Friday, September 27, 2013

After Her -- Joyce Maynard

Let me save you some time. 

Rachel's father is a babe magnet. Her mother is a stick figure of a character. Rachel is late to puberty, and not popular.  She and a boy she doesn't even like engage in sexual play with one another awkwardly and often. She and her little sister like to play in the woods a lot, and generally just wait around for their father to show up so they can engage in some more hero worship while their mother dusts furniture or something. A serial killer is at work in their community, and her father is the detective who is very good at everything his job entails except catching serial killers.

That's what we learn, over and over, for about the first 200 pages.... at which point the story gets some wheels... right before it begins to spin them through a series of ridiculous red herrings, until it reaches its unbearably unsatisfying conclusion.

Not that I didn't like it or anything. 

Surly's Bottom Line:  You know a novel is tedious when you begin to wish the serial killer would shut the narrator up.

Publisher: William Morrow & Company
I read the ARC.
Publish Date: August 2013

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Maid's Version -- Daniel Woodrell

Alma DeGeer Dunahew, the mother of three young boys, works as the maid for a prominent citizen and his family in West Table, Missouri. Her husband is mostly absent, and, in 1929, her scandalous, beloved younger sister is one of the 42 killed in an explosion at the local dance hall. Who is to blame? Mobsters from St. Louis? The embittered local gypsies? The preacher who railed against the loose morals of the waltzing couples? Or could it have been a colossal accident?     -- from the dust jacket

In my estimation, Daniel Woodrell is one of the fiercest writers in contemporary American literature. He never uses three words when one well-chosen one will do, and he never gives his reader a chance to avert their eyes. If you read Woodrell, you're going to walk into some mighty dark places in the human experience. That's a guarantee. I have read two other novels by him, Give Us a Kiss and Winter's Bone, both of which were devastating in the best ways possible.

The Maid's Version, despite its interesting premise and exquisite writing, left me flat, even as it left me in awe of Woodrell's ability to capture a moment in words. Nobody writing today is better than he at descriptive passages that beg to be read aloud. The opening scene, in which Alma is brushing her long, long hair in front of her grandson, was so magnificent that I read it several times through. When he described the color of that hair as "...mostly white smeared by gray, the hues of a newspaper that lay in the rain until headlines blended across the page" I ached with the memory of my mother's hair at the end of her life. 

I'm not sure what it was that kept me so disconnected from the story. Woodrell slips like mercury between events from the past and the book's present, a device that might have kept me from sinking all the way in for some reason. 

Surly's Bottom Line:  If you have not yet read Daniel Woodrell, go fix that -- but with a different book. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Husband's Secret - Liane Moriarty

After my father and most of his friends retired from their important careers 15 years or so ago, they found themselves interested in The Soaps, and for reasons that remain unclear to me to this day, The Bold and the Beautiful was the one onto which they glommed. It struck me as high irony, given that they had spent most of their married lives teasing their wives for being chained to "their programs."

When I was a little girl I watched my mother and grandmother watch Days of Our Lives and Another World, and when I was a young mother back in my day, I was so obviously hooked on General Hospital that I was falsely accused of naming my firstborn after one of the primary characters. I come from a long line of addictive personalities, to be sure. Even so, I hadn't watched a soap opera since I went to work in 1983, and I never looked back.

A couple of years ago I took a leave of absence from work and spent every weekday for 6 weeks sitting with my father as his daytime caregiver. He didn't require much; just someone to help him perambulate, to fix and serve his meals, and generally just to be a companion to him. This meant I ate what and when he ate, adjusted my daily schedule to his, and watched the shows he enjoyed.  The Bold and the Beautiful was the one program around which I found it necessary to schedule meals and appointments and visitors who wished to stop by.

So, in the name of all that is good and decent and thoughtful, how did I find myself so addicted to The Bold and the Beautiful after just 6 weeks?  I'm two years out from being compelled to watch with my father, but my DVR is set now for 11:30 Monday-Fridays. This might not be my deepest, darkest secret, but it will have to do. We don't know each other well enough for you to know the juiciest ones yet, bless your heart.

The writing on this soap is godawful. When you condense it by judicious use of fast-forwarding there are only about 10 minutes of plot in a full week's worth of episodes. The rest of the time is filled with meaningful glances, heaving bosoms, and actors having to recite lines that are nothing like the way we talk in real life. (Seriously. How often does a woman have to refer to "my sister Hope" when she's talking to her other sister, Donna?). There is nothing redeeming about it, nothing that adds a whit to my understanding of the human condition.

And yet here I sit each afternoon after work, noshing on an afternoon snack to tide me over until supper, holding that infernal remote control in my hand, blinds pulled to prevent the neighbors from discovering my new vice, watching that day's installment before anything else gets done around here, proof that I would make a perfect lab rat for research into brainwashing.

I chose The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty to read when I saw a sales rep's wife with it under her arm during one of his sales calls to the shop. She always tags along with him on these road trips and just makes herself at home in the shop. I like her and their dog, who also accompanies them everywhere. I asked her about this one, and she said, "I'm hooked in spite of all my better judgement." Sort of her dirty little secret, it sounded like.

Thinking that I'd been on a run of books that I liked so much I was having a hard time staying surly, I brought it home, fully expecting that it would become the first book I'd read since I've resurrected this blog that would hit the Unfinished Hall of Shame The first bit of it was so full of forced, preciously funny lines that I was almost getting excited by the prospect, in fact.

But then the husband's secret is discovered, and I started putting off things like laundry and grocery buying and cooking to get back to it. It's what I will forever hereafter call the BatB effect. (Oh, God. Just shoot me now, I even know the official abbreviation for that accursed soap.) Three story lines that, for a time, run parallel to one another converge in clever ways, none of which feel forced, and all of which add new layers to the husband's secret. Aside from the shaky start, there is an unfortunate epilogue that goes off on a what-if thing that detracted from what was otherwise a perfectly satisfying ending to what had become a very entertaining read.

I have long held that there are great writers and there are great storytellers. Sometimes, but rarely, they are even the same person. Moriarty isn't a great writer, but she is a very fine storyteller. There is room on our shelves for both.

My favorite line: "Perhaps nothing was ever 'meant to be.' There was just life, and right now, and doing your best. Being a bit 'bendy.'"

Surly's Bottom Line: This is exactly the sort of book I think of when a woman asks me for a great beach/mountain/airplane read that still has something of substance to it. Pick up a half-gallon of Rocky Road Ice Cream on your way home from the bookstore as a go-with.



I  finally got around to reading Susan Hill's most recent Simon Serailler mystery, A Question of Identity which I put off during an unusually long dry spell when nothing was floating my boat. I didn't even want to start it in that mood. I'm not sure there's a writer out there today who has raised her own bar with every book in her own series as well as Hill, and hands down, this was the best of the best. Smart, smart, smart. I'm not doing a more fleshed out review because if you've read these books, you don't need my guidance, and if you have not read them I don't want you to waste a minute reading me when you could be reading her.

You must, however, start at the beginning with The Various Haunts of Men, and read them in order. If you don't, we can never have a civil conversation.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Letters from Skye - Jessica Brockmole

When I was in college and had to read Samuel Richardson's Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded, it put me off epistolary novels for 30 years, at least. For those lucky enough not to have ever heard of it, Pamela was the Fifty Shades of Gray of its time, a runaway bestseller that chronicled the gradual consensual descent into moral degradation of its narrator, although at the time I read it I remember thinking, "Oh, c'mon, Pamela, get on with it." Some critics hail it as the first truly contemporary English novel. Most of the rest of us consider it one of the worst.

It wasn't until many, many years later that I elected to read another epistolary novel, but this time I got much luckier and discovered a gem that has remained on my Favorite Novels Ever list:  Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger. Please read this if you haven't. 

I chose Letters from Skye to read for two reasons. First, I'd been on a steady diet of "dark" novels, which are impossible to recommend to some of my kinder, gentler customers who persist in showing up wanting to buy books, lord love 'em.  Second, I have to get off the death and mayhem fiction bus from time to time and read something in which people don't wind up in pieces. 

Jessica Brockmole's Letters from Skye is the story of the relationship in letters that begins just before America's entry into World War I when David Graham, a brash young American, sends a fan letter to reclusive Scottish poet Elspeth Dunn. One piece of their correspondence is discovered by Elspeth's daughter Margaret in the early years of World War II, a discovery that causes Elspeth to disappear from her home. The single letter Margaret holds is the only clue she has to where her mother might be. Her search is limned out in the letters she and the Royal Air Force pilot she loves send to each other. 

Letters from Skye doesn't break any new ground. It's spare, and sentimental, and predictable at nearly every turn. It was also quite, quite lovely, and I am, once again, the darling of the kinder-gentler crowd. 

Surly's Bottom Line: When one has a craving for a Krispy Kreme doughnut, one doesn't stop to analyze nutritional data, one just heads for the nearest location, praying for the flashing light that indicates a fresh batch of them is still warm from the oven. A steady diet of them would be dreadful, but a well-timed indulgence is a transcendent experience. Letters from Skye was a well-timed indulgence of the literary variety. Treat yourself. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Light Between Oceans -- M.L. Stedman

Every Tuesday, unless I forget or have something better to do, I post a review I originally posted on Goodreads in the near and not so near past.  Some of the books may no longer be in print, but I hope that most of the really good ones have survived. I'll do my best to let you know if one that is out of circulation is worth the time to find, though. I promise. Unless I forget.

This review of M.L. Stedman's The Light Between Oceans originally appeared in August of 2012. Some editing has been done for this venue. 

When you're a bookseller in a small shop you develop, over time, a clientele that is loyal to you specifically, because your tastes click and they have come to trust your judgement.  By this criteria, Ms. W was most assuredly not one of my customers. Nothing I have recommended to her these past 25 years or so has suited her, and she has always taken great delight in letting me know. My co-worker is better with her, and it does not bruise my ego when Ms. W asks for her help, even if she has to wait a bit on her to finish up with another customer or another task.

It just so happened one day that I was at lunch when  Ms. W came in. My co-worker handed this book to her, based on what she'd heard me say about it to others, and Ms. W took it not realizing it wasn't really my co-worker's personal recommendation.  

About a week later, Ms. W came in the store, threw her elbow up on the counter, and said to my counterpart, "That book? That lighthouse thing?"  (At this point the hair on the back of my neck went up -- because I was itching to come to its defense when she slammed it.) "Well," she continued, "that might be the best book I've read in a long time."

I about fell off my stool. She did not know that it was one of "my" books, and when I chimed in -- I couldn't help it -- I think she was shocked, too. After all these years.... good lord gravy... I should probably just have retired right then and there. 

You have surmised, I am quite certain, that I liked this book, and the reason I'm telling this story and reposting this review is that I really am an apostle for it, and if you haven't read it yet, you must. You really must. 

The Light Between Oceans, set just after World War I,  is the story of a young couple who make their home on a lighthouse island, secluded from the rest of the world save for occasional trips to or visits by others from the mainland. Their attempts at having a child have all ended in heartbreak, and when a boat comes ashore their island with a man's dead body and a very much alive infant in it, they take the child in as their own. Things get complicated when, years later, a trip to the mainland yields clear clues as to the true identity of the child. 

I don't know when I've read a novel so full of characters who are all trying to do the right thing in all the wrong ways... or doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons, and what the novel has to say about how strong a marriage can be even with its broken places intact is profound. 

There was a scene at the end of the book that was so emotionally perfect I could scarcely bear to turn the page, and which, for me, provided catharsis owing to something that had happened not long before in my own life. (I find that even now I cannot write about it, but it was so powerful that I still feel it's impact in near full force a year later.) 

This novel wasn't perfect. There were a couple of plot developments that felt unnecessarily rushed and contrived, and I can't help but wonder if that wasn't an editor's misguided influence. That said, when I can think about a book a year after I've read it and still have an emotional reaction to it........ well.