Thursday, September 18, 2014

Review: A Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

A Spinning Heart is a small book, written in a series of 21 short, concise, heartbreaking and/or heartwarming vignettes about the inhabitants of an unnamed town in contemporary Ireland.  Simply put, it's 156 pages of pure literary gem.

Around 2008 Ireland had been experiencing a building boom, its young people had jobs, and the older generation was perhaps breathing a bit easier that this upcoming generation would not be forced to emigrate to find employment.  Then the world financial crisis burst upon the scene with its impact crushing not only huge banks but small villages worldwide.

Ryan takes us to one such village, and tells the story of that burst bubble on the lives of the people living there.  With raw vernacular and piercing wit, we get to see a story through the eyes of each participant, whether active or passive.  The writing is stunning, the characters are so intricately carved that it is almost impossible to believe that we can know them that well when they each get only an average of 7 pages to tell their story.

As the stories progress, the puzzle pieces begin to fit together, and a whole emerges.  It is a spell-binding literary tour-de-force.  Donal Ryan certainly deserved the Irish Book of the Year award for this one.  He has another book coming out soon: The Thing About December.  I'm already lining up for this one too.  This is an author we're going to be hearing about.  In the meantime, dust off your Irish slang dictionary, pull yourself a pint, and settle down.  This one can be read in a very pleasant evening.

Title: A Spinning Heart
Author: Donal Ryan
Publisher: Steerforth (2014), Paperback, 160 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Subject: small town life in Ireland
Setting: unamed Irish village
Source: review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now?  It's being considered for the 2015 Maine Reader's Choice Award.

Many thanks to Steerforth Press for providing a review copy.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: The Sleep Walker's Guide to Dancing

What an enjoyable and enchanting read!  The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing brings us a cast of sometimes looney, but always loveable characters whose quirks are laid out for all to see, and whose struggles to become integrated into their society while holding onto their unique cultural identity are easily understood by anyone who has ever felt "different" for whatever reason.

The publisher's notes about the premise "Brain surgeon Thomas Eapen's decision to shorten his visit to his mother's home in India has consequences that reverberate two decades later as he starts conversing with the dead and daughter Amina must sort through the family's past to help him."  give us just a hint of the magic and mayhem the reader deals with in this story of three generations of family coming to grips with illness, emmigration, and different cultural norms - especially for young women.

The main character, Amina Eapen is a 20 something budding photographer living in Seattle who is called home to Albuquerque by her mother to help with her father Thomas' strange behavior.  (He's talking to dead people for one thing.)  Not only does Amina have to decide if this call for help is just a ploy on her mother's part to get her home again, but she has to sort out whether or not her father truly needs help and what she is responsible for doing.    All during her visit, various relatives appear, (among them her cousin "Dimple" the all-American girl who has fully adopted to not only the American way of life, but to the full feminist agenda) telling stories about the family back in India, and pulling Amina further along into the family past, not to mention trying to convince her to abandon her job in Seattle, and find a nice Indian boy to marry to settle down near her parents.

Mira does a fantastic job of weaving back and forth from past to present, of painting word pictures that have us seeing, hearing and smelling all the elements of the cultures this family is dealing with.  It's an emotional roller-coaster; it's a long read that takes a while to settle into; but in the end it's a story of love, forgiveness, acceptance, and hope.  It's perfect to settle into as the nights lengthen this autumn.  I just wish we had a good Indian take-away close by!

I had so much fun with this I checked out the audio also.  It's exceptionally well done - read by the author - and really gives the listener an added emotional dimension. Her ability to give different voices and accents to the characters is exceptional.

Title: The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing
Author: Mira Jacob
Publisher: Random House (2014), Hardcover, 512 pages
Audio: Books on Tape (2014) 12 hours.
Genre: Literary fiction
Subject: immigration, assimilation, cultural differences
Setting: Albuquerque, Seattle, India
Source: Public library

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

TLC Blog Tour: Ballroom by Alice Simpson

Ballroom dancing seems to be making a recovery these days, perhaps thanks to several "Dancing, etc etc etc" TV shows.  Ballroom, Alice Simpson's debut novel tries to captures the world of ballroom dancing in the late 20th century by looking at that world from the point of view of about six major and several minor characters.

Although billed as a series of interconnecting stories, the characters connect only in the fact that they meet at a ballroom on Sunday nights.  I kept waiting for some deeper connection, but with two exceptions, these were lonely, shriveled up, past their prime, solitary creatures whose individual tales  related to each other only in their personal fantasies.

I really wanted to like this book, but it took quite a while for any relationships to develop, and when they finally began to emerge, they didn't go very far.  Even the endings of the stories left me bereft.  The ballroom, the dancers, the hangers-on, all of them seemed not to get what they were looking for, and it was hard for the reader to decide if the lack of closure was deliberate on the part of the author, or just not written well enough to bring some resolution to the reader. 

I found the publisher's back cover blurb to be misleading. 
Told in interconnecting stories, Ballroom is a beautifully crafted debut novel—reminiscent of the works of Elizabeth Strout and Jennifer Haigh—about a group of strangers united by a desire to escape their complicated lives, if only for a few hours each week, in a faded New York City dance hall.
Time has eroded the glamour of the Ballroom, but at the end of the 1990s, a small crowd of loyal patrons still makes its way past the floor-to-ceiling columns which frame the once grand hall each Sunday evening. Sweeping across the worn parquet floor under a peeling indigo ceiling, these men and women succumb to the magic of the music, looking for love and connection, eager to erase the drab reality of their complicated lives.
Nearly forty and still single, Sarah Dreyfus is desperate for love and sure she’ll find it with debonair Gabriel Katz, a dazzling peacock who dances to distract himself from his crumbling marriage. Tired of the bachelor life, Joseph believes that his yearning for a wife and family will be fulfilled—if only he can get Sarah to notice him. Besotted with beautiful young Maria Rodriguez, elderly dance instructor Harry Korn knows they can find happiness together. Maria, one of the Ballroom’s stars, has a dream of her own, a passion her broken-hearted father refuses to accept or understand.
As the rhythms of the Ballroom ebb and flow through these characters’ hearts, their fates come together in touching, unexpected ways.
This opens the door to let us spy on the main players, but I just don't buy the implication that everything comes together in the end.

The quotes from various dancing handbooks and etiquette books at the beginning of each chapter were fascinating and gave us a excellent glimpse into the past glories of the art.  There's an excellent bibliography of material about ballroom dancing in the book for those who want to delve further.

Author: Alice Simpson
Publisher: Harper Collins (2014)  ARC 285 pages
Genre: fiction
Subject: Ballroom dancing
Setting: New York city and environs
Source: review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now?  I was asked to do a review by the publisher.

This review is being provided in connection with the TLC Blog Tour.  Many thanks to publicist Trish Collins from Harper Collins for making the galley available.


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Review: Euphoria by Lily King

Anthropology is not a reading topic I'm apt to run right out and grab off the shelf. I'm marginally aware of what the subject matter purports to study, and I'm minimally acquainted with Margaret Mead's early studies.  That's about where my background ends.  Euphoria is an articulate exposè (albeit fictional) of the early history of the practitioners of the craft. The publisher offers this recap:

.... a breathtaking novel about three young anthropologists of the ‘30’s caught in a passionate love triangle that threatens their bonds, their careers, and, ultimately, their lives.
English anthropologist Andrew Banson has been alone in the field for several years, studying the Kiona river tribe in the Territory of New Guinea. Haunted by the memory of his brothers’ deaths and increasingly frustrated and isolated by his research, Bankson is on the verge of suicide when a chance encounter with colleagues, the controversial Nell Stone and her wry and mercurial Australian husband Fen, pulls him back from the brink. Nell and Fen have just fled the bloodthirsty Mumbanyo and, in spite of Nell’s poor health, are hungry for a new discovery. When Bankson finds them a new tribe nearby, the artistic, female-dominated Tam, he ignites an intellectual and romantic firestorm between the three of them that burns out of anyone’s control.
Set between two World Wars and inspired by events in the life of revolutionary anthropologist Margaret Mead, Euphoria is an enthralling story of passion, possession, exploration, and sacrifice from accomplished author Lily King.
The ill-fated three-sided love story pulled me in emotionally.  The scenes of tribal practices left me less than excited, although from a strictly intellectual perspective, like all new material, I found the descriptions riveting.  It's a short book, the action moves along at a decent pace, and the publisher's addition of end-papers with a map of the region was extremely helpful.  While it did not entice me to set off for more on the subject matter, neither did it tempt me to stop reading until the book was finished.  It's well worth the read, even if this isn't your normal cuppa.  I certainly would recommend it to readers with an interest in South Pacific early tribal customs.

Title: Euphoria
Author: Lily King
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (2014), Edition: 1ST, Hardcover, 256 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Subject: Anthropology
Setting: South Pacific Islands
Source: Review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now?  It's being reviewed for consideration for the 2015 Maine Reader's Choice Award.
Many thanks to publisher Atlantic Monthly Press for the review copy.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Review: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

Wow!  Every once in awhile a book comes along that gives the reader an "AHA" moment.  Shotgun Lovesongs is such a book.  I didn't want this book to end.  I wanted to read, re-read, listen to the audio, and just sink into the glorious prose telling the simple story of four friends who grew up together in a small town, and whose individual stories are told in such clear, stellar prose that I was captured by the end of page 3!

Each of the stories is discrete, but each advances the story of the whole, of the group.  Each life is separate and unique, but every life meshes with all of the others.  In the end, we see an entire range of experiences and relationships.  Friendships turned sour, friendships stretched as friends move away and then return, friendships poisoned by jealousy and rivalries, but through it all, it is the simple, beautiful story of four people whose ties to their life in a small town and to their love of each other overcomes the obstacles and rivalries that are the staples of life and love.  Here's how the publisher describes it:
Henry, Lee, Kip and Ronny grew up together in rural Wisconsin. Friends since childhood, their lives all began the same way, but have since taken different paths. Henry stayed on the family farm and married his first love, whilst the others left in search of something more. Ronnie became a rodeo star, Kip made his fortune in the city, and musician Lee found fame but heartbreak, too. Now all four are back in town for a wedding, each of them hoping to recapture their old closeness but unable to escape how much has changed. Amid the happiness of reunion and celebration, old rivalries resurface and a wife's secret threatens to tear both a marriage and a friendship apart.
Not only did I read this one in print, but I listened to the audio - a spectacular production from MacMillan Audio, read by Ari Fliakos, Maggie Hoffman, Scott Shepherd, Scott Sowers and Gary Wilmes.  Each voice clarified the character, and each story took on an even more defined picture from the audio.  The word pictures are as sharp as one listens as they are when we read the well-written words.  This is definitely going to be on my top of the year list.

Title: Shotgun Lovesongs
Author: Nickolas Butler
Publisher:Thomas Dunne Books (2014), Hardcover, 320 pages
Audio Publisher:  Macmillan Audio, 2014. 10 hours
Subject: small town life, friendship
Setting: rural Wisconsin
Source: review copy from publisher; audio copy from public library

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Summer of the Dead by Julia Keller

Earlier this year, I discovered Julia Keller's dynamic new crime series featuring prosecuting attorney Bell Elkins.  I was delighted to be able to get an early review copy of the third entry in this group.  The publisher tempted me by offering
High summer in Acker's Gap, West Virginia-but no one's enjoying the rugged natural landscape. Not while a killer stalks the small town and its hard-luck inhabitants. County prosecutor Bell Elkins and Sheriff Nick Fogelsong are stymied by a murderer who seems to come and go like smoke on the mountain. At the same time, Bell must deal with the return from prison of her sister, Shirley-who, like Bell, carries the indelible scars of a savage past.
In Summer of the Dead, the third Julia Keller mystery chronicling the journey of Bell Elkins and her return to her Appalachian hometown, we also meet Lindy Crabtree-a coal miner's daughter with dark secrets of her own, secrets that threaten to explode into even more violence.
Acker's Gap is a place of loveliness and brutality, of isolation and fierce attachments-a place where the dead rub shoulders with the living, and demand their due.
Keller is doing an excellent job developing these characters, fleshing out their motivations to stay in Akers Gap, while presenting the reader with sterling mystery plots.   This is a series to watch, and one that gives us not only strong characters, but a definite sense of place to anchor them.

Title: Summer of the Dead
Author: Julia Keller
Publisher: Minotaur Books (2014), e-galley 368 pages 
Genre: mystery
Subject: poverty, family secrets, murder
Setting: Akers Gap West Virginia
Series: Bell Elkins Novels
Source: e-galley from publisher via Edelweiss

Monday, September 1, 2014

September Series and Serials

Over on, my Read 75 in 2014 group always has a roster of different threads going to get members to participate in clearing out the TBR piles, finding new titles, and just having fun reading.  Every September, people are encouraged to catch up on series they started and then neglected, try a new series, or re-read a series that is a particular favorite.

I NEVER HAVE TROUBLE finding something to fit this challenge.

Early this morning, I finished #8 of the Duncan Kinkaid/Jemma James series by Deborah Crombie,  And Justice There is None, as I work toward reviewing the latest #16 To Dwell in Darkness, coming out next month.  This is a series I started about 10 years ago, after my first visit to London where it's set, and I've tried to read at least one a year since then.  Unfortunately,  I got behind.  Now the September S&S challenge will give me a push to catch up.

I've really enjoyed getting reacquainted with both the characters in these classy mysteries.  Each detective - Duncan and Jemma - has different strengths and weaknesses.  Each has personal/family issues to complicate their already erratic work schedules, and the burgeoning romance is carefully nurtured by Crombie with just enough growth allowed in each new episode to keep us wanting to come back for more.  There will defintely be at least two more of these this month.

Another series I'm reading is the Bruno Correges series - earlier reviews this summer are here. I got the jump on September when I read The Dark Vineyard and The Black Diamond in August.   This series is definitely one I'm getting to like a lot!  Bruno is such a loveable, no nonsense cop.  His character is perfect for the setting- a gentle farm town where people don't want life too technologically connected, where wine, food, truffles, and friendship are what really matters.  Generational clashes  the incursion of "progress," discussions of the GMO movement in agriculture, some romantic entanglements, and scrumptious food discussions all add to the authentic flavor of these polished and undervalued police procedurals. Do take a look if you've not tried them.

Also appearing this month is the latest Jan Karon Father Tim/Mitford book: Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good.  I'm waiting for my copy to arrive (I was selected by LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program to receive a review copy) so I can dive back into this favorite series.

Finally, I'm hoping there's enough room in my series schedule to fit in another Frederick Ramsay Ike Schwartz mystery, and ARCs of Donna Leon's latest Brunetti and Andrea Camillieri's latest Montalbano episodes.  That ought to keep me busy.