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If my husband were to send me flowers at work (please don’t), I’d likely hide them away in a closet.  Not one for overt romantic gestures, it’s unlikely that I’d ever pick up a romance book for the romance.  Yet occasionally I do find myself enjoying a love story, especially if it has an international setting and an unusual narrative.  Here are three surprising, globe-trotting love stories that I’ve enjoyed recently.  But should you read them?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

 

Book jacket: Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno GarciaSignal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Three misfit teens in Mexico City explore the magical power of music and unintentionally alter the course of their lives.

Should you read it?

Absolutely: Your own life carries a mixtape soundtrack. You enjoy stories where reality is suspended only momentarily to make room for a bit of magic. You love YA books, remember being a surly misfit teenager yourself or maybe still are a surly misfit teenager.

Maybe not: You have little patience for adolescent struggles and need your fiction believable. What you’re really looking for is a book that evokes a sense of place.

 

Book jacket: A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor

A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor: An ill-suited lover opens up the world and enlivens the city of Delhi for a restless young woman none too keen on having an arranged marriage.

Should you read it?

Absolutely: You like your characters a little dark, reckless and unpredictable.  You take delight in beautiful writing and vivid descriptions of foreign cities. You enjoy psychological stories and pondering women’s roles around the world. You just want to hold this gorgeous, compact and gold-flecked book in your hands.

Maybe not: Unhealthy relationships that play with power balance leave you cold. You need a more cohesive plot and less psychological (and ahem sexual) exploring.

 

Book jacket: I Am China by Xiaolu GuoI Am China by Xiaolu Guo: A London translator takes an unusual assignment translating the journal and letters of a punk rock musician and soon finds herself immersed in the story of two Chinese lovers.

Should you read it?

Absolutely: Chinese punk rockers alone is intrigue enough. You love a slow-to-unravel mystery and a novel in letters. Language and the complexities of translation intrigue you. You like a little revolution with your romance.

Maybe not:  You can’t forgive an underdeveloped character and need a faster pace to keep you interested.

Cathedral bookjacketI’ve never written a novel or a short story (unless you count the required writing course I took about a million years ago as a freshman in college) but in some ways, I think that it might be harder to write a short story than a full-fledged book. A short story has to suck you in immediately, tell a full plot in a small number of pages, and shoot you out at the end with a quick climactic pay-off. A great short story will stay with you forever. Raymond Carver’s "A Small Good Thing" with a young boy’s unpicked up bakery cake has been part of my very soul since I first read it years ago.

The past few months, I’ve read several collections of really amazing short stories. When I did a search in our catalog, I found that there have been a ton of short story booksSingle, Carefree, Mellow bookjacket published in the last couple of years; I checked a bunch out and found a bounty of vivid stories that I find myself still thinking about weeks after reading them. Kelly Link’s stories in Get in Trouble are a feast of surreal images that are also weirdly believable. Katherine Heiny writes about infidelity in her collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow, but she does it in a refreshingly nonjudgmental way. And then there are always my old favorites, Flannery O'Connor and Peter S. Beagle.

If you're in the mood for a short story or two or three, try one of these collections.

Have you ever wondered if you have what it takes to be a good terrorist? Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing wondered that too. In December 1983, a bomb was set off in Harrod’s Department store in London.  The media said it looked like an amateur job.  When she read this, Lessing was curious: what is the difference between an amateur terrorist and a professional one?  And if you WERE an amateur, how did you get better?

 

The terrorists in this book are strictly small time, a group of 4-6 people thrown together by need and the desire to fit into something ‘big’ like the IRA or the Soviet Communist Party.

Except for the main character, Alice, who is telling the story.  Oh, Alice believes in the necessary destruction of society but until that happens she is busy cleaning up, making their squat livable, smoothing out relations with the ‘real’ communists living next door and cooking kettle after of kettle of her nourishing vegetable soup.  

But when bomb-making Jocelyn moves in, the focus shifts from theory to the practice.  As in  practice makes perfect. As in people injured, killed, even their own members. Each member of the group is now forced to evaluate just how ‘good’ they really want to be.

This book is a fascinating read because of the dead-pan realistic writing told through Alice- what she thinks , what she feels, what she denies.  Will she be able to live up to her ideals?  Does she have what it takes to be 'good'?

Her bookjacketThe 2015 books are starting to arrive and I zipped through my first psychological thriller of the new year. Harriet Lane’s Her sucked me right in with a deceptively ordinary story of two mothers (though if you prefer to read about parents who dote on their children, you'd best skip this book). What a fabulously entertaining, suspenseful, well-written book. The story centers on the build-up of revenge plotted by one of the characters towards the completely oblivious other.

Told in alternating chapters by the two main characters, the interplay of reality and perception is pretty chilling. It’s sort of The Bad Seed with middle aged women. Her is a story that builds from the misunderstandings and disappointments in our lives and the twist lies in the overlooking of those matters.

I’m ready to be pulled into more psychological suspense novels in the coming year; here are a few that I'm eagerly anticipating. I hope they turn out to be as unpredictable and surprising as Her.

I read a lot of great books last year, so I had a hard time choosing, but (fanfare, please!) the best book I read in 2014 was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. It came out in 2010, but I didn't read it for years because the title misled me into thinking it was a different kind of book altogether. The goon in the title is time, and the main theme of this book is how time changes us, turns us into someone we wouldn't have recognized when we were young. This could be a real bummer of a theme, too, but the book is so smart and engaging that the theme just kind of washed over me because I was completely involved with its characters and delighted by its fine writing.

Goon Squad seems like more of a collection of short stories than a novel, at first, but the characters are connected to each other, sometimes very loosely. The narrative bounces around in time from about the 1970s into the 2020s and is mostly about people involved with the music and entertainment industry. There's a very moving PowerPoint presentation, a punk rock show at a club in LA in 1979, a celebrity journalist who tries to rape the starlet subject of his interview, a lion attack in Africa,  and an erotic kiss delivered to the unwilling lips of a Mother Superior. Which is to say that this book is wildly entertaining on top of being incredibly, dazzlingly good.

Book jacket: Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera2014 is almost over and I’m calling it.  My favorite book of the year was Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera. Shortly after I finished it, I sent a Facebook message to the author gushing that her book was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever read. I never do that. Here are 5 reasons why this one stands out to me among the other fantastic books I enjoyed this year:

1.    It’s transportive: While the book’s characters are complex and still linger in my mind, Island of a Thousand Mirrors is the story of a country first and foremost. This book transported me completely to the island of Sri Lanka with a winter craving for coconut milk and curry that traces directly back to the author's delicious descriptions of food.

2.    It’s short:  OK brief doesn't immediately translate to beauty. Munaweera however, does write in a beautifully minimal style, but still manages to tell a sweeping multi-generational story that's lush with detail and emotion without ever feeling rushed.  

3.    It has both a map and a family tree: These are seemingly small details, but ones which I love. It’s hard to keep track of geography and relationships in any family saga and more so when the names are unfamiliar. Wait, where is Jaffna located again? Who was Yasodhara’s grandfather? A quick flip to the front pages and you’re back on track.

4.    It taught me something new: We don’t hear much about Sri Lanka in our news and I certainly knew very little about the country when I picked up this book. Munaweera’s novel really brings to life the complexities of the decades-long Sri Lankan civil war with an intricate story that follows two girls caught on either side of the conflict.

5.    It strikes that perfect balance between devastating heartbreak and beauty:  I was often caught startled by Munaweera’s forthright descriptions of the horrors that accompany war, but was left equally stunned by the beauty of her writing.  In fact, I can't seem to resist a story that breaks my heart and then shows me great beauty. If this formula appeals to you too, here's a list for you!

I’m living more of a Little House on the (Urban) Prairie life these days, but when I was a kid, I didn’t want prairies, chores, or family togetherness. I was looking for the entrance into a magical world, like the Pevensie kids found to get into Narnia, or perhaps a cyclone to take me into Oz.

Quentin, the main character of Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, was, like me, obsessed with finding his way into magical worlds-- but unlike me, he manages to do it. After that, the books are chock-full of unpredictable pleasures. Quentin flies to Antarctica as a goose, makes deals with a dragon, takes a voyage in a magical boat to the end of the world, and lives through what I believe is the best post-breakup smackdown in literary history. Finally, In The Magician’s Land, the third and last book of the series, which came out this year, he stops being kind of a jerk and turns into a man.

Excuse me for a moment while I push past the coats into this big old wardrobe. Feel free to check out my list of genre-bending fantasy novels while I’m gone. 
 

Curtain bookjacketLike some parents, authors sometimes feel as if they have bitten off more than they can chew. Their creations take on a life of their own, becoming wildly popular among their readers who argue enthusiastically about their pros and cons. Unlike parents however, authors can killAngelica's Smile bookjacket off their creations with snickering glee and the only consequence is the wrath of their readers.

*Spoiler Alert*

Take Sherlock Holmes, for instance. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle felt the detective kept him from doing better things. 'What better things can there be?' his readers cried.  

Henning Mankell gave his long suffering  detective Kurt Wallander a fairy tale ending, with a dog, a house by the beach and his grandson to play with.  And then --  Alzheimers.  Nice... However, pressure from his readers prompted him to write An Event in Autumn which takes us into new territory. It is based on Mankell's short story, Händelse om hösten.  It contains a very sad sentence:  ‘There are no more stories about Kurt Wallander’

Agatha Christie finished her detective Her Poirot by having him kill a physcho killer, then himself. No resurrection there. Poirot passes away from complications of a heart condition at the end of Curtain: Poirot's Last Case.                                                                                                                                                   

As for Andrea Camilleri, creator of the popular Italian detective Montalbano a series of 17 books, several collections of short stories and a multi -episode TV series, he  says this about his brawny, intuitive hero, "I finished him off five years ago. That's to say, the final novel in the series of Montalbano is already written and deposited at the publishing house...in that last book he’s really finished.”

As an enthusiastic reader of all these detectives, I hate to think that they are really 'finished'. Maybe they are just hiding on a shelf somewhere waiting to be ressurected in a new writer's imagination.

 

 

 

I just finished Lila,  Marilynne Robinson's third book set in the fictional midwestern town of Gilead. Gilead is the first, and is told from the point of view of John Ames, a Congregationalist pastor who is at the end of his life. To John, Lila is his much younger wife, a blessing, remarkable for her energy and her steadfast love.

The new book is told from Lila's point of view and takes place about eight years earlier. It was startling to see her show up in Gilead for the first time with nothing but a knife and emotional baggage from her dark and lonesome past. John Ames is one of my favorite characters ever. He's not perfect, but he's kind, patient and extraordinarily open to the universe. I was worried as I read this new book that Lila wouldn’t be able to love Ames the way I wanted her to. I read on,  watching these two solitary people start to connect in spite of all the things that should keep them apart, differences in age, social standing and faith.

Robinson uses simple, specific language that is also quite sensual. Early in this book, there's a beautiful description of Lila washing her clothes in the river. Reading, I could smell the river and the soap, and I watched the clothes lose their shape in the water-- and in her words, it’s so vivid. Like Terrence Malick’s movies, like great music, like much of the best art, I find that reading Robinson’s writing makes me feel more awake in my own life. I have a feeling there’s going to be at least one more book by Robinson set in Gilead, and I will go back there with her gratefully.

 

Station 11 book jacketA lot of people will hear the word ‘post-apocalypse’ about Station Eleven and will decide then and there not to read it. That’s a shame because this isn’t your usual vision of the collapse of civilization - there are no zombies hunting prey, no organized savage games to survive. There is savagery for sure, but most of it takes place off screen and the characters mourn the ways in which violence has touched them - they retain their humanity.

The story slips back and forth from a past that is familiar to us all - cell phones, red-eye flights, suburban lives, and tabloids - to a fateful night when an actor performing in the role of King Lear collapses on stage, his death a harbinger of a devastating and virulent flu that will rewrite the story of human-kind. Then we jump to a future in which a small company of actors and musicians makes its way from one sparse outpost of humanity to another, because, after all, what else is there? Each member of ‘the symphony’ has scars; some cherish memories of life before, and to others this ragged and primitive world is all they have ever known. As the story unfolds, the past and present weave together.

Yes, it’s a book about apocalypse and devastation, but in a quieter vein. More accurately it's about loss and memory and how each little piece of the world we carry with us changes our story. And it's well worth reading.

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