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Friday, December 22, 2017

Review: 'Earthly Remains'

©2017 All Rights Reserved

Earthly Remains
By Donna Leon
Crime Fiction
April 2017
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 978-0802126474

To protect a younger colleague from saying something he shouldn't in a case with political implications, Commissario Guido Brunetti fakes a heart condition. To his surprise, he is advised at the hospital to take some time off to recuperate in Donna Leon's 26th novel in the series, Earthly Remains. Brunetti realizes he should take a step away from his work.

His wife's family holdings include a villa on one of the largest islands in the laguna. There, he connects with an older man who knew Brunetti's father and who takes him rowing in a boat he built himself. Brunetti and Davide Casati quickly form one of those easy-going male friendships that is respectful of the other's privacy. Casati, the villa's caretaker, spends much of his time rowing and tending to beehives located throughout the laguna. He mourns his wife, who suffered before dying of cancer, and spends some time with his daughter and her family. But it is the rowing, the bees and the mourning that occupy most of Casati's time and heart.

It is the death of bees at several hives that appears to be a tipping point for Casati. He tells Brunetti his wife's death is his fault and he is going to go talk to her. Casati disappears.

In tracing Casati's life backward from the time he left a factory and became a caretaker and beekeeper, Brunetti encounters other people who together weave a story of legacy. When someone leaves this life, what will be his earthly remains? What of the earth will remain? As Casati asks Brunetti, "Do you think somme of the things we do can never be forgiven?"

Leon has a light touch when bringing conclusions into the story. It is the questioning, and the wanting to consider the possible answers to the questions, that form the strong underpainting in her work.

As our hero ponders:

Brunetti had spent much of his reading life amidst the minds and convictions of people who had lived thousands of years ago, and he had learned not to laugh at their ideas but to try to understand why they thought the way they did. After all, his own world lived in constant discovery of its own ignorance.

The contrast in characters, their motives and their fates is fascinating and provokes curiosity. Seeing the choices each character made in the past, and how it has impacted their present and the future of others, is one of the most rewarding aspects of Earthly Remains.

The most rewarding aspect, however is the time spent with Brunetti and Paola, Brunetti's colleagues and the Brunetti library.

©2017 All Rights Reserved and republished here with permission

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Donna Leon

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

Grief lies inside us like a land mine: heavy footsteps will pass it by safely, while others, even those as light as air, will cause it to explode.

-- Donna Leon, Earthly Remains

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review: 'Don't Let Go'

Don't Let Go
By Harlan Coben
Suspense Fiction
October 2017
Dutton Books
ISBN: 978-0525955115

Nap Dumas has overcome heartache in his life -- his mother was never around, his beloved father has died. In between those two events, his twin brother was killed when they were seniors in high school and the love of his young life disappeared. In the years since, Nap became a cop and is an investigator for the county where he grew up.

The past is about to catch up with him when two cops from out of state show up at his door. A cop in their own town was killed. He was a guy Nap went to high school with, but that's not why they came. It's because a set of prints he put into the system years ago got a hit when they were processing the case. The prints belong to the girl who captured his heart and vanished when they all were in school.

From there, the action never stops in Harlan Coben's latest suspense novel. Old friends, old rumors and new perspectives on what Nap thought he knew come together masterfully. Who Nap is, who he was and who he could become are an important part of the story. This becomes as integral to the story as solving the mystery. As a bonus, an old favorite makes an appearance.

Coben says that two rumors he grew up with turned out to both be true. They certainly work together well in Don't Let Go. They also show that secrets aren't really secrets in a small town. And if someone doesn't hide the truth from himself, he can find a way to reconcile past and future.

©2017 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review: 'All the Crooked Saints'

All the Crooked Saints
By Maggie Stiefvater
YA Fiction
October 2017
ISBN: 978-0545930802

Being a saint isn't easy, as too many members of the Sorio family know. There's not only the granting of miracles, there's the aftermath when the recipient has to figure out what the miracle means and what to do for the second miracle to take place. Because it takes both miracles before a pilgrim can move on.

For the saint and family, that means not interferring lest their own darkness appear. When a new pilgrim seeking a miracle, and a young man who just wants a truck to start a business, show up at the Sorio outpost in remote Bicho Raro, Colorado, in the 1960s, it's going to be harder for all of the Sorios to not become involved.

In Maggie Stiefvater's magical new novel, All the Crooked Saints, the Sorios have known for generations that helping a pilgrim get to the second step of a miracle, after the saint performs the first miracle, is dangerous to the pilgrim and themselves. As a result, their little settlement is overrun with pilgrims who haven't found the solution, from a bride whose dress is covered in butterflies and who weeps rivers of sadness, to twins entangled by a snake, to a padre with a animal head.

But Pete and Tony, the new guys in town, set in motion changes that cannot be stopped. Pete has a hole in his heart but it is an organ filled with kindness and determination. He works harder than anyone, and falls in love with the desert. The desert, in return, loves him back. Tony is a DJ making a name for himself but cannot bear being stared at any longer. He is in search of a miracle.

The current saint is quiet Daniel. His two beloved cousins are Beatriz, the tinkerer who works mechanical wonders, and Joaquin, an amateur DJ and weaver of tales. The trio drive through the desert at night so Joaquin can broadcast via the pirate radio station Beatriz created. The station exists in the back of the truck Pete was promised by a distant relative.

Although miracles that finish the quest of pilgrims are in short supply when the novel begins, the meeting of the determination of Pete and Tony with the traditions and family heritage of the Sorios results in a story filled with magic realism, hope, love and problems that were decades in the making. Stefvater has a beautiful way of using hyperbole to create the world of the Sorios, to enrich the characterizations and to make everyone's quest meaningful.

The novel is marketed for teens, but it is a one that anyone who loves fables and family stories should miss. All the Crooked Saints is a beautifully elegant story that can make a reader's heart ache, and sing.

©2017 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sunday Sentence: 'The Essex Serpent'

As inspired by Fobbit and Brave Deeds author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentences I've read this week, presented without context or commentary:

Had it always been here -- this marvelous black earth in which she sank to her ankles, this coral-colored fungus frilling the branches at her feet? Had birds always sung? Had the rain always this light touch, as if she might inhabit it?

... sometimes I think we must be walking on shoals of bodies without realizing it and all the earth's a graveyard.

-- Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Review: 'The Bitter Season'

The Bitter Season
By Tami Hoag
Crime fiction
May 2017 (paperback release)
ISBN: 978-0451470072

An old crime that won't be left alone, despite the wishes of family members, and a new assignment for a tenacious homicide detective are just one thread in Tami Hoag's latest Kovac and Liska novel, The Bitter Season. Add in a brutal double murder scene and the wish of a young woman who has overcome abuse, and the tangled web that has been woven for decades begins to unravel.

Nikki Liska, wanting to spend more time with her sons, has left the Minneapolis Police homicide squad and her longtime partner, Sam Kovac. She's working on a newly formed cold case squad, thinking she'll at least be home nights. Instead of a quiet office job, she's thrown into a political battle in which an old cop gets the OK for the squad to work on the case of a policeman who was murdered years ago. But instead of that cop getting the case, Liska is assigned.

And no one involved -- including the widow and the brother (who are now married to each other) -- want to talk.

Meanwhile, Kovac catches a double murder of a cranky professor and his wife. The murder weapons appear to be from the professor's extensive collection of samurai swords and other antique Asian weapons. Their children -- an emotionally volatile young woman who was Daddy's assistant and who was pursuing a grievance against him at the university, and a quiet, tightly wound young man working as a paralegal -- and the professor's rival for department head, are no more forthcoming than the people Liska is trying to interview.

While both detectives display their determination to see a case through, a young woman named Evi counts her blessings in a beautiful home with a real life Prince Charming firefighter of a husband and lovely child. The ghosts of the past won't let her live without fear though.

That there are times when it appears the detectives' cases will collide is inevitable. But it is skillfully handled and the pace of the plotting is first-rate. Hoag is not afraid to write about the depraved as well as the determined as she uses these characters' stories to explore the ties that bind people to each other.

As the threads weave in and out, the rich characterizations are revealed through what happens and the suspenseful pace continues to build. As Hoag has added to the Kovac and Liska series, the main characters and those they are involved with have become both better known and more intriguing. It matters how Nikki handles her home life just as much as it matters how she handles the men at work and her caseload. It matters how Sam can take a long, hard look at his life as clearly as he can look at a crime scene.

The books have a flavor of the old 87th Precinct series with the interworkings of a PD where familiar faces are seen, combined with the intensity of today's suspense novels. Readers can start the series here and may well be tempted to go to the earlier books. They'll find other strong, compelling page-turner mysteries if they do.

©2017 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted by permission

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Review: 'Swing Time'

Swing Time
By Zadie Smith
Literary Fiction
November 2016
Penguin Press
ISBN: 978-1594203985

Fiction is useful as a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day and as a way of seeing and hearing the voices, the multitudes of this world. It is a way to help us refine our definition of what matters.

Searching for something to matter may be what drives the nameless narrator of Zadie Smith's Swing Time, a novel just named to this year's Man Booker longlist. She is a girl who grew up in '80s London, loves old musicals and dance, and is intimidated by three forceful women in her life. Her mother is a fierce warrior for social justice, spending more time in books and speeches than raising her daughter. Her father, a postman, handles the domestic tasks.

The closest thing she has to a friend is another girl she meets in a community dance class. Tracey is a natural dancer. Her home life is a mess, living with her white mother and making up stories about her black father, who is rarely around. Tracy also is a natural storyteller and targets the men who mean something to our narrator, sometimes out of maliciousness, sometimes out of pettiness. After one such act, the narrator loses contact with Tracey for years.

After floating through university, the narrator is hired by global pop star Aimee, who seems a lot like Madonna, as a personal assistant. With no life of her own, the narrator winds up in Africa when Aimee decides to open a school for girls there. The people that the narrator forms attachments with there do not provide any sense of homegoing, and she does not attempt to find any familial roots. Even going to the tourist trap that a former slave prison has become does not provide an epiphany. But in trying to do what she considers a just action, she finds herself cast out.

The narrator feels vague and rootless throughout the novel. That's often how she looks at life as well, not noticing the obvious until much later. The title, "Swing Time", is taken from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical. It's a film she adored growing up but did not realize until years later that one musical number, a number she thought she had memorized, is done in blackface. As a person of color, it seems obvious that she would notice this her entire life.

The earlier lack of noticing and the eventual noticing are the way the narrator has lived her life.

At the novel's conclusion, there is a sense that now the narrator has lost important people and discovered an essential aspect of another, that she may have finally noticed something that she can use in her own life and sense of self. It is oblique, but that's the way Smith tells her stories.

Swing Time feels like two distinct novels. There is the coming-of-age story with Tracey and their parents, with instances of Tracey's casual cruelty detailed with precision. There is an intimacy in this story within the overall book, and a sense that because things happened during childhood and early youth, those things matter deeply.

The other story, of the narrator's life with Aimee and the extended Africa storyline, is more a story that takes on global ideas rather than personal ones. The descriptions of the cruelty that comes from a celebrity taking up a cause and fundamentally changing a community are well-drawn with the author showing the reader, rather than telling.

The strongest tie between the two stories is the narrator's realization toward the beginnning of the book that she "had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow." After the flashbacks that make up the book, a colleague tells the narrator that being a fatalist "means something simple, like to say the future is already there, waiting for you. Why not wait, see what it brings?"

Perhaps the narrator has learned what she said earlier on: "The story was the price you paid for the rhythm." Perhaps she is ready to accept the rhythm and the price from here on out.

©2017 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted by permission

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Human Acts

As inspired by David Abrams, author of the upcoming Brave Deeds (August, Grove Atlantic), the best sentence(s) I read this week, without further comment or commentary:

My shadow's edges became aware of a quiet touch; the presence of another soul. ... Sad flames licking up against a smooth wall of glass, only to wordlessly slide away, outdone by whatever barrier was there.

-- Human Acts, Han Kang

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Paul Auster

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:

The word psyche means two things in Greek, his aunt said. Two very different but interesting things. Butterfly and soul. But when you stop and think about it carefully, butterfly and soul aren't so different, after all, are they? A butterfly starts out as a caterpillar, an ugly sort of earthbound, wormy nothing, and then one day the caterpillar builds a cocoon, and after a certain amount of time the cocoon opens and out comes the butterfly, the most beautiful creature in the world. That's what happens to souls as well, Archie. They struggle in the depths of darkness and ignorance, they suffer through trials and misfortunes, and bit by bit they become purified by those sufferings, strengthened by the hard things that happen to them, and one day, if the soul in question is a worthy soul, it will break out of its cocoon and soar through the air like a magnificent butterfly.

-- Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1