Sunday, December 28, 2014

Visitation Street -- Amy Pochoda

I'm just going to squeeze in ONE more micro-review here, for a book that my boss has been raving about for months. I've had it on my list, but as we have a small staff it behooves us not to read the same things all the time. Sometimes this means that one of the other of us never does get around to reading some really solid books, unfortunately.

I made room and time for this one, here at the tail end of the year, and I'm awfully glad I did.

Two young girls take a raft out on the river one night, and only one comes back. While not a traditional mystery (there's no crime being investigated), there are questions about what happened out there on the water that float over the surface of the deeper stories that arise from the denizens of Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood.

Cree is a young man haunted by the murder of his father. He finds a champion in a mysterious tag artist, Ren, who protects and encourages him. Fadi is the owner of a neighborhood bodega who tries to unite the neighborhood in the aftermath of the tragedy. Jonathan is a washed-up musician living on the fumes of past fame, now a teacher and rescuer of Val, the girl who came back from that ill-fated night on the raft, a role that leaves him feeling responsible for her well-being well after that night.

Although I've never been to Red Hook, there are neighborhoods much like this all over the country, place that leave even those who pass through casually with a sense of resignation and hopelessness. Even so, Pochoda's characters are so well-drawn that even those who are less than likable kept me interested in where their own story would wind up.

Strongly recommended.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins

I have held back on writing a review of this one for weeks and weeks, both because I was beginning to get holiday busy at work and because I couldn't figure out how to review it and not spoil the stew out of it in any way, shape, or form. I hate it when that happens. I will never do that to you, I promise.

There is a creeper Girl on the Train who makes it a habit to follow the lives of people she sees from her vantage point on her daily commute, all of whom are just minding their own business in their own homes which are unfortunately situated within viewing distance from the train tracks. Over time, she has become all wrapped up in the stories she has created for them in her increasingly muddled psyche.

She reminded me very much of myself. Well, absent the train, and a bit shy of her level of creepy.  I don't really spy on people, but I love people-watching and I do frequently pass time by writing short stories in my head about why the people I see are where they are when I see them, especially if they are doing something untoward, like the man I saw hanging out of his car at Publix a couple weeks ago. He was obviously very unwell, and his companion/wife/whatever had left him in the car with the door open. I was in the store for about a half hour, and when I returned to my car he was still there and now I was pretty sure he wasn't breathing anymore and his companion/wife/whatever wasn't yet back to the car so I'm certain she must have put arsenic in his food and was slowly, slowly, slowly making her way through the aisles of the grocery to give it time to do its thing so she could feign horror and deep grief and take to carryin' on in public when she got back to the parking lot and discovered him there, lifeless. Ambulances and law enforcement would be called, and the whole thing would cast Publix as an undeserving backdrop for a tawdry, ill-fated romance's deadly conclusion.

Or maybe he was just really sick and she was hung up at the pharmacy window filling a prescription, and they wound up getting home just fine and he felt all better, and the rest of the evening was spent watching reruns of some sub-tier TV series that everybody else watched 6 years ago but which they've just now figured out how to stream.

But I digress.

The Girl on the Train won't be in the running for a Pulitzer Prize or anything, but great googly-moogly, it was as malevolently addictive as Gone Girl.

Publication Date:  January 13, 2015

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Book of Strange New Things -- Michel Faber

I've just recently read a book I can't believe I even picked up. I've been trying to write a review that would capture how very moved and challenged I was by it, but have come to discover how pathetically inadequate I am to do it justice. I am haunted by it, though, and despite being halfway through another really good book I find my mind and heart wandering back to The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber so often that I can scarce pay attention to its replacement in my hand.

I've given up trying to be coherent about this genre-defying story so I'm taking the easy way out. I hope that you will get some sense of how much I want you to read this from the scattershot words that follow. 

Here's the very least you need to know, which I have lifted straight from the publisher's description of it.

It begins with Peter, a devoted man of faith, as he is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC.   His work introduces him to a seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings—his Bible is their “book of strange new things.” But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate: typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling.  Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter.

As I have been handselling this one, I have made note of the words I'm using in that setting, the questions that people naturally have of me regarding it, and the thoughts about it that keep running through my head and I'm sharing those sentiments with you. 

1.  "Oh, I never read science fiction."  Neither do I, and it doesn't matter. Once you accept the premise--that intergalactic space travel and colonization on a distant planet is the norm--that's really all you have to "get over."

2.  Why set this on another planet?  Maybe because in our day and age it's impossible to find a place on Earth where a person, separated from his wife to take a job, would be utterly unable to communicate in real time with her, to undertake independent plans to return home to her in a crisis, or to have any idea what might be going on in a world left behind outside the context of Peter's one-to-one, sporadic communiques with Bea. 

3.  More than once I thought about times in my own marriage when my husband and I seemed to be doing little more than orbiting each other, and there was something about how Bea and Peter experienced this same thing--a hundredfold, and more literally--that spoke to those emotional memories like few books ever have.

4.  There are some things that remain unexplained, some things that the end of the book left hanging. Since Faber says he will not be writing another book at all, we can be quite certain there will be no sequel providing any answers. The whole book is a journey into the unknown and unknowable for Peter. For that reason, the journey we find ourselves on with him at the book's conclusion is an authentic experience for the invested reader.

5.  No, this is not a book where a person of faith turns out to be the bad guy. (Seriously, this happens so often in fiction that even I tend to shy away from books with ministers of the Gospel as main characters.)

6.  No, it is not a "Christian" book. That said, Faber is respectful of Peter's faith and plies it with credible opportunities for challenge, and growth, and reflection.

7. No, I haven't seen Intergalactic. I have no idea if there are shades of this story in that one, but surely there must be some Big Questions they have in common.

8.  Yes, I think this would make an outstanding book club read. 

There are far more thorough reviews of this book you can find easily, some of which reference other novels as having broken this same ground.  I don't doubt that's true, but you know what?  I haven't read those books, so that doesn't matter to me. (After all, there really are only about six stories in our universe, all of which are rewritten over and over.) The telling thing is that even when the occasional reviewer is finding fault with it for that reason, there is still deep admiration for the elegance and subtlety of Faber's writing. 

The Book of Strange New Things is, in short, a frightfully good read. Please make room for it on your bookshelf.  

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Burning by Jane Casey

I've been in yet another dreadful slump with reading, and once again, have put down more books after reading 100 pages or so than should be lawful.  I always know I've thrown in the towel on further attempts when I pick up a crossword puzzle book, and I was quite near doing that this time around.

Add to that sense of blechyblechyblah a growing realization that I am not a disciplined blogger, and I have been at the precipice of throwing in the Surly towel, too.  It dawns on me, however, that as long as I remember that I didn't invite Surly back with the intention of becoming a mover-shaker type of book blogger, I can forget sticking to a formula for pasting this thing up every time I've read a book.

Because let's face it:  not every book really warrants the time it takes to write about it thoughtfully.

As long as I'm being faithful to what I hoped this blog would be -- my personal reading journal and a sometimes helpful guide to those Faithful Few who occasionally are inspired to pick up something about which I've written here -- then I can let go of worrying about following even my own lackadaisical guidelines for each entry.

My new rules for myself, then, are these.  Backlist is as much fun to review as new books are. Reading books months before publication date is, too, so I'll continue to review them well in advance of their publication date, and trust that if they interest you, you'll make a note to yourself.  I will never adhere to a regular schedule of posting. It'll hit when it hits.

So.  Are we okay with that?   Yes, we are. Now, let's be on with it, shall we?

I decided to give Jane Casey a try for a couple reasons. My boss has mentioned liking some of her more recent books a whole lot, and we had this one, the first in the series, on the sale porch. I can afford to take a risk when it's only $7.99.

Maeve Kerrigan is a detective constable looking to make a name for herself in an ongoing investigation to find a serial killer whose handle is "The Burning Man." The things that make others on the task force question her abilities (her gender and her youth) are the things that enable her to make some inroads into the investigation of the latest of his crimes. She connects with the victim's best friend Louise, and the first person narrative voice Casey gives this friend provides the novel with the sense of impending dread and unease it would otherwise have lacked.

Ultimately, the story played out in a way that didn't surprise me too much (which always irritates me a little in a mystery, because I'm really not usually smart enough to figure things out well in advance), but I was taken enough with Maeve and her off-the-case personal life to want to read more in the series.

I give this one ***.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Soul of Discretion - Susan Hill

Some booksellers, including this one, have a love-hate relationship with character series.

On one hand, if a writer hits one out of the park on their first at-bat, gets great reviews and word of mouth and otherwise has the feel of a sure thing, our job selling subsequent books isn't so hard. 

But on the other hand, once a writer has a long backlist of titles in their series, it can be hard to start someone on what seems the daunting task of reading every book, in order before they can get to the latest one.

I tend to be a purist: series should be read in order; and the notable exception to this are the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child.  Reacher travels light, and each book has a different setting as well as a whole new cast of characters. It's a bit of brilliance on the part of Mr. Child, and I can't help but wonder if the concept wasn't influenced by this short-lived but memorable TV series:

Of course, it's entirely possible that I am the only person who remembers it. I had the world's biggest crush on Michael Parks when I was 11 (the year this show aired). I should thank my lucky stars every evening that by the time it came time to pick a life partner for myself that I'd gotten over the crush. 


The truth of it is that most series books don't require that you read all of them; they often reference things in the past, but typically in a way that doesn't make you feel you've really missed anything. It's sort of like meeting a person at a cocktail party that you find quite interesting, even without knowing their life story.

The one series, however, that I insist be read in order is Susan Hill's Simon Serrailler mysteries. I insist upon it so stringently that if a customer comes in and picks up a later one I always ask if they've read the preceding ones. If the answer is no, then something like this happens:

If you haven't already discovered this series, you have plenty of time to get started right now with The Various Haunts of Men before The Soul of Discretion hits bookstore shelves in January. 

For those who have heeded my advice, or that of their own amazing indie bookseller, here's what you need to know about this one. 

Simon goes deep undercover in an operation designed to bring down the most reprehensible criminals to whom the town of Lafferton has ever played host. It means leaving his family and the woman with whom he has just begun to have a serious relationship in the dark. While Simon is away, a member of his own family becomes the focus of a criminal investigation, one that threatens to rock Lafferton to its roots. 

Simon's sister, Cat, continues to find her way through the twin minefields of widowhood and life as a single parent, and faces a big decision about the direction her life will take. 

Hill doesn't disappoint in any of these plot lines. She routinely puts her main characters in harm's way, and some of them end up the way you don't expect. Neither does she feel any need to sew up either the mystery or a relationship crossroads by the end a novel. Hill knocks down the rules for mysteries and for series novels in ways that set her far apart from others in the genre. 

Far apart, and shoulders above. 

The Soul of Discretion gets ***** from me. 

Publication Date: January 2, 2015
Published by: The Overlook Press
                       Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Neverhome by Laird Hunt

She calls herself Ash, but that's not her real name. She is a farmer's faithful wife, but she has left her husband and donned the uniform of a Union soldier in the Civil War. Neverhome tells the harrowing story of Ash Thompson during the battle for the South. Through bloodshed and hysteria and heartbreak, she becomes a hero, a traitor, a madwoman, and a legend.   - From the dustjacket

It's a fact that many women disguised themselves to take active roles on both sides of the Civil War.This slim volume--fewer than 250 pages long--tells the story of one such woman over two years' time. Ash narrates the story in the vernacular of time and place, a device that doesn't always serve the flow of the novel well. I found that it sometimes became difficult to follow unless I read it aloud to myself. 

First person narratives generally make me feel like I'm standing shoulder to shoulder with the person speaking, but I never developed that connection with Ash (nee Constance). I just couldn't quite get a grip on who she was in any of her contexts: wife, daughter, soldier.  It's never fully explained why her husband Bartholomew didn't serve, although of the two, she was the one most equipped for such. There certainly is no suggestion that she did so out of any fervor for the Union stance; it's more that the idea of such an adventure was irresistible to her. The author suggests some tension between her and Bartholomew that predated her decision to fight, but we are never made privy to that. 

Her tale is told over the course of two years, and they are full ones, indeed. She sees battle, escapes capture by mercenaries, imprisonment as a traitor, and the long walk home to Bartholomew when her fighting days are over. Ash/Constance is not a person to whom life happens: she takes charge of each situation with grit and sheer will. I wish I'd liked her more. 

*** of *****

Friday, August 29, 2014

The High Divide - Lin Enger

I'm the youngest of four who had the unfortunate role of being the caboose on a string of dazzlingly brilliant and very good looking siblings. Me? I read the encyclopedia, and spent hours upon hours copying names out of the phone book, writing them all in cursive. (Remember cursive?)  I have no doubt that my parents fretted over me, and it is entirely possible that if I were growing up now I would have a legitimate shot at being found to be on the autism scale somewhere.

As much as I adored and idolized my older brothers and sister, I hated the first day of school every year. I dreaded I'd get a teacher who loved loved loved one of them. I couldn't hold a candle to any of them in any area--except penmanship (see above)--and I knew it, and it didn't take long for my teachers to know it, too.

To this day I believe I passed from grade to grade on the Bless Her Heart grading scale.

All this has a point, I swear.

One of my all-time favorite novels is Leif Enger's luminous Peace Like a River.  His second novel, So Brave, Young and Handsome, didn't do much for me but I still watched publisher notices every season, patiently waiting for something - anything - else from him.

And then came the announcement that his brother Lin had a novel on the horizon and I just got giddy. Surely these two would have some of the same stuff, and they had even written a series of mysteries together some years back. I could scarcely contain myself, casting aside any idea at all that people raised in the same house don't always get the same goods.

From the get go, something about The High Divide bothered me. The year is 1886, and Ulysses Pope's family is on the brink of financial disaster. It was not unusual at that time for heads of household to leave their families to take a chance on some prospect for financial gain, but I just didn't and couldn't buy in to Ulysses leaving his family with nothing but a note reading, "A chance for work, hard cash," with nary a word about where he was headed, or how long he expected to be gone.

It doesn't take long for his sons to light out after him, riding the rails to where they believe he may have gone, based on a letter Eli, the older son, had found.  They don't tell their mother they are leaving, so now you have this woman with a missing husband and two missing sons, who is fixin' to lose the home they lived in together, with no hope of raising money to keep a lecherous landlord wolf at bay.

I don't mind a dose of improbable in my fiction, understand that, but it's just a whole lot easier to overlook if there is something in the narrative that makes you glad the author took the leap.

I am well and truly sorry that I did not like this novel. I finished it, but I'm not sure why. After that leap Enger asked me to take at the opening, he then throws in a couple more implausible plot developments, peppered with stilted dialog and so many wasted opportunities to let the reader in.

And ultimately, that's the thing:  I never felt like I'd been invited into the story. There was no character with whom I could form even the most tenuous bond, or in whom I developed any interest.

The High Divide has gotten buzz out the wahoo, but I'll be darned if I can figure out why.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Drop - Dennis Lehane

Here's something on which I usually don't bite: repackaging of a short fiction first published in a collection, particularly when the reason for the repackaging is to coincide with the release of a motion picture based on that short fiction. 

But The Drop was by DENNIS LEHANE, one of a handful of authors in whom I have never, ever been disappointed. Ever. It also didn't hurt that I've been on another run of novels that just refused to engage my heart or my imagination, and which, therefore, I did not finish. 

Bob is, by all appearances, a feckless bartender with little going for him. When he finds a puppy abandoned in a trash can, and then meets a young woman with plenty of bad decisions in her resume, Bob begins to find himself in unfamiliar emotional territory. A cast of treacherous friends, the Chechen mafia, and the godless man who dumped that puppy in the garbage provide plenty of windmills against which this modern day Don Quixote must tilt. 

Dennis Lehane clearly has a heart wide open for folks who live around all the dark corners, the ones you'd feel safer crossing the street than encountering on a public sidewalk at dusk. He knows what we all know, of course: there's a story and a tragedy and a triumph somewhere in every one of them. That he consistently invites us into something like communion with them through his novels is a wonderment. 

Highly, highly recommended.  

Publication date: September 2, 2014
William Morrow
An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

Friday, July 11, 2014

That Night -- Chevy Stevens

Let's make this short.

Ms. Stevens has held me in thrall with some of her earlier novels.

This one read like a first draft script for a bad Lifetime Original Movie, filled from start to finish with characters right out of central casting, in a plot that isn't only predictable but sophomoric.

Plot synopsis: "Bad sister" (whom we all know isn't really bad, just misunderstood) and her "bad boy boyfriend" (whom we all know isn't really bad, just misunderstood) are convicted of murdering her sister, the "good girl," (whom we all know isn't really all that good because she has secrets and she loses weight and cries a lot). "Bad sister" had been bullied by the Golden Girls at school because she was different, and her mother doesn't even like her. At all. After 18 years in prison, she's released, tries to rebuild her life, and then another person is murdered (a now drug-addicted former Golden Girl), after she begins to talk about That Night that Bad Sister's Good Girl Little Sister was killed.

I'm giving this one * out of *****, simply because I finished it, sure that Stevens would surprise me at the end.

She didn't.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Forsaken -- Ace Atkins

One of the dangers of following any writer for any length of time is running up on that inevitable book that misses the mark, sometimes just by a hair. You can forgive this, of course, because no matter what it is a person does, nobody doesn't have an off day. It was with a certain level of trepidation, therefore, that I cracked open The Forsaken, the new Quinn Colson novel by Ace Atkins.

In order to finish this one last night I shooed my husband out to the picture show. Finish it, I did. I thought better of writing my review last night, because I really needed to think through what I could say about it that would make you want to read it.

I've had a good night's sleep, and now, in the light of morning and two strong cups of coffee into the day, here's what I have to say about it.

Oh. My. Stars. In. Heaven.

How does Ace do this?

How does he consistently make his well-limned characters even more interesting every single time?

If you're waiting for Ace to trip over his own success, you're going to have to keep waiting, folks.

Sheriff Quinn Colson is compelled to investigate what appeared to be a closed case from 1977, one in which two young girls were brutalized, and one of the girls was killed. A man was hanged by a lynch mob for that crime, but now survivor Diane Tull has come forward to say that her assailant was not the man who was hanged all those years ago.

Quinn soon meets with plenty of tightly locked lips, and a growing realization that his father may have been a member of the motorcycle club who was responsible for the unjust hanging.  The leader of that club, Chains LeDoux, is still so feared that his imminent release from prison has series bad-guy Johnny Stagg practically begging for help from Quinn.

All of this sets up a mighty powerful and moving story about how hard, and how necessary, it is to make past wrongs right.

If that's not enough, The Forsaken made me fully appreciate how strong Ace Atkins' women characters are, strength that comes from a place of quietude and necessity. That he stays well clear of making these women caricatures of the Steel Magnolia variety is even more remarkable.

Oh -- and it appears Atkins has introduced a new and, I hope, recurring character who should provide even more interesting plot developments down the road.

If you have not yet read any of Atkins' Quinn Colson novels then you now have your summer reading list. Start from the beginning. (The Ranger, The Lost Ones, and The Broken Places)

Trust me.

A very, very solid ***** of ***** 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken

I hate when reading slumps happen. Last time I had one, I quit even trying to find a book that would grab me. Once it became clear I was in a slump this time I determined I was not going to let that happen.

The stack of books I started and tossed aside may have upset the delicate balance of my home's foundation. I'm not listing those books, because when I'm in a slump I can't ever be sure if it's a me thing or a them thing, and it wouldn't be fair to be dismissive if there's not really a good reason to do so. (And you know how much I like to wreck a book that has it coming.)

My coworker suggested that a collection of short stories might help. This is where I need to say that while I do enjoy the occasional short story upon which I stumble, I have never been a particular fan of collected short works by a single author. I don't know why. I'm not proud of it or anything. It just is whatever it is.

On her suggestion, though, I brought home Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstruck & Other Stories, and as with most collected works by one writer, I found some of the stories to be just wonderful and rich and full, and others to be more on the meh end of the scale. In some fashion, all of them have to do with losses --what we do to work them into something that will remain in some way, and how much more we stand to lose if we allow ourselves to be defined by them.

The title story was so good it will resonate with me for a long, long time, for it spoke of crazy hope and perception stained by love and guilt, and it was as fine as any short story I've ever read.

I've considered carefully how to assign a star rating to this one. I didn't read every story through, which makes this something shy of a read book. Rating it, therefore, doesn't feel like the right thing to do...but go back and read that last paragraph. Nobody writes a story that good who is not a fine writer.

What can I say? I own this blog and I can change my rules whenever I want.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Robert B. Parker's Cheap Shot - Ace Atkins

This is going to be one of those short and sweet reviews. Ace Atkins' Robert B. Parker novels are just a pure-tee treat, and this 42nd in the series (Atkins' third) was just perfect for a week filled with book signings at the store, and a sudden, mostly inexplicable but very welcome cleaning frenzy.

I particularly like this one because Hawk was back, although it is fair to say that Z is growing on me as well. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you just need to take yourself to school (or your local indie bookseller) and find out.

A much-in-the-headlines New England Patriots football player (who spent his college career at Auburn University, a nod to Atkins' storied past) is as tough as they come.... until his son is kidnapped. Spenser has not a thing to go on, but it's not long before he's getting grief from every corner from the Pats organization to local law enforcement and the FBI, and the suspects begin to stack up.

There aren't many writers who can make me crack up out loud even when nobody's in the room, but Atkins does.  One of my favorite passages....

I had to park nearly a half-mile away because of the news crews and onlookers, sports fanatics and nutcases. Not to mention the probably assortment of Hare Krishnas, Moonies, and those who follow Glenn Beck. 

Here's the only complaint I have about this book, and it's a weird one. I do not know the name of the font used (and I looked for it), but the Q's that are used are godawful, an irritant made worse because of a character in the story whose name starts with that. I wish I could describe it, but let's just say it made my eyes hurt. 

I'm giving this one **** out of ***** stars, mainly because of that Q. I'm going to have nightmares about that thing. 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Remember Me Like This - Bret Anthony Johnston

Justin Campbell was kidnapped four years before this book opens. Laura, his mother, and Eric, his father, have chosen different coping mechanisms that help them avoid the weight of his absence, at least often enough to give them the energy to be parents to Griff, Justin's little brother. Even so, the empty place in their home, and in their hearts, makes getting by an act of will. Johnston crafts this dreary, weighted existence with subtlety, and makes the reader an active voyeur. 

When Griff is found and returned to his family, no longer an 11 year old child, but a strapping teenager, the family discovers that in the place of expected peace is a cloying sense of circling one another lest the re-balancing act in which they are engaging begins to fall to pieces. 

Johnston doesn't overplay any of this, to a fault at times. As a mother, I identified, sometimes viscerally, with Laura, but the most poignant character in this novel is Griff.  He's spent 4 years being the brother of the Boy Who Went Missing, which comes with a certain degree of celebrity. He's managed to begin carving out his own identity when Justin comes home, and he's now the brother of the Boy Who Came Home. 

This wasn't a flawless novel, but it was a most thoughtful and thought-provoking one, in which the strength of a family, one depicted with great authenticity,  is pushed to its limits. 


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Believing the Lie -- Elizabeth George

I was never a fan of Nancy Drew nor the Hardy Boys when I was a kid. I don't know why mysteries didn't appeal to me then, but it was an aversion to which I'd remain devoted for many, many years. It lasted until I was planning a weekend away in New Orleans, and I asked the owner of the bookstore--an avid fan of mysteries--to recommend something of that genre to me to read.

She handed me Elizabeth George's A Great Deliverance and I was hooked. I devoured every other book in her Thomas Lynley series as quickly as I could get my hands on one (except for What Came Before He Shot Her, a pass many of her other faithful readers took as well). When Believing the Lie came out I was in the early months of what would become a very long reading slump, but even when I began to emerge from that a few months ago it's heft (just over 600 pages) gave me pause. When you stop reading for whatever reasons there may be, you really do have to recondition your mind and your attention span, and I wanted to feel ready to take it on before taking it on. 

I was fixin' to head out on a vacation weekend with a bunch of my girlfriends when I finally picked this one up, but I had a bad feeling about it. My history with books and vacations is not good. Oddly enough, I never have been much of one for reading when I'm away from home, because I am distracted by the excitement of being anywhere but here.  I wondered whether taking a book from an author who commands attention be paid was a kiss of death, but turns out I did just enough reading during my days away to keep me in the story, and when I got home I zeroed in. I finished it this morning while my granddaughter watched Frozen for the thousandth time (and no, I'm not a bad grandmother... it's raining outside so we'd have been watching cartoons anyway).

The various books in this series have always been a bit uneven. I like the books best where Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers are front and center. I find Deborah St. James to be a pill most of the time, and have tended to be bored by her husband Simon, but they come in handy, I'll admit. All the skaters were on the ice this time, and each of them had a big role to play in one of George's most convoluted offerings yet. 

The setup is that Lynley's been asked to take an unofficial look into the suspicious drowning death of the well-placed Ian Cresswell. He enlists the help of the St. James', as neither of them are part of Scotland Yard and can do as they please with their time. Havers gets involved on the sly, per Lynley's request. From this spring so many subplots that I felt I was reading a fireworks display at times.... and yet each of them held my attention.  

Every character in Believing the Lie has something they are hiding from others and, most importantly, from themselves. It is true that there was way too much candy for a nickel in this story, but George kept me interested in every side story and character. My biggest complaint is that when the ends began to get tied up, they did so too quickly and neatly. I would not have minded a few Susan Hill like dangling threads, quite frankly, even though the book did end with an emerging mystery that I know to be taken up in the next one in the series.  And yes, I'll be reading that after I finish physical therapy to fix the sore muscles in my neck and back, put there by holding this book in my hands for so long. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Books to Go?

Here's a true thing about me. 

I almost never travel anywhere, but when I do, I find I do very little reading unless it's on in the car on the way (a problem if I'm driving, of course) or on the plane from Point A(tlanta) to Point W(herever), so I don't really spend much time selecting books to take with me. 

Maybe I should explain that when I do go someplace it's usually for a purpose that involves being with a whole lot of people with whom I usually don't get to spend time in person, so there's not much down time for propping my feet up and diving in to a book.

In fact, so lousy am I at reading on vacation that as best I can recall, all but one book that I ever taken along with me on a trip was ever even finished and I never went back to read anything else by those authors. To wit: I took a Carl Hiaasen on a trip many years ago, got halfway through, got busy, put it down, never picked it up again. EVER. Likewise, Ann Patchett's Bel Canto.... which was crazy, as I had read every single thing she'd ever written hot off the presses and adored them all, but it got bit by the vacation bug.  I'm so, so sorry. 

The only book I can recall taking along on a vacation and actually reading was this one, and if you care to read my review, here 'tis.  

Well, here's my current dilemma. I'm playing catch up with Elizabeth George right now, just about 100 pages into Believing the Lie, which, as you fans of George know, means I've hardly scratched the surface. There is no way I can finish it before I leave later this week with so many things left I have to do to get ready, so while most folks stress over wardrobe and luggage options and flight confirmations, I'm stressing over whether to put this down now or keep it up and take it along with the hope that I'll be so far into it that I can finish it on the flight. 

As the young people say, I believe we file this one under First World Problems. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Starter House - Sonja Condit

One of my favorite review blogs is Whimpulsive. The woman who writes it encouraged me to start my own several years ago, and encouraged me again recently when I was trying to decide whether to strike it back up after a hiatus. What I most admire about her is how disciplined she is about it, how she is willing to try new things with it, how unmarried she is to her format when she decides to change things up. She's quite prolific in her reading: she adores the printed word, but also plugs in to audio books, downloads books to her not-an-Amazonian-monopoly-product, and is an unapologetic fan of graphic novels as well. Her tastes are eclectic. I've had the honor of turning her on to a couple of my favorite southern writers, and she's more than returned the favor when she's "sold" me on an author I might have been avoiding.

I'm inspired to mention her today because I sometimes find myself wanting to be even briefer than usual when reading a book about which I'm lukewarm, or one of the older titles I grab when there's nothing new or forthcoming begging to be read. The Starter House by Sonja Condit is a pretty good book to begin to employ that same strategy.

I might mention that I'm also *cough* sort of copying a couple of Whimpulsive's headers, which are actually two bits of information I think are always interesting. I'm the least creative person I know, but I'm very good at giving credit where credit's due. Plus, she lives way too far away from where I live to hurt me.

Why I Read This Book:  The author was a writing student of a friend of mine, a fact he pointed out to me when I was wondering what I might read next.

What the Jacket Tells You About the Story (in paraphrase): Newly expectant parents Lacey and Eric Miszlaks have been hunting for their first home when they come across exactly the sort of place Lacey has dreamed of, "Triangles...Gables. Dormer windows." Even their realtor tries to dissuade them from buying it by uttering the words, "People died here."

Well, there's your sign... especially when she offers up no further explanation... because inexplicably, the prospective buyers don't bother to press for details. Really? And when a creepy little boy begins insinuating himself into Lacey's life -- only Lacey's, mind you, not anyone else's -- I did a bit of time-traveling back to every creepy movie I ever saw where I spent too much energy yelling, DON'T GO UP THE STAIRS at actors who couldn't hear me.

There were at least three very good Shirley Jackson-ish short stories in this novel. It is my considered and singular opinion that they should have stayed in their separate corners, because mixing them together watered each of them down.

Ms. Condit did write a very readable scary story, though, and for those who don't mind being able to anticipate each twist and just want something a little creepy, this one will do just fine.

(Click on the stars if you want to read about my very loose, non-scientific, sometimes not very consistent rating system.)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Kindness Goes Unpunished - Craig Johnson

It's been a minute since I finished a book. Just the usual: taxes, a couple false starts on books I decided not to finish. You know. STUFF.

I started watching the Longmire TV series before I picked up one of the Craig Johnson mysteries on which they are based, and by based I mean loosely based, which frankly, is exactly the way things adapted from book series to TV should be. I call it the Harry Potter Problem.

You remember: we were all so frickin' jazzed to see the first Harry Potter movie.... which was (with the exception of the building materials of Hagrid's house) pretty much exactly like the book... which meant that we who had practically committed the thing to memory had no surprises in store. Those of us who are elbowing our way into our dotage find it rather similar to having one of those freaky three-dimensional pictures taken of your baby in utero.  Why do we have to know every little thing about every little thing these days?

Ahem. Longmire. Yes.

Anyway, I read and really, really enjoyed the first Longmire book, The Cold Dish, but seriously bogged down in the second, Death Without Company, and I reckon that got my feet a little cold. I finally picked up Kindness Goes Unpunished since it was lying around the house anyway and it was convenient when I needed another something to pick up.

In this one, Sheriff Walt Longmire, his friend Henry Standing Bear (who gets my vote for coolest side-kick ever), and Dog, the dog, travel to Philadelphia, to visit Walt's daughter Cady. Shortly after they arrive, Cady is the victim of a brutal crime and is badly hurt, her boyfriend (after a confrontation with Walt) winds up dead, and a series of mysterious messages for Longmire put him front and center in the investigation that follows.

I found myself more interested in what was going on with Walt, Henry, Cady, and Walt's deputy, Vic (who winds up in Philly herself well on into the book) than in the solving of the crimes. I'm not sure why, but I just never could get the threads of the story to come together enough to get invested in that aspect of it.

It would be a true thing to say here that I don't read mysteries the way some folks do. I don't really make any attempt to figure things out, and always feel a bit cheated if I manage to finger the killer before he/she is revealed. I do, though, like to at least keep all the players in some semblance of order in my head, and I just couldn't quite do that in this instance.

This is a tricky call, then. I loved reading about all these folks, and some of the personal advances they made (pun intended). There were a couple of times when Walt's visits to his comatose daughter really made me tear up they were so true. I don't really come to a Craig Johnson novel expecting to be moved, and it was a lovey surprise.

But overall, this one will only get *** of ***** from me.  I'll keep reading the series, but I don't feel compelled to race to finish them.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Breaking Up With a Book

It happens, from time to time.

You jump into a novel for which buzz is beginning to build, and from the minute you start you realize this is going to be one of those with very little light, but that's okay. You are, after all, not a reader who minds being challenged by novels that are tough going because of their subject matter.

And then.... something in the book is so jarring to your sensibilities that you realize you really just are not willing to continue. In the case of the book I just put down it was a very graphic depiction of a very disturbed child engaging in an unnatural act. That's really all you need to know.

I don't require butterflies and unicorns. I understand that, in fiction, I am often compelled to go places with people outside my experience -- and really, what is the point of reading if you don't get out of your own careful life on occasion? I mean, if all novels reflected only the life that I do lead....I'd take up knitting or watching paint dry as hobbies instead.

I'm not going to name the book. I'm grown up enough to realize that others may not be so put off by that admittedly brief scene in light of a bigger story, and who knows? Since I was reading an ARC it's possible that by the time the book is actually in published form it might be toned down. (Although I doubt it -- there are rarely changes like that between an ARC and the finished product.)

This is the place where your Surly Bookseller says, NEXT, PLEASE.  

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Robert B. Parker's Wonderland -- Ace Atkins

I've yet to meet an author who has given us more than one book who won't confess to liking some of their own novels more than others, so I don't feel it's necessary to apologize for liking one book by a favorite author just a little less than another. Such is the case here.

As mentioned here recently I was a no-show for Robert B. Parker's 40 book Spenser series, and am a real late comer to the two novels the very fine-in-so-may-ways Ace Atkins has added to that list. I'm playing catch-up before his third (Cheap Shot) hits the store on May 6.

Here in list form are the reasons that, while I'm glad to have read Wonderland, it didn't grab me in quite the same way as did Lullaby.

1.  As much as I enjoyed getting to know Spenser's sidekick-in-training Zebulon "Z" Sixkill, I really missed Hawk. 

2.  I have a thing about novels where most of the story revolves around white collar criminals and land and real estate and stuff. I tend not to pick them up in the first place, but make exceptions in rare cases, like this one...but they all tend to have greed as their motivation, and I prefer to go into a whodunit clueless about the who and the why. 

3. I got slowed down reading Wonderland due to circumstances beyond my control, and certainly that's not anything I can pin on Atkins. These are novels to be read at a fast clip. You're meant to be on a runaway roller-coaster when you read tough-guy stuff--not on one of those sissy floating boat rides--and because I had to put the book aside more often than I wanted, I lost the momentum a few times. Nobody's fault but mine. 

Still in all, I enjoyed Robert B. Parker's Wonderland just fine, and I'm giving it ***out of *****.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Ordinary Grace -- William Kent Krueger

Set in 1961, Ordinary Grace gives us an over-the-shoulder look into one heartbreaking summer in the life of cozy Bremen, Minnesota and the people who inhabit it. Over the course of the novel, many people die either by accident or intent, and while most of these deaths are not directly related, they all reverberate off one another in some fashion. 

It repeatedly falls to soft-spoken Methodist minister Nathan Drum to try to provide a measure of spiritual light when so many senseless tragedies threaten the peace of his town and of his own family.

The story is told by his son Frank some forty years after the events took place, but who in that summer was a typical thirteen year old boy who enjoys dropping an occasional cuss word just to impress his little brother, Jake. Jake is as reserved as Frank is full-throttle, a reserve born of his stuttering. Their older sister Ariel is destined for Julliard when the novel begins. Their mother Ruth never expected to be a minister's wife when she married Nathan, but it's a role she takes on with love.... and the occasional cigarette smoked in private.

In short, you really come to like everybody in this family. They are golden but not too golden.

It's when tragedy strikes close to home that the careful construct of their lives begins to show cracks. We understand those cracks--they are the ones that make believers question their faith, the ones that make non-believers secure in their belief that if there is a God, He surely is wanting in the fairness department.

It is through these cracks, though, that some of the most luminous prose in the novel breaks forth.

"...ritual is the railing we hold to, all of us together, that
 keeps us upright and connected until the worst is past."

I suspect we all have a person in our lives who blows us away sometimes with their wisdom and insight, that sort of person who can get to the heart of a matter while everybody else is standing around looking at the floor when the hard questions get asked. It's also often true that no matter how lovely that person is there is something about them that irritates the stew out of you. Maybe they always forget to take off their sunglasses even when they are inside, or they don't floss and it shows. You love them. You respect them. You wish you had their gift for speaking truth. But you just wish...... well, you know.

This book is an awful lot like that friend. There were elements in the narrative that were jarring to me, that didn't seem plausible given the time in which it was set. The use of expletives by characters who were talking with the pastor bothered me, because most people, even with today's more casual mores, exercise some deference to men and women of the cloth. A matter of a character's sexuality was met with a great deal more understanding and shrug of the shoulders than seemed plausible, given the setting of the novel. And finally, the fact that Frank is present (with permission of his father) when details of an unspeakable crime are being presented for the first time in a private meeting just had me shaking my head.

Those things aside, though, Ordinary Grace was an irresistible read. I was charmed by its nostalgic warmth, moved nearly to tears by some of its most splendid moments (Rev. Drum's eulogy at one funeral is so exquisite that I want it read at mine), and was caught up in the multiple mysteries that arose.

Ultimately, the power of the story was not diluted overmuch by these shortcomings, which might not even bother other readers. This wasn't a perfect book, but I am glad to have read it, and happy to recommend it to others.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Robert B. Parker's Lullaby -- Ace Atkins

I have never read a single book written by Robert B. Parker.

Anything I knew of his characters Spenser and Hawk comes from television, and I wasn't even a terribly devoted fan of Spenser: For Hire. I remember enjoying it when I occasionally watched it, but I was raising a toddler during its heyday, and nighttime television was something to which I fell asleep for the most part. 

I have never been to Boston, but the aforementioned toddler I was raising back in the 1980's somehow became a devoted Red Sox fan, and actually delayed his official honeymoon for several months so that he and his bride could take in a game at Fenway and watch the Independence Day fireworks over the Boston Harbor. 

There was more than a fair bit of brouhaha when Parker's estate signed off on letting another writer continue his Spenser series -- one that began in 1974 with the publication of The Godwulf Manuscript -- but I couldn't get all het up about it since I didn't have any interest in the series myself. 

It didn't even matter to me that the writer chosen to take up Parker's mantle was one of my favorites. As long as Ace Atkins kept writing the books I wanted to read (the Quinn Colson novels), I didn't care if he wanted to pad his kids' college fund by taking on a little something on the side, but there was no way I was going to pick up the 41st book in a series that wasn't even written by the guy who wrote the series.

And yet, here I was, two years later, taking home a copy of Robert B. Parker's Lullaby. I had recently come up with a plan to go back and read books I missed over the past few years for various and sundry reasons. I developed a system: starting in the mystery section at the bookshop I'd make myself read one backlist book from each shelf, and wouldn't you know?  There was Ace Atkins, and there was his first Spenser novel, and I was too tired to come up with a new system on the spot. 

I have to take at their word the raves that Parker's hardcore fans gave Atkins for remaining true to Parker's style and characters and spirit.  I have no basis for comparison.

But hell's bells, people. I had more fun with Spenser and Hawk and Mattie (the smack-talking 14 year old girl who hires Spenser to find out who really killed her mother) than I've had with a book in a long while. I laughed so hard so many times, and was on the edge of my seat at the end, craving a beer and deciding that there is no shame in jumping on a bandwagon and saving a seat for you, too. 

Bottom Line:  Atkins picked up Robert B. Parker's bat, and knocks one over the Green Monster. .

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Through the Evil Days -- Julia Spencer-Fleming

Yes, I'm late to this one. What can I say? It released in November, but I do not find that the last couple months of the retail year are particularly conducive to reading. Once the holidays are over so many sparkly new things are in the store that everything that was released during November and December just looks so not new.

I knew I'd get to it, and boy, am I ever glad I did. I have really enjoyed this whole series (this is #8). Even when the case on which Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne are working may have strained credulity, the developments in their personal relationship over the series has always been worth following. This time, though, both the plot and character development were equally compelling.

In this instance, as Clare and Russ are preparing to leave on their delayed honeymoon all hell breaks loose. Freakish winter storms (not unlike the ones that actually did happen this winter across the country) are moving in to the Adirondacks; a young girl is discovered missing when the home of her foster parents is burned to the ground with them in it; the future of Russ' police department is in jeopardy from a cost-cutting notion that would eliminate the local force in favor of state control; and the relationship between two other characters (Hadley Knox and Kevin Flynn) continues on its torturous path. Oh, and Clare's ill-timed pregnancy is an issue for the diocese in which she serves, and she faces the very real possibility that she may lose her parish, if not her called career.

What I appreciate so much about Spencer-Fleming's novels is the way in which Clare struggles when her faith and calling collide with her "real life." I hope that the clerics in my life have these same struggles. I wouldn't give a plug nickel for one who didn't have to wrestle the angel every now and again, frankly.

My only real quibble with this one is that the resolution of Clare's problems with the diocese didn't ring true, but then again, I'm not an Episcopalian, and I don't know anything about their church law, so it might be that I'm quibbling for no good reason.

If you have not read any of these novels, for heaven's sake don't start with this one. Do yourself a favor and read them all, in order, beginning with In the Bleak Midwinter.  But if you are a fan, no matter why you may have waited to read it, you will not be disappointed when you do get around to picking it up.

Minotaur Books
Imprint of St. Martin's Press

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Weight of Blood -- Laura McHugh

I blame my morbid fascination with the Ozarks on Daniel Woodrell. His novels Give Us a Kiss and Winter's Bone (my two favorites of his) certainly did nothing for tourism for that part of the country, but I just can't get enough of reading about people whose sole redeeming quality may be that they feed their dogs fresh table scraps. The setting, then, is largely the reason I chose Laura McHugh's new novel The Weight of Blood. Not only could I visit the Ozarks from a hygienic distance again--and thus feel ever so much better about my own neighborhood--this time I'd be doing it through the eyes of a woman.

The story revolves around two mysteries, set apart by a generation: What became of Lila Dane, who walked away from her baby and was never seen again, and of Cheri, the simple-minded friend of Lila's daughter Lucy, whose body is found in pieces, stuffed into the cracks of a tree? 

The novel, written in alternating voices that slip and slide across time, commanded my attention for the most part, but began to unravel a little more than halfway through. New narrators are added, some from out of the clear-blue, and a couple of plot developments just felt as though they'd been tacked in sort of willy-nilly. Even so, I was invested enough in knowing the whys and wherefores that I couldn't put it down. 

Some other quibbles were that, unlike Woodrell's novels, the sense of place was not terribly pervasive, and there was a dearth of vernacular. That might be an asset to some readers, but not for this one. A writer who uses it judiciously and authentically takes the reader on the full ride, in my estimation. 

So, a good read, an interesting couple story lines, some excitement, some good guys, some bad guys, but not much soul. 

Spiegel & Grau
Random House Publishing Group
Publication Date: March 2014

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things -- Alice Hoffman

I had decided after reading Alice Hoffman's The Red Garden to let my relationship with her rest but when I read what this one was about I couldn't resist.

I have had a fascination with the times in which "freak shows" were in their heyday, and this novel is set square in those days. Coralie Sardie, the exquisitely beautiful daughter of the owner of  The Museum of Extraordinary Things, is one of those "freaks." She lives with her father in quarters above the museum, and she is tenderly cared for by Maureen, a woman whose face bears the scars of a horrific past. Coralie is forbidden even to see the attractions her father keeps -- some in jars, many as employees -- until she reaches the age of 10. It is then her father begins to use her as an attraction in the museum.

Eddie Cohen turned his back on his father and his Orthodox Jewish faith long ago, but found a hero in Moses Levy, a well-respected photographer, from whom Eddie learns that craft. His path and Coralie's intersect early on, but only in a hazy way.

Before they actually meet, many years pass, during which the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire takes place. Eddie bears witness to that horrible event, and is hired to find a young woman who is supposed to have been at work there that day, but whose body is not identified among the dead.

As Coney Island begins to develop other attractions to which people begin to flock, Coralie's father becomes increasingly desperate to find a freak compelling enough to revive his dying business. It is this that finally pulls the stories of Coralie and Eddie together.

All these things were interesting, and threads of these stories were utterly fascinating, but Ms. Hoffman's propensity to overwrite her attempts at lovely prose (something she used to do effortlessly) became a distraction.

To wit, this passage, referring to the young woman Eddie is hired to find:

"...he was looking for...a young woman with pale hair, the color of snow. 
Snow melted, Eddie knew that much. It disappeared if you tried to hold on to it. "

Huh?  Eddie knew that much? Are we supposed to be surprised that a grown man who has lived his life mostly in New York would know that snow melts?  

Beginning with that passage, Ms. Hoffman littered (in a very literal sense) the rest of the narrative with even more strained turns of phrase, and I really had to claw my way through them to finish the book. Finish it I did, though, because the author had provided under all that overwrought language a pretty compelling story. 

The Museum of Extraordinary Things is not Alice Hoffman's finest work, but it's not her most disappointing work, either. (My vote goes to The Red Garden for that honor.)  

Monday, March 10, 2014

Wake - Anna Hope

I have this thing about reading novels set during WWI, and mostly it's not been a good thing. I don't know what it is, or why it is, but it just is. 

Despite that, I chose to bring home an ARC of this one for two reasons: I liked the dress the woman was wearing on the cover and it mentioned being rather like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which I did not read (see above) but which did very, very well for us at the shop. I thought I'd take one for the team by reading something that might appeal to that same audience. 

Anna Hope's Wake is told over five days in 1920 that lead up to the second anniversary of Armistice Day, to be observed in London by the entombment of an Unknown Soldier. We live these five days with three women, each grieving losses that the Great War visited on them: Hettie, who spends her evenings dancing with wounded veterans for sixpence in order to help support her sharp-tongued mother and war-wounded brother; Evelyn, a war widow who works at the Pension Exchange helping disabled veterans lodge complaints against the system, but whose heart is so hardened that their stories fail to move her; and Ada, whose grief for the death of her son Michael is sounding a death knell on her marriage as well. 

While these lives are moving toward that 5th day--the characters in a slow dance that will lead them, finally, into each others stories--we witness in a parallel tale the journey from a muddy, unmarked grave of the body of an Unknown Soldier to London's Cenotaph where he will be interred to great fanfare.

I was swept up in each of the stories, and was moved by dozens and dozens of Ms. Hope's elegantly written passages, none of which felt forced, all of which were slipped into the narrative perfectly. I love it when that happens. 

"Of turning away from him, and the feeling as she did so, as though she'd had her hand balled in a fist, held tight for years, and opened it, only to find that there was nothing inside."

Wake is not to be missed. 

***** of ***** 

Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: February 2014

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Girl With a Clock For a Heart - Peter Swanson

A fast read, perfect for those times when you don't care how completely ridiculous and improbable nearly every plot twist can get, because they do.

I am confounded by the big reviews for this one. No doubt others may be confounded by mine, but when huge holes in a story get filled in with off-brand Spackle, I get annoyed.

It did hold my attention.

But then again, I once spent nearly an entire day playing Bejeweled Blitz.

** out of *****

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Free -- Wily Vlautin

In a world and time rife with Big Problems, most of us are paralyzed by the notion that no matter how deeply we want to change things we are helpless to do so. I have long held, however, that none of us are as helpless as we believe: we have the opportunity each and every day to make a difference in the life of at least one other person.

The Free by Willy Vlautin is a celebration, from start to finish, of exactly that theme. Each of the characters around whom the narrative revolves are largely powerless for a host of reasons. They are held captive by tragedy or circumstance or the demands others place on them. They are, in short, rather a sad lot of people, living small lives and, for the most part, just going through the motions. You know, like most of us do.

Leroy Kervin, a veteran of the war in Iraq who has lived in a group home since receiving a traumatic brain injury, undertakes an act of self-determination that leaves him hospitalized in a coma. His mind is working, but locked in, and we are made privy to how he processes the bits and pieces of fantasy, reality, and memory that are still his to own.

Pauline Hawkins is a nurse at this hospital, and her tender ministrations to her patients belie the disconnect she feels from life and the people in it with whom she has arm's length relationships, outside her job.

And Freddie McCall is a night man at the home at which Leroy lived, who holds down that job as well as a second one at a hardware store. His wife has left him and taken his children. He is weighed down in enormous debt and is in danger of losing his home and his moral compass, which has always held true north .

The Free is the story of how these three people matter. This is one of those quiet, understated novels that doesn't start with a bang or have a plot line that rises to a heart-stopping crescendo. It is rooted firmly in the mundane, but rises above that with subtlety and deep truth.

A Harper Perennial Book

Monday, March 3, 2014

'Til the Well Runs Dry -- Lauren Francis-Sharma

Dear Surly:  Why don't you use STARS in your reviews?  I like STARS!!!  Signed, Figment of Your Imagination Fan 

Dear Fig:  I have stayed away from stars because they can be misleading, but if you want stars you shall have them. I do insist on explaining my system, though.

*****  This is a book that accomplished everything it set out to do. The writing felt effortless. If it is a plot driven narrative the action didn't bog down. If it's character driven, I became emotionally invested in them, whether I liked them or not. A book doesn't have to be deep and impossibly meaningful, and they actually lose a star or two if they are too earnest. All it has to be is exactly what it set out to be, better than most of its ilk (whatever ilk that is), and "true" to itself from start to finish.  I fully acknowledge that sometimes it's even possible that I ***** a **** book because I'm just in a very good mood. 

****  This means that something in the book may have left me wanting for some reason -- and yes, sometimes that's just a ME thing -- but overall, I still want people to read the book. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend a **** to someone.  I fully acknowledge that sometimes it's even possible I **** a ***** book because I'm just in a stingy mood.

***  This means that if a customer picks up a book and asks if I have read it, and if so, if I had liked it, I can say yes without having to check the length of my nose. I'm happy to recommend it, but I probably wouldn't pick it up first if I'm just giving suggestions.  I fully acknowledge that sometimes it's even possible that I *** a **** book because it didn't live up to the hype. I would never *** a ***** book for any reason. 

** This means that if a customer brings the book to me intent on buying it I will smile and say, "Cash or credit card?"  

*  This means that if a customer brings the book to me intent on buying it I will say, "You know what? I think we can find you a better book."  Because, YES, I do that sometimes. It's what a responsible bookseller who appreciates their customers will do for them. I don't do this often. People should never feel embarrassed to buy a book, and certainly not because I've made them feel that way. And honestly, this isn't something I do to customers with whom I don't yet have a relationship. I take my job seriously, but I'm not the standard-bearer, and I am not a literary gatekeeper. 

So, there you have it. My star system at a glance.

Now that that is out of the way, 'Til the Well Runs Dry by Lauren Francis-Sharma is a very good first novel, with interesting characters who made me fall in love -- once I got in the rhythm -- with the written Trinidadian patois. The story pulled me along, but I had a hard time adopting any of the characters, even the most sympathetic ones in the most sympathetic situations. The story ended with a string of highly improbable turns that read like the author believed her story was going in circles so she hauled in a catapult to move things along, a tactic I found unnecessary and distracting. 

Marcia Garcia is a very young seamstress raising two young boys when the book opens. She is swept off her feet by an older police officer, Farouk Karam, with the help of some obeah (black magic), and to say that the course of their very long, perplexing relationship never runs smoothly is a gross understatement. The novel covers just over two decades in their lives together and apart, beginning in the early days of WWII, through to the mid-1960's.

I was certainly interested enough to read it through, and the story, even with the catapult, moved along at a good clip that made it an easy read in a medical waiting room. 

'Til the Well Runs Dry is a good yarn, with some lovely turns of phrase.

Because I had been running, because I hadn't given myself a moment, 
I lost things I didn't know I wanted until wanting them was all I had left. 

My Surly Star System Rating:  ***

Henry Holt and Company
Publication date: April 2014

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Headmaster's Wife -- Thomas Christopher Greene

I picked up The Headmaster's Wife solely because I read somewhere in some piece on Thomas Christopher Greene that he'd written it during a time of personal trials and had dedicated it to the memory of the child for whom he grieves. 

Any of us, and by that I mean all of us, who have found ourselves boxing our own way out of that darkness know that it's a different exercise for each of us. I was curious to find out what a writer does with such an arsenal of emotion, especially since this was not a memoir, not a work of non-fiction, but instead came with buzz review words that suggested it was a work of psychological suspense, รก la Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl

It opens with boarding school Headmaster Arthur Winthrop wandering naked through the snow in Central Park. He is detained by law enforcement and under interrogation he begins at the beginning of his own end. The story he tells reveals him as rather a pathetic excuse for everything he purports to be: an educator, a husband, a father. I was ready to put Greene down as an Updike sort, right up until.... well. 

You know I hate spoilerish reviews, so you know that's all you're getting from me as concerns the story(ies). 

Greene has written one of the most discomfiting novels I've read in recent years, one that kept me guessing and wondering to the very end -- and not only wondering about how it would end, but how to characterize it in any simple way to anyone who might ask. On that score, I still have no good answer. All I know is that once you're hooked, you just hang on on the ride.  

While I did find the ending to be weaker than it might have been, I can't fathom what a stronger one might have been. I don't require a happy ending (which isn't to say this had a happy ending); I just want an honest one. I'm not sure this was that, but it was not weak enough to detract from what had been a most consuming and -- dare I say it? -- poignant novel. 

Thomas Dunne Books
St. Martin's Press
February 2014