Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros

Telling a story is an art. Cisneros tells a good story as she relates the story of the protagonist, Lala. That it is read by the author is marvelous. Back to Book Reviews

The Girl in Green by Derek B. Miller

A horrific incident in Iraq in 1991 just after Desert Storm, in which a girl in a green dress is killed, intertwines the fates of the two protagonists in this authentic, resonant, rich novel by an author with experience conducting diplomatic missions to the region. Arwood Hobbes, a solider, and Thomas Benton, a reporter, find themselves back in Iraq twenty-two years later to solve the mystery of the seeming reappearance of the girl in green. The humor and sharp insights cleverly interlaced in the dialogue make this book infinitely readable and profound in its assessments. One of those novels that is difficult to put down and sticks in your mind long after. Great for political thriller enthusiasts as well as anyone that just loves a witty, taut, affecting novel. Five out of five stars. Back to Book Reviews  

Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett

What would happen if a Nigerian man woke up one morning to discover that he had morphed into a white man overnight? This is the premise that sets off this novel, similar to Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” After the protagonist’s startling discovery, he is left to understand what it means to live as a white man in Nigeria. It seems a great setup to discuss current hot topics of racism and white privilege, but the author does not delve into this in ways I would have expected, especially considering the book’s bold title, Blackass, which would seem to indicate a willingness to push the envelope. Instead, the story focused mainly on grappling with identity and the protagonist’s struggle to distance himself from his personal history. Much of what commentary there was on racism focused on the difficulties the protagonist had fitting into Nigerian culture as a white man, and the prejudice he experienced because of his white skin. In this sense, I found the book challenging. It did not give me what I expected. Instead, it challenged me by exposing the assumptions from my American cultural context I brought with me in my reading. After all, the novel was written by a Nigerian living in Nigeria, not by a Nigerian who has emigrated to America or Britain and then returned to see Nigeria through a Western filter. Back to Book Reviews  

The Vine that Ate the South by JD Wilkes

This is an offbeat southern gothic with an extra bit of quirkiness thrown in. You could maybe call it a speculative southern gothic. Two men journey on their bicycles along an old abandoned Kentucky rail line in search of a mythic house overrun with kudzu, where they believe a couple has been consumed by the kudzu. Along the way, they stumble upon every gothic-themed beast you can think of, and they dispatch with them in their own unique, bumbling way. This novel could have probably been titled Fear and Loathing in Kudzu. Or, Imagine Ignatius J. Reilly on an epic journey to find and defeat the monster Grendel in his lair, which happens to be covered in kudzu. Or maybe Don Quixote and Sancho Panza trading in their horses for a pair of bicycles and riding along the Cahulawassee river tilting at windmills. Or maybe Sir Digby Chicken Caesar and his trusty sidekick Ginger facing off against their greenest nemesis, that invasive vine, Kudzu. Either way, this is a unique read that I enjoyed throughout wondering what amazing event could happen next. Back to Book Reviews

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

A tumultuous cast of characters clamor through the bardo, the world between life and rebirth (similar to purgatory). We are led on our journey through the netherworld by a caucophany of voices, but primarily by a duo of characters not too dissimilar to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Tying all the bedlam together is an underlying story about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, and his appearance in the Bardo. The format of this novel is unique, similar to a play interspersed with bits of historical documentation that frame the story. To expose our loose grasp of history, the historical excerpts often contradict each other, making the reader question how much truth there is behind the “true” events of this story. Watch for a movie adaptation in the coming year or two, produced by Nick Offerman and Megan Mullaly, who have already purchased the rights. If Ron Swansan and Karen Walker got together and made a movie, it would probably be something like this. This is a riotous romp of a read, except for a few sad parts, which were indeed sad. Back to Book Reviews  

Between Dog and Wolf by Sasha Sokolov

Many reviewers have compared Between Wolf and Dog to Finnegan’s Wake, and they have done so with very good reason. This is a work that requires intensive study to penetrate the stream of consciousness through which the actions of the book are divulged. In summarizing the plot all that several reviewers have been able to say is that someone lost a crutch at some point. That is the plot. Whether the crutch is recovered, or whether any characters even search for the crutch is unclear. What is clear is that one narrator of the story is a knife sharpener who seems to be the Russian equivalent of a folksy Appalachian mountain dweller. He talks in a meandering colloquial dialect. Also clear is that all narrative in the book is highly subject to linguistic play, much of which is illuminated by the 25 pages of annotations at the end of the novel. In fact, the language is said to be the plot of the novel, and it does seem to be the main force driving the book. Any sense of traditional plot is so elusive that most reviewers spend their time comparing the novel to other masterworks, such as Finnegan's Wake, and discuss Sokolov’s importance to Russian literature rather than discussing the plot, timeline of events, or anything about the book itself. This is a novel of intense literary quality that only the most committed will want to struggle through, but the struggle is an interesting endeavor, and readers looking for a challenging text will find this novel meets the bill. The gauntlet has been thrown down. Back to Book Reviews

The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees

A brilliant satire, this novel takes place in an unnamed country that bears many similarities with Syria. It follows the story of Fathi, a writer, who has lost favor under his nation’s despotic ruler because he dared speak out contrary to the ruler’s attempts to control the media. He struggles to find work, having been black listed, and to maintain his grasp on the truth amidst the ruling despot’s attempts to drown the truth out with a flood of mass propaganda. These absurd circumstances, where helping a fellow citizen is seen as a crime against the state, parallel much of the turmoil of today’s world. This is a very timely novel, considering the current events. Highly recommended, enjoyable, quick read. Back to Book Reviews

The Attack by Dauvillier and Chapron

This graphic novel (and the novel it is based on) is about the struggle to come to terms with decisions and actions that do not correspond with the facts as the main character sees them. It illustrates the humanity underlying the desperation in an act of terrorism, without trying to justify the act, and it explores the expanding circles of family and friends affected by the attack. Many peoples’ lives are changed forever and the carnage is far more than those involved directly in the attack. The collateral damage is more than the surrounding buildings. The author explores the complicated circumstances without being didactic and without providing clear answers. This story thoughtfully engages a sensitive and controversial topic. Back to Book Reviews  

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I found Colson Whitehead’s idea intriguing, portraying the Underground Railroad as a real railroad that traveled beneath the land. However, the real highlight, I found, was Cora’s story, a woman who clung to the railroad as her only hope of freedom, or even survival. As she journeys on the railroad the reader witnesses the many different kinds of horrible slaves experienced throughout the South, and in fact throughout a long and embattled journey towards equality, each stop signifying a different struggle. While it is an important story, I found it lacking in continuity and depth in comparison to Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, which portrays similar narratives and was my favorite book in from the past year of reading. I happened to read two one right after the other, which maybe was unfair to Underground Railroad, a very good book in its own right. Back to Book Reviews  

Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

These well-written stories center on Refugees’ experiences. The characters are caught in a transition between two cultures, two worlds, two lives, not able to fully inhabit either, struggling with the idea of assimilating while clinging to the memories of a life that was ripped away. I recently heard Viet Thanh Nguyen say in an interview on NPR that he believes refugees have the valuable experience of being outsiders, which helps them feel compassion and empathy towards others. He wishes everyone “had a sense of what it is like to be an outsider, an other.” These stories give the reader a brief glimpse into how that might look and feel. Back to Book Reviews