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The Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers)

3 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:

The Yellow Birds is the debut novel of Kevin Powers, a veteran of the Iraq War with an MFA in Poetry. The book enjoyed billing this past season as the first great literary fiction to emerge from this war, but it seems many reviewers graded it on a curve (presumably) because of its subject matter and source. Politics aside, The Yellow Birds is not this generation’s war classic. It is, however, a new author’s formidable display of talent and potential – a tight, lyrical first chapter followed by a fractured narrative of 10 more chapters, much of it beautifully written, some of it problematic. Powers proves his enviable ear for language, and applies it well in many places, but overall the work lacks cohesion, and the lovely lyricism can be overwrought, especially when it stands in place of clear plot points and authentic characterization.

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Willful Creatures (Aimee Bender)

3 out of 5 stars

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Bender’s writing is heavily stylized, and her situations make up a large part of the story’s effect – often they are metaphors for some more overriding emotion or experience, and sometimes it’ll click, sometimes it won’t. In general, I’m a fan: I think her prose is crisp and clear, and I can buy into the mystical universes because her characters are often, partially because they are featureless and nameless, more fully characterized and realized by their actions and what limited background we get.This collection however, is kind of hit and miss. It’s enjoyable at times, but nothing really stood out (unlike some of her other works) and nothing was grab-my-attention memorable.
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Last Night (James Salter)

2 out of 5 stars

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On the one hand, Salter’s prose is tight and concise, and many of the scenes and characters are vivid and passionate. But there’s just too much similarity in the narrative voices, the character make-ups, and the struggles they face. The stories required a lot of patience to get through, and many had this kind of last act twist I found annoying. The writing isn’t bad, but there are better things by Salter and by other authors out there to pick up.
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Dancing Girls (Margaret Atwood)

2.5 out of 5 stars

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The stories, although well-written for the most part, lack the fluidity and complexity we feel in Atwood’s longer pieces. Most of the characters feel trapped in various relationships and with a variety of shortcomings they are able to perceive in themselves, without being able or willing to change. We end up with a series of characters and stories where all of the action is internal, and all of the characters feel trapped in situations, which makes for a sometimes frustrating read. I’m a fan of Atwood in general, and list other books you might like by the author below, but ultimately feel like this was more of a miss than a hit for her.
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The Casual Vacancy (JK Rowling)

5 out of 5 stars

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As others have pointed out, this is not Rowling’s first book for adults (she’s written seven others previously, and their titles all begin with Harry Potter and the), but it IS the first book she’s written that requires multiple trigger warnings (see spoilers below).  This is definitely not the Potterverse, but fans of Rowlings will find her humor, her large cast of different, believable characters, and her deftly interwoven storylines have carried through.  The book begins with the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, who holds a seat on the Pagford Parish Council, and follows the inhabitants of the small town of Pagford through the aftermath of his passing, which has created the titular casual vacancy on the council.  While this sounds rather dull compared to wizards fighting epic battles, the magic here is in Rowling’s ability to bring characters to life and have them interact with each other in fascinating and believable ways.  She has answered the question of whether she can write non-Potter books with a resounding “Yes!”
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Noah’s Wife (TK Thorne)

5 out of 5 stars

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This book is a wonderfully plotted, concisely written, enthralling blend of adventure, romance, fantasy and (lots-of-creative-license-taken) history. It begins a bit slowly: our heroine Na’amah is a young, innocent girl who takes a bit of patience to get used to initially (she’s just that green and naive). But… and this is a big but… like a classical concerto, it really builds, and though the anticipated flood (the title does after all refer to Noah’s wife) is one of the climaxes, it is not the only highpoint — there are several, very well plotted twists throughout the novel. I thought it began fairly well (like I said, a little slow, but still very readable), built up rather quickly, and by the middle, I was thoroughly entranced. The characters Thorne has created here are wonderfully complex, layered, and memorable, and this is absolutely one of the best books I’ve read this past year.

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Referred Pain and Other Stories (Lynne Sharon Schwartz)

3 out of 5 stars

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Referred Pain introduces us to an eclectic group of protagonists and situations; some are surreal and fable-like. “Twisted Tales” and “The Stone Master” have unnamed protagonists trying to shift their way through imagined and imaginary fears and foes and have traces of Aimee Bender’s fantastical fiction.  The stronger works in this collection, however, focus on the everyday domestic situations and dramas which, often against the will of the readily recognized and empathy-inducing protagonists, are shaped by everyday crises. Like any collection, there are ups and downs, but overall, I laughed and empathized with many of the characters here, making it a worthwhile read.
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Two Girls, Fat and Thin (Mary Gaitskill)

2.5 out of 5 stars

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This novel forced me to reexamine my prejudice against long and (I have always thought) unnecessary backstory. Well written and almost uncomfortably realistic at times, the internal, first-person narration of Dorothy’s horribly fractured childhood is almost hypnotic — and entirely backstory. On the other hand, other than one of the girls reminiscing about the past, and sex, very little happens in this book. It’s lucid, clear and well-crafted, but the narrators were frequently frustrating, and again, despite moments of sheer brilliance (like Dorothy’s backstory), there’s also just not a whole lot happening to keep you turning the pages (despite how well written parts are).
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Leaf Storm and Other Stories (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

4 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
The stories that work in this novel are powerful and enthralling… the first line, spoken by a young boy, is “I’ve seen a corpse for the first time.”  Each of the stories in this collection is dense, seeming to reach beyond the dramas of each character’s individual events and tragedies, but it is the title story which most diligently holds and mesmerizes us. Though the other stories in the collection are well-written and constructed, I have to admit that they didn’t pull me in the same way – many are fable-like: a man with wings, a vicious miracle-seller swindler whose child assistant becomes a true miracle-worker, an unidentified drowned man who seems to have such fantastical proportions that he eventually changes the way the villages think as well as how they construct and design their houses. The pacing also slows down after the title story, and while the passages are often quite poetic and beautiful, there is often very little action to push the story forward. The stories are still entertaining, just less involving, depending more on lyrical language than compelling or realistic characters.
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After the Quake (Haruki Murakami)

3 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
This is a witty, amusing collection of short stories which alternates between lyrical prose and quick dialogue.  It’s an easy and quick read with at least a couple of stories that are emotionally compelling.  Yet it’s hard to decide if, in a time when there are so many authors to read, so many collections to choose from, this particular collection is worthwhile enough to be picked from the slush-pile of options. This collection could have been great: there are sprinklings of elegant, characterizing prose, like when a wife leaves her husband by complaining that living with him is like, “living with a chunk of air,” and a divorced doctor who learns, while taking a vacation to Thailand, that “living and dying are, in a sense, of equal value.” Yet many of the stories seem to lack substance – you finish the story and think: okay, what next?  Many of our title characters seem to have mini-epiphanies that you’re not sure are either earned or justified, so that even though several of the stories are well crafted, it’s a very borderline collection for me.
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