Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Don't Let Him Know by Sandip Roy

Three generations of the Mitras are captured through revealing vignettes in Roy’s moving and brilliant debut. Those high walls hold not just the outside world at bay, they lock in a way of life that suppresses individuality in favor of societal expectations. This is a remarkable analysis of the ripple effects of a secret coming to light, and of lives spent regretting lost chances. A reliance on fate as crutch makes the quotidian bearable for these sharply drawn characters who manage large doses of grace despite a nagging sense of longing for a life that is forever out of reach.

Full disclosure: The author is an acquaintance.
Thanks to Bloomsbury for an ARC.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Forty Days Without Shadow by Olivier Truc

The vast tundra of Lapland is the perfect setting for this thriller that shines a spotlight on tensions between the native Sami peoples and the Norwegians. On the fortieth day without shadow, a drum that is of symbolic importance to the Sami, is stolen from a local Kautokeino museum. When a Sami reindeer herder is also found murdered in a day, the Reindeer Police know more’s at stake. The mystery checks all the right boxes but it’s the setting that truly elevates the story. One can’t help but be amazed at man’s ability to survive even in the bleakest places.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson

The Laughing Monsters, a set of mountains in the Congo, were named by a Victorian missionary. Denis Johnson’s adrenaline-filled adventure through the heart of Africa, features Roland Nair, a NATO operative, and his buddy, Michael Adriko, a Ugandan native, who set out on a mission whose purpose is hazy at best. Johnson’s story lacks focus, which can be frustrating but the powerful descriptions of Africa are simply stunning. Hardcore Johnson fans will find much that is familiar, but this isn’t his best novel. That it is still worth reading speaks to the quality of Denis Johnson’s incredible body of work.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Kim Jong-Il Production by Paul Fischer

Kim Jong-Il, the North Korean leader, was an avid movie fanatic. Realizing the power of the medium to sell his version of the country’s story, he arranged to abduct South Korean cinema’s golden couple: movie director Shin Sang-Ok and actress Choi Eun-Ee, and forced them to make propaganda movies. This is a blockbuster account of not just a bizarre true story but of the surreal North Korea of the ‘70s and’ 80s. It is also a brilliant exploration of cinema as political tool. Celluloid can be crafted to tell any story be it one of escape or mass delusion.

Thanks to BookBrowse's First Impressions program for an ARC.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Brief History Of Seven Killings by Marlon James

The iridescent flashes of color on the Jamaican black-billed streamertail hummingbird might well mirror the luminous prose in Marlon James’ epic novel. There are many more than seven killings here and the novel is anything but brief, but this is a heartbreaking story crafted like a kaleidoscope. Each new chapter delivers a new perspective from a different angle or voice and place. While the Jamaican patois that is sprinkled liberally through the narrative might be difficult to understand at times, this is a story epic in every way that counts: vision, setting, ambition, voice. A singularly astounding achievement.

Us by David Nicholls

The three members of the Petersen family are alone even when together. Trying to salvage a troubled marriage, Doug convinces Connie to take one last European family vacation before their son moves on to college. As things spiral out of control, the story shines light on the everyday joys and slights that shape a marriage. Most parents will empathize with Doug’s struggles to make peace with his increasingly distant son. Even if the story sags in the middle before amping up again, this is a moving story about life’s relationships and how the best intentions can often turn devastatingly awry.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Cities of Empire: The British Colonies And the Creation Of the Urban World by Tristram Hunt

We already know that the footprint of the British empire is vast and impressive but zoom out from a bird’s eye view and travel the globe, and the scale of the project is enough to take your breath away. Spanning the centuries from the eighteenth century in Boston (and those pesky Puritans) to the twentieth century back home in Liverpool, Tristram Hunt systematically details not just the early beginnings of empire in each city but also charts how Britain’s very definition of the word changed over time. A fascinating read not just for history buffs but for every global citizen.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads The Menu by Dan Jurasky

The relationship between crackers, ice cream and “sound symbolism,” what constitutes the “grammar” of a meal, these are the many breezy offerings served up. Since linguistics is closely tied with history, we travel the world to see the commonality between fish and chips and sikbaj, and ketchup and fish sauce. While the topics selected seem to be a tad arbitrary and the tasty morsels leave us longing for more, this is a delicious romp. Eat it in all one big bite or even better, as one of the many fun old recipes included here would instruct, “lette it boyle” slowly.

The Secret Place by Tana French

St. Kilda’s, an all-girls boarding school in Dublin, is an ecosystem unto itself. The outside world almost never intrudes. All until Chris Harper, a student at a neighboring boys’ institution, is found murdered on Kilda’s grounds. Convinced she knows who did it, one of the girls leaves a note on the school’s anonymous board. I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM, the note says. Tana French’s brilliant and cerebral mystery is also a stellar exploration of complicated teen dynamics and friendships; the years when the focus is relentlessly on the now and tomorrow is forever held at bay no matter the costs.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

Family might be the nurturing building blocks of a home (and of society), but it can also play host to a whole range of hostile emotions. The Ghoshes celebrate with laughter and happiness but are also consumed by baser emotions such as envy and even hatred toward fellow family members. When young Supratik questions a lifestyle that is oblivious to the depravity of many, he realizes that even doing good is not easily accomplished. While Lives could have used more editing, it is weighty in all the right ways, especially in its unvarnished portrait of the underbelly of class politics.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Map Of Betrayal by Ha Jin

Looking for closure, American Lilian Shang travels to China to find the family her father Gary left behind as he rose to prominence, becoming a high-level mole embedded in the CIA -- a valuable officer in the Chinese espionage apparatus. Narrating a story that alternates between Lillian’s path to discovery and Gary Shang’s complicated map of betrayal, Ha Jin’s melancholic novel is a moving meditation on the fluid definition of allegiance and home. Seemingly based on the life of real-life Chinese spy, Larry Chin, Jin’s prose sometimes cuts too close to the bone. Yet its lessons are universal and heartbreaking.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

There’s all kinds of deception -- marital and otherwise -- going on behind the curtain in this bizarre and profoundly disquieting novel. Featuring a female narrator you just can’t wrap your head around, this gorgeously written debut raises large questions about the future of the environmentalism movement, about love and marriage all in less than 200 pages. Just like the wallcreeper in the book’s title, there’s brilliant catches of sheer dazzle wrapped in an otherwise homely package. Nell Zink upends many a traditional writing rule and the result is a story that is weird, frustrating but riveting just the same.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Birth Of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched A Revolution by Jonathan Eig

What combination of factors lead to the most popular form of birth control, so popular it came to be called, simply, The Pill? This brilliantly narrated and exhaustively researched nonfiction account lays bare the willpower, drive, brainpower and sheer persuasion that went into the tool that would change women’s lives forever. The reader is presented a heady mix of players each of whom brought something special whether it be research abilities, money, or marketing power to the table. In doing so, they changed the course of history. The key word in “birth control,” Eig reminds us, is “control.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Dr. Mutter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation At the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz

It was no fun being a surgical patient in the 1800s. For that matter, being a surgeon was no picnic either. Anesthesia came on the scene only later in the century, worse, there was hardly any light by which to operate. Yet one surgeon, Thomas Dent Mutter, changed the field of surgery in remarkable ways. Best known for his contributions to the field of plastic surgery, Mutter would treat people whom everyone else considered as mere “monsters.” Aptowicz’s impressive, well-researched biography reveals that what a surgeon needs most in his toolkit is one that Mutter had in ample doses: empathy.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

De Potter's Grand Tour by Joanna Scott

The world of steamships and travel comes alive in Joanna Scott’s evocative new novel. Pierre Louis Armand de Potter d’Elseghem may or may not be descended from royalty, but that’s beside the point. The bottom line is that many believed his life story to the point where he could establish a successful business guiding clients on De Potter’s World Tours. But Armand’s deceptions catch up with him and when he disappears, it’s up to his wife, Aimee, to piece the puzzle together. A superb tale not just of one charlatan’s exploits but of a collective gullibility that made them bankable.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Review: What the World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg

The horizon is hazy, the future uncertain, for the characters in this stunning debut short story collection. Monsters both literal (one story features a search for the Loch Ness creature) and metaphorical (self-doubt, disillusionment) stalk these pages. van den Berg has a remarkable ear for empathy for people at the very fringes of society who are desperately trying to find some ballast in their lives, a way out of the mist. Life’s purpose, van den Berg reminds us, can be elusive and hard to tease out. Find Me, her debut novel will be releasing in February 2015. I can’t wait. 

Read my review of Isle of Youth, van den Berg's follow-up to Water Leaves Us.

Thank you to Dzanc Books for a copy of the book.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Imagine a spiral wishing well. Drop a coin and watch it get sucked in. This is exactly what reading TBC feels like. You get drawn in, tossed about and emerge breathless. Spanning centuries, mixing genres, revisiting familiar characters (including the inimitable Hugo Lamb), Mitchell is in full form here. Even if the novel includes an epic battle scene that feels like a drawn out Bollywood movie at times, you can’t help but be wowed by the absolute brilliance of the writing. Some books you read. Some books you enjoy. Some books, like TBC, just swallow you up, heart and soul.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Seventeenth-century Amsterdam springs to life in brilliant detail as viewed through eighteen year-old Nella Oortman wife of Johannes Brandt, a prosperous trader. The Brandts harbor secrets but things get really mysterious when a “miniaturist” sends Nella small packages in the mail for her miniature cabinet house. As the Brandts get mired into circumstances beyond their control, the packages get increasingly prophetic. Unfortunately, the plot turns out to be predictable and the mystery loses steam. Every stripe of minority is prone to suspicion and worse, which is ironic given that Amsterdam is today considered the most liberal city in the world.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne

When viewed through a gambler’s lens, Macau can be just a blur — the nights all melting into one another, awash in one big win or loss. “Lord” Doyle is well familiar with this picture. An embezzler to the core, he is hiding in the Chinese territory gambling away the vast sum of money he swindled from a retiree back in England. Doyle might be an unlikeable protagonist but Ballad manages to score big. This is a beautiful and haunting novel exploring the devastation of gambling addiction and life’s complex moralities, all while set in gorgeous Macau. A sure bet. 

Longer Review

When viewed through a gambler’s lens, Macau can be just a blur the nights all melting into one another, awash in one big win or loss. “Lord” Doyle is well familiar with this picture. An embezzler to the core, he is hiding in the Chinese territory gambling away the vast sum of money he swindled from a retiree back in England.

While it is usually difficult to fall in love with a novel with an unlikeable protagonist, The Ballad of a Small Player scores big by casting Doyle not just as scum but as someone often misguided, a victim of the devastating addiction he is so deeply mired in. One can’t help but gasp at the size of his bets and wild spending sprees. It’s a picture of self-destruction that is mesmerizing to watch unfold.

The rain-soaked, lush, green countryside of Macau stands in gorgeous contrast to the sterile yet appealing casinos inside, replicating Egyptian, Roman or English decor at will. The book is worth the read just for this travelogue alone.

In the end, Small Player rises to be about much more it’s a pithy exploration of the gambling circuit, the lowlies who get by on borrowed money and time; the prostitutes who work these casinos, feeding on scum; and the tragic outcome for many who are mired in the morass. While Osborne wore his morals heavily on his sleeve in The Forgiven, Ballad is a much more subtle analysis of virtue and vice, of sinking so low you can’t even recognize a lifeline when you’re dealt one. A+

Thank you to Blogging for Books for a copy of the book.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

Baruch Kotler is a high-flying disgraced Israeli politician looking to divert the spotlight by escaping to the Crimean seaside resort of Yalta with his mistress. Little does he realize that coincidentally, he will run into Chaim Tankilevich, the very person who ratted him out as a KGB operative, years ago. So it is that while these two friends’ arcs have followed wildly divergent paths, things have now come full circle. Bezmozgis occasionally imparts his life lessons in a heavy-handed fashion, yet there are some sobering universal truths tucked into this slim novel. Besides, who can resist a vacation to Yalta?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

California by Edan Lepucki

The natural world might appear to be the same as it always was, but things are a tad askew in post-apocalyptic California. Here Calvin and Frida are getting by, trying to understand what the introduction of their baby would mean under these radically different circumstances. As the couple stumble upon other inhabitants and navigate the boundaries and rules of this dystopia, you realize that the slow crawl up your spine is from the realization that what’s scary in this new world is not the new, but the old. Old grievances, old weaknesses and old compromises.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Goddess of Small Victories by Yannick Grannec

Kurt Gödel was one of the most brilliant mathematicians of the twentieth century, his wife, Adele, an under-educated cabaret dancer who lived in his Vienna neighborhood. What glue held their marriage together having it endure for more than fifty years? This is a moving portrait of a complex relationship, of a great mind slowly unraveling, of life’s infinite compromises thrown up over and over again, and of a woman daring to dream beyond her station. “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle,” Gloria Steinem once said. Adele’s life proves that theory to be, well, complicated.

Monday, June 16, 2014

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

What does a brutal crime in a neglected apartment in New York City have to do with events unfolding in the Middle East? Turns out they share one set of metaphorical fingerprints - that lead to the Saracen, a deadly terrorist. The only person who can prevent a deadly dose of smallpox virus being released in the United States, is The Pilgrim. Screenwriter Terry Hayes delivers a high-voltage, globetrotting thriller that will keep you turning the pages. Slather on the sunscreen, make a fresh batch of margaritas, this tome is an ideal beach read that will deliver a dizzying adrenaline rush.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

What is life but a cataloging of small events that add up to a miraculous whole? In this moving yet overly spare novella, Jenny Offill dispatches brief missives about the story of a marriage -- the initial happiness, the stresses, the disappointments piled richly on top of each other, all eventually pointing to a clear path to survival. The insights here are often filled with pathos and humor and real human frailties but in an attempt to focus on economy, Offill cuts too close to the bone. One can’t help but wishing for a little more meat on these bones.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of a Plot to Poison the World's Greatest Wine by Maximillian Potter

You can’t leave a story this good bottled up for long: La Domaine de la Romanee Conti, the best of the best vineyards in the world, and its esteemed owner Monsieur Aubert de Villaine, were once the target of extortion. Exactly who would drill the prized grape vines with a view to poison them? And why? Despite occasional overwrought writing, this lively account traces the rich history of Burgundy’s famous vineyard and unearths a detective story that affirms the old adage: fact can be a lot stranger than fiction. The result goes down as smoothly as the best grand cru.

A longer review of this book will be published in a July edition of The BookBrowse Review. Thanks to the publishers for a galley.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

What if life throws you a curveball, shearing your dreams off course? Eileen Leary harbors modest ambitions: family, a modest home, work with meaning. Just when she can reach it all though, the Learys are dealt a crippling blow. This is a grand novel told through the lens of one valiant family. It’s a perfect encapsulation of all the complexities of the great American dream -- so close and yet out of grasp for many. The subject matter is rife for melodrama but in his moving debut, despite a shaky start, Matthew Thomas avoids cliche to devastating and remarkable effect. 4.5 stars.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Eyrie by Tim Winton

A disillusioned environmentalist, Tom Keely is barely hanging on as his life grows increasingly moldy. He is making do in a small flat in a high-rise in Fremantle, Australia, when an old childhood acquaintance moves in next door. What’s worse, she has baggage -- and a past she is escaping from as well. As Tom gets sucked into a messy whirlpool of social obligations, he begins clutching at straws to save them all from the morass. Winton’s brilliant way with dialog and plotting are in full force in this novel which raises large existentialist questions without ever losing a beat.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik

Professor Mark Miodownik is passionate about materials and his enthusiasm for the subject shines through in Stuff Matters. All the “stuff” we’re surrounded by, including the ones that grace the cover of his entertaining treatise, are special and to the author’s immense credit, the book emerges as a fun romp through the history and science of some of the world’s most intriguing materials. Using a simple photograph as the anchor for each chapter, Miodownik succeeds in driving home the point that “materials are a reflection of who we are, a multi-scale expression of our human needs and desires.” Highly recommended.

Friday, April 18, 2014

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air by Darragh McKeon

The fallout from Chernobyl was devastating and searing of course but Darragh McKeon’s piercing debut shows us that lingering clouds of disaffection loomed large over all of Russia affecting its citizens in complex ways. Yevgeni, a struggling piano student coming of age in Moscow’s ghettos; his principled aunt Maria; and her ex-husband, Grigory, a doctor summoned to the “battlefront” -- this is a small subset of characters whose lives are irrevocably changed by the accident. But the moving novel shows that the disaster only made clear the writing that was already on the wall: Twilight was descending on the empire.

Friday, April 11, 2014

In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman

Debut novelist Zia Haider Rahman is quite the polymath and it shows. Touching on a dizzying range of topics from salamanders to Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, Rahman sometimes seems too caught up in emphasizing his own brilliance at the expense of story. He is at his best when shining light on the nuances of race, class and the dangerousness of the best intentions gone awry in Afghanistan. As that limited field of vision on the cover effectively demonstrates, frame of reference matters especially since winning hearts and minds is never an easy task. An impressive debut from a writer worth watching.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtis, and the Battle to Control the Skies by Lawrence Goldstone

Practically everyone knows about the Wright brothers’ historic flight at Kitty Hawk. After that epic accomplishment, it was not just a variety of airplanes that soared, it was also the ambitions of many Birdmen who got into the exploding field of aviation. Occupying center stage were the brothers and Glenn Curtiss. The two sides’ protracted court battles over their craft, framed by U.S. patent law, shows what gets lost in such tussles. Even if the narrative stalls often, and you wonder if there is a piece of research that Lawrence Goldstone hasn’t crammed into Birdmen, it is compelling reading.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead

I’ll admit that I didn’t know a thing about poker before I picked up this book -- and I can’t say I retain much after. The point is this: Who cares? It’s Colson Whitehead we’re talking about. He could talk about fantasy football and I would still read it. Full of Whitehead’s trademark humor and perceptive life lessons, The Noble Hustle is a winner. As trite as it might sound, you realize that poker really is a metaphor for life -- you play the hand you’re dealt. You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.

Thank you to the publishers for the ARC.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

That “grumpy old sod” on the cover is a Man Called Ove. He’s mourning the death of his wife, hates all his neighbors (especially those who don’t drive Saabs), and is constantly bemoaning the state of contemporary society. Ove tries killing himself when fate repeatedly intervenes -- especially in the form of a young multiracial family across the street. The plot is repetitive and lurches for a good half of the book, and the characters are somewhat one-dimensional. Yet this book reminds me of the new hit song, "Happy." It’s cloying, it’s syrupy but one can’t help enjoying the ride anyway.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

Harriet (Harry) Burden knows what it is like to play second fiddle to a man -- first her father and then her ex-husband, art dealer Felix Lord. An accomplished artist in her own right, Burden is convinced that the only way to gain recognition in the male-dominated art world is to show her work under the guise of three male artists. But what happens when the “unmasking” doesn’t go as planned -- when the quest for validation collides against more crass impulses like greed? Delving into issues of feminism, status, perception, this is one heck of a fiercely intelligent read.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling

"Writing Books Under the Pine Trees," the gorgeous landscape painting that graces the cover of this lyrical novel, is by Wang Meng, a Chinese painter during the Yuan dynasty. The story is a fictionalized account of the political upheavals in the country seen through Wang’s eyes. An eye-opening "travelogue" as intricately detailed as any landscape painting, The Ten Thousand Things beautifully weaves weighty issues such as religion, philosophy and art. John Spurling’s superb novel might be set in fourteenth-century China but the principal question it addresses -- what happens when duty and passion collide -- remains as relevant as ever.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Isle of Youth By Laura Van Den Berg

The women who populate this brilliant short-story collection don’t really know how to lean in. In fact, from all indications, they’re barely hanging on. They’re marginalized and poor -- not just in terms of material wealth but also when it comes to healthy relationships and self-esteem. Yet all is not lost. Hope somehow manages to glimmer in the darkness. We catch the women right on the cusp of making valuable self-discoveries. Laura Van Den Berg’s characters might rely on crutches (deception is one of them), but they’re resolute in their determination to find an escape. They’re battered but not broken.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak

If the incredibly talented B.J. Novak’s collection of short stories could be described in just one word, it would be: creative. Ranging from flash fiction to longer pieces, each showcases a mind that truly thinks outside the box. The compilation serves as a perfect snapshot of our times: here, Encyclopedia Brown has been replaced by Wikipedia Brown. The stories are effortlessly hip, yet wise and full of heart -- it’s a difficult feat to pull off. Even if everyone from Frank Sinatra to Confucius gets air time, you’ll leave hungry wishing Novak could have scribbled just one more thing.

Friday, February 28, 2014

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Think you’ve had enough of historical fiction set during World War II? Think again! Set mostly in Saint-Malo, the gorgeous French coastal town, shown on the cover, All The Light We Cannot See is a testament to the triumph of humanity over overwhelming odds. The story features a blind French girl, a precocious German boy and a precious diamond, intertwining to form the backbone of the suspenseful narrative. Love, resilience, guilt, survival, are all weighty themes that unfold magnificently here. You won’t get your head out of Saint-Malo for a while. Small price to pay for a story this good.

A longer review of this book will be published on closer to the release date. Thanks to the publishers for making an ARC available on Netgalley.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Family Life by Akhil Sharma

Growing up is hard enough. Imagine doing so as a new immigrant where your family is still navigating the parameters of the adopted country. That’s harder. Now top this all off with the crushing weight of immutable circumstances brought about by unspeakable tragedy. This, shows Akhil Sharma in his bleak moving novel, is no ordinary “family life.” While Ajay’s parents lean on different crutches to live with extreme pain, he must carve a path through the haze to some kind of redemption. Crafted with elements from his own life, Sharma delivers an entirely brilliant take on the popular coming-of-age story.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sea of Hooks by Lindsay Hill

Christopher Westall is drowning in a sea of hooks. The single child of a troubled mother and an indifferent father, he tries to find his place in the world despite an excruciatingly painful childhood. The novel’s unusual structure, which is essentially a string of short poems woven together, might make it easy to put down, but there are plenty of riches here for the patient reader. Easily one of the year’s best, the novel shows how still waters can run deep. Even if the sea of hooks gnaw at Christopher’s very soul one can glimpse redemption deep in the morass. 

A longer review of this title will be published on Thank you to the publishers for a copy of the book.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness by Neil Swidey

Boston seems to have a penchant for huge engineering projects. The Big Dig might have been the attention-monger in its day but the cracks slowly making its way through Trapped Under the Sea belonged to yet another money-guzzler, the Boston Harbor cleanup. Part of this expensive solution involved work in constrictive underwater tunnels under extremely hazardous conditions. Neil Swidey deftly chronicles the divers’ problems and the disaster that unfolded. Even if at times the personal lives of the workers read too much like a made-for-television movie, the thoroughly researched narrative is superbly paced and the engineering details are incredibly absorbing.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Dismal Science by Peter Mountford

It is no wonder that of the Commedia’s three sections, it is the one that graces the cover of this riveting novel, Purgatario, that really interests economist Vincenzo d’Orsi. After all, having quit his job as a senior executive at the World Bank, he finds himself in a special kind of purgatory. While exploring the parameters for a new job, the widower tries his best to renew a shaky relationship with his grown daughter. Not surprisingly, reality is sobering. As Vincenzo soon realizes, you can either save the world or you can save yourself. Unfortunately, it is an either-or proposition.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

Here’s the thing: you can follow a daily algorithm -- from home to work to play and back. But what if these neat compartments don’t together amount to an all-encompassing “everything?” This is precisely the question that haunts dentist Paul O’Rourke. When an online alter-ego masquerades as Paul, it upends his life philosophy. The story loses some of its punch when it wades into murky waters but Joshua Ferris’s pitch-perfect ear for dialog and trademark humor shine. As Paul looks for resonance in all the “noise,” you realize: if there was ever a story for our times, this is it.

A longer review of this book will be published at Thank you to the publishers for an ARC.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

A rocky childhood devoid of much love and a failed marriage behind her, 72 year-old Aaliya Sohbi leans on literature as a reliable crutch, translating great works into Arabic. Having grown up in war-torn Beirut, the Lebanese woman is a unique product of her time and place. Yet her everyday travails (sometimes overloaded with literary metaphors) and quest to find meaning even in the fading days of her life is a narrative that is universal in its appeal. The laser-cut silhouette on the cover of Rabih Alameddine’s novel is not just Aaliya Sohbi -- she easily could be every woman.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol

Willow, the tight constraining font used to grace the cover of The UnAmericans is a perfect fit for the rigid social constructs under which the characters in Molly Antopol’s powerful debut operate. The forces of Communism; of displacement; of religion; all cast large shadows here as does, yes, America. Raised in a Jewish family under the shadow of McCarthyism, Antopol’s stories show that while history’s reach is large and immeasurable, it is, in the end, its effect on more familiar interpersonal ties and commonplace drives that leads to our potential unraveling. These are wide-ranging, hard-hitting stories from a writer to watch.

A longer review of this book will be published in the February 19 issue of The BookBrowse Review. Thank you to the publishers for an ARC.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart

The only child of Russian Jews, Gary Shteyngart travels from a shaky asthmatic beginning in St. Petersburg as Soplyak or Snotty to middle-class comfort in New York. While tales of immigrant angst abound, Shteyngart is especially skilled at exposing the layers of heartbreak under his polished veneer of humor. As he desperately tries to shake what he terms his “beet salad heritage” and make peace with his parents’ questionable parenting skills, Shteyngart’s affecting memoir shows just how insidiously our past shapes us -- in both good ways and bad. That kid on the cover has sure ended up going places!

A longer review of this book will be published in the February 5 issue of The BookBrowse Review. Thank you to the publishers for an ARC.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Long Man by Amy Greene

The wash of clouds sweeping over hardscrabble plains, mirrors Long Man, the river that winds its way through Yuneetah, Tennessee, the setting for Amy Greene’s graceful novel. The construction of a dam promises positive change but not all can readily let go of a land they are deeply rooted to. Set in the 1930s, against the backdrop of a child’s disappearance, the plot’s tempo rises as steadily as the floodwaters. This finely wrought -- if occasionally melodramatic -- novel shows how the temperamental Long Man etches not just the gorgeous countryside but practically every aspect of the struggling characters’ lives.

A longer review of this book will be published at Thank you to the publishers for an ARC.

Monday, January 6, 2014

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

The “curtaining sway of hair” that frames the cover of Chang-rae Lee’s phenomenal On Such a Full Sea, belongs to its protagonist, Fan. But the life story that fuels her myth is one for all of B-Mor, the closed community where Fan lives until she escapes in search of true love. As we follow Fan on her travels, Lee paints a devastating and eerie picture of an America that has lost its moral moorings. Dystopian fiction this might be, but its take on class and society also makes Sea a deeply political animal. It is Lee’s most compelling work yet.

A longer review of this book was published in the January 22 issue of The BookBrowse Review.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

2013: A Year in Reading

2013 was a remarkable year for reading, even if it wasn't much to write home about otherwise. Here's what I read. I made some time to re-read some of my favorites including Dart League King and A Friend of the Family. Needless to say, highly recommend these two and the ones marked with an asterisk below.

*A Friend of the Family by Lauren Goldstein
The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte
Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia by Jose Manuel Prieto
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
Double Feature by Owen King
Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
*The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
*Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Night Film by Marisha Pessl
A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal
*You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt
Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
*Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
*Tenth of December by George Saunders
The Lullaby of Polish Girls by Dagmara Dominczyk
Z; A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Ann Fowler
All That Is by James Salter
*The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
*Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss
This Close by Jessica Kane Francis
Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism by Elizabeth Becker
*A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
King of Cuba by Christina Garcia
*Transatlantic by Colum McCann
The Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
Snapper by Brian Kimberling
*The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox
*On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee
*The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer
*The Dart League King by Keith Lee Morris
The Sound of Things Falling by Gabriel Juan Vasquez
Helium by Jaspreet Singh
Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters and the Making of a New American Food Culture by Dana Goodyear
Pig's Foot by Carlos Acosta
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis
*The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks
The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway by Doug Most
*Orfeo by Richard Powers
*Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee
Crapalachia: A Biography of Place by Scott McClanahan