Thursday, October 27, 2011

Book Review: The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares by Joyce Carol Oates

Melancholy and agony are the two prevalent elements in this short story collection that comes out in America next week; agony about what tomorrow is going to bring, and melancholy for everything that the protagonists are going or have gone through and about their lives’ ever repeating deadlocks.
     The title story, which has the size of a novella, is I’d dare say the best by far. Reading through it we come to find out about the tragic events that take place in the life of a desperate woman, but we are also given a chance to have a good look into the darkness of some young souls. It all begins when eleven year old Marissa goes missing. The first suspect is a young professor, but soon enough he’s cleared since he has an alibi. Leah, the girl’s mother thinks that he’s innocent too and somehow, little by little she starts getting close to him. As they talk things over they come to think that there’s a big conspiracy taking place behind their backs. And a conspiracy there is. However, when the drama reaches its peak things take an unexpected turn which leads in a crude and ironical way to the fulfillment of somebody’s dream.
     Brad Shiftke and Stacey Lynn, a mysterious man and a young woman, star in Beersheba. Brad lives in Carthage, New York, where he one day meets Stacey who comes to visit. As it turns out she’s his second wife’s daughter. According to her he’s to blame for her mother’s death. Now she’s here to seek revenge.
     Jessica is a little girl that doesn’t feel so well these days. She and her family are in a house on the mountains, a place she loves, but this time she cannot really enjoy her stay there. And that’s only because the baby is with them; her newborn sister that draws all the attention on her and makes her jealous. Only one creature can really understand how she feels and that is none other than a gray cat. Nobody Knows My Name is the title of the story.
     The life stories of two brothers Edgar and Edward is what we come to read in Fossil-Figures. The two of them couldn’t be any different. The one is like a force of nature: strong, arrogant, willing to do anything to reach his goals, while the other is quiet, good-hearted, capable of doing great things, but unable to step outside, into the greedy and wild world where his brother thrives. As it is bound to happen they will take different paths in life, but one day they will meet again and then things will look completely different from the time their journey begun.
     A couple of brothers that somehow remind us of the ones above are also the protagonists in Death-Cup. Lyle and Alastor meet for the first time in many years a few days before the funeral of their rich uncle Gardner, and the first has no doubt whatsoever that his brother came back for the widow’s money. However he’ll do nothing to stop him from fulfilling his plans. Their relationship looks like a stretched thread that’s bound to break, but when that happens it doesn’t happen in the way that one would expect it to.
     In Helping Hands we read the story of a woman whose husband has died only recently and who now tries to start a new life. However, to do that she first has to get rid of a lot of his things; things that are of no use anymore, but which also never stop reminding her of him. So she visits a war veterans’ charity to make a donation and it’s exactly there that she meets a man that brings back to life the woman in her.
     A Hole in the Hands, the final story in this collection, is a story about vanity. Lucas Brede is a cosmetic surgeon that lately doesn’t do so well. He has money troubles and his business is slowing down and thus he’s desperate. As things start to get from bad to worse, he reaches a point where he’d do just about anything to earn some money, even if it goes against his personal ethics. A vain woman gives him the opportunity to do just that, but things do not turn exactly right and now he has to live with the consequences of his actions.
     This is a great collection of stories by one of the best American authors, which every friend of the genre can surely enjoy. It comes out in the US on the 1st of November and in Europe two weeks later.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Book Review: One More River by Mary Glickman

One More River is one of those special novels that one should read slowly, little by little, in order to enjoy it. Its prose is so rich, so beautiful that it flows like a peaceful stream and not like the wild waters of the Mississippi on whose shores a big part of the action takes place. The author through her story travels the reader back to the past of the American South; a past that smells of death and of change; a past full of conflict and love; a past where racial discriminations were the canon and where dreams were not that easy to come true.
     This is the story of a father and a son, Bernard and Mickey Moe Levy. Mickey is a young Jew who in 1962 meets and falls in love with a beautiful and brave girl that goes by the name of Laura Anne, whom he’s determined to have as his wife. However, no matter what he, or she for that matter, wants their coming together is not a given, since Laura Anne’s parents refuse to give her their blessing, because of the unknown origins of Mickey Moe’s father. Bernard always was, to say the least, a mystery to the locals in Guilford, Mississippi. As the old-timers could recall, he arrived one day in town with pocketfuls of gold and decided to make a home there, but nobody, or almost nobody, had any clue as to where he came from and how he got his money, thus even after he was dead, the people never stopped throwing suspicious glances towards his household.
     So, who was Bernard? Where did he start from and how did he end up there? How come he got to marry beautiful Beadie who was everything that he was not? And what was his real relationship with Bald Horace and his, virtually and visually, enormous sister, Aurora Mae? These are the questions that Mickey Moe needs to find answers to in order to solve his issues; however, to do that he has to put everything on hold for a while and travel far and away in order to trace his father’s footsteps in history.
     The author, through her oral and sing-song like narration, takes us back and forth in time and gives us the extraordinary yet simple stories of two men; that of Bernard, who left his home at the age of thirteen in order to seek his fortune elsewhere and his amazing journeys up and down the Mississippi, and that of Mickey Moe, a young man who’s willing to anything he possibly can to marry the love of his life. Their travels seem to follow parallel roads, they even seem to converge every now and then, but at the end of the day they are different, since the one has spent a whole life trying to create his personal myth, while the other just struggles to earn the right to live his.
     This is an outstanding novel that for some, not all that strange reason, reminds us of a lovely and somehow nostalgic blues song, and as such it deserves to be read -and yes, even be heard- by everyone who loves good literary fiction.
     It comes out in America next week.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Book Review: Suicide Run by Michael Connelly

I’d dare say that this October could be named Michael Connelly, or rather Harry Bosch month, since during it no less than three books starring the legendary comp will see the light of day. Never mind that two of them, Suicide Run and Angle of Investigation are just short story collections (both out already in England and Ireland) and can only be acquired as eBooks. (There are three short stories in each of them.) The third one, The Drop, is of course a novel, and it will come out on the 27th of October in Europe and a month later in the US.
     But let’s now take a look at the eBook at hand. Suicide Run is the title of the first story in this collection, in which we find Bosch and his partner Jerry Edgar working the night shift at the Hollywood Division. During it they are being called at the scene of a suicide. The suicide victim is a young wannabe actress and at the beginning things look clear as day. However Harry thinks there’s more to this case than that which at first meets the eye, so with the precious help of one of his favorite colleagues, Kismin Rider, he decides to take a better look at the facts surrounding it.
     In Cielo Azul, we meet the good detective while he’s on his way to the San Quentin prison. He’s going there to meet a psychotic killer, a few days before he’s executed for the brutal murder of a fifteen year old girl ten years before. Bosch, who arrested the perp, only wants to meet him in order to find out what’s the real name of the victim; the girl he came to call and remember as Cielo Azul.
     One-Dollar Jackpot is the title of the final story in which Bosch is called upon to investigate the murder of, a minor celebrity and fulltime poker player, Tracey Blitzstein. The woman was shot dead while in her car outside her house. Being in the kind of business that she was, and having earned a big sum of money at the casino, not long before, it’s obvious that more than one people would want to harm her. The perp could be one of her competitors, or a thief, or even that mysterious man that followed her out of the casino. But, as it’s often the case, things are much simpler than they seem.
     In this short collection we have three well-written stories which will undoubtedly bring enough joy to the fans of the good author and his most likeable hero.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

National Book Awards finalists

The lists of the finalists of this year's National Book Awards have been announced yesterday. The shortlisted books are:


Read my review here



Young People's Literature:

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Book Review: Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz

The international press hailed this book as a parable about what really goes on in Israeli society today.
     Scenes from Village Life cannot be described as a novel nor as a short-story collection. It features a number of interconnected tales, which I would simply describe as short glimpses of everyday life.
     The stories take place in the fictitious village of Tel Ilan, where lately a lot of strange things happen to some quite common people. Firstly, in Heirs, we have the story of a retired lawyer who lives in a house with his bedridden ninety year old mother and spends all his time doing absolutely nothing. Their every day is a copy of the one before and nothing much seems to happen, until a strange man arrives claiming that he’s a relative and turns things upside down. In Relations we read about a woman that feels really disappointed when her beloved nephew does not arrive with the bus and does something way out of character. Digging is the story of a retired army officer that every night hears someone digging underneath his house. He suspects that behind all that is Abel, an Arab student and aspiring author who lives in a shed in the garden, but his daughter Rachel just thinks he’s crazy. However soon enough she’ll have to change her mind, since Abel will start hearing the strange sounds as well. The old man, despite his past, seems to understand the reasons why the Arabs do not like the Israelis, while he thinks that after everything that has come to pass the only thing that one is left to feel is melancholy. In Lost we follow in the footsteps of a real estate agent who’s about to close the deal of his life, a fact that was supposed to, but fails to make him happy. So he starts wandering the streets in the night, thinking about his life, which leads him to the discovery of a suspicious package and the warmth of a woman’s embrace. Yet another unexpected occurrence, the disappearance of his wife, leads the mayor of the village to wander the streets at night as well, with a dog following his every step and keeping him company, in Waiting. Strangers talks about a love affair that was never meant to be. A seventeen year old boy is in love with the village’s postmistress, but when he finally manages to get close to her things take an unexpected turn. Singing, the last story, describes the meeting of some colorful characters in a house, where they spend their time singing and talking about politics. Their host, and narrator of the story, doesn’t seem to stand them anymore, so she escapes the living room and rushes to the master bedroom, where she hides under the bed, wanting to feel that she was “in a faraway place at another time.” The image she projects is bleak, just like the past.
     If I’d have to describe these texts in simple words I’d just say that what we have right here is the stories of some more or less common people; weak people and somewhat strong people; sanguine people and sad people; people full of insecurities and doubts about the future and questions about the world that’s destined to die. The author paints the picture of a micro-society where anything could happen at any given moment and it does. Just like in real life.
     This is the first book by Amos Oz that I’ve read and so I can’t really say whether it’s his best or not. What I definitely can say though is that it’s extremely well-written and it becomes lyrical at times, and thus can offer a lot of joy to the reader. Recommended.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book Review: The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

The Wandering Falcon is one of those novels that could be read as a fairytale. Actually it contains all the elements of a good old fairytale, as it talks about habits, customs and traditions in the forever mysterious east, and tries to explain to the ever ignorant people of the west some of the things that however how hard they try they do not seem able to comprehend.
     The main character in this story is a man that goes by the name of Tor Baz; a love child. Tor Baz was born at a military outpost in the middle of the desert, and grew up among the soldiers and his constantly worried parents, who were afraid that their sin would catch up with them. What sin was that? Well, they were not actually married, and his mother was the wife of his father’s boss. As it turns out they were right to be afraid, as one day they would be discovered by the people they have wronged and thus lose their lives. Tor was spared his life but he was left behind all alone in an oasis in the desert, helplessly hoping to live to see another day. And that’s exactly where an army officer found him and decided to save his life. So he had the six year old boy follow him to a far away town, where the kid was destined to discover an exciting new world; a world of written and oral knowledge, of modern and ancient wisdom. His teacher was an idiosyncratic mullah called Barrerai, a man who was bound to play an important role in the future history of the region. While times were changing and new realities were starting to emerge, and as “one set of values, one way of life had to die,” he had to do the best he possibly could to protect his people from their worst instincts, to stand in the way of the bad things to come out of their ignorance and sometimes plain stupidity.
     Tor Baz and Barrerai, using as their only weapons their knowledge and their cunning, would in the future pave different courses around their remote world, but their paths would meet time and again, either in the dens of memory or in some godforsaken places. Following their adventures we get to visit lands unknown to us and learn about some values and ways of life completely different from the ones we know. The aphorisms we read every now and then may sound crude to our ears; “Conscience is like a poor relation living in a rich man’s house”; but probably they speak tons of truth about the people in the region. As the two protagonists wander again and again over the invisible at the beginning but more tangible as time went by borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan, they get to meet, and introduce us to, a lot of people, and they see and hear and learn too much; they reach great heights of wisdom; wisdom which they share with the reader.
     This is a novel in fragments. However the author does not seem that interested in experimenting with the writing; he simply wants to tell his story; a story that evolves through the shards of different lives; a story about a world waist deep into the still waters of tradition and incapable of embracing change and adapting to new realities. But this is also a story about a land where women have no voice and no rights, and where the men’s ethics can at the very best be described as questionable, since they consider abductions and the trafficking of women as normal; no matter that the memory of one the secondary characters was “only a sea of women’s faces, and his small body shook with tension every time he saw yet another face to be sold.”
     The Wandering Falcon is a novel that really has a lot to tell to the readers in the west. At times it becomes dark but that only adds to the reading pleasure. Its prose is beautiful and nostalgic in a way that I cannon really explain, since the story carries a lot of echoes of today. This is a book finely crafted and worthy of the attention of any reader who’s interested in the mysteries of the east.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Book Review: Shelter by Harlan Coben

Shelter is the first book of a series starring Mickey Bolitar, the nephew of the now famous sports agent and part -or rather, most- time detective Myron.
     Mickey has just moved in into his uncle’s house and their relationship is, for the time being, if not hostile, at least tense. Myron once had a big fall out, if you can call it that, with his brother and Mickey’s father, and since then things between them have fallen apart. Despite Myron’s willingness to let bygones be bygones, Mickey who’s recently lost his dad, while his mom is in rehab, is not that eager to form any kind of bond with him. Truth be told, life has never been easy for Mickey; exciting maybe, but not easy. He was born in Chiang Mai province in Thailand and his life, until recently, was like that of a nomad. Following in his parents footsteps who were volunteers for various NGO’s, he’s lived in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere, and so he was unable to make any really good friends, while his education, though rich, could be better be described as sporadic. He spent year after year collecting bits and pieces of knowledge that’d probably sometime in the future prove useful, but which for the time being left him feel somehow wanting. However, that future is now here and it’s up to him to work things out in a new city, Newark, and in a new school.
     Well, at the beginning, luck seems to be by his side, since from his very first day at school he meets Ashley, a beautiful, kind girl with whom he falls in love. Not before too long though she just seems to vanish from the face of the earth and as expected he feels at a loss. Where did she go? Has anything bad happened to her? He has to find her; he needs to do that; but how? He doesn’t know how, but as he’s soon to find out he’ll not be alone in his quest, as he’ll become friends with two of the least popular people at school: the streetwise Ema and a seemingly worthless, but nevertheless clever boy whom he calls Spoon.
     So the three of them will start investigating the case together and they will soon come to realize that there’s more to it than they had ever imagined, since everything suggests that Ashley has been kidnapped. Behind this abduction though lies a bigger mystery, a world full of danger, secrets and lies; a world they have to infiltrate in order to discover the truth and save her life. The investigation will lead them to strip bars and tattoo parlors, and even to a haunted, according to the locals, house, and time and again they will come face to face with great danger and in close contact with fierce criminals. During the whole ordeal Mickey will come to realize that things are never exactly the way they seem to be and that more often than not our personal truths are no more than big illusions.
     The author drives his heroes into strange and dangerous situations, he trips them over and makes them smile, he gives them some true life lessons, but also lessons in history, and he makes them fight with their demons in order to overcome them. Mickey is, whether he likes it or not, a younger copy of his uncle Myron: he’s stubborn and strong, and believes in a cause, whatever that may be. Spoon on the other hand is one of those guys that everyone else describes as a loser, but given the chance, he’s bound to prove them wrong. As for Ema, well, Ema is a star: she’s a tough girl and a Goth, with a strong will and no fear, and with a sense of humor that cannot easily be matched by others; she’s one of the best fictitious characters I’ve ever met.
     This book is the perfect start to a new series of adventure stories. And even though according to the publisher its target group is young adults, I feel confident that the author’s regular readers will enjoy it just as much. Coben here seems to have placed a bet with himself, and I dare say that he won that bet already.

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