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.

The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult by Jerald Walker

This vivid, immersive memoir describes an innocent childhood in a terrifying religion.

world in flames

The Worldwide Church of God taught that the Great Tribulation would begin in 1972 and end three years later in a river of fire from which only the Chosen Ones would be saved. Jerald Walker grew up with these teachings looming over his head. In 1975, at the predicted end of the world, he would be 11 years old. In The World in Flames, Walker relates his unusual upbringing in Chicago as the sixth child of blind African American parents, in the black wing of a church that preached segregation as well as fire and brimstone.

Except for a brief prologue and epilogue offering a glimpse of the adult Walker, the whole of this fantastical true story is told from a child’s disarming perspective. Jerry is six when his memoir opens in 1970, and his days are filled with fear. Preoccupied with the coming events and concern for a friend who is not Chosen, he struggles to navigate family secrets, severe corporal punishment and a religion based on threats. As narrator, Jerry is matter-of-fact and innocent about the improbability of his home life. This narrative voice renders an incredible story accessible. Perhaps the most heartbreaking detail is Jerry’s guileless devotion to his church.

Walker (Street Shadows) recounts his growth from wide-eyed child to hapless teen, and finally to skeptic, with immediacy and feeling and without offering judgments. His personal history verges on the absurd, but his telling of it is earnest and unadorned, never sensational. The World in Flames is a difficult story simply and gracefully told.


This review originally ran in the September 9, 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 lines of scripture recited.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Jade Chang

Following yesterday’s review of The Wangs vs. the World, here’s Jade Chang: Method Writer.


Jade Chang has covered arts and culture as a journalist and editor. She is the recipient of a Sundance Fellowship for Arts Journalism, the AIGA/Winterhouse Award for Design Criticism, and the James D. Houston Memorial scholarship from the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She lives in Los Angeles. The Wangs vs. the World is her debut novel.

photo credit: Teresa Flowers

photo credit: Teresa Flowers


Your journalistic background covered some of the topics in the Wangs’ lives, but still: How different was writing a novel? And how hard?

I never got an MFA, but my college did have a good creative writing program, so I went through writing workshops there. And in workshop, we were always writing short stories. I guess I liked it okay, and when I graduated I continued trying to write short stories, but sometimes a thing is just not your form. And short stories were kind of hard for me. Simultaneously, I was working as a journalist. And I enjoyed writing articles–hated writing on deadline, but enjoyed writing articles. But once I started writing a novel it felt like, ahh!–this makes more sense. Having all this space, all this room, all this time, having a much broader canvas felt more exciting to me. I don’t know that being a journalist affected my experience enormously, except that I think it’s really good training because you learn to not be too precious about your words. I got used to being edited, to rewriting and all that stuff. And that’s good training for any writer.

Did the Wangs come to you fully formed, or did you have to work to build them? Are they based on anyone you know?

There’s definitely no character-by-character corollary for them in real life. I would say that Charles Wang, the father, came to me kind of fully formed. His bluster, his exuberance, his excitement about life, but also his kind-of-asshole side, all of those things felt like–well, like a view of America to me. And then also he just really felt like a lot of fun to do. The other characters definitely felt from the very beginning like real people to me. But I do a lot of character work–I ask myself questions about a character, and a lot of that stuff doesn’t go into the book at all, but it gives me a more well-rounded sense of who someone is and how they will react in a situation that does end up in the book.

Your characters are so rich, and span genders, ages, lifestyles and stages of life.

I knew I wanted to look at contemporary life from several different viewpoints. Growing up kind of between Gen X and Gen Y, I always found that definition of generations really interesting. So I really wanted to have siblings who were in different generations, who looked at the world in different ways. There are roughly 10 years in age between the sisters Saina and Grace, and that’s a huge difference in experience.

Then you have a father who is an immigrant, children born here, and a stepmother who comes from a world that’s actually very different from the father’s, even though to someone who knows nothing about them, you might think that they are from the exact same world. I wanted to show a lot of different viewpoints. And I was interested in getting into a lot of worlds in this book. So you have the father who thinks of himself as a consummate entrepreneur or businessman, who makes a fortune in makeup. And then you have the oldest daughter who is an artist, and so you get to go into the art world. And then you have the middle son who’s a standup comedian and the youngest daughter who is an aspiring style blogger. I really wanted to look at worlds where you have a balance between artifice and reality. It’s all tied to the outset of the financial collapse in 2008, and that particular financial collapse, as most of them are I think, was based on essentially a lie, or the big con–mortgages we couldn’t really afford, and all that. The financial world at that time was falling apart based on a beautiful lie. It made me very interested in other worlds that are based on that as well. I think makeup is definitely that. And then the art world–you know, I love it so much in many ways, but a piece can be worth nothing or millions of dollars, based on who says it is. That is so fascinating to me. I love the overlaps between these worlds, in how we ascribe values to things.

I really enjoyed your shifting perspectives–even the car gets a voice. Was that hard to write?

It was a challenge, and it was a really fun challenge. I definitely knew I wanted to do that. I was joking with a friend that, just like a method actor, I’m a method writer. I just really need to completely be in someone’s head and looking through their eyes in order to fully embody a character. And I liked the challenge of it, honestly. I wanted to see if I could write from five or six viewpoints.

You chose to leave some untranslated Chinese dialogue for the (non-Chinese-reading) reader to decipher from context clues. Why?

A lot of the books that we read in America today are from the point of view of white people in America. Or they’re written for what has been the majority audience, which is white people in America. And I feel like on the one hand obviously this book is for everybody, as every book is, but I wanted a different world of people to get to be the insiders. So people who speak Chinese and can understand the Chinese, they get to be the insiders in this book. But I didn’t want to write it in Chinese characters, because I wanted any reader to be able to kind of sound it out and get that experience of what it feels like to eavesdrop in a language that you don’t understand.

But you’re not actually missing out on anything. There might be something a little bit jokey, or a colloquialism that’s in the Chinese that doesn’t come out in the English, but essentially, it’s all there.

Do you have a favorite character?

I feel a lot of sympathy for Andrew. He is the middle brother, he is really trying hard to find his way in the world, he’s so good-hearted, he really just wants the best for everybody. But he’s also a young guy, and so he makes a lot of dumb missteps. And I just love stand-up comedy. I think it’s so fascinating and so fun. You have to be so smart to do it well, and also so emotionally reckless. I feel a lot of sympathy for stand-up comics in general, and so writing him and writing those scenes where he gets up and does stand-up sets, that really made me love him a lot.

But whichever character I was working on emotionally, working on their emotional arc, I felt a lot of love for that character at that point.

What are you working on next?

I am working on another novel. We’ll see what happens.


This interview originally ran on September 7, 2016 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

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.

Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother ed. by Donald Sturrock

Forty years of letters from a beloved children’s author to his mother offer an intriguing, entertaining perspective on both the man and the world.

love from boy

Roald Dahl, renowned for both children’s classics and eerie adult short stories, wrote his first letter home from boarding school in 1925, when he was nine years old; Donald Sturrock (Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl) edits this collection of previously unpublished letters from Dahl to his mother. In Love from Boy, Sturrock’s minimal narrative appears alongside the epistolary bulk of the text, accompanied by a small selection of Dahl’s photographs and drawings.

Organized in seven chapters by phases of Dahl’s life, the correspondence tracks the growth of a beloved imagination and literary career. Over 40 years, Dahl evolves from funny prankster to crafty storyteller to a more serious and cynical mind, particularly following World War II. Dahl had a thoroughly interesting life even before he began writing in earnest: from English boarding schools to travel and corporate work in colonial Africa, hours logged as a Royal Air Force pilot, diplomatic work in the United States and collaboration with Walt Disney in Hollywood. But Love from Boy also provides a personal perspective on his eye for detail and the absurd, his predilection for pranks, his knack for characterization–“He’s a short man with a face like a field elderberry, and a moustache which closely resembles the African jungle. A voice like a frog…”–and his quirky preoccupation with personal hygiene, especially dental care. Love from Boy is both an endearing glimpse of a much-loved author and a sober view of mid-20th-century world events.


This review originally ran in the September 6, 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 tubes of Euthymol.

The Motion of Puppets by Keith Donohue

This reworking of the myth of Eurydice features a woman locked in a world of sentient puppets.

the motion of puppets

With The Motion of Puppets, Keith Donohue (The Boy Who Drew Monsters) evokes a bizarre underworld with an array of mythological references in a story of lovers seeking reunion. Newlyweds Kay and Theo Harper have come to Quebec for the summer, where she works as an acrobat in a cirque and he wrestles with a work in translation between semesters teaching French literature in New York City. The first line of the novel reads: “She fell in love with a puppet.” And this is where the trouble begins.

A puppet shop in Quebec’s Old City draws Kay’s attention daily, but the door is always locked, the lights off. One night, when returning from a party after midnight, she fears she is being followed and, finding the door unlocked for once, slips inside. Theo contacts the police when she does not return home, but no trace can be found of her. The rest of The Motion of Puppets alternates between their two experiences. Theo searches Quebec all summer for his wife, then returns to New York City and his work, distracted and mourning. Meanwhile, Kay adjusts to new circumstances: she has become a puppet. Along with the other puppets shut away in the shop she once admired, she is able to speak and move on her own only between midnight and dawn–once she learns how to move again in her new body. Eventually, she takes pleasure in performing (with the help of a puppeteer) for audiences, as she had in the cirque. And she makes new friends, especially with the one puppet who also remembers and yearns for her human form.

This dreamy, sinister novel alludes widely to history, literature and legend. Theo’s translation project is a biography of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose work involved scientific knowledge of human and animal locomotion. Muybridge shot and killed his much younger wife’s lover, a story that preoccupies Theo, also an ardent–if not clingy–older husband. One of Theo’s colleagues is a professor of antiquities who is equally eager to find relationships between past and present. Most pointedly, however, Kay’s predicament is a reference to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Orpheus misses his wife so terribly that Hades agrees to let her leave the underworld and return to life with him, under one diabolical condition. In Donohue’s novel, Theo’s ability to save Kay from her incarnation as a puppet relies on his ability to trust her. But first, she must make him recognize her in her new form.

An engrossing novel of love, fancy and enchantment, The Motion of Puppets offers a perfectly wrought moodiness, detailed settings and an unsettling plot. Kay and Theo are underdeveloped as characters, but serve the mythic proportions of the story well. Smart, eerie and moving, this puppet show holds the potential to transport its reader to another world.


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


Rating: 7 hinges.

The Trespasser by Tana French

Tana French surpasses herself with character nuance and plot twists in her sixth gritty, Dublin-set murder-mystery.

trespasser

Tana French’s sixth novel, The Trespasser, revisits the burgeoning careers of Dublin Murder Squad Detectives Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran, introduced in The Secret Place. As atmospheric and intricate as French’s past work, this engrossing mystery succeeds in both style and plot. Fans and new readers alike will be captivated.

Conway and Moran are partners now, but they are far from fitting in with the rest of the Murder Squad. The guys–and they are all guys–give Conway more than the usual rookie hazing. In the opening pages, she and Moran are assigned what looks like yet another boring domestic homicide: a beautiful young woman has been killed, apparently in a fit of passion during a romantic dinner at home. A little too perfect, she “looks like Dead Barbie,” and her apartment “like it was bought through some Decorate Your Home app.” But most disturbingly, Conway is sure she’s seen the vic somewhere before. The young detectives may be a little overeager to find links to organized crime or something more involved, but as this case unfolds, the ambitious Moran and much-beleaguered Conway find wider-reaching connections than they’d bargained for. As an added headache, the obnoxious veteran Detective Breslin has been assigned to “assist” Conway, who is ostensibly the lead detective, though Breslin seems to think he can call the shots.

French’s fans will recognize of the hallmarks of her mystery novels: intense interior struggles afflicting the protagonist detective; a potent undercurrent of class tensions; a case that appears to have a mind of its own; a victim whose personality haunts those who are seeking justice. The oppressive mood of the Murder Squad threatens to overwhelm Conway, who’s barely holding it together under the stress of workplace harassment; the incident room she is assigned becomes a character unto itself. The Trespasser is told in Conway’s voice, giving the reader full access to her troubles and offering perhaps a hint of the unreliable narrator to sneak in.

It is a testament to French’s talent that she more than matches her established achievements in characterization, dialogue, atmosphere and detailed setting, while also surprising her reader at every turn. She offers layers of possible betrayal, hypothetical events and convoluted stories, even an upheaval in Conway’s private life that echoes an element of the case at hand. More than 400 pages pass by almost without blinking, as The Trespasser‘s momentum presses forward to a finish that staggers Conway and Moran as much as it does the reader. This is a complex, compulsively readable novel; French keeps getting better and better.


This review originally ran in the August 29, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 stories we tell ourselves.
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