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Beths Book Blog 2017

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Beth’s Blog

Fredrik Backman, My grandmother sends her regards and apologises

In his debut, Fredrik Backman charmed his readers with a cantankerous character with a heart of gold.  The characters in My Grandmother sends her regards and apologises are similarly crusty on the surface.  Seven year old Elsa is brilliant and a loner without friends other than her eccentric – in fact, crazy – grandmother.  But the two of them escape into the Land of Almost Awake or the Kingdom of Miasmas where Granny’s gift for storytelling builds the fortress Elsa needs to face the world.  This is a many-layered novel of compassion and social consciousness which will delight and warm the reader.

Sally Vickers, Cousins

Long a favourite author of mine, Sally Vickers has had a strong word of mouth following since her debut in 2002 with Miss Garnet’s Angel. A critic from the Washington Post commented that Vickers is a “novelist in the great English tradition of moral seriousness. Her characters suffer, they struggle to be true to both themselves and the promptings of the human heart.”

Her tenth novel, Cousins, is a family epos following three generations of a family of English gentry in the rapidly changing 20th century.  Three of the women attempt to reconstruct the impact on the family of a dramatic accident which befalls two of the young men, Nat and much later Will, who fall while free-climbing the spire of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. Tender, philosophical, complex and reflective, this is literature at its best.

Kieran Larwood, Podkin One Ear

A new saga for children in the tradition of Watership Down has been born! A traveling bard arrives in the grand hall of a rabbit’s burrow and recounts the legend of Podkin One-Ear, a fearsome warrior rabbit renowned for beating back the vicious iron-clad rabbit breed which has sought to take over the realms of other rabbit clans. This beautifully written and illustrated tale is already becoming a classic, with more promised from author Kieran Larwood.  Great storytelling!



Len Vlahos, Life in a Fishbowl

The new owner of one of my favourite bookstores, The Tattered Cover in Denver, Colorado, is also the author of several young Adult novels.  His most recent work, titled Life in a Fishbowl, is a quirky satire about Jared Stone, a politician in Oregon and the father of two daughters, who discovers that he has six weeks to live.  Afflicted with a brain tumor (which becomes a major character in the book), Jared decides to sell the rights to his story to a television network.  The ensuing reality TV programme pokes fun at the obsession of watchers with the tragedies of other people.  As the cameras intrude on the lives of the Stone family, the members begin to fight back.

Beth’s Books

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Beth’s Book Blog

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

This magnificen51pfzg0xtsl-_sx367_bo1204203200_t story of a retired soldier turned itinerant newsreader in the American Southwest of 1870 is a poetic portrayal of a harsh world of frontier farmers confronted by difficult conditions, including Indian raids where families are massacred and children abducted. Retired Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels through this territory and takes on the responsibility of returning an Alsatian child who has been rescued from her Kiowan captors to her remaining aunt and uncle in Texas. The ten year old girl is completely assimilated to the Indian life and the captain struggles to reach her. News of the World by Paulette Jiles was a finalist for the National Book award. It is a jewel of a tale by an author with an impressive and singular writing style.511gzuvee4l-_sx327_bo1204203200_


El Paso by Winston Groom

Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump, has written his own account of wild adventure in the American Southwest in a completely different vein. El Paso is the sweeping saga of American railroad barons and their incursions into the politics of the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century. When the grandchildren of the tycoon known as the Colonel are kidnapped by the legendary Pancho Villa, the hunt is on. Complete with shootouts, daring escapes on foot and in the air, and even a passionate bull fight, this is old-fashioned historical fiction with flair and theater.

The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle

T.C. Boyle’s latest work, The Terranauts, is based on an Arizona experiment to create the perfect ecological biome for humanity as resources become scarce. It reads like a series of episodes from the Dutch soap, Big Brother, and is, in essence, a Swiftian satire on human behavior in extremis. Eight experts commit to living in this sealed environment for two years – a new Eden where human nature is once again sure to bring down the new ‘ ark of humanity.’

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

This year’s winner of the Man Booker Award is The Sellout, a satire on being black in America written by the brilliant and outrageous Paul Beatty. It is a tsunami of words, irreverent humor and tongue in cheek jabs at society as it recounts the life of its protagonist who ultimately is on trial for reinstating slavery and segregation in a suburb of Los Angeles. Not for everyone, this book turns political correctness upside down in a bruising and darkly amusing portrait of racism today.5198uy9pfzl-_sx310_bo1204203200_

The Crimson Skew by Philip Pullman

As I am apparently focusing on American fiction this month, I will also recommend the third and final volume of the Mapmakers Trilogy by S. E. Grove. For reviews of the first two books of the series – The Glass Sentence and The Golden Specific – see my earlier reviews. The Crimson Skew brings this tale of time slip, rather than time travel, to a satisfying conclusion. While the themes are complex, the author treats questions of time, social interaction and good and evil within the context of an exciting fantasy adventure which will appeal to readers of Philip Pullman’s trilogy.

Beths Books

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The announcement of the finalist for the Man Booker Prize 2016 is rapidly approaching. I have read two of the short list contenders – Hot Milk and Eileen. Hot Milk, written by Deborah Levy, is a complex tale of the push-pull of mother-daughter dependency. Situated in southern Spain where Sofia has brought her mother for treatment of an indefinable occasional paralysis, the book is a brilliant example of two unreliable narrators, each trapped in the fury of their bodies, and their angry relationship. Levy has won numerous awards for her works of fiction and her playwriting.

deborah-levy-hot-milkottessa-moshfegh-eileen Otessa Moshfegh, an American of Croatian and Iranian descent, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the winner of the Pen Hemingway Award. Her main character, Eileen Dunlop, is the product of a loveless marriage; she dreams of escaping the poor and dreary New England town where she has been raised by an alcoholic father. Her chance arises when she meets the self-confident and cheerful Rebecca at the local prison where both young women are working. But the crime Rebecca has plotted threatens a complicity which Eileen has not considered – but which suits her urge to leave her life behind her. This is a dark and clever novel by an original new author.



The Man Booker Prize will be announced on October 25th. All of the titles are available in Boekhandel van Rossum.

The Australian author, Graeme Simsion, who delighted readers with his hilarious yet compassionate books The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect, bases his brand new novel on the songs which define our lives. The author recommends we download his playlist before we begin. This is a trip down memory lane. In The Best of Adam Sharp, Adam is a contented fifty-year old consultant who thrives on his musical expertise at the local Norwich pub-quiz and dreams of his three-month affair twenty years earlier with Angelina in Melbourne, Australia. But the What-ifs begin to dominate his life when Angelina suddenly contacts him. What to do with his life now? A surprising look at the ups and downs of existence from a terrific writer.

Jonathan Safran Foer, best known for his novels Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything is Illuminated, has now produced the great American Jewish novel in his epic, 500 page Here I Am. Despite criticism for its length, the book is a masterpiece of virtuoso writing. Foer crawls into the skin of his narrator as he observes his marriage crumbling, his sons not responding to the carefully planned upbringing of the perfect parents, his Israeli relatives reflecting a totally different Jewish lifestyle. This is some of the best characterization in I have seen from Foer. This is a hip, perceptive, shocking, frustrating mammoth of a book which will make you laugh and cry.

Don’t miss Ian McEwan’s new book which apparently is a take-off on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The main character is a foetus in the the womb of his mother who is determined to murder her husband and marry his brother, her lover. He is close to being an all-knowing narrator, something of a trick when he is still in utero. As unlikely as the scenario is, McEwan carries it off with his usual brilliance.

My absolute favourite of the season, however, is Amor Towles new book A Gentleman in Moscow.

Count Alexander Rostov, living in splendor in his hotel suite of the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, is informed some five years after the Russian Revolution of 1917 that he has become a non-person and will be required to move to the hotel attic. Ever the gentleman who takes everything in his stride, the Count resigns himself to permanent house arrest and then proceeds to make the most of it. This is a lovely, warm, funny, tragic story of how one survives one’s time while remaining ever the gentleman. A wonderful read.

Beth’s Book Blog April 2016

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During my recent holiday in Colorado, I attended the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute with a number of Dutch book colleagues.  Two keynote addresses were particularly stimulating and I want to recommend the associated books.

small-data-the-tiny-clues-that-uncover-huge-trends-by-martin-lindstrom-1466892595Martin Lindstrom, an engaging and respected business analyst and international brand-building advisor, has written the bestseller Buyology and just published his new work Small Data. This book looks at the tiny clues which uncover big trends in a way which Big Data databases cannot hope to match.  Lindstrom interviews thousands of people in their homes, looking at those themes and things  which evoke emotion in consumers.  A vibrant, idiosyncratic and challenging book!

Harvard professor Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk (Watch it!!) on “power poses” has inspired tens of millions of viewers who are shown how to use their body language to unlock their own confidence.  41V8x8JjSDL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Her new book Presence: Bringing your boldest self to your biggest challenges  shows us the science behind Cuddy’s  technique – not “Fake it ‘til you make it” but “Fake it ‘til you become it.”  Presence is a manifesto for students and managers facing intimidating challenges, for young girls who need to bolster their self-esteem – in short, for all of us who need to get our minds and bodies working together to promote our ideas. Cuddy shared a personal anecdote with me about a son who spent five minutes every morning striking a power pose with his father and rediscovered for a brief moment the man he had lost to dementia.  A fabulous concept, a great read.  Watch our website for an announcement of Cuddy’s visit to Amsterdam.  We are working on it!!

9781770894143_edacd8ca-0aef-45b1-a5d6-aaa327c8278bThe Canadian author Patrick DeWitt, whose Booker short-listed Sisters Brothers brilliantly parodied the traditional Western, plays with the “folk tale noir” in the recently released comic novel Under Majordomo Minor.  The puny Lucien Minor, aka Lucy, leaves his Middle European village to seek his fortune in the gothic castle of an absent baron.  The story proceeds from one quirky scene of train pickpockets to a party of debauched aristocrats and a shakily satisfying tale of young love.  DeWitt writes with marvellous absurdity and strictly on his own terms.  Enjoy but expect the unexpected.

41Mqr37ywTL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Stefan Zweig, a prolific and popular Austrian writer (1882-1942) is perhaps best known now for his autobiography, The World of Yesterday. Penguin has just issued in its Modern Classics series a new translation of Ungeduld des Herzens which originally appeared as Beware of Pity and has been renamed Impatience of the Heart. This is a fabulously dramatic tale of a gallant and naive soldier who, with the best of intentions, lets his pity for  a young crippled aristocrat entangle him in a complex relationship in interbellum Europe. Zweig is a master craftsman and a great storyteller.

23209927At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen recounts the rather unlikely story of spoiled American upper class socialites who head to Scotland, determined to prove the existence of the Loch Ness monster – and this in the midst of the WWII U-boat attacks on the High Seas.  While the plot is predictable – (the bored young wife, Maddie, learns about real life), Gruen’s skills as an author (Water for Elephants) manifest themselves and this turns out to be a page-turner.  Certainly the perfect airplane read!

All American Boys, a compelling and highlyUnknown acclaimed Young Adult novel by authors Jason Reynold and Brendan Kiely, erupts with a shocking incident of police brutality against the young African-American high school student Rashad.  Reynolds is the voice of Rashad and Kriely portrays the white teen Quinn who witnesses the attack and wants nothing more than to have life return to normal.  This exploration of racism focuses on the role each of us plays in building walls instead of bridges between our communities.  See the detailed review by the New York Times.

For teachers, read this in parallel with Ralph Ellison’s classic The Invisible Man and Ta-Nehisi Coates memoir of his father, The Beautiful World and his letter to his young son, Between the World and Me.

Beth Johnson is the owner of Boekhandel Van Rossum (Beethovenstraat 32 in Amsterdam). Beth writes about and sells a wide range of Dutch and English books for children, young adults and mature readers.

Beth would also be delighted to receive feedback about her book recommendations.
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