One Life by David Lida

A Mexican national facing the death penalty and the investigator who hopes to save her become hopelessly entwined.

one life

In journalist David Lida’s first novel, One Life, two lives are featured, although only one is apparently threatened.

Richard is a mitigation specialist. A gringo based in Mexico City, he investigates the backgrounds of Mexican nationals accused of capital offenses in the United States, hoping to dig up enough ugliness and trauma for the courts to consider a lesser sentence–like life without parole. Esperanza came to south Louisiana for the rumored bounty of well-paid jobs cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina. She now faces the death penalty for killing her infant daughter. Richard has always maintained walls between the tragedies he studies professionally and his own life; he is expert at enjoying what he thinks of as stolen moments of happiness. But as he learns about Esperanza’s background, living in a dusty village to the rough side of Ciudad Juarez, her stoicism and mystery destroy his detached calm.

One Life‘s perspective shifts between a third-person view of Esperanza’s life and Richard’s first-person voice, speaking from a murky future. The reader therefore knows more than either protagonist, although the novel’s central secret is reserved for the final pages. Neither a mystery nor a thriller, this story is briskly paced but not rushed: there is time for Richard to mull the emotional holes in his own life, and for Esperanza and secondary characters to consider and reconsider their limited options. Poignant and exquisitely detailed, One Life brings nuance and a personal voice to a deeply tragic story.

This review originally ran in the October 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 cans of Coke.

Teaser Tuesdays: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.


Usually I choose these teaser quotations carefully because I have something to say about the lines in question; but this time I just flipped, looking (still) for interesting snippets.


From page 47,

Jenny opens the truck door. On the dashboard is a Styrofoam cup filled with lemonade. She gets into the passenger seat. She takes the cup in her left hand and gulps. Cool, sharp on the roof of her mouth. She waits for the sugar to push through her veins. She sees the forest beyond the white rim of her cup. She closes her eyes. The hatchet is still in her right hand, hanging out the door.

Because I do not know this character yet, I wonder: is the hatchet a sinister detail, or an everyday one? And how about the cool, sharp lemonade, and the forest beyond… I appreciate these simple, declarative sentences and the artfulness they subtly contain. I’ll be looking forward to this one.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Mighty Currawongs by Brian Doyle

With Brian Doyle’s reliable good humor, this collection reveres human efforts and love in situations both moving and laughable.

mighty currawongs

The Mighty Currawongs and Other Stories by Brian Doyle (Martin Marten) roams broadly in subject matter, but always offers joyful, whimsical wordplay and an abiding love for life’s absurd and profound moments. These short stories–almost all under 10 pages–deal specifically with human experiences and relationships, rather than embracing the wider natural world of Doyle’s novels, but the same voice and fanciful tone appear clearly.

A Boston basketball league plays through hilarity and scuffles, and finds a player who deepens the game. A likable archbishop loses his faith; a grandfather teaches his grandson to play chess; a tailor offers a young newspaperman sartorial and other advice. Through these everyday incidents, Doyle’s approach to the world is poignant (as in a veteran’s memories of the Vietnam War) but steadfastly hopeful. Indeed, the only criticism of his work might be for his unrelenting optimism, expressed by consistently likable, essentially good characters. But with his mastery of language and eye for detail, Doyle’s characters always feel authentic, and their ups and downs are realistically proportioned. His gift for finding the sublime in even the small and dirty details is alive and gleaming in this short story collection.

This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the September 30, 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: 8 halves of the door.

Cabo de Gata by Eugen Ruge, trans. by Anthea Bell

This clever, stylish novel in translation follows a German man’s quietly tortured self-exploration in an austere Spanish village.

cabo de gata

In this slim, unassuming novel, Eugen Ruge (In Times of Fading Light) experiments with form and style, setting a plot of quietly tortured self-exploration in an austere Spanish village. Cabo de Gata is almost minimalist in its events, but expert detail fills out a story larger than its circumstances. In Anthea Bell’s translation from the German, the unnamed narrator’s voice suits him perfectly.

In Berlin in the years just after the Wall came down, Ruge’s narrator feels stuck. He has a good-enough if meaningless job; his ex-girlfriend calls only to ask him to help care for her daughter; he suspects the punks in the ground-floor apartment stole his bicycle. He sees the rest of his life rolling out in front of him in mind-numbing routine, doomed “like the undead” to empty repetition. And so he leaves.

Indecision about where to travel pleases rather than alarms him: he seeks the unknown, “for the sake of experiment,” because he is also an aspiring novelist. He chiefly wants someplace quiet and warm, and so flees to Cabo de Gata, a town in Andalusia promised by the travel guides to offer “a breath of Africa.” The nearly abandoned fishing village turns out surprisingly to be terribly cold, the inhabitants gruff and standoffish; his writing comes out bitter. He is a curious, contradictory character, perhaps not entirely reliable: he is not superstitious, he announces, and then proceeds to find signs in hermit crabs and his dead mother in a stray cat. Intermittently obsessive, he fills his days as much with invented tasks and rules as he does with writing the intended novel.

It may sound absurdist, but Ruge’s quietly affecting story is more understated than it is bizarre. The narrator has his quirks, such as a fondness for humming “The Star-Spangled Banner” (“Jimi Hendrix taught it to me in his famous appearance at Woodstock”). But he is essentially involved in a search both existential and humdrum: where to go from here.

The narrator tells his story from a distance, from a much later time in which he hints that he has been very successful, and he pointedly chooses not to consult notes or check his facts (“I could Google it,” he writes, but he doesn’t). This meta-view offers another layer for the discerning reader to dissect. On the surface the odd story of a troubled man haunting a Spanish ghost town, Cabo de Gata also poses questions about life’s directions and perspectives.

This review originally ran in the September 30, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 candles.

The Penalty Area by Alain Gillot, trans. by Howard Curtis

When a grumpy soccer coach takes in his 13-year-old nephew, they’re both forced to grow, on and off the field.

penalty area

Quirky and heartwarming, Alain Gillot’s The Penalty Area introduces an eccentric soccer coach who finds unexpected happiness in the oddest places. Vincent Barteau retired from playing professionally after an injury, settling instead for coaching as a way to stay in the game. Coaching children was never the plan, but this job pays well enough. He is a loner, frustrated with the mediocre talent he has to work with. When his estranged sister shows up to deposit her 13-year-old son with him, Vincent is understandably annoyed–until he puts his nephew Léonard on the field and everything changes.

Léonard is a chess prodigy and all-around odd boy. He dislikes soccer for being “too simplistic.” It is only in deciphering plays, percentages and tactics that his exceptional intellect is engaged. Caring for Léonard exposes Vincent to new people and scenarios; the man dislikes change as much as the boy does, but in the new world that opens before them, possibilities abound. Léonard discovers soccer. Vincent discovers family and hope.

The Penalty Area handles material that could easily overindulge in sentiment, but Vincent’s awkward, exasperated approach to life and human flaws admits no foolishness. Howard Curtis translates from the French in occasionally stiff prose, which nonetheless suits the equally stiff narrator. Vincent’s voice offers the novel a disarming vulnerability; Léonard and Vincent’s exploration of new challenges feels fresh and endearing, even humorous. No love of sport is required to feel the genuine emotion pulsing from this story about making connections.

This review originally ran in the September 13, 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 shots on goal.

Teaser Tuesdays: Turkish Delight by Jan Wolkers, trans. by Sam Garrett

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.


Dutch author Jan Wolkers is considered one of his country’s greats, and his fifth novel Turks Fruit (in Dutch) was among his splashiest. Sam Garrett’s is the newest, but not the first, English translation.

Check out all that text on the cover: this is indeed a feisty and erotic novel. (I love that they’re advertising Kirkus’s not-so-complimentary words.)

turkish delight

That’s why I felt this teaser was so perfect.

It was because of the ominous thunderstorm and the way the lightning kept illuminating the garden with bright flashes that, for a fraction of a second, showed you every detail of all those separate trees you’d never noticed before. As though the director was pulling out all the stops in some melodramatic B-movie.

Similarly, Wolkers could be said to pull out all the stops, and engage in melodrama; but once you’ve accepted that that’s the style of this work, I think there is much to be said for its artistic merits, and you can’t argue with its passion. Just… not for the squeamish.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Maximum Shelf: The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on September 7, 2016.

wangs vs the world

Jade Chang’s first novel, The Wangs vs. the World, is an accomplishment: sparkling characters, family dynamics, humor and despair set against global historic and economic forces, rendering the title entirely apt.

Charles Wang is a proud patriarch. He has three beautiful, talented children (though his son hasn’t slept with quite so many women yet as he should have, and his older daughter lives too far away), and has built a major financial empire in makeup manufacturing. He has the house in Bel-Air, the factories, the cars; his second wife has all the designer clothing, jewelry and handbags she ever wanted. He has a “sexy little cigarette speedboat painted with twenty-seven gallons of Suicide Blonde, his best-selling nail polish color–a perfect blue-toned red that set off the mahogany trim and bright white leather seats.”

Until he doesn’t.

In 2008, the Wang fortune evaporates, like so many others, due nearly as much to Charles’s hubris as to the economic climate of the time. In the face of this calamity (frequently referred to in his inner monologue as “the Failure”), Charles turns to an old legend: his family’s land in China, stolen by the Communists. This fable of luxury and excess was his birthright, and with the U.S.-based version collapsed, he determines to take his family back to the old country and reclaim what is rightfully theirs. And so a road trip ensues, with the patched-together family forming and reforming in various configurations cross-country.

Charles and his second wife, Barbra, depart the California home they no longer own in a powder-blue Mercedes station wagon nearly 30 years old, which luckily had been transferred into the nanny’s name, so it wasn’t repossessed with the other cars. They pick up stunned younger daughter Grace from her boarding school in Santa Barbara, then son Andrew from Phoenix, Ariz., where he’d been enrolled in college (working harder on his stand-up comedy routine than on his studies). The Wangs aim for the home of elder daughter Saina in the Catskills, where she struggles to regroup from her own personal trauma–and from there, for China. But on a southern detour, Andrew leaves the group for an older woman he meets at a New Orleans wedding.

The hilarity of filial antics on this road trip, “a troupe of Chinese Okies fleeing a New Age Dust Bowl,” forms a central part of this story. But the larger narrative involves Charles’s perception of the injustices done to the Wangs by history: Japan’s invasion of China, immigration through Taiwan, investment patterns in the U.S. The next generation of Wangs has taken an artistic turn: Saina is a fallen darling of the New York art world; Andrew aspires to be a comic, but relies perhaps too heavily on Asian jokes; and Grace surprises her elders with her fashion sense (and a promising blog on the topic). The Wangs vs. the World is about generational and cultural challenges, and not just that of the Chinese immigrant to the United States. It is more about family than money.

This is a stylish novel, fun to read. The Wangs sometime speak in a mashup of English and Chinese that Chang leaves untranslated, though adequately understandable in context. Charles has his own prejudices, including a bias against “the tropical joke of Taiwan” and “the poor, illiterate, ball-scratching half men from Canton and Fujian.” Each chapter shifts perspective, beginning with Charles the patriarch and cycling through outsider stepmother Barbra (whose further crime is to be not even Chinese, but Taiwanese), the three privileged but loving children, even the 1980 Mercedes.

Chang crafts her characters expertly, with nuance and precise details. In Charles’s mind, makeup “was artifice, and it was honesty. It was science and it was psychology and it was fashion; but more than that, it was about feeling wealthy. Not money–wealth. The brilliant Aegean blues and slick wet reds and luscious blacks, the weighty packaging, with its satisfying smooth hinges and sound closures.” In packing to leave his dorm, Andrew prioritizes “his top five pairs of sneakers–original issue Infrared Air Max 90s, Maison Martin Margiela Replica 22s, Common Projects Achilles Mid, beat-up checkboard Vans, and a pair of never worn Air Jordan 4 Undefeateds.” Saina’s social life in the Catskills is populated by few but absorbing characters–including an old artist boyfriend and a new one who’s a farmer–who are among Chang’s finest sketches. Andrew’s economics professor offers an impassioned in-class explanation for the crash: “Every one of you ought to be furious because you are the unfortunate generation who will be graduating and trying to obtain jobs in a busted economy that we might well pack up and sell to the Chinese.” These details, and perfectly formed dialogue, make an already engrossing story positively glitter.

As a novel with momentum and magnetism, reaching across generations from China and Taiwan to high-society California and New York to New Orleans and the Catskills, with stops along the way, The Wangs vs. the World undertakes an ambitious range of material. Chang manages both this sweeping plot and backdrop, as well as the finer points of characterization and relationships, with ease. The result is hilarious and heartfelt, witty and wise, and a prodigious achievement for a first-time novelist.

Rating: 8 of dad’s old paisley Hermès bow ties from the eighties.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Chang.

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