Booked: October 2014 Trick or (t)Reads

City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death, and the Search for Truth in Tehran” by Ramita Navai (PublicAffairs)

In “City of Lies,” Ramita Navai explores Tehran, the capital city of Iran, through eight stories of people living and dying in the city. From a rich widow to a thriving porn star, a closeted member of the militia to the would-be assassin, Navai’s eight stories are each touching, shocking, unique, and engrossing.

The book opens and closes with Vali Asr, the main road that winds its way throughout the entirety of Tehran that connects the rich in the North with the poor in the South. Though few at either end of the road have anything to do with each other, and while their experiences are different, the underlying threads of resentment, distrust, anxiety, and even fragile optimism shared by each individual wind their way through each story, connecting them as Vali Asr connects all Tehranis.

During the school year, I’m a fan of books with discrete chapters that let us busy students read a free-standing story when we have time without missing out on the larger experience of completing a book. “City of Lies”ifits that bill, with each individual’s tale standing solidly alone while still building toward the larger portrait of Tehran and its inhabitants. Plus, the “Sources”osection at the end is not to be missed, as Navai explains chapter-by-chapter where she learned the stories of the individuals, whose names were changed, and which surprising facts are accurate. I’ve never been more interested in reading a bibliography!

Verdict: Affirmed for those interested in learning more about current life in Tehran for the rich & poor in a non-fiction blend of facts and personal stories.



Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf)

Post-apocalyptic fiction has been having a moment of late, and I am all over it. You guys read my glowing review of “California” last month, and this month I tore through “Station Eleven”tby Emily St. John Mandel. Honestly, I’m a little torn.

The novel’s true lynchpin is Arthur Leander, a famous actor who dies onstage in the first chapter. Those around him, including child actress Kristen Raymonde and EMT Jeevan Chaudhary, are shaped by the experience of being there the night the world began to fall apart. At first, the novel seems to be about Kristin & Jeevan, but it expands in scope, wandering through the decades, filling in back story for Arthur and the people who orbit around him before the flu, and picking up with them at various points after. If this seems like an awkward description, it’s because the narrative structure confounds. The lives of the characters overlap in ways that are at first pleasantly unexpected, but come to seem a bit too unlikely by the end of the novel. At first it seems the characters are leading their own lives that occasionally overlap at the fringes. But the deeper you’re drawn into the novel, the closer their lives are drawn together, and it begins to bother one’s sense of believability.

On the one hand, I applaud the author for an intriguing set-up and the decision to set the story immediately before civilization’s collapse at the hands of a lethal and fast-spreading flu, through about 20 years after the downfall. Many of the post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read have taken place after things have already wound down, as characters have already begun to pick up the pieces and are simply struggling to continue on. Seeing the world go to hell in the space of a week was fascinating and gave greater depth to the survivors’estories afterward.

Yet, on the other hand, there’s a bit too much going on – too many characters whose lives coincidentally intertwine, too much jumping around in the timeline so that it’s difficult to know what time period you’re actually reading about. I had more than a few “Wait, I thought he was dead?”amoments that required rewinding of the audio. Maybe it would have been easier to follow in print, but Kristin Potter’s eloquent narration was too good to pass up.

Verdict: Jurys out. It’s worth your time if you’re a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction; but for general literary fiction fans, I don’t think it holds up to the likes of “California” and “The Road.”



As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride” by Cary Elwes with Joe Layden (Touchstone)

The name Cary Elwes didn’t ring any bells for me until I read the description of the book – he’s the actor who played Wesley in the classic movie “The Princess Bride.” On the film’s 25th anniversary, Elwes undertook to write a book collecting his and the cast and crew’s memories of making the now-iconic film. For fans of the film, this book will not disappoint.

Elwes explains how he, a relatively unknown actor at the time, came to be cast as the lead, alongside a veritable smorgasbord of famous, talented filmmakers, actors, stuntmen, and crew. He reflects lovingly on the film’s cult status and beloved reputation. Most importantly, he relates anecdotes from production, including the time Andre the Giant passed out in a hotel lobby shortly after filming began, when one of the actors playing a Rodent of Unusual Size was held in jail overnight because a police officer did not believe he was an actor, and when Elwes and Robin Wright continued to ask for new takes of their final kiss to delay the end of filming.

Elwes’s recollections are rounded out with anecdotes and memories from other cast and crew on the film, including director Rob Reiner, writer Bill Goldman, and actors Robin Wright, Billy Crystal, and Mandy Patinkin (Inigo). It is clear from their fond memories of working on the film together that it was truly a labor of love for everyone involved, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to get a glimpse behind the scenes.

Verdict: Affirmed. A must-read for fans of “The Princess Bride.”



Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng (The Penguin Press)

Lydia Lee is dead and her family is reeling. Her parents, Marilyn and James, know their perfect daughter could not have killed herself, her brother Nathan suspects the neighborhood boy she has been seeing secretly, and her occasionally-forgotten little sister Hannah has pieced together more than the rest of the family have realized.

The novel takes place in the mid-70’s and flashes back to James and Marilyn’s childhoods and the Lee family’s past. As a mixed-race family (Marilyn is white, James is the son of Chinese immigrants), they must cope with a feeling of never-quite-belonging in their small Ohio town. Lydia’s parents only want for her what they feel they’ve missed in their own lives – popularity and acceptance from James, and a career as a trail-blazing female doctor from Marilyn. Each family member keeps secrets to protect the others, trying to live up to everyone else’s expectations.

This book’s first chapter grabbed me, but the next few dragged a bit, if I’m being honest. Yet, once the Lee family secrets started to unravel and the story of how Lydia ended up dead starts to come together, the book really takes off. It’s a powerful exploration of the expectations of others and the pressures we put on those we love.

Verdict: Jury’s out – if you’re into small-town family dramas, this is an excellent read. If family-focused literary fiction’s generally not your thing, this won’t be either.



The Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews (Ace)

While in law school, I’ve often found myself reaching for quick, fun reads that I can enjoy in an evening or two with a glass of wine or cup of tea. For the past two weeks, it’s been all Kate Daniels. I have powered through the first four –  “Magic Bites,” “Magic Burns,” “Magic Strikes,” and “Magic Bleeds” faster than the library can keep up with my e-download requests.

Kate Daniels lives in Atlanta, in a world where magic has returned to reclaim the progress mankind has made with technology. In this unique magic system, magic comes in waves during which technology stops working and magical beings possess great power. The series subverts many of the tropes that readers of urban fantasy & paranormal romance are growing tired of. There are werewolves, but there are also were-hyenas, were-cats, were-rats, and more who have been transformed by a magical virus into shapeshifters. There are vampires, but they’re actual scary monsters, not sparkly, disturbingly-controlling, eternal teenagers.

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Best of all, there’s Kate, a woman of undetermined but powerful lineage who works to help people having trouble with the world’s newly-reemerged magical elements. She’s a strong character, capable of taking care of herself and those around her. The romance with Curren, the head of the shapeshifters, is entertaining and eventually steamy, without taking over as the central plot of the novel. The books do a great job of presenting a self-contained story within each novel, meanwhile sharing just enough about the background plot of the series to keep you interested and aware that there’s something larger going on.  I appreciate the new takes on different mythologies, and can’t wait to continue with the series, which luckily shows no signs of stopping any time soon.

Verdict: Affirmed for fans of Laurell K. Hamilton, Jim Butcher, and other paranormal romance/urban fantasy, or general fantasy fans interested in solid world-building and a new take on magic. Fair warning, though –Kif fantasy generally isn’t your thing, this series isn’t deep enough for crossover readers.


Disclosure: I received an e-copy of “As You Wish” from the publisher in exchange for my honest review through Net Galley.

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