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Monday, December 23, 2013

Review: 'The Hidden White House'

The Hidden White House
By Robert Klara
October 2013
Thomas Dunne Books
ISBN: 9781250000279

Harry Truman had more to worry about than carrying on FDR's work when the president died and the plainspoken man from Missouri became the nation's leader, winning the war and deciding whether to drop the atomic bomb. The White House was falling apart right around him, his family and visitors to the country's most famous residence.

Although it's not true that the leg of Margaret Truman's piano went through the floor and the ceiling of the next level, it did break through the flooring. The house was literally falling apart around the Trumans. Over the years, various changes to the building had wreaked havoc with its stability.

Chandeliers swinging above guests' heads and floors swaying beneath the passing feet of color guards prompted the Trumans to move out and Harry to battle Congress for funding.

The entire interior was gutted and a new foundation dug for the brilliant facade the surrounds the structure. Plans for technological updates, renovations that both recreated what many would consider classical White House rooms in various time periods and the best in new decor were drawn and redrawn. And Harry Truman was in the middle of it all, even as the family adjusted to living in Blair House and security was hurriedly adjusted for less-than-satisfactory conditions.

The entire process is chronicled in Robert Klara's The Hidden White House, written in a facile narrative style that is a hallmark of contemporary popular history. Klara also includes sources for his material in copious endnotes that provide more information while not distracting from the narrative pull of events.

That the work was completed in a fashion anywhere near the original redesign plans is astounding. The sad state in which the interiors were left because of the Truman wish to get back to the White House before he left office and lack of funding after the actual construction was complete is noted, and it is not surprising that one of the first things Mamie Eisenhower did after Ike won the presidency was to redecorate.

Some photographs were published in the advance reading copy; including even more would have helped bring the story of each stage of the work into better focus.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Shirley Jackson

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read last week, presented without context. Except in this case, to add that this is from a previously unpublished story by Shirley Jackson discovered among her papers at the Library of Congress and published in the Winter Reading issue of Tin House (Vol. 15, No. 2).

It's like everyone back home, she was thinking, picnics and last-minute invitations, and everything confused and grimy and noisy, taking people away from their homes and their dinners without ever stopping to think how inconvenient it might be for the orderly routine of their houses. Mrs. Spencer remembered, with a little shiver of fury, the troops of laughing friends her sister was always apt to bring home, always, somehow, when the house was freshly cleaned and things put in order.

-- Shirley Jackson, Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Review: 'The Carpet People'

The Carpet People
By Terry Pratchett
November 2013
Clarion Books
ISBN: 978-0-544-21247-3

First published in 1971 as the early work of a young writer, reworked and republished in the 1990s and re-published anew now with the original illustrations restored and the original newspaper columns from the mid-60s that inspired the story, Terry Pratchett's The Carpet People has been described as similar to The Lord of the Rings, but for children and amidst the carpet threads.

It is a sprawling story of one group of people led by a hunter, his smarter younger brother, a philosopher, a general they meet, another king they run into and whole other hordes of creatures. They all live in a carpet. There are occasional references to such real-world items as matchsticks and there is a menace known as the Fray, but it's uncertain whether that is a vacuum cleaner or footsteps.

Actually, with the setpieces of action not always set up clearly, groups of beings not fully introduced and characters who may or may not be important, The Carpet People is a novel that would be difficult for my students to follow.

There are a few great Pratchett bon mots and the idea that one can decide how one's own history be written, but there are hidden among the weft and weave of an overly complicated tale.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Remembrances: 'You Know When the Men are Gone'

You Know When the Men are Gone
By Siobhan Fallon
Literary fiction short stories
January 2011
Amy Einhorn Books
ISBN: 0399157204

It rarely pays to go into any reading experience with my expectations already in place. Those expectations might be confirmed. There is the danger, however, that other ideas or insights might be lost or not given their due weight.

That was nearly my experience reading the short stories in You Know When the Men Are Gone. The collection about Army families centers around Fort Hood, and was written by Siobhan Fallon, who was an Army wife staying at Fort Hood while her husband was on two tours of duty in Iraq.
The focus is on the women and children at home, although there also are powerful insights about those who are actively serving. From the opening pages describing how the colors and tone of the base change when the troops ship out, Fallon puts the reader amongst those who stay behind.

I had expected that reading these stories would reinforce my belief that our troops need to come home from Afghanistan and Iraq. And without Fallon being political, my belief was reinforced. Characters go through heartache and harm because the troops are overseas.

But this collection of stories has something else to impart. From the beginning, I had the sense of remembering the few months I spent on base as a tween. I'm the rare Air Force brat who spent most of her life in her hometown while my father spent three tours of duty in Thailand during the Vietnam War era.

In town, we were sometimes looked down on; in stores, for example, we weren't regarded as reliable customers. I remember a particularly embarrassing episode at the local department store when the clerk somehow found out Dad was in the Air Force and not employed at a regular dad job in town. She looked us up and down while Mom was having us try on winter coats and wondered aloud whether Mom could afford to buy the coats.

This was Mom's hometown in addition to her children's hometown; she was visibly affected. Her shoulders slumped and she seemed to become physically smaller as she quietly told the clerk that yes, we could pay. It was the only time I saw my mother shamed.

The characters shopping at the commissary took me back to our marathon monthly shopping sessions on base, trudging up and down endlessly long aisles and looking at loads of things we never put in the cart -- whatever we bought that day, including milk and bread, had to last the month until next month's money came through. There were nights we had creamed hard-boiled eggs over toast and didn't realize that was the only food left.

The characters at the base hospital took me back to other corridors that also seemed to never end and always being sent here, there, up and down and around whenever we went -- check-in here, records there, X-ray over in that wing, the examining room in another area.

Just as my mother had to cope and make do while Dad was off on the other side of the world, the women and children in Fallon's stories, decades later, do the same. A mother, uncertain if her cancer has returned and due for a doctor's appointment, leaves the hospital when her angry teen-age daughter trots off with her kindergarten-aged brother. Calling the MPs brings an ineffective youngster whose report may reflect on Dad's record, Dad is on base but can't leave because of trouble in the Green Zone, the doctor is ready to tattle on her because she missed the appointment when the schools' secretaries called about the kids.

Many of the characters are on the edge; their lives could fall apart if they let them, if they believe something other than the best of their mates (regardless of the truth), if they fail to hold on any longer. When the worst that can happen does, the character most affected is not left alone to fall apart.

Most of the characters at home don't reach out for institutional help, and it's not primarily because of possible strikes against the active duty soldier. It's because of pride, of not wanting to be looked down on for not coping better, of not being shamed in front of the others also going through hardships, of not being pitied by the others when they talk about you.

That's when it occurred to me. These huge institutions such as the military will not and, as they exist now, cannot, serve the individual. Yet the individuals and their families are required to give and give and give.

An individual can rarely give enough and the least failing, the smallest inability to go above and beyond because of other circumstances, the least attempt to bring different thinking or acts into the mix, are deeply frowned upon. The repercussions can be out of proportion to the action taken or not taken, in order for the institution to continue to function as it has.

It's not that this is new to me; I've seen it happen during the course of three different careers. But the impact of the calm way in which Fallon describes the lives of the dependents of those in active service (imagine how impersonal it is to be called a "dependent" and not even a wife or child or, gracious, a human being in one's own right) brought it into sharp focus.

And that's especially true for someone who believes some institutions need to exist because of the possible benefit they can provide to individuals in a more perfect society -- public education, improved infrastructure, public safety and health care. How can institutions continue to function in a personally stifling way when their existence came about in order to improve people's lives?

It's not like I have an answer, but it is something I'm going to continue to consider. But I'm also going to continue to be proud of the families who wait for their service members to return home.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sunday Sentence: 'Three Times Lucky'

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

That's another thing about a small town: Everybody knows everybody's schedule. We spin around each other like planets around an invisible sun.

-- Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sunday Sentence: 'Burial Rites'

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

After the trial, the priest from Tjorn told me that I would burn if I did not cast my mind back over the sin of my life and pray for forgiveness. As though prayer could simply pluck sin out. But any woman knows that a thread, once woven, is fixed in place; the only way to smooth a mistake is to let it all unravel.

-- Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sunday Sentence: 'The Goldfinch'

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

And her laugh was enough to make you want to kick over what you were doing and follow her down the street.

-- The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review: 'Pinkerton's Great Detective'

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews

Pinkerton's Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParlandBy Beau Riffenburgh
November 2013
Viking Books
ISBN: 978-0-670-02546-6

Some of the great parts of the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid come when Paul Newman turns to Robert Redford and asks, "Who are those guys?"

That question eventually led Beau Riffenburgh to this biography of Pinkerton agent James McParland, who tracked the Hole in the Wall Gang and went undercover in tough mining towns across the country. A poor Irish immigrant who raised himself from nothing and lived by his wits for years, McParland drew both praise and scorn during his lifetime as an undercover agent who infiltrated the Molly Maguires in an era of deadly Pennsylvania coal mine violence before heading out west.

Riffenburgh is a conscience researcher and writer who uncovers the records of McParland's actions and writings. This is essential in a biography such as this, as one's view of the subject may well depend on one's political viewpoint. Was McParland a turncoat to his people or someone who served justice?

Well, it depends a great deal on one's point of view. Riffenburgh does a great job of placing McParland within his own times. Those were far different from today's in that criminal cases were brought by those who could afford to prosecute. But there also are parallels to today with company owners who want to pay workers the least amount possible, have them indebted to the company store and still be able to fire them at will.

For McParland to drop into such a situation, and possibly with the ultimate goal of making sure he followed the tenents of his church, Riffenburgh makes it easy to see that his subject's role was not easy. The author also uses the array of historical record available to not sway the reader, but instead to place the reader squarely within the context of what can be shown of those turbulent times.

The author also does a thorough job of describing the times in which McParland operated from more than one viewpoint. Mine owners and workers who were either indebted to the company store or faced being fired did not view the world in the same way, and Riffenburgh does well to describe both viewpoints. The even-handed approach may not change anyone's mind, but it does bring into focus what the stakes were for everyone involved, including McParland.

For anyone who wondered the same thing that Paul Newman did in that classic film, and for those wonder about those times, Pinkerton's Great Detective is an excellent way to find some answers.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: 'Coldest Girl in Coldtown'

By Holly Black
YA Horror
September 2013
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0-316-21310-3

Tana is one of those teens who don't think too much about their futures because their pasts are so disturbing to them. In a world where vampires exist, and have now been cordoned off into Coldtowns to try to contain the infection, she believes she has nothing to lose.

That's because her mother was infected by a vampire when Tana was little. Her father didn't follow the law but tried to do the right thing. He locked Mom in the basement to see if she would be able to fight off the infection, and the overwhelming urge for blood. Mom talked Tana into unlocking the basement door and coming downstairs. Dad chopped off Mom's head before she could do more than scrape Tana's arm.

But that's backstory. When we first meet Tana, she's waking up at a nihilistic teen party where drinking and sex are the norm. Her ex-boyfriend, Adrian, tried to capture her attention yet again. He's tied up on a bed with a vampire chained in the room. Everyone else has been killed.

After Tana gets them out alive, before other vampires behind the door can get to them, they have little choice. They have to get to the nearest Coldtown. That's where vampires, those who are Cold -- have been infected but may or may not turn vampire -- and thrillseekers go. Tana will never see her still grieving, still heavy drinking father or younger sister again.

The vampire chained in the room with Adrian is a famous old vampire and stone-cold assassin. He and Tana are, of course, drawn to each other. But Gavriel, the second son of minor Russian aristocracy, has a great backstory as well.

With the level of violence and sex, this is easily an older teen book. It also is a very well-written horror novel of characters who feel they have nothing to lose, with the themes of betrayal and trying to do the right thing regardless of the circumstances.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Dallas Noir

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

The wooden privacy fence gave the impression of a bowl that opened up onto clear, empty sky. The casual, muted sounds of occasional birds, the distant deep whoosh of the freeway. the dull thump and whack of work crews, roofers. He tried to picture the interior lives of these houses, these small brick-and-mortar capsules of life. There would be people inside, going on about the business of dreaming and living. But doing what, he couldn't imagine. It was blank. He was just over thirty years old.

-- Matt Bondurant, "Hole-Man" from Dallas Noir, Akashic Books City Noir series

Monday, November 4, 2013

Review: 'Death Overdue'

By Mary Lou Kirwin
cozy mystery
November 2013
Gallery Books
ISBN: 9781451684667

Middle-aged Minnesota librarian Karen Nash had a dream come true in Killer Librarian, the opening book in this traditional mystery series by Mary Lou Kirwin. She went on the trip of a lifetime to England, even though the guy she was going to go with dumped her the day of the flight, flew over to London with a younger, prettier woman and ended up dead.

Still, it all worked out. Karen figured out who did in the guy who done her wrong and met the possible love of her life in Caldwell Perkins. He owns the B&B where she ended up staying on her first trip, but what his main passion is collecting books.

In this second entry in the series, Karen has returned to London while she and Caldwell figure out if they should merge their book collections, so to speak. He wants to sell the B&B and set up a bookshop, with Karen as his partner as well as signficant other.

But before they have even found a place to set up shop, Caldwell's past comes back at a most inopportune time. His former lover Sally Burroughs ditched him, leaving the B&B and disappearing for nearly seven years. Now she shows up with an Italian boyfriend, determined to make Caldwell buy her out.

Even while Caldwell and Karen are processing this information, former girlfriend Sally ends up under a bookcase that was toppled onto her. The coppers suspect both Karen and Caldwell, so mystery book lover Karen is determined to find out who really did Sally in to clear both of their names.

The mystery proceeds as an honest country house-style mystery in which a limited number of suspects, most seeming to have a motive to murder, are within cramped quarters. The B&B setting works very well to bring together Sally's new boyfriend, her sister, a book lover visiting London, the B&B's only employee, Caldwell and our heroine.

The whodunot is the strongest part of the novel. It would fit within the fair play rules set up by the Detection Club (including Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton and E.C. Bentley) and rolls along at a nice pace.

The author also shows her knowledge of classic crime fiction, weaving in information about Christie works and other tidbits without committing the faux pas of information dumps.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Review: '& Sons'

By David Gilbert
Contemporary literary fiction
July 2013
Random House
ISBN: 9780812993967

Inferring, filling in the blanks, making connections and making meaning by inferring are what I use and what I gain from reading literary fiction. These same techniques are used by the characters in David Gilbert's & Sons as the basis of how they feel and what they base their decisions on. The results are not always predictable, but they do feel right within the context of this novel.

Gilbert's novel opens with a famed recluse of an author near the end of his days attending the funeral of his lifelong friend. It's a harrowing scene as one of the few times in this huge novel that the reader is inside A.N. Dyer's head. He's feeble in just about every aspect, and it's not his old friend who concerns him, it's his youngest son. Where is he? Where's Andy?

Teen-age Andy's outside the grand Manhattan church chain-smoking, looking for a woman he met online who promised to meet him. She works for his father's publisher and would love to be part of the great A.N. Dyer's world. Like all the other characters, these two will discover their importance to each other not as individuals, but as satellites in the great writer's orbit.

A.N. Dyer's first novel, Ampersand, is renowned and taught and read even on their own by succeeding generations. Dyer's sons include two with his former wife, grown men who have not quite become adults, and Andy, a younger son whose surprise existence ended Dyer's marriage and who may resemble his father far more than the average son. Dyer's apparent wish to be a better father to his youngest than he was to the first two boys -- or at least his obvious affection for this child -- both spurs several actions that dictate the destiny of characters and displays the ways in which fathers and sons let each other down.

Another once-young man, the son of Dyer's best friend whose funeral opens the novel, wishes he was Dyer's son. Phillip is both a bystander who reports incidents he shouldn't know about and a character that expresses the futility of yearning for something that will always be beyond one's reach. Neither aspect of this character is a detriment -- it all works.

Devastatingly, Gilbert reveals the significance of Dyer's first novel's title and how at least one of the next generation of characters has lived a lie when the story behind the novel is made clear. That novel, with its Exeter setting and student cruelty, is haunted by both A Separate Peace and The Secret History. This makes it one of those novels that don't exist but that you wish did.

The world of publishing is as important to the scope of the story as family ties. Gilbert's ability to bring to mind various segments of publishing in the 20th century and today, real novels and writers, and the compulsion of creative people to create are well-drawn.

The construction of the novel keeps the story from being the same-old, same-old tale of old man regret and young man sorrow born of broken promises and unfulfilled potential. For example, letters written through the years from Dyer to his friend Charles Henry Topping don't appear to say much when they appear at the beginning of the various sections, yet the cumulative effect is important to the Dyer story. The sections in which the two older Dyer sons are introduced could veer into sloppy Franzen territory but Gilbert keeps that from happening with active narratives that show, rather than tell, where the boys are coming from. They want to carry on the legacy but be their own men. And they don't wallow in their own emotional swamps.

What is revealed in the end is that, even more than fathers and sons who wish for more from each other, is the unapologetic heartlessness of the creative ones who greedily take from those who are not the artists. Those from whom they take and those to whom they give are not always the same people. And feelings have little to do with it. All that is left are the works that have been taken from others' lives. Fittingly, Phillip uses the story of the Dyers to convey what his life has been like and leaves the reader to infer what will become of him next.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Review: 'Counting by 7s'

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews

By Holly Goldberg Sloan
Middle grade contemporary realistic fiction
August 2013
Dial Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 9780803738553

Willow Chance is a quirky genius of a 12-year-old whose adopted parents know how to nurture her talents and interests. They die in a car crash at the start of this novel. Willow doesn't have any other family.

What she does have are two teens she met when sent to a school counselor (her teacher didn't believe she could ace the standardized tests so quickly so must be cheating somehow), their Vietnamese mother, the inept counselor himself and a taxi driver.

Willow's voice works in the sections where she describes the world through her own perspective, because the author is talented enough to show us both Willow's perspective and the way other people would see what is happening.

But the novel doesn't work as well as a story for younger people, because the most interesting characters are the adults. They're the ones who grow and change under Willow's influence. Looking at the novel as a reader, it was enjoyable enough. But looking at the novel as a middle school librarian, it would be difficult to justify spending money in these days of vastly reduced budgets on a book that adults would like more than students.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Wilkie Collins

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

It only remains to be added, that 'the person chiefly concerned' in Miss Clack's narrative, is happy enough at the present moment, not only to brave the smartest exercise of Miss Clack's pen, but even to recognize its unquestionable value as an instrument for the exhibition of Miss Clack's character.

-- Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sunday Sentence: David Gilbert

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

How much of experience is merely filling in the blanks from earlier experience.

-- David Gilbert, & Sons

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Alice Munro

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

And as they sped along she was able to see not much trace at all of the recent past -- no big puddles in the fields, showing where the seed had washed out, no miserable spindly cornstalks
or lodged grain.

-- Runaway by Alice Munro, from the collection of the same name

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Eowyn Ivey

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

She picked up the book and held it closer to her eyes. The next illustration had always been her favorite. In a snowy clearing, the girl stood surrounded by the wild beasts of the forest -- bears, wolves, hares, ermines, a stag, a red fox, even a tiny mouse. The animals sat on their haunches beside her, their demeanors neither menacing nor adoring. It was as if they had posed for a portrait, with their fur and teeth and claws and yellow eyes, and the little girl gazed plainly out at the reader without fear or pleasure. Did they love the little girl, or did they want to eat her?

-- Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: 'The Real Boy'

By Anne Ursu
Middle grade fantasy
September 2013
Walden Pond Press
ISBN: 978-0062015075

Oscar is a young boy who loves what he does -- he gathers herbs and other plants and prepares them for use by Caleb, the magician who took him in years ago.

The routine calms him, his world is orderly, he and the cats get along well and he secretly reads some of the untold number of books in Caleb's library at night. He sleeps in a small room next to his workroom, both underground. The only thorn is Caleb's apprentice, Wolf, a cocky older boy. They work in the Barrow, shops where small bits of magic go into what is sold, for both regular people and the rich ones who live in the barricaded city.

When Caleb leaves on business, Wolf and a young female apprentice take off for an afternoon in the forest. They don't survive. Caleb ends up spending more time away than he's at the shop, while Oscar is overwhelmed trying to help customers. When he makes an amazing discovery, it's a good thing he finally has someone he can talk to -- the healer's apprentice, Callie. She's nearly overwhelmed herself, as the healer starts spending as much time away as Caleb has been.

Left on their own, and with the world around them changing, Oscar and Callie have a strenuous hero's journey to undertake in Anne Ursu's beautiful high fantasy, The Real Boy. Reading only on the level of adventure, it's a grand story indeed. But Ursu has woven a far richer tale. The Real Boy also has Oscar questioning everything about himself and what he thought he knew.  Since the author has a young son who has autism, Oscar's questions are poignant and revealing. Readers also are led to question the world that the city folk have set up for themselves, and what happens when people try to keep hurt and risk at bay.

The Real Boy is a wonderful story for middle grade students and above, including adults who think they know what is best and don't listen to children any longer. There is a generous spirit at play in these pages to delight any who would enter.

2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Javiar Marías

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

She waited twenty minutes for him at a restaurant table, puzzled but not overly concerned, until the phone rang and her world ended, and she never waited for him again.

-- Javier Marías, The Infatuations

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Review: 'Enon'

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews

ENONBy Paul Harding
Literary Fiction
September 2013
Random House
ISBN: 978-1400069439

Paul Harding's first novel, Tinkers, appeared to have captured lightning. It was a small book published by a small press. It was the story of an old man dying in his living room, thinking of his family who came before and who followed him. It also was a brilliant, eloquent, poetic, unflinching look at love, family and flawed human beings who deserve admiration and forgiveness. It won the Putlizer in one of those instances where the winner honored the award.

Harding's second novel mines similar territory and, similarly, captures lightning. Charlie Crosby is the grandson of George Crosby from Tinkers. He has suffered the tragedy of Kate, his young daughter, dying when her bicycle is struck by a distracted mom chauffering her own children. Charlie knows he is sinking into oblivion but he is too filled with despair to change.

The year following his daughter's death is a portrait of relentless grief. No matter where his mind may wander -- remembering times spent with his beloved grandfather or adored daughter -- Charlie always comes crashing back to the realization that Kate is gone. Not even the painkillers and booze keep that knowledge at bay for long.

There is a quietness in Harding's beautiful prose that permeates this study of a New Englander who loves his hometown nearly as much as he loves his daughter. That quietness, that underlying awareness that knowledge and strength can come to those who persevere, help turn this portrait of sorrow into one of the fullness of life.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Toni Morrison

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

It may even be that some of us know what it is like to be actually hated—hated for things we have no control over and cannot change.

-- Toni Morrison, forward to The Bluest Eye

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Review: 'A Tale for the Time Being'

By Ruth Ozeki
Literary Fiction
March 2013
ISBN: 978-0670026630

Time, our place in time and our place within a social structure are focused on in Ruth Ozeki’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel, A Tale for the Time Being. What gives the novel its philosophical foundation are the beliefs of its author, who is a Buddhist priest.

This foundation also provides an emotional and moral center to the tales of three women, what they believe and the love they feel that is grounded in their beliefs.  Throw in quantum physics, Schrodinger’s cat and folklore about crows, and the result is a heavyweight novel that is easy to absorb  and worthy of contemplation.

Ruth is the present-day narrator who  shares with her author creator being a writer and a Buddhist priest living in British Columbia. The fictional Ruth and her husband live in a small village on a sound, where the ocean waves still manage to deliver a package. It at first appears to be a copy of the Proust novel À la recherche du temps perdu saved in plastic.

It is instead a journal remade with the novel’s cover, a journal written by a teenage girl in Japan around the turn of the 21st century.  Nao was raised in Silicon Valley when her father went to work there, but the bursting of the dot com bubble sent the family back to Japan. She is the epitome of a stranger living in a strange land.  She isn’t fluent in Japanese. She’s behind in school. And she is bullied. The bullying is relentless and  harrowing. Her classmates even hold a fake funeral for her and put it on the internet.

Without consulting her, her parents decide to send her for the summer break to her great-grandmother Jiko, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun in a remote mountain location. This nun is the kind of fictional character who should exist in real life. She’s a spiritual Auntie Mame who helped form some of Nao’s father’s best memories as a boy and is showing, not telling, her great-granddaughter the power of zazen, a method of meditation. She also hopes Nao develops a superpower.

Ruth could use the power of meditation. She’s been trying to write a memoir of her mother, who died several years ago after suffering from Alzheimer’s, but has been stalled for ages. As a writer, she knows this is not healthy:

An unfinished book, left unattended, turns feral, and she would need all her focus, will, and ruthless determination to tame it again.

Instead of her own work, Ruth is captivated by Nao and worries about her, even though the journal was written years ago. It may have reached Canada in the vanguard of debris drifting over after the tsunami and Fuskushima disaster, which is ongoing.

Ruth doesn’t even know if Nao is still alive. She not only wrote about killing herself, her father is sinking into depression ever more deeply because he cannot find work after they return to Japan. He isn’t even successful at killing himself. He does roam the streets at night, and sometimes Nao follows him. These sections are highly reminiscent of Murakami’s writing, especially in 1Q84 during night sessions involving a playground swing in the middle of a metropolis. Ruth also is having a hard time finding evidence online that Nao is real.

Meanwhile, Nao plans to write a biography of Jiko but like Ruth, she gets off-track and the work is not done. Jiko admires early Japanese feminists, and may or may not have written an “I-novel”, an early form of Japanese confessional fiction. Is this what Nao’s journal is? She is deliberately reaching out to someone who will one day read what she has written:

Maybe when I ask you a question like “You doing okay?” you should just tell me, even if I can’t hear you, and then I’ll just sit here and imagine what you might say. You might say, “Sure thing, Nao. I’m okay. I’m doin’ just fine.”

Is she practicing I-fiction or trying to find someone, anyone, since her new life is so desolate?

While Nao’s father is trying to commit suicide, the reader also learns about Jiko’s son. He was a kamikaze pilot during World War II. But he also was a scholar, a lover of French literature and poetry. Writings of his also surface.

Perhaps it is inevitable, but there is an element of the fantastical toward the end of the novel before Ozeki brings everything back together. I can’t say much without going into spoilers but again, it felt like wandering into Murakami territory and it felt right.

Ozeki weaves in ideas about bullies, both personal and corporate, sustainability, old growth and how to live at peace in the multiple POV narrative that doesn’t feel forced. There is ultimately a calmness that the writing delivers, and it has to do with realizing how connected we all are.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, September 9, 2013

Review: 'Black Spring'

By Alison Croggon
YA fantasy
August 2013
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 978-0-7636-6009-3

Wuthering Heights is one of those seminal works that can sweep away a reader. Often, the earlier a reader discovers this work, the stronger a hold the story of doomed lovers Catherine and Heathcliff can be.

So it’s no wonder that Alison Croggon was inspired by the Emily Bronte novel in writing Black Spring, about doomed lovers Lina and Damek, for a YA audience. The pair live in a harsh European setting in an inhospitable land, away from the softer, more sophisticated life in the south of their land. Wizards live among them, vendetta is a way of life and these willful children are determined to live as they prefer, society be damned.

Croggon’s novel follows the same narrative as the Bronte novel, from a stranger meeting a deranged Heathcliff, um, Damek, and seeing the ghost of Catherine, um, Lina, to the inevitable ending.

Added to the tale is a touch of paranormal. Lina is a witch, which usually means a death warrant, but she is protected by the king. When her father dies and his estate is given to a rough toadie, the local wizard plays a role. A highly structured vendetta that lasts for years showcases how noble the condemned men who have killed in vengeance are (yes, really) and, in a last-minute poke, is supposed to show why the nobility are above all that.

Croggon excels in creating a highly effective atmosphere of overwrought emotion that is as foundational to her setting as the harsh landscape. She also pays full homage to the novel and characters that inspired her own work.

Black Spring raises the same reservations that Wuthering Heights does. Although Lina despairs of being loved for herself and not coveted as a possession, and the society in which she lives gives women little chance of that happening, the idea that it is only as half of a couple that one truly is alive does not bolster this independent spirit. But for those readers who think Bella’s love of Edward is the height of attainment, Black Spring will fit their interest for more in the same vein.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Paul Harding

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

What I loved most was how the contents of each batch of books mixed up with one another in my mind to make ideas and images and thoughts I'd never have imagined possible.

-- Paul Harding, Enon

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sunday Sentence: 'A Tale for the Time Being'

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

I'm just thinking that if everything you're looking for disappears, maybe you should stop looking. Maybe you should focus on what's tangible in the here and now.

-- Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

Friday, August 16, 2013

Review: 'Five Star Billionaire'

By Tash Aw
Literary fiction
July 2013
Spiegel & Grau
ISBN: 978-0812994346

The tale of the up-and-down fortunes of five people trying their luck in Shanghai may not make the Booker Prize shortlist, but Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire is an entertaining tale that sheds light on the universal human desire to be counted.

Phoebe is a young woman who has recently arrived in bustling Shanghai to try her luck. Things appear to be going her way when a rich woman drops her ID card at a coffee shop. Between that and the self-help advice she reads, such as the adages in a book called Five Star Billionaire, Phoebe just knows she’ll make it.

Justin is already near the top. His family has been rich for generations, owning and developing property. He’s the one picked in his generation to be the fixer, the one who makes sure things get done. His whole life is work -- meetings, society appearances, travel, paperwork. Not like his brother the hipster and his girlfriend, who owns a cafe but doesn’t even know how to read a ledger.

Yinhui has worked hard as well, and is now a successful businesswoman with several ongoing ventures. Her life revolves around work as well, and she is poised to become even more successful.

Gary has come from nothing and nowhere to be a huge pop music sensation. Winning a talent show and then going on to make hit after chart-topping hit, his life is controlled every minute in service to his career and those screaming girls who adore him.

Walter is the Five Star Billionaire author and a character who lives in the shadows. He is the cog in this story that sets things going and, as his story is eventually revealed, his reasons are made clear.

Written much in the style of a Kate Atkinson multiple narrative, the connections among the characters draw them into each other’s stories. Propelling them all is the other main character in the novel -- Shanghai. It is sprawling, it is tightly packed, it rewards the ruthless and robs the trusting. Stopping to smell the roses is not recommended in a cutthroat, fast-paced world, yet it is something that many of the characters yearn to do.

Shanghai is as mysterious and unforgiving in Aw’s novel as it is in Bo Caldwell’s Distant Land of My Father, a brilliant story of sophistication and survival that encompasses WWII, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, a flawed but fascinating novel with settings that include the International Settlement in Old Shanghai and a fantastical city that could not exist in reality, but which seems to be mirrored in Five Star Billionaire.

In Aw’s novel, Shanghai is not just the exotic locale it often is to Westerners. This ultra-competitive world is recognizable to anyone who sees the way that financial success is deemed the ultimate goal for so many in today’s world. The goal of making money for its own sake, for respect and to get even with anyone who tried to hold you down is as much a part of American society as it is in Shanghai.

The grace of Five Star Billionaire is that the human motives behind the drive to succeed, and the wanting to connect with other human beings even if it takes time away from a business meeting, underlies the story arc of each character.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review: 'The Color Master'

By Aimee Bender
Literary fiction short stories
August 2013
ISBN: 978-0-385-53489-5

Magic realism is a tricky thing. Go too far in one direction and the result can be either fantasy or an inability to keep that disbelief suspended. Go too far the other way and the result can be so close to the real world that the reaction is: Why bother?

Aimee Bender, like two characters in the title story of this collection, knows how to mix the ingredients together just right.

Her stories are filled with yearning. Some characters do outrageous things, daring themselves to push past acceptable behavior. Even the thought of doing outrageous things, dangerous things, changes the world or the characters, and there is a sense of loss.

Other characters dare themselves to discover, and the result often is a finding of themselves, or love, or both. Often, the stories have healing qualities. Characters are saved or come to new realizations about themselves that make their lives better. They learn to create colors so garments reflect the sun, the moon and the sky. They learn how to mend tigers and why the tigers need mending. A cake that was created to replenish itself learns how to overcome the darkness of the never-ending need to please. A man with a perfect face learns how to find the love of his life. A family that receives unexpected presents learns to cherish what they have.

Some of the stories defy easy explanation. And that’s all right. The moods, the emotions, the journeys that the characters undertake are worth savoring and being allowed to steep into memory. They should not be rushed through. They should be enjoyed.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Review: 'The Woman Upstairs'

By Claire Messud
Literary fiction
April 2013
ISBN: 978-0307596901

Collisions between creating and privacy, friendship and art, love and honesty are at the heart of the brutal, passionate and uplifting The Woman Upstairs, the latest novel by Claire Messud.

Uplifting is just about the last word that comes to mind when Nora Eldridge begins her story. She is more than irritated or even cheesed off. She is furious. Angry isn't volatile enough to describe her scorching, psyche-deep, all-consuming rage. It's part of being a woman, an unmarried woman who teaches young children and who once thought of becoming an artist, a woman who once held an important corporate position and who could have married a man who became a successful attorney. Nora knows this and she knows it's hardly acceptable. This is Nora -- she is honest about how she feels, even when she does things she knows are wrong, and she is about as honest a narrator as one usually sees. Just when it looks like you've caught her being unreliable or just trying to fool herself, she puts the record straight. As when she says:

I'd like to blame the world for what I've failed to do, but the failure -- the failure that sometimes washes over me as anger, makes me so angry I could spit -- is all mine, in the end. ... I thought I could get to greatness, to my greatness, by plugging on, cleaning up each mess as it came, the way you're taught to eat your greens before you have dessert.

In putting the record straight about why she is angry, Nora goes back to relate what happened a few years ago when she gave her heart away to three members of the same family. First is her new third grade student, Reza, who catches her eye at the supermarket before he comes to her class; his mother, Italian artist Sirena, who is living the kind of life Nora may have once wanted or thought she wanted; and his father, Skander, an academic who is a quietly charismatic man.

From the beginining, Nora knows she's crossing the line when she realizes how deeply she cares for Reza. When he suffers first one, then two, instances of bullying, Nora crosses the line in taking care of him. Sirena immediately stirs her sympathy and empathy. When Reza's mother suggests that they share the lease on a loft space to create their respective works of art, Nora again crosses the line and jumps at the chance. She babysits for Reza, she takes longer and longer walks with Skander when he walks her home, she starts helping Sirena with her installation. She's way too invested in these people.

Messud displays acute observations about education, art and how people care for each other in this novel. It begins with Nora explaining an aspect of her job, which in turn reveals truths about her:

When they tell me that I "get" kids, I'm worried that they're saying I don't seem quite adult. The professor husband of a friend of mine has likened children to the insane. I often think of it. He says that children live on the edge of madness, that their behavior, apparently unmotivated, shares the same dream logic as crazy people's. I see what he means, and because I've learned to be patient with children, to tease out the logic that's always somewhere there, and irrefutable once explained, I've come to understand that grown-ups, mad or sane, ought really to be accorded the same respect. In this sense, nobody is actually crazy, just not understood.

It's fairly obvious that Sirena, whether meaning to or not, is taking advantage of Nora. After all, Nora ia one of those ubiquitous Women Upstairs. They are Barbara Pym's Excellent Women. They are the Maiden Aunts, the Youngish Widows, they are On the Shelf. They are there to serve. That is their function, their role. They are not made to complain or complicate matters. No matter that they once had dreams of becoming an artist, no matter they still feel the weight of their own mothers not having a fulfilling life beyond housekeeping and child-raising duties, that they could have married but realized it would have been the end of their dreams.

This is how Nora is viewed. But she yearns, or how she still yearns.

Nora is someone who wants to be fully understood for who she really is, but she isn't sure that she can trust anyone else to understand her. So she hides. Until she gives her heart away. Even her art is compressed. She tries to make little dioramas of rooms of famous women artists -- Emily Dickenson, Virginia Woolf and Edie Sedgewick. One weekend, Nora completely obliterates the line in her relationship with both Sirena and Skander and believes she is reveling as her true self, as an artist. And it comes back to haunt her in what will be seen by some as a huge betrayal and by others as an artist simply being an artist, using what material is there.

The culmination of Nora's relationship with the family is not much of a surprise. There has been plenty of conversation about ethics and history -- Skander's academic specialty -- and creating art, to warn the reader. And how nothing looks the same to everyone. Much of what is conveyed is quite meta, including Sirena's art, which includes in her installations objects remade of trash:

... lush gardens and jungles made out of household items and refuse: elaborately carved soap primroses, splayed lilies and tulips fashioned out of dyed dishrags and starch, silvery vines of painted and varnished clothesline and foil, precisely and impeccably made. I couldn't quite picture them when she talked about them, but the idea made sense to me: visions of paradise, the otherworldly, the beautiful, and then, when you're in them, up close, you realize that the flowers are mottled by filth and the vines are crumbling and that the gleaming beetles crawling on the waxy leaves are molded bottle tops or old leather buttons with limbs. ... She told me too that latterly she'd made videos of the installations, that the story of the videos was precisely this revelation that the beautiful world was fake, was made of garbage; but that first she had to film it in such a way that it looked wholly beautiful and that sometimes this was hard. And also, she said, narrative was hard: when you made a video, there had to be a story, and a story unfolded over time, in a different way, and didn't always unfold as you wanted it to.

The ultimate beauty of the novel is how it ends. It's not one of those novels that ends without resolution. And it is an ending that makes great sense considering what Nora has revealed of herself all along.

She may be a Woman Upstairs, but one of the ideas that has been consistently presented throughout is that no one should go gentle into that good night. No matter how many times one may argue with and cajole Nora during the novel, this is not an easily imagined resolution. It's a resolution that can make a reader all the happier for having made the journey of reading this novel.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Review: 'Battleborn'

By Claire Vaye Watkins
Literary fiction stories
August 2013 (paperback edition)
Riverhead Trade
ISBN: 978-1594631450 

One of the reasons I'm drawn to fiction set in the West is that the good stuff, the really good stuff, brings this part of the world to life. It is a vivid, harsh, beautiful place that rarely nurtures but often rewards anyone who can handle it.

Many of the characters can handle it in Claire Vaye Watkins's brilliant stories in Battleborn, which are set in Nevada and Northern California. They just don't know they can handle it until circumstances point it out to them abruptly.

That's certainly the case in "The Last Thing We Need". Thomas Grey, who lives out in the Middle of Nowhere, finds the debris of what may have been a wreck and writes to the man whose name and address he finds on some prescription bottles. Even though he has a wife and two children, he lives mostly with his thoughts. And, because the man he is writing to has not answered, Thomas Grey begins to relay his thoughts.

This is our old joke. Like all our memories, we like to take it out once in a while and lay it flat on the kitchen table, the way my wife does with her sewing patterns, where we line up the shape of our life against that which we thought it would be by now.

I'll tell you what I don't tell her, that there is something shameful in this, the buoying of our sinking spirits with old stories.

And later:

On second thought, perhaps sometimes these things are best left by the side of the road, as it were. Sometimes a person wants a part of you that's no good. Sometimes love is a wound that opens and closes, opens and closes, all our lives.

Grey finds out that there is something he cares very much about besides the past. He can handle where he is and what he has.

Other characters need to leave to reach that epiphany. One leaves a brother to his own devices after his sibling is enthralled by something else out in the land where gold was hunted and where gamblers still believe they will come out on top. Another has been depending on her sister and reaches a point where, perhaps, her sister can now depend on her.

Others are not so successful. Not all attempts by the men to be heroic succeed, as one old-time miner discovers. Not all attempts by the women to let go of the past succeed.

For all of them, the men and the women, the ones who thrive and the ones who barely survive, promises matter. In a story, "The Diggings", set during the Gold Rush, a 49'er explains:

A promise unkept will take a man's mind. It does not matter whether the promise is made by a woman or a territory or a future foretold. ... Because though I was afraid and angry and lonesome much of the time, I was also closer to my own raw heart there in the territory than I have ever been since.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Review: 'TransAtlantic'

Literary fiction
June 2013
Random House
ISBN: 978-1400069590

Waves come in and the tide goes out. The sea ebbs and flows, but what changes does that result in? It is only when taking long looks from a distance does it seem that anything has been altered. But looking at a distance also can mean an impersonal point of view in which individual grief does not matter and mourning is no more than another part of life.

The same could be said about what happens in Colum McCann's Transatlantic, which has been longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize. Men die, women mourn, women endure, women lose. Another generation comes along, grows old in the blink of an eye and suffers grevious loss.

McCann uses the same type of storytelling that he used in Let the Great World Spin to write about life and death, especially death, on both sides of the Atlantic. In both Northern Ireland and North America, great men stand out and attempt great deeds.

In the years between the two great wars of the 20th century, two former prisoners of war attenpt to fly from Newfoundland to Ireland. After they land, the stage shifts to young Frederick Douglass before the Civil War as he visits Dublin to speak and raise funds for the abolition movement. After he leaves, it's more than 100 years later and George Mitchell is leaving New York, his second wife and infant son to head toward the last stage of what will be known as the Good Friday Accords.

In each of these set pieces, the famous men touch the lives of women who are perhaps more extraordinary than they are, because they endure and they do so without celebrity or honor, without recognition or reward.

As Alcock and Brown prepare for their flight across the Atlantic, in part to win the prize money and in part to use the war-waging airplane when there are no overt battlefields, Brown is given a letter to deliver by young photographer Lottie Erlich. It is one her mother has written to someone in Ireland, a country her own mother left decades ago after hearing Douglass speak. Young Lily was inspired by Douglass and ends up as a nurse helping Union doctors in their bloody work. She started following the army after her young son, turned down twice already, goes off to fight. She ends up marrying one of the doctors but death continues to follow Lily.

Her daughter, a bookworm, becomes a writer, is used by a man, and raises a daughter of her own. They end up in Newfoundland, where the daughter hands off the letter before they go back to Ireland. She marries an Ulsterman and stays to raise a family. The daughter grows old, meets George Mitchell and wishes him success because there has been one death too many in her extended family. Her own daughter grows old and hopes the letter, which was not delivered nor opened, but which finds its way back to her,  will be worth enough money to save her home.

Things that would be played up in most novels, such as how the various women feel about the various deaths, how they find the strength to carry on, what it means to them to be the ones who survive, even the letter and whether it saves the home, are not important in this novel. Time goes on and there is no tarrying.

A few setpieces do not make a novel, especially when many of the setpieces have the flat emotionless style of reportage (the George Mitchell section is particularly flat; as a friend remarked, you can almost see where McCann took notes of what Mitchell said and where he added a wee bit of flair).

Although I don't often specifically reflect on a book as being from a woman's point of view, part of the flatness of the McCann was due to his standing back and not looking at the lives of these women and the deaths of so many loved ones they survived as a mother would look at them. That does not do justice to the men who grieve for lost children and other loved ones, and is yet another reason why the McCann did not work for me.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday Sentence: Claire Vaye Watkins II

Presented without commentary, as inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I have read this week:

Because though I was afraid and angry and lonesome much of the time, I was also closer to my own raw heart there in the territory than I have ever been since.

-- Claire Vaye Watkins, "The Diggings" from Battleborn

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Review: 'A Dangerous Fiction'

By Barbara Rogan
Crime thriller
July 2013
ISBN: 978-0670026500

Jo Donovan, widowed young and taking over a literary agency from her mentor, has made a good life. She's terrific at what she does, and doesn't see many changes on the horizon. One night, she is accosted by a wanna-be author whose manuscript Jo's agency turned down. Soon, there are attacks against her business and even her clients. Suspicions are cast among the people at the agency and the police even wonder if Jo didn't have too much to gain when the attacks turn deadly.

In Barbara Rogan's smashing new thriller, Jo will have to look clearly at her colleagues, herself and her past if she's going to see it through.

Every aspect of A Dangerous Fiction works together and works so wonderfully well. Rogan's experience as a literary agent provides a fascinating look at how the business works. The hopes and dreams of writers are balanced against the realities of publishing. The personal life of the widow of a literary giant such as Jo and her pursuit by a biographer are played against each other well, and serve the story's marvelously realized journey of its protagonist. Anyone interested in a picture of how publishing works will be fascinated by the inner workings. As someone who once read unsolicited manuscripts for a mystery house, I can certainly attest to the quality of so many submissions in the scenes addressing this. Rogan's love of good books also shines through.

Jo is an interesting character who came up from nothing the hard way. That she didn't let her austere, loveless upbringing warp her is part of the reason the entire novel works so well. She is strong but not perfect (and the explanation of a "Mary Sue" character created by a fictional writer shows just how well Jo is developed). Her colleagues and writers are fascinating to watch. There are easily more heroes than suspects, and to have a strongly written novel in which so many characters are shown to be good-hearted is a pleasure to read.

And, while it may not be the most important part of the story to many, setting is strongly evoked throughout the novel. The bustle of Manhattan, the glory of a farmhouse, the entrancing Santa Fe are all portrayed in their best light. It's a treat to read a story in which it's so easy to picture the characters where they are, especially in the film-worthy final pages.

Just make certain you have time set aside when you start A Dangerous Fiction because this fast-paced novel is the kind you don't want to put down until the last page is read.

Barbara Rogan is a colleague at CompuServe's Books and Writers Community whose work I've enjoyed in the past. It was an honor and a treat to read her latest novel, and I'm in even more awe of her generous spirit.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Claire Vaye Watkins

Presented without additional comment, the best sentence(s) I've read this week, as inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen:

Sometimes a person wants a part of you that's no good. Sometimes love is a wound that opens and closes, opens and closes, all our lives.

-- Claire Vaye Watkins, "The Last Thing We Need" from Battleborn

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review: 'Harvard Square'

By Andre Aciman
Literary fiction
April 2013
W.W. Norton
ISBN: 978-0393088601

Friendship, loyalty, the feeling of belonging, and how tenuous these concepts are in reality for the faint at heart, are central to Andre Aciman's latest novel, Harvard Square.

In the summer of 1977, a Jewish graduate student at Harvard from Alexandria, Egypt, who will never go home, is hit by the summer doldrums. He has failed his comprehensives, has one more chance to pass them and needs to read like a fiend all summer. So of course he would rather be doing anything else.

Drawn to a cafe that reminds him of home, he meets a loud, abusive Tunisian Arab who commands the attention of everyone around, especially the women. Kalaj is a cabdriver, but he knows more about many things than just about everyone else. And doesn't mind telling them so.

He's also a performance artist who adores women; his every public move is calculated to draw their attention and flirt until they go off together. Kalaj is mesmerizing to our narrator.

Their acquaintance becomes a friendship of opposites, an academic and cabdriver, Jew and Arab, quiet and boisterous, wavering and steadfast, one with a green card and the other without.

The themes in Aciman's story are well-served by the story of the two young men at turning points in their lives. The academic does not turn his back on Harvard, only on people. Kalaj, after being so vigorously a critic of the ersatz United States and everything it stands for, falls whole-heartedly when he is accepted into the narrator's world.

Aciman does at least as much, if not more, tell rather than show in his story, but with a purpose. The emotions, the observations, the reflections are at the heart of what Aciman's narrator is trying to recapture in the story of that long-ago summer. It's told as a flashback, with the endpieces being the older man bringing his son to Harvard during the child's college search. The narrator is searching to feel all those feelings again as much as he is weaving a narrative.

Aciman does not name his narrator. This helps reinforce the universal human qualities of his narrator, who spends that summer both knowing how fortunate he is to be at Harvard studying what he wants, while also regretting that he can't have other kinds of lives as well. His life, even when he makes choices, is not a life like the one lived by Kalaj, who lives for the moment, who lives each moment to the fullest, who is larger than life to everyone.

Aciman does a wonderful job of capturing that feeling of being in a place where you feel you will be unmasked as a fraud, that everyone will know you don't really belong there, and how empowering it feels to get away with any slight action that makes it look like you do belong. This works as well for the Harvard academic setting as it does for an ex-pat living in a foreign country.

Another aspect of the novel that worked well was that feeling of befriending someone as magnetic as Kalaj. It may initially feel like being on top of the world that such a strong personality wants to spend time with you. But does it feel the same after you realize that friend has sucked up all the oxygen in the world? What to do if you are both proud and ashamed of knowing such a person? A book that leads to wondering about such things is one well worth spending time in.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Sunday Sentence: 'The Woman Upstairs'

Once again, my Sunday Sentence(s) this week, presented without further comment and as inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, is from Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs:

Suddenly, there's an opportunity, an opening, a person or people you couldn't have imagined, and -- elation! -- it feels as though you've found the pot of gold, when you'd thought all the gilt was gone from this world forever. It's enough, for a time -- maybe even for a long time -- to make you forget that you were ever angry, that you ever knew what anger was at all.

Review: 'Tell the Wolves I'm Home'

By Carol Rifka Brunt
Literary Fiction
June 2013 (paperback edition)
Dial Press
ISBN: 978-0812982855

Before that time in life when one comes, inevitably, to age, to adulthood, there is in the best of possibilities a time when the person coming of age recognizes a rite of passage happening. In the mid-80s, June Elbus receives the gift of such a time during her fourteenth year. It's the year after her beloved uncle dies of AIDS when people could only whisper its name, and when she and her older sister realize how far apart they have grown, in Carol Rifka Brunt's debut novel, Tell the Wolves I'm Home.

June's Uncle Finn knows he is dying, and his way of saying goodbye is to have June and her sister, Greta, pose while he paints their portrait. Finn is a good artist, and a famous one, although that's not why June loves him. He is her godfather, and he pays attention to her. They have special places, such as the Cloisters. Finn shows her how the little things matter when it comes to illuminating the whole. And that's the kind of story that June tells.

At Finn's funeral, a young man is turned away. But he and June make eye contact. Then June receives a phone call from him, and packets in the mail. The young man is Toby, Finn's lover, who was never allowed by Finn's sister to know Finn's nieces. But Finn has asked Toby and June to look out for each other.

They both need looking after, because they are sweet souls who seek the beauty in life. Toby has a horrible secret in his past that complicates a plan that June concocts, as only a child can concoct a plan, to make things better. And Toby, like Finn, is dying of AIDS.

Early in their clandestine friendship, June tells Toby why she likes to pretend she lives in medieval times:

Maybe it's just that people didn't know everything then. There were things people had never seen before. Places nobody had ever been. You could make up a story and people would believe it. You could believe in dragons and saints. You could look around at plants and think that maybe they could save your life.

June is at the end of that time when she can believe in dragons and saints. June also is grappling with her older sister. Greta is the prototypical cooler-than-thou teenager. She's the youngest in her crowd, performing as Bloody Mary in the school production of South Pacific, and she is very, very talented. June knows her so well that she can tell when Greta is naturally brilliant and phoning it in, although no one else seems to notice.

Although the relationship between June and Finn, and later June and Toby, is magical, the relationship between June and Greta is realistic. It is part of the foundation that holds this novel together and the ties between June and Greta are part of what makes this novel so steadfast. Greta is disdainful. She pushes June away. June tries to ignore her. Why the once-close sisters are now longer each other's best friend is shown in heart-wrenching detail. Also shown is that there is every reason to believe that they can mend their relationship, especially with the example of Finn and their mother before them. They once were as close as June and Greta were, but Mom gave up her art and became, with their father, an accountant. They're taking care of their family. Thinking about art and the talent she once displayed makes their mother sad and angry.

The title of the novel comes from what appears in the family portrait. In the space between the sisters, June makes out the shape of a wolf. In the woods beyond her home, where she goes to be alone, she hears canine howls that may be wolves. June, in her lowest moment, decides that you can't get away from those things that are out to get you. "You may as well tell them where you live, because they'll find you anyway. They always do."

The novel takes a turn that celebrates love among family members. Tell the Wolves I'm Home is a quirky, fun story that even when it hits the low points in people's relationships, treats its characters lovingly. It's the kind of novel in which a fourteen-year-old girl and her beloved uncle's lover have this kind of conversation:

 "Don't you know? That's the secret. If you always make sure you're exactly the person you hoped to be, if you always make sure you know only the very best people, then you don't care if you die tomorrow."  
 "That doesn't make any sense. If you were so happy, then you'd want to stay alive, wouldn't you? You'd want to be alive forever, so you could keep being happy." I reached over and tapped my ash into a pretty pottery dish that Toby was using for an ashtray. 
 "No, no. It's the most unhappy people who want to stay alive, because they think they haven't done everything they want to do. They think they haven't had enough time. They feel like they've been short-changed."

By the end of the novel, it's not only all right to tell the wolves that June is home, I left these characters knowing that they all were going to do everything they want to do. They won't be short-changed.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Review: 'On Sal Mal Lane'

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews

By Ru Freeman
Literary fiction
May 2013
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555976422

In Ru Freeman's On Sal Mal Lane, several families live on a quiet lane in Columbo in Sri Lanka in the years just before and during the political upheaval, riots and deaths of the early 1980s. One family lacks rancor and is filled with music, sincerity, with hopes and dreams. Anther family is fueled by anger and alcohol, with unspoken yearning.

As these and other families who call Sal Mal Lane home celebrate their holidays, share food and games, and bring each other into their lives, missed opportunities as seemingly trivial as gifts of strawberry milk and chocolate become harbingers of heartbreak.

The world of the quiet street changes with the arrival of the Herath family, which sings together gathered around the piano. The music is an important unifying factor throughout the novel. It draws people to the four children -- oldest son Suren who lives and breathes music, oldest daughter Rashmi who is the perfect child at school, son Nihil who adores cricket but not as much as he adores and worries about protecting the youngest, daughter Devi, a carefree, lively child.

One of the beauties of this novel is that these children are genuinely dear souls. Their mother is a teacher who has naturally high expectations. Their father, a government worker, is akin to a less biting Mr. Bennet who doesn't regret his marriage while hiding behind his newspapers. Their neighbors, the Silvas, consider themselves the top family of the lane. They're stuffy but not overbearing. Their two boys are not allowed to play with the Bolling girls.

The Bollings are an extended disfunctional family of a physically damaged, angry father, a teenage son, Sonna, who is the neighborhood bully and who will break a reader's heart, and two younger unkempt, flighty daughters who are drawn to the Heraths. Their friendship brings into the circle the Bolling children's uncle Raju, a mentally and physically challenged man who remains childlike and who lives with his mother. Raju adores the children, especially Devi. And Devi adores Raju because he is the only grown-up who never tells her what she is supposed to do and not do.

In another house, the Nerath children take piano lessons from Kala Niles, the grown-up daughter who still lives at home. Her mother is one of the homemakers on the lane. Old Mr. Niles and Nihil become fast friends through their love of cricket and books in one of the lovely relationships forged in this novel.

There are sweet friendships among people who often don't have anything to do with each other in other circumstances. The Bolling girls love being with the Heraths, who, instead of being uptight, welcome them into their home. One Silva boy develops a crush on one of the Bolling girls, and they dream of going to Australia one day where their differences won't matter. The Niles family blossoms when the Heraths come with their music.

And then there is Sonna. He's the tough guy of the neighborhood. He is the one everyone fears, because he will attack. It's what he learned from his angry, bitter father who was hurt in a car crash before Sonna's very eyes while trying to go off to carouse with a buddy. But the Herath children cast their spell on him, too. They refuse to see that there is an evil person in Sonna, no matter what cautions the other neighbors give them. The missed opportunities of trying to give presents back and forth are symbols of the missed communication that can heal and strengthen personal relationships when successful, but which are bittersweet when they are not.

Despite the grownups' best efforts, outside political forces come into the lane. There are Tamil and Sinhalese, Hindu and Catholic families, Buddhists and Muslims. Far too many of the people on the lane fear and hate because they feel they are supposed to do so. One family retreats when the troubles come; the family members hurt only themselves.

Homes are attacked and people gather together. The relationships that have been formed don't all hold, but enough of them do to show that even in the face of the world as they know it falling apart, people can still be good to each other and true to themselves. Just as missed opportunities are bittersweet for the children, it leads one to wonder what missed opportunities might have helped the political situation from disintegrating.

In the aftermath, after a haunting chapter in which another street still stands only as ashes that will collapse to the touch and which the only living thing left is not saved, people slowly try to return to the lives they once led. Then tragedy strikes. There is enough foreshadowing early on that it is not hard to tell who something will happen to, but there is such strong storytelling that even knowing does not take away the powerful emotional impact when that something comes.

The personal and the political are woven together so finely in this novel that they do not strain against each other, but bolster the telling of the two aspects of what the Sal Mal Lane neighbors face and feel. Information needed to know why it's important to know who is Sinhalese and who is Tamil is presented clearly and in time to be useful. Freeman is both a journalist and novelist, so she knows how to deliver the small noticings that reveal character, and the sweep of politics that change a country.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sunday Sentence: 'The Woman Upstairs'

This week's Sunday Sentence, presented as David Abrams says at The Quivering Pen, because it's the best sentence I've read this week, out of context and without commentary:
It's the strangest thing about being human: to know so much, to communicate so much, and yet always to fall so drastically short of clarity, to be, in the end, so isolate and inadequate.

-- Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs

Review: 'Ghost Riders of Ordebec'

By Fred Vargas
Crime fiction (Commissaire Adamsberg)
June 2013
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0143123125                                                                                                         

Commissaire Adamsberg is a delight. He is unorthodox, loyal, and the kind of copper who goes by instinct. He's not always right the first time. But oh, his journey and the reader's while he gets there is always a trip.

Adamsberg returns in Fred Vargas's The Ghost Riders of Ordebec in a story about loyalty and ties to others that crosses generations. A pigeon is found with its feet tied together by a shoelace.

Adamsberg is visited by a little bird-like woman from the countryside who is worried about her eccentric brood. One of them claims to have seen the ghostly riders whose presence has foretold the death of local ne-er-do-wells for generations. And one of those named has died -- a cruel hunter whose death appears to have been a cowardly suicide in order to avoide the ghost riders.

Meanwhile, in Paris, car arsonist and anti-capitalist Momo is arrested after another Mercedes is torched. This time, there is an old man inside, a captain of industry whose two sons are neither one capable of taking over alone. The old man was ready to marry his housekeeper, who he had been sleeping with for 10 years, and who is the mother of his two younger children. Adamsberg doesn't think Momo killed the industralist any more than he thinks the cruel hunter killed himself. But proving himself right is going to be tricky at best, and may be impossible.

In the country, there is the bird-lady's family, who insist they are nice people. They are protected by the local comte, who is connected to a strong old woman, Leone. She is the one who found the hunter's body and who puts Adamsberg up for the night. The local cop, Emeri, is descended from one of Napoleon's marshalls and sets a table in homage to that era.

Adamsberg's squad resembles both a family that should be dysfunctional, but which works, and the unnruly, unmannerly squad of Commissario Salvo Montalbano in the novels by Italian Andrea Camilleri (which also are among my must-reads). In Vargas's earlier novels that were translated into English, his number two Danglard, he of the large brood of children and love of white wine and incredible grasp of pertinent trivia, was the main secondary character. He has not been replaced, but Adamsberg's crew is being featured more to become another worthy descendant of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct group of beloved characters.

But of all the family ties in this novel, the greatest one is Zerk. He is Adamsberg's son, who our commissaire first met in An Uncertain Place, and he and Adamsberg are getting to know each other and respect each other even as the two crime investigations take over their lives.

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec is a deceptively paced novel, as most of those by internationally renowned crime writer Vargas are. The story appears often to ramble as much as Adamsberg does. But it's all to a purpose. And, in this novel, the threads weave together in the end extraordinarily well. This is a novel worth reading not only for the whodunit aspect, which is handled with great care, but also for its characters who live and breathe beyond the pages of this story and for the tale they tell herein.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission