This is for an in-depth review of a book, this is not to be confused with the staff recommendations page.

Erika Swyler’s Unpredictable Water: On THE BOOK OF SPECULATION

by Liz Wright

My mom can’t swim. She has this fear of open water that I, raised in swimming pools in Houston summer heat, could not understand for the longest time. I’m a Cancer—a crabby, moony water sign. In college at Wellesley, I’d walk down to Lake Waban in the middle of campus to stare over the water and think about deep shit. Water is restorative, energizing to me. It wasn’t until I got older, and lived through Allison and Katrina and Ike, that I realized: unpredictable water can be deadly as well.

The Book of Speculation: A Novel Cover Image
Unavailable from Brazos Bookstore
ISBN: 9781250054807
Availability: Out of Print - Not Available for Order
Published: St. Martin's Press - June 23rd, 2015

This #BrazosBest pick is available now

Rabbit Waterloo: On Leona Francombe’s Imaginative History

by Mary-Catherine Breed

If you’re feeling unsure about a rabbit clan’s oral history of the Battle of Waterloo, I can’t say I blame you. But don’t let that stop you from picking up Leona Francombe’s THE SAGE OF WATERLOO, a subtle, beautiful little novel. I don’t say “little” to diminish it at all—quite the opposite, really. Its littleness is its magic. This book whispers its story as you gently nuzzle its fur (and no, you don’t feel weird at all about nuzzling fur).

The Sage of Waterloo: A Tale Cover Image
ISBN: 9780393246919
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: W. W. Norton & Company - June 1st, 2015

A Brazos Best Pick for June 2015

Etgar Keret Keeps Disaster Away

The Seven Good Years: A Memoir Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594633263
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Riverhead Books - June 16th, 2015

Cookin' the Brookes: AFTER BIRTH by Elisa Albert

Once in a while, our returns manager Brooke picks a great book and pairs it with some tasty food. This is Cookin’ the Brookes!

The book: AFTER BIRTH by Elisa Albert

After Birth Cover Image
Unavailable from Brazos Bookstore
ISBN: 9780544273733
Availability: Out of Print - Not Available for Order
Published: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt - February 17th, 2015

Elisa Albert’s new novel AFTER BIRTH delivers a delightful suckerpunch. Albert tosses you right into the lonely middle of her heroine’s life with a description of the seen-better-days college town where her husband is a professor: “The buildings are amazing in this shitbox town.”

What an opener, right? I was hooked. If you’re not down with a lot of swearing, this is probably not the book for you. But let me just say, when Elisa Albert peppers her prose with four letter words, it is for the sake of hilarity and emphasis. No one can spike an exclamation point or deploy italics like Albert. (Fine, you’re right, Tom Wolfe can also use the heck out of an exclamation point, but the list ends there.) Albert manages to capture thought in flight and thoughts can be ugly. And vulgar. And hilarious. This book is all that and more.

The main action in this densely packed novel takes place in Ari’s neighborhood, where she struggles with taking care of her infant son. She has a caring husband, but she still finds herself “terrifically lonely.” The isolating pressures of new motherhood come as a hard surprise. When Ari sees pregnant women, she wants to yell at them, “ I mean are you ready!? Like, spiritually bitches. Spiritually.”

Ari’s life takes a turn for the better when she befriends her new neighbor, Mina Morris, a former bassist for an eighties girl band who is now pregnant. Their friendship is a mutual lifeline.

Although the action of the book takes place in a relatively small window of time, Albert weaves in Ari’s history--her mother’s death, a string of character-forging friendships and how she met her husband. The book is also filled with one-liners like this: “People are forever saying dumb things at profound moments; it’s the human condition.”

Reading this intense novel, you get the sense that Elisa Albert set out to put everything on the table. To say everything she wished she had known before she had her own baby. Forget WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU'RE EXPECTING. Give your friends AFTER BIRTH.

This book could probably also double as very effective birth control.

The restaurant: Poscol Restaurant and Vinoteca
Shortly after Mina gives birth, both she and her newborn are having a rough go. Ari comes over, and like any good friend, Ari thinks, “First things first,” and makes her friend some food. It’s just a bowl of pasta, but Mina scarfs it down.

While you are enjoying this delightful screed of a novel, eat some pasta that’s so good you can’t even pronounce it: tagliolini, pappardelle, tagliatelle. Pair that pasta with wine--unlike our breast-feeding heroines, you can have a drink!


by Donna Kidd

On the morning I write this, the news is circulating that Robert Durst, the allegedly murderous real estate scion (and excuse for writers like me to use the word “scion”), has been arrested. Somehow it doesn’t feel like a surprise: for the HBO series The Jinx, Durst agreed to a long interview (his first), and the brashness of his oversharing has come off like a dare to investigators.

One moment of The Jinx is particularly chilling: during a break from the interview, Durst’s microphone picks up his voice as he whispers, “I did not knowingly, purposely, intentionally lie. I did make mistakes.” When his lawyer informs him that his microphone is still hot, Durst seems startled but unconcerned. “Nobody tells the whole truth,” he says.

Nova Ren Suma’s new novel THE WALLS AROUND US (out March 24) is far more ambiguous than The Jinx; after all, is there really anyone who thinks Durst isn’t guilty? Nevertheless, I kept thinking about the two works side by side, for they share a sense of enigma. Like The Jinx, THE WALLS AROUND US concerns itself with the notion of “the whole truth,” and how new pieces of information can sometimes alter the very concept of truth entirely.

Two women narrate THE WALLS AROUND US: Violet, a young dancer and high school graduate with a bright future; and Amber, locked up at the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center. A third girl, Orianna, links these two girls—but how? Orianna was once a dancer, but then committed a crime and wound up in Aurora Hills. There, she died. Is that all there is to it? Is that all we need to know?

Nova Ren Suma’s strategy is to push the reader into propulsive situations without much immediate context, which is to say that the reader rides out her first impression until it becomes clear that the first impression is worthless. First, there is a prison riot, where Amber seems like one of the other girls until we start to glimpse her past with an abusive stepfather. Next, there is Violet’s journey with some friends to the site of the now vacant Aurora Hills (“There are dry candles. None are lit. The pile of filthy teddy bears I saw in the photos online is still there”), and we understand that something very bad has happened there, but what? When we finally see Orianna arrive at Aurora Hills, it feels like an inciting incident—yet it comes halfway through the book.

The novel’s structure is not linear. There’s trauma at the center of it, and Suma keeps drawing her scenes around that trauma, circling it and getting closer and closer with each pass. This threatens to make the book a little too cagey for its own good, and the constant portents sometimes seem like a sleight-of-hand; the narrators keep hinting at horrible things from the past, and after a while, I wanted to grab them, shake them, and shout, Just out with it! But this is part of the novel’s method. It moves at a glacial pace through abstraction toward clarity. In many ways, this mimics the points of view of the characters themselves—how they don’t know anything about each other...until they do.

Nova’s moments always feel compelling, even if their temporal or thematic relationship to one another isn’t immediately clear. Is this part of the point—that sometimes we get so swept up, we can’t see the big picture? The audience that watches Violet dance can only see the beauty, not the ugliness and violence and guilt behind the dance—nor can they see that behind the stage, “where the audience never goes, this side of the curtain is tattered and plain.” The people who look upon the girls at Aurora Hills can only see their crimes, not the reasons behind those crimes. First impressions are easy, and most people want their assumptions confirmed. “When people decide there’s ugliness inside you,” Violet tells us, “they’ll be looking to find it on your face.”

This is why Orianna is, in so many ways, the key figure, because she is the unknowable center of the novel. Was she a beautiful dancer? A cold killer? A naïve young woman? A victim? What you believe depends on what you know—and the fascinating implication of THE WALLS AROUND US is that sometimes, the longer you stare at someone, the stranger they become.

Donna Kidd is a freelance writer based in Portland, Maine. She inherited a vespa and isn’t embarrassed, not even a little.

The Walls Around Us Cover Image
ISBN: 9781616203726
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Algonquin Young Readers - March 24th, 2015

THE WALLS AROUND US will be available on March 24. Pre-order your copy today!

Under the Radar: The Girl in the Road (Monica Byrne)

“Let’s go around the room and each say a fact about ourselves.”

Hands-down, that’s my least favorite icebreaker in the world. It’s basically “Get ready for an entire room of strangers to judge you based on one fact you have less than ten seconds to make up.” Too much pressure. I hate it. So, in high school, I decided on a stock response: “I’m Liz, and I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.” I wanted to make sure everyone got the right impression.

I want to make sure you get the right impression of me, too. I’m not hip. My interests are not super highbrow, not necessarily arty or literary. I was raised on genre fiction, high fantasy, and utopian sci-fi. I was lucky to fall hard for Shakespeare in high school, because that means I have a “literary” answer to “Who’s your favorite author?” And while Bill is truly, undeniably, definitely my soul mate--just between you and me? It’s really David Eddings, high fantasy master of the quest for a magical blue object. Interested? I’ll loan you one of his books. I own twenty-two of them. They’ve taught me more about storytelling and character and dialogue than anything I’ve ever read, but they’ll never be taught in classrooms.

I think that’s a shame. So I’m here to tell you about the best books that fly under the “literary” radar.

Monica Byrne’s debut novel, THE GIRL IN THE ROAD, came out last summer, and is newly in paperback. It’s a phenomenal work of science fiction, set fifty years in the future in Africa, India, and the Middle East. It’s the story of Meena, who flees India on the run and heads for The Trail, an energy-harvesting bridge across the Arabian Sea; it’s also the story of Mariama, an escaped slave girl, journeying across the Sahara desert to Addis Ababa.

I picked it up because Neil Gaiman, John Scalzi, Helene Wecker, and Kim Stanley Robinson (some of my favorite people) had blurbed it, and because Byrne is a fellow Wellesley College alumna. This told me two things: 1) I had to buy it immediately because Go Blue, and 2) this book would have fantastically realized female characters, with their own agency and amazing stories.

I was so, so right.

Meena and Mariama are vastly different women whose narratives twine and intertwine and finally meet. Meena is an adult when we meet her; Mariama, a child, thirty years earlier. Meena’s in a manic state for the first half of the book, making her thoughts chaotic and fluttering, while Mariama’s experiences are filtered by her youth, by the way she tells them all as a story to her protector, Yemaya. But their journeys force them both to confront the darkest things in themselves--the way the best science fiction does.

This book is some of the best science fiction in years. It uses future technology, a strong vision of the shifting global landscape, and a powerful emotional core to present Meena and Mariama’s stories. It focuses on women, whose loves span an incredible array of genders and experiences. It looks at sex unflinchingly, as an integral part of life and growth and pain. Maybe most importantly, it’s not full of white people. I was raised on Western, European-derived high fantasy in the Tolkien tradition, and while it’s dear to me, it doesn’t make sense for a genre designed to imagine the unreal to keep treading the same racial and gendered waters over and over.

THE GIRL IN THE ROAD is science fiction grounded in places not commonly seen in science fiction published here in the States. South India, the Sahara, Addis Ababa, and the Arabian Sea are as much a presence in this book as the characters. Without othering those places or using them as mere props, Byrne shows the humanity that fills them, and the humanity at the core of the story. It’s about the divine feminine; it’s about sex and gender, about violence and abuse masquerading as love and how that can affect the rest of a person’s life. It’s a deep, probing, brutal story. It’s lyrically written and it stays with you.

There’s this misconception that science fiction abandons great writing and human concerns for the sake of wild speculation, when any genre fan will tell you that couldn’t be further from the truth--especially for books like THE GIRL IN THE ROAD. I refuse to say that it’s great “despite” being sci-fi, or that it’s “more than sci-fi,” because that’s a disservice to my favorite genre. It’s great because it’s sci-fi--because it imagines a world that’s more than ours and uses that world to tell a gripping, powerful story. That’s what the hardest-hitting fiction does: it turns up the volume on reality.

The Girl in the Road: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780804138864
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Crown - February 17th, 2015

A Very Normal Place: On Tom McCarthy’s SATIN ISLAND

Tom McCarthy’s 2007 novel REMAINDER still stands as one of the high points of “experimental fiction” written so far this century. Its central plot, in which a suddenly-wealthy amnesiac is obsessively driven to recreate the exact circumstances of the last moment before his memory left him (and then, to start taking part in ever more sinister recreations), was compelling enough that it didn’t seem like an excuse for McCarthy to pontificate in the way of certain other po-mo novelists but like it was an essential part of the entire construction. It’s taut, as Donald Kaufman’s mother might say. It’s also one of the few experimental novels that could be quite easily adapted to film.

Now comes the weird and fascinating SATIN ISLAND, which is so different an animal that one could be forgiven for thinking it was written by a different author. While REMAINDER seemed almost sui generis, SATIN ISLAND has a very obvious forebear: the novels of Don DeLillo. The plot involves a nameless “corporate ethnographer” (well, practically nameless—he takes the sobriquet “U”) who is assigned to write the “Great Report,” a document that promises to wrap up everything important about our era with a big bow. There are also side plots involving topics as disparate as parachute sabotage, oil spills, the 2001 G8 conference, and the Staten Island Ferry.

But that’s all barely relevant, as the true attraction is following McCarthy’s mind wherever it goes—from cargo cults to iodine used as a cancer cure to the anthropologist Levi-Strauss to the pilgrimage to Mecca. The chapters are numbered in an odd way, vaguely reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s TRACTATUS-LOGICO-PHILOSOPHICUS (1.1, 1.2; 7.3,7.4,7.5, etc), and while the central plotline of the “Great Report” is a little less compelling than REMAINDER’s, it still serves nicely as a kind of path through the woods that the narrator can return to whenever he feels like it.

Those readers who enjoyed Don DeLillo’s more philosophical novels (MAO II, THE NAMES) will find a lot to enjoy here, as there is much analysis of modernity and the connectedness of things, a favorite topic of DeLillo’s. There’s even a side character, Daniel, who seems to have been ripped straight from the pages of a DeLillo novel—he’s an avant-garde filmmaker who is constantly projecting film clips onto the walls of his office, and each time “U” wanders in is the occasion for a kind of philosophical discourse on whatever happens to be playing.

There are also echoes of Beckett, especially in a long, agonizing update of the infamous “sucking stones” portion of MOLLOY where “U” attends a meeting with “the Minister” and proceeds to spend the entire meeting watching her manually undo one of her shoe buckles with her other foot. “I realized what this Minister was up to: she was attempting, with her right foot, to undo her left shoe’s buckle (which, unusually, fastened on the inward- rather than the outward-facing side). This, I realized as I watched her, was quite an ambitious undertaking…” The punchline comes at the end of the meeting, where “U” realizes he hasn’t paid attention to a single thing said during the course of it. One of his coworkers asks how he thought the meeting went, and all he can do is answer “excellently.”

The book’s structure itself is nicely unsettled—the cover proposes several (crossed-out) definitions for this odd thing called SATIN ISLAND, including “An Essay,” “A Report,” “A Treatise,” “A Confession,” and “A Manifesto,” before finally setting on the one descriptor that isn’t deleted: “A Novel.” It’s an apt depiction of the instability of the concept of the “novel” itself, especially a novel like this one, which has characters and a setting and a plot and so forth, but uses them in a nontraditional way. The great novelist John Hawkes once said that the “true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme,” and while McCarthy doesn’t go that far, this latest book does show a kind of impatience with the tiny boxes that the novel has traditionally been forced to fit into.

There is also general sense that novels such as these are devoid of emotional content—that they ignore human drama, that they are only suitable for cynical academics, etc. SATIN ISLAND challenges that assertion with an absolutely gorgeous ending that takes our detached narrator and forces him to deal with the real world: specifically, the crowds on the Staten Island Ferry. “People were milling about, waiting for the ferry,” says our narrator. “…normal, everyday folk who commuted on it daily. A few of them wore suits—cheap, polyester ones, the standard-issue outfit of the low-white-collar ranks; but most wore plain, casual clothes. They looked bored, frumpy, tired, unhealthy, overweight and generally just very, very normal.” The word “normal” here is key to our narrator’s discovery: the worlds of abstruse analysis and normality are not as separate as some would like to think, and it’s no accident that Staten Island (the Satin Island of his dreams), a very normal place, is what we all might have been searching for all along.

Jonathon Walter's work has appeared in The Atlantic.

Satin Island Cover Image
ISBN: 9780307593955
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Knopf Publishing Group - February 17th, 2015

Painted Horses (Malcolm Brooks)

As with any genre, the Western has its tropes. Even when a work of literature "transcends" its generic conventions, there are always preoccupations and aesthetic bulwarks that remain central to its storytelling. For Westerns, whether they’re set in the “Old West” of the late 1800s or in a more contemporary location, the most important and interesting of these tropes is the perpetual conflict between nature and manmade change--the embattled march of “progress” that, for good or ill, made this country what it is today.

This dialectic lies at the heart of Malcolm Brooks’s idyllic, bittersweet debut novel, PAINTED HORSES. In the remote Montana of the 1950s, an inhospitable and beautiful canyon--deemed sacred by Native Americans for centuries and still home to thundering herds of wild, free-roaming horses--is marked for flooding as part of a dam project that will bring electricity and all the comforts of modernity to the surrounding population.

Enter Catherine LeMay, a young, modern woman obsessed with the past. A gifted if inexperienced archeologist, Catherine has struggled against cultural expectations her entire life in order to pursue her passion for ancient civilizations. Now, on the brink of marriage, she finally has her first job for the Smithsonian. Over the course of one summer, she must ascertain whether anything of historical value will be destroyed when the coming deluge inundates the canyon and erases eons of history. Her only companion is John H., a former cavalry soldier and horse tamer, who mostly lives alone in the wild. A walking relic from a bygone age, he assists Catherine in her search and soon helps her find the beauty in the wild land before them. For John, this is more than simply a job: he knows the flooding of the canyon means the end of his way of life.

Brooks describes the natural beauty permeating PAINTED HORSES in rapturous, languid prose the reader follows across the page like an eye across a vista. He effortlessly evokes wonder for this soon-vanishing terrain, which in lesser hands might have devolved into simple nostalgic sentimentality. It’s a thin line, but Brooks navigates it with aplomb, exhibiting a level of skill that belies his status as a debut novelist.

PAINTED HORSES is reminiscent of other brooding literary eulogies for the West--Willa Cather’s THE PROFESSOR’S HOUSE and Wallace Stegner’s ANGLE OF REPOSE spring to mind. And as with these classics, PAINTED HORSES ruminates on the spiritual price of progress. Although historical fiction, Brooks’s novel ultimately exhibits strikingly contemporary concerns. It reminds those of us caught in the ever-quickening changes of modern times that, while the erasure of physical markers of our history may be inevitable, there is always a dire and regrettable cost to be paid for the wholesale disregard of the past in service of building the future.

Malcolm Brooks presents PAINTED HORSES at Brazos Bookstore on Tuesday, October 21 at 7PM

Painted Horses Cover Image
Unavailable from Brazos Bookstore
ISBN: 9780802121646
Availability: Out of Print - Not Available for Order
Published: Grove Press - August 5th, 2014

Misadventure (Nicholas Grider)

It may seem innocent enough, with its minimalist cover and slim 150 pages, but MISADVENTURE has a lot to prove. Where to begin? It’s a debut collection of short stories written by a photographer and released by a small Austin press that had previously published only one other title. But Nicholas Grider is the exact discovery any avid reader hopes to find. 

Many of Grider’s stories focus on neuroses and accidents (random acts of violence, failed attempts at imitating TV drama, etc.), several of his characters are on the brink of death (sick and counting the days), and there’s more sex than I've ever encountered in fiction. So what makes everything digestible? Grider’s honesty. These are the kinds of stories you tell your friends only if they swear to you--even prick their fingers as proof--that they’ll love you no matter what. They’re too raw to be pretentious, but too vulnerable to be exploitative.

Most of the collection breaks narrative form--there’s an interrogation, a compilation of facts, a list of knots--but never in ways that feel forced. Whether an index of former lovers (e.g., “Too much like me for me to find much to work with”) or a litany of liars and their lies (some multiple offenders), it’s as though Grider, rather than choosing various containers and filling them with witticisms he’s been saving on cocktail napkins, allows the stories to shape themselves. One story details the frustration of getting jerked around at work in a single, tired sentence.

MISADVENTURE isn’t one of those books where a reader points at the characters and says, “I would never do that.” It's one where a reader wants to call the author and say, “How did you know?”

Perfidia (James Ellroy)

James Ellroy is the mad prophet of American crime fiction. A consummate stylist, he is known for his rapid-fire prose and unnerving understanding of the darkest of psychological traits. However, it is the profound sense of place and time pervading Ellroy’s work--his ability to manipulate the liminal space between fact and fiction--that elevates his writing far beyond the restraints of genre, even though he has never felt the need to abandon his chosen form, nor has he suffered for it.

Over the course of a career spanning more than three decades, Ellroy has produced some of the most impeccable hardboiled noir fiction this side of Chandler or Hammett. If he were never to write again, his masterpiece may very well be the seven books that make up the LA Quartet (THE BLACK DAHLIA, THE BIG NOWHERE, LA CONFIDENTIAL, WHITE JAZZ) and the Underground USA Trilogy (AMERICAN TABLOID, THE COLD SIX THOUSAND, BLOOD’S A ROVER). Together, these seven novels comprise a single, searing fictional exposé of American crime and political corruption from the late ‘40s through the ‘70s. As a whole, it is a magisterial literary accomplishment. Each volume reveals a deeper facet of the violence and dishonesty underlying the triumphant narrative of American progress throughout the second half of the twentieth century and demands we reckon with the dark side of our history. But for Ellroy, it is not enough. Not yet.

Now comes PERFIDIA, the first installment in a new quartet of novels set in the City of Angels before the events of the LA Quartet and Underground USA. It is December 1941. Pearl Harbor and the Japanese internment that follows in its aftermath are about to tear the city of Los Angeles apart. Just before news of the bombing hits, the apparent ritualistic suicide of the entire Watanabe family is discovered. Due to the suspicion and bigotry aimed at Japanese-Americans of the time, the grisly case is originally met with derisive neglect by the LAPD. However, a few hours later, when America enters the war, it proves to be the catalyst setting in motion a sprawling epic of murder, corruption, greed, racism, espionage, and mass hysteria.

PERFIDIA centers around four main characters drawn into a complex and treacherous conspiracy, each adding a distinct perspective and offering up disparate pieces of evidence:

There is Hideo Ashida, a brilliant Japanese-American forensic investigator and closeted gay man, desperate to appease anyone with the power to keep him and his family out of the internment camps. He may also be the only one with the skill and intelligence to uncover the truth behind the deaths of the Watanabes.

William Parker would be a good man if he were not such a mess. A destructively ambitious police captain, guilt-ridden Catholic, and hopeless alcoholic, Parker truly wants to become Chief of Police and reform the LAPD, but he is haunted by his own corrupt past and obsession over a woman he cannot have. 

Kay Lake--the sole first-person narrator in PERFIDIA--is no mere femme fatale or hopeless ingénue. A left-leaning failed actress, she fell prey to a white slave prostitution ring before being rescued by and entering a loveless relationship with police officer Lee Blanchard. However, her proximity to Lee inadvertently apprises her of morally dubious activities, making her vulnerable to being conscripted as a blackmailed informant.

And then there is Sergeant Dudley Smith, the towering figure of the novel. A supremely contradictory and terrifying character, Smith sits astride wartime LA like a rogue colossus, guiding every crime and crisis to his benefit. Amoral yet principled, charming but ruthless, a doting father, drug addict, faithful Catholic, war profiteer, and stone killer, Smith and his underlings on both sides of the law cut a bloody swath through PERFIDIA a mile wide. He is unforgettable, simultaneously the greatest hero and most malevolent villain. 

With its masterful amalgamation of fact and fiction, PERFIDIA is proof nobody knows the darkness within the American soul like James Ellroy. Moreover, as a prequel to his greatest works, PERFIDIA provides the ideal opportunity for newcomers to read Ellroy for the first time, while also giving long-time fans a chance to glimpse younger incarnations of their favorite characters. But no matter your level of familiarity, you can be certain that PERFIDIA is a vibrant, twisted ride into the dark heart of the greatest generation.

Perfidia Cover Image
ISBN: 9780307956996
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Knopf Publishing Group - September 9th, 2014

James Ellroy presents PERFIDIA at Brazos Bookstore on Monday, October 6 at 7PM