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The BookBrowse Review

July 10, 2019

Dear Bookbrowsers,

I hope your summer is going well. If you don't have a vacation planned (or even if you do), you can always revel in the escapism of a good book. We've got some interesting thematic pairs in this issue, spanning a variety of subjects and genres:

Our two debuts, Amanda Lee Koe's Delayed Rays of a Star and Tim Mason's The Darwin Affair are both historical fictions based around the lives of real people. The former imagines the interior lives of actresses Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong, along with Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl during World War II (and the years after), while the latter uses the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species as a catalyst for a murder mystery.

Sonia Purnell's A Woman of No Importance is a riveting biography of little known World War II spy Virginia Hall, and Jeanne Mackin's novel The Last Collection is also set during the war, offering a fictionalized version of the lives of fashion designers Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli.

In the travelogue Hungry, journalist Jeff Gordinier follows famed Danish chef René Redzepi through Mexico and Australia on a mission to find the most exciting and authentic local ingredients. In Elizabeth Acevedo's latest YA phenom With the Fire on High, a teenage mother is inspired by a cooking class in her senior year of high school.

Max Porter's Lanny and Barbara Bourland's Fake Like Me are both dark stories centered around gripping mysteries that keep the reader guessing, though the former is something of a modern day fairy tale, and the latter a gritty noir set among New York City's artistic elite.

Finally, many parts of the world have recently celebrated LGBTQ+ pride, and we're keeping the celebration going just a little longer in this issue with Sarah Henstra's We Contain Multitudes, a tender YA love story about two very different high school boys navigating the confusing waters of their sexuality. We also take a look at Jennifer Weiner's Mrs. Everything, a novel exploring multiple generations of one Detroit family that depicts the changing attitudes about LGBTQ+ people in American society over several decades through the lens of main character Jo (who was based on the author's mother).

We will return with a new issue on July 31; hopefully you've got enough to read until then!

Enjoy!

Your editor,
Davina

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June 19, 2019

Dear BookBrowsers,

Great literature allows us to become tourists visiting realms far outside our ordinary setting, whether that be a bustling metropolis across the country, or an alien planet in a distant galaxy. A good author can take the reader by the hand and make them feel at home in the strangest of places. We get to know the locals and their customs, and perhaps even imagine ourselves as part of their world. Several of the books in this issue are noteworthy for their vivid settings, some historical, some contemporary and familiar, and some surreal and askew.

Elizabeth Gilbert's City of Girls offers a dazzling rendition of 1940s New York City as backdrop to a young woman's coming-of-age, while Taffy Brodesser-Akner's Fleishman Is in Trouble provides a present-day look at the city and its upper echelons through a protagonist navigating the murky waters of dating and parenting after a marital separation.

Robert Macfarlane's Underland takes readers underground, through Parisian catacombs, Norwegian sea caves and Egyptian burial chambers, among many more locations, to explore our own interior, dark spaces on a metaphorical level, as well as the alarming trends of climate change.

The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer travels back to Vichy France during World War II to recount a fictionalized version of the heroic rescues undertaken by American journalist Varian Fry as he ferried thousands of Jews out of Europe and into the United States. Poet Ocean Vuong's novel On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous presents a window into the immigrant experience through the lens of a Vietnamese family with inter-generational trauma tied to the U.S. war in their homeland.

One of the issue's more experimental books, Mohammed Hanif's Red Birds, also concerns U.S. military intervention, and in this case the setting is obscured—a refugee camp in the desert, somewhere in the Middle East. It might be more accurate to simply say that the novel's setting is "war." Karen Russell's short story collection Orange World, meanwhile, features settings ranging from Joshua Tree National Park to 17th century Korčula.

When you're finished perusing the reviews, head on over to the American Library Association's website to read my article So Much Love for Library Book Groups!, and if you find it interesting, please share!

We continue to be on a three week summer schedule, so our next issue will be published on July 10th.

Enjoy!

Your editor,
Davina

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May 29, 2019

Dear BookBrowsers—

Among this issue's featured books are novels featuring layered, complicated female characters questioning what it means to be strong versus vulnerable (and how those seemingly contradictory qualities are actually two sides of the same coin), fighting back against societal racism and even taking on a drug cartel to save a beloved canine companion. They are singers, attorneys, troubled teens and former Marines.

In The Confessions of Frannie Langton, a historical fiction debut by Sara Collins, the titular character is a former slave and servant from Jamaica accused of murdering her employers. Rather than merely claiming her own innocence, her account places the onus on a racist, sexist London society that loathes black women and undermined her attempts to better herself at every turn.

Catherine Chung's The Tenth Muse narrates a Chinese mathematician's arduous struggle to be taken seriously in her field where her race and gender frequently provoke discrimination. Both Confessions of Frannie Langton and The Tenth Muse feature plots that spiral outward, as their narrators consider how their pasts inform their present, and how history and social issues intersect with their personal stories and struggles.

Taylor Jenkins Reid's Daisy Jones & The Six is the biography of a fictional 1970s rock band that unfolds in an interview format, with three resilient and dynamic female characters, including lead singer Daisy Jones. Daisy exhibits powerhouse vocals on the band's songs, but inside, she's aching for the love she never got from her parents, and trying to fill the void with drugs. But music gives Daisy an outlet for her feelings, a way to express herself even when doing so is scary.

The women in these novels refuse to be silenced or taken advantage of, no matter how much the odds might be stacked against them.

Among the other 13 books in this issue, we also feature The Age of Living Machines, a fascinating look at the future of bioengineering by neuroscientist and first female president of MIT, Susan Hockfield. The immediate future of literature looks bright as well—we've got previews of more than 70 books publishing between now and our next issue! Talking of which, every June and July, BookBrowse moves from our usual two-week publishing schedule to every three weeks, so the next BookBrowse Review will be on June 19.

Enjoy!

Your editor
Davina

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May 15, 2019

Dear BookBrowsers—

What is the classic structure of a novel? Is there even such a thing? When we think about stories and talk about them, we tend to focus on plot and characters. The man took a trip around the world to find his long-lost brother. The girl and her dog dug up a treasure in the backyard and then together fought off a band of pirates. Plot and characters.

But what about structure? Often it is almost invisible, like a clear glass scaffolding that almost magically holds the story in place. Structure, though, can be just as vital to a novel as its content. A theme or subject can be reinforced by the way it is offered. Structure affects the pace at which we read, where we emphasize and what we emphasize, and it can subtly or overtly mirror content.

This issue is full of unique and innovative structures.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang is a compilation of nine short stories and novellas that are the stuff of science fiction, but not your usual variety. Instead, Chiang weaves together the truly bizarre and other-worldly while infusing each of his characters with universal emotions. This is not a theme-focused book, but more of an interdisciplinary experiment. The structure of the whole collection allows the reader to dive deep for a short time, come up for air, and then dive deep again, much like a bird flying over an ocean searching for food. Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg explores the life of a fictional photographer who struggles to balance her personal, artistic and professional lives; it's written as an art catalogue created for a posthumous showing of her work, but without ever showing a single photograph. Structure here is in the form of an actual object in the story.

Angie Kim's debut, Miracle Creek, tells the suspenseful story of an explosion in a medical treatment facility in short third-person chapters—like small explosions, over and over again—so that form mirrors content. And Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips has 12 chapters, each representing a month in the year after two girls go missing on a peninsula in the far eastern corner of Russia. The reader feels that endless year of longing as opposed to just thinking about it.

Read any one of these books with an eye on their structure. Read any in our excellent line-up here and see if you can bring their often-invisible structures into focus.

Happy reading!

Your editor
Davina

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May 01, 2019

Dear BookBrowsers—

Today is May Day, which traditionally marks the return of spring. The ancient Celts celebrated Beltane, "the return of the sun" and held a festival honoring fertility, growth and life after a cold, dark winter. It is believed they also originated the maypole dance, which was most likely a fertility rite symbolizing the union of masculine and feminine. And the Romans held a licentious five-day celebration devoted to Flora, the goddess of flowers. May 1 hit smack dab in the middle of the festivities.

Fast forward to the USA in the nineteenth century and the day had become May Basket Day, celebrated by creating baskets of flowers and candies to hang on neighbors' doors. NPR describes it as "a curious custom — still practiced in discrete pockets of the country." It would seem our neighborhood here in California was one such "discrete pocket" as, thanks to the enthusiasm of our children's preschool teacher, they and some of their friends happily made paper cones filled with flowers to hang on neighbors' doors for a number of years.

Springtime. Light. Warmth. Rebirth. But May 1st is also about strikes, labor, rallies, and worker's rights. In early May 1886, over 200,000 workers protested across the USA, demanding an eight-hour day. In Chicago, a peaceful protest turned violent when an unknown person threw dynamite into the crowd, killing both police and civilians. In commemoration of these events, in 1889, May 1st became officially known as International Workers' Day.

Spring and strikes. Light and labor action. These contradictory symbols are each a part of May Day. And contradictory stories are each a part of this issue.

The Stranger Diaries is a Gothic thriller, full of murder, romance, and a ghost story; while Mama's Last Hug examines the emotional depth of chimpanzees. My Coney Island Baby is a love story set in the famous park, and The Island of Sea Women follows the lives of two women divers from South Korea. Boy Swallows Universe is a coming of age story about two brothers in Australia, and The Parting Glass is about a love triangle set in nineteenth-century New York City.

Contradictory themes and genres. But maybe they are not contradictory at all. Maybe they are complimentary instead. Multiple sides of this thing we call life – this journey of living in the world.

Happy Reading!

Davina

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April 17, 2019

Dear BookBrowsers—

This week, Notre Dame burned. Flames shot into the sky from the wooden roof of the cathedral, a symbol of the beauty and history of France disintegrating into heat and smoke. Renovations were underway, and the cause of the fire isn't known yet, but it seems to have begun in the frame that has held the massive structure since the 13th century. As its iconic spire crumbled to the ground, the specter of Victor Hugo's 1931 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame rose into the sky.

According to Robert Zaretsky, professor of French History at the University of Houston, Hugo believed that "the history of architecture is the history of writing." Zaretsky goes on to say: "For Hugo – before the printing press, mankind communicated through architecture. From Stonehenge to the Parthenon, alphabets were inscribed in "books of stone." Rows of stones were sentences…[and by] the High Middle Ages, the Gothic cathedral liberated man's spirit. Poets, in the guise of architects, gave flight to their thoughts and aspirations, in flying buttresses and towering spires."

The Hunchback of Notre Dame celebrates both the place and the poetry. And many of the books we review this week do the same. Sally Rooney's Normal People celebrates Trinity College in Dublin, while Women Talking, by Miriam Toews, holds its drama and revelations inside a single Mennonite barn. In An American Summer Alex Kotlowitz explores many haunts and habitats in Chicago, while Siri Hustvedt examines the architecture of a journal as a through line for one woman's life in her novel Memories of the Future.

There is much more to explore in this issue, including a robust lineup of nonfiction books in our preview section; a just opened discussion of An American Marriage and the winners of the Pulitzer "Letters" category.

Enjoy!

Davina

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April 03, 2019

Dear BookBrowsers—

Laurie Halse Anderson was a National Book Award finalist in 1999 for her groundbreaking young adult novel, Speak, about a girl who is dealing with the aftermath of a rape. When librarians and teachers shared it with teens, they were riveted by the story – even teens who were reluctant readers finished it in one night – but despite their curiosity and connection to the novel, schoolboards and parents tried to censor it. This opened up brand new conversations, not only about what kinds of topics adults think are acceptable for teens to read about, but why we think certain topics – or ideas or narratives – are acceptable. Or not. In this way, Speak was an enormous wave that brought many more topics to the young adult literature shore.

And now, twenty years later, Halse Anderson brings us her memoir, Shout, an intimate examination of her own sexual assault written in free verse, as well as a more general study of childhood and family and how they both shape identity. It is also, poignantly, a statement about the universality of trauma and how it can be a bridge of empathy between people, regardless of the specifics of each person's experience.

Books are a brilliant way to trek across that bridge. And we've got a bunch of empathy-building choices for you in this issue. There's Shout, of course. And then there's The Workshop and the World, by Robert P. Crease, which examines the psychology of science denial, particularly relating to climate change, by delving into the philosophers and thinkers from history who shaped our conversations and perceptions of science. Christina Thompson's Sea People is an exploration of the history of the Polynesian Islands and the origins of its first inhabitants. And Instructions for a Funeral, David Means' short story collection explores, among many other topics, whether stories build empathy.

We think they do. Like Speak, all of these books are waves crashing onto the shore, bringing with them new topics, ideas and narratives for us all to enjoy.

Happy reading!

Davina

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BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.