even dogs in the wild by ian rankin

Rebus is back…

HIs archenemy “Big Ger” Cafferty’s life has been threatened by a mysterious gunman who’s shot through his front window and it’s up to Siobhan Clarke, Malcolm Fox and John Rebus to save him before the killer strikes. Because next time, he may not miss.

evendogsinthewild

 

 

 

  • Series: Inspector Rebus Mysteries
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (January 19, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316342513
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316342513

Think what you like, I believe we fans brought John Rebus back.

Returning from over a year’s hiatus following the loss of dear friend Iain Banks to cancer, Rankin was, as is his way, actively engaging his fan base on Twitter, chatting openly about his intention to write another novel. As is my way, I and several dozen other fans were by no means subtle in our attempts to persuade him to bring back John Rebus.

As soon as I could engage him one on one, I asked Ian Rankin outright what he was planning to do. Would his next book be in The Complaints series, or would he listen to great popular outcry and bring Rebus back from retirement? Then he said those magic words…

Rebus was coming back.

Rankin, too, is a master of the long game. His first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, was published nearly three decades ago, in 1987. What has kept him writing the series? “I’m interested in themes and questions, and the crime novel is an attempt to look at big moral themes, I suppose. Why do we keep doing bad things to each other? Getting beneath the psyche of Edinburgh, trying to dig a little bit further below the surface of the city, and using that as a microcosm for Scotland as a whole.”

“And then the character of Rebus himself. He’s a very complex man with a lot of problems. He keeps surprising me, like Edinburgh keeps surprising me.”

But that’s not my only connection to Even Dogs in the Wild. I gifted Ian Rankin a Moleskine notebook, shipped to his home away from home, the Oxford Bar in Edinburgh. He thanked me on Twitter, letting me know he’d started outlining Even Dogs in the Night in the gift I’d given him.  Doesn’t get better than that for a freelance reviewer from Chicago.

For so many reasons, not least the joy of knowing Rankin’s semi-retirement was over – more importantly, his broken spirits buoyed – I awaited this one with great anticipation. Keen to get my hands on it, I pre-ordered a copy from Amazon.uk as soon as it had a listing. Then I heard from his U.S. agent. A review copy was on its way from them, as well. Even Dogs in the Wild is quite special to me.

I’m doubly proud Ian Rankin came back, then totally hit it out of the park with this book. It’s so tight, so well-plotted and one of his absolute best books. Retired for two books, John Rebus has grown older, softer and unused to the grueling life of a police detective. Then comes the call he’s not completely displeased to receive: someone’s taken a shot at “Big Ger” Cafferty and no one knows the career criminal better than John Rebus.

Will he come back to lend his help to the case?

“Congratulations on your retirement,” Cafferty drawled. “You didn’t think to invite me to the party. Hang on, though – I hear there was no party. Not enough friends left to even fill the back room at the Ox? He made a show of shaking his head in sympathy.

“The bullet didn’t hit you then?” Rebus retorted. “More’s the pity.”

 

Of course he will. It’s Cafferty. That big bastard Cafferty. Now that Rebus is a civilian, it changes the dynamic. Though still not fond of each other, putting it mildly, Rebus is no longer a cop. He has a bit more latitude but Cafferty still has no reason to trust him. But he does need him and he knows it.

At the same time, the dynamic’s changed by the relationship between John Rebus and Malcolm Fox, the older man juxtaposed with the next generation of detective. Not just professionally but underlying it all Fox is engaged in a not quite relationship/not quite not with the older detective’s former lover, Siobhan Clarke. It lends an interesting element, one left soft focused in the background. How will Fox fare and will he succeed in filling his predecessor’s shoes? And will he put his own mark on the job. He’s also faced with a lot, personally. His father is dying, and though he realizes the finality he also does not want to let down the investigation. He’s in a time of extreme turbulence, a time of letting go and of proving himself.

It’s these interpersonal relationships that add such an emotional quality to this book. For long-time readers, the book’s a huge treat. For those who may be less seasoned Rebus fans, it features a plot twisted and complex enough to keep the tension taut. For all appearances, Cafferty’s past is catching up with him. But is that all that’s at play?

Of course not. There’s much more. A gang of Glasgow toughs are engaged in a dark battle and Cafferty’s not the only victim of violence. He just happens to be the one who survived. A former lord advocate has died violently, as has a man who’d just won the lottery. So, what’s the connection? Who’s behind this and why?

crimescenetape

It’s a puzzle John Rebus is especially qualified to tackle. His many years’ worth of experience with all elements of this case making him invaluable to the team. We know he’ll get to the bottom of it, we just don’t know how.

I admit I’m prejudiced toward loving whatever Ian Rankin writes. Still, I defy anyone to say this is not one of his better books. It’s a testament to his mastery of his craft and ability to rise above great personal turmoil to not just come back but do so strongly. Even Dogs in the Wild says he may have been through a lot but he’s no worse for the wear. In fact, he’s stronger than ever.

Now, my lingering question is… where will he take Rebus from here? It remains to be seen but his fans are no doubt very well pleased to have had the opportunity to take this journey with him again. One day Rebus won’t be back and that fact must be faced. But, for now, Ian Rankin’s given us one hell of a gift.

Maybe if I send him another Moleskine he’ll consider giving old Rebus one more go, eh?  I’m certainly not above trying.

 

ianrankindogsinwild

 

 

 

 

 

go set a watchman by harper lee

My feelings about the publication of Harper Lee’s “lost” first novel have been, to put it mildly, very mixed. When I first learned of the book’s existence, my initial reaction was pure joy. What could be more exciting than stumbling upon a previously unpublished book written by an iconic writer?

gosetawatchman

Then, on the heels of the big announcement of this book, came the great hue and cry. Harper Lee had become, in the intervening years between her great success and the news about the “finding” of Go Set a Watchman, a woman no longer in control of her faculties. The famous writer, once so feisty and full of fire, was now reportedly deaf and senile, her ability to aquiesce to the publication of her first book dubious, at best. It was then I began hearing the whole story, started digging into accounts of the great battle between the author’s late sister and former attorney/protector and the woman who’d taken up that mantle since Alice Lee’s death: Harper Lee’s new attorney, Tonya Carter. For once the author’s sister was no longer in the way, Carter was now in control of Lee’s estate. It’s a short fall from being given the reins to taking power.

Whether this means the whole affair has been a greedy grasp  for the money guaranteed by the publication of Watchman or, by her new lawyer’s assertion, Harper Lee’s own fully-realized wish to publish this book is not clear. We can only speculate and, of course, that’s a dangerous and slippery path.

 

“As Alice’s health declined — she died last year at 103 — Ms. Carter assumed more responsibility for the firm and for Harper Lee.

It was in her role as Ms. Lee’s lawyer that Ms. Carter said she came upon the “Watchman” manuscript while rummaging through Ms. Lee’s bank safe deposit box last August. There is a conflicting account that the manuscript might have been found years earlier by an appraiser for Sotheby’s. Ms. Carter has disputed that version of events.”

  • from “Another Drama in Harper Lee’s Hometown” by Serge F. Kovaleski and Alexandra Alter, The New York Times

 

From my initial excitement in first hearing of the book, my opinion quickly swung to indignation at what could well be the manipulation of an eldery woman – who also happens to be an iconic and revered author – by an opportunistic lawyer, for never let it be said the profession isn’t easy enough to smear. It’s not difficult believing the worst, not in this case.

The taint put on the endeavor is what kept me from reading the book this long, why I didn’t dive into it immediately upon publication. Why I pulled it off the bookshelf now I don’t know. I was looking for something to read and there it was. My hand went to it, I opened it up, and many pages later realized I was immersed – it is that gripping. It didn’t even occur to me, on starting the reading of it, that it was nearly Martin Luther King’s birthday. I’d come to recognize this only once I found out the company I now work at, one based in Birmingham, Alabama, gives its employees the day off for the holiday, something unusual here in Chicago. Otherwise, it would likely have passed me by completely, the connection between the civil rights leader’s life, the themes of this book and my timing missed.

 

"Department Store, Mobile, Alabama," by Gordon Parks (1956)

“Department Store, Mobile, Alabama,” by Gordon Parks (1956)

 

In brief, the background explaining the book’s failure to be published in the first place asserts Harper Lee’s publisher rejected it, instead asking that she come at the story from a different angle. The resulting second novel was, of course, To Kill a Mockingbird. The rest is literary history.

 

To Kill a Mockingbird, screenplay by Horton Foote (1962)

To Kill a Mockingbird, screenplay by Horton Foote (1962)

 

As it turns out, Go Set a Watchman is a gob-smacker of a book, a total shock for what it contains. Having read and re-read To Kill a Mockingbird several times over, Lee’s first novel comes as a revelation. Atticus Finch is an iconic character. Go Set a Watchman turns everything about him on its head. The man we thought we knew so well, so it turns out, is far more complex than we ever knew. And it doesn’t all sit so easily.

It’s not all pretty, her original intent. Harper Lee didn’t set out to paint the picture of such a pure spirit as the world came to know, a man of single-minded motivation, all directed toward the idea of pure racial equality damn the ramifications. It’s my assertion, having finished it, her original book may have been rejected on the basis of its brutal honesty, its refusal to sugar-coat or create a figure like the one we’ve come to know as Atticus Finch. She re-wrote the book, giving into the pressure, but did she do herself a disservice in the process?

Old Courthouse Museum, Monroeville, AL (Mike Brantley/mbrantley@al.com)

Old Courthouse Museum, Monroeville, AL (Mike Brantley/mbrantley@al.com)

Honestly, I’m a bit afraid to answer and I’m not even sure I can. Go Set a Watchman is the story of a grown woman who, having left the podunk Alabama town she’d grown up in, returns on one of her annual visits, inevitably finding a much smaller place than she’d left. Jean Louse “Scout” Finch relates all the usual internal struggles, pitting big city life against a past at once quaint and hiding a disturbing quality she hadn’t seen as a child. Now grown, her maturity allows for a clearer vision in some ways, but as it turns out not all her newfound perceptions are so clear-cut. Her father may not be the hero she thought but is he the villain she now believes him to be?

““But a man who has lived by truth—and you have believed in what he has lived—he does not leave you merely wary when he fails you, he leaves you with nothing. I think that is why I’m nearly out of my mind.”

  • Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman is a more mature book than To Kill a Mockingbird, a truth fitting considering it’s written later in the life of its main character, Scout Finch. It also serves as a fitting companion to the book, though one that’s no less jarring for what it does to the reputation of Atticus. But what perhaps surprised, even delighted me more is the continuity Lee maintained from the young Scout to the 26-year old, returning woman. It’s as if she did initially hope it would eventually see publication, for she did keep the character true to herself, making a point of keeping the story line as it was to begin with, carrying over into Mockingbird. This doesn’t read as much like a replacement book as a prequel. It reads like a book she hadn’t given up on.

So, did Harper Lee understand when her attorney told her it was, at last, hitting the presses? Was Tonya Carter telling the truth, or has Lee’s now legendary, adamant refusal to write another book – ignoring the fact she actually had – been her true stance all these years? It seems unlikely we’ll ever know, now. Cloaked in the darkness of growing dementia, Harper Lee doesn’t appear capable of saying.

 

“I never expected any sort of success with ‘Mockingbird’… I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement.”

  • Harper Lee

 

For better or worse, Go Set a Watchman is a fine novel. Imperfect but, partially due to its provenance, a fine story and worthy successor to To Kill a Mockingbird. I certainly never believed I’d say that – it shocks me more than you know – but I have to speak the truth as I see it. This is a revelatory tale, if a bit rough-edged and less well-crafted than Mockingbird. Lee would certainly have cleaned it up a bit more, had it been slated for publication originally, possibly taking out a few self-consciously written passages, breaks in point of view I cringed to read. She may not be pleased to know it was published as it is, warts and all. But would she be pleased on general principle?

Harper Lee remains an enigma. Her reputation is set, her legacy secure, what she wanted now moot. My only hope is she wouldn’t have been distressed knowing her first book is her final legacy, because that would be a true shame.  Not that anything can take away her significance or what she’s given the world. Nothing can ever do that. To Kill a Mockingbird is one for the ages, her great gift. At the least, she will die knowing that.

 

“We wondered, sometimes, when your conscience and his would part, company, and over what.” Dr. Finch smiled. “Well, we know now. I’m just thankful I was around when the ructions started. Atticus couldn’t talk to you the way I’m talking—” “Why not, sir?” “You wouldn’t have listened to him. You couldn’t have listened. Our gods are remote from us, Jean Louise. They must never descend to human level.”

  • Go Set a Watchman

 

 Harper Lee in the Monroeville courthouse. Photograph: Donald Uhrbrock/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Harper Lee in the Monroeville courthouse. Photograph: Donald Uhrbrock/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

 

a recent reading miscellany: bits & bobs

Books mentioned in this post:

Korakas by Anne Holloway

After Alice by Gregory Maguire

Slade House by David Mitchell

Complicity by Iain Banks

 

2015 ended with a flurry of reading activity, much of it quality stuff. Here’s my very quick re-cap of a few things that didn’t make the Proper Review List from last year:

korakas

Korakas by Anne Holloway

“My mother raised me on fairy stories.” I’d said the line countless times, to countless people. Whenever I was questioned about my birth place, or my father, I would resort to that. “My mother raised me on fairy stories.” An attempt to divert attention from the fact I knew very little at all.”

A tale of paranoia, fear and infatuation laced with Greek legend, Zorakas is the story of a mother and daughter caught under the spell of the same man, separated by 20 years. When Ally’s mother Anna disappears suddenly, her house torn apart as though her departure had been violent and involuntary, the young woman senses immediately she must return to the islands of Greece in order to find her.

Growing up protected from her past and shielded from her mysterious, absent father, Ally witnesses her mother’s very real fear and periodic lapses from sanity. Whatever, and whoever, her father was, she’s aware only of a dark secret her mother goes to extreme lengths to hide. Yet, despite the fear, the islands continue to exert a deep pull on her mother, the islands as well as shadowy stories of crows, dark birds portending ever-present danger lurking. Where she’s gone, and why, must be connected with Ally’s father. She knows this and cannot rest until she’s found her mother, no matter the risk. What she finds is more astonishing than she ever could have dreamed.

 

afteraliceAfter Alice by Gregory Maguire

I am crazy about all things Alice and have been a Gregory Maguire fan since publication of his Wicked. Unsurprisingly, his latest novel is a satisfying romp through Wonderland, taking the story we know, adding an outcast friend of Alice’s who – seeking relief from the misery of her neglectful family and their single-minded attention to her sickly infant brother – follows down the rabbit hole after her.

Then, a young boy and former African American slave from the States,  trophy of a well-intentioned though naive British man who longs to save him from a dark past, escapes accusations of theft and a life of freedom he’s not ready for,  just in time to take the plunge right after the girls.

Though loads of other writers have attempted to follow in Lewis Carroll’s footsteps, few manage it with the skill and grace of Gregory Maguire. I’m wary of books that mess with iconic favorites, avoiding and disdaining nearly all sequels and prequels and fan fiction but this one’s earned my hard-won seal of approval – though not without small reservations.

While it’s true he flirts with the line of political correctness, choosing new characters who are, one: handicapped and two: of color, I got beyond his obvious need to showcase his own inclusivity, though barely.  If I didn’t think about it too closely, consciously not noticing these two new characters are held apart from white, middle class, iconic Alice in a way that screamed LOOK HOW DIVERSE I AM, the story worked. Mostly.

Maguire’s insertion into the story is, if not flawless, at least largely graceful. There are ripples, imperfect moments reminding the reader this is a mere riff on the masterpiece but my love of Wonderland and yearning to have more of it got the better of my curmudgeonly nature.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for Alice.

Slade House by David Mitchell

I’m less enthused about David Mitchell’s most recent book Slade House, a novel that promises much more gothic yumminess than it delivers. Twins Norah and Jonah Grayer live a fiendishly parasitic life, presiding over eerie, amorphous Slade House through the course of several decades. People start disappearing from modern-day London, then a pattern emerges it takes years to identify.  Once the truth is discovered, then accepted as oddly plausible reality, It’s a race against the clock disrupting the tyranny of the supernaturally evil pair.

Clever premise and above-average writing granted, the story doesn’t quite crack David Mitchell quality. I’m a  hair-splitter, what can I say? To whom much talent is given, much is expected and I expected one hell of a lot from Mitchell. Readers unaware how much genius he’s capable of bringing to the table would find much to love here. For me, it was a bit meh.

I do give him full credit for the core, the basic premise involving evil twins with a need to use common people as a means to their own diabolical ends. It’s a good device on which to build a story. The setting’s grand, a wonderfully gothic home that’s there but not there. Where it loses it irretrievably is when Mitchell goes into a very long-winded backstory explanation as to what’s happening and why.  If he’d found another route to achieve the same end it could have saved the book.

As it is, the story bloats. And when a story bloats, attention lags. It’s almost as if Mitchell was in a rush to finish, taking the curious action of writing too much instead of honing,  A pity. I’d looked forward to this one from the moment I read the first reviews, only to be let down ultimately.

Complicity by Iain Banks

Iain Banks’ 2013 death from cancer at age 59 sent his friend and fellow writer Ian Rankin into a tailspin, prompting his temporary retirement from writing while he took time off for a good, long think about life, death and the meaning of it all. Not the first of his friends to die far too young, the loss of Iain Banks hit hard.

Though I’ve long known about Banks’ reputation as a fine storyteller, as well as his grim masterwork The Wasp Factory, I hadn’t read anything of his previous to Complicity. And it’s true knowing how his death affected Ian Rankin brought the other Iain’s works to the fore for me, reminding me this was an author who’d been on my list a good while. While in Edinburgh for the Book Festival, I saw Complicity on the shelf and grabbed it.

The story is deliciously dark. Main character Cameron Colley is a reporter with a drug habit and not the best moral compasss. A man willing to have an affair with the wife of a friend, as well as bend the rules a bit when it comes to getting the scoop on a good story, Cameron finds himself the main contact person for a mysterious man who knows things about a string of murders happening to several high profile, politically well-connected men.

Who’s on the other end of the phone, feeding him bits of information in a synthesized voice? Why Cameron and is he capable of figuring it all out before the killer strikes again?

As he races to connect the dots, the murders continue. When his connection to the crimes and coincidental proximity at all the wrong times becomes suspicious, suddenly the tables turn. Prime informant becomes prime suspect in a darkly twisted story of delayed revenge.

And the writing? Perfect. It’s tight, tense and does the sex thing well. Yes, I’ll add more Iain Banks to my queue.

Now I’ve done a bit more justice to 2015, I feel better. Still not at 100% but closer. Embroiled in 2016’s reading, last year’s is still somewhat fresh in my memory. Actually, a lot of it’s literally in my bed. Literally.

More to come, including Ian Rankin, Rick Moody, Edwidge Danticat (I have an interview with her in my queue) and others. It’s trickling out but slowly, like a pipe that could use a good routing. Having given you that mental image, I am off to, guess what, read.

2015: a year in (interrupted and chaotic) reading

Bluestalking does not tell anywhere near the full tale of my 2015 reading, a secret shame for any book reviewer, not to mention generally voracious reader. My blog should reflect all I’ve read in any given year, not just the smattering I was able to pull it together enough to write about. It should be my go-to place, where I share all my thoughts about books and writers and the reading and writing life, instead of a mostly quiet wasteland I’ve sort of half-assed for the past twelve full months.

In my defense, it was a rough year. My divorce was finalized in June, the months before and up to the writing of this post fraught with anxiety. This would be enough in its own right, without the fact  my ex is all but married again so soon, having started dating the woman he’s since grown very serious with before the judge had even dropped his gavel. Before the soul of our marriage had departed its body. And yeah, I’m public with my life, my social media accounts open and honest. I have little doubt the new Mrs- to-be isn’t reading this, putting her own spin on things courtesy of the half-story she’s heard, her own gospel truth.  The thing is, the person she’s dating is not the person I was with for 30 years: the kid I met at 18, married at 23, had three children with and shared  25 toxic years. But then, she isn’t the person I am, either. So maybe she’s in the clear. Best of luck.

And while I have been reading through it all, I’ve largely failed in finding the level of concentration required to think all that deeply about what’s passed before my eyes. Most of my reading has been conducted in my tiny, cramped apartment-sized bathtub this year, amongst buckets and buckets of bubbles. The warmth of the water soothes, the extravagance of “premium” lavender bubbles – i.e., not the cheap crap you buy at Walmart but the good stuff from Lush or Bath and Body Works – a luxurious treat I more than deserve right now, even if more than one book has met its soapy demise right alongside me.

What I’ve read for review doesn’t always garner mention on Bluestalking, nor does it always make the rounds of venues like Goodreads or Amazon. Yet, I hesitate to call my blogging behavior lazy. It isn’t that. My outside life has consumed the bulk of my time and energy, sapping most of my creativity, even the energy it takes to lift my head off the pillow many mornings, much less reading critically then writing cogently about it. Still and all, I’ve read some remarkable books this year, truly stellar stuff offering more than enough “best of 2015” material.

My intentions at the beginning of the year were good, my disappointment with myself for not having achieved nearly as much as I’d hoped, coming to the conclusion of 2015, a heavier weight on my shoulders than I should have allowed. Regardless, I will write that list, short though it will be. I’ll write it as tribute to having gotten through any reviews at all, for reading what I managed to despite having suffered deeply through the course of this year. Because reading has always lifted me, always made so much of life bearable, from a despicable childhood through today. When things get awful, the thought of having books to read comforts me beyond any other single factor in my life.

So, what’s the best of my 2015 reading? Damn near all of it’s been impressive but in looking back one book screams out, a book I read and reviewed here. That one book is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, the dystopian marvel I haven’t gotten out of my head. No matter the number of books I’ve read since, this book has managed to stay surprisingly fresh. Triggers have popped the book back into my mind more times than I can count. There’s something about it, some quality of dark deliciousness I can’t shake and have no desire to. By no means am I alone in this; Station Eleven was one of the undisputed great novels of 2015.

stationeleven

Yes, other books blew me away, books I read before and since choosing this one favorite. A very close second came a few days after I’d drafted the beginnings of this post, Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone, a fantastic gem of a book framed by John Lennon’s connection to an island off the coast of Ireland, one he bought for its association with his Irish ancestral past and then came back to visit after a lapse of decades, just before his murder. There was Matt Bell’s Scrapper, as well, another great dystopia of 2015,  written with Detroit as its backdrop, a gorgeous staccato testament to the continued relevance of its darkly violent theme of despair.

With 2016 newly arrived, I once again vow to do better, to keep closer track of my reading and review everything I read here on Bluestalking. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep that promise. Life’s been hard on me, each year managing to blindside with events I didn’t see coming – and some I did, like the divorce – knocking out my breath. But I’ll try. All I can do is set goals and strive my hardest to reach them.

Here’s hoping 2016 proves less traumatic and cheers to all who stopped by in 2015. I cannot express the depth of my appreciation and hope I’ll bring more to the table from here on out. As always, I bring my best hopes.

Bless.

TLC Blog Tour: Dig Two Graves by Kim Powers, Thoughts and an Interview

  • digtwograves
    • Paperback: 302 pages
    • Publisher: Tyrus Books (December 4, 2015)
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 144059192X
    • ISBN-13: 978-1440591921

 

And in the next second, I knew it wasn’t a joke or anything to do with drama club or anything Skip had done or…

A note, handwritten, was jabbed into the middle of the “body” with an open pair of scissors.

“YOU’VE KEPT ME WAITING LONG ENOUGH.”

You can’t make sound without air, so I didn’t make a peep, because at that moment all the air went out of my body.

Gone. Everything gone.

Sound. Air. Everything. Nothing. Skip. Life. Gone.

 

Ethan Holt, widowed former Olympic decathlete turned university professor, is engaged in the fight of his life after his only child, his daughter Skip, is abducted by a madman. As the kidnapper’s demands begin coming in, he realizes with growing horror this is no random act, no bid for something as basic as money. This crime is personal, a cold-blooded, calculated act perpetrated by someone who knows him and wants to ensure his suffering is as sharp as it gets.

The kidnapper’s demands come in the form of twisted rhymes, playing on the Twelve Labors of Hercules, a subject a classics professor is all too familiar with. As a former athlete, each task requires his utmost strength – both physical and mental. Ethan Holt is a man pushed to his absolute limits, the stakes everything he has left in the world. The kidnapper is a person teetering on the edge of insanity, blinded by rage, simultaneously horrified by what he’s become:

 

The kidnapper was gasping for air, stabbing at the crook in his left arm with a fresh needle. Only stabbing at himself would take over his rage, the rage he wanted to inflict on everything in his wake. On that person. On the other end of the phone. And on himself and how far things had gone. He wanted to stab it all away. Make himself hurt so bad for what he’d done… but his body could barely feel anything anymore…”

 

The plot of Dig Two Graves is tight, allowing the action to flow without being weighted down by unnecessary diversions. At the same time, the characterizations are superb, the good and bad guys drawn in a way that’s unflinching, portraits of all the best and worst in each. These are real people, three-dimensional and fully formed.

In the best books of this genre, it’s possible to both loathe and understand the motivations of the antagonist. By the end of the book, the reader will despise the actions of the villain, while also feeling a great deal of empathy.

An accomplished journalist, memoirist, novelist, screenwriter and television/broadcast journalist, Emmy and Peabody award-winning Kim Powers here demonstrates his ability to write an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride of a novel. Looking through his staggering list of credentials, you kind of have to wonder if there’s anything this man cannot write well.

kimpowers

Author’s website:  http://kimpowersbooks.com

Interview

Author Kim Powers was kind enough to answer a few interview questions for me:

LG: Have you always been interested in mythology? How did you come upon the idea of integrating the Twelve Labors of Hercules into a mystery?

KP: I like to blame it on Brad Pitt. I had just seen the movie of Seven – this was back when I was writing screenplays – and loved the architecture of it. The seven sins that everyone already knew. A tailor-made boiler plate. So the first thing that actually came to me, before the twelve labors, was the ten events of the decathlon. Maybe it was during the summer Olympics, I don’t remember, but I like that it was a nice, even number.

Believe it or not, the 12 labors, which is really the key driving force of the book, actually came a bit later. There was a time when the solving of the labors ran very much hand-in-hand with the decathlon events: Ethan was literally replaying all ten events: the shot put, pole vault, hurdles, etc. Then that got to be too unwieldy.

I guess I know a little bit more about mythology and classics than the average guy, but not much. I had taken four years of Latin in high school – don’t ask me why; I thought it would be a good baseline for learning other foreign languages – but that all left me.  Every translation in the book I had to look up. Back in the 80s, I had very fond memories of watching the Inspector Morse mystery series of Colin Dexter on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS; I loved how every episode seemed to be rooted in some arcane piece of mythology or ancient culture that only Morse could figure out! And maybe in a deeper way, as I got into things, I realized that human behavior, at its deepest, has never truly changed. The outside accoutrement have,  of course, but those base emotions – love, hate, jealousy, revenge – have been in existence since the earliest cultures. They are part of our DNA. I wanted to explore that, and also explore how old stories – the oldest stories, in fact – had a way out of pain and misery for my characters. I certainly had escaped an unhappy childhood, into a world of fantasy and books and made-up characters.

LG: How much research went into the writing of Dig Two Graves? What were some of the challenges involved in translating mythology into a modern story line? 

KP: The two pieces of “architecture” that began the book – the ten events of the Decathlon, and the 12 Labors of Hercules – were the only two things I really researched. I had a vague sense of both of them, but really had to dig back in to get the full details. And they both pretty much come down to running and throwing heavy things!

I did some research to try to get the medical details of what ailment the villain has; of birth abnormalities and what would have happened when, while he was growing up. Of what his motor and speech skills could be. With that, I didn’t want to pin anything down too literally, but I wanted to have a ready answer, if anyone asked me. (And I was also very much aware, in this era of political correctness, of not wanting anyone to say I had misrepresented their community.)

Coming up with modern-day equivalents to the Labors was a lot of fun; they went through a lot of changes over the course of time. At one point I had some crazy stuff about helicopters being the Stymphalian birds, but as the labors went on and on, came up with things where I could dispatch several of them at one time. I remember being in a gallery and seeing some Spanish painting of a sort of farm and a cattle chute; that was an “a-ha” moment for me, when I put three or so of the labors in the old abandoned kiddie farm.

I also had a lot of fun on Pinterest, which I’ve just discovered in the last two years or so, collecting photos of things that I could use as a reference for the old abandoned school, and the old ski lift/lodge. I can imagine a lot of stuff, but being able to take a wall from this and that drawing on the chalkboard and the way the roof has collapsed from real pictures was good for me.

I’ve written so much about the small town in Texas where I grew up, that I wanted to get away from that landscape for this. So I seized about making the college where Ethan Holt teaches a sort of version of Williams College, in Williamstown, MA. I spent many summers there working at the Williamstown Theater Festival. It’s up in the Berkshire Mountains, and has a fantastic variety of worlds around it. Extreme wealth, as well as hard-scrabble, blue collar, industrial mill poor. And a quick getaway across the state lines into Vermont. That served a lot of what I needed geographically, and it finally got me out of the deep South of Texas and the Alabama/Midwest of Capote in Kansas.

I loved writing the diabolical rhymes that accompanied each Labor; that was maybe the most fun part of the book for me. Rhymezone.com became my best friend, as I mapped those out!

LG: What about the father/daughter dynamic lead you to tell this story from the perspective of a widowed man and his only child? Was this POV always your intent, or did you consider other options?

KP: The father/daughter, Ethan/Skip bond is my favorite thing about the book, and the one thing I felt like I’d like to go back and explore more, in sequels. I’d love to see what they go on to next, in their lives, after the trauma in Dig Two Graves.  I’m very interested in how people recover from that; and how some people shut down and quit living and can’t move forward, and how others can let it go and move on.

I’m not a father in real life – except to the four dogs I’ve had through the years – and I’ve never wanted to be a parent, but I loved exploring that dynamic in a fictional way. I think I’d actually be a very good parent, although I don’t think I could ever let go of the worry. I didn’t set out deliberately to explore that, but it became the heartbeat of the novel.

I’ve never been the kind of writer who maps out a lot of stuff in advance, except for maybe a handful of very key turning points, so it was all a discovery for me. And to my surprise, I realized I was very much recalling the dynamic I had with my own father, who had to single-handedly raise me and my twin brother from the time we were eight years old, after my mother died. I realized I hadn’t ever given him much credit. A lot of readers had told me he was the missing character in my memoir The History of Swimming, but he very much gets a chance to tell his story in my next book, Rules for Being Dead, which I write more about later on here!

(There’s a line in the play A Streetcar Named Desire, when one of the characters, a neighborhood lady, says to Blanche and Stella, “Don’t need no ton of bricks to fall on me,” about realizing they want her to get out of the house. But I sometimes think I DO need a ton of bricks to fall on me; so often – and there are so many instances in Dig Two Graves – where I’ve written directly autobiographical things from my own life, but didn’t realize it at the time. Only after I finished writing do I go, “So  THAT’S where that came from!”)

A few times, when I began feeling like it was maybe a bit of a cliché to kidnap a young girl, and be another old white guy perpetrating violence against girls and women, I thought about changing Skip to a son. But it just didn’t have the same resonance. It might have been interesting – a novel of all men – but there was something so fascinating to me in that dynamic of a single father, trying to raise a teenage daughter without a rule book. The jealousy that daughter might feel, when her father begins dating again. I had gone through that – not jealousy, but resentment – when my own father began dating, after the death of my mother. And I wanted to explore that.

LG:  Skip is such a strong young lady, bright and self-assured. Is she modeled on anyone you’ve known? Likewise, Ethan is both deeply intelligent and athletically talented. Did his character spring from someone in your own life?

KP: I love Skip so much; I couldn’t begin to tell you where her name sprang from, it was just there, full-blown, when I first thought of her. And pretty much she was there, fully formed, as well. In earlier drafts of the book, she was a few years younger than her present 12-years-old, but then that began to feel creepy.

To a little bit, she’s based on my informal  Goddaughter, Adelaide Daniel. (Meaning I’m not officially her Godfather; she’s the daughter of my best friends, and I’ve always been her Gay Uncle – Guncle Kim.) She just started college this year – how time flies, but I’ve known her since she was a baby and have seen her grow up, as maybe an only child can. She’s studying acting and has always been interested in theater; those beats of Skip wanting to be an actress and doing sense memory exercises stem directly from that. She was in the musical of Legally Blonde at her high school and I stole that as well. A colleague at work told me about how his young daughter was obsessed, as were all her classmates, with making things out of duct tape, like purses, etc; so I was really picking up details everywhere and anywhere I could.

Ethan, the hero, is really “me with muscles.” I don’t know how else to describe him. I’m the least athletic person of anyone I know, but I went through a period of working out in my 30s. I thought back to that when I was writing all those scenes in the gym, and of him prepping for the Olympics. The pain/pleasure of it all.

There was one long paragraph I wrote – maybe the very first thing I ever wrote for the book – about how he treated the gym like a church, with the ghosts of everyone that had been there in the decades before him. And if you can’t remember that passage, don’t worry; you’re not going crazy! It’s not in the book anymore. I kept shoe-horning it various places, because I was so in love with the writing of it, but it just never fit. Talk about “kill your darlings.” Having to leave that passage out killed me! But Ethan’s emotional life is straight from me: other than the outward facts of his life – the Olympics, teaching, being a father – he is me.

LG: How difficult is it writing from the perspective of a deeply disturbed individual, such as the villain in Dig Two Graves? How does such a kind person as you write from such a dark, depraved place?

KP: Fantastic question! And only another good soul like you would be smart and perceptive enough to think it, or ask it. It was the hardest part of the book for me. At the end of the day, all the writing I’ve done has represented me: who I am as a person, what I believe it. I’ve never written “violence” before. Some early readers of book at one point told me it was clear that Skip – the kidnapped daughter – wasn’t going to get hurt. That she wasn’t in physical jeopardy. I had to grit my teeth and hold my breath and go back and add some, to make that believable, even though it’s not the kind of stuff I like reading.

I was able to write the “villain” by making him a character: at first, getting into his voice, his linguistic tricks, the way he would turn a phrase. And even though it’s a cliché a lot of actors spout, that you have to see him as a person rather than a black-and-white bad guy, I had to do that. When I came upon the chapters of his backstory – of how he first learned The 12 Labors of Hercules, to overcome pain; when I wrote the chapter about how he envied someone else, of how he tried to become that person, watching him on TV (careful not to spoil any surprises here!), that helped him  become more a person to me.

At the end, the showdown in the cemetery with the protagonist, that was two desperate people, not a bad guy and a good guy. That took everything out of me to write; I’d play searing arias from operas as I wrote, to help me get to that place emotionally. Maybe because I began my early life, as a kid and then in high school and college, thinking I was going to be an actor, everything had to have its own internal logic for me. I had to be able to “act” the character realistically. And I acted the villain to the place where I thought he was real, and I could understand why he would do the horrible things he did. He is basically a kid, asking God why these horrible things had happened to him, and getting revenge on the people he thought was responsible. If I’ve done my job right, by the end of the book, the reader will feel some sort of sympathy and understanding toward him. And because every writer always hopes his or her book will become a movie – I was already projecting that in my head: what do I have to give a big A-list Hollywood actor, to seduce them into wanting to play this character??

LG: How does the writing process differ from journalism to fiction? Is your approach to each the same, or do they require different strategies?

KP: The obvious basic difference is that journalism is supposed to be the truth, just the facts, ma’am, without any editorializing. (Haha, as the kids would say.) Once you’ve done it as long as I have, through my writing jobs at Good Morning America and 20/20, you realize how nearly impossible that is. I had never been to journalism school when I lucked into that first job at GMA; most of my colleagues had. The good part of that is that I wasn’t hide-bound by a set of rules, but it was a little bit of my failing, too.

So many of the writers I’ve seen at ABC have no sense of nuance, of creating drama or telling a story through their words. It’s just the facts. You can do that – or at least I can – without being boring. It’s the thing that drives me the craziest; I accuse some of my fellow writer/producers there of being school marms. I think it’s why I’ve lasted so long there – nearly 20 years – and done so well. I’m able to tell a story and convey human emotion. The worst situations there for me are when we have to crash a breaking news story, and it’s just a recitation of who, what, where, when. I like to supply the missing ingredient of Why?

One of the good things, however, that all that writing, day in and day out, has given me, is the stamina for writing books. It’s worked that muscle for me, and I can sit down and bang out five or six pages at a time, until the picture in my head is emptied out. Sometimes I feel like the day job uses up all my words, and I have nothing left at the end of the day, but it has also taught me to approach writing my books like a job: day in and day out. Not sitting around waiting for “inspiration” or “the right mood” to hit me. If I did that, I’d never get anything written.

LG: You’ve written about the loss of your twin brother, the relationship between Truman Capote and Harper Lee, and now a former Olympian faced with a seemingly impossible task, the life of his child hanging in the balance. What’s next for you? Is there another book in the works?

KP: I think the disappearance of my twin brother Tim (written about in my memoir The History of Swimming), and then his ultimate death, informs everything I write. For better or worse, I guess it’s sort of the broken record in my life. In a coded way, even Capote in Kansas was about that: two former best friends, who become enemies. The very last words in the book are Truman saying this to Harper Lee: “I’m sorry.” That was  completely me saying it to my twin brother. I was writing a blog post the other day for Dig Two Graves and it finally hit me, like an idiot, how much the search in that completely made-up thriller was informed by what I went through during the three days in which Tim went missing. The impotence of a character – me, or my hero Ethan Holt – to do anything, other than look to the heavens and say, “Where ARE you?”

So my next book goes back to that theme. It’s called Rules for Being Dead – part of my “cemetery suite” I’ve been jokingly calling it, along with Dig Two Graves. It’s a novel, but very autobiographical, sort of a prequel to The History of Swimming. It’s about a little boy whose mother dies when he’s eight years old, and his playing detective to find out what happened to her. At the same time he’s doing that, the dead mother herself is looking for the same answer, sort of floating around in the ether, not allowed entrance to heaven or hell, until she can find out. Sort of like The Lovely Bones. Was it suicide, murder, an accident, what? It will be my magnum opus, finally answering the question that has haunted me all my life. After The History of Swimming came out, I received some information about my mother’s death I had never known before – after some 40 years of mystery. It changed everything I thought I had known up until then. So that’s what the book is about. It’s done, and my agent plans to take it out and shop it around after the holidays. Wish me luck! After that, I’ve  scraped the family closets clean; now I’ll have to start actually making up shit!

 

Thank you to Kim Powers, as well as TLC Book Tours, for the opportunity to read Dig Two Graves.

dawn lerman’s ‘my fat dad,’ an interview, with thoughts

myfatdad

 

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley (September 29, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0425272230
  • ISBN-13: 978-0425272237

Nutritionist, New York Times blogger and author Dawn Lerman grew up consumed by food, witness to her 450-lb. father’s see-saw obsession with diets. A man controlled by his own battles with eating, her father’s struggles took a toll, forcing his family onto the roller coaster of fad diets and an overall unhealthy attitude toward food. Yet, no one else in the family was overweight, a minor miracle.

If it’s true the kitchen is at the heart of the traditional home, Lerman’s family’s adversarial relationship with food was at odds with their family’s rich Jewish heritage, filled with meals to comfort the soul. Fortunately, Dawn’s maternal grandmother, Beauty, came to her rescue, both in providing a sense of love and stability and teaching her how to cook wonderfully flavorful, traditional dishes, essentially rescuing her from starvation and a childhood deprived of much in the way of nutrition. Even more powerfully, Beauty’s legacy  set Dawn on the path that would carry her into her life’s calling, founding Magnificent Mommies, a company providing nutrition education to students, teachers and corporations.

To read about Beauty is to love her; she was the sort of grandmother we all wish we’d had, or at least I do. Coming from a family fragmented, cut adrift from extended relations, I grew up in an environment devoid of nutritious foods. The Deep South formed my heritage, a world filled with biscuits and fried chicken and heavy, carbohydrate-dripping meals held together by animal fat. Though not as extreme, my own mother fad dieted her way through most of my life, reinforcing my own love-hate battle with food. And, ultimately, I never learned to cook, having watched my mother pull pre-packaged foods out of the freezer, plopping Banquet fried chicken, instant mashed potatoes and canned green beans in front of us, more often than not. Had I been blessed with such a grandmother as Lerman’s, I can only imagine how different my relationship with food could have been.

Thanks to her maternal grandmother, by high school Dawn had acquired a vast repertoire of dishes she’d become expert at creating. Her mother and little sister away, her sister performing in a production of Annie, she was finally able to introduce her father to  the wonder of home-cooked meals. Though her father had, by this point, lost a staggering 175 lbs, the weight was beginning to creep back up on him, as it almost inevitably does. And for a while it was great, cooking for her father. Then, he began drifting away again, leaving her alone while he spent more and more time at work. Undeterred, she kept studying and practicing her culinary art, turning what could have been seen as a failure to convince her father into totally embracing a healthy way of eating into a test of her convictions, a test she passed with flying colors.

My Fat Dad is essentially a collection of essays, columns about aspects of Dawn Lerman’s life. Each is accompanied by recipes, a combination of hearty meals and nutritionally-packed dishes, all of them unintimidating foods the average reader would feel comfortable making in their own kitchen. That’s part of what makes the book so wonderful, not only is it the story of one very determined woman’s path from misery to a successful career as a nutritionist, it’s also a cookbook filled with the love her maternal grandmother instilled in her, which she, in turn, passes along.

It’s like one big group hug, from Beauty to Dawn to us.

Dawn was kind enough to agree to answer a few interview questions for me:

1). What were your concerns in writing a book about your family? Were there discussions about what was off limits? 
 
Whenever you’re writing about family members or real people, there is always a fear that you will offend someone or feelings will be hurt. It is hard not to censor yourself when you know the people who you are writing about will read it. But in reading my book, “My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love and Family, With Recipes.” ,  you will see very little is off limits in my family. And it turns out both my parents loved the book. My dad, always an ad man, remarked, “You’ve come a long way baby”.  My mom, the ultimate stage mother shares passages from the book where ever she goes.  She just wishes there were more pictures of her in the center of the book.
 
2). At what age did you become interested in writing and what inspired you to write this book?
 
I have written for as long as I can remember. I used to carry around a little journal and pretend I was Harriet the Spy. Writing was my escape from my chaotic childhood. It was a place to put my feelings. It transported me into a world where I felt safe. 
 
I originally set out to write a health book for kids about snacking.  While I was compiling recipes, I realized that each one of them had a memory attached to it.  The memory was as important as the recipe itself—it was the people I was with at the time; where I was when I tasted it; and the smells that made it so important.
 
 
3). Who are some of the biggest creative influences in your life, in writing and the culinary arts? Whom do you admire?
 
In terms of food memoirs, I read every one of Ruth Reichl’s books. I loved how she weaved food into the tapestry of her life. In terms of straight memoirs, I adored Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt and as a child, I must have read Anne Frank a hundred times.
 
4). How would you sum up your philosophy toward food and nutrition? What message are you hoping to get across?
 
I hope my story helps families create happy memories around food.  I also hope that “food” is seen to be more than just the macronutrients, protein, fat, or carbs from which it is composed.  I have always had a passion for taking any family recipe and making it healthier—I hope readers can see that good food can taste good and you don’t need to give up your traditional favorites if you are willing to exchange a few ingredients (There is an index at the back of My Fat Dad that explains what you can use as a substitute for most of the basics that go into every recipe).
 
 
5). What are Americans doing wrong in relation to healthy eating? What’s the biggest, most prevalent issue we should be paying attention to?
 
As a holistic nutritionist, I believe it is important to know your client before making any blanket statement. However, I do think drinking beverages other than soda, like Green Tea is important.  Also, people should try to eat simple, filling meals and fill up at least half of their plates with veggies. 
 
Finally, as my daughter says, if it has a commercial attached to it, it usually is not good—this goes for processed foods, especially. How many commercials do we see for kale or strawberries?
 
6). How has your Jewish heritage influenced your relationship with food? What’s singular about this particular ethnicity?
 
I think Ray Romano who blurbed my book said it best“ Dawn Lerman grew up Jewish in the 70’s. I grew up Italian. Might sound different, but for the most part, it’s the same. Especially when it comes to food. The philosophy was simple, food = love. My Fat Dad hilariously and poignantly captures that essence .Whether you’re Italian, Jewish, or anything else you can relate to how family, food, and the love of both affect how we grow up, and live our life. Mangia!”—Ray Romano, Emmy award-winning actor
 
No matter what your culture is food that is past down through generations and cooked with love creates memories and lasting nourishment.
 
My grandmother Beauty would say, “I can find my heritage in a bowl of chicken soup.”
 
 
7). What’s your best advice to busy households juggling family, career and trying to eat healthily?
 
Try to pick one day a week like a Sunday and do a shopping trip as a family. Go to either a grocery store or a farmer’s market and pick what is in season. Then together get creative and plan your meals for the week. A big batch of soup, a roasted chicken, a batch of roasted veggies, some chopped vegetables for dipping can help you avoid eating fast food. Being prepared with snacks and easy to make meals will set you up for success.
 
 
8). What’s up next for you, project-wise?
 
My main focus is really what it always has been, trying to teach kids about the importance of proper nutrition and teaching them how to cook. I am in the process of writing a cookbook for kids.
 
9). Finally, if you had to choose a favorite dish – either a go-to comfort dish our personal specialty – what would it be?
 
I think it would have to be my grandmother’s chicken soup. It was in her kitchen, inhaling the smells of fresh dill that I learned what it felt like to be loved and nourished. As for baked goods, it would have to be my grandmother’s banana oatmeal cookies that I have given a little makeover to –adding flax seeds and coconut oil.
 
Dawn Lerman is a New York-based health and nutrition consultant and author of “My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love and Family, With Recipes. ” Her series on growing up with a fat father appears on the Well blog of the New York Times 

 

 

what happened when the girl came back, then left again: gillian flynn’s ‘the grownup’

You may know Gillian Flynn from such things as one bazillion weeks on The New York Times Bestseller List, or the hit blockbuster film adaptation of a little book called Gone Girl. Or, you may just have crawled out of the primordial ooze and have no idea what I’m talking about. For the latter, have a crawl back in and wait for this to pass. It’s a short book, thus a short review. We won’t be long.

And now Gillian’s back, with a palate-cleansing little book you could call a short story published in hardback format, maybe because it is a short story published in hardback format.

The Girl, She Done Gone Again

The Girl, She Done Gone Again

  • Hardcover: 64 pages
  • Publisher: Crown (November 3, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0804188971
  • ISBN-13: 978-0804188975

Reportedly, Flynn didn’t feel like writing another Gone Girl just yet and, you know, can you blame her? Your previous book goes blockbuster and there you are again, sitting down in front of the blank screen. Even if you have just floated back down from a meteoric rise, do you actually want to strap on for another trip in the rocket so soon?

No, you probably don’t. What you want is permission to write something different, off your main genre but not so far removed it takes you completely out of your comfort zone. This is a way-station here, not a complete change in course. So, what you do may be something like this:

If you’ve read Gone Girl (and odds are you have) you know Gillian Flynn’s talent for playing cat and mouse with her readers. InThe Grownup she does it again but in only 62 pages. The story opens with this: “I didn’t stop giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.” It’s a helluva way to start, and the curiosity it raises is just the beginning. The narrator is a born and raised scam artist who sees a chance to leave light sex work behind for a career in what she does best, reading people and telling them what they want to hear. Susan seems like the perfect mark–rich, desperate, and terrified of the evil she says lives in her house. But things are not what they seem, especially with Flynn at the helm. A short story written for George R.R. Martin’sRogues anthology, The Grownup is a tightly wrought psychological thrill ride that will leave readers replaying every well spent moment. – Seira Wilson

 

Only, it isn’t all that. It’s a short story with a certain twisty-turny appeal but it’s too short to have much chance of really grabbing a reader by her throat. It’s a nice story, with some good bits of zing (professional term). I wish I’d written it, sure, but that’s because it’s me and I haven’t just come off a blockbuster thrill-ride.

Really, hard as it is to believe, I haven’t.

I love that the protagonist is a sex worker turned medium, a bookish young woman who’s screwed up her life to this point, to the extent she is a sex worker turned medium. Not a lot further you could fall.

I didn’t stop giving hand jobs  because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.

For three years, I gave the best hand job in the tristate area. The key is not to overthink it. If you start worrying about technique, if you begin analyzing rhythm and pressure, you lose the essential nature of the act. You have to mentally prepare beforehand, and then you have to stop thinking and trust your body to take over.

I love her sense of humor, her heart and basic core of integrity. When a middle-aged woman comes to her, begging for her help, it touches her. The woman’s upset. There’s an evil presence in her home and she’s at her wit’s end. Can she help?

She can, she says. And she will.

Now, at 64 pages, there’s not an awful lot I can give you on the story without blowing the whole thing wide open. It’s meant as an exercise in flexing muscles in a ghost story turned dark side of the human mind way but, much as I hate to say it, it falls flat. As I said earlier, there just isn’t enough space within 64 pages to make the tight turns Flynn needs. She succeeds in making me care about her characters, that’s a given. It’s just the story itself can’t quite pull it off, can’t send a chill down my spine or even leave me feeling satisfied.

Unlike the protagonist’s clients.

It’s a short story, pulled from an anthology. Where it should have stayed. As one of many, it’s fine. As a stand-alone hardback for the price of $ 9.99, it simply doesn’t cut it.

If you’re going to wow us with a short, every word must not just count but carry enormous weight, expressing artistry as much by what’s missing as what’s there. If your goal is to twist once, maybe twice, you have to be very fleet of foot and, unless you’re a miracle worker, give yourself the space in which to do it.

I saw what she was trying to do, the theme she was going for. It just didn’t happen.

So… uncomfortable shifting, avoiding eye contact… Gillian, how’s the new novel coming?

 

 

a replacement life by boris fishman

areplacementlife

 

[ARC via Amazon Vine program]

Slava Gelman is a young writer trying to get a foothold on the slippery slope from low-ranking nobody to published writer, with a byline in Century, a high-profile magazine where he works. So far achieving little respect, his ideas largely overlooked, he’s mired in frustration. If he’s to succeed, he believes he needs to break free of his barely off the boat Russian family, moving forward into modern-day Manhattan and the new lifestyle he yearns to emulate.

Upon the death of his much-loved grandmother, his adorable grandfather – a golden-hearted man thoroughly lacking principle in all matters related to money – convinces Slava he should turn his writing skills to the family’s advantage, forging a letter of restitution for his grandmother’s suffering during the Holocaust, in order to receive money from the German government. Along with the request, Slava finds himself reeled back into the bosom of the family, adding to his conflict and misery.

What makes the whole endeavor a bit less smarmy is his grandmother just missed a legitimate opportunity to apply for restitution; she missed the letter which would have qualified her by just a few days. The implied question is: is it more immoral forging a letter to get money from a government formerly responsible for the killing of thousands of Jews, or to allow this same government to get away with not having compensated the family in any way – not that money can buy back what suffering takes.

Moral or not, Slava writes the letter. In so doing, he gets far more than he ever bargained for, which you kind of have to figure or there’d be no story, would there?

Fishman’s book takes on a very serious topic, managing to sidestep the most serious offense through use of humor, mixed with a cast of characters you can’t fail to love .  Will his treatment of forged Holocaust restitution offend some readers or make Slava heroic? Tough to say.

Though I am not Jewish, I am a human being whose heart hurt reading Slava’s invented stories. Not having read other reviews of the book, I can’t say how he fared with other readers. I was borderline, finding a few more gruesome details a little too graphic for comfort. But then, as is always the case in reading fiction written by a writer representing a culture foreign to the reader, I feel a bit reluctant speaking out against his treatment. I have no notion how it feels to have been savaged at the hands of the Nazis. What I know comes from history books, films and other literature I read. My heart breaks on their behalf but I will always be an outsider.

For the most part, I found Fishman’s balance between horror and humor even. The specter of very real suffering was in the background throughout the book; it isn’t as if he moved from funny to savage with no segue. His own Russian Jewish heritage came through strongly, his heart clearly affected by the story he chose to tell.

A Replacement Life reads similarly to the books of Gary Shteyngart, funny by use of understated, ironic humor. There’s a good chance if you enjoy one, you’ll enjoy the other writer.

Russian Jewish humor has a distinctly unique inflection. Plots often verge on the madcap, heavily using old word vs. new world contrast to create distinct generational separation in characters, lending itself well to this type of humor. Older family members groan and hold their heads over new world changes in the young, invoking guilt in an attempt to bring the younger generation back to the old ways. Of course, they generally fail. Once having achieved freedom, who wants to trade it back?

Loved the book. Highly recommend.

 

From Acknowledgments:

“My first thanks is to my grandmother. She really was better than all of us.

Then to my grandfather. A friend once said, “You’re smarter than him, you’re more enlightened than him. But both of us can fit inside his left nut.” Hard to Argue.”

 

 

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (January 20, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062287885
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062287885

Publicist: jane.beirn@harpercollins.com

 

 

How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman

howtobegoodwife

 

2015 is starting out to be My Year of the Creepy Thriller. That’s not a bad thing; it’s always been one of my very favorite genres. It’s choosing to read them one after the other that isn’t my usual habit. I’ve always paced them, saving some of the really good, guaranteed to spook me books as treats for when my reading is flagging. Maybe starting my year with the film adaptation of Gone Girl set my reading mood? I only know it was unplanned. I’m far too scattered in my reading to plan anything.

One of my favorite creepy thriller writers is Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, who unfortunately suffered a severe stroke in January of this year. Last I heard, not long after the announcement, she was in critical condition. I’ve heard no updates but it certainly didn’t sound reassuring. Writing as Ruth Rendell (her real name) her books were partially in the Chief Inspector Wexford mystery series and partially stand-alones. As Barbara Vine, she wrote thrillers (a separate genre, related to mystery) delving deeply into the minds of psychotic killers. In the thriller, the reader knows who the killer is, waiting to see how things unfold, how the person is caught or not, learning more about the depravity of the crime as the plot proceeds. And Barbara Vine is a master of the deep and dark, morbidly fanciful thriller. She’s in her own class.

Then there’s How to Be a Good Wife, a novel that’s somewhat muddled between thriller and mystery. In the beginning, the reader knows something is most definitely off. Marta and her husband, a long-married couple, with one grown son engaged to be married, live in an unidentified area of Scandinavia. Marta is deeply disturbed, her husband, to all appearances, a caring man who never loses patience with her. Outwardly, he could be perceived as saintly. He also makes her pop pills, to keep her hallucinations and nightmares at bay. What makes the reader suspicious is Marta’s own doubt, the fact she’s distrustful either of her husband or doctor – whom she doesn’t recall even seeing, ever – or both. Instead of taking the medication she pretends to, rolling the pills under her tongue, spitting them out when her husband’s out of sight. This shows a degree of sanity, a realization what she’s doing and why. Without the medication she’s still quite mentally unbalanced but at least she begins to remember things from her past, vague images that grow more sharp as the book progresses. This is why she stops, because she is starting to see something real, occasionally, in the kaleidoscopic unreality of her mental state on drugs. She’s seeing it and she recognizes its difference from pure hallucination.

The title of the book comes from the 1950s instructional book for wives, given to Marta by her mother in law, to assure she knows her place. It’s outrageously sexist but Marta takes it literally, making herself subservient to

Based on that, the book sounds great, doesn’t it? A disturbed woman beginning to wake up, recalling the source of her unstable mind, learning whom she can trust and whom she can’t. And her own husband is at the top of the suspect list.

According to a blurb on Amazon:

IN THE TRADITION OF EMMA DONOGHUE’S ROOM AND S.J. WATSON’S BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP, HOW TO BE A GOOD WIFE BY EMMA CHAPMAN IS A HAUNTING LITERARY DEBUT ABOUT A WOMAN WHO BEGINS HAVING VISIONS THAT MAKE HER QUESTION EVERYTHING SHE KNOWS.

This hits it right on the head: it’s a mix of the two novels. A perfect mix, as in, a bit too close. It’s true no one can patent an idea. It’s also true if a reader has read the two books mentioned it’s going to seem awfully familiar. Guess who has read these two books? Yup, this gal. It left me wondering what, exactly, her editor was thinking, accepting a book so closely related to two other very high profile books. I expect it was their popularity, the amount of money they raked in, that turned the publisher’s head. I don’t begrudge them the business; I am upset by the questionable ethics of publishing a book that’s been done before. Not just before but within the last few years.

Putting aside the doppleganger plot, the style Chapman chose is abstract, sometimes irritatingly so. I’m a patient reader, who loves dense prose, but only when it moves at a pace that isn’t glacial, or is so superb I don’t mind following at a slower pace. When it’s genius, I mean. At times I found Chapman’s writing too self-consciously obscure, too artsy for artsy’s sake, without advancing the plot. More concrete information wouldn’t have hurt the story line one bit – something, anything to give the reader something to grab onto, a chance in hell of finding a reference point. Instead, we’re made seasick by the constant inconsistency. Constant inconsistency: that’s an odd phrase for you. I’m leaving it, though, because it fits.

Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t swallow this book in a gulp. I read it in the course of a day, letting the house and all my other plans go straight to hell. Overlooking the occasionally  almost impenetrable prose, I had to know how it ended.

All in all: meh.

Adeline by Norah Vincent

adeline

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (April 7, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • $ 23.00

 

The degree of difficulty involved in writing Adeline must have been great. I can’t imagine how long Vincent spent reading bios about Woolf, her letters and diaries. I’m deeply impressed by the breadth of scholarship involved. In her notes, she cites her sources, which are extensive, if not complete. Then again, a complete bibliography of books about Woolf is a life’s worth of reading, much less time spent interpreting all the facts, forming them into a work of fiction. Or “faction,” maybe. Has anyone used that term to refer to fiction disguised as fact? Let’s say they haven’t and that I’m breaking new ground. No one else will care but I like the thought I’ve CREATED SOMETHING, unlikely as it is.

[I won’t tell if you won’t. And I’m pretty sure you don’t care either way.]

What Vincent has done in Adeline (The title is Virginia Woolf’s actual first name. She went by her middle name.) is take Woolf’s life, novel by novel, breaking it into acts as if in a play. Starting in 1925 with her inspiration for To the Lighthouse, triggered by time spent soaking in the bath (I really don’t know if this is accurate), the author expands the story to include what was going on in Woolf’s life, and within her circle of friends, at the time she was writing each book. Vincent pays much attention to Virginia’s relationship with her husband, Leonard Woolf, using his point of view to explore the mental illness she suffered – presumed to have been bipolar disorder or manic depression. In Virginia’s shoes I believe Leonard’s actions would have felt annoying. They show how much he cares but his occasional coddling, as depicted in this novel, would have driven me absolutely bonkers. Was he this protective? I never got the impression he was so overbearing. And was he so overly-dramatic? He dealt with this for a very long time. It’s not as if any of this was new to him. After a while, even the most unusual of situations will become “normal.”

He was always watchful, always on the lookout for her inevitable tumbles into depression. Knowing the signs her extreme downturns were returning, he needed to be certain she got what was considered appropriate care. Of course, what was considered appropriate then is far from modern-day treatment, using a combination of drugs to control the chemical imbalances in the brain. Anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds and anti-psychotics, regulated by a psychiatrist, are often used in a “cocktail” to keep the mood – and racing mind – on an even keel. Drugs, paired with talk therapy, can go a long way toward controlling bipolar disorder. For Woolf, taking away all stimulants was her “rest cure.” Because mania brought on her obsessive writing, she was kept away from it. Likewise, reading, very closely associated, needless to say. It must have been a living hell for her. No wonder she dreaded the inevitability of  it.

Bipolar disorder is thought to be a dormant condition in many, brought out by a triggering event. So, not everyone predisposed toward bipolar will exhibit symptoms. There are also two different forms: Bipolar I and Bipolar II. Not being a psychiatrist, going by what I know to be true, I think it’s more probably the latter that afflicted Virginia Woolf. Bipolar I is the almost solely depressive form. Manic stages are present but greatly muted, in comparison to Bipolar II. Mostly, Bipolar I is a deep funk, often tending toward suicidal impulse. Bipolar II, however, is the one most people identify as the “true” form, usually unaware it’s not the only possibility. People with this condition exhibit incredible highs, during which they are manically productive and feel indestructible, then fall very far into depression, often needing to be hospitalized to keep them from harming themselves.

In Woolf’s case, we can fairly safely presume the event which released her bipolar was the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her half brother, George Duckworth.  I wanted to slam the book down when Vincent wrote dialogue between Virginia and Leonard, in which Virginia so casually mentions the abuse. The way the two referred to it was wooden and unnatural, even taking into account Leonard was well aware of her past. It was a lazy shortcut device used to inform the reader of the horrors Virginia underwent.Trying to recall how Woolf referred to the events with Duckworth, I don’t remember her speaking of it casually. It’s a struggle to recall her talking about it at all, even in her diaries, and letters to her beloved sister Vanessa, much less while she’s watching Leonard weeding the garden. After that section I read with a very guarded disposition, no longer completely trusting the author. For the record, this wasn’t all that far into the book.

Beyond that, I have issues with Vincent’s stylistic choices, her tendency to stay too much within Virginia’s head. There’s too much potential for misinterpretation, for creating thoughts she never had, leading the reader to believe she was a far different person than she was in reality. I’ll admit, I tend to feel protective of Woolf, sensitive to how she’s portrayed. Already feeling distrustful certainly didn’t help.

It’s also an annoyance that the language used is so formal, the prose over-written. It would have been better pared down to minimalism, in my opinion. It would have made for a much better book without prose verging on, sometimes crossing into,”purple” territory. Never mind the high intellects found in the real-life players of this drama; it would have been perfectly excusable to skirt that, opting for s more simple style, focusing on the story and not so much overly flamboyant conversations. It needs less blow by blow, more showing and less telling. As written, it was difficult keeping focus. Every few paragraphs something would sound “off” to me, reminding me I’m reading a book and not immersed in the lives of the Bloomsbury Group. This is the opposite of what you want to find in a novel, any disconnection from what’s happening in the book. Novels should be as seamless as possible. It’s crucial the reader lose herself in the story, not wander off to think about shopping lists or what’s for dinner. Fiction is an alternate reality, with emphasis on the real. Even in the case of fantasy and science fiction, a story  needs to feel real, as in possible. If I’m reading a work of horror, I need to feel frightened. If it’s a dystopia, I should feel unnerved and worried, uncomfortable. I never lost myself in Adeline.

There may be a narrow readership for Adeline: those with a casual curiosity about Woolf who aren’t interested in more than a surface grasp of her life, as well as an introduction to the major figures in her peer group. What’s less fortunate is these readers may feel as though they’re doing a bit of wading to get to the meat of it, that the characters have personalities so big and overbearing it’s overwhelming. Using such a loud style does no favors to readers unfamiliar with Virginia Woolf. Rather, it’s off-putting.

There are so many nonfiction books out there about Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, if a reader wants to get a sketch of her life. Hermione Lee’s is definitive but too long for the casual reader. Instead, Nigel Nicholson’s short Penguin Lives edition, titled simply Virginia Woolf, would be my recommendation. Nigel Nicholson was the son of Virginia’s one-time lesbian lover, Vita Sackville-West and uses:

 

” … family archives and first-hand experience for his brisk, dutiful biography. For the young Nicolson, Woolf first appeared as a lively and amusing visitor. Not yet famous, to Nicolson she was like “a favourite aunt who brightened our simple lives with unexpected questions.”

– Publishers Weekly

 

woolfnicholson

 

Overall, the effort gets points for the idea but loses most of its value in the areas of stylistic choice and execution, which, well doesn’t leave it with much. Try as I did, I could not abide Adeline. Perhaps I’m too predisposed to finding fiction based on the life of Woolf to be irritating (it took two times for me to grow to love Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, not that I’m comparing the magnitude of two books). I cannot recommend the book.

 

[Free Review Copy: Amazon Vine program]