NWPR Books

Northwest Public Radio loves to read! Below, you will find our editorial reviews and personal recommendations for literary works we think you, our listeners, would love.

We are also receive station support from many Northwest Independent Booksellers, who provide their own recommendations here.

And, if you have any great reads you would like to share with us, please let us know, by emailing your review to NWPR@wsu.edu!

Fun, Fast-Moving 'Nimona' Is A Perpetual Surprise

May 19, 2015

Over the course of the collected Nimona, it's possible to watch artist Noelle Stevenson blossom from a student to a superstar. Nimona originated as a two-page art-school experiment that expanded into a webcomic, published biweekly on Stevenson's website over the course of two years. What began in a visually and narratively simple style in June 2012 rapidly became more elaborate and sophisticated, expanding into a showcase for Stevenson's rapidly evolving talents.

Toward the beginning of The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, an actress reflects on her decision to leave West Virginia for New York City. Her first few days in the city are disastrous; she moves from bad job to bad job while living in a basement apartment with a dirt floor. "I felt like I'd come to a place for people who didn't know how to be people," she says, "and if I was there I must not really know how to be a person either."

When I'm feeling low, there's a city I like to visit. This particular city is contained within a handful of shabby 1980s paperbacks around which I coil as protectively as a dragon around her hoard (though the city in question contains no actual dragons): The city of Liavek.

For five minutes, I thought this was it — the novel that was going to kill the novel. The book which, finally, was going to bridge that psychological, ideological and semantic gap between the fusty old books of our grandparents' age (just a bunch of words on paper representing characters, plot, action logically progressing to a known and comprehensible conclusion) and the mythical books of our future (which would have none of this, being composed exclusively of smells, or written on lasers or whatever).

Former Dublin newsman Paul Lynch made his debut as a novelist a few years ago with a book called Red Sky in Morning, set in mid-19th century County Donegal, where a rage-driven farmer has committed a murder with devastating results. The Black Snow, Lynch's second novel, returns us to Donegal, though at a later date, and he's working at an even higher level of accomplishment than before.

Senators beelining for roll call at the U.S. Capitol, protesters brandishing signs on the Supreme Court sidewalk, guides mama-ducking tourists past the Beaux-Arts splendor of the Library of Congress — they don't always stop to note the elegant Art Deco low-rise tucked in alongside those showier landmarks. Andrea Mays thinks they ought to — and in The Millionaire and the Bard, a brisk chronicle of how William Shakespeare almost vanished into obscurity and how one obsessive American created the playwright's finest modern shrine, she makes a snappy, enjoyable case for why.

Paddy Buckley, the charming, roguish and thoroughly eff'd up main character of Jeremy Massey's debut novel The Last Four Days Of Paddy Buckley, can talk to dogs, control flies and leave his body at will in a kind of practiced self-hypnosis. This, oddly, is not the focus of the novel. It's a minor (but vital) character detail. But I'm mentioning it here because it's also the worst, weakest, most stompy-foot-of-magical-whateverishness part of what is otherwise a really great book.

Some of the best (and worst) novels in speculative fiction stick to a basic, tried-and-true approach: Lay out the rules of your imaginary world, then throw your protagonist against those rules. Nicole Kornher-Stace does exactly this, winningly, in her latest novel, Archivist Wasp.

Lucas Mann's genre-bending first book, Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, was about an Iowa farm team, a dying Midwestern factory town, and his own anxieties about success, and it heralded an impressive new talent in narrative nonfiction. Mann's second book, Lord Fear, reaffirms that talent. A memoir about his much older half-brother, Josh, who died of a heroin overdose when Mann was 13, it's a less alluring, more difficult book — but clearly one that Mann needed to write.

Joshua Levin has some great ideas. Well, some ideas, anyway. The would-be writer keeps a list of possible high-concept screenplays — everything from a script about aliens disguised as cabdrivers (Love Trek) to a treatment of a "riotous Holocaust comedy" (Righteous Lust). But in real life he's a Chicago ESL teacher who can never seem to follow through — the movies he envisions are all too esoteric, too depressing. As his Bosnian acquaintance Bega reminds him, "American movies always have happy ending. Life is tragedy: you're born, you live, you die."

Even for the most talented artists, the trompe l'oeil is one of the most difficult techniques to master. The painter has to create three dimensions out of two, constructing an illusion, tricking the eye of the viewer. If it works, the results can be stunning; if it doesn't, the artwork looks forced and confusing.

Orson Welles thought he was ruined after the 1938 broadcast of his adaptation of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. The 23-year-old actor-director's star was just beginning to rise, but the panic caused by the radio show sparked an immediate backlash. Major newspapers reported on cases of mass hysteria across America. Because of The War of the Worlds, they alleged, hundreds of thousands of unassuming citizens were convinced that a real Martian invasion was taking place, starting at ground zero: The small town of Grover's Mill, New Jersey.

In his famous essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler put down the classic British mystery, making fun of its arcane killings and hokey air of gentility. He preferred the tough American style and praised Dashiell Hammett for, as he put it, taking murder out of the vicar's rose garden and dropping it in the alley where it belonged.

Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts is, on one level, a memoir about Nelson's pregnancy with her first child, Iggy, and her partner Harry's concurrent female-to-male "transition." (The quotation marks are borrowed from Nelson, who at one point wonders "how to explain ... that for some, 'transitioning' may mean leaving one gender entirely behind, while for others — like Harry, who is happy to identify as a butch on T [testosterone] — it doesn't?")

One of my earliest experiences of how astonishing a tool is Twitter came several years ago, when, seeing Californians tweeting about an earthquake, I texted my best friend in canyon country to ask if she'd felt the earthquake where she was. She said no — and then freaked out as the tremors reached her a few minutes later. The internet was literally faster than the quake.

In 'Subprimes,' Swiftian Satire Hits Close To Home

May 6, 2015

In his new novel, The Subprimes, Karl Taro Greenfeld charges in where most of us would fear to tread. Carol Burnett could have warned him. "It's almost impossible to be funnier than the people in Washington," she once said, but Greenfeld tries his darnedest. He wants to skewer a certain political mindset, and he goes at it with anger, wicked humor and verve.

The moment in Kate Atkinson's A God In Ruins when protagonist Teddy Todd lies to his granddaughter about an old photograph isn't a grand climax. It happens in passing, in half a sentence: She asks about the stain on an image of Teddy and his long-dead wife Nancy. It's actually the blood of one of his World War II air crew, who died in his arms after their plane was shot down. But Teddy claims it's tea, "not because she wouldn't have been interested but because it was a private thing."

Before Brian Catling's debut novel, The Vorrh, was published in his native England in 2012, he'd already racked up an impressive list of credentials — just not as a fiction writer. His poetry, sculpture, paintings and performance-art pieces have been getting international acclaim for decades.

"My mother and father named me Aron, but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done, and my uncle told everyone they should have called me What Were You Thinking." These are the first words of Jim Shepard's Holocaust-themed novel The Book of Aron, the reader's first introduction to the book's chronically depressed and likely doomed protagonist. Aron Różycki is a young boy when the story begins; by the end, after the Germans have occupied Warsaw and forced the city's Jews into a ghetto, he's older in ways that time can't measure.

Are some people "constitutionally unsuited" to marriage? That's the question the free-spirited narrator of Eliza Kennedy's saucy first novel, I Take You, keeps asking herself between drinks, seductions and a mess of complications during the frenetic week leading up to her Key West wedding.

In An Ember in the Ashes, Sabaa Tahir brings us a world at a crossroad of reminiscences: The Roman Empire on the one hand and A Thousand and One Nights on the other. Mixing magic and military intrigues in shifting proportions, the result is an appealing fantasy of crossing destinies and impossible choices.

It seems like there's always some writer you're supposed to be reading. These days, it's Karl Ove Knausgaard, the 46-year-old Norwegian whose six-volume, 3,600-page autobiographical novel, My Struggle, has become a literary sensation. Over the past couple of years, I haven't been able to go to a social gathering without someone asking what I thought of his work. When I've said that I hadn't read a word, they would look genuinely startled and tell me, "You have to."

Imagine putting on a suit of armor to go to battle with a hot fudge sundae. That, Kurt Vonnegut famously said, is what critics are doing when they express "rage and loathing" toward novels. The metaphor has its limits — not all novels can be considered hot fudge sundaes — but there's one series that perfectly fits the classification: Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling's books are, collectively, the biggest, gooiest sundae there is.

It's a good thing we only had to wait six months for Early Warning, the second volume of Jane Smiley's ambitious Last Hundred Years trilogy. Why? Because we were eager to follow up on the members of the Iowa farm family she introduced in Some Luck — while we still remembered all of them.

What could be more seductive to the imagination than the Walled City? A 6.9-acre patch of Hong Kong's Kowloon peninsula, it was a discrete, warrenlike enclave, full of twisting passageways and tiny rooms, that grew up around an old military base and flourished throughout the 20th century. Though it was riddled with crime and had no reliable public utilities, it housed tens of thousands of people at its height. It was finally demolished in 1994.

When it came in the mail, I thought it was a joke, this tiny little book. It was hardcover, the size of a pack of cigarettes and about as heavy in my palm as a bird. There was no jacket, just the name — Devotion: A Rat Story — and a rat, embossed in gold.

I read it in an hour, maybe a little less— it's just a hundred pages or so. An appetizer, I thought. A snack.

But two days later, I was still thinking about it. And I'm sure that it'll still be scratching around inside of my skull a week from now, like cold little rat claws scraping inside the walls.

'Lovelace And Babbage' Is A Thrilling Adventure

Apr 23, 2015

Can you say "Yowza!" when discussing Victorian England? Let's hope so, because Sydney Padua's new book is definitely "Yowza!" material. Considering that its subject is math — math and the history of the computer — it may deserve a "Yowza!" and a half. By spotlighting two controversial, charismatic people who laid the earliest foundations for the computer revolution, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage transforms punch cards and little brass cogs into the stuff of legend.

'Vermilion' Finds New Magic In The Old West

Apr 22, 2015

History may be written by the victors, but alternate history is written by anyone with a lust for the past — both established and imagined. Molly Tanzer's imagination is keener than almost anyone's. Her new novel, Vermilion is a work of alt-history that finds a fresh kind of magic in the mingling of fact and fantasy. In the book's wild vision of 1870, the North won the Civil War with the help of a race of intelligent, talking bears. A similarly endowed species of sea lion keeps shop in the streets of San Francisco.

When we talk about Toni Morrison, we are also talking about what it means to thrive in the midst of well-manicured and eloquent hostility. With God Help The Child, Morrison — America's only living Nobel Prize-winning novelist — has offered us not only her 11th novel, but an opportunity to meditate on the tension between the idea of the artist and the reality of the artist herself.

One of Us opens with a girl running for her life. She and her friends are being stalked, hunted by a young man in a police officer's uniform on the small Norwegian island of Utøya. They lie down in the woods, pretending they're dead, hoping the man will see them and move on. He doesn't. He shoots the girl in the head, shoots her friends in their heads, point-blank, execution-style. In search of new victims, the man moves on. But almost four years after that July day when 77 people, many of them children, were slain in cold blood, the nation of Norway still struggles to move on.

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