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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: 'The Iron Trial'

The Iron Trial (Book One of Magisterium)
By Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Fantasy MG
September 2014
Scholastic Press
ISBN: 978-0-545-52225-0

First, a fangirl moment. Holly Black is one of the most imaginative YA and MG novelists we have right now. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown was a chilling, spooky YA novel with unexpected twists and an engaging protagonist. Doll Bones is a spectacularly successful MG horror novel with great characters, a plot that makes sense and some rather goosebumps-raising moments.

Teaming with Mortal Instruments, Infernal Devices and Bane Chronicles author Cassandra Clare, here is another story that is not the same as everything else out there.

The Iron Trial is the first book in the Magisterium series. It not only builds on the tropes so many learned to adore with Harry Potter, it’s a complete turnaround of what readers expect a hero’s journey to be. Callum Hunt, as a baby, survived a massacre of mages in a war against the Enemy of Death. His mother died after carving the message "Kill the Child" with her last breaths. His father, a strong mage himself, has kept Call from magic or knowing much about any of this for his entire life.

But now that he is 12, he has been called to take part in a series of tests to see if he qualifies for training at the Magisterium, where mages learn to control their power. Those who fail have their magic bound at the end of the first year, knowing only for the rest of their lives that they are missing an integral part of themselves.

Call is on orders from his father to fail. His father doesn’t want him there; Call thinks he will be harmed. Despite his best efforts to fail, he is chosen by one of the most talented mages. And now he’s torn. What if he could be good? And now, for the first time, he has friends. And he’s kinda good at this magic after all.
 
The training that Call and his new friends undertake, the friendships formed and Call's journey into discovering why he is different unfold with steady pacing. The world-building and character development work together very well here. The ending is an ending but also shows how the second book will continue Call's journey.

Whether recommending to a teacher for read-aloud because of the plot twists, or to readers who think all fantasy is the same or those ready for something that goes beyond Hogwarts, this is a book to put in their hands.



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

Review: 'No One Else Can Have You'

No One Else Can Have You
By Kathleen Hale
YA Thriller
January 2014
HarperTeen
ISBN 978-0062211194

Sometimes a book receives notoriety and it’s tempting to read it to find out why. And sometimes that turns out to be a mistake.

No One Else Can Have You is billed as a darkly comic tale of a 16-year-old coming to terms with the death of her best, and only, friend in a dull and creepy town. Her mother died several years ago so she’s had experience with it.

Earlier this year, Hale’s novel gained attention when she tracked down a person egging on negative reviews of her novel and wrote about it in the Guardian. Then that received a backlash. So I had to find out what had caused all the fuss and fortunately had an ARC of the novel.

Fortunately, because I didn’t have to pay for it. Hale’s protagonist has a sardonic voice and the author has a dark view of small-town Wisconsin, where everyone is a hypocrite, drunk and a hunter. The protagonist, Kippy, had one friend, Ruth. But Ruth was killed and her body left in a corn maze after horrible things were done to it. Was the deed done by her vandalizing, womanizing boyfriend? Was the killer the middle-aged attorney in town who also was shagging Ruth? Or was it someone else?

Ruth’s brother comes home from serving in Afghanistan; he shot his finger off when Ruth was killed in an attempt to be sent home and now has a dishonorable discharge as the least of his problems.

Kippy’s father is a school counselor, calls her ridiculous names and keeps her close by. Their friend across the street lives by himself ever since his parents died in a truck accident when it collided with a deer. He mostly plays video games and collects stuff, but he was Kippy's babysitter and seems to be about the calmest, rational character in the bunch.

When Ruth’s boyfriend is arrested, despite every indication that he didn’t do it (especially when there is a subsequent murder), Kippy decides to find out who really killed Ruth. The sheriff doesn’t care who really did it because Ruth’s boyfriend also tried to have his way with his daughter and he hasn’t forgiven the kid.

All the relationships in the book are tainted in similar ways. The language used throughout is very fond of certain Anglo-Saxon terms. Everyone lives on beer and meat; the one time Kippy asks her father for a salad is sad and typical of the way Hale's story condemns everything Kippy sees. After Kippy’s father catches her trying to solve the murder, he has her committed to a mental hospital. Pre-publication publicity compared the novel to Fargo, and that was not accurate.

This novel disappointed on so many levels -- characterization, plotting, who the killer was. But overall, the biggest disappointment is that Hale's novel would have been so much more with some finesse. The sardonic tone is wonderful but the world is describes is so OTT that it doesn't matter. Not much of anything matters in Kippy's world. If you care, you get sent to the looney bin.

Ironically enough, that original review's complaint about the book apologizing for rape that set Hale off to stalking the reviewer? Didn't see that part in the actual ARC, unless the reviewer meant the subplot where the middle-age attorney shags the teenage murder victim in a consensual relationship. For fiction that's far worse in that regard, there's always a certain novel by Greg Iles.

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

Sunday Sentence: The Moor's Account

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:

Maybe there is no true story, only imagined stories, vague collections of what we saw and what we heard, what we felt and what we thought.

-- Laila Lalami, The Moor's Account

Saturday, December 27, 2014

2014 reading highlights

Best of reading lists are not my strength; I always forget something even with reading journals both physical and online. But here are some highlights from 2014:

Middle Grade Fiction

The Fourtheenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm
Holm pays tribute to her science forebear in a funny, wise and non-preachy book about parents and children, grown and not grown-up, when the new kid in Ellie's class turns out to be her grandfather. His experiment worked and he's now a 6th grader.

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee
Ophelia does not believe in magic in this novel inspired by The Snow Queen. But when her sword historian father takes on a job in a museum in a city where it never stops snowing, and she meets a boy in a locked room who has been waiting for her to rescue him, Ophelia has some rethinking to do.

YA Fiction
Don't Call Me Baby by Gwendolyn Heasley
The teen daughter of a mommy blogger does not appreciate having her whole life bantered about on the internet. And now her teacher wants everyone in class to blog. An entertaining coming-of-age story when those moments with your family are now things everyone online knows.

Nonfiction
Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow (memoir)
The New York Times columnist's memoir recounts his childhood in rural poverty, his mother's incredible hard work, his confusion over his sexual identity and his college years. I loved reading his gentle words about hardships, and his honesty with grace toward others.

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
Mead relates the importance of various aspects of George Eliot's wonderful novel to various aspects of her own life in a book that is part literary criticism, part biography of Eliot, part memoir and wholly entertaining.

Literary Fiction

Benediction by Kent Haruf
Haruf's Plainsong introduced me to quiet, heartfelt midland fiction. Haruf, who died this year but finished one more novel, wrote here about the end of life of a good man who didn't always do the right thing.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
One of two books by Americans on this year's Man Booker list for the first time, Ferris's novel about a self-absorbed dentist is wild, wide-ranging and was a complete blast to read. Especially after I wondered if I was the right reader for it. A terrific book.
 
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
The other Booker nominee is about Rosemary's family, including her very special sister Fern. What I thought at first was a gimmick is instead a marvelous way to talk about how families relate to each other, how people relate to each other and how people and animals relate to each other.
 
History of the Rain by Niall Williams
A dreary story of a dreary Irish family where the rain makes everything look dreary. Except that it is not dreary. Bedridden Ruthie Swain tries to find her father through stories and it is transporting. Another Booker nominee.
 
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Another reason for me to love Murakami and his translators. A young man traces what went wrong as a teenager with the friends who formed a tight circle, and what happened when they grew up. His work is wistful.

Most Grateful to Have Read:
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
Pete Snow is a social worker in western Montana in the 1970s. He tries to help the son of a survivalist, Jeremiah Pearl, who sees the era as the start of the End Times and has hidden his family in the woods. At the same time, Pete's family has fallen apart -- his wife has left, taking their daughter. When the teenager runs away, Pete experiences the helplessness on he saw in the families he tries to help. Henderson knows the people, he knows the land and he has written a complex, thoughtful and devastatingly honest work.

Biggest Regret:
A long list of books not yet read and other online reviews and critiques not read or properly lauded.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sunday Sentence: Lily King's 'Euphoria'

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

"Who are we and where are we going? Why are we, with all our 'progress,' so limited in understanding & sympathy & the ability to give each other real freedom? ... I think above all else it is freedom I search for in my work, in these far-flung places, to find a group of people who give each other the room to be in whatever way they need to be. And maybe I will never find it all in one culture but maybe I can find parts of it in several cultures, maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world."



-- Lily King, Euphoria

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday Sentence: Richard Flanagan

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:

He would live to see people praised for things that were not worthy of praise, simply because truth was seen to be bad for their feelings.

-- Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review: 'The Murder of Harriet Krohn'

The Murder of Harriet Krohn
By Karin Fossum
Crime fiction (Scandinavian)
November 2014
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0544273399

A father writes a heartfelt letter to his estranged daughter. She is clearly the most important thing in his life, the reason, really, that he lives. Why won't she have anything to do with him?

Karin Fossum answers that question and more in The Murder of Harriet Krohn, an absorbing character study and crime novel. The father, Charlo, has had a serious gambling problem. His wife dying of cancer didn't help. He even gambled away the money they had put aside to buy a horse for his darling daughter.

Now that there is the chance his gambling creditors will come after him, Charlo has finally hit bottom. He's got to do something. So he does. He buys flowers and takes the bouquet one late, snowy night to the home of an elderly woman, Harriet Krohn, who lives alone.

Fossum, who often experiments with crime fiction tropes in her novels, next switches the focus to Harriet Krohn. She is small-minded, tightly wound, regimented, a skinflint. She is crippled with arthritis, but she is not a figure of sympathy. When the murder occurs, it's easy to see how the killer, over time, begins to blame the victim. If only she hadn't done this or done that, if only she had just let him take the silver and the cash, and leave.

This is just the beginning of the story. The major portion of the novel deals with what Charlo does after the fact. Will he get away with it? Will he feel guilty? Will he be reconciled with his daughter? And what of the police? Fossum's best character is Inspector Sejer. Is he going to show up?

Without incorporating spoilers, let's just say the rest of the book flies by as suspense grows over these questions. Charlo is a fascinating, flawed character who makes his own problems and is a victim of his choices and what matters to him. This is not a novel in which the author asks the reader to feel pity or empathy for the main character. Rather, it is an examination of what might lead a man to think murder is the only way to solve his problems, and how does someone go on after that happens? For an author who has done unusual things in her novels before, Fossum does not disappoint here. She shows how to let character dictate story. The Murder of Harriet Krohn is a remarkable book by an author who can explore ideas while entertaining.


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

Monday, November 10, 2014

Review: 'Us'

Us
By David Nicholls
Literary fiction
October 2014
Harper
ISBN: 978-0062365583

Us by David Nicholls chronicles, with extensive flashbacks, a family that may or may not be about to fall apart. After decades of marriage, the artistic wife of biochemist Douglas Peterson tells him one morning that she isn't sure she wants to be married any longer. He adores Connie and, in flashbacks from the evening they meet at his sister's flat and beyond, it's easy to see why. She loves life, she is interested in things, in experiences. Connie isn't so much a free spirit, except in contrast to the earnest, clueless soul that Dougie presents himself as, as she is vibrant.

When Connie has announced her decision, they have already planned an old-fashioned Grand Tour of the continent, taking their son as the last family hurrah before he goes to university.

It is, of course, no fun at all. The three are tetchy around each other, the madcap escapades get more out of hand.

Doug, the novel's narrator, goes on and on about things but as Connie tells him, "Douglas, you have an incredible capacity for missing the point."

He loves her perspective even while knowing it's not how he sees the world: "I didn't hate art, not by any means, but I did hate knowing nothing about it." This extends beyond paintings, of course, as in this exchange between the couple:

"I've got nothing against dreams as long as they're attainable."
"But if they're attainable then they're not dreams!"
"And that's why it's a waste of time!"

Unlike the above exchange, however, Connie doesn't always take the opposite stance from Doug. Sometimes she's one of the grown-ups in the room now too. There are moments when Connie has become more like Doug than he has become like her. Their son Albie is early on picked up by an older woman who is busking her way through Europe, playing the accordion to earn money when not scarfing down huge amounts of food at hotel buffets. Connie is as offended as Doug is when this woman, Cat, puts food in her pockets after coming down to breakfast with them. She backs up Doug when he tells Cat the Moocher to put back some of the little jars she's swiping.

So, does this mean married couples grow more alike? Or people become more conservative and not as much fun as they grow older? Or does this mean nothing of the kind and rude is rude, after all? Us is the kind of novel that lets a reader wonder about these things even as the story proceeds.

Douglas is not always easy to understand, even if he understands himself. In one flashback, he relates how his parents were even worse than Doug is about being no fun at all. And when he took Connie home to meet them, there was a political disagreement. Doug stood with Connie. But now, when this hapless, apologetic family man is in the middle of a restaurant row involving his smart remark-making son, the busker accordionist who has picked him up, his wife and some wealthy arms dealers with glossy brochures spread across the breakfast table, Doug does the worst thing possible. He apologizes for his son.

As Connie tells him: "...in a fight you side with the people you love".

Immediately afterward, Doug reminisces:

I'm aware that it sounds perverse, but what I hoped for at that time was some accident, some near disaster, so that I could be as heroic as the occasion demanded, and show the strength of my devotion.

Yes that is perverse because real life demands as much heroism and devotion and steadfastness as we can give, and then some. We don't need near disasters. We need to pay attention to the here and now. Douglas, was Connie ever right.

The turning point in the novel shows that Doug may have realized he has his opportunity to pull off some heroic deed. Or at least, what passes as one for someone like him who plans holidays by museum itineraries and is always at the airport a good two hours early. There is a chance that Douglas may redeem himself whether or not he and his son, and he and his wife, reconcile. He realizes:

... perhaps grief is as much regret for what we have never had as sorrow for what we have lost.

Indeed, Douglas, indeed. This character has just demonstrated that you never know when you are going to have a new realization about something you think you know very well indeed -- yourself.

The second half of the novel chronicles Doug's mission, with its ups and downs. It also continues his ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory whenever he says something wrong, which he still does. And the novel continues with the ability of this middle-aged man who has been alienating himself from his wife and son to become involved in outrageously ridiculous scenarios as he treks through Europe.

And yet, and yet, whenever the plot reaches a point that is OTT and a reader would not be faulted for giving up on it, go ahead and read another page. Keep going as the flashbacks shed light on how our narrator got himself into this pickle and how he remains someone who has not given up on himself, his wife, his son or on hope itself.

That there also is an unexpected development just when things are at their lowest point and Doug not only turns a former antagonist into an ally, because of honesty, changed one of the tropes of the novel. Before, whenever another party became involved with the Petersons, the outside catalyst became something that broke the pattern of the triangle of the three characters. The outside character didn't add another layer, that character instead caused a fracture.

This original structure and the changes made to it play a significant role in the way the plot plays itself out.

In between the flashbacks and the current story, Nicholls also gives Doug the opportunity for a passionate speech about modern technology, capitalism and the resulting widening of the gap between the rich and the poor. Plus all the other things that have been going wrong in the world.

Nicholls also has insightful commentary about how children become like their parents in some ways and how children strive to become their own people, whether it's Douglas and his son or Douglas and his father.

Although the novel continues on long after the story itself is finished -- including an odd section where the plot is retold from the vantage of Connie being the protagonist and Albie being the protagonist -- Us is one of those novels about a journey in which the journey of reading it was worthwhile.

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

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sunday Sentence: More Marilynne Robinson

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:

"... If there is no Lord, then things are just the way they look to us. Which is really much harder to accept. I mean, it doesn't feel right. There has to be more to it all, I believe."

"Well, but that's what you want to believe, ain't it."

"That doesn't mean it isn't true."

-- Marilynne Robinson, Lila

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sunday Sentence: Marilynne Robinson

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

You best keep to yourself, except you never can.

-- Marilynne Robinson, Lila

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday Sentence: David Nicholls's 'Us'

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

... perhaps grief is as much regret for what we have never had as sorrow for what we have lost.

-- David Nicholls, Us

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday Sentence: ' Scheherazade'

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

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

-- Haruki Murakami, Scheherazade

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Review: 'The Fourteenth Goldfish'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sunday Sentence: 'Us'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Us by David Nicholls

Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: 'We are All Completely Beside Ourselves'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday Sentence: Karen Joy Fowler

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

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

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

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Review: 'To Dwell in Darkness'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 22, 2014

Review: 'Fire Shut Up in My Bones'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: 'History of the Rain'

History of the Rain
By Niall Williams
Literary fiction
May 2014
Bloomsbury USA
ISBN: 978-1620406472

When the world looks like it is trying even harder this week than last to fall apart, looking for solace to be able to go back out there and do one's best is now called self-care. I call it reading. And I found another novel that provided comfort.

History of the Rain by Niall Williams is on the Man Booker longlist this year. It's the story of young Ruth, confined to her bed upstairs, trying to find her father in the books he left. It's the story of their family, going back generations on both sides, and the story of how the Irish in one small village view themselves. It's also the story of salmon and the river and how one thing always leads to another.

But more than anything, History of the Rain is a story of how love of words and poetry and reading and writing are the stuff of life itself, of our hopes and dreams and loves and sorrows.

Now, all that may sound like a downer to some of you. Channeling Ruth, I can almost see some of you rolling your eyes and clicking your tongues. Hang on though.

Introducing her father and her story, Ruth writes:

The longer my father lived in this world the more he knew there was another to come. ... he imagined that there must be a finer one where God corrected His mistakes and men and women lived in the second draft of Creation and did not know despair. My father bore a burden of impossible ambition. He wanted all things to be better than they were ...

And:

We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who may only live now in the telling.

And in the telling they live on, because, after all:

We have mixed metaphors and outlandish similes for breakfast.

She's a narrator who is old-fashioned in that I didn't have to wonder whether I could trust her or wonder whether she knew what she was talking about. Ruth is honest about herself and her memories. She also knows she misses the mark not only of her father's family Impossible Standard that controls their lives, but also the mark of what normal people not bound by an Impossible Standard know to do. As someone who also read "so many nineteenth-century novels before the age of fifteen that I became exactly too clever by half", I know it's not an Impossible Standard, but an Impossibly Strong Sense of Yearning, that can control the likes of Ruth. Among others.

Williams gives Ruth a wistful, hopeful voice, with just the right dollops of deprecation. She conveys how her father's grandfather and father grappled with the knowledge of the Impossible Standard and how, just when it appeared they were doomed to a lifetime of failure and disappointment, they found where they belonged. So did Ruth's father. He belonged with her mother.

The story of how Ruth's parents met is sweet and tinged with the realism that while things may not be great in Ireland, there is the chance for people to enjoy moments in life, look back and say it was grand.

Grand is the childhood Ruth has with her twin brother. He's the runner, the first-born, the one who never stops. He shines. She's the one who notices things. Their closeness is disrupted at school when they are forced into separate classes and he goes off with the boys. And here is where the tone of Williams's storytelling shines in that Ruth misses her brother, misses the days when they were closer to each other than anyone, but she doesn't resent her brother when he changes. She notes what other kids are cruel and how -- oh, she knows exactly how they are cruel and how they find their prey, and then continues on with what she loves.

And that's mostly words. Whether it's legend, community gossip, those 19th century novels or poetry, it's the words that make Ruth's writing down of her family's story sing:


We're a race of elsewhere people. That's what makes us the best saints and the best poets and the best musicians and the world's worse bankers.

And Ruth comes from people who stay near the river:

Beside the river there are two things you never forget, that the moment you look at a river that moment has already passed, and that everything is on its way somewhere else.

Through Ruth, Williams expresses the kind of witty commentary that only those who love books as their friends can do, whether it's Great Expectations, Stevenson (who is called RLS throughout the novel as one would nickname a friend), Melville, Middlemarch, dear Jane of course, Flannery and Dickens and oh where would we be without Yeats. And the physical qualities of books are lovingly noted as well:
 
 ... the book bulges, basically the smell of complex humanity, sort of sweat and salt and endeavour. Like all the fat orange Penguins, it gets fatter with reading, which it should, because in a way the more you read it the bigger your own experience of the world gets, the fatter your soul. Try it, you'll see.

Yes! That's it!

The secret of writing also is provided, and it's basically this: Sit in the chair. Also, know that writing is a sickness. And the only cure is to write.

Williams writes of the love of the river, the love of the words and the love of parents for their children and of children for their parents. The version he gives Ruth of Joan Didion's famous "we tell ourselves stories in order to live" is this:

We tell stories. We tell stories to pass the time, to leave the world for a while, or go more deeply into it. We tell stories to heal the pain of living.

And Williams also tells the story of Ruth and her family to tell of how they loved each other.

In these days, that is powerful solace.

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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review: ' Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage'

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
By Haruku Murakami
Literary fiction
August 2014
Knopf
ISBN: 978-0385352109

Haruki Murakami is one of the world's best-known and best-loved authors. After reading his latest novel,  Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, one of the reasons why this could be is because his work often explores a character who is not known by many and loved, or even highly regarded, by fewer still.

It's not that the characters are unlovable, let alone monsters, but that they are quiet, unassuming, seeking ways to avoid calling attention to themselves. But within those quiet characters are loudly beating hearts. And the world is filled with people like this.

Tsukuru, whose name means "grey" spelled one way and "someone who makes things" when spelled another way, once was part of a tightly knit group of friends. He and the four others went through high school together as if they were one, like points on a star that stay in balance. The two girls and two other boys in the group all have names that mean colors. Tsukuru feels thrilled that they include him. When it's time for university, Tsukuru is the only one who lives their city. He and his friends fall into their old routine whenever he's home on holidays. Until one visit, when all of them refuse to see him or talk to him. No one will tell him why.

Returning to university, Tsukuru wishes he could die. He feels dead inside. It's months before he climbs out of his sorrow, goes on to earn his engineering degree and remains in Tokyo. His job is something he likes, engineering changes to railway stations to improve them or accommodate changes. It's not exciting but it is useful.

He had one good friend at college who told him a strange story passed on from his father and who, later that same night, is part of a strange dream Tsukuru has involving the two girls. It's either a dream or, considering this is a Murakami novel, a slip into another dimension in which people meet when they are separated in space and time. It's something that's occurred in other Murakami novels, such as Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84 and After Dark. The encounters often lead people to a feeling of closeness or, in this case, to another level of something Tsukuru had not felt or acknowledged how he felt about the girls. It disturbs him, and disturbs him even more when his college friend suddenly becomes part of the scenario.

The story that his friend tells him fits within the overall narrative the way a fairy tale or legend is told, in the dark hours of the night when the story takes on a greater emphasis than it would have if told in daylight. His friend's father ends up as a handyman at a remote mountain resort, pleased to pass the time fixing things and enjoying the scenery. A jazz pianist comes to the resort and eventually recounts a strange story, insinuating that the sack he carries and carefully puts on top of the piano before he ever plays is a burden. It is a burden that can be passed on to another and which involves death. He insinuates that the handyman could voluntarily become the new carrier of the burden. And then the pianist is gone the next day.

It is pure Murakami that he throws in a bit of magical realism to reinforce the idea that it exists in this world, even though it is not visible to many. This idea comes into play later in the book, when Tsukuru speaks to someone he has not seen in years. Both of them have the sense that, even though they were not at a location where someone else encountered danger, they were somehow there and somehow responsible.

In his late 30s, the unattached Tsukuru meets a woman who may be the one for him. It's a quiet relationship. Before it gets deeper, she warns Tsukuru that he hasn't gotten over his past. He needs to resolve the hurt that he suffered when his friends cut him off.

The rest of the novel is paced as one expects in a Murakami work - unhurried, prose matter-of-fact, revelations expressed as quietly as commonplace greetings. There is a melancholy that pervades the acceptance of growing old, of realizing that one may have found one's place in life and that the past cannot be the present or become the future.

But there also is the sense that the more a person can believe in the truth of something, the more alive that person feels:

We truly believed in something back then, and we knew we were the kind of people capable of believing in something -- with all our hearts. And that kind of hope will never simply vanish.

It is this kind of realization that helps Tsukuru decide the value of his lifelong journey, and the next step he wants to take. It also helps him realize that he has to allow others the same privilege and await their decision. While 1Q84 was the kind of story in which young hearts seek each other, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is the kind of story in which young hearts mature but do not give up their search.

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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Sentence: 'History of the Rain'

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

We have mixed metaphors and outlandish similes for breakfast.

-- Niall Williams, History of the Rain

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review: 'Invisible Streets'

Invisible Streets
By Toby Ball
Literary fiction
July 2014
Overlook Press
ISBN: 978-1468309027

One of the great strengths of literary fiction is that it is able to discourse on any number of issues and philosophies. When done well, the fiction that can do that, while not broadcasting from the rooftops its frantically beating heart because it's also telling an entertaining story, is fiction that deserves to be shouted about from great heights.

Toby Ball's Invisible Streets is right up there, especially when considered with his two earlier books in the same setting.

Ball's third novel set in a fictional City that resembles the Big Apple, Invisible Streets stands alone from The Vaults and Scorch City, and is set in another time jump from the second novel, to the 1960s. Yet it has some familiar characters and themes for readers of the first two books. (The cameos come right as they are needed for this novel and include the one most anticipated at a crucial time.)

Invisible Streets follows the paths of three men involved in different ways with a huge remodeling project in the City. The New City Project is changing the shape of town, decimating old ethnic neighborhoods, moving the haves farther away from the have-nots, and having a far greater sociological impact on the population than its creator, Nathan Canada, may have ever imagined or cared about. Canada, who resembles Robert Moses, is a take-no-prisoners urban developer with contacts above and below regular commerce and political structures.

But although the novel involves his big project, it's not really about him. It's about three of the men who are concerned about the development from different perspectives. Frank Frings, known to readers of Ball's earlier novels, is back and still a left-leaning newspaper columnist. His old paper has been taken over by a Murdoch-style rag and he's about the only reminder of the old days. He's not given much respect there, but he still has his contacts and curiosity. So when his retired boss needs help finding his grandson, Frings agrees, and finds the college boy's disappearance may have something to do with an LSD study at his university. There were plenty of nondisclosure agreements signed and lawyered-up or discredited professors surrounding the study.

Torsten Grip is a detective on the force, although he's not too popular after his partner died in a shoot-out and he got away. As with most cops in the City, he's not clean but may not be excessively dirty in comparison to others. One of the construction sites for The New City Project is missing all of its dynamite. The usual suspects are what's left of the old Communists, Kollectiv 61, but perhaps that's a setup by whoever really took it. In a world as noirish as this one, anything is possible.

Phil Dorman is Canada's right-hand man. Hired right out of the Navy, he's the guy who gets things done in the neighborhoods and with the contractors at prices that favor his boss. He's the man who can't be bribed. But does he realize that isn't the same as being clean?

Although human life isn't particularly cherished on these mean streets, one death takes the main characters by surprise and becomes a catalyst for the narratives of all three characters.

Into this mix, Ball has included many of the political and sociological ideas taking shape in the 60s and which have seen a resurgence in recent years. In addition to the three main strands in the narrative, Ball has included excerpts of writing and media by Frings and others that emphasizes a debate about cities being for people or cities being for machines, about living and working spaces that can serve human needs or corporate needs. They are lightly used and could serve as writing workshop examples of how to get across a political or sociological idea in fiction without drowning the narrative in polemics.

All three of Ball's novels set in the City have the feel and weight of a Warner Brothers noir masterpiece. There is a great word picture that would make a superb visual midway through the novel. On a large map, the areas that once were brightly colored to represent different neighborhoods are shaded grey as the New City Project takes them over. The City itself is grey, but the dark and light in this story rarely mix compatibly.

Invisible Streets works as both a thriller and as a contemplation of social philosophy in action. Taken with its older two brothers, this is fiction that can entertain as well as provide the spark of an idea or two about what's important to us as individuals and as members of society living together in a city.


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

Monday, August 4, 2014

Review: 'Fourth of July Creek'

Fourth of July Creek
By Smith Henderson
Literary fiction
May 2014
Ecco
ISBN: 978-0062286444

The American West has long been a haven for people who want to be left alone and those who despair of society. But loners and misfits aren't always alone. Sometimes they have families and those families have children -- children who may be loved or who may be barely endured, but either way, they can be children who are not cared for.

Pete Stone is a social worker assigned to a vast territory in the northwest corner of Montana, of sparsely settled pockets not of civilization, but of people. He's like a lot of those people. His marriage is broken, his teenage daughter is sullen and doesn't get much attention from a father with a demanding job, and he drinks. A lot. His successes trying to help children and listen to the adults purportedly caring for them are few but he still plugs away at it.

Between other hard-luck cases, Pete is called when a wild child appears at a school one day. Even in the pre-computerized days of the late '70s and early '80s, the dawn of the Reagan era, it's unusual for a boy in such a state to have no records. The boy, Benjamin, doesn't consider himself neglected. He and his pa live in the woods off the land. Headed up toward camp, Benjamin's father warns Pete away, obviously willing to shoot him.

That father is Jeremiah Pearl, who knows the end times are coming. His dearly loved wife saw the signs coming and had the whole troop of Pearls, including all the babies, leave Indiana and head for the woods where they might have a chance to survive.

Pete leaves foodstuffs and clothes in a niche in the woods. Sometimes things get taken. The distrustful Pearl gradually doesn't quite trust Pete, but accepts his help and then him. In between spells when they spend some time traipsing through the land, Pete's wife leaves Montana for Texas, where there is a chance of a man taking care of her and their daughter, and their daughter realizes she's got nowhere to go. So she leaves. And it's about as blandly dire as one would think.

The sections where Pete tries to navigate the system through several states, trying to find a young runaway daughter, shows how easily children fall through the cracks of a social system set up to protect them, and shows the heartbreak of parents who love their children but don't know how to take care of them. So do the sections where that daughter, Rachel, becomes a child of the streets.

Whether it's parents who can't handle being parents, children forced to grow up and fend for themselves, people who believe what they are told or people who don't believe the evidence in front of their faces, Henderson's debut novel is filled with innocents who wonder about what has happened to them or who cannot handle what they see going on. Most of the people in the novel feel helpless about what they see, whether it's a small-town judge heartbroken when Reagan wins, a female social worker who was an abused child or a federal agent who regrets the choices he has made.

About the only people who don't feel helpless are Pearl and his son. Pearl is a combination of just about every paranoid, black helicopter-fearing loner who have inhabited the crannies of Northwest empty places for decades. He's also far more than that, and the dull despair that sometimes enshrouds Henderson's people is a great contrast to this character who searched so hungrily for something to believe in, and chose wrongly.

Henderson's novel earns its humanizing, heartfelt climax and coda both because the scope of the characters' journeys are so well-drawn and because the little details are so right. This is a highly political and social novel that is tightly anchored to its characters and setting. To have carried this off with no preaching or screeching is a remarkable achievement, and an uplifting reading experience.

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

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Sunday Sentence: 'History of the Rain'

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

We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling.

--Niall Williams, History of the Rain

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Review: "Winemaker Detective' series

Treachery in Bordeaux
Nightmare in Burgundy
Deadly Tasting
(Winemaker Detective novels)
By Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen
Crime fiction (French series)
2012-2014 (English translations)
Le French Book
ISBNs: Treachery: 9780985320621
Nightmare: 9781939474285
Deadly: 9781939474223

Benjamin Cooker is a winemaker in this French detective series, consulting with vineyard owners and wineries, dispensing his opinion in a popular guidebook and serving on wine juries. It's a good life for this half-British, half-French lover of good wine, food and cigars. But just like Jessica Fletcher or any number of cozy amateur detectives, he doesn't go looking for murder. It finds him.

The series begins with Treachery in Bordeaux, in which wine in three vats of one of his longest friends has gone bad. Since the distraught man owns one of the last wine estates remaining within the city limits of Bordeaux, its prestige needs to be protected. He needs someone to look into things quietly, not with a splash. And that's just what Cooker does. Along the way, he acquires an assistant, indulges his love of art and local lore, and discovers what happened to the wine and why. As a series introduction, it's a breezy read with a very interesting motive behind the crimes that occur.

Nightmare in Burgundy, published in trade paperback on July 31, finds Cooker and assistant Virgile travel to that other renowned French winemaking region. Our hero is inducted into a highly honorable organization that celebrates the fruits of the grape. Odd graffiti is discovered in various places around town. Cooker realizes the writing is in Latin. An old friend, an aging monk, helps him find the Biblical verses that correspond. And Virgile is adept at enchanting at least one local young woman.

When disgust at the graffiti leads to death, Cooker is the one to put the pieces together. The plot is wrapped up very quickly in this short novel, but its conclusion brings to mind a classic mystery. As with the debut novel, all the pieces fit together smoothly.

Deadly Tasting
, the fourth book in the series, requires Cooker's expertise when an elderly man is found dead and, in his humble abode, are 12 wine glasses with only one filled. What wine is it and how might that be pertinent to the crime? Then another body is found, and another. Cooker has to put the pieces together before the circle is completed. Again, the motive of what's going on is clever and, as with the other two mysteries, the clues have a lot to do with France and French winemaking.

The novels are very quick books to read. On occasion, there are things that don't fit into such a light premise, as some crime scenes that are more gory than usual in cozy mysteries and jarring vulgar language that is thrown in when many other alternatives are available. It's not that crime fiction should -- and hardly does -- shy from such things. But they do stand out in what are otherwise light, cozy reads.

Although people who know France and French wine will more fully recognize the lists of names that are used in the books and what they mean, those who appreciate gastronomic delights will enjoy this aspect of the series. The French lore and history are especially enjoyable aspects.

The series has been adapted to French television and, based on these three entries, shows the potential for many stories.

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

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Sentence: Fourth of July Creek

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. Except to mention that it was difficult to find just one passage.

A hospital visit was supposed to happen just after the morning shift change, but a teacher had broken up a huge fight in the local high school parking lot, and by the time everything was sorted out Debbie's appointment had been scotched. She asked to go to the ER once, but it was a faint request made to a cop shop full of a dozen sullen high school wrestlers and officers calling their parents. She went to lie down. No one saw her spasm or heard the jouncing of the springs under the thin mattress as she had the heart attack that killed her.

-- Smith Henderson, Fourth of July Creek

Review: 'I am Pilgrim'

I am Pilgrim
By Terry Hayes
Crime fiction (espionage thriller)
May 2014
Atria Books
ISBN: 978-1439177723

A wise and rumpled NYPD detective has a stumper of a murder case in a seedy hotel. Everything that could identify the victim's body has been removed. Coincidentally, he knows one of the world's most accomplished investigators, a shady operative who worked in a division that not even the CIA was supposed to know about. So he'll help.

Just when the noirish quality of this story has been established, the scene shifts for a longish segment about a totally different story in Terry Hayes's debut novel. And it switches again. And again.

Hundreds of pages later, the threads all come together -- and come together very well. But this novel isn't really about that murder case. It's about the shadowy investigator called in by the cop. He's going to be set on the trail of a Muslum radical whose family was done wrong by the Saudi royal family. So this heartbroken young man is going to become an Osama-like radical and decide to bring down the United States instead of attacking the Saudi royal family (which is an actual political stance of some radicals but doesn't look too logical put that way).

The long, involved story of how the radical's childhood and what happened to his family is an engrossing story. So is the story of the investigator's childhood. So is the story of the NYPD detective. And of several other characters who come within the widening, then tightening, circle of the story's structure.

This kind of storytelling may not work for every reader. The book was not a pageturner because just when the narrative draws one into a certain character's story, changing to another character's story -- especially in a long flashback -- may make readers feel they've wandered into a different book and decide to put it down for a spell. Others may enjoy the badminton effect of going back and forth.

Whichever reading preference one has, Hayes, a former journalist who did the novelization for the original Mad Max and wrote the screenplay for the second film in the series, knows how to pull the storytelling strings within each section. And he knows how to finally pull the strings together. As a bonus for those who don't appreciate political bon mots in their thrillers, there are only two such little dumplings in the story. For those who do not look for a long commitment in their thrillers, be warned; the U.S. hardcover version of this novel is more than 600 pages.

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

Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: 'To Rise Again at a Decent Hour'

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
By Joshua Ferris
Literary Fiction
May 2014
Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 978-0316033978

Paul is an ordinary dentist with minor quirks. He has a practice in Manhattan but adores the Boston Red Sox. That was his father's team, and some of his best-preserved memories are of being a boy, sitting at his father's feet, during games. If only his father hadn't fallen victim to despair and killed himself.

He hasn't had much practice with women. (He has had such little practice that he uses a highly offensive term to describe what others might just call being in complete thrall to the object of one's love.) The two he has loved the most, he also has fallen in love with their families. But it got uncomfortable very fast as the hapless young man tried to ingratiate himself, wanting to become Catholic like the first love's family and then Jewish like the second love's family. Paul's former fiancee still works in his office and, although they show no interest in getting back together, they have fallen into the comforting kind of routine that old married couples share. Now that he's on his own again, he's decided to be an atheist.

Paul doesn't have much to do with the internet, although he does post a few things about baseball. But as the online impersonations escalate, Paul becomes more attached to his "me-machine", whether it takes the form of tablet or smart phone, more than his employees or his patients.

In Joshua Ferris's brilliant new novel, this is only the beginning. First, there's a website about his practice. Then social media accounts. It's all accurate. But it's not him. And it's getting to him. Who is this guy pretending to be him?

This setup is light, amusing and sails by. But as the online masquerades escalate, things get deeper, darker and far more murky. The imposter starts posting quasi-biblical, important-sounding things about a lost people who are scattered around the planet. Comparisons are made to Jewish people. Paul is more than uncomfortable. Connie, his ex-fiance who still works for him, is Jewish. She and Paul's office manager, a woman near retirement age who knows her Old and New Testament, do not recognize what this person is posting. They also don't understand why Paul doesn't just admit it's him.

Is it Paul? Is he fooling himself? Is Ferris fooling the reader? Would that be the case if he emails the imposter and gets back the response: "How well do you know yourself?" Say, just what is going on here?

Just when it looks to get very uncomfortable reading about a group of people that is "so wretched they envy the history of the Jews", the story changes again. There's a specific reason Ferris has gone this route, and it has a lot to do with self-awareness and belonging.

Everything falls wonderfully into place (whether one thinks that what happens is what would be the best thing to have happen). It is Paul's patients who provide him with an epiphany about faith, the power of doubt and how a person could consider how he fits into the world. His deep-seated love for the Red Sox, tied so strongly to Paul's love for his father, before they ever broke the curse of the Babe and the godawful season when Bobby Valentine was the manager and the team and their fans endured the biggest drop in baseball fortune that has ever been, is used to test that power of doubt to uphold faith. And Ferris makes it work.

This is a novel that once appeared it was going to go off the rails in spectacular fashion. But instead, it ends up feeling heartfelt and provides an emotional homecoming that means it was all worth it in the end, that just like our protagonist, what we yearn for is to be able to get a good night's sleep and to rise again at a decent hour to spend another day here in the world.

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Review: 'Here We are Now'

Here We are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain
By Charles R. Cross
Nonfiction
March 2014
It! Books (HarperCollins)
ISBN: 9780062308214

The 90's were a time of great creativity, even if not all of us who were around then recognized it as such. Looking back though, especially through the lens of someone who knew and respected a great musician, and who now is looking at how that musician's legacy is influencing culture today, the 90's weren't half-bad.

Charles Cross was a editor of The Rocket, a Seattle magazine that chronicled current rock music. He knew and wrote about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana before they were famous, before MTV played Smells Like Teen Spirit over and over, before the band became a phenomenon and grunge, especially Nirvana, became seen as rock's latest saviors. And then Cobain, a troubled kid from a grey working class town that has fought against his fame for years, a young man who suffered from horrible physical and mental pain, killed himself.

In the years since that dreadful day when he had to confirm Cobain's death just as an issue of The Rocket was due to go to press (but not with the original planned story about Courtney Love's new Hole album), Cross has seen how Cobain and his band have become mythologized. Instead of merely saying "Me too", Cross has pointed out various ways in which Cobain has a genuine and continuing legacy. He snaps a shot of each aspect of that legacy and fills in the background with facts about what happened and how that has been built upon.

From the music itself to various cultural impacts -- including women's rights, gay rights and even fashion -- and how Seattle became the center of the music universe for a time, Here We are Now traces Cobain's impact. Cross also makes certain Cobain's physical ailments are chronicled for a more full picture of what may have been going on for that young man, as well as Cobain's upbringing in a town -- Aberdeen, Washington -- that rivals any other miserable upbringing. As a Washington state native who has lived on both sides of the Cascades, I can attest that Cross nails it.

And as someone who let the music wake her up when it was fresh and who has let in sink in for years, I can attest that Cross nails the ways in which Nirvana and its frontman continue to move us. Here we are now, Kurt, and you've enriched and entertained us.

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

Monday, July 7, 2014

Review: 'Bread and Butter'

Bread and Butter
By Michelle Wildgen
Fiction
February 2014
Doubleday
ISBN: 978-0385537438

Three brothers, two restaurants and falling in love are the ingredients in Michelle Wildgen's winning Bread and Butter, a quiet novel about familiar satisfactions.

Britt and Leo never really left their hometown. Leo started, and Britt soon came in to run the front, of Winesap, a refined yet comfortable restaurant named for the trees in their parents' yard. The restaurant is a well-oiled machine and the brothers are growing middle-aged settling in as essential cogs of that machinery.

Younger brother Harry has kicked around here and there, dividing his time between university courses and cooking. His exploits have included travel, a stint in an Alaskan salmon cannery and cookng at a self-sustaining restaurant on a Michigan island. He's back home now, too, and plans to open his own restaurant. The older two are skeptical but not unencouraging. Until Harry's vision clicks for one of the brothers and he becomes Harry's partner, dividing his time between the new place and Winesap.

At the same time, Britt, who appears as confident, is slightly rattled by the appearance of a confident woman who begins dining at Winesap regularly and who knows Harry. Then Leo's eyes are finally opened about someone who has been there the whole time.

That the ensuing complications and conflicts arise not from the men falling in love with these women -- although their falling in love opens them both up -- is one of the calm delights of this novel. It's a pleasure to read a book that is not about brothers fighting over women or fighting over who is smarter and the better entrepreneur and the more accomplished foodie.

Rather, it is a pleasure to read a novel about brothers who love each other, get to know each other and themselves a bit better, and who enjoy what they are doing.

Also, the parts about food are delicious. Wildgen knows what she is writing about, whether it is family or food.

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

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Review: 'Bunker Hill'

Bunker Hill
By Nathaniel Philbrick
History (Revolutionary War)
April 2013
Viking
ISBN: 978-0670025442

When readers speak of falling into a book and living in it, they usually refer to fiction. But it also applies to the experience of reading Nathaniel Philbrick's masterful account of Bunker Hill. Beginning with a young John Quincy Adams and his mother, Abigail, watching the battle that claimed the life of patriot and valued family friend Dr. Joseph Warren, to the epilogue of John Quincy as an old man who disdains platitudes in favor of action, Bunker Hill is a marvel of rich narrative.

Philbrick weaves together small details about real people and what they actually did, including troop movements, strategizing by military leaders and actions of individuals brought into what inevitably became a revolution. Philbrick also compelling describes how the disagreements and disgruntlements became that revolution, making clear that neither rebellion or an American victory were foregone conclusions. Little moments had major consequences in both battle and off the field.

Bunker Hill is one of those rare histories that is carefully researched but which never shows it. All the information fits together. Philbrick also is adept at answering questions for readers as they come up -- why did this happen? why did this not happen?

Both as a primer of what actually happened at the battle known as Bunker Hill, although it is hoped most American readers know that's not where it happened, and as a detailed reminder of how the American Revolution got underway, Philbrick's history is well worth reading.

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

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Review: 'Faking Normal'

Faking Normal
By Courtenay C. Stevens
YA realistic fiction
February 2014
HarperTeen
ISBN: 978-0062245380

Faking Normal opens at the funeral of a mother killed by an abusive father. Bodee is now alone, except for a grown brother. But he's not the central figure in this novel. That's Alexi, one of his classmates. Although they have gone to school together forever, and live nearby, they're not close. Bodee is, after all, the Kool-Aid Kid and not quite cool.

Alexi, on the other hand, is one of the golden girls of Rickman. Her older sister has gone out with the football coach since they were in school together, her friends go out with football players and Alexi, well, Alexi is struggling. Perhaps her struggling allows her to feel some empathy for Bodee, who runs out of the funeral rather than speak over his mother's coffin. Alexi goes out to silently comfort him.

Alexi is struggling because she let a guy go all the way last summer -- a guy she knows and who was on the outs with his girlfriend. She didn't want to do it, but she didn't say no. And now Alexi feels like she is damaged goods and it's her own fault. Alexi and Bodee form a solid friendship in which wise and comforting Bodee gently encourages Alexi to come out with the truth about what happened to her. (No one knows that something happened except Alexi and her attacker; Bodee suspects she is keeping a secret though.)

Her other source of comfort -- and Alexi needs a lot of comfort, especially compared to a boy who lost his mother to a murdering father -- is lines of songs left by an unknown student on a desk they share. Could this unknown bard be the football player her friends want her to out with? And what's up with Bodee, who uses Kool-Aid to dye his hair and who is the most quietly confident teen in the book? Who is Alexi's attacker, and why is she scared to admit she was raped?

Faking Normal has a lot going for it. Alexi's dilemma is real and her feelings are portrayed honestly. Bodee, however, seems too good to be true, especially with his healing seeming to go on the back burner for much of the book. It's also worth noting that most of the characters are portrayed as strong church-goers. Yet not much is done with the themes of forgiveness and the ways in which females have been historically portrayed in patriarchal churches as the ones to blame for any sexual transgression.

The author's writing does shine in portraying the ups and downs of small-town life and a gorup that has gone through school together, forming a community that seemingly knows each other so well but still has secrets. It would be interesting to read any explorations Stevens may create regarding small towns and congregations in works to come.

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

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Review: 'Goat Mountain'

Goat Mountain
By David Vann
Literary fiction
September 2013
Mariner Books
ISBN: 006212109X

An eleven-year-old boy goes on the annual hunting trip with his father, grandfather and his father's best friend. He has gone with them as long as he can remember. They are going to their family's property on Goat Mountain in Northern California. This is the year the boy is supposed to become a man; he is supposed to get his own deer.

But that's not what happens. A death occurs and the rest of David Vann's Goat Mountain deals with ideas of justice and retribution, of punishment and the lack of salvation and forgiveness. It is a stark and violent novel that is difficult to read without the reader's heart aching and stomach feeling queasy. Goat Mountain also is a sincere attempt on the author's part to reconcile Old Testament, New Testament and how he sees the world based on his great admiration of his Cherokee grandfather.

The novel is brilliantly written. There are sentence fragments and complex sentences and plain, old regular sentences that all work together to cast a spell that made this world whole. I wrote out 15 pages of quotes in a chapbook because the writing is so beautiful, evoking not only what happens in this story but also its larger implications of humanity's notions of life and death, of dominance and freedom. For a novel that is less than 270 pages, it's a big book of ideas.

The narrator, the boy, is obviously excited about this rite of passage trip and looks forward to taking his place as a full-grown man amongst these other men. When they arrive at their property, they spot a poacher sunning himself on a ledge in the distance. The boy's father focuses his rifle on the trespasser, readies the rifle to fire a warning shot and hands the rifle to his son to take a look. The boy dispassionately fires and kills the stranger.

It is clear he feels he has done the right thing; the men were just complaining that about the trespasser and how nervy he was to invade their property. He should be taught a lesson. So, the boy teaches him a lesson. After all, his father passed to him a loaded rifle ready to be fired. So he should have been able to fire with impunity. There also is the sense that the boy isn't thinking through what pulling the trigger means. He just did it. He wasn't actually thinking through the consequences. This was a dispassionate act. He did it as much to see what would happen as he did because he felt his menfolk condoned his action:

There was no thought. I'm sure of that. There was only my own nature, who I am, beyond understanding.

And later:

How could I kill and feel nothing? Can we ever know how we have become?

There also is the sense that he has been goaded before on this trip. They stop on the way to camp to drink from a sulfer spring. The grandfather has brought a sack of lemons and cuts one up so the boy can use it while drinking the potent water. The men laugh at him when he does. They don't partake. The boy jumps to the truck bed, rifle in hand, scanning for deer. He states he is ready to shoot something. He has to prove himself. Later in the novel, he will cavort as a child in an attempt to win over the men but for the most part, he is determined to be considered as a man. Perhaps this is part of his nature. Perhaps it is part of the nature of most men, and he is different from most only because he is trying to honestly acknowledge it, without fanfare, bragging or, on the other hand, abject regret at the baseness of his nature. Years later, the narrator does regret the passing of his boyhood world because of his act, but that isn't quite the same thing as being sorry, is it?

According to Vann, hunting is what brings men together: "Our first reason to band together, to kill." Is it? Does it make things sound different, a little more civilized, if we say that humanity's first reason to band together are the basics of food and protection? Vann's narrator also likens the killing that takes place in the story to the story of Cain:

 ... and I wonder whether every story in the Bible comes from Cain. A riddle, all of it, testing a man and finding him worthy because he's willing to kill? Cain as our goodness, our faith, our murderousness as our salvation?

The boy takes another life. He does shoot a buck, and its death is up close, prolonged and horrifying. This time, when Cain kills Abel, another fellow creature, it is up close and he hears the mortally wounded creature's cries and looks deep into his eyes:

 ... this time Cain is shielded by nothing, this time he knows who he is.

And therein lies what the story of Cain means to the boy:

It may be a long time before he brings that stone down (on Abel), and it's in this moment we know Cain. The momentum of his life, everything out of control, everything misunderstood and recognized too late, that's how we are descended from Cain. All that was instinctual suddenly bearing consequence, our animal nature betrayed by consciousness. ... Part of us will act according to instinct, and that will never change. And one of our first instincts is to kill.

The only characters in the novel are male. The boy is being raised by his father and grandfather. The father's friend, Tom, has a daughter mentioned in passing and the boy's mother is mentioned once. This is a story about men. Vann's storytelling is a window -- just one window, but an opening nonetheless -- into a purely masculine frame of existence. Not every male will respond to it the same way, adding another layer to the complexity of what Vann has brought forward. Just as not every woman will respond to this novel in the same manner, or even want to read it. This is the most primal masculine work I've ever read; it goes far beyond what is usually thought of in terms of Hemingway masculinity. Nick Adams would have been running for cover from these men, and that would have been a wise decision.

Yet, Vann conveys the boy's huge respect for his grandfather. This is a character that harkens back to tales of the gods, farther back than the Old Testament, in Vann's telling. The author notes his deep respect for his own grandfather in the book. The fictional grandfather is an archetype. He is part of nature, not part of humanity:

My grandfather did not come from god. I'm sure of that. He came from something older, unthinking, unfeeling. He came from something as true as rock and stars, a place of no recognition, before names.

There is one spot where wonder and the grandfather's character are seen together. It's a scene that's easy to visualize; an old man gathering sugar pinecones. It's something he has done his entire life and he hoards them at home:

This is how I would like to remember him, standing with a newborn cone raised high in celebration under soft pale sugar pines, a breeze and late-day sun reaching through, more cones everywhere at his feet. The closest I ever saw to rapture, and the only indication of something good or soft or innocent in him, the only time he might have had a soul.

But this enormous figure that commands respect is not a benevolent figure. He does not dispense mercy. And he has not brought up his family to dispense mercy.

The immediate aftermath of the shooting is that the boy's father strikes him to the ground in disgust. It's an action that his grandfather will later do to his father. The generational strife is a central part of the story. In the middle of that first night, after the boy has killed a stranger, he wakes up to find his great mountain of an aged grandfather straddling him, ready to cut his throat. The grandfather later stabs the father with a fork. This is portrayed as Old Testament violence. Much is made in Vann's narrative of Cain and Abel -- as in the boy slaying a fellow man -- there also is the idea of the older generation sacrificing the younger -- as in Abraham and Isaac. But another sacrifice doesn't come along in the form of a ram that appears on the hillside where Isaac has been bound by Abraham.

Vann goes beyond the Old Testament to take on Jesus as well, and to try to reconcile the New Testament with his male lineage. According to Vann, Cain committed the first murder but

Jesus broke the law, broke the separation between living and dead. A collision of our two worlds, and it could only be catastrophic. Jesus released the dead into our lives, set all the dead wandering the earth, freed the wraiths and demons we fear now ... God wanted this. He sent his only son as an invasion of the otherworld into ours. This is the story of Jesus. After thousands of years of separate worlds, we finally had to admit that the demonland was inside us, and so we told this story of Jesus moving that stone, opening the gate ... Jesus is the recognition of the demon inside us, a recognition of the animal inside us, the beast. A recognition we wanted and needed.

Even accepting the way Vann stitches together pagan, Old and New Testament storylines, is this a wanted and needed recognition? That we're only animals? It's hard to not answer that in a way that doesn't come across as earnest undergraduate trying to be both realistic and optimistic, searching for more to life.

Just before the ultimate act of violence, the boy's father has time alone with him, trying to gather all the broken pieces in the aftermath of what happened and put their lives back together again:

You're my son, he said. I'm here to help you. I'm trying to figure out what the hell you are and trying to keep you from becoming that.

Is he saying Jesus was a monster or was he the sacrifice like Isaac was supposed to be? Was the sacrifice of Jesus a Pandora's box that gave the world all its ills instead of an act of healing?

Just because we are capable of violence does not mean that we also are not capable of healing, of forgiveness and of quiet strength that does not demand sacrifice of others. How the narrator and Vann feel love for the grandfather figure is also something that isn't immediately apparent. Unless he's saying that recognizing the monster in ourselves means being able to love the monster from whence we came.

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