Sunday, August 25, 2013

Broken Harbor by Tana French


Broken Harbor
by Tana French
2012
*****
5 stars - never a dull moment



Am I on a role or what? Pulled this off the "super hot return in two weeks or else" shelf. It was just there, staring at me. 

How did I miss this author in the past?

The basics...

Mick "Schorcher" Kennedy, homicide detective, assigned to investigate a really nasty murder. Two kids, husband, and wife. OK, well, not quite the wife, who is transported to hospital with life threatening wounds. 

The murders take place in a truly murderous place. Broken Harbor. Financial murder is a foot there. Greedy land developer snookering people into purchasing their dream homes and then taking a runner while most of the properties are still undeveloped shells. Shame.

Detective Kennedy is saddled with a rookie partner, but he turns out to be a pretty clever chap, so not all bad in that department.

This is not an action book, it's more of a character study. It takes place in the span of just a few days, but we really get into the hearts and minds of the characters. Ms. French paints wonderful portraits of the people in the book - both major and minor. 

The mystery itself is meted out via Detective Kennedy. We only know what he knows, see what he sees. Perfect. So many answers to the riddle of the crime are seductively close, but not quite. I loved the way Ms. French played out the clues. Here's a bit, chew on it, see what you think, OK, here's another bit. It felt very real. No big "aha!" and the ending was very tidy.

Five stars because I'll be going back to check out more by this author.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Stepping into the Dark by David Lucas


Stepping Into the Dark
A lad from Jarrow battles with sight loss
by David Lucas
2010
*****
5 stars - an important book





Good luck finding this book at the library. I bought my copy online and it is headed for my local library (so anybody in the Minuteman Library Network will be able to get it).

Yes, there is a dog in this book. A black lab named Abbot, as a matter of fact. So, doggie people, are you motivated to read it now?

Doggie person or not, this is a powerful book. Loyal readers know that I've blasted some autobiographers for their weak writing. David Lucas doesn't fall into that category. No, he isn't any sort of poet, but his words are honest and compelling.

Mr. Lucas has been losing his eyesight from day one. Plagued by a triple threat of eye ailments, his vision over the years has gotten progressively more dodgy. When the book opens, he cannot read most signs, has trouble with balance on uneven surfaces, and is generally housebound from the fatigue of having to navigate the world.

The book is short and is primarily focused on the the changes brought about in his life from his seeing eye dog, Abbot. But it also was an awakening for me about how impossible the world is for people who have compromised vision and how of all the disabilities to have, it must surely be one of the most terrifying and isolating.

The author walks us through several "ordinary" activities such as a trip to the museum or a short bus ride and makes it painfully clear how fraught with peril they are. He also points the mirror at his readers when he provides examples of how insensitive people can be. One example he uses frequently is when he goes to the coffee shop. Now Mr. Lucas has (or at least had) enough vision to walk into the shop and count out his money, but not to read a menu written on a chalkboard behind the counter. The most common reply when he asked if they had such and such was "read the menu."

I've made a real effort in the past few years to give people the benefit of the doubt. I don't assume it is all about me or that people are intent on doing annoying things. When somebody is parked with their cart in the middle of the grocery aisle, my first instinct is no longer anger. I figure first and foremost that for whatever reason, they are stuck and I utter a polite "excuse me" and smile on the way by (unless of course they are on the phone talking to Buffy about Tad in which case I can be gruff).

But Mr. Lucas has shown me how vision loss (in all its incremental forms) can make people appear to be behaving oddly or rudely when, in fact, they are just struggling to get by. So one more area for me to be aware.

Abbot is, of course, amazing and delightful and very much a dog full of devotion as well as mischief.

Remarking on his first train ride with Abbot,

Once we're on board the train I have my first experience of getting 40 kilos of dog under a British Rail seat. It's doable but by no means easy and Abbot is not happy about it. He has his huffy head on and is giving me withering looks from under the seat, accompanied by the occasional sigh for effect.

He does get into discussions of legislation mandating disability payments to sight impaired people as well as physical accommodations. Bless his heart, he warns the reader when he is about to get preachy (even entitling one chapter "Soapbox"). But his words are brief and direct and I did an inward "ouch" as I recognized some of my own prejudices and ignorance brought to light.

And when either the people to help me or the additional money [to travel] aren't available I simply lose the right to free and easy movement.

It won't take you long to read this book. I think you'll be glad you did.

P.S. I didn't want to use any photos of Mr. Lucas without permission, but if you google "David Lucas and Abbot" you can find a few wonderful photos.

P.P.S. Check out this blog. That's one of my Internet acquaintances who is severely vision impaired as is her husband. They live with such an assortment of dogs, cats, and who knows what that I can never keep track. Her stories would amaze me if she were sighted, but for somebody without benefit of vision, it's all pretty spectacular.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Vanishing Point by Val McDermid


The Vanishing Point
by Val McDermid
2012
*****
5 stars - stay up to late at night to see what happens next kind of good



Yup, hard to stop reading once I started. Stayed up too late at night, late for work, you name it.

Stephanie Harker is on her way through airport security in the US. She's got metal pins in her leg which means she always has to go to the isolation booth (thank you TSA). She's also got young Jimmy by her side. The son of her deceased best friend. Stephanie is returning to the UK to finalize adoption of Jimmy. But, uh oh, while she is in the isolation booth, some dude walks up to Jimmy, talks to him a bit, and walks off with him. What the heck?

Stephanie goes coo coo nutty which the TSA interprets as a terrorist threat. They take her down as she tries to run after Jimmy, then taser her for good measure and drag her into the interrogation room.

By the time they figure out that her child has been kidnapped, well, he's long gone.

The remainder of the book deals primarily with the events leading up to that moment (with some present day interludes to let the reader know what progress - not much - is being made by the FBI in recovering the little tyke).

Stephanie is a ghost writer. She was assigned to pen a book for Scarlett Higgins. Scarlett is one of those people famous for being famous. An overnight celebrity after her appearance on a reality TV show who uses a clever publicist to keep her star shining despite having little apparent talent. Ugh, right?

But Stephanie agrees to write the book and damn if she doesn't kind of start to like Scarlett. 

Ms. McDermid teases out clues, false leads, and some nasty business with such craft that I found myself thinking about these characters even when I wasn't reading the book. Who took Jimmy? Is Scarlett really a bimbo? What about her family? 

Onward we go. Pretty soon, Stephanie's life is hopelessly entangled with Scarlett's life and things become more and more weird. But it happens in such small increments, that Stephanie almost doesn't even see it coming.

Whoosh! 

While not up to the standards of Ms. McDermid's Wire in the Blood series, this is still a top notch thriller with great characters and outstanding writing.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

High Season by Jon Loomis



High Season 
by Jon Loomis
2007
****
4 stars - just what I want in a cozy mystery




This book is the first in the Frank Coffin, Provincetown Detective series. So it is in this one that we learn about why he is now working in Provincetown.

Not much to say here other than it's a good cozy mystery. The characters are real and not too goofy or cartoonish. In this case, bodies start turning up right and left which is a lot more than Frank bargained for when he moved to P-town.

Jon Loomis captures the atmosphere of P-town very well. I used to vacation there once every year or so but haven't been back in about 10 years. Even then, it was showing signs of yielding completely to tourist trap / rich person vacation spot. Mr. Loomis captures that decline very well. Too bad. I used to love going there.

One thing in this series that gets under my skin is the character of Frank's girlfriend. Apparently another one of those women (who in my experience exist only in fiction) who doesn't want to get married. However, she does want to have a baby and I was a bit put off by her attitude about the whole thing.

But that's a nit, and girlfriend Jamie does get her own sub-plot which is fun (in a stalker, life threatening kind of way).

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

WARNING! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!

The Yearling
by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
1938
1939 Pulitzer Prize
*****
5 stars - one of the best books ever



I was watching this book creep to the top of my Pulitzer list with a bit of dread. I read it when I was a youngster and remembered one thing only. They kill the deer! Yup! Dead deer. I did not remember any details other than the great sadness that filled me at the time and stuck with me for some 4+ decades.

But now I am all grown up and made of sterner stuff. Right? Besides, my obsession with order demanded that I at least try to read every book on the list, so away I go.

I secured the edition shown above which includes wonderful illustrations by N. C. Wyeth, along with thick pages, and a bulk that felt familiar and comfortable.

This is certainly one of the best books I have ever read. The story centers around Jody. A youngster growing up as an only child on a farm in Florida in the late nineteenth century. There is something unique about the writing which makes the story enjoyable for readers of many ages. I'm not sure how the author did that.

What distinguishes this book from many others with similar basics is that the people are happy, content, not all suffering and struggling. Sure, times are hard and food is scarce, but they make due and take extreme pleasure from the beauty of the land around them.

Hunting is a primary source of food and Ms. Rawlings takes us along on many edge of your seat hunts. But Jody's father, Penny has taught him a respect for animals. They never kill more than they can eat and they love and respect the animals and feel a pang when they need to rob them of their lives. They don't ever want an animal to suffer.

But what about the deer? OK, well, Jody is pretty lonely out there all by himself so when he finds an orphan fawn he adopts it, names it Flag, and makes it part of the family. Oh man, does he love that little deer. Flag sleeps in his room with him, wanders the countryside with him, plays with him, and is totally the light of his life.

Bunches of things happen. Dad gets bit by a rattlesnake and almost dies. Some neighbors get into fights. Animals get hunted. You know, stuff like that. Oh, there's also a hurricane. Very bad business.

However.... THEY KILL THE DEER! Yup, because, well, a fawn is one thing. Cute and all, but once Flag grows up he is impossible to keep out of the gardens and if they lose their crop they die and he is so devoted to Jody that he won't go wild and, well, it's a life or death situation and so THEY KILL THE FREAKIN' DEER! Oh have mercy!

And once again, all that happened in the first 350 pages or so suddenly telescoped away from me and I am focused on that moment and I can barely remember everything that went before. 

So the deer is dead and Jody is totally messed up over it and dad is getting old and can't take care of things and life is suddenly joyless and Jody runs away from home but then he comes back because what else is he going to do and I'm thinking "I got this, it's OK" except it isn't.

Because in the last paragraph, the last sentence, the last phrase, Ms. Rawlings takes out her knife and twists it in my heart and I am left hollowed out and miserable. 

So, yeah, they kill the deer, but read the book anyway. This book is what reading is all about. A wonderful story that is hard to put down, full of real characters, some of whom you'll like, some not so much. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

In the Cut by Susanna Moore


In the Cut
by Susanna Moore
1995
*****
5 stars - Ew, nasty


This book wound up in my queue either through a reader recommendation or the Sunday book review section. I can't remember which.

First off, a warning. This is very R rated due to graphic sex scenes.

From reading the dust cover, you'd think it was another Looking for Mr. Goodbar type novel. 

I did. I was wrong. 

The dust cover indicates that one is about to read a story about a New York City teacher, living alone, whose private life deteriorates into a series of dangerous sexual encounters. Sound familiar? Don't be fooled.

What we get instead is something far creepier. The main character (who is never named) narrates a series of events over a short period of time that are primarily disturbing in how matter of fact she is about the mundane as well as the bizarre and upsetting. 

Five stars for writing style. I don't know how Ms. Moore did it. What resonated with me is how well she captured the import of things in one's life while simultaneously reminding us that what happens to us, no matter how extraordinary, is really just a day in the life of no matter to the other people who mill around us.

I will try to summarize without revealing too much. The main character is, indeed, a teacher of writing and her passion for words was a bright spot for me. She mulls over what people say, the slang they use, the feeling of words, both good and bad. 

Early on in the novel there is a murder in her neighborhood which leads to her meeting police detective Malloy and subsequently forming an "off duty" relationship with him. She is drawn into life in equal parts as observer and participant. Is there a mystery? Yeah, kind of, but that isn't what the book is about. It's about how we are observers in our lives, how we "allow" ourselves to get caught up in things and, primarily, about how it's the small things that happen which combine with the larger events to form a life narration. 

Equal dialog is given over to the narrator's contemplation of an accidental touch in a bar as to an assault while walking home. I could relate to that. In my mind, there are big events, but also small things which seem to consume portions of my brain in a manner that makes them the same in their effect on my life and well being. 

She stood next to Reilly in the back of the auditorium after the performance, holding his arm tightly. I could see that he despised her. He despised her ceramic brooch. He despised her eagerness to be introduced to what she called his colleagues. When he went off to find Miss Wein, a nearly deranged biology professor, Mrs. Reilly told me that her husband worried that I was handling my students wrong. Handling? I asked. In a matter of seconds I, too, had come to despise her.

The way thoughts form in her mind was very familiar to me.

I tried to find an online review to quote that captured the feel of the book better than I can. I was disappointed. None of the reviews reflected my feelings. Some describe the main character as shallow. She is no such thing. Maybe they thought she was shallow because she doesn't come to conclusions the way they would have liked. Many use the phrase "erotic thriller." Nope. Doesn't work for me either. Sex? Yes. Murder? Yes. But something much more going on here than that. 

Anyway, I suspect you will love it or hate it.