Paraíso by Gordon Chaplin

Set in Mexican “Paradise,” this moody novel combines fantasy, noir and the complexities of every form of love.


Paraíso is an atmospheric novel both realistic and rooted in fantasy, traveling from New York City to Baja, Mexico, and exploring the nuances of love in all its forms. Gordon Chaplin (Joyride) offers a cast of whimsical, imperfect, loveable characters that readers will not soon forget.

As children, they were almost preternaturally close. Their mother named them Peter and Wendy, perhaps an early sign of something odd in family undercurrents. As teenagers, they stole the family minivan and ran for Mexico, but they never made it, apprehended instead at the very point Huck Finn and Jim aimed for.

These episodes are visited in flashbacks, from a present in which Peter and Wendy have been estranged for a decade, over a mysterious family secret. Wendy has finally made it to the little Mexican town of Paraíso, on the Baja peninsula, where she finds herself at the intersection of love and peril. Peter fled New York City after the towers fell, seeking his lost sister. They circle one another as Paraíso nears its conclusion, joined by charismatic associates, friends and lovers. These include Wendy’s best friend, who has been the siblings’ go-between for years; a sinister half-Mexican auto mechanic; an artista from Mexico City; and a teenage girl Peter mentors at work. The momentum of this expertly paced noir fairy tale increases as it nears its denouement.

Gorgeous, vivid scenery and fascinating people enrich a story that is both eccentric and universal: how to love and how to handle betrayal.

This review originally ran in the July 5, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 letters.

So Much for That Winter by Dorthe Nors, trans. by Misha Hoekstra

Experimental in form, these two novellas explore everyday frustrations in love and art.

so much for that winter

Two novellas by Dorthe Nors (Karate Chop) compose So Much for That Winter, translated by Misha Hoekstra from the Danish. They are as stark and unusual in form as they are bleak in mood. The first is “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space,” which is told entirely in declarative sentences, each on its own line. They range from the mundane to the philosophical: “People love wistful pop”; “Hope is a roe deer on a bluff.” This austere narrative style reveals a more complex story, about a woman who has suffered a breakup and seeks space–literal and figurative–for her work as an avant-garde composer. She hides away in her apartment, daydreams a relationship with Ingmar Bergman, and flees to an island she hopes will mend her.

“Days” follows, formed of numbered lists that make up the days of a woman’s life: a diary of sorts. The unnamed character is a frustrated writer, also with a relationship recently ended. Her days are inordinately filled with walks in cemeteries and lots of ice cream. Again the prosaic details blend with moments of poetry: “2. Sorted laundry, two piles, Tuesday”; “But the one who writes must dare to stand with her fledglings stuck to her fingers and surrender them in showers of spittle and roses.”

The result of these startling, experimental novellas is both somber and playful, the themes of romantic disappointment and creative blocks heightened by the minimalist style. So Much for That Winter is a compelling investigation of form and emotion.

This review originally ran in the June 21, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 bike rides.

Seed by Michael Edelson

seedWhat can I say? I’m impressed. Thank you, Andy, for recommending, and thank you to the author for passing this book along. (Disclosure: I received a free copy in exchange for this honest review.)

Seed stars Alex Meyers, a soldier stationed in modern-day California, where he trains the soldiers who deploy to Iraq and Afganistan. His life is routine, until the morning he wakes up in a plastic pod of sorts, stocked with clothes that fit, and surrounded by other people equally confused about how they got here. And just where is “here,” anyway? Each resident of this odd new world has been provided with the tools of his or her trade: medical tools for the doctor, and – chillingly – an armory for Alex. Obvious questions arise. Who kidnapped Alex and the others and marooned them here, and why? And is the invisible barrier there to keep them in, or to keep something else out?

Alex’s early reaction is contentment at an unexpected vacation. This place kind of resembles Hawaii, in fact. But it doesn’t take long for the sinister to creep in, at the same time that a romantic interest surfaces. Alex is a soldier, trained to obey, and not accustomed to a leadership role. But he finds that there are things, people, and values in his new environment that are worth defending.

This is a racing plot. I put the book down just once, to keep an appointment, and then raced through to the finish without coming up for air. Whatever its imperfections – and there are a few – it is a rare and special book that grabs me that irresistibly.

Seed‘s characters evoke the reader’s emotions, as Andy said in his review. But the strength of that emotional attachment comes more from the strength of plot, than any genius of characterization; characters are a little stiff, a little good-or-bad. No matter; they suffice. Dialog is likewise sort of indifferent.

But the pacing, momentum and intrigue of this plot is outrageous. I found it quite inventive and suspenseful; also as Andy noted, twists keep it from feeling formulaic. A third time like Andy, I am not normally a reader in this genre, which is, what? Military, dystopian? With a hint of romance? But any reader who enjoys plot-driven, adrenaline-filled novels should be well pleased.

Michael Edelson self-published this, his first novel, and “the industry” tends to look askance at such efforts. But this is a feat. I enjoyed every minute and was sorry when it ended. Congratulations, Mr. Edelson. If you care to revisit the world of Seed in a sequel, I’ll buy it.

Rating: 7 cups of nutrient powder.

book beginnings on Friday: Seed by Michael Edelson

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.


I am finally getting around to reading Seed myself – so sorry for the delay! – after my favorite bartender reviewed it so long ago. Full disclosure: I took this free copy in exchange for my honest review, with friend Andy as intermediary. I do not, however, know the author myself.

I’m loving it! Check out these first lines.

Alex was killed at 11:43 AM. Not quite lunchtime, but close enough. He was stepping out of his armored personnel carrier when a string of pops erupted from the crest of a nearby hill, accompanied by a cloud of dust raised by muzzle blasts. His MILES gear started to buzz, indicating a hit, and Alex lay down on the ground and waited for the end of the engagement.

And then I didn’t look up for another 80 pages. It’s got great momentum. Stick around!

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

A minimalist meditation on loss takes an unusual slim and poetic form.

grief is the thing

Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers handles bereavement and the novel format in inventive ways. Scraps of poetry, dialogue and ramblings, with lots of white space, fill just over 100 pages, but this sparse little volume takes on no less than love, loss and art.

Three parts, “A Lick of Night,” “Defence of the Nest” and “Permission to Leave,” roundly sum up the grieving process. Brief segments are narrated from three characters’ perspectives: Dad, Boys and Crow. Mom has recently died, and Dad and two young sons struggle to cope until a special Crow comes along to care for them–in a manner of speaking.

The Crow’s voice tends toward the stream-of-consciousness, as a bird’s might, but there’s no questioning its agency and intelligence. Dad is an eccentric Ted Hughes scholar, struggling to write a book on deadline. Under these influences, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers resembles free verse. The Boys generally speak as “we”; despite the occasional singular, the two brothers are interchangeable. In Porter’s poetic bent and unusual usages, “They were in brother with each other.” They are nonetheless realistic and childlike; they wonder, when their mother dies, “Where are the fire engines…? Where are the strangers… screaming, flinging bits of emergency glow-in-the-dark equipment at us to try and settle us and save us?”

This is not a novel for children, with its moments of gore and sex, but it is a whimsical and ultimately pleasing perspective on grief, and utterly original.

This review originally ran in the June 3, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 flecks of toothpaste.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler successfully reinterprets The Taming of the Shrew in a modern, pleasingly nuanced novel.

vinegar girl

Vinegar Girl is the third in Hogarth Shakespeare’s line of retold classics by the Bard (The Gap of Time, Shylock Is My Name). Anne Tyler’s delightful, clever novelization sets The Taming of the Shrew in present-day Baltimore, Md., holding faithfully to Shakespeare’s plot and concept but presenting far more complex characters, with absolutely charming results.

Kate is 29 and lives with her absent-minded microbiologist father, Dr. Battista, and her younger sister, pretty and air-headed Bunny. She serves as housekeeper and chaperone, not that they appreciate her efforts. She also works at a preschool, where the kids adore her but the adults have trouble with her sense of humor. Her real passion is gardening. As Vinegar Girl opens, Dr. Battista faces a problem: his gifted foreign assistant, Pyotr Cherbakov, is in the U.S. on an extraordinary-ability visa that’s about to run out. Dr. Battista feels sure he’s on the verge of a breakthrough, but he needs Pyotr to be able to stay a little longer. The reader realizes well ahead of Kate that what her father has in mind is an arranged marriage.

The prickly Kate feels she’s been taken advantage of long enough; she finds Pyotr pushy, and she isn’t looking for a husband, anyway. Kate repeatedly corrects him: she is not a “girl” but a “woman.” As she sees more of him, though, it appears that some of his awkward heavy-handedness may be related to his difficulties with the English language. And her father’s plan to satisfy the immigration authorities doesn’t mean she’d have to be married forever…

Vinegar Girl‘s modern setting and language enliven a classic tale of controversy and gender politics. The novelistic form illuminates the inner workings of Shakespeare’s characters, revealing attractive nuances. Tyler’s Kate is more soft-hearted, and a view of her inner workings exposes her insecurities. This Kate is quite sympathetic in both senses of the word: she empathizes with her eccentric father and the homesick Pyotr, and calls upon the reader’s sympathies. Pyotr is awkward and lonely, but appealingly smitten by Kate’s independent nature. Even Dr. Battista (despite his objectionable motives) and the maddening Bunny are revealed as intricate and ultimately likable characters.

Readers unfamiliar with The Taming of the Shrew will have no problem enjoying this novel, which is funny, fun-loving and uplifting. Those who know the original well will be intrigued by Tyler’s riffs: Is the new Kate less shrewish, or simply better characterized, her motives and anxieties better understood? In either case, the surprising ending, which deviates from Shakespeare’s in important ways, makes for a heartwarming conclusion to a quirky, timeless tale.

This review originally ran in the May 23, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 servings of meat mash.

guest review: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, from Sarah Appleton

A new guest reviewer joins us today! Thanks, Sarah.

god of small things

In The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy tells the searing yet lyrical story of a family’s course forever altered by the choices its family members make. Deftly capturing the political and social climate of late 1960s India, from the subtle shift in the caste system to the rising tide of Communism, Roy explores the lives of factory owner Chako, his divorcée sister Ammu, Ammu’s young twins Estha and Rahel, and the network of family members that surround them.

The story ostensibly revolves around the visit and subsequent drowning of Sophie Mol, the beloved—to a nearly mythic extent—nine year old daughter of Chako who lives with his ex-wife in England. English and light-skinned, her visit underscores the value of one’s skin color and the Anglophilia that permeates Indian culture. While Roy reveals Sophie Mol’s death immediately, the catastrophic context surrounding the drowning comes in bits and pieces as well as in and out of time, beginning in the present when Rahel returns to the ancestral home and reunites with her brother for the first time in over a decade after they were separated as children following that fateful drowning.

Roy captures the landscape and fraught inner workings of her characters in colorful language laden with similes and metaphors. While beautifully rendered, the tragic tale contains graphic details that may be difficult for some. Nevertheless, Roy powerfully conveys the captivating account of a family rocked by patriarchal culture, the caste system, untimely deaths, and forbidden love.


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