Friday, September 22, 2023

Small Things Like These

 By Claire Keegan

Faber     2022

110 pages     Literary

When I was a girl in the 1960s, I knew a couple of girls who disappeared from school for several months, only to return after “visiting some relatives” or “living with Grandma and Grandpa.” Claire Keegan explores this all-too-common occurrence in her 2022 Booker Prize-nominated novella, Small Things Like These. And just like in 1960s Minnesota, in 1980s Ireland, these things are not talked about and remain a secret.

Small Things Like These is so intricately woven in only 110 pages, that I realized after I read it the first time that I was missing something. So I read it again, and my heart broke at the integrity of Bill Furlong, an almost 40-year-old man who owns the village coal and lumber company. Bill is married and the father of five daughters. He is a stalwart, well-respected  member of the community. He goes to mass every week and his daughters go to school and get music training at the school run by the local nuns. One day he makes a discovery that makes him confront both his past and the complicit silence of his community—a community completely controlled by the Catholic Church.

Christmas plays a role in the story line. In one delightful scene, Furlong’s children all write letters to Santa with their lists of presents. Bill and his wife Eileen read the letters after the children go to bed, choose the presents they can afford from the list, and then burn the letters in the fireplace. We are made completely aware of the unity and the love within this family.

Yet Furlong yearns for more. This paragraph is profound in the way he thinks about life. “Always it was the same, Furlong thought; always they carried mechanically on without pause, to the next job at hand. What would life be like, he wondered, if they were given time to think and reflect over things? Might their lives be different or much the same—or would they just lose the run of themselves?”

Claire Keegan is one of Ireland’s most prominent authors, and this was the first book I had read written by her. It is brilliant in the concept as well as in the composition. I am absolutely amazed at her ability to say so much in so few words. We understand Bill Furlong; we understand his community; and we understand the secret the community is holding. I was overwhelmed.

Two awesome reviews of her book.  New York Times and NPR.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

A Darker Shade of Noir

Edited by Joyce Carol Oates

Akashic Books     2023

266 pages     Noir/Horror

Joyce Carol Oates has written a remarkable introduction to A Darker Shade of Noir, Akashic Books’ newest addition to their collections of Noir fiction. It really tells you everything you need to know about the book and its outstanding group of women authors, each of whom contributed a story to the collection, including Oates, Margaret Atwood, Tananarive Due, and Megan Abbott—authors that I knew about and had read before. The introduction can be found here.

 The stories in the collection tell every type of modern versions of female-related horror similar to the mythological figures whose names we know, such as Medusa, or the Salem witches. Each of the stories considers one type of female horror. For example, “Frank Jones” by Aimee Bender really captures your attention when she tells the story of a young woman with skin tags that she saves to horrifying results. The woman in the next story by Tananarive Due can’t stop dancing. She has been dancing ever since her grandmother died.

I think most women understand the idea of body horror in its more basic forms, as well as the history of the subjugation of women through the centuries. Joyce Carol Oates addresses this superbly in the written diary of a woman in a mental asylum in the mid-1800s. And, of course, there is the accounting by Margaret Atwood of a snail that invades a woman’s skull, her soul, and her psyche. Way creepy!

But I really got spooked by Megan Abbott’s story about a haunted house in Penny’s neighborhood. Apparently the doctor who owned the house killed his wife and children many years before. Through the years, neighborhood children told the story of the killing and the haunting. Young Penny decides to investigate one night to disastrous results. I remembered a big deserted house on the river in the small Minnesota town I lived in as a child. The really brave kids would run up the steps and knock on the door on Halloween. One Halloween,  I thought I saw a light in one of the upstairs rooms, and everyone ran out of that yard as fast as we could! I had a bad dream the night I read Abbott’s story!

I could go on and on. These are marvelous stories that touched a real nerve—in both my body and my mind. Highly recommended.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Saving Myles

By Carl Vonderau

Oceanview     2023

33 pages     Thriller

It is every parent’s worst nightmare: Wade and Fiona Bosworth are shocked to find that their 18-year-old son, Myles,  is using drugs and may even be selling them.  They had already spent a huge amount of money at a drug-rehab program at the Hidden Road Academy in Utah, and now, he seems to have stooped even lower. The stress has caused his parents to separate, and the carefully crafted training Myles has been under has crashed. He has a new girlfriend, and together they cross the border to Tijuana to buy drugs to sell.

Myles is kidnapped by a drug cartel, and the kidnappers are asking a huge amount of ransom. Although Wade is a banker, he does not have the resources to meet the ransom demands until Fiona’s boss at the nonprofit she works for says he can help with the ransom. Everything in all of their lives falls apart at the moment.

The first half of Saving Myles is very much concerned with Myles’ welfare—his training at the Academy, his rebellion, his kidnapping, and the ways his parents negotiate to pay the ransom with help from Andre, Fiona’s boss. It is then that Wade’s banker training kicks in. We learn more than we might want to learn about real estate bankers, the complexities of banking, and possible collusion with rich Mexican criminals. Everything bogs down for a while, and then in the last quarter of the book, we reach a satisfactory conclusion on all fronts.

It is obvious that Vonderau knows a lot about banking, because, of course, his first career was as a banker. I have often chuckled about how many thriller authors are former lawyers, and now we have a banker. The kind of business he does is very much like the kind of business my husband did, real estate investment. I understood the complexities that Wade is negotiating as he works to find the money to pay the kidnappers, but I could only imagine what the reader who knows nothing about this type of finance is thinking.  Luckily, readers are so concerned about saving Myles that they can just read through the morass of business dealings.

In other words, the worry about Myles supersedes the complexities of the narrative. One reviewer says, “Carl Vonderau masterfully weaves a complex and twisted narrative, exploring the depths of a parent’s love when faced with seemingly unfathomable criminal situations, intrigue, suspense and tension.”

I don’t think that I would have found Saving Myles on my own, but it came to me from the publisher. The cover and description intrigued me, and the tension of the plot kept me reading. I think you will as well.

Carl Vonderau website.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

The Cabin

 By Landon Beach

Landon Beach Books     2019

327 pages       Thriller

On we go to Lake Ontario and another book by Landon Beach, part of his Great Lakes Saga series of books. While Lake Huron is a major part of Huron Breeze, which I read last week, Lake Ontario is just a minor player in The Cabin. Here is the summary.

“A potential worldwide catastrophe looms large, while CIA Officer Jennifer Lear waits in a Berlin cafĂ© to meet with her agent who has critical information regarding the chilling emerging threat. But the agent is late, and the meeting turns into a frantic struggle to survive, generating many questions about how it all could have gone so wrong--the first being: Who exactly is Jennifer Lear?

Six months later, Iggi and Maria Hilliard arrive at their secluded log cabin on the southern shore of Lake Ontario to celebrate the 4th of July with two friends. One is a co-worker of Maria's, Haley Girard, who is struggling with the idea of turning thirty and just looking for a place to relax away from Rochester. The other guest is recently divorced Detroit Detective Cal Ripley, a man who has been on the front lines since 9/11 and needs time away from his job and Detroit.

The plan is to relax, reflect on life, and reconnect. Maria is also hoping that Haley and Cal find some chemistry. However, as the weekend unfolds, it becomes clear that not everyone in the cabin is who they say they are.

One of the major attractions of the book are the delightful main characters, who are all in their early 30s and are trying to make sense of adulthood. Maria, a teacher, is trying to connect her friend and fellow teacher, Haley, with Cal, who she knows from her youth. Iggi, a sports journalist, is not particularly eager to spend the weekend with people he doesn’t know, but as the weekend wears on, and the men kayak and swim, they realize that they have more in common than they anticipated.

The plot is intense, and the reader gets so caught up in the unfolding espionage that it is very difficult to turn out the lights and go to sleep. I guess that I was expecting The Cabin to be more like Huron Breeze as a mystery set on a beach, but instead the beach is only part of the setting. The story spends time in Detroit, Berlin, Vietnam, New York City, and Langley Virginia.  Be sure to read the title of each chapter, because the time, the year, and setting changes in every chapter, and reading each title carefully will eliminate confusion that may arise.

Much of the story takes place in the early 2000s, with 9/11 still very present in everyone’s minds. There is quite a lot of political discussion—some of it quite intense. Frankly, I found this to be the one drawback to the novel. There is no denying, however, that the action and suspense overrides the politics.

Landon Beach has had an interesting career as an educator—and now a novelist. I love that he has based most of his novels around the Great Lakes. He was interviewed by The Real Book Spy, Ryan Steck, who by the way is a Kalamazoo writer and reviewer. Steck has reviewed most of Landon Beach’s books. Tune in to his great interview podcasts.

Landon Beach website. Here is what he has to say about his Great Lakes Saga, of which The Cabin is the Lake Ontario setting. “I have always thought that the Great Lakes region, beautiful and rich with history, would provide the perfect place to set stories. My approach for the 5-book saga is to tell one story set on or around each Great Lake. Don’t let the different genres dissuade you. The books are all summer reads full of drama, tension, betrayal, murder, lust, romance, mystery, and suspense.”

So now, my summer reading journey is complete. I have re-read The Long Shining Water (Lake Superior), Famous in a Small Town and Tom Lake (Lake Michigan), Huron Breeze (Lake Huron), Cleveland Noir (Lake Erie) and The Cabin (Lake Ontario). Where shall I go next?

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Tom Lake

By Ann Patchett

Harper     2023

320 pages     Literary

And the next book on my tour of the Great Lakes takes us back to Lake Michigan. Tom Lake by
Ann Patchett is based in a cherry farm near Traverse City, Michigan. I read the book during Michigan cherry season, and loved the book as much as I loved this season’s cherries.

The book begins when young Lara is registering people who are auditioning for roles in a local production of the classic play, Our Town. She becomes so disgusted with the quality of the actors, that she decides to audition for the part of Emily herself.

Because of her classic portrayal of Emily, a few years later, she is called by the area’s summer stock theater, Tom Lake, to take over the role of Emily when the actress playing the role leaves. There she meets and has a brief affair with Peter Duke, a young actor who went on to become a famous movie and television actor.

Fast forward more than 20 years to 2020. Lara farms a cherry orchard near Traverse City with her husband Joe. Joe inherited the farm and orchard from his aunt and uncle after he and Lara met at the Tom Lake Theater. It is the pandemic summer, and Lara and Joe’s three daughters have returned home. All five of them are picking cherries, because it is too difficult to find workers due to the pandemic.

Over the course of the summer, the girls ask their mother to tell them the story of her summer at Tom Lake, and she, very poignantly, recalls that magical summer in her life. By listening to her stories, the daughters come into a realization of who they are and what they want their lives to be.

The Washington Post reviewer says, “Tom Lake is about romantic love, marital love, and maternal love, but also the love of animals, the love of stories, love of the land and trees and the tiny, red, cordiform object that is a cherry.”

Tom Lake fit my summer perfectly. I had been having cherry spitting contests on the Lake Michigan beachfront with my grandchildren, and telling lots of stories of my childhood. Then a group of family went to see The Wizard of Oz at our local summer stock theater, The Augusta Barn Theater, and I was able to transfer what I saw that night to what Tom Lake theater must have been like. And while I was absorbing Patchett’s writing, I was visiting with my siblings, and we were telling stories of our childhood.

That is the beauty of Patchett’s writing. She elicits great respect for her characters, particularly Lara. She understands her life well—the adventures of the theater and the affair with a soon to be famous actor, the choice to marry a cherry farmer, and the pandemic that brought her family all together. Patchett loves her characters and hence we love them as well.

The New Yorker had a wonderful review of Tom Lake in their August 7 edition, and the Shelf Awareness website named it one of the best books for the week of August 18. The reviewer neatly summed up the book. “In many ways, Patchett’s stunning novel is a story of opportunity missed or not taken; her daughter’s unspoken questions hang between them. ‘Are you sorry? Don’t you wish?’ Tom Lake, though, is not a novel of regret but rather one of clarity, offering a tale of gratitude borne of perspective and experience, a life lived in the present—even as it is shaped by the past.”

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Huron Breeze

By Landon Beach

Kindle Edition    2021

381 pages     Mystery

Huron Breeze is the first book in the Sunrise-Side series of books by Landon Beach. Books 1 and 2 are available; book 3 will be available at the end of this month, and book 4 available at the end of 2023. Huron Breeze is, of course, located on the shoreline of Lake Huron, on the “thumb” of Michigan. Here is the plotline.

Ten years ago, Riley Cannon (a legendary author) produced three of the bestselling thrillers of all time. Then, she up and vanished, leaving the last three books of the saga not finished and producing the largest mystery in all of publishing.
Now, one decade later, there’s word from her mega-agent, the powerful and glamorous Topaz Kennedy, that there’s a new Cannon novel all but finished. However, Topaz knows the actual truth: Riley Cannon’s not even begun writing it yet. With the clock ticking down toward the publication date, there are desperate measures are needed.

At the same time, Kaj Reynard is in the sunrise-side town of Hampstead, Michigan, and emerges from Lake Huron on a cool night in June and falls face down onto the beach right next to a fading bonfire with a knife sticking out of his back. Who would murder him? And why?

That’s where veteran Hampstead PI Obediah Ben-David, a guy that has never taken on a case which he couldn’t solve, comes in. However this is a whole different sort of mystery. The one piece of evidence is the knife, which doesn’t have any prints on it. Not a soul saw or heard a boat that night, and the woman sitting next to her bonfire didn’t see anybody else in the water. It’s almost as though the deep blue waters of Lake Huron murdered Kaj Reynard, and the Huron breezes blew him up to the shore.
With Hampstead now in jeopardy of losing its summer revenue from vacationers that are chilled to their bones about a killer on the loose. Ben-David takes an apprentice on, some computer coder, named Rachel Roberts, who lives just down the beach from where Kaj came ashore. Bored by her solitary existence spent behind a screen all day, she believes becoming a PI would be a welcome sea change in her life. However neither of them could possibly foresee the web of treachery, lies, and danger that they’ll encounter.

For when the summer Huron breezes show up, the inhibitions vanish, the blood boils, and nobody’s safe.

I especially enjoyed following the crime and its solution through the eyes of Rachel Roberts. She needs a plot for her next novel, and following Ben-David as he pursues the killer is like a dream come true for her. At the same time, Ben-David enjoys helping teach Rachel detective skills. Does he know that she has a pen name and a series of novels and movies in her past? Does he understand that she is searching for a plot, rather than a new career as a detective? I am anxious to read the rest of the series to see what she decides to do with her life.
Beach is a very clever, creative writer and has created a propulsive can’t stop reading plot. He said in an interview with the Real Book Spy when he wrote Huron Breeze, he intended it to be a stand-alone mystery, but an audience of readers convinced him that he had the beginnings of a series featuring Rachel Roberts and based on the Lake Huron coastline.

My own summer challenge is to read books based in the Great Lakes region. I read Famous in a Small Town which takes place on the shore of Lake Michigan, Cleveland Noir where several of the stories take place on Cleveland’s Lake Erie beachfront, and now Huron Breeze, taking place on Lake Huron. In past years, I read a couple of books based on Lake Superior, my favorite of which was The Long Shining Water, and now I need to find one based in Lake Ontario. 
Hope you have as much fun with Huron Breeze as I did.

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Cleveland Noir

Edited by Michael Ruhlman and Miesha Wilson Headen

Akashic Books     2023

288 pages     Noir

When Akashic sent me Cleveland Noir to review, I noticed immediately that I had read books by Paula McLain and Thrity Umriger, both of whom had stories in this iteration of the noir genre and the great series that Akashic publishes. The book was published this week and is very much worth a read.

Apparently the city of Cleveland has had it’s share of real life noir, including Eliot Ness, who worked for a while as Cleveland’s Director of Public Safety, the disappearance of Beverly Potts that has been an unsolved crime for the last 60 years, and the murder of Marilyn Sheppard, which resulted in her husband Dr. Sam Sheppard being charged and subsequently acquitted for her murder. All of these brought crime in Cleveland to the nation’s attention.

The stories in Cleveland Noir have a lot going for them. Each story oozes atmosphere and compelling danger. The editors suggest: “ It’s this mix of the wealthy and the working class that makes the city—an urban center of brick and girders surrounded by verdant suburbs—a perfect backdrop for lawlessness.” They also suggest that these stories are love letters to their city and suburbs. I must also note that several of the stories take place or mention the lake and the beach, which, of course, is Lake Erie.

The first story in the book is by Paula McLain. In that story, two teenagers  enter into a “business” of robbing drunk people of their property, credit cards, whatever. My favorite sentence in the story is “We had accidentally landed on a planet where the air was to thin for guilt to populate.” Says a lot, doesn’t it!

I had to look up the facts related to Susan Petrone’s story, “The Silent Partner.” The story retells the story of Ray Chapman, a Cleveland Indians player who was killed by a pitch—the only major league player to ever die from an injury received during a major league game. Fifty years later, a reporter is exploring the death for an anniversary story and comes across information that seems to indicate that the incident wasn’t an accident. I’ll leave you to guess what happened as a result.

And the stories go on and on. I really enjoyed Cleveland Noir. Look up the Akashic Noir series of more than 100 books. If you are going on a trip, use the list as a guide to the underbelly of whichever city you are going to visit. You won’t be wasting your time, and you can find whatever crimes you might enjoy to explore.