Mini-Reviews from the Southwest, Part II: Pandemic; An Ember in the Ashes; In a Dark, Dark Wood; The Company

Read Part I here!

I took a fiction break with Sonia Shah’s Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola 23847947and Beyond. I listened to the audio version, which Shah narrates herself. She does a fine job, and
the book is decent. I felt like she didn’t bring anything “new” to the non-fiction epidemiology world, and that a lot of the same themes and insights could be delivered in long-form journalism pieces (this one about Ebola is a personal favorite). I kind of wish that I had chosen her other books instead, but heard the malaria one was a difficult listen and didn’t even see this one about pharmaceuticals and ethics on Audible! Personally, I’m not ready to write off Shah — I appreciate her writing style, how she incorporates herself into the story, and the engaging honesty she offers the reader. Pandemic just wasn’t for me. For a longer review and a look at the complexes you’ll develop after reading this book, please check out  Gin Jenny’s post here!

Next up is a book I heard about through the blogger grapevine and read about on Book Riot! 20560137Seriously, when I see a lot of consistently positive reviews about a genre book, I have to give it a try. Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes is a phenomenal first entry in the series. It’s a great YA exploration of personal/social expectations and pressures, identity, and narratives. The chapters alternate narrators, focusing either on Laia or Elias. Laia comes from a family of spies, but she hasn’t been involved — until her brother is arrested, and she’s forced to take steps to get him back safely. Elias, meanwhile, is a soldier on the eve of graduation — and desertion. His plans are interrupted when he is chosen to partake in the trials to determine the new Emperor. The way the characters come from such different backgrounds and narratives was fascinating, and I was intrigued at the way Tahir presented truth and deception in the book. She also neglects to, well, neglect her secondary characters. There are no flat characters here. This is a book about relationships: to yourself, your family, your country, and your destiny. There will be a second book; I’m not linking to it because it contains major spoilers, but I will say that the synopsis implies at least one additional narrator that should lend a compelling, fascinating voice.

Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood is a taut British mystery and yet another audiobook in my 23783496collection. I saw the hardback cover at my local indie, read a few pages, and knew I had to read the rest. I snapped a pic to remember (does anyone else do this?) and scooped this up with Audible credits a few months later. Ware’s take on the “unreliable female narrator” is an interesting one, as the protagonist has landed herself in the hospital after a car crash and can’t remember how (or where) the bachelorette/hen party she attended went wrong. Think a tamer version of Girl on the Train, with just as much suspense and a dash of early Tana French. This is Ware’s debut novel, but she has a second one coming out this year. I know I will get it, as Ware has already earned herself a spot on my “authors to follow” list. I recommend this one to fans of atmospheric British novels and mysteries.

The last book on my list has been on my shelf forever! My dad recommended Robert Littell’s The Company to me in high school. I read Part One, and for whatever reason, I abandoned it. I’m kind 25535845of glad I did, because I’m not sure I would have appreciated it as much at a young age. As an adult, I have a much better understanding of scope and how events connected. And let me tell you, there are some events in this book. At almost 900 pages, it’s a doorstopper of a book. I’m a fast reader, but this was the only book I read (outside of class reading assignments) on our vacation to Grand Cayman. The book is set in the Cold War, starting with spy recruitment post-World War II and ending after the August 1991 Soviet coup d’etat attempt. It also focuses on a lot of American failures in the Cold War – Kim Philby, Hungary, and the Bay of Pigs make for interesting, interconnected plot points. There’s a much larger spy versus spy story here, as espionage focuses not just on global events, but playing agents and agencies against each other. I grew up with a very big picture of the Cold War, but this book imagines it at a much more human, intimate level. Read this if you’re interesting in twentieth century history or love The Americans.

What books would you recommend to an English grad student? Leave a comment!

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Mini-Reviews from the Southwest, Part I: The Dog Stars; The Dark Net; Shadowshaper

One of the hardest things I’ve experienced in my English MA program is finding a bookish balance. I know it seems weird, but when you spend your extra time juggling memoirs and English drama, it can be hard figuring out what you want to read. I experience a lot of fear and hesitation: what if I pick something too similar to what I’m doing? What if I start this book and it isn’t good enough to keep my attention? I hate to admit that I spent a lot of time determining what I needed, and then more time trying to create strategies to meet those needs — but that’s another post for another time 🤓

For the purposes of this post, I’ve excluded those books I read for grad school. Now, did I manage to fit these “free time” books into discussion? Of course. I wrote a post about Tropic Thunder, identity, and conflict that my professor loved. Being able to work “unrelated” books into conversation is an English grad student’s bread and butter and probably why reading this blog appeals to you!

I spent more time with fiction than non-fiction, and almost all of these were recommendations or gifts. I thought it was pretty cool that I ended up investing time with pay-it-forward books.

16041830Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars was one of the first books I read this year, and a pleasant surprise gifted to me by my husband. I’m a huge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction and I’ve read a ton. What I liked about The Dog Stars was that it bridged a lot of gaps: a different type of story and plot (the
protagonist is a pilot!), while still feeling familiar; universal but intimate; lyrical and approachable. I highly recommend this one for those who love post-apocalyptic fiction, or for those who are looking for something unique from the genre. It’s a short read, but it packs an emotional punch. If you’ve listened to the audio version, I’d love to know what you thought – this one screams for an audio listen.

My next read was a recommendation I got from Gin Jenny’s 25387743blog! I read The Dark Net by Jamie Bartlett and referred to it a ton in my digital literacy class. I had a slightly different experience while reading it; it ended up falling more into “academic interests” than personal ones. It’s more a series of essays than anything else, and I would have loved if the book felt more connected. It almost seemed like Bartlett didn’t realize the purpose until the conclusion, or at least didn’t reveal it to the reader. Also, it should be noted that the Dark Net in question isn’t so much a darknet as it is the darker side of global web connections. If you’re looking for an in-depth exploration of what the darknet is, this might not be the book for you. And major trigger warning: this book features instances of hate messaging, self-harm, and sexual violence/harm to children.

I will rave about Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older as the day is long. I listened to this as an 22295304audiobook and I highly recommend it to anyone with interests in YA/YA fantasy, diverse literature, art, and meta storytelling. This is the book I wanted to get when I read Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments. THIS. Also, educators looking for an engaging, quick read that has deeper themes about heritage, identity, and cultural appropriation couldn’t find a better book. I honestly can’t rec this one enough; it’s my Pointe of 2016, and I would love to get Sierra and Theo in a room together. There is not a love triangle, but I hesitate to call what exists a romance — it’s a kissing book, but Sierra and her love interest feel more like  partners and allies than anything else. This is the first in a series, but it’s a standalone novel and it honestly didn’t feel like a first book setting up a larger storyline. Learning that there would be more adventures for Sierra and her friends was a pleasant surprise (sorry I ruined it), and I hope you’ll give Shadowshaper a try so we can enjoy the next book together! Also, look at that cover. That cover is everything.

Check back in Thursday for Part II!

What books would you recommend to an English grad student? Leave a comment!

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Local Girls by Carolina Zancan: One of the Best Books on Female Friendship (You Probably Haven’t Read)

I joined the Book of the Month club in August and selected Local Girls by Caroline Zancan. The judge who selected the book describes it:

A movie star walks into a bar and the lives of four girls — on the cusp of adulthood — will be changed forever. The relationships between the girls; the hot, humid night in a central Florida town; the vision of a mega-star downing shots — all of it vivid, and all of it just waiting for you. Open up, and enjoy.

My stars, I loved this book. Head-over-heels, absolutely enamored with it, want to reread it as soon as I can possibly justify doing so. It’s clever and heartbreaking and hopeful, all at the same time. I don’t know if I have ever read a book that captures the delicate social intricacies of female friendships so well. An easy comparison would be Mean Girls or even Easy A, but those films feel too surface, too candy-coated. Local Girls is their big sister, equal parts possibility and regret.

IMG_9106The book follows three best friends, Maggie, Nina, and Lindsay, during an unusual night at their usual dive bar, The Shamrock. Maggie narrates the action over the course of the evening, one the young women share with Hollywood hunk Sam Decker and Lila, a frenemy from their past. Starstruck but playing it cool, Maggie’s perspective shifts between the action at the bar and childhood memories  of the three young women and Lila.

Zancan deftly navigates stories in both past and present, weaving details like golden thread. This is a book that feels real, and hits every sense. It’s comfortably lived-in, the way few books manage to feel. I noticed in the author bio on the back flap that Zancan is an editor, and you can tell. Each sentence is perfectly crafted, with the appropriate balance of service to story and setting the scene, atmosphere- and tone-wise. It’s a bit of a multi-layered mystery book, and only at the end do you realize which one you cared for more.

And the women! If you like complex female characters, you will love this book. Nina steals the show as a bold personality.  Initially, I was disappointed that Maggie felt absent from her own story. She takes us through the action, both past and present, but seems to be absent at times. It wasn’t until the last few pages that I realized her voice, and how she was telling us each story, contributed to her arc. Just another way Zancan’s writing works on so many levels.

To be perfectly blunt, I am jealous of how well she finds the balance and moderates the tension in the book, allowing the full range of emotions and socialization between the characters. In their past and present storylines, she manages to find the balance between best friends and adolescent female aggression.

I sincerely hope Riverhead Books moves forward with an audio recording. With the right narrator, a woman who could temper youth and disenchanted young adulthood, this would make all kinds of “best of” audiobook lists.

Related: The Complexity of Female Friendships: An Interview with Caroline Zancan, Author of Local Girls

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Give the People What They Want, Which is Holmes & Watson in Love (and Genderbent): Reviewing Vienna by William S. Kirby

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson shared a close, professional kinship in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original works. But we’re all about the reb22083094oot/rebrand/reimagining: Guy Ritchie’s 2009 entry (and inevitable sequel) with America’s favorite comeback kid, Robert Downey Jr., and co-star Jude Law was, shall we say, homoerotic (bonus gif set!). And do not wade into the Tumblr waters for posts about BBC’s Sherlock; you will find a lot of Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman. CBS’s Elementary does us one better with a male/female duo, casting the fantastic Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson.

Yep, for some reason, people adore the “Johnlock” OTP. And if you feel the partnership hasn’t quite hit its mark with modern audiences, you might want to give William S. Kirby‘s Vienna a read.  Set in the modern era, Kirby applies a clever hand to typical Holmes/Watson pairing. He links them right from the start, opening with Justine waking up in Vienna’s bed:

Awake under a hollow sunrise, Justine Am sought cover behind a hangover that wasn’t there. The previous night’s drinking had consisted of two sips of vodka drowning in peach liqueur. She’d switched to tonic water well before the pink eyedropper of liquid ecstasy made its rounds. Not that she would’ve taken part. Boredom was cheaper and it unleashed the same chaos, Sprawled across a stranger’s swaybacked bed, Justine still felt the subterranean echo of house electronica pacing behind her rib cage: boom, boom, boom. She’d fallen in with a post-tribal, post-trance, post-everything crowd. World-weary gods draped over the cherry and onyx pillows of Holler. They’d offered her a sucker’s bet and she’d raised the stakes right into this bed.

Damn. That is the first paragraph. If you don’t like that lived-in, bohemian* writing style, you will not enjoy this book. But if you appreciated that excerpt, you must read this book. It builds, picking up steam as we follow Justine and Vienna around Europe. A trip to Iceland starts with “Iceland was tethered to jet stream clouds, indigo and umber layers pearl-smooth in the lengthening shadow of the world.”

Gah, I’m so immersed in Kirby’s damn fine writing that I’m drowning.

Justine is a world-class model, noted not just for her beauty, but her exceptional talent at exhibiting the feminine archetype:

…what sets her apart is the ability to project the essence of the female form. Not just tits and ass, but psyche as well. It’s a profoundly strong archetype that provokes an equally strong reaction. Even if you were her twin, you lack the ability to step outside herself…A camera points our way and we take a self-conscious heartbeat to decide what image to present. That forever excludes us from the realm of Justine Am.

Vienna’s Holmesian characterization lends a new perspective to our modern reimagining. Beyond skilled, observational, socially misunderstood/awkward, or a drug addict, Vienna is described as an autistic savant (with some characters using far harsher terms). It’s a dramatic change to the Holmes character (though it’s been discussed at length before). Kirby goes all-in, leaving no question about Vienna. Kirby commits to a character that will probably challenge your perceptions, and he does so with masterful, subtle tact. Vienna fits in quite well with her canonical counterpart, arguably a capable character hamstrung by his own social shortcomings.

Really, for as much as I loved the gorgeous writing, it’s the complex relationship between Justine and Vienna that makes the book so memorable. These characters feel unique, fully fleshed-out on their own and as partners. Vienna offers ample space to discuss subverting traditional gender (and literary) norms. If you’ve also read the book, I’d love to hear what you think about the depiction of female characters; please drop a note in the comments!

Vienna is available from Macmillan-Tor/Forge on September 1st. Early review copy provided by NetGalley for consideration.

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*polished, but still a little rough around the edges

An Amnesiac Damsel in Distress from a Writer to Watch: Reviewing Broken Grace by E. C. Diskin

I was completely taken in by the cover. Muted and blurry, it sets the tone for the novel: Grace is involved in a car crash, netting her a brain injury and limited memories.Broken Grace by E. C. Diskin What little comfort she has returning to her childhood home with her sister is negated by two police officers and their bad news: Grace’s boyfriend has been murdered. And you guessed it — with no memory, Grace has no alibi. She’s the top suspect, and she’s determined to clear her name.

After loving the much-hyped The Girl on the Train, I was in the mood for another unreliable narrator. I also appreciate a solid, suspenseful mystery, so I had high hopes for E. C. Diskin’s Broken Grace. And while they weren’t quite met, I’ve found an author whose future writing career interests me.

The protagonist, Grace, felt somewhat replaceable. I wasn’t sure what distinct character traits defined her. Her arc is to clear her name and regain her lost memories, but there’s not a lot about her that I can articulate. It felt very plot- and device-driven and less character-driven.

And Grace perhaps could have stood on her own and felt more fleshed out if the novel hadn’t also been split with another POV. One of the (male) cops investigating Grace has his fair share of POV chapters. This bothered me because it felt like Grace’s story was being take over by a knight-in-shining-armor type. In fact, early on he makes it very clear that he has some sort of pre-established connection with Grace, and that his motivation is to clear her name. He doesn’t find her to be a credible suspect, and that drives a lot of his input into the case. It removed the urgency from Grace’s search and weakened her character arc; as long as this guy was investigating the murder, Grace would never be a serious suspect, at least not for the reader.

I would have loved a tight, intimate tale of a woman trying to clear her name and remember who she is. And by not having a male cop POV, it would have raised the stakes for Grace because she would have no idea if she was clearing her name, helping the investigation, or walking into a trap. It also would have helped her feel more capable and independent, without the benefit of a protector.

I also feel like I can’t reasonably review this book without talking about the ending. That said, I don’t want to dive into specific spoilers. So, I’ll try to keep it broad — but you may want to avoid the next paragraph just in case!

So much happens in the last few pages. There are some massive reveals, including the killer(s) and motive(s). Some of it feels very unexpected, like it was intended to be a twist without actually earning it. The best suspenseful endings feel like they come out of left field, but the author has been building very logically to that point. The big reveal in Broken Grace just felt like it came out of left field. And our male cop’s major conflicts draw to a close, seemingly wrapped up in a nice bow — perfect for the family Christmas he’ll be attending! His arc just felt a little too neat and borderline cliché.

What I liked the most about Broken Grace is E. C. Diskin, the author. I feel like Diskin is at the early point of her writing career — this is her second novel — and she’s on her way up. The concept was interesting, and this book was dripping with a certain je ne sais quoi. There’s a fun kind of charisma in how Diskin writes. I imagine we’ll see more of her in the coming years, and I am interested to see how she grows as an author.

Although I didn’t love Broken Grace, I see a lot of potential and will certainly read more of Diskin’s work in the future. And if her next book features Alice, the salty bartender who steals the show in her scenes, I will be more than thrilled.

Broken Grace is available on Tuesday, August 25th.

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The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

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Book: The Marriage of Opposites
Author: Alice Hoffman

Goodreads Synopsis:

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Dovekeepers and The Museum of Extraordinary Things: a forbidden love story set on the tropical island of St. Thomas about the extraordinary woman who gave birth to painter Camille Pissarro; the Father of Impressionism.

Growing up on idyllic St. Thomas in the early 1800s, Rachel dreams of life in faraway Paris. Rachel’s mother, a pillar of their small refugee community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition, has never forgiven her daughter for being a difficult girl who refuses to live by the rules. Growing up, Rachel’s salvation is their maid Adelle’s belief in her strengths, and her deep, life-long friendship with Jestine, Adelle’s daughter. But Rachel’s life is not her own. She is married off to a widower with three children to save her father’s business. When her husband dies suddenly and his handsome, much younger nephew, Fréderick, arrives from France to settle the estate, Rachel seizes her own life story, beginning a defiant, passionate love affair that sparks a scandal that affects all of her family, including her favorite son, who will become one of the greatest artists of France.

Building on the triumphs of The Dovekeepers and The Museum of Extraordinary Things, set in a world of almost unimaginable beauty, The Marriage of Opposites showcases the beloved, bestselling Alice Hoffman at the height of her considerable powers. Once forgotten to history, the marriage of Rachel and Fréderick is a story that is as unforgettable as it is remarkable.

My Review:

I’m calling it: this is my favorite Alice Hoffman book. Hoffman weaves a beautiful tapestry of family secrets. Hoffman’s story spans several decades and generations, but it feels intimate. Part of this is due to Hoffman’s skill as a writer; each paragraph is a tightly- woven exploration of relationships between mothers and children, friends and neighbors. The book also explores themes of race, class, and religion in subtle, beautiful threads.

One thing I love is that each character feels fresh and unique, their voices distinct in how they interact with others and what they notice. Even the secondary characters feel fully fleshed out, with their own arcs and identities. In fact, the island of St. Thomas feels like another character, it’s given so much attention. I loved reading the immersive descriptions of the setting, ranging from colors and sounds and the feel of the climate.

This is one of the best novels I’ve read all year, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in family dramas, historical fiction, and lyrical imagery.

The Marriage of Opposites is available on Tuesday, August 4th.

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Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates

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Book: Black Chalk
Author: Christopher J. Yates

Goodreads Synopsis:

A compulsively readable psychological thriller set in New York and at Oxford University in which a group of six students play an elaborate game of dares and consequences with tragic result

It was only ever meant to be a game played by six best friends in their first year at Oxford University; a game of consequences, silly forfeits, and childish dares. But then the game changed: The stakes grew higher and the dares more personal and more humiliating, finally evolving into a vicious struggle with unpredictable and tragic results. Now, fourteen years later, the remaining players must meet again for the final round. Who knows better than your best friends what would break you? A gripping psychological thriller partly inspired by the author’s own time at Oxford University, Black Chalk is perfect for fans of the high tension and expert pacing of The Secret History and The Bellwether Revivals. Christopher J. Yates’ background in puzzle writing and setting can clearly be seen in the plotting of this clever, tricky book that will keep you guessing to the very end.

My Review:

Comparisons to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History are apt, given the tight-knit group of college friends bound by a secret. I’d also say the game elements reminded me of Will Lavender’s books, Obedience and Dominance, though I vastly preferred Black Chalk.

The narrator is brutally unreliable, suffering from alcoholism and pill addiction. I just finished The Girl on the Train last week, so there were echoes of that (helped by a partial British university setting). 

Initially, I found it incredibly difficult to get into the writing style. We’re taken through both the events at the University, leading up to and including the game, as well as the narrator’s current life in New York. The alternating of time and place can be jarring, especially with both stories told in present tense. Part of this may be due to the formatting of the galley text, so readers of the paperback version may not suffer the same confusion.

About a fifth of the way in, though, with all the cast of characters assembled and role established, I was hooked.  Yates excels at characterization and voice, and once he hits his stride the novel really picks up steam. When things start to fall apart for each character, they are stripped to their basest layers, and the ensuing destruction is terrifying and beautiful.

Fans of academic settings, unreliable narrators, and solid suspense will enjoy this read!

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