Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Blackhouse by Peter May

This first in a series book has been on my To Read list for a long time. When I opened it up and saw a pronunciation guide I nearly ditched it. I get so bogged down in that stuff it makes me nuts, most of the time. There weren't that many names/words, though, so I dug in. 

While reading I had several run of the mill life distractions that didn't allow for much curling up and reading for extended periods of time. This is something that can be a real killer for me, especially in a crime novel. I read it in such a disjointed fashion, in fact, that there was a major element of the story in the beginning that I had completely forgotten about when it was mentioned again at the end. 

It's saying an awful lot, then, that it never crossed my mind to put it aside altogether. It is just far too compelling -- and I am not even talking about the mystery at the heart of it. 

The series is set in Scotland's Outer Hebrides on Lewis Island, which seems the perfect backdrop for bad things to happen. May's writing evokes a nearly tangible sense of isolation and describes an unforgiving landscape. When a man who has a long history as a bully is found murdered, it's clear there will be no shortage of suspects. Edinburgh Detective Fin Macleod, a native of Lewis Island, is dispatched to assist in the investigation. Macleod, recently back to work after a devastating personal tragedy, is on shaky emotional ground even before he is compelled to return to a place haunted by his difficult childhood and right back into the lives of people he had thought and hoped never to encounter again in his lifetime. 

May's Fin Macleod puts me in mind of Susan Hill's Simon Serailler in so many ways, and if this strong first in the series is indicative of what's to come, I am in for a treat as I work my way through this series. 

Book borrowed from the Coliseum Boulevard branch of the
Montgomery City-County Public Library

Published in hardcover by SilverOak
October 2012

Published in trade paperback by Quercus 
August 2014

Monday, April 25, 2016

Dimestore by Lee Smith

Where in the world have I been???

I don't expect that you've asked that, but I just realized that I'd slipped up and failed to publish my review of Lee Smith's new memoir, Dimestore.

It would be horrible if you wrote off my delinquency to lack of enthusiasm; it has been more a matter of my having been so delighted by it that trying to review it seemed like trying to review a charming visit with an old friend. 

I don't know Ms. Smith; I'd be stretching the truth even to say that I'd been one of her particularly avid fans. My sister-in-law strongly suggested I read this one, though, and passed it along to me as she obviously knew I'd eat it with a spoon. 

When Ms. Smith begins talking about the formative role movies played in her development as a writer I knew I was not in the hands of a literary snob. 

Was anything ever as scary 
as Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte
Or as sad as Imitation of Life?

Well, those two films are on my lifetime Top Ten list, so I sensed that now Lee and I understood each other. I mean, even now, if I need a cathartic cry I queue up Imitation of Life (the version starring Juanita Moore, Lana Turner, Sandra Dee, James Gavin, and Susan Kohner, featuring Mahalia Jackson as the funeral soloist), and I begin weepin' and wailin' the minute the opening credits begin. 

This is the sort of memoir I'd write if (a) I were a writer, or (b) had anything interesting to say. This is a life told in snapshots and snatches of memories of people and places and episodes. It's like all the best Southern conversations, eschewing linear structure, relying instead on jumping off places. Each chapter is wholly satisfying, and each shares not only some insight into what made Ms. Smith a writer but offers the tantalizing possibility that the reader might have what it takes, too, if we will just own our stories. 

What a gift. Please do yourself a favor and read this one. 

Algonquin Books
Publication Date: March 2016

Friday, April 15, 2016

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (and other stuff)

In 1992 I traveled to New Orleans to attend the Midsouth Booksellers' convention, courtesy of my bosses at the bookstore. There were two authors scheduled to appear there in whom I was particularly interested: Sharyn McCrumb, who had established herself as Southern Literary Mystery Queen with her Nora Bonesteel mysteries set in Appalachia, and first-time novelist Ann Patchett. I had read her debut novel, Patron Saint of Liars, and was bowled over by her talent. 

I rushed out of a session about children's literature so I wouldn't miss meeting either of these women, but proximity led me to Ms. Patchett first. I happened to be the very first bookseller at the convention she'd met who'd read and loved her book, and I think she was as excited to talk with me as I was to talk with her. 

Her subsequent novels bore out the promise of that first one. Whatever reservations the reader might bring her characters or stories is overcome by novel's end, because of the power she has to elicit that moment of recognition -- that we are all bound by our humanity, even when the binding might be thin as filament. 

So you might well be asking yourself: Bel Canto came out in 2001, and it took you 14 years to get around to reading it?   And the painfully short answer is yes.

I did try to read it in 2001. The advance copy had come to the store and I pounced on it. After work I headed out to pick up a child from school. He was at a rehearsal or practice or detention  or something, so I knew I'd have some time in the parking lot to wait. I opened up Bel Canto and for reasons I now have a profound inability to recall, I just flat did not like it. When my son joined me I chucked the book in the floorboard. I didn't bring it in the house when I got home, and then, I don't know -- maybe it rained and a passenger plunked their wet feet on it, or somebody spilled something on it, but it was doomed. 

National buzz--the buzz Patchett deserved beginning with that first novel--began to build, and soon Bel Canto had taken the book world by storm. My heart became hardened to it because I was a little ticked off that this woman for whom I'd been a passionate advocate for so many years was finally enjoying her success with a book I did not like. Bel Canto, for me, was like trying cold asparagus from a can one time and forever after refusing to try asparagus, no matter how it's prepared. Not. Going. To. Do. It. 

A few weeks back I visited the library and was browsing the shelves, and horrors of horrors, ran across Bel Canto OUT OF PLACE on the shelf. Not just a little bit. A LOT. This, dear reader, I took as a sign. I checked it out. And this time I actually, you know, read it. 

And I loved it, and I have no idea who that woman was who sat in that parking lot and went pffpth but she was wrong. 

Whatever your reason has been for passing on this one, don't wait a minute longer. You'll lose no points for being tardy, I promise. 

Note: Just so you know, I did read all the novels after this one the minute they came out, and was just as dotty for them as I'd hoped to be. In order of publication, her books are Patron Saint of Liars, Taft, The Magician's Assistant, Bel Canto, Run, State of Wonder. Read them all. Really. I mean it.