Archive | January, 2016

The Perks of a Good Cover and a Catchy Title

30 Jan

Because of my blogging and my on and off work in the book business, I can request e-galleys (advance e-books) of upcoming titles from certain publishers. The available titles show up with a picture of the cover, the title, and a brief synopsis. I requested access to In The Land of Armadillos for two reasons: One, I loved the cover. Two, I loved the title. That’s it. I’d never heard of the author, it seemed like the stories would all be sad; I figured I’d just read the first story and leave the rest behind. But oh my gosh.armadillosRemember a while back when Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See came out, I said that typically there was one GREAT WWII novel a year. It’s a subject that will continue to intrigue authors and readers alike, but some tales are better than others. This is most likely THE best WWII fiction that will come out this year. And it’s only February. And they’re short stories. Even if it turns out not to be THE best, it’s certainly pretty amazing. Helen Maryles Shankman has written a series of linked short stories about a Polish town devastated by WWII. We get to see the cold-blooded SS officer who finds himself trying to save the (Jewish) illustrator of his son’s favorite picture book. The farmer who himself hates Jews and turns in many of his neighbors, only to find himself hiding a young Jewish girl. The town’s best  saddle maker, the orphaned siblings who run the town’s largest mill. Every story was so great – yes, they’re all sad because terrible things happened during the war. But what I loved about them was that the characters – German or Jewish – were so real, so three-dimensional. The story that had me crying was not because of something wretched, a death or betrayal, but instead the revelations of a hard-hearted man.  Five stars, definitely.

20000 Pages Under the Italian Sun

25 Jan

PHEW. I have spent more time than I’d like to admit with Lina and Elena from Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. Four very lengthy books later and I’m still digesting my thoughts on this strangely addictive Italian friend drama. One of my book clubs picked the first to read and I flew through it. I can’t even tell you WHY exactly. I can’t even really tell you if I LIKED it. But I went out and picked up the second one the very next day and flew through that as well. The third got a little slow for me, but the final book in the series (The Story of the Lost Child) was excellent.  The fourth novel was released last year to much acclaim, the New York Times named it one of their top five novels of the 2015. Here’s the deal: Elena and Lila live in the same rough and tumble Italian neighborhood as children. They are not so much friends as competitors, constantly testing each other and trying to keep up with one another. And that expands over a lifetime, over what felt like 20000 pages, and through four installments. The best part, I think, is that the relationship between the two women felt so real. If you have a best girl friend, you know that there is always a lot of love, respect and admiration there. But there is also jealousy, competition, the desire to impress. The beautiful thing about this series is that you get to see that relationship grow through marriages, affairs, children, success, revolution…. It really is a great saga. 4.25 stars and I’m glad to be finished!

The Glamorous Life of an Expat

23 Jan


I’ve been seeing a lot of press for Janice Lee’s new novel, The Expatriates, and was reminded that I’ve read it but neglected to post about it. Things are crazy in my house and I’m sad that this one slipped past me because I enjoyed it. I’d even say that I loved 88% of it. The 12% I disliked is certainly linked to the fact that I’m pregnant, have a toddler and can’t imagine the trauma of one of the three main characters in this novel. It’s obviously child-related. A lot of the reviews I’ve seen is calling this something like “Sex in the City meets Gatsby meets every extravagant expat story you’ve heard.” That pretty much sums it up. We follow three women, all in different stages/ages of life living as expatriates in Japan. Like many a good novel, they all come together in a glorious stunning crash of a way towards the end that was really great. But I am still holding onto my 12% of dissatisfaction that some of the trauma is left unresolved. 3.5 stars.

Irreverent Shorts for the Modern Gal

5 Jan

Sometimes I love a good collection of short stories. The ones that come to mind as all time favorites are The News from Spain and The Other Language, plus one coming out in February called In the Land of Armadillos. These three are stellar examples of captivating story lines, fabulous writing and characters who stick with you. There is another class of short stories that I sometimes enjoy but leave a less permanent mark. I’d throw American Housewife into this category. Super fast, super fun, a little dark and edgy.

american housewifeOne of my favorite stories was about The Fitter. The best goll-darn bra-fitter in the history of histories. Told from the point of view of his wife, it was funny and sad and had a lot of good one-liners about what a good bra can do for a woman’s spirits (which is the TRUTH). Another was about a writer with one novel under her belt from a long time ago who goes on show called Dumpster Diving, in which relatively famous people are challenged to find something in a variety of weird places that turns out to be a hidden treasure (buy something for less than $50 at a garage sale, the largest difference in price paid and true value wins!). With lots of interesting narrative tricks and darkly comic turns, this was a fast one. I’m not quite sure who I’d recommend it to, though. 3 stars.