Tuesday, April 14, 2015
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
Is there anything quite so satisfying as a deftly plotted thriller with a morally complex character at its center?
Pleasantville is Attica Locke's third novel, following Black Water Rising and The Cutting Season. Locke has perfected her own distinct blend of the legal thriller with political and historical elements. And the framework supporting it all is a kind of moral awareness that makes Pleasantville more than just an entertainment, but also a thoughtful and deeply satisfying read.
In Locke's first novel, Black Water Rising, Jay Porter was a young lawyer with a struggling practice, a pregnant wife, and a past that weighed heavily on him. Set in Houston in 1981, Black Water Rising tells a rich and complex story; much of the novel's back story involves Jay Porter's past as a student involved in the black radical movement. Jay's struggles include the early death of his father at the hands of white men, and his own troubling experience with the criminal justice system. In her first novel Attica Locke creates in Jay Porter a character who the reader will come to see as complex, entirely human, and worthy of more than one novel. Pleasantville picks up fifteen years after Black Water Rising, and much has changed for Jay. He is renowned in Houston for his legal victory over Cole Oil, he is a father, and he is raising his two children alone. The Jay Porter of Pleasantville is more seasoned, but still morally complex and haunted.
I sped through Black Water Rising in a couple of days, and was eager to pick up Pleasantville. Locke's novel did not disappoint. She expertly weaves a tale of greed, political corruption, and racial tensions that provides the perfect backdrop for her legal thriller.
Pleasantville is set in 1996, and Locke makes references to both G.W. and H.W. Bush and their growing political dynasty. She creates a convoluted but convincing political backdrop for her thriller by setting it during a mayoral race in Houston, and she brings back Jay Porter's former lover (and betrayer) Cynthia Maddox, a character who had a pivotal role in Back Water Rising. In Pleasantville, a young girl disappears on the eve of an election. When she is found dead five days later, Jay Porter is unwillingly dragged into a court battle, just as he is trying to wrap up another case involving the traditionally black neighborhood of Pleasantville and a company whose chemical fire has harmed the neighborhood's residents.
Locke is expert at ratcheting up the suspense; Pleasantville kept my pulse racing with its menacing villains, break-ins, and chases. But what makes Pleasantville absorbing and satisfying is the relationships between characters, and the character of Jay Porter himself. Locke creates in Jay a man struggling with a devastating loss while trying to raise his ten-year-old son and his fifteen-year-old daughter. His desire to represent his client, a young black man wrongly accused of murder, is at times in conflict with his desire to keep his children safe. And the moral decisions Jay has to make are complex and troubling.
While the reader can enjoy Pleasantville without first reading Black Water Rising, I recommend that you treat yourself to both. Both books are tautly paced, totally involving, and expertly written. If you like Dennis Lehane's books, you would definitely like Pleasantville, which is comparable in its moral framework, characterization, and plotting to the best of Lehane.
Attica Lock has a website here: www.atticalocke.com
She is also on Facebook.
Monday, April 13, 2015
So many Mondays I have posted my "It's Monday, What Are You Reading?" post. This Monday I'd like to offer my condolences to Sheila McKinney DeChantal, who book bloggers know for her sunny attitude and her amazing positive energy. Sheila, of Book Journey, lost her son Justin in a car accident on April 4th.
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
paperback, 320 pages
A review copy of this book has been provided through TLC Book Tours
A teenage boy shows signs of depression, gets into trouble at school, and is accused of on-line bullying. His mother is at her wit's end, and his father seems disengaged. To make matters worse, the father is a pastor who has built his reputation on his special ministry in.... parenting. He has a church and a converted movie-theater conference center where he leads eager groups of parents through the mine-fields of modern parenting.... but his wife can't even get him to answer her text messages. Then the boy, Colom, loses a friend to suicide. An investigation reveals that Colom and his friend Daniel have been frequenting web sites that encourage suicide; even more frightening is the suicide note that Colom's mother, Fiona, finds in Colom's room.
The Boy Who Loved Rain begins as something as a domestic drama, but this multi-layered and ambitious novel is tackling life's biggest questions: questions of identity, faith, and love. At the center of the novel are a series of secrets buried deep in the past, secrets that have the power to destroy a child and a family.
The plot of The Boy Who Loved Rain is complex, and sometimes the complexity seems as though it isn't leading anywhere. I found the first half of the book slow going, and somewhat overwritten, but something kept me reading... partly it was my curiosity about the secret at the core of the book, and partly it was my growing affection for the characters of Fiona and Colom, and Fiona's friend Miriam. I do think the pacing of the book is slow, but much of the story is built on the accrual of information built slowly over the course of the book. I never warmed much to the character of David, Colom's pastor father, but he turns out to be peripheral to the main narrative; the story really focuses on Fiona and Colom, and the puzzle of Colom's depression, his nightmares, and his growing isolation.
There were a few things about the writing that I thought didn't work: each chapter had a quotation from a book or other source (everything from The Art of Racing in the Rain to Looking for Alaska to Wikipedia) about rain. Rain is indeed important to the book both symbolically and in terms of the plot. But in the end I don't think the author needed to tell the reader so much and so often about rain. The other issue I have is with italicized sections at the end of chapters that are in a specific voice of a character that the reader doesn't meet until the end. I think this device was unnecessarily confusing. In general the book is big, filled with information, description, quotations, asides, that don't all add to the story. But this is honestly mostly a question of taste, and I ended up really liking The Boy Who Loved Rain, in spite of these reservations.
The insight into human psychology, the complex characters, and the rich atmosphere of the book made The Boy Who Loved Rain a profound and enjoyable reading experience. The character of Colom was initially opaque and mystifying, but Gerard Kelly made him a deeply sympathetic and realistic character in the end. I also enjoyed Kelly's unusual blend of spirituality, psychology, and aesthetics. He brings together characters from different worlds (art, journalism, religion) and creates one human world. Recommended for readers who like long books with puzzles at their center, and books about human suffering and redemption.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
paperback, 256 pages
A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher through TLC Book Tours
I Regret Everything is an enormously appealing story that combines some edgy topics: sex, death, money.... and poetry. Jeremy Best is a Manhattan trusts and estates lawyer on his way to making partner in the law firm of Thatcher, Sturgess, and Simonsen. Best also has a parallel career as a poet, using the pen name Jinx Bell. This gives Greenland a wonderful excuse for witty word play throughout the novel. Greenland has been a writer producer on the HBO series Big Love, and he is adept at keeping the narrative moving at a tight pace, with canny cultural references and witty dialogue. The writing in I Regret Everything is light and funny when it needs to be, which is most of the time--even when the subject is serious or dark.
The novel is told from two points of view: Jeremy's, and that of Spaulding Simonsen, his love interest--a nineteen-year-old aspiring poet, and the daughter of Jeremy's boss, the intimidating "Edward P" Simonsen. Spaulding waltzes into Jeremy's office one day and announces that she knows his secret--that he is a poet published in such impressive journals as The Paris Review. Jeremy is immediately smitten, but also cautious, knowing that an affair with the daughter of one of the firm's partner's would put his plans of making partner at risk. And Jeremy is very risk-averse.
Both Jeremy and Spaulding have troubled pasts: Spaulding has spent time in a mental institution, after a failed suicide attempt. And Jeremy once had a catastrophic love affair with his professor's wife (one reason for his use of a pseudonym). He also grew up with a mother who was mentally ill, and a father who was cold and reserved, then left the family to pursue a love affair with another man. With such troubled pasts, and so many obstacles to their relationship, of course Jeremy and Spaulding end up getting involved--against Jeremy's better judgment and best intentions.
Much of I Regret Everything is about confronting monsters, both real and imaginary. As Jeremy knows all too well (it's his job to know) everyone dies, and no one thinks they are going to die. The lovers in this unusual romance have to face their own unhappy pasts, the ways in which they each have been afraid to grasp at happiness. There are realistic monsters too; in fact, that might be one of the more interesting insights of this novel--the way the characters figure out for themselves what and who they should fear.
Some of the complications that drive the narrative include Jeremy's discovery early in the book of a suspicious lump. The threat of cancer looms over the love affair between Jeremy and Spaulding, giving it urgency, and somewhat excusing the age difference between the two.
The novel works largely because it is remarkably vibrant and full of life, and the characters are both real and likable. I was skeptical at first about Spaulding as a love interest for Jeremy; she's only nineteen, and nineteen can be so young. But Jeremy's almost monastic life has kept him developmentally delayed romantically; it's as if he's skipped late adolescence and early middle age and gone straight to old man territory. At age thirty-three he should be too old for Spaulding, but she is like the Ariachne who leads him out of the labyrinth of his own mind into the real world.
The interest of the two main characters in words and poetry gives Greenland every opportunity to lard his novel with beautiful language. The words practically spring off the page, and the voices of the main characters are perfect. I Regret Everything is a high-energy comedic romance that is unexpectedly moving. I thoroughly enjoyed this intelligent and poignant story of love, loss, and poetry.
The author has a website at http://www.sethgreenland.com
Friday, March 13, 2015
World Gone By
hardcover, 320 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours.
Dennis Lehane is a masterful writer who specializes in gritty crime novels that are richly textured and morally nuanced. He is a Boston native who is particularly good at capturing the underworld of what former mayor Kevin White always called "our fair city."
World Gone By follows two previous novels about Joe Coughlin, consigliere for the Bartolo crime family in Tampa, Florida. While it would have been helpful to have read the two previous novels (The Given Day and Live By Night), I don't think it is at all necessary to have read them in order to enjoy World Gone By.Reading this novel has made me want to go back and read the first two.
There is so much to love about this book, that I almost don't know where to begin. First, there is the beautifully drawn historical setting: the action of the book takes place during World War II, roughly during December 1932 to March of 1944. The mobsters in the novel have all made their fortunes, and Joe Coughlin has become a semi-respectable businessman, ostensibly retired from his gangster past. He has a young son, Tomas, who he adores and protects, attends Catholic mass on a regular basis, and hobnobs with the mayor and his wife.
As the novel unfolds, Lehane draws the reader in, building a layered world with its own (dubious) moral code. The reader becomes intimate with Coughlin, and inevitably the consigliere becomes appealing, even likable, despite the fact that he is also a mobster and a brutal killer. Lehane is particularly good at swiftly drawing out the casual and disturbing brutality of this world, while also showing the goodfellas as a bunch of church-going regular guys, with profound friendships and their own code of honor.
The plot line that pulls the narrative forward is a warning Coughlin receives early in the book: that there is a hit out on him, by an unknown person, and that there is even a specific date for the hit. As Coughlin tries to come to terms with his dark past, and determine if he has a future, he also seems to be haunted--in the most literal way. He keeps glimpsing a ghostly small boy, one who has some wordless message for him.
World Gone By is a deeply satisfying read; Lehane has amazing skills, and his ability to draw complex, morally ambiguous characters is unparalleled in crime fiction. He's almost too good; the reader finds herself hoping that a morally corrupt killer will somehow evade his fate. Reading a Lehane novel is such an immersive experience--you can just sink yourself into the story, knowing that you are in the hands of a master storyteller.
One of the things that makes World Gone By so interesting is the historical context. The book is set in Tampa, Ybor City, and Cuba. Lehane gives his novel a realistic historical feel by adding Meyer Lansky and Charlie "Lucky" Luciano as minor characters. I just have a couple of warnings for readers: first, there is brutal violence in this book. Second: Lehane's writing is absolutely addictive. You should probably line up a couple of Lehane novels to read after this one, because you won't want to stop after just one.
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Rebecca Adams Wright
paperback, 170 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
I think we'll be hearing more from Rebecca Adams Wright, author of a debut story collection The Thing About Great White Sharks. This dazzling collection of stories received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and I can't think of when I've encountered a collection so quirky, original, witty and unique.
Wright has a very distinctive voice, and it gives her collection a nice sense of cohesion. Other than Wright's witty, edgy voice, not much else unifies the stories in this collection, except that they are all of our world, but just slightly strange or other-wordly. The stories take place across several continents and galaxies, in our own time period or slightly in the future; and one story takes place during World War II. I've been trying to come up with writers to compare these stories to, and it isn't easy--which gives you an idea of the originality of the work. Maybe a bit of Ray Bradbury, with some Octavia Butler and a little Margaret Atwood mixed in?
The first story in the collection, "Sheila," drew me in immediately. In this story, a retired judge is very attached to his beloved Brittany Spaniel--who is twenty-five years old, and a robot. The decision he faces about Sheila's fate, and the surprising choice he makes are an interesting doorway into the world of Rebecca Adams Wright. I loved some of these stories more than others, but there wasn't a single one in the collection that didn't at least entertain me.
"Orchids" and "Tiger Bright" both feature ghosts or voices from the beyond. In "Tiger Bright," a husband muses about the full-grown Bengal tiger he and his wife have inherited from a friend, and how the tiger has helped them overcome their grief at the loss of a child. In "Orchids," a rather spunky seventy-something widow communicates with exotic plants and solves a mystery.
"Storybag" blends genres: horror, fairy tale, and adventure story. In fact, blending genres is something at which Wright excels. Most of the stories in The Thing About Great White Sharks have at least an element of science fiction, often with a fantasy aspect. The title story is probably my favorite in the collection, just for sheer audacity. Imagine a world where everything, plants, insects, animals, even blades of grass, is gripped with a fever that causes everything to attack and destroy all human life. Now imagine that a few human beings are detached enough to survive, and that they are test subjects at the "Kierkegaard Institute." Weird, yes, but somehow Wright makes it not just believable, but also funny, witty, and profound. I love the scene in the story when the main character, the blandly named Jennifer, coolly faces a hammerhead shark.
The thing is, life is strange. The stories in The Thing About Great White Sharks give the reader just the right blend of strange and recognizable. Highly recommended.
The author's website: http://radamswright.com/write-a-thon/
Sunday, February 22, 2015
Dora Levy Mossasen
paperback, 288 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
Scent of Butterflies is an intense and dark psychological novel that drew me in almost against my will. The main strengths of this novel are the incredibly textured and intricately woven writing, and the glimpse into Iran both before and after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
As Scent of Butterflies opens, Soraya is on an airplane headed to Los Angeles after having discovered her husband and her husband in her own bed. Her discovery, however, in unknown to her betrayers. Soraya goes to California on a pretext--she tells her husband that it is her work as a photographer that necessitates her journey. And she has to tell her husband something, because she needs his written permission to leave the country.
Soraya is depicted as an artist and an independent woman. She is also Jewish; all of these things make Soraya an unusual woman. Her relationship with her husband is unusual too: twenty years into a childless marriage, the two seem to have an unusually deep and erotic connection. One of the things that makes Scent of Butterflies both dark and obsessive is Soraya's extreme reaction to her husband's infidelity and her friend's betrayal. The character of Soraya is not one most readers will find sympathetic, although as the novel progressed, I rather admired her unhinged obsessiveness.
Soraya moves into a Bel Air mansion--she is of the entitled and wealthy elite, a fact that informs much of her decision-making. She starts to cultivate a large garden, and plants eucalyptus trees on the grounds of the estate. Meanwhile, Soraya's husband and best friend, still back in Iran, remain unaware of Soraya's activities, and of her dark plot for revenge on both of them. Parvaneh, Soraya's friend and betrayer, is revealed to be a smaller, weaker version of Soraya--a sort of doppelganger. In childhood, Soraya was Parvaneh's protector and confidante; the two women even married two men who are friends and business partners.
At times I found Parvaneh (whose name means "butterfly") almost more sympathetic than Soraya. Even when every secret is revealed, Parvaneh's behavior is somehow seen by the reader as part of a series of complicated psychological forces, not acts of malice. Soraya (who begins calling her friend "Butterfly" seems the irrational one. In California, along with her collection of plants, Soraya cultivates butterflies, which she seems to take great pleasure in killing.
The weird and unsettling patterns of Soraya's thinking actually become sort of beautiful, and this is because of the artistry of Mossanen's writing. She develops several intersecting patterns of imagery that work beautifully at drawing the reader in to Soraya's disturbed thinking. Soraya has a brilliant mind, and there is much that is appealing in her independence and her wit--even as she is on a path of destruction.
Without giving too much of the plot away, I loved the twisted, dark nature of this psychological novel. There was also so much that was fascinating in the depiction of daily life in Tehran, both before and after the Islamic revolution. The feeling of the novel is claustrophobic--I think the novel I was most reminded of was Laura Kasischke's Mind of Winter. I think this is because both novels were so dominated by one woman's disturbed mind.
I recommend Scent of Butterflies to readers who are interested in life in Iran, and especially the restrictions placed on women by the Islamic regime. Readers who like complex, intricate writing and ambiguous endings will find Scent of Butterflies enthralling. And the writing is lush, beautiful, and remarkably controlled.