Wednesday, July 17, 2019

VOX by Christina Dalcher

Imagine that our country’s leaders have decided in the past year that women should not speak more than 100 words per day.  In this novel they enforce this limit by requiring all women to wear a metal wrist counter that delivers a nasty shock if the wearer exceeds her maximum word count.  Women no longer study anything in school except rudimentary arithmetic and home ec.  Jean, our first-person narrator, is a neurolinguist who was researching a cure for a brain disorder that causes language dysfunction.  However, women can no longer hold jobs, and Jean just did not see this dystopian development coming.  Then she is suddenly called back into service to finish her work, alongside her two colleagues--Lorenzo, who also happens to be her lover and the father of her unborn child, and Lin, whom Jean has not seen since their work was discontinued.  Jean fears that her unborn child will be a girl whose language skills will be stifled just as her 6-year-old daughter’s are now.  Jean also has three sons who are starting to drink the Kool-Aid of the misogynists, and her husband, the president’s science advisor, is on her side but not necessarily willing to make waves.  Soon she and her teammates discover the true nefarious purpose of their research, complicating matters even further.  This book is stunning in many ways and points up all sorts of sticky issues, including Jean’s growing resentment and distrust of the men in her family, as she and Lorenzo hatch a possible plot to get out of the country before the baby is born.  Although we know from the first sentence that Jean will succeed in overthrowing the government in a week, the book is still suspenseful and a bit madcap, as we learn that she has more sympathizers to her cause than she realizes.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

THE RIVER by Peter Heller

Peter Heller knows how to tell a suspenseful adventure story.  This novel is as turbulent as its title waterway, in which two college students, Wynn and Jack, take a Canadian wilderness canoe trip.  Things start to get dicey when they spot a raging wildfire that forces them to re-evaluate their plan.  However, the fire is not the only life-threatening obstacle.  The two men add a seriously injured woman, Maia, to their party and find themselves in the crosshairs of her possibly psychopathic husband, Pierre.  Soon their leisurely paddle trip becomes a quest for survival, and their absolute trust in on another starts to erode.  Wynn, the eternal optimist, has a tough time grasping that Pierre could be lying in wait planning an ambush.  Jack, on the other hand, has a sixth sense that warns him when something is amiss, and he takes a more pragmatic approach:  Get them before they get you.  Regardless, these are two guys that you would trust with your life, and Maia has to do just that.  They manage to feed her and stitch her up, even after most of their provisions have been lost.  Their Deliverance-like nightmare had me in its clutches right up until the end, at which point the narration becomes very confusing.  Fortunately, the epilogue clarifies everything.  I think I understand why the author wrapped things up in this fashion, since a heartbreaking event basically renders everything that happens afterward relatively unimportant.  I’ve read all of Heller’s novels, and this one is second only to The Dog Stars.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

IN THE WOODS by Tana French

Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are partners in the Dublin Murder Squad, and they have just received a case involving the murder of a 12-year-old girl, Katy Devlin, in Knocknaree.  Unbeknownst to their boss, Rob grew up in that area, and two of his friends disappeared from there when they were kids two decades ago.  He was with them that day but remembers nothing about what happened.  That’s my first problem with this novel.  Rob has apparently declined hypnosis and/or psychotherapy as a means of unlocking his memory.  Really?  Plus, I found it implausible that more characters didn’t guess Ryan’s involvement in the old case.  Anyway, the big question is whether or not the two cases are related.  Investigating Katy’s murder causes Rob to become increasingly more unhinged and less objective about the suspects in the case, and his previously superb relationship with Cassie suffers.  As a result, Rob, the first-person narrator throughout, becomes less appealing as a character, while Cassie’s star rises.  All of the main characters are well-developed, including Katy’s dysfunctional family members.  Also front and center is an archaeological excavation, where Katy’s body was discovered, that is taking place in advance of a controversial roadway development.  A corrupt political figure who stands to gain major financial benefit from the roadway appears to be the only person with a motive.  All in all, this is a better-than-average thriller, with solid writing and dialog, but the ending was disappointing.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

THE MARS ROOM by Rachel Kushner

This book is fiction, but it has a lot in common with Orange Is the New Black.  It takes place in a women’s prison, and the protagonist is an intelligent white woman who may not deserve her fate.  In this case, Romy Hall was a stripper who had to move to another city to avoid the attentions of a customer-turned-stalker.  It’s easy to guess why she’s now incarcerated.  She also has a young son who is temporarily living with Romy’s mother, but his situation is not so temporary, since Romy will be in prison for the rest of her life.  Hopelessness pervades Romy’s story, from her trial with a tired and lackluster public defender at her side to her quest to determine the whereabouts of her son after her mother’s death.  Romy has no resources, no visitors, no friends on the outside.  Her life is so bleak as to be barely worth living.  If the author’s purpose is to make us aware of how our prison system is stacked against people like Romy, then she has succeeded.  This novel takes us where we wouldn’t go of our own volition.  Gordon Hauser, a prison teacher, takes an interest in Romy’s plight, but he, too, runs up against a brick wall in trying to help her, and then he just sort of vanishes from the narrative.  As is the case with many novels these days, the ending is abrupt and ambiguous.  The lack of any kind of closure, good or bad, makes this novel just another forgettable story for me.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

TELEX FROM CUBA by Rachel Kushner

My main problem with this book is that there’s no tangible plot.  The setting is Cuba in the 1950s, and the characters are Americans living there in luxury, relative to the Cubans who do the hard work in the fields and mines.  We know that Castro will eventually change their situation drastically, so that the ending is as expected.  This novel actually has a swarm of characters, including alcoholic mothers, children coming of age, a stripper, and a Frenchman with a shady past.  Still, there are no seminal events, except the revolution itself.  Not only is there no real forward progress in the plot here, but the characters are not memorable in any way, and the writing is adequate at best.  Next Year in Havana may be a bit fluffy, but it covers much of the same territory and is a better read, in my opinion.  I did not love Kushner’s latest novel, The Mars Room, but it’s a masterpiece compared to this.  The American men and women in this book are not bad people, and they are fully aware that American imperialism is not benefitting the general population, the vast majority of whom live in poverty.  The author does make crystal clear how the gulf between the have and have-nots and the corruption of Batista’s regime, as well as PrĂ­o’s before him, enabled the Castro brothers to attract so many young men to their cause, including a few Americans. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

DEAR COMMITTEE MEMBERS by Julie Schumacher

I have to admit that this book is LOL funny at times.  However, it is also monotonous, and I don’t consider it a novel, epistolary or otherwise.  It consists entirely of letters of recommendation (LORs) written by Jason Fitger, an English professor at a small college.  Some of his letters are for people he barely knows, and some are for people he cannot recommend, and these two types of letters are certainly the funniest.  My favorites are the ones he writes on behalf of his tech support guy, Duffy Napp, appropriately named, since he appears to sleepwalk through his working hours.  Fitger is eager to find Mr. Napp employment elsewhere but hilariously betrays his motivation in his recommendation letters.  Fitger corresponds with his ex-wife and a couple of ex-girlfriends and complains incessantly to anyone who will listen about the English department’s diminishing status and the renovation that is going on in his building.  He also demonstrates a soft spot for students who are struggling financially and goes to great lengths to help them find employment.  This book does have a tiny bit of plot buried in its pages, and the author does a fine job of painting Fitger as a curmudgeon with a heart and a sense of humor.   Fitger does not suffer fools gladly but describes their shortcomings in an amusing manner to lessen the blow.  I am intrigued by the cover illustration, which appears to be the back end of a porcupine.  I would say that Fitger is prickly indeed.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

MRS. FLETCHER by Tom Perrotta

Eve Fletcher is an attractive 46-year-old, sending her only son Brendan off to college.  Eve is divorced and has mixed feelings about her empty nest status, but she’s determined to make the best of it.  By day she is the director of a senior center, but by night she attends a community college class on gender and society, taught by Margo, a transgender woman.  Eve begins to explore her own sexual inclinations, finding herself attracted to Amanda, a young employee, and to Justin, a high school classmate of Brendan’s.  Meanwhile, Brendan, who seemingly has no redeeming qualities, soon finds that his wild college experience is not working out as planned.  Eve knows that she has not raised a model citizen, but she allows him to go his own way, and he becomes more despicable by the moment.  All of the other characters, on the other hand, are navigating social minefields of their own, with varying degrees of success.  One reviewer suggested that the book title implies that Eve is sort of a modern-day Mrs. Robinson, but she’s not a seductress at all.  Her porn-induced fantasies may get the better of her at times, but she treads carefully and respectfully, in stark contrast to her misogynist son.  There’s more here, though, than the story of a woman going through a sort of mid-life crisis.  Perrotta uses a light touch to explore heavy subject matter, including autism and aging, as well as gender identity.