Archives of "The BookBrowse Review": Reviews, previews, back-stories, news

The BookBrowse Review

November 14, 2018

Dear BookBrowsers,

Conscience is a man's compass, said Vincent Van Gogh. Our book choices this month sit at all points on the compass. Beliefs, values, pathways and stories reach north and south, east and west. Another way to put it? We've got stories for you which extend up and down, left and right. Literally.

North and South: Patrick Ness's fantastical novel And the Ocean Was Our Sky turns the sky into ocean and the ocean into sky, where whales are fighting humans, and important questions about power, loyalty, and obsession float on the waves. Think Moby Dick, only upside-down. In Vita Nostra, Russian authors Sergey and Marina Dyachenko weave the ultimate anti-Harry Potter story--a magical tale of a girl, a beckoning school, and a dark power which all combine to create a mind-bending mix of metaphysics, philosophy, adventure and science.

East and west: In non-fiction we run the horizontal gamut. In Extremis by Lindsey Hilsum offers an in-depth look into the dramatic, tragic life of war correspondent Marie Colvin who came of age dictating stories from a landline or typing them into a bulky telex machine. She was old-school journalism at its best, and the biography is a visceral dive into her colorful, courageous life. On the other side of the spectrum, Brian McCullough's How the Internet Happened, explores the expansive history and democratization of the Internet, from Netscape to Google to Facebook, providing a look at the individuals behind the technology.

Ocean as sky. The underbelly of Harry Potter. Up, down, left, right. North, South, East, West. And, of course, everything in between. Choose any of the great books we recommend this month and let us help you navigate new lands through their pages.

Your editor,
Davina Morgan-Witts

Cover image from And the Ocean Was Our Sky, reproduced with the permission of the illustrator, Rovina Cai



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October 31, 2018

Dear BookBrowsers,

Chekhov famously gave this advice to writers: "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off." What did he mean? Every single element that is introduced into a story needs to have a purpose. This creates cohesiveness; a flow that allows readers to easily follow a plotline. This is also a kind of foreshadowing. Give readers a detail early on that – consciously or unconsciously – they can tuck away as a clue. Think of it as a planted seed that slowly grows over the course of the story.

All of our book choices this month contain this kind of organic flow. Whether they are works of fiction or non-fiction, they are tightly written, full of suspense and vivid with detail. They all have that metaphorical gun on the wall. And many of them have actual guns at either their core or as critical pieces of their stories. We can't avoid them right now; incidents involving them are in the news too often. So perhaps we need to approach them with curiosity. Explore them. Read about them.

R. J. Young's memoir Let It Bang: A Young Black Man's Reluctant Odyssey into Guns looks at how he became obsessed with shooting guns and also sheds light on the intersection of race, guns and self-protection. A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult explores another gun-toting character – this time a man who has stormed into an abortion clinic and is holding everyone inside hostage. The novel generates discussion about gun violence, as well as abortion, racism, parenthood, and medical ethics among others. Pulling back and looking at guns as part of a larger landscape of defense, violence and trauma, National Book Award Finalist Elliot Ackerman's latest novel, Waiting for Eden, explores loyalty, betrayal and Marine Eden Malcom's life – through the eyes of his friend and fellow soldier, who happens to be a ghost – as his own death approaches due to combat injuries suffered in Iraq.

Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney also centers around a person in a coma. Just as in Waiting for Eden, this is an examination of one woman's life and the specific incident that led to the state she is in.

Heavy stuff. But don't worry, we compliment these books with some levity! Check out our Beyond the Book section. Hank Greene's novel An Absolutely Remarkable Thing inspires a deeper look at sudden and reluctant fame in Young Adult novels. A Spark of Light allows for an examination of the history of condoms, and The Wife Between Us by Sarah Pekkenen and Greer Hendricks explores the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon; a "frequency illusion."

Heavy or light, fiction or non-fiction, introspective or action-packed, we've got books that plant all varieties of seeds. And there it is – Chekhov's gun.

Your editor,
Davina Morgan-Witts

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October 17, 2018

Dear BookBrowsers,

Author Sunil Yapa (Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist) said in a recent interview: "Loving others is wonderful, but caring for others is profound. Empathy is a profound act of imagination and human connection. In fiction, we imagine ourselves into other people's experiences. Of course, another word for that is 'reading'."

Reading is a window into other people's lives. It's a chance to enter someone else's home and slip your feet into the shoes they leave by the door. Reading nurtures empathy in a way that feels safe because you're doing it turning the pages of a book from the comfort of your chair. But this empathy acquisition is not shallow or fleeting; studies have proven that real change occurs within people who read. According to Scientific American, in a study, participants who read literary fiction tested higher than other people for their ability to understand other people's thoughts and emotions. Why is this? It's because literary fiction focuses on the psychology of its characters. It's also because these kinds of stories are written with intentional gaps in character motivation and inner thoughts. Readers have to put themselves inside the story to fill in those spaces.

BookBrowse is filled with this kind of literature – and this issue is no exception. Barbara Kingsolver's Unsheltered is an examination of resiliency and compassion in tough times; His Favorites, by Kate Walbert, asks readers to imagine being a grieving young woman vulnerable to the all-too common violations of men in power; and Alison McGhee's Never Coming Back explores another young woman's life choice—coming home to try to understand her mother before it's too late, and in the process finding herself.

Non-fiction can build readers' empathy too. Ben Macintyre's The Spy and the Traitor tells the harrowing story of double-agent Oleg Gordievsky, who betrayed KGB intelligence by passing Soviet information to the West; and Code Girls by Liza Mundy uncovers the secret lives of female American code-breakers during World War II.

Also, check out our list of Best Book Club Books for 2019 – a whole year's worth of empathy building books!

Lastly, we have news about Milkman by Anna Burns, surprise winner of this year's Man Booker Prize - including reviews and an excerpt.

Your editor,
Davina Morgan-Witts

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October 03, 2018

Dear BookBrowsers,

If necessity is the mother of invention, what is the mother of reinvention?

Some of the books we've reviewed for this issue explore question. Ben Fountain's Beautiful Country Burn Again is a compilation of essays that dive deep into 2016, a tumultuous year in American politics, while also examining the historical cycle of reinventions that the country has experienced – facing such serious crises that it had to make itself brand new in order to survive. Fountain is a novelist, as well as a reporter, and you can tell: his writing is compelling and clear.

The idea of reinvention is not only a grand-scale endeavor, it is an intimate, personal one too. Man Booker Prize finalist Washington Black by Esi Edugyan follows young slave Wash, from a sugar plantation in Barbados, as he assists a naturalist, scientist, inventor and abolitionist across the world. Together, they reinvent the concept of friendship, in a time when the gap between enslaved and free prevented such connection and, alone, Wash learns what it means to change your own identity into something brand new. So does Cathy Williams, the central character (and real-life historical figure) in Sarah Bird's Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, who reinvents herself from a slave in Missouri into a member of the Buffalo Soldiers. Both novels offer readers a chance to experience the powerful choice to risk changing your identity so as to follow your passion.

Our Beyond the Book essay for Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen explores three African American women who risked everything to help the Civil War cause, while the essay for James McBride's Five-Carat Soul investigates two all-black regiments that fought for the Union army.

Perhaps the mother of reinvention is also necessity. Or maybe it is hope – hope for a better life. And a fierce dedication to finding it. Let us know what you think after reading the books we have gathered here for you.

Your editor,
Davina Morgan-Witts

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September 19, 2018

Dear BookBrowsers,

George Bernard Shaw once said: "The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and all time." In other words, stories that are deeply personal are also deeply universal.

In this issue we've brought together a group of books that confirm Shaw's definition of great writing. Sarah Smarsh's Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, which has just been long-listed for the National Book Award, is an exploration of her family's struggles to survive for generations, unable to lift themselves out of poverty. The memoir is authentic and, as Smarsh puts her and her family's life onto the page, we are better able to understand the class divide in our country and the stereotypes that permeate it. Award-winning investigative journalist Shane Bauer writes an authentic story too; American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment is about his time as an undercover prison guard at a private prison in Louisiana. He shares his personal experience interacting with both colleagues and inmates, and the toll it took on him and his family, and weaves this together with the history of for-profit prisons in America. The result is eye-opening.

On a somewhat lighter note, Paige Williams non-fiction debut, The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal and the Quest for Earth's Ultimate Trophy explores the story of one quirky fossil collector who found and sold a Tyrannosaurus skeleton from Mongolia, and in telling us about this one man she unearths so much more: natural history, human nature, capitalism and the question of who, ultimately, is allowed to own the past.

We also introduce our first graphic novel review of Home After Dark by author and illustrator David Small. Like a book-length comic strip, graphic novels combine text and images to tell a whole story. We will review others from time to time.

These are just four of the sixteen featured books in this issue which also includes our beyond the book articles, author interviews, reading guides, previews of notable books coming soon, book news and more!

Here's to finding the whole world within the pages of one book!

Your editor,
Davina Morgan-Witts

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August 29, 2018

Dear BookBrowsers,

"There seemed few outlets left for the restlessness that ached inside me, this mad longing for a world without maps," says Kate Harris in Lands of Lost Borders, her memoir about traveling part of the Silk Road.

As Kate makes her journey across China and Central Asia, she contemplates boundaries – both external and internal – and asks us all to do the same. In what ways do our connections with the landscape transcend borders? How do we find our way back to focusing on our similarities rather than our differences?

A freedom of imagination is one way, says Kate, and as we head into fall, BookBrowse celebrates this spirit with a list of new books sure to set your imagination free. Whether you read Jon Cohen's Harry's Trees, a rich tapestry of grief, magic, empathy and – of course – trees; The Spy of Venice, Benet Brandeth's vision of William Shakespeare as a young man; or Anne Tyler's Clock Dance, a story about a woman on a journey to find herself, you will feel your imagination ignite and grow. And don't forget to check our publishing Soon list (look for the tab in the menu to the left), many of which are top picks for the fall – John Woman, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock and Heartland to name just three.

So grab a copy of Lands of Lost Borders or pick any other book from our list and do your own (armchair) exploring of a world without borders.

Your editor,

Davina Morgan-Witts

PS: We publish The BookBrowse Review twice a month. This is the first September issue. We'll be back in three weeks, September 19, with the next issue.

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August 15, 2018

Dear BookBrowsers,

School letters are beginning to come in the mail. You know, the ones that let students know how many notebooks and pencils they have to buy? And so we turn our attention to the topic of education – and in particular, to the question of whether writing can be taught or not. Some people believe that a person must have an innate talent for it. Others think it can be learned. Rupert Wallis, who teaches creative writing at the Institute of Continuing Education at Cambridge University, believes the truth lies somewhere in the middle. He's got a new series of podcasts called Creative Writing and Storytelling for the Family which explores this, and we explore it, too, in our related blog post.

Speaking of writing, in this issue we review books whose authors have unique storytelling techniques. Is their writing nature or nurture? Did they learn the skills from the ground up or did they enhance whatever inherent strengths they already had?

Silas House uses rich and varied metaphor to tell his story of redemption in Southernmost, while M.J. Rose creates a compelling, unique voice for her protagonist in Tiffany Blues. Ann Youngson knows how to embed subtle, powerful insights into love and life in Meet Me at the Museum and, finally, Mike McCormack uses a fragmented kind of prose to tell his equally splintered story Solar Bones, allowing form to mirror content in a deeply riveting way.

Do you think these writers are born storytellers, or have they, over time, worked hard to master their craft? I'll leave it up to you to decide!

Happy Reading!

Davina

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Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.