New Reviews From Sarah

Here are two new reviews from Sarah. For more of Sarah’s reviews, and lots of other great stuff, head over to our Facebook page.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

VegetarianThis novel won the Man Booker Prize for fiction, and I was concerned it might be too “literary” for my tastes. But it’s easily accessible, and I devoured it in two days.  The title, while accurate, is pretty nondescript at explaining this complex work. Yeong-hye, an obedient and solemn wife, decides to quit eating meat, after she has a disturbing nightmare. No one in her family can understand her reasoning, or her consequent retreat into herself. Yeong-hye’s emotions seem to shut down, as she rejects those closest to her, and isolates. Her brother-in-law, an artist who has lost inspiration, becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye. His artistic vision requires her participation in an explicit sensual piece of performance art. In-hye, Yeong-hye’s sister, struggles with her own mental fragility, as she attempts to assist her ailing sister. Kang follows each character’s unique mental stability, delusions and dreams. It’s challenging to determine which character is falling into madness. This is truly a unique and dark look at the human mind, connections and instinct.

Kill Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride

killemandleaveJames McBride, National Book Award winner and musician in his own right, sets off to explore the roots of the iconic soul legend, James Brown. James Brown led a complicated life, and he was a very secretive man. Few people were let into his inner circle, and he purposefully kept his fans and entourage at a distance. Brown was born in South Carolina in extreme poverty, spent his adolescence with extended family and got interested in music at a young age. McBride delves deep into Brown’s past, interviewing past band members, family members and those who knew Brown best. This biography isn’t chronological, but collates a myriad of personal recollections, attempting to find the real James Brown. Unbeknown to me, James Brown informally adopted Al Sharpton, helping to shape the civil rights leader’s career and focus. McBride’s writing is easily digestible, and he provides a lyrical account of the racial environments that produced a legend. One of the best books I’ve read this year, and McBride may have set himself up for another award.

Comics TBR

comics tbr

Comic books! I totally missed out on the awesomeness of comics when I was a kid and I find myself more than making up for it as an adult. Lately, however, I find that my eyes are bigger than my allotted reading time. It’s like being at a buffet and filling up plate after plate, but in the end you only have so much time to eat.

I’m hoping to grab some time this weekend to play a little catch-up, and I thought a great way to psych myself up would be to share with you just a few of the series that are currently casting a shadow in front of my Shakespeare books at home. I’ll pair them up how I plan to read them. Maybe if you’ve already read one, you’d consider reading its complementary series?

Lumberjanes & Gotham Academy
Lumberjanes was one of the first comic series I really got into reading. A group of girls meets at summer camp and form fast friendships. Soon, however, they realize the surrounding woods are home to magical creatures who aren’t always harmless. It’s up to our gals from the Roanoke cabin to take all that knowledge they gained from earning badges and apply it to the real-life situations they face.

Gotham Academy is about an adventurous group of kids about the same age as our Lumberjanes. Though these kids attend a boarding school outside Gotham City, they also have their share of run-ins with the impossible. And while these two have similarities, they’re listed here together because just this month a new comic series has begun where they have put both casts of characters together in one adventure. This new team-up series is going to be one of the first comics I finish off of that giant stack pictured above.

Batgirl & Black Canary
Did you know that the original Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, was a librarian? It’s true! And while the reboot of one of my favorite characters has gone in a new direction (Babs is in her 20s and in college) I’m totally loving it. There’s a lot of focus on her struggle to balance school, work, friendships, and relationships with fighting crime in Burnside (kinda like Brooklyn).

Dinah Lance is a character I first met in an issue of Batgirl. She fronts a band called Black Canary…and I’m having trouble remembering more details because I’ve only read the first issue! I do remember that they’re like a magnet for trouble. All their concerts get riot-ish and it’s up to them to find out why before they start losing fans.

She-Hulk & Patsy Walker aka Hellcat
Okay, so I’ve actually read all the She-Hulk issues and am almost up-to-date on Patsy Walker aka Hellcat. However, these two pair so well together I had to take the opportunity to tell you about them. She-Hulk, Jennifer Walters, is a defense attorney and a Hulk who can actually control her rage. Hellcat, Patsy Walker, works for a time as an investigator for She-Hulk. The two are really good friends who work well together, both professionally and personally. And they’re both willing to go the extra mile for the underdog.

Rat Queens & Nimona
I’m big into RPGs (role playing games) and so it’s totally surprising that I haven’t actually read Rat Queens yet. Here’s the summary from the library’s catalog:

Who are the Rat Queens? A pack of booze-guzzling, death-dealing battle maidens-for-hire, and they’re in the business of killing all god’s creatures for profit. It’s also a darkly comedic sass-and-sorcery series starring Hannah the Rockabilly Elven Mage, Violet the Hipster Dwarven Fighter, Dee the Atheist Human Cleric and Betty the Hippy Smidgen Thief.

Nimona will also appeal to fantasy fans, though again I’m not sure why I haven’t read this yet. The character Nimona is a shapeshifter who teams up with a villain and tries to prove that the heroes of the land aren’t actually heroes after all. Alan reviewed it last year as one of the best graphic novels of 2015, so I would truly be a fool to let this sit around collecting dust much longer.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. If we consider my stack of unread comic books a buffet, I am planning to gorge myself and soon!

Heartwood 6:4 – The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre

JacketPierre is a 56-year-old bartender in a Parisian restaurant called Le Cercle. The restaurant is owned by a husband-and-wife team (Henri and Isabelle) in their early 40s. In addition to Pierre, they also employ a Senegalese cook by the name of Amédée, a waitress named Sabrina (with whom, it is assumed, Henri is having an affair), and a new girl, Madeleine, who’s been hired to fill in for Sabrina, who is out with the flu. The title is a bit misleading, as the new waitress is a very minor character and this tale is really about Pierre, the wonderfully – and a bit woefully – composed barman who the reader comes to understand through his gentlemanly behavior and conversations with the others, but especially through his thoughts and observations.

The action takes place over just a few days. On the day the new waitress starts, the boss slips out the backdoor and disappears. The boss’s wife typically shows up mid-day and she is glum when she finds her husband has skipped out. There is a pattern to this behavior, and Pierre and Isabelle assume he has gone off for a tryst with Sabrina. This is the dramatic set-up which makes the workday that much harder for the other employees, being a small operation where every hand is needed to get things done. The day ends with Pierre wondering if the new girl will even return the next day. As the senior employee, Pierre provides some emotional support for the boss’s wife, and we also learn about the dissolution of his own marriage (which he thinks was for the best), his mid-life crisis of two years earlier, and even a bit of his mother’s parenting style. The story develops from here in ways that are significant for the few Le Cercle staff, but without any great action, mostly we get Pierre and details of his daily life: Pierre in his apartment doing domestic chores, worrying about reaching the point where he can claim his pension, attempting to shake off the image of dead leaves from a dream, taking his medications, and trying to muster his energy for the next day.

One might grumble about the rather abrupt ending, but this is in keeping with the slice-of-life narrative and the uncertainty that circumstances have thrust Pierre into – I only wished for a little more time in his company. The Waitress Was New is an everyman kind of story told by a character with an easy and, at times, melancholy grace. We’re there as Pierre habitually wipes down the bar, sizes up and interacts with customers (some of whom need to pay off their tabs), banters with Amédée across the pass-through, and reflects on the path his life has taken. Readers drawn to books for character will definitely be glad to have taken a seat at the bar where, in a switch of typical roles, they get to listen to this personable barman’s story, insights, and observations.

All the Missing Girls

Enjoy my review of All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda which will  be published on Tuesday, June 28th.

allthemissinggirlsThis was a suspenseful book, that had me wondering “who dunnit” the whole time. Ends up, it wasn’t anyone I thought it was!

Corrine goes missing after a night with friends at the fair. There is a huge search for her, and much finger pointing, speculation and gossip by the townsfolk. It seems that people both loved her AND hated her, adding another layer to the mystery of what has become of Corrine.

Fast forward 10 years and Nicolette, who was one of Corrine’s closest friends, comes back to town to help her brother get their childhood home ready to sell because her father has Alzheimer’s and is now in an adult care home. Within a few days, Annaleise, who provided an alibi for Nicolette and her friends that night at the fair, goes missing.

An interesting part of this book is that Nicolette gets back to Cooley Ridge and we jump ahead 15 days and tell the story backwards from that point, ending with the day she got back into town. I admit it was a little confusing. I kept thinking: oh wait… that happened the next day, so she doesn’t know about this or that yet… But it was a relief to have all the pieces fall into place as I finished the book and saw how things all played out, and it suddenly all made sense!

Bowie, Still David Bowie

When we last left David Bowie it was 1993 and his music had moved in a somewhat darker direction. This leaves him with 23 years and 6 more albums before the culmination of his career, Blackstar.

OutsideNext up for Mr. Bowie was Outside (1995), a concept album realized with Brian Eno. The pair entered the studio with no written songs, just a vague wisp of inspiration from a fictional dystopian diary written by Bowie. A computer program was used to chop up and randomly cut and paste the text of the diary, and the result of this process became a starting point from which music was improvised. This music eventually coalesced into the finished album. An intensely dramatic entry in the Bowie catalog, I recently discovered this album and cannot stop listening. It’s a truly amazing work.

Earthling1997 saw the release of Earthling, an album influenced by the drums and bass culture of the 90s. As with all of Bowie’s work, he takes the kernel of an idea (in this case a style) and makes it truly his own. For example, instead of sampling other people’s music as a starting point, Bowie’s band creates their own loops to use as musical building blocks. The resulting music is highly aggressive, filled with industrial buzz saw guitars and synths. I would never recognize this as a Bowie album just from listening. Critics were pleased with the results and the recording received a Grammy nomination.

HoursAlways striving for ch-ch-ch-change, Bowie released Hours in 1999. It was his first album to miss the US top 40 in over 25 years. The music is very mellow, even falling comfortably in the Adult Contemporary category. In short, I really quite, er, like it less than intrusive surgery. As do many Bowie fans. However, I can respect the exploration of new styles, and really, in a 40-year career I can give him one album that I’m less-than-enthusiastic about. And perhaps you, Dear Reader, might love and cherish this recording. That is the beauty of personal taste.

Bowie released two more albums before taking a 10 year break: Heathen in 2002 and Reality the following year. Both showed marked improvement to the lackluster Hours. Many good songs, packed with variety, and a laid-back vocal style that characterized the remainder of Bowie’s work.

Group1

A 2004 tour was halted by emergency coronary surgery and this slowed Bowie’s output significantly. He took most of 2006 off, performing his own music on stage for the last time in November. Work continued as a composer, with occasional appearances, but a decade passed before the appearance of another album in 2013.

This is where I must wax philosophically. David Bowie, who was such a big part of my musical existence, took a 10 year break and I wasn’t even aware of it until researching this post. At some point I assumed that Bowie had peaked, didn’t have anything left in the tank, and I stopped paying attention. Now I know that a wealth of great music was created after 1983. And I’m grateful that this music will forever be a part of my listening rotation. But I remain stunned that Bowie all but disappeared for 10 years without me even knowing. I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned in here somewhere.

Next month we will look at the final albums, more fabulous music, and the grand finale in an exquisite career. Stay tuned.

Short Story Debuts

There is nothing like that crisp new fiction smell. A debut author finally getting their words into print is always exciting. Sure there is always the possibility that the new author’s style and tone might not translate into great reading for you, but taking a chance is half the fun.  A great way to minimize the risk of getting a dud is to check out debut short story collections. Short stories are (surprise, surprise) brief so it takes less time to find out if one is not to your taste. Also, there is no harm in simply skipping one story in a collection if it isn’t working for you. If you are up to the challenge, here are three debut short story collections that are definitely worth your limited reading time.

Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink

dogrunmoonAll of the tales in this great collection have a strong sense of place, the American West (Montana and Wyoming for the most part), and a quirky sense of humor. Most of the hardscrabble characters have seen better days, but they continue to play the cards life has dealt them in determined and unique ways. Standout stories include: “One More Last Stand” which follows a Little Bighorn reenactor, playing Custer of course, whose marriage is slowly falling apart. “Exotics” the story of a teacher in Montana who takes a summer job working at a cattle ranch in Texas to get away from it all. The best of the bunch “Dog Run Moon” opens with an early morning chase scene involving a nude construction worker, the dog he ‘liberated’, and the vengeful owner on his ATV.

inheriteddisordersInherited Disorders: Stories, Parables & Problems by Adam Ehrlich Sachs

The stories in this collection all share the same topic: the ‘special relationship’ between fathers and sons. Normally I would avoid this type of collection like the plague, worrying that the stories would be schmaltzy and filled with Hallmark card-worthy resolutions, but this book breaks the mold. The stories are all pleasingly short, from a few pages to a paragraph, and are basically hilarious parables. The tone is hard to describe so why not just enjoy this fine example:

Dead Language
Linguists last year were overjoyed to discover two living speakers, a father and son, of a Finnic language long believed to be extinct. The father lived in North Karelia, the son in South Karelia. Both agreed to be flown to Helsinki to have a conversation observed and recorded by a consortium of eighty linguists in the hope of preserving the language. But the conversation was so stilted, so perfunctory, so silence-ridden and self-conscious that afterward the eighty linguists declared the language, for all intents and purposes, extinct. This is said to be the first time a language has ever been declared extinct while there are still people alive who speak it.

If nothing else, you now have the perfect gift for Father’s day.

The Brink by Austin Bunn

thebrinkThe stories in this collection vary widely in topic, setting, and character with the author clearly not afraid to take a chance and experiment. The good news is that the stories do not feel like creative writing exercises. Instead Bunn is a master at capturing a moment in time, no matter how fantastic, and conveying the feeling of it convincingly. And oh what moments in time they are. “How to Win an Unwinnable War” follows a teenager who enthusiastically volunteers to take a summer course on thermonuclear war to get away from being at home and watching his parents’ marriage fall apart. “Griefer” tells the tale of an online role-playing game as is it is about to be shut down, through the eyes of a devotee who can’t seem to let go. “Ledge” finds the crew of a 15th century Spanish galleon discovering the actual end of the earth, and the disturbing fact of what lies over that edge.

So there you have it. Three brand spankin’ new short story collections. Now get out there and read.

Genesis Girl by Jennifer Bardsley

genesis girl jennifer bardsley

Blanca’s parents never posted baby photos of her on Facebook. They never taught her to ride a bike, or took her to Girl Scouts, or even walked her to school. They’ve never even taken a family photograph together. That’s because Blanca’s parents severed all lines of communication when she was very young, choosing to offer her up as a Vestal postulant.

Blanca has been raised her whole life at Tabula Rasa, a boarding school/cloistered academy of sorts that raises children to be supplicant and free of all technology. She’s been training her whole life to be a Vestal, essentially an internet virgin incapable of making decisions for herself. In a world where technology has moved away from handheld phones and literally into the user’s hands in the form of tech implants, Blanca and her classmates are extremely valuable. No one outside the school has ever seen them or a photograph of them.

When a Vestal graduates from Tabula Rasa at eighteen, corporations bid on them. They will purchase Vestals to serve as product spokespeople. A Vestal’s image has never before been released on the internet, and now the corporation owns everything about their likeness. Consumers find Vestal families depicted in advertising campaigns as trustworthy, wholesome, and believable. Even though everyone knows how a Vestal is made, the corporations still sell so many more products and services when a Vestal is involved in the ads.

I’ll let Blanca explain it:

For a Vestal, a clear Internet history is the most important
thing. Without that, I’m nothing. Our elusive privacy is what makes us valuable. I’ve watched our class shrink from two hundred eager postulants to a graduating group of ten. The infractions were usually unavoidable: their memory was spotty, their temperament was bad, or worst of all, they turned out ugly. But once in a while, somebody was thrown out because of an online transgression. Everyone left is bankable. Ten perfect human specimens who could sell you anything.

Still with me? This is a dystopian society in which technology has played a key part in the destruction of the human race. In this world, brain cancer has killed off many of the previous generation thanks to radiation in cell phones. That’s why tech implants in fingers and hands have become popular. People no longer have to hold the tech to their heads. But it also makes it easier for someone to sneakily take a photograph of someone, which is why Vestals aren’t ever allowed outside of Tabula Rasa’s lead walls.

That is, until the day our book begins, when someone manages to break into the underground parking area of Tabula Rasa as Blanca and her friend Fatima are attempting to get into a vehicle to take them to their auction. Blanca is stunned, horrified and not sure what to do. I mean, our girl immediately fights back in the form of kicking the photographer and trying to prevent him from uploading her image. But with her image potentially out there for the world to see, she fears no corporation will want her, no one will bid on her, and she’ll be let go with her whole life up til now being a big waste.

Corporations aren’t the only entities that can bid on a Vestal. There are also private bidders, and a Vestal purchased by one is considered to have “gone Geisha.” That’s because the speculation is usually that a Vestal purchased by an individual will actually be treated like a wife or husband, rather than an employee.

Genesis Girl brings a fun-house mirror up to our current society obsessed with technology and asks: what if tech was everything? What if we put some serious value on those who don’t use technology and are truly present in every conversation? The book also kept turning the tables, forcing both Blanca and the reader to repeatedly change their perception of Blanca’s identity. Will she go Geisha? If so, does that mean she will be forever stigmatized? Will she even be bid upon or thrust back into the cruel world with no notion of how to operate even the simplest computer? What will happen to her Vestal friends? And what is going to happen to that rude guy who took her photo on the first page of the book?

You guys, I usually don’t like dystopias and it’s rare that I can get into a Sci-Fi novel. But I completely loved Genesis Girl. In fact, I had a few chapters left last Sunday when I snuck it into The Paramount to finish at intermission. Genesis Girl is the start of a series, which you will be happy to hear once you read the ending and are left wanting more! More Blanca! More of the crazy world depicted! More secrets revealed!

The author of this insanely addicting book, Jennifer Bardsley, is more than just a debut author. She’s even more than just a Pacific Northwest/Snohomish County author. She’s the genius behind The Herald’s weekly parenting column, I Brake for Moms. Yes: her words break out into the world from right here in Everett! She was kind enough to send me an advance copy of the book, as well as some awesome bookmarks that we’ve put out in the teen area for you. She has a huge following on Instagram, where I first connected with her. As I was writing this she posted a video trailer for Genesis Girl that you need to go watch right now! And she recently gave us a peek into the life of a debut author via this article in The Herald.

What more could you possibly want? Read Genesis Girl and I guarantee you will want the next book in the series.