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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Review: 'The River and Enoch O'Reilly'

The River and Enoch O'Reilly
By Peter Murphy
Literary fiction
September 2013
Mariner Books
ISBN: 978-0547904771

Like a river, a narrative has its course and wends its own particular course to its end. Like a traveler on a river, a reader may not see the turns coming, the cross-currents underneath or the rocks on the river banks on which the journey may be interrupted, or even abruptly halted. Reading Peter Murphy's The River and Enoch O'Reilly is like undertaking a rocky river journey.

Young Enoch is fascinated by the homemade radio transmission system his father has built in their basement. Not much else goes on in his miserable Irish town. The river rose and kept rising during the last onslaught, so much that it appears God broke his promise to Noah. People are lost, animals killed and property damaged. Enoch, listening to his father's radio, hears a transmisison that changes his life. It's the Holy Ghost Radio with fire and brimestone and the spirit of Elvis. Enoch plays with the settings, trying to keep up with the transmission, but loses it. Enoch's father is furious. The cellar door is locked and further transmission beyond Enoch's listening. He leaves town, heartbroken.

Most of Enoch's next years are the stuff of fable or street gutter. We see only one actual event -- a chance chaste encounter with a young lady -- and are left to decide for ourselves what's under the murkey surface waters. What did Enoch really do all those years? Did he travel the backroads of the American South? Did he wander from pub to pub in Ireland? Does it matter? Would it have made a difference? We don't know and it probably doesn't matter.

Enoch makes his way back to the old hometown and talks his way into a weekly radio show. It catches fire not when he is earnest but when he goes all McCarthy-holy roller preacher on his audience. Each week, they cannot wait for the scandalous rumors. But just when it appears the river of this narrative will take delicious twisty turns and be a dark journey, the story hits some big rocks and flounders.

Murphy shows what can happen when all the elements are in place for a unique work of fiction -- setting, premise, characters that could yield complex motivations and undergo great change, but not this time. The story deflates just when it looks like it's going to inflate and then inflate some more, perhaps bursting, perhaps getting right to the point just before it bursts. It's a great disappointment.

So at least the reader who perseveres can feel empathy for Enoch after hearing the wisps of a truly great narrative that gets lost. Their journeys are similar.

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

Monday, April 21, 2014

Review: 'Don't Call Me Baby'

Don't Call Me Baby
By Gwen Heasley
YA realistic fiction
April  2014
ISBN: 978-0062208521

Imogen has had it. She is 15, starting high school, and she would love to have a normal family life. Instead, every moment of her existence is photographed and chronicled by her mother, a famous mommy blogger.

Instead of living a normal private life, Imogen is Baby and she has been on display since before she was born. But she has her best friend, whose mother also is a well-known blogger, and they have an English class in which student blogs are assigned. It's time, Imogen decides, to get her life back.

Gwen Heasley's Don't Call Me Baby starts off as a humorous, breezy story in which daughters square off against moms. She's got the online persona down. She's got the reader right there with their daughters.

And then the author does something even better. She goes for higher stakes than the two teens getting their moms to pay attention to them.

Heasley also weaves into her story how a big blogging commitment affects a family, how a blog can be a hungry monster that must be continually fed and a brand consistently maintained if a blogger is to create an online presence. She shows both sides of what it means as young people come of age in a digital age during which their baby pictures and other embarrassing moments of their lives are stored forever on some server.

She also creates an engaging story of how moms and daughters try to talk to each other but miss each other's point, how family members keep trying to find their way to each other and how friends can be humanly fallible and yet remain totally awesome.

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

Sunday, April 20, 2014

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 further comment or context:

We don't get to choose our own hearts. We can't make ourselves want what's good for us or what's good for other people. We don't get to choose the people we are.

-- Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

Friday, April 11, 2014

Review: 'The Here and Now'

The Here and Now
By Ann Brashares
YA science fiction
April 2014
Delacorte Press
ISBN: 978-0385736800

Preena really isn't like most of the other kids in school. Really. She is from the future.

Ethan has something that sets him apart as well. Four years ago, he saw Preena arrive.

She is one of a group of time travelers from the future. Plague has decimated humankind and climate change is ending life on the planet. The time travelers came back to our time because their families wanted them to be saved.

Preena and Ethan are the kind of couple destined -- normally -- to have a romantic comedy after meeting cute. They pair up well and Brashares conveys fresh, light-hearted like-into-love very well. But the pair are soon drawn into an attempt to set things on a different course in time, so the future Preena knows doesn't happen. A mysterious homeless man appears to know more than a crazy old street man should know about Preena and the others like her.

From there until the story's end, The Here and Now weaves together the personal and world conflicts in stunning fashion. The ups and downs that face Preena and Ethan as they race to prevent a cataclysmic event that set the future into motion may affect the possiblity that they have a future together, or not, as well as the future of humanity.

Before the heartfelt conclusion -- an "oh, wow!" ending if ever there was one -- Brashares adds another mindful layer to the novel. What is a solution to some characters is a tragic new problem to others. Even if a reader takes sides, it's still worthwhile to be able to see another perspective.

This is a tremendously thoughtful novel with engaging characters. The biggest fans of Brashares's popular Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and those coming to her writing for the first time will all be glad they have read The Here and Now.

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

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Review: 'By Its Cover'

By Its Cover
By Donna Leon
Crime fiction
April  2014
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 978-0802122643

Donna Leon's love of books and literature has shone in her Inspector Brunetti mysteries, especially through the character of Brunetti's wife, Paola.  In By Its Cover, books as objects are at the heart of the story's mystery.

Because this is a Brunetti story, in which differences matter, a distinction is made between books as art objects and the text contained on the pages of those objects. For rich collectors, the objects have more value. For the Brunettis, who live a book-strewn life in which volumes are left open and upside down, snuggled into cushions of furniture and perhaps even dog-eared, books are far more valuable for what they contain than for their appearance. And because this is a Brunetti story, perhaps this is a way to view people as well.

Brunetti is called to a Venetian scholarly library where old and revered volumes reside. Someone has been cutting out specific pages that are highly valued by collectors, while other rare and costly volumes are missing.

Suspicion immediately falls on a visiting American scholar, whose credentials soon prove to be false. Brunetti would like to speak with another man who spends many hours in the library -- a former priest who reads the works of older religious figures.

Adding to Brunetti's knowledge of this world are a library employee who helps retrieve books, the elegant library director and the woman whose generous donations form part of the damaged and stolen bounty. The benefactress is known to Paola's patrician parents, as is her wastrel stepson. But because she is not Venetian, she is not as valued by the small group that makes up the highest rung of Venetian society.

Donna Leon's compact story delves into the mystery of the underground market of rare books. But By Its Cover also touches on the idea of judging people by their covers, by their outside appearances and background. And because this novel is written by Donna Leon, that touch is light yet incisive.

By Its Cover is a shining example of how an author can keep a long-running crime fiction series fresh, relevant and highly entertaining.

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