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Posts tagged 'Contemporary'

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

 

YoungJaneYoung

Zevin is a vibrant, young novelist who recently published In the Age of Love and Chocolate (2013) for young adults. She is best known for her young adult novel, Elsewhere, published in 2005 when she was only 28. And most recently, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry (2014) delighted readers of all ages. To date, Zevin has published 9 novels, 5 of which are for teens.

Her newest novel, Young Jane Young, is about a college student who interns for her handsome, charismatic and married congressman, Aaron Levin, and ends up having an affair with him. The story is told through the eyes of five women—all different ages, and thus, all from different perspectives. The characters are: Jane; Rachel, Jane’s mother; Ruby, Jane’s daughter; Jane’s grandmother, who has sage advice for everyone; and Embeth, the congressman’s long-suffering wife. Through these characters, we see how our feelings about an event change depending on our age.

Sara Picks  Fiction  Contemporary

10/04/17
 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I read this book in two days, but now I almost wish I had taken more time because I really miss Eleanor! She is delightful, and the book is a well written, page turning novel.

Main character Eleanor is a lonely, single 29-year-old Scottish woman who insists that she is completely fine. She observes strict routines of week days at work (same clothes, same job, no interaction with anyone) and weekends alone with large quantities of vodka and pizza. She speaks formally, with an antiquated speech pattern and vocabulary that keep regular people at arm’s length. And she is fine. Until she develops a school girl crush on a rock’n’roller whom she dreams of meeting. A necessary work interaction with Raymond, the grubby new geek in IT, begins to thaw her icy heart, and leads her to consider that maybe, just maybe, she could begin to allow some tiny change, even some people, into her life.  To the author’s credit, the Raymond-inspired character development is not based on “the knight in shining armor riding up on a white horse” scenario, but rather, a unique friendship that leads Eleanor to look into her very unhappy childhood and see how it has restricted her. Issues with her “Mummy” are alluded to in their weekly Wednesday night phone call, but not elucidated (through the skill of a patient therapist) until the very end of the book, creating a pleasant suspense.

Nancy Picks  Humor  Fiction  Contemporary  British Fiction

09/21/17
 

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

 

Cover of "Sourdough" by Robin Sloan Sourdough by Robin Sloan is probably the most enjoyable—and purely readable—book I’ve read this year. It’s an adventure, a puzzle, a glimpse into the future, and a celebration of food. And I learned a lot about bread, which usually doesn’t happen with the books I read.

Lois Clary programs robots at a San Francisco startup. After work, she orders the soup and sandwich combo from the neighborhood hole-in-the-wall that two brothers of indeterminable ethnicity run. Sadly, the brothers must return to Europe (visa issues) but as a parting gift, they give Lois their starter—the living bacteria culture that gives sourdough bread its signature taste. Desperately seeking a hobby, Lois bakes some bread, and discovers she has quite the knack for it. While tasty, the loaves are a little strange. Are those faces in the crust? And late at night, is the culture…singing? Lois doesn’t have time to worry about these peculiarities, as she starts supplying her work cafeteria with sourdough. Soon, she finds herself working at a strange sort of farmers market where other gourmands are hard at work fusing technology and food. But will the culture behave long enough for Lois to make a living from baking? And just who is this Mr. Marrow that bankrolls the project?

Sourdough is Robin Sloan’s second novel, following the perennial librarian favorite Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore. The two books share some DNA: they both feature hapless geeks who find themselves at the intersection of a rustic craft and the latest technology, while a mysterious organization watches over the whole operation. Anyone who liked Mr. Penumbra will enjoy Sourdough, and vice versa. Oh, and like Mr. Penumbra’s the cover glows in the dark. Check it out!

Jake Picks  Humor  Fiction  Contemporary

 

Quiet Until the Thaw by Alexandra Fuller

FullerQuietFuller, born in Britain, and raised in Zimbabwe, has previously written several very well-received memoirs about living in Africa; among them are Leaving Before the Rains Came and Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.

After the author moved to Wyoming, she attended the annual commemoration of the 1877 murder of Crazy Horse on a nearby reservation. As Fuller said in an interview, she arrived to participate in the commemorative ride of 400 men and women mounted on horseback. She felt instantly at home on the reservation, and she stayed for three months. She lived with the Lakota Indians and participated in all aspects of their daily life, including tribal ceremonies.

Quiet Until the Thaw, her first fiction novel, is set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the southwest corner of South Dakota, home to the Lakota Oglala Sioux Nation. Fuller’s story spans generations and geography, writing frankly about the effect of the federal government’s continuous interference in Indian affairs. Two main characters, cousins Rick Overlooking Horse, and You Choose Watson, born within a month of each other, serve as the reader’s window into tribal divisions and infighting. The men could not be more different. Rick, a seriously injured Vietnam War veteran, chooses a peaceful l existence at the edge of the desert. He refuses government disability and military pension payments, instead living off the land, selling herbal medicines, breaking horses, and becoming a wise man. You Choose Watson takes a completely different path, becoming a thoroughly corrupt tribal business leader.

Fuller’s story telling is nothing short of fabulous, entrancing me as I read about a subject I didn’t know I would be interested in. The chapters are short, only one or two pages each, and every word needs to be read carefully.

Westerns  Nancy Picks  Historical Fiction  Contemporary

06/23/17
 

The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman

WaxmanGardenJust in time for summer reading, this paperback was published May 2, 2017

An uplifting story about a garden; planted, nourished, and enjoyed by a broad cast of varied, likeable, realistic quirky characters. Young widow Lilian, an illustrator, has been asked to take a 6 week gardening class at The Los Angeles Botanic Garden, in preparation for illustrating a series of boutique vegetable guides for the venerable Bloem Garden Company. Not a gardener, Lilian reluctantly arrives at the first Saturday morning session class with her two daughters, and Lilian’s very supportive sister Rachel in tow. Also in the class are some of the most enjoyable characters I’ve read about in a long time. At the head of the garden project is attractive in every way Edward Bloem, head of his family garden supply company, and commissioner of Lilian’s illustrations.

At the heart of the book is the theme of change, and each of the gardeners experience change in their own way. The new beginnings of the title refer not only to newly planted and growing vegetables, but change that comes over everyone in the group, and new directions that their lives will take.

Each chapter begins with a short and interesting little tutorial on how to plant the fruits or vegetables for the week’s project (disclaimer: I am not a gardener, and enjoyed these lessons!). The author writes with such quirky dry humor, that I really did laugh out loud reading this book.

Nancy Picks  Humor  Contemporary

06/21/17
 

Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

VasquezReputationsJuan Gabriel Vasquez is an award-winning Colombian writer, whose 2013 book, Las Reputaciones, was translated into English last year. Whereas his other books have focused on how public life affects private, Reputations is centered on how the private--with its traumas, fears, and shortcomings-- affects aspects the public personae.

The main character is Javier Mallarino, a 65-year-old political cartoonist of great renown. We meet him as he is about to be honored for his 40 years of journalistic excellence. Like many public heroes, fame has come at a price. Well into his marriage with the love of his life, an anonymous threat shatters the harmony that was once theirs. For the first time Magdalena had asked him the question that he, silently, asked himself every day: ‘Was it worth it? Were the fear and the risk and the antagonism and the threat worth it?’ (P. 69)

The novel that unfolds switches from present to past and crystallizes around one defining moment. It happens at a party Mallarino throws in his new home in the mountains. He and Magdalena have recently separated and it is the first time his 7-year-old daughter Beatriz, visits. She invites a friend, Samanta Leal, to the party.

That night, an uninvited guest—a politician Mallarino has satirized in a cartoon-- is discovered upstairs, and there is an implication that he molested Samanta. Twenty-eight years later, Samanta comes to Mallarino and asks him to revisit the incident. She wants to know what happened to her—what caused her family to move away, allowing her to create another identity. Mallarino begins to question the certainty of his assumption and the allusion he published in a cartoon that cost the politician everything.

Sara Picks  Politics  Literary Fiction  Contemporary

04/10/17
 

The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler

ButlerHeartsNickolas Butler, author of the very popular Shotgun Lovesongs, sets this tale at Camp Chippewa, a Boy Scout camp in northern Wisconsin.

Nelson, the bugler, is the first boy we meet. He is a small, studious nerd, working hard to attain the rank of Eagle Scout. He is also the object of teasing and ridicule by the other boys. Each morning he arises in his single tent, polishes his bugle, shines his shoes, sharpens the crease in his uniform, and sounds “Reveille”, awakening a camp full of Scouts. Despite the Scout Oath to remain physically strong and mentally awake, often many of the boys are hung over, as is Nelson’s own father who serves as one of the camp’s chaperones. Scoutmaster Wilbur, who runs Chippewa, befriends Nelson, and acts as father figure in place of Nelson’s own ineffective dad. An older, popular boy named Jonathan is Nelson’s only friend at camp, and sticks up for him when he’s taunted by crueler boys. Jonathan and Nelson remain life-long friends in this epic story that spans three generations from the years 1962 to 2022.

After Nelson’s father dies, the boy is sent to military school, then West Point. Ultimately he serves in the elite forces in Vietnam, where he sees horrible things. When he returns home, he finds it hard to find and hold down a job. Eventually he becomes became the Scout Master and Camp Director at Camp Chippewa, and enjoys the solace of living in the remote wilderness year round. However, Scouting and the camp both have changed by this point. There is no longer a bugler to play “Reveille”, so the song is prerecorded. Boys seem glued to their electronic devices, texting each other across the tent. Such traditional badges as orienteering, radio, and stamp collecting are obsolete. But it is still a place where Scouting values are promoted, and it is where Jonathan’s grandson Thomas goes to camp one summer.

The author excels at storytelling, and imbues his writing with North Woods atmosphere and charm. Butler conveys so much emotion on each page; once I started The Hearts of Men, I couldn’t put it down. I recommend this book to both men and women, but perhaps not to young Scouts. There are very mature themes in this novel. I enjoyed The Hearts of Men so much, and I can’t wait to read it again when I prepare it for book discussion.

Nancy Picks  Literary Fiction  Historical Fiction  Contemporary  Coming of Age  Boy Scouts of America  American History

04/07/17
 

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

StroutAnythingStrout’s new book combines the best of two of her previous novels, last year’s very popular My Name is Lucy Barton, and 2008’s Olive Kitteridge. Anything Is Possible, to be published April 25, follows the novel-in-stories format of Olive Kitteridge, but the new book is about the characters from Lucy Barton. Sounds great, doesn’t it? I think so.

In case you haven’t read My Name is Lucy Barton, that book’s title character is an author who is hospitalized in New York with a mysterious illness. Her mother, from whom she has been estranged, has taken her first plane trip from tiny Amgash, Illinois, to be by her daughter’s side. For five days, the women tell each other stories; mostly gossip about the interesting, eccentric people they have known over the years from their tiny hometown. The truths of their own lives are not fully addressed.

In Anything Is Possible, Strout writes about Lucy’s childhood neighbors as “characters who deserved their own stories.” The Barton family is seen through the eyes of the locals, and not favorably. Her “hellish childhood”, which is alluded to but not discussed in her namesake book, is illuminated through multiple points of view in the new novel. Lucy herself only makes one appearance, as a famous author who has written a memoir explaining the mysterious backstory of her childhood. She is regarded with disdain, as someone who turned her back on her people and is too fancy for her own good. The Bartons are not the only family in town with secrets, and as the small town neighbors tell their stories, the reader understands the depth of poverty and dysfunction that pervades Amgash.

I know you will wonder if you should read My Name is Lucy Barton to enjoy this sequel, and I recommend that you do. Anything is Possible could easily stand alone, but it is a richer reading experience when you have already read about the characters within.

Short Story  Nancy Picks  Literary Fiction  Family Drama  Contemporary

03/27/17
 

Trajectory: Stories by Richard Russo

RussoTrajectoryRusso—novelist, screenwriter, short story writer, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction—has written a new stellar collection. Best known for his accurate depiction of working class people, Russo here paints equally sympathetic portraits of educated, middle class men and women struggling with their own sense of failure.

In “Voice,” a semi-retired professor, Nate, seeks validation of his career by projecting talent on a student who may, or may not, have any. This student, suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome, is unable to speak and always sits at the periphery of the classroom. Her lack of a voice allows a kind of transference to take place.

Only much later, during a trip to Venice, does Nate understand the consequences of his own vanity.

…A man doesn’t have to be a monster, or even a bad man, to harm others, or to be a profound disappointment to himself. Better—not to mention braver—to tell Bernard about Opal, what he’d done and why, about her removal from the campus to a mental facility where her worsening condition could be treated and monitored, her college days over…He will tell Bernard all this, not because the story refutes his conviction that in the end human beings don’t amount to much, but rather because, as Nate has belatedly come to understand, life is, seemingly by design, a botched job (Trajectories, p. 131).

Short Story  Sara Picks  Contemporary

03/24/17
 

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

ChabonMGMoonglow, according to Chabon, was inspired by his 1987 visit to his dying grandfather. During that visit, his grandfather revealed secrets of his life to the twenty-four-year-old author. The book is a dream-like distillation of what may or may not have been spoken. To quote the New York Times Book Review:

Moonglow [...] wanders where it will, framing a series of chronologically disordered episodes from the past with conversations involving the narrator (who never tries to persuade us that he is anyone other than Michael Chabon) and various kinfolk, principally his mother and grandfather. This isn’t to say that the book lacks structure, but rather that its structure is determined by the logic of memory, and that the author has resisted the urge to do too much tidying and streamlining. The action zigzags across time and geography—from Germany in the last days of World War II through a grab bag of American locations in the decades after—with blithe indifference to the usual rules of linearity or narrative economy" (Scott, A.O. "Michael Chabon Returns With a Searching Family Saga." The New York Times. 18 Nov. 2016.).

The grandfather serves as military intelligence trying to hunt down Wernher von Braun in Germany. Von Braun was the brilliant Nazi rocket builder whom the United States later enlisted into its space program. His grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, raised by nuns. Her full story is only alluded to, but her experiences have left her prone to hallucinations and psychotic episodes. She has a mystical persona, unlike the practical grandfather, and entertains her grandson with tarot cards and scary stories.

Chabon writes lyrically and captures the essence of war. But the book is not without humor. While in a retirement community at the end of his life, Michael’s grandfather goes on a Quixotic quest for a pet-eating python. He does this with the same zeal and planning he used when hunting Nazi rocket scientists. The scenes reveal as much about the grandfather’s sense of honor as they do about the struggle for meaning in old age.

Sara Picks  Historical Fiction  Historical  Family Drama  Contemporary  21st Century

01/04/17
 

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