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 Prío’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.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

CRAZY RICH ASIANS by Kevin Kwan

At first this novel turned me off with its mediocre prose and frivolous subject matter—rich snobs spending lavishly on everything from couture to private jets.  Then the storyline started to grow on me, and I decided just to sit back and enjoy the ride.  Rachel Chu and Nick Young are college professors living together modestly in New York.  Nick invites Rachel to join him for the summer in Singapore where his family resides and his best friend Colin is getting married.  He neglects to warn Rachel that his family is ridiculously wealthy.  Rachel’s lack of an appropriate pedigree leads Nick’s mother Eleanor to pull out all the stops to break up Nick and Rachel’s relationship.  She enlists the help of some exceptionally mean girls, but Rachel hangs in there until Eleanor crosses a line, delving into Rachel’s family history.  Nick is unwavering in his support of Rachel to the point that he is almost too good to be true.  A subplot involves Nick’s cousin Astrid, who happens to be married to Michael, a man who may be cheating on her and who, like Rachel, does not come from a billionaire family.  The conflict that arises from their net worth gap signals what may lie in store for Nick and Rachel as well. This book has a decent ending but certainly leaves a lot of territory to be explored in the sequels.  It may be a frothy confection, but sometimes you just feel like eating a marshmallow.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

BREATHING OUT by Peggy Lipton

I’m not sure why creative people seem to lead such tortured lives, but it certainly seems to be the case.  If I have one complaint about this novel, it’s that Peggy Lipton’s misfortunes seem a little exaggerated. Certainly having been molested repeatedly as a child traumatizes her and creates a pall over her entire life, but most of her other wounds seem to be self-inflicted.  Growing up, her family life was not warm and nurturing, but her parents were fairly affluent and not abusive.  Emotionally, however, Peggy was not well-balanced, probably suffering from depression, and sought acceptance via sexual relationships that were not always healthy.  My favorite part of the novel were the old photos—with Paul McCartney, with the Mod Squad cast members, with Terence Stamp, with Lou Adler, with Sammy Davis, Jr.,  and with her family.  I was fascinated by all of these encounters and kept returning to the photo pages—not to see her companion but to see how she looked at the time.  Her most fulfilling relationship was with her husband of 14 years, Quincy Jones, and I would expect his memoir to be even more captivating.  The book is sort of a series of reminiscences with a slightly wavering timeline, and the writing is decent and flows nicely.  Her life may have been tainted by sadness but it was never dull, and neither is this book.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

WARLIGHT by Michael Ondaatje

The dust jacket of this book is so appropriate, as everything seems to take place in the dark or under a cloud of mystery, and the foggy London setting further amplifies the mood of the novel.  Teenagers Nathaniel, the narrator, and his sister Rachel find themselves in the care of a stranger, whom they privately call The Moth, shortly after WWII, when their parents supposedly move to Asia.  Their father is a Unilever executive who remains nebulous for the duration of the novel, and I really would have liked a little more explication of his role.  Nathaniel becomes an assistant of sorts to The Moth’s friend with an equally shady nickname—The Darter.  The Darter smuggles Greyhound dogs for the purpose of racing fraud, and Nathaniel delights in accompanying him on river runs to fetch these dogs.  Not everything is as it seems, however, and the book unfolds with a meandering timeline. The shadowy essence of the book becomes even more acute when we learn that Nathaniel’s mother was a British intelligence operative during the war, and I loved how the nickname of The Moth, chosen by the kids, seems so appropriate for an undercover contact.  Although she is absent until deep in the novel. their mother’s covert life is what really drives the storyline, although Nathaniel encounters a few other surprises by the end of the book.  Above all, Ondaatje does a remarkable job of making readers feel as though they are witnessing these lives and events firsthand and yet through a smokescreen.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

ANIL'S GHOST by Michael Ondaatje

The mood that pervades the atmosphere of this novel is eerie, dark, and damp.  How Ondaatje manages to envelop us in the ambience of Sri Lanka I’m not really sure, but it’s his homeland, as well as Anil Tissera’s, the main character in this novel.   She is a forensic anthropologist who has been studying and working in Europe and the U.S. and returns home as part of a U.N. mission to investigate murders probably sanctioned by the Sri Lankan government.  Sarath Diyasena has been assigned to work with her, but Anil can never be sure if his loyalty is to the government or to the truth.  A smattering of other characters randomly appear, including Sarath’s brother, who is a physician that routinely patches together victims of violence.  Sarath has unearthed four skeletons, three of which are very old, and one, which they name Sailor, is very recently buried and has obviously been moved from another location.  The quest to discover Sailor’s history and identity leads Anil and Sarath to Sarath’s old mentor, now blind, and to an alcoholic painter and sculptor who may be able reconstruct Sailor’s head from his skull.  These secondary characters receive primary treatment, which is both informative and disconcerting at the same time.  My biggest beef with this novel is that it leaves a whole host of unanswered questions.  Also, since I am certainly not familiar with Sri Lankan history, I never really got a handle on the motive for the massacres that apparently had become commonplace during the time period in which this novel is set.  I felt as though I had been airdropped into a hostile setting without knowing why it’s hostile.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

WASHINGTON BLACK by Esi Edugyan

George Washington “Wash” Black begins life as a slave in 1830s Barbados.  His life radically changes when Titch, the plantation owner’s brother, selects Wash to serve as ballast for his hot air balloon.  A whole host of adventures ensue, including an explosion that renders Wash severely disfigured.  Titch becomes Wash’s protector, but Wash has a mighty talent for drawing that proves very helpful in Titch’s investigations of plant and animal life.  When Wash witnesses a suicide, he and Titch flee Barbados, as it is likely that Wash will be implicated as a murderer.  The remainder of the book is full of unlikely coincidences and adventures that occur all over the world.   Although there are some grim scenes at the beginning of this novel, it is not generally about the horrific mistreatment of slaves.  It’s about a boy leading an improbable life on the run and ultimately pursuing a quest.  Wash is full of curiosity and awe and manages to get by on his wits and his artistic ability.  Some reviewers have suggested that Wash is searching for identity and freedom, but I saw it as a search for family. He strives to be accepted and treated as an equal.  For some years after he and Titch become separated his life is very solitary, largely due to his terror of being captured and sent back to Barbados.  He is a memorable and lovable character who

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

UNSHELTERED by Barbara Kingsolver

I liked the message in this novel, or, I should say, messages.  The author addresses several topics, including global warming, wasting natural resources, and the dissolution of the middle class.  Willa and her husband Iano are in their fifties but have not been able to accumulate a nest egg, partly due to Iano’s failed attempts at securing tenure and partly due to a stream of calamities.  They move to an inherited home in Vineland, NJ, which begins to crumble around them.  Their grown daughter has just moved back in, and their son Zeke’s girlfriend has just committed suicide shortly after the birth of their son Aldus.  Aldus then joins Willa and Iano’s household, which also includes Iano’s dying father, who mouths off racial slurs while draining their meager funds for his medical care.  Their story alternates with that of Thatcher Greenwood, a fictional 1870s science teacher who befriends Mary Treat, a real-life naturalist who corresponded with Charles Darwin.  Greenwood becomes something of a pariah in town, due to his embracing of Darwin’s findings, much to the chagrin of his social-climbing wife.  Greenwood’s house is also disintegrating, so that the book title has a literal meaning for both the modern-day household and the 1870s one.   The most chilling parallel that Kingsolver draws between the two storylines is the similarity between our current president and Charles Landis, founder of Vineland and a real-life contemporary of Mary Treat.  Some may find the author a little too preachy in this novel, but I have a different beef.  I felt that both storylines lacked any real punch.  Even the murder that occurs has a foregone conclusion and therefore is not that shocking.  Willa and Iano’s problems never seem to have any reprieve.  The addition of an infant to their household may be uplifting in some ways, but he adds to their already towering stress levels.  Kingsolver never leaves her messes unresolved, and this novel is no exception, but I couldn’t help feeling that the ensuing and inevitable resolution, in both storylines,

Sunday, May 5, 2019

ANIMAL DREAMS by Barbara Kingsolver

It’s the 1980s in Arizona.  Codi, a med school dropout, and her sister Hallie have been very close their entire lives, but now Hallie has gone to Nicaragua to provide agricultural expertise.  It’s a very dangerous time there, with the Contra rebellion in full force.  Codi is at loose ends, and since her father is suffering from dementia, she decides to return to her hometown of Grace, Arizona, to teach Biology at the local high school.  When she was fifteen, Codi became pregnant and miscarried, and now she re-encounters the father of her lost child.  Loyd Peregrina is an Apache who works for the railroad and indulges in cockfighting on the side.  He would seem an odd match for Codi, but their rekindled relationship blossoms, despite their obvious differences.  As usual, Kingsolver weaves a social issue into her plot, and this time, in addition to the Nicaraguan controversy surrounding the U.S. backing of the right-wing Contras, Codi discovers that industrial pollution is poisoning the local river and killing her town’s orchards.  Personally, it would never occur to me that there would be orchards in Arizona, but no matter.  The author’s always luminous prose, lively dialog, winsome characters, and a plot in which Code comes to evaluate what she hopes for in life make reading Kingsolver’s books a delight and a privilege.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

THE SAVAGE GARDEN by Mark Mills

Amagansett was a hard act to follow.  This novel does not quite measure up, and I might have enjoyed it more if my expectations had not been so high.  The main character is Adam Strickland, a somewhat lazy Cambridge art history student.  His thesis professor sends him to study a Tuscan garden that was built by a Renaissance nobleman as a memorial to his dead wife.  Adam finds himself drawn to the memorial garden and embarks on a mission to unlock all of the symbolism that its mythological statues and other structures represent.  I found all of the clues to be a bit of stretch, and Adam’s quest reminded me somewhat of a Dan Brown novel, but this book is better written and not quite as shallow.  Signora Docci, who owns the garden and the adjacent villa, turns out to be the professor’s ex-lover, but that’s not the only family secret.  Adam sets out to solve not only the enigma of the garden but also the mystery surrounding the murder of the Signora’s oldest son Emilio, a Nazi sympathizer who was allegedly killed by Germans.  The author does inject a bit of humor with the character of Harry, Adam’s charismatic but unreliable brother, giving this novel a much lighter tone that Amagansett.  Mark Mills is a master of suspense and pacing, but I would have appreciated a little more depth to the characters. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

PURPLE HIBISCUS by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Kambili is a teenage girl growing up in Nigeria, but this book is not so much a novel about Nigeria as it is about an abusive childhood.  Kambili’s family is extremely wealthy, but her “Christian” father is vicious and physically abusive toward Kambili, her brother Jaja, and their mother.  The brutality that Kambili and Jaja suffer at the hands of their devout father is almost too disturbing to read.  He also does not allow any family contact with his father whose traditional ways he considers heathen.  He finally allows Kambili and Jaja to spend a week with their Aunty Ifeoma and her three children, who do not enjoy the affluent lifestyle to which Kambili and Jaja are accustomed.  Aunty’s problem is not so much lack of money as it is scarcity of resources, such as fuel for the car, electricity for her home, and drinking water in the area where she lives.  However, the freedom and joy in Aunty Ifeoma’s household is an improvement that Jaja embraces, while Kambili struggles to overcome the guilt and fear she feels from betraying her father’s strict rules.  Her father is a study in contrasts, lending numerous points of irony to this novel.  For one thing, he is enormously generous with his money despite being a nasty taskmaster and stingy with real affection.  Another irony is that he expects Kambili and her brother to be first in their class, but their real education takes place at Aunty Ifeoma’s, where they find out how constrained their lives really are.  Finally, although Kambili’s father strikes down the least insubordination on the part of his children with cruel punishment, he publishes a newspaper that routinely criticizes the Nigerian government.  I never figured out if he was just basically mean or if his violent temper sometimes got the better of him.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

NEXT YEAR IN HAVANA by Chanel Cleeton

This book swept me away to Cuba and the parallel love stories of grandmother and granddaughter.  In 1959 nineteen-year-old Elisa and her family enjoy a carefree life of affluence in Havana, until Castro’s rebellion against Batista’s corrupt regime gets underway.  She meets a young revolutionary at a party, and they fall madly in love.  Decades later, her granddaughter Marisol, raised in the Miami area, goes to Cuba to scatter Elisa’s ashes.  Fidel has passed power on to Raul Castro, and most of the country remains in poverty, struggling to survive on scarce rations or capitalizing on the tourism industry.  Marisol meets a young man also, who may already be under Castro’s scrutiny for his blog’s criticism of the government.  Both women find themselves conflicted about their place in Cuba.  Elisa and her family become exiles, but they quickly rebuild their sugar business and prosper.  However, she and Marisol both have to grapple with the fact that most Cubans have not been so fortunate.  Both love stories are breathtaking, but the backdrop of Cuban history tends to take center stage.  Unfortunately, although I thoroughly enjoyed this book, it probably would not appeal to men, because of the romantic angle.  There is sort of a Gone With the Wind feel to it, with the spoiled heroines and their courageous men who refuse to abandon their principles.  There are a couple of surprises, one of which I anticipated and one that I did not.  This book was not on my radar until my book club chose it, and I’m glad they did.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

MAGPIE MURDERS by Anthony Horowitz

I love thrillers, but this is more of a murder mystery set in a quaint English town in 1955.  And it’s actually a murder mystery within a murder mystery, but you won’t realize that until you are deep into the book.  The outer story is that of editor Susan Ryeland, who presents us with the ninth installment in Alan Conway’s whodunit series, starring private detective Atticus Pünd.  In Conway’s novel, when wealthy aristocrat Magnus Pye is beheaded, Atticus has to reevaluate the death of Pye’s housekeeper, Mary Blakiston, whose death was originally deemed accidental.  Magnus was not well-liked and was about to sell the town’s beloved Dingle Dell to a developer.  Needless to say, almost everyone in town has a motive for murdering him, so that Pünd has a slew of suspects to interrogate, including the vicar, the vicar’s wife, the groundskeeper, Pye’s sister, Pye’s wife, Pye’s wife’s boyfriend, Mary’s son and his girlfriend, Mary’s estranged husband, a shady antiques dealer and his wife, and Pye’s neighbor.  And I’ve probably left out a few.  I enjoyed all aspects of this book, including the writing, and the outer story even has pretty good character development, as everyone in Susan’s orbit becomes a suspect in another murder, with her as the bumbling amateur detective.  What makes this book special is the nesting of the two stories, which I thought the author handled very skillfully.  This is a beach read that will keep you guessing.  It’s also very entertaining without a single stitch of obvious humor, but the mashup of two murder mysteries is clever and fun without exactly being funny.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Rebecca Makkai

The characters in this novel are so vivid and haunting that I could not get them out of my mind.  The novel follows two related stories, one in 1985 and one in 2015.  Yale, a young gay man in Chicago trying to navigate the AIDS epidemic, is the main character in the 1985 story, and, for me, his sections are the most riveting.  Fiona is the star of the 2015 sections, but she appears as a 21-year-old in the earlier storyline as well.  Her parents disowned her gay brother Nico who later died of AIDS, and she became good friends with both his partner and many of his friends, including Yale.  After mothering many of these young men through their dying days, she fails her own daughter, Claire.  Thirty years later Fiona is in Paris attempting to reconnect with Claire, who now has a daughter of her own.  Yale’s story, though, is more gripping.  Fiona’s twenty-first century storyline at times seemed a welcome distraction, but I still wanted to race through those sections so that I could get back to Yale’s troubles, which were so much more weighty and at times devastating.  Not only are his friends becoming infected, but he endures the stress of worrying about his own health, as well as a work project involving millions of dollars’ worth of previously undiscovered art.  This is just a terrific novel and not so much sad as moving.  The author does a tremendous job of delineating all the characters so that there’s never any confusion as to who’s who.  Also, I found it unusual that she made the male characters, almost all of whom are gay, so much more relatable than the women.  I thoroughly adored Yale, despite some really horrific lapses of judgment whose consequences the reader can see coming like a runaway train.  My biggest question at the end of the novel is “What happened to Roman?”

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

THERE THERE by Tommy Orange

A dozen Native Americans from Oakland, some related, some not, each have their own sections in this novel.  Their stories are mostly sad, saturated with drug abuse and alcoholism.  Dene Oxendene stands out, in that he has landed a grant to document the oral histories of some of his fellow Native Americans in Oakland.  What all of these characters have in common is that they all plan to attend the big Oakland Powwow.  Everything comes to a head at the powwow with some disastrous results and some conclusions left inconclusive.  I think the message here of how Native Americans have been mistreated and forgotten is one that we all need to hear, but I am not a fan of how this message was delivered here.  The characters are impossible to keep up with, and I found it equally impossible to feel invested in them.  Yes, they are diverse with a wide-ranging set of experiences and problems, but I didn’t feel that I really knew any of them.  Perhaps I had difficulty relating to their heritage and sense of isolation, but the lack of a coherent storyline contributed to my problem with really getting immersed in their stories.  Actually, it’s just as well, because the author leaves us hanging about the fate of many of these characters, so I’m glad that I was not too deeply attached to any of them.  I was expecting chaos at the powwow, and the author did not disappoint in that regard, but he left us with a lot of unfinished business.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

THE GOOD DAUGHTER by Karin Slaughter

This thriller has two blockbuster crimes.  First, masked intruders hold Gamma and her two daughters, Sam and Charlie, at gunpoint, ultimately killing Gamma, although the killers really intended to go after her husband, Rusty.  He is a lawyer who defends murderers, rapists, and other unsavory characters in Pikeville, GA, and is still at his office when the attack takes place.  Several decades later, Charlie, separated from her beloved husband Ben, a prosecutor, has an ill-advised one-night stand with a middle school teacher and happens to be at the school when 18-year-old Kelly kills the principal and a young girl.  I really enjoyed this book to a point.  It moves at a brisk pace with lots of suspense and decent writing.  In fact, there is a scene near the beginning in which Sam has been buried alive during which I could not turn the pages fast enough.  Also, Kelly’s arraignment in what appears to be a cut-and-dried first-degree murder case is a fist-pump moment for her defense attorney.  The twists at the end, however, are too much.  For one thing, the author tells us what happened on the day that Gamma was murdered, and then she tells us what really happened.  Huh?  This book has third person narration, so that we can’t blame the changing story on an unreliable narrator.  I definitely think that the author could have handled this deception a little more adroitly.  Also, the reasons for the estrangement between some family members seemed silly to me.  Again, I think the author missed an opportunity here to come up with a blockbuster disagreement or two.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

THE IMMORTALISTS by Chloe Benjamin

Do we really want to know when we will die?  Four young siblings sneak away to visit a gypsy fortuneteller in order to learn just that-- the day on which they will each die.  Only one, the oldest, Varya, is destined to reach old age, according to the fortuneteller.  The author cleverly tells each child’s life story in order of their supposed impending deaths, which is coincidentally youngest to oldest.  The first is Simon, who abandons high school at sixteen to run off to San Francisco with his sister, Klara.  She is the most unconventional of the siblings and aspires to make a living as a magician.  Next is Daniel, a military doctor whose job it is to ascertain if would-be soldiers meet the military’s health requirements.  (The irony here reminds me of a line from Arlo Guthrie’s song “Alice’s Restaurant,” in which he finds that he “may not be moral enough to join the army.”)  The impact of the gypsy’s predictions is significant for all four siblings, even Varya, a research scientist who performs anti-aging experiments on primates.  As the book progressed, I had to wonder if all four siblings had mental health issues, especially considering how obsessed they are with such a specific prediction that no one could possibly have the power to foretell.  In any case, this novel is all about dying, and I have to say that, although the premise is intriguing, the storyline is ultimately depressing.  The most uplifting scene is near the end of the novel when a beloved character reappears, and I just had to smile and breathe in the joy of that moment that rises up out of a sea of doom and gloom.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

AMAGANSETT by Mark Mills

When a New England fisherman pulls up a woman’s body in his net, I know I’m reading a thriller.  However, the prose is so elegant that I really did not want this novel to end.   Conrad Labarde is the fisherman in question, and it turns out that he and the woman were lovers, although he neglects to mention this affair to the police.  The dead woman, Lillian Wallace, comes from a very wealthy family who have the death of another young woman on their consciences.  Conrad tantalizes Deputy Chief Tom Hollis with questions about Lillian’s death, such as why she was wearing earrings for an ocean swim.  The two men each have their own reasons for wanting to find out if Lillian’s cause of death was actually murder rather than an accidental drowning.  These two men are both very compelling and well-developed characters, especially Conrad, as are the rather unsavory members of the Wallace family.  Conrad is a tough cookie with a military history, making him a formidable adversary for anyone wanting to shut him up.  Hollis, on the other hand, is stymied mostly by his own police chief.  The pacing of this novel is just right, and I loved it from start to finish.  There is one unresolved loose end, but I can live with that, and I probably won’t reread the book to see if I missed something, although I did reread what I thought were the pertinent sections.  Honestly, there are not a lot of surprises or twists here, but I really enjoyed the way the story unfolds and the manner in which it is told.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

THE NINTH HOUR by Alice McDermott

This novel is largely a celebration of nuns, particularly nuns who administer to those who can’t, or won’t, help themselves.  Annie’s husband Jim kills himself after losing his job, leaving Annie in a burned out apartment with a baby on the way.  The nuns put her to work in their laundry after Sally is born.  Sally so admires the nuns she grows up with that she decides to become one herself, but we know that she eventually changes her mind, since the book is narrated by one or more of her offspring.  This novel begins and ends with a death, and not a lot happens in the middle.  There are three big events in this novel:  Jim’s suicide, Sally’s trip to her assigned convent in Chicago and the shock she receives on returning home (one big event, according to me), and the death at the end of the novel, with all of the shenanigans surrounding that death.  I love McDermott’s writing style, but that’s just not enough.  The characters, almost all women, are rather vanilla, although Sally’s mother Annie has a defiant streak that doesn’t manifest itself right away.  Sally, on the other hand, has good intentions, but we really only know her as a solitary child and then a naïve teenager who makes a couple of bad choices.  This book is very readable, but, despite the dramatic and promising beginning, the pace is snail-like.  It contains a lot of references to laundry, starch, and ironing, and I’m sure all of this washing and drying of clothes and linens is some sort of symbol, but I just can’t identify what it is.  Cleansing of sins maybe?  Several commandments are broken here, and the question raised in the novel is whether these transgressions will prohibit the person from getting into heaven.  In at least one case, the transgressor is not penitent.  I’m guessing that’s a showstopper, but I’ll have to ask a Catholic.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

CHARMING BILLY by Alice McDermott

Another novel about a drunken Irishman?  Really?  Fiction writers continue to perpetuate this stereotype, and I keep reading their books.  Shame on me.  Anyway, this novel is a eulogy to Billy Lynch, an alcoholic whose life’s poignant story is actually a lie.  No one actually says that Billy’s loss is what drives him to drink, but everyone brings it up as a possible justification.  The irony is that Billy, when sober, is a delightful, warm, charismatic human being.  He has a job and a long-suffering wife, who frequently has to call Billy’s cousin Dennis in the middle of the night to help her get her sloshed husband to bed.  The real lesson here is that lying to protect someone from humiliation is probably a mistake, especially if the lie gives the victim an excuse to wallow in a mournful mindset like a lost soul in a Shakespearean tragedy.  This ode to Billy is certainly well-written, but Billy’s charm did not shine through for me.  As for his loyal friends, Dennis is a coward for allowing his lie to color Billy’s life for so long.  Friends don’t let friends drive drunk, and friends should not try to shield friends from the truth.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

THE ADDRESS by Fiona Davis

A dual storyline does not hamper the suspense in this novel.  The mystery about what happened in the Dakota apartment building in Manhattan a hundred years ago stumps Bailey, a 30-something woman fresh out of rehab.  She is an interior designer trying to get back on her feet by helping her wealthy “cousin” Melinda revamp her apartment.  Actually, Bailey’s grandfather was a ward of Melinda’s great-grandfather, Theodore Camden, who was an architect involved in the opening of the Dakota.  Bailey stumbles upon some old photos and a knife sheath that call into question everything she knows about her roots.  The backstory is that of Sara Smythe, whose prevention of a tragic accident brings her to the attention of Camden, who is staying in the London hotel where Sara works.  He persuades her to come to New York to work at the Dakota, and the two soon become friends and confidants.  At first, I was partial to Sara’s story versus Bailey’s, but Sara’s becomes a bit bizarre.  Bailey’s storyline defies belief also, but she proves to be less naïve than Sara, who seems bent on repeating the mistakes of her mother.  The writing may not be special, but at least it does not detract from the plot.  Both women characters are fully developed, but the plot is what kept my attention, even if it’s not particularly realistic.  Also, I thought the author had a little trouble with both Theodore Camden and Melinda.  They both seem to be kind and caring until they don’t.  Melinda, in particular, shows her true colors early, tempting a susceptible Bailey with drugs and drink.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

ANOTHER BROOKLYN by Jacquelyn Woodson

August moves with her father and younger brother from Tennessee to Brooklyn as a young girl in the 1970s.  She becomes close friends with three other girls there:  Sylvia, who aspires to be a lawyer; Gigi, a budding actress; and Angela, a gifted dancer.  Now a young woman, August reflects on the fates of her three friends when she encounters Sylvia on the subway.  She notes that her motherless situation could have turned out much differently, but her father is a decent man and sends her to a therapist, who helps her cope with the loss of her mother.  Her friends are not so lucky, and August remembers that her mother taught her never to trust women, and, in fact, several mothers in this novel fail their daughters in a variety of ways.  There are several heartbreaking moments, but August tells her story in a clear-eyed, lyrical fashion, and I felt that this very short novel’s overall message was a message of strength.  August’s biggest failing is that she remains in denial even when facing evidence of tragic events, but the rose-colored glasses eventually have to come off.  That’s the essence of growing up.  I loved this character and this book.  It’s a much better novel about girl power than The Power.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

THE POWER by Naomi Alderman

The premise of this novel is fascinating; unfortunately, the novel itself is not.  The premise is that a genetic mutation gives women a skein of electrical power alongside their collarbone.  This anatomical gift allows them to do essentially what electric eels do:  deliver an electric shock to their victims.  In this case, most of the victims are men, so that a mind-bending flip of gender inequality is in progress.  The women are now able to take over the world by wielding this new-found power.  Again, the premise is very thought-provoking, but the novel is very disjointed and bounces around between narrators and venues.  The narrators are Margot, an ambitious politician; Jocelyn, Margot’s daughter, who has a deformity in her skein; Allie, an abused foster child who starts a religious sect; Roxy, who possesses great physical power but whose family I could not quite figure out; and Tunde, a male Nigerian photo-journalist.  The book basically takes the position that if women ruled the world, we might be in even bigger trouble than we are now.  Many of the women are cruel to an unimaginable degree and things get wildly out of hand.  Do the women commit acts of atrocity in rebellion against their previous second-rate citizenship, or are they just drunk on power and do horrible things because they can?  Maybe the author explains their motivation, but I just didn’t get it.  Lastly, the author frames the book as a manuscript of a historical novel written 5000 years in the future.  What?  Now, that’s a long time to project that we still have books.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

THE GOD OF WAR by Marisa Silver

Ares (meaning god of war) Ramirez is the 12-year-old narrator of this novel, set in the 1970s.  He lives with his mother Laurel and half-brother Malcolm in a trailer in the southern California desert.  When Malcolm was a baby, Ares accidentally dropped him, and now Malcolm is intellectually challenged and unable to talk.  Ares and his mother never discuss this event, but Ares bears unspeakable guilt and feels that Malcolm’s well-being is his responsibility.  When Ares meets a teenager with bigger problems than his, he realizes that he does not have to be the perfectly obedient son that he has always been.  Laurel is somewhat of a free spirit who loves both her sons but isn’t the most responsible mother.  Some big stuff happens near the end of this novel, including a major revelation and a violent encounter.  One of the most intriguing characters is Mrs. Poole, the school librarian who has some success in improving Malcolm’s behavior, with no cooperation from Laurel, but who cannot manage the behavior of her own foster son.  Laurel’s on-again, off-again boyfriend Richard also has some good character traits and serves as an occasional father figure to Malcolm and Ares, but he manages to show bad judgment in the area of supervision, just as Laurel does.  Laurel and Richard both mean well, but they expect too much from Ares, and eventually that burden becomes too great a load for him to bear.  Worst of all, the lack of communication between Laurel and Ares leads to a weighty misconception that could have been easily avoided.  The characters are mostly likable, if you can get past their obvious idiosyncrasies, but are not necessarily admirable.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

BEHOLD THE DREAMERS by Imbolo Mbue

Jende Jonga, his wife Neni, and their son are immigrants from Cameroon, living in Harlem.  Jende lands a good-paying job as the chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a Lehman Brothers executive, and his family. Neni is a pharmacy student, and together they hope to get permanent visas by applying for asylum.  Their immigration status is a constant source of stress, as is the question of whether Jende will remain employed as the subprime meltdown hits Wall Street.  His job status becomes even more tenuous when he and Neni find themselves helping Clark and his wife keep secrets from one another.  The Jongas’ dilemma would be an uncomfortable situation even if they were citizens, but knowing that they can be deported at any time makes their decisions about how to proceed through this quagmire even more significant.  This is not by any means the first or the best book about undocumented immigrants trying to negotiate a meandering and sometimes absurd path to residency.  The drama in the Edwards family and its effect on the Jongas sets this book apart, but, on the other hand, that drama is, well, overly dramatic.  We have adultery, drug abuse, and blackmail, and the whole scene just seems too overwrought.  Then, Jende suddenly becomes a completely different sort of character.  I get that he’s exhausted and extremely frustrated, but perhaps he has buried the heavy-handed aspects of his personality in the first part of the book that then surface when the going gets tough.  Also, doesn’t Mighty seem like an odd name for the Edwards’ youngest son?  I never did figure out if this was a nickname or what.  Their other son’s name is Vince, and every time I saw the name Vince Edwards on the page, I thought of the actor who played Dr. Ben Casey on TV back in the 1960s.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

THE OTHER EINSTEIN by Marie Benedict

This novel does not come across as well-balanced.  Its two main characters, Albert Einstein and his first wife, Mileva Maric, are both unbearably flawed.  Since this is historical fiction, I have to wonder how accurate the author’s depiction is. Mileva has a birth defect in her hip that causes her to limp, and this affliction, along with her parents’ conversations about it, has caused her to have very low expectations with regard to her future as a mother and a wife.  Consequently, when Albert begins to shower her with attention, probably with the ulterior motive of picking her brain, she mistakes his flirtations for love.  The two become lovers while studying physics in Zurich, and Albert promises that his and Mileva’s eventual marriage will be an equal partnership in science.  However, Mileva has the ideas and provides the mathematical analysis, but Albert gets all the credit.  A “partnership” it is not.  Mileva bears Albert a daughter before they are married, but Albert never meets the child.  He blames Mileva for the unwanted pregnancy, but really I was very disappointed that a woman of her intellect and scholarly promise allows herself to get into this position.  The two do eventually wed, but Mileva becomes nothing more than a beleaguered hausfrau, while her husband gathers accolades and fools around with other women.  I understand that in the early 1900s she did not have a lot of options, but her tolerance of Albert’s abysmal behavior is just pathetic.  I pity her, but I don’t respect or admire her.  I liked the straightforward timeline in this book and Mileva’s first-person narration, but the writing is rather nondescript, and at times I felt that I could have been reading a novel intended for middle schoolers.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

THE HEAVEN OF MERCURY by Brad Watson

I can understand why Three Junes beat out this novel for the 2002 National Book Award, but I can’t understand why this book was a Finalist.  Except for a startling incident in a funeral parlor near the beginning and a twisty revelation near the end, nothing much happens.  The main character, Finus, has pined his entire life for Birdie, but she married Earl, a womanizer and very successful purveyor of shoes in coastal Mercury, Mississippi.  Finus marries Avis, who bears a son, but their marriage soon becomes an estrangement and a long-term separation.  The most lively and interesting character is Creasie, who begins work as Birdie’s maid at around age 12.  She comes from a shanty black community and relies on an old woman there for advice and potions when things go awry.  This novel follows all of these characters from the early 1900s until their deaths and/or old age.  Honestly, if I want to read a really good novel about small-town life, I’ll go with Kent Haruf.  As for the funeral parlor incident near the beginning, it is such a jaw-dropper that I expected more of the same.  No such luck.  The novel is pretty dull until the aforesaid twisty revelation near the end, in which a piece of dark mischief doesn’t result in any sort of consequences for the perpetrator.  I don’t expect an author necessarily to tie up all the loose ends, but I do expect some sort of acknowledgment that a crime was committed, even if perhaps we could consider it to be water under the bridge.  Maybe the author felt that any further explanation would be restating the obvious.  Certainly, in this case, the culprit had probably suffered enough.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

WAKING LIONS by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

The opening to this novel revived old memories of The Bonfire of the Vanities.  However, the hit-and-run accident takes place in Israel, and the victim is an Eritrean immigrant, making this book also a little reminiscent of The Tortilla Curtain.  The driver, Eitan Green, is a neurosurgeon who knows that the victim will die anyway and elects not to turn himself in, despite the fact that his wife is a police detective.  The victim’s wife, Sirkit, decides to exact penance from Green by blackmailing him into treating ill and injured immigrants in a makeshift clinic.  Green carries out this activity without the knowledge of his wife or his superiors at the hospital, but we know that his lies about his after-hours whereabouts will surely eventually catch up with him.  Obviously, Green is no saint, but neither is Sirkit, as we learn more and more about her oppressed life and her not-so-charitable motivations.  These two characters have a love-hate relationship, and their uneasy attraction to one another builds.  Meanwhile, Green’s wife develops an interest in investigating the hit-and-run accident and stirs up even more trouble.  I really liked this book, even though it’s a translation, with all its ethical lapses and sinister undertones.  The author tackles a smattering of hot topics—race, immigration, the illegal drug trade, police brutality, domestic violence—without losing sight of Eitan’s personal struggles.  There were several points in the novel where I thought his deceit was finally going to be revealed, costing him his marriage, his job, and his reputation, but he improbably manages to string everyone along for months.  Things get more than a little crazy at the end, but I really found the outcome nifty and satisfying, in a twisted sort of way.