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.

The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction & Nonfiction by Christopher Bram

A succinct survey of history in both fiction and nonfiction offers advice for writers and readers.

the art of history

Christopher Bram takes on the broad subject of what history has to offer literature–and vice versa–with The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction & Nonfiction.

Beginning with memories of a high school English teacher, Bram celebrates the interest and value of reading and writing history. His thesis is that history need not be written in dry, textbook form: in both fiction and nonfiction, a talent for storytelling and a keen eye for just the right details, in the right quantity, can render the near and distant past in enthralling fashion. “Details,” he says, “are the raisins in the raisin bread.” He examines works including Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and topics ranging through war, slavery in the United States, comedic perspectives and the blending of lines between fiction and nonfiction. An author in both disciplines, Bram does not claim objectivity: he is clear about his love for Toni Morrison’s Beloved and his disregard for Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, among others.

Books in “The Art of” series inspect craft from a perspective seemingly for writers and critics, and Bram offers good advice: “In both fiction and nonfiction, writing well means knowing what to leave out.” But The Art of History works for readers as well, as in an appendix of Bram’s recommended reading. Exploration, appreciation and instruction combine in this slim, accessible study of literary history and historical literature.

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: 6 details.

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

In this memoir, a young man with a Yale law degree and a promising career remembers the hillbillies he grew up with and makes a plea for improving their conditions.

hillbilly elegy

J.D. Vance is a graduate of Yale Law School with a promising career and a happy marriage, and roots “in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.” Vance’s people were among the many poor who migrated along the “hillbilly highway” from the hills of southeastern Kentucky into the Rust Belt but always considered Kentucky home.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance tells of a poverty-stricken community distrustful of outsiders and plagued by addiction, self-defeating attitudes and chaotic home lives. He credits his Mamaw and Papaw with giving him the tools to move beyond that community. Vance graduated from college and law school and achieved a healthy relationship by the slimmest of margins, but not without paying a price: social mobility implies movement “to a theoretically better life, yes, but also away from something.” In Vance’s case, moving toward financial security and calm meant alienating himself from those he still identifies with: “I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart.”

Mamaw and Papaw are not saints. Vance’s gun-toting grandmother was given to off-color language and threats of violence. Such vivid characters and an eye for nuance are among the strengths of this sincere memoir, an elegy for both the hillbillies Vance has loved, and a large population of struggling, working-class poor. He offers ideas for improving his people’s lot: cultural change from within rather than policy. But the bulk of Hillbilly Elegy is just that: a loving remembrance of imperfect but dearly beloved individuals, who did their best with what they had.

This review originally ran in the July 1, 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 trips to the holler.

This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live by Melody Warnick

A chronic mover seeks to settle down, and offers practical, accessible steps for readers to follow.

this is where you belong

When Melody Warnick, her husband and their two children moved for the sixth time in 13 years, from Austin, Tex. to Blacksburg, Va., she started to wonder if this new town would be a panacea, or if perhaps she was chasing an impossible dream. Had her family’s search for happiness via mobility been a form of magical thinking? So began the work of This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live.

Warnick approaches the goal of settling, or of loving where she lives, enthusiastically and broadmindedly. Research is a major component of her work, but it never feels that way. Warnick consults social sciences studies and conducts myriad interviews, and distills what she learns into conversational musings that make the reader feel a part of the process. In the opening chapter, she identifies 10 “place attachment behaviors,” which form the chapters that follow. These include walking more, volunteering, exploring nature and creating something new. For each behavior, she sets a goal and records her progress; each chapter ends with a “love your city checklist” of suggested actions. This Is Where You Belong is a carefully documented experiment, explicitly designed for readers to replicate in their own lives.

By the end, Warnick has established herself as a fallible, likable everywoman, and her struggle to love Blacksburg comes to represent a universal concern. Her journey to feeling attached to where she lives is scientific and packed with research, but also feels like an old friend’s casual banter. This practical exercise in intentional place-based happiness is for the homesick and the optimistic alike.

This review originally ran in the June 24, 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 ticks on a list.

White Bone by Ridley Pearson

A prolific author of action/suspense novels turns his skills to the distressing problem of elephant poaching in Kenya.

white bone

Ridley Pearson is known for fast-paced, plot-driven series for adults as well as for children. White Bone is the fourth novel in his Risk Agent series (after The Red Room), starring John Knox and Grace Chu, whose relationship undergoes significant change in this installment.

Knox is an importer/exporter of international arts and crafts, a career that provides him good cover for his clandestine work with Rutherford Risk, an international security firm that specializes in hostage extractions. Grace Chu is a forensic accountant and hacker, and a colleague at Rutherford Risk. As White Bone opens, Knox has received a troubling text message from Grace, just before she goes radio silent. Troubled, he follows her into the field.

Grace was sent into Kenya to track a stolen shipment of donated measles vaccines. The case quickly expands to involve the widespread criminal practice of poaching elephants for their tusks and rhinoceroses for their horns, and possibly the funding of terrorism. Corruption is standard operating procedure in Kenya, so Knox must beware of governmental agents and the police as well as the criminals he is tracking. When he arrives in Nairobi, Grace has been missing for days: he fears her cover has been blown.

Pearson’s plot is complex, watertight and humming with tension. The finest details are realistic and disturbing, and often require at least a moderately strong stomach, as when Grace, stranded alone in the bush, suppresses her usual hygiene habits in favor of survival practices gleaned from a Maasai guide. While the bulk of the story follows Knox, Grace appears both directly and in others’ narratives, posing a character development challenge that Pearson handles deftly. A large cast also includes a disillusioned British journalist, a Somali poacher, a Kenyan vigilante/folk hero, a helpful police officer, an activist lawyer and a resourceful Kenyan boy insistent upon becoming Knox’s right-hand man. Knox follows disparate threads and threats; Grace defends herself against jackals, lions and organized criminals; and the novel’s pace races as her situation worsens.

White Bone is richly detailed and filled with intrigue that encompasses terrorism, corruption and lingering colonial strains. Its characters are nothing if not passionate, and these passions include the author’s obvious concern for the central problem of elephant poaching. Pearson’s writing is informative and allows his muscular story to take center stage. Series fans will remain committed, and new readers will be drawn in, with no background knowledge necessary to follow this action-packed novel combining the thriller, adventure and mystery genres.

This review originally ran in the June 24, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 6 interior struggles.

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.

The Mindful Writer by Dinty W. Moore

This expanded second edition of the popular title about writing from a Buddhist perspective is a small book with big ideas.

mindful writer

Dinty W. Moore (Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy) is often asked to explain how Buddhism influences his writing practice. In struggling to answer this question articulately, he found himself shaping “The Four Noble Truths of the Writing Life.” From these musings was born 2012’s The Mindful Writer, a slim volume of very short, koan-like chapters offering writing advice and formed from quotations by other writers.

In its expanded second edition, The Mindful Writer offers a new introduction and for the first time includes writing prompts that follow the same concepts and quotations as its chapters. Words of wisdom from William Faulkner, Gustave Flaubert, Dorothy Parker, Stephen King and many more pose opportunities to ruminate on how to see and observe, how to work, how to think and live like a writer. Moore examines the sources of creativity as well as the plain hard work of writing, and “the freedom and importance of lousy first drafts.” Refreshingly, he reminds his reader that his advice “should be taken in the spirit of suggestion, not edict… it is not a good idea to cling too fiercely to the advice of others.” Moore is, as usual, funny but also takes his subject seriously. Its short chapters and encouraging prompts make this a guide to keep close at hand, for regular reference.

Its neatly packaged bits of wisdom mean that writers from beginners to experts equally will find inspiration and new perspectives in Moore’s unassuming manual of writerly mindfulness.

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 moments.

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