Archive for the 'Literary Fiction' Category

Review: Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

midwinterbloodI’ve been making the drive back and forth to our Cincinnati office the last two weeks (about 3.5 hours in good traffic) and audiobooks are the perfect entertainment. I can catch up on my reading while I drive and some books are just better on audio. This week, I managed to pick up two books with similar themes, although told in very different ways. The first, and definitely the better of the two, is Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick.

This isn’t my usual reading fair – there’s more romance than I normally go for – but the premise is interesting. Seven interwoven stories, seven different time periods, three names that turn up again and again. Eric, Merle, and Tor appear over and over in these stories: Eric is a journalist in the near future, writing an investigative article on a mysterious island in the far north where residents seem to live forever. Tor and Merle are a married couple who rescue a wartime aviator who crashes on their property. Merle and Eric are brother and sister, living among the Vikings, and Tor is their uncle. The relationships change, the situations change, but these characters inhabit every story. As we move back in time, back to the beginning of their story, they are constantly reaching out to each other, circling around each other.

This reminded me a bit of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, one of my all-time favorite novels. It’s not in that class, but they cover some of the same territory: the idea that we are surrounded by people we know and love, throughout many lives and incarnations. In the ebb and flow of time and reincarnation, these people always come to the same place. They are always connected to one another.

I think what I enjoyed about this is the way that the stories differ. It is not as though these characters lead the same lives, fall in love in the same way, or even relate to each other the same way, time after time. Merle and Eric might be lovers, or they might be mother and son. It made the stories more interesting, as you watched the various connections unfold. I also liked watching for the small details that tied the stories together — the bit of wood in the grave, the painting, the hare. They give the reader something to discover, something to watch for in each story, and you get to wonder and speculate on how the details in each story will manifest as you move through the centuries.

Midwinterblood made for a very entertaining ride. The second novel I spoke of, which I hope to finish and review next week, isn’t faring nearly as well. This audiobook came to me through the Kent Free Libary.

Review: Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

of things gone astray
“On a seemingly normal morning in London, a group of people wake to find something important to them missing, something dear but peculiar: the front of their house, their piano keys, their sense of direction, their place of work.”

Can you imagine? You get up, shower, dress, have some coffee and head to the office. When you get there, the building is gone. Not demolished, not boarded up with a For Sale sign, just vanished, as if it was never there. What would you do? I would assume that I had gone insane. Who would you ask? You couldn’t very well start stopping people and saying, “Are you from the neighborhood? Didn’t there used to be a building there?” Would you call your colleagues? Sure, but – and I would be worried about this – what if they don’t answer? What if the phone number that has always worked for the office goes to some other company? Possibly even worse: what if they DO answer? What if they say they are in the building that isn’t there? What if they don’t know who you are?

Janina Matthewson doesn’t answer all of these questions in Of Things Gone Astrayshe seems more concerned with the impact it has on Robert when his business – his job and office and colleagues – are all suddenly gone. The characters in this book have all lost something very important to them, and it impacts them in unexpected ways.

The story is told round-robin style, with short chapters, many less than a page long. Each chapter is from the point of view of a single character, and they tell the story in a roundabout way.

Each character has lost something, but not in the usual way we think of it. One character has lost her sense of direction; one morning, she starts to walk to the corner store and she ends up wandering for hours, hopelessly lost in the neighborhood where she has lived all her life. Mrs. Featherby has lost the front of her house. She wakes up one morning and the entire front wall is gone, with her home exposed to the street and the open air.

Over the chapters, we come to understand what these things mean to the characters. Mrs. Featherby is a very private person, very proper and dignified, and being observed from the street, having people stop and look at her house and even speak to her – it’s horrifying. Delia begins to realize that she hasn’t just lost her sense of direction on the streets, she’s lost it in her life. She’s lost her drive and her life has become kind of aimless. She meets Anthony, a widower who is losing touch with his son, Jake. They now don’t even see each other when they are in the same house – literally, it is as if they are invisible to each other. It’s an extreme sort of estrangement, as they both deal with their grief over the loss of Jake’s mother.

The stories are interesting in a tangled way. They overlap, with characters meeting each other. Some resolve themselves, but others don’t wrap up neatly. Some of them are heartbreaking (the flight attendant stopped to ask me about the book because I was crying on the flight). A rather amazing first novel.

My copy of Of Things Gone Astray was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: World Gone By by Dennis Lehane

Monday, April 20th, 2015

WorldGoneByFINALI am becoming a Dennis Lehane groupie – that’s all I can say. I loved The Drop. I loved Live By Night. And I loved the final book in the Joe Coughlin trilogy, World Gone By. This was a story that really drew me in, the kind of book where you keep re-reading pages, going back to an earlier section because you want to hear those words one more time. You can’t wait to see where the story is going, but you don’t really want it to end.

At the start of World Gone By, Joe Coughlin is a single father, a widower after the death of his beloved wife, Graciela, raising his 10 year old son, Tomas, on his own. His career has taken a surprisingly traditional turn- he has retired and become a consultant, a consigliere to the crime families that dominate South Florida. With his help and advice, the families are making money. Their businesses are thriving. Joe has no enemies. So why has someone put out a contract on him?

There is something unsettled in South Florida and Joe can feel its effects. He begins to see a ghost, a young boy who shows up at odd moments, in crowds or alone in Joe’s office. (In one of the most disturbing scenes of the book, Joe tells his doctor about the ghost. After Joe leaves the office, the doctor confronts his own demons and they are not pretty.) Dion Bartolo, may be losing his grip on the business – people are beginning to notice his vices. Rico DiGiacomo, Joe’s long-time friend, may be keeping his own secrets. Even Joe’s love life is unsettled, and the pressure is building. Joe wants to keep Tomas safe, but he’s not willing to run and hide. He knows the game and he knows the players, but the rules are changing.

Joe Coughlin is a bad guy that you can’t help rooting for. Whoever has put the hit out, you want Joe to figure it out. You want Tomas to be safe. You want Joe to be able to protect his friends and sniff out his enemies. You can’t really say that Joe does the right thing, but there are flashes – like when he doesn’t kill Loretta in Live By Night, even though it would be safer and easier – but you read the pages of World Gone By with a nagging feeling that Joe has missed something, that there is trouble headed his way and he may not be able to dodge the bullet this time.

This one was hard to put down. This is the final book in the Joe Coughlin trilogy and it is remarkably well done. There is no judgement here – yes, the characters are gangsters and killers, but that’s not the point. They are also fathers and husbands, wives, brothers, and friends. The mob might be run by criminals, but it’s a business; you take orders from the people in charge and someone is always watching the bottom line. The problem seemed to be that Joe wanted to live some semblance of a normal life as a retired consultant, raising his son, tending to his investments, maybe taking a new wife, but he wasn’t in a normal situation. This wasn’t the kind of story for that.

Currently, Ben Affleck is directing and starring in the movie version of Live By Night. I love the women they’ve cast so far – Zoe Saldano as Graciella and Elle Fanning as Loretta. Easy to picture that cast. I’m hoping they decide to adapt this novel for the big screen, as well. I can easily imagine turning this into an amazing film.

My copy of World Gone By is an Advance Reader Copy, provided by the nice folks at William Morrow.

Review: Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

of things gone astrayOf Things Gone Astray is a fascinating debut novel by Janina Matthewson. This is such an unusual story, an unusual method of telling it — days later, I am still thinking about it.

This is a story about loss – about the things we lose, what they mean to us, and how we replace them. The characters – Delia, Cassie, Anthony, Jake, Marcus, Mrs. Featherby, Robert – have all lost something important to them. This isn’t a book about losing your car keys or misplacing a library book. Robert has lost his job. He wasn’t fired or laid off; he went to work one morning and the building was gone. The company, the people – all of it, just disappeared. Cassie has lost her sense of direction; one morning, she headed out to the corner store and got hopelessly lost, spending hours wandering through the city where she has lived all her life. Mrs. Featherby woke up one morning to find that the front wall of her home was gone.

Over the chapters, we come to understand what these things mean to the characters. Mrs. Featherby is a very private person, very proper and dignified, and being observed from the street, having people stop and look at her house and even speak to her – it’s horrifying. Delia begins to realize that she hasn’t just lost her sense of direction on the streets, she’s lost it in her life. She’s lost her drive and her life has become kind of aimless. She meets Anthony, a widower who is losing touch with his son, Jake. They quite literally do not see each other when they are in the same house. It’s an extreme sort of estrangement, as they both deal with their grief.

The stories tangle and overlap in intriguing ways. Secrets are revealed. We find out more about the characters and what brought them to this point. Some of the stories wrap up neatly; others leave us hanging. And as I said, days later, I am still thinking about it, thinking about these characters. I love a story that lingers! I want the characters to get under my skin and stick to my brain and keep me up at night. It’s a great debut novel and although I have no idea what Matthewson might do to follow this up, I know that I’ll be interested in reading it.

My copy of Of Things Gone Astray is an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: The Drop by Dennis Lehane

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

dropI am fast becoming a big Dennis Lehane fan. I read Shutter Island and loved it. I recently reviewed Live By Night and loved it. Even more recently, I devoured The Drop in one bite (on a flight between Cleveland and New York/JFK) and loved it. That’s a pretty good track record!

Bob is a loner, a bit of a social misfit, a man with secrets that come between him and the world — and Bob is desperately lonely. When he finds a battered puppy stuffed in a garbage can, he seems to have finally found a friend – not only the puppy, but a woman he meets nearby who encourages him to take in the dog. It would not be wise to step between the man and his new friends.

That’s only part of the story. Bob works for his Cousin Marv at the bar everyone thinks Marv owns, but is really a front for the Chechen mob. Cousin Marv used to be somebody, be a tough guy, but in the end, he wasn’t tough enough. The Chechens treat him like an errand boy and it galls him, maybe enough to do something stupid.

I think everyone reading The Drop sees the end coming. Cousin Marv’s bar is going to be “the drop” on one of the biggest nights of the year and that makes them a target. We all know that something bad is going to happen – the question is who will it happen to and how will they react. You can’t help but root for Bob, I think, and his poor puppy and his friend, Nadia. You want things to work out for them and there are so many ways this could all go wrong. I kept expecting one more twist, one more complication, and that’s the tension that kept me turning pages, rushing towards the end.

I am looking forward to seeing the movie, although I had a hard time imagining Tom Hardy as a misfit loner…until I saw the stills from the movie. You can see it in the hunch of his shoulders and the set of his mouth. It’s going to be interesting to watch. In the meantime, I strongly recommend the book. It’s a quick read and very enjoyable. It looks like I’ll be working my way through Lehane’s back catalog, while I wait for the next novel.

My copy of The Drop was an advanced reader copy, provided free of charge.

Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

children actI’ve read two novels by Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beachand Saturday and loved them both, so I was thrilled to get an early copy of The Children Act. Like the others I mentioned, it’s understated and quiet; much of the action in the book happens inside the main character’s head. However, I was so caught up in the story, so engaged by her struggle, that I read nearly straight through. Thank heavens McEwan doesn’t feel the need for 800 pages to tell a story.

Fiona Maye is 59, a High Court judge who presides over family court cases. She thought she was happily married until her husband came to her with a proposition: he wants to have an affair. He tells her that he loves her, but they have become more like brother and sister and he wants to have one final, grand, passionate affair before he moves into his later years. Fiona is horrified, deeply wounded, and eventually her husband packs a suitcase and leaves Fiona alone and betrayed.

In a way, the rest of the book is about their marriage and how/whether they will come back to each other. It’s also a window into how Fiona’s cases affect her: a case involving conjoined twins leaves her squeamish about touch and her body. The bitterness and acrimony of divorcing couples makes it difficult to see her own marriage in any other light. But it is the case of Adam Henry, a teenager suffering from leukemia and refusing treatment, that will have the greatest impact, spilling out of the courtroom and into her personal life.

Adam and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and are refusing blood transfusions for religious reasons. He is seventeen, nearly an adult, but without treatment he won’t see his eighteenth birthday. Fiona’s decision changes everything in his life and leaves him without an anchor, a little lost and at odds with everything he has known. He looks to Fiona, hoping for a touchstone, some guidance, but she pulls away from him.

The Children Act refers to British legislation that makes the welfare and well-being of children “the paramount concern to the courts.” On the bench, Fiona can apply that standard easily; she can cut through the warring concerns of parents, social workers, and doctors, focusing on the child at the center of the conflict. Off the bench, she falters. Although Adam reaches out to her, she can’t take action to help him and her inaction will also have a price.

Adam’s story is heartbreaking and Fiona’s is frustrating. Over and over I wanted to shake her, or I wanted something to jolt her out of her structured, restrictive view of the world. I could easily imagine her losing everything in her life that was important to her because she couldn’t do something. Then, once Adam’s story started, I found the book impossible to put down and finished up about 2 am, both relieved and troubled. It was a fabulous read and I am already imagining the movie that someone is sure to make of it.

My copy of The Children Act was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge. It is scheduled for release on September 9th, but I recommend pre-ordering it.

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.