... And I'm Off!

31 August 2014

I'm heading to Europe for the next 30 days. Thirty days. That fact still hasn't really sunk in with me, but it's happening. Which means this little corner of the internet is about to get very quiet.

I've already submitted boatloads (well, not really, but it feels like it) of reviews of September and October titles to Shelf Awareness for Readers, along with several columns on the reading life, so some of my writing will be appearing even while I'm away. And while I don't plan to update this blog while I'm traveling, I do anticipate I'll be updating Instagram as possible, and likely tweeting wherever I can score WiFi along the way, so feel free to follow along there for tales of European Adventures.


Book Review: Flings, by Justin Taylor

30 August 2014

Originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Justin Taylor's second collection of stories, Flings, centers on human relationships, particularly romantic ones, and the myriad ways they define and redefine us. The leading story, "Flings," sets the overall tone for the volume: recent college graduates make big life decisions--what job to take, what city to live in--based on what their friends and significant others are doing, only to find that none of these relationships are what they once seemed. "A Talking Cure" introduces two newlyweds who struggle to define marriage, and wonder whether or not it matters if their definition matches the rest of the world's. In "Carol, Alone," a lonely widow finds odd companionship with an alligator lurking in her backyard.

All of the stories in Taylor's collection are direct, though they sometimes lack enough description that they leave the reader with questions about motivation. In "Poets," for example, a couple breaks up, gets back together, breaks up again--and it is never clear exactly why any of this happens. The characters in "Sungold" are so deadpan as to feel flat, though the story overall is humorous in its absurdity. As in relationships, though, sometimes the less-successful moments make the good ones shine even brighter, and the gems here make Flings well worth one's time. Taylor's insightful stories illuminate the many ways we fall in love--and out of it--and how romances shape our identity both while they last and long after they conclude.


Flings: Stories | Justin Taylor | Harper | Hardcover | August 2014

Book Review: Beneath the Darkening Sky, by Majok Tulba

29 August 2014

Originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

When Majok Tulba was a young boy in South Sudan, a group of rebel soldiers attacked his village and took as recruits all of the young boys who stood taller than an AK-47. Though Tulba himself was too short to be taken, he has imagined what his experience might have been in Beneath the Darkening Sky, a novel that centers on Obinna, a young boy who measured taller than the rebels' guns.

During the raid on their village, Obinna and his brother watch as their father is murdered before they are carried away to join the rebel army. As new recruits, they are sent ahead to scout for land mines on long marches; they are ordered to run and hike to keep fit; they are fed measly meals of gruel and scraps; they stand on the lookout for government forces coming to attack them, day in and day out. Obinna's frequent mistakes earn him extra beatings, the nickname Baboon's Ass, even-more-limited rations and constant torment. Slowly, his captain strips him of his sense of identity, his sense of self, to turn him into a soldier--a raping, pillaging, murdering rebel who storms unsuspecting towns in the dead of night, just as soldiers stormed his so many years ago.

Beneath the Darkening Sky is as heartbreaking as it is beautiful, giving us the story of a young boy who must fight to defend himself against conditions worse than any human--let alone a child--should ever be forced to endure. As a novel of resilience and identity, and of what lengths we are willing to go to survive, it is at once harrowing and haunting, shedding light on the continuing horrors of child soldiers.


Beneath the Darkening Sky | Majok Tulba | Oneworld |

Book Review: Working Stiff, by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

27 August 2014

Originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Judy Melinek set out to be a surgeon, completing medical school and starting her residency before realizing it was not the career for her. In the summer of 2001, she changed tack and opted for a career in forensic pathology--what many might recognize from television crime series as a medical examiner. Working Stiff is an account of Melinek's years in training, complete with gory details, heartfelt emotions and plenty of ripped-from-the-headlines case studies.

Melinek, writing with T.J. Mitchell, packs every chapter with a careful balance of scientific fact and personal anecdote, covering topics such as what happens to a body's internal organs in a high-speed car crash with a static object (it's not pretty) and the difficulties of losing a loved one to suicide (Melinek's father killed himself). This mixture of nonfiction and narrative makes for compelling, informative reading as Melinek works through cases of homicide, accidental death, medical error and suicide--and becomes even more powerful as the authors recount the harrowing weeks and months following the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, which brought more bodies and death to Melinek's door than ever before.

Though the subject of Working Stiff can be overwhelming and gory, Melinek and Mitchell carefully avoid reveling in the horrors of a medical examiner's work. Instead, they highlight individual case studies as a way to illustrate nuances of the job that might not come through on Law & Order: the humanity of the subjects, the inconclusive results of an autopsy, the lasting impact that working with death can have on an individual's life.


Working Stiff | Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell | Scribner | Hardcover | August 2014

Book Review: A Mouthful of Stars, by Kim Sunee

25 August 2014

Originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

In her foreword, Frances Mayes (traveler and author of Under the Tuscan Sun) writes that chef and food writer Kim Sunée (Trail of Crumbs) had gone on more adventures by the age of 30 than most have in an entire lifetime. Consider: Sunée was born in South Korea before being adopted and raised in New Orleans; she then traveled to Sweden and spent 10 years in France. This international background is reflected in Sunée's cookbook, A Mouthful of Stars, which Mayes calls "astonishing" proof of Sunée's aim to "cook as she lives, passionately and expansively."

This passion could not shine through any more brightly in Sunée's colorful, sometimes whimsical cookbook, which compiles reflections from her travels with recipes from places that have played a strong role in her growth as a chef: Seoul, North Africa, Provence, Paris, Sweden, the Southern U.S. and Tuscany. Each recipe here is based on the traditional dishes of these delectable cuisines, such as Pan-Fried Peppers with Coconut and Tamarind (India), Provençal Beef Stew, Spicy Fried Chicken (American South) and Swedish Beet and Apple Salad. The recipes are simple and easy to follow, though home cooks with less experience in the kitchen may miss introductory information like total preparation time and required equipment, which is not included. Details aside, however, lovers of food or travel or both will likely delight in this diverse collection of dishes (complemented by Leela Cyd's stunning photographs) and Sunée's travel anecdotes.


A Mouthful of Stars | Kim Sunee, foreword by Frances Mayes | Andrews McMeel | Hardcover | May 2014

European Adventures: The Reading List

22 August 2014

Last week, I wrote about my upcoming trip to Europe for the month of September (month! This is starting to feel so real...), and picking my reading list. I've finally narrowed down my selections. Seven cities, ten books (more than I'll need, of course, but such is the life of a bookworm, right?):

We've booked the entirety of our itinerary via AirBnB, renting apartments in city neighborhoods rather than staying in hotels, and I'm packing in the most spectacular L.L. Bean backpack I've ever seen (packing for a month in just a backpack will be an adventure unto itself, but one I think I'm fairly prepared for). Let the adventuring begin?

Book Review: Tigerman, by Nick Harkaway

21 August 2014

Originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Mancreu, formerly a British colony, is doomed: a political committee has determined that the small island must be burned in order to protect the international community from the bursts of toxic chemicals Mancreu emits. Nick Harkaway's third novel, Tigerman, introduces aging British Army Sgt. Lester Ferris into this strange island. After a difficult tour in Afghanistan, Lester is assigned to Mancreu to serve as the military presence until the island's destruction—a relatively peaceful post to tide him over until retirement. Instead of finding a sleepy community staring down its own death, Lester finds a friend--a nameless boy with a comic-book obsession--and with that friendship comes a purpose; he must get the boy off the island before it's destroyed. When a mutual friend dies in a gang shooting, both Lester and the boy are drawn into a political plot that no one could have imagined existed on an island as inconsequential as Mancreu.

Packed with sharp wit and quick humor, Tigerman will keep readers on their toes. Blink and you'll miss a clever joke or important plot point. Read with a keen eye, though, and Harkaway's novel offers big rewards: a world slightly skewed from our own, and yet still recognizable as the backdrop for a story that asks big questions about parenting, friendship, family, heroes and how to go on living when the world is ending. The resulting novel is a rollick of a read, packing emotion, hilarity and a dose of self-deprecation into a story that is, to borrow a phrase from Lester's young friend, "full of win."


Tigerman | Nick Harkaway | Knopf | Hardcover | June 2014