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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday Sentence: ' Scheherazade'

Inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further commentary or context:

Whatever the case, Scheherazade had a gift for telling stories that touched the heart. No matter what sort of story it was, she made it special.  Her voice, her timing, her pacing were all flawless. She captured her listener's attention, tantalized him, drove him to ponder and speculate, and then, in the end, gave him precisely what he'd been seeking.

-- Haruki Murakami, Scheherazade

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Review: 'The Fourteenth Goldfish'

The Fourteenth Goldfish
By Jennifer Holm
Middle grade contemporary fiction
August 2014
Random House Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 978-0375870644

Ellie Cruz is not having the best 6th grade year. Middle school is no fun: “Middle school is like one of those highway restrooms in the middle of nowhere. It’s dirty and smelly and it’s crowded with strange people.” Her best friend plays volleyball and doesn’t have time for her. But that’s nothing compared to the night her mom brings home a teenage boy.

It’s her estranged grandfather. Melvin is a brilliant scientist who has found a way to turn himself back into a teenager. And boy is her mother mad. She treats him like a middle-schooler and he wants to ask her boyfriend about his intentions.

Ellie discovers she has more in common with her grandfather than she thought as her love of puzzles fits in with his idea that scientists never give up “because they believe in the possible. … That it’s possible to find a cure for polio. That it’s possible to sequence the human genome. That it’s possible to find a way to reverse aging.”

The fast-paced novel includes Ellie, her grandfather and their new friend Raj trying to break into her grandfather’s old lab. But the novel includes the ups and downs of science, too, like what happened after Oppenheimer and crew were successful in the Manhattan Project. And how one person can grow old gracefully while another finds out there are exciting new possibilities out there.

Holm’s father, a WWII navy vet who became a pediatrician, inspired the book with his love of science and curiosity. That influence resulted in a humorous, highly accessible novel that sneaks in ideas without being pedantic.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sunday Sentence: 'Us'

Inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without context or commentary:

'Everything's fine,' I said. 'Probably just air in the water pipes.'

'What are you talking about?' said Connie, sitting up now.

'It's fine. No sign of burglars.'

'I didn't say anything about burglars. I said I think our marriage has run its course. Douglas, I think I want to leave you.'

I sat for a moment on the edge of our bed.

'Well at least it's not burglars,' I said ...

Us by David Nicholls

Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: 'We are All Completely Beside Ourselves'

We are All Completely Beside Ourselves
By Karen Joy Fowler
Literary fiction
February 2014
ISBN: 978-0142180822 (paperback edition)

Not every book that makes it on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, let alone the longlist, is one that clearly deserves the extra attention. In this year, with the eligibility expanded to include American writers published in Great Britain, well, nearly anything might have been placed on the list as this year's panel of judges made its way through the new rules.

What I did not expect was that two American books would end up on the shortlist and that both would be books I feel richer for having read.

First up was the latest Joshua Ferris novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, a complex and delightful work. Karen Joy Fowler's We are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not a novel I expected to savor. The description felt like a high-concept gimmick: Girl is raised with a chimp for a sister and tells the story of her family. Oh puh-lease. There are animals. It's bound to be quirky. It will have to end badly.

Well, yes and no. And it was worth it.

Rosemary Cooke begins telling us about herself and her family in the middle of the tale, when she is a college student. The reader doesn't see anything about Fern, her sister, the chimpanzee, until nearly a quarter of the way into the book, although I don't consider this a spoiler as this tidbit is the book's main talking point.

What Fowler does here is brilliant for a person coming reluctantly to her book. Instead of the sister thing, I'm drawn into Rosemary's story of being a former non-stop talker who says hardly anything, getting caught up in a college cafeteria disturbance and getting hauled off to jail with a free-spirited girl who is bound to be all kinds of trouble. Rosemary used to have a brother and a sister, although both are gone, and she deliberately moved far away from her parents to go to college in the mid 90's.

But boy, is she quirky and self-deprecating and, except for not telling us right away about those siblings and family history, apparently quite determined to be open and honest. And this comes after a prologue about her and her sister when they were quite young, with their mother telling them a fairy tale about two sisters -- one who speaks in toads and snakes, while the other speaks in flowers and jewels. Oh! Which is which?

The whole thing appears to be one of those dysfunctional family stories, except with an exceptionally wry narrator. She's got to be the young whose words come out as diamonds and roses.

At the as-usual dysfunctional Thanksgiving table, Rosemary gives us several hints about how her family is particularly a mess. One grandmother doesn't think much of psychologists. They're the people like B.F. Skinner, experimenting on their own families, she says. The missing relatives are not referred to. Rosemary notes that if your brother loves you, "I say it counts for something."

When the revelation comes that Rosemary's sister Fern was a chimpanzee, it's not so much a gimmick as a lightbulb moment. Oh. If she was raised along with an baby from a different species since they were both a few months old, and that sibling was removed when she started school, no wonder she never felt like she fit in.

Fowler is brilliant at depicting both how Rosemary and Fern were wild children who adored and competed with each other for the attention and love of the rest of the family. The closeness is there. So also is the sense that Rosemary didn't think of herself as a freak during those early years and how trying to fit in with other human beings has been difficult because of those early years. After all, when one has learned how to act by being with a chimp and then is dumped in with a bunch of kindergartners, crawling over desks and varying notions of personal space that different species maintain can be challenging. So can being called a monkey girl.

Rosemary clearly does not feel sorry for herself, but she does miss Fern. It's nothing that her family discusses. Neither do her parents discuss her missing brother. He left as soon as he was old enough and after Fern was gone. He is on the run and doesn't contact them often. It's pretty easy to guess what his life mission is.

As we go back to a detailed narrative of Rosemary's childhood, both before and after Fern, and back to the present day, Fowler does more than play with the timestream. She also has Rosemary let the reader know about various theories of social and biological science, all of which play roles in the way Rosemary and her family members act and react.

There also is some reporting of various animal experiments, including real families that attempted to raise children and other primates together. Fowler does not spare the reader, but she also does not wallow in the horrific things people do to other animals. Everything she includes is true, from the drugging of spiders to see what kinds of webs they make, to the primate sanctuary at Central Washington University, which closed last year and the two remaining animals moved to a sanctuary in Canada.

The plight of test animals in labs and of children -- human and otherwise -- as they try to survive their upbringing are connected in the novel by the ways in which they are woven together. Parents experiment with ways to care for their children and children try to become their own persons. Rosemary uses Fern and Fern uses Rosemary. Animals of all species do not forget what is done to them.

All the layers, all the characters and all the complicated relationships between them, all the moving back and forth in time, all the memories, all the scientific information -- they work together in a powerfully moving story of what it means to grow up in a family and what it means to love.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday Sentence: Karen Joy Fowler

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read last week, presented without further commentary or context:

When I run the world, librarians will be exempt from tragedy. Even their smaller sorrows will last only for as long as you can take out a book.

-- Karen Joy Fowler, We are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Review: 'To Dwell in Darkness'

To Dwell in Darkness
By Deborah Crombie
Crime fiction
September 2014
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0062271600

When a mystery series has survived until its 16th book, it might be expected that it could be showing its age. Not in the case of the Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James mysteries by Deborah Crombie. To Dwell in Darkness is as engaging as any book in this series has been and, just as importantly, moves the characters to a place where a reader wonders what will happen next and how they will respond to whatever they are up against.

Kincaid and Gemma have gone from colleagues to friends to lovers to a married couple. Their family has grown to include Kincaid's son from an earlier marriage, who is now 14, her little son Toby and a foster daughter who they are looking to adopt. Both coppers loved their jobs. Kincaid at Scotland Yard has always been the model of a calm policeman who looks at the people he comes across in the murder investigations assigned to him. People have always mattered. Gemma James has grown from a single mother trying to make ends meet, doing well at a job she loves while insisting on putting her son first, into an even stronger police investigator and juggler of duties.

But now Kincaid has been reassigned from his beloved Scotland Yard and away from his trusted sergeant to another station. He's not sure of his new team any more than they are sure of him, including at least one highly wound woman who should have had a promotion to his job. Kincaid knows there's something going on behind the scenes, but exactly what and who is behind it remain as murky as ever. His wife also has a new assignment, but it's a plummy job, and her trusted number two, Melody Talbot. Kincaid wonders if this was done in part to keep him quiet.

In the midst of these musings and maneuverings, Melody is on the scene when a man bursts into flames and falls at St. Pancras station. The site is part of Kincaid's new posting in Camden, and he is confronted by an anti-terrorist officer who wants to make sure he isn't losing any turf in case this is more than the usual crime. People close to the continuing characters are affected by the incident, complicating their feelings about the investigation as well as their schedules.

Drawn into the investigation are a motley group of protestors who want London's historical buildings, including St. Pancras, preserved from exploitation by developers. They are camping out in the flat of their leader, which is located in a pricey building. Figuring out who these people are will go a long way toward solving who the person was that died in that fiery crash and why that person died.

What none of them realize is that part of solving what happened could led to what Kincaid and Gemma hold most dear -- their family. There also is the possibility that someone involved in this case may be involved in what has taken Kincaid away from Scotland Yard.

Nefarious doings by higher-ups and shadowy conspiracies can become tedious and drag down a series. But so far, Crombie has displayed a light touch with this part of the ongoing story. The unraveling of a crime and the ongoing stories of her continuing characters remain more important. That made To Dwell in Darkness a gripping novel that will leave readers more than willing to read the next one.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, September 22, 2014

Review: 'Fire Shut Up in My Bones'

Fire Shut Up in My Bones
By Charles Blow
September 2014
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0544228047

The youngest of five boys in an extended family where one was rarely alone, where great effort was put into using the gifts of the land to feed everyone, where men and women rarely stayed married to each other but had bonds that didn't break, and where dignity and respect shone, Charles Blow remembers those days of his boyhood and young adulthood and brings them vividly to life in his memoir.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones recounts Blow's journey from a hardscrabble family held together by strong-willed women to the beginning of his career as a respected New York Times commentator. His story from child to man has some foundational points that show why he is respected today.

Poverty is there, but it is a story of how family members individually and working together did the best they could and, in some cases, surmounted it. His mother is an inspiration in showing that she didn't give up, not even with a brood of children and an absent husband. She made it back to school and became a teacher and an educational leader. And didn't give up on her children.

Her drive and determination are not sugar-coated, but told simply. So are the tales of how the family was fed, whether through growing their food or taking advantage of a highway wreck involving a load of cattle, much in the way cargo from shipwrecks is saved by coastal dwellers. They all must deal with Jim Crow racism as well, which is strongly interwoven into the generational poverty.

Another foundational point is Blow's search for knowing himself, including his sexuality. He was abused as a child and it both scared him and scarred him. As with many abuse victims, he thought he had done something wrong, especially as the abuser was someone he initially admired. Part of his recovery process includes a search through his spirituality, told in plain, heart-searching fashion.

Blow does his readers the service of not glossing over any of his own missteps, including things he did that he is not proud of as a fraternity leader during his college days. The harm done in hazing to both abuser and victim is not connected with his physical abuse, but the way he has to work through both hazing and sexual abuse demonstrates that if a person continues to question, they can find answers.

This memoir is a stirring account of how one child became a man, carrying on the respect he learned from his strong family members while seeing ways he could leave the hurtful acts behind.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted by permission