Wednesday, February 26, 2014

February reading roundup

I'm sort of in a place where I'm reading two books and won't finish either of them before the 28th, so I'll just post this now.  February's reading covered a wide range of different books, and this month I celebrated a first:  I quit reading a novel pretty much at the beginning because it was just plain bad -- and I didn't see it getting any better. I also fell in love with Raymond Chandler this month -- anyone who says crime fiction has no literary value really ought to read Chandler's Marlowe novels.


Perfect, by Rachel Joyce
The Shock of the Fall, by Nathan Filer
The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje (not yet discussed)

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler
Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler
The High Window, by Raymond Chandler
The Lady in the Lake, by Raymond Chandler
The Little Sister, by Raymond Chandler

People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Parry

weird fiction/horror/fantasy/sci-fi
Annihilation (Southern Reach Trilogy #1), by Jeff VanderMeer (read, not yet reviewed)

Now the rest

1)  Added to the  wishlist this month:
 crime fiction:
nothing this month 

 general fiction/literature: 
Kinder than Solitude, by Yiyun Lee
The Museum of Ordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman
The Illicit Happiness of Other People, by Manu Joseph
The Whispering Muse, by Sjón

the weird, the strange, supernatural etc:

Tales of the Ghost Sword, by Hideyuki Kikuchi

Without Mercy: The Stunning True Story of Race, Crime, and Corruption in the Deep South, by David Beasley
Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear, by Aram Goudsouzian

2) Books bought this month:
The Guts, by Roddy Doyle 
House of Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories, by  Yasunari Kawabata
The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton, by Edith Wharton
The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler
Playback, by Raymond Chandler
Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett
Down These Mean Streets a Man Must Go: Raymond Chandler's Knight, by Philip Durham (nonfiction)
A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel, by      Edmund Levin

preorder: Every Day is For the Thief, by Teju Cole
preorder: The Black-Eyed Blonde, A Philip Marlowe Novel, by Benjamin Black
preorder: The Dead Lake, by Hamid Ismailov

3) Indiespensable and Book Passage Signed First Edition books for this month (in that order):
The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt
An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine

4The book group read: The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje.  We were all in love with Ondaatje's writing in this book and we had an incredibly great discussion.  I would definitely recommend it for any book group.

5) Currently reading:
  Madam Crowl's Ghost and Other Stories, by J.S. LeFanu
The Secret Squad, by David Goodis

so, that's it. Have a good rest of February and happy reading!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Shock of the Fall/Where The Moon Isn't, by Nathan Filer

HarperCollins, 2013
310 pp

hardcover, UK ed.

"This is my life. I'm nineteen years old, and the only thing I have any control over in my entire world is the way I choose to tell this story."

So says Matt Homes,  a 19-year-old schizophrenic who is not only struggling with his own illness, but long-held grief and guilt as well.  Writing is his own form of therapy,  and The Shock of the Fall is his story.  I defy anyone not to be even the least bit moved by this novel. It has a genuinely honest feel, and might possibly open up your mind a bit to what it might be like to suffer from a debilitating mental illness, with or without medication.  Just a side note before I launch: The Shock of the Fall has been published in the US as  

Where the Moon Isn't
St. Martin's Press, 9781250026989

Matt begins his story ten years earlier with a family vacation, where something goes terribly wrong. Four people -- Matt, his parents, and his brother Simon -- arrive at Ocean Cove Holiday Park, and only three go home. As Matt says of Simon at the outset, "in a couple of pages he'll be dead." The narrative moves through Matt's story before Simon dies, to returning home after his death and the onset of Matt's illness,  to his time   in a psychiatric ward, to living on his own, and finally, to exactly how Simon died ten years ago. Through it all, Matt's grief and guilt travel with him as he tries to come to terms with both, all  while trying to cope with his schizophrenia.

What's so great about this novel is how the author can keep a strain of humor going even while revealing just how much confusion and pain Matt is caught up in as his illness progresses.  For example, on one page, Matt writes
"I've made people feel sorry for me before, mostly psychiatric nurses -- either the newly-qualified ones who haven't learnt to get a grip, or the gooey-eyed maternal ones who take one look at me and see what could have happened to their own. A student nurse told me how my patient notes had nearly made her cry. I told her to go fuck herself. That finished the job off."
while on the next page, Matt relives a time in his friend Jacob's room where he starts talking about smoking a Bucket Bong.

There are also very realistic moments as Matt starts talking about how repetitive life is on the ward, and the "difference between living and existing." He picks Day 13 as an example of his "cut-and-paste life", beginning with
"7 a.m...Get woken by a knock on my bedroom door, and the call for morning medication round. I have a metallic taste in my mouth, a side effect of the sleeping tablets."
and ending with the next day
"7 a.m ...Get woken by a knock on my bedroom door, and the call for morning medication round. I have a metallic taste in my mouth, a side effect of the sleeping tablets.

And then there are the well-imagined characters: Matt's mother and father, both trying hard to carry on after Simon's death and supporting Matt through the onset and progression of illness. There is one scene that I absolutely loved where Matt is escorted to his flat where earlier, his dad had been "quietly painting over the madness" Matt had "covered the walls with."  Matt turns on the light and notices that his father had left him a message, "the first and only time my dad has ever graffitied on a wall."  His dad had written a note that he never realized Matt would see that said 
"We'll beat this thing mon ami. We'll beat this thing together." 
Definitely a tear-jerker moment for me.  The other characters are also well drawn, impeccably described through Matt's eyes: Nanny Noo, the grandmother who also has a brother with schizophrenia, whose heart must be broken, as Matt notes, "to know that I was next"; Jacob, Matt's best friend who can take care of an ailing mother but for whom Matt's illness is too much to handle; there are also the nurses, staff and patients at the hospital.

This book is painful, yes. Sad, yes, but sometimes you can't help but laugh. I also think that especially here in the US, as the debate about the sad state of mental health care in this country is going on, the book is a very timely read.  It is also engaging to the point where you may have trouble putting it down.  Frankly, I loved this book and whether or not it recently won a prestigious award is beside the point.  It's just plain and solidly phenomenal.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

tlc book tour: The Contractors, by Harry Hunsicker

Thomas & Mercer, 2014
514 pp

paperback, from the publisher and tlc book tours. Thanks!

If you consider the combination of the action, size, and scope of this novel, you might agree that it reflects that old saying that everything is bigger in Texas.  The Contractors is a hefty thriller, both in terms of number of pages and the nonstop,  big-screen-sized action from beginning to end.  While I'm personally not into reading thrillers, I wanted to read this book because it touches on one of my favorite topics:  the spillover of the drug cartels into the U.S. 

The hero of this novel is Jon Cantrell, who had been fired from the police department in Dallas. To make a living, he becomes a contractor for the DEA.  His girlfriend Piper is also a DEA contractor, “the new breed of law enforcement, the leaner, more efficient kind, what’s known in the trade as outsourced service providers, private contractors who work as public servants.” They are hired to make a bust in a warehouse, but Jon makes a big mistake and the bust goes south as members of another DEA-contracted agency swoop in.  After the smoke from the gunfights clears, Jon and Piper are left with nothing except for possibly being arrested for murder, as one lunatic contractor uses Jon's gun in a cold-blooded killing.  There is a witness to the shooting who can clear them, and as it turns out, she is also a federal witness who needs to be delivered to the US Attorney before an important trial.  Once they find her, the real action begins, as there are people who don't want them to reach their destination.  

The book is a long roller-coaster ride of shootings, deaths and explosions, pretty much everything par for the course in the thriller genre, so if you're into this sort of thing,  this book has everything you can possibly want. It's also very twisty -- the plot turns on its head more than a couple of times with events that you probably will never see coming, keeping things very lively.  There is no room for boredom here, and I did like the way that the author included "the inevitable alliance between the dark and the light," resulting in the moral grey zone that occurs when politicians make deals with the devil, probably something that happens much more often than we mere mortals realize.   On the flip side, however,  this book is w-a-a-a-y, w-a-a-a-y over the top in terms of credibility.  There are a number of things throughout the story that hinge on coincidence; the competing  teams of mercenaries was just a little much,  and the several times  when you think Jon and Piper are goners, there's generally some kind of deus ex machina to the rescue.  Again, all standard thriller fare, but it really strains belief.  

All in all, The Contractors is what I'd call an okay escape novel, good for a few lazy afternoons of reading.   If you look at reader reviews, so far they're pretty positive, so I'd definitely point my recommendation at people who love to read thrillers.  Many thanks to TLC book tours.  

The Contractors tour continues; you can find the complete schedule at the TLC website

Monday, February 10, 2014

Perfect, by Rachel Joyce

Random House, 2014
386 pp

arc - thank you to the publisher for my copy

"It was all because of a small slip in time, the whole story."

When Rachel Joyce's  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry first came out  a couple of years back, I bought a copy, read it, and wasn't very fond of it at all.  So when I received an ARC of Perfect that I hadn't requested, I was a little skittish. However, since I have this strange need to read all ARCs that are sent to me (even unrequested), and it's been sitting here for a while, I picked it up last night and started reading. By about page 18, I was completely hooked, and I stayed that way pretty much until I finished it. That says a lot, since I normally don't really like these kinds of novels.  This one I just couldn't put down. It's a very well-written story  that explores how just one moment of time turns ordinary on its head, after which,  there is no going back.

Briefly, the novel begins in 1972, the year that two "leap" seconds were "added to time," since "time was out of joint with the movement of the Earth."  One day Byron's mother Diana is running late getting Byron and his sister Lucy off to school, and decides to take a shortcut through a dangerous neighborhood.  In the thick fog, something happens on the way that will change everything; the problem is that only Byron notices it.  He feels a need to set things right -- and in doing so, confides in his friend James. Together they come up with a plan they call "Operation Perfect," one they believe they will help protect Diana.  But, as they will eventually discover, there are some things that no one can  control, no matter what.   In a parallel narrative that weaves through the story of Byron and his family, there is another story, the details of which I don't want to divulge; suffice it to say that both come together in a most surprising way at the end.

The best part of this book lies in the story of Byron's family life, especially about the character of Diana.  From outside everything looks perfect -- the family lives in a beautiful Georgian-style home, the children go to a posh private school, Diana has the right set of friends, is great with her kids, runs her home efficiently, and is married to Seymour,  a banking executive. She's wonderful with Byron's friend James as well; he describes her as Perfect,  the code word for their plan. On closer inspection, though, Seymour comes home only on weekends; he's bought the place for its secluded location, and when he's home, he spends most of the time locked in his study rather than spending any sort of quality time with the family. His summer vacation is spent with co-workers rather than with his family.  He buys Diana just the right clothes, the best car, and is happiest when she tells him how envious the other mothers in her set are. He talks to her daily, and with most every call comes the question of whether or not she is alone at the house.  Diana is from a different sort of life, but she's bought into this one, marrying Seymour after only two months of knowing him. Eventually, the main event around which the story is built will be a life-changing one for Diana, who not only becomes caught up in her own guilt, but also comes to an understanding about the life she's living.

I'm not a clever genius when it comes to picking apart literature, but it seems to me that part of what the author is saying here is that there are factors like class, economic status, the expectations of others,  and in the case of one  character, mental illness, that put constraints on who people really are underneath it all.  I think also she's asking us to consider how people get to where they are; that influences from the past and decisions that were made at certain moments all have consequences in the future.  There are a number of philosophical reflections about the nature of time that run through the book, all quite eloquently expressed.  Rachel Joyce can definitely write credible characters; they're people that you can't help but react to in one way or another, and she sustains her excellent characterizations throughout the novel. The way she creates these people is only one aspect of her writing ability  -- she also creates the most beautiful descriptions, especially pertaining to the natural world.  There really was not too much I did not like about this book -- once in a while there were a few spots that sort of dragged (for example, one character's visit to a psychic), and I felt that the ending  was too brief, and for me, just not in keeping with the tone of the rest of the story. 

This novel is, in a word, tragic.  It's  not a novel for people who love happy endings or upbeat stories.  It's very dark and at times downright depressing, frankly right up my alley.  The book does end on an optimistic note, but considering everything that came before, it really isn't enough to qualify as a happy ending. Maybe it's more of a "happier than it could have been" finish; at least that's how I feel about the very brief section concluding the novel. Now scanning reader reviews, I see that reactions to this book are a mixed bag -- some people couldn't get past the first few chapters, some felt it was too depressing, some were disappointed because it was not like her previous book, while others raved about it.  I really liked and got caught up in this novel, and would definitely recommend it.  A bit of advice -- there are reasons for everything that happens in this novel, so take your time and read it slowly. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A very brief and intentionally vague look at Andrew's Brain, by E.L. Doctorow

Random House, 2014
224 pp

arc from the publisher -- thank you!

"Pretending is the brain’s work. It’s what it does. The brain can even pretend not to be itself."

Let me just say at the beginning here that I loved this book, but I didn't realize how much I liked it until it was over.  Add this one to your list of most-unreliable-narrator novels, or just to your list of books you should definitely read.  It is a novel filled with surprises, the entire book  a conversation between Andrew, a cognitive scientist whose life up to this point has been one of inadvertent disaster, and a psychotherapist/psychologist/shrink to whom he tells his "not pretty" story.  Or maybe not, depending on how you choose to read it.  So -- this post won't be a standard book discussion, but more my reaction to the novel, since it is really one of those books where the reader makes up his/her own mind about what's actually going on. Or not. Plus, it would sort of be unfair to spill its contents -- doing so might throw prospective readers into major spoiler alert territory.  I'll say this: Andrew's Brain is something very different than anything I've seen before. Forget the usual linear narrative format, and forget any kind of basic quasi-understanding normally provided by the author that all will be explained.  The book focuses on how we view brain and mind, memories, free will and fate, truth and deception, and overall how we see ourselves. At the same time,  Andrew muses about  the mind as a "kind of jail" for the brain, which according to him, can often pretend to be one's soul, posing the question of one's ability to actually know and understand one's self.

Reading this novel took me on an interesting ride. The narrative started feeling way too random and repetitive at times, and while my normal thing to do when I read a novel with an unreliable narrator is to try and figure out what's really going on,  this time I started getting frustrated and felt like giving up.  But then I thought, this is E.L. Doctorow, an author I've been reading for years, so there's got to be something here I'm missing.  So midway through, I started completely over, relaxed, and changed my own way of thinking about the whole thing.  Suddenly the randomness and the flashes of repetition  made sense, as I  came to realize  that this book is offering  an opportunity to look through a window at  how this person's traumatized brain works, making for a much better reading experience and allowing me to become more comfortable with what was going on here. 

Andrew's Brain is definitely a novel where a)   the reader is left to judge for himself/herself just what might be  going on during these conversations, and b) you have to think outside of the box, freeing yourself from whatever expectations you might have as soon as you open the book. With apologies for being so vague here, I don't want my take on it to ruin anyone else's appreciation.  This novel is getting very mixed reviews, but I found it intriguing and I had a lot of fun trying to figure things out after I'd finished it,  coming up with several different interpretations of what I'd just read, all of which made perfectly good sense to me. It's often funny and is populated by some very interesting characters here and there; at the same time, it can be downright heartbreaking.

You can find professional reviews that will tell you more,  but I'd strongly suggest not reading them. If you must, however, I  like the approach taken by the writer at The Daily Beast so I'd recommend that one. My thanks to the people at Random House -- I've given my ARC to another reader and bought a real copy of this novel to revisit later.  The challenge of going  through it again is just irresistible.

Monday, February 3, 2014

February: despite it all, it's starting out on the right foot

This morning was terrible -- after my hour of swimming laps I took Larry to the airport to pick up his plane after its annual and had to drive an hour plus back on streets teeming with people who can't freakin' drive. Then someone cut me off in my lane and well, I sort of rear-ended them because I couldn't stop in time.  Luckily, the person's car only had a tiny fleck of paint missing and so she drove on her merry way after we stopped.  That was nerve wracking, for sure. But I came home to my Indiespensable package -- this month it's Orfeo,by Richard Powers, and the extra goodies were definitely cheery:  three chocolate pops (one milk, one dark and one white) on a stick that make killer hot chocolate AND a bag of raspberry truffle popcorn. I get the coolest goodies from Powell's each time. 

I also just finished The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler -- the copyright page of my Vintage Crime/Black Lizard edition says it was originally published in 1939, but it's still very cool.  I'm waiting for new crime books from the UK, so I think I'll spend some time reading through the Marlowe novels while the books are in transit. 

For February I have like zero book plans except to get through these ARCs that are sitting here waiting to be read.  There's so much I really want to read, not all of it current, so I'm going to see what mood I'm in before committing to a particular book or books to write about.  I'll surprise myself.