Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Riot Round-Up: The Best Books We Read in April - Part One

by Sean Bell)

Black Lake by Johanna Lane

A modern family living in the husband’s familial crumbling and ancient Irish estate run out of money and open the house to the public as a tourist attraction. They move out of the big, damp house and into a tiny cottage, where the close proximity causes friction and eventually, tragedy. If you’re into RUINOUS, HOUSE OF USHER style mansions, big family SEEECREETTS, and slim books with heavy, ominous tones, this’ll be right up your alley. It’s creepy without anything creepy actually happening. It’s very Emily Bronte-ish, but without the animal abuse or dozens of characters named after each other or insufferable melodrama (I have feelings about Emily Bronte). It’s just unsettling, impressively crafted, and bananas-insightful about marriage, family, and why we hide things from people we love. - Amanda Nelson

The Bookseller by Mark Pryor

After absolutely falling in love with Laura Florand’s novels in March, I basically spent all of April reading books about French pastry chefs and chocolatiers. The Bookseller was the only non-Florand novel that managed to hold my attention. It has everything you could want: a gun-toting Texan, embassy officials, a smart-mouthed secretary, rare books, Nazi hunters, Paris, a hard-drinking CIA operative with his own agenda, fancy-pants aristocrats, a mysterious woman with secrets, Agatha Christie references, and a totally creeptastic villain. I saw many of the early twists coming from a mile off, and there are a hella lot of coincidences, but the plot redeems itself in the end with a very clever series of red herrings. I would recommend The Bookseller to anyone who enjoys a good mystery or books about books. - Tasha Brandstatter

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

I love to read personal essays, but it’s been awhile since I found a collection that knocked me back on my heels like The Empathy Exams. Leslie Jamison’s writing is elegant and honest, and reflects a person who is profoundly curious about the world around her, especially the world of pain and suffering. The book asks a lot of hard questions about how to understand and react to the pain of others and how we can better try to understand each other. If you are skeptical about an essay collection, you can read versions of the first and last essays of the book (my favorites) online to get an idea of what you’re missing —“The Empathy Exams” from Believer Mag and“Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” from The Virginia Quarterly Review. - Kim Ukura

Finch by Jeff Vandermeer

Detective John Finch is assigned a murder to investigate. Only, the city he lives in, Ambergris, has been invaded by creatures that are fungal in nature and many of the buildings have been turned into weird half-living mushrooms. It is now ruled by monstrous gray caps, creatures far more powerful than humans, and their designs on Ambergris are unclear. Finch has to solve the murder or likely be killed himself, but he is just as much of a mystery as the case. We learn early on that John Finch is not his name and that he claims not to be a detective at all.

The style of writing takes a bit of getting used to and will probably turn a few readers off. However, the book is delightfully weird, reminding me of China Mieville’s books at times. If you like your fiction dark, your cities dystopic and your antagonists otherworldly, this is your thing. If any of that sounded the least bit unpalatable, this is perhaps not the book for you. I thoroughly enjoyed it. - Johann Thorsson

Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone (July 15, Tor Books)

This is the third book in Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, and he just keeps getting better and better. An epic fantasy with a distinctly 21st century feel, Gladstone’s newest novel follows Kai, a young transgender investor/priestess, on her home, the isolated archipelago of Kavekana. Kavekana has managed to stay alive after the God Wars by bowing to neither Divinity or Deathless Kings but by relying on Kai and her order to build artificial, harmless deities for all your worshipping needs. However, when Kai tries to save one of the order’s creations from dying, she begins to realize the true effect of building a god, and how do you stop one from waking up? I did a spotlight on Gladstone, but I’ll say it again here: he is one of the best up and coming fantasy writers out there, able to weave compassion and tension into sentences packed with stunning prose about worlds filled with diversity and magic. Bringing together threads from the first two books, and delivering something wholly unique, Full Fathom Five blew me away. Bring on book four, I say! - Martin Cahill

The Golem and The Jinni by Helene Wecker

Once again I was nailed by my local librarian and not in that way, in this way, the way she has in steering me backwards, brilliantly, toward my eleven year old self and the stories that I, gawky, pudgy, overbite, braces, loved at that age, which is the Sci-Fi/Fantasy portion of everyone’s life. She pushed The Golem and The Jinni on me. And I sat up long after I put the kids to bed to steep in this wonderfully cast tall tale set in 19th century New York where waves of immigrants came in through Ellis Island and where a golem, a homunculus of Jewish mythology, meets a jinni, sprite of the desert Middle East, and they fight crime together like Peace Talk superheros. - Elizabeth Bastos

Guy In Real Life by Steve Brezenoff (May 27, Balzer + Bray/Harper)

Lesh and Svetlana run into one another — literally — on a street corner in St. Paul, Minnesota on Labor Day weekend. What ensues after is a story about a boy who learns there are no such things as manic pixie dream girls and a girl who challenges everyone’s expectations and preconceptions of what “being a girl” is all about. This book is amazingly nerdy, as Lesh is a video gamer (by accident) and Svetlana is dungeonmaster for her own role playing game. Both characters in the story have a voice, and in between their sections are parts played by Svvetlana, the female elf character Lesh plays in his video game. Brezenoff offers humor and heart in the story, challenging and exploring what gender roles are, what sexism is, and what an unconventional romance can be. Though I hesitate to compare it to Fangirl, readers who dug the style of metafiction there will absolutely eat this book up. Even those who aren’t gamers of any color (like myself!) will find that the way it’s been written easy to fall into. This one gets bonus points for its setting; it’s rare we get a book set in St. Paul in YA, let alone one that makes it sound like an awesome place to be. - Kelly Jensen

The Hare by Cesar Aira, translation by Nick Caistor

I recently spoke with the brilliant author Peter Heller, and during our talk he said he had just finished reading The Hare, so I knew I had to pick it up. I find that if I like an author, I usually like what they are reading as well. The language of this book is gorgeous. I can only imagine how challenging it must have been to translate, so props to Nick Caistor. The prose has this intuitive, natural lyricism that blends flawlessly with airs of astute, academic articulation. (Sorry for the overbearing alliteration) Cesar Aira does a tremendous job describing the pampas, making a seemingly dull landscape come alive. I was also quite surprised by the unconventional and unpredictable ending. Consult your Ouija boards, look to your tarot cards, read with a microscope, but I think you’ll be baffled and delighted by how this work wraps up. - Aram Mrjoian

How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer (July 1, St. Martin’s Press)

I loved Lydia Netzer’s debut novel, Shine, Shine, Shine and she didn’t disappoint me one bit with her second book. The thing about Netzer is that her writing is funny AND smart, so you actually feel the neurons in your brain rapid firing with every word. She’s completely outside the box, and it’s fresh, fun, and exciting. How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky is a genuinely moving love story at its core, with the added bonus of humor that is sweet and almost soul touching. George and Irene’s mothers are astrologists who give birth to “twin souls,” and plan to raise them separately so they can meet later and fall in love. The mothers have a little bit of a falling out and it is almost by divine intervention that George and Irene meet again. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and for that… I am grateful. When I grow up, I want to be Lydia Netzer. - Emily Gatlin

The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

I haven’t read a Tolstoy in quite some time, and my return to his race-car-fast-paced fiction is making my head spin. In a good way! I forgot about how personable Tolstoy is, especially when it comes to the crazy characters you’d hope to never be friends with (or randomly meet on a dark train) in real life. Like Posdnicheff, the guy our innocent narrator meets on the train, who happens to be that husband from the paper who killed his wife in a fit of jealous rage, after finding her sleeping with the violinist. After lurking around and eavesdropping on the other passenger’s conversation for a while, Posdnicheff inserts his own argument, effectivly shuts down the good-natured fun by making everyone else really uncomfortable, then spends the rest of the ride passionately telling his own life story, leading up to marriage, murder and mayhem. It’s a delightful novella to get into as I prepare for my own wedding day, with wisdoms like “Yes, I affirm that love, real love, does not consecrate marriage, as we are in the habit of believing, but that, on the contrary, it ruins it.” Honestly though – I’m always surprised by how present-day Tolstoy’s conversations are, whether it be love and marriage, family and children, or the mess society is making of itself. Just another reminder that they’re called classics for a reason. - Alison Peters

Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique (July 10, Riverhead)

This debut novel is so gorgeously written and such a joy to read that I doled it out to myself in 20-page sips to make the pleasure last as long as possible. What more can I say?! It is challenging in the way that the best books are–Yanique asks readers to explore difficult dynamics and sit with uncomfortable moments–and it makes for an immensely rewarding reading experience. I’m hesitant to say anything that will give away the plot. Come to this book with fresh eyes and an open mind, and be prepared to be dazzled. - Rebecca Joines Schinsky

Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman

The Hungarian Gold Train- have you heard of it? I certainly hadn’t, and I was exposed to A TON of Holocaust history as a kid. So what was in this train, discovered by the Allies in Salzburg at the end of WWII? The tangible evidence of a vanished community- the Jews of Budapest, most of whom were killed by the Nazis. In this beautiful and wide-ranging novel, Waldman moves forward and backward through time, charting the movement of a single locket taken from this train, one whose history illuminates the lives of such diverse people as a Jewish American soldier, his granddaughter, and the original owner of the locket. Ultimately, this story is about restitution, even after decades have passed, documents have disappeared, and people have died, for Natalie is asked by her grandfather to go back to Europe and locate the heirs of the locket’s original owner (and return it to them). What I especially appreciated about Love & Treasure was Waldman’s exploration of the Israeli Jew – Eastern European Jew divide and her foregrounding of history and memory as elements that connect everyone, living and dead. Overall, a lovely book. - Rachel Cordasco

Motherfucking Sharks by Brian Allen Carr

I raved about this book last week in the Well-Readheads column, but I have plenty of enthusiasm to rave some more! I loved this book to bloody, chummy pieces! In Motherfucking Sharks, a man and his mule ride into a small dusty town and tell the townspeople to hit the road because the motherfucking sharks are coming to gobble everybody up. (Well, the man tells them, not the mule. If the mule talked, it would be a Pixar film.) Being that they are in the middle of land, the townspeople think the man is insane and lock him up. So, of course, you know what happens next. (Spoiler: OM NOM NOM NOM.) This slim book is deliciously disturbing fun and more twisted than a Twizzler, but what really makes it work is Carr’s amazing writing. I immediately bought everything else he has written, because it is as much of his brain as I’ll be able to see without a bone saw. - Liberty Hardy

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

I’m about 50 pages from finishing this unfinished novel, and I’m not sure how I’m going to feel when I have to close the book. That said, for fans of Wallace, this is a must. It contains a wide variety of stylistic approaches and voices, and even though unfinished feels more even somehow than Infinite Jest. I’d recommend approaching the book as a collection as opposed to a novel, with the parts loosely united by a focus on the IRS and the theme of human struggle and growth. Yes, the book does center on an examination of boredom (and Wallace puts you through some real tedium in the reading), but most of the best parts are the long chapters, when the narrative lingers with characters as they take a hard look at themselves. This is Wallace at his best, revealing what these characters may not want to see about who they are while maintaining the potential for the hard-won emergence of their better selves. - Loyal Miles

Rat Queens, Volume 1 by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch

I haven’t exactly been in love with comics lately, despite the abundance of really excellent titles currently being published. One of the comics that is starting to get me out of my funk is Rat Queens from Image Comics. This high-fantasy, adventure series follows a group of “battle maidens-for-hire” as they uncover a murderous plot in their home town. It’s just like Dungeons & Dragons if your questing group was a raucous Roller Derby team. That may sound a bit gimmicky, but the charming and well-developed characters give this comic sturdy legs. Rat Queens is a ridiculous amount of fun, and I can’t help but smile and cheer my way through this comic. - Ali Colluccio

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