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.