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Winter Reading 2016 - Fiction Reviews

fiction

Willful Disregard: A Novel About Love by Lena Andersson, translated Sarah Death. Other Press, $15.95.

Ester Nilsson falls in love with Hugo Rask, who introduces himself after she gives a lecture on his art and philosophy. Ester is blinded by her attraction to Hugo, to his fame and intellect. From there unravels a mostly one-sided relationship she greatly fabricates, contradicting her normally circumspect, practical nature. Through the distorted lens of her yearning, she leaves her longtime partner, shifting her life to prepare for the romance she brushes so close to but fails to actualize. Overcome by her desire, Ester allows herself to be strung along, always trying to convince herself that each defeat and likely sign of his potentially lacking interest in her will somehow turn out to be the result of his being too busy or distracted to devote himself to her completely. 

Willful Disregard is a fascinating meditation on the overwhelming force of love and potential for self-deception in the face of pursuing one’s object of desire. It also whispers of the often self-defeating nature of blind ambition and the reality that sometimes wanting something bad enough cannot actualize it. — Paul Quillen

 

My Last Continent: A Novel by Midge Raymond. Simon and Schuster, $26. (Oregon Author)

Love, loss and the edge of the world: My Last Continent starts with tragedy — the sinking of the massive cruise ship the Australis and the 715 passengers who died — and then moves back and forth in time following the stories of Deb Gardner and Keller Sullivan and how they came to feel most at home with penguins and fall in love in the loneliness of Antarctica. Raymond intertwines birding and science with her tale of complicated relationships, switching from the close quarters of a ship in Antarctica to the heat of Columbia, Missouri. Scenes set in Eugene, when Deb takes a position at the University of Oregon, will resonate with local readers. Rather than confusing, the jumps in time and geography build to a climax, hinted at in the first paragraphs of the book. My Last Continent brings into focus the tragedy that tourism can bring to a pristine place, told through the lens of troubled relationships. — Camilla Mortensen

 

The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden. Akashic Books, $26.

Can you draw a line from pre-Depression Macon, Georgia, to libertine Paris, to the Buchenwald concentration camp at the height of Nazi Germany? Bernice L. McFadden does an incredible job with jazz music as her guide. Following generations of one African-American family with the prodigal son — the heavy-drinking, jazz-guitar-playing, womanizing Harlan — at its center, McFadden shows how enduring the human spirit is, carving out pockets of happiness and fulfillment even in the most oppressive corners of a racist, pre-Civil Rights-era United States and fascist Europe. It is a rare look at how non-Jewish minorities got sucked into the Nazi’s purge, whether they were black, gay or disabled.

This is not, however, a doom-and-gloom book. McFadden also fleshes out Harlem in its golden age as a safe pocket for black America to thrive, and the opulence, creativity and joy she conjures is intoxicating — all-night dance parties, collaborating musicians, fur coats, polished shoes and smoke-filled parlors where Louis Armstrong lounges. 

In this work of historical fiction, many more real characters make appearances — writer Amiri Baraka, Bessie Smith and, most hauntingly, the “Bitch of Buchenwald” herself, Ilse Koch. McFadden weaves their lives together with ancestors from her family to create something wholly elegant and hypnotic, putting a new face on World War II. — Alex V. Cipolle

 

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid. Scout Press, $22.95.

Iain Reid’s debut novel is a breathtaking bolt of pure literary adrenaline shot through a wormhole of paranoia and violent psychic suspense. In it, a young woman takes a wintery road trip with her boyfriend to his parent’s house in the country, with a few surreal detours along the way (what really happens at that fast-food restaurant, anyway?). The outlines of the plot are simple enough, but this story is never what it seems. From the opening pages, Reid relentlessly, and very cleverly, ratchets up the intensity, with foreboding and dark mysteries lurking around every corner, until all reference to reality is questioned. Is this a hostage situation? Is he insane? Is she? And what, exactly, is she thinking of ending? The effect of Reid’s whiplash pacing and the sense of existential dislocation he concocts are intoxicating and, in the end, addictive; the book is truly un-put-downable. Whether the shocking conclusion of this shaggy dog tale — part David Lynch and part Twilight Zone — ties up all the loose ends is debatable, but one thing is certain: It sure is fun getting there. — Rick Levin

 

The Road We Traveled by Jane Kirkpatrick. Revell, $14.99. (Oregon Author)

I admit it. I never played that Oregon Trail game half the people I know seem to have grown up with. But I am fascinated by the Oregon Trail and the trials and tribulations of those who ventured westward upon it. The Road We Traveled follows the indomitable Tabitha Brown as she refuses to be left behind when her family moves to Oregon. Tabitha limps badly due to an old injury and, as a grandmother, her family sees her as too old and weak. Tabitha sees it otherwise; she gets herself a wagon and hits the road. Author Jane Kirkpatrick uses a period style in keeping with how her characters would have spoken in the 1800s and Tabitha herself provides a rare chance to enjoy a book in which the main character is an older woman. — Camilla Mortensen

 

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25.

Universal Harvester, due out Feb. 7, 2017, is the second novel from John Darnielle, better known as vocalist and primary songwriter for acclaimed music group Mountain Goats. The book is a peculiar tale, sniffing around mystery-thriller tropes, but, appropriate to Darnielle’s iconoclastic style, it ends up not quite belonging to any category. The setting is rural Iowa and the time is the late ’90s and early-2000s. Jeremy works at Video Hut, an independent movie rental business. Looking back on this era, infused by Darnielle with sinister normalcy, there was no monumental change but creeping, incremental shifting, shaking up once-thought fundamental community institutions (little things from the local hardware store to video stores and record shops). What replaced this was online interconnectedness, leading to the empty intimacy of social media and a nagging sense we’ve all been duped. In the book, store patrons inexplicably notice dark and morbid home movies spliced into Video Hut’s VHS tapes. This leads Jeremy and his coworkers into a mystery that spans decades, raising questions about spirituality as well as what we see and what we choose to overlook at a time when what’s public and personal becomes increasingly blurred. — William Kennedy.

 

Crossing the Horizon: A Novel by Laurie Notaro. Gallery Books, $26. (Oregon Author)

Eugene-based author Laurie Notaro calls Crossing the Horizon “creative historical nonfiction,” and she tells EW that 95 percent of what she wrote about aviatrixes Elsie Mackay, Mabel Boll and Ruth Elder was purely based on historical research. Notaro corrects the record for those of us who think Amelia Earhart was the darling of flying’s early years as she delves into the lives of Boll, Mackay and Elder. Five women tried to fly across the Atlantic before Earhart’s attempt, and three of them died trying. You might not like all the characters (Boll is simply not very nice) but readers will be drawn to their stories. And warning: Stay away from the Google. Notaro’s deftly written story depicts the real lives of these women, and one web search could easily spoil the ending. — Camilla Mortensen

 

 

short stories

 

A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson. Coffee House Press, $16.95

Embrace and deepen the enveloping darkness of winter with this fine collection of short horror stories. Brian Evenson has an eye for subtle unease of the sort that follows upon waking from a nightmare, or that accompanies the relating of gruesome occurrences. However, he doesn’t fixate so much on graphic specifics as leave you in the dark with a strange taste in your mouth. Like the eroticism of classic cinema, where suggestion overrides the pornographic, these stories are made eerie by what is omitted more than by what is revealed. 

In one story a man reminisces about a brutal childhood game he played with a classmate that leaves permanent scars. In another, a series of murders take place in the oxygen-starved quarters of a mining operation that is slowly filling up with dust, adversely affecting the inhabitants that may or may not be on another planet. Claustrophobic and disorientating scenes abound, and so does a blood and the theme of wandering, pursued and lost, through the wilderness. The stories vary in length and style, making for an easy ride through a dark landscape. They are well crafted and stylistically pared down, while remaining literary. — Paul Quillen

 

Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams. Tin House Books, $19.95.

Joy Williams has written a beguiling and damn-near uncategorizable book about our queasy, querulous search for God in the most unlikely places and in ways that are not immediately apparent, even to ourselves. In flashes of fiction that range from a single sentence (one story, entitled “Sartre to Camus,” simply reads: “You should have changed if you wanted to remain yourself but you were afraid to change.”) to a couple pages in length, Williams folds the parabolic concision of biblical mysticism into a secular freefall that chimes with hidden implications — as when God shows up to ask a lab engineer why the water tastes so bad, and the engineer says he thought all that stuff about the Lord’s “living water” was “just a metaphor.” In Williams’ stories, faith is complicated, atheism is undermined and one begins to wonder if we haven’t gotten the whole God-thing terribly wrong from the get-go. And yet we slouch on, ever seeking meaning and reason, as Williams’ stories so wonderfully reveal. Ranging over time and place, and dropping in historical figures as diverse as Kafka and Ted Kaczynski, each story in this collection shoots like a flare over the abyss of our existential dilemma, flashing the briefest light on the depths below and above. — Rick Levin

 

 

kids, teens & tweens

 

Little Mouse and the Big Tree: A Tale of Friendship by Kate Crockett Juliana, illustrated by Holly Sweet. Esmerelda Press, $20.

Nature lovers will be overjoyed to read this book to their kiddos. Little Mouse ventures out of the nest and into the wide world. Invited up into the tall branches of a Douglas fir by the tree itself, Little Mouse grows up as she climbs the tree, encountering bullies and friends. Little Mouse and the Big Tree is indeed a tale of friendship, but at its core is a lovenote for the forest and a call for children to love and preserve it as well. — Camilla Mortensen

 

How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball. Pantheon, $24.95.

My inner teenager is officially swooning for Lucia, the main character of Jesse Ball’s latest novel How to Set a Fire and Why. She’s a youthful gal who gives zero fucks about acceptable social conduct and her mindset lingers between genius and sociopath. 

Lucia’s parents are dead and she’s a ball of teenage angst who has been kicked out of several high schools. At first glance, I thought Ball was setting up an overdone, manic-pixie dream-girl romance story, but he (thankfully) didn’t go there. Instead, Lucia’s main concerns are having intellectual chats with her aunt, making it through a test that could get her into a prestigious writing school and, you guessed it, setting something on fire. 

There’s an anarchist arson group at Lucia’s latest high school that’s caught her eye. She knows she’ll be accepted into the underground cohort since she can accurately calculate predictions, which she notes in her trusty journal with a language well beyond her years. While she gets to know more about arson, Lucia writes a glorious zine about how to set a fire (and why) that’s oddly applicable to life even for the less pyromaniacal audience. 

Somewhere in between ditching class and making friends with people who finally get her, Lucia is faced with devastating obstacles any person would freak out about. Her challenges could be an awesome opportunity for some multi-layered character development, but alas, Ball falls short in this arena. Either way, Lucia is a lovable weirdo whose story keeps readers turning the pages. — Kelsey Anne Rankin

 

The Last Burning of New London by Danielle Myers. RainTown Press, $17.95.

I admit it; I’m a sucker for dystopian teen novels. The Hunger Games, Divergent I read them all. Author Danielle Meyers started writing The Last Burning of New London when she was 17 and finished it her freshman year at Seattle Pacific University, so the teen perspective isn’t forced, it’s real. The leaping about in perspective from heroine pickpocket Jacks to the members of The Flames, the resistance group Jacks finds herself part of, is disorienting at first, but soon individual characters begin to take shape and the multiple perspectives allow the narrative to build and clever twists to unfold. My only complaint really is that reading about a devastated country ruled by an evil emperor felt a little too real during the recent presidential election.  — Camilla Mortensen

 

Ghostly Echoes: A Jackaby Novel by William Ritter. Algonquin Young Readers, $17.95. (Oregon Author)

Springfield resident William Ritter brings the 12-and-up set back to the strange world of the residents of 926 Augur Lane: Abigail Rook, the mysterious R.F. Jackaby and the ghostly Jenny Cavanaugh. Ritter mixes folklore with weird science in the third installment of the Jackaby series that brings Abigail from 19th-century New England to the underworld. Despite its faraway setting, Ritter dashes in characters clearly recognizable from Eugene, including my favorite, Hatun, a seer clearly modeled on Hatoon, an unhoused woman who used to live just outside the University of Oregon bookstore. Hatun let him weave in understanding of the mentally ill in previous books and in this one the character of Miss Lee, who is trans, reminds us that transgender people have always existed, even before many of us noticed. — Camilla Mortensen

 

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne. Arthur A. Levine Books, $29.99.

When I saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child described online as “better-than-average fanfiction,” I knew I had to read it. Turns out, that description was a little too generous. 

Written in script form, this book takes place 19 years after the events of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It follows the adventures of Albus Severus Potter (yep, that’s really his name), the misfit son of Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley, and Scorpius Malfoy who, weirdly, serves as the comic relief in this story, even though his dad reigned antagonistic terror on the Potter gang in the previous novels. 

If that mismatch strikes a painful nerve in your Harry Potter-loving soul, you’re not alone. The story abounds with off-kilter dialogue, unnerving personality departures and lazy plot devices. The joy of reading about the exploits of beloved characters like Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley quickly gives way to unease as the repetitive use of time travel becomes the core propellant of the story.

Events unfold in a Butterfly Effect manner, giving dead characters a chance to reappear and interact with the young protagonists. A particularly cringeworthy scene involves an uncharacteristically benevolent Severus Snape, grandiose and magnanimous, sending a kind message to his future namesake. 

For true Snape fans, and fans of the Harry Potter books in general, it’s a slap in the face. — Amy Klarup

 

 

Winter Reading 2016 - Nonfiction Reviews

Winter Reading 2016 - Even More Reviews

Winter Reading 2016 - Top Ten Lists

Read Local: A Roundup

Misfit. A Q&A with Lidia Yuknavitch

Read Electronically with the Eugene Public Library