Tag Archives: summer reading

Storied Places

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins (Riverhead Trade; 304 pages; $16).

This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila (Hogarth; 240 pages; $16).

The best stories are those suffused with colorful, detailed settings—tales in which place is not only vital but a central component of the narrative.  When a writer gets it right, the setting becomes a character itself.  And that’s when the magic begins.

Two story collections emphasize the significance of place and herald the arrival of two powerful and confident women writers.  In her collection of stories, Battleborn, Top 5 Under 35 National Book Foundation honoree Claire Vaye Watkins swallows the folklore of the American West, chews it up, and then spits it back out as she brilliantly reimagines the region.  Conversely, Kristiana Kahakauwila, Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University and a native Hawaiian, captures the essence of Hawaii, its people, and its cultural traditions in her debut story collection This Is Paradise.

battlebornBattleborn consists of ten bold and gritty tales.  Watkins takes us from Gold Rush to ghost town to desert to brothel and weaves such passion and intensity into each story that she leaves us breathless.  Her keen insight and gorgeous, lyrical realism bring to mind literary greats like Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx.  More than any other writer of the American West, Watkins leaves an indelible mark.

Watkins does not shy away from the personal in her collection.  The author confronts the mythology of her own family history, a legacy that includes notorious killer and cult leader Charles Manson, in what is perhaps her best piece entitled “Ghosts, Cowboys.”  Her father, Paul Watkins, was one of Manson’s followers whose main responsibilities included wrangling new girls for Manson.  In exposing her life and the stigma of her father’s past, Watkins bares herself before us, allowing us to witness both the rawness of her past and her faith in readers. It takes guts for an author to write herself into the narrative.  Her candidness makes this collection rare and beautiful.

From the American West we venture to Hawaii, the setting of the six stories in Kahakauwila’s haunting and compelling collection This Is Paradise.   Kahakauwila reveals the conflicting world that is Hawaii—old vs. new, tradition vs. modernity, and “native” Hawaiian vs. tourist.  Hawaii, or at least Kahakauwila’s Hawaii, is a place of opposition, and the author does a splendid job of getting to the heart of both the state and its people.  This Is Paradise is as majestic as Hawaii’s last queen, Lili’uokalani.

In the titular tale, “This Is Paradise,” Kahakauwila uses the first person plural (“we”) to tell the story of a young, carefree American this is paradisetourist who gets a taste of Hawaii’s dark side from the perspective of the women of Waikiki.  Their distinctive voices inject emotion into the story, easily making it one of the strongest in the collection.  Here, Kahakauwila’s dazzling writing is reminiscent of Julie Otsuka’s formidable novella The Buddha in the Attic.  Kahakauwila then explores the almost double life of a woman seeking revenge in the cockfighting ring in “Wanle.”  In “The Old Paniolo Way,” Kahakauwila illumines a son coping with the imminent death of his father and struggling with his own identity.  Deeply flawed characters and achingly real situations give This Is Paradise a universal appeal.

In their short story collections, Claire Vaye Watkins and Kristiana Kahakauwila prove that as much as we shape our world, that place, in turn, influences us.  Watkins was born in Death Valley and raised in the desert of Nevada; Kahakauwila was born in Hawaii and raised in Southern California.  Whether the focus is on the American West or modern Hawaii, these tales have extraordinary power and meaning because of the place in which they are set.

 

 

 

 

 

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Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

Book Review: Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

(Alfred A. Knopf; 256 pages; $25.95).

claireIn Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat, author of The Dew Breaker, brings the rich culture of Haiti to life on the page.  Despite the title, the story is less about the main character, Claire Limyè Lanmè (“Claire of the Sea Light”) Faustin, than the people who inhabit the Haitian village of Ville Rose.  Danticat expertly charts how tragedy is an everyday occurrence in the community as mothers die in childbirth, daughters in car accidents, fathers from gunshot wounds, and friends are lost to the sea.  Nozias, Claire’s father, worries over the fate of his daughter if an accident should befall him.  His anxiety has merit, as he and his neighbors live precariously: disaster is part of their everyday lexicon.   Nozias knows this more than most as his wife died while giving birth to Claire.  Danticat does an excellent job of placing the reader in his mindset, urging us to sympathize with a father desperate to make the right choices for his daughter.  When Claire turns ten, Nozias decides to give her to a local woman, who lost her own daughter in a horrific accident, to raise.  Claire gets wind of the plan and flees.  Danticat’s storyline suffers as she explores the lives of villagers and loses her overall focus.  Although the plot periodically meanders, the author’s language is magical and striking.  A “wall of water” rose “from the depths of the ocean, a giant blue-green tongue, trying, it seemed, to lick a pink sky.”  Sometimes when Claire was “lying on her back in the sea, her toes pointed, her hands facing down, her ears half submerged, while she was listening to both the world above and beneath the water, she yearned for the warm salty water to be her mother’s body, the waves her mother’s heartbeat, the sunlight the tunnel that guided her out the day her mother died.” Ultimately, Claire of the Sea Light is a breathtaking but sometimes uneven character-driven novel.

  

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Spotlight on The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

good lord bird

About The Book:

From Riverhead Hardcover

From the bestselling author of The Color of Water and Song Yet Sung comes the story of a young boy born a slave who joins John Brown’s antislavery crusade—and who must pass as a girl to survive.

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.

About The Author:

James McBride is an author, musician and screenwriter. His landmark memoir, “The Color of Water,” is considered an American James_McBrideclassic and read in schools and universities across the United States. His debut novel, “Miracle at St. Anna” was translated into a major motion picture directed by American film icon Spike Lee. It was released by Disney/Touchstone in September 2008. James also wrote the script for the film, now available on DVD. His novel, “Song Yet Sung,” was released in paperback in January 2009. His new novel about American revolutionary John Brown will be released in Feb. 2013. His latest work is the August 2013 film “Red Hook Summer” which he co-wrote and co-produced with acclaimed director Spike Lee.

James is the worst dancer in the history of African Americans, bar none, going back to slavetime and beyond. He should be legally barred from dancing at any party he attends. He dances with one finger in the air like a white guy.

He is also a former staff writer for The Boston Globe, People Magazine and The Washington Post. His work has appeared in Essence, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. His April, 2007 National Geographic story entitled “Hip Hop Planet” is considered a respected treatise on African American music and culture.

James toured as a sideman with jazz legend Jimmy Scott among others. He has also written songs (music and lyrics) for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Purafe, Gary Burton, and even for the PBS television character “Barney.” He did not write the “I Love You” song for Barney but wishes he did. He received the Stephen Sondheim Award and the Richard Rodgers Foundation Horizon Award for his musical “Bo-Bos” co-written with playwright Ed Shockley. His 2003 “Riffin’ and Pontificatin’ ” Musical Tour was captured in a nationallly televised Comcast documentary. He has been featured on national radio and television in America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

James is a native New Yorker and a graduate of  New York City public schools. He studied composition at The Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and received his Masters in Journalism from Columbia University in New York at age 22. He holds several honorary doctorates and is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.

Bookmagnet Says:

I cannot stop thinking about McBride’s newest novel.  Little Onion’s voice resonates with authenticity and humor.  In re-imagining one of the most important events in American history, McBride creates a rousing romp of a story.  I absolutely loved it and plan on reviewing the book next week.

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Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon

Book Review: Snow Hunters by Paul Yoonsnow-hunters1.jpg

(Simon & Schuster; 208 pages; $22)

“That winter, during a rainfall,” Yohan “arrived in Brazil,” Paul Yoon, 5 Under 35 National Book Foundation honoree, writes in his lyrical and arresting debut Snow Hunters.   Yohan, a North Korean war refugee, seeks a new life in Brazil but cannot escape his past, even half a world away, in a port town on the country’s coast.  Yoon’s quiet yet wise protagonist and his measured yet moving language drive this relatively short novel.  Snow Hunters may be 194 pages, but it sure packs an emotional punch.

Yoon opens Snow Hunters with the kind of intense sentiment that comes to exemplify the novel as a whole.    As the cargo ship on which he is a passenger docks in a Brazilian harbor, Yohan helps the crew unload.  A sailor offers him a blue umbrella.  “From the child,” the sailor explains and points “up at the ship” where Yohan sees “a crown of hair and the length of a pale scarf gliding along the sky.”  A boy runs “after her, waving.”  Yohan hears the “delicacy and assuredness” of the girl’s voice, “the way it” rises “like a kite, the foreign cadence of words in another language.”  Her kindness, her laughter, and even the sight of children at play are a balm for Yohan.

When Yohan immigrates to Brazil, he is only 25; his age belies both the horrors and hardships of war he has witnessed.  Seeking to escape his shattered past, Yohan has defected from North Korea.  Yoon eloquently and tenderly intersperses flashbacks into the narrative, memories that take Yohan and readers back to Yohan’s homeland.  Here, Yoon delivers the same vivid and moving descriptions of Yohan’s past as he first illustrated his protagonist’s arrival in Brazil.  For example, American soldiers find Yohan and his friend and fellow soldier Peng, who had been on patrol, among bombed-out wreckage.   “Among the men he and Peng had lived with, walked with, fought and slept beside, they were the only survivors of the bombing.”  This reality is sobering, especially once Yoon reveals that the Americans discovered them only because Yohan’s nose stuck up out of the snow, like a “carrot.”  The title is taken from another, equally poignant, scene in Yohan’s past when he and Peng see a Korean family scavenging in the snow.  Peng remarks that they look like “snow hunters…the way they moved across the snow like acrobats, their bright forms growing smaller in the night….”  Yohan may call a new country home, but the Korean War remains a part of his identity, and he is haunted by the conflict.

tumblr_mg8ng0C9zU1s2baglo1_r1_1280 (1)    Slowly, Yohan becomes part of his adopted country.  New friends alleviate the pain as they each mark Yohan’s life in his or her own way: the Japanese tailor, Kiyoshi, for whom Yohan serves as apprentice; Peixe, the groundskeeper at a local church who suffered from polio as a child and walks with a cane; and the “beggar children” Bia and Santi who flit in and out of Yohan’s life.  These may be minor characters, but they happen to play significant roles in Yohan’s life.

Snow Hunters explores war, memory, identity, home, loss, trauma, forgiveness, and love—universal themes that appeal to all of us regardless of the nation in which we live.  With prose that begs to be savored, Snow Hunters proves Yoon is one of the most talented writers of his generation, and I cannot wait to see what his imagination yields next. Yoon’s passages often read like poetry.  I rarely read a sentence much less a paragraph or two over and over again, but I relished Yoon’s elegiac and commanding language.   His sentimentality makes Snow Hunters both unforgettable and stirring, which is a powerful combination.  Yohan is a simple man, but he is one of the most highly-developed characters I have ever had the pleasure of getting to know.

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Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

(St. Martin’s Press; 368 pages; $25.99)

lookaway         The Johnstons of North Carolina really do put the “fun” in dysfunctional.  Your family will look tame and even normal by comparison.  Scandal seems to follow members of the Johnston family, proud descendants of Confederate Civil War General Joseph E. Johnston. Tradition, pride, and appearance matter a great deal to them, yet one thing is certain:  the Johnstons will not be sending out Christmas letters along with their Christmas cards anytime soon.  You know the ones I mean, and you probably have relatives who’ve sent you these, too, bragging about what their kids have accomplished this year.

Although Lookaway, Lookaway is not written in the same unique style in which Maria Semple wrote Where’d You Go, Bernadette, this singularly Southern story will appeal to Semple’s fans.  While Semple caricatured Seattle culture, Barnhardt satirizes the South.

Barnhardt offers up wit and cleverness, a combination guaranteed to elicit a loud guffaw or two.  Case in point:  “You’ll do something, I would hope, with your future Carolina degree,” Jerene Jarvis Johnston tells her daughter, Jerilyn, when she leaves for college.  “Enjoy your independence.  Work for a few years before you see which of the young men at Carolina seems destined for something besides his parents’ basement.  Or, given the atmosphere at Carolina, rehab.”  Wickedly hilarious, this piercing story will soon be all everyone is talking about.   Lookaway, Lookaway is the perfect social satire—Southern style.

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The Cairo Codex by Linda Lambert

Book Review: The Cairo Codex by Linda Lambert (West Hills Press; 324 pages; $15.95).

cairo codexWhen an earthquake nearly buries anthropologist Justine Jenner in an ancient crypt, she finds what appears to be an ancient codex which, if real, could radically threaten the world’s great religions.

The Cairo Codex is a riveting novel of two women, two millennia apart, set in the exotic cultures of ancient and present-day Egypt. Dr. Justine Jenner has come to Cairo to forge her own path from the legacies of her parents, an Egyptian beauty and an American archaeologist. After an earthquake nearly buries her alive in an underground crypt, she discovers an ancient codex, written by a woman whose secrets threaten the foundations of both Christian and Muslim beliefs. As political instability rocks the region and the Muslim Brotherhood threatens to steal the Egyptian Revolution, Justine is thrust into a world where even those she trusts may betray her in order to control the codex’s revelations.

In The Cairo Codex, Linda Lambert, former state department envoy to Egypt and author of several books on leadership, plunges the reader into pre-revolutionary Egypt and allows us to witness a nation on the brink of a social uprising.  This is a subject Lambert knows well, and her expertise makes The Cairo Codex utterly gripping.  She could have easily set her tale in Iraq or Israel, but the effect would not be as great.  Writers are frequently told to write what they know best.  Lambert does just that, and it works beautifully.

Lambert combines history, mystery, and archaeology with romance, politics, and religion.  Almost a decade ago, novels like these were abundant.  Biblical thrillers were once all the rage most likely due to the success of Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code.  Within the past few years, however, they have largely disappeared from shelves.  Why, I have no clue.  Perhaps the public grew tired of them, and their popularity waned.  For me, at least, Lambert’s story was welcome.  I always enjoyed reading these historical mysteries.

It always helps to have a strong protagonist, especially if it’s an independent and clever woman.  Lambert’s main character, Justinelinda lambert Jenner, can be both tough and tender.  She has her flaws just like we all do, leading us to cheer her on her successes and lament her failures.

Lambert also introduces a minor character of great interest, Omar Mostafa, as Director of the Supreme Ministry of Egyptian Antiquities.  Mostafa will surely remind readers of Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs under former President Hosni Mubarak.

The codex that Justine discovers could shake the foundations of all the world’s religions.  I know what you’re thinking–so many thrillers that have anything to do with Christianity make similar claims and fall short.  Not The Cairo Codex. Interesting and exciting, Lambert’s novel delivers.

The Cairo Codex is the first novel in The Justine Trilogy, and I eagerly await the sequel.  

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Spotlight on The Rathbones by Janice Clark

Boy, have I got a whopper of a tale for you!  Janice Clark’s The Rathbones harpooned me body and soul and is now my favorite read of the summer.  It’s got something for everyone.

rathbones

About The Book:

A literary adventure set in New England, Janice Clark’s gothic debut chronicles one hundred years of a once prosperous seafaring dynasty.

Moses, the revered patriarch of the Rathbone family, possessed an otherworldly instinct for spotting the whale. But years of bad decisions by the heirs to his fortune have whittled his formerly robust family down to just one surviving member: a young girl, left to live in the broken-down ancestral mansion that at one time had glowed golden with the spoils of the hunt.

Mercy, fifteen years old, is the diminutive scion of the Rathbone clan. Her father, the last in the dynasty of New England whalers, has been lost at sea for seven years-ever since the last sperm whale was seen off the coast of Naiwayonk, Connecticut. Mercy’s memories of her father and of the time before he left grow dimmer each day, and she spends most of her time in the attic hideaway of her reclusive Uncle Mordecai, who teaches her the secrets of Greek history and navigation through his collection of moldering books. But when a strange, violent visitor turns up one night on the widow’s walk, Mercy and Mordecai are forced to flee the house and set sail on a journey that will bring them deep into the haunted history of the Rathbone family.

Inspired by The Odyssey and infused with beautifully detailed descriptions of the realities of coastal and ship life reminiscent of Moby Dick, Janice Clark’s magnificent debut is a spellbinding literary adventure.

About The Author:

Janice Clark is a writer and designer living in Chicago. She grew up in Mystic, Connecticut (land of whaling and pizza) and has janice clarklived in Montreal, Kansas City, San Francisco, and New York, where she earned an MFA in writing at NYU. Her short fiction has appeared in Pindeldyboz and The Nebraska Review and her design work is represented in the Museum of Modern Art. The Rathbones, which she also illustrated, is her first novel.

Bookmagnet Says:

Part Moby Dick, part Greek tragedy, part Poe, part coming-of-age tale, The Rathbones is like one of those sea sirens of yore.  Once you begin reading this enchanting story, you’re a goner.  You won’t be able to resist the pull of Clark’s enticingly rich characters or her magnificent setting.  With a novel like this, who’d even want to resist?  Go ahead and jump in.

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