2013 – PRINT
**** Glimmer Train – Winter 2014 – Ten short stories, an interview with author Ben Marcus, and one in the series of “Silenced Voices.” The editors start this issue by noting research on the good effects that reading literary fiction has on the brain. Self-serving, ok, but believable! An interesting thought from the interviewer about Marcus’s book The Flame Alphabet: “(In) Protestant evangelicalism, at least in the United States, . . . the emphasis is on literal interpretation. In contrast, with Hebrew, the literal interpretation of a word is considered the lowest form of interpretation.” Ans.: “And isn’t the idea of faith, really, that you have to put aside your rationality? . . . I think the rabbi is almost going one step further and saying, ‘If you even think you are understanding this, you are on the wrong track.'”
*** A Twist of Orchids – Michelle Wan – I’m surprised the review Amazon quotes calls this book “electrifying.” It was anything but. A sweet mystery with hardly any menace. If I were more interested in the characters, I might have turned the pages faster. One of the “Death in the Dordogne” mysteries and a nice sense of place.
**** The Shadow Girls – Henning Mankell – Quite a departure from his Kurt Wallander detective series, and a clever framing for what in less skilled hands would be a lecture on the perfidy of Sweden’s (and all developed countries’) restrictive immigration laws. The main character, acclaimed poet Jesper Humlin, is surrounded by people who talk past him and involve him in frustrating and funny conversations that go nowhere. Serendipitously, he meets a trio of young women–two of whom are in the country illegally and the third who lives in a repressive immigrant household–all of whom want to learn to write, to make themselves visible through documenting their stories. He decides to help them and learns about a Sweden he barely knew exists.
**** Black Swan Green – David Mitchell – If you ever needed to understand the psychology of bullying, it’s all here in Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical first-person story of 13-year-old Jason Taylor–secret poet, indifferent athlete, and creative genius at avoiding the words that might, on any given day, trigger his stammer. The boys in school are rough on each other and the girls are learning how to be. I’m sorry that odd Madame Crommelynck didn’t stay on the scene longer. A tutorial on British teen slang in the early 1980’s, a voice I thought I’d tire of, but instead became attached to.
** The Spy’s Bedside Book – Graham Greene & Hugh Greene (brothers) – More vacation reading and very light. Mostly brief excerpts from pre-1960 spy novels and real-life spy chronicles. They share a kind of innocence about that trade that we lost after 1963, when The Spy Who Came in from the Cold appeared and destroyed any remaining illusions about the glamor of a trade plied in labyrinths of betrayal.
** Dracula: Prince of Many Faces – Radu R. Florescu and Raymond T. McNally – While this book, written by two Boston College history professors, has positive reviews on Amazon, I can recommend it only for those with very strong stomachs. It’s a well researched story of the 15th century Romanian leader who ruled Wallachia–not Transylvania, as the Bram Stoker novel would have it. I read it in preparation for a recent visit to Romania (including the medieval castle where the real Dracula was imprisoned for many years), but half-way through decided I knew enough. Too much, in fact.
*** Glimmer Train – Fall 2012 – Yes, I’m a year behind. Short stories in this issue contain lots of fire and ice and, as always, include several by award-winning writers. “Finis,” by Alexi Zentner, begins conventionally, but then the page split into two columns as alternative scenarios play out (did he leave her, passed out on her bed, or did he turn his truck around and go back to spend the night?). There are four of these two-column interruptions, and one of each pair of alternatives would bring the story to an end at that point. Also liked “Sure Gravity” by Jennifer Tomscha.
**** Between the Woods and the Water – Patrick Leigh Fermor – In 1934, when he was 19, British travel writer Fermor was in the midst of a walking tour across Europe. This book describes the second stage of that journey, in a Hungary and Transylvania that are now lost to history, war, and, at last, modernization. His appreciation of the countryside and its people of all classes makes him welcome wherever he goes (on a £1 per day allowance!), and he at times sleeps outdoors and at times in the grand kastély of people to whom others he’s met have provided introductions. A little slow-moving, as a walking tour should be. If you want to feel you’ve been there, this works. The book would have benefited from a couple of maps!
*** A Traitor to Memory – Elizabeth George – This 700+ page psychological mystery in the Inspector Lynley series has much going for it: strong recurring characters, interesting minor characters, complex plot, and excellent writing (more about George’s strong sense of dialog here). But rather too many rehashes of the potential murder suspects–and too much memory-groping by the main non-detective character, violinist Gideon Davies. Took a while to realize (my fault) that the interspersed entries from the diary Gideon keeps for his psychiatrist began at an earlier time and moved forward somewhat behind the main detective story. They cover several months, whereas the main plot resolves in a few days. As a result, “who knew what when” became difficult to track. Admirably risky plot device. Liked the ambiguous ending, too.
**** Rat Medicine & Other Unlikely Curatives – Lauren B. Davis – Of all the ways a character’s relationships with other people and with the world can go wrong, most of them are represented here. Davis’s collection of short stories is an exploration of voices, characters, and human dilemmas that have serious staying power. By turns funny, appalling, and illuminating, like life.
*** The Vintage Caper – Peter Mayle – A frothy adventure about French wineries and wine collectors, taking place mostly in Marseille. No real chills here, so it won’t satisfy readers who like a little blood on the table. Mayle, as always is pleasant and fun and knows his terroir.
**** Glimmer Train Winter 2009 – This issue wasn’t quite the downer of the Spring 2013 issue, reviewed earlier this year. Several nice stories about friendship over time, a funny story about two pairs of sisters, and only one about terminal illness. One or two I’m still puzzling over. So many talented short story writers out there!
*** Hell to Pay – George P. Pelecanos. Nobody writes about the gritty side of Washington, D.C., like George Pelecanos. A lifelong Washingtonian, he sees the city’s scandalous power imbalances clearly and, in this novel, any political glamor is so far removed from the lives of young black residents, Congress and the Administration might as well be on another planet altogether. Easy to see why Pelecanos was one of the go-to writers for The Wire. It’s a straight detective novel, with a hefty dose of violence that may be too much for some readers, great dialog, and a strong and likeable main character.
*** The Secret Life of Bees – Sue Monk Kidd. Picked this up at the library book sale, since I knew it had good press when it came out a decade ago. It’s a sweet fantasy, set in South Carolina in 1964, and while I found the story superficially engaging, it too soon lapsed into feel-good stereotypes. Oh, if only there were such perfect homes as the Boatwright sisters provided to runaway Lily Owens. I’m not surprised Hollywood picked it up. The best part was the voice of the protagonist and narrator, Lily. Kidd nailed that nicely: “She stared at the bee and shook her head. ‘If you get stung, don’t come whining to me,’ she said, ’cause I ain’t gonna care.’ That was a lie.”
**** A Darkness More Than Night – Michael Connelly. You know you’re in the hands of a master detective novelist from the first page. No cheap tricks. The crisp plot is more complicated than you think. You care about the protagonists. The outcome is important. Not Connelly’s most recent–it’s from 2001–but still a fun read.
**** The Potomac Runs Through It – Tom Gore. This memoir was a fun read for me, because I know some of the principals. I could easily envision them engaged in all the rituals and shenanigans that a group of guys who’ve known each other for years would get up to on weekends of serious fishing interrupted by misadventure. The joy of true camaraderie comes through on every page. Nicely written, well drawn characters. A simple pleasure, just like the events it recounts. Gore’s dry humor kept me smiling. An example: “one unnamed member suggested we supplement our refreshment choices with boxes of supermarket wines–vintages of Thursday–but we said no, the cheaper stuff is just fine.”
***** The Empty Room – Lauren B. Davis. Living in the head of a serious alcoholic is exhausting, even for a day! Lauren Davis takes us inside in this tour de force, alternating the pain of Colleen Kerrigan’s current “worst-day-of-her-life” with flashbacks to the stumbles and fractured relationships that got her where she is. Did you ever look at someone who drinks too much and think, How can she do that? You find out. Along with pain are flashes of intelligent humor and personal insight that give hope those flickers, if nurtured, can lead to a better result than what addiction–and the pretty fairies in the bottle–have in store for her. A wonderful book, and anyone with alcoholics in the family will find greater understanding and validation here.
**** White Teeth – Zadie Smith. Her amazing first novel, published in 2000. Truly enjoyed her On Beauty, too. She has a remarkable ability to capture the rhythms of her characters’ speech–the Indian and Jamaican and Arab immigrants and a repellent family of touchy-feely Brits whom I can hear talking, right off the page. The book is a tribute to unlikely friendship and a lament about all we do not understand and cannot control within our own families and, thus, speaks to everyone. It’s full of ripe language and bursting with perfect similes: “Archie says Science the same way he says Modern, as if someone has lent him the words and made him swear not to break them.” Beautiful job.
**** Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? – Marion Meade. Oh, my. While we think of the Algonquin Round Table and its witty, literate crowd in a glittering, fantasy Gatsby light, this book is a cold dose of reality. While there was wit, these legendary personalities floated on a river of booze. And drowned. Dorothy worked hard on her writing, in spurts, but overall was a model of financial and interpersonal irresponsibility. This detailed biography is an enormous accomplishment, inasmuch as she left no personal papers, unless (which appears more than a possibility), they were destroyed by her literary executor, Lillian Hellman. The book is a fully drawn picture of an era–several eras, in fact–from Prohibition through the Army-McCarthy hearings and the blacklists of the 1950’s. The characters around her including the likes of Harold Ross, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, and so many others, most of whom died well before their time.
*** A Noble Radiance by Donna Leon. This book is one of Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteries, which are set in Venice. While ethical erosion in the Italian judicial system (for anyone needing to be reminded) and sensationalism in the news media, against both of which which Brunetti strives for truth, make an amusing background to her books, the foreground in this book was not all that interesting. Brunetti deserves wilier adversaries of more inherent interest and psychological complexity. A beach read.
*** The Survivor – Gregg Hurwitz. Hurwitz really knows how to accelerate the roller-coaster of suspense. One challenge for thriller writers must be to constantly up the ante with new, more horrifying threats. While this was a page-turning read, it had a few too many implausibilities built up around the grisly actions of the Russian mobsters chasing our hero, a man with a troubled past (any other kind?), in need of repairing his family relations (of course), and, to boot, an incipient case of ALS, which saps his physical abilities at all the wrong moments (naturally).
*** The Thing about Thugs – Tabish Khair. A multi-narrator, multi-layered story of a series of grisly beheadings in 19th century London that embroils phrenologists, Indian lascars, underground Mole people (maybe), a self-promoting journalist, a passel of drunk Irishmen, and a baffled police detective in trying to find the perpetrators. It also jumps back and forth in time. I became confused. A “the lady or the tiger” ending wasn’t very satisfactory, either. But some beautiful writing, like this: “With dawn now limning the horizon, the dark masts of ships seem to stand solitary and mute, aspiring to heaven but failing to reach it; the riggings are spread like empty nets.” And a few lines later, “At that instant, the morning or the wind passes a thin blade across the belly of the clouds to the east and sunlight spills out like blood.” Nice.
*** Glimmer Train Spring 2013. A premier literary journal, to which I’ve subscribed from near its 1990 inception. This quarter’s nine stories dealt with: a son’s substance abuse and his father’s death; painful divorce; adult children who abuse drugs to deal with a father’s neglect (also the death and dismemberment for burial of a horse and stillborn colt); death of an adult son (I quite liked this one); miscarriage; a paraplegic’s pilgrimage to the site of his musician hero’s suicide; unrootedness; how-to guide for Israeli immigrants to New York (eerily reminiscent of Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box“); woman picking her Powerball numbers whose husband is dying and whose sons were 1) in prison, 2) dead, and 3) fled with the neighbor’s pregnant wife. Great line from this last one: “As Mother Nature abhors a vacuum, Poverty abhors an empty bedroom.”
***** Flight Behavior – Barbara Kingsolver. Her 2012 book was dinged for being too polemical (the issue is global warming), but I found it complex and beautifully written, and if the characters were waxing on about their concerns, they did so in character. The protagonist, Dellarobia Turnbow, is caught between two world views: the mind-opening perspective of a scientist who comes to her small Tennessee sheep farm to study an unusual biological phenomenon, and that of her family and community, who resist the notion of climate change on religious grounds. Granted, the latter viewpoint is not presented as persuasively (at least to me) as the former, but focusing the hopes and dreams of everyone involved one the fate of an errant swarm of monarch butterflies was a brilliant conception that allowed KIngsolver to tell many small personal stories, as well as one giant one affecting all humanity.
*** The Lullaby of Polish Girls – Dagmara Dominczyk. This new coming-of-age novel reveals the essential rudderlessness of three young women from Kielce, Poland. Two spend at least part of their lives in the United States, but are drawn back to Kielce, and each other. Much in the book is handled well, though more depth would be desirable, and I felt by the end I was develop a smokers’ cough.
** Assassin’s Code – Jonathan Maberry. This book has 2.5 more stars from Amazon reviewers than I gave it. A thriller involving nukes, Iranian oil fields, Muslim-Christian conflicts dating to the Crusades, and, alas, the Upierczi. That’s Russian for vampires. I met the author and know his books are way popular, and, reading the glowing reviews, wanted to give it a chance. It’s a good, fast-paced thriller that would have been better without the fangs. They didn’t make it scarier, just harder to believe in. Oh, and I forgot the Sabbatarians (vampire-hunting adepts born on a Saturday), who must have cornered the Iranian market in garlic. Vampires, zombies, werewolves? Reality is plenty scary enough.
*** The Wrong Man – David Ellis. Not to be confused with the 1956 Alfred Hitchcock/Henry Fonda flick, this thriller is strong on legal strategy and details–Ellis is a lawyer–but weak on character development. And I knew that woman was a wrong number from her first appearance. A few plot “huhs?” as well.
****Contagious: Why Things Catch On – Jonah Berger. I’m not a big fan of the breezy, self-help writing style. But there’s good information here, not as engaging as Malcolm Gladwell, but useful nonetheless for everyone who is promoting something (that’s pretty much all of us!). I blogged about this one.
***The White Queen – Philippa Gregory. Elizabeth Woodville (who, if my family’s spurious genealogy were actually correct, would be one of my ancestors), wife of England’s Edward IV, and mother of the two little princes murdered at the behest of their uncle, Richard III, narrates her own story. On the strength of her beauty, she rose from commoner to Queen, caught up in the endless battles between Edward (House of York), the Lancastrians, and his own brothers. Too much “witches and spells” for my taste; the reality of her increasingly precarious situation was drama enough. Long on plot–rather, plots–ordinary writing, and only the narrator is a well developed character.
**** Fifth Chinese Daughter – Jade Snow Wong. First published in 1945, this charming autobiography of a Chinese-American girl growing up in San Francisco is a model of simplicity in the writing, as well as a rounded picture of the many adaptations her family makes to living in America and in changing times. Not deeply emotional, but fittingly so.
***** Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn. This was on many top-of-2012 mystery/first novel/you-name-it “best-of” lists, and it is great! Two manipulative people in a boa constrictor – jaguar deathmatch. I thought the last bit lost steam, but a tour-de-force of character development. Well worth the time.
***Autopsy – Milton Helpern with Bernard Knight. This memoir of Milton Helpern, “The World’s Greatest Medical Detective” isn’t for the faint-hearted. Helpern worked in New York City’s medical examiner’s office for more than 40 years and was its chief from 1954 to 1973. Although technology may have changed, what remains fascinating–and invaluable to crime writers–is the philosophy he used in tackling many of the era’s most challenging homicide cases.
***** The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection – Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. Colorful profile of Paris around the turn of the 20th Century, in particular the demimonde, the artists, the gangsters, and the anarchists who kept the pot boiling. And, trying to keep the lid on, the Sureté, with its accelerating use of scientific methods of detection and criminal identification. Full review here.
*** The Fault in Our Stars – John Green. Young adult fiction with great reviews. I’d hoped to like it better. About a young cancer patient dealing with her disease, her parents, and her too-good-to-be-true boyfriend. Plot predictable and, in some developments, unbelievable.
***** Telegraph Avenue – Michael Chabon. Fanciful, beautiful writing. Complicated, vivid characters. About so much–a failing vintage record store, a too-outspoken midwife, relationships between parents and sons.
**** Swamplandia! – Karen Russell. Nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer. Wonderful writing, but sometimes stumbles. Fascinating plot about a family living on the edge of the world, running an Everglades theme park, and the mutability of reality.
**** The Prague Cemetery – Umberto Eco. Characteristically dense and convoluted. About a 19th c. forger and spy and “split personality” who ends up creating a fictional screed against the Jews, which we recognize as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Church, the Masons, the Jesuits. They’re all there.
2013 Audio (links are to audio versions)
***** The Dinner – Herman Koch (read by Clive Mantle). The cover design of this book sums it up. A “nice dinner out” turns into an emotional conflagration, when two brothers–one a rising politician, one an inactivated teacher–and their wives meet one evening at a trendy restaurant. Talk about an unreliable narrator! Not Clive Mantle, who wields his voice like a butcher knife when expressing the contempt the story’s first-person narrator feels for his more successful sibling. He is so sly and witty as he punctures the absurd pretensions typical of today’s upscale restaurants that the reader (me!) is totally on his side, until . . . a snowball of doubt creeps in, and starts rolling down the mountainside. Wonderful!
**** The Professor of Truth – James Robertson (read by Cameron Stewart). Superb narration of this fascinating book, a fictional interpretation of the plane crash over Lockerbie, Scotland, and one husband’s relentless 20-year effort to find those responsible for the deaths of his wife and daughter. It’s a beautifully written mystery tale, a story of self-discovery, and a search in a cavern of secrets with a penlight. What is most important is what Alan Teiling finally finds out about himself, some 20 years on, and what it is to let your life be absorbed in pursuit of the unknowable, however high-minded the quest. Semi-based on real characters, and the perils of reinterpreting a controversial reality are explored here.
** One Fearful Yellow Eye – John D. MacDonald (narrated by Robert Petkoff). I didn’t remember reading any of the legendary Travis McGee novels, and bought this one on sale. Published in 1966 it was a real walk back through time. And not a very pleasant one. The women characters were treated like bimbos or diabolical schemers. At least MacDonald (through first-person narrator McGee) acknowledged that the idea of a manly man, like McGee, using his lovemaking expertise to thaw the Ice Maiden, was a bit of a ridiculous cliche, but then, he used it! Twice!! Also, a deus ex machina of eye-rolling proportions. Curiosity satisfied.
**** Spilled Blood – Brian Freeman (narrated by Joe Barrett). Winner of the International Thriller Writers’ best book of the year, it shows you can write a thriller without over-the-top viciousness (though there is some, of course) or making the stakes unbelievably stratospheric. Two towns and a growing animosity between them, as the industry in one town slowly poisons the children of the other. Or not. Nice reading, too.
***** Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – Ben Fountain (narrated by Oliver Wyman). A finalist for the 2012 National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, I can’t recommend this book too highly. For a war novel, there’s almost no war in it, remarkably; it’s about the victory tour given to the young members of Bravo squad who performed a particularly brave Iraq action fortuitously (or not, depending) caught by Fox News cameras. The culmination of their stateside tour and most of the action of the book takes place at the Thanksgiving Day game at Cowboys Stadium. There, the disconnect between what they know and have seen and the flatulent patriotism of everyday Americans approaches–and probably surpasses–irreconcilability. Karl Marlantes (author of the unforgettable Vietnam novel, Matterhorn) calls it “The Catch-22 of the Iraq War.” Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal parts and oh, so well written. If you don’t appreciate irony, you won’t like it. And narrator Oliver Wyman–whom I at first thought I didn’t like–is a genius.
**** Live by Night – Dennis Lehane (narrated by Jim Frangione). This book won the 2013 Edgar award for Best Novel, and Ben Affleck is making his next movie out of it. The story takes place in Boston, Tampa (Ybor City), and Havana mostly during the Prohibition Era. While the logistics of managing a criminal enterprise were interesting, the times when things were going well for protagonist Joe Coughlin are too idealized. Not convincing. It’s the bad guys against the badder guys, and while I rooted for Joe in tough situations, did I really care? And his means of escape from one really tight spot (cement overshoes) was so obvious even I saw it coming.
**** The Increment – David Ignatius (narrated by Dick Hill). There’s one too-thinly explained “huh?” in this book, although the situation is interesting–a scientist working in Iran’s secret nuclear program begins an outreach to the CIA, and while the Administration is all for going in, guns blazing, our hero–CIA Agent Harry Pappas–is desperate to wait and see what the data the U.S. is being sent really mean.
**** Broken Harbor – Tana French (narrated by Stephen Hogan). Broken Harbor tells the story of the investigation of a triple homicide–dad, 2 kids (mum survives)–that at first appears to be an inside job, then the work of a man who’s been spying on them from the empty house next door. When he’s arrested, unfortunately, we were only a few hours into a 20-hour audio book, so you know it won’t hold. Too much navel-gazing by the first-person narrator, Dublin detective “Scorcher” Kennedy. Great depiction of his mentally unbalanced sister. The two principal characters–Kennedy and the family survivor–suffer from the same perfectionist ethos, and you see where this is going way ahead of time. Judicious editing, and a lot of it, would have made a better book.
**** The Expats – Chris Pavone (narrated expertly by Iranian-American film & TV actor Mozhan Marno). This top-ranked debut thriller of 2012 was a fun listen. Engaging plot as hero Kate Moore discovers more secrets about her husband’s activities than she herself is hiding. The twists at the end keep coming, requiring the reader to keep reevaluating all that has gone before. Just when you think you’ve got it . . . This book received good reviews and had a lot of publisher promotion. Interesting the Amazon reviews are rather middling.
**** The Moving Toyshop – Edmund Crispin. A witty, fast-paced mystery featuring Oxford don Gervase Fen, who solves a murder in 24 hours with the help of a menagerie of scholars, students, and bumblers. Published in 1946, the book’s madcap tone evokes a prewar innocence that never was. Fun, and my grandma could read it.
**** What It Is Like to Go to War – Karl Marlantes. This nonfiction book explores the physical, mental, and primarily spiritual demands that War makes on young soldiers. And for which they are not prepared. Marlantes used many of the illustrative episodes from the Vietnam War in this book as the touchstone for his wonderful novel, Matterhorn. He also compares that experience to what today’s veterans face. This is a thought-provoking book, a little redundant at times. It bears rereading to grasp the entirety of his message.
**** The Yellow Birds – Kevin Powers. A 2012 “Best Book” by an Iraq War veteran, among the first good books to come out of that conflict. The war scenes–ennui punctuated by terror–are well written, but don’t break new ground. The depiction and impact of PTSD, however, is excellent. Important reading.
**** The Case of the Missing Servant – Tarquin Hall. Part of a series of what might be called Indian-cozy mysteries. No grim violence. Amusing, charming, evocative of the subcontinent, and beautifully narrated.
**** The Black Echo – Michael Connelly. His first novel (1992), introducing Detective Harry Bosch (and one of his three novels with Black in the title). He’s not a full strength yet, but Connelly always delivers a good read. The title refers to the Vietnam War’s “tunnel rats.”