Monday, September 30, 2019

Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan

A group of college kids visit the ruins of an old prison for fun one day.  There is Tripper, the everything guy who had it all; looks, money and charm.  Quentin was a dreamer and all the girls loved him, especially Rachel.  Maisie was a former girlfriend of Tripper's and had brought along her young brother.  Casey and Wailer had just gotten married the night before; Casey an overweight man with an enormous heart and Wailer was exotic with her foreign background.  Their old classics teacher was accompanying them as well.  The day ended in tragedy with Wailer missing and the police suspecting that she was killed but no body was ever found.

It's thirty years later and the book picks the group's stories back up.  During a renovation, Wailer's body is finally found and the police are determined to get answers.  None of the group is where they thought they'd end up.  Trapper is a lawyer with a child off to college and a failing marriage.  Casey is wealthy and has a chain of restaurants specializing in comfort food.  Maisie has spent her life taking care of her brother, Ben, who never recovered from the trauma of that day.  Rachel is a teacher and bored.  And Quentin is the biggest surprise of all.  The group thinks he is dead and he is, in a way.  After that day, he finally found the courage to fake his death and run away to transform as Judith.  Judith has a husband and family she's never told about her past and has much to lose if the truth comes out.  Who killed Wailer?

Boylan has written an intriguing mystery that has interesting characters.  The only flaw is that the book seems to be mostly a vehicle for discussing the transgender experience as that is also the author's experience.  This may be intrusive for some readers who are looking just for a mystery.  For most though, the novel will stand as an interesting read with characters who are relatable.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

This is the second novel in the Wheel Of Time series.  In this one, Rand and his friends, Mat and Perrin are off to find The Great Horn of Valere.  They had turned it over so that it could be sent off and secured but it is stolen but a Darkfriend.  The Horn can call back the great dead warriors from the past so it is a legend and a very valuable item that should never be in the possession of those on the Dark Side.  Along with the Horn is the dagger that is needed to save Mat's life.

Egwene and Nynaeve are in Tar Valon where they are starting their training to be full fledged Aes Sedai.  The queen's daughter, Elayne, and Min, who can read an individual's future are there also.  When Egwene and Nynaeve are told that Rand and the others are in terrible danger and that only they can save them, they immediately break their training and set off.  It is nothing but a horrible trick, however, and they end up in the land of the Seanchan, where Aes Sedai are captured and leashed, forced to do only what their masters command. 

Rand is still fighting the fact that he can channel and he desperately tries to find a way to hold off this power and the title of the Dragon Reborn that Moraine has revealed to him.  Can he find a way to protect all of his friends and fight for the good without accessing this power that may kill him?

Fans of the series will find that this one moves more quickly than the first which had to be concerned with world building.  Rand and the others are coming more into their true natures as their trip moves them to accept what part they must play in the world for it to survive.  This book is recommended for fantasy readers.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Whore's Child by Richard Russo

When I think of Richard Russo, I think of upper New York and towns that are struggling after the factories have shut down.  He writes about everyday folks, folks who just go out and work to put food on the table and who are happy to have the occasional treat.  After reading this anthology, I need to rethink Russo and acknowledge his deft way of drawing a character with no words wasted.  This volume has seven stories and each is a gem.

In my favorite story, The Mysteries Of Linwood Hart, a nine year old boy deals with his father moving out.  He tries to understand what broke up the marriage, why his father doesn't get along with his own family and why his mother is determined to change him.  Linwood is playing baseball for the first year and his coach also seems to be auditioning for the job of stepfather. 

The title story is about a former nun who is in a creative writing class.  Her first sentences in her stories are killer openings and the class soon realizes they don't know her or the inner workings of the faith that she has served at all.  In another story, a man visits the artist who his wife had a long term affair with after her death.  In Joy Ride, another child goes with his mother on an extended road trip when she apparently decides that her life as a wife and mother just isn't working out.

Each story is a gem that explores the inner life of ordinary people and helps the reader acknowledge the special qualities that each of us has.  Russo is at times laugh out loud funny and sometimes poignant or even outright sad.  But at the end of each story, the reader will be wiser about human nature.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Jack is in trouble.  A pirate of drugs, she uses her background and education to reverse engineer popular drugs and make them available for much cheaper to the population who can't afford them.  But this latest reverse engineer has gone deadly.  She reversed a popular productivity drug and now users are becoming addicted, unable to leave their work for anything else, not food not home not rest.  Scores are being hospitalized and some are dying.  Jack needs to fix this fast.  She takes her pirate spaceship down and revisits the labs she started in where she can get help.  She takes along Threezed, a slave she ended up with when she killed his master for trying to steal her ship.

Paladin is a semi-autonomous robot.  She works with Eliasz, a human intelligence agent who seems to have a past that won't let him live in the present and a fondness for Paladin that seems to cross the barriers between human and machine.  Their assignment is to find Jack and stop her by whatever means necessary. 

Annalee Newitz has created an interesting exploration of what it means to be human and outlines some of the new dilemmas we will face as artificial intelligence becomes viable.  Her world is set in 2144, not an impossible leap of the imagination. Jack is a sympathetic character as she tries to liberate drugs that can improve lives but Paladin is also sympathetic as she explores what it means to be human and to maybe one day have free will to do what she chooses.  Newitz writes extensively both fiction and nonfiction about the intersection that is outlined in this book and has a background that includes an MIT science journalism fellowship, a career as a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a PhD from Berkeley.  This book is recommended for science fiction readers.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Danny Conroy knows well who the most important person in his life is.  It's his older sister, Maeve.  His father, Cyril, is a self-made man, someone who moved up from the poverty he was raised in to remake himself as a wealthy man dealing in real estate.  His first big deal once he struck it rich was to buy Dutch House, a fabulous house in the Philadelphia suburbs, built by a magnate and on the market with everything inside, clothes, furniture, kitchen settings, photographs, etc.  He buys this house and then surprises his wife with it.

She is definitely surprised.  She had planned to become a nun until Cyril talked her out of it halfway through her novice time.  She is appalled by the showy house and cannot get used to it.  She only wants to help others and slowly she moves away from the family, going back to the convent and staying for longer and longer periods of time, working with the poor.  Finally, when Maeve is a preteen and Danny around four, she leaves forever, running off to India.  At that point, Maeve becomes even more of a mother figure for Danny and his life revolves around her.

Cyril decides to remarry.  Andrea is younger than Cyril by several decades and she comes with two little girls.  The war between her, Maeve and the household staff is immediate and unrelenting.  Andrea is determined to remake everything in the house and their lives to suit herself and they all feel that they were doing just fine without her and her ideas.  When Cyril dies unexpectedly, Andrea has her chance.  She kicks out Danny who is fifteen at the time.  He moves into Maeve's apartment and they soon realize that Andrea gets everything and that they have gone from wealth to poverty except for an educational trust that will pay for Danny's college.

Over the years, Danny and Maeve's lives seem stuck in the rut of this injustice.  Although Danny marries and has children, Maeve seems stuck in the same place, same little house, same little job.  They are the most important person to each other no matter what else happens.  Marriages, children, jobs, careers, nothing outweighs the tie between the two and the horrible thing that happened to them.

Ann Patchett is an automatic read for me.  She seems interested these days in family relationships as this book and her last, Commonwealth, explore the various ways that families exist and what they mean to the members inside them.  Danny and Maeve are interesting characters and it is hard to see them stuck in the injustice that was done to them when they were just starting out.  This book is recommended for literary fiction readers.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

There There by Tommy Orange

The reader is introduced to a group of individuals whose lives paint the current Native American experience.  There are Jacqui Red Feather and Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, who are sisters, born to the same mother but with different fathers.  They are taken by their mother to the Native American takeover of Alcatraz in the 70's, where they live for a while with others.  While there, Jacqui is raped and is pregnant with a daughter she gives up for adoption.  This is Blue.  Tony is the victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and bears the mark of it on his features for the world to see.  Orvil and Lony and Loother are Jacqui's grandsons, being raised by Opal and whom she never sees.  Harvey is the emcee of various powwows, and now one is coming to Oakland where most of the characters live.

As the powwow gets closer, the characters interact in various ways.  Orvil is not sure what it means to be Native American but he wants to know and is there to dance.  He has learned the dances from YouTube, not from an older man or tribe.  Jacqui comes with Harvey who is also expecting to meet his son Edwin who has found him online.  A different group has decided that this would be the perfect venue to rob and has printed out plastic guns and comes prepared to do whatever it takes to get the money they are sure is there.

All these characters collide at the powwow in a mixture of discovery and tragedy.  As some discover family ties, others act out their rage and sense of hopelessness.  All along we see the effect of poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, lack of opportunity and education.  This is a debut novel by an author who is himself an enrolled member of both the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes.  It is recommended by those who wish to learn about the Native American modern experience and readers of literary fiction.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Three Graves Full by Jamie Mason

Imagine that you kind of accidentally killed a man in your living room.  You know it's not really your fault, but then again, would the police see it that way?  So you bury it in the back yard and try to regain the life you had before.  That's Jason Getty's situation.  He came to town after his wife died and left him some money.  He didn't really know anyone and he's a shy man who is easily swayed or even bullied by others.  When a charming sociopath takes a favor Jason did for him to establish a relationship where he came and took from Jason all the time, Jason doesn't know what to do and it ended in death.

Now imagine this.  When you bought your house, no one told you that a scandal had occurred there.  The wife of the family had just up and left one day, leaving behind her husband.  Except she didn't leave.  It turns out that she and the man she was having an affair with were surprised one day and now are on either side of the house, guarding it in death.

When the police learn about the deaths from the brother of the man who was married to the woman, they come to the house and quickly locate the graves of the two.  Jason, of course, never knew he was living between two bodies and now there's the added complication that he'll need to move the body he planted in the backyard before the police find that one as well.  But things never go smoothly for Jason.  Before the night is over, he is caught up in a live and death struggle along with the fiance of the buried man, the brother who killed them both and a police detective that has gotten suspicious.  How it will all turn out is anyone's guess.

Jamie Mason has written an engaging mystery with believable characters caught up in unimaginable circumstances.  This is Mason's debut novel and it was well received and reviewed.  On a personal note, I met Mrs. Mason at an author's lunch and was thrilled to hear about her process and her take on the book.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

It is the 1680's in the United States.  A farmer/trader has carved out a smallholding for himself, after starting in poverty.  He advertises for a wife and is pleasantly surprised with the young, beautiful woman who arrives.  As he is on the road so much, he needs servants to help her run his farm while he is gone.  He doesn't like having male servants, so he has three female ones.

Lina is the oldest, a woman who came to him after being misused in her prior life.  She has no desire for marriage or a man and is devoted to her mistress and Sir as he is known.  The mistress starts off very remote to Lina but as they are left on their own so much and as Lina helps her through her pregnancies and births, and as she grieves with the mistress over the deaths of all her children, they become close.

Sorrow is someone no one knows much about.  She is a white woman who grew up on her father's boat and after he died, was cast ashore with no idea how to survive.  She ended up at Sir's estate after the sons of her rescuers were taking too much interest in her.  Most consider Sorrow to be mentally challenged but she sees the world around her through a different filter than others do. 

Florens is the newest member, a slave girl who Sir accepted as partial payment of a loan rashly given to a plantation owner.  She is only six when she arrives; her mother having pushed her forward when Sir looked over the possible individuals the plantation owner was willing to give up.  Florens is attached to Lina, who sees Florens as the child she'll never have.  The mistress accepts her but also resents having this living child while her own have all died. 

A crisis occurs when smallpox attacks the farm.  Sir is in the process of having a big stately house built.  The pox spreads quickly through the farm's occupants, and it is decided that only the blacksmith who came to build the gates has a chance of healing everyone.  Florens is dispatched on her own to find him and bring him back, even though Lina distrusts him as she suspects that Florens has become infatuated with him.

Morrison has written a haunting tale that not only describes daily life in the time period with owners, indentured servants, slaves and children taken in after death removes their parents.  Slavery is shown for its cruelty and for the sacrifice that slave women often took; pushing their children forward to be taken out of cruel situations when they believe another situation might be better.  Of course the children see it only as rejection and many spend their lives trying to replace that motherly love and the sense of trust that is snatched away.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Monday, September 9, 2019

American Predator by Maureen Callahan

The police and FBI had never seen a killer like Israel Keyes.  Most of their tried and true procedures just didn't work when tracking someone like him.  Keyes killed indiscriminately across the United States and possibly Canada.  He killed young, old, male, female.  He didn't kill anyone he knew; he just randomly found someone when he decided it was time to hunt.  Keyes had been serious about killing for years.  He traveled extensively and buried kill caches across many states, and then might not return for years.  The caches held things like guns, restraints, money, etc.  Those who knew him in Anchorage, Alaska, where he lived the longest, had no idea of his hidden side.  He was a contractor who did meticulous work to perfecting standards.  Even more strange, he had a young daughter who was the most important person in the world to him.

Keyes was raised in various extremist religious cults and many suspected abuse of the ten children in his family although none was ever proved.  He joined the military to perfect his killing ability and was well regarded there.  He lived on an Indian reservation for several years then moved to Alaska.  He was caught after one of his only sloppy kills.  He abducted and killed a young woman in Anchorage, Samantha Koenig.  He was caught when he started using her debit card while traveling in Texas.

Although he confessed the first interview to Koenig's murder, the FBI and police personnel interviewing him knew he had many more stories to tell.  Keyes wanted to be in control of the interviews and his main requirement was that those in charge help him get an early death penalty; he did not want to stay in jail the rest of his life and expose his daughter to the publicity his crimes  would create.  He eventually confessed to killing a couple in New Hampshire and hinted at many other kills before he decided those in charge weren't taking his requirements seriously.  He killed himself before telling everything that police had hoped to get.  Police have tied him to at least eleven murders and expect that there are many more they don't know about and now never will.  He is unique in his skill and coldblooded approach to killing.  This book is recommended for readers of true crime.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Widows Of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

In 1921, in Bombay, India, Perveen Mistry is a groundbreaker.  She is the first woman to practice law, although she isn't allowed to argue cases in court.  She works in Mistry Law, her father's firm, on civil cases and documents such as wills and contracts.  Perveen wasn't always a groundbreaker.  She had an early marriage that turned into a nightmare after she married the man and went to live with his family in Calcutta.  After managing to break free of him, she ended up going to Oxford for three years, getting her law degree.  Her family and especially her father, has always supported her dreams.

Perveen is faced with a vexing case.  A longtime client of the firm, Mr. Omar Farid, has died.  He was a Muslim man and left behind three wives who live in seclusion plus various children.  A man who worked for his firm has been appointed their guardian and has presented papers that would turn over each wife's financial legacy to his control.  Perveen worries that this is a case of compulsion and since the wives cannot speak to men, she is allowed to go talk with them.

She finds that the women are treated differently.  The first wife, Razia, was left land on which the company's buildings were located.  The second wife, Sakina, was left valuable jewelry.  The third, who was married to Omar for only a short time and who came from the city's entertainment section, was left only her musical instruments.  Perveen finds that the women know very little about their husband's estate, and what was left to each one.  Worse, she finds that the guardian is very abrupt and condescending and he has total control over the women.  He can marry them off to other men, force them to hand over their possessions and make their lives miserable.  Perveen is determined to help the women but before she can make headway, the estate agent is murdered in the house.  Were one of the wives responsible or did someone come in and do the crime?

Sujata Massey has written an entertaining tale that gives the reader insight into India and its customs in the 1920's, all the different religions and their rules, and above all, the restricted lives that women were forced to lead during the time.  Perveen is intelligent but even as a professional woman is so sheltered that her efforts to solve the crime are thwarted over and over.  Her final success is one that many readers won't expect.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Mostly Void, Partially Stars by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

This book is from the Welcome to Night Vale universe.  It covers the show from the pilot episode to episode twenty-five.  The first season of the podcast was the first ten episodes and took place from March to July 2016.  After a short hiatus, the podcast returned in April 2017.

For each episode, the entire script is given, although those who only read and don't listen miss the background music that is an important part.  Before each episode, the authors talk about what they were thinking as they wrote it and what caused specific events or characters to be introduced. 

Night Vale fans will recognize their favorites; the angels who might not be real, the man in the Indian headdress, the hapless interns, Cecil is the narrator, the man whose nightly broadcast keeps the town together and informed.  We meet his crush, Carlos, a man of science and of course those menacing librarians cannot be contained and may break into any episode.  Night Vale is a place of many dangers but these dangers are considered everyday events there and only merit the briefest of mentions.

Night Vale fans will enjoy the back story for what has become such a successful venture and those who wonder what all the fuss is about will be able to get in on the phenomenon from the beginning.  This book is recommended for sci fi/fantasy readers.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld

When all hope disappears for finding a lost child, there is Naomi.  Parents find her through word of mouth; she is a legend in the field.  She only takes one case at a time and spends whatever time is necessary until there is a result.  She has found children missing for years; she has found bodies returned to grieving parents.  She is unstoppable and has tunnel vision until she reaches resolution.  What parents don't know is that Naomi was a lost child herself.

Madison Culver has been missing for three years.  Her parents turned their backs for one minute on a family Christmas tree expedition in the forest and she was gone.   No one believes she is alive.  The weather was horrible that day and winter was brutal.  No body has been found.  Naomi agrees to take the case.

What Naomi can remember of her life begins the night she escaped.  She came running out of the dark to a migrant campfire, naked, in shock and unable to remember what she was running from.  She was around nine although her birthday was lost in the clouds that shroud her past.  She knows only two things; that her name is Naomi and that her mother is dead.  She is taken to a wonderful foster mother where another child lives also.  He is around Naomi's age and becomes the only friend of her childhood; the only one she tells her secrets to.

As Naomi searches for Madison, she meets the people of the remote area in Oregon where the child was missing.  She is not welcomed and as she searches, she starts to uncover local secrets.  There is a ranger who worries about her who also searches for those missing in his area and a policeman who serves as a resource for Naomi.  She uses their help but gets close to no one. 

Rene Denfeld has created a compelling character in Naomi.  Her own story lends authority to her searching as she is, in a way, always searching for herself, and for the child who she starts to remember running with her that night.  Naomi has seen the worst in human nature and yet she perseveres to give the lost children a voice and a way home.  This book is recommended for thriller readers.