Review: Beginning Pen & Ink

If you’re looking for a little push to get started with drawing with pens, Portfolio: Beginning Pen & Ink (digital galley, Quarto Publishing Group) is a good place to start. The book does not get bogged down in descriptions of equipment, as some art books do. It covers those basics quickly and moves on to instruction.

Make no mistake, this is a book geared to beginners. It moves at a pace suitable for those getting started, as I am. Author and artist Desarae Lee gives specific and achievable instructions that clearly explain the concepts. And the exercises that accompany each chapter helped improve my understanding of the drawing techniques.

At 128 pages, the book is short and quick to get through. Anything longer might overwhelm anyone just getting started. I felt like Portfolio: Beginning Pen & Ink gave me a good starting point from which to practice before moving on to more advanced instruction.

Review: The Wolf and the Watchman

Following a night of heavy drinking, one-armed night watchman Mikel Cardell is rousted to fish a limb-less body from a putrid Stockholm lake. Set in 1793, The Wolf and the Watchman pairs Cardell with incorruptible investigator Cecil Winge, who is on the verge of death from consumption.

The investigation quickly leads through the dangerous underworld of Stockholm to the possibly more treacherous secret world of the ruling noble families. But Winge is not swayed by intimidation, due to his pending death, and refuses to back down from either ruffians or the wealthy.

The Wolf and the Watchman (digital galley, Simon and Schuster) is an engrossing detective story that brings to life a faraway time and place. The historical setting and the story’s many memorable characters add a rich depth to Niklas Natt och Dag’s first novel.

Review: The River

A pair of college friends set out on a canoe trip on a remote Canadian river planning to bond over fishing, books and their love of outdoors. But they quickly find themselves in a desperate and brutal bid to survive the wilderness in Peter Hiller’s The River.

Wynn and Jack knew there would be certain risks associated with canoeing on an isolated river, but a huge wildfire they spot raging in the distance changes their itinerary and they try to make a quick exit north to Hudson Bay. Along the way they hear a man and woman arguing in the fog and when the man turns up later, alone, their trip takes another, more desperate turn.

Hiller is author of the best-selling and masterful, post-apocalyptic thriller The Dog Stars. In The River (digital galley, Knopf), Hiller shows his talent at combining raw adventure with poetic and insightful writing. His novels ooze with humanity and he seems to capture perfectly the emotions and unique responses people have to adversity.

Review: Territory of Light

A young, newly single woman struggles to raise her three-year-old daughter in Tokyo in Yūko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, an empathetic and compelling look at single motherhood.

Following a break with her husband, the nameless narrator was not prepared to be on her own and at times is not up to the task. She struggles with work, raising her child, her temper, alcohol and managing basic home chores. Through it all she begins to question her own goals and her qualities as a mother. But, though she may not realize it, during this first year of being alone she is rebuilding the foundation of her life.

Originally written as 12 serialized stories for a Japanese magazine in 1978 and ’79, and now translated to English by Geraldine Harcourt, the novella Territory of Light (digital galley, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) moves at a leisurely pace, often revisiting the same themes. But the vignettes blend nicely together and the repeating themes add a sort of elegant, poetic structure to the story.

Review: The Plotters

In The Plotters, groups of assassins do the dirty work of mysterious criminal masterminds. When one assassin, Reseng, takes liberties on a couple of assignments, he disrupts the carefully crafted plans of one anonymous “plotter” and puts his own life at risk.

Hailed as an example of Korean noir, Un-su Kim’s The Plotters has received glowing reviews and promised everything I might like in a thriller: Dark humor, mystery, action and beautiful writing. The book opens with a touching and brilliantly written chapter following Reseng on an assignment. But beyond the captivating opening, the novel wavered.

While The Plotters (digital galley, Doubleday) is full of well written and moody scenes, the story unfolds in a slow and haphazard manner and it takes more than half of the book for some major characters to be introduced. Unfortunately it isn’t until then, a little too late, that we begin to understand where the plot is going.

Review: The Dreamers

It all starts with one college student falling asleep and not waking up. But the sleeping sickness quickly spreads through a small California town in Karen Thompson Walker’s unique and authentic dystopian thriller The Dreamers.

As the story progresses the reaction of the characters feels frighteningly real. People panic in a grocery store, but still have time for helpful gestures; business men and women trapped in the town wander aimlessly and are thankful for a helping hand; a father goes to great lengths to protect his newborn child and college students first panic and then volunteer to assist with the sick.

If you’ve ever wondered how you might react in a crisis, you’re likely to find some version of yourself among the characters in this novel. The Dreamers (digital galley, Random House) is a refreshing and exhilarating addition to disaster fiction.

Review: An Orchestra of Minorities

Nigerian poultry farmer Chinonso risks his livelihood and undertakes an imprudent journey in a bid to impress the family of the woman he loves in An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma.

Young Chinonso’s life heads in a new and seemingly wonderful direction after a chance encounter one night with Ndali, an educated young woman from an influential family. Chinonso and Ndali quickly fall in love, but he believes he must return to school in order to become her social equal. After selling everything he owns to go to college in Cyprus, Chinonso immediately falls prey to a con-man and everything he had planned comes undone.

Narrated by Chinonso’s chi, or guardian spirit, An Orchestra of Minorities (digital galley, Little, Brown and Company) is an ambitious and spiritual tale that traces Chinonso’s journey from elation to bitterness and finally something close to surrender as he undertakes the long journey to return to Nigeria and Ndali.

Review: She Lies in Wait

Thirty years after going missing while on a camping trip with five other teenagers, a young girl’s body is discovered buried with a drug cache. What was a decades-old missing persons case has turned into a murder investigation in Gytha Lodge’s She Lies in Wait.

The story is told in alternating timelines, following the current investigation and revisiting the events that happened to each of the 6 teenagers during the camping trip. The problem with alternating timelines is they often disrupt continuity in narratives and it does so here. Jumping back and forth in time between so many characters made it hard for the story to gain any momentum.

Unfortunately, besides the victim in She Lies in Wait (digital galley, Random House), it was difficult to become invested in any one character and the resolution to the mystery, when it came, felt anticlimactic.

Review: World’s Best Whiskeys

Dominic Roskrow’s World’s Best Whiskies is an exceptional example of what a guide to spirits should be. The book is a comprehensive overview of the many types of whiskies available around the world and includes reviews of 750 spirits.

Roskrow looks at each of the major whisky-producing regions of the world and gives a brief and informed history of each, as well as explaining what makes each region special. He then follows up with extensive reviews of spirits that range from those commonly found on store shelves to rare finds.

World’s Best Whiskies (digital galley, Quarto Publishing Group) will help anyone, from those new to whisky to connoisseurs, better appreciate what they are drinking. And most importantly it will help everyone make informed choices about what to buy.

I originally read a digital review copy of the book but have since purchased a hardback for my shelf as it’s the single best whisky guide I’ve seen. Get one for yourself or as a gift for the whisky-lover in your life.

Review: Lessons From Lucy

Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry is back with a collection of stories related to life advice learned from his beloved dog, Lucy. In Lessons From Lucy Barry ties stories from his life to something he learned from his aging dog, such as “make new friends.”

Lessons From Lucy (digital galley, Simon & Schuster) contains Barry’s familiar dry and self-deprecating humor, but the connections between his stories and the dog advice are flimsy at best. The life lessons are trite (“don’t stop having fun”) and seem like a gimmick to pull together this collection of anecdotes.

Unfortunately, as someone who has read and enjoyed a lot of Barry over the years, the stories related in this volume seem stale and recycled. Instead pick up an older Barry collection, or David Sedaris’ recent Calypso if you’re looking for laugh-inducing humor. Lessons From Lucy will be released April 2, 2019.

Very short reviews of books

A roundup of books I read in November. Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore and Stephen Markley’s Ohio were the two best books of the month. In fact, those are the only two books I would definitely recommend. Unless you’re an aspiring diarist, in which case you should read Writing Down the Bones.

Killing Commendatore: The plots of Haruki Murakami novels are always difficult to describe. In his latest epic work, the physical manifestation of an idea appears to guide a portrait painter through a life altering journey. Really, all that needs saying is you should read this novel by one of our best living authors. (5/5 stars.)

Ohio: A powerful debut novel by Stephen Markley that revolves around  four former high school classmates meeting in a small Ohio town. The story touches on the effects the opioid crisis and ongoing wars has had on a generation. Beautifully written. (5/5 stars.)

Writing Down the Bones: First published in 1986 this writing guide by Natalie Goldberg could be read as a daily devotional. It mixes Zen philosophy with solid writing advice for those who want to establish a daily practice. (5/5 stars.)

The Collapsing Empire: The first in a series by John Scalzi this book traces the pending collapse of humanity. Trading colonies have settled across the galaxy but trouble arises when the extra-dimensional Flow used to travel and across great distances, becomes unstable. (4/5 stars.)

How it Happened: An FBI agent puts his career on the line as he tries to find the truth in a story told by an unreliable witness. I want to call this a good beach read, but as it’s December it would make a good fireside read. (4/5 stars.)

Stag’s Leap: Poems: Following a divorce, Sharon Olds writes poems of grieving and healing. She won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for this collection. (4/5 stars.)

M Train: While not as powerful as her autobiography Just Kids, this collection of Patti Smith essays follows Patti Smith as she visits as series of coffee houses around the world. It reads as a series of journal entries, which I find appealing. (4/5 stars.)

When the Pipirite Sings: This English translation of poems by Haitian writer and doctor Jean Métellus. The poems use powerful and at times vivid language to deal with themes ranging from colonial oppression to Haitian spiritual and cultural identity. But make no mistake, these poems have a high specific gravity and can be slow to get through. (3/5 stars.) Read full review

Elevation: As a Stephen King fan I found little to be excited about in this very short and thinly plotted story about a man dealing with extreme weight loss while trying to make peace with a lesbian couple living next door. Surprisingly this novella won the 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards for horror. It’s especially surprising because this is not a horror book. (3/5 stars.)

Review: When the Pipirite Sings

When the Pipirite Sings presents the collected poems of Haitian poet and doctor Jean Métellus, who wrote primarily in French. The collection most notably includes the first English translation of his signature work by the same title. 

Métellus tackles many powerful subjects, from colonial oppression to Haitian spiritual and cultural identity. He uses powerful and at times vivid language to deal with these themes. But make no mistake, the poems in When the Pipirite Sings (digital galley, Northwestern University Press) have a high specific gravity and can be slow to get through.

It’s good to see literary translations from Caribbean countries being published in English. As close neighbors — and the destination of many a vacationer — it’s important that these books be made available so that U.S. readers can better understand the cultural history of the region.

Book publish date: April 15, 2019

Very short reviews of books

A roundup of brief reviews of books I read in October. Virgil Wander will probably make it to best books of 2018 list.

Virgil WanderThis appealing novel mixes offbeat characters and nostalgic settings with some dark themes as a man struggles to recover from a serious car accident in a town plagued by tragedy. (5/5 stars.) Read my full review.

Virgil WanderThis appealing novel mixes offbeat characters and nostalgic settings with some dark themes as a man struggles to recover from a serious car accident in a town plagued by tragedy. (5/5 stars.) Read my full review.

American Pastoral: On the surface legendary high school athlete Seymour “Swede” Levov appears to be a simple, if boring man. But Philip Roth slowly reveals the many layers of the Swede’s rather stormy life in this look at 1960s America. (4/5 stars.)

The Frolic of the Beasts:  A student is driven to an impulsive act of violence that forms the bond of an unusual love triangle in this translation of a 1961 Japanese classic. (4/5 stars.) Read my full review.

Rogue Protocol: Book three in The Murderbot Diaries series follows the gloomy protagonist robot as he continues to intervene in human affairs, despite a desire to just be left alone. (4/5 stars.)

Bridge of ClayThe long awaited follow up from The Book Thief author Markus Zusak is a disappointing and slightly muddled novel that jumps awkwardly back and forth in time to tell the story of five brothers growing up in Australia. (3/5 stars.)

Review: The Frolic of the Beasts

When a young Japanese student falls into the orbit of a beautiful woman and her husband, he is driven to an act of violence that unites the three in a corrupt love triangle fueled by desire and repentance. And that one impulsive act relentlessly leads to more brutality in the poetically written novel The Frolic of the Beasts.

This novel by Yukio Mashima was first published in Japan in 1961 and has now received its first English translation. Mishima is considered to be one of the most important avant-garde Japanese authors of the 20th century, having written a number of novels, plays and poems.

In The Frolic of the Beast (digital galley, Penguin Classics) Mishima explores the unusual psychological bonds that hold the three main characters together and hints at the disturbing power lust has to influence individuals.

Review: Virgil Wander

Despite some dark themes, Virgil Wander (digital galley, Grove Atlantic) is a remarkably humorous, feel-good novel. Virgil, the title character, is the owner of a one-screen movie theater in a struggling Lake Superior town who is dealing with the mental after effects of a serious, and spectacular, car accident.

The town of Greenstone is inhabited by several offbeat, yet agreeable characters who help Virgil as he gets back on his feet. But Greenstone is also a town plagued by tragedy, and central to the story is the mystery of a missing minor league baseball player, a friend of Virgils.

This strangely appealing novel is author Leif Enger’s first in ten years, since his well received Peace Like a River. The story if full of midwestern nostalgia and wonderful subplots, such as a vengeful quest for a giant fish and the towns compulsive attraction to an out-of-town kite flyer. It would be hard to ask for more out of a book.

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