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.