I’m deep into a severe blogging slump right now, but have to tell you about The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis. It’s the book you’re going to want to read this summer – in case you haven’t heard.
I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of The Orphans of Race Point, the second novel by Patry Francis (after The Liar’s Diary), and have been raving about it to anyone who will listen ever since. If you recently finished reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and wondered what sprawling, Dickensian novel everyone would be reading next…this is it.
Instead of London, Las Vegas, or New York City, the tangled lives of two motherless children Gus and Hallie, and their friend Neil, unfold mostly on the beaches and narrow streets of Provincetown – on the outermost tip of Cape Cod – and in the seacoast city of New Bedford, Massachusetts, where there is also a large Portuguese-American community. Tragedies, misunderstandings, and missed opportunities pile up for the three young friends, after a violent act by Gus’ father brings them together, setting them on their course for life. Fate lies heavily on the characters, as the book explores true love, fatherhood, human behavior, the human spirit, and what about ourselves can be changed.
I think the cover design makes it clear that The Orphans of Race Point isn’t a thriller (although some of the promotion seems to me to make it sound that way.) It’s literary fiction with a strong story line that touches on big ideas but focuses on the personal. In The Orphans of Race Point, the characters and the story share center stage, giving it the heft you want in a long novel (over 500 pages) and events and action that keep you turning pages. The perfect summer read for the beach or the cottage! (Or for wintertime. Or anytime, really. But why wait, and risk hearing spoilers?)
It would also make a great book club book, and has a reading group guide included.
For anyone in the area of the Brockton Public Library, the author is going to be speaking and reading from The Orphans of Race Point this Saturday, June 14, at 2 p.m. Hope to see you there!
Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from Library Journal for review and gave it a starred review. I also met the author at a book signing in Brockton after the publication of her first novel, The Liar’s Diary, which is pretty different from The Orphans of Race Point, but also excellent!
I’ve been renewing a growing stack of library books that I couldn’t seem to get around to reviewing, so here’s a catch-up, catch-all post of mini reviews.
What do these books have in common? Blue or bluish covers, that’s about it…
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (Random House, 2012)
A first novel by an author who grew up in California and now lives in New York, The Age of Miracles starts with the idea that the earth’s rotation begins to slow – for no apparent reason and with no method of reversal – when Julia, the narrator of the story, was in sixth grade. As California residents, Julia and her family and neighbors were used to the idea of earthquakes, but this gradual, – unnoticed at first – progressive, global change in the length of days and nights, was something entirely new and could have a frightening ripple effect on all aspects of animal, plant, and human life on earth. Meanwhile, life goes on for Julia and her middle school peers – dealing with their own perilous social environment, internal and external changes in their bodies, and their inevitable progress into adulthood – while the whole world changes around them. A book club selection that sparked a lot of discussion. Click here to read what the group thought.
City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte (Penguin, 2012)
I kept thinking while reading City of Dark Magic that seemed like it was written by a woman, so I wasn’t surprised to find out later that “Magnus Flyte” is the pen name for two women who wrote the book together. Set in Prague, the story is peopled with unusual characters who say cryptic things to Sarah, a rational, Beethoven-worshipping, neuromusicologist grad student from South Boston. Pollina – Sarah’s blind, 11-year-old music student prodigy – tells Sarah before she leaves Boston that “Prague is a place where the fabric of time is thin,” and Sarah’s hot, Italian scientist male roommate Alessandro (who doesn’t play much of a role after the beginning, but whose words she remembers later) warns her there is magic in the city she’s heading off to. (“Dark magic. Prague is a threshold.”) I thought I would love this book, but, although romance, paranormal, time-travel, and suspense elements were all there, the character development wasn’t; it seemed ready to be made into a movie. (Also, there are some fairly graphic sex scenes in unusual locales throughout, which would all play well onscreen.) I might have loved this book in my late teens or twenties before I became so jaded! Along with its sequel, City of Lost Dreams, this entertaining romp has gotten plenty of rave reviews, so don’t let me talk you out of giving it a try, if it sounds like fun to you.
The Glass Ocean by Lori Baker (Penguin, 2013)
This beautifully written, poetic novel is constructed like one of the delicate ocean creatures made of glass that the author says inspired the story. Built up out of the 18-year-old Carlotta Dell’oro’s memories and imaginings – the narrative becomes so lifelike and so surreal, the narrator has to keep reminding readers that it has been crafted by her. Carlotta’s story is set in Victorian England, a time of scientific exploration and obsessive specimen collecting. Her upbringing is so haphazard and neglected, she has to keep reminding her parents that she exists. The Glass Ocean made a great book club book because there was so much to argue about discuss – the author’s writing style, her narrator’s perspective, numerous ambiguities in the text, and a rich variety of story threads and metaphors to follow and sort out. Much of the book is interior – memories and obsessive thoughts going round and round the same topics – and not much happens in a straightforward way. Unlike City of Dark Magic, this is a novel to read for the writing and the imagery, not for the story or entertainment value. Recommended for readers looking for challenging literary fiction, not historical fiction about a Victorian girl on an ocean voyage, as the cover might mislead you into thinking this is.
Until I Say Good-Bye: My Year of Living with Joy by Susan Spencer-Wendel with Bret Witter (HarperCollins, 2013)
Written for her three children and husband by a successful, 44-year-old journalist after finally being diagnosed with ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease – a neuromuscular disorder that would leave her just one more year of rapidly declining health and mobility in which to make her brief remaining time with her family a memorable and productive one. Adopted as an infant, the author meets her biological mother for the first time and travels from Florida to Greece to meet the extended family on her biological father’s side that she never knew. She also takes each of her children – a 14-year-old daughter and two sons, 9 and 11 – on special trips to places of their choosing, trying to pack as many experiences in as possible while also keeping family life relatively “normal.” The author tapped out most of the book on an iPhone, as her abilities to speak clearly or type on a laptop rapidly got worse. This poignant memoir of a year before dying comes across, understandably, as patched together in haste, but makes a good companion read to other books about mindfulness and joy such as The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, or maybe with other books about facing death such as The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch or The End of Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe (which I haven’t read yet.)
Wild Indigo by Sandi Ault (Berkley, 2006)
First in a series of mysteries set in New Mexico featuring a female Bureau of Land Management agent, Jamaica Wild, with her pet wolf Mountain. Action-packed and steeped in Native American mysticism and ritual, this book will appeal to readers who like mysteries with Southwestern settings like Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries (Leaphorn and Chee) or Aimee and David Thurlo’s Ellah Clah series. (See this great list at the Lucius Beebe Memorial Library in Wakefield for more.) To read about what one of our library book clubs thought about Wild Indigo, click here.
I recently met David Yoo at a library conference in Cambridge, Mass., not far from his current home. When he arrived for the Speed Dating with the Massachusetts Must-Read Authors event, I welcomed him and blurted out, “I’m reading your book right now!” (I was only about 30 or so pages in, at the time.) He turned pale and briefly put a hand over his eyes. “Don’t tell me that!” he pleaded.
A few weeks later, reading farther along in The Choke Artist, I realized the horror he might have felt at this middle-aged librarian, possibly the age of his mother, reading his stories of juvenile delinquency, teenage lust, sibling rivalry, and longing to belong. Not to mention that I might take umbrage as a fellow parent at all the jokes he makes at his parents’ expense. (Just now, though, I checked Wikipedia, and I would have had to give birth at age 13 to be his mother. So relax, Dave!) I’m sure quite a few of these stories of his reckless youth and undersexed college days are wild exaggerations, in any case. At least, I hope so, for his sake. (And for his poor mother’s!)
The book reads like stand-up comedy and purports to explain the author’s need to be an underachiever, both in response to his older sister’s being a “model minority” who played the violin and “studied her tail off” and to his “full-blown, deep-seated ambivalence towards my ethnicity.”
Here’s how the book begins, with a chapter entitled Gangs of New England. The author is attending high school in Avon, Connecticut, which according to City-Data.com, is 93.6% white.
I formed my first posse junior year of high school. There were three of us: me, my best friend, Jay, and his best friend, Chris. What initially brought us together was our mutual love of rap music. That, and we were three of the bigger losers at Avon High. Previously, I’d been a member of the elite soccer crew. It was the main sport in school – the football team sucked, and at one point the varsity soccer team was ranked second in the country, according to the USA Today national rankings. Just being on team carried serious social cachet, but I didn’t get along with the coach at all, and startlingly soon after quitting I had a major falling-out with my friends and found myself temporarily sitting by myself at lunch. I needed new compadres, fast, and the only two guys in school who weren’t part of an established clique already were Jay and Chris.
They hung out by themselves because they didn’t play sports, and on top of that, they were from the poor part of town. Or relatively poor, at least. Avon was absurdly wealthy, so to clarify: by “poor” I mean “squarely ensconced in the middle class.” But within the utterly unrealistic microcosm of society that was Avon, they were the closest thing to burnouts at our school. While most guys were working up a sweat playing sports or freely making out with one another in the privacy of drama rehearsal, these two still rode Mongoose dirt bikes with plastic fluorescent green pegs on both sides of their back tires, practicing bunny hops and rail slides outside Chucky’s food store on West Avon Road after school. Suffice it to say, socially this was a giant step down for me, but I desperately needed a new crew, and they were my only viable option.
I was stunned when I found out they listened to rap music, too. I’d tagged them as typical skate punks, whereas it made perfect sense that I would get obsessed with rap, since I was the closest thing to a black kid in town. Well, there actually was one real black kid in my grade, but definitely anytime he was out sick from school I was easily the next best thing, simply due to the fact that – as an Asian kid – I was pretty much the only other male student of color within town limits. Although now I can see how he might secretly have resented it, back then I was always deeply jealous of the fact that everyone assumed the black kid was tough just for being black, while my skin tone suggested to everyone that I was a bookish nerd destined to one day steal engineering jobs from them before getting selected as an alternate for the Olympic table tennis team. Nobody would believe that I was in reality a C student and an utter nightmare for my parents at home, and this glaring oversight distressed me no end.
The Choke Artist was recently selected by Massachusetts Book Award judges as a 2013 Must Read nonfiction title, out of books published in 2012 either by a Massachusetts author or having a Massachusetts theme. If you enjoy humorous memoirs along the lines of David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, or Mindy Kaling, you’ll probably enjoy laughing and cringing your way through The Choke Artist, too.
The Choke Artist
Grand Central, 2012
$13.99 US / $15.50 CAN
Disclosure: I borrowed this book through my public library network.