Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Headmaster's Wife -- Thomas Christopher Greene

I picked up The Headmaster's Wife solely because I read somewhere in some piece on Thomas Christopher Greene that he'd written it during a time of personal trials and had dedicated it to the memory of the child for whom he grieves. 

Any of us, and by that I mean all of us, who have found ourselves boxing our own way out of that darkness know that it's a different exercise for each of us. I was curious to find out what a writer does with such an arsenal of emotion, especially since this was not a memoir, not a work of non-fiction, but instead came with buzz review words that suggested it was a work of psychological suspense, รก la Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl

It opens with boarding school Headmaster Arthur Winthrop wandering naked through the snow in Central Park. He is detained by law enforcement and under interrogation he begins at the beginning of his own end. The story he tells reveals him as rather a pathetic excuse for everything he purports to be: an educator, a husband, a father. I was ready to put Greene down as an Updike sort, right up until.... well. 

You know I hate spoilerish reviews, so you know that's all you're getting from me as concerns the story(ies). 

Greene has written one of the most discomfiting novels I've read in recent years, one that kept me guessing and wondering to the very end -- and not only wondering about how it would end, but how to characterize it in any simple way to anyone who might ask. On that score, I still have no good answer. All I know is that once you're hooked, you just hang on on the ride.  

While I did find the ending to be weaker than it might have been, I can't fathom what a stronger one might have been. I don't require a happy ending (which isn't to say this had a happy ending); I just want an honest one. I'm not sure this was that, but it was not weak enough to detract from what had been a most consuming and -- dare I say it? -- poignant novel. 

Thomas Dunne Books
St. Martin's Press
February 2014 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry -- Gabrielle Zevin

There was the time I recommended a book to a woman whose mother had recently died, and a week or so later she came by the store just to thank me and give me a hug. (To Dance With the White Dog by Terry Kay)

There was the time a grandmother came in hunting a book to help her grandchild sleep, because the little one had been terrified by the bats she saw flying around in her grand's yard.... and so I recommended Stellaluna by Janell Cannon.  It wasn't long before I heard back that the child now wanted to sleep outside so she could watch the bats.

Every bookseller has stories like these, those moments that make the hours of unpacking and shelving books and rearranging and sweeping and doing all the boring bits of the job so very much worth it. There have been novels about bookshops and booksellers before, most of which made what we do feel so precious, or who we are so bizarre, that they've been silly.

But I knew this one must be different, for after my co-worker had finished reading the galley she brought it back to the shop so that I could read it, too.  That's not the way things ordinarily go. We take the galleys we want, and we rarely fuss over them, because she and I have mostly different taste in what we wish to read. Furthermore, in a small shop like ours, it makes no sense for everyone to read the same books all the time. We give each other reports on what we read, including the customers for whom we believe a book will be a perfect match.

So when she brought this one back I knew I needed to make room for it straightaway.

Widower A.J. Fikry has a small bookshop in an old cottage on Alice Island, one for which he has largely lost all enthusiasm. An unexpected delivery and the attention of a particularly enthusiastic publisher's rep provide him with a second wind for life, and for bookselling.

Fortunately, Zevin doesn't load this up with cutesy "aren't booksellers special?" stuff, nor does it read like a series of insider jokes. It's a small novel, full of good humor, a bigger story than you might expect, and is just a delight.

I find it difficult to share favorite lines from novels because so often they come at a pivotal plot turn and to share them feels like giving something away, but here's one I took the trouble to grab pen and paper to jot down.  

"We agree to be disappointed sometimes so that we can be exhilarated every now and again."

No disappointment here. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a charming, life-affirming, lovely novel, that serves as testament to how much we booksellers love what we do, and how deeply we care about the people for whom we do it. 

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Workman Publishing
Publication date:  April 1, 2014

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Martian - Andy Weir

Here's something you need to know about me. I can remember the names of every teacher I ever had in every subject I ever studied.... except for science. So hopelessly thick was I in that subject that there are only two hazy memories I hold from those classes.

I remember that there was a little tear on the bottom left hand corner of the pull-down chart of the Table of Elements (junior high) and that frogs turned spoiled-hamburger-meat gray when they've been in formaldehyde for any length of time (senior high).

Surprisingly, neither of those two things have ever proved to be of any use whatsoever in my day to day life. I have used algebra more often, frankly, although only as a conversation starter.  As in, "Ever notice how we never have to use algebra?"


I picked up the galley of The Martian by Andy Weir intending to give it to my husband to read. He enjoys sci-fi (I do not) and he'd been very patient with my bringing him, you know, real fiction to read over the past year or so. As I am wont to do, I opened the book to read the first few paragraphs, and, well. I was hooked. 

The only thing you need to know about the story is this: A manned mission to Mars is cut short by a dust storm, during which one of the crew members, Mark Watney, is presumed dead and must be left behind in order to ensure the survival of the other mission members. 

But we are six days past that event when the book opens and we are made privy to Watney's coming-to realization that he is stranded -- alive -- with just the discarded vehicles, a handful of potatoes, and the supplies and personal effects left behind in the crew's scramble to leave the red planet. 

Watney is a charming, engaging, brilliant, and downright lovable narrator, and after the first several paragraphs I had no intention of leaving him up there alone. 

Over the course of this very surprising novel we also spend some time with the rest of the crew, and with flight control, all of whom have to figure out how in the universe they can salvage, literally and figuratively, what was left on Mars. 

Yes, there is a whole lot of science in here. I'll confess that I didn't even try to pay rapt attention to all of that. I was, though, always able to understand the problems Watney was facing, and the big picture for how he came to solve them, but I was not reading this to pick apart the how stuff. (Those who have read it with that sort of critical eye agree that he got all this excruciatingly correct.)

In a recent interview with NPR's Science Friday's Ira Flatow, Weir characterized his novel as hard sci-fi, a genre which employs available science and technology -- albeit sometimes perfected just a tetch -- to create a plausible story.  Weir, a computer programmer and self-identifying space nerd, could surely have been expected to deliver all the technical goodies, but that he also delivered a remarkably compelling human story as well has left me quite bowled over. 

And just a bit sorry that I didn't pay more attention in all those science classes.....

The Martian
Crown Publishers
February 2014

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Last Days of California - Mary Miller

Into every reading life, one supposes, a little "meh" must occasionally fall.

Jess and Elise (15 and 17) join their evangelical parents on a road trip from Montgomery, Alabama to California in order to get there in time for the Rapture. This set up was irresistible for me, and there were so many rave reviews I was sure it was a sure thing.

It didn't take too long for me to fall out of love with it, though, and here's why.

I found Jess' voice to be much younger than her 15 years, particularly given the current day setting of the novel. I just never bought in to her age, and thought throughout the novel that I would have felt more engaged by her had she been a precocious 13 year old.

While the parents in coming-of-age novels are quite often slightly stage left, when the entire novel is set on a road trip with close quarters a given, the parents in this one just cast weird shadows. Their heart isn't really in anything -- not their daughters, not their pilgrimage, and certainly not one another.

So many reviewers spoke of Miller's fresh Southern voice, or touted this as a fine contemporary Southern novel, but there is nothing even remotely Southern about it, save for names of locales. That's not a damnable offense, of course, because one doesn't have to write a Southern novel to be a novelist from the South... but when the buzz keeps throwing it at readers as a selling point it should live up to its own press.  (That said, don't ask me to define a Southern novel. Like all art, you just know it when you see it.) 

I kept reading because, apart from the constant dissonance I found between Jess' stated age and her voice, I identified strongly with her constant inner narrative. She's never content to be a passive observer to even the minutest things: she must always create a back story to every situation.  It's not enough for her to have witnessed an accident, for instance... she is compelled to create scenarios under which all the parties involved were brought to that place, at that exact moment in time.

I was disappointed by this little novel, but there was quite enough promise therein to look forward to seeing what Ms. Miller does next.

My Surly Bottom Line:  Finished it, found lots of lovely little things inside it, just not bowled over by any of it.

Published by: 
Liveright Publishing Corporation
A Division of W. W. Norton & Company

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening - Carol Wall

I am an admirer of gardens, but I am not a gardener. I have no patience for it, nor any desire to develop the patience for it. 

I'm not proud of the fact that I read very little non-fiction, but I'm not ashamed by that, either. 

I also tend to stay away from stories that even sound like they might get treacly.  

All three of these things somehow did not prevent me from picking up a galley we had in the store of Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening by Carol Wall. Honestly, I can't even remember why I did, but I do remember thumbing through it lightly, thinking the chapters were short, it wasn't terribly thick, and that it might tide me over until I found something else I really wanted to read.

Maybe it was this first line in the prologue:  I never liked getting my hands dirty. Just like that, I was identifying with Mrs. Wall, and thought perhaps we could be companions for the time it took me to skim her memoir. 

Little did I expect that I would become so engrossed in her story that I would have an utter meltdown when I discovered that the galley was missing chapters, or that it would send me running to my Twitter account in a desperate attempt to get the attention of somebody at Penguin to HELP, but let's just say that all of that had a happy ending and that when my replacement copy got to me a day later (Seriously?  How ridiculously amazing is THAT?) I actually teared up a little. 

But I did get that caught up, and I finished this lovely, lovely book last night (sorry about supper, Honey), and now I can hardly wait for its publication date so that I can begin to grab my customers by the nape of the neck and sell it to them. I'm already an apostle for this book, and my customers will know it. 

You probably want a little more about the stuff in the book. Okay, fine. Carol Wall is, like me, a person who wants her yard not to be the worst one on the street, but just wants somebody else to handle it all. She has admired the garden of one of her neighbors, and so hires that woman's gardener, Mr. Owita, to help her. She gives him a list of instructions  -- rip out the azaleas, no flowers, just green things -- all of which he manages to ignore while gently bringing her along to his way of thinking. 

Mr. Owita is a native of Kenya, living here with his wife and sons. He isn't just a gardener, he also works at the nursery and also has a job at the grocery store Mrs. Wall patronizes. For these reasons, she and the reader make a hundred little assumptions about Mr. Owita and his life, all of which prove to be very, very wrong. 

It doesn't take long for the two of them to form a bond that defies explanation. I appreciated that Mrs. Wall never attempts to explain it herself, nor does she attempt to soften the focus when she turns it on the other things going on in her life, some of which paint her in a less than flattering, but very human, light.

She also doesn't oversell the fact that Giles Owita is a wise and gentle man. I bet we've all read those memoirs about folks who develop a relationship despite cultural differences of many sorts, and they generally wind up reading like rejected scripts for The Karate Kid.  

Look. I don't know how Mrs. Wall manged to pull this off. I can't even put my finger on what it is she did pull off. I just know that I felt drawn into the middle of their relationship, and that I am very glad I accepted the invitation to do so. 

Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening
Carol Wall
An Amy Einhorn Book
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA)

Publication Date: March 4, 2014

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

In Which a Penguin Made a Surly Bookseller Cry.

I have been on a decidedly bleak reading jag for the longest time, meaning that the books I have been loving lately have featured brutally emotional story lines, or murders out the ears, or combinations of those two things.  Fine for me, but some of my customers shy away from those sorts of things and I do like to have more up my selling sleeve that what they have come to expect from me.

Now this is where I shall explain to you that although ARCs come to the store months and months in advance of their street date, I don't like to read them that far in advance. I prefer to wait until just a month or so before publication, but even more often than that, even after the "real" books are in the store. 

Fresh enthusiasm sells more books. 

Anyway, with those things in mind, I went through the stack of ARCs for March late last week, and came home with one entitled Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening by Carol Wall. 

It's non-fiction. Gardening is its backdrop. The only attributes of a book that would make me less inclined to read it would be a book of laundry tips written by Joel Osteen. 

But there it was. And I just went with it, and I was wholly wrapped up in it. 

And then -- BAM --  just after a very, very emotional Chapter 14 I turn the page and am thrust against my will headlong into Chapter Frickin' 19!    I was frantic. I flipped through the pages and it was just all a big messy printing case of FUBAR from there on.  Hoping against hope, I thumbed through the chapter headings to see if, perhaps, they were all there but just jumbled up, and while I did find some out of place, they are not all there. 

And yes, I know this is an ARC so I then decided that maybe the chapters were just a misprint, but a careful reading of the first lines of a few of them gave me just enough information (damn it) to know that I had missed some very big moments in the lives of Carol Wall and Mister Owita. 

Crushed, I tell you, I am CRUSHED. 

Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening by Carol Wall will be available on March 4, 2014. 

An Amy Einhorn book, published by G.P. Putnam's Son, a member of Penguin Group (USA)

Happy Addendum:  I have received word that a replacement copy is winging its way to me even as I type this, courtesy of the good people at Penguin Group (USA).  Until it arrives later this week I shall sharpen my pencils and dig into some good crossword puzzles.  Thank you, Katie!