Wednesday, May 28, 2014

THE BEAR by Claire Cameron

Like ROOM by Emma Donoghue, this book is a harrowing story delivered in the voice of a 5-year-old.  Anna, our narrator, is camping on an island with her family when a bear goes on a rampage, killing both her parents.  Her father barely has time to stuff the two children into a large cooler to wait out the bear’s attack, and her dying mother instructs Anna to get her brother into the canoe and leave the island.  Her brother Alex, nicknamed Sticky, or Stick for short, is still in diapers and presents another set of challenges.  Sometimes he likes to pretend to be a dog, obedient and eager to please, but I have to say that a real dog would be more helpful in this type of emergency than a toddler.  Anna feels a sense of big-sister responsibility for him, while at the same time becoming exasperated by his actions, which constantly impede Anna’s survival efforts.  Some readers may find Anna’s account a bit annoying with the choppy language and childish vocabulary, but I found it mesmerizing, especially since she judges her environment largely by sense of smell.  Her interpretation of what happens is somewhat off-kilter, and I can’t actually say whether her version of the events is appropriate for a 5-year-old’s mind or not.  In any case, her viewpoint is skewed in a manner that shields her from the stark truth that she and Stick are alone and unprotected in the wilderness.  The ultimate irony is that Anna’s only source of comfort throughout this experience is another bear—Gwen, her beloved teddy bear, whose status, in Anna’s eyes is almost that of a family member.  The ending of this book is so perfect that I had to choke back a big sob, but this is a nail-biter, not a tearjerker, and it’s not really scary--just grisly.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

THE LIGHT IN THE RUINS by Chris Bohjalian

It’s Italy near the end of WWII, and not everyone is a Mussolini fan.  In fact, the Nazis are viewed with rabid distaste, even though Italy is aligned with Germany.  A dozen years later, a serial killer, who provides some of the narration, is literally ripping out the hearts of the members of the Rosati family, one by one, seeking revenge for some unknown offense.  Serafina Bettini is a rare entity for the 1950s—a female police officer.  She is investigating the crimes and also has a connection to the Rosatis, because she took refuge among the crypts in the Etruscan ruins on the family property during the war.  From all indications, the cause of the murders dates back to the war, since the Rosatis billeted Nazi officers in their villa, although not exactly with open arms, and the youngest daughter fell in love with a not-so-zealous German lieutenant.  There are plenty of clues as to who might have found the Rosatis’ liaisons with the Germans unpalatable, but the family’s unforgiveable crime is not revealed until the end.  Still, nothing justifies the killer’s cold-blooded obsession with wiping them out.  War makes people do unthinkable things to save themselves, and this book crystallizes all the ambiguity of being Italian during this most horrible of times.  It’s definitely a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation.  Whom should you fear most?  The cruel Nazis with no respect for human life, or your fellow countrymen who may or may not exact just as high a price later?  Plus, sometimes the choice is not about saving your own life but rather about loved ones versus strangers.  In this case, an ironic outcome for the ones who were saved means that the wrong choice was made, but no one could have foreseen that at the time.

Monday, May 19, 2014

THE BUFFALO SOLDIER by Chris Bohjalian

Sandwiched between a flood at the beginning of the novel and another at the end are three main characters:  Laura, her policeman husband Terry, and Alfred, their black foster child.  In the first flood Laura and Terry lost their young twin daughters; hence Alfred is in the unenviable position of taking their place.   His relationship with Terry is one of wariness on both sides, while Laura has embraced him, seeing him as a tortured soul, not unlike the abandoned pets at the shelter where she works.  Grief, and to a degree Alfred's presence, have driven a stake into the heart of Laura and Terry's marriage.  As the chasm between them widens, Terry finds himself attracted to Phoebe, who becomes another player in this tale of woe.  On the bright side, elderly neighbors Paul and Emily give Alfred something to live for by introducing him to horseback riding and to the history of the Buffalo Soldiers, a regiment of black cavalry during the late 1800s.  Except for Terry's lapse of fidelity, everyone is basically trying to do the right thing, except for Terry's hard-drinking brother Russell, who will surely come around eventually.  Finding the best solution for all parties is tricky, and I looked forward to seeing how the author would tie things up.  He did a good job with that, but not before subjecting us to that second flood, which I feared would supply more grief than I could handle.  Sometimes one tragedy requires another to right the ship.  Thank heavens for Paul and Emily, the eternally good, and Russell, the bad boy, for giving us a respite from this storm of anguish.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


Sometimes the most popular novels make me just shake my head and say, “Huh?”  This is one of them.  It’s not just that it’s a fantasy, or maybe magical realism, whatever that means.  A child being protected from evil spirits by a fairy ring?  At least the book is mercifully short, and I didn’t really hate it; I just didn’t get it or its appeal.  An unnamed man returns to his childhood home for a funeral for an unnamed relative and relives an episode in which his evil nanny tried to destroy him.  I would say, “tried to kill him,” but that would not be entirely accurate, since some characters may vanish into a pond/ocean with an expectation to return in the distant future.  The man’s scary childhood memories begin with the death of a cat, the near-swallowing of a coin, the theft of a car, and the suicide of a gambler.  Our narrator becomes involved in a battle between the forces of good and evil, where a young girl (Lettie), her mother, and her grandmother, all of whom have lived forever and possess superpowers, represent the forces of good, like female Jedi knights.  They rather recklessly lead the boy into danger and then give their all to extricate him from a situation in which he has become sort of a portal for the above-mentioned nanny, who seduces the boy’s father and drives the father to torture his own son.  The nanny is one of several representatives of evil that take on different forms and do battle with the henchmen of Lettie and company, who are in some ways just as frightening. The book is not really gruesome, though—at least not any more gruesome than some of the more grisly fairy tales.  The author seems to be trying to bestow an everyman quality on the narrator with all the vagueness about names, but the protagonist’s experiences are anything but commonplace.  I don’t think the author intended for this whole memory of a supernatural battle to be just a dream, but I kept thinking that our boy just needed some ruby slippers so that he could return to the real world.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

THE SILENT WIFE by A.S.A. Harrison

I don’t know of any novel that’s drawn more comparisons than Gone Girl.  Every psychological thriller is said to be like Gone Girl or better than Gone Girl.  Whereas Gone Girl gradually lost its luster as the book progressed, The Silent Wife is like a runaway train, gaining momentum with each turn of the page.  Todd and Jodi have lived together, mostly on autopilot, for 20 years but never married, although Todd has asked repeatedly.  Jodi is a part-time psychologist, and Todd has grown his renovation business from one apartment building to a thriving company.  He’s hardly monogamous, as Jodi well knows, and his latest paramour is Natasha, his oldest friend’s twenty-something-year-old daughter.  Natasha is pregnant with Todd’s son, and the thought of an heir to his burgeoning empire is enough to make him leave Jodi and marry Natasha.  Jodi never accepts this reality and assumes that Todd will soon come to his senses and return to their peaceful, orderly life.  Todd, however, is having to juggle the bills of both women, and even though the bloom is off the rose as far as his relationship with Natasha is concerned, he has to cut Jodi loose.  All of the main characters in this novel are utterly distasteful and emotionally detached, and Jodi comes across as menacingly calm, as the wheels of her structured life are coming off.   The reader knows from Jodi’s musings on page 4 that “a few short months are all it will take to make a killer out of her.”  As this more sinister aspect of the plot unfolds, I thought I knew exactly what was going to happen, but I was wrong.  The author throws us a curve that is as entertaining as it is surprising.  Oddly enough, Jodi becomes more human at the end of the novel, but by that time, she is unredeemable in my eyes.