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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