Sunday, March 31, 2013

March reading roundup

Happy Easter to all; it's a lovely day here on Florida's Treasure Coast and as soon as I finish up here, I'll be out enjoying it.

With the exception of several ARCs (with still more to finish!) I've been just reading whatever the heck struck my fancy this month.  The truth is that through the winter up until the "spring forward" time change I suffer from serious depression, so I just didn't have the energy this month or last to spend a great deal of time on literature I have to give a lot of thought to.  In March, with a couple of exceptions, I tended toward easier books to get me over the hump until the days started staying sunnier longer.  So without further ado...

this month:

How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan)
The Death of Bees, by Lisa O'Donnell (Scotland)
Philida, by Andre Brink (South Africa)
crime fiction
The Golden Calfby Helene Tursten (Sweden)
The Dance of the Seagull, by Andrea Camilleri (Italy) 
The Burn Palace, by Stephen Dobyns (USA)
A Not So Perfect Crime, by Teresa Solana (Spain)
The Missing File, by D.A. Mishani (discussion posted tomorrow)

 odd/weird fiction
Lovecraft Unbound, Ellen Datlow, ed 
Prophet of Bones, by Ted Kosmatka (discussion to be posted April 2)
Last Days, Adam Nevill (actually read end of February)


And now, the  other book-related stuff:
1) The book group read The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman in February; the March book group was moved to this coming Tuesday because of Passover.   It was pointed out a couple of times that this isn't our usual book club-type read, and the majority of us liked it but were put off by the ending.  Those who really enjoyed the book were wowed by it, and I'll have to remember to tell them it's currently on the Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist.  And as a sort of update to our Never Let Me Go group read, I watched the movie and decided that if you hadn't read the book, you'd be lost.

 2) Added to the  wishlist this month (as usual, a lot of obscure titles):
     crime fiction:
none -- can you believe it?

     general fiction:
Maya's Notebook, by Isabel Allende
Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer, by Alan Huffman
The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, From Key West to the Arctic Ocean, by Philip Caputo

 3) Books bought this month (also filled with obscure titles, I'm sure!)
All That Is, by James Salter
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Ann Fowler
Odds Against Tomorrow, by Nathaniel Rich
Kite, by Dominique Edde
The Andalucian Friend, by Alexander Soderbergh
Moth Smoke, by Mohsin Hamid
Fanny and Stella, by Neil McKenna
Oil on Water, by Helon Habila

4) Currently reading: 
The Midwife, by Jennifer Worth
The Tragedy of Fidel Castro, by João Cerquiera
Black Wings II, ed. S.T. Joshi
****5) Books I'm giving away this month -- take one, some or all, I don't care. I want to send them to good homes.   (sorry, to US readers only)   -- Unlike many other things in life, for you, these are absolutely 100% totally free;  I'll even pay postage to whoever will give them a home. All you need to do if you want any of these is to let me know which book(s) you want, and then email me at with contact info. Taking the books does me a HUGE favor!

1. The Death of Bees, by Lisa O'Donnell 
2. ARC: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid (I bought a copy so this one's available)
3. ARC: The Burn Palace, by Stephen Dobyns
4.  The Book About Blanche and Marie, by Per Olov Enquist (on the 1001 books list)

 This isn't a contest -- it's first come, first served.  After a week, what ever is left will be given away elsewhere.

I'm now off to enjoy a very warm and sunny day.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

oh me, oh my! Amazon is buying Goodreads!

Click here to read the story from the goodreads website; then

Click here to read Amazon's press release:

I must say I'm a bit surprised, because it wasn't that long ago that the Goodreads people were in a mad rush to combine ISBNs because they were no longer going to be using info from amazon.  The featured place to buy books at goodreads has also been via a Barnes and Noble clickthrough, leaving amazon way low on the pulldown list under "online stores."   I wonder what happened!

I hope this doesn't mess anything up with goodreads...I am a regular there!

03/29:   There is now a veritable sh*tstorm not only at goodreads' website, but also at their facebook page, with people wanting to pack up and leave due to what they feel is a major sellout.  I'm not going anywhere at least for a while, but I am very concerned about my book reviews. I hate the idea of corporate sellout, but at the moment I'm much more concerned about my own thin skin.  I  feel good about posting at Goodreads (and LibraryThing for that matter, 2 places where most people are mature and act it); I rarely post reviews at Amazon because of all the unnecessary vitriol that some Amazon review readers seem to harbor and feel no qualms about posting.  It's like there's a culture over at Amazon where some people feel it's their duty to slam whatever you say, then start unnecessary personal attacks just because you don't agree with what they have to say.    It's not that I mind people disagreeing with what I have to say about a book, or saying that I'm full of bs (and then give their reasons why in an intelligent and adult way) but rather it's that for some reason there's just so much hate at that website and Amazon doesn't give a rat's ass.   And now I'm not sure whether or not my goodreads reviews are going to provoke that kind of nastiness if they're automatically linked to the book on Amazon. 

updates to follow if anything interesting comes up!

03/29: LibraryThing has now offered to give people coming to LT from Goodreads free accounts if they switch over by Sunday.  You can read more at the LT Blog post but I'll repost it here:

"In the wake of Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads, we’ve had some blow-back on the fact that LibraryThing charges for a membership to add more than 200 books. In fact, when you go to pay, it’s pay-what-you-want. The money helps pay for the site, and keeps us advertisement-free for members. Also, we believe customers should be customers, with the loyalty and rights of customers, not the thing we sell to our real customers. However, some people don’t like it. And we want everyone. So, as a test and a welcome, we’re giving out free year’s accounts to everyone who signs up through the end of Sunday. We’ve also upgraded everyone who signed up since 4pm yesterday."

Also, the news from the Goodreads founders has now been deleted from the Goodreads home page, likely in the wake of so much negative feedback. 

As I stated, I'm in no rush to join in and delete my books from Goodreads -- I'm planning on hanging around to see what happens.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Philida, by André Brink

Harvill Secker, 2012
310 pp

[also available in paperback:

"This whole land is built on our sweat and our blood."  

This novel was longlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize, and I finally found it again after having lost it for months.  Don't ask...the lack of shelf space for my books is reaching critical mass so books tend to get buried around here. Anyway, I'm happy to have read it, and even happier to have discovered André Brink  as an author.  Philida is a work of historical fiction, based on a real person in his family's history who worked as a knitting girl on the Brink family farm Zandvliet from 1824 to 1832.  In the acknowledgments section of his novel, Brink notes that
"The discovery that her master Cornelis Brink was a brother of one of my own direct ancestors, and that he sold her at auction after his son Francois Gerhard Jacob Brink had made four children with her..."
was the catalyst for his story. This re-imagined Philida is no ordinary slave; as the novel opens she's on her way to lodge a complaint against Francois who, after fathering four children with her,  had promised to buy her freedom.  He, of course, has no power to free her, since Philida is the property of his father.  She makes the trek to see the Slave Protector to air her grievances, a journey that will ultimately have consequences not only for Philida, but for others in her life as well.  

Told via alternating perspectives with chapter headings that read like something from Dickens,  the story begins in1832; by now the rumors are rampant that the British will soon be freeing the South African slaves. Philida is well aware of this fact, as are the other slaves and their masters. Philida also has a very keen sense of what it is to be a slave, noting "I am never the one to decide where to go and when to go. It’s always they, it’s always somebody else. Never I," and realizes that she is a "piece of knitting that is knitted by somebody else." Throughout this story, she is looking to find out who she when the word "slave" is set aside, as well as where she really belongs.  The author returns repeatedly to this knitting motif, in terms of planning and patterning, unraveling and starting over again, important  in Philida's quest to "get to the right place," where you "pick up the wrong stitches and you knit them right," for a "beautiful piece of knitting that is perfect." It takes her some time, but ultimately she will come to understand that she first has to learn where she doesn't belong before finding the place where she does. How she comes to this realization makes up most of this novel.

The book makes for compelling reading, and while the horrors of slavery are certainly included in the narrative, they are there without the sensationalism that is usually present. And while this may sound a little weird, while I had absolutely zero sympathy for the key players in the Brink family (Cornelis, Francois and especially Mrs. Brink), the use of changing points of view helps to provide perspective from their side -- not just in terms of a lack of humanity but also in the bigger economic and cultural picture of an uncertain future.  The story also focuses on the power of stories, as well as connections to the land.  Sometimes I'll admit that Philida's philosophizing got tiring, and I also found that in some spots the way she spoke was more eloquent and refined than it probably should have been.  For me, the knitting analogy was just a wee bit overdone and a bit obvious, although I get that from Philida's point of view, it was a way for her to express herself.  However, I liked this book.  From a casual reader's perspective, it's an easy read, although for some readers there are certain scenes and depictions that may be tough going in an emotional sense. This is not your usual novel about slavery, by any means, and  I'd definitely urge you to give it a try. 

fiction from South Africa

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Burn Palace, by Stephen Dobyns

Blue Rider press, 2013
480 pp

(read in February)

The Burn Palace has all the trappings of the paranormal about it, but once you cut through the supernatural red herrings found throughout this novel, what you have left is a story about a crime. (There is one exception, which I'll get to later.) The plot winds through the book at a slow pace, but as you read, you realize that rather than focusing on the mystery at the heart of the story, the author is taking his time to examine life in a small town.  This is one of those novels you'll appreciate for the writing rather than the unraveling of the mystery and its solution, which is pretty obvious after only a short while. You can find my discussion of this book on my crime page. 

My thanks to the publisher for my copy and a huge apology for being so late -- I read this in February and then misplaced the book that I just found yesterday. Oops. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 2, Ellen Datlow (ed).

Night Shade Books, 2010
308 pp


I'm really liking this aimless reading thing; I love being all over the map with my book choices.  Good horror anthologies or novels are my secret indulgence; I love that feeling of dread that creeps up on me while I'm reading.  I save these books for reading in the dead of night when it's quiet.

I read the first entry in this series at the end of February and it was just plain bad, so I was happily surprised to find that there had been an improvement in quality between the publication of the first and the second volumes. There are five little gems that shine above all of the rest in this book -- so if you're into horror, you might want to check it out.

The Dance of the Seagull, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin, 2013
277 p
originally published as La danza del gabbiano, 2009
translated by Stephen Sartarelli

Another favorite crime fiction writer of mine has a new novel out in translation, taking us to Sicily with  The Dance of the Seagull, #15 in Andrea Camilleri's excellent series of novels featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano.  I haven't missed one of these books, reading them faithfully since book #1, The Shape of Water.  While they are definitely crime novels, they're also filled with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Sicily, and Inspector Salvo Montalbano happens to be one of my favorite characters in the crime fiction universe.  Definitely recommended, but best to read from the beginning.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Death of Bees, by Lisa O'Donnell

HarperCollins, 2013
309 pp

Let me start my brief discussion of this novel by saying that I predict that it will be a runaway bestseller once word gets out about it. The Death of Bees is very easy to read, it moves very quickly, and it will capture the attention of people who are fascinated with stories about severely dysfunctional families or stories with young, teenaged characters at the center of it all.  From what I can tell by perusing the star ratings of this book, it is probably going to sell like hotcakes. 

Personally, I had heard of this novel and had planned to give it a pass, but it arrived from Powell's (along with an incredibly tasty jar of honey) in my latest Indiespensable shipment so I thought, well, okay, I might as well give it a go. I was admittedly mildly intrigued by the opening lines:
 "Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard.

Neither of them were beloved."
Hmmm, I thought, perhaps it's something along the lines of McEwan's Cement Garden.  As it turns out, it isn't.   After a few chapters, I came to the conclusion that this is definitely not my cup of tea and I  thought about putting it away unfinished, something I rarely do.  I'd even reached for another book before thinking that all of these 5-star ratings must mean something, so I picked it up again and read through to the end. It still wasn't my cup of tea, but overall, not because of the author, although I do think she missed the mark in a couple of places. The plain and simple truth is that I just don't like these kinds of novels -- especially ones geared (imho) more toward a mature young-adult audience or toward those who like women's fiction.  While it may be trendy, it's not my thing.

Set in Glasgow, the story is told through alternating points of view.  The two sisters at the heart of this story, Marnie and Nelly, take turns; Lennie, the next-door neighbor who takes the girls in when he thinks their parents have just gone off and left them also has a voice.  The story begins with the deaths of the parents and Marnie's realization that if the authorities discover their absence, the girls could be taken into care, so they construct a story that the parents have gone away and left them alone, but that they're planning to come back. After all, when Marnie turns 16, she can legally care for her sister and herself.   Meanwhile, they bury the bodies in the back yard, planting lavender over the graves.   Lennie has his own issues -- he was caught with a young male prostitute and now lives by himself; he's a very lonely old man who feels better being needed by someone. Both sisters deal with their childhoods and their parents' deaths in different ways; Lennie doesn't know the truth and tries to understand what it is the girls aren't telling him.  There are several twists to this story that gets darker as time goes on and as more players are introduced.  Thematically, the story looks at families and at grief; it also examines what it means to truly care about someone. 

To be fair, aside from the target audience thing, I felt that the story moved along very quickly,  never getting boring and the author throws in some dark humor at times. Some of the families other than Marnie and Nelly's also threw a light on different types of dysfunctionality -- for example, people who have well-paying jobs and live in nice houses who neglect their kids, a woman in a state of post-prison  religious mania who turns her back on her wayward son so he has to sleep on the streets, and a daughter who turned to her father in a serious time of need but was refused because the father had a reputation to maintain --  all make their appearances here.  Bringing all of this out was something the author did well.  But I discovered two major issues that I would consider problematic writing wise: first, I saw the big twist toward the end coming a mile off (sadly, I can't reveal what it is) and second, the end was just too pat, too sweet, too nice, too happy, whatever you want to call it. I get that she's offering a small glimpse of hope, but come on! That was just too way out there. 

As I said at the beginning, this book is probably going to sell very well.  I personally know people who LOVED this book -- all of them  YA and women's fiction readers so if that's where your reading interests lie, this is probably  the perfect novel.  I've seen it categorized in reviews as "depressing," which it could be, I suppose. I just wasn't that into it so I didn't really have that sort of connection to the story felt by most readers who lavished the book with heaps-o-praise.  Oh well!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Golden Calf, by Helene Tursten

Soho Crime, 2013
340 pp
originally published as Guldkalven, 2033
translated by Laura A.Wideburg

If you're a fan of Helene Tursten's Detective Inspector Huss crime fiction series, you'll be happy to know that Soho Crime recently published book #6, The Golden Calf (#5 to be translated). If you're not, skip this entry.  This one had me going and kept me glued right up until the end which sort of didn't work for me.  You can read more here where I write about the crime fiction I read.   Let's just say this isn't one of my favorite Irene Huss novels.

Monday, March 4, 2013

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid

Riverhead, 2013
240 pp

As always, my many thanks to the publisher and to LibraryThing early reviewers for my copy. 

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a story that charts the story of a man's rise in the world, countered by his losses, and it is also a story of love, although you might not guess that based on the title.  Nor would you believe it when you open the first page and find yourself reading about the nature of self-help books. In fact, you might be wondering just what the author is doing as you get more into the novel, because there are no character names, there is no name for the country in which all of the action is taking place, and the main character is addressed only as "You."  I first became interested in this novel last fall, when it was briefly excerpted in the New Yorker, and it whetted my appetite for more.  For me, there were no disappointments -- I loved this book, and I recommend it highly. 

The unnamed protagonist (the "You") of this novel first comes to our attention as a child in a rural village.  He is suffering from Hepatitis E caused by contaminated water. His father, who works as a cook in the city, decides to moves his family away from the village, separating the small family from the larger, extended clan. As time passes, the boy "you" attends school, only to discover he's smarter than his teacher, who never really wanted to be a teacher in the first place. His sister is unable to go to school, working as cleaning girl instead, biding her time until a marriage can be arranged; his brother is hired on as a painter's assistant, gaining marketable skills while he develops a brutal cough from spraying paint without proper protective equipment.  As a teen, "you" then finds a job delivering DVDs that have been pirated in a back room of a marketplace; it is while working here that he meets "the pretty girl."  They exchange phone numbers (he has a cell phone as part of his job), and get together to discuss movies, but the "pretty girl" has long been planning her escape, initially with the "help" of  a marketing manager but later by making connections with people whom she thinks will be able to help her with her goals of financial independence and fame.  When she leaves, "You" is distraught, but neither of them forget the other and dance into and out of each other's lives over several decades.  After a stint at a university,  where he grows a beard and aligns himself with a group of powerful idealists who inspire fear, he eventually finds the idealism wearing off for him in the face of a crisis.  Soon he is working as a salesman of  "non-expired-labeled expired-goods,"  but as the author notes,
 "...if you truly want to become filthy rich in rising Asia, as we appear to have established that you do, then sooner or later you must work for yourself.  The fruits of labor are delicious, but individually they're not particularly fattening. So don't share yours, and  munch on those of others when you can."

It is ultimately and perhaps ironically water that launches "you" into the world of bureaucrat patronage, big business, and wealth as he starts a business bottling it.  First it comes from the tap, despite cracking pipes, underground mains contaminated with sewage that causes deadly diseases; the "well-off" citizens of this city have turned to bottled water as a result.  At first, the unnamed protagonist has a small operation, boiling tap water before bottling it; he eventually moves on to becoming a water entrepreneur and making lots of money.  The big jobs that will bring him fame and the potential for more riches are dangling in front of him, for example, an exclusive housing developments in the city, "marketed, developed, and administered by one of a comprehensive network of military-related corporations," where the newest phase will have its own electricity plant and its own drinkable water, "Like you've gone to Europe. Or North America... without leaving home," ... "an inspiration for the entire country."  By now the city's aquifer is slowly being depleted, but "you" has become a rich man.

The use of the self-help format separates different periods of "you's" life and his material rise to entrepreneur under chapter headings that seem to be commonsensical and offer sound advice, for example, "Work for Yourself," "Befriend a Bureaucrat," or even "Be Prepared to Use Violence."  It also brings to light that while riches can be achieved, and success can be realized, there's also a flip side: loss. While "You" is steadily climbing the success ladder, his losses begin to mount: his marriage and relationship with his son are slowly disintegrating, and as he gets older, health and fortune begin to wane. While the story focuses on this character, the format of this book also allows the reader to project his story onto this unnamed country, and the growing pains it endures: health concerns, the mass move to the cities that changes traditional family structures and family dynamics, and among other things, leads to the construction of haphazard housing that as the author notes, probably wouldn't survive torrential rainstorms or earthquakes. Rapid growth and one's financial successes are caught up in webs of corruption, nepotism and graft that are inherent in every stage of the process (even "you's" elementary school teacher got his job through bribes and family connections in the bureaucracy); physical security comes from having a bodyguard prepared to shoot your rivals' hitmen or anyone else who might want you out of the way; then, of course, there are the ever-present environmental concerns that are pretty much ignored. The book as a whole also provides a framework for trying to understand a part of the world that most of us actually know very little about.

As I came to the end of the novel, one of the questions I took away with me was whether or not the unnamed protagonist's successes were worth the inevitable losses -- extending that concept outward I find  myself  hoping that this country will survive the downsides of its  attempts at its own rise in the world.  The powerful and continuing  love story between the unnamed character and the pretty girl holds the key to existing with a  measure of peace and stability among the chaos; that's all I'll say about this right now and leave it to you to read it for yourself. The book as a whole also provides a framework for trying to understand a part of the world that most of us actually know very little about. 

I loved this book; all in all, I found How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia to be a very clever, well-written and thought-provoking novel. There is so much more to this book than I can encapsulate in a few paragraphs  here, which is okay, because the book is really best experienced via one's own imagination.

Friday, March 1, 2013

March: aimless reading time

This month, instead of perusing the shelves to find common threads among the books, I'm reading with absolutely no agenda. I can't even say what I might pull off the shelf in March -- it could be anything!  Here's what I'm currently working on:

How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid -- almost finished and absolutely loving it (I can already recommend it even though I'm still reading it)

The Dance of the Seagull, by Andrea Camilleri

Jasmine, by Noboru Tsujihara -- a couple more chapters and I'm done

I have the house to myself today so I'm off to read now.