Reading: Fire(blazing) and Light(reads)

In this entry I offer my thoughts about: American Fire, by Monica Hesse; Hello, Sunshine, by Laura Dave; The People We Hate At The Wedding, by Grant Ginder; The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid; The Sunshine Sisters, by Jane Green; and, The Changeling, by Victor Lavalle.

It’s that time of year again when the buzzy books tend toward convenient, happy, free of loose-ends conclusions, suitable for vacation reading. I had a week to myself, pet-sitting two pups who are snuggly if slightly neurotic — just like me, right? — and I plowed through five novels and one true crime reportage; I’ll try to keep it brief.

American Fire, Monica Hesse, Hardcover, 288pp, July 2017, Liveright

A true crime account of serial arsonists in an economically deprived county, once the richest in the nation, now pocked with hundreds of abandoned properties and populated by a people who feel abandoned by the American dream, left with menial, low paying jobs in the chicken factories which pollute the once vital and fertile countryside which now wastes away, fallow and uncultivated, much like the hopes and aspirations of its populace.

Compellingly told by Washington Post reporter and novelist, Monica Hesse, in a manner combining the best of journalism and literary fiction, with an attention to the seemingly small but hugely defining details of people’s behaviors and language, this is a non-fiction tour de force chockful of character after character who could fill another book of their own.

It didn’t hurt that the arsonist and central character of the piece happens to share my name: Charlie Smith. But what really sold me on this book (which, by the way, was recommended and hand sold to me by my dear, Marlene, at my local indie, The Curious Iguana [CLICK HERE], which sponsored a reading and meeting with Monica Hesse which I attended and where I found her to be as fascinating and gifted a speaker as she is a writer) was the way in which, by its end, Monica Hesse had made Charlie Smith so human, so emotionally visible, I questioned whether or not I, myself, might not have fallen into a like destructive pattern of behavior. I think you’ll see yourself in Charlie, too, and that gift of the ability to establish that sort of identification is what makes Monica Hesse a writer to enjoy now, and from whom to anticipate even greater things in the future. This work has moved her onto my MUST HAVE EACH BOOK list of authors.

Now, I’ve gone on too long already, so I’ll speed up these next few.

Hello, Sunshine, Laura Dave, Hardcover, 256pp, July 2017, Simon & Schuster

Sunshine Mackenzie is an accidental culinary star with an estranged sister named Rain, a deteriorating-ish marriage, bunches of secrets, and a self-deprecating voice in which she tells us the story of her life’s collapse when she is hacked and her frauds, lies, and misdeeds are exposed, all the way through her approach to redemption and forgiveness — which she needs mostly from herself. Fun summer read, doesn’t demand complete (though, near enough) suspension of disbelief, and offers some laughs and a happy ending.

The People We Hate At The Wedding, Grant Ginder, Hardcover, 326pp, June 2017, Flatiron Books

I love the title. I wish I’d loved the book as much. Almost all of the characters were genuinely unlikeable. And it felt to me as if the author had set out to write a literary fiction and then been pressured into making it beach-ready, resulting in a mish-mash of both that was not awful, but far less fun than the title (and blurbing) promised. At least it never used the word “thrum” — this year’s apparently required word, although there was “clambering” — which is steadily replacing thrum as the must have where once it was limn. Ugh.

The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Hardcover, 400pp, June 2017, Atria Books

Legendary Hollywood star, Evelyn Hugo, chooses unknown reporter, Monique Grant, to write her life story, full of the secrets and scandals she has never before divulged. Evelyn Hugo is a little Elizabeth Taylor, a smidgen Katharine Hepburn, but too, an original. Full of salacious goings on delivered in well-crafted prose at a breakneck pace, this mystery-faux-tell-all novel is rip-roaring fun from beginning to end. I recently said I missed Dominick Dunne and Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann — but Taylor Jenkins Reid has filled the empty spot nicely. Read this voraciously, eager to find out what happened next (or, long ago). Loved.

The Sunshine Sisters, Jane Green, Hardcover, 384pp, June 2017, Berkley Books

Ronni Sunshine, once a famous B-movie actress, who barely raised her three daughters has called the siblings — who dislike each other almost as much as they dislike their mother — home for a very important matter. Everyone has agendas. No one really understands the lives of the others. There are myriad complications and hurdles between the past the now and the happy (sort-of-ish) ending. Lifetime movie stuff. Okay for an afternoon when you’re looking for something which doesn’t demand too much of your attention — and, be warned, the foreshadowing is choke and gag you obvious; my most fun reading this was seeing how many pages ahead of something happening I had predicted it. But, it’s meant as a summer read and there is some comfort in knowing what’s coming.

The Changeling, Victor Lavalle, 448pp, June 2017, Spiegel and Grau a division of Penguin Random House

This was mostly a wow for me. First of all, the cover and presentation is beautiful. Second, the prose is so deftly crafted, the voice so compelling I gobbled up its 400-plus pages in one day — honestly, I started in the morning, became enraptured, and did nothing else until I’d finished it in the evening. Third, I love books that defy categorization — this is literary fiction but also fantasy (and I hate fantasy, so, if you do, don’t skip this because of that because it’s not REALLY fantasy) and horror and mystery and myth and metaphor and symbolism and an insightful, thought-provoking exploration of what makes a human a human and to what lengths love will make one go — but it does all of this without hectoring or heavy-handed, pretentious intellectual posing.

Apollo Kagwa, book dealer, having had a child with his wife, Emma, experiences a return of the haunting night-terror-like dreams he suffered as a child after his father had mysteriously disappeared. Soon, Emma commits an unthinkable atrocity, the aftereffects of which Apollo makes it his mission to understand, a journey which take him from Riker’s Island to lands in the mist of the imagination to forest caves to places and events from his past he’d never really understood or remembered.

**************

And there we are, six books in just about 1000 words. Who am I? Well, whoever that is, here I am, going.

 

Reading: Novels read from my sick bed

Once again, I’ve let myself get a bit behind. Though it’s only been six days since my last book blog, I have read five books: M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin Mystery: Love, Lies and Liquor; Christopher Bollen’s The Destroyers; Christina Henry’s Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook; Dickson & Ketsoyan’s Blind Item; and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

Those of you who know me, know I’ve been struggling with some medical issues since January, and, despite my hope the most recent doctor visit to discuss the results of yet more biopsies and blood tests would supply some answers, alas, no. I continue to be a medical mystery, and await the August 1 return of the senior partner in the practice now seeing me because it has been decided he needs to take over the case. In the meantime, the mysterious stomach ailment that started all of this (I think) three years ago, has returned. Yesterday, it was as horrible as it has been since the initial bout, and I was so dehydrated from my body purging itself, I nearly ended up in the hospital. Then, as mysteriously as it hit, it stopped. So, this morning I am feeling achy, still dehydrated, and full-on self-pitying that I am so rarely WELL.

However, PLUS SIDE, I am so exhausted from this string of illnesses, and, too, fighting severe depression brought on by my inability to accept the state in which this country finds itself and daily flabbergasted that the entire tr*mp brigade is not in prison and Hillary Clinton not yet rightfully in place as President, other than things I absolutely MUST do, the majority of the little energy I have left for life is devoted to escaping into books. So, about one a day. And here they are.

Love, Lies and Liquor (Agatha Raisin #17), M.C.Beaton, Paperback, 256pp, August 2007, Minotaur Books

The fact that I am on the seventeenth adventure of Ms. Raisin should give some indication of my fondness for these charming, English village cozies. Agatha is a combination of crusty snarker, certain she is right about everything, and an insecure, self-doubter who too often compromises herself for the affections of unworthy men. Honestly, I’m a trifle impatient with her continued near-obsession with her ex-husband, but she seems with each volume to grow wiser, and I long for the installment in which she is completely over him, and, I hope, he murders someone and she gets him locked up. But, much fun here, and you know when Agatha loses a scarf on page 18, it’s sure to end up around someone’s neck before long.

The Destroyers, Christopher Bollen, Hardcover, 496pp, June 2017, HarperCollins Publishers

I picked this up because Garth Greenwell who wrote one of my favorite books ever, What Belongs to You, blurbed it. Too, I had read the author’s earlier novel, Orient, and found it to be more good than bad, and the kind of book about which I found myself saying, “I can’t wait until this writer’s second or third book.” The Destroyers was also more good than bad, but the things that bothered me about Orient, also bothered me about this. I appreciated that the trendy word “thrum” which seems to be required in every new novel nowadays, did not appear until page 300. I also appreciated learning a new phrase on page 380: horror vacui; which means a fear or dislike of leaving empty spaces, especially in an artistic composition. I’m thinking Mr. Bollen might suffer from that very thing, for there is so much here, so very much, 496 pages worth of muchness, and while I was overall entranced with the plotting and the quality of the writing, as with Orient, there was a rip-roaring beginning and a furiously paced ending, there was an awful lot of middle during which too little happened or happened too many times. In short, the once-wealthy but now disinherited and in trouble Ian travels to the still wealthy — and, of course, troubled — Charlie, a childhood friend, seeking help. Charlie takes Ian into his Greek island of Patmos business, a boat chartering service for the entitled which is not what it seems. Nearly every character is — per the title — destructive in one way or another, variously entitled, deceptive, delusional, dishonest, purposefully ignorant of circumstances, hubristic, angry, violent, and, in summary, not unlike metaphors for the culture in which we are all drowning, where even the best of us are too often missing the point and the mark. Flawed. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t dislike this, I just wish I had liked it more and I think I would have had there been less of it; because some of the writing is so insightful and incisive, when I got the more languorous sections I was disappointed they lacked the sharpness, the pacing, and the beauty of the more spectacular and energetic portions.

Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook, Christina Henry, Paperback, 304pp, July 2017, Berkley Books

I’ve a personal connection to Captain Hook’s backstory as I have twice played him in productions of the musical, Peter Pan. When I was an actor I spent INCREDIBLE amounts of time writing and developing histories for my characters, and with Hook, I was once directed by a psychopath whose main goal as a director was to keep everyone in the cast off-balance and in fear of him, so much so that both the actress playing Peter Pan and I — who he DAILY told everything we were doing was wrong and adjust to this, which we would, and then the next day he would say THAT was all wrong — ended up a week before the show having representatives tell him he was NO LONGER allowed to speak to us directly, but had to give our notes to our reps who would relay them to us as they saw fit. The next time I did the show, I was in essence NOT directed at all, but allowed to do whatever I wanted. I was an actor — whatever I wanted didn’t necessarily serve the show, and while the audience loved me, it wasn’t really Hook up there. What both times had in common was that you can’t play a villain and think they’re a villain — you’ve got to understand why they are doing what they do and why they think it’s the right thing to do, or okay — even if their reasoning is psychotic.

All of which is to say, I was interested in how an author would do for Hook what Gregory Maguire has done for Oz’s Wicked Witch and so many other classic characters. As in Wicked, this telling turns the villain to hero and the hero to villain. Pan is an awful, sociopathic soul-vampire and there is much death and horror here. Nicely written, interesting turn, but it felt to me like there was a lot more that could have been explored.

As in — what purpose does it serve to just flip the story so Hook is mostly right and good and Pan is nearly all wrong and evil? A more interesting approach maybe if there was good and bad in both of them. I don’t know, I suppose that I am weary of living in a world where we are increasingly divided, forced to choose sides, and disbelieve in heroes at all — and so eager to redeem villains. The writing here is good — although, again, we’ve the trendy words “clamber” and “thrum” — seriously, is there something contractual forcing authors to use those words?

Blind Item, Kevin Dickson & Jack Ketsoyan, Hardcover, 352pp, June 2017, Imprint

Meant to be a roman a clef written by Hollywood insiders about a small-town girl, comes to Hollywood, falls for a star, he falls for her, betrayal by friends, venal, drug-using, sex addicted, beautiful people with secrets and lies and — you get the picture. Fast read. But, in truth, it made me miss Harold Robbins and Jaqueline Susann and Jackie Collins and, especially, Dominick Dunne’s thinly veiled, scandalous trash-fests. On the other hand, in a world full of People Magazine, tabloids, TMZ, tr*mps spreading their filthy behavior and hateful, bigoted, class-warfare malaise over the country, 24 hour news, and the taste for scandal and icon-destruction this country has developed, how can a novel compete? And, honestly, though I rarely say anything like this — and I apologize — but it’s really poorly written.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman, Hardcover, 327pp, May 2017, Viking-Pamela Dorman Books

Once again, a book being touted as wacky and quirky and funny strikes me rather differently. It is clear from the beginning that Eleanor is far from fine and her quirkiness is pathological. Which is not to say the book is not beautifully written. The voice is unique, often mesmerizing, and, yes, her turns of phrase and seemingly Aspberger’s behavior make for laughs — but, shameful (for me) laughing because she is so clearly not well. You will see the ending coming a mile (or 300 pages) away. Nonetheless, I read it in one day. It was compelling and I look forward to the author’s future novels.

And, there you have it, my five books in six days. See you soon. Love and Light. Here I am, going.

 

 

 

Reading: The Currency of Connections

Dear Ones, I have read nine books since last I book-blogged and so must, I think, put aside petty concerns — like my health — and catch up a bit.

It’s July 4th as I write and my plans today are to do what I like best to do on holidays: Sit quietly at home while others run about in a must-have-fun-be-conventionally-happy holiday frenzy. People often try to get me out more, as they did with my aunt, Sissie, before me. She, too, preferred and cherished the opportunity for solitude and quiet on holidays because for her — an eternally single person who spent much of her time taking care of others, not unlike my life — a holiday meant she was able to be alone, with no one needing anything. People (me included) thought that was sad and awful, that she ought, like everyone else, be with family or friends or DOING SOMETHING on a holiday. In later years, I got it, how she said, “I’m happy,” when being pressed to agree to go or do or be other than left alone, at peace. Now, how often I find myself saying, in a delivery exactly like Kathy Bates in Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; “I am happy, goddammit!” (Please watch the below clip beginning around 5:15 for Bates’s brilliant delivery.)

And, I am. I have a life which has allowed me opportunity to read nine books in as many days. How much happier can a person get? I’ll tell you how much happier; each of these books came to me or my attention through a special and meaningful connection, each of which I will share.

I’m only going to write about eight of the books; the other was an advance reader copy and I will talk about it closer to release date. So, here we are, going. I will TRY to be brief.

The Gypsy Moth Summer, Julia Fierro, Hardcover, 400pp, June 2017, St. Martin’s Press

Connection: Twitter. Julia Fierro and I have over one hundred people in common, and though I don’t know who followed who first (I suspect it was me following her) I started chatting with her and like all the best authors/publishing folk, she responded with kindness.

Touted as a summer read, this generations-spanning, family saga of a novel is a triumphant combination of compulsively page-turning plotting; artful, flowing prose; in-depth and engaging, desperately human, breathing, characters with audible heartbeats; and an examination of issues like race, class, and the cost and transformative (sometimes, deforming) power of love.

Julia Fierro juggles the many treasures and pleasures of this novel masterfully, speaking in close-third through a number of narrators’ points of view, giving individual voice to each, carefully illuminating truths bit by bit, page by page. For reasons into which I won’t go so as not to spoil, I fell most in love with Veronica and Dom. No doubt you will find your own friends herein and parts of yourself — parts both light and dark. Be warned, though, there are no easy happy endings here.

The Mighty Franks: A Family Memoir, Hardcover, 320pp, May 2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Connection: I read about this memoir in which a young boy is taken under the wing of an eccentric aunt who adores him and wishes he were her own. Not unlike my life. I was hooked and knew I had to read it.

A complicated, convoluted and near incestuous family structure produced the author of this memoir, Michael Frank, whose extraordinarily close relationship to his aunt, Hank, a combination of Auntie Mame and Mommy Dearest, is the subject around which the narrative is built. Compellingly told, the dissolution from mutual admiration society to broken-hearted (and, perhaps, in Hank’s case, mentally ill) combatants, is beautifully written and thus easy to read but emotionally eviscerating and thus difficult to take.

The Free, Willy Vlautin, Paperback, 320pp, February 2014, Harper Perennial

Connection: This was brought to my attention by Garth Greenwell, another Twitter friend who I began stalking upon publication of What Belongs To You, the best novel of 2016, and, truly, one of the finest of all time in any genre but particularly important as a classic LGBTQ work. If you read this blog even a little, you know how I adore Garth, so, when he said he’d “thought of me” when reading this novel, there was nothing for me to do but immediately get hold of it.

It is clear from the gorgeous rhythms of the structure of this novel that its author, Willy Vlautin, is a singer, songwriter. And, too, its heartbreaking rendering of the struggles, burdens, and tragedies in the half-hopeless lives of its three damaged protagonists, lets you know that his musical genre is country.

Leroy Kervin, wounded veteran driven to further destroy himself, imprisoning his consciousness in a terrifying dream world while his body deteriorates in a hospital bed; Freddie McCall, night shift caretaker when Leroy committed his act of desperation, has lost his wife and kids, and despite working multiple jobs is about to lose his house and what little hope he has left; and Pauline Hawkins, a nurse caring for Leroy, who also must cope with a mentally ill and abusive father, and who can’t seem to stop picking up strays, are the three characters whose lives are woven in and out of a narrative near Greek in its darkness and its litany of disappointments.

Still, inside the simple and beautiful sentences, there is a breath of hope, of continued belief in something, somewhere. It is undefined, what that belief is, where such faith comes from; it remains unnamed and unspoken but is there, beneath the surface of the words, inside the story, this intangible quality of keeping on against all odds. I laughed, I wept, and I recognized myself — and, I think, all of us in this deceptively quiet novel. Let it move you.

June, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Paperback, 432pp, February 2017, Broadway Books

Connection: Twitter, again! The lovely Cary Barbor messaged and asked if I’d be interested in a few books she had and I, being me (as someone said: It’s not hoarding if it’s books!) said of course. And so she sent me those books, and a few more for good measure. This was one.

I really loved this. Don’t start it unless you have time to finish it because — cliché though this is — you won’t want to put it down.

When Cassie Danvers’s mourning of her grandmother, June, in the decrepit, crumbling home she’s been left with is interrupted by the news that she has been left millions as the sole heir of movie idol, Jack Montgomery, begins a search into the past in an effort to discover who June and Jack really were, and who Cassie and the other possible heirs — including Jack’s film star daughter, Tate Montgomery, who arrives with entourage in tow — might be in relation to them.

The story skips back and forth between June’s youth and meeting with Jack Montgomery, and Cassie’s present, and both stories are rip-roaring, exciting, tell me! tell me! mysteries combined with love stories and hate stories and gossip and secrets and surprises.

Two books in one, either of which would have been enough, but tied together with a ribbon of good-writing and clever plotting, it’s a home run, firework explosion of a summer read.

Point Blank (Alex Rider #2), Anthony Horowitz, Hardcover, 215pp, April 2002, Philomel Books

Connection: See my recent write-ups about Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders and Stormbreaker (Alex Rider #1) here.

Young Adult adventure. Second in the series. Fast. Fun. Unbelievable. And every once in a while I need that sort of superhero kind of blast of “it-will-all-turn-out-in-the-end” frivolity. Unfortunately, this one ends with a cliffhanger. Now, seems I’ll have to read #3.

One Of Us Is Lying, Karen M. McManus, Hardcover, 361pp, May 2017, Delacorte Press

Connection: Cary Barbor again! This being one of the extras she threw in, and for which I’m very grateful.

I love a good YA novel. A brain, a beauty, a criminal, an athlete, and an outcast are thrown together in detention. One dies. The remaining four are suspects. I saw all the twists coming but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this fast moving romp. Good fun, even though someone died.

The Age Of Innocence, Edith Wharton

Connection: Twitter. Again.

I’ve had a number of Wharton books for years but have never actually read them. So, when a few of the Twitterati who happen to be in the publishing industry and happen to be folks whose intellect and talent I much admire began discussing which Wharton was the best, it prompted me to dig out The Age of Innocence.

I hardly think there is anything to be said about this 1921 Pulitzer Prize Winner that hasn’t already been said by far wiser and erudite folk than am I. What makes it classic is how, despite its very specific setting in 1870s New York upper crust society, its exploration of the human condition and emotions still applies today. In fact, its depiction of the idiocies of social standards and prejudices, it is as relevant today as it ever was.

The love triangle is portrayed with such subtlety, wit, and depth of emotion bubbling but rarely boiling out into the open, one is taken along with the characters, yearning for all three of them, somehow, to get to a happy ending.

And, I suppose, in a way, they do. But at a cost.

In any event, what a pleasure to drown in the words, the glorious, evocative abundance of lovely language at a languid, careful pace. My only cavil, it felt to me, here and there, that there were commas missing where they ought to be. But, if you’ve read me, you know I am a near violent-over-user of commas. I blame it on years as an actor and director, where a breath, a pause, the pace was all important to communicating the tale being told.

A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman, Paperback, 337pp, May 2015, Washington Square Press

Connection: Twitter. This one was sent to me by one of my dearest Twitter pals, Pamela, with whom I’ve actually spent marvelous, real world time. It was also recommended to me ages ago by my dear Marlene, from The Curious Iguana, my local indie bookstore (i.e. second home – click here to go there).

Let me begin by saying more than one person has suggested I am not unlike the title character of this novel; a curmudgeonly older gentleman who has been dealt a couple of raw hands by life, affects a gruff and grumbly mien, but underneath, is a softie.

I’m okay with that.

There is nothing in the least bit surprising in this book. A querulous coot’s wife dies of cancer, after which, said irascible grouch decides to kill himself, having lost the only person who saw the love and light inside him. He is repeatedly interrupted in his attempts and begrudgingly becomes engaged in the lives of a broad swath of others as, back and forth in time goes the narrative explaining how Ove became Ove.

I laughed. I cried. I read it in one sitting. I loved this book.

And not just because there may be one or two MINOR similarities between Ove and myself.

**********

Well, there it is, eight books in under 2000 words. No one is more surprised than I am that I managed that. And this aged curmudgeon is so grateful for the connections that brought these books to me. I may not have a lot of money, my health may be shaky, but what I’ve a fortune in, the currency most valuable to me? You people, my connections, this embarrassment of riches in the currency of good, fine, wonderful, funny, embracing, forgiving, seeing, loving people.

And, before I get more maudlin or exceed 2000 words, here I am, going.

Love and Light, dear ones.

 

Reading: Dogs, Fugitives, Kid Spies and Magpies

In this post I will be talking about LILY AND THE OCTOPUS by Steven Rowley, EAT THE DOCUMENT by Dana Spiotta, STORMBREAKER and MAGPIE MURDERS by Anthony Horowitz. But first, a word from a man who probably needs a sponsor: ME.

Real life is a bit too real for me since January.

Coincident with the illegitimate illegal installation of the psycho-narcissist as president, I was afflicted with what seemed to be a rash on my upper right arm. It has since spread over all of me from the chest down, will not abate, and after many, many trips to multiple doctors —

which, by the way, took six months because that AHCA insurance the gop seems to think need be gutted as it is too fabulous for we poor people to deserve, didn’t cover any of the doctors I needed to see, thanks to the ways in which the republican party had already fought to ruin it

— I am finally being seen by someone(s) who seem to give a damn and are determined to figure out what is the cause and treatment for this human red-spotted leopard defacing all over me; a process which, unfortunately, has required repeatedly having chunks of my skin removed and sent to labs, and from which there is still no answer although a few sort of not very pleasant possibilities.

In addition, the so-called real world is such a mess, so nearly incomprehensible to me in its almost complete-collapse into unkindness and cruel behavior, with whole swaths of gullible, terrified people enabling villainous, vile sociopaths to lead them, that I am more and more reading while less and less able to face the news of real life. So, I read four books in five days, and it was pretty damn marvelous to do so while petting and frolicking with the dogs I was sitting. Here we go.

Lily And The Octopus, Steven Rowley, original Hardcover June 2016, Paperback, 336pp, May 2017, Simon & Schuster

Perhaps reading a book about a love story between a gay man and his dying dog was not the optimum choice while pet-sitting a near ancient pup I love named Tess, who can just barely make it up and down steps any more. So, I cried when Lily died. But, I cry when I see someone eating alone in a restaurant. This was a quick read but a little too much for me in its dream and fantasy sequences which took a touching, personal story into an odd, not very clearly defined (or decided) off-ramp of fantasy-magic realism which lost me. Still, not sorry I read it.

Eat The Document, Dana Spiotta, Hardcover, 290pp, February 2006, Scribner

Mary Whittaker, a 1970s radical, goes underground after a protest action results in murder. She becomes Louise, and it is years later when she is widowed, raising her fifteen year old son alone, that her identity is revealed — in ways I won’t give away here. Her co-murderer and lover, Bobby, also goes underground, and each live lives of sorrowful solitude, unable to be completely who they were or who they have become, carrying the weight of their crimes and their passion and their lies, always a wall between them and the world and the people they try to love.

I have long meant to read this novel as Dana Spiotta has more than once been compared to Joan Didion. There was no Didion-esque resonance for me in this novel, although it was very well written, but somehow it left me feeling we hadn’t quite gotten to the heart of who anyone in the story was, other than the fifteen year old son, Jason, who was limned beautifully — albeit with a vocabulary and insight most 40 year olds don’t achieve.

Stormbreaker, Anthony Horowitz, Hardcover, 192pp, May 2001, Penguin Putnam

I venture occasionally into the Young Adult genre, and this is the first in a series of ten (I think) Alex Rider Adventures; which I picked up because author Anthony Horowitz has just released an adult mystery, Magpie Murders. which I had on hold at library and some reviews had mentioned the Rider series as fun and fast and literate. So, while I was waiting, I thought I’d try it.

Truth? I finished it and put the second in the series on hold at the library. Long/short: Alex Rider’s parents died when he was quite young, since which time he’s been raised by his uncle, Ian Rider, who, rather than the 9 to 5 businessman he pretended to be, was a very adept, near Bond-ian spy. Alex is recruited (cajoled, blackmailed) into service by the same organization his uncle worked for and infiltrates the same corrupt group that murdered him.

A little unbelievable? Yes. But, right now, good conquering evil, the nice guys with morals winning out over the evil, power-hungry sociopaths, and a near guaranteed happy ending — all wrapped up in a quick, not un-amusing afternoon of a read? SIGN ME UP.

Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz, Hardcover, 496pp, June 2017, Harper Collins Pubishers

I had just finished Volume One of Anthony Horowitz’s Young Adult, Alex Rider Adventure Series, when Magpie Murders came my way. Touted as an homage to Agatha Christie golden age mysteries with a parallel helping of contemporary crime novel, and following in the footsteps of the entertaining and clever Alex Rider series opener, this novel had a huge fountain pen and Rhodia notebook to fill.

I was not disappointed.

When I began reading the Christie-ish novel-within-a-novel I was a trifle worried as character after character was introduced and I feared I’d not be able to keep track of who they were — many is the mystery novel I’ve read (or started to read) in which the only real question is how am I supposed to tell these characters apart they’re so damn bland?! Not the case here. Well defined characters. Much wit. Intricate and detailed plotting. Fair clues everywhere in both the “classic” mystery and the “modern-day” crime riddle.

I could have enjoyed either of the sections of this book on their own; woven into one, interconnected, echoing, shadowing, and even — gently — mocking both genres, this was a delightful experience from start to finish and start to finish and finally, finish.

So, there we have it, four books in five days, not a dud among them. Has the bastard been marched out of the White House in handcuffs yet? No? Well, lucky for me I’ve got a large stack of to-be-reads and a library-hold list the envy of my — well, not the envy of anyone, but, I’m happy here, with my niece and nephew pups and my retreat from reality. Let me know when the entire gaggle of het-cis-white-men-bigots who are running the country have been run out on a rail.

Until then, here I am, going.

 

Reading: 3 Thrillers

I love a good thriller and I especially love one with a fascinating and complicated main character who I know is going to return in future adventures. So, when Hope Dellon, of St. Martin’s Press, who is the editor of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series and M.C.Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, mentioned author Becky Masterman’s Brigid Quinn series, it was only a matter of minutes before I put in a reserve request at my local library. Once gain, Hope Dellon has led me to a heroine who is startlingly and marvelously human, flawed, and skillfully written.

Rage Against The Dying (Brigid Quinn #1), Becky Masterman, Hardcover, 307pp, March 2013, Minotaur Books

Brigid Quinn is a 59 year old, ex-FBI agent, newlywed, who hasn’t been completely honest with her ex-priest husband about her past. She gets drawn into a case seemingly by accident and circumstance, only, not so much; turns out she was targeted because of her involvement in a past search for a serial killer who may or may not just have been captured and the danger and the secrets become more towering with every page turned in this debut thriller.

First of all, I’m all in for protagonists who defy some of the -isms of this world. Brigid Quinn is of a certain age (right near mine) and gender rare to main characters, and even rarer, allowed agency and power, not used as a prop or victimized.

Second; the plot and pacing of this novel is breakneck. It moves. It’s a one-sitting sort of read because you’ll want to keep going, so invested do you become in what will happen to Brigid Quinn and what sort of victory or defeat will be the result of her split-second and not always measured reactions and responses to events.

Third; either my reading of thrillers and serial killer fiction (or, perhaps, today’s politics) have numbed me to the horrors written about in these novels, or, Becky Masterman manages to evoke the degenerate nature of the crimes without rubber-necking over the gore and grossness. I appreciate that, as, some thrillers seem to be trying to out-shock with vomitous depravity, so nasty it makes me stop reading.

Fourth – and most important; the writing is excellent, the character development skillful and riveting, and the author thanked her editor, Hope Dellon, and her agent, and that is enough for me to know I’m dealing with a writer who I would like in real life, so it gives me pleasure to read them.

The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne, Hardcover, 320pp, June 2017, G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Sometimes having to use a rating system which allows only five stars — no fractions, and no categories as in: A number of stars for authorial style and skill; A number of stars for content; A number of stars for packaging; And a number of stars for personal preference/peccadillo — is frustrating; this is one of those times.

So, I’m going to use categories to help resolve the disaccord between my heart and my head on this one.

Authorial Styles and Skill: 4 Stars

There is no question that Karen Dionne accomplishes the goal of good thriller construction in this compulsively paced novel with its piecemeal reveal, past/present, psychological and imminent physical threat, powerful and interesting central characters. The voice of Helena Pelletier, the title character, is strong and deepens and grows as the story jumps from her present and her past, a past where she was born in captivity to a mother who’d been kidnapped as a child, raped, and tortured into pretending to be a wife in a wilderness where there were no other people save the sadistic, sociopathic, pedophile who enslaved her. The sense of Helena’s awareness grows as she does, and, too, it evolves in the present as she tells the story of her childhood, twenty years later when her monster of a father has escaped from prison and she is certain he is coming for her. The conflict between being, living and using the parts of herself shaped by the man who raped her mother and sired Helena,  and  acknowledging and coping with the reality that he is a complete and utter beast, is a terrifically constructed journey for which Karen Dionne deserves all the kudos. Our repulsion builds as Helena’s does, and the last third of the book one is tempted to skip pages, skim paragraphs, and hurry hurry hurry to its finish, hoping for — well, whatever it is the particular reader will hope for. Which brings me to —

Content: 3 Stars

The subject matter of this novel is certainly a legitimate story/set-up worth exploring about the discovery of self, the ability to survive unspeakable trauma, the cost of such trauma, and a larger metaphorical commentary on what the havoc that is wrought by an alpha-male, misogynist culture where sociopaths in power terrorize their victims — i.e. tr*mp and his gop cohorts, these white-cis-hetero men motivated by a hunger for control, full of hatred for and fear of all others not them. That said, it’s almost too much. It’s both too frightening and, somehow, demeaning, as in, this is too horrifying a possibility to be made fiction and so reading it seems like rubber-necking at a fatal accident where one can do nothing but watch, which one ought not.

Packaging: 3 Stars

Attractive cover design; front blurbed by Lee Child, back blurbed by 8 who’s who of thriller and Oprah Book Club authors including Karin Slaughter and Jacquelyn Mitchard. The typesetting is easy to read, pages nicely spaced, quality binding. I’d have given it another star if there hadn’t been SO MUCH in italics. The whole first page — an intro to the Hans Christian Andersen, whose tale of the same name is that on which the novel is based — is in italics. And every time we get more of the Andersen tale, more italics. To me, italics say DON’T READ ME — SKIP AHEAD.

Personal Preference/Peccadilloes: 2 Stars (SPOILER ALERT/THIS PARAGRAPH)

I can’t watch Law & Order: SVU, or movies in which children are terrorized, or read about graphic acts of violence, and this book had plenty of all the things that make me feel icky. If you want to tell me stories about vampires or fantasy tales which could never possibly happen, okay, but if you’re telling me a story that is possible in the real world in which I live, I am easily turned off by evil and cruelty. I have gotten markedly more sensitive as I’ve aged and as the world has gotten meaner, so, maybe I ought to stop reading crime fiction and thrillers entirely. Stick with British cozies. We’ll see.

And, finally, the very last section of the novel, during which daughter and criminal father struggle for victory over one another, is a bit heavy-handed on metaphor.

Hmm, those do average out to 3 stars. Maybe only having 5 stars isn’t so bad after all.

Midnight At The Bright Ideas Bookstore, Matthew J. Sullivan, Hardcover, 336pp, June 2017, Scribner

Set a novel in a bookstore, people it with book-loving characters, and chances are I will decide it’s a must-read for me. The premise, the cover, the beginning of Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore set a tone not unlike one of the series of cozies set in indie bookstores peopled by quirky characters with slightly mysterious and/or troubled pasts, who are suspects in and solvers of a death in their community, and, all too often, there is also a cat.

On the plus side: no cat here. On the minus: not a cozy and the intriguing set-up and idiosyncratic characters never quite fulfill their promise in this well-written but frustrating debut novel which feels more like what started as a brilliant outline of great idea but was published too early, and could have used a few more drafts and a guiding hand to clarify, focus, and decide: What is this book really going to be?

Lydia Smith, not her real name — check: Mysterious Past — is one of the Bright Ideas booksellers, — check: Indie Bookstore —  the one to whom the BookFrogs, those outliers who loiter about the store — check: Idiosyncratic Characters — turn for comfort. It is Lydia who finds one of her favorite BookFrogs, Joey McGinty, hanging in the upper level of the bookstore —check: Death in the Community — and thus begins the piecing together of not so much as whodunnit as a who is it? Turns out almost everyone Lydia knows or has known is one way or another connected.

The details of Joey’s troubled past, about which he told Lydia, were only the beginning, and he’s left her coded puzzles of clues about who he was and where he came from via a series of books from which he’s cut patterns of boxes into pages. Lydia figures out how to decode, and, unfortunately, each message is then shown to us — taking up lots of page space to little effect as immediately following it, each message is written out in italics. This could better have been accomplished by ONCE actually reproducing one of the cut-out pages and coded answer beneath it in the novel which would have been a nice, quirky (that word again) production feature.

Missed opportunity.

The solution to the clues rely on knowledge of ISBN codes, which are not adequately explained for non-book people, and one wonders why and whether a lover of books, like Joey, would choose a method of post-mortem messaging that defaced books?

We learn enough about Joey, and Lydia’s live-in lover, David, and her childhood friend, Raj and his parents, and her dad, and — well, lots of interesting and well-defined characters, to make us want (and expect) more of them, but we don’t get that more. We are left with what feel more like sketches than fleshed-out lives.

Again, this novel feels like it could have used a few more drafts to develop it further.

NOW, that said, these are cavils I could not have had were this author not so promisingly gifted, so adept and creative. The writing flows, the pace never lags, and I suspect this good book will be followed by even better books from this author who clearly has in them a great book.

*************

So, there it is dear ones, three thrillers in a row. What next? Well, I’ve started the much recommended Lily and the Octopus, although it seems to be a dying dog story and I am still not over the death of any of the dogs I have known, and pet-sitting an ancient pup now who is slowing down at a frightening pace, so I may delay Lily. Also reading the glorious The Long-Winded Lady (Notes from The New Yorker), which is a collection of the writer, Maeve Brennan’s glorious pieces for the magazines The Talk of the Town section. How I had never heard of her before is a real mystery, but, also, a gift, because her work is glorious and takes me back to the imagined New York and literary circles of my childhood. Already in the first few pieces she has mentioned The Algonquin and Schrafft’s — I’m in literary-nerd heaven.

Here I am, dear ones, going.

 

Reading: June is for Genre Jumping

Thus far in June I’ve read seven books, the latest three in the last three days, and so different were they a weaker reader might be suffering literary whiplash, but I am made of sterner stuff and, frankly, both my driving and mood swings have accustomed me to nerve-wrackingly abrupt lane changes and shockingly sudden emotional ups and downs, so it was nothing for me to start at Regency Romance, segue to hilarious, profane, up-to-the-minute/zeitgeisty essays, and then brake and veer left into serial-killer, crime novel land. And so, in that order, and in brief, here we are, going.

It was fellow book-bloggist (and Fredericktonian), Kerry McHugh at Entomology of a Bookworm [click here] who first turned me on to Regency Romance novels. It was a year or so ago (I think — my sense of time is as off as my sense of direction and distance — see above bad driving reference) Kerry offered a blog on exploring the Romance genre and so enlightening and persuasive was her column, I hied to my local used book store and started exploring. I am now a devotee of Regency Romance, and cycle one in along with my other favorite genre reads — literary fiction, British mystery cozies, LGBTQ fiction and non-fiction, short stories, essays, classic fiction — I could go on, but why? Here’s the thing, though it is convenient to divide reading material into categories, it is also, finally, meaningless. What I look for and love is good, interesting, committed writing. Sometimes I need it to help me escape real life (HELLO – WORLD NEWS NOW!) and sometimes I need it to connect me to and explain to me and make sense of for me real life (HELLO – WORLD NEWS NOW!) — so I turn to what I need at the moment to keep me going (or, keep me safe) and so, with daily news being what it is — the cluster-freak of unbelievable events day after day — genre jumping June it is.

The Heir (Windham #1), Grace Burrowes, Paperback, 471pp, December 2010, Sourcebooks Casablanca

Would that I were better at remembering from whom or where I was recommended books. I am not sure if this was a Twitter-pal recommendation or one of those titles I came across while web-surfing, following links here and there, as I do, and noticed that the author, Grace Burrowes, lived in rural Maryland — which I automatically assume means Frederick. However I found her, this, her debut novel, was wonderfully enjoyable.

Gayle Windham, Earl of Westhaven and heir to the Duke of Moreland falls in love with his housekeeper, Anna Seaton, a woman of obvious charms and breeding and mysterious past. Intrigue, eroticism, adventure and all variety of romance ensue. Many a fascinating secondary character is brought to vivid life — I know there are at least four more books in this series since 2010 and I hope to get to know the secondary characters better in some of those — and the 470 pages fly by.

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life. Essays, Samantha Irby, Paperback, 288pp, May 2017, Vintage

Dorothy Parker and Fran Lebowitz were my childhood idols. I longed to be that smart, that funny, that honest, that able to see the world and reveal it in all its dichotomy and hypocrisy and beauty, all with a sardonic, curmudgeonly affection, from a safe distance, mostly cozied up in my distant aerie, looking down on it all, wrapped in my irascibility.

So, of course, I loved Samantha Irby. Self-deprecating, laugh-out-loud hilarious, brutally honest, ribald and delightfully indecorous, suffering from intractable intestinal disorder and degenerative arthritis, depression, and being a woman, a person of color, a person of heft, and a member of the LGBTQ community in a world where just one of those would be enough to cause you trouble, Samantha Irby is a brilliant documentarian of life in these troubled, terrifying times.

Samantha Irby — who, like Dorothy Parker and Fran Lebowitz (and me) did not graduate college displays a level of erudition and insight, sophisticated and bawdy at once, proving that sometimes life experience is all the degree one needs to be brilliant. She explores everything from lousy parents to lousy taste in men, to finding (and being appalled by the requirements of) love, to her Satan-possessed feline, Helen Keller. Don’t ask. Just read it.

Little Boy Blue, A Detective Helen Grace Thriller #5, M.J.Arlidge, Paperback, 432pp, October 2016, Berkley

Whomever or wherever recommended to me M.J. Arlidge’s Little Boy Blue and its anti-hero, Detective Helen Grace, I thank you. This is number 5 in the series and I am happy to know I’ve the first four to explore. But, not right now.

This was an extremely well done, incredibly fast paced thriller. Its exploration of Helen Grace’s hidden side, her involvement in the BDSM community and thus connection to a series of murders in that underground world, a connection which comes to light in an unfortunate and possibly career-ending manner, all make for a great read.

But, it doesn’t really have a resolution, rather, it sets us up for #6 — and I’d like to be TOLD that is the case when I start a book, not find out when I’m near the end and saying to myself, “There don’t seem to be enough pages left for this story to be tied up — or, in this case, hog-tied and duct taped.”

Too, the reveal of the serial killer was a bit unexpected if one hadn’t read the previous installments — which I have not, so, I felt a trifle betrayed, as in, how could I have guessed this person?

Those minor cavils aside, I finished this in almost one sitting. Very speedy. Compelling. And great character building. Once I recover, I will, probably, read the first four I missed.

So, there it is, halfway through June and I’ve read far and wide so far. What I’m lacking is a classic, but I’ve got Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence waiting near the top of the pile. And quite a pile it is, plus nine books on hold at the library and two on order at The Curious Iguana, my gorgeous local indie bookstore [click here]. So, must get to reading (and, you know, the other things in life — but I only do those so I have time and opportunity to read) and thus, here I am, going.

Reading: Not Everything Can Be A Musical (dammit)

Extraordinary Adventures, Daniel Wallace, Hardcover, 336pp, May 2017, St. Martin’s Press

I was hanging in my local indie, The Curious Iguana, a gift card SCREAMING at me from my wallet to buy something but there weren’t any books I was dying to have or had been alerted to by my vast Twitter network of word and book lovers. So  consulted my friendly bookseller and, voila! All I needed was to be told the writer of Big Fish had a new release, Extraordinary Adventures, and I was in.

Okay, true confessions (why do so many of my book write-ups involve confessions?): I never actually read Big Fish. And surely you don’t think me one of those cretins who believes movie content has much of anything to do with the book that inspired it. Ha! Of course not. It was the *MUSICAL version of Big Fish had its way with my heart, memory of which experience prompted me to buy this book.

The blurbs called it quirky and funny and hilarious and witty, and I suppose that’s a decision made by the marketing people, but wow, while I found much to admire in it and was touched by its humanity and tenderness, I did not find it funny.

I asked myself why?

And, alarmingly, the only answer with which I could come up was that, perhaps, maybe, it could be, oh dear, I’m too much like the main character, Edsel Bronfman. He is a reasonably intelligent man, reasonably capable, reasonably kind and good, who has allowed his life to live him rather than he living his life. He waited, he hoped, he wished, but he didn’t do much to make any of his hopes or wishes come to fruition. He did not — maybe — believe he was worthy of the lives he saw others living, the hopes fulfilled, and the wishes come true.

Edsel makes an effort to remedy these things through the course of the narrative (he’s MUCH younger than I am, so, good on him for trying to change) and interacts with a number of extraordinary women, discovers some of his mother’s secrets, develops a fondness for the drug dealer next door who robs his apartment and almost gets him killed, and trips, trudges, and travels through a series of — well, okay — quirky adventures leading up to a resolution — of sorts.

The novel sometimes feels as if it’s trying just a little too hard to be a Bill Murray vehicle. You know, one of those darkish meta-noirs posing as comedies directed by a pair of brothers, the kind a comedic actor signs up for in an effort to gain an auteur-hip patina and an Oscar nomination; the kind of film (definitely NOT a movie) the cognoscenti group-think agree to crow over despite the fact very few of them actually sat through the whole thing.

Which makes it sound as if I didn’t like this book, which is not the case. I didn’t not like it. I just, well, look, I’m having a rough life and I’m a hard sell on believing that your average schlub is going to stumble out of schmo-dom into a happy end.

After my tenth biopsy in four weeks, with insurance the congress is about to strip me of, in a country being run by a misogynist racist mentally unstable foreign plant, well, I’m just not buying it.

And there it is. And here I am, going.

*I saw the final performance of Big Fish: The Musical, to which I was taken as a gift by a dear, dear friend of mine. I had recently lost some people, my life was in what can politely be called chaos, one of the stars of the show — Bobby Steggert — is from Frederick, Maryland, where I live, and I had seen him in shows when he was a youngster, and, I am a sucker for almost every musical ever. Kate Baldwin played the love interest in the show, and during the course of it, as the leading character is dying, she sits downstage center, holds his head in her lap, and sings a song called I Don’t Need A Roof — listen:

During the course of this song I sobbed (you’d have to be an ice cube not to do so) with such vigor and volume not only did my dear friend on my right put his arm around me to comfort me, the stranger on my left grabbed my hand and comforted me as well, sobbing along. So, yeah, that kind of magic? I’m of course going to buy Extraordinary Adventures.

Reading: A Mystery, A Tragedy, and a Regency Romp

Ill Will, Dan Chaon, Hardcover, 480pp, March 2017, Ballantine Books

Multiple unreliable narrators, voiced through physical text purposely out of whack — words and punctuation missing, ends of sentences dropped off, odd spacing, pages divided into multiple columns of story — all meant, I think, to keep the reader off balance, uncomfortable, yanked from complacency, make Dan Chaon’s Ill WIll a book unlike most others, a Dadaist approach to literary fiction, experimental to the point of distraction.

The story is told as collage, time jumping and changing points of view. I was enjoying it for the first two hundred pages or so but around that halfway mark I came to suspect there was not going to be satisfactory resolution nor sufficient motivation for all the trickery; that I was never going to get complete backstories of the characters; and that what I was reading was something written as an exercise in effect, less a story about the characters than a story about the author’s prowess and daring.

That show-offy quality, the bleak and hopeless tone, and the unearned length wore me out. But this novel is MUCH LOVED by many literary critics and reviewers, so, don’t take my word for it. This is just my opinion.

The Rules Do Not Apply, Ariel Levy, Hardcover, 224pp, March 2017, Random House

Ariel Levy has been through the mill. Actually, she’s been milled, ground up, beaten into biscuit-dom, chewed, swallowed, egested, and still, somehow, managed to go on.

It is not a spoiler to say that during the course of this memoir she loses a child, a spouse, and a home. I think measuring tragedies against one another a fool’s occupation, but, I’m something of a fool, and I think the loss of a child is one of the most devastating sufferings one can endure — if, endure it one can. There is no coming back to who you were before your child was ripped from your reality; you are forever changed and forever measuring the loss, and, from my experience talking to those who’ve lost a child, forever numbed to  happiness and on guard against loss in a way you were not before the tragedy.

To lose your mate as well, to have to surrender one’s home, all on top of the loss of your child — how do you survive? Ariel Levy, I suspect, manages to continue living by putting words in order, one after another, in ways that make sense and have shape — logic and form and reason that are lacking in her real life, because, there is no way to make sense or find form in the loss of a child. No way.

So, she wrote this book. She manages to convey much of the horror but it is never done in a weepy-poor-me singing the blues sort of style. She is a successful reporter/profiler (she’s worked at both New York Magazine and The New Yorker) and she lays out the story — her story — in artful prose, swiftly, not dwelling on the ache and the pain, but, rather, illustrating it, conveying it in reasoned but moving prose. This is a very short and quick book, almost a long-form article, which I read in one sitting.

Any longer would likely have lost me because there is so much pain here. But, if Ariel Levy can write this well about her own life, I have been encouraged to start searching for her profiles and reportage on the lives of others.

Where The Dead Lie (Sebastian St. Cyr #12), C.S.Harris, Hardcover, 338pp, April 2017, Berkley Books

How did I miss the first eleven episodes in C.S.Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr series? This is just my cup of tea — possibly laced with arsenic and served by a butler with a terrible secret who is probably blackmailing my guest, a not so nobleperson who is of questionable parentage.

A Regency London set mystery full of intriguing and complicated characters, artfully woven period details and history, and compelling, fast-paced storytelling written with style, grace, and wit.

In this installment, when an orphaned street urchin of London is murdered in a most brutal and disgusting way, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin is called in by a law enforcement type unwilling to sweep the death of a child under a rug, no matter how little the child mattered and how many would gladly dismiss the death of one more useless beggar. Devlin is determined to get to the bottom of it and discovers along the way that this urchin is not the first to have disappeared mysteriously and been used and abused in such a manner. In Devlin’s relentless pursuit of the truth and the killer, he is forced to interact with the darkest sides of London’s lowlife and discover their unsavory connections to the higher born who are part of Devlin’s own circle, and, perhaps, family.

Loved this. Great distraction from life. Horrifying subject but not done in a way that sickens one. Credit where credit due; it was because of the back cover blurb by one of my favorite writers, Deanna Raybourn, author of the Veronica Speedwell (among others) series, that motivated me to sign this book out of the library. Thank you to her. I am now struggling with going back to number one through eleven in the series — MY TO BE READ PILE IS ALREADY FILLING A ROOM!

So, off I go, to read another in my stacks.

Reading: Wrapping Up May

I read 13 books in May and have only talked about 6. So, I’m catching up with the rest of my May reads except for one, Celeste Ng’s GLORIOUS novel, “Little Fires Everywhere“, an advance reader copy of which I finally got my hands on. Since it is not being published until September and since I hate reading other people talk about books I can’t yet get, I’m going to reserve my hosannas and huzzahs about Celeste Ng’s genius and gift until closer to the book’s release date; except to say to you, PRE-ORDER THIS ONE!

Now, then, on to the books I am going to talk about, and wow, this has been a great month for reading. Let me start with a Twitter pal’s work;

His Majesty’s Hope (Maggie Hope Mystery, #3), Susan Elia MacNeal, Paperback, 334pg, 2013, Bantam

I love Maggie Hope. I love this series. And I love knowing I’ve four more of this heroine’s adventures waiting for me. That said, each of these novels stands alone, so start where you like, but reading the first two: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, and Princess Elizabeth’s Spy [click HERE to read what I thought about those] certainly enriches the experience of reading this installment in which Maggie continues her education and evolution as a secret agent working for Britain against the Nazi’s during World War II which has come to England with a vengeance. Dropped into Berlin to pose as a Nazi-sympathizer while delivering radio crystals to another undercover operative, Maggie sees an opportunity to gather essential information and despite the danger to herself and in defiance of protocol, she undertakes a mission of her own making, during which she meets a half-sister she didn’t know she had and discovers that no one is who they seem to be or who she thinks they are, including herself. By the end of this chapter of Maggie’s story, her efforts to uncover enemy secrets have exposed a darkness in and doubts about the world she thought she knew and everyone in it, including herself.

Susan Elia MacNeal’s writing is as graceful as ever, her plotting clever and breakneck paced, and her character development detailed and deep. In addition to that, she effortlessly weaves in history and period detail enriching the experience and taking the reader away into another time. Sadly, reading about Maggie fighting evil during World War II and one of her dear friends being gay-bashed spotlights uncomfortable parallels to the present. How has the world NOT learned the lessons that war should have taught about hate, bigotry, and narcissistic, pathological liars being elected to power? While reading this novel I had at least a reasonable expectation things would turn out okay in the end; an expectation I cannot, today, in the real world in which we live, think reasonable or likely.

But I loved this book and I’m not allowing myself number 4, The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, until September. Well, that’s my plan. We’ll see if I — who cannot turn down a donut despite being supposedly seriously on a diet — can wait.

I read another of my series go-to authors in May, John Sandford’s 27th Lucas Davenport novel:

Golden Prey (Lucas Davenport #27), John Sandford, Hardcover, 416pp, April 2017, G.P. Putnam’s Sons

If you like Sandford, you like Sandford, and I really like him. I am a fan of both the Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers series and in this installment we have Lucas able to choose his own assignments thanks to having (in an earlier novel) saved the life of a very Hillary Clinton-esque politician who, in this novel, is running for president. She loses. Which was a little too unhappy an ending for me. Again. I mean, I’m still on medication from the IRL election. I don’t need it in fiction, too.

It was a month for detective novels. The next two were:

My Darling Detective, Howard Norman, Hardcover, 256pp, March, 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  and

The Long Drop, Denise Mina, Hardcover, 240pp, May 2017, Little, Brown and Company

Howard Norman’s My Darling Detective is a noirish romp in which Jacob Rigolet, personal assistant to a wealthy collector of art, and his detective lover, Martha Crauchet, become caught up in a crime committed by his mother, Nora, during which investigation are uncovered secrets, connections, and surprises. All of this is done with quirky style and whimsical (though never twee) humour tightly woven in a suspenseful and rollicking mystery plot with an explosive, Mack Sennett-like finale. I’ll say this, it’s not like anything else I’ve lately read, and that is refreshing.

Denise Mina’s The Long Drop is a darker journey based on true events. It explores in disturbing and thought provoking ways what “guilty” means and the thin line between good guy and bad guy, and whether crossing the line — even for the greater good — is ever justified. Denise Mina is a smart writer who trusts the reader is also smart. I mean, when a modern novelist is courageous enough and has trust enough in her audience to make a Samuel Pepys reference, I say, “YES, MORE PLEASE.”

On an entirely different note, I read One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter, Scaachi Koul, Paperback, 256pp, May 2017, Picador

— which was stunningly, often funnily, frequently painfully, open-veined, no boundaries, soul-searchingly wrought insight into being a woman, being of Indian ethnicity, being a daughter, being a lover, being human in today’s complicated, judgey, unforgiving, and often ridiculous world. Scaachi Koul has a gift for the pithy, hilarious, piercing one-liner coupled with the ability to quickly segue to a heartbreakingly honest confessional truism which leaves one saying, “Yes, exactly, I, too have felt that ache.” Caveat: I read this in one sitting which, I think, does it a great disservice because despite its drollery, it is a deeply serious work overall, in total, a sort of gut-punch of “wow, being not white, not male, not in the so-called club in this world sort of sucks.” Which, needless to say in these times, is a thing necessary to face, but, not particularly pleasant or easy to cope with.

And, finally, I end as I began, with a Twitter-pal, Pamela; she didn’t write the book, but, rather, read it and thought of me, recommended it a while ago, and it was only when making one of my regular visits to my friends at the local indie — The Curious Iguana — I remembered Pamela’s recommendation and picked it up. Wow. She knows me. So well.

Rules For Others To Live By: Comments & Self-Contradictions, Richard Greenberg, Hardcover, 320pp, October, 2016, Blue Rider Press

Richard Greenberg is the Tony Award Winning author of Take Me Out and many other perceptive, incisive, savvy, acute stage works. I am happy to say these essays — or, observations? —are every bit as sharp and moving and full of laughs, a-ha moments, and tears as are his plays — most of which straddle the line between comedy and drama, defying categorization.

Mr. Greenberg sculpts so many glorious lines I hesitate to choose among them, but, here goes.

She looked like an untaken photograph. There should have been a saxophone.

Success radiated from her like quills from a porcupine.

And there are many more surgically precise observations about people and places and situations, insights so imaginatively perceptive, one wants to approach Richard Greenberg, waving one’s hand like a child wanting the next piggyback ride from the big, strong, fun adult, pleading, “Do me! Me next!” so one might have one’s own Greenberg-metaphor to use forever as introduction so that one need never again try to explain one’s self. “Oh, lovely to meet you, my name is Charlie and I am like a place you visit infrequently which is never anything at all like you remember it; one of those night terrors where walls and doors and windows have all been rearranged into unfamiliar architecture through which you can’t find your way.”

Or, something like that only shorter and better. I feel as if Richard Greenberg could write me perfectly, because we are — save for his genius as a writer — alike in so many ways that as I read through the book I thought, perhaps, he’d been eavesdropping on my soul, or, he’d gotten the life I was supposed to have had. These:

Even in the thick of situations, and very happy about it, I don’t generally feel a part of things. I have a lot of friends who count on me to lend a sympathetic ear and give good counsel, but when I bother having a picture of myself…. As much as I enjoyed the party — as I enjoy most parties — in the cab after, I felt, as always, that I was heading back to freedom.

Serious people exist. But they tend to be drowned out by these others whose loudness, speed, shallowness, and ubiquity wear me down and diminish my capacity to go slow and think hard. It’ as though at some point it was decided the world was irreparably broken and all that’s left for us is to be connoisseurs of the wreckage.

I have a long history with people undergoing epiphanic breakthroughs, and it’s been demoralizing when it hasn’t been chilling.

When I am very old, I am going to become a walker. I am going to walk up and down the few streets of my neighborhood, taking everything in, and I will be wearing my green coat. Even in early spring, I will be wearing the green coat. It will be patched in places and threadbare in others. Already, my friend Linda has had to sew back on a button that fell off from sheer fatigue. I don’t discount the possibility that one day the buttons won’t all match. Some of them may not be flush with the buttonholes. This is fine by me. I will walk in my tattered garment, surveilling my immediate surroundings with a captious eye. People will start to notice me. I will become something of a local character.

I will have met my destiny, which is to be a flaneur, a walker in the city, as I would be already, were it not for my tendency to self-quarantine.

Yes. So precisely and decisively me, it is uncanny. Which Pamela saw. Which is why she suggested I read it, because reading it had, in her, done that a-ha thing of a bell ring of, “Oh, this is so much Charlie, he should read this.”

Because, you see, another thing I’ve in common with Richard Greenberg is a life-story where the time is measured not in years, but in the presence of remarkable women I have known, of which Pamela is one. We met on Twitter and then, because she urged me and arranged it we met in Washington, D.C. one day, which, for me, is something of a miracle since it required of me the panic-attack inducing activities of driving forty minutes to a Metro stop, boarding a train and riding 30 more minutes into D.C., and walking the city until the meet-up time — because so terrified am I of being late, and so every-time-I-do-it certain I will not be able to navigate the Metro and thus head hopelessly in the wrong direction — I arrived in the city approximately two hours before the appointed hour for the first in person embrace — of which I was also terrified. (See above faux Greenberg metaphor about me. I’m better long-distance and in writing than I am in person and long-exposure, both of which reveal me to be rather less of the good and more of the bad than I seem to be when able to edit — not that I manage to shorten anything when I edit — such as this; MOST of my editing/re-writing is about adding clarifying sentences and clauses and too effing many adjectives to try to explain myself — my virtual self, and excuse myself — my IRL self.)

Where was I? Oh, yes, Pamela. I’ll return to Richard Greenberg quotes:

I had no idea what she saw in me, but I didn’t question it….Some people say the same things in the same way to everyone they know. You think you’re conversing with them; you’re merely partnering their monologue. Jill had conversations that pertained to the person she was talking to. There was no double-dealing in this. She saw us.

That’s dear Pamela. Who has seen me — and I am not an easy see, and after having been seen require a lot of patience and effort at continuing to see — still, Pamela manages to find it in her heart to think of me when she reads a book she particularly likes and thinks I would enjoy. Like Rules For Others To Live By.

Remarkable women — by whom my life has been blessed — and remarkable books, like some in this blog entry. I hope for you, gentle reader, that your life has been as filled with the remarkable as has been mine.

Love and light and here I am, going.

Reading: Edan Lepucki’s “Woman No.17”

Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki, Hardcover, 320pp, May 2017, Hogarth Press

I loved Edan Lepucki’s California, and when I wrote about it I spoke of how much I looked forward to this fascinating writer’s next novel with the fervent wish its setting not be dystopian. Ha! Little did I know by the time Edan Lepucki published again we would be hurtling toward a non-fictional dystopia brought about by a treasonous, narcissistic, sociopathic, dementia-riddled, pathological liar who stole an election with the help of Russia.

But, here we are. And without babbling on at too great a length in sociological theorizing, I think we arrived at this seventh circle because we live in fear that who we are is not enough, not who we ought to be, and because of that fear we have become performance artists, pretending to be some idealized “I”  — or, at least, a version of that “I” we wear like armor, a disguise we hope will allow us to survive, to meet with the approval of the culture in which we live. And, the effort to maintain the facade of projected-self is so all-consuming, we often dissolve into despair and desperate behavior, having lost the line between truth and our invented-self, an exhaustion of being which leaves us vulnerable to the manipulations of others to whom we look as mirrors, to find ourselves in how they perceive us.

Oscar Wilde said it best; “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” In Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki has created a riveting and revealing portrait of the ways in which masks, personas, disguises, and the distancing effect of communication via social media affect modern life and personal reality.

The story is told by two alternating first person narrators; Lady, whose birth name was Pearl, and Esther, who is now called S. That the Lady sections are titled Lady, and the S sections titled Esther, indicates which of the two is more in touch with the anima beneath the persona, but both characters are remarkably aware of their own delusions — which in my opinion is where Edan Lepucki’s astounding ability to create real humans with whom one identifies and sympathizes, flaws and all, shines — because while Lady and S are both at turning points of identity confusion in their lives and behave in ways some reviewers and readers have described as repugnant, I found them to be like me, like everyone I’ve ever known, acting and behaving in the ways they do because they are compelled by the desire to find and be the “I” behind the masks, questioning the rules and expectations of cultural forces: social norms, parents, friends, and the roles we are expected to play based on gender, age, income, race, and class.

Lady, having recently decided to take a break from her marriage to Karl, hires S from a Craigslist ad to nanny for her toddler son, Devin. Too, Seth, Lady’s eighteen year old son from her first marriage to the long disappeared Marco, lives with her; while he has no diagnosed disability, Seth has spoken only one word in his lifetime and communicates via sign language, gestures, iPad, and phone texts. Both Lady and S had difficult mothers, and while Lady chose to deal with hers by disconnecting and cutting her out of her life, S’s reason for pursuing the nanny position has to do with her having decided to do a performance/art project and become her mother, who, early in her life, worked as a nanny; a project meant both to reveal to S who her mother was and who she, herself is. While S is plundering her mother’s past, Lady has pillaged Seth’s silence for an article she wrote which led to a contract for a book about his life. As the two pursue their goals, their lives and lies and loves become intertwined in a complex chiaroscuro portrait of parent and child relationships, the isolation of the self, and the ways in which we are so busy defining our own identities and healing our own wounds, we may well miss the ways in which we affect — or damage — others.

We don’t mean to disappoint, but life is never what we think it will be. Lady, remembering a long ago night when she thought things were turning around for her, that she was on the path to a happy end, says this:

     It hurts because nothing turned out the way I thought it would. You think you know how a story begins, or how it’s going to turn out, especially when it’s your own. You don’t.

There, there. So there.

Exactly. There is an economy of prose there with a near poetic rhythm, with that final paragraph, its four words sculpted into a metrical structure approximating a heartbeat, absolutely perfect; somehow both precise and ambiguous, like life, like the story, like the behavior of all the characters, like being human.

There are so many gorgeous, lyrical moments in Edan Lepucki’s work, I hesitate to begin quoting. But, in addition, Edan Lepucki also excels at dry wit and humor, with piquant observations of a world gone mad, populated by people trying to love and/or struggling to understand why they have not been better loved. I’m going on too long and I apologize. One more quote — this is the opening of the novel, by the end of which paragraph I was totally hooked, in love with the words, with the style. Listen:

It was summer. The heat had arrived harsh and bright, bleaching the sidewalks and choking the flowers before they had a chance to wilt. The freeways shimmered, any hotter and they might crack, might explode, and the poor cars would confetti into the air. People were complaining, they were moving slowly. They were swarming the beaches like tiny bugs upon the backs of dead animals. I preferred to stay home: ice cubes in the dog bowl, Riesling in the freezer. The air conditioner was broken. I had taken to sitting in the living room with the curtains drawn, my body edged with sweat like frosting on a cake, daring to see how hot it could get. I ate salad for dinner every night and had almost checked myself and the boys into a hotel. I’d refrained because of the babysitter search. What would applicants think if I requested they meet me poolside at the Roosevelt?

How beautiful and evocative is that? The highest compliment I can pay any author is that their work reminds me of Joan Didion and her trenchant, dissecting, laser-sharp prose; each word a perfect complement to the whole. Every word of that paragraph reveals something about its speaker, Lady, and after just those few sentences we know her, we’ve a feel of who she is; we’ve met her just as surely as if we’d been in a room with her.

This is the brilliance of Edan Lepucki and the beauty of a story which explores the meaning of family, art, truth, and the cost of our delusions and denials and desires.

Read it. Five stars. And, like I said after California, I can’t wait until her next novel. This time, though, I have no requests. I place myself wholly in Edan Lepucki’s hands, knowing that whatever she gives us will be a worthwhile and wonderful gift. She is one of my instant-always reads, and I bet she’ll be one of yours, too.