Posts Tagged 'four out of five stars'

Book Review: The Ploughmen, by Kim Zupan

There are winter books and there are summer books. Summer books aren’t necessarily light, but they are warm and irreverent and sometimes a little silly. I like my summer books to be close to home, about New York City and people like myself (or close enough). Winter books are heavy–not physically heavy, but dense–and challenging. They’re atmospheric. They’re cold on the surface, keeping you at a distance before finally letting you in.

The Ploughmen, by Kim Zupan, is a winter book if I’ve ever read one. And not just because of that cover:

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The bare bones of the plot: Valentine Millimaki is a deputy officer whose job is, more often than not, to work with his canine partner to locate the missing and the dead. When he isn’t searching the lost places of Montana, he works the night shift at the local jail, drifting away from his wife. John Gload is a serial killer who has finally allowed himself to be caught. He takes a friendly interest in Millimaki, in whom he sees flashes of himself: a farmer’s son, someone appreciative of nature, an insomniac. Our story progresses from there.

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Book Review: The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Somehow I ended up owning two copies of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, while knowing little about it beyond it was a fantasy book that receives glowing reviews online. While brainstorming birthday presents for my dad last year (and knowing well his habit of reading good, bad, and terrible fantasy and sci-fi novels), I reasoned that I could give him The Name of the Wind based purely on what I had heard others saying about it. A risky gamble, but it paid off: not only did my dad love the book, but he ended up passing it to two colleagues who also loved it. This was finally enough to motivate me to read the book that I had already recommended!

The Name of the Wind could have been an interesting fantasy if only because of its unique narrative structure: it is the story of Kvothe, a famous arcanist and warrior, told by Kvothe himself, over the course of a single day. I loved this conceit. It allowed us to compare the Kvothe of years ago–brash, curious, and fierce–with the man he is today, without quite knowing yet why the change occurred.

And luckily for readers, the framing device is not the only wonderful thing about this novel. The worldbuilding, for example, is fantastic. While only a few locations are fleshed out in this first book, they are given such depth that you truly see and experience them along with Kvothe. The University reminded me of my own college days (though sadly I didn’t get to learn about sigils and alchemy) and the ways in which the presence of an institute of higher learning can change a city, for better and for worse. Meanwhile, Tarbean represented the worst that I’ve seen and experienced in cities: apathetic people, squalid living conditions, and a sense of hopelessness that hangs like smog. It is really a credit to Rothfuss that he is able to make the geography and locations of Kvothe’s life simultaneously feel so real and so fantastic.

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Book Review: The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

I’ve got a problem. A NetGalley problem. Like most other bookworms, I’ve got eyes bigger than my stomach when it comes to free books–I will request way more than I can feasibly read!

However, when I saw karen’s review of The Weight of Blood, I knew I had to make space on my crowded iPad–and even more crowded TBR list–for this debut novel. I’m grateful I did–based on this novel alone, Laura McHugh is an author to watch.

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In the small Ozarks town of Henbane, Lucy Dane sees a friend go missing with no explanation and no closure. She has already lives without a mother, who–according to town memory–killed herself in the extensive cave system in the wild lands surrounding the area. After finding a clue as to her friend’s disappearance, Lucy begins to pursue the twin threads of the missing women in her life. In the process, she begins to unwind the network of secrets and lies that her family, and the people of Henbane, have woven to keep her and themselves safe.

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Book Review: Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon

Omar knows what’s up. 

I only started watching HBO’s The Wire about a year ago, but damn if it isn’t as good as everyone says it is. I don’t really know why I waited to watch as long as I did, but I’m almost glad–I feel like I can appreciate its messages and subtitles better now that I’m a bit older and have more life experience. It also means that I can draw out my watching of The Wire to avoid having it end too soon.

Before I had even starting watching, I knew that it (and the show Homicide) was based in part on a nonfiction book by David Simon called Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. What I wasn’t prepared for was for how engaging and eye-opening the book was on its own.

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Book Review: A Dual Inheritance, by Joanna Hershon

I’ve been trying to write my review of A Dual Inheritance, by Joanna Hershon, for a while. Not because I disliked the book (spoiler alert: I give it four out of five stars!), but because it spans so many characters, themes, and plots, it is hard to summarize and even harder not to spoil.

Here is the summary from Goodreads:

Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1963: two students meet one autumn evening during their senior year at Harvard–Ed, a Jewish kid on scholarship, and Hugh, a Boston Brahmin with the world at his feet. Ed is unapologetically ambitious and girl-crazy, while Hugh is ambivalent about everything aside from his dedicated pining for the one girl he’s ever loved. An immediate, intense friendship is sparked that night between these two opposites, which ends just as abruptly, several years later, although only one of them understands why. A Dual Inheritance follows the lives of Ed and Hugh for next several decades, as their paths-in spite of their rift, in spite of their wildly different social classes, personalities and choices-remain strangely and compellingly connected.

I’m a sucker for collegiate settings, and though we are only at Harvard briefly, I think Hershon does a commendable job using it as a backdrop to the relationship between Ed and Hugh. College is a period where people from disparate upbringings and backgrounds interact, often for the first time, and appropriately, Ed and Hugh could not be more different. However–as again often happens in college–the two become intensely close friends, each grappling with their own similar emotional ‘inheritance’ from their parents.

This section especially reminded me of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides–and I mean that as a compliment, as I enjoyed both of these books. Both have young people trying to define themselves, their relationships, and their aspirations; A Dual Inheritance focuses more on the impacts, intentional and otherwise, that parents have on their children. It also lacks the pretentiousness that some found so distasteful in The Marriage Plot; indeed, people are consistently and realistically dealing with their weaknesses.

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Book Review: The Wild Iris, by Louise Gluck

Louise Gluck has quickly established herself as one of my favorite poets, if not my favorite of all time. Her poems are so lyrical and so dreamy that reading them is an incredibly soothing experience. If I had my way, I would have read The Wild Iris, her Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection, lying in a hammock in my parents’ backyard, drenched in summertime sun.  Still, even reading these poems on a crowded subway had me dreaming of flowers, August nights, and dark, rich soil. The power of her words is undeniable!

The Wild Iris consists of a set of poems written from the points-of-view of three narrators. One is a human, I assume Gluck herself. One is a series of flowers in her garden, from the rose to the witchgrass. And the third is an omniscient, omnipresent god-like force. Gluck doesn’t necessarily tell you this; it is only through reading and re-reading the poems in sequence that these narrative voices truly emerge. Each narrator has conflicted thoughts and feelings about the others, and the way in which they question, doubt, and supplicate one another.

There are lots of repeating images and themes here, from death and rebirth to identity to the responsibilities of a creator to his creations. The flower-based poems, for example, both fear death and recognize that death is not the end; their seeds will spread and spring will come for them once more. They also call out feelingly for their gardeners’ help to survive, a sentiment echoed in the poems narrated by humans and addressed to a divine force. I read somewhere that Gluck often introduces elements from the Bible, and some of those stories seem to be present here as well, when the god-narrator speaks (sometimes exasperatedly!) about the needs and fears of his inventions. While I’m not particularly religious, I did enjoy how simultaneously accessible and alien Gluck’s god sounded.

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Book Review: Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

In Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc follows the lives of a Dominican-American family living and growing up in the Bronx in the 1980s and 1990s. Jessica, her brother Cesar, and Cesar’s girlfriend Coco face poverty, drugs, children, abuse, and incarceration over the course of a decade or so, and all of it is faithfully reported by LeBlanc. Much like Always Running (review here), Random Family is a sometimes- unpleasant read, but an important one. For many Americans, the effects of extreme, generational poverty are invisible. LeBlanc forces you to look–to care.

First, I very much appreciated that LeBlanc kept herself out of the narrative. I think the tendency to insert oneself into stories like this can be tempting, especially when you are following the same individuals for years, becoming enmeshed in their lives. LeBlanc wisely realized that this book was not about her, but rather, about the lives of Jessica, Coco, and their families. Readers will already recognize that LeBlanc is an outsider to this neighborhood and this culture, and any attempts to include herself more firmly in the narrative would have only highlighted the contrast even more.

The world of Random Family is fascinating–morbidly so. The Bronx of the ’80s and ’90s depicted in this book is, in many respects, an unforgiving place. Gang violence is prevalent, as is gun ownership. Drug use and dealing is merely a way of survival. The cycle of poverty appears unending. Parents are either absent, addicts, abusive, or incarcerated. Everyone suffers. It will weigh very, very heavily on your mind, and you will cheer every time Coco, Jessica, or Cesar make the slightest bit of headway against such overwhelming odds. LeBlanc does a commendable job in making the environment painfully real, even to readers who have never been to the Bronx.

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