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!

One of science fiction's toughest challenges is making nonhuman characters feel human. Robots are particularly hard: SF authors have spent decades putting every conceivable spin on the concept of manmade automatons, and the results have just as often been laughable as profound. Ian Tregillis tackles this prickly puzzle — and many more — with great skill in The Mechanical.

Cults and religions exist on a continuum, not in clearly delineated categories. It's even hard to claim that the distinction between the two comes down to "knowing it when you see it." For the most vulnerable people, the victims of groups that sit nebulously on the divide between cult and religion, that kind of clarity is what's often lacking.

'Escape' Is A Searing Indictment Of Nation-Building

Mar 17, 2015

Very early on in Escape from Baghdad!, before we realize how many murderous forces and literary genres are about to crash into each other, two friends are holed up in a safehouse in the South Ghazaliya neighborhood. Saddam Hussein has just been deposed; outside, the Madhi Army has just finished another minor street battle with a rival militia, and our heroes Dagr and Kinza are in possession of a stash of black market weapons and a captive: one of Saddam's head torturers.

I have been reading Genevieve Valentine's writing for a long time, and as much as her fiction delights me, I confess that the work of hers that brings me the most pleasure is her series of Red Carpet Rundowns.

The Discreet Hero is set in two Peruvian cities, the provincial desert town of Piura and the metropolis of Lima, and tells of two aging businessmen, each of whom we meet on the verge of life-changing situations.

A transportation company owner from Piura, Felicito Yanaque, has spent most of his adult years in a bloodless marriage. He has two sons, a young mistress, and has recently become the apparent target of an extortion threat against his transit enterprise, a threat that, he vows heroically, to fight against, with or without the help of the police.

The Ecstatic, Erotic Joy Of Reading 'Girl In The Dark'

Mar 12, 2015

Anna Lyndsey lives in the dark. She was living a pleasantly ordinary life, working for the British government, when she began to feel a sensitivity to light: At first, computer screens seemed to burn her face, and then artificial lights, and then, finally, sunlight.

Loss is the rough tie that binds two memoirs that, otherwise, are as different as day and night. What Comes Next and How to Like It is a sequel of sorts to Abigail Thomas' best-selling 2006 memoir, A Three Dog Life, which chronicled the one-two punch death of her husband — by her account, a sweetheart of a guy who took their dog out for a walk one afternoon in New York and was hit by a car. He suffered brain injuries and lingered for five years. Even after that catastrophe, more losses now loom for Thomas.

J.C. Hallman's audacious B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, is a textbook example of "creative criticism" — a highly personal form of literary response that involves "writers depicting their minds, their consciousnesses, as they think about literature." Hallman, who has championed creative criticism in two anthologies, has written a wildly intelligent, deeply personal, immoderate — and somewhat belabored — exploration of Nicholson Baker's entire oeuvre, reading in general, and the state of modern literature.

I came late to Seraphina, Rachel Hartman's first book — only discovering that gorgeous story in preparation for reviewing its sequel. I fell deeply in love with it and have been pressing it into people's hands and climbing rooftops to shout about it since: half-human, half-dragon Seraphina and her wonderful voice, by turns wry and vulnerable; the rich, musical world of her country Goredd and its surrounding nations; the brilliantly original dragons and the tensions in their own society and philosophies.

"I am homesick most for the place I've never known," writes Kent Russell in his debut essay collection. He's referring specifically to Martins Ferry, Ohio, his father's childhood hometown — but it could be anywhere. The essays in I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son find the young author miles away from his native Florida, at a music festival in Illinois, on a small island near Australia, and other out-of-the-way locales. He never seems to feel quite at home, or maybe he hasn't yet decided what home really is to him.

Pier 54 on the Hudson River in Manhattan is padlocked and forgotten now. Like whispers of the past, the engraved names of the shipping companies Cunard and White Star remain barely legible atop its rusted iron gate. Few of the present-day joggers and cyclists who pass by might recall that a century ago, on May 1, 1915, the Lusitania set sail from this berth on her last doomed voyage.

30 Seconds That Echo Through History In 'Epitaph'

Mar 7, 2015

Three pages, and really not even that.

Really, 46 lines. In a book of nearly 600 pages total. 46 lines to describe the action of 30 seconds — which would become 30 of the best-known seconds in American history. Which would, whether true or false, become one of this country's foundational myths: The gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

I recall with a certain fondness a summer evening long ago at the Bennington Summer Writing Workshops, when Montana resident Richard Ford opened a reading from the work of Montana writer William Kittredge by saying, "Well, it's Montana Night at the workshops, and it's just like Montana. Hours will go by, and all you will see are two people."

We start with a pyre: A young woman and three men are to burn, condemned as heretics. In vivid, often graphic prose, C.J. Sansom uses this horrific scene to set the stage for Lamentation, the sixth installment of his Matthew Shardlake mysteries, set in Tudor England. It's 1546; the dying King Henry VIII — having broken with Rome a decade before — is wavering on religious policy, and supporters of his previous reforms fear for their lives as the hunt for heretics intensifies.

There are some writers whose books you anticipate for months before they're published. For me, Kazuo Ishiguro is one of those writers. Whenever I hear he has a new novel coming out, I start to imagine what it will be about, knowing that, with Ishiguro, I can't possibly have any idea. His previous novels have been strange, beautiful, and, in some way ... stealthy. This was true of the devastating novel The Remains of the Day, narrated by a proper English butler, and it was also true of the very different but equally devastating Never Let Me Go.

Ever since Michel de Montaigne hit on the winning mix of frankly personal and broader philosophical reflections in his 16th century Essays, the personal essay has attracted those for whom the unexamined life is — well, unthinkable. In recent years, we've seen a spate of auto-pathologies — minutely observed meditations on the tolls of often strange ailments. A newer trend is the meta-diary — short autobiographical entries that frequently explore the writer's relationship with time, memory and identity.

Sartre famously wrote that hell is other people. For many fantasy writers, though, it's a bureaucracy. In fact, the whole hell-as-bureaucracy theme has become hackneyed over the years — as much of a cliché as, well, bureaucracies being hellish.

Here's only a partial list of great American writers whose names came to mind as I was reading T. Geronimo Johnson's new novel, Welcome to Braggsville: Tom Wolfe, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, H.L. Mencken, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Norman Mailer and Ralph Ellison, Ralph Ellison, Ralph Ellison. Johnson's timely novel is a tipsy social satire about race and the oh-so-fragile ties that bind disparate parts of this country into an imperfect and restless union.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: There's this guy, a dude in a bathrobe and a tangled mess of a beard who refuses to go outside. His wife left him nearly two years ago for a man with Greek god's jawline and a glamor job. Shortly before that? The guy's mom died of a painful, debilitating form of cancer, not long after his burgeoning rock band became a moldering pile of rubble. Oh, and that refusal to leave his house? That's just his blooming anxiety — paranoia, even — about the vast and uncaring world around him.

Hilarious, right?

It's difficult to pin down the exact day when post-racial America was born. Maybe it was when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, or when Thurgood Marshall was appointed the first African American member of the Supreme Court. Maybe it was when Barack Obama was elected president, or the first time a white person claimed to be "colorblind." It's honestly hard to tell, because as we keep seeing proved again and again, "post-racial America" is completely indistinguishable from what came before.

You probably don't need me to enumerate the pains of navigating bureaucracies. Lines and forms and hold times are the stuff of daily routine — and it's just as routine to complain about them.

It's All Charm and Wolves In 'The Turnip Princess'

Feb 26, 2015

Long ago in far Bavaria, Franz Xaver von Schönwerth went hunting for fairy tales. However, the collection disappeared, and his work was thought lost forever. Then in 2009, cultural curator Erika Eichenseer discovered five hundred of them in what one assumes must have been the deepest, darkest, most perilous basement of a municipal archive, and all those stories came to life again.

One of the most compelling things about V.E. Schwab's second adult novel, A Darker Shade Of Magic, is how long it takes to develop a plot. Once the main arc finally slips fully out of the shadows, it turns out to be fairly standard for a fantasy novel: Evil scheming magicians, cursed and forbidden item, dark magic ready to consume everything it touches.

The 1970s, Warts (And More Warts) In 'Inner City Romance'

Feb 25, 2015

Leave it to good ol' Hunter S. Thompson to be one of the first people to put his finger on the swan-songy feeling that would dominate the 1970s. As usual, his language defied the malaise he described: "We are all wired into a survival trip now," he wrote in 1971's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. "A generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody — or at least some force — is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel."

A handful of purist holdouts aside, most readers these days realize that "genre fiction" and "literary fiction" aren't mutually exclusive. That's not to say that every paperback on the supermarket shelf is high art, but the list of respected literary genre writers — Poe, Verne, Chandler, Le Guin, to name just a few — is a long one, and it's growing every year.

A climb "to the top of a greasy pole" are the immortal words coined by 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to describe his rise to political power. Disraeli was two-time prime minister under Queen Victoria, as well as a novelist and famous wit whose way with a catchy phrase was rivaled in the 19th century only by his younger admirer, Oscar Wilde. But when he entered politics in the 1830s, Disraeli was burdened by debt and, even more seriously, by his Jewish parentage.

Five years before the opening of Elizabeth Collison's debut novel Some Other Town, Margaret Lydia Benning comes to a small, unnamed Midwestern town to study art. She has talent in spades: grim visions that manifest in surreal paintings — "A woman in pink diaphanous tulle, wild boars where her legs should be. Bloated bodies in rivers. Eyeless white heads. Severed hearts wet and still beating." — that excite her mentors and draw acclaim within her community. Then, just like that, the visions disappear. Her work slows down, then stops altogether.

A Lot Of Sound And Fury In 'The Infernal'

Feb 21, 2015

I feel that it would be appropriate here to discuss Mark Doten's novel, The Infernal, in fragments, incomplete sentences, blocks of text walled off by line breaks, and nonsense. I want to do this because that's what he did in the writing of it — a trick that (maybe) looks clever at first glance, but isn't.

Creepy, Brilliant 'Touch' Will Possess You

Feb 19, 2015

There are at least two reasons why I should hate this book.

One: I have a horror of impersonation narratives. The idea of someone looking like me but running around being a jerk to my friends and family is so profoundly unsettling that I still haven't watched more than the pilot of Orphan Black.

Two: I hate stories about memory loss.

'Tales Of The Marvellous' Is Indeed Very Strange

Feb 18, 2015

"I have come in search of a gazelle with white feet or a man in a shirt."