Monthly Archives

February 2014

Book Review: BARK by Lorrie Moore

This review is by contributor Thuy Dinh, editor of Da Mau Magazine.

barkLorrie Moore’s Bark is more like a dachshund’s whimper. An elegy to fifty-something baby boomers, this collection of short stories is listless despite the high-concept packaging: the notion of stories as “songs” in a music album, with each song articulating a mood related to the album’s title.

Meaning the outer layer of trees, hardened by time and weather, bark is an apt and tactile metaphor for middle age. It also suggests a dog’s, or an insecure person’s, scare tactic: His bark is worse than his bite. Thus debarking (the title of one story in this collection) can mean “to peel, leave a ship, unload, denude, reveal.” Yet the epiphanies in Moore’s stories are cold comforts; they merely ease her characters into disunion or death.

“Foes” and “Subject to Search” are the two most successful stories out of the eight featured. They both take place in supposedly convivial settings, when the main characters are sharing meals with each other. But no communion takes place in either story. Instead, doubt, enmity, and loneliness predominate.

Bake, the liberal protagonist in “Foes,” is mortified when realizing that his dining companion and “foe,” a Republican lobbyist named Linda, is not a fetching Asian-American but a 9/11 burn victim whose “exotic looks” at close range turn out to be the results of botched reconstructive surgery.

“Subject to Search” deftly illustrates the horror of glibness disguised as romance. The juxtaposition of the heroine’s spy lover making global decisions via a remote-access laptop with a pointed yet oblique reference to Abu Ghraib through an almost homonymic line from Jabberwocky—the mome raths outgrabe”—reinforces the cartoonish sterility of both modern love and war.

While depressed middle-aged characters should not necessarily diminish Moore’s stories, they are unsympathetic due to their First World problems. Many characters protest the war in Iraq and imagine vivid acts of violence against their spurious government or faithless spouses, but generally do nothing. They seem to be intrigued or attracted to people of different races or cultures but make no attempt to understand these others. The despair seems hollow, theatrical. It’s hard to care for aging characters who use the Bush administration’s war on terrorism as an excuse to wallow in self-pity.

Most of the stories’ insights are deeply arresting, but they resemble literary criticism more than fiction. The stories are technically solid, but seem mannered, hermetic, like assignments in an MFA writing workshop. Lacking life-like characters and rich, textured settings, Bark is marooned by lethargy, or perhaps unmoored by inside jokes and cannot debark.

Amazon | IndieBound


Book Review: ROMANCE IS MY DAY JOB by Patience Bloom

romance is day job coverThis book is a testament to how much a cover can help a book’s discoverability. I rarely read memoirs and never read romance novels, but when I received a pitch for this memoir by Harlequin senior editor Patience Bloom, the cover captivated me. Perhaps I was coming off a bunch of dark, creepy crime novels and needed something lighter, but the artwork is bright and fun so I said yes to a review copy and am glad I did.

The book starts with Bloom in boarding school, trying to get her nerve up to ask a cute boy named Kent to a dance. Things don’t go well, which also describes her love life in the next couple of decades.

Bloom started reading and loving romance novels while a teen and often built dreamy scenarios in her head as soon as she developed a crush on someone. This led to her going to great lengths to please the objects of her affection in her journey toward finding The One.

But, alas, her time and efforts did not bring about her desired results. At the age of 41, with her dream job as an editor at Harlequin, Bloom realized she was happy in her single life. Then an old friend contacted her on Facebook.

Bloom has a breezy, accessible style that reads like someone telling you a story at a dinner party. At times, there’s too much repetition—in saying romance novels got her through tough times, for example, or insisting that reconnecting with her old friend on FB wasn’t going to lead to anything—but she comes across as someone who’s decent, self aware, unafraid to own up to her flaws and neuroses, and witty. She doesn’t wallow in self-pity after each disappointment; she gets right back in the saddle with remarkable resilience and optimism.

Which is why I was invested in her story, and it’s a good one. It contains awkward moments that call to mind Bridget Jones’s disastrous adventures in dating, amusing comparisons between romance-hero types and real men, and dark moments (like many fairy tales, there’s a nasty stepmother and scary characters), but the ending affirms the notion that sometimes real life can turn out better than fiction.

Nerd verdict: Breezy, affecting Romance

Amazon | IndieBound


Book Review + Giveaway: NORTH OF BOSTON by Elisabeth Elo

north of bostonIn crime fiction, the protagonists can start to resemble each other after a while: tough FBI agent or military guy or cop or private eye, etc. I’m not saying books can’t be good with those types of characters—it all depends on the execution—only that every once in a while, it’s nice to see a different type of protagonist, and that’s who Pirio Kasparov is, in Elisabeth Elo’s debut, North of Boston.

One foggy night, Pirio is on a lobster boat with her friend Ned when a huge ship comes out of nowhere, crashes into the little boat, and quickly sinks it. The ship moves on without stopping. Ned perishes but Pirio survives, for over four hours in frigid waters before she’s rescued. She becomes somewhat of a local celebrity, and the US Navy wants her to submit to tests to determine how her body managed to stave off hypothermia when most people would’ve succumbed.

But Pirio, heir to a successful perfume business started by her Russian immigrant parents, only wants to find the ship that ran over Ned’s lobster boat. She meets resistance from the Coast Guard and others telling her to just accept the accident as a hit-and-run.

Then she meets a mysterious man at Ned’s memorial, someone who seems to want the truth as much as she does. Neither realizes how deadly the truth is, and how their attempt to see justice done will land them in deep waters, literally and figuratively.

Pirio is someone I took to right away, a woman who’s smart, not touchy-feely, and blunt to her father and friends if she feels they need to hear the truth. Her one soft spot is for her ten-year-old godson, Noah, who also wants to know what happened to his father, Ned.

The prose is full of witty descriptions such as this:

Her dress is cream and pink, a boatneck, small stripes, and some kind of floppy belt. It looks as if it started out in the morning for a 1912 steamship, took a detour to a 1950s garden party in the suburbs, and ended up in a 2013 online catalog.

When Pirio is in the mysterious man’s home, trying to figure out if he’s a good or bad guy, she checks out his bookshelf and has this observation:

*Mild spoiler*

The environmental books are persuasive, but the book that makes the strongest case for his not-evil character is The Elements of Style. What bad guy would give a shit about the difference between which and that?

*End spoiler*

Can’t argue with her there.

The story goes from the Boston area to more remote locales up the Labrador Coast in northern Canada, where the beauty of the land is contrasted by the danger Pirio is in and the ugliness of the bad people’s actions.

The descriptions of the tests Pirio endures for the navy—for the sake of her country, she’s told—are terrifying and hypnotic at the same time. I could easily visualize and imagine the mental and physical states Pirio goes through as she voluntarily freezes to the brink of death while the navy studies her. Did I mention this woman is tough?

The one false note for me was Pirio’s repeated musings on love: how she wants it, how she’s not sure if she’s ever felt it, what true love feels like, whether or not she’ll ever find it, etc. Her longing is clear and doesn’t need to be reiterated so often.

But that’s a small quibble, and I’d definitely sign up for Elo’s next exotic adventure. The press materials accompanying my review copy said the author spent time last year in Siberia and that’s partly where her next novel will be set.

If you’d like to read North of Boston, leave a comment and you’ll be entered in a giveaway of one copy, courtesy of Viking Books. Answer this question: What’s the most exotic or coldest place you’ve ever visited? (Comments who don’t include an answer will be disqualified.)

Giveaway ends next Monday, February 17, 9 p.m. PST. One winner will be randomly selected and have 48 hours to claim the prize before an alternate winner is selected. US residents only, please.

Amazon | IndieBound


Weekend Viewing Pleasure

If you’re looking for entertainment this weekend, there are some good options across different media platforms. The Winter Olympics are on TV, and Amazon just posted ten new pilots for you to watch and rate and help decide which one will get picked up for series. You don’t need a Prime membership, just a regular free account.

20140207-012649.jpgOf biggest interest to me and many readers is Bosch, based on Michael Connelly’s books about LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch, who’s played by Titus Welliver in the show.

Welliver is not how I pictured Harry, but the actor perfectly captured Harry’s weariness for internal politics and compassion for the victims. Strong impressions were also made by Jamie Hector as Harry’s partner, Jerry Edgar, and Annie Wersching as Julia Brasher.

Besides Wersching, another 24 alum popped up—Amy Price-Francis as Honey Chandler, the attorney out to nail Harry in a civil suit after he shoots a man while on duty. Oh, and did/can you catch Connelly’s cameo? If you’ve seen the pilot, watch it again and see if you can spot him.

It was fun for me to watch Bosch because I’ve been to all the locations featured—Angels Flight, Musso & Frank, the overlook at the reservoir with the Hollywood sign in the background, the courthouse downtown where I’ve had to do jury duty, even the street where the old doctor’s house was.

Sometimes I take for granted where I live, and just put my head down and try to get through the day. When I see all the energy and beauty and history of the city captured on film, it makes me really appreciate my surroundings. Now I just have to find out where they shot Harry’s house because the view from his deck is breathtaking. During that scene, the jazz music playing is Frank Morgan’s “Lullaby.” It’s the first cut on a free CD of Harry Bosch’s music that came with the hardcover first edition of Connelly’s Lost Light.

Other pilots up at Amazon include The After from The X-Files‘ Chris Carter, Transparent from Six Feet Under‘s Jill Solloway, and Mozart in the Jungle from About a Boy‘s Paul Weitz. Besides Bosch, I’ve seen Transparent and found it unbearable. The characters, other than Jeffrey Tambor’s patriarch, are unpleasant and self-centered. The dad even says at one point that his children are all selfish. Yup.

20140207-013353.jpgIf you feel like venturing out to a movie theater, The Monuments Men, directed by George Clooney and adapted from the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, opens today. Based on true stories, the movie offers a look at a group of real men who retrieved art masterpieces stolen by Nazis and returned them to their rightful owners. The men weren’t soldiers but regular folk who understood that destroying or robbing a culture of its art means completely eradicating those people’s influence on civilization.

The all-star cast, including Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, among others, is uniformly good, but I will say Blanchett is especially good, which is probably no surprise to anyone. And look for a special cameo at the very end. The movie has lighthearted moments and heartbreaking moments, all while teaching me about a part of history I didn’t know much about.

That’s it for now. Happy Friday everyone!


Nerdy Special List February 2014

Happy February! I have a feeling I’ll turn around and it’ll be September before I know it. But in the meantime, I’ll enjoy the shortest month of the year.

I’m happy to welcome a new contributor to our list, Florinda of The 3 R’s Blog. Florinda is a veteran blogger (since 2007!), a fellow reviewer for Shelf Awareness for Readers, and ardent supporter of the list since its inception in 2012. Check out her site if you haven’t already, and see her recommendation below.

Here are the February releases we really enjoyed.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

The Stolen Ones by Richard Montanari (Mulholland Books, February 25)

stolen onesPhiladelphia detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano are investigating a series of gruesome murders linked by their dump locations. All the victims are found in Priory Park. The investigation takes the police detectives back in time to the Delaware Valley State Hospital (for the criminally insane) and around the world to one of Europe’s most atrocious serial killers.

The Stolen Ones has an intense, gripping plot that will keep you glued to the book but with all the lights on. It invokes the strongest elements of the thriller, the mystery, and the horror novel, so whether you enjoy plot, character, or scare-your-pants-off suspense, it delivers.

Byrne and Balzano are returning characters, but as a first-time Montanari reader, I found no problems understanding and fully appreciating the whole novel. This was indeed a standout read and will be the first to vie for a potential spot on my favorite books of 2014 list.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner (Touchstone, February 4)

road to reckoningWhile I have no doubt this novel will garner comparison to True Grit, Road to Reckoning is more than just a straightforward revenge quest. What begins as a story of a father and his son Thomas quickly becomes a story of murder, revenge, friendship, and the journey back to home. The novel is set against the history of Colt firearms and the way it, and industry, changed the West. It has a distinctive, engaging narrative voice and a meandering plot that never fails to entertain. While Road to Reckoning is a typical Western in the best sense, it has quiet moments of heart and reflection as well. Recommended for fans of good literary fiction and a must-read for Western enthusiasts. Overall, a very impressive debut. (Read Rory’s full review here.)

From Florinda at The 3 R’s Blog:

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak (Knopf, February 4)

one more thingThis is the first fiction collection by actor/writer B.J. Novak (The Office). These short pieces—some are very short, barely filing a page—don’t feature recurring characters or common narrative threads, but they’re united by a consistency in tone, similar worldview, and—perhaps not surprisingly, given Novak’s background as a comedic writer and performer—a shared sense of humor. The writing is intelligent but doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard to be clever, and I was struck by a touch of sweetness mixed into the funny. Quite frankly, I expected more snark, and I’m glad Novak confounded that expectation. I’m not generally a short-fiction fan, but this was “potato-chip reading”—I kept thinking I’d have just a few, but then I’d dig further and further into the bag.

From PCN:

Love Story, with Murders by Harry Bingham (Delacorte Press, February 18)

9780345533760Fiona Griffiths, Harry Bingham’s Welsh detective afflicted with Cotard’s syndrome, finds a female leg in a recently deceased old woman’s meat freezer. The leg seems to have been in there for at least five years. Fiona finds more body parts scattered around town, some belonging to another victim, a man recently murdered.

Don’t be fooled by the flowery cover and title. The story is dark and the love story is a twisted crime-fiction version. The best reason to read this series is Fiona, whose rare condition makes her think she’s dead and unable to feel some of her own body parts. She’s gritty and constantly surprising, someone who embraces the threat of death because fearing death means she’s still alive. She has moving epiphanies at unexpected moments, and made me grateful just to feel the beating of my heart.

Any of these sound good to you? What February books are you looking forward to? (See past lists here.)