book beginnings on Friday: The Signal Flame by Andrew Kriv├ík

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. Participants share the first line or two of the book we are currently reading and comment on any first impressions inspired by that first line.

A new novel for the weekend.

the-signal-flame

A fire in the great stone fireplace was as constant in the house as the lengthening days when Easter was early and spring was late. But on the morning after his grandfather died, Bo Konar took the logs and the log rack in the living room out to the barn, swept the bricks clean of ash, and dusted the andirons so that they looked like thin faceless centaurs of black.

These are good, if not simple, opening sentences. I lingered over the first one, its concept of the constancy of lengthening days when… there’s a lot to take in there. The second is much simpler, concrete and physical: logs, log rack, barn, bricks, ash, andirons–and then that fine simile, the faceless centaurs of black, which seem so appropriate to the grief we are witnessing. In just these two sentences, I felt like I was in the hands of a skilled writer with a story I would care about. So far, this is so.

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

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

This tremendous novel about what can be torn apart in an instant, and rebuilt over lifetimes, displays writing as scintillating as its plot.

idaho

Idaho, the first novel by O. Henry Award winner Emily Ruskovich, is a gorgeously designed immersion into the best and worst of life. In rural Idaho, a jumbled family rearranges itself painfully, trying to live on after a great loss. In 2004, Ann Mitchell surveys the Idaho farmstead she shares with Wade, her husband of eight years. Her recollections introduce the reader to their marriage–troubled by the diminishing strength of Wade’s memory and a terrible tragedy at the beginning of their relationship. She plays the piano; he makes finely crafted knives by hand. They tiptoe around the past.

In 2008, a woman studies her new cellmate at the Sage Hill Women’s Correctional Center. Jenny Mitchell doesn’t talk much. Neither of them has much future, with one distant chance at parole between them. Tentatively, they explore friendship, but Jenny doesn’t talk about her marriage to Wade, or her daughters. Then, Idaho flashes back to the 1980s and ’90s, when Wade was still married to Jenny and both of their daughters were still alive.

As decades are revealed, Wade’s family lives through happy, tragic and minute experiences. In layers of disjointed chronology and varied perspectives, the reader slowly picks apart the story: Wade’s love for one woman and then another; his luckless family history; the moment in time, the loss of control, that redirected these lives and more.

Ruskovich’s prose is exquisite. Music halts “like an animal at a gate, a child at a word it doesn’t know.” Her expressions of love, in its clean and messy incarnations, are singular, and she handles Wade’s mental decline and a child’s piano lesson with equal care and clarity. “On a sunny fall day, she lay next to him on the ground, and as he dozed she felt his old life, his memories, radiate off his skin. She felt everything leave him but her. She shed her own life, too, to match him. They lay there together like a point in time.” That point in time is what Ruskovich does best: sharp, clear moments alongside emotional enormities so great they can only be felt, not explained. This care, detail and realism applies to the novel’s background as well as to its stars. For example, a side plot involving an artist who paints meticulous age-progressions of missing children offers poignancy and attention to detail, and is worthy of its own novel.

With lovely language and piercing pathos, Idaho focuses on the power of love and the possibilities of forgiveness and memory. This debut novel deals blows as large as life.


This review originally ran in the November 18, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 gloves.

book beginnings on Friday: Human Acts by Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith

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.

Earlier this year, I reviewed Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, an odd and engrossing novel. And now I’m holding her next English-language release, Human Acts. Deborah Smith again translates from the Korean (and this time there’s a brief introduction by Smith, as well). Obviously I’m pleased.

human-acts
It begins:

“Looks like rain,” you mutter to yourself.

What’ll we do if it really chucks it down?

You open your eyes so that only a slender chink of light seeps in, and peer at the gingko trees in front of the Provincial Office. As though there, between those branches, the wind is about to take on visible form.

Lovely language and picture-painting words. I’m intrigued by the second-person perspective, and wonder if it will last. I’m often a little skeptical of this literary trick, as it’s perhaps getting a little overused, but I trust Kang.

Come back to see what I thought of the whole; this book publishes in mid-January.


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

The Bind by William Goldsmith

This graphic novel celebrates sibling rivalry and the art of bookbinding in a sepia-toned historic London.

the-bind

The illustrations and imagination of William Goldsmith (Vignettes of Ystov) adorn a story of bookbinding and family history with The Bind.

This graphic novel opens in 1912, as the ghost of Garrison Egret tours his family business, Egret Bindings, now run by his sons, Victor and Guy. Garrison is frustrated by the way they’ve “tarted it up,” and by the way Guy overworks himself without taking enough credit while Victor takes too much credit without doing the work. Their latest project will showcase the Egrets’ finest talents, and test both their skills and their relationship; it is a poetry collection called A Moonless Land, jewel-encrusted, hand-tooled with leather inlays and gold leaf. Victor, the high-maintenance artist, pulls out all the stops while business-minded Guy worries about the bottom line. Will “the most expensive book in existence” prove to be too much for the most prestigious bookbinding firm in London?

Goldsmith’s illustrations in black and gray, rust and rose, are understated and beautifully evocative. Characterization is accomplished through detail, like a carnation in Victor’s lapel, and the finer points of Egret Binding’s products. In large format on heavy stock, with bonus foldout panels, The Bind is as impressive a physical object as the Egrets’ great creation–minus the rubies and topazes. This carefully presented ode to the craft of bookbinding is also a story of family dynamics and the dilemma of faithfulness to artistry in a modernizing world: a special treat for booklovers, and a lovely work of art.


This review originally ran in the November 15, 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 counterfeits.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Evening Road by Laird Hunt

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

Teaser

The Evening Road is a meandering novel set on the country roads of Indiana on a terrible night. One of its several strengths is in the two strong voices it’s told in, and the turns of phrase it employs.

evening-road
For example, in describing the details that don’t seem like they’d matter, but do:

There is a curve to a piece of fried catfish that satisfies the eye. Leads you off to the rocks and reeds of the river where it once swam. I was about to set in to cutting at the center of that curve when a nickering voice nosed the air just behind me.

Doesn’t that make you hungry? And I like what we learn about the incoming voice with the use of that verb, nickering.

This one is coming in February; keep your eyes open.


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

book beginnings on Friday: Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, trans. by Megan McDowell

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.

fever-dream
A slim, well-regarded novel in translation from the Spanish. I’m all in.

It begins:

They’re like worms.

What kind of worms?

Like worms, all over.

It’s the boy who’s talking, murmuring into my ear. I am the one asking questions.

Intriguingly weird, yes? And I’m entranced by the cover. Horses and worms. Stay tuned.


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

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.
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