Review – The Children Act by Ian McEwan

the children act

When a court determines any question with respect to  …   the upbringing of a child  …   the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.

Few professions today seem to demand as much denial of personal life and emotion than that of a judge. When presiding over their courtroom, we expect judges to leave their baggage below the bench, drape themselves in robes, and become an impartial adherent to the law, dictating truth in places we’ve lost it ourselves. In The Children ActIan McEwan returns to form by exploring the toll this can take. Judge Fiona Maye finds herself floundering dangerously between stoic distance and wild, warm connection.

Maye is a prestigious and highly-respected family court judge, the type who’s written decisions they study in law schools. She’s confident of her ability to bring “reasonableness to hopeless situations.” She is, in every way, a reasonable woman. And then, thirty-five years of marriage in, her husband announces he’d like to have an affair. Thus Maye is set adrift in her own family drama, a personal woe she has little time to consider as an entire court full of other family’s legal woes awaits her, and her steadfastness, her competence.

In the midst of an argument with her husband, Maye receives an emergency call that she’ll be presiding over a case in which Jehovah’s Witnesses have refused a life-saving blood transfusion for their 17-year-old son, Adam, on religious grounds. The media attention surrounding the case is high, time to make the decision is short.

What follows is, in that uniquely McEwan fashion, a story of people crashing into each other and then tearing apart, leaving pieces forever behind. Brutal, impossible connections that mold us as we stand there stunned, mesmerized and unthinking for just a wide-eyed second too long, these are McEwan’s specialty. The New York Times review of The Children Act explains of McEwan’s writing, “there is a moment of crisis or extremity that shatters his characters’ lives, reveals the innermost workings of their hearts or triggers a reassessment of everything they’ve believed.” His characters are rarely prepared for or aware of this extremity as it falls upon them, and I think this is why his books feel so authentic, so tragic–this is how life happens. We don’t realize what mattered until we have time to look back.

The Children Act on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

The to-be-read Tag

Okay, I’ve been tagged in a few different posts by my fellow book bloggers, and I’m ultra-excited about it. First up, the to-be-read tag. The TBR Tag was created by A Perfection Called Books and Dana Square.  I was tagged by Leila of the (wonderfully named) LeilaReads.

Let’s explore that dreaded (or is it delightful?) to-be-read list…

How do you keep track of your TBR pile?

I add things to my shelf casually on Goodreads if they look interesting, but if I am dedicated to reading a book, I add it to my Amazon Wishlist, where I have separate categories (to-read fiction, to-read non-fiction, to-read health/healthing/brain books).

Is your TBR mostly print or eBook?

It’s odd, because I always add the Kindle version of the book to my list (cheaper, right?), but I often end up purchasing a printed copy if it is something I know I’m going to really enjoy. I love eBooks for the convenience of ARC’s, but I’d rather have a printed version of a book I really love, as I want to highlight and mark it up myself with actual pens and post-it’s.

A Book That’s Been on Your TBR List the Longest

russian lover and other stories by jana martin

Russian Lover and Other Stories by Jana Martin

I can’t remember where I got this recommendation from. It still sounds like a great read, but I’ve passed it over for other books for many years. I’m more inclined to read novels than short stories, and there are always so many tempting choices out there, it is impossible to consume them all. Thus the ever-growing tbr…

A Book You Recently Added to Your TBR List

the supernatural enhancements

The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

I’m in a post-textuality class right now, and we’re reading a lot of ergodic literature (with extraneous information in addition to the text or very unusual formats). I’m really enjoying it, as it reminds me of how obsessed I was with House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielwski when I was younger. A classmate saw The Supernatural Enhancements at Barnes & Noble, and mentioned it because of its formatting.

A Book in Your TBR Strictly Because of Its Cover

the girl who was saturday night

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill

This is a great question–I do a lot of cover browsing. One of my favorite books of all time, The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert, I picked many years ago solely on its cover and I really lucked out there. Recently, I saw The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill when I stopped in at the library to grab something else, and with a cover like that, who could resist?

A Book on Your TBR That You Never Plan on Reading

rats lice and history

Rats, Lice and History by Hans Zinsser

Ha! Sometimes I get really interested in a certain subject, and add books referenced in whatever I’m currently reading to my to-be-read list. I’m not sure where this came from, but I assume it was a book on viruses like Spillover by David Quammen. I should probably remove it, but you never know… I may really want to know about the epic “world scourge against which the author fought the good fight” one day!

An Unpublished Book on Your TBR That You’re Excited For

bred to kill

Bred to Kill by Frank Thilliez

Syndrome E was the best kind of scary, in that smart, bone-chilling way that horror films always aim for and fail to reach. Although its sequel, Bred to Kill, isn’t being released until January, I already can’t wait to try to read it at night with most of the lights out, and then get way too scared, and have to turn back all the lights back on to make the story a wee bit more tolerable. Yes, I already know Bred to Kill will be that terrifying.

Book On Your TBR That Basically Everyone’s Read But You

the bone clocks david mitchell

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Yes, the new David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks, is rocking everyone’s world but my own right now. I just have way too much going on, but I’ll get there soon!

A Book on Your TBR That Everyone Recommends to You

olive kitt

Oliver Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Many friends (and the Pulitzer Prize Board) have all recommended Elizabeth Strout’s Oliver Kitteridge to me. I should probably make it a priority, now that I think about it.

A Book on Your TBR That You’re Dying To Read

station eleven

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The hype around Station Eleven has been pretty unreal. It sounds like such a creative approach to an apocalyptic novel. I can’t wait to get my hands on it!

How many books are on your GoodReads TBR shelf?

A very hopeful 610. Wow! I haven’t even been paying attention to that number. Time to get reading…

I now tag:

Aman @ Confessions of a Readaholic

Emma @ The Book Brief

Recap of Hieroglyph Q&A with Neal Stephenson and friends

hiero book

Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future, released this week, is an anthology which encouraged authors “to contribute works of ‘techno-optimism’ that challenge us to dream and do Big Stuff.”

The entire idea came about when Neal Stephenson gave a talk at the Future Tense conference in early 2011, where he “lamented the decline of the manned space program, then pivoted to energy, indicating the real issue isn’t about rockets. It’s our far broader inability as a society to execute on the big stuff.”

Michael Crow, Arizona State University’s president, heard this lament and suggested to Stephenson that perhaps the problem began with Stephenson himself, and other sci-fi writers like him who weren’t thinking big enough in their ideas. Thus, Ed Finn and his Center for Science and Imagination at ASU stepped in, connecting some serious scientists with those great masters of imagination, science fiction authors.

The culmination of these connections are boggling, vivid, and seriously delightful: a structurally sound twenty-kilometer-high steel tower (that would be really high, for those lacking perspective); cities that function like ecosystems, either through technology built to act as biology or through biological infrastructures; a world where machines have been entirely replaced with living matter; or a psychedelic revolution where we’re tripping out on quantum mechanics rather than any sort of drug.

I had the opportunity to attend a Hieroglyph release event with many of the authors, most notably Neal Stephenson, and both of the editors, at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park on September 10th. No better place to talk about science and imagination than in the heart of so much innovation, Silicon Valley, right?

first panel

Hjelmstad, Stephenson, and Finn.

After a quick introduction by Finn, who also edited the book, the first panel featured Stephenson and Keith Hjelmstad. Hjelmstad is a professor of structural engineering at ASU who worked with Stephenson on his idea for the book, the Tall Tower. The idea originally came from an old paper by Jeff Landis, Stephenson said, but he realized quite quickly he needed professional help. He was doing fine until he took wind into account. “99.9% of the problem is wind,” he said, with a very, very high building.

Hjelmstad said the “desire to make it real” drew him to the project–he even had a graduate student e-mail him about a design detail that morning. As the world of engineering is often bogged down with many codes and lawyers, which can kill creativity and innovation, this project offered something different.

Stephenson and Hjelmstad eventually came up with something that “looks like a tower, but flies like a kite,” as it was necessary to harness the wind for stability. This was sort of a new way of looking at a building–an organic idea.

There was a brief Q&A after the Tall Tower talk, in which Stephenson shrugged off a question about Google Glass and Snow Crash very modestly, saying the book’s concepts were around before he wrote about them. He said that he doesn’t think science fiction necessarily invents these ideas, but “creates hypothetical futures with the ideas used in a practical way.”

Someone asked about the Tall Tower’s shadow–“diffuse, gray, delightful.”

Most memorably, someone in the audience began animatedly offering up their own idea for some sort of force-field glove which would propel fireballs, just incredibly off-topic. I was sort of baffled, as we were talking about the Tall Tower, and expecting another question, but Stephenson just rolled with this new idea. He suggested some things to think about related to projecting fireballs, saying he knew some people who did amazing stuff with fire, and to a round of applause, concluded that “any engineering problem can be solved–you just have to figure out your objective and the legal ramifications.”

second panel

Newitz, Anders, Rucker, and Cramer.

The second panel featured Hieroglyph‘s second editor, Kathyrn Cramer, and three contributors: Annalee Newitz of io9 fame; Rudy Rucker, a founder of cyberpunk; and the award-winning Charlie Jane Anders.

Newitz said at one point that the most audacious thing about Hieroglyph is that these stories focus on humanity surviving. I think this is a huge, interesting point, and I tend to agree. There is quite a bit of fatalistic, dystopian fare out there right now. Do we really think we’re that bad?

I hadn’t ever heard of Charlie Jane Anders, but her commentary made me definitely want to check out her work. Also, Rudy Rucker seemed wildly wise, like some sort of buddha in writer’s garb, and I’m excited to read his stuff as well.

thingers with hiero

Optimistic cat is techno-optimistic.

The conversation is ongoing, as Project Hieroglyph itself is designed to be an interactive and open experience–don’t let the book’s pages, with all their permanence, fool you. You can contribute your ideas, and perhaps change the world, or just start changing the world’s story.

Hieroglyph at Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Review – One of Us by Tawni O’Dell

one of us 2

It was an amazing story, terrible and wonderful at the same time, like my mother’s love, like these precious, poisoned hills that were the source of our survival and our ruin. I didn’t want it to end.

- Tawni O’Dell,One of Us

Tawni O’Dell‘s One of Us is haunted in all the right ways, with memories and rumors; psychics channel ghosts while very human monsters slip by undetected.

Big shot celebrity psychologist Dr. Sheridan Doyle reluctantly drives his Jaguar down memory lane, cruising back to the ramshackle town where he grew up to check on his sick grandfather. Danny, as he’s known to the townsfolk, or Ghost, as he was called by the rest of the kids in school, has happily escaped the depressed mining town of Lost Creek and doesn’t like looking back. He’s now a forensic psychologist, recognized from appearances on Larry King, testimony at high profile trials, and best-selling books. Danny understands the criminal mind in a way few can–his mom murdered his sister when he was a kid, and Lost Creek isn’t the type of town that forgets a scandal.

Lost Creek has its share of scandals, though. As a mining town in the 1800’s, it was the site of a rebellion in which a group of miners, the Nellies, were hanged by Walker Dawes, the man who owned the mines and everything else, long before unions or worker’s rights were on the horizon. Now the town is said to be haunted by the angry ghosts of the miners. The gallows still stands and has become a tourist site, complete with a dedicated museum and historical society, featured on many ghost hunting TV shows.

Are you scared yet? We haven’t even gotten to the bodies. When people start dying on Danny’s visit home, he rides along with his old mentor Rafe, now the town’s only detective, offering expert advice as a forensic psychologist. Mixed into the Lost Creek milieu are the great-grandson of that Walker Dawes, still living in a house looming above all the rest, smoking cigars, surrounded by priceless portraits, and his ice-cold, fiercely beautiful daughter. Also spicing up the small town are The Ghost Sniffers, a reality-TV crew investigating the paranormal which I would love to see made an actual television show.

O’Dell, with the town of Lost Creek, its myth and its characters, has created a terrifying, but satisfying, book.

One of Us by Tawni O’Dell on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

Review – The Secret Place by Tana French

the secret place

     You forget what it was like. You’d swear on your life you never will, but year by year it falls away. How your temperature ran off the mercury, your heart galloped flat-out and never needed to rest, everything was pitched on the edge of shattering glass. How wanting something was like dying of thirst. How your skin was too fine to keep out any of the million things flooding by; every color boiled bright enough to scald you, any second of any day could send you soaring or rip you to bloody shreds.
That was when I really believed it, not as a detectives solid theory but right in my gut: a teenage girl could have killed Chris Harper. Had killed him.

- Tana French, The Secret Place

Detective Frank Mackey’s daughter, Holly Mackey, has some bad luck where murder is concerned. We met her in Tana French‘s third Dublin Murder Squad book, Faithful Place. In that story, Holly, along with Detective Mackey and the rest of his family, seemed inescapably weaved into the investigation of a long-forgotten disappearance.

In French’s new novel, The Secret Place, it’s six years later, and Holly has sprouted up into a young woman, all sarcasm and hair-tosses. Once again, a murder investigation has found her. She comes to Detective Stephen Moran, also from Faithful Place, with a note she found on an anonymous board at her posh boarding school, Kilda’s. The note claims to know who killed a boy from a neighboring school on Kilda’s grounds last year. Last year, the investigation went nowhere. This year, Moran is determined to solve the case and move up to Murder from what he sees as the dead end of Cold Cases. Detective Antoinette Conway, a door-slamming, in-your-face woman in a Murder Squad that likes its women flirty and accommodating, agrees to let Moran ride along and talk to the girls. Holly came to him, after all.

Thus the setup for a day of teenage interrogations, alternated with flashbacks of Holly and her girl gang the previous year, leading up to the murder.

At first glance, The Secret Place seems to be a clash of two starkly different worlds. Placing these brash and calculating detectives into the dreamy, fantastical boarding school world of adolescent girls, with all their wide-eyed, moon-struck whimsy and best-friends-forever chatter, Tana French might as well have set this book on another planet. Moran and Conway could be wearing space suits as they walk through the bizarre landscape of the boarding school’s halls, listening to the choir’s melodies echoing from down a corridor, watching nuns walk slowly over the well-manicured lawns.

But slowly, slowly, French lets us see that perhaps these boarders are the detectives perfect match. The girls are compared to carnivorous jungle beasts multiple times–jaguars with sharp, ripping claws, “big cats released for the night.” At one point Detective Moran says he knows he’s outnumbered by some of them as if he saw three guys with “a bad walk roll around the corner and pick up the pace towards you.” These girls are giggling ugg-wearing thugs; they’re long-haired, lip-glossed, yes, but they’re manipulative, and maybe murderers.

Or are they? Moran seems to ebb back and forth in his views just as the girls seem to gain and lose their confidence. One moment these are young women in total control, and the next moment they’re kids, panicking, hysterical, too young and so easily manipulated. It seems like the detectives aren’t sure if it is naivety tripping them up, or its opposite.

As the long day passes, the girls are kept in seclusion from the rest of the school, made available for the detectives to interview in groups and individually, kept quarantined to prevent their teenage gossip and outbreaks of hysteria from catching. A less talented author could have made this feel tedious, as the single day of investigation alternates each chapter with a flashback to Holly and her three best friends before the murder took place.

But this isn’t a less talented author, this is Tana French, who takes the police procedural out of the squad room and finds it wherever she chooses–the darkness of the woods or the isolation of an abandoned construction site. She finds it here, too, amidst the art projects of teenage girls and the glades they find magic in at night. The flashbacks give the reader a chance to compare conclusions formed by the detectives in each interview with what actually plays out, what behaviors each girl reveals contrasted with her actual role in friendships and crimes, in an amateur sleuth’s ideal setup. Layers upon layers of motive and manipulation are peeled back in a way that seems possible only amongst teenage girls or incredibly dysfunctional families, where so much of what matters is how others behave.

And for those that are concerned (no spoiler alert needed), this is a Tana French novel that answers the question “Whodunnit?” clearly, so you won’t feel left cheated if you are looking for a solve. But don’t expect to understand everything that happens on the grounds of Kilda’s, as so much of the magic of adolescence isn’t meant for the outside world.

The Secret Place by Tana French on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

If you like this book, try reading:

Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad Series Recapped

Tana French is one of my favorite living mystery authors, as her literary mysteries elevate the genre to a new level. Each of her new Dublin Murder Squad series grabs a character from the last and spins off, in a wildly different environment but with an equally ominous tone.

As The Secret Place was released yesterday, the fifth in the series, I’m going to devote this week to Tana French, starting with a summary of all the books today, for those starting The Secret Place and realizing they need a refresher on all the past drama, or for those hearing some of the hype surrounding The Secret Place and wondering what the Dublin Murder Squad books are all about. At the end of this week I’ll do a second post, for those eager to know more about the new book, with a more detailed The Secret Place review.

A big part of the suspense surrounding each new Dublin Murder Squad book is wondering who French will choose to write about next, as her characters rotate through the books in an addictive style—detectives touched upon in a previous book will grab an unseen wand and take their turn as protagonist as if French is having them all run a relay race. Much like real life, this shows how easy it is to put people in boxes until we take a look under their skin, and see what exactly makes them tick, or see what makes them quake in bed at night.

in the woodsWhat I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception.” ― Tana French, In the Woods

Characters to know: Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox.

Setting: The wood is all flicker and murmur and illusion. Its silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises— rustles, flurries, nameless truncated shrieks; its emptiness teems with secret life, scurrying just beyond the corner of your eye. Careful: bees zip in and out of cracks in the leaning oak; stop to turn any stone and strange larvae will wriggle irritably, while an earnest thread of ants twines up your ankle.”

In the Woods, French’s first novel and the first of the Dublin Murder Squad series, was released in 2007. Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox investigate a girl murdered in the woods. Ryan has history with these woods. When he was a boy, the woods ate up three of his friends, leaving him terrified and holding onto a tree like the world was shaking around him, wearing blood-filled sneakers.

People make so many complaints about this book—mainly its main character is unlikeable, its mysteries are left unsolved, and the story itself is too long. To those complaints, I say this is a great introduction to the world of Tana French. This isn’t a story designed to please the reader. This is a story. It has too much heart of its own to care about yours. The questions French raises are those so often overlooked in mystery novels, and they take so much of what mystery relies on and remind us why it doesn’t make sense. Detectives are, perhaps, just as flawed as the criminals they seek to catch; some mysteries, and some chunks of time, may be lost and unknowable.

the likeness“When you’re too close to people, when you spend too much time with them and love them too dearly, sometimes you can’t see them” — Tana French, The Likeness

 

Characters to know: Detectives Cassie Maddox (Rob Ryan’s partner from In the Woods) and Frank Mackey.

Setting: “Then the drive gave a little twist and opened up into a great semicircular carriage sweep, white pebbles speckled through with weeds and daisies, and I saw Whitethorn House for the first time. The photos hadn’t done it justice…Every proportion was balanced so perfectly that the house looked like it had grown there, nested in with its back to the mountains and all Wicklow dropping away rich and gentle in front of it, poised between the pale arc of the carriage sweep and the blurred dark-and-green curves of the hills like a treasure held out in a cupped palm.”

French’s second novel, The Likeness, pivots to feature Detective Cassie Maddox. A woman who looks strikingly similar to Maddox is found murdered, and legendary Detective Frank Mackey (“still in his thirties and already running undercover operations; the best Undercover agent Ireland’s ever had, people said, reckless and fearless, a tightrope artist with no net, ever”) thinks the cops would be foolish not to jump on the likeness. Mackey asks Maddox to slide back into the murdered young woman’s life, baiting the murderer. Thus, a surreal setup: Maddox becomes Lexie Madison, graduate student. She inserts herself back into Madison’s life, as if the murder was an unsuccessful attack, returning to the house she lives in with four close friends. In an echo of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, the group of four friends Madison lives with is very, very close; they shift from charming to suspect and back again.

faithful place“Here’s the real risk in Undercover, in the field and out: you create illusions for long enough, you start thinking you’re in control. It’s easy to slide into believing you’re the hypnotist here, the mirage master, the smart cookie who knows what’s real and how all the tricks are done. The fact is you’re still just another slack-jawed mark in the audience. No matter how good you are, this world is always going to be better at this game. It’s more cunning than you are, it’s faster and it’s a whole lot more ruthless. All you can do is try to keep up, know your weak spots and never stop expecting the sucker punch.” ― Tana French, Faithful Place

Characters to know: Faithful Place introduces a bunch of names to remember, all surrounding Detective Frank Mackey (Cassie Maddox’s boss from The Likeness). Make note of Holly Mackey (Frank’s daughter), and Detectives Stephen Moran (a floater who works with Frank on the case) and Scorcher Kennedy (Frank’s nemesis).

Setting: “Faithful Place is two rows of eight houses, old redbricks with steps going up to the main hall door. Back in the eighties each one had three or four households, maybe more. A household was anything from Mad Johnny Malone, who had been in World War I and would show you his Ypres tattoo, through Sallie Hearne, who wasn’t exactly a hooker but had to support all those kids somehow. If you were on the dole, you got a basement flat and a Vitamin D deficiency; if someone had a job, you got at least part of the first floor; if your family had been there a few generations, you got seniority and top-floor rooms where no one walked on your head.”

Faithful Place, the third in the series, was my least favorite of the Dublin Murder Squad series thus far. This surprised me, as I was so eager for a book featuring Frank Mackey after we were introduced to his character. Mackey is called back to Faithful Place, the rough and tumble neighborhood of his youth, where his broken family still resides, when a suitcase is found in an old building. It isn’t Frank’s suitcase, but that of his high school sweetheart, Rosie. Mackey and this girl, they were in love. They were all ready to ditch Faithful Place together, get married, make it big somewhere far away from the poverty of their childhoods. And then Rosie disappeared. The discovery of the suitcase brings Mackey back to a home he’d like to forget, to an unsolved mystery which left his heart broken, and to a community which no longer trusts him.

broken harbor“I’m the least fanciful guy around, but on nights when I wonder whether there was any point to my day, I think about this: the first thing we ever did, when we started turning into humans, was draw a line across the cave door and say: Wild stays out. What I do is what the first men did. They built walls to keep back the sea. They fought the wolves for the hearth fire.”
Tana French, Broken Harbour

Characters to know: Detectives Scorcher Kennedy (Frank’s nemesis from Faithful Place) and newbie Richie Curran.

Setting: “As we got deeper into the estate, the houses got sketchier, like watching a film in reverse. Pretty soon they were random collections of walls and scaffolding, with the odd gaping hole for a window; where the housefronts were missing the rooms were littered with broken ladders, lengths of pipe, rotting cement bags. Every time we turned a corner I expected to see a swarm of builders at work, but the nearest we got was a battered yellow digger in a vacant lot, listing sideways among churned-up mud and scattered mounds of dirt…No one lived here. I tried to aim us back in the general direction of the entrance, but the estate was built like one of those old hedge mazes, all cul-de-sacs and hairpin turns, and almost straightaway we were lost.”

Broken Harbor was by far my favorite book of the series, again surprising me as I hadn’t thought I’d enjoy a book focusing on Scorcher Kennedy after his introduction in Faithful Place. The concept here was bizarre, but very, very scary. Ocean View intended to be a development of premier homes, designed with childcare and a leisure center, but economic downturn left the project half-standing and abandoned, a wasteland of construction and aspirations. The Spain family purchased and moved into their home before the project ran into trouble, expecting to join a thriving community rather than an unkempt and graffitied construction site. But none of that matters now–the Spain children and their father have been found murdered, and Jenny Spain, wife and mother, is in the ICU. Scorcher Kennedy is put on the case, and finds large holes smashed into the Spain’s home’s walls, baby monitors watching corners instead of children. This family was haunted, but by what? Or whom?

the secret place“Teenage girls: you’ll never understand. I’ve got sisters. I learned to just leave it.” — Tana French, The Secret Place

Characters to know: Remember everyone from Faithful Place? Here they are. Holly Mackey (Frank Mackey’s daughter), Detective Stephen Moran (still eager to make it onto the Murder Squad), and the firecracker Detective Antoinette Conway.

Setting: “On the first Sunday afternoon of September, the boarders come back to St. Kilda’s. They come under a sky whose clean-stripped blue could still belong to summer, except for the V of birds practicing off in one corner of the picture. They come screaming triple exclamation marks and jump-hugging in corridors that smell of dreamy summer emptiness and fresh paint; they come with peeling tans and holiday stories, new haircuts and new-grown breasts that make them look strange and aloof, at first, even to their best friends. And after a while Miss McKenna’s welcome speech is over, and the tea urns and good biscuits have been packed away; the parents have done the hugs and the embarrassing last-minute warnings about homework and inhalers, a few first-years have cried; the last forgotten things have been brought back, and the sounds of cars have faded down the drive and dissolved into the outside world. All that’s left is the boarders, and the Matron and the couple of staff who drew the short straws, and the school.”

I was not expecting French’s next novel, her next police procedural, to feature a bevy of adolescent girls at a boarding school. But French always pleasantly surprises me. The Secret Place alternates between Holly Mackey’s past at St. Kilda’s, her all female boarding school, and the present, in which Detectives Moran and Conway are investigating the murder of a male student from the neighboring all-male school on St. Kilda’s grounds. This was released yesterday, and in my next post I’ll go into more detail, for those who want to know more.

Review – The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death by Colson Whitehead

the noble hustle 2

I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside. My particular combo of slack features, negligible affect, and soulless gaze has helped my game ever since I started playing twenty years ago, when I was ignorant of pot odds and M-theory and four-betting, and it gave me a boost as I collected my trove of lore, game by game, hand by hand. It has not helped me human relationships–wise over the years, but surely I’m not alone here. Anyone whose peculiar mix of genetic material and formative experiences has resulted in a near-expressionless mask can relate. Nature giveth, taketh, etc. You make the best of the hand you’re dealt.

Colson Whitehead writes uniquely brilliant and wordy novels, centering around such oddball and brilliant concepts it’s difficult not to wonder if something is going on with this guy. In The Noble Hustle, Whitehead’s secret is revealed under the pretense of poker memoir–he hails from the Republic of Anhedonia, where a poker face comes naturally. This revelation sets the tone for the book, in which Whitehead explores the rapid evolution of poker post-online gambling as he quickly evolves himself, prepping for the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, NV.

Whitehead, representing his homeland at the WSOP. (via)

Whitehead, representing his
homeland at the WSOP. (via)

The book bloomed from a Grantland magazine article, “Occasional Dispatches from the Republic of Anhedonia.” Grantland staked Whitehead, a (very) amateur player with a regular monthly Brooklyn writers game, to play in the World Series. That means they paid his $10,000 entrance fee, asked him to write about his experience, and if he reigned supreme in his clash with the titans, he’d get to keep his winnings.

Whitehead preps, as anyone would for any sort of epic battle, and these are some of the most memorable scenes. He finds himself a mentor in a fellow writer who demurely answers “housewife” at the poker table when others ask her profession. He calls her Coach. He chooses his poker nickname (the ‘Unsubscribe Kid’). As a test of Whitehead’s writing ability, he’s tasked with explaining a complicated game and the complicated theories behind playing it in a short book. I was lost right away, but I wasn’t reading for the poker lingo. I was reading for Whitehead’s writing, and just as with his novels, Whitehead is able to build brilliantly with language, here with darkly funny commentary of America’s Leisure Industrial Complexes and his struggle to fit in amongst the bling and shine of Las Vegas.

The most interesting parts of the book for me were the vignettes of Whitehead’s younger days, pre-success. He recounts driving cross country with friends Darren and Dan, visiting Vegas and eventually crashing on a friend’s floor in Berkeley. I was thinking as I read, “Could it be? Does genius attract genius like that?” And yes, it could be, Colson Whitehead was cruising the country with Darren Aronofsky, brilliant filmmaker of Black Swan and The Wrestler, among many others. Whitehead also roomed in college, and subsequently roamed Vegas, with the founder of The Source magazine.

The Noble Hustle staggers ground between niche literature and being for the masses–those who understand the game well might find the explanations tedious but love the storyline, and those who aren’t familiar with the game at all might get lost in Whitehead’s final descriptions of the play. The New York Times review gave Whitehead a hard time for draping the entire memoir in these hints of malcontent, with his Anhedonia schtick, and I’m not sure what I think about that. At first I tended to agree, but you can’t be mad at a guy for not being shiny happy person, can you? Overall, any die-hard Whitehead fan shouldn’t miss this chance to glimpse the writer’s life, history, and native land.

The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Review – The Arsonist by Sue Miller

the arsonist 2

The lesson was there were things you had to let go of, losses and mysteries you had to learn to live with.

Sue Miller‘s new book, The Arsonist, is about the biggest things that happen in the world and how anyone manages to keep going despite them, about the edges of the divides between us that we stand near and peer across, and most of all, about falling into or out of love, how easy and sudden and unexpected love creeps up on you or sprints away from you. Maybe, then, this is a book about how little control we really have in the world, and how coming to terms with that is never simple.

After 15 years of working for an NGO in Africa, Frankie has come home. She usually drops by for a visit, but this time she’s not sure she wants to go back. But how can she stay? She’s been setting up food stations, fighting hunger at refugee camps, and compared to where she was in the world, life in the quaint New Hampshire town her parents have retired to is a life of ease, abundance, and in the face of all the world’s plight, insignificance.

Frankie’s parents, Sylvia and Alfie, were once summer people in the town of Pomeroy, but in retirement they’ve chosen to move full-time to the old farmhouse which has acted as the family’s summer vacation home, hoping to ease the pressures of their own quiet crises with a quiet life. Intellectual Alfie’s memory loss seems to be getting worse and worse, and Sylvia keeps gulping down glasses of wine and early afternoon drinks, hoping to find a way to cope with what she fears could be the end of her husband as she knows him.

In the midst of all this disaster, big and little, global and familial, an additional, artificial one is created: fires begin to bloom at night, setting homes ablaze. When Frankie first hears the siren of the fire truck, a foreign sound to her after her time in Africa, she doesn’t recognize it, and thinks it must be some sort of animal. The local paper owner Bud, a city refugee himself, reports on the fires as he struggles to decipher Frankie’s intentions–will she stay or will she go? Is she capable, after seeing so much world out there, of caring about this small little piece of it here?

I’m a fan of long books, and I loved the time Miller took telling the beginning of this story. As other reviewers on both Goodreads and Amazon complained, however, the story is uneven, as the end quickly wraps up. If anything, though, I think this is a testament The Arsonist‘s ability to build characters that draw us in so much we are angry when they leave us. I could have happily read this book, doubled in length. I’m also a huge fan of leaving mysteries unsolved, and not wrapping up all the details precisely, and Miller manages to do this here, without leaving the reader feeling cheated. If you do finish this book wanting a simple conclusion to its many questions, big and small, you haven’t been paying attention.

The Arsonist by Sue Miller on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Review – The Quick by Lauren Owen

the quick

I’ve debated how to review Lauren Owen’s The Quick since finishing it a few days ago–I don’t think this is a novel with a twist, as much as it is a novel which dedicates a bit of itself to misdirection. Even the cover could be misleading, as I realized through summaries that this was going to be a novel of secret societies and suspense, but I assumed it would be more in the literary vein, like Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange.

The Quick seems to tell the story of James and Charlotte Norbury, growing up with a distant father in their treasured but disintegrating Askew Hall. Where generations of the Norbury clan lived lavishly before them, James and Charlotte are mostly left to their own devices, losing track of time amidst old statues in the garden or building their bravery by creating tests of courage in the library.

James grows into a young man and sets off for the big city of London, as young men are wont to do. He’s determined to be a writer, and rarely leaves his flat, sitting up at his desk all hours and staining his hands with ink as he creates long classic poems. He finds himself living vicariously through his roomie Christopher Paige, who comes home late to divulge tales of London high society, heavy drinking, and debauchery.

But the story here hasn’t really begun, because much more than friendship is brewing between the aristocratic Christopher and the meek James. And even then, the story hasn’t really begun, because at a dinner party, James notices that Christopher’s brother looks ill–he seems so pale, and is he wounded? Is he bleeding?

As the book doesn’t directly introduce its subject matter, some readers may be frustrated. The Quick is a historical novel, yes, but it is a supernatural historical novel. All this high society, all this classic London aristocracy–there is something horrible bubbling underneath. There are fight scenes, there are wild street children getting shot in the feet, there are fires and desperate carriage rides to safety. The book includes journal entries, scribbled and ripped in places. Those hoping for the story of James and Charlotte to continue as it did in the style of the book’s beginning may be dismayed, as reality shifts around them, and the narrative drastically changes.

If you are seeking a mild-mannered historical novel, you may want to look elsewhere. If you are interested in what might be crouching in the shadows of that mild-mannered historical novel, overlooked and unexplored, then you’ll want to pick up The Quick.

The Quick by Lauren Owen on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

The Quick reviewed on the New York Times Sunday Book Review – with all the spoilers I didn’t give, for those curious.

Review – The Night Season by Chelsea Cain

the-night-season

The Night Season is the fourth of Chelsea Cain‘s Gretchen Lowell and Archie Sheridan series, and I grabbed it on a whim, seeking a fast and easy mystery. In The Night Season, Portland is flooding and people are dying, and the two things may or may not be related. Gretchen Lowell, the beautiful and bewitching serial killer who previously batted Archie Sheridan around like a cat playing with a wounded mouse, moves from a central figure in the story to an ominous and ever-looming presence. She’s never really gone and certainly not forgotten, tucked away safely in prison for now, but still drowning Archie just as much as the water that floods into the city around him.

Let me start by saying California is in the midst of a drought, and all the rain in this book was making me crazy! We’ve had some days here where the humidity feels like it just can’t hold, like the sky will have to burst open and rain, but the rain doesn’t come. When the soggy, sand-bagged, and serial killer-infested floodwaters of a thriller make you pine for rain, you know something is very wrong.

For those unfamiliar with the twisted love story of the Gretchen Lowell and Archie Sheridan series, it started with Heartsick in 2007. That book introduced us to the bold, unabashed premise of a cop so enmeshed with the serial killer he hunted and ultimately put behind bars that he’s in love with her, that he needs her like he needs the next fix of the pain pills he’s popping. After tracking Gretchen Lowell for 10 years, Archie Sheridan wasn’t sure where the line between obsession and love was drawn, and that was just how the sadistic Lowell liked it. Heartsick overtly asked all sorts of important questions about the dependence of those who fight evil on that evil, in the same vein as Thomas Harris‘s Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs.

Despite the dark, depressing threads of possession running through these books, I love Cain’s comic characters, especially Archie Sheridan’s spunky sidekick, crime reporter Susan Ward. The Night Season features a cast full of oddballs, as we’d expect nothing less from Cain, but none are so odd that they become caricatures or stereotypes of real life. I would love to see a Susan Ward spin-off series where we explore her world a bit more without Sheridan, although I realize Cain would then be required to create an unusually high amount of odd happenings in Portland for Ward, as a journalist, to discover and document away from her police pals. There’s something innately likable about Ward and the gusto with which she crashes crime scenes, a gal who brings her hippie momma’s goat into the living room to keep him out of the rain, and who stomps about the floodwaters with punky hair and big boots.

And Ward does provide much needed comic relief–Cain doesn’t ever turn away from an opportunity to describe a gruesome scene, as these are definitely thrillers. Especially in Heartsick, the first book, there are some descriptive moments of torture where the gore factor is very, very high. If cozy mysteries are more your thing, and you steer clear of the blood and guts, you may want to think twice about checking out this series.

Chelsea Cain also has a new book out tomorrow, One Kick, which I’m hoping to read soon, as the premise sounds a bit cheeky but irresistible. Kick Lannigan was kidnapped as a kid, and trained by her abductor for five years to be a lethal killing machine. She pursued her odd abilities after her escape, and by her twenties she sounds like a well-rounded secret agent, as she’s studied martial arts and knife-throwing. Then, other children get kidnapped, and Kick realizes what she’s spent her life training for. If Kick is as oddly charming as Susan Ward, then One Kick sounds like a promising combination of misery, humor and ka-pow.

The Night Season by Chelsea Cain on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Heartsick (Gretchen Lowell and Archie Sheridan #1) on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org – this is only $2.99 on Kindle right now, a great deal.

One Kick on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

ChelseaCain.com – she is going on tour for One Kick, with dates announced on her official site.

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