Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #28: The Ocean at The End of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

06-26-Reads-Ocean-at-the-End-of-the-Lane-by-Neil-GaimanWould you believe that this is only the second Neil Gaiman book that I’ve ever read? I know, I am disappointed in this reading gap too, as it has happened for no good reason. I enjoy Gaiman’s writing immensely, and his new novel, The Ocean at The End of The Lane did not disappoint.

Existing in that shadowy space between reality and dream, our unnamed narrator visits the Sussex farmland of his childhood neighbors. At seven years old, he spent a surreal series of nights with Lettie Hempstock and her mother and grandmother – a past he hasn’t given much thought to until now. From there, we are submerged in those dark times when a man committed suicide near his home, and his relationship with his family became frightening. Seeming far older than her outwardly young appearance, Lettie promises to take care of the boy, and what happens is a story that I think will require a reread to fully appreciate in detail.

(Read the rest of my review at Persephone Magazine.)

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Reviews #23-27: Strayed, Martin, Attenberg, Shaprio, Mignola & Golden

tiny-beautiful-things-sugar-strayedTiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

Sugar is magic. Cheryl Strayed’s online (and originally anonymous) alter-ego has a way of dispensing advice that speaks directly to one’s core. Through the questions posed to her about love, lust, and loneliness, she tells stories about her own life that are a blow to the chest. Her honesty is wrapped in gentle, hard truths that are applicable beyond the specific question-writer.

Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of many of the columns that originally appeared on The Rumpus, as well as several previously unpublished questions. Strayed also talks a bit about the how/why she decided to take on this writing gig, and also her thought process leading into shedding Sugar’s anonymity. Even though I had already read many of the columns when they first posted, going over them again felt nearly as potent. This book is a lovely addition for anyone who has ever asked, Am I okay?

StoriesForBoys_CoverStories For Boys: A Memoir by Gregory Martin

I read this touching memoir in one sitting. Beginning with the suicide attempt of his father, Gregory Martin discovers why the man who raised him has reached this point. Not only was his father sexually abused as a child, but he has also been a closeted gay man throughout the entirety of his 39 year marriage. He has admitted to Martin’s mother that he has sought out “hundreds” of unknown partners at parks and rest stops while traveling and while the rest of the family slept at home. Because they lived in Spokane, Washington, the settings were very familiar to me, having myself lived there for several years.

Though the book focuses on Martin’s perspective and not his father’s, this isn’t a simple story of “troubled man comes out” — this is about a father and a son having to navigate an almost entirely new relationship. It’s an interesting exploration of memory, identity, and empathy, and I’m glad I read it.

(Full Disclosure: Hawthorne Books provided me with the e-book for review.)

middlesteins-jami-attenbergThe Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

I’ve followed Jami Attenberg’s work online for several years now, but I must admit that this is the first novel of hers that I’ve read (a gap I plan to remedy soon). The Middlesteins is, so far, also her most successful book, and for good reason. She has written a family saga that feels very grounded in reality, centered around matriarch Edie. Edie cannot stop eating or obsessing over food, and it is severely affecting her health. Her husband, Richard, after decades of marriage, leaves her, and now her adult children are wondering how they can care for her and process their parents’ split, all while managing their own complicated lives.

One of the things I loved about the book is that Attenberg does not write caricatures. In the hands of lesser writers, a character like Edie could have dissolved into one-dimensional stereotype, but she is a whole person full of humor and love. The other family members, with all their quirks and problems, receive the same honest treatment. Though the plot deals with serious subject matter, it’s also a very funny book.

the-art-forger-shapiroThe Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

I picked up this novel on whim from the new books section at the library, and it was a lovely surprise. Using the real life art heist from the Isabella Gardner Museum in 1990, B.A. Shapiro has created a fictionalized story about a disgraced painter, Claire, who has been asked by a famous gallery owner to copy a Degás — the same Degás stolen from the museum. However, the more time Claire spends with this ill-begotten painting, the more she suspects that it may also be a forgery.

Because I’m a sucker for heist stories and because I’m quite interested in visual art, I enjoyed unraveling the mystery of what had really happened during the time of the theft and in the 19th century when the painting was originally created. There’s a whole side-plot about why Claire has a poor reputation in the art world that is also quite interesting, and though I could work out some of the twists on my own, the complete ending still held plenty of surprises.

father-gaetano-mignolaFather Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden

A friend recommended this novella for our book club selection, and I’m so pleased that she did because I’m not sure it would have otherwise crossed my attention. Set during WWII, Father Gaetano is assigned as the sole priest in a small Sicilian village, where not only must he conduct every mass, he must also see after the spiritual care of the many orphans who are now living at the church. To better engage the children in their catechism lessons, he brings up an old puppet set from the basement. What he doesn’t know is that the puppets believe that the stories are real, and after dark they appear without strings. What happens next is a series of disturbing events that affect everyone involved, all while subtly mirroring the national turmoil surrounding the village.

Though I am not well-versed in Catholic symbolism, I found Father Gaetano utterly compelling. Told from the points-of-view of the priest, a nun, and one sensitive boy who lives there, we are able to understand different ways how one can question their faith, and how they react when bravery is required. It’s a quick read interspersed with dark illustrations, and is yet another example of my need to occasional widen my reading repertoire.

(This post originally appeared on Persephone Magazine.)

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #42: The Invention of Curried Sausage by Uwe Timm

Yesterday evening I picked this up after it had been waiting on my shelf for a few years, and five minutes ago I closed it with a deep sigh of satisfaction. The storytelling is so good, taking you in unexpected directions, with so much life and humour and darkness wrapped up under that silly-sounding title, it’s was like getting a big hug. I feel like I’ve climbed out of a piping hot bath, relaxed and wistful.

The title is a touch of wonderfully Teutonic directness: the author sets out to discover the origin of currywurst, the famous streetfood he recalls eating as a child. This takes him to the woman who ran a food stall for thirty years, Lena Bruckner, now in her eighties, frail and blind. Did you invent curried sausage?

Yes, yes she did. But the how of it lies in her story of the last month of WWII in Hamburg.

This is a book about the war, then, from the perspective of a woman trying to survive in her ruined city. It’s also the story of the people around her, including Lammers, the die-hard Nazi building warden, who has long suspected her of a ‘defeatist attitude’. And the chef, Holzinger, who carefully upset the stomachs of high-ranking German officials and teaches Lena her skills with spices. And then there is Bremer, a naval officer she meets at a cinema. It is their story, really, a story which is a secret that needs to be unraveled to get to the accidental creation of curried sausage.

the wurst is yet to comeThe wurst is yet to come! 

The descriptions of the blackmarket economy that kept people alive after the war is particularly engaging. Timm also approaches the toughest revelation, of the death camps to the German people, in a careful but clear-eyed way.

This is a book with a touch of everything – food, family, sex, flavour, distance, and desperation.  A small revelation, like the first touch of curry powder on your tongue.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #57: Side Jobs by Jim Butcher

side jobsSide Jobs is a collection of short stories and novellas published by Jim Butcher in various anthologies. Each story follows Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only Wizard for Hire, on smaller cases in between books (and one case that is from Thomas’s POV). The only exception is the last story, which is new for the collection, and takes place about two hours after the ending to Changes (and made me want to go out and read Ghost Story immediately . . . sidenote, this novella may also be indirectly responsible for me accidentally becoming a criminal).

I think it was very considerate of Butcher to publish these in one place so I don’t have to track them down myself (either that or his publisher wanted money and he gets my good will as a side bargain). I really resent when authors publish things in anthologies because it’s so hard for me to keep track of everything, which I realize is a horrible and stupid reaction, but I don’t care.

Most of these stories are fun little side trips (hence the name) that wouldn’t have fit elsewhere in the books (some are a bit shoehorned in, as there are thematic requirements to some of these anthologies, i.e. the star-crossed lovers one with Murphy and Harry). And the very first story of the collection is a bit shaky, not that I’ll hold it against it, as it was the very first bit of the Dresden Files Butcher ever wrote, and as he admits in the intro to the story, it’s at best an amateur effort and only included for funsies basically. That’s probably my favorite part of the collection, actually, is those introductions in front of each story. Well, that and the last story, which is told from Murphy’s POV.

If you’re a Dresden Files fan, this is a must read. Don’t pick this up as an intro to the series. You will be lost and/or not care. Or maybe I’m lying and I just want you to read things in order like a normal person. Wow, this review is weirdly angry. I think I need a snack or something. TOODLES.

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #13: Manuscript Found in Accra by Paulo Coelho

manuscript-found-in-accra-coelhoPaulo Coelho is one of my literary gaps — I’d heard of him, meant to read him, yet never got around to him until now. Is Manuscript Found in Accra the best introduction to him? I don’t know, but this slim novel — if “novel” is the right word — gives me plenty to think about.

The basic premise behind Accra is that a manuscript dating back to roughly 1307 AD was discovered by English archaeologist Sir Walter Wilkinson in 1974 in Egypt, though it came from an area outside of the Egyptian territory and “therefore, no restrictions [were] on its removal from the country.” Our unnamed narrator acquired the text in 2011 from Sir Walter’s son, and what we read is the narrator’s transcription. The text itself has its own narrator and he says it is “the fourteenth of July, 1099.”


Judging by the quotes I’ve seen from some of Coelho’s other work, philosophical and mindful ways of living are his wheelhouse, and perhaps Manuscript in Accra is a condensed, more direct version of those ideas. I would have to read his other books to say so with any certainty, though perhaps it would be best to ask the man himself. He appears to be quite active on Twitter, which I like to see when it’s clear that the writer enjoys it. That the United Nations has named him a “Messenger of Peace” feels very apt. Maybe this book isn’t for everyone, but I liked it well enough to want to properly devour a full-on Coelho novel in the near future.

My full review can be found on Glorified Love Letters.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #27: Amok & Other Stories by Stefan Zweig

I find reading Zweig like entering a crystal cave, a dark and secret place (make your own ‘gina jokes now, folks, this is a classy review). Talking about this collection, one novella and three short stories, I feel like I have to start at the end, with Anthea Bell’s afterword. So spoilers ahoy: Continue reading

Mrs. Julien’s #CBR5 Review #15: Winning the Wallflower by Eloisa James

I don’t like short stories because they are too short, but I do like romance novellas because the length focuses the plot quite nicely and frees it up from all those extraneous elements (spies, machinations, supporting characters) that usually annoy me. Winning the Wallflower is just such a novella, but all I can really tell you about it is that it is by Eloisa James, an author I have previously rejected. Also, it was 99 cents. It may have been reasonably bantery and enjoyable. I’m not really sure because…

I decided to watch Archer while working from home this week. A lot of Archer. Twenty-three episodes (and counting) in three days, so when I read Winning the Wallflower everyone sounded like Sterling Archer: the hero, the heroine, the heroine’s friend, the omniscient narrator. As did my emails for work. It made for an interesting tonal shift, although with the vaguely florid romance writing style it did work strangely well. Not so much for the emails at work. A lot of careful proofreading required there. Plus the hero, Cyrus (I know, but I have to admit that I think Cyrus is actually a pretty cool name.), looks like Sterling Archer, if Archer weren’t a 21st century spy cartoon character and Cyrus wasn’t a fictional Regency Adonis.

At the beginning of Winning the Wallflower,  Cyrus (You think it’s cool, too. I won’t tell.) and a lovely young woman named Lucy, are engaged. She has recently come into an inheritance and is being forced to jilt his untitled tush so she can marry someone more suited to her newly be-lucred station. Lucy doesn’t know Cyrus, he has barely spoken to her despite the whole proposal thing, but she is very warm for his form because he is totally gorgeous. In the process of throwing him over, Lucy finds her strength and Cyrus discovers that, what?!, she’s actually charming and smart and speaks honestly to him. Not too shabby for a woman he proposed to because she fit into his master plan to rebuild his family’s reputation *cough* cursory revenge plot *cough*. So, she dumps him, he realises he’s an ass, and sets out to woo her. Quickly. It’s a novella.

The Shameful Tally can be found on my tiny little blog.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #15: Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig

I have had two Zweig books sitting on my shelf patiently waiting for me, but it took this sexy new cover from Pushkin Press to get me to read the old master.

Look at it. That’s my favourite book jacket in yonks. I want to rub it all over my face (ok, I did rub it all over my face, as I got given a copy. Holla!)

And I promptly fell head-over-teakettle for Zweig’s writing. This is a collection of his short stories, two in the epistolary form, including the titular story – which was filmed by Max Ophüls with the luminous Joan Fontaine.

Rich and romantic, but never purple or overcooked, his stories are like vivid dreams. One is a dream, recounted for a lover, and love of all kinds is represented. He’s got a great insight into his female characters, and the words just drip with the atmosphere of a lost Europe – one with tragicomic actors, candlelit mournful rooms, big giant stonkingly starcrossed love affairs, with one eye on the inexorable march of time and the other on the more liquid inner workings of the soul.

A collection I clasped to my bosum and heaved over a couple of times. Definitely an author to awaken the romantic in even the most flinty heart (like muggins ‘ere writing this).

shyestviolet’s #CBR5 review #1: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toíbín

Book CoverI’m a sucker for retelling history, especially when it comes to biblical material.  (That’s what I get for going to Sunday School every week for 18 years.)  Novels like The Dovekeepers, The Red Tent, and Unholy Night are pretty much right in my wheelhouse.  Colm Toíbín’s The Testament of Mary, in which a post-crucifixion Mary (as in, Mary, Mother of God) meditates on her life and her son’s death, somehow magically ended up at the top of my library pile—no big surprise. Continue reading