Thursday, December 31, 2015

Playing With Fire by Tess Gerritsen

Tess Gerritsen's latest novel is about a violin player. Violinist Julia Andsell finds a piece of music in a shop in Italy called the Incendio waltz. Julia is determined to bring the piece to life but the music stirs up decades-old secrets. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Night at the Fiestas: Stories by Kirstin Valdez Quade.

Each of stories in Night at the Fiestas are about family members embroiled in complicated, ambivalent relationships.

Maria both admires and despises her cousin, Nemecia, in the story called "Nemecia."

After leaving her first husband who was rich yet abusive, Monica of "Mojave Rats," marries an impoverished geology graduate student. Monica gives an expensive dress away to one of the children in the trailer park yet her past still lingers.

In "Five Wounds," a father who will soon play Jesus is embarrassed of his daughter who is unmarried and pregnant. The daughter in "Night at the Fiestas" is embarrassed of her hard-working yet unsophisticated father.

Perhaps the ultimate embarrassing father is Victor of "The Guesthouse." After shirking his duties to his children, he wants to live in their guesthouse with his snake and rats. 

Kirstin Valdez Quade is a writer to watch. She won the 2014 National Book Award "5 Under 35" award. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Eleanor : A Novel by Jason Gurley

Eleanor is one of the most intriguing works of fiction. Jason Gurley, the author, spent fifteen years writing the book. He self-published it before it was picked up by a mainstream publisher--Crown of Random House. 

Eleanor is a tour de force; At its heart is a brave fourteen-year-old girl who wants to change her family's tragic trajectory. Her grandmother, also named Eleanor, was deeply unhappy. Her unhappiness spread to her daughter and grandchildren.

What makes the work different is that its a ghost story unlike any other. After reading about the tragic history of the Witts, readers are confronted with a brand new reality--Mea and Efah. Who are these mysterious beings and how do they affect Eleanor and Jack?

Eleanor is filled with searing images. Readers can see the two protagonist jumping off Huffnagle Rock, hand in hand. They can see Eleanor falling and then disappearing. They can see Jack's grief after Eleanor is transported to an mysterious place--the Rift.

Eleanor, a teen-aged warrior, discovers the power to heroically change her present and her past by entering people's dreamscapes. She encounters a witch, a frosty environment, dinosaurs, and the plane responsible for her cousins' deaths. 

After researching the author, I've discovered why the novel seems so alive with vibrant images. Gurley devised Eleanor as a graphic novel as he attests in his blog,

Thank you to Library journal for sending me an advance reader's copy of Eleanor. What a fabulous read it has turned out to be!

Multnomah Best Reads of 2015

There are many good titles here:

H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald and Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff are two I can personally recommend. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

From Pulitzer-prize winning Adam Johnson, comes a collection of thought-provoking short stories.

"Nirvana," is a poignant story about a woman who can longer walk after contracting a rare disease. In this near future story, she draws comfort from a digital hologram of Kurt Cobain that her husband creates. 

"Hurricanes Anonymous" focuses upon a man taking care of his toddler son in the aftermath of Katrina. Though they live in a UPS truck, the man tries to do what is right but he's distracted by his new girlfriend, Cherelle.

"Interesting Facts" is written from the point-of-view of a sarcastic breast-cancer survivor. Cancer, she says, has taught her some "interesting facts;" namely, that she does not want her husband to date if she dies.

In "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine," Johnson returns to a theme he addressed in "Orphan Master's Son"--totalitarian governments. Set in Germany, shortly after reunification, the story gives the views of a former East German warden of Hohenschonhausen who seems to miss the old days.

The eponymous "Fortune Smiles," is about an odd reversal. A North Korean man is taken against his will to South Korea by a friend. Missing his past life, Sun-ho tries to lift off in a homemade balloon near the border. 

This brilliant collection of short stories and National Book Award winner is not to be missed. 
Adam Johnson, wikipedia.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies is a portrait of a marriage--as viewed in turn by both participants. The novel is a tragic love story and yet its also more than that.

Lawrence Satterwaite, an unlikely artist, is the creative force in the marriage. His father is a rich, but unsophisticated Florida businessman who made a fortune bottling spring water. Later, Lotto would write a play Springs based on his life in Florida.

As a dramatist, Lotto takes people and events from his life and uses them as creative fodder. His wife is the "saint" who remains childless and suffers for his art. She is his siren, his Antigone, until it all goes terrible wrong.

The second half of the book, Mathilde's point-of-view, picks up the dramatic pace. Here we see the cracks in the marriage writ large.

Mathilde has made Lotto's life run smoothly. She has taken care of all the bills and menial details, and she has grown to resent Lotto's fame. Mathilde also hides a staggering quantity of secrets. The things Lotto didn't know about his wife "could sink an ocean liner."

Chollie, Lotto's long time friend, seeks retribution. When he exposes one of Mathilde's most shameful secrets, he unwittingly unleashes a tragedy.

Groff depicts complex characters who are pretentious--flawed, yet interesting. In the end, Fates and Furies is more than a portrait of a marriage. It's a portrait of the sacrifices a couple may need to undertake if one of them is to succeed as an artist.

Other novels about couples dealing with creative conflict: Liza Klaussmann's Villa America, Peter Nichol's The Rocks, Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins, or Richard Yates' The Revolutionary Road.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase (continued)


Black Rabbit Hall has it's fairytale elements--the orphans, evil stepmother, enchanted house with towers--yet so much of it seems plausible and contemporary. 

The characters are unforgettable; the only glaring problem is Caroline Alton. She knows so much more than the other characters but where does she acquire this knowledge? Who tells her where Amber is staying? How does she arrange a meeting after all these years? 

In the end, that probably doesn't matter. She knows where Toby is staying, after all, while no one else does. She is the house's darkest force who splits the family apart. It's up to the next generation to put all the pieces back together.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase.

         When a couple chooses an ancient mansion, Pencraw Hall (aka Black Rabbit Hall) as their wedding venue, strange things come to light. Neither knows the history of the house--the Altons' story--yet Lorna remembers going to the house once while they were on holiday. For an unexplained reason, Lorna is drawn back to this house. 
        In a flashback, readers learn about another family that once lived in Black Rabbit Hall: a wild red-head American lady, her husband, and their children, Amber, Toby, Barney and Kitty. Black Rabbit Hall is a perfect haven for this troop, until a tragic accident changes everything. 
        After his mother's death, Toby becomes cool and distant. He becomes even more troubled when his father begins dating Caroline, an old flame. Amber feels torn between her loyalty towards her twin and her interest in Caroline's son, Lucian.
        The children of the former Mrs. Alton clash with the new Mrs. Alton, especially since she insists on changing everything at Black Rabbit Hall. She despises the family traditions and thwarts them at every turn. She even takes down a beloved portrait of the former Mrs. Alton.
         Decades later she offers her crumbling mansion to Lorna as a wedding venue. But why? If you love books about family secrets, unforgettable characters, and large estates in England, you'll love this book. 


Saturday, October 3, 2015

If You Were A Tiger I'd Have To Wear White by Maria Dahvana Headley

This is a strange, magical realism story about endings–the end of Jungleland, the end of the golden age of Hollywood, the end of the MGM lion. it all plays out like a hallucination. I love that the lion never gives the reporter anything.

Jungleland was a real place for Hollywood animals to live in Thousand Oaks, California.

Read the story,

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell

The fact that Ree says, "Never. Never ask for what ought to be offered," tells a lot about her character. Hungry, her two brothers has just said they would ask a relative for meat. Kin are supposed to help each other. 

Ree knows otherwise. She's had a hard life and is used to bitter disappointments. Yet she also exploits the fact that she's kin to many of the Ozark crank dealers.

Since her mother is enfeebled, Ree knows it's "all on her." She goes on an perilous pursuit to find the man that owes her family something--her own father.  

Woodrell invented the term country noir. Though it initially seems gritty and dark, this novel draws you into Ree's world. Though its not a pretty world, it's a taut, compelling narrative. 

"Writing fiction is the strangest of professions. Here is a job in which your task each day is to listen to the voices of the people who don't exist and describe events that never were. It's the adult version of Let's Pretend."

Lisa Wingate, in the acknowledgements, The Sea Keeper's Daughters.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Seduction by M.J. Rose

M.J. Rose's novel, Seduction, superbly moves back and forth in time on a remote island, Jersey Island, where Celtic artifacts are plentiful.

Half of the story is focuses on Victor Hugo's self-imposed exile to Jersey Island after his daughter's death. The other half of the story focuses on a present day woman, Jac L'Etoile, who is shooting a documentary on myths, Mythmakers.

Jac has suffered from hallucinations, mostly olfactory-driven, since she was a teenager. Jac finds herself reuniting with Theo, a man who had a dangerous hold over her. 

While it starts off in a promising way, Seduction quickly becomes  mired by numerous contemporary subplots.

There's a love triangle involving Theo, Ash, and Naomi that becomes more intricate when Jac visits Jersey Island. Then there's a subplot about a grandfather's strange obsession with a ouija board and his two grandchildren, Eva and Minera. The Celtic family who haunts Jac complicates matters still further.

While the subplots set in the present can be confusing, the subplots set in the nineteenth century are much more intriguing.

Rose's Victor Hugo storyline, which, as the author says in an end note, is partly true and partly fictionalized is the richest of the subplots. Hugo and is tempted to make a deal with a figure he calls the Shadow of Sepulchre.

Hugo's story is cleverly used to illuminate the present-day struggles of the Gaspards and the L'Etoiles. Some may disagree but I wish Rose had written solely about Victor Hugo and his circle.

Seduction was listed as Suspense Magazine's Book of the Year in 2013.

Suspense Magazine can be found at

Monday, September 7, 2015

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

In Karen Joy Fowler's We Are Completely Beside Ourselves, the narrator begins in media res.

Rosemary is a well-educated, unreliable narrator. She tells readers she is in mourning because her sister disappeared seventeen years ago and her brother disappeared ten years ago.

In no way is We Are Completely Beside Ourselves a typical missing person story. There's a lot more at play. Rosemary's brother is a domestic terrorist and Rosemary's sister is a chimpanzee for starters. Her father is a psychologist who is keen on treating his children like the psychological subjects he is studying.

Tragic and compelling, this novel explores many tantalizing subjects such as the fallibility of memory, the notion of humanity, and the debilitating effect of family secrets.

For another book about a family's misadventures in animal experimentation, try We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge.  

Friday, August 28, 2015

All The Light You Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Two young people's live  intersect when American bombers head for St. Malo, the last German stronghold.

Only a rare writer can develop such nuanced characters or create such beautiful moral complexities.

Wherever he goes, Werner hears his sister Jutta's sad question reverberating in his head: Is it right to do something only because everyone else is doing it?

Marie-Laure who is involved in the resistance with her Uncle Etienne wonders if they are the "good guys."

Neither knows the meaning of the numbers Etienne recites into the clandestine radio transmitter.

Tension builds as both Marie-Laure and Werner become trapped. Werner is trapped under a hotel, L'Abeille, when it is hit by Allied bombs. Marie-Laure is trapped in her great Uncle Etienne's secret room in the attic.

Sergeant Major Von Rumpel frantically searches the house for the gem, The Sea of Flames, the one Marie-Laure's father has sworn to protect. 

Tired of hiding, Marie-Laure nearly gives herself away. Werner, who has managed to escape from his own ruin, decides to make things right in the only way he has left.

All the Light We Cannot See is a contemplative, well-researched novel. 

Recently, All The Light You Cannot See won the 2015 Pulitzer prize for fiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal For Excellence in Fiction.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wool by Hugh Howey

In this trenchant debut novel, Hugh Howey describes a highly-stratified, post-apocalyptic society. To escape toxins, human beings have at some point crept into an underground silo of immense size. 

Some live in the up tops, some live in the mids, and some live in the deepest deep, Mechanical. Those at the top rarely know what is happening at the deepest levels. 

Criminals or "cleaners" are forced outside to clean the silo's only window situated at the top of the silo. Dust storms keep this window cloudy. Residents can only see a clear view after a doomed silo resident cleans the window with a steel wool pad.

Something , however, is amiss in this highly mechanized, highly stratified world. Children in nurseries are given children's books but they are told the children's books tell lies. They believe green grass and blue skies are fairy tales.

But what if everything you thought you knew about your society was a lie?

No one knows who built the silo or who erased the servers data about the uprisings. Alison, Sheriff Holston's wife, believes IT is hiding something. Holston never gets to know what his wife learns. She self-destructs and leaves the silo voluntarily.

When a new sheriff is chosen, Juliette, she is quickly ousted by IT and forced to become a cleaner. She expects to die but she discovers something that takes the novel in a whole new direction.

Jules is a wonderful character--strong and smart--whose act of defiance--entering silo 17--makes all the silo 18 residents rethink what they know. 

Wool is one of three exciting novels that form a trilogy. If you like Wool, you may like Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker, Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, or Andrew Weir's The Martian.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte

As in most thrillers, there is danger, intrigue, romance in City of Dark Magic, but there are also elements of spy fiction and literary suspense novels. A subplot involves a CIA operative and her KGB lover.

The main plot focuses on doctoral student, Sarah Weston, who music career hits a new height when she is invited to catalog the Lobkowicz's Beethoven artifacts.

Since its a literary novel, it has a plethora of arcane codes and messages. Sarah Weston finds a strange symbol on her ceiling of her Boston area apartment. This marks the beginning of a series of strange events that turn stranger and darker once she arrives in Prague.

Even though Sarah Weston was hired to do archival work, she finds herself investigating the death of her mentor, Absalom Sherbatsky. Professor Sherbatsky was working at the Lobkowicz Palace Museum shortly before he threw himself out of  a window. 

Sarah doesn't believe it was suicide and suspicious events at the Palace hint she may be right. While doing archival work at the Lobkowicz, one of the other researchers is killed in a bizarre way. In spite of the dangerous surroundings, she finds herself falling for the heir of the Lobokowicz collection, Prince Max. 

Several of the characters embarks on a quest to find something of historical or magical importance. Sarah not only wants to understand the mysterious death of her mentor, she also wants to find the identity Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved." Prince Max wants to find the Golden Fleece.

This novel, written as a collaborative novel, has overreached on a few ocasions. Some aspects of the novel were hard to believe. The messages Max leaves to Sarah are pretty undecipherable, yet she understands them. 

If readers enjoy a literary mystery with a dose of the supernatural, they will enjoy at this novel which boasts two sets of arcane letters, alchemical symbols, a key to portal, time travel, hidden rooms, and secret tunnels. 

Some situation are sexual and there is mild language. 

Though everyone enjoys a book for different reasons, the discussion of Beethoven and his patrons, the Lobkowiczes, was, for the most part, accurate and enjoyable. 

If you enjoy this title, you might like Graham Moore's The Sherlockian, Charlie Lovett's The Bookman's Tale or Emily Croy Barker's The Thinking Woman's Guide to Magic. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Oneworld's Rock the Boat

OneWorld Publication will launch Rock the Boat, an imprint for young adults, on July 14.

OneWorld's U.S. YA Imprint will put more outstanding foreign authors in the hands of young adults. Topics will be moral dilemmas or self-discovery.

The first title to be released is Minus Me
by Norway's Ingelin Rossland. 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

In Kitchens of the Great Midwest a series of interlinked short stories tell a rising young chef life story.

Each short story is a chapter that is named for an ingredient or recipe that is somehow pertinent to her life. "Lutefisk, "a dish most readers probably haven't heard of, introduces us to Eva and her parents. 
Kitchens of the Great Midwest
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

In "Chocolate Habanero" Eva gets revenge against schoolyard bullies with her extra-hot, home-grown, habaneros. Since she can tolerate extremely hot flavors, Eva and an older cousin, Braque, enter into an ill-fated money-making scheme. 

"Sweet Pepper Jelly," continues the spicy flavor theme as Eva and Braque's plans unravel.  In "Walleye" Eva meets a boy and continues her culinary education.

Later, in "Golden Bantam" Eva meets other chefs who host social dinner parties. The dinner parties are her entrance into the culinary big leagues and vital to her later success.

Two other stories, "Venison" and "Bars," introduce readers to more quirky characters.

The final chapter "The Dinner" comes full circle. In a fantastic finale people who have known Eva are inadvertently thrown together to taste one of her high-priced dinners. 

Ironic and darkly humorous, this novel is a wonderful read. Book clubs and anyone looking for quirky, yet delightful story will enjoy this book.

I received this book gratis from Penguin Debut Authors "first flight"  program in exchange for an honest review. 

For more information about this author,

Saturday, June 20, 2015

If I Fall, If Die by Michael Christie

In this high-octane novel, a boy learns to abolish his fears and live his life fully.

Will has lived an extremely sheltered life--he's lived indoors from age 7 to 11 because his mother is fearful. Her phobias were too numerous to count. She is afraid of, "lightning, fire, electricity, water, accidents, vehicles, animals, the Outside, people." 

After someone pipe bombs their house, Will surprises her one day by deciding to take a walk in the terrifying Outside. For the first time, he meets other kids and begins doing what he calls "destructivity" experiments.

As Will explores the outside world, he begins to discern the racial tensions in Thunder Bay--the disconnect between whites and Natives. Because of his isolation, Will can identify with the nearly silent, Jonah, and enter his world. 

Will finds himself becoming addicted to dangerous activities like skateboarding and investigating a native boy's disappearance. Fearful that she is losing control of her son, Diane tells Will he has a medical condition--an inexcusable lie.

While searching for clues about the disappearance, Will is starting to unravel the secret of his own family's tragic past. He questions the "wheezing man" aka Titus about Marcus. Oddly, Will finds Titus' fingerprints in his own house.

Michael Christie describes a woman's mental illness and her claustrophobic hold on her son perfectly. Will knows his mother's problems as the Black Lagoon:

"When the Black Lagoon came, when its bear trap was sprung upon her heart, her eyes went swimmy and blotted with white nose like channel zero on TV."

He also describes Titus' mental illness in a way that feels genuine. Titus' dialog, which is indecipherable at first, gradually begins to make sense in its own twisted way. 

Though readers know the relationship between the Cardiels and Titus fairly early, the novel's central mystery is still compelling. This novel is wonderful for adults and may possibly interest mature young adults.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald (part 2)

The next stage is hunting. Macdonald loses, she says, her humanity while watching Mabel hunt. Although she has been an animal lover all her life, she enjoys the hawk's triumphs. 

Ironically, Macdonald says she regains her humanity by mercifully killing the prey that Mabel would have eaten live.

Macdonald's success in training her goshawk is punctuated by White's unsuccessful attempts to train his.

Then, one day, the hawk inexplicably attacks Helen. 

The injuries gives Helen several key realizations that are further affirmed when she speaks at her father's memorial service.

She had been losing herself--her humanity--while training the goshawk. 

What I liked best about this memoir is the honest description of  a tense human-animal relationship. The literary analyses, the historical asides, and Macdonald's astute discussion of depression and grieving process make this work even more significant.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (part 1)

Though she is an expert who has trained many raptors, MacDonald feels compelled to train a goshawk after her father's death. Known to be the most difficult of all to train, the goshawk is a suitable challenge that allows her to grieve and escape from the world.

MacDonald's father, a photojournalist, viewed the world through his camera lens. He taught Helen to be a watcher and that is what she does while training hawks. 

For the first few weeks she "watches" them; she allows herself to become invisible while feeding them from gloved hands.

The next stage is "manning" the hawk. Manning the hawk means uncovering its head in public. Up to this point, the hawk wear a hood in public.

In this wildly original work of non-fiction, MacDonald also confronts her younger self and her disdain for fellow hawk-trainer and legendary author, T.H. White.

His loneliness mirrors her own though she does not appear to recognize this. As an adult, MacDonald comprehends White's troubled soul and his loneliness. 

MacDonald is an academic so much of the writing comes across an a beautifully-written academic essay. She is also a poet which explains the work's formidable imagery: "The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away."

Since she is also historian, MacDonald often engages in interesting asides, like her discussion of the Pastoral movement that occurred in Britain in the 1930s. 

Mostly, though, she shares her triumphs and failures as an austringer. Though she trains Mabel to land on her fist, inexplicably, her goshawk stops doing it consistently. MacDonald feels she has failed her hawk.

Much of this non-fiction treatise reads like feral therapy. MacDonald is afraid to let Mabel loose of the creance as she is supposed to do: "I'm convinced that Mabel will rocket away from me and disappear for ever." 

This isn't a bond she takes lightly. During her time of grief, she has frequent angry outbursts. She finds it particularly hard to learn to trust again:

 "Flying a hawk free is always scary. It is where you test these lines. And it's not a thing that's easy to do when you've lost trust in the world, and your heart is turned to dust." 


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Magician's Lie by Greer McAllister

One night in Waterloo, Iowa, the Amazing Arden, completes a magic trick she has done many times before. She is famous for her half man trick in which she saws a man in half. This time, however, she innovates and uses a fire ax. 

The man, presumably her husband, is later found under the stage--killed by an ax wound to the chest. Virgil Holt, a Deputy Sheriff, apprehends her but Arden claims to be innocent. 

Along with the Sheriff, readers must decide whether her story is believable. Parts of her story are difficult for the sheriff to believe. Ray a maniac that she meets while still a young girl living in Tennessee, has healing powers. He is a healer and a destroyer-in-one, yet its hard to believe no one detects his treachery.

Arden, then named Ava, teaches herself ballet via the Cecchetti method, in order to escape from Ray's abuse. This plan fails when Ray breaks her leg. Ava run away from home and becomes a servant in the Vanderbilt household. 

At Biltmore, Ava falls for Clyde who has considerable talents. He is a gardener who can also turn a profit scouting talent in New York. Ava, still running from Ray, takes off with Clyde where she takes a small part in the legendary Adelaide Hermann's magic act.

Magic and performing becomes Ava's new life. Her business manager, which by coincidence is Clyde, renames her The Amazing Arden. Her show is successful and she is happy for a time until tragedy strikes. 

Macallister includes many accurate details in this historical fiction, including the Iroquois Theater fire in 1903 and details from the life of Adelaide Hermann. 

Arden is a fascinating character as are Virgil and Ray. The one flaw in the novel is Clyde who is almost too versatile. He is a rake, a hero, a gardener, and a business manager. The ending is, thus. only partly satisfying. 

If you like The Magician's Lie, you may like Erin Morgenstern's Night Circus, Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants or Chrysler Szalan's The Hawley Book of the Dead.

Other books with circus acts, magic tricks, or performing arts as their main themes are Erika Swyler's The Book of Speculation and Leslie Parry's Church of Marvels. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Horrifying on multiple levels, Child 44 is a standout thriller.

In the so-called perfect Stalinist state, crime doesn't exist. To admit that it exists is almost an act of treason. 

So when a member of the MGB claims that his child Arkady has been murdered, Leo Demidov is told to quiet the family. He does this and more, even threatening eye-witnesses. 

He never examines the body of Arkady as the family asks. None of this is unusual. MGB do not normally detect violent crime. That task belongs to a much lower class, the militia. 

Soon, however, new circumstances come to light. Leo Demidov's communist beliefs are shaken to the core when he sees an innocent man tortured. 

He also learns that wife, Raisa, is a stranger. She married him because she feared turning his marriage proposal down. 

He was an agent of the state and she was keen on surviving. Years ago she had watched the Soviets destroy her town and all of her relatives, including her parents, for political purposes.

In Stalinist Russia, agents could be promoted one afternoon and denounced the next. When someone denounces Leo and Raisa, they barely escape with their lives. Demoted to a mill town, Leo and Raisa must start life anew.

Leo is demoted to the lowest rank in the militia, the agency responsible for handling violent crime. Recently, two children have been murdered in the woods near the railroad tracks and there may be more. 

Smith has set up the perfect conundrum for his hero to face. A disgraced MGB officer can do little to investigate the murders without risking his life. Leo Demidov must decide if  justice is more important than survival.

Plenty of riveting twists and turns, betrayals, repressed memories, mind games, and nail-biting escapes make this a first-rate thriller. Unsurprisingly, this novel has been turned into a 2015 feature film. 

Tom Rob Smith followed Child 44 with two other novels, The Secret Speech and Agent 6.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Wolf Totem

Jessica Teisch's "Chinese Novels in English Translation" is a notable article in the Mar/April 2015 Bookmarks.

One of the novels that drew my attention is Wolf Totem, a semi-autobiographical novel by Jian Rong. 

Rong was a Red Guard in the sixties who hoarded the Western books he was supposed to burn.

He volunteered to work in Mongolia where he has the freedom to read. In this remote area, he becomes fascinated by the grassland wolves.

In this semi-autobiographical work, Jian Rong writes a fictional version of these events -- applauding freedom and the Mogolian herdsmen.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

Graham Moore won an Oscar for the screenplay adaptation of Andrew Hodges' Alan Turing: The Enigma. 

Before he wrote the screenplay for Imitation Game, howeverMoore wrote this novel, The Sherlockian. 

The Sherlockian is a remarkable literary thriller published in 2010 that alternates between the present and nineteenth century London.

One of the "Irregulars," a fan group for Sherlock Holmes fiction, may have murdered one of their own and pilfered a rare Sir Arthur Conan diary. Harold, one of the irregulars, is haplessly drawn into the affair and determined to work out who killed Alex Cale. 

In a parallel story, set in the past, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, receives a strange package (a letter bomb) in the mail. Doyle has taken a seven-year break from writing about Holmes. 

The letter bomb has a newspaper clipping about a murder. This inspires Doyle to track down the killer in a manner that would make his fictional creation, Holmes, proud.

Doyle discovers a connection between two unlikely cases. In one case, a young bride with a three-headed crow tattoo is strangled and placed in a tub. In another, a woman in Whitechapel is found strangled in an alley.

He and his friend Bram Stoker conduct surveillance on their own and later work in conjunction with Scotland Yard. 

In many respects, The Sherlockian is a thriller. The scenes are fast-moving and captivating and the characters lives are at stake. 

Since Moore writes from a position of great knowledge about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation, Sherlock Holmes, it is also a top literary thriller.

If you want to read more about Arthur Conan Doyle and his friendship with Bram Stoker, you may want to read Julian Barnes' novel, Arthur and George

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth is an enchanting read. Forsyth mixes characters based on historical people with fable.

In the novel, readers meet Charlotte-Rose de La Force after she has been banished from Louis XIV's court and sent to a nunnery. 

The real life Charlotte-Rose de La Force wrote the Rapunzel or "Persinette" story which was adapted by the brothers Grimm.

In this fictionalized version of events, Charlotte hears the tale from Soeur Seraphina, her only friend at the convent where she is imprisoned.

Like a master tapestry weaver, Forsyth weaves the stories of the three women: Charlotte, Margherita, and  and Maria, the "strega bella," who renames herself Selena.

Most readers are familiar with the Rapunzel story but Forsyth revitalizes it. Selena kidnaps Margherita from her home in Venice and entraps her in a high watchtower in Manerba.

In this is a multi-faceted story, Forsyth also gives us the witch's story. When her mother is horribly mistreated, Maria learns what injustice feels like and it marks the beginning of her transformation into wickedness. 

Maria who renames herself Selena acquires a lover, Tiziano, whose paintings immortalize her. Forsyth has some fun here with Titian, imagining that Selena is Titian's Venus

Selena stays young because she drinks the blood of the young red-headed girls she has kept in the tower. Tizano, on the other hand, sinks into old age.

Forsyth switches back and forth easily from Margherita and Selena's story in Italy to Charlotte de la Force's adventures in France during the reign of the sun King.

After losing the King's favor, Charlotte determines to marry a Marquis and pays a witch for a love spell. She lands in prison, but upon release, she chooses to marry for love.

What is remarkable is the way all of the women's lives parallel each other. All face terrible choices and are forced to choose between their happiness or safety. 

A sweeping and sensual drama, Bitter Greens is one of the best historical novels of 2014. 

For more information about this novel and about Kate Forsyth, see Sarah Johnson's interview of Forsyth in Johnson's blog, Reading the Past.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Isle of Youth: Stories by Laura Van Den Berg

Laura Van Den Berg's stories have a quirky feel much like  Rivka Galchen's stories. Characters are "at sea," weathering one emotional disturbances or another. All of the stories feature disappearances or marital break-ups.

In "Opa-Locka" a pair of sisters form a detective agency but seriously undermine their business when they acts recklessly. They track and then lose a client's husband. The incident weirdly mirrors their own childhood when their father disappears.

In "Lessons," a group of outlaws runaway from their sheltered existence.Dana takes her younger brother, who has Asperger-like symptoms, with her on a crime spree and later regrets the decision. 

In "Antarctica," a troubled young wife has left her husband without explanation. Her scientist husband dies in an explosion in Antarctica

The daughter of a magician in "The Great Escape," has always believed that her father had disappeared during a magic trick. The truth is far worst and more ordinary. Facing theft charges, the girl tries a disappearing trick of her own. 

Clearly, Van Den Berg's primarily deal with is  abandonment. Dana in "Lessons" is afraid the "gorillas" will leave Pinky behind. In "Opa-Locka," the sisters are still recovering from their father's disappearance.

A second motif is a crumbling marriage. The women in "Acrobat," "Isle of Youth" are each in a failed marriage; in its disintegration they come to a moment of enlightenment.

Laura Van Den Berg's latest work is a novel called Find Me

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Lost and Found by Brooke Davis

Brooke Davis is a vibrant new voice in fiction. She gives the viewpoints of three characters--a lonely old man, a crochety old woman and a seven-year-old girl who contemplates death. Her father has just died and her mother has abandoned her in a department store. 

Davis mixes just the right amount of pathos and humor when she gives voices Milly. When her mother does not return for her, she imagines that one of the manikins is her friend. She record dead things in her dead things journal. She leaves notes that will supposedly help her Mum find her: "In here Mum."

She also befriends Karl, a touch typist who writes messages to his deceased wife in the air. By accident, Karl joins Milly and Agatha on a bus journey to Kalgoorlie. 

The bus trip is followed by an outlandish train trip through Nullarbor Plain. The three of them are determined to find Milly's Mum or, at least, a relative to take care of her.

Lost and Found is completely different from anything else I've read. Very few novels, after all, feature a seven-year-old who run away with two octogenarians. Very few novels features a seven-year-old who is obsessed with death. 

What makes Milly so unique, however, is her ironic innocence and intelligence.She nearly meets her match though on the train when she meets another little boy who calls himself "Captain Everything."

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Into the Limen: Where an old Squirrel Goes to Die by Sarah Minor

Lambert-Musser Home
I adore this non-fiction essay that appears in Black Warrior Review Fall/Winter 2014.

The author, Sarah Minor, is writing about an old home that belongs to her grandmother--the home that is known as the Lambert-Musser Home in West 2nd, Muscatine, IA. 

I must admit I knew nothing of Iowan architecture on the West Hill of Muscatine or that there even a city in IA called Muscatine.

That hardly matters though because Muscatine is a river town and if you've lived in a river town its easy to feel connected to another river town. 

Of course, Baton Rouge doesn't have a historic district that matches West Hill but it has other attributes.

Muscatine is one of the river cities that Mark Twain was much enamored of. It's still a small town, unlike Baton Rouge, which has become a metroplex.

More to the point, Minor's "Into the Limen" is about forgotten spaces deep within large historical houses. 

In the obscure space under the roof, bracketed by the eaves, is a place called a soffit. This is where you find tools and old letters yellowed photographs, and possibly skeletal remains. 

Minor believes soffits in old homes are "thresholds" or liminal spaces. Other liminal spaces, according to Minor, are airports and beaches. I would add river fronts and swamps to the list.

Even though I had read Poetics of Space for a creative writing class, the power of liminal spaces was never so clear.

Black Warrior Review

Saturday, January 3, 2015

My Sunshine Away for M.O. Walsh

Set in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, this is crime story mixed with revelations that come from the narrator's flashbacks. Even though its fiction, the narrator presents the story as memory, as the first time he fell for a girl, Lindsey.

Unfortunately, the girl he desires falls victim to a terrible 
crime--rape. The young narrator claims not to even know what the word means. Nonetheless, he, like three other boys in the neighborhood, are suspects. 

The narrator and the the two other suspects come from a privileged background, attend a private school and live in a pristine neighborhood. Many wonder how such a dark crime can happen midst so much "sunshine" and innocence.

Walsh does an incredible job of peeling back the layers of each character to reveal their secrets. For Lindsey, it's not the rape that makes her moody and morose; it's in fact, therapy, where she turns dark.

In therapy, Lindsey meets cutters and anorexics and sex-abuse survivors, and, thus, she learns how privileged her life has been. 

The narrator's crush on Lindsey is innocent, or it something darker, like a twisted obsession?  At one point, the narrator makes an elaborate structure out  of yard clippings that resembles Lindsey.

Two other suspects, Bo Kern and Jason Landry, are even more suspicious. But which one of them is truly guilty of this violent crime? 

What at first appears to be a coming-of-age story or a crime story set in the deep south, turns out to be something much richer. In the end, it ponders identity, gender, memory and justice.

For more information about this author,