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!

'Find Me' Gets Lost Along The Way

Feb 17, 2015

America's recent tussle with Ebola — and the current resurgence of measles — has made pandemics a major issue, and a major fear. Not that you'd know it from Laura Van Den Berg's Find Me. In it, a haunted young woman named Joy winds up in a hospital in rural Kansas, following the onset of a mysterious, fatal disease, one that erases people's memories.

There's a small subgenre of young-adult novels that treat suicide as a mystery left behind for the survivors. From John Green's 2006 debut Looking For Alaska and Jay Asher's 2007 bestseller Thirteen Reasons Why to more recent titles like Michelle Falkoff's Playlist For The Dead, survivors try to unravel the causes and meaning of a purposeful death, through clues the victim left behind.

I love arguing about books. Tell me Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is the best modern American novel ever written and I'll fight you. Tell me it wasn't and I'll fight you, too. I'm just scrappy that way.

This year, Black History Month carries a special significance, because America is marking not just the 150th anniversary of Emancipation, but also the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. It was propelled into reality through the heroic witness of non-violent demonstrations in Selma, Alabama and across the nation.

Music Is Troublesome Magic In 'Signal To Noise'

Feb 12, 2015

"Magic will break your heart," warns Mama Dolores, the grandmother of Mercedes "Meche" Vega, the protagonist of Silvia Moreno-Garcia's debut novel, Signal to Noise. When it comes to magic, Mama Dolores is not speaking metaphorically: Meche, a 15-year-old girl living in Mexico City, has discovered how to practice magic, actual spells that can do actual good and actual harm.

'Displacement' Floats Too Close To The Surface

Feb 11, 2015

Is buoyancy boring? It's certainly an underrated quality in the literary world. We value tragic ranters and ironic brooders, people who put on a show and really make the pages fly by. Sturdy resilience, on the other hand, always seems to be asking for a fall.

Fantasy's turn toward the grim has not lessened lately, nor should it. The success of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire not only justifies all that brooding darkness, it's opened the doors for many other excellent and similarly grim books. Randy Henderson, however, has something else in mind entirely with his debut novel, Finn Fancy Necromancy. Strictly speaking, it's an urban fantasy, one that takes place in and around present-day Seattle.

As a writer Kelly Link is possessed of many magical powers, but to me what's most notable about her new collection, Get in Trouble, is its astonishing freedom. It's one thing to put demon lovers and ghost boyfriends and spaceships in your stories, but it's something else to allow yourself to explore broad and unusual territory without worrying whether the reader will follow you closely. Link's fiction may be strange, but so, it seems, are all of us, each with our own highly particular inner lives.

"Does this obituary make me look fat?"

You don't read Anne Tyler to have your worldview expanded, or to be kept awake at night anxiously turning pages. You read, instead, for the cozy mildness, the comfort of sinking into each new warmhearted, gently wry book.

Terry Pratchett's novels have been turning up in bookstores for nearly 45 years now, which is more than enough time for fans to have become familiar with his style: a little absurdism, a little wordplay, a lot of inventive fantasy, a lot of heart, and a deep-seated fascination with the way technologies change societies.

'Karen Memory' Builds Up A Good Head Of Steam

Feb 9, 2015

Steampunk, like any other kind of science fiction, can get top-heavy. Elizabeth Bear may or may not have had this in mind when writing Karen Memory, her new standalone steampunk novel, but she addresses it anyway. While a certain percentage of the genre dwells too much on anachronistic technology and tropes, sometimes at the cost of a winning story, Karen Memory — set in an imaginary city of the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s — deploys its steam-driven marvels sparingly and with pinpoint precision.

It's hard to know where to begin with Holy Cow, so let's just get this out of the way: It is sort of a children's book, and it was written by David Duchovny, star of The X-Files and Californication. It is about a cow named Elsie Bovary (get it?) who flees her farm with a pig and a turkey. They eventually end up in Jerusalem. This is possible because the turkey knows how to fly an airplane. The moral of the story, which is stated explicitly and repeatedly, is that people should be more conscious about the food they eat.

Stories That Must Be Told In 'My Documents'

Feb 8, 2015

To read Alejandro Zambra is to engage with someone who writes as though the burden of history were upon him and no one else — the history of his country of Chile, of literature, and of humanity's shared experience. You get it from his pages, a sense that a story must be told, intimately and without reservation.

"The more I visit libraries the more I find myself opening up to them," writes Ander Monson in his essay collection Letter to a Future Lover. It's not surprising that an author would be attracted to libraries; they are, after all, some of the last places in the world dedicated to the preservation and celebration of literature. They're also at risk of becoming endangered, casualties of budget cuts, increased Internet availability, and apathy.

"Many of these stories end badly for at least one of the people in them. Consider yourself warned."

That's Neil Gaiman, talking directly to his readers. Talking directly to you, in the introduction to a book named for the customary warning now plastered across all potentially disturbing materials. There is stuff in here that'll mess with you, he's saying. Stuff that'll hang with you long after the bare few pages describing it have been turned, torn out, dog-eared or forgotten.

Don't fuss too much about the woman left dead in the room above the village bar. Poor Prudence may lend her name to the novel's title, but, splayed alone as she is in the summer heat, the opening lines find the young woman with nothing left to say. And, when they do stumble upon her body, her neighbors and friends have little more to add to that resounding silence.

"It was, as dramatic events go, quiet," says author David Treuer, as if with one finger raised to his lips. "It was too hot, in any event, to do more than sit and shake one's head."

Leave it to Nick Hornby to produce a smart comic novel that pits light entertainment against serious art and comes through as winning proof of the possibility of combining the two.

'Happy' Isn't So Happy, But It Packs A Punch

Feb 1, 2015

Every now and then, you find a book that's thinly plotted and has a slightly confusing, almost infuriating structure — but it's impossible to put down. The French writer Yasmina Reza has achieved exactly that with Happy are the Happy, a collection of twenty short, interconnected stories that crackle with emotion and playfulness.

The narrator of Rachel Cusk's new novel Outline is a novelist and divorced mother of two who has agreed to teach a summer course in creative writing in Athens. The novel itself is composed of some 10 conversations that she has with, among others, her seatmate on the plane flying to Greece, her students in the writing class, dinner companions and fellow teachers.

Low-Key, Real-Life Heroism In 'March: Book Two'

Jan 29, 2015

Some media are custom-made for heroes. Ava DuVernay's gripping film Selma gains much of its drama from the beauty — physical and metaphysical — of David Oyelowo's portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Oyelowo's incredible voice gives practically everything King says the compelling force of a sermon, and his physical presence — strangely small and economical of motion — is as unique as it is potent.

The Bone Season, the first in Samantha Shannon's intoxicating urban-fantasy series set in 2059 in Scion (a dystopian version of England), ended with young Paige Mahoney escaping from a penal colony in the secret city of Oxford. Her Rephaim masters — immortals who feed upon the auras and blood of human clairvoyants like her — were in hot pursuit.

Michelle Tea has been many things: poet, novelist, memoirist, columnist, editor, drummer, film producer and darling of the queercore scene. She captured the hearts of punk-literature fans with her 1998 debut, the novel The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, and drew praise from critics with her memoirs Rent Girl and The Chelsea Whistle.

Reading Esther Freud's eighth novel — about an English boy's unlikely but life-expanding friendship with Scottish architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh — is a bit like watching a watercolor painting take shape. Mr. Mac and Me begins with delicate dabs of color, as 13-year-old Thomas Maggs, the only surviving son of an abusive alcoholic pub proprietor and his long-suffering wife, paints a plaintive picture of life at the aptly named Blue Anchor, in the Sussex village of Walberswick.

For A Taste Of Grimdark, Visit The 'Land Fit For Heroes'

Jan 26, 2015

"Well, irony really does better unelaborated, but if you insist."

Almost Famous Women is the kind of "high concept" short-story collection that invites skepticism. These stories are about 13 historical women whose names you mostly might sort-of recognize. Beryl Markham, Butterfly McQueen and Shirley Jackson are slam-dunks, but Romaine Brooks and Joe Carstairs are a bit blurrier. While the family names of Allegra Byron, Dolly Wilde and Norma Millay betray their relation to important figures, we don't know what they did. And who the heck was Hazel Eaton or Tiny Davis?

Do You Have To Read 'Frog'? No, But You Might Want To

Jan 26, 2015

There are books you read because you want to read them and there are books you read because you have to read them. The former category can include anything that tickles your particular fancies — teenage wizards, goopy aliens, hunky Scotsmen, shark attack survivors, the history of Vladislav's Wallachia, whatever Malcolms your Cowley.

Prize-winning short story writer Edith Pearlman has just come out with a new collection of short fiction, called Honeydew. And the first thing I wanted to do after finishing my initial reading of these 20 stories was, well, I wanted to go right back again and start from the beginning.

But instead, I've put my own rereading on pause so I can tug at your sleeve about this marvelous talent who moves among us. Here is one of our best living short story writers, and with Honeydew, her fifth volume, her reputation is gaining serious velocity.

On a chilly autumn night in Austin, Texas, three teenage girls are finishing up their shift at an ice cream shop. Two men walk in, and when they leave, the store is on fire, the three girls still in there, naked, bound with their own underwear, murdered. The slayings and the arson take just minutes, but the families and friends of the girls take years to get over it — or to try to get over it; of course, they never do.

'The B-Side' Sings A Sad, Sad Song

Jan 21, 2015

The B-Side, Ben Yagoda's cultural history of Tin Pan Alley and the American Songbook, begins near the end of its story. In 1954, Arthur Schwartz, the co-writer of standards like "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan," is at the Columbia Records building in Manhattan, waiting to present Mitch Miller, Columbia's head of popular music, with some possible songs.