Archive for the 'Literary Fiction' Category

Review: Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

Friday, July 11th, 2014

live by nightThere’s a bit of a story behind my reading of Live by Night: I picked up the audiobook from the library months ago – probably closer to a year ago. I sped through the first 9 cds and then…lost it. I brought it in from the car, set it aside, and it disappeared. I was furious! Ransacked the house, went through all my suitcases, the car, called the hotel I’d stayed at. No luck. Cut to this past week: I spent my vacation doing a thorough cleaning and decluttering of my spare bedroom, and guess what I found? Yep. I was finally able to finish!

Live by Night tells the story of Joe Coughlin, and it is a big story. Joe starts out the son of a law-and-order police captain in Boston. He abandons his father’s teachings to be an outlaw, to live outside the law, first as a petty thief, and later as a gangster. What I loved most about the novel was the range of stories: Joe as a petty thief who falls for a pretty girl he meets during a robbery; Joe as a tough guy in prison, standing up to the made guy inside; Joe as the King of Ybor City, using a lot of native smarts, cunning and ruthlessness to corner the rum trade; and Joe as a gangster, family man and gentlemen farmer in Havana, Cuba, building a baseball field for the boys who work in his tobacco fields. They are big stories and even though Joe is a very bad man, you can’t help but root for him – not to get back on the straight and narrow or give up his outlaw nature. No, you find yourself hoping that his latest criminal scheme will work out, that he can keep his employees safe, that he doesn’t end up in a pair of cement shoes.

In part, the story is propelled by Joe’s love of two different women. Emma is the pretty girl he meets during a heist, the kind of woman that men will do anything for. She makes Joe take crazy chances, chances that end badly for Joe. Later, Joe meets Graciela, a head-strong Cuban woman who helps him build an empire in Prohibition-era Florida.

When I first picked up this audiobook, I raced through the first 9 cds, before that little interruption I mentioned. When I had it back in my hands, I popped in disk 10 and I was right back in the story; I didn’t even need to go back for a refresher. Do you have any idea how unusual that is? I have stacks of books that I’ve read, reviewed, and a week later I can’t remember the name of the main character. Live by Night engaged me in a way that few books have recently. The stories and characters stayed fresh in my mind months later. I wish every book I read was so compelling.

My one complaint is that the book seemed to end very abruptly. I kept running back through the CD tracks, thinking it must have skipped a track. But looking back, the abrupt end made sense, in the context of Joe’s life.

What balances that complaint is that I can look forward to seeing the book on the big screen. Ben Affleck will directing and is apparently working on the screenplay. I’m not sure I picture Ben as Joe, but I have confidence that he can do a great job with it. Sadly, we’ll have to wait until 2016.

My copy of Live by Night came from the Kent Free Library, and I think they will be very happy to finally have it back!

 

Review: Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

bellman and blackIn Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield, we start with a group of boys, playing in the woods. One boy, William Bellman, kills a rook with his slingshot. Even as a child, he recognizes the moment as significant, but he can have no idea then how this single childhood moment will influence his life.

The Bellman family is a prosperous one, but William and his mother have their difficulties. His uncle, Paul Bellman, takes him under his wing, into the family business, and soon comes to appreciate William’s work ethic and his unique abilities. The mill prospers, Paul is pleased with his protege, and William seems unstoppable. Success after success seems to follow William – at the mill, in his marriage, with his children. But still, there’s the rook…

Have you ever finished a book and felt as though there were nuances you did not quite grasp? I felt that way with Bellman & Black. There seemed to be a moral to the story that eluded me. Was William really haunted by the rook? I thought so, but I’m not sure. How much of Mr. Black was real and how much was William’s imagination? Again, it’s hard to say. But the uncertainty, the feeling that there is more going on than meets the eye, made this a particularly good read.

It’s hard not to like William. He is cheerful in the face of his grandfather’s malice. He is an industrious young man who wants to make a success of himself, and you find yourself rooting for him. Even as he is building the complex enterprise that will become Belmont & Black, I was impressed by his daring and the dogged way he pursued his goals. But as the enterprise unfolds, you begin to worry about him. There is definitely something off-kilter in his thinking, and the reader can see trouble on the horizon.

The chapter breaks about rooks, crows and ravens were fascinating. I had never thought of a rook as a particularly mystical bird, but the author has given a great deal of thought to what rooks think about:

What does the rook do with this leisure time?

1) he tells jokes and gossips

2) he engineers handy, throw-away tools

3) he learns to speak foreign languages. The rook can imitate the human voice, a logger’s crane, the crash of broken glass. And if he wants to really make fun, he can call your dog to him – with your own whistle.

4) he enjoys poetry and philosophy

5) he is an expert in rook history

These asides make the rooks real characters and give them an important part in the story. Just how important, I’m still not sure I know – and I find I enjoy the uncertainty.

My copy of Bellman & Black was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge by Atria Books.

Review: Labor Day by Joyce Maynard

Monday, February 10th, 2014

labor daySometimes, I read a book and I think, “this would make a great movie!” Sometimes, I don’t want to see the movie, because I know that film and CGI will never match the story in my head. In the case of Labor Day by Joyce Maynard, I’m not sure I want to see the movie, because I don’t think Hollywood will get it right.

Labor Day is not a love story – at least, it didn’t read that way to me. It’s a story about a boy, barely a teenager with a lot more on his plate than any kid should have to handle. One long, hot holiday weekend, everything in his life is going to change, for better or worse, and it all depends on Henry.

You’ve seen the movie ads by now, and I hope to heaven that if an escaped convict ever shows up at my door, he looks like Josh Brolin. Frank has escaped from prison, where he was held for a particularly brutal crime, and everyone is looking for him. But at the end of the country road where Henry lives with his mother, Adele, there is a drama playing out quietly, behind lace curtains, that has nothing to do with the violence in Frank’s life.

Frank is a quiet man, a man who can bake a peach pie, a man who can teach an uncoordinated boy to throw a baseball. You can’t imagine him as an inmate, accused of murder, staging his escape. He is polite to Adele and Henry, making sure that they cannot be held responsible if he is found. Henry is drawn to him, lacking a real father figure in his life, but the attraction between Adele and Frank is powerful and immediate. They are two people who can’t leave the house – Adele held captive by her fears and her broken heart, Frank both captor and captive – and, as the ads say, they make a world for themselves within its walls.

Henry has no idea how to process all of this. He has a desperate loyalty to his mother – he knows that she’s not right, that she doesn’t react like other mothers and they don’t live like other families – and she depends on him. This is a side of her that he has never seen, and like any child who sees his parent drawn to another adult, he is afraid of being left out, left behind. As the temperature rises and the weekend draws to a close, he will have a choice to make and that choice will change the lives of everyone he loves. The story is really about Henry and what goes on in the mind of a thirteen year old boy who is watching his mother fall in love.

I really, really enjoyed this book – devoured it on one flight and a late evening in my hotel – but it may have spoiled the movie for me. I’ve read that Maynard had a lot of input into the film, but as much as I was touched by the blossoming love between these two damaged people, I don’t want to see it turned into a typical Hollywood love story. This is Henry’s story, and I hope he’s able to tell it.

My advice? Read the book. Then decide about the movie.

My copy of Labor Day was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Labor Day, the movie

Review: The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

serpent of veniceI know this review is a little early. The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore isn’t due out until April 2014. I’m posting it now because (a) the book is still fresh in my mind (in fact, I’m still chuckling over it) and (b) this will give you time to pre-order it or get yourself on top of your library’s reserve list. Might as well be prepared. Also, since this was a digital ARC, it will soon disappear from my Kindle, and I want to be sure the review is written before it fades away…

Back in 2009, I reviewed Fool by Christopher Moore, which is sort of a precursor to this novel. The fool in that book, Pocket, is the king’s jester. In SerpentPocket is back and his enemies are coming for him.

This is a mash-up, bringing some great (and wildly divergent) storylines together. We’ve got Shylock and his pound of flesh from The Merchant of Venice. We’ve got Othello, Desdemona and Iago from Othello. And we have an excellent plot device from The Cask of AmontilladoIf you’re thinking that one of these things is not like the other, you are absolutely right — but Moore makes it work.

As with Fool, there were a ton of lines and passages I marked that it turns out, I can’t quote here. While I’m not a family website, as such, the book is pretty vulgar. Downright raunchy, in fact. And I love that about it.

I am not usually a big comedy fan. My sense of humor just doesn’t run along the same lines as most people’s, apparently. But this is smart funny and believe me, it’s funny. I read this on a flight to New Orleans and I just sat there in my seat and laughed myself silly. It was so funny, at least in part, because I was familiar with the source material. I’ve always enjoyed Shakespeare, and while I wouldn’t have combined it with Edgar Allan Poe, it’s an excellent combination. There are plots and subplots, intrigues and revenge, a serpent and a monkey named Jeff. I enjoyed every page of it.

My copy of The Serpent of Venice was a digital ARC, provided free of charge.

 

Review: Loteria by Mario Alberto Zambrano

Monday, November 4th, 2013

loteriaSomething bad has happened to Estrella. That much Luz knows for sure – something bad has happened to her older sister and her father is in jail for it. The problem is that 11 year-old Luz is not talking to anyone, not a word, and she is the only one who knows what really happened.

In Mario Alberto Zambrano’s Loteria, Luz is in custody and the counselor, Julia, wants her to talk about her family and about what happened to her sister. Luz doesn’t speak to her, but she begins writing in a journal, having long conversations with God about her family, her childhood, and her loteria cards. The cards, a sort of Mexican bingo game, have characters on them that propel some of her stories. For the most part, these are not happy stories; there are serious problems in the family that were clearly coming to a boiling point. Still, Luz manages to share little bright, shining moments in her life, memories of things that made her happy, in the midst of her troubles.

The thing that struck me about Loteria is Luz’s voice and the way she tells her stories: they seem so true to the way a young girl would think. Nothing is told in a linear fashion – she is clearly writing about whatever strikes her at the moment – and some seem wildly out of place. She speaks about some pretty terrible stuff – abuse, infidelity, anger – as if it is completely common, as if everyone watches their mother flirting with the doctor, has been abused by their uncle, or has a father with a drinking problem. She shrugs these things off as just part of her life and I suppose that is exactly how a child of that environment would react. I don’t have a lot of experience in that area, but it seemed authentic to me, like a conversation with a young child.

I really enjoyed Loteria, in spite of the sad stories. The voice is interesting, and there is enough suspense and ambiguity to keep me turning pages. My copy of Loteria  was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Pssst! I will be on the lookout for readings and book signings in my area. Have you see the author’s photo… mario-alberto-zambrano

 

Review: Song of the Sea God by Chris Hill

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

This title was completely unfamiliar to me, but Nanette is a big fan of his blog and was really excited to read it. — Lisa

 

song-of-the-sea-god-visualOne of the great things about reviewing is finding hidden gems—great books that aren’t bestsellers, but probably should be. Song of the Sea God is one of those books. The beginning just reaches out and grabs you—the language is lyrical, but colloquial at the same time, and the opening scene is startling. This is a voice to pay attention to.

The narrator of Song of the Sea Godis a man on the fringes of a society that is on the fringes itself—a small island off the coast of England, whose chief attractions are a chunk of bad art donated by a mediocre sculptor, and a city dump. It’s a place that kids grow up to leave, and people don’t really want to move to, a place full of residents beset by the humdrum and longing for what-might-have been.  At least, that’s the way it is until the unnamed narrator–a mute “short-arse” whom everyone wrongly assumes is mentally deficient–is saved from drowning by a mysterious stranger.  The stranger is John Love, a mystery man, healer, charlatan and messiah with a knack for divining people’s secret thoughts and telling them what they want to hear. Privy to John Love’s initial hoaxes, the narrator is drawn in by Love’s magic nonetheless. The community gathers around the new messiah, symbolically smashing the mediocre sculpture at the centre of town. Love seems offer food for the soul, fulfillment, and redemption from island’s humdrum, banal existence . . . or does he?

Chris Hill’s book hasn’t gotten much attention here in North America, and that’s too bad. This book is worth seeking out. For more on his work, check out his website, Song of the Sea God. I particularly liked his post on writing routines.

~~ Nanette Morton

 

Review: Goat Mountain by David Vann

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

goat-mountain-coverGoat Mountain by David Vann is one of those books where the writing is so lyrical, so poetic, that you keep going back to re-read passages because they are so beautifully written. The story drew me in immediately – the pivotal event in this book happens less than 20 pages in – and the aftermath was compelling enough to keep me turning pages, even when I wanted to put it down.

A father, son and grandfather, along with a family friend, go on their annual fall hunting trip. This is a tradition, and every step is filled with small rituals — stopping at the bear wallows, touching an ancient tree, even the way they sit in the front seat of the truck. The son is excited — he is bringing his own rifle and expects to take his first deer on this trip. This time, they spot a poacher instead of a buck. The son finds what happens instead totally natural, no different than taking that first deer, but of course it’s very, very different.

The son’s voice in this story is disconcerting. At times, he is quite childlike – playing in the mud like a bear cub – and the next minute, waxing philosophic about the nature of killing. I had to remind myself that he was telling this story many years later; he talks about pacing his small apartment, all wound up, thinking about that hunt. He’s given a lot of thought to the relationships between the men of his family. His grandfather is sometimes larger than life, sometimes just an old man in his undershorts, eating a sandwich. His father is a man in a terrible position. His first instinct is to protect his son, but in doing so, he puts everyone in danger. There is no good answer.

Goat Mountain isn’t a particularly easy read. Some pages left me crying, some I could barely read, but there were still passages that left me transported, caught up in the camaraderie of the men. I was angry through a lot of the book – angry at the decisions and the indecision. To me, that’s the sign of a good book, one that makes me feel strongly about the characters and get caught up in their lives.

My copy of Goat Mountain was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge. You can find out more about David Vann and his work at his website, DavidVann.com.

Lisa’s Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

I was so excited to get a chance to read and review this! I find Neil Gaiman’s work really interesting; even the books I haven’t loved have intrigued me. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is definitely a one-sitting read: once you pick it up, you will be hard-pressed to put it down.

Note to authors: please give your characters names! So hard to talk about a character, think about a character, when you don’t even know what to call him! It makes me think you don’t really know him, either.

In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, our never-named Fellow has just given the eulogy at a funeral in his hometown. Needing to clear his head, he takes a little drive before he meets up with family and old friends, driving randomly…but not. He’s headed down old, familiar roads into the heart of his childhood.

The Hempstock farm is right where it has always been, and Mrs. Hempstock is there as well. The Hempstock women are an enigma, but Ginnie and Lettie and Old Mrs. Hempstock were an important part of The Boy’s childhood – a childhood that just wrenched at my heart from the first memories he shared and never let up. You want to shake his parents, slap his sister and hug the little guy, since no one seems to notice his misery. It was an unexpected reaction for me (well, maybe not slapping his sister – I always wanted to do that to mine), because kids don’t usually draw me in this way.

Gaiman captures childhood better than most authors. The Boy’s confusion, his quiet sadness, his resignation in the face of so many things he can’t control ring so true. I really felt his anger and his terror, and then his guilt, when he says a horrible thing to his father that he cannot take back. And the confusion of The Adult, trying to bring back those childhood memories and make sense of them — that felt familiar as well. Wondering if things really happened the way you remember them, wondering what it all means.

The book is beautifully written. There is a poetry to the language, small passages that make you think, yes, that’s it exactly. It left me with a deep sense of melancholy, on multiple levels. There is so much more I would say about that, but I don’t want to spoil things for new readers. As I said at the beginning of this review, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a one-sitting read. Brew a nice cup of tea and sit here, on the bench next to the pond, and enjoy.

My copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Nanette’s Review: The Clock of Life by Nancy Klann-Moren

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

The Clock Of Life is a coming of age story set in the American South. It’s 1974, and Jason Lee Rainey has just started school. On the very first day, he makes friends with a black kid named Samson, and gets bullied for pursuing that interracial friendship. Even if Jason Lee is living in the post-Civil Rights era South, the residue of the recent past is everywhere in Hadlee, Mississippi. “Your daddy got himself forty-seven stiches across the back of his shoulder. And they threw him in jail to boot, just so you and boys like Samson could be friends,” Jason’s mother tells him.  Jason Lee is eager to find out what happened to his father, who died in Vietnam the year he was born, but his mother won’t tell him anything else. If finding out about the past is part of Jason Lee’s journey, so too is finding out how the past has a very real effect on his 1980’s, teen-aged present.

I really liked this book; it’s not preachy, and it has a real and authentic feel to it. It gets the point across that Civil Rights activists were ordinary people who were doing what they thought was right. It also shows, without being too heavy handed, that the civil rights struggle is not over in America. Although Jason Lee doesn’t let disapproval prevent him from doing the right thing, he’s also a real kid who does stupid kid stuff, like experimenting with moonshine, and stuffing candy machines with fake quarters. I thought that Samson could have been given a little more definition early on, but he too, is a real kid—good, but not a saint.

The only real criticism I have is reserved for the title; it’s dull and nondescript, and really doesn’t give much of a hint about the great book it describes.

My copy of The Clock Of Life was an Advanced Reader Copy provided free of charge.

—Nanette Morton

 

Review: Blood Drama by Christopher Meeks

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

Ian Nash is having a remarkably bad day. He has been kicked out of his PhD program, which means no degree, no job, no income. As if that isn’t bad enough, when he stops at a local coffee shop to drown his sorrows (and maybe pick up a job application), he’s taken hostage by bank robbers. What else could go wrong?

Just about everything, in Blood Drama by Christopher Meeks. Ian makes a series of bad decisions: he’s smart enough to use his theater training to glean small details about his captors, but he can’t resist showing off what he’s learned, putting himself in grave danger. At least he’s smart enough to make his escape when the opportunity presents itself…but not quite smart enough to stay out of trouble.  Now he’s on the run with a vicious bank trigger man hot on his heels.

FBI Special Agent Aleece Medina wants to bring down this particular bank robber — The Busty Bandit — and she’s willing to fight dirty to stay on the case. Nash may be able to help, if she can keep him alive long enough.

I wasn’t sure what this book was trying to be. It wasn’t gritty enough to be a crime drama. It wasn’t wacky enough to be a comedy. And while Nash and Medina are drawn to each other, there was never enough heat for a romance. There are some funny passages, but I could never get caught up in the story.

Nash makes rash decisions that made me want to throttle him, while Medina bounces back and forth between fiercely professional and ridiculously smitten. I think Medina’s behavior bothered me more than Nash’s, precisely because she is supposed to be a professional. It’s clear that Nash can help in the investigation, but she should be able to find a way for him to help without endangering his life and without anyone else ending up dead. Instead, she takes him on a road trip, gets drunk, and flirts with him. Although I enjoyed parts of the story, I couldn’t like either main character enough to really be drawn in.

My copy of Blood Drama was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.