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Monday, December 31, 2012

Review: 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette'

By Maria Semple
Literary fiction
December 2012
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0316256193
WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE could have gone in so many directions. Maria Semple's novel, told from various points of view and in emails, letters and journal entries, starts off in full-blown, glorious snark mode. The parents of a snooty Seattle private school's children have their knickers in a twist over the antics of fish-out-of-water Bernadette. She is a reclusive, misanthropic famed architect and mother of talented prodigy Bee. Dad is a Microsoft muckymuck who has one of the most-viewed TED talks ever.

Bee wants to see Antarctica as a graduation present. Because Bernadette cannot face people, she hires a virtual assistant in India to make the arrangements. Below their house, which is really a rundown former school, Audrey Griffin wants to hold a fundraising party for Bee's school. (Her son also attends.) The goal is to attract the best Mercedes parents, like one of the Pearl Jam band members. It doesn't have to be Eddie Vedder.

Audrey is a gnat to Bernadette. She demands Bernadette remove the rambling blackberry bushes from her yard before the party. The fact that it's winter and the hillside will lose its cover to battle erosion do not occur to Audrey. Then again, she's also the kind of parent who wonders what the principal is doing looking in her son's locker. After all, "don't they have locks on them? Isn't that why they're called lockers?"

Bee's dad, Elgin, is up against a tight deadline at work. His new admin assistant, Soo-Lin, is another prep school gnat, um, parent. Soo-Lin is a divorced single mother who attends Victims Against Victimhood meetings. Complications will, of course, ensue as lives become entangled.

It all gets to be too much for Bee's mother. So she disappears two days before Christmas. And Bee decides to find her. That's when the novel hits its true stride and the reader discovers its deep heart.

As the story begins, the satire and snark are delicious. Semple began the novel after moving to the unknown territory known as Seattle, and to someone who has watched the pretentiousness present in some Emerald City residents from the other side of the Cascades since before Microsoft, Starbucks and grunge rock existed, she is spot on.

But like all great novelists who use various forms of humor, Semple knows when to add layers of emotional depth. Bernadette has good reasons to do what she does, and few of the characters turn out to be as cartoonish as they may appear at first. There is a great set piece of sorts when the novel changes tone, a long letter Bernadette writes to a former colleague about her life as a MacArthur grant-winning architect and the birth of Bee. His response to the letter is nearly the same as the one that Semple received as she adapted to a city she now loves, after Bernadette has poured out her heart for pages:

Are you done? You can't honestly believe any of this nonsense. People like you must create. If you don't create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society."

To see what Bernadette does next is not revealed until the end, and there is far too much tell rather than show in the revealing, but it is still a resolution that rings true emotionally and fits these characters just right.

Best of all, Bee is a delightful creation. A brilliant, intrepid daughter could be too twee a character, but Semple keeps Bee from going too far into that territory. Instead, Bee is a fully realized character who just happens to be the youngest of the main ones in this novel. And, just as Semple handles the various voices who relate the narrative, she also allows more than one main character to have her own journey of discovery.

These are characters worth knowing, and their story is one well worth discovering.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reposted with permission

Monday, December 10, 2012

Review: 'The Wandering Falcon'

By Jamil Ahmad
Literary fiction
October 2012 (trade paperback edition)
ISBN: 9781594486166                                                                                                                            

Most of what I know about the part of the world where Pakistan and Afghanistan meet is through Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King. So you know I don't know much.

But I do know that when Daniel Dravot and Peachy tried to use their guns and wits to conquer the tribes in this mountainous, inhospitable region, the tribal culture initially worked for them, then against them.

This view of tribal culture, in which the individual may endure but does not achieve dominance, is but one of the conclusions reached reading another book that takes part in that high corner of the world. Jamil Ahmad, at age 80, published his first work with The Wandering Falcon after spending years in the area.

It isn't quite accurate to call The Wandering Falcon a novel. It is part fable, part character study of a way of life rather than one singular character and part a setting down in writing tales that have probably been told there for years.

There is a man in the book who is a wandering falcon. His parents are unfortunate lovers; she's the daughter of a tribal leader and he's a nobody. They ran away together, finding refuge for several years near an army fort. When her father's people eventually find them, the outcome is not good. Their child, the falcon of the story, survives. He's passed from mentor to mentor over the years. What he learns and how he became what he did is not told, however. He disappears for pages and pages.
But in between those appearances, the various stories provide a few clues as to how the people of the region may view life.

In one of the early stories, a tribe comes to grips with the newly enforced border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, not sure if everyone will be able to get across as they move their few animals to better grazing. The tribe's leader tries to negotiate safe passage with an army official, unsuccessfully. As he leaves, he adjusts his cloak. As he does so, his son realizes that the cloak is now an "ordinary covering for an old man". The "general" has lost his authority.

The general later reminds his son about a time they met another old man, who said the secret to his long life was eating raw onions:

What he told you that day was the secret of life itself. One lives and survives only if one has the ability to swallow and digest bitter and unpalatable things. We, you and I, and our people shall live because there are only a few among us who do not love raw onions.

As bitter as life is for the menfolk, it's worse for the women. They are property to be kidnapped, sold for a pound of opium, to be treated worse than a bear that does tricks. Malala Yousufzai would know the attitudes here well.

In all these stories within the book, the boy who is known as the falcon either does not appear or makes only a brief appearance. He could be likened to a bird that views the actions of these characters from a distance and without passion.

One character, a magistrate, in Ahmad's tales is disdainful of anything that is not a cold, hard fact. Telling rationales through fables, for example, serves no purpose in his world view. "Fables have no use here," he says. "Can a fable explain a death?"

Of course a fable can explain a death, a way of life and the dying of a way of life. Which is, perhaps, more to the point of The Wandering Falcon than anything else.

The Wandering Falcon is a finalist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. The winner will be named Jan. 25 in Jaipur. Also on the shortlist are The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam, River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif, The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash, translated by Jason Grunebaum, and Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission
Note: A version of this review first appeared on Daily Kos.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

In Progress: 'The Rivals'

Daisy Whitney's first YA novel, The Mockingbirds, was a terrific novel on many levels: Alex attends a private school where adults look the other way when wrongs are committed. When she is date-raped, she discovers there is a vigilante group on campus, the Mockingbirds, that stands up for students who have been harmed.

The novel dealt with date rape, with victims not being believed, with friends and strangers sticking up for doing right by victims and with teens knowing what the right thing to do is, even if the adults around them do not. All of this was done in a fast-moving plot with complex characters to care about in a believable set-up.

The follow-up novel, The Rivals, deepens the stakes when Alex, now head of the Mockingbirds, is told about a possible prescription drug abuse ring. Students may be doping up to try to win a competition.

The complexity of the situation includes Alex not sure about who to tell what, including her fellow Mockingbirds and friends, as well as who to believe as she starts to ask questions. Early on, the who-to-trust aspect and how it affects justice is brought up as Alex wonders what's going on:

For a second, it strikes me as odd that two students here are so worried they'd be implicated that they'd come to me for help. But then again, maybe that's the point -- maybe they are the nameless victims we're supposed to protect. Maybe they're the ones who could get hurt by what's happening. But even so, I have to make sure I'm not being played.

Layers of deception will have to be unwrapped before this novel is done, methinks. So far, The Rivals is another winner.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: 'Brotherhood of Shades'

By Dawn Finch
YA Fantasy (Middle school)
October 2012
Authonomy (HarperCollins)
ASIN: B0095C3J6Q

When Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the church in England and wreaked havoc throughout the country as monasteries and other religious communities were pillaged, a small group determined to remain true to traditions they deemed necessary. The foremost tradition was to have three souls to mourn another's passing.
Documents gathered by a monk who saw visions of turmoil to come were given to a boy who had survived the illness that claimed the rest of his family. He made his way to a nunnery where knowledge from across the realm was to be hidden as their world collapsed. Grievously wounded, he was still able to deliver the materials.

Several hundred years later, another young teen dies in a hospital after being found starving on the streets of London. The homeless lad had no one to mourn him. But unlike the others solaced by the Brotherhood of Shades, this boy saw the spirits moving amongst the living. Now the teen, named Adam Street for where he was found, may be the one to fulfill a longstanding Brotherhood prophecy.

This is the setup to Dawn Finch's debut YA novel, a paranormal fantasy that involves the boy wounded during the Dissolution, the boy from the modern streets and a witch whose spirit has survived in her family for generations.

Adam has a guide to help him adjust. Toby D'Scover is the Keeper of the Texts. He takes care of the ancient documents and monitors current spirit activity around the world, and is the one to whom other members of the Brotherhood report unusual phenomenom. The fact there is more activity is but one of the reasons he suspects Adam may be the Sentinel predicted of ages ago. Perhaps he is the one who, with two others to help him, will defeat the resurgence of evil. But first he has a trial to survive.

Finch is superb at world-building in this debut novel, which could serve as the springboard for a series. But for that to happen, the writing will need to be more balanced between the expository writing that threatens to overwhelm the narrative and the action scenes. However, as a bonus, Finch, a children's librarian, adds an afterword with information and links about the real-world objects and places that figure in her story.

D'Scover is a particularly interesting character, with a fully developed past and present. He and Adam work well together. As dead guys, their ability to navigate the world is augmented by the addition of 14-year-old Edie to form a trio. The potential development of a relationship between the dead Adam and living Edie is a problem it would be interesting to see how Finch develops.

A note about the publisher: Authonomy is an online community developed by HarperCollins book editors.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Review: 'Hello Gorgeous'

HELLO GORGEOUS: Becoming Barbra Streisand
By William J. Mann
October 2012
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0547368924

Before Madonna, before Lady Gaga, before Nicki Minaj or any other performer of the past 50 years, there was Barbra. Hello Gorgeous is a well-structured look at how a quirky teenager who desperately wanted to become an actress became one, but not before becoming the toast of Broadway and a woman who didn't even realize the power of her gift -- that voice. That glorious voice.                        

William J. Mann, whose previous books include biographies of Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn and John Schlesinger, as well as novels, has put together bits and pieces of not only the legend, but also stories from people who knew her when. The result is a coherent and cohesive narrative of how Streisand became an overnight sensation after only four years.

Mann recounts Streisand's early acting classes and compares the myth to what he can document. He takes the same approach through her tutelage under her first boyfriend, actor Barry Dennen, who encouraged her to sing and who introduced her to music she later incorporated in early nightclub appearances. Two other friends helped Streisand with her distinctive makeup and fashion sense to cultivate the thriftshop look that became an early trademark.

Throughout, there is a consistent sense that Streisand wanted to be the best and do her best, although doing the same performance night after night after night soon grew tiresome in her first Broadway show, I Can Get It For You Wholesale. Streisand made a splash in that show and captured the heart of leading man Elliot Gould in her small role. Mann recounts the lack of warmth and support from her mother without making her a monster.

Between the show and her nightclub appearances, comparisons soon began between her and Fanny Brice. The convoluted path that led to her getting the role of a lifetime in Funny Girl is described chronologically and thoroughly. Even knowing the outcome and the bare bones of the myth, Mann's account makes for compelling reading.

Mann is careful about noting his sources, but part of his writing style does grate. When he refers to how Streisand or others must be feeling or how if something didn't happen on one night it happened on a night like this, the reader can be forgiven for pausing to question, well, how does he know? Because so much of this comprehensive look at Streisand's path to stardom is documented here with credit to primary sources, these narrative tics take away from the scholarship that was plainly involved.

Even so, Hello Gorgeous is an engaging look at a star and the era when she first blossomed.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review: 'Carnival for the Dead'

By David Hewson
August 2012
Thomas & Mercer
ISBN: 9781612183985

David Hewson's Nic Costa novels of Rome feature strong plots and strong characters. Among the strongest of the secondary characters is police pathologist Teresa Lupo. However, when she goes to Venice during Carnival to search for her beloved aunt, who is missing, she may be at her most vulnerable because she is out of her element.

Teresa's Aunt Sofia has always lived as a vagabond. Even Teresa's mother doesn't know the kind of details that families usually know that prove helpful in, say, missing persons reports. When Teresa contacts the police, she is met with little sympathy. Her aunt is a grown woman with no diminished capacity and it's Carnival. The police have a lot of other things going on.
Staying at her aunt's flat, Teresa mets the neighbors, a young woman who makes masks for the other main occupant, an older man confined to a wheelchair. The owner is rarely there. The neighbors, although nice, especially for Venetians to Teresa's Roman mind, know little that is helpful. When Teresa finds an envelope slipped under the apartment door with a story, she learns that this and subsequently delivered stories are supposed to lead her to Sofia.

Hewson is a master at weaving these stories, which feature Teresa and other people she meets, with the real story of her search for Sofia. The stories include a British professor and a young Englishman who is a master baker, who both end up in Venice, and a woman who resembles Sofia's neighbor Camille, but with an odd need for nutrients in other people's blood. Carnival season and the narrow, twisty streets of Venice add layers of mystery to the novel; this is not the Venice of a traveller's delight, but rather a dark place where people's obsessions become overpowering.

The stories also feature the enigmatic Count St. Germain, who is based loosely on a real person who was as mysterious as the one in Hewson's story. Readers who know of a St. Germain through Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's groundbreaking series of historical paranormals or in Diana Gabaldon's stories will recognize this figure, even though he is not the same character.

When the stories Teresa has been receiving and her investigation merge into one storyline, there is the usual over-the-top action seen in most thrillers. But Hewson does make everything fit together without jamming it into place. And there is sweetness along with the bitter in the telling.

The main result of reading the novel, however, is to want to spend more time with Hewson's Nic Costa series and see Teresa Lupo back where she belongs.

The novel was not published by Hewson's regular publisher but rather by the Amazon imprint Thomas & Mercer.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Essay: Murakami's 1Q84 Book 3

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is one odd novel. It's one of those odd novels that is far too long but that, once the end is in sight, a reader may not want to end.

That's because in Book 3, Murakami pulls out all the stops and goes totally sentimental. The song quoted at the beginning of this massive novel is the old standard "Paper Moon" -- "but it wouldn't be make-believe/if you believed in me".                                                                                                                    

After three books and more than 900 pages, that's what it comes down to -- believing in another person. In their very existence. And in the existence of a world where two moons hang in the sky.

In Book 3, which takes place from October to December in an alternate world that the heroine Aomame has named 1Q84, a cult is after both her and our hero Tengo. They have not seen each other since they were 10 years old. They've lived separate lives for 20 years. But now, the coincidence of the cult -- with Tengo ghostwriting a bestseller that actually betrays its secrets and Aomame killing the cult leader (albeit with his blessing), an operative named Ushikawa is trying to find them both.

In Progress: Crime fiction

Two of the books I'm reading right now are in the crime fiction genre -- Laura Lippman's And When She Was Good and one of the latest in Akashic City Noir series, Kansas City.

They're both good in different ways.

Lippman's latest stand-alone is narrated by Heloise, a soccer mom who overcame an abusive father. She's not just a soccer mom, though. She's a madam with powerful clients. And another secret that threatens to overturn the double life she and her son lead. Lippman is masterful in creating voice and characters.

The Kansas City story collection, edited by Steve Paul, oozes despair the way barbecue done right oozes sauce. It's gloriously gritty, and I haven't even gotten to the Daniel Woodrell story.

And when I'm done with these, there is the new Louise Penny, more City Noir collections and a wide range of Poisoned Pen Press books. I also want to spend more time with James Lee Burke this winter. I don't see how I can go wrong.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Essay: Murakami's 1Q84 Book 2

Jung was writing about James Joyce's Ulysses, but his observation rings just as true for Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 when he wrote:

What is so staggering about 'Ulysses" is the fact that behind a thousand veils nothing lies hidden; that it turns neither toward the mind nor toward the world, but, as cold as the moon looking on from cosmic space, allows the dream of growth, being, and decay to pursue its course.

Two moons hang in the sky, and the reason for why that is so is revealed by Murakami in Book 2 of 1Q84. The second moon, which existed in a story told by a teenage girl who ran away from a cult, was brought to life by a cram school teacher who took that story at the behest of his editor and rewrote it into a bestselling piece of literature. The woman that this teacher, Tengo, has always loved finds herself looking at the two moons in the sky and remembering the boy she gave her heart to when they were both 10 years old.            

At the same time Aomame is looking at the two moons, coming to terms with her new-found realization that she has spent her life loving Tengo, he is looking at those same two moons with the new-found realization that he has always loved her. He imagines that the moon has given Aomame the best thing it can give a person -- "pure solitude and tranquility".

That there are two moons gazing impassively down at the separated pair plays directly into Murakami's theme of duality. It's seen throughout this middle section of 1Q84 with the various couplings of characters and reflected situations. In one of the many expository speeches in this section, Jung is referenced:

Where there is light, there must be shadow, and where there is shadow there must be light. There is no shadow without light and no light without shadow. Karl Jung said this about 'the Shadow' in one of his books: 'It is as evil as we are positive ... the more desperately we try to be good and wonderful and perfect, the more the Shadow develops a definite will to be black and evil and destructive ... The fact is that if one tries beyond one's capacity to be perfect, the Shadow descends to hell and becomes the devil. For it is just as sinful from the standpoint of nature and of truth to be above oneself as to be below oneself.

Aomame, begins this section accepting her final, and most difficult, assignment. She is a vigilante assassin whose benefactor, the dowager, wants her to kill a cult leader who has been raping prepubescent girls. His victims include a little girl who is sheltered at the dowager's safe house for abuse victims but who mysteriously disappears.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Essay: Murakami's 1Q84 Book 1

Haruki Murakami is not an author I would recommend to everyone, but he is an author whose work I love to fall into. It's sometimes magic realism, sometimes fantastical, sometimes just outright other-worldly.

His characters live lives of routine, their sadness just beneath the surface. They carry on without giving the impression of having given up. Some have secret wishes or desires, reasons to continue on.              

Such are the two main characters in 1Q84, Murakami's three-part work of fiction with two moons, Little People and either one reality, or not.

Book 1 of the novel takes place from April through June in the year 1984. Possibly. Because in the opening chapter, a young woman named "green peas", or Aomame, is in a cab stuck in a traffic jam on a bridge, recogizing a piece of classical music she realizes she shouldn't know. As she prepares to climb off the bridge at the cab driver's suggestion, he tells her that she should use her own eyes and her own judgment, and that "there's always only one reality".

The driver repeats this "slowy, as if underlining an important passage in a book" which I, of course, highlighted. For a writer who deals in alternate realities and visits from characters that cannot possibly exist, Murakami is quite honest in his dealings. He doesn't try to trick readers. If a character repeats something that the reader is told is important well, then, it's important.

But before learning more about Aomame, the next chapter instead focuses on a young man named Tengo. He teaches math at a cram school three days a week but otherwise works at writing. His own work hasn't been published, but his editor, Komatsu, a powerful, behind-the-scenes man in publishing, thinks he has potential.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Essay: Richard Ford's 'Canada'

Most people who have heard about Richard Ford's latest novel, Canada, have heard about the opening lines:
First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. ... Our parents were the least likely two people in the world to rob a bank. They weren't strange people, not obviously criminals. No one would've thought they were destined to end up the way they did. They were just regular -- although, of course, that kind of thinking became null and void the moment they did rob a bank.
There is something about the arrangement of those words, the word choice, the voice, that draws me in like few books have since the glorious, Whitmanesque opening of Don DeLillo's Underworld:
He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful.
Yet in writing about an American who ends up in Canada, it is neither American nor Canadian literature to which Ford connects. Rather, it is Thomas Hardy, that early modernist, that poet who saw the end of the Victorian age, and his man who throws away his greatest treasures, gains power and returns to nothing -- Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge -- to which Ford connects.

Henchard makes a horrible decision that comes back to haunt him. It is not fate that does him in. Instead, it is his own character that leads him to make his horrible decision and, because he is more than a one-note character, leads him to realize the depth of what he has done. This self-realization is what makes his story a tragedy.

Dell Parsons writes from the vantage point of approaching retirement about the events of his 15th year. He and his twin sister, Berner, who is nothing like him in looks or temperment, live with their parents, who also are nothing alike. They are stuck in Great Falls, Montana, in 1960, a few years after their father, Bev, has retired from the Air Force.

He is a big, friendly Alabaman who isn't good at selling cars or ranches. He is even worse at trying to be the middle man in a scheme in which Indians steal cattle that is sold to a head waiter on the Great Northern Railroad. The scheme is based on one that failed at the base. And when Bev is put in the middle of this failed scheme, and needs to find some cash, fast, to make some payoffs, he decides to rob a bank.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Review: 'Fobbit'

By David Abrams
September 2012
Black Cat (an imprint of Grove/Atlantic)
ISBN: 970-0-8021-2032-8                                                                                                                

While a hobbit lives in a hole in the ground -- a comfy, lovely hole -- a Fobbit lives within the confines of a Foward Operating Base in a war zone. It's neither comfy nor lovely, and it isn't always safe. But it's the life many characters have in Fobbit, the debut novel by David Abrams, based in part on his experiences on active military duty in Iraq.

Chance Gooding Jr. is "the Fobbitiest" of them all. As a Public Affairs Officer, he punches out press releases from inside Saddam's former Baghdad palace the way major league sluggers knock baseballs out of the park. No matter how many times he has had to write a variation of the same old story -- one or more of our people were killed or wounded, so were so many of theirs. Then the press release goes up the chain of command and comes back down after every comma is fussed over and imbedded cable news reporters broadcast more complete information hours earlier -- often from the scene itself.

Off-duty, Gooding reads. Catch-22 speaks clearly to him, no surprise, but he also tries to live in the worlds of Dickens' Hard Times, of Don Quixote and more. Stories are important to Gooding. He would agree with Joan Didion that "we tell ourselves stories in order to live".

The truth is elusive in a military organization, as Gooding's superior officer, Lt. Col. Eustace (Staci) Harkleroad's letters to his mother prove. These are master classes in how to shade, evade and twist the facts just enough to show how delusional some people are. And, of course, not a delusional, pumped-up "word to Jim Powers at the Murfreesboro Free Press or the ladies at the First Church of Redemption". Of course not.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Review: 'The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton'


By Elizabeth Speller
Crime fiction (British traditional historical)
June 2012
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0547547527
Laurence Bartram is getting accustomed to life after WWI, teaching and adjusting to life without his wife and newborn, who both died, and the woman he loves, who is separated from him while her husband, with no hope of recovery, clings to life.

Laurence accepts the invitation of his friend William, a talented architect who lost the use of his legs in the war, to look over the restoration of a church on a country estate. William, his ardent political wife Eleanor, and their young son Nicholas are stayiing with the Eastons, a prototypical country gentry family riddled with tragedy and secrets.

The tragedy that weighs heaviest on the family members is the disappearance of five-year-old Kitty more than 10 years ago. The lord of the manor, Digby, fell deeper into drink and tyrannical ways after the child vanished from her room one night. He was killed in France, while younger brother Julian survived to carry on at home. He pines for Digby's widow, Lydia, who is becoming more frail by the day and who cannot acknowledge her daughter may be dead. Youngest brother Patrick plays the role of ne'er-do-well, but his story, like that of all the Eastons, is deeper than first appearances.

It takes pages and pages for anything to really happen, but the church restoration -- and underground discoveries -- and an ill-fated trip to a London exhibition are trigger events that eventually bring to light most of the Easton secrets.

Speller's second Laurence Bartram novel is leisurely paced, better reflecting an era when people counted time in days and weeks, rather than minutes, and no one multi-tasked. The pacing highlights how events large and small could have lasting effects on the characters. The characters demonstrate qualities that may seem quaint today -- loyalty, thoughtfulness, reluctance to gossip but truthfulness when asked forthright.

The novel does require knowledge of characters from the first Laurence Bartram novel. Like this one, The Return of Captain John Emmett uses the crime fiction genre to explore how a people try to return to a way of life after war nearly destroys it. Laurence's decisions at the end of Kitty Easton portend interesting possibilities for continuing the series, as do the actions of other returning characters.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Review: 'Seating Arrangements'

By Maggie Shipstead
Literary fiction
June 2012
ISBN: 978-0307599469
Although it's not necessary to fall in love with characters while reading a novel, it is an interesting experience to be fascinated by those who represent something the reader disdains. Such was the experience of reading about a well-off WASP family and its circle of friends and family in Maggie Shipstead's debut novel, Seating Arrangements.

Because of Shipstead's talent, it's possible to view the first-world problems of this Manhattan titan of finance with empathy, as his true lot in life is revealed. The more the reader learns about Winn Van Meter and his family, both his children and those who came before him, the more his situation is apparent. He thinks he is the ultimate insider, yet it is revealed that family truths he grew up believing may not be so. He is trying to hold together a view of the world that upholds certain standards, doing his bit as a part of the establishment, yet he doesn't fit in as firmly as he had believed.

The novel takes place during the weekend of the oldest daughter's wedding. She is in her third trimester, but she is not the novel's focus. His youngest daughter could use a little understanding. She's not getting it, mainly because Winn is trying to uphold perceived standards about what is and is not proper. And in trying to uphold those standards, his conduct is far from becoming.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Review: 'Beastly Things'

By Donna Leon
Crime fiction (Commissario Guido Brunetti)
April 2012
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2023-6

The body of a man without identification but with a distinct medical condition is found in a canal. As Commissario Guido Brunetti discovers who the man was, and why he was killed, the well-loved Venetian policeman will have to address personal and professional issues.

Because the man has a condition that makes him stand out, Brunetti is able to identify him. The man was a veterinarian, separated from his wife and beloved son, and moonlighting at a slaughterhouse for financial reasons. So in addition to exploring other investigative avenues, Brunetti must talk to the people at the slaughterhouse. This comes as talk around home centers on unsafe food.

In a remarkable setpiece, Leon describes the tour Brunetti and Vianello take through the slaughterhouse after hours. It is gruesome but not graphic, and a master class in how to write about something utterly horrible without using extremely specific sights and actions.

The mystery of who killed the victim and why does not make a difficult case. But that is not the point of Leon's book. Nor is the point the theme so similar to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.

Rather, it is widespread and so often accepted corruption in personal and private lives that forms the foundation to Beastly Things. Whether it's Brunetti relying on the highly capable Signorina Elettra to discover information he needs or the business of any business -- to make money -- there is little innocence in his world.

Beastly Things is yet another deceptively thoughtful mystery from Leon, who once again also brings to vivid life Brunetti's Venice and the commissario's wonderful family.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, August 13, 2012

Review: 'Beneath the Shadows'

By Sara Foster
Gothic fiction
June 2012
Minotaur Books
ISBN: 978-0312643362                                                                    

Grace agrees to go to a remote Yorkshire cottage with her beloved husband and new baby. The home belonged to Adam's late grandparents and he lived with them for a spell. One day, Adam takes the baby out for a stroll. Millie, safely in her stroller, is found on the cottage doorstep hours later. Adam is not seen again.

Nearly a year later, Grace returns to the cottage to pack things up and see if she can find any traces of Adam. Members of the most established family in the dying village have been taking care of the cottage and invite Grace into their circle. A stranger to town overhears her talk about fixing the place up for sale and she hires him on the spot. Grace's city-wise sister, an old platonic friend, a grandfather clock that seems to stop and start at will and a ghostie who only appears to children in the big house also keep Grace from feeling too lonely out on the moor.

Sara Foster has written an atmospheric, old-fashioned Gothic with homage paid to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, which the heroine is reading. The challenge in writing such a story is to be true to the formula while keeping the heroine from any obvious "Had I but known" moments or from acting TSTL (Too Stupid to Live). Foster has avoided those pitfalls. The atmosphere and secondary characters add to the enjoyment of sinking back into a story in which tradition in the setting and tradition in the way in which the story is told can be enjoyed.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reposted with permission

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Review: 'Gods Without Men'

By Hari Kunzru
Literary fiction
March 2012
Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 978-0307957115                                                                                      

"Only connect," as E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End, to "live in fragments no more" is a wish that's appears to be a plea against the fractured, chaotic and constantly in motion life in the 21st century First World. Hari Kunzru's fourth novel, Gods Without Men, is written in fragments of different times and places, but there are slender threads connecting them to each other. Whether the reader makes those connections and feels the fabric of a novel depends on the reader. And we all know we readers are not cut from the same cloth.

The novel is about both the trickster known as Coyote and the world of humans, those foible-filled creatures. In a way, Gods Without Men is as much a myth as novel, in that Coyote has set up and been caught in a trap in which humans are involved. During diferent eras, there is the inference that if one creature escapes, another must take its place (there is a similar story in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell that ended up being surprisingly poignant).

But that is the underpinning of the various stories contained within Kunzru's book. The main narratives are of a modern New York couple whose autistic son disappears for a few months while they are out West strolling around the Three Pinnacles rock formation out in the midst of the desert, a group in the late 1950s who seek wisdom from an alien race and a commune seeking wisdom from drugs as much as the aliens. There are connections between these stories, and a few others, that are not forced but which give few hints of how it all might tie together.

The main characters in all of these narratives are well-rounded portraits with compelling storylines. Jaz Matharu is a second-generation American who has given up Sikh ways and used his mad math skills to help develop a financial market software program, Walter, that would recognize 2001: A Space Odyssey's Hal as kin. His wife, Lisa, is a lapsed Jew who gives up her publishing job after it's apparent their son, Raj, suffers from serious autism. Kunzru is adept at letting the reader see how they both got to the ratty desert motel where they stay just before Raj disappears. Kunzru also does both characters the service of letting the reader see their lives from their individual points of view. Neither is the villian. Neither is without fault. And it would be fascinating to discover what happens to them after the novel closes. The sections where they are in limbo when Raj disappears are haunting.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Review: 'Dead Scared'

By S.J. Bolton
Crime fiction (thriller/British police)
June 2012
Minotaur Books
ISBN: 978-0312600532                                                                            

DC Lacey Flint returns to star, with DI Mark Joesbury of Scotland Yard, in her second thriller by Bolton. This time, she's sent undercover by Joesbury to bring back intelligence about Cambridge students. Their suicide rate is far higher than normal and, unusually, more of them are young women than men.

But before the reader discovers this, the story opens with Lacey on top of a tower, perhaps ready to jump. Before finding out what happens, Bolton goes back in time to the beginning of her assignment. The author then goes back and forth, in very short chapters, among the narratives of Lacey, disabled Dr. Evi Oliver -- the Cambridge psychiatrist who knows Lacey's assignment and who is herself plagued by occurrences that terrify her -- and some of the earlier suicide victims. Plus Joesbury.

The terrors that the various victims suffer are indeed harrowingly portrayed. When Lacey finds herself not knowing if bad things are happening to her, or if she is dreaming, the suspense factor is increased. Bolton is a master at racheting up the suspense.

Add into the mix Lacey not being certain who she can trust, and the suspense tightens even more. For instance, there is the physician of one of the victims. She survived but is a burn victim who still cannot speak. What should Lacey think of his interest in his patient, or in Lacey herself?

As with many thrillers, disbelief must remain suspended for the reader to continue turning the pages. As long as one does not question too closely how believable any of the set-up is, Bolton is masterful at the ever-increasing pace of both danger and revealment in unspooling the story.

The revelation of what's actually going on may or may not appeal to readers, depending on their tolerance for sadism or conspiracy. The story concludes with an abundance of feminine jeopardy and, for professional and educated women, a preponderance of dependance upon their strong menfolk to see them through. Perhaps because of the setting, it's hard to not compare the ending here with that of Gaudy Night and reflect on how Harriet Vane, back in 1935, was her own person and didn't want even Lord Peter to rescue her. It's quite the contrast, and the fact Dead Scared comes nearly a century after that most celebrated Oxbridge novel is not, in the end, cause for celebration.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

FTC discloser: A digital galley of the book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Review: 'Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone'

By Kat Rosenfield
YA contemporary
July 2012
Dutton Books
ISBN: 978-0-525-42389-8                                                                                   

Becca has always known she isn't meant for her dump of a small town. The last year has been somewhat better because of time with her boyfriend, James, a dropout who grieves for his mother after he watched her die from cancer. On the night she graduates as salutatorian, they have sex in the back of his pickup out on the fields, under the stars. Then he dumps her. But James soon calls, unsure if they've broken up. He knows she's going to leave him at summer's end anyway but he is a lonely, James Dean-type. Maybe they need each other still.

That same night, their small town is rocked by the discovery of the body of a dead young woman out on the road near the site of where James parked his truck. And the real story of Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone unfolds.

In lyrical, layered writing, Kat Rosenfield writes about Becca's town, her home life, her relationship with James and how the investigation into how the mystery woman died plays out. The ramifications of assumptions and what people think they know about each other are devastating. Becca, in particular, shows both the benefits of knowing so many people in a small locale and the drawbacks to the same. Becca displays both perseverance and folly, wisdom and flightiness. In short chapters spaced out between Becca's story, the reader learns about the dead woman and what led to her death.

This is sophisticated writing replete with lyricism, layers and language. It is not, however, flowery. The first F bomb comes on page 7 in this realistic depiction of teens embarking on adulthood. Becca shares two bottles of wine with her unhappy mother one night and boozes it up the rest of the summer. For older teens and adults, this is a deeply affecting story told well.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, June 25, 2012

Review: 'Home'

By Toni Morrison
Literary Fiction
May 2012
Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 978-0307594167                                                                                      

Home, Toni Morrison's latest novel, is about both a haven and the forgotten. Frank Money is the only one of three childhood friends to survive their battles in Korea. Back in the States, Frank is battling demons and survivor guilt. He's always been the strong one, taking care of his little sister Cee. Now he needs help from others to try to make it back to her when he hears that she is near death and needs to be rescued.

His journey back to being the kind of man who can rescue his sister is both physical and spiritual. Frank travels a reverse Underground Railroad, finding refuge at a church after waking up in a mental hospital and escaping. As he travels home, the reader learns of how he and Cee grew up, how she got out of a backwoods place smaller than a town and where she ended up. Also revealed is how Frank has been fighting to hold on and not give up, but his war was hardly a good one. He is the only one who survived. And for what?

Morrison's short novel is tightly written, weaving in and out of points along the plot, themes, tropes and characters. It is a marvel to be studied and wondered at. But it also is a moving story of how African-Americans have been treated in their own country and how these individual characters react to what other people do to them. Frank and Cee have been victimized but are not victims.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Review; 'A Greyhound of a Girl'

By Roddy Doyle
All ages Fiction
May 2012
Amulet Books (an imprint of Abrams)
ISBN: 978-1-4197-0168-9

Mary O'Hara is finding out that at 12 years, life doesn't go the way it should. Her best friend has moved away to another part of Dublin, her mother ends every sentence with an exclamation point, her beloved granny is ill and she's met a strange woman who seems to know who she is.

In the hands of Booker winner Roddy Doyle, Mary is about to undertake a journey of wonder, wrapped up in love. Because that strange woman, Tansy, is the great-grandmother that she never met, that her mother never met and who her granny lost when she was much younger than Mary is now.

Doyle breaks the book up into separate stories about their different lives. They're all quite different and show the different ways women were expected to help their families in their own eras. But the stories also show how strong women who love their families can do that and remain themselves as well.

The final sections of the book depict a fanciful way that they can discover each other's strengths and loves in a way that perhaps could only happen in Ireland. It's a wild ride of a finish that is sweet without being maudlin. Best of all, Doyle shows a way that generations can remember and honor those they loved, and who loved them. This way shows how the novel got its title.

Although marketed as a children's novel, this is a grand little story that would be a delight to any woman who cares about the women who helped make her who she is, and who likes the idea of carrying on a legacy of love.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Review; 'Skios"

By Michael Frayn
June 2012
Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt)
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9549-4                                                                                  

Oliver Fox is one of those feckless young men who makes his way through life responding to the situation as it appears. He lets things shape themselves before and around him, responds with charm, and stays with it until it falls apart or the next situation begins to shape up.

He has been kicked out by his sugar momma Annuka once again. But he's also connected with lovely young thing Georgia, exchanged text messages and is flying to a lovely Greek island so they can spend a few nights together away from her boyfriend. At the same time, super-competent Nikki looks over the last-minute arrangements for the annual gathering hosted by the Fred Toppler Foundation. It primarily exists as a way for the former exotic dancer, the widowed Mrs. Fred Toppler, to pay homage to the source of her wealth with a world-class meeeting of minds from finance, academics, government and the like. The speaker every year is dull as dishwater, so Nikki has found the perfect antidote -- Dr. Norman Wilfred. He travels the world giving talks about how smart he is. As long as he keeps his speech nearby, he can weather any discomfort. Until now.

Fox takes Wilfred's place at the airport when Nikki waits to meet the speaker she hasn't seen before; she's only talked to his PA for weeks. Then Georgie arrives a day early. People keep mistaking Fox and Wilfred for each other in true screwball comedy situations. Frayn is terrific at making these outlandish events seem semi-plausible. Along the way, he throws in a few light zingers about the nature of foundations, the speakers who make their reputations at them and how similar parlor tricks can look like deep thoughts. Or is that last one the other way round?

Without revealing the story's climax, Frayn sets up a meringue-light story, but readers may feel burned at the end. Readers who enjoy complete shifts in story and tone may thrill to the Over the Top action but it is a huge change to overcome. Until then, however, the confection is delightful because when on top of his game, Frayn is adept at making skewing commentary.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Review: 'Ragnarok: The End of the Gods'

By A.S. Byatt
Literary Fiction
February 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2992-5                                                                                                            

When A.S. Byatt was a young child, she spent hours reading about the bloody fate that befell the Norse gods. Since she was reading while WWII was raging, it's no wonder the myth and the war drew sparks off each other in her imagination.

In Ragnarok, part of the Canongate series on myths, Byatt does not merge the stories or force their comparison. Nor does what happens to a thin child evacuated to the British countryside, who is certain she will never see her father again, overshadow the mythical world. Instead, Byatt presents two entwined, long setpieces -- one of the evacuated thin child, who is nameless, and the other a retelling of the destruction of the gods with just a touch of meta commentary. She ends with a comparison of the destruction of the gods to the destructive acts of foolish mankind today. Again, Byatt is not forcing a comparison but noting that today, people are trying to destroy the world as surely as the gods' fate was a foregone conclusion.

Like Loki, the thin child likes to see and learn about things. And like the gods and modern human despoilers, she can be callously destructive:

She gathered great bunches of wild flowers, cowslips full of honey, scabious in blue cushions, dog-roses, and took them home, where they did not live long, which did not concern her, for there were always more springing up in their place. They flourished and faded and died and always came back next spring, and always would, the thin child thought, long after she herself was dead. Maybe most of all she loved the wild poppies, which made the green bank scarlet as blood. She liked to pick a bud that was fat and ready to open, green-lipped and hairy. Then with her fingers she would prise the petal-case apart, and extract the red, crumpled silk -- slightly damp, she thought -- and spread it out in the sunlight. She knew in her heart she should not do this. She was cutting a life short, interrupting a natural unfolding, for the pleasure of satisfied curiosity and the glimpse of the secret, scarlet, creased and frilly flower-fresh. Which wilted almost immediately between finger and thumb. But there were always more, so many more.

In one of the interesting asides, Byatt muses on whether anything the gods could have done could have changed their fate. No matter what they did, however, there is the certainty that things would still turn out this way. This is not a fairy tale where there are heroes who win fair maidens and fair maidens who are rescued, nor is this fiction purportedly under the control of an author (the notion that characters speak to an author is not addressed). This is myth. This is going to end badly.

For a book that is only 171 pages, Byatt densely packs in setting the stage to display the breadth, width and depth of both the world of the gods and the sphere of the thin child, reveals the acts that will culminate in Ragnarok itself -- especially the death of golden god Baldur and Loki's subsequent flight and capture -- and the end of that world as the gods are destroyed.

After the end of the gods, the thin child's wartime ends. Her story is not one of heroic acts and brave deeds, but is instead the very essence of quiet drabness and the realization that there are no great dreams to be dreamt. The thin child, living in what Byatt calls a thin world, has been a framing device to get the reader into wondering how the acts of the gods matter to the way the reader considers the real world outside the covers of a book.

Byatt concludes with thoughts on myths. These include her choices for not including an aftermath of Ragnarok, called Gimle, that is sometimes likened to a Christian second coming, and that she did not build characterizations and motivations for the gods beyond the basics -- they are not full-fledged characters on purpose. These choices well serve Byatt's belief that myths are porous. The way they are told always says something about the teller, and usually about the world of the teller. Perhaps fittingly for a retelling that incorporates WWII, Wagner's Norse gods are wrested away from their Nazi admirer. She compares and contrasts aspects of the story with Christian mythology and anchors the Norse gods with a larger framework of Western civilization.

For a retelling of the Ragnarok myth that spares nothing but which is filled with gorgeous language, Byatt stands with the best who influenced her.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review: 'An Unmarked Grave'

AN UNMARKED GRAVE: A Bess Crawford Mystery
By Charles Todd
Historical mystery
June 2012
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0-06-201572-3                                                                                    

Intrepid Bess Crawford is just behind the trenches in wartorn France, tending to the wounded, when the Spanish Influenza strikes in the spring of 1918. In the mdist of the chaos, an orderly notices something wrong with one of the many bodies. He didn't die of war wounds or the flu. His neck was broken.

The orderly informs Bess as someone he trusts. She promises to alert the proper people. She promises not only because she trusts the kindly older man who is the orderly and sees for herself that the dead man was murdered, but also because the victim was a family friend who served in her father's regiment.

But before she can get anywhere, the flu strikes her as well. In the near-fairytale atmosphere in which Bess Crawford exists, she is spirited out of France and convalesces back home as strings are pulled. For Bess Crawford has connections, most importantly her father, the Colonel Sahib.

This imposing figure and dearest family friend Simon are full-fledged confidants as she pieces together bits of information and visits various figures connected to the victim. These figures are representative of various strata in Britain's WWI class system, and as such provide a fascinating picture of people carrying on while the Great War goes on and on and on. Although Bess initially isn't quite believed, it's soon evident that the orderly, who died soon after she was taken ill, showed her something important.

Before long, more people connected with the investigation die. Bess knows the killer will target her, but her sense of duty demands that she continue. And if that means she has to take along with her a brash American officer recovering from his war wounds, that's what she will do. Even if he and Simon don't exactly take to each other. The killer gets closer and closer to Bess and her inner circle before the end, which is a classic case of the sleuth figuring it all out in the nick of time.

The world for Bess that the Todds have created is a genuine homage to the World War I era. The violence is off-screen, the characters do not directly express their feelings for each other (really, how thick are Bess and Simon to not have figured that out?) and duty reigns supreme, the plot unfolds in true tricky Agatha Christie style. The series also has other aspects of the historical era it depicts. There is no irony or nod to modern sensibility in Bess calling her father the Colonel Sahib. Women and lower class folk are expected to know their place. In one of the poignant stories told during the unveiling of the plot, a widower father who has lost several sons to the war doesn't understand why the widow of one of them won't come work the farm. Her son would grow up in fresh air but the workload would obviously kill her.

Downton Abbey fans would be well served by reading the Bess Crawford novels while waiting for a new season. Fans of Inspector Rutledge, the first series character brought to life by the Todds, will find a lighter version of the tone in that post-war series.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Review: 'Star Trek FAQ'

STAR TREK FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the First Voyages of the Starship EnterpriseBy Mark Clark
June 2012
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books
ISBN: 978-1-55783-792-9                                                                                          

A long time ago in our galaxy, not one far away, network television found itself hoodwinked when writer/producer Gene Roddenberry promised NBC "Wagon Train to the stars" and instead delivered the beginning of a new part of our culture, Star Trek.

For those who grew up on TOS (The Original Series), whether as teens waiting for 10 p.m. on Friday nights that final season or the syndication every weekday that endlessly recycled the original 79 episodes, Star Trek had it all and promised it all. We didn't kill ourselves during the Cold War. We ended Vietnam. We became an integrated society. We fulfilled President Kennedy's promise of space exploration. We could dream of becoming astronauts and our dreams could come true. We didn't have to be the popular kids to find a place to fit in, as David Gerrold eloquently explains in his foreward to a new compilation of behind-the-scene facts, background material and episode highlights, Star Trek FAQ.

Clark's compendium has many strengths, whether the reader is a first-generation Trekker or wondering what that big 2009 movie was based on. Clark provides a concise, highly readable, rundown of the original influences and executives in various companies who contributed to what became Trek. Although Trek was Roddenberry's baby, he had to run the gauntlet of studio and network approval to get that baby on the air.

The ins and outs not only show how difficult it is for any show to get on the air with any vestige of its original intent intact, it also chronicles how the Trek universe was refined and designed to become what ultimately became beloved. For example, the FAQ has excellent point-by-point notations of the contrasts between the original pilot -- "The Cage" -- and the final program that aired. Spock originally was meant to be more curious than logical. Jeffrey Hunter's Pike is closer to Roddenberry's version of Horatio Hornblower than that swashbuckler James Tiberius Kirk ended up being.

The episode guide is not "full service" because, as Clark notes, "there are plenty of those available elsewhere". However, all are included with thumbnail plot sketches and notes about other aspects such as broadcast history, guests and even such details as changes in scores and opening credits.

Worthwhile ideas to consider abound. In noting how Trek differed because it posits that mankind has survived and improved, there is a quick roundup of SF antecedents. It's about as cheery as The Hunger Games and other current examples of the popular YA genre of dystopian fiction. The chapter itself admirably brings together the examples of how mankind shows its better nature by rejecting killing and slavery through the run of TOS. Another Trek theme of a better civilization with cool gadgets that is still run by the people who made the gadgets, and not the gadgets themselves, is detailed in a thoughtful manner.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Review: 'Grave Mercy'

GRAVE MERCY                                                                  
By Robin LaFevers
YA fiction
April 2012
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0-62834-9

Ismae escapes the prototypical fate worse than death – an arranged marriage to a brute – when he sees her scars that mark her as a daughter of Death in medieval Brittany. She is sent via an underground railroad of priests and herbwitches that still worship the old gods to a convent, where she is trained in the arts of the poisoner, the assassin and the courtesan to serve Mortrain, or Death.

After some minor successes, circumstances force the abbess to send her to court to serve the teenage duchess by keeping an eye on the royal bastard brother. Duval is neck-deep in intrigue that surrounds the orphaned duchess and as many attempts to marry her off as Elizabeth I juggled two hundred years later.

The questions of trusting him as an ally and potential lover fit well within the plot, which balances historical fiction with the palace intrigue and battle maneuvers (not shown but discussed), romance with the attraction Ismae and Duval feel for each other, and high fantasy as Ismae comes into her heritage as the daughter of Death.

What follows may be seen as spoilers by some:

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Unreliable, naive narrators and The Sense of an Ending

The narrator of a novel usually, although not always, also is the protagonist. It's the ultimate "it's all about me" kind of storytelling, epitomized by David Copperfield in the novel by Charles Dickens. "Chapter 1: I am born."

Some narrators are trustworthy. Their world is seen only through their eyes, but they can be trusted to tell all they know and not to skew the facts in order to fool you. And then there are the narrators who either have fooled themselves so well you can't trust them or who are so arch they cannot be trusted. These unreliable narrators are at the core of some of the finest storytelling we've known, from Chaucer to Wilkie Collins to Stevens in Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day.                                                                                      

Just as rewarding for the reader who likes to be involved in discerning who or what to believe is the naive narrator, such as Huck Finn. He accepts slavery as a normal part of his world and recognizes that, in his world, he will go to hell for helping Jim. And decides he can live with having transgressed. His acceptance is not the same as deciding that his world is wrong. Naive narrators are not reliable either, but it's because they don't know the ramifications of everything that's going on. Stevens is this kind of narrator for most of The Remains of the Day. His single moment of near-realization is devastating in the novel, and he backs away from self-knowledge quickly to return to self-delusion.

Sometimes deciding whether the narrator can be trusted takes up a good deal of the reader's attention. This was me when reading Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, which won the Man Booker Prize last year.

Tony Webster is in his late middle age, divorced yet still on good terms with his ex-wife, the steady Margaret, distant yet polite with his daughter, the preoccupied Susie. His story begins with odds and ends of his time at school and university with his mates and first serious girlfriend, Veronica. Adrian, a newcomer at school, becomes part of his circle. A schoolmate commits suicide after his girlfriend becomes pregnant. At university, Veronica appears to be a tease but Tony says he doesn't mind. He meets her family one weekend and no one appears impressed. His friends meet her and, again, no one appears impressed. After Tony and Veronica break up, he gets a letter from Adrian that he and Veronica are now in a relationship. Tony's life goes on. But Adrian later kills himself.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review; 'When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man'

By Nick Dybek
Literary Fiction
Riverhead Books
April 2012
ISBN: 978-1594488092                                                                                                      

The loss of innocence is a common theme of fiction. It's not unusual for a young man or woman, or even a middle-aged one, to look back on the year that things changed. The year they grew up. For young Cal, it is the winter he discovers what it may have been like for the good captain in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island when he decided to become a pirate. And because of what he learns and what happens, he leaves Loyalty Island in Nick Dybek's novel of innocence lost, believing he can never return home because he will never regain his innocence.

Cal grows up the son of a crab fisherman, the captain of one of the ships owned by John Gaunt. Captain Henry Bollings and the other captains, including one named Brooks (Gaunt, Bolingbrooke, hmmm...) can provide for their families because of Gaunt's good stewardship of the fleet. Everyone and everything on Washington state's Loyalty Island owe their livelihoods to Gaunt. The captains are good, hard-working men whose children adore them and whose wives suffer while they are gone to the Bering Sea (just like those guys on The Deadliest Catch). Cal idolizes his father, who spends one off-season telling him bedtime stories of the good Captain Flint, before things went wrong and set up the action in Treasure Island. To Cal, his father is as honorable and brave and true ad Captain Flint. The next year, his father asks Cal if he knew the stories were just that, stories.

It's a timely question. John Gaunt dies suddenly. His wastrel son, Richard, comes back to town to fidget about what he should do with his unwanted legacy. Ultimately, he makes a public announcement that he plans to sell the fleet. Everyone will be out of a job. The town will die. Then, for the first time in Richard's life, the captains announce he has agreed to go crabbing with them. Not two days into the season, the word comes back that he has fallen overboard.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Review: 'Arcadia'

By Lauren Groff                                                                                                        
Literary Fiction
March 2012
ISBN: 978-1-4013-4087-2

The story is vague at first, the how and why opaque as the amoeba grows, as the characters take shape and as the outline of what's going on takes its own time to form.

It begins before the protagonist is even born. Little Bit is the first child born to a group on caravan that eventually becomes a commune. He knows the memory took place before his birth -- a group of women, including his mother, washing clothes in a cold river, people singing old folk songs, a bonfire and a small caravan on the move toward their eventual home.

Before the skeptical reader gives up, know that Bit knows he knows the story because it has been told to him so many times that it feels as real to him as something he actually did experience. So is Bit's own story. He is, after all, "the first Arcadian ever" and his story "is another story so retold that everyone owns it".

This communal passing on of a story is the key to Arcadia, the latest novel by Lauren Groff. So is the sense that, while the novel takes place from the 1960s to the next decade, it is timeless, a tale the Grimm Brothers may have heard to pass along: "The forest is dark and deep and pushes so heavily on Bit that he must run away from the gnarled trunks, from the groans of the wind in the branches." The forest and the outdoors are as much Bit's world as the commune.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Review: 'The Orphan Master's Son'

THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON                                                               
By Adam Johnson
Literary Fiction
January 2012
Random House
ISBN: 978-0-8129-9279-3

At first, Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son appears to be a straight-forward story set in a nation surrounded in secrecy and deception, North Korea. Pak Jun Do is the son of a man who operates a camp where orphans are dumped until either adopted to work at hard labor or who perform ad hoc hard labor. His mother, a wonderful singer, was taken years ago. Jun Do names all the orphans after war heroes, saving for himself the name of a warrior who proved he could be trusted by killing himself.

During the long famine, the orphans die off, his father runs off and Jun Do ends up in the tunnels, trained to kill in the dark. He next surfaces in the hold of a rusting fishing vessel, monitoring radio transmissions by night and trying to fit in with the crew. He's deemed a hero, sent to Texas, sent to prison and tortured, sent to impersonate a former hero of the nation now in disfavor, and tortured. His life is not his own.

The novel throws some strange twists at the reader and tries more than one way to convey narrative. After Jun Do is sent to prison, a second narrator, a nameless interrogator who tries to get the truth from him, carries part of the story. He cares for his blind parents, who are afraid to say anything that would not be approved by the ruling elite. This interrogator, who tortures people, is as powerless as anyone though, getting swept up in involuntary rice harvesting because he's out on the street and not on a bus. Part of the story is told as the annual Best North Korea story broadcast daily. Part of it backtracks to what happened when Jun Do disappeared and became commander Ga, military hero and husband of beloved actress Sun Moon.

The Orphan Master's Son is ultimately about the ways that, when leaders deceive us, we not only go along with it in order to survive, we find new ways to fool ourselves. The actress Sun Moon sees starving families scavenging through tree branches, trying to find chestnuts to eat even though they are as illegal as poaching the king's deer was in Olde England. She says they are acrobats performing for her.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Review: 'Watergate'

By Thomas Mallon
Historical literary fiction
February 2012
ISBN: 978-0-307-90708-0

How one perceives Thomas Mallon's latest work of historical fiction could well depend not so much on the merits of the work itself, but what one brings to it. Much of this novel may not make sense if one didn't live through 1972-73, when a third-rate burglary either took down a presidency or revealed a cancer on the honor of the nation.

For those of us who were amazed at the events and people of those times as they unfolded, Watergate (and Vietnam) remain definitive. For anyone to take on the whole scope of Watergate -- the burglars, the politicians, CRP (or CREEP, or Committe to Re-Elect the President), Woodward and Bernstein, Mrs. Nixon and the girls, and, at the dark center of it all, Richard Milhous Nixon, the drinking and cussing Quaker who carpet bombed Vietnam during peace talks -- how could all that fit into one novel? And be readable?

Mallon has found a way to make it work by focusing on several characters. But they are not all the usual ones. There is as much from the viewpoint of Alice Roosevelt Longworth as there is from both Nixons. Unexpectedly, the central character to the whole story, the one who can put all the pieces together, is Fred LaRue. Mallon says LaRue's life is the one most tampered with. The results are the stuff of which conjecture is used to make sense of events.

The same can be said for Rose Mary Woods and the infamous erasure of 18 1/2 minutes of Oval Office tapes. Mallon comes up with a way that it could have happened that fits perfectly with one way to look at Woods's character and also plays into the way so many people were ready to believe the worst of Nixon and his inner circle. This storyline also makes Woods a woman of her time, so there is trope of women's liberation and how some women who didn't believe in it limited themselves. Pat Nixon is treated with dignity and has an even sadder storyline than the tragedy of being married to Nixon.

The acts of both LaRue and Woods, and reactions to their acts, are used by Mallon to create not a tragedy, but a farce. This is how a presidency self-destructs? Are you kidding? Well, no. And that's why using Alice Roosevelt as a character also makes great sense. This woman of one liners who says late in the novel that someone should have seen that the great promise she had was wasted demonstrates both sides of the coin for both Nixon and his presidency. There is tawdry pettiness and there is the dark desire to not be overshadowed hanging over the characters of this novel and the real Watergate scandal as clearly as any storm cloud that blocks the sun.

Both Woods and LaRue are moved late in the book to read about themselves in books written by others in the scandal's aftermath. Both are crushed by what they read. Both see injustice done to them.

If the novel was adapted into a movie, it would have to pay homage to the TV program Mad Men. That's because the novel is practically an homage to the end of that era, and not just because of all the hard liquor and distaste expressed by so many characters about how the times are changing. The female characters are remarkable portraits of intelligent, ambitious and loving people trapped by their societal roles. Those who try to break the mold are either punished or, at the least, don't win.

This is where the farce Mallon has constructed shows its sturdy underpinnings in tragedy. What if Pat Nixon had had a chance to be happy? What if Rose Mary Woods had not been put down by an ad executive? What if Alice Roosevelt Longworth had forged a life with the man she really loved? How fulfilling would their lives have been? How might history have been different? And how might the men in their lives have messed it all up any way? That's only one way to look at not only Mallon's novel, but also the real people portrayed in it.

And that, regardless of where one stands on Watergate and its aftermath, makes this a novel worth reading, its characters worth caring about and its events worth pondering.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Review; 'Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark'

PAULINE KAEL: A Life in the Dark                                                            
By Brian Kellow
October 2011
ISBN: 978-0670023127

Pauline Kael reveled in the notion that movies had a subtext and were more than entertainments. The years she wrote reviews in The New Yorker began during a golden age of moviemaking. She continued on through the era of blockbusters and the beginning of the dominance of CGI over other methods of storytelling.

And although she reveled in strong film storytelling that included nuance, she did not celebrate shades of grey in her own life. Biographer Brian Kellow shows, rather than merely tells, how her world view of pro and con shaped the major relationships in her life. Those included her daughter, her grandson, her boss William Shawn and her acolytes, the Paulettes. For the last group, if you didn't take her advice, you were cast out. For her daughter, it meant years of being the practical one who took care of mundane arrangements. For her grandson, who has since died, it mean pure love. And for Mr. Shawn, it meant constant poking and no support, although she certainly sought his recommendations whenever it could help her.

There isn't much actual drama to Kael's life, and Kellow acknowledges this. He gives a great deal of space in his biography to quoting Kael's reviews. And this is fitting. Because the movies were her life. The scope and sweep of an era when movies came of age, when the blockbuster mentality took over and when movie critics had an influential voice in championing films, are the story of Kael's life.

The reviews themselves hold up well. The reviews provide a window into the passionate viewing experience of someone who took each film on its own merits even while upholding overall high standards that art be accomplished. Agreeing or disagreeing with a Kael review remains rewarding, for it engages the reader in reasoned decisions, based on reactions from the heart and the head, on whether the film delivered a rewarding viewing experience.

The value of this biography may not be in recounting the life of its subject, but rather in giving voice once again to its subject as she writes about what she loved most. The reviews quoted are both a history of that time in movie-making and a vibrant demonstration of honest reaction to a work of art that connects that work to its value in the viewer's life. Kellow shows how criticism can be enriching and, in doing that, pays honor to his subject.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, February 20, 2012

Review: 'The Baker's Daughter'

By Sarah M. McCoy
Literary Fiction
January 2012
ISBN: 978-0307460189                                      

Families and dual storylines are getting to be rather common in popular and literary fiction these days. Both are important factors of an uncommonly good novel -- Sarah M. McCoy's The Baker's Daughter.

The novel is more than one story and, indeed, it's even possible to make the case that more than one character is the baker's daughter. There is the obvious one -- Elsie is the daughter of a baker in a small German town where everyone struggles to survive as the Nazis gain power and as the war drags on. There also is Elsie's daughter, Jane, who works alongside her mother in a small town German bakery in Texas. And then there is a daughter of Elsie's heart, Reba, who comes to the bakery for what she thinks will be a quick interview about holiday traditions. Instead, Jane and Elsie befriend a woman who has closed off her heart, even with love from family and a good man staring her in the face.