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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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon

Flight of DreamsFlight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ariel Lawhon has clearly done her research in Flight of Dreams. The detailed descriptions of the Hindenburg are fascinating, especially of the areas that present risk.

Schulze leads them to the opposite door, also glass, and into the smoking lounge. If the rest of the ship is luxurious, this room is opulent. Priorities, Gertrud thinks, the Zeppelin-Reederei knows whom to indulge. Leather benches and armchairs line the perfectly square room, leaving the center open. Hand-painted murals of early hot-air balloons decorate the walls. Small square tables are set with playing cards and poker chips. Carpet, such a dark blue that it looks like spilled ink, covers the floor.

The focus in the preceding paragraph is about pampering the rich, but the smoking area is carefully insulated and ventilated - for safety. When one of the crew lights a cigarette in a different area, Emilie (A stewardess who is one of the main characters) reacts:

“It's a bad idea, don't you think?” Emilie asks, as she stands inside the kitchen door, propping it open with her foot. “Striking a match in here? You could blow us all to oblivion.”

Later, Emilie is scolded for allowing children to play with a toy car with grinding gears that can create problems:

“Sparks! How could you let them play with something that sparks? Have you forgotten where we are?”

It's clear that the authorities recognized the dangers inherent with the Hindenburg and have decided to deal with them by establishing rules, rather than rethinking the concept.

Lawhon chose to write about “the real people on board,” people who didn't have much in common with each other. Perhaps this is the reason I thought the characters' personal stories were less interesting than the details of the airship. I never found the subplots about romance, competition, or desire for advancement to be believable. There was, however, one great exception. The Hindenburg was owned by the Nazi government in Germany, a fact that was made clear by the swastikas painted on the tail. A few of the passengers were not happy with the Nazis and were reacting in their own way to their displeasure. I liked the subtlety and the variety of their shared vexation.

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



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Monday, March 6, 2017

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

The DollhouseThe Dollhouse by Fiona  Davis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fiona Davis has written an interesting novel about the life of Darby McLaughlin, a young, single woman who, in 1952, moved to New York City to attend Katherine Gibbs, a secretarial school. She has a reservation at the Barbizon hotel for Women and plans to stay there while she studies. When she arrives, she learns that the floor where the secretarial students stay is full, so she's been placed on a floor with women who are studying to become models. This is her first bit of bad luck, because most of the models look down on Darby, whom they consider plain and awkward. One of them even puts Darby in a dangerous situation. When Darby finally befriends someone, it is Esme, a maid in the building who treats her well, but has a reputation for acting wild.

The book bounces between Darby's story in the fifties and the story of Rose in 2016. Rose is an investigative reporter whose career and personal life have both taken downturns. Her boyfriend decides to go back to his wife and children, leaving Rose alone and without a place to stay. Meanwhile, she's lost her job as a television newscaster and is working for an internet news startup. Her salary is lower and she doesn't have as much exposure, but she has some freedom to explore the stories she finds exciting. This leads to her interest in some elderly women who have been living at the Barbizon for many years, since before it was converted into condominiums. Rose sees a story in the lives of these women, specifically in the life of one who always wears a veil to cover a facial scar.

I love the structure of the novel, with the present day story involving an investigation into the story set in the fifties. (I use a similar technique in my own novels.) I found the Rose plot less interesting than Darby's, but liked the way Rose discovered aspects of Darby's story through her investigation. The history of the 1952 setting rang true, especially the romance and often seedy nature of the jazz clubs and also the women whose limited opportunities left them with a belief that finding the right man was their only path to a successful life.

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


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