A Rundown on September Releases

September is always a great month for new releases, and wow there’s some big names with new fiction out this month. With Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Theroux, and Hilary Mantel all having short story collections coming out, you know it’s an extraordinary month. I’m curious about these and initially chose 10 books from the list at the right that I’m interested in but then forced myself to cut that to six to highlight here.

First off, I rarely ever miss reading a new Ian McEwan book (“Atonement” is still my favorite of his). So I’ll likely pick up his new one “The Children Act” about a judge who must decide the fate of a 17-year-old boy who is refusing for religious reasons the medical treatment that could save his life. His devout parents share in his wishes. In the end, the judge’s ruling will have huge consequences for both the boy and her. It seems this plot of refusing medical treatment because of religious faith has been done quite a bit before, but I don’t know if it’s been done before by a writer as good as McEwan. So I’m drawn to his book despite perhaps its familiar topic.

I also don’t think I can resist the new novel “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel because of all the positive buzz it’s been receiving. Heck, I didn’t think I could stomach another dystopian, survival story, but if it’s as compelling as many are saying then I’d be missing out by not checking it out. Apparently the novel’s about a roving Shakespeare troupe that strives for more than mere survival after the apocalypse hits. Author Ann Patchett says “Station Eleven” is “so compelling, so fearlessly imagined, that I wouldn’t have put it down for anything.” And Entertainment Weekly calls it the “most-buzzed about novel of the season.” Hmm.

Another one that has received much praise and interests me is Laird Hunt’s new novel “Neverhome.” It’s about a farmer’s wife who decides to don the uniform of a Union soldier in the Civil War and fight. Apparently she is a remarkable narrator of the story with a powerful voice. Author Kevin Powers says “Neverhome took me on a journey so thoroughly engrossed that there were times the pages seemed to turn themselves." So count me in on this one.

Next up, I’m curious about Margaret Atwood’s new collection of nine tales “Stone Mattress.” I can’t say I’m a huge Atwood nut (I know her fans are legion) though I think I’ve read five of her books, but I’m drawn to this collection because it’s mostly received good buzz. When Atwood’s on her game, her books can be truly playful enterprises. Similarly I must say I’m also interested in Hilary Mantel’s new short story collection “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.” Wow I thought Mantel was consumed by Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII, but I’m delighted to she has some contemporary stories coming out at the end of the month. I’m intrigued to find out what she’s written about in this new endeavor.

Lastly, I’m not sure I can pass up Garth Stein’s new novel “A Sudden Light” because I found his previous novel “The Art of Racing in the Rain” an endearing, compassionate heart-tugger. This one is about a 14-year-old boy who goes to stay at his grandfather’s mansion overlooking Puget Sound and finds the house haunted. BookPage calls “A Sudden Light” the best of many genres: a ghost story, a love story, historical fiction …. a truly killer read.” So I’ll have to check it out as well.

As for movies in September (see list at left), I’m sorry to see that the new comedy “This Is Where I Leave You” was pretty much panned by critics at the New York Times and Washington Post. What a bummer. I’m reading Jonathan Tropper’s book now, from which the movie comes, and had high hopes that it would be quite amusing. I will wait for it then on pay-per-view. But perhaps if it’s a love story you’re looking for you might check out “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” with James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, who are usually quite good, or if you want to see a thriller perhaps “The Two Faces of January” at the end of the month will be entertaining. It’s by the same author, Patricia Highsmith, who wrote “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Gosh was that turned into a creepy movie. Remember?

In albums for this month (see list at bottom right), there’s a bunch of big releases. I’m already listening to U2’s “Songs of Innocence,” which is a definite must-get. I’m so glad it was made free on iTunes. I also want to check out Lucinda William’s new album “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone” because I’m a huge fan of her music and songwriting. I’m curious too about Ryan Adams’s new album and Justin Townes Earle’s. There’s so much good music this month ... and as usual so little time.

What about you -- which books, movies, or albums out this month are you most looking forward to?

September Days

Greetings and happy September! I was away for a while, sailing with my hub on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. We rented a boat and had an enjoyable adventure, sailing during the days and docking overnight at small marinas and islands. I’m still learning quite a bit about sailing, but my husband grew up on it and knows most of the ins and outs. We had some good wind and the area was beautiful and we didn't have any incidents with the boat or anything so we feel very fortunate that it all worked out quite well.

While onboard I was reading Annie Proulx’s first novel “Postcards” from 1992. It’s not really an easy novel so I’m not sure why I chose it for reading material on the boat, but a friend had given me her copy months ago and told me to read it. So I eventually did, even though I had to push myself a bit in the last 100 pages.

It’s a story that follows the Blood family, who are New England farmers, as they struggle to exist and adapt in the 20th century, from the 1940s through the 1980s. There’s the parents, Jewelle and Mink, the daughter Mernelle, and the sons Dub and Loyal, who turns out to be the main protagonist.

At the beginning, Loyal, the eldest son, is forced to leave the farm when he accidentally kills his lover and hides her within a stone wall. That’s when you get an idea this novel is going to be rather bleak. Loyal doesn’t tell anyone about her death but takes off across the country on a self-imposed exile of solitude and struggle, like he deserved the hardships for his past deed. Over the years, he roves from job to job first in mining, then fossil finding and later trapping, sending back occasional postcards to his family’s farm in Vermont. He's viewed rather sympathetically in the book despite what he's done.

Meanwhile, the rest of the family falls in ruins, and eventually loses the farm. The other son Dub and the father spend time in jail for arson, the daughter responds to a lumberman’s ad for a wife, and the mother finds work in a cannery till one day she loses her way driving on a mountain road during a snowstorm.

So all does not go too well for the Bloods. "Postcards" is a different kind of novel, one that follows a family’s struggles during the American 20th century and mixes in postcards at the start of each chapter from the family members to one another and from other characters. The postcards add an interesting dimension to the characters and the times they’re living in. Author Annie Proulx is at her best describing the lives of her gritty characters in farming, mining, hunting, and trapping and the natural world around them. Wow does she seem to know how these people live and breathe. This novel didn’t win the 1993 Pen/Faulkner Award for nothing; she can write.

But the story itself didn’t really consume me, and I didn’t latch on to any of the characters. Towards the end, the book rambles for a while and I had to focus hard to finish it. Proulx seems a brilliant stylist but perhaps her novels such as this one aren’t exactly known for riveting storytelling. They’re known for having quirky, odd characters, yes, in bleak or violent circumstances, but the story not as much. I read her novel “The Shipping News” back in the ‘90s and recall it being filled with quirky characters in dark situations, too.

What do you think? Have you read any of her books before?

It’s good to push oneself reading at times, but now I need something fun and lighter. I’m going to pick up Jonathan Tropper’s novel “This Is Where I Leave You” because the movie is coming out soon and it looks worthy of some laughs. Hopefully the book is good, too. Have you read this one, or do you plan to see the movie?

The Painter

A lot of people read and raved about Peter Heller’s post-apocalyptic debut novel “The Dog Stars” from 2012. I gave a copy to my Hub who liked it quite a bit. I still plan to read it, but picked up the author’s second novel “The Painter,” wondering if it could be as good.

It’s about a well-known expressionist painter Jim Stegner, 45, who’s trying to piece his life back together after a stint in jail, two divorces and the death of his teenage daughter to a drug dealer. He’s moved from Santa Fe, N.M., to a rural town in Colorado for a fresh start, and appears to be finding solace in the beauty of the wilderness and in fly-fishing. He’s inspired to paint again and finds a model for his art, who’s a fun, smart woman who seems to understand him and get his work. In time, she becomes his girlfriend.

All goes well, until Stegner encounters a man brutally beating a horse. He’s a well-known bad guy who’s a hunting outfitter in the area. Stegner’s violent altercations with him, and then his brother, shatter the peaceful existence of his new-found life. The police are on to Stegner, and so, too, is one of the hunters seeking revenge. Stegner’s on the run, but he’s still painting thought-provoking works fueled by anguish and love. His daughter’s death still hangs over his life. In the end, you’ll be wondering if he’s going to be able to cope without her, and you'll also wonder if he’ll be arrested for the hunter’s murder, or if he’ll be killed. But you won’t know for sure till the last few pages.

It’s a pretty suspenseful book and I got drawn in by the protagonist’s plight right from the start. He seems a good-hearted, well-intentioned guy who’s made some mistakes and is trying to start anew. Unfortunately he also has some violent tendencies when he runs into bad situations or people, which get him into trouble.

“The Painter’s” plot is compelling and Peter Heller captures the western landscape and fly-fishing beautifully. Painting also plays a big role in the book as Stegner’s mental states take shape on his canvases. For the most part, the depiction of his art throughout it enhances the novel and adds an interesting element. There’s just one point near the end that I felt the painting parts got in the way and were a bit tiresome. It’s when an intense scene with the sheriff confronting Stegner is followed by dozens of pages about Stegner’s next paintings when all you really want to know at that late point is will he be apprehended. It just gets a bit prolonged there.

Otherwise, I really liked Heller’s writing style. “The Painter” has some beautiful descriptions and poignant thoughts on life and love. On top of that it has some intense action scenes, which heighten its suspense. The ending, too, deciding Stegner's fate, kept me thinking about it for long after. Now I’m really looking forward to reading “The Dog Stars.” After sampling this one, I know it’ll be good. Heller, for sure, is a writer to be watched.

How about you -- have you read this novel or author before? And what did you think?

A Rundown on August Releases

Here it’s almost September already and I haven’t even discussed August releases yet. But there’s too many good novels (see list at right) to skip from spotlighting them.

Of course a lot of people this month are talking about Haruki Murakami’s latest novel “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” which is about a man in his mid-30s who journeys to visit four of his former high school friends to find out why they cut off all relations with him during college. Who better than Ti over at Book Chatter to be the fan ambassador for this new book. She’s read about everything he’s written and I’m sure will have the lowdown soon on where this particular novel stands amid all his other famous works.

Weighing in at 640 pages, “We Are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas is another novel making a splash this month. It’s about an Irish-American family in New York and their lives that chart the story of America’s 20th century. It’s been heralded as a literary breakout for Thomas whose debut has been ten years in the making. Author Chad Harbach calls it a “powerfully moving book” and Joshua Ferris says it’s a “masterwork.”

Other novels this month are also weighty in substance, taking on the seriousness of fall books instead of flighty, fun summer reads. Take for instance, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan which tells the story set in 1943 of an Australian who tries to save the men under his command while slaving in a Japanese POW camp along the Thai-Burma Railway. Flanagan’s novel apparently springs from his own father’s experiences working on the “death railway” during WWII. It has been much praised and is long-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. (Stay tuned for the Booker short list to be announced on Sept. 9).

Also this month there’s “The Lotus and the Storm” a novel by Lan Cao, which illuminates the shattering effects of war as experienced by a South Vietnamese family, who forty years later living in Virginia discover truths about what really happened during their years in Saigon. Author Ruth Ozeki calls the novel “profoundly moving” and Khaled Hosseini says it’s a “searing indictment of the American campaign in Vietnam.”

Another touted novel out this month “Before, During, and After” by Richard Bausch explores the effects that 9/11 has on a soon-to-be-married couple. While another “Your Face in Mine” by Jess Row explores issues of race and identity after a man undergoes racial reassignment surgery that allows him to pass as African American. One last one “The Dog” by Jack Livings, which captures lives set within contemporary China, has been called “a pitch-perfect account of modernization’s grueling aftermath” by Publishers Weekly.

Whoa when did summer end? These books all seem so weighty and significant. But I’m still in my summer reading mode and have picked three other novels a bit lighter in scope. First off, I’d like to check out Malcolm Brooks’s debut “Painted Horses” about a female archaeologist in the 1950s who is hired to explore a Montana canyon slated for damming and destruction. I’ve heard it’s good and I’m just in an American West frame of mind right now, thanks to Peter Heller’s novel “The Painter,” which I’m enjoying.

I might also pick up Ellen Cooney’s novel “The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances,” which is about two women who start a sanctuary for dogs high on a mountain where humans and canines help each other find new hope and new lives. Need I say more? If you’re a dog person like me, this story might be a wee bit hard to resist.

Lastly for novels out this month, I hope to check out Julie Schumacher’s “Dear Committee Members” because it looks funny and irreverent and hopefully is just the perfect book to end the summer on. I know a lot of bloggers have already blitzed through its short 192 pages and liked it. For those who don’t know it, Slate explains it’s a “funny and lacerating novel of academia written in the form of letters of recommendation.” Its protagonist professor Jason Fitger sounds like a hilarious piece of work so I don’t want to miss this one.

In movies out this month (see list at left), I know folks who’ve loved “Guardians of the Galaxy” but action blockbusters aren’t exactly my thing. I liked the book “The Giver” by Lois Lowry but I’m not sure about seeing the movie. And I haven’t read “The Hundred-Year Journey” by Richard Morais so I think I will likely wait to see that movie on pay-per-view as well as “The Trip to Italy,” though both might have potential.

In albums out this month (see list at bottom right), I’d likely pick Spoon’s “They Want My Soul,” or else the alt-country selection “Bahamas Is Afie” by the singer/guitarist who makes up Bahamas.

What about you -- which books, movies, or albums out this month are you most looking forward to?

Crazy for the Storm

I was at the beach in California for a few days this past week and zoomed through this nonfiction book (pictured below), which proved to be a quick and moving read. “Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival” by Norman Ollestad was published back in 2009, but I didn’t cross paths with it until recently when I saw it on display in a bookstore in Canada. Come on, with a cover like that there was no way I was going to walk away from it, especially since the book has such terrific blurbs about it all over its front and back.

I was ready for an “Into Thin Air”-type of riveting, survival experience, but this is pleasantly something a bit different, a bit more. It’s mainly about a boy, his family, and particularly his father, living on Topanga Beach in California in the 1970s. The father is an adventurous-type of thrill-seeker who pushes his son from the age of three onward into the world of surfing, hockey, and competitive downhill skiing.

The father's rather crazy thrusting his son into dangerous challenges at such a young age, but he also has a zest for life that’s quite admirable. The son both resents him for involving him in scary activities and looks up to him. But it’s only when a chartered plane they are riding in crashes in the California mountains does the son realize all that his father has taught him. Ultimately it saves the boy’s life, who is just 11 years old at the time of the crash in 1979 and is left to descend the treacherous peak alone after the three others onboard die.

The son (now in his 40s) narrates “Crazy for the Storm,” alternating chapters from what happened in the crash, to his life before that on Topanga Beach with his mom, her boyfriend, and particularly his relationship with his father. In one episode, he and his father take a long road trip, far south into Mexico and get stuck in a remote area. It turns out being both scary after they’re chased by the federales and exhilarating after the son experiences his first ride through the tube of a big wave.

The chapters of the crash itself are mind-blowing that the son got out at all, and sad that the others did not. His escape down a mountain in a blizzard is utterly heroic and the book is hard to put down. Moreover, throughout the memoir you get a feeling for the closeness of the father and son, their complicated relationship and the sports they shared together. It’s so sad that the son is robbed of all this in such a devastating accident at such a young age.

“Crazy for the Storm” captures the exotic life they led in Topanga, the unique bond they shared, and what the author hopes to pass along to his own son from his thrill-seeking father. Both poignant and illuminating, the book is one of the better memoirs that I’ve read in a long while.

What about you -- have you read or seen this book? If so, what did you think? Or what memoir has been a favorite of yours?

The Silkworm

Who says dogs can’t fly? My yellow Lab, Stella (pictured above), thinks sometimes she can. She likes to get air time when jumping in the water after her ball. While she’s been spending these hot summer days swimming, I’ve been spending them among other things reading “The Silkworm” by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling).

This is my first foray into reading Rowling post-Harry Potter. Instead of her first mystery with private detective Cormoran Strike, “Cuckoo’s Calling,” I went straight to the sequel and wasn’t confused by doing so. “The Silkworm” gives plenty of background on Strike and his handy assistant Robin so I didn’t feel out of the loop without having read “Cuckoo’s Calling,” though I’ll probably go back and read it sometime.

“The Silkworm” lured me, being a murder mystery set within the book publishing industry. Who better than Rowling would have an interesting perspective on that? I was game to see what she had cooked up about it.

The plot’s easy enough to follow. A novelist goes missing who’s just finished his latest manuscript, leading his wife to hire private eye Cormoran Strike to find him. It turns out the manuscript contains poisonous portraits of everyone the novelist (Owen Quine) knows, leading to an array of people who might want want to silence him before it’s to be published. But when Quine is found brutally murdered, the police zero in on his wife, who Strike thinks is innocent. In a race against time, he must find out who really killed him and why.

“The Silkworm” follows a typical murder-mystery arc, but Rowling infuses it with colorful character development. Who can build a cast of characters like she can? Afghanistan war veteran Cormoran Strike makes an intuitive PI, but this time around he’s limping around while trying to solve the case because his knee is injured above his prosthetic leg. His heart and head are a bit of a mess, too, since his longtime girlfriend, Charlotte, is now engaged to somebody else. Meanwhile his assistant Robin is having her own personal problems because her fiance Matthew disapproves of her work with Strike, and yet she wants to become more involved in the investigating and less solely as Strike’s secretary. In the long run both have to overcome their personal dilemmas to make any headway on the case.

The array of suspects in the author’s murder are all pretty slimy. Anyone of them seems like they could have murdered Quine who comes across as an narcissistic jerk. There’s his editor, the alcoholic; his agent, the parasite; his rival (an author who blames him for his wife’s suicide); his mistress who's an author of fantasy erotica, and a couple of eccentric publishers out only for themselves. Who did it? Well, you won’t know for sure until about the last five pages of the 455-paged book.

“The Silkworm” takes quite a while to get to its conclusion. It’s detailed, lengthy, and not as quick a read as I originally thought it would be. Though Cormoran Strike and Robin are certainly entertaining to follow, I think “The Silkworm” would have been better if it were edited shorter, tauter and even more suspenseful. Moreover the book says Strike’s about 35 years old but to me he came off as older, maybe mid-40s. I also really wanted him to get his bad knee checked because it’s mentioned so many times in the book how he can barely walk that I felt like yelling ‘Please just go see a Doctor! or go to physio.’ But alas, he doesn't.

I don’t normally read murder-mysteries, but I thought since it was summer it’d make a good back-deck read. For the most part I enjoyed it, especially for the characters and dialogue. The publishing world in "The Silkworm" sure didn’t turn out looking so hot -- it definitely exemplified a darker side of people in the book industry, where ambitions in this case ran amok. The plot and conclusion were cleverly done. I guess I just wanted it to get there a bit sooner.

What about you have you read this one? Or any of J.K. Rowling’s books post-Harry Potter? And if so, what did you think?

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