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