Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Pulitzer-winning author, Viet Thanh Nguyen, makes a powerful return to fiction with the February 7th, 2017 publication of his short story collection, The Refugees. The book, comprised of eight unconnected short stories, explores the experiences of those who fled Vietnam following the collapse of the Southern Vietnamese government in 1975. Nguyen, himself a “boat person,” brings both first-hand knowledge and impressive literary skill to bear in this collection.

His stories of immigration, eerily relevant in this new year, focus on the refugee experience in all but one of the vignettes; the exception being the story of an American family whose daughter flees to Vietnam. The contents of each chapter vary effortlessly through space, time, and gender: from poignant ghost story, to a wife coming to grips with her long-time spouse’s dementia, to the struggles of youth with the obligations of filial piety. I have always believed that a truly talented author could make me believe anything of anyone, but I am also aware that a writer who draws on personal experience can lend a special sort of authenticity to their fiction. The Refugees has this in spades, and I would heartily recommend it to lovers of short stories and character-driven fiction.

Jennifer Wilson

Friday, January 27, 2017

Everything You Want Me to Be: a Novel by Mindy Mejia

Hattie Hoffman, a teenager residing in a small farming community in rural Minnesota, has the world by the tail. Intelligent, lovely, and genuinely sweet, she's the epitome of the perfect child for most parents. Her love for acting has given her big dreams for her future, a future that involves moving to New York and hopefully staking out a career on Broadway. However; those dreams are dashed when her body is discovered in a barn, a victim of a horrific stabbing. 

Local Sheriff Del Goodman and trusty sidekick Jake (deputy) go above and beyond to put the pieces of this puzzle together by gathering crime scene evidence and searching through her personal computer and cell phone for clues. It's soon discovered that Hattie had been involved in a secret online relationship.

Interviews are conducted of potential (and very obvious) suspects. Among these suspects are bumbling football jock Tommy Kinakis (Hattie's boyfriend) as well as handsome new English teacher Peter Lund, who was currently in the midst of a drifting marriage and rather unhappy about his living arrangement on his ailing mother-in-law's farmstead. My personal list of less obvious suspects were Mary Lund, the slightly angry and detached wife of Peter Lund ; Portia Nguyen, Hattie's best friend; and last but not least, Winifred Erickson, the elderly pipe-smoking friend of Mary Lund's family who had shot and killed her husband twelve years previously (a character whom I would have liked to have seen more of).

You'll undoubtedly experience a "Wow" moment towards the ending of this particular novel, with its twists and turns, but as much as one might enjoy this book, the ending was unfortunately a bit predictable. 

Cathy Kesterson

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Last Night: stories by James Salter

Last Night is a collection of 10 meticulously-crafted stories of betrayal, secrets, and lies. Reminiscent of Raymond Carver and J.D. Salinger, Salter creates characters who are unhappy, hurtful, and wholly unlikeable. Yet they are also flawed in completely recognizable ways. Even when their actions are unfathomable, the thoughts and emotions that lead them to make bad choices are the same that motivate most people’s decisions: love (or the idea of it), fear, loneliness, and desperation.

Fear and loneliness are heartbreakingly revealed in the story “Such Fun” where three women have drinks, gossip, and complain about their (privileged) lives while ultimately revealing very little of their true selves or motivations. In the end, one of them ends up leaving the party early and telling her cab driver that she’s just been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Salter doesn’t reveal why she keeps this from her friends and chooses to tell a stranger, instead the reader is left to form their own conclusion.

Each story is distilled down to only the most necessary information, giving the reader a feeling that they’ve walked in on the middle of a private conversation. The penultimate entry “Arlington” reveals the decline and fall of a young army officer’s promising career in just two short scenes. A tale that might have taken hundreds of pages for another author is expertly whittled down to just 7 pages.

For me, a truly great short story is like a painting where only a brief moment in time is captured but so much emotion can be revealed. Like the paintings of Edward Hopper, Last Night is melancholy, haunting, vaguely lonely, and stays with you long after you walk away. 


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Reflective fiction is a popular genre for many but was not one that I typically read from. I am glad I gave this book a chance as I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Jude and Noah are thirteen year old twins who have always been incredibly close to each other and can feel where the other is at. They know everything about each other and can trust each other with their secrets. It is nice being able to have someone there for you all the time and have that deep bond with another human being. Being total opposites didnt drive them apart but made them a better team.

Three years and one giant family tragedy later, everything has fallen apart for Jude and Noah. They are no longer each others best friend and hardly even speak to each other and do not know how to deal with their depression and pain. This is a story of growing up, coming to terms with difficult things that life throws your way, and relationships with those around you.

What I liked about this story is the alternating viewpoints of the twins. We hear Noah narrating at the beginning of the book when they are 13 and the story switches to Jude three years later. The reader can tell how Jude struggles with depression and a little mental illness during the story. She sees and speaks to her dead grandmother and believes there is another spirit trying to sabotage her art in school. Jude has also boycotted dating boys after a terrible sexual experience when she was younger. Seeing her grow and become more comfortable with herself as she opens up to the world.

If you enjoy realistic fiction where we see the main character eventually grow and change things for herself, you would enjoy this book. It does include romance and will make you laugh and cry throughout the story. It is difficult to read about their misfortunes and see them struggle at times but the book is beautifully written and worth reading.

I typically prefer more action to emotions but I very much enjoyed this book and plan to try more authors from the reflective category.


Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Mistletoe Murder

I'm not one for reading short stories, particularly Christmas ones. But I have enjoyed P.D. James over the years and so decided to check this title out.  Lo and behold I discovered that at least three of the stories are an homage to Agatha Christie, and two of the four stories star Adam Dalgliesh, James's own detective.
Story one is told by a best-selling crime writer fifty-two years after the murder occurred . Typical of Christie, it takes place in a large atmospheric house where all but one of the guests invited for Christmas are related but have not met before. The one remaining guest is a coin dealer who is there to value coins the family wants to sell.  After the locked door murder, it is up to the crime writer to determine who did it and how.
The second story involves a law clerk, pornography, and murder.  A surprising one for me, neither Agatha Christie like or one I would have attributed to James.  The clerk discovers a deceased colleagues' stash of porn, which leads him to becoming a voyeur of an affair in the apartment across the alley.  When the murder occurs he has more than one reason for not going to the police.
The next two stories involve Dalgliesh, first as a young Sargent detective and the other as a Chief Superintendent.  In my favorite, the "Boxall Inheritance," a Canon has inherited a great deal of money and wants the Superintendent to investigate whether the woman who left him the money had murdered his grandfather many years ago.  This story is a delight with many twists and turns.  The last story is again set in a huge old mansion where the owner has supposedly committed suicide.  Dalgliesh is stopped while driving by and becomes involved in solving the murder. P.D. James and Agatha Christie are the grande dames of the large manor house, family secrets, and locked door murders.
Both wrote about respectable people who resort to murder. Beware though, these are not cozies.