Book Reviews


It took me several weeks to finish Al Sim’s most recent collection–Stories in the Old Style–but before you conclude that I didn’t enjoy it, let me explain. I, too, wondered why I had taken so long to finish reading these stories that–if asked casually, “Did you like them?”–I would have unequivocally said were wonderful. And so I sat down, post-read, to critically examine both the individual stories and the collection as a whole, both of which I concluded “worked” in the mysterious and illogical way of good fiction. In revisiting them, though, I realized how deliciously self-contained each story is–so complete within itself, that I needed to sit with the just-finished story a while, before moving on to another. I wanted to enjoy the resonance of the last word, and so had trouble immediately opening my reader’s heart to the next story in line. “Better to set the book down and think on those perfect final words for a bit”–or so my reader’s heart might have said. But, now…if the brain could just make a logical interjection… I think that this need-to-stop-reading is actually a testament to the strength of Sim’s collection. In fact, during a class on ordering and assembling a story collection, Peter Ho Davies said that a collection should be read in just such a way. He suggested that each story be savored and granted a full stop at the end so that the reader might fully enjoy the final enduring image and keep thinking about the story long after the last words are read. And now, another country heard from: the stomach. For some (entirely strange and personal) reason, I often equate a good read to good food. I consume them both, relish them both, and leave both feeling satisfied when the chef or author has done his job well. And in the case of Al Sim’s collection, his 18 stories were like a box of fine chocolates. (Yes, I’m aware that Forrest Gump has forever ruined that analogy…) But consider for a moment the fact that one really well made chocolate can be enough to satisfy even the most stubborn sweet tooth. Two-at-a-time can be eaten, yes–with somewhat diminished enjoyment–but three? Well, that definitely feels like overindulgence. And since you are too polite to ask but nonetheless curious, my very favorite bon-bons were: Two Head Gone, a story of human helplessness in the face of ordinary but devastating loss; The Freedom Pig, in which a runaway slave and his master’s pig conspire to reach the promised land; Get the Can, a lovely, lyrical short-short that uses a childhood game of one-up to show that...

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I finished Richard Lewis’s most recent YA novel The Killing Sea in two days. Really one and a half. I purchased it for my son but couldn’t wait for him to get through a trilogy he is currently reading and so I picked up The Killing Sea and read it myself. Am I glad I did! It’s a wonderful read and a real page turner. Two protagonists move through the story: Ruslan, a local Indonesian boy who works at a small beachside cafe in the town of Meulaboh; and Sarah, a teenager sailing with her family through the Indonesian islands over the Christmas holiday. The two meet briefly when Sarah’s family anchors their sailboat near the cafe, looking for a mechanic to fix their engine. Ruslan (whose mechanic father ultimately fixes the engine) is captivated by Sarah’s blue eyes. A budding artist, he returns home later that night and draws her in his sketchbook (against the teachings of a local cleric who deems any image-making to be a form of idolatry). Sarah barely registers Ruslan’s existence before stalking off to the sailboat when her mother insists she don a headscarf out of respect for the local culture. Lewis sensitively and deftly explores the notion of the spoiled American as we see Sarah undergo her own sea change after the tsunami rips her world apart. Both Ruslan and Sarah are left parentless: Ruslan, motherless since birth, cannot find his father after the tsunami; Sarah’s parents both disappear beneath the rising waters as they flee their stranded sailboat. She learns the fate of one shortly after the waters recede, the other she cannot find before she must leave to search for a hospital for her younger brother who inhaled seawater and is having difficulty breathing. Ruslan and Sarah’s paths intersect again, post-tsunami, as they struggle to survive against violent rebels, wild animals, contaminated water, blocked roads and mounting hunger. The trials they endure give the two teenagers a strong bond of survivorship that transcends gender, race, and religion. In their journey they are helped by a savvy feline named Surf Cat, a motley group of rebels who are strangely familiar, an unlikely crew of fellow survivors, and a number of cast-off items that are put to inventive good use. The Killing Sea is a story born of the 2004 tsunami, yes (Lewis volunteered as an aid relief worker in the aftermath, and a portion of the proceeds from his book will go to support local relief organizations), but it is not only about the tragedy. It is also about an unlikely friendship that transcends ethnic and religious boundaries. The Killing Sea...

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Not only do I love the way Jim Ruland thinks and views the world, I love the way he makes me think and view the world. Seriously, if you want to read a book of short stories that kicks ass and takes names, Jim Ruland’s debut collection BIG LONESOME is it. These stories are far from the usual fare–they’re a breath of fresh air. Okay, wrong metaphor. They’re a breath of smoke-filled, honky-tonking, tough-loving beer and animal sweat air. But trust me when I say you’ll go there with him, and you’ll like it. I was captivated by Ruland’s writing from the very first story, Night Soil Man, in which a group of World War II Belfast men–a zookeeper, a zoo curator, and the official shit-shoveler (through whose eyes the story unfolds)–are assigned the odious task of destroying all the zoo’s animals (“specimens” as the higher-ups label them) before another German air attack sets them loose, wild, onto the city streets. The men don’t relish this directive, and how they manage to carry out the orders will break your heart–in the most manly way, of course. By the time I worked my way through The Previous Adventures of Popeye the Sailor (Bam!), Kessler Has No Lucky Pants (Pow!), A Terrible Thing in a Place Like This (Oof!), Pronto’s Persistence (Unh!), Still Beautiful (Ouch!), and Dick Tracy on the Moon (Socko!), I was thoroughly hooked. I’m talking swallowed-the-lure, using-the-needlenose-pliers, guts-ripped-out-into-the-river hooked. Then he gave me Red Cap. This one, wow. This one tore me up. Poor war-torn little skinny Ilse who gets mistaken for a boy in her favorite red cap…until she finally gets back to the one place she thought of as a refuge…finds it, too, invaded by the horrors of war…and then she isn’t mistaken for a boy. And it’s too bad. It might have saved her. As for the final five stories? Well, I’ll just whet your appetites with a few of my favorite lines: From The Egg Man: “The dancer winks at me and only an idiot would miss the message encrypted in the torpid descent of those lashes. She oozes closer, introducing a thousand possibilities in the curve of her lips, possibilities ten folded by the light grace of her hand on my shoulder.“ From Big Lonesome: “The bounty hunter stood at the trailhead and surveyed the expanse of desert before him. Nothing but crusty scrubland as far as he could see. To the west: a salty sink crawling with snakes and scorpions; the the east: a wasted plain stippled with sun-bleached bones. It was hotter than donkey piss and dry as beans. He had...

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I finished Nancy Pinard’s BUTTERFLY SOUP the same day that Buffalo was hit by what is being called the “October Surprise Storm” as if it were a game show prize. Fortunately, where I live, we were only out of power for 12 hours, while some in the heart of Buffalo were out for 12 days. But that time spent powerless gave me extra time to consider Nancy Pinard’s second book (Shadow Dancing being her first). And consider it I did. The characters have yet to leave me. Butterfly Soup is peopled by a very engaging cast. Although there are many aspects of the book to love–like the fine writing, the study of our human obsessiveness, the unflinching examination of the frailty of the body, the damage that secrets can do, and the many lyrical descriptive passages–it was the characters I most adored. Rose Forrester opens the book for us, and even though we “intimately visit” with her husband Everett and her teenaged daughter Valley in successive close-third-person chapters, it is Rose and her big secret that drives the story. Fortunately, it isn’t a secret from us, the readers. We learn right off that Rose’s daughter Valley is actually the product of a brief fling with a high school heartthrob who has just returned to the same small town where Rose lives with her husband and daughter-that-isn’t-his. There are a number of flashbacks that give us backstory, but the bulk of the story takes place in the present tense on a crazy weekend that for Rose begins with a Saturday morning phone call from the town gossip who tells her that Rob McIntyre (Valley’s real father) is back in town. Rose dresses, jumps in her car, and drives into town to see for herself. From there, her disparate emotions gradually merge into an all-consuming religious-inspired exile. When Rose makes an impulse purchase of a used nun’s bed (auctioned off in the grocery store parking lot of her home town), the bed (placed in her downstairs office) becomes a makeshift sanctuary that shelters her from what she knows will be the inevitable repurcussions from her sixteen-year-old sins. Everett’s secret is a recently diagnosed medical condition that threatens to render him physically helpless in a few years. Already his legs are going numb and disobeying what his brain commands. To avoid acknowledging his body’s impending self-destruction, Everett takes off on a Saturday adventure: an attempt at parasailing that has disastrous (although somewhat humorous–and familiar–for those of us who have ever thought we were still young enough to try something rash) results. Along the way he finds a beagle dog that helps to...

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The cover of Ellen Meister’s debut novel has a Lichtenstein-inspired tongue-in-cheek rendering of four women standing before a backdrop of Suburbia, USA. The woman in the foreground has a thought-bubble that reads, “A MOVIE STAR IS COMING TO TOWN AND MY FRIENDS WANT TO DATE HIM!” But the thought-bubble should read, “A MOVIE STAR IS COMING TO TOWN AND MY FRIENDS WANT TO SHTUP HIM!” Because–let me just tell you now–in Applewood? There’s a whole lotta shtuppin’ goin on. Not that there’s anything wrong with shtupping…I’m just saying. Seriously, I had so much fun reading this book. The main characters are likeable and quirky, with real lives and families, real faults and longings, that make you see them as full, complete people and not the cardboard cutouts so many authors working in similar genres have produced. (And, actually, I’m not even sure what I mean by “similar genres,” since I have to say that even though a hot pink cover has become synonymous lately with a “chick lit” label, this novel is not your traditional chick-litty book. It’s full and rich and generously sprinkled with emotional, humorous, sexy surprises.) And the minor characters delight as well: the husband, who, following a drug-induced stroke (more or less of his own making) is left impotent and yet perversely sexually uninhibited; the private investigator who is an emotionally sensitive wreck; the alcoholic blues-singing mother who keeps trying to upstage a talented daughter who could care less about being upstaged; the womanizing best-male-friend-cum-almost-lover; the evangelical-pure-on-the-surface, animal-in-bed widower who is also Applewood’s most eligible bachelor; the smooth-veneered catty PTA maven who has her own dirty little secrets; and, of course, the infamous roving rock that has spawned so much trouble. (Do rocks spawn??….if they do anywhere, it would be in hyper-fertile Applewood.) What? You’ve never heard of Applewood Rock? Why, it’s right up there with Plymouth Rock, people. Wars have been started over lesser objects. But don’t believe me: get the book, slip between the covers, and have the time of your life. This is a seriously funny, engaging, endearing...

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What I feel most compelled to say in awe of Roy Kesey’s talent, is that I read his entire book in one sitting. One! Honestly, I couldn’t put it down. Maybe that just illuminates my own obessive tendences, but I gluttinously devoured NOTHING IN THE WORLD, cramming it all in as fast as I could and then licking my fingers when I was done. NOTHING IN THE WORLD lures you in innocently–and lyrically–enough. The first paragraph is lovely, placing the reader solidly in Josko’ world, which manages (like so much of Kesey’s work) to feel both familiar and exotic, no small feat: “The white stone walls of Josko’s house were tinged with gold in the growing light, and the only sound was the sharp ring of his father’s pick glancing off the rocks in the vineyard. Josko ran to join him as the sun slipped into the sky, and they worked together without speaking, his father freeing the rocks from the soil, Josko heaving them to his shoulder and staggering to the wall they were building to mark their property line to the east.“ This attention to detail and to the sensory experience of the reader is consistent throughout Roy’s book and as I read I was drawn along, unwilling to leave that world that felt so very real to me. Even when the world became darker and more violent, or perhaps especially when the world became darker and more violent, for that is when Kesey’s matter-of-fact, detailed style really grabs you by the throat: “Josko opened his eyes, and the sky was a thin whitish blue. There was the warm salty sweetness of blood in his mouth, and behind his eyes he felt a strange dense presence. He raised one hand to his head. Above his left ear, a shard of metal protruded from his skull. He wrapped his hand around it and ripped it out. Pain deafened him, and strips of sky floated down to enfold him.“ Okay, from that point on, I was entirely hooked. My own brain began to throb with a “strange dense presence” and I realized it was Josko in there, Josko in my brain, becoming part of my grey matter creating new peaks and grooves as he becomes a legend in his own country (unknown to him)–a celebrated war hero, first for shooting down two enemy planes with his unit, and then for singlehandedly killing the infamous sniper Hadzihafizbegovic and setting his severed head on a table in a cafe. The trouble is, as Josko moves through the countryside alone, becoming more and more dirty and disheveled (also crazed by the haunting...

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