Posts Tagged 'four 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: Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

A sweeping epic that covers about 3,000 miles, a large cast of characters, and 945 pages (!), Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is a gripping and enjoyable read. Those 945 pages flew by for me! At times, reading Lonesome Dove felt like watching a movie. I actually missed my subway stop one morning because I was so engrossed in reading a particular scene, only looking up and realizing what had happened when my subway moved aboveground. Oops.

The story starts in Lonesome Dove, Texas, where former Texas Rangers Woodrow Call and Gus MsCrae have settled down, digging wells, shoeing horses, and generally living quiet lives. That all changes when an old friend of theirs comes into town, with the idea of driving cattle to the fresh, green pastures of Montana. We follow the outfit as they traverse miles of dangerous territory and try to keep from being killed (or killing each other).

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Book Review: The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe

It would be impossible to review The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe, in 2013 and not make mention of the television show Mad Men. Both are concerned with life in and around New York City in the ’50s (and ’60s and ’70s, for the show); both depict what life was like for working women before the feminist movement made gains in achieving equality; both are a masterful blend of gallows humor and real pathos. I think the two serve as comfortable companions for one another–especially if you would like to see more of Joan, Peggy, and Betty on the show.

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Book Review: Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

I have waited a long time to read Lauren Beukes’ sophomore offering, Zoo City–it was one of my first TBR adds on Goodreads–and happily, I was not disappointed! In just a few words, Zoo City is a creative, unique, and un-put-downable entry in the urban paranormal/sci-fi thriller genre.

In a futuristic Johannesburg, South Africa, our protagonist Zinzi December is eking out a living by finding lost objects with her burden and companion Sloth by her side. Like hundreds of other people around the world, Zinzi is ‘animalled’–after an incident of wrong-doing and the ensuing guilt, an animal has appeared and has become physically and psychically linked to the offending human. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of order to the type of animal that becomes linked to each guilty person; there is a brief mention of someone in prison with a butterfly companion, for example.

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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: 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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