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!

Do you love your father? How do you love him? Is your affection spontaneous, dutiful, rote, wry, overflowing, ambivalent or simply unexamined? When you consider these questions — or decline to do so, thank you very much — consider also Nina Bunjevac's drawing style.

'Whipping Boy' Is Part Memoir, Part Crime Thriller

Jan 20, 2015

Bullying has become a hot-button issue in recent years, a fact that Allen Kurzweil hasn't overlooked in Whipping Boy. It's his first volume of nonfiction, and the premise is as ripped-from-the-headlines as they come: Forty years after suffering the vicious abuse of a bully in school, Kurzweil has written an account of his decades-long search for Cesar Augustus Viana, the boy who tormented him.

In a previous collection of short stories, Boy in The Twilight, Yu Hua describes a simpleton (some might call him dim-witted) who cannot even remember his own name: His parents are dead, he has no wife and child — nor even the prospect of any — and at one point, he wonders who is going to bury him when he dies.

It's A Chump's Life In 'Amnesia'

Jan 18, 2015

"I worked as a journalist in a country where the flow of information was controlled by three corporations. Their ability to manipulate the truth made the right to vote largely meaningless, but I was a journalist ... I was overweight and out of breath but I was proud to be sued, reviled, scorned, to be called a loser by the rewriters of press releases."

A friend recently insisted I read her favorite book in the world: The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault. It's a gorgeous book, one that utterly immerses you in a worldview that's simultaneously alien and formative to so much of our modern life. I enjoyed it tremendously, and am doubly glad I read it since it gave me a fascinating window through which to view Jo Walton's The Just City: If Renault's project is immersive, Walton's is explosive, deliberately troubling and provocative as the gadfly-Socrates who appears in both.

In 2012 Sarah Gerard wrote a powerful essay for The New York Times about her experiences with bulimia, anorexia, and addiction. It's a harrowing read, but only half as much so as her debut novel, Binary Star. In it, Gerard's unnamed, semi-autobiographical protagonist takes a road trip with her boyfriend John. He's an alcoholic whose behavior becomes increasingly erratic; she's succumbing to an eating disorder that's wasting her away.

Cheryl Glickman has an unflattering wardrobe and a permanent lump in her throat. She is in love with Philip, who offers her only a reference to his color therapist and text message updates about his affair with a teenager ("What would be the emoticon for Carry me to your penthouse and tend to me as a husband?" Cheryl wonders).

In the midst of her orderly solitude, Cheryl is forced to take in her bosses' bullish, beautiful daughter, Clee, a self-described misogynist whose voluptuousness and "aggressively blank expression" captivate Cheryl.

Fact And Fiction Blur In Frustratingly Opaque 'Swarm'

Jan 14, 2015

It's easy enough to separate fiction from fact in the semi-autobiographical novel The Whispering Swarm. Fantasy grandmaster Michael Moorcock centers his latest dense, fevered story on Alsacia (also called the Sanctuary), a secret London enclave where historical figures mingle with literary ones.

"They are a perfect, golden couple," Rachel Watson thinks, regarding handsome Jason and his striking wife, Jess. "He is dark-haired and well built, strong, protective, kind. He has a great laugh. She is one of those tiny bird-women, a beauty, pale-skinned with blond hair cropped short." Rachel, the main narrator of Paula Hawkins' novel The Girl on the Train, is obsessed with the pair; they represent to her the perfect relationship that she once had, or seemed to, before it imploded spectacularly.

Rachel Cusk is better known in England than in America; her sharply satirical books about the tolls of family life play better across the Atlantic than here in our often puritanical culture, with its bias towards domesticity. In her controversially bitter memoirs, including A Life's Work and Aftermath, and in piercing — but always beautifully written — novels like The Lucky Ones, Cusk has examined the difficulties of self-definition in the context of marriage, motherhood and family.

Two scenes in The Galaxy Game are useful metaphors for my experience of reading it: In one scene, two characters travel from one planet to another, and have to adjust their balance and breathing to the unfamiliar gravity of their new environment. In the other scene, one character introduces another to rum.

Reading The Galaxy Game is almost precisely like drinking the richest, most full-bodied rum while trying to find your legs on a new planet (especially if — like me — you didn't realize this was a sequel to 2013's The Best of All Possible Worlds).

Pierce Brown wrote a book last year called Red Rising — the first in a proposed trilogy. In the press, it got compared to The Hunger Games (as pretty much every book with a teenaged protagonist and some dying in it does these days), to Ender's Game (as pretty much every science fiction book with a teenaged protagonist and some dying in it does) and Lord of the Flies (as pretty much every book with teenagers, dying and some artful turns of phrase does).

There are a fair number of people out there who've been waiting for this novel for a good, long time. Because of who Ben Metcalf is (an outspoken essayist, the former literary editor for Harper's Magazine, an all-around light of the word-slinging world), there were a lot of people waiting to hate it. Maybe an equal number waiting to love it. The good news? Both sides are going to be happy.

Try On 'Black Suit' For A Beautifully Real Approach To Grief

Jan 8, 2015

Jason Reynolds' debut When I Was the Greatest put him on the radar of many YA readers looking for fresh new voices. His latest, The Boy in the Black Suit, begins in a place we've seen before: the senior lockers, the first day back at high school.

The first small mammal in Thomas Pierce's short story collection is Shirley Temple Three, "waist-high, with a pelt of dirty-blond fur that hangs in tangled draggles to the dirt." Shirley is a dwarf mammoth, a member of a species that hasn't been around for millennia, cloned for the sake of a television show called Back from Extinction.

The premise of Descent may sound pretty straight-forward: One summer morning while vacationing with her family in the foothills of the Rockies, a young girl, a high-school athlete in her senior year, goes out for a run in the higher altitudes — and disappears.

And Moby-Dick's about the whaling industry.

The best of comedian and actor Patton Oswalt lies in his ability to truthfully observe what is small but important. That's true in his comedy, but it's true in his writing, too. Here he is in his new memoir Silver Screen Fiend, talking about his desperation to make an impression in his first movie role, a tiny part in the Kelsey Grammer comedy Down Periscope:

I have had enough of dystopias.

Don't get me wrong here. I love a good vision of destruction — to stand at some safe distance and watch the world burn. I have an affection for zombies, have stared down plagues, have, through pulp and pixel, seen this world brought low in any number of ways and, no lie, enjoyed it.

No, it's not a posthumously published mystery novel by the late, great composer and conductor. Rather, Death by Pastrami by Leonard S. Bernstein is a collection of short stories mostly about life in the garment district of New York City. This Leonard Bernstein knows whereof he writes: He owned and managed a garment factory; now, in his 80s, he's published his first work of fiction, making him a veritable Grandma Moses of the garment district.

With great energy and a cold eye for contemporary American race relations, here comes Joyce Carol Oates with a new novel that shows off her muck-raking credentials. The Sacrifice faces squarely an incident that took place in upstate New York nearly thirty years ago in which a young black girl named Tawana Brawley claimed that a group of white males, mostly police officers, kidnapped her and gang-raped her over a number of days.

It's my favorite of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. It's also the strangest, and the one he wrote the fastest — in a rare burst of inspiration.

It's "The Snow Queen" — a tale that took just five days to create.

You can feel Andersen's excitement in the writing.

"All right! Now let's begin," he starts, "When we reach the end of the story, we'll know more than we know now, because there was an evil troll."

Cuba is dominating the news, following President Obama's announcement that he will begin to normalize relations with the island nation.

For our series This Week's Must-Read, poet and Cuban-American writer Richard Blanco turns to literature for another perspective on this story.

For this year's Best Books of the Year list, I reject the tyranny of the decimal system. Some years it's simply more than 10. Here, then, are my top 12 books of 2014. All of the disparate books on my list contain characters, scenes or voices that linger long past the last page of their stories. In fact, The Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin, which is my pick for Book of the Year, came out in January and I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

We've been hearing all week about a report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee. It detailed brutal interrogation techniques used by the CIA after Sept 11. Among the questions it raised are whether these techniques are legal, effective and morally acceptable.

For our series This Week's Must Read, author Laila Lalami grapples with these questions by turning to literature.

What is it about Richard McGuire's Here? A simple-looking, black-and-white cartoon that first appeared in Raw magazine in 1989 — clocking in at a mere 36 panels — it's maintained its hold on comic artists' imaginations ever since. McGuire himself spent more than eight years creating this book-length version.

J.G. Ballard didn't exactly predict California's current drought in his 1964 novel The Burning World (later renamed The Drought). But like so many of his books, it does carry eerie hints about humanity's accelerating race to stay ahead of nature.

The Burning World is part of a series of dystopian science-fiction novels that Ballard wrote in the 1960s before he became famous for works like Crash and Empire of the Sun.

Expect to be good for nothing for a long time after you read Ron Rash. His writing is powerful, stripped down and very still: It takes you to a land apart, psychologically and geographically, since his fiction is set in Appalachia.

As if the work of Japanese fiction master Haruki Murakami weren't strangely beautiful by itself, his American publisher has just put out a stand-alone edition of his 2008 novella The Strange Library, in a new trade paperback designed by the legendary Chip Kidd.

Indiana Jones and Lara Croft have nothing on Kate Kristopher.

Indy, Lara and a host of famous explorers get their butts symbolically kicked in Shutter, the first postmodern adventure comic. Kate may be human, but that's about all she has in common with her forebears in the world-traveling biz. Even so, she manages to be cooler than all of them.