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.