Joelle's Bibliofile

Truly Wonderful and wonderfully True

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Díaz

Wonderful and lyrical, tragic and thought-provoking 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner. Uses multiple points of view to poignantly examine the experience of three young adults straddling between their origins in a Dominican Repulic decimated by war and their transition to a lower class area of New Jersey. The characters are lovingly rendered and fully developed flawed individuals facing different challenges in their search for identity. Wao's honor and respect for the setting is apparent- yet he avoids romanticism by not shrinking from violence and racial issues that underlie the story.

 

For lovers of Literary Fiction and Carribbean history, Own-Voice Novels, Immigration experience, and fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julia Alvarez, and Mario Vargas Llosa.

Great Addition to Italian Language Curriculum

talian Short Stories for Beginners: 10 Exciting Short Stories to Easily Learn Italian & Improve Your Vocabulary (Easy Italian Stories Vol. 1) (Italian Edition) - Touri Language Learning

The Touri Language Learning Company released a new version of their Italian Short Stories for Beginners in June 2019.  This helpful workbook contains ten concise and often witty tales that help to expand vocabulary and reading fluency for those just starting in their study of the Italian language. The full stories are presented in Italian with bold vocabulary words that are listed at the end of each with their definitions.  Following this are two summaries, one in Italian and the other in English.  At the end of each tale is a small number of multiple-choice questions that test comprehension.  The stories are engaging, and the content would appropriate for young learners but would not be too childish for adult readers.  Italian Short Stories for Beginners places an emphasis on context over construction and dry grammar drills, providing a challenging translation practice that is fun and not too difficult or frustrating.  This book would be an extremely useful tool to add to any basic language course, supplementing an existing curriculum with a method that is both effective and entertaining.

 

Thanks to Library Thing and Touri Language Learning for an ARC of this book in exchange for an objective review.

The Irreversable Nature of Gossip

The Rumor - Lesley Kara

Lies travel faster than the truth and once released can rarely be contained. Joanna Critchley learns how harmful unsubstantiated gossip can be in Lesley Kara’s debut novel, The Rumor. Jo returns to her old hometown of Flintstead to be closer to her mother, but she has been away long enough to feel like she is starting over since most of her old friends have moved away. As a Real Estate agent, she wants to make some new connections in town and wants to ensure that her young son Alfie is accepted by his peers at school. She fears that her unmarried status and casual relationship with Alfie’s father combined with their son’s mixed race may affect his acceptance in the small town. Her mother suggests she join a Book Club to meet some new people and gain friends. Jo overhears a woman talking about the possibility that a famous child murderer from 30 years ago might have moved to Flintstead under an assumed name. In order to diffuse an emerging conflict, Jo relates the news at a club meeting. Later, when she feels rebuffed by the other mothers at Alfie’s school, she repeats it again-attracting attention and receiving entry into the babysitting exchange and invitations to playdates and parties. Unfortunately, the rumor begins to take on a life of its own, and a local shop owner becomes the target of outraged locals who suspect her of being the released killer. Things become increasing complicated when Alfie’s father, a tenacious reporter, decides he wants to move to town to write about the story. Jo tries to remedy her mistake, but it is too late to reverse the damage. She also feels compelled to find out the truth, and in doing so comes to suspect various residents of being the real perpetrator. The reader is taken along many twists and turns as Jo works through her list of potential suspects. Interspersed are chapters narrated by the anonymous target as Jo gets closer and closer to discovering her identity. The novel has some too-convenient connections and stretches credulity when Jo occasionally seems more naïve than her character would indicate. Still, The Rumor has some wonderful characterizations and manages to also introduce some incisive topics like prejudice and vigilantism imbedded in its nicely paced plot. For her debut, Lesley Kara has provided a solid suspense thriller that will entertain summer readers and attract a fan base that will eagerly await her next effort.

 

For fans of Liane Moriarty, Nora Roberts and Laura Lippman.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for an ARC of this book in exchange for an objective review.

Crossing Boundaries

Too Close - Natalie Daniels

A good example of treacherous patient/psychiatrist transference, Too Close by Natalie Daniels flips the concept by having the practitioner become the one who is inappropriately attached. Connie is being treated by Dr. Emma Robinson for a mental breakdown caused by an event so traumatic that it has resulted in a form of “dissociative amnesia.” As Emma coaxes the memories from her notorious client, she becomes inexplicably enrapt by Connie and starts to feel an attraction for her that borders on adoration.  Is Connie really suffering from a disorder or is she just psychotically manipulative?  Is she toying with the doctor as she enjoys the juxtaposition of power in their relationship? Alternating between the two women’s voices, the novel delves into their histories to explain how past events primed their mental fissures, and then how their codependence deepens them.  Too Close is a thrilling and entertaining read and the backstories are compelling, but Dr. R’s complete lack of professionalism and unethical behavior begins to verge on the incredible.  Also in question is the portrayal of the children in the book, who act in ways that are often not consistently age-appropriate. One of the biggest mysteries might be the real identity of Natalie Daniels, the actor/screenwriter who wrote this novel under pseudonym.  Like many recent psychological suspense releases, Too Close is best enjoyed when the reader dives in, suspends disbelief and just enjoys the ride.

 

Thanks to Library Thing and HarperCollins for an ARC of this book in exchange for an objective review.

Inspiration for Short Story Writers

Why I Like This Story - Jackson R. Bryer

Why I like This Story, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, is an extensive and eclectic collection of essays written by current authors about their favorite American short stories. The essayists have eclectic tastes, ranging from the most recognizable classic writers such as Cheever, James, and Melville to more obscure or contemporaries.  Five of them unknowingly picked another contributor as their inspiration, and many seemed to know and reference each other.  Bryer prefaces the book with the assumption that writers are the best judges of each other’s work. Due to their unique appreciation for how difficult writing short-form fiction can be, their perspective and insight can be particularly valuable.  Since the essays are penned by accomplished authors, they are also of a higher quality than most reviews and more interesting in their approaches than the typical jargon-laden or pretentious analyses.  Bryer points out that many of the essays reveal as much about the essayist as they do about the stories discussed. The 48 entries in Why I Like This Story vary in terms of their tone, length, style and readability.  While some essays are very personal and reflective, others border more closely on high-brow literary-assessment. Bryer’s collection invites browsing and entices the reader to search out some stories and authors that may be unfamiliar.  He helpfully provides introductions to each selection that point out where the original tales can most easily be found.  Why I Like This Story would be a good choice for aspiring writers (and appreciators) of American short fiction- both traditional and new.

 

Thanks to Edelweiss and Camden House (Boydell & Brewer, Inc.) for an ARC of this book in exchange for an objective review.

Nice Overview with a Light Touch

For the Love of Books - Graham Tarrant

Concise but still chock-full of interesting facts and tidbits about the history of books and their authors, For the Love of Books by Graham Tarrant, is an entertaining overview that will appeal to all bibliophiles.  Tarrant approaches the subject with a light touch-with humor and an attitude of wonder rather than a dry recitation or wordy analysis.  He covers everything from the invention of the form to the different genres, citing examples of each with quotes and quick summaries.  The book also provides insight into the interesting lives of the writers themselves- including background trivia, inspirations, feuds, substance abuse struggles, brushes with the law and even some quirky death stories.  For aspiring writers, there are also passages that provide advice both serious and tongue-in-cheek.  For the Love of Books perhaps relies a bit too heavily on the traditional and well-known, and the reader may be left desiring more inclusion of those outside of the usual British/American canon.  Still, there is plenty of new information to discover in Tarrant’s offering to make it a fun, quick dip into the fascinating world of books.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for an ARC of this book in exchange for an objective review.

 

An Ethical Challenge

The Escape Room - Megan Goldin

Megan Goldin combines the premise of Faust with some elements of the movie “Wall Street” and even a touch of “She-Devil” in her latest novel The Escape Room.  Her protagonist, Sara Hall, covets the sumptuous lifestyle of the financial sector’s elite and sees her entry into that world as an escape from her current life of subsistence.  Sara has the right combination of desperation, ambition and naivete to be a willing victim of a system that encourages a lack of empathy and flexible ethical limits.  When an opportunity arises at Stanhope in NY, she immediately immerses herself in the competitive culture of the firm, with its grueling hours and back-stabbing colleagues.  The chapters in the novel alternate between Sara’s experiences as a new hire and a future in which the other members of her team find themselves trapped in an “escape room” situation that proves to be much more than a game. How these two scenarios tie in together is skillfully revealed as the story unfolds. The Escape Room addresses issues of sexual harassment, income inequality and gender discrimination in the workplace.  It also raises the question of how far a person would compromise his/her values in order to wrest some of the riches that are so esteemed in our culture.  Despite some plot elements that stretch credulity and some well-worn stereotypes, Goldin’s novel is a fast-paced and gripping read. This would be a great pick for a captivating beach read this summer.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for an ARC of this book in exchange for an objective review.

Imaginative Take On Lost Love

Big Giant Floating Head - Christopher Boucher

Christopher Boucher’s latest, Big Giant Floating Head, could be mistaken for a self-loathing pity party in 17 chapters disguised as an experimental fiction novel. To do so, however, would be to miss out on some moments of piercing reflection that illuminate different stages of grief and loss after a rejection of love. Each of the chapters are worthy of standing as an individual vignette, but they are linked together thematically by the struggling eponymous main character. The “Chris Boucher” in the book experiences a loss of self and explores questions about his worth in a variety of imagined scenes.  His recent divorce serves as the undercurrent for his character to inhabit worlds that include: a university that offers classes on how to be “Chris;” a hotel inhabited by his past selves and everyone he has ever met; a “fail-off” competition; and a job that places him physically inside the pages of his own book as a scene-construction worker. Some of Boucher’s other conceits are less successful and the metaphors can become a bit heavy-handed, but each entry is cleverly depicted and contain enough humor to keep the pathos at bay.  In an entertaining way, Boucher’s Big Giant Floating Head provides a kaleidoscopic perspective on coping with a difficult situation.

 

Thanks to Edelweiss and Melville House for an ARC of this book in exchange for an objective review.

Grassroots Activism 101

Fight like a Mother - Shannon Watts

Part personal account, part “How To” manual and part PR recruitment tool for her organization, Shannon Watts’ Fight Like a Mother is a call to action aimed specifically at mothers who are concerned about the current state of gun control in the U.S.  Spurred to action after the horrific events at Sandy Hook, Watts founded Moms Demand Action, a national movement that grew out of her Facebook page. This book details the evolution of the grassroots group and recounts the successes and “losing forward” events that have resulted from its efforts.  Watts emphasizes how the skill sets mothers often already possess can be utilized for activism and encourages those who may be reluctant to participate.  She discusses how to recruit and motivate volunteers, build expertise through networks and data collection, use social media for low-cost message distribution, and combat challenges to delegation and life/work balance.  Throughout, Watts uses her own experiences to highlight potential pitfalls and recommend methods for maintaining momentum. She provides advice for finding solutions to common internal and external roadblocks that can occur when addressing a complex and controversial issue. Like any book based on constantly-evolving current events, Fight Like a Mother will inevitably contain some expiring data in the time it takes to be published.  Still, there is plenty of extremely useful and inspiring information that Watts provides for anyone who desires to contribute to the gun reform debate or even build a movement of their own.

 

Thanks to Edelweiss and Harper Collins for an ARC of this book in exchange for an objective review.

Epic Italian American Experience

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna - Juliet Grames

Juliet Grames’ debut novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a lush epic depicting the 100-year lifespan of a woman whose name portends an existence filled with extraordinary luck. In fact, Stella is very lucky- surviving the seven or eight close calls she has with death as described in the title. At the same time, she also experiences an exorbitant amount of suffering and loss along the way as well. Stella’s tale is narrated by one of her descendants, who elicits memories from her aunt who can bear witness to her life, even though this may mean that the story is distorted by time and perspective. At the onset the book moves at a luxurious pace, painstakingly describing Stella’s beginnings in a small village in Calabria prior to WWI. As it can feel in real life, time speeds up as the novel progresses into her later years. By the end, whole decades are consolidated into mere sentences. Stella’s story embraces the feminine point of view-there is little sympathy left for the male characters who are either brutes or nonentities. It is the women who unflinchingly bear the scars and emotional weight that propels the novel’s action. Yet, it is Stella’s refusal to adhere to the expectations and imposed limitations of womanhood that makes her both courageous and embattled. Stella is a fascinating character, and Grames does a wonderful job incorporating the experiences of the time period and the emigration of Italians to America. Comparisons can certainly be made to Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude in terms of tone, depth, descriptiveness and the use of magical realism. Traditional Catholic practices and faith combine with superstition to create a source of conflict and allows the author to introduce the ambiguity of direct spiritual interference. The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a novel that introduces Juliet Grames as a promising new entrant into the realm of historical, literary fiction.

Deep, Dark and Desolate

The Lost Man - Jane Harper

Jane Harper has a honed talent for absorbing her readers in a setting and immersing them into the lives and minds of her characters.  In her latest book, The Lost Man, Harper maroons her audience in a desolate landscape in Western Australia.  Her protagonist is a deeply saddened cattle rancher who has been ostracized for a former transgression by the small community that populates the lonely expanse.  Nathan Bright is first introduced at the site of his brother’s recent death near an isolated gravestone. Given the area’s harsh climate, he died excruciatingly of exposure without benefit of shade and supplies. Accompanied by his other brother and visiting son, Nathan is left to wonder why his brother would have fallen victim to those elements that they were acutely aware of and had adapted to throughout their lives.  As the novel progresses, it is revealed that Nathan is somewhat estranged from his family, divorced and teetering on the edge of a deep depression.  When he reluctantly gathers with his family during their mourning, he recalls missed opportunities for a different life. He regrets having squandered a chance to win over the woman who became his deceased brother’s wife.  There are flashbacks to his childhood with an abusive father and the resulting necessity for the three brothers to choose between self-preservation and protecting each other.  Unconvinced that his brother had committed suicide, Nathan begins digging into his past and discovers layers of secrets and lies that permeate the entire family.  The Lost Man presents an intriguing mystery and character study with a tone that expertly evokes the dread and unease of its unforgiving setting.  Fans of The Dry and Force of Nature will be delighted with Harper’s new standalone novel that further proves her prowess as an innovative and versatile author.

Chilling and Thrilling

The Invited - Jennifer McMahon

Jennifer McMahon’s gothic novel, The Invited, is a suspenseful and atmospheric ghost story that lures the reader in like the haunted bog that provides its setting.  The book opens in 1924 Vermont with Hattie Breckenridge on the day of her death just as she had predicted it – hunted down and hung by the townspeople accusing her of witchcraft. The novel then flashes forward to the current day with Helen and Nate, a young couple who have left their teaching jobs to embark on a back-to-the-land endeavor.  They try to dismiss the local rumors about Hattie’s ghost haunting their property, but they quickly begin to experience strange sights and sounds as they build their new home.  Both disbelieve the other’s account, becoming obsessed and secretive as they follow their separate paths in order to provide proof.  Meanwhile, their young neighbor, Olive, is seeking some answers of her own on the land. Olive is coping with her mother’s sudden disappearance and suspects it is possibly tied to a hidden treasure that Hattie may have left behind. Each chapter of The Invited is titled after a phase of construction, and building/demolition metaphors are threaded throughout the novel. As Helen and Nate work to erect a house that recalls the past, the surrounding town and its actual historical remnants seem to have been reduced to rubble.  Salvaging both information and artifacts about Hattie and her descendants, Helen visits the sites that relate to their tragic lives.  Just as secrets and mistrust have destroyed the foundations of these actual structures, they also are threatening to erode Helen and Nate’s relationship. The Invited is nicely paced and plotted, with some genuine surprises and interesting diversions. Fans of supernatural tales or meandering mysteries will find Jennifer McMahon’s newest release a chilling and satisfying addition to her body of work.

A Quaint Puzzler

The Dutch Shoe Mystery: An Ellery Queen Mystery - Otto Penzler, Ellery Queen

Penzler Press is releasing The Dutch Shoe Mystery as part of its series of Ellery Queen mysteries, arguably the American paragon of Golden Age Mystery writing. Written by two cousins in the mid/post- World War Era, these puzzlers were extremely popular with readers in their day, and the Ellery Queen Magazine based on them is still being published. Each of the stories follow the same formula: a crime occurs that is seemingly impossible to decipher; writer Ellery and his Police Inspector father collect clues and conduct interviews; there is a summary of the clues along with a challenge to the reader to solve the mystery; the story culminates with a satisfying revelation of the responsible party and a detailed explanation of how the crime was committed. In The Dutch Shoe Mystery, Ellery and Richard Queen are challenged by the murder of a wealthy matriarch just as she was being prepped for surgery at the hospital she financially supported. The family of the woman and other suspects are introduced and questioned about their connections and whereabouts. An abundance of contradictory clues and artifacts are discovered that seem to make the case impenetrable. During the investigation, one of the main suspects also ends up being killed, and the sleuths are confounded by hidden motives and misdirection. Due to the notoriety of the victims, Ellery and Richard are also under pressure from the mayor and DA to solve the case as quickly as possible. Despite some antiquated attitudes and questionable portrayals of women and minorities, the Ellery Queen mysteries are a quaint reminder of classic mystery storytelling. They are a flashback to a time when a good mystery was considered an opportunity for cerebral exercise rather than a chance to merely shock the reader. Fans of Christie, Doyle and other classics would enjoy The Dutch Shoe Mystery and the other Penzler reissues of these entertaining titles. Thanks to Edelweiss and Penzler for an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

A Fun Fforde Fantasy

Early Riser - Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde, author of the popular Thursday Next and Nursery Crime series employs his signature wit and creativity in the new standalone novel, Early Riser. This fantastical story presents an alternate reality in which people hibernate during the winter every year. In order to ensure survival during this time, they prepare by adding weight and taking medications to make sure they do not regain consciousness too early. A small number of individuals are selected to remain awake to keep things running smoothly and protect the sleepers from the many strange creatures that might prey on them. The biggest threat is from those who wake too early and are caught between states- the Nightwalkers that transform into cannibalistic zombies. The narrator of Fforde’s imaginative story is Charlie, a young man embarking on his first waking winter season. He is serendipitously recruited to enter a special fast-track management program due to his excellent memory and rash willingness to risk almost certain death. Charlie is a witty character, a real “fish out of water” who bumbles his way into an awkward adventure. He tries to cope after he is stranded in a remote district that is subject to extreme weather and assaults by creatures thought only to exist in myth. In trying to learn his way, follow his conscience and simply survive, Charlie uncovers a secret conspiracy that could endanger the world and enslave many of its people. He unwillingly becomes the expected hero and his efforts and reflections are hilariously unspooled by Fforde’s great writing. Early Riser is at times confusing and rambling, but always entertaining and engaging. A truly unique story with endearing characters, Fforde’s new offering provides a fun ride that will thrill fantasy fans from start to finish.

Haunted Hit Man

Hell Chose Me - Angel Luis Colón

Bryan Walsh is haunted-literally-by those he has eliminated in his capacity as a hired enforcer, first for his uncle in the IRA and then for an organized crime syndicate in the Bronx. Angel Luis Colon’s novel Hell Chose Me is narrated by this mercenary whose conscience is manifested in the shadows that follow him as reminders of his wrongdoings. A wanted man and a deserter from the Marines, Bryan rationalizes his actions since he needs to financially support the care of his brother, who is in a coma. As the story progresses, Bryan discovers that he has been framed and betrayed by those closest to him. He attempts to enact revenge while distracted by the increasing number of ghosts that constantly demand his attention. Bryan’s loyalty and sanity are tested, especially when he is forced make some ultimate sacrifices. Hell Chose Me would be a fitting selection for readers who relish cinematic action scenes and are not squeamish about graphic depictions of violence.

 

Thanks to the author, NetGalley and Down and Out Books for an ARC of this title in exchange for an unbiased review.

Eclectic Collection

Best British Horror 2018 - Johnny Mains

Johnny Mains has resurrected his annual collection of short stories for the Best British Horror 2018 edition.  This volume contains seventeen tales that are truly eclectic and prioritize classic horror themes of irony and psychological dread over gore.  Settings span from gothic 19th century to futuristic science fiction, urban to isolated locales. The collection has something to please all horror fans: haunted houses, cursed objects, Lovecraftian creatures, doppelgangers, ghosts and transfigured humans.  As in any collection, there are stronger and weaker entries, but each selection has obviously been curated with care-making Best British Horror 2018 a chilling and worthwhile read from beginning to end.

 

Thanks to Library Thing and NewCon Press for an ARC of this title in exchange for an unbiased review.