Monday, July 24, 2017

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Prodigal SummerProdigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Prodigal Summer didn't hook me at first, but in the end I thought it was another five star read for Barbara Kingsolver. After three chapters, I began to wonder if this was a collection of short stories rather than a novel. The three subplots were disconnected and seemed to reach conclusions rather than push me forward. Also, it took a while for the personalities of the characters to come through, so at first I thought Kingsolver was more concerned with getting a message across about animal behavior than about human behavior. As I read on, I realized that in addition to fascinating facts about luna moths and coyotes, this novel shows the need for human relationships, among old, young, neighbors, in-laws, and all sorts of other people.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul, White Horse Regressions, and Hopatcong Vision Quest

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese FalconThe Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The classic hard-boiled detective novel, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, was one of the earliest books in that genre. The main character seems cliche at times, but only because so many imitations have followed. According to Wikipedia: “Raymond Chandler's character Philip Marlowe...was strongly influenced by Hammett's Spade.” There are many lesser known examples as well.

The main women in the story, Ruth Wonderly, Effie Perine, and Iva Archer, are all drawn to Spade's tough personality, but each in her own way. They are clearly from decades past, but they are fully developed, interesting characters. The same is true of the men, although I thought Kasper Gutman (the fat man) was a little weaker than the others. There were some implausible aspects to the plot, but everything came together in the end.

I listened to the audio while on a trip with my wife and daughter. The book was narrated by William Dufris and I was impressed by his reading. He was influenced by the film and did a wonderful Peter Lorre imitation while keeping true to all the other characters as well. It's a great book to listen to while driving.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul

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Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog StarsThe Dog Stars by Peter Heller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to the audio of The Dog Stars by Peter Heller and wondered why the narrator, Mark Deakins, seemed to pause between every phrase. When I looked at a written version, I discovered the reason. There were lots of short sentences. Here's an example:

There is a pain you can’t think your way out of. You can’t talk it away. If there was someone to talk to. You can walk. One foot the other foot. Breathe in breathe out. Drink from the stream. Piss. Eat the venison strips. And. You can’t metabolize the loss. It is in the cells of your face, your chest, behind the eyes, in the twists of the gut. Muscles, sinew, bone. It is all of you.

The reason for this style seems to be that the main character spends a lot of the book alone, thinking about his life and life in general. To get that internal thought process across, Heller resorts to moments that get close to stream of consciousness writing. It took a little while to get used to his style, but once I did, it worked.

Hig is a widower who loved his wife. He is living in a world where most of the people have died from a flu epidemic and a blood disease that followed the flu. In this dystopian world most everyone is out for themselves, fighting off any strangers that show up in their territory. Hig lives with two companions. The first is Bangley, a violent man who believes in killing anyone who shows up in his territory. The second is Hig's dog, Jasper, with whom he shares all his thoughts.

Hig is a pilot with a working Cessna. He flies patrols along the perimeter of the area he and Bangley have declared their own. If he identifies intruders, Bangley kills them. They appear to have a lot of ammunition and a decent amount of airplane fuel.

The world they live in has problems beyond the flu and blood disease. The climate is changing and certain species are extinct or nearly extinct. There are no more trout and very few, if any, elk. However, other animals such as deer are still prevalent enough to hunt.

The novel's greatest strength is the depth of the main character's thoughts. He spends a great deal of time thinking about his past life and the limited possibilities for his future. For example:

Life and death lived inside each other. That's what occured to me. Death was inside all of us, waiting for warmer nights, a compromised system, a beetle, as in the now dying black timber on the mountains.

At times the novel feels like an outdoor life story, dwelling on the joys of fishing, hunting, and being alone in the wilderness. It also spends a decent amount of its words on radio technology, airplanes, and guns, which, along with the point of view remaining with Hig, gives it a macho feel. I had a few issues with the plot, mostly with the random changes to the world, but also one specific incident late in the story that had a simple way of being much less dangerous than it was. I won't say more than that, but I had trouble believing Hig didn't think of it.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey

The Stranger You Know (Maeve Kerrigan #4)The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't consider it fair to review a book I haven't read from beginning to end, so I don't do that. But I will read a book that is a part of a series even if, as in this case, it is #4 and I haven't read #1 through #3. I believe a good novel should stand on its own. The Stranger You Know (Maeve Kerrigan #4) had enough in it to keep me reading, but probably would have been better if I'd read the earlier books. Rob, the man with whom Maeve is in a relationship, was gone throughout most of this book, so I didn't get to see that aspect of her character. Also, this story is focused on Josh Derwent, a character who might have been more sympathetic if I'd read the other books. The way the crime was solved depended a bit too much on theories working out through luck, although reading the other books wouldn't have helped that issue.

The main plot is about workplace politics. In this case, the worker, Maeve Kerrigan, is a detective with the London police and is called on to be part of the team investigating a serial murder. However, she's told that while working on this case she is not allowed to have any contact with her regular partner, Josh Derwent. Although Maeve Kerrigan listens to direct orders, she has a mind of her own and, if circumstances require her to ignore the orders, she doesn't hesitate. There's a team leader who has her own set of issues regarding Derwent. She's a minor character in this book, but I thought her relationship with Kerrigan was intriguing.

Jane Casey's decision to emphasize situations that could occur in any workplace is an interesting choice. There was more tension in wondering if Maeve would get caught than there was in wondering if the murderer would get caught. A lot of time was spent on Josh's background, which helped explain his interest in this particular serial murder, but it didn't explain his personality, which came across as obnoxious and self-absorbed.

Overall, The Stranger You Know is an interesting book and Maeve Kerrigan is a well written character. It's a good read, but I would suggest starting with the first book in the series.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaA Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are two skills I admire most in the authors I read: the ability to write thoughtful, beautiful prose and the ability to write a page turner. The odd thing is these skills work against each other. Beautiful prose slows or even stops readers, while well crafted, functional prose, along with a unique, fascinating combination of plot and characters pushes readers forward, demanding their attention even when they're exhausted and worried about getting up for work the next day.

Anthony Marra's skill with language is evident on every page in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Here's an example:

...the absence isn’t immediate, more a fade from the present tense you shared, a melting into the past, not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched now runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.

As with all Marra's quotes, this is my favorite until I read the next one.

The plot covers the brutality of the Second Chechen War, with some reflection on the First Chechen War. I know surprisingly little about wars in which the USA wasn't a participant, so the subject matter was riveting. And the complex characters care about each other in a desperate manner that seems to fit a war zone. There is plenty of sacrifice mixed with fear and hatred, enough to produce a number of excellent, interrelated, emotional subplots.

It's not a page turner, but I couldn't stop thinking about it.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul

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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Faithful by Alice Hoffman

FaithfulFaithful by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I'm looking for something interesting to read and I'm not in the mood to experiment, I often turn to Alice Hoffman, one of my favorite writers. She's written over thirty books and the ones I've read have all been good (The River King, The Red Garden, The Third Angel, and, The Dovekeepers). Faithful is another example of well developed characters set in an interesting plot.

Shelby Richmond and her best friend, Helene, are in a car accident just before they are to graduate from high school. The weather was bad, with icy roads they should have avoided, but Helene insisted and Shelby, who was driving, gave in. After the accident, Helene was left comatose and Shelby is wracked with guilt.

“People say if you face your worst fear, the rest is easy, but those are people who are afraid of rattlesnakes or enclosed spaces, not of themselves and the horrible things they've done.”

The story is about Shelby's path after that life changing event, but more than that, it is about her relationships with the people who help her along the way.

My favorite character is Ben Mink, a classmate of Shelby's who suffers with the more common insecurities of teenagers. While in school, he felt like a dork, but was enamored of both Shelby and Helene. After the accident, he became Shelby's friend/drug dealer, with an emphasis on the first of those two roles. It is fascinating to watch him grow over time and to see how he helps Shelby deal with her issues.

I had an issue with the way Hoffman chose to end the book. Without discussing specifics, I will say she seemed determined to avoid making the novel ending too pat. Although there was something going on throughout the story that pointed toward the ending Hoffman chose, it wasn't fully developed and felt as if it had come out of nowhere (deus ex machina). But this was minor, considering the overall beauty of the book.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Shadow Queen by Sandra Gulland

The Shadow QueenThe Shadow Queen by Sandra Gulland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Shadow Queen starts out as a tale of seventeenth century French theater, with a plot that follows the life of Claudette des Oeillets, a child of actors. Claudette's family is suffering through hard times and is forced to live in a campsite they've set up near a cave. They finally get a break, an opportunity to perform for Gabriel de Rochechouart de Mortemart, the Duke of Mortemart. Because Claudette's mother once had a minor role in a production of Le Cid by Corneille, they are to perform that work. They have, however, a very limited cast, just Claudette and her parents. The performance naturally has its issues, but it is here that Claudette meets Athénaïs de Montespan, the novel's title character and here that the novel really gets going.

This is a story of both the seventeenth century French court and of seventeenth century French Theater. There are famous characters like Corneille, Moliere, Racine, Louis the XIV (The Sun King), and, of course, The Shadow Queen - Athénaïs de Montespan. Claudette is also a real, historic figure. The strength of this novel is the depth of character Sandra Gulland shows in Claudette. The book is from her point of view, so everything we know about everyone else is filtered through Claudette's perspective. Gulland has chosen to make her a sympathetic character, which may or may not be true, but works great in the book.

This is a fun read, although it starts a little slow. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys French history.

Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul

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