Friday, April 24, 2015

Fives and Twenty-Fives

Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre
(Bloomsbury / Brilliance Audio, 2014)
Format: audiobook via Audible (narrated by Kevin T. Collins, Nick Sullivan, Jay Snyder, and Fajer Al-Kaisi)

From Goodreads: "It’s the rule - always watch your fives and twenty-fives. When a convoy halts to investigate a possible roadside bomb, stay in the vehicle and scan five meters in every direction. A bomb inside five meters cuts through the armor, killing everyone in the truck. Once clear, get out and sweep 25 meters. A bomb inside 25 meters kills the dismounted scouts investigating the road ahead.

Fives and Twenty-Fives marks the measure of a marine’s life in the road-repair platoon. Dispatched to fill potholes on the highways of Iraq, the platoon works to assure safe passage for citizens and military personnel. Their mission lacks the glory of the infantry, but in a war where every pothole contains a hidden bomb, road repair brings its own danger.

Lieutenant Donavan leads the platoon, painfully aware of his shortcomings and isolated by his rank. Doc Pleasant, the medic, joined for opportunity, but finds his pride undone as he watches friends die. And there’s Kateb, known to the Americans as Dodge, an Iraqi interpreter whose love of American culture - from hip-hop to the dog-eared copy of Huck Finn he carries - is matched only by his disdain for what Americans are doing to his country. Returning home, they exchange one set of decisions and repercussions for another, struggling to find a place in a world that no longer knows them."

This novel wasn't on my radar until the 2015 Audies nominees came out, and I wasn't sure how I'd like it, when I started this year's Armchair Audies project (judging the fiction nominees). I liked it!

Most of the action of the novel happens after Lt. Donovan's platoon is back home in America, and his interpreter, Dodge, has gotten out of Iraq but is free-floating through an unstable Mideast. There are flashbacks to their service, and to the events that brought each of them, particularly Dodge (who is such a compelling, complex, tragicomic guy), together. There's a pivotal incident that each grapples with as they struggle to find out who they are, now that they are no longer serving.

Michael Pitre focuses tightly on the disconnect between life in the Marines and life afterwards. Even when characters appear to be picking up where they left off, they are permanently changed by their years of service, in ways that family and friends don't know how to process. These aren't gruff vets incapable of processing what happened overseas; rather, they are all very aware of changes in the world and in themselves. They saw a war that took place in people's homes and shopping centers, where determining friendly from combatant isn't always easy, and where a few from all sides are conspicuously gathering as much war-related wealth as possible.

The distinctive voices of the marines were smoothly handled by Nick Sullivan, Kevin T. Collins, and Jay Snyder, but the standout for me was Fajer Al-Kaisi as the Iraqi interpreter Dodge. Al-Kaisi's gusto as he takes on Dodge's vibrant, sometimes angry, always analytical personality made a lively character come even more strongly to life. I've read several fictions set in and around the post 9-11 war zones, and am impressed with the way Pitre used Dodge to bring to life the realities of living in Iraq as a citizen; most American novelists I've seen writing about Iraq and Afghanistan are a lot more stand-offish when it comes to the locals whose lives are being blasted apart. But like Dodge's beloved Huck Finn, he is the kind of character it would be fun to drop in to any number of novel situations (ha) just to watch how he navigates it. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

Armchair Audies Time!

As in the past couple of years, I am participating this spring in the Armchair Audies project. (The first 7 words in that sentence link to the 7 categories I judged for 2014 & 2013. Have I mentioned I love audiobooks?)

What's the Armchair Audies? It's a delightful gig where a group of bloggers pick categories from the year's Audies nominees and listen to each title in their category, review it, and pick who they think should win.

I am listening to the 2015 Fiction nominees, and having a blast. Although I'll be going a tad far out of my comfort zone when I get to the Stephen King title - I am not much for horror! But every other title has had rewards either large or small, so I'll be taking a deep breath and plunging in.

Meanwhile, look for some reviews of great titles from me, because this is a fine crop of audio nominees. Happy listening!

Monday, March 9, 2015

2015 Tournament of Books

Goodness. How y'all been? I've been off writing my own books, and it's left poor Overreader a little Underwritten.

(See what I did there? That's how you know I'm an author, those word play games.)

But it's time once again for The Tournament of Books! The TOB (aka the Rooster) is a March-Madness style books tournament (go figure) which pits some of the most discussable books from the prior year against each other.

There are 16 books this year. To date, I've read 13 and have plans to read one more before the first round judgement. And I pretty much enjoyed them all - some I've loved. 

My current favorites: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Redeployment by Phil Klay, Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball.

I loved the whole Ferrante trilogy (well, series - there's a fourth forthcoming), and my family and I listened to Station Eleven with great pleasure on a road trip in December. 

Anyway, there will be ranting and cheering and exclaiming aplenty in the next couple of weeks as the TOB first round gets underway, and I'm super excited.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Some Luck

Some Luck by Jane Smiley
(Knopf, 2014)
Format: library book

From Goodreads: "On their farm in Denby, Iowa, Rosanna and Walter Langdon abide by time-honored values that they pass on to their five wildly different yet equally remarkable children: Frank, the brilliant, stubborn first-born; Joe, whose love of animals makes him the natural heir to his family's land; Lillian, an angelic child who enters a fairy-tale marriage with a man only she will fully know; Henry, the bookworm who's not afraid to be different; and Claire, who earns the highest place in her father's heart. Moving from post-World War I America through the early 1950s, Some Luck gives us an intimate look at this family's triumphs and tragedies, zooming in on the realities of farm life, while casting-as the children grow up and scatter to New York, California, and everywhere in between-a panoramic eye on the monumental changes that marked the first half of the twentieth century. Rich with humor and wisdom, twists and surprises, Some Luck takes us through deeply emotional cycles of births and deaths, passions, and betrayals, displaying Smiley's dazzling virtuosity, compassion, and understanding of human nature and the nature of history, never discounting the role of fate and chance. This potent conjuring of many lives across generations is a stunning tour de force."

Smiley has long been one of my most treasured modern writers, and Some Luck does everything to cement my love for her. I very quickly became part of Walter and Rosanna's family - one of the siblings, eager to get my own back at Frank (as a second-born myself, I found it essential to identify with poor Joe, who everyone discounts, but he proves them wrong.) The Langdon world is small but perfectly complete, and Smiley makes it easy to view each member through the shifting prisms of everyone else's perspective. Lillian's Henry is not Rosanna's Henry is not Claire's Henry, and yet each Henry is so perfectly Henry. If you get what I mean. 

Time for a couple of quotes, because Smiley can write a sentence that steals my breath and stills my heart:

  • "As if on cue, Walter turned from Andrea and looked at Rosanna, and they agreed in that instant: something had created itself from nothing - a dumpy old house had been filled, if only for this moment, with twenty-three different worlds, each one of them rich and mysterious. Rosanna wrapped her arms around herself for a moment and sat down." (The quiet communication between long-married partners, who do so much of their communicating silently but who understand each other perfectly with just a look. Gorgeous!)
  • "His preferred text was the type that was missing a lot of lines, one where you had to infer what the faceless author might have been getting at rather than having it all sitting there before you." (I like this because, although I write texts that have it all sitting before you, I also get a lot of joy digging into those missing lines.)
There are hundreds of quiet reflective moments in this novel, as well as fighting and war and drought and deaths and depression. And joy. And love. And the push-pull centrality of family as the Langdon world expands outward due to WWII and technology and education. It's time well spent, reading this novel, and I'm thrilled that it's first in a trilogy (not that I didn't reach the last page - another truly amazing sentence I won't quote due to spoilers - in tears and completely satisfied with the novel on its own.) 

2014's just about up, and I didn't think I'd be sucker-punched again like I was with Lila, but it turns out, I was wrong. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Mrs. Claus, Overlord

In Which We Learn That Mrs. Claus Is Our Eventual Overlord

“This year’s Toy Guide, bring it to me.”
“Here you go, ma’am. We think you’ll be pleased.”
“Don’t tell me what to think.”
“No, ma’am.”
“What is this? This, right here, at the bottom of the third page. Did I approve this? Show me where, exactly, I approved Baby Bluetooth, Jasper.”
“Well, you see, ma’am, your husband thought—“
“Did I pluck that man out of a church in Turkey and immortalize him so he could think for me? “
“No, ma’am.”
“Does he think that seventeen centuries at my side guarantees him immunity to my wrath?”
“I shouldn’t think so, ma’am.”
“What happened the first time I let him have his way?”
“What happened, Jasper, when I let Mr. Claus have his way?”
“Automatons, ma’am.”
“Exactly! Automatons! A whole slew of ingenious little clockwork and steamwork creatures, clicking and turning their way uselessly down the centuries. They made the Earthlings laugh in delight. Laugh! I told him the Earthlings weren’t ready for advanced mechanicals; did he listen, or did he sneak them into the production line? Their human brains weren’t there yet. Now people consider them quaint, instead of a chilling prophetic vision. Quaint!”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Get rid of the Baby Bluetooth.”
“Right away, ma’am.”
“Ten years from now, maybe. Seven, if we push it. Not now.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
“I was very clear about this. We started with Lincoln logs, tinker toys. Blocks. It took them decades to adapt to modern block technology. It’s only been a hundred years since we introduced the Erector Set; can we expect them to be turning themselves into our willing robot slaves already?”
“No, ma’am.”
“Did he learn nothing from the robot dog situation? For a decade now the toyshops have been shelving little robot pets, and what do we find in every street in every town? Do we find any actual robot pets?”
“No, ma’am.”
“Speak clearly, Jasper! That’s right we don’t. We find actual flesh and blood pets. Pets by the ton. And what are children lining up to ask mall Santas for? Their very own iFido? No. Puppies. The children want puppies, Jasper.”
“It’s disgusting, ma’am.”
“Damn right it’s disgusting. I told Jolly Old Saint Idiot it was too early for pet robot toys, and I let him override me – it was a moment of weakness which won’t happen again – and now we’ve had to introduce plastic pet pounds and amp up the toy horse game just to recalibrate.”
“What’s that?”
“Nothing, ma’am. I was just saying that the tablet computer initiative is on track.”
“Only because I have to keep reigning Nick in like he’s Blitzen. Tablets for toddlers, sure, and pretend spy watches with big wrist screens, that’s all going great. You rarely see a Kindergartener choose a pencil over a stylus anymore, and even the Waldorf kids can use voice recognition technology. But here it is, not even 2015, and what did Nick suggest?”
“Um, was it an arm to attach an iPad to a crib and a free mobile app with an integrated camera that networks to the parent’s smart phone so she can set whatever sounds and visual stimulation most engage or soothe her infant and she can, from the comfort of her sofa, both watch her baby sleep and also run the EyeTracker to determine if her child’s engagement with a series of increasingly sophisticated learning tools shows that he or she is developing on an above average level and compares his or her results with those of other babies in the neighborhood? And can generate graphs that are automatically uploaded to the top preschool programs in a fifteen mile radius?”
“Page twenty-three, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am. Consider it gone, ma’am.”
“It’s not that I don’t want the Earthlings to filter their every experience through technology, Jasper. Of course I do; you know as well as I do what my end game is here. I want to know each and every one’s innate abilities and how those abilities most benefit me.  Give me another generation and they’ll be microchipped at birth, and from there it’s a few short decades ‘till they’re dedicating their lives in service to me.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“But it’s a matter of subtlety.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
“Without subtlety, they won’t become my willing slaves, Jasper. They’ll think robot pets are toys instead of the first wave of the invasion. They’ll think of technology as optional. An occasional benefit, instead of essential to every move they make. And we don’t want that, do we, Jasper?”
“No, ma’am.”
“Because why, Jasper?”
“Automatons, ma’am.”
“That’s right, Jasper. Automatons.”

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Lila by Marilynne Robinson
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014)
Format: library book

From Goodreads: "Marilynne Robinson, one of the greatest novelists of our time, returns to the town of Gilead in an unforgettable story of a girlhood lived on the fringes of society in fear, awe, and wonder.

Lila, homeless and alone after years of roaming the countryside, steps inside a small-town Iowa church—the only available shelter from the rain—and ignites a romance and a debate that will reshape her life. She becomes the wife of a minister, John Ames, and begins a new existence while trying to make sense of the days of suffering that preceded her newfound security.

Neglected as a toddler, Lila was rescued by Doll, a canny young drifter, and brought up by her in a hardscrabble childhood. Together they crafted a life on the run, living hand-to-mouth with nothing but their sisterly bond and a ragged blade to protect them. But despite bouts of petty violence and moments of desperation, their shared life is laced with moments of joy and love. When Lila arrives in Gilead, she struggles to harmonize the life of her makeshift family and their days of hardship with the gentle Christian worldview of her husband that paradoxically judges those she loves."

I held my breath for an entire hour during one stretch of reading this. Not literatlly, obviously, as I don't post book reviews from the grave, but the experience certainly left me feeling dizzy, awed, gasping and broken. Did I love the first two books in the Gilead series as I loved this one? Probably; it won't be a hardship to reread them in search of the answer to that question. Have I ever felt a character as intensely as I felt Lila. Going to have to say no. She is raw, open, a slate that's not blank in the least but is covered in a language no one knows. Every beat of her life resonated, and Robinson kept me on a sharply-honed knife edge while Lila was living in the shack, balanced between the disordered past that brought her there and the amorphous future of her life in Gilead.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Landline by Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin's Press / MacMillan Audio, 2014
Format: audio download (read by Rebecca Lowman)

From Goodreads"Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble. That it’s been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply — but that almost seems beside the point now.

Maybe that was always beside the point.

Two days before they’re supposed to visit Neal’s family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells Neal that she can’t go. She’s a TV writer, and something’s come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her — Neal is always a little upset with Georgie — but she doesn’t expect to him to pack up the kids and go home without her.

When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she’s finally done it. If she’s ruined everything.

That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It’s not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts . . .

Is that what she’s supposed to do?

Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened?"

Has there yet been a Rainbow Rowell novel I didn't demand you read instantly? Well, no, of course not. She's an exceptional writer and I vibrate with happiness whenever a new title is on the horizon. 

So, since you all heed my very good book advice, you've all got Landline already, and I'm just enthusing for the sake of my own enthusiasm here. Aren't you glad you listen to me? Isn't this book just fantastic? I know, right? 

It's a portrait of love, and how love carried over years becomes both more than and less than that initial adrenaline/pheromone rush of falling for someone. Of how holding on to that feeling of falling serves a marriage in the long term. Of how communicating with your partner resonates with all of the communication - and miscommunication - going back to day 1, and looking forward to day 10,000. Of big gestures and little moments and friendship and laughter and jealousy and pettiness and children and in-laws and dead cell phones.

It's marriage, wonderful and traumatic and heartbreaking and real.

And as with her other titles, Rebecca Lowman has taken Rowell's words and the intent behind them, pitching them into an audio version that hits every emotional beat. I love the smile in Lowman's voice when Georgie smiles, and the tension when Georgie worries. Between the two of them, Lowman and Rowell have me in love with love, the kind of love that lasts for decades and is complicated by life, but all the better for that.