Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson
This is not the book fans would expect from award-winning science fiction writer Robinson. He is best known for his Mars trilogy, beginning with Red Mars, and for his Science in the Capital novels about global warming, beginning with Forty Signs of Rain. Other recent books include Antarctica and 2312. All of his books have been set in the future. Now he travels back tens of thousands of years, to the Ice Age. His main character is young Loon, an orphan and the reluctant apprentice to his clan’s shaman, Thorn. The book begins with Loon going on his wander, two weeks alone in late winter with no food, clothes, or supplies. He is supposed to rejoin his community at the next full moon, with stories to tell. He certainly has some memorable adventures, on his wander and over the whole span of this book. There are some similarities to Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children saga, and also to Jack London’s stories set in the Yukon Territory. Loon becomes a teenager, tries to memorize Thorn’s stories, travels to a clan gathering, falls in love, goes on a quest to the icy north, gets kidnapped, and learns to create cave paintings. The setting and culture are vividly described; I’d really enjoy a sequel or companion novel.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
North Korea is the setting for this frightmare of a book. North Korea is a Stalinist worker’s “paradise”. Everyone is a slave to the “Dear Leader”, “Kim Jung Il” at the time of the book’s writing. Slaves are forbidden to talk or communicate with anyone from the outside world. The citizens of North Korea could just as soon be living on the moon for all the interaction they have with the outside world. As far as they know, they are the premier country in the world. Their air, food, water, shelter, and life of the mind are far superior to the rest of the planet, and who is there to tell them otherwise? There is no otherwise. No one has ever defected from the DPRK. (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) Why would anyone want to?
The Plot involves the life of Jun Do, a sort of everyman North Korean Citizen. Juan Do begins life as an Orphan in a state run orphanage. His father runs the orphanage but does not acknowledge his son. Life at the Orphanage is brutally hard even by North Korean standards. Jun becomes hardened by this life and even excels at it to become a “Soldier” or “Agent” trained to fight in the lightless clandestine tunnels that connect the north to the south. He is given pain training in order to survive brutal interrogations by the South Koreans, a nation of degenerates where hunger and famine reign. He becomes a radio man on board one of the DPRK smuggling ships. He learns through radio transmissions that the DPRK is a lie. This undergirds all of his subsequent activities, which includes sabotage at the highest levels of Government.
This book is very difficult to get through. The level of pain, and torture and extreme mental duress start to make the reader feel very depressed and hopeless. But, if you stick with this book the reward is infinitely worth the price.
The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
Is the universe out to get Alex Woods? Read this book and you could see why Alex wonders about it. At 11, he is struck in the head by a meteorite falling through the roof of his house. When he regains consciousness, he discovers that the blow has led to epileptic seizures, and he stays home for months recovering. He studies on his own, but mainly about the brain and astronomy. When he goes to a new school, there is no hope of fitting in. Of course, his hair won’t grow over the scar. And then there’s the issue of his mother being a witch, running a small occult gift shop, and reading Tarot cards.
So, Alex is bullied. When he runs away from bullies, he gets in trouble and has to make reparations for what they did. This results in spending Saturday mornings with Mr. Peterson, who writes letters for Amnesty International and introduces Alex to the books of Kurt Vonnegut. Later Alex confronts the same bullies and gets in even bigger trouble. He attracts unusual friends, mostly adults. He starts a book club to read Vonnegut. And then, he has to make a choice whether to help Mr. Peterson even though his mother would never allow it. This results in Alex getting stopped at 17 trying to re-enter England with lots of money, a significant amount of marijuana, and while having a partial seizure. It doesn’t look good for Alex. But ultimately, he finds that he has free will, and finds his own path in life. Here’s more about Alex and the author.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
This is flat-out a great book. It took the author ten years to write in his spare time. When the manuscript was put up for auction the price was bid up to $650,000 dollars. There even was a book published about the making and marketing of this book, entitled: Vanity Fair’s How a Book is Born: The Making of the Art of Fielding.
The plot centers around the struggles of the main characters on a baseball team at Westish College called the Harpooners. Henry Skrimshander is a preternaturally gifted shortstop who is recruited out of High School by Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners’ catcher. Although Henry is brilliant on the baseball field, he is shy and introverted and has a hard time adjusting to college life. Also in the mix is Guert Affenlight, the College President, whose staid life is upended by an unexpected romance with one the students. The student in question happens to be Owen Dunne, a gay intellectual, who also happens to play on the team. Pella Affenlight is Guert’s daughter from a previous relationship who shows up on Daddy’s doorstep after a marriage that goes sour.
According to Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times: Mr. Harbach has the rare abilities to write with earnest, deeply felt emotion without veering into sentimentality, and to create quirky, vulnerable, and fully realized characters who instantly take up residence in our hearts and minds. He also manages to rework the well-worn, much allegorized subject of baseball and make us see it afresh, taking tired tropes about the game (as a metaphor for life’s dreams, disappointments, and hopes of redemption) and interjecting them with new energy.
I enjoyed this book for its small college setting, and for the baseball stuff, but mainly for the affecting characters. I did not want this novel to end.
The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls
The newest book by beloved memoir-writer Jeannette Walls is simply stunning. With remnants of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, we follow the journey of 12 year old Bean and her older sister Liz, as they come to grips with a borderline and abandoning mother, travel across country to find their uncle in order to avoid the DCFS, and try to find work in 1970’s small town Virginia. What I find so engrossing about Walls’ novel is the matter-of-fact-ness in her 12 year old protagonist Bean, as she subtly lays out her naiveté and her stubbornness to get justice done, when in her own life there was only injustice. A truly great novel.
Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes
Lou Clark lives at home in a small English town with her parents, grandfather, sister, and young nephew. She likes her job at a local café, but drifts aimlessly when it closes. Her steady boyfriend Patrick spends his free time training for triathlons. When she is offered a job as companion to Will Traynor, confined to a wheelchair since a recent accident, she reluctantly accepts. Will is unhappy and bitter, but no-nonsense Lou refuses to pity him and plans adventures that might give him a reason to enjoy life again. Will, meanwhile, tries to get Lou to be more adventurous, and plan for her future. A bit of a tearjerker, this bittersweet novel is memorable, unpredictable, controversial, and occasionally funny.
The Song Remains the Same by Allison Winn Scotch
Nell is one of only two survivors of a plane crash. She remembers nothing of her life, but learns that she runs an art gallery with her sister, and is married to (but separated from) Peter, and is the daughter of a famous reclusive painter who abandoned the family years ago. She is surprised to find that she’s a control freak who only wears neutral colors, and that she and her sister weren’t speaking before the accident. She used to like music, and her sister makes a recording of music to help prompt her memory. It seems that no one is telling her the whole truth, and she turns to fellow survivor, actor Anderson, to help her find out who she really is. I was really interested in Nell’s story, but found the lies her family and friends told somewhat unbelievable, more so than the amnesia itself. A real page-turner.
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
Alice hits her head during spin class one morning, and loses a decade of her life. She thinks she’s pregnant with her first child, and is stunned to find out that she and Nick have three kids, and are separated. Her sister Elizabeth is married but seems distant, and her mother has remarried, to the most surprising person ever, and enjoys salsa dancing. Alice only gradually remembers flashes of the last decade, and frankly doesn’t like the older Alice. She’s a super mom, very involved at the kids’ school, but they don’t seem that happy. Why is everyone asking her about plans to break the world record for lemon meringue pie? And is she really dating Dominick, the school principal? I really liked the early Alice, and was rooting for her to remain true to herself as she regained her memories. Besides the lemon meringue pie scene, some of my favorite funny parts were how she handles a child’s getting kicked out of school, and salsa dancing.
If you’d like to read more novels about people starting over after a memory loss, try these recent books:
Before I Go to Sleep, by S.J. Watson
The Last Letter from Your Lover, by Jojo Moyes
The Shadow of Your Smile, by Susan May Warren
Remember Me? by Sophie Kinsella
The Bartender’s Tale by Ivan Doig
Rusty and his dad Tom Harry live in Gros Ventre, Montana, near The Medicine Lodge, where Tom is “the best bartender who ever lived”. Raised by his aunt In Phoenix until he was 6, Rusty was happy to escape his older cousins to hang out in the bar’s back room, taking inventory and helping clean the bar on Saturdays. Rusty knows his dad loves him, even if he won’t talk about the past, or Rusty’s mother, who is long gone. The guys have soup for breakfast and dinner at a local café. Tom and Rusty occasionally go fishing, though Rusty’s not a fan. In 1960, when Rusty is 12, new owners buy the café, and Rusty makes friends with their daughter Zoe. The pair hang out in the back room, surrounded by stuff customers have bartered for beer, making model airplanes near an air vent, listening to Tom and his customers. When The Medicine Lodge gets an award from a Montana brewery, Tom, Rusty and Zoe travel to a nearby city for a brewery tour, a minor-league baseball game, and a banquet, where Zoe pretends to be Tom’s daughter. Then Delano comes to town, ready to record Missing Voices for the Library of Congress and he wants Tom to introduce him to the mudjacks who built the dam at Fort Peck. At the mudjacks’ reunion, we meet Proxy, who wants her daughter Francine to learn bartending from Tom. Tom is asked to organize the annual fishing derby at the reservoir, the highlight of Gros Ventre’s summer, and a dramatic mudslide ends the day. It’s quite a summer for Rusty and Zoe, and the reader is happy to go along for a glimpse of life in 1960 Montana. Another old-fashioned reading pleasure from the author of The Whistling Season and Work Song.
The Marseille Caper by Peter Mayle
Sometimes I just want a light, fun book to read. That description perfectly fits Peter Mayle’s books. How about a luxurious working vacation in the south of France? American sleuth Sam Levitt and his girlfriend Elena are off to Marseille so that Sam can help wealthy Francis Reboul win a waterfront development contract. Readers of The Vintage Caper may remember that Reboul was Levitt’s quarry in a wine theft case, but he isn’t the type to hold a grudge. British rival Lord Wapping will stop at nothing to win the contest, while the other developer is Parisian, and not likely to win many votes in Marseille. Much sightseeing, fine wines, and gourmet dining are enjoyed by Sam and Elena until Lord Wapping’s thugs resort to kidnapping. This is a very breezy and relaxed caper, and enjoyable to read.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
Bravo Squad’s Mind-blowing evening in Dallas. This novel is a confluence of three big players in the nation that we call America. Big Military, Big Sports, and Big Hollywood. Billy Lynn is a nineteen-year-old grunt soldier in the United States Army serving a tour of Duty in Iraq. He is from a poor part of rural Texas and has joined the army as part of a deal, either join the military of go to prison. He is part of Bravo Squad, an infantry unit. During a patrol their unit comes under heavy fire. Billy’s cherished friend and mentor, Schroom, is hit and killed and dies in his arms. But, amazingly, the whole firefight has been caught on tape by an embedded Fox news reporter and camera crew. The footage becomes a hit in the states and the military is quick to hit on these men as a moral boaster for the war. Billy wins the Silver Star for gallantry. They are sent on a two week “Victory Tour” of the United States. The book concentrates on one of the stops on the tour, a Cowboys game at Texas stadium. There they are trotted out to the public at a half time show featuring the Cowboy cheerleaders and the musical group “Destiny’s Child”. In addition to free seats to the game, they discover that they are to be part of the big half time show. During their tour they are joined (more like stalked and harassed) by Albert, a movie producer, who wants to turn their story into a film and is constantly on the phone with Hollywood trying to make a movie deal.
Billy and the rest of the squad are on a surreal journey through America, being treated like heroes yet always knowing that they will be sent back Iraq after the tour is over, where they may or may not come back. They are constantly bombarded by cries of “Thank you for your service, bless you for your sacrifice.” Also questions: “Are we winning? What’s it like over there? What’s it like to kill people?”
This book encompasses all the contradictions of the Iraq war. Looking for heroes in an American venture that has no heroes.