Review By Tess Tabak
When a slew of mysterious symptoms leaves you terribly ill, how long does it take to have your illness validated, to receive a diagnosis? If you are a woman, especially a young woman of color with patchy health insurance and little money, it can be a very long time.
In Sick, Porochista Khakpour takes us through her journey as she struggles with poor health, drug addiction, and a quest for a diagnosis. She also takes us through her history with Lyme, both in herself and others: a boyfriend’s mother who became seriously ill with it; a dog she adopted that suffered from the disease; the many places she visited where she saw and ignored Tick Check warnings.
Sick is engrossing, reading somewhat like a lurid “it happened to me”-type article, written by a literary master. She spares few details, including raving emails she sent to friends at the height of her desperation about the undiagnosed illness: “I’ve realized my urine is entirely too alkaline.” Continue reading
By Tess Tabak
Disoriental, a new novel by Négar Djavadi, tells the epic story of a family, the Sadrs, across a century of true Iranian history. Kimia, the youngest daughter of Darius and Sara Sadr, is the self-appointed keeper of family lore. She tells her own story through the lens of her extended family’s history, weaving the tales in and out of each other like a modern day Scherzerade. The family currently lives in France and Disoriental’s message is particularly poignant, and relevant, in today’s political climate, when refugees are not freely welcome in many Western countries.
The novel opens slowly, on Kimia attempting to receive fertility treatment, in a room filled with couples desperate for a child. She is the only one who came to the appointment alone, without a partner. Once you get started this is a hard book to put down. While she waits for the doctor, Kimia braids her present story in and out of her family’s history, set against the backdrop of Iran’s tumultuous political history. Anecdotes fluidly move from one into the other, and the tale jumps back and forth between spans of 20 to 50 years at a time (there’s a helpful key in the back of the book if you lose track of the characters). Continue reading
Review by Tess Tabak
Where Night Stops, a new novel by Douglas Light, is a gripping thriller written in deliciously literary prose. The protagonist ends up over his head in a money laundering scheme when a homeless man named Ray-Ray hands him a message in a bar of soap. That message leads him to the local library, which sets him off on a series of jobs that seem easy enough, and pay well. There’s just one problem: he has no idea what he’s doing, no idea why someone is paying him $300 to pick up checks from pre-arranged points and deposit them in library books. He calls these mysterious jobs “Kam Manning,” and inches in further and further, convincing himself that he’s not doing anything wrong.
The novel unravels slowly. It starts with our narrator in a bar with a woman who complains of being ugly. She sits next to our protagonist, trading a few lines of witty banter. She says that “My heart is a divided Vienna,” referencing Orson Welles’s The Third Man. Continue reading
Review by Tess Tabak
Searching for Someday is like a lollipop. You unwrap it, excited. I shouldn’t be reading this, you think. It has no real sustenance. But then you do read it, and you think, ugh, this is too sweet. And the prose is horrible. Did I ever use to like these? But it goes down quick before you really have a chance to think about it.
As a bodice-ripper, this book sort of succeeds. I’m saying “sort of” because it was page-turning and somewhat engrossing, which is really the only thing one asks for in books like this. I finished it in about three days. But the cringe factor is very high. I’ll leave aside the ridiculous nature of the premise – Kate runs a matchmaking agency called Kinnections, where she uses a combination of her supernatural ability to detect compatibility and real world dating advice to create lasting connections for her clients. She is also cursed to find one true soul mate in life. No one else will do it for her. OK, that part is fine.
Where the book starts to fall apart is when Slade enters the picture. A no-nonsense, super hot divorce lawyer, he becomes Kate’s client as a way of keeping tabs on his sister, who’s recently signed up for Kinnections. No. No no no no. Kate and her friends frequently cite Slade’s “protectiveness about his family” as a plus, but really? His behavior toward his sister is controlling, obsessive, unhealthy. Continue reading
Review by Tess Tabak
In Dead Spider, the 17th installment in Victoria Houston’s Loon Lake mystery series, Charles Pfeiffer, the wealthiest man in town is murdered. It’s up to police chief Lewellyn Ferris and her deputy coroner Paul Osborne to find his killer. Dead Spider is a standalone story, and Houston briefly tells you anything you need to know about the characters in the first few pages so you don’t need to read any of the other books in the series before picking this one up.
A fast moving story, Dead Spider is a good beach read. It’s a light, airy page turner with a well-crafted mystery. The book relies on some mystery tropes (the murdered man has a bitchy daughter-in-law and a gold-digging wife, for example), but colored with Houston’s charming cast of small town characters, and the active fly fishing economy, it feels fresh. Loon Lake is based on the small Wisconsin town where Houston grew up, and you can tell she has a deep love for the area. Continue reading
Review by Tess Tabak
This debut novel by Julie Dao is the first book in the Rise of the Empress series. The series explores the imagined youth of Snow White’s Evil Queen in an East Asian-inspired fantasy setting. Xifeng, the protagonist, is a strong, complex young woman struggling to choose between a path of light and dark. She knows the right thing to do, but a voice inside of her urges her on towards evil.
There’s a lot to praise about this novel: Xifeng, our heroine, is strong and powerful, but at the same time she is not immune to the culture and mores of her time. She has to be careful to seem humble and ladylike as she forges her way towards becoming the next Empress of Feng Lu. At the same time, she is more spirited than the women in classic fairy tales. She propels herself by her own choices, not quietly accepting what the world throws at her. Another divergence from the norms: following her destiny for greatness means leaving behind Wei, Xifeng’s handsome boyfriend who longs to marry her and live a quiet life together. We are told that Wei is meant to play some role in Xifeng’s fate, but it’s clear that Xifeng’s journey will be more about realizing her destiny than finding her one true love. Continue reading
Review by Tess Tabak
In Royal City volume 1: Next of Kin, a new graphic novel by Jeff Lemire, a family grapples with the ghost of their dead son. Tommy died in 1993, but he left an indelible presence on the Pikes.
Royal City starts when Patrick Pike comes home to visit his father, who’s just had a stroke. It slowly becomes clear that each character is seeing a different version of Tommy’s ghost. Patrick grapples with guilt about using his dead brother as the inspiration for so much of his writing. Patrick’s mother sees him as the priest he could have grown up to be. His sister sees him as the child she desperately wants to have. In this volume, Lemire doesn’t cover much ground in plot. He’s laying the latticework for future volumes, developing a rich family history and taking his time to set up the mystery of what happened to Tommy in 1993. Lemire is known for his literary, quietly plotted graphic novels, such as the award-winning Essex County. Continue reading
You love books. They’re the perfect present, obviously. We’ve put together a selection to help you find the perfect gift for every person on your list this holiday season.
We aimed for a wide range, and to choose books a little bit off the beaten path. If you pick a book from this list, the odds are pretty good they don’t already have it – either because it just came out so they haven’t gotten a chance, or because it’s not on their radar.
Most of the books on our list are available on Amazon Prime – so no matter what holiday you celebrate, there’s a perfect last-minute gift for you in here somewhere.
New: Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan (2017)
The Visit from the Goon Squad author is back with a gripping thriller about a woman who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II.
Middle-ish: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013)
As far as we’re concerned not enough people have read this book. This novel is narrated by two fully realized characters– a teenaged Japanese-American girl (Nao) keeping a diary while living in Tokyo, and a Japanese-American writer (Ruth) living on an island off the coast of British Columbia who finds that diary sometime after the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan. This book goes to some dark places. 16-year-old Nao wants to commit suicide but not before she finishes writing about the life of her 100+-year-old old Buddhist nun grandmother. In doing so she captures much of her own story. Ruth, who finds the diary well after it was written, forms a connection with Nao even while her ultimate fate is unknown. The novel deals with everything from time, spirituality, physics, and placemaking. Fun fact: Ozeki became the first practicing Zen Buddhist priest to be shortlisted for the Man Booker with this book.
Review by Tess Tabak
The Gypsies of New Rochelle is a charming new novel by Ivan Jenson. It follows the Aldridges, an eccentric family, as they attempt to launch the music career of their talented daughter Nora and make it big in New York.
Set in 1980, Gypsies shows us a grittier version of New York City than exists today. The Aldridges call themselves gypsies because they move around so often, rootless and always looking for the next adventure. Shawn, the youngest child of the family, narrates the book. Family is at the heart of Gypsies. The book trafficks mostly in the day-to-day life of the Aldridges, a small caravan of well-drawn out characters. Jenson revels in the small dramas of the Aldridges: pranks played, petty squabbles between siblings, and their dealings with Carey Casey, the exasperated producer who has to answer their questions.
Jenson captures a unique large family dynamic, something which is hard to do well. Shawn’s family is full of odd, vibrant characters, each with their own shtick: his overbearing parents, who pressure sister Nora to become a concert violinist. A cousin, Pito, is brainwashed by hippies in Manhattan and must be rescued. Shawn is catapulted to momentary fame when his brother Jarrett, builds a flying contraption and dares Shawn to get on. Each character has their own arc, all weaving together beautifully to create a blended picture of family life. Continue reading
Review by Tess Tabak
Tool of War is the third book in Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker trilogy. A fast-moving dystopian YA novel, Tool of War picks up where Drowned Cities left off. Tool has broken away from his masters and is preparing for all out war against the people who created him.
As much as war, this book is about survival. Bacigalupi gives us insight into his characters’ emotional journeys. How do they cope with the horrifying world they live in? Tool grapples with the “monster” he was designed to be, an augment halfway between man and animal, kept genetically chained to his master for most of his life. Mahlia, a young healer who hates violence, faces the idea that she might need to hurt others to defend herself at some point in the near future. There is a rotating cast of main characters, but they all feel distinct and unique in their own way. This makes his dystopian world all the more horrifying: this isn’t happening in some abstract way; the terrible things are happening to these people. Continue reading