.  Parenthood, especially the raising of daughters is a huge theme -- here these young girls are thrust into a space of  irresponsible adult behavior that creates an obviously sexually-charged environment. How do parents protect their daughters in this situation?  The question of violence and what might set it off in otherwise outwardly "normal" seeming people is also examined.  And as noted above, the adults in this novel are pretty repellent -- and one would think that the good doctor would learn something from his experiences, but well, I leave it to the reader to decide whether or not this is the case. 

There's always more going on underneath the surface in this novel, and despite its repulsive characters and very difficult material (especially as the parent of a young daughter),  I couldn't help but remain mesmerized throughout.  It's twisted, disturbing, and definitely not for the squeamish -- and despite all of the uncomfortable squirming in my chair while reading it, it's even sometimes darkly funny. However, it was always compelling me forward.  My only criticisms of this novel are a) that the ending sort of faltered -- for one thing, the main character just sort of ran out of steam in comparison to the rest of the novel, and for another, considering the tone of the rest of the novel, it just didn't pack as big of a punch as I would have expected; b) the middle sort of sags a bit before things become lively once again.   Bottom line though, I liked it and would easily recommend it. I probably should have started with Mr. Koch's The Dinner; I'll be pulling that book out here very shortly.  And I'll also say that should another one of this author's books be translated and published here, I'll be one of the first people to buy it.  

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

the man booker prize longlist is announced

This year's longlist for the Man Booker Prize has been announced -- and well, yeah.

According to the Telegraph, "There are six novels from Britain, five from the US, one from Australia and one from Ireland".  Here they are in that order:

J by Howard Jacobson, 
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, 
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, 
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee,
 Us by David Nicholls 
How To Be Both by Ali Smith

United States
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris,
 We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler,
 The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt, 
Orfeo by Richard Powers 
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan

History of the Rain by Niall Williams

Hmph. How did they miss Jonathan Lethem's Dissident Gardens? (US) Or Fiona McFarlane's The Night Guest? (Australia)  -sigh-  Well, anyway, it does look to be an interesting list this year!