Booker Long List 2012: “Swimming Home”

August 29, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Posted in Fiction | Leave a comment

This is the first book I have read off the Man Booker long list for 2012.  It is my prediction that Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home will make it to the short list.

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Spare, poetic, powerful, Swimming Home is an electric read.  It’s a little creepy and entirely believable.  At under 160 pages, it’s an easy choice if you want a taste of the Bookers.


Next up: Necropolis by Jeet Thayil.

“The Uncertain Places”

August 27, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Posted in Fantasy | Leave a comment

I really enjoyed The Uncertain Places, though I’m not generally a fantasy reader.  Lisa Goldstein is a talented writer and this book has what I consider to be staying power.

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The story of The Uncertain Places raises some great questions about luck and envy.  What would you do if you could “have it all”?  How much of the good fortune in your life is sheer circumstance?  Are you controlled by fate?

“Broken Harbor”

August 6, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

One of the most satisfying pleasures of reading is bringing home a brand-new book by a beloved author and knowing you are going to love it. Tana French hardly needs my endorsement, but I just want to say that Broken Harbor was a fantastic read by a very talented author.

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I like crime fiction. Tana French’s work elevates what would be a thrashingly good detective story into magnetically compelling psychological drama. Everything we love about her work is here: the atmosphere of sorrow, creepiness, dread, and foreboding; the intricate plot; the nuanced characters; the dialogue. Once again she has given us the perspective of a protagonist who played a side role in an earlier book. All we can do is chew our fingernails wondering which one will narrate her next offering.

I read this book late at night, comme il faut, and it really creeped me out a few times. I thought I saw things crawling on the wall. I had to adjust my reading light to make sure it stopped casting a shadow beyond the page. It got my pulse pounding. Now that I’m finished with it, I’m a little sad because… well, because it’s over and it’ll be a long wait until the next one.

PS I took a crack at the cryptogram on the Acknowledgments page. I’m pretty sure it’s either not in English or it is more than one layer of code.

“Why We Broke Up”

February 27, 2012 at 12:00 am | Posted in Young Adult Fiction | 3 Comments

I didn’t realize, when I picked up “Why We Broke Up,” that the author was the former Lemony Snicket. It seems relevant. Now we know that Daniel Handler can write anything. If you are already a fan of his earlier work, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that you enjoy this offering even more.

This book succeeds in conjuring the feelings of young love: the torment, sure, but also the euphoria and the mystical attraction that can arise between people of different worlds. I would have found it hard to write on this topic with anything other than cynicism. Handler makes it fresh again.

The other major treat in this book is that it is lavishly illustrated in full color by Maira Kalman. Personally, I can never get enough of her work. Her style suits the proclivities of Min Green to a T.

“The Sisters Brothers”

September 17, 2011 at 12:28 am | Posted in Fiction, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

At last, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt – the title on the Booker short list that I personally anticipated the most.  Was it a self-fulfilling prophecy that I loved this book as much as I thought it would?

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This book is being billed as a ‘cowboy noir’ – whatever that means – but I would call it simply a picaresque novel set in 1851.  There aren’t any cowboys in it and I would also argue strenuously that it doesn’t qualify as noir, either.  Something about The Sisters Brothers makes us want to invent a new genre for it, that’s all.

I’m a nitpicker, a nitpicker with a bachelor’s in history, so I want to give this book the usual treatment to show that I don’t play favorites.  Many of the period details are more appropriate for a book set in the 1880s, a generation later.  The toothbrush – not mass produced in the US until 1887 and no American patent until 1857; not in general use in the form we would recognize until 1937.  I haven’t tracked down mint-flavored toothpaste, but I’m willing to bet it’s post-Victorian and I’m thinking WWI-era or later.   The cigarette – available in France in 1830 but not in the English-speaking world until 1853; commercial cigarettes in the US, 1865.  The other object to excite my interest was the single appearance of an indoor water closet.  1851 significantly preceded the Wild West milieu we know from film.

Speaking of film, the one I would compare this book to the most closely is O Brother, Where Art Thou?  It also reminded me a bit of Cold Mountain and Henderson the Rain King, although if you’re familiar with either you’re probably wondering why.

I’m waffling about discussing the book itself, because I doubt anything I could say would do it justice.  The graphic nature of the violent scenes somehow transcends the level of crime and adds a spiritual dimension, helping us to identify with Eli Sisters and to see him, ultimately, as sympathetic.  The bizarre incidents make an odd sort of sense and cohere in a way that justifies their presence as more than random.  Every incidental person has a message of import.  Unless we possess a weak stomach, we simply can’t stop turning the page.

I’m ranking this book with the books I’ve loved the most.

“Half Blood Blues”

September 14, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

Here is Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues, the one book I didn’t correctly guess would make the Man Booker short list this year.  Now that I’ve read it, I can understand why it was picked, but I still don’t think I would have chosen it over The Stranger’s Child if I had it to do over again.

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Half Blood Blues gives us a look at Nazi Germany from a perspective we most likely haven’t seen it before – that of American blacks and mixed-race Germans.  Added interest comes from Edugyan’s skilled evocation of pre-war jazz.  Friendship, rivalry, failed romance, and an unconventional beauty make this an interesting, unpredictable story.

I confess, though, that I found the dialect tiring to read.  While the plot was intriguing, it seemed like the most dramatic moments happened offstage.


September 10, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

A. D. Miller’s Snowdrops seems to have riled up at least a few critics following the announcement of the Man Booker short list.  I don’t know what the fuss is about because I thought it was great.

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The problem is that it’s a decadently easy read, almost an airport novel.  It has many of the elements of a spy thriller:  sexy women, mysterious men in suits, fancy cars, corrupt politics.  It’s like a James Bond story in which James Bond is kind of a dork and doesn’t have a gun.

It also has a great minimalist sensibility.  It made me think of Kawabata’s Snow Country.  It’s atmospheric and thoughtful, with that great Russian sense of depressive nostalgia.  Granted, it won’t win the prize this year, but I think it’s deserving of its spot on the short list and I’m curious what Miller will write next.

“A Cupboard Full of Coats”

September 8, 2011 at 3:23 am | Posted in Fiction | Leave a comment

I read A Cupboard Full of Coats because it was on the Booker Prize long list, although it breaks one of my cardinal rules:  Never read a book with a headless woman on the cover.  It’s the publisher’s way of indicating that the book will annoy me in some way.

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Which, unfortunately, this book did.  I was irritated by most of the characters.  I didn’t buy the chemistry that was supposed to exist between the protagonist and her main love interest, and the sex scenes were straight out of a romance novel.  The emotional development didn’t quite ring true.

There were things that worked in this book.  Yvvette Edwards has an ear for dialogue.  I was interested in her exploration of the spiritual arc of an unlikeable character.  The battered-woman storyline made sense.  All together, though, it clunked along between sections of inconsistent quality.  I’m not really sure why it made it onto the Booker long list in the first place.

It would probably make a good film, though, with the adaptation in the right hands.

“The Last Hundred Days”

September 6, 2011 at 6:15 am | Posted in Fiction | Leave a comment

Okay, Patrick McGuinness was robbed.  Robbed, I tell you!  The Last Hundred Days is a pretty much perfect book.  Surely a place for it could have been found on the Man Booker short list.

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Perhaps it’s the topic, which is about Romania in the late 80s before the revolution.  Perhaps it’s the length – the other short listers were all, well, shorter.  Otherwise I have no explanation.

What’s great about The Last Hundred Days is the way McGuinness captures the irony and humor of Eastern Europe in the face of political repression.  I’ve read a number of books in translation by authors of the region, and it seems that he really nails it.  The details make the story believable, and, as it turns out, the author did live in Romania during this time period.

Anyway, I thought it was great.  Good luck getting it on this side of the pond, though – it doesn’t have a US publication date scheduled at this time.

“The Testament of Jessie Lamb”

September 5, 2011 at 11:28 pm | Posted in Fiction | 3 Comments

Here we are racing through the Booker long list, trying to get our picks sorted for the announcement of the short list tomorrow.  I picked The Testament of Jessie Lamb because speculation consistently puts it at the bottom of the list, and I wanted to see for myself.

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This is a standard dystopian novel that reads like a YA novel.  The premise should pack an emotional punch for teenage girls.  In fact, I think it would make a great read for girls that age, at a time when they are vulnerable to ideology and grand political gestures.  For the rest of us, and I am speaking as a vegan here, the “mankind has ruined our fair Earth” message can come across a bit strident and heavy-handed.

There are flaws in the book that cause me to agree that it is not long list material.  For instance, “Maternal Death Syndrome” simply doesn’t sound scientific enough.  The plot is similar to The White Plague, and we can’t blame Jane Rogers for not being Frank Herbert, but, well, she isn’t.  Most of all, though, I just absolutely can’t stand it when different fonts are used in a book to represent different time frames or the voices of different characters.  Pet peeve, what can I say?

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