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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Broken Promise



by Linwood Barclay
Penguin Random House     2015
499 pages     Mystery

"Oh what tangled webs we weave, When first we practice to deceive."

David Harwood is a widowed newspaper reporter with a nine-year-old son, Ethan. He just moved back to his hometown of Promise Falls, and in with his parents. He has gotten a job as a reporter with the Promise Falls newspaper, but on his first day back at work, the newspaper folds, and he is left without a job. The next day, some very strange occurrences happen in Promise Falls that indicate to the community and to the reader that this peaceful little town is anything but peaceful.

The first major event occurs when David goes to take some food to his cousin Marla who has been suffering from depression and other mental issues following the death of her unborn baby. To his surprise, David finds Marla taking care of a baby boy she calls Matthew, who, she says, was delivered to her by an "angel". Later David finds little Matthew's mother dead on her kitchen floor. Other mysterious events happen on that first day, including 23 dead squirrels hung on tree branches, a Ferris wheel with three dummies riding on it at a defunct amusement park, and a rapist killed by a campus policeman on the university campus. And somehow the number 23 has something to do with all of it. David sets out to figure out what happened as a way to protect his cousin, Marla, from the possibility of being arrested for murder. 

I had to force myself to go to sleep at night. Broken Promise deals with such seemingly ordinary people, but the book is so gripping that the pages seem to turn themselves. One of the things that Barclay does really well is to develop characters, and although there are many characters in and out of the story line, they are so well defined that seldom do you forget who "so and so" is. Among the great characters are the local detective, Barry Duckworth, the former mayor thinking about running again, Randall Finlay, and Dr. Jim Sturgess, the local GP who seems to be everywhere. One reviewer says: "His descriptions and characterizations are never overcooked, though, and he gives the reader just enough of each to create a vivid picture without ever holding up the remarkable narrative pace." 

I spent 18 years living in a small town, just a little smaller than Promise Falls, and I am well aware of the secrets that small towns contain. When you move into a small town, you discover the secrets only little by little. Much of the drama is under the surface, just waiting to explode. Houses where people died; family members in trouble; jail terms whispered about; the local liquor store owner selling to underage teenagers. The secrets in Promise Falls, however, are much more startling and scary, and they don't all get solved in one volume. Lots of strings are left untied. 

Broken Promise is the first of the Promise Falls trilogy by Linwood Barclay. The second is No Time for Goodbye, and the final volume is The Twenty Three. So there are over 1000 pages before we find out the significance of the number 23.  I heartily recommend this series. Just allow a lot of time to read it because you can scarcely do anything else!

I received these books from the Bookreporter website as a prize in a promotion. Am I ever glad I got to read them.

Here is a cool trailer for Broken Promise.
Liinwood Barclay's website.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Storied Life of AJ Fickry



by Gabrielle Zevin
Viking     2014
272 pages   Fiction

Do you have definitive tastes in books that you read? Bookseller AJ Fickry certainly does. Here are his tastes: “I do not like postmodernism, post­apocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be — basically gimmicks of any kind. . . . I do not like genre mash-ups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and — I imagine this goes without saying — vampires.”

AJ Fickry owns a bookstore on the small (fictitious) tourist Alice Island along with his wife Nic, who was raised on the island. As the book opens, Nic has been killed in a car accident and AJ is drinking himself to death. One day he finds a toddler, Maya, in the children's book department at the store, and Maya changes his life forever. He becomes a parent. And it is in that moment that this becomes a novel worth reading. AJ becomes charming! Oh—and he meets Amelia, a book rep.

The book is not just as straightforward as that, and yet it is. This is a very simple story about life—and what happens when you were planning something else. One of the lovely things about the novel is that it involves very few characters—and all these characters are extremely well developed. The most revealing part of AJ Fickry's character are the little book blurbs that are attached to the beginnings of the chapters. The books he references are the foreshadowing of what is going to happen in each chapter. It was a delightful touch and kind of a little joke for bookies.

There is an aspect of gimmick in the novel that was pointed out to us by the English teacher in our book club meeting last night. And yet as I thought about it, gimmick may be part of the charm of the book, particularly because AJ Fickry hates gimmicks of any kind. Basically, he would hate The Storied Life... This, I think, is one of Zevin's inside jokes. She added the gimmicks purposefully to let us know how AJ would feel about the book she had written about him.

We had our book club meeting in a book store that was very much like the book store on Alice Island. Kazoo Books sits in a little neighborhood in Kalamazoo. It is filled with new and used books and is owned by a very gracious couple who let us drink wine and stay until long after the store closed. A fireplace in the corner made us feel cozy and warm, just like the book. The setting of The Storied Life... is the most important aspect of the novel, and the setting was the best part of our book club meeting.

Reading The Storied Life of AJ Fickry was the most comforting thing that could have happened following a week of feeling totally lost and out of sorts after the election. The Washington Post reviewer explains this sensation: "Everything is explained, and all the loose ends are tied up with a bow. A few genuinely grim moments (death appears frequently and suddenly) are leavened by the animating spirit behind the whole, a light tone marked by earnestness, a straightforward approach to love and joy, and a felicitous charm."

Many of Gabrielle Zevin's books are for young adults, and The Storied Life of AJ Fickry has that feel about it. Teenagers would enjoy it as much as their parents.

Gabrielle Zevin's website.


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Murder at the Moonshine Inn



by Maggie King
Koehler Books     2016
258 pages     Mystery

Ok! So it's election night and I am absolutely frantic. Are you?  What better thing to do than to read and review a fun mystery. How about a cozy? How about Murder at the Moonshine Inn?

Hazel Rose is a romance novelist and a member of a Richmond VA book club. This particular book club reads mysteries. Several years ago, the members of the book club were shocked when one of their members was murdered. Hazel Rose and her book club friends solved that murder in Murder at the Book Group, the first book in the Hazel Rose Book Group mystery series. 

Now, I have a really nice book group, but it isn't anything like Hazel Rose's! When Roxanne Howard, a local nonprofit executive, is found dead at the Moonshine Inn, her sister asks Hazel Rose if she can help to find the killer. The police have focused on her husband Brad, who just happens to be a cousin of Hazel Rose. (Actually Hazel has cousins all over the place and they all play a role in the mystery.) The police, however, can't seem to pin the murder on Brad. Hazel reluctantly agrees. She's not sure she's up for another murder investigation.

The book group decide that they want to be part of the investigation, so Hazel enlists them. Everyone has a detective job to do, and they meet weekly via Skype to compare notes and decide on strategy. The investigation gets serious when Hazel Rose and her husband, Vince, a former police detective, dress up like rednecks and visit the Moonshine Inn, where the murder occurred. Everyone is talking about a strange man who has been seen around Roxanne and was at the Moonshine Inn on the night she was murdered, but no one can figure out who he is.  And then someone else is murdered!

Murder at the Moonshine Inn is more humorous than its predecessor. Most likely Hazel Rose is getting her footing as a detective and Maggie King is getting her footing as an author. The good thing about Hazel Rose is that she doesn't take herself too seriously. For example, someone says that they love her romance novels. She thinks, "Doubtful. I had my fans, but more than a few looked down their noses at what they deemed my drivel with no redeeming social value. Thankfully, scores of folk were fine with non-redemptive drivel." And then when she is stymied, she thinks, "What would Nancy Drew do?"

Indeed, what would Nancy Drew do? Well, with the help of her husband and her book club crew, Hazel Rose bungles her way into solving the crimes. Maybe not as smooth as Nancy Drew, but a crime solver, none the less. 

Hazel Rose is a thoroughly delightful character, and when I look at a picture of Maggie King, the author, I see Hazel Rose the detective. I was honored when Maggie King asked me to read and review her second book. I enjoyed these murders as much as the first, but I don't believe the books need to be read in order. So, cozy up to a delightful cozy mystery. Well, actually, cozy up next week, when the book is released.

Maggie King's website.




Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Rosie Project



  by Graeme Simsion
Simon & Schuster 2013
295 pages     Fiction

Think Sheldon Cooper and the Big Bang Theory. This first novel by Aussie Graeme Simsion is a total winner. I loved every minute of it.

Don Tillman is a geneticist and a university professor, and he is definitely on the Autism spectrum. His best, and only, friends are Claudia and Gene—Gene being another professor and a terrible philanderer. Claudia is a psychologist and understands Don and his foibles. Don is an extremely appealing character with a developmental disorder but the same needs as everyone else. The only problem is that he doesn't know what he needs. His life is totally ordered, from the meals that he eats to the number of steps he takes every day. He has trouble being touched, and is not sure when he has made a joke. He learns everything he thinks he needs to know from books or websites—including learning how to dance and have sex.

When Don decides he needs a wife, he treats the issue like the researcher he is—he develops a questionnaire, a highly personalized psychometric questionnaire. He distributes his questionnaire to a variety of sources, but he is having trouble finding anyone who meets his specific needs. Then his friend Gene sends Rosie to meet him. Rosie is the exact opposite of what Don thinks he is seeking. She is messy, late, scattered, but Don begins to feel things he can't understand. She interrupts his ordered life.

 On the other hand, Rosie needs Don's expertise. She has never known who her father is, but as a geneticist, Don can help her. Together, they devise a plan to get DNA from a variety of men, all of whom were in her dead mother's medical school graduating class, one of whom Rosie thinks must be her father. This subplot stretches throughout the entire book. Their adventures gathering DNA evidence are very funny. Of course, like all romantic comedies, the book ends well, and Don and Rosie live happily ever after.

The reviewer in the New York Times said, “'The Rosie Project' is the kind of Panglossian comedy in which everything is foreordained to work out for the best. That’s not a genre that can be dismissed entirely — at least not without sacrificing P. G. Wodehouse, which no one should be prepared to do — but it’s one that doesn’t comfortably accommodate things like autism spectrum disorders."

The Rosie Project is a quick, delightful read. Reader's compare it with Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, but I believe that Mark Haddon's book takes a deeper look into life on the autism spectrum. There is a follow up book to The Rosie Project called The Rosie Effect in which the relationship between Don and Rosie moves to the next level.   

When I finished reading it, I gave it to my step-daughter who read it in one sitting on a plane ride. It's that kind of book. This posting about The Rosie Project is brief because I gave the book away before I wrote the review. It was our October book for book club, and everyone really enjoyed reading it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life



by Pat Conroy
Nan Talese     2016
320 pages     Essays

Pat Conroy, the South's quintessential author, died on March 4 of this year, and today would have been his 71st birthday. A Lowcountry Heart is a last collection of his writings, from blog postings to interviews, and some speeches. It also includes a few eulogies and memorial writings.

He was a consummate story teller. We know him for his most famous books: The Prince of Tides, The Water is Wide, The Great Santini, and The Lords of Discipline, all of which were made into movies.  All of his books are filled with the beauty of the South Carolina seacoast, where he lived and where he died. As I was reading A Lowcountry Heart, I watched the movie The Prince of Tides once again—what a great story. Each blog posting and essay in the book tells of a larger-than-life soul who loved people, loved life, and loved the Low Country. One reviewer says, "Conroy’s lighthearted and eminently memorable pieces offer a unique window into the life of a true titan of Southern writing."

Conroy began each of his blog postings, "Hey Out There!" What a lovely greeting. Over and over in the essays and blog postings in A Lowcountry Heart, Conroy speaks of trying to live while knowing deep inside that he is dying. In one posting, he talks about his struggle to get fit following a bad health scare. He says that he and a trainer opened a health studio in Beaufort South Carolina because "there are four or five more books I'd like to write before I meet with Jesus of Nazareth—as my mother promised me—on the day of my untimely death, or reconcile myself to a long stretch of nothingness as my nonbelieving friends insist." 

Well, his efforts were not enough to save him. After his death his friends and family gathered his last writings into this lovely book. They also created the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, which is a charming building dedicated to the literary arts and will feature events, workshops, and writing classes. Here is a link to it. 

I received a copy of the book from my friend Marly Rusoff, who was Conroy's literary agent. She is the founding director of the Literary Center. The Center is establishing a literary festival which will take place this week every year.What a wonderful tribute to a great author.