WILDALONE, by Krassi Zourkova

20483100

Wildalone
By Krassi Zourkova
William Morrow – 6th January 2015
ISBN 9780062328021 – 384 Pages – Hardcover
Source: William Morrow, via Skiffy & Fanty


In case you missed it, my review of Wildalone appeared recently on Skiffy and Fanty.
“Talented pianist and bright student Thea Slavin leaves the familiar confines of family and her Bulgarian homeland for the opportunity of study at prestigious Princeton University in the United States. Compounding the normal cultural shocks of studying abroad in an unfamiliar land, Thea discovers that she has chosen to accept an opportunity from the same school her older sister attended years past, an era mired in family secrets. Thea learns that this sister mysteriously died while at Princeton, leaving a hole in her parent’s lives about which they refuse to speak…”
I also ran into the cover reveal for the Bulgarian edition the other day and I think it fits beautifully:
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Disclaimer: I received an advanced reading copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review that originally appeared at skiffyandfanty.com.

LAST TRAIN TO BABYLON, by Charlee Fam

20783291Last Train to Babylon
By Charlee Fam
Published by William Morrow – 28th October 2014
ISBN 0062328077 – 352 Pages – Paperback
Source: Goodreads First-Read Giveaway


What I found most striking about Fam’s debut literary novel is just how effectively she takes the strengths of the short story format and applies them to the longer form. The plot of Last Train to Babylon is basic: Aubrey Glass, a young woman with a history of mental darkness and suicidal sentiments returns home for the funeral of her former best friend Rachel who has recently killed herself. Aubrey’s struggles to get through the present collide with traumatic memories dredged up from her past as she reunites with family and former classmates in the wake of Rachel’s funeral and questions over what had finally pushed her to take her life.
Alternating between events from the past and Aubery’s current situation Fam uses Aubrey’s point of view, flawed personality, and simple, honest narrative voice to delve into incredibly important themes revolving around young women growing up in America. Many of these issues are uncomfortable, ferocious and dark and Fam manages to balance this all with a certain touch of light humor and irony. The seriousness of some elements: suicide, rape, assault, bullying, shaming are treated responsibly, but it does bear mentioning that for readers who have experienced any of these to extremes in their own life may find this a difficult or triggering novel. For it seems so real, with a sad beauty that comes from delving fully into what humanity is capable of, in this case specifically how young girls can treat one another and how society pressures them to behaving or being in expected ways.
A short story can typically manage to address one, perhaps two, specific elements such as these for a protagonist. Fam extends that literary focus on characterization to encompass more temporally, and a greater network of issues that young women can be faced with. She doesn’t change the heart of a good shorter work, she just keeps up the same brilliance for the expanded explorations possible in a novel.
On the one hand both Audrey and Rachel are sympathetic, relatable characters and they have certain aspects that one may find likable. But they are each so powerfully realized as realistic humans that they are filled with flaws and cruelty to the point that they can also at moments completely disgust. Some readers may shun this kind of literary realism, but surely that is exactly how each of us are, filled with moments of exquisite nobility one time and ugly savagery another.
The Last Train to Babylon has its darkness, but it is emotionally moving to all ends of the spectrum of empathy. How much of this is personal for Fam or creative genius is unclear to me, but I will happily reach for her next publication based one how strongly this one makes readers feel, and how relevant and important the themes she tackles are.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from William Morrow via the Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

Ice Shear, by M.P. Cooley

Ice Shear, by M.P. Cooley
Publisher: William Morrow
ISBN: 0062300709
320 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 22nd July 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This is a very impressive debut genre novel that I didn’t expect to enjoy quite so much. My initial expectations were somewhat low because so many of the elements of “Ice Shear” I would describe with the word ‘average’. The plot is suitably complex. The writing is straight-forward, though very descriptive, with realistically rendered dialogue. The protagonist seems like a regular woman. The pace is constant and the small town setting is well-rendered.

Together this makes an enjoyable police procedural read, a novel that is really good, but where nothing really screams out as being exceptionally unique, innovative, controversial, or profoundly insightful. So what sets it apart from any other mystery novel out there is it is so ‘average’? Why in my heart do I feel like this is a really successful novel that was well-worth reading?

I think the answer to those questions lie in just how effectively Cooley manages to take the ordinary and produce a tight, well-crafted mystery out of it where everything does feel satisfying without becoming dull and mundane. Most impressive to me is Cooley’s protagonist June, a former FBI-agent returned to her hometown to serve on the police force. June is deceptively simple, one of the most realistically rendered female characters I’ve come across. Here strengths and weakness are given subtly, and her personality is one of straight-forward perseverance, simply being a good investigator and human being. Relatable and likable, she is flawed and challenged, but she overcomes and the reader enjoys the experience of seeing how she does so.

Cooley also manages to put in just the right amount of ‘outside’ information and personal conflict outside of the main crime plot thread. You learn a bit about June’s past and her family and professional relationships, but readers aren’t pulled too far down any side-tracks that don’t have bearings on the novel itself. This leaves Cooley room to further develop the character in future novels, hopefully just as effectively.

Four Stars out of Five

The Sound of Broken Glass, by Deborah Crombie

The Sound of Broken Glass,
by Deborah Crombie
Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James Series Book 15
Publisher: William Morrow
ISBN: 0061990647
384 pages, hardcover
Published February 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Normally I don’t sign up to win books that are in a series because I try to use this to discover authors and works that I otherwise wouldn’t discover or read anytime soon. So if it’s a series, I probably haven’t read any of the others. Even if novels are supposed to be ‘stand-alone’ I’d much rather read them all, in order, or not bother reading any of them. This makes getting into mystery novels hard though. So I must’ve read the description for this and decided my interest was worth giving it a try. I’m glad that I did because it was an enjoyable book, but I’m not sure if it is a series that I’d rush to find more of over the others I have in queue.

The primary strength I see in “The Sound of Broken Glass” is atmosphere. Crombie’s characters each exude particular British regions or classes, and the city itself is used almost as a character in defining the roles of the others, their pasts and how those circumstances now collide in the present. These past events are conveyed through italicized, flashback, passages, rather than in-time. This method seems largely employed to keep the secrets of the mystery hidden to the investigators in the novel until the last possible moment. The reader therefore has a greater, though still very vague sense, of what lies behind the murders than the protagonist does. Yet despite revealing more to the reader, Crombie still keeps the mystery unsolved and identities unclear through red-herrings, convolutions, and reader mis-assumptions.

Thus, it stands an effective mystery. The downside as I saw it, was that the structure of the novel with its flashbacks takes away significantly from any procedural aspects. The case is ultimately unveiled not completely through the investigator’s skill, but rather in large part due to chance coincidences and shared acquaintances, well-crafted connections on the part of the author between her characters that leave the entire events partially artificial in feeling. Crombie also uses the story and its themes to try to wedge in side plots involving the protagonist and her family, all of which seem highly tangential and never actually brought to conclusion. I suspect these aspects of the story relate more to the overall series as opposed to the novel itself, highlighting that a series novel never can really be ‘stand-alone’.

Three Stars out of Five

Make Good Art, by Neil Gaiman

Make Good Art, by Neil Gaiman16240792
Publisher: William Morrow
ISBN: 0062266764
80 pages, hardcover
Published May 2013
Source: Goodread’s First-Reads

I had not heard this commencement speech, though it is available to view online. I was just interested in anything Gaiman-related. The book arrived  in the mail and I opened it to look over only, yet found myself sucked in, reading it through rapidly. The content of Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech is a healthy mix of personal stories/insight with familiar advice (à la ‘do what you enjoy’), and is buffered throughout with Gaiman’s typical brilliant humor.

The text of the speech is laid out by graphic designer Chip Kidd. At times the layout breaks up the flow of Gaiman’s thoughts in an odd fashion, or arranges the words in a way that takes a moment or two to decipher, much as in a poem. This translates Gaiman’s speech into Kidd’s interpretation of Gaiman’s speech, which then is further interpreted by how the reader processes the text. On the whole I found this a positive trait, contrary to some other reviews I’ve seen. Kidd’s design produces an interesting and engaging complement to listening to the speech, and allows new discoveries to be made in the message as one goes through it in this new form, even after multiple times. (Which is an important consideration if buying this slim volume) Adding to its value, the book is physically quite sturdy and well-constructed.

I assume this is intended to be a nice ‘gift book’ for people to give to recent graduates. One wonders whether if after a reading or two the book might just sit and gather dust on a shelf. For many it may, but personally I think it is a message one would do well to revisit again through the years. These words are not just for the graduate, but long-before and long-after such an event as well. As someone who isn’t an artist, but rather a scientist, I found it noteworthy that the message is just as appropriate for people in other fields and passions.

Four Stars out of Five