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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