April 28, 2011
Two popular genres announced best books this week, and I’ve had some fun checking them out. Tonight, the Edgar® Awards announced their mystery winners, including The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton for best novel. You can get the list of other Edgar winners in the various categories on Omnimystery News.
Regarding the Hugo Award® for science fiction and fantasy, I have close to zero reading experience in this genre, excepting Lois McMaster Bujold, an Ohio author nominated for her 12th Miles Vorkosigan novel. I’ve listed here Bujold’s book as well as the other Hugo Best Novel nominees. You can get the full list of nominees in the various categories on the Hugo award website. Hugo winners will be announced August 20.
Plot summaries are sourced from the publishers’ and authors’ websites.
Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold
Ohio author Bujold brings back her signature hero Miles Vorkosigan in his 12th novel set on planet Kibou-daini where Vorkosigan investigates the activities of Kibou-daini cryocorp—an immortal company whose job it is to shepherd its all-too-mortal frozen patrons into an unknown future.
Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis
In Blackout, Willis sends three Oxford historians from the year 2060 back to World War II England where they become unexpectedly trapped in 1940. In All Clear, small discrepancies in the historical record seem to indicate that one or all of them have somehow affected the past, changing the outcome of the war.
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
The year is 2027, and Turkey is about to celebrate the fifth anniversary of its accession to the European Union. It’s the largest, most populous, and most diverse nation in the EU, but also one of the poorest and most socially divided. The economy is booming, and the eponymous dervish house is the center of intrigue, conflict, drama and a ticking clock of a thriller set off by an explosion on a bus.
Feed by Mira Grant
In postapocalyptic 2039, bloggers accompany a senator on the campaign trail in his bid for the White House. This senator is the first presidential candidate to come of age since social media saved the world from a virus that reanimates the dead. Zombies create mayhem, the senator’s daughter is killed and the bloggers, using the power of social media, wrestle with evil.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky, seat of the ruling Arameri family. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with a pair of cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother’s death and her family’s bloody history.
April 26, 2011
The common thought about self-published books is traditional publishing isn’t interested in them. And here I’ll confess my own quick judgment about this area of publishing: When I hear a book’s been self-published, I immediately think someone’s brought forth their unvetted literary pet project, and I doubt its quality. One Night of Madness, self-published by author Stokes McMillan, makes me realize this isn’t always the case.
According to Publishers Weekly, McMillan had an agent for his book, but it took longer than anticipated to write it. By the time it was completed, the agent and author had amicably parted ways. McMillan figured it would take the typical one to two years to go through traditional publishing, let alone the time it would take to find another agent. He had interviewed many eyewitnesses for the book, and, if he waited much longer, some who were dying wouldn’t be around to see it.
One Night of Madness tells the story of a vengeful, drunk white man who murdered the three children of a black woman he tried unsuccessfully to rape. McMillan’s father, a journalist and photographer, reported the story for the family newspaper, writing about the crime, three-day manhunt for the accused and the trial. His photographs and other material regarding the crime were kept in a scrapbook that McMillan-the-son used to write his book. This Deep South crime stands apart from others during that pre-civil rights time because of the response by white residents of the Mississippi community: They didn’t look the other way, as was typical when blacks were violated by whites. Instead, they pursued and prosecuted the murderers.
You can preview One Night of Madness on Amazon, where McMillan originally published it via CreateSpace in November 2009. It won a 2010 Independent Publishers Book Award for Best Regional (South) Non-fiction and, according to Publishers Weekly, is close to selling out of its original 3,500 print run. McMillan’s father took 51 pictures of the story’s events, and the book contains 21 of them. Others are available on the author’s website. The one you see on the book’s cover received the National Press Photographers Association prize in 1950.
April 21, 2011
Great first lines have launched many classics and lodged in readers’ minds like advertising jingles: Call me Ishmael; it was the best of times, it was the worst of times; Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins; mother died today; half my life ago, I killed a girl. That last one doesn’t appear on the memorable first line lists right now, but someday it will. It’s the first line of Darin Strauss’ altogether startling and affecting memoir about a car accident that’s defined his young life.
Strauss was driving to a game of putt-putt in May 1988, a month before his high-school graduation, when Celine Zilke, a 16-year-old schoolmate sharing the road on her bicycle, suddenly hit the hood of the car and bounced across the windshield. Several witnesses from other cars as well as Strauss’ passengers saw Celine ride her bike into his lane. Even though blameless, ever since, Strauss has been tormented with Celine’s death, living daily with the unshakable awfulness of it.
Half a Life is a powerful confession written in lyric bursts, some chapters a page and a half, some only a paragraph, others several pages. Strauss takes us through that fateful day, the funeral, the Zilke’s lawsuit and his confused, guilt-ridden passage from adolescence into adulthood as he tries to comprehend what happened. He spends his 20s and early 30s – in college, new jobs, new cities, new girlfriends — wrestling with self-judgment and anxiety that turns his hair gray when he’s 28-years-old.
This literary immersion in self-involvement is done exquisitely well, without an iota of self-pity or an excess of explanation. I was moved by Strauss’ very vulnerable honesty and impressed how he so gracefully lead me into his painful world of functional isolation. Inside his head runs a daily, aching narrative of Celine as a young girl and who she would’ve become as an adult. It doesn’t begin to dissipate until the author meets and marries his practical wife, who acknowledges the incident and its effect on Strauss with the right level and rhythm of support he’s needed but never had. In the end, there is a lifting of the burden, and Strauss’ writes about it with a hope that is not only his but also ours for what his story teaches us about forgiveness.
Half a Life won the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography.
April 17, 2011
The Sojourn is a literary work of astonishing power and breadth in just under 200 pages. It spans continents (America to the Hapsburg Empire) and centuries (1899 to 1972) and engaged me with its careful and formal narrative voice that speaks with a longing to comprehend past love and loss.
This primarily is a war story but also a coming of age novel. Jozef Vinich is looking back at his life, from 1972 to a beginning in 1899 when his mother tragically died in a Colorado mining town. His father, Ondrej, in 1901 brings his American-born Jozef back to the old country, where he tends sheep in Austria-Hungary’s Carpathian mountains. There Ondrej raises and educates not only his son Jozef but also the son of a distant cousin, using the disciplined, empowering ways of living and surviving outdoors.
When the boys — close as brothers – join the Austro-Hungarian army in 1916, they are among the elite sharpshooters, chosen not only for their excellent marksmanship but also for their ability to endure hardship. Trained to be invisible and silent, they work together on the southern front, the mountain borderland with Italy. The descriptions of their war missions are thoughtful and precise, but as I tried to visualize their long hikes and Alpine journeys, I wished for a map of Europe during the war for better understanding. The story is too good to be adversely affected by this hiccup, which I remedied with Web searches and also turning to Russell Freedman’s The War to End All Wars on my bookshelf.
The Sojourn is Krivak’s first novel but his second book. In 2008, he published a memoir about his eight years pursuing and then leaving the Jesuit priesthood. It bears mentioning not simply as literary biography for the author, but because Jozef Vinich sees and hears with eyes and ears uniquely attuned to spiritual presence. It is a subtle touch in this impressive novel that inserts itself in moments of thought or dialogue with authorial wisdom and insight. Such as in the moment when Jozef reflects: “Why, then, as I watched with a kind of reverence my brother’s becoming, could I not see the arc of my father’s fall?”
Jozef finds his way home after the war via a prisoner of war camp in Sardinia. He arrives at his Carpathian village only as a byway to America, “the country in which I was born but had never belonged.” The book’s conclusion is one of hope for Jozef, who has journeyed from darkness and fear into his life’s greater meaning and purpose. A sparkling clarity washed over me as I said good-bye to this captivating narrator, and I recognized his redemption.
April 12, 2011
I recently signed up for the NYRB subscription book club. I couldn’t resist a monthly literary surprise arriving in the mail from among the newest titles in the New York Review of Books Classics Series. NYRB Classics are described on their website as, “to a large degree, discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life.” I can confirm that, having previously read such unforgettables from their series as A Month in the Country, Stoner and A Meaningful Life.
This month, the first book club selection arrived: Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette. Published in 1977, this slim, dark novel portrays a female assassin, an attractive manipulator who trains and operates by herself, motivated by the ease with which she can kill for money. She employs strict methodology of fake identity and illusion while she ferrets out human vengeance, greed and anger and then uses it to prosperous advantage.
We witness her at work in an imaginary port town in France where, as Aimée Joubert, she socializes with the moneyed industry owners who become her puppets. Everything falls into place, only Aimée is unable to carry through with her nefarious plans due to a not completely believable emotional moment – I had to re-read it to make sure it was real and not a trick Aimée was playing on her victim. The unexpected about-face leads to her downfall and final scenes of horrendous violence and death. This is not unbearable violence, however. The book is written in an engaging, stark style that spares us from graphic, bloody visuals.
“Aimée delivered a toe kick to his chest; he went quiet and lost consciousness; she bent over him and killed him briskly; then she moved off noiselessly towards the western end of the market area.”
Noir is a genre defined by its cynical, dark, gritty crime where there are no heroes and no redemption, plenty of deceit, and the violence and sex are without emotion. Fatale slides perfectly into that definitive glove. And while noir is not a literary genre I frequent, being gloom-averse, this compact story turned out to be the perfect size as an introduction to its noted French noir author – 91 pages with an informative afterword. I enjoyably polished it off.
April 5, 2011
Michael Kardos’ debut collection of 10 stories is not a book you’re likely to find on a table at Barnes & Noble. It’s too small-press for the mega-store, which means chances are slim you’ll casually stumble on it, probably not even in an online store, either. Such is the unfortunate fate of many noteworthy small press books, and the reason many of us last year missed out on Tinkers, published by Bellevue Literary Press, that won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.
Press 53 is the small Winston-Salem, North Carolina publisher of Kardos’ noteworthy stories, a group of varied, humorous, inventive plots populated by distinctive blue-collar characters. The common denominator is the location of the New Jersey shore, specifically Breakneck Beach. Here, in one story, a boy experiences trust and betrayal with his dad as they share the common joy of fishing. In another story, a former bouncer at the Pink Pony strip club gets a job in Happy Land’s Castle of Horrors on the beach’s pier and literally scares a woman to death.
There’s also the local Wawa food mart, where the cashier spins a tale about her Missouri hometown of circus performers. She claims the town keeps a steady population count of 204, managing their deaths with births, and vice versa. It sounds far-fetched, and the narrator says he doesn’t know what to believe – we don’t either – and then Kardos springs a clever ending on us. This story is one of my favorites.
The strongest stories are in the last half of the book. ”Maximum Security” and “Two Truths and a Lie” are among them. Kardos opens both with a character whose behavior sets up the story’s intent and then fades out. It has a strange and delightful effect that, at the end of the story, lingers in a halo of after-thought. In “Maximum Security,” that character is a pianist whom a boy mimics in this story about finding acceptance. In “Two Truths and a Lie,” that character is a composition teacher who asks his students on the first day of class to play a game in this story about a father’s gambling addiction.
I must call out the fact that the collection’s second story includes a talking rabbit and a bossy urn of dead man’s ashes. It’s a clever story about a man who creates fairy tales for his friends, but it doesn’t showcase Kardos’ strength, which lies in his keen ability to explore the sensitivities in relationships, especially when it comes to a son and his father. Because this magical story is early in the collection, it may dismay the less adventuresome reader, but it shouldn’t prevent continued reading. Kardos knows how to write engaging, original stories, and this collection is full of them.