Books I Read in May

May proved to be a success. I hit my unofficial monthly quota of books completed (5), including one for my classics club list. Better yet, three of the five reads get the recommended rating.


Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

cover: Sometimes I Lie

text © 2017  
Macmillan Audio, 2018  
Narrated by: Stephanie Racine

Here’s how the book begins:

My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me:

I’m in a coma.

My husband doesn’t love me anymore.

Sometimes I lie.

When Amber wakes up, she slowly realizes that she’s in a hospital. Connected to a ventilator by a tube down her throat, she is unable to speak. She’s also apparently unable to move any part of her body and therefore cannot communicate that she’s aware of what’s going on around her.

She also has no memory of whatever happened to put her in this hospital bed, though she has a vague feeling that her husband, Paul, tried to kill her. As Paul and Amber’s sister, Claire, discuss Amber’s situation and what’s happening now, Amber tries to piece things together. There’s something about a car accident, which would explain her current condition, but she just can’t remember. . . .

The story is divided into sections called now—Amber’s attempts to figure things out—then—the story of what happened in the days leadings up to now—and before—entries from a child’s diary ages 10-12 or so). The narrative moves frequently between the various sections. Although the sections are clearly labeled, I had trouble keeping track of just what happened when.

I listened to the audiobook of this one and therefore don’t have a printed edition to consult. I found the book to be way too long, especially the first half or so, when I kept thinking, “Come ON, let’s just get into the story.” I listen to a lot of audiobooks, so I don’t think it was the audio format that caused me to react that way. I’m pretty sure I would have had the same reaction if I had been reading either a printed or ebook version. And the final payoff didn’t seem worth the long build-up.

Overall, I’d rate this novel as mediocre. The plot had potential, but the pacing was off. The book felt more interested in technical bravado than in suspenseful storytelling.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

cover: Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Little, Brown and Company, 2012  
ISBN 978-0-316-20426-2 

Recommended

I cannot believe this entertaining novel sat on my shelf for more than five years before I finally got around to reading it, prompted by seeing the movie trailer. 

Intellectually curious and precociously bright, 15-year-old Bee Branch is heartbroken when her mother, Bernadette Fox, disappears just days before the family plans to leave on a trip to Antarctica. Granted, Bernadette has always been outspoken—sometimes outspokenly cruel—about life in Seattle, but, throughout Bee’s life, that’s just the way her mother has always been. 

When Bernadette vanishes, Bee does what she’s always done when faced with a problem to solve: She conducts research and writes a report. Most of the book comprises the documents of the report interlaced with Bee’s commentary. I enjoyed the use of multiple methods of communication (e.g., emails, school memos, magazine article, work reports, letters) collected into narrative sequence. Those documents allow Semple to create well developed characters and to fill in the narrative with information that first-person narrator Bee could not otherwise have known. 

The novel’s social satire is humorous but never angry. (Well, Bernadette is sometimes angry, but the book is not.) Lately on Facebook and Instagram I’ve seen a lot of requests for a light, humorous book, and now I have one to recommend. 

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


The Eighth Sister by Robert Dugoni

cover: The Eighth Sister

Brilliance Audio, 2019  
Narrator: Edoardo Ballerini  

Recommended

If Robert Ludlum (The Bourne Identity) and Scott Turow (Presumed Innocent) collaborated on a book, they’d probably end up with something like The Eighth Sister.

Charles Jenkins, the protagonist of Dugoni’s recent novel, age 64, is married to a much younger woman. The couple has a nine-year-old son and another baby on the way. Forty years ago Charlie worked for the CIA. Now he owns a security firm on the verge of bankruptcy. When Charlie’s CIA boss from his last posting shows up and proposes that Charlie undertake an undercover mission to Russia, Charlie reluctantly agrees. After all, he needs the money.

In Part One of The Eighth Sister Dugoni writes an espionage thriller every bit as exciting as Ludlum’s tale of Jason Bourne’s undercover pursuit of the truth about his spy identity. But Dugoni introduces us to Charlie Jenkins and his family before Jenkins sets out for Russia. Although this first part is heavy on plot, as are most spy novels, we’ve also become invested in Charlie Jenkins the character enough to root for him to outrun capture and certain death at the hands of the FSB, the current incarnation of the former KGB.

In Part Two Dugoni gives us a courtroom drama, with accompanying background, as compelling as Rusty Sabich’s investigation in Presumed Innocent. Like Turow, Dugoni has practiced law for many years, so the legal aspects of the novel ring true. Also like Turow, Dugoni is an excellent writer interested in exploring characters as much as in formulating racy plots. The result is an outstanding novel that engages our sense of justice and fairness as much as it precipitates an adrenaline rush.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Sourcebooks, 2018  
ISBN 978-1-4926-5796-5  
(Originally published in the U.K. as The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle)  

Recommended

At 11:00 pm Evelyn Hardcastle will die—every night until Aiden Bishop can identify the killer and break the cycle. And every time Bishop fails, he wakes up the next morning in the body of a different guest. I loved everything about this mind-bending, genre-blending novel. I came for the puzzle but stayed for the psychology.

The novel combines elements of three genres.

1. The Gothic Thriller

The setting throughout the novel is a decaying mansion reminiscent of the dwelling in “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe. 

I reach the edge of the forest, the trees giving way to the grounds of a sprawling Georgian manor house, its redbrick facade entombed in ivy. As far as I can tell, it’s abandoned. The long gravel driveway leading to the front door is covered in weeds, and the rectangular lawns either side of it are marshland, their flowers left to wither in the verge. . . . I have the sense of having stumbled upon something sleeping, that uncertain light [in a second-floor window] the heartbeat of a creature vast and dangerous and still. (p. 5)

This is Blackheath, “a depressing ruin waiting on the mercy of a wrecking ball” (p. 30). The decaying structure contains hidden rooms and passages that allow the guests to sneak around and spy on each other. Bishop sometimes finds esoteric clues to what’s happening, including books with certain words circled or underlines and notes left by others (or by himself in one of his other bodies). A sense of menace, foreboding, doom, and gloom hangs over Blackheath and its guests.

(For more information on Gothic literature, see Gothic Elements in Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.”)

2. Mystery

Murder is the primary component of mystery, and The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle offers not one, but several murders—or one murder repeated several times. The novel follows the formula of the country-house mystery form perfected by Agatha Christie, which itself is a particular form of the locked-room mystery. The country-house mystery is also called a closed-circle mystery, since none of the characters can leave and no new characters can arrive; the villain must therefore be one of the assembled guests. 

3. Science Fiction

When I read that the narrator of the novel can jump from one character to another, I immediately thought of the old TV series Quantum Leap, starring Scott Bakula. Sure enough, Turton mentions in “A Conversation with the Author” at the end of the book that this show was one of the sources for his conception of the story. This feature places the novel squarely within the science fiction genre.

One reason why I like mysteries so much is that I enjoy literary puzzles. So when this novel’s narrator is charged with solving the puzzle of Evelyn Hardcastle’s murder, I eagerly accepted the challenge along with him. I began taking copious notes and keeping track of each undertaking and its results. 

But soon thematic content began to overshadow the mere mechanics of puzzle solving. The narrator’s concern over his own identity begins early, almost as soon as he awakens in the forest in the opening scene with no notion of how or why he’s there. Soon afterwards he meets Evelyn Hardcastle for the first time:

“I’m a coward, Miss Hardcastle,” I sigh. “Forty years of memories wiped away and that’s what I find lurking beneath it all. That’s what remains of me.”

 . . .

“Well, so what if you are?” she asks. “There are worse things to be. At least you’re not mean-spirited or cruel. And now you get to choose, don’t you? Instead of assembling yourself in the dark like the rest of us—so that you wake up one day with no idea of how you became this person—you can look at the world, at the people around you, and choose the parts of your character you want. You can say, ‘I’ll have that man’s honesty, that woman’s optimist, as if you’re shopping for a suit on Savile Row. . . . You don’t like the man you were Very well. Be somebody else. There’s nothing stopping you, not anymore. As I said, I envy you. The rest of us are stuck with our mistakes.” (p. 40)

In fact, we and the narrator don’t learn that his own name is Aiden Bishop until page 109. The question of identity continues to haunt Aiden Bishop right up until the novel’s end, when all is finally revealed to him.

When Bishop figures out the truth about Evelyn’s murder, that realization is minor compared to what he learns about himself. I didn’t work out the solution to the puzzle because Bishop has information that the reader doesn’t have when he explains who kills Evelyn and why, but by that point in the story the question of identity has become much more important than the puzzle. And it’s the universal human search for identity that makes this novel much more than merely a clever puzzle.

But there is an answer to the puzzle of why the U.K. and U.S. editions have different titles. According to posts by Stuart Turton on Goodreads, the U.K. title was changed for the U.S. edition because of the similarity with The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill

cover: The Iceman Cometh

text © 1946  
rpt. Vintage Books, 1999  
ISBN 0-375-70917-7

I read this for my classics club spin. My review is here.

CC Spin: Review, “The Iceman Cometh” by Eugene O’Neill

Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953)

O’Neill, nevertheless, remains all but unique in his persistent and increasingly more nearly exclusive attempt to deal with modern life in such a way as to achieve the effect of classic tragedy. . . . Certainly no other significant playwright has so persisted in the conviction that, if a drama is to achieve great excellence, it must deal with man’s relation to God—or, if one prefers, with his relation to forces outside himself (p. 1249).*

Born in a hotel on Broadway in New York City on October 16, 1888, Eugene O’Neill was the son of James O’Neill, a popular actor of romantic melodrama. Eugene spent much of his youth on tour with his father or in different boarding schools. 

After a year at Princeton (from which he was suspended for a prank) he worked at clerical and journalism jobs, then signed on as a sailor on voyages to Australia, South Africa, South America, and Central America. After his return to the U.S., he came down with tuberculosis in 1912. Five months in a sanitarium followed by a further year of convalescence provided him the opportunity to read widely.

In 1914 O’Neill attended a class in play writing at Harvard taught by the famous Professor George Pierce Baker. In the summer of 1915 O’Neill fell in with a group of vacationers from Greenwich Village summering in Provincetown, Massachusetts. This was the beginning of his experiences with improvised theatrical productions, which lasted until 1924. The members of this little theater group were widely interested in art, literature, and politics, including theories of nihilism, Marxism, and Freudianism, as approaches to social revolution.

Throughout his career O’Neill continued to explore dramatically “the eternally tragic predicament of man struggling for some understanding and some justification of himself in a universe always mysterious and often seemingly inimical” (p. 1244).* 

O’Neill suffered from several health problems, including alcoholism and depression, for most of his life. He died in Boston on November 27, 1953, at age 65.

“The playwright of today,” O’Neill once wrote to George Jean Nathan, “must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it—the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfactory new one for the surviving primitive, religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort its fears of death with” (p. 1246).*

Four of O’Neill’s plays won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama:

  • Beyond the Horizon (1920)  
  • Anna Christie (1922)  
  • Strange Interlude (1928)  
  • Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956; awarded posthumously)

He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936.

*Reference

Literary History of the United States, 4th ed., revised (New York: Macmillan, 1974).


The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill

cover: The Iceman Cometh

text © 1946  
rpt. Vintage Books, 1999  ISBN 0-375-70917-7

The Iceman Cometh was completed in 1939 but wasn’t published and produced until 1946.

The play is set in the summer of 1912, in Harry Hope’s rooming house and bar in downtown New York. The bar features “[t]wo windows, so glazed with grime one cannot see through them” (p. 3). The walls and ceiling used to be white but are “now so splotched, peeled, stained and dusty that their color can best be described as dirty” (p. 3). A group of washed-up has-beens in various stages of drunkenness occupy this sad, dingy place as Act One begins: a former circus man, a former police lieutenant, a Harvard Law School graduate, a former Boer fighter, a former Captain of British Infantry, a former Boer War correspondent, a former editor of Anarchist periodicals, a former Anarchist, a bartender, and a couple of prostitutes, all residents of Harry’s rooming house. 

In these assembled characters it’s easy to see the causes and events of the time that O’Neill was interested in exploring. All of them have outlived their former occupations and now share a denunciation of life, represented by their extreme states of drunken stupor. Larry, the former anarchist, sums up the situation of all of them in a speech near the beginning of Act One:

To hell with the truth! As the history of the world proves, the truth has no bearing on anything. It’s irrelevant and immaterial, as the lawyers say. The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober. . . . What’s before me is the comforting fact that death is a fine long sleep, and I’m damned tired, and it can’t come too soon for me” (p. 9).

The play’s main character is Theodore Hickman, known as Hickey, a transient hardware salesman whose impending arrival for Harry’s annual birthday party the others eagerly await. Hickey exhibits “a salesman’s winning smile of self-confident affability and hearty good fellowship. . . . He has the salesman’s mannerisms of speech, an easy flow of glib, persuasive convincingness” (p. 59). When he finally arrives near the end of Act One, he tells the others he has come to “save you from pipe dreams. I know now, from my experience, they’re the things that really poison and ruin a guy’s life and keep him from finding any peace. . . .  Just stop lying about yourself and kidding yourself about tomorrows” (p. 63).

Act Two presents Harry’s birthday party. The characters express their dismay with Hickey for telling them that they all need to stop drinking and face reality by acknowledging their pipe dreams and admitting that they’ll never fulfill those dreams.

Act Three opens as the tomorrow Hickey has warned his companions about. The characters all spruce themselves up and swear off the booze so that they can go out and face the world, looking to get their old jobs back or find something else meaningful to do. But Hickey reminds them, “as I’ve told you over and over, it’s exactly those damned tomorrow dreams which keep you from making peace with yourself. So you’ve got to kill them like I did mine” (p. 142). After they’ve all left, Rocky, the bartender, predicts that everyone will come back. Hickey retorts, “Of course . . . By tonight they’ll all be here again. You dumbbell, that’s the whole point” (p. 147). 

As Act Four opens, we see the characters once again sprawled around the bar. Each one is now even more embittered than before. Hickey tells them how he has dealt with the human condition they all face. In this bleak ending, with their hopes and pipe dreams finally and completely dashed, the characters accept life’s hopelessness and again drink themselves into oblivion in Harry Hope’s bar.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Close Reading: A Pivotal Scene in “The Silent Patient”

When I posted about The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, I wondered how many people actually engage with the text of mysteries or thrillers instead of just skimming to find out how the story ends. Michaelides leads the reader along so scintillatingly that a large part of the pleasure of reading this novel lies in recognizing the significance of its stylistic details.

A good example of how this process works occurs early in the novel, when first-person narrator Theo Faber joins his wife, Kathy, an actress, at a bar: “I went to meet Kathy at the National Theatre café on the South Bank, where the performers would often congregate after rehearsal” (p. 45). Kathy is telling “a couple of fellow actresses” the story of how she and Theo met. “It was a story she enjoyed telling,” says Theo.

Kathy begins her story of the night she was at a bar with a guy she wasn’t really interested in “‘when suddenly it happened—Mr. Right walked in.’ Kathy looked at me and smiled and rolled her eyes. ‘With his girlfriend’” (p. 46). 

“This part of the story needed careful handling to retain her audience’s sympathy,” Theo tells us.

Notice what is actually going on here. Kathy, an actress, is performing for her acting friends. This is a well rehearsed story that she enjoys telling with melodramatic effect.

Theo’s narrative of Kathy’s performance continues: “No, but . . . darling . . . seriously, it was love at first sight. Wasn’t it?” Kathy asks, turning to Theo.

“This was my cue,” Theo says. “I nodded and kissed her cheek. ‘Of course it was. True love.’”

Once again, notice what is actually going on here. Kathy is performing, but so is Theo. They have obviously told this story together several times. The statement “This was my cue” lets us know that he is in on the performance. 

So Theo, like Kathy, is a performer. Maybe the entire narrative he’s telling in this book is a performance, too.

Theo’s story of coming upon Kathy telling her friends how they met ends, but he continues with his own memory of what happened later that night. Theo tells us that he and Kathy went back to his apartment and made love all night:

I remember so much white everywhere: white sunlight creeping around the edges of the curtains, white walls, white bedsheets; the whites of her eyes, her teeth, her skin I’d never known that skin could be so luminous, so translucent: ivory white with occasional blue veins visible just beneath the surface, like threads of color in white marble. She was a statue; a Geek goddess come to life in my hands.   (p. 48)

It’s a dreamily descriptive passage. And it echoes something Theo has earlier described for us, the self-portrait she labeled Alcestis that Alicia painted in her studio while at home, under house arrest, awaiting trial. Here’s Theo’s description of the painting:

The painting is a self-portrait, depicting Alicia in her studio at home in the days after the murder, standing before an easel and a canvas, holding a paintbrush. She is naked. Her body is rendered in unsparing detail: strands of long red hair falling across bony shoulders, blue veins visible beneath translucent skin. . . . She is captured in the act of painting—yet the canvas is blank, as is her expression.   (p. 9)

The whiteness of this mostly blank canvas mirrors the “so much white everywhere” of his description of making love with Kathy. Kathy’s skin is luminous, while the skin of Alicia’s self-portrain is translucent. Kathy’s skin reveals “occasional blue veins visible just beneath the surface,” while the painting portrays “blue veins visible beneath translucent skin.” 

By means of these descriptive echoes, Michaelides demonstrates that, from very early on in the narrative, Kathy and Alicia are associated in Theo’s mind. The two women are similar in another was as well: Kathy is an actress, and Alicia gives herself the name of a character in an ancient Greek play

The metaphors of drama and acting run throughout the novel. Such thematic and verbal repetitions reinforce and drive the meaning of Theo’s narrative.

As the tension builds and the novel nears its end, Theo’s narrative becomes surrealistically chaotic, with no clear timeline and no smooth transitions from one place to another or from one grouping of characters to another. Chapters tumble one after the other toward the inevitable ending. But like the earlier examples, such stylistic significance is easy to miss if one is skimming rather than reading closely.

For Further Reading

For another example of close textual reading see A CLOSE READING OF THE BEST OPENING PARAGRAPH OF ALL TIME.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Books I Read in April

What? I read only three books this month? I can’t even begin to figure out how I read so little. The Three-Body Problem is quite long, but still . . .


What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Pan Macmillan, 2009, rpt.2018

Cover: What Alice Forgot
What Alice Forgot

Recommended

When we had to come home early from our world cruise, we flew out of Perth, Australia. With about seven hours to kill at the Perth airport, I spent some time browsing a bookstore near the food court. I wanted to pick up another book by an Australian author. Since I had read and enjoyed Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies in preparation for the HBO series, I was drawn to the shelves of her books. I decided on What Alice Forgot to see how Moriarty presents the well-worn thriller trope of memory loss.

Alice Love takes a nasty fall at the gym and wakes up to discover that she has no memory of the last 10 years of her life. She doesn’t know her three children, the oldest of whom is nine, at all, and she can’t understand how she and Nick, the love of her life, could be in the midst of a nasty divorce.

This could be a gloomy situation, but Moriarty instead treats it with light-heartedness and humor. It’s hard not to at least giggle while watching Alice confabulate her way through getting to know her children, who delight in asking questions they know she can’t answer: “Who’s my best friend?”; “What foods do I refuse to eat?”; “What’s my favorite color?” And Alice’s quasi-grandmother is a hoot as she blogs about Alice’s condition while carrying on a running commentary about the eccentric fellow residents of her retirement community.

And yet, underneath the humor, lies Alice’s serious question: How could she and Nick, who had been so much in love, now be so bitterly estranged? Moriarty answers this question in the book’s epilogue, a third-person narration of what happens to the Love family. I would have preferred an ending that involved more showing than telling, but I did appreciate an ending that not only completes the story line but also presents some grappling with serious issues.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu

Kindle ed.:

Head of Zeus, 2015

Recommended

I’d read so many recommendations for this book that I had to read it. Also, it fit into two categories of my reading plan for 2019: science fiction and translated works.

Cover: The Three-Body Problem
The Three-Body Problem

My science-oriented husband informed me that the three-body problem is an actual thing—a challenging question that mathematicians and physicists work hard at explaining. But I purposely did not look up anything about the three-body problem because, for me, a prime criterion for evaluating science fiction is how well it presents its world to the general public. If a work of science fiction requires specialized, advanced knowledge, it’s not for me.

A good portion of the novel isn’t science fiction at all, but rather an introduction to many of the characters through their experiences during China’s Cultural Revolution. When the three-body problem does finally appear, it does so as a video game played by one of the characters in a virtual reality simulation. The reader learns about the three-body problem along with this character as he becomes more and more involved in playing the game. 

And from there the truly science fiction aspect of the novel develops as the player of the video game learns how the game fits in with the government’s secret search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

The Three-Body Problem won a lot of awards:

  • Hugo Award for Best Novel (2015)
  • Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel (2014)
  • Locus Award Nominee for Best Science Fiction Novel (2015)
  • John W. Campbell Memorial Award Nominee for Best Science Fiction Novel (2015)
  • Prometheus Award Nominee for Best Novel (2015)

This is a long book (400 pages), and it is the first volume in a trilogy. I plan to read the other two novels eventually. After all, who could resist finding out how the search for other intelligent life in the universe ends?

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Celadon Books, 2019
ISBN 978-1-250-30169-7

Highly Recommended

Here’s the book description from Goodreads:

ALICIA
Alicia Berenson writes a diary as a release, an outlet – and to prove to her beloved husband that everything is fine. She can’t bear the thought of worrying Gabriel, or causing him pain.

Until, late one evening, Alicia shoots Gabriel five times and then never speaks another word.

THEO
Forensic psychotherapist Theo Faber is convinced he can successfully treat Alicia, where all others have failed. Obsessed with investigating her crime, his discoveries suggest Alicia’s silence goes far deeper than he first thought.

And if she speaks, would he want to hear the truth?

Cover: The Silent Patient
The Silent Patient

I always post my completion of a book on Goodreads to keep track of how many books I read each year. When I filled in my evaluation of The Silent Patient and looked at some of the other posts about it, I was reminded once again of how many readers of mysteries and thrillers seem to base their reviews solely on how early or late in the book they “figured it out”—it being the identity of the story’s villain and/or the plot twist. If they figured it out early, this is a bad book. If they were kept in suspense until the end, this is a good book.

I wonder if many of those readers are skimming, eager to get to the last page and discover the ending as quickly as possible, without reading slowly and carefully enough to appreciate the author’s skill (or, sometimes, lack of skill). For me, the point of a mystery or thriller isn’t just to find out who and/or why done it. I enjoy watching how the writer pulls the reader along and skillfully shapes the reader’s reaction to the narrative, salting both valid clues and red herrings throughout the story. 

My copy of The Silent Patient is full of sticky notes marking my reading process. This novel is one of the most skillfully done thrillers I’ve read in a long time. I look forward to Alex Michaelides’s next book.

For more on this novel, see Close Reading: A Pivotal Scene in The Silent Patient.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Review: “Y Is for Yesterday”

Grafton, Sue. Y is for Yesterday
Random House Audio, © 2017
(print edition also © 2017)

Recommended

I’m always eager to read the newest installment of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. However, this time my pleasure in digging into it was bittersweet. Y is, after all, the penultimate letter of the alphabet.

This time Kinsey is hired to look into a murder that occurred 10 years earlier. In 1979 four high school boys from an elite private school sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl and filmed the attack. Soon afterwards the tape vanished, and a female classmate, suspected of the theft, was killed. One boy agreed to a plea deal that got him and two of the other boys convicted and sent to prison, but the fourth boy, the ringleader, escaped and hasn’t been heard from since.

The present time of the novel is 1989, and one of the men, Fritz McCabe, has been released from prison. Although he’s now in his late 20s, he shows little remorse and in fact still acts like a moody, angry, angst-ridden teenager. He’s back living with his parents, who want to control his every movement, when a copy of the tape mysteriously arrives at the house along with a ransom demand. The McCabes hire Kinsey to find out who’s trying to blackmail them.

Kinsey’s investigation turns up secrets that get darker the deeper she digs. Most of those secrets revolve around the feeling of entitlement assumed by the children of families with wealth, status, and power. To complicate matters further, Kinsey soon suspects that a serial killer from a recent case may be in town seeking revenge against her. She continues to rely on friends such as her landlord, retired baker Henry, now 89 years old, to comfort her through the dark times.

There were moments when I thought this book could have been trimmed and tightened up. There’s a long description of Kinsey crawling under a building that particularly befuddled me. This scene includes a lot of detail about how she moved around down in that tight crawl space. I tried to follow all her movements, I really did, but I couldn’t at all visualize what was happening. Of course I knew what that scene was building toward, but the scene should have been significantly compacted to build suspense commensurate with the potential peril of the situation. Also, there were several times when key points about the old murder case were repeated—so much so that I began to wonder whether Grafton had forgotten she had already given us that particular tidbit of information.

Nonetheless, I look forward to next year’s publication of the last book in the alphabet series. I hope Grafton will wrap up the story of Kinsey and friends in a way that is true to their characters. I read a couple of interviews with Sue Grafton at the time of the publication of Y, and she indicated that she is not averse to the notion of perhaps writing some one-off novels about Kinsey after Z. Maybe we Kinsey Millhone fans won’t have to go into mourning after all.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Review: “The Blinds”

Background: Genre Fiction

Genre is a term applied to different kinds of literature that can be defined by their subject matter, form, or technique. According to A Handbook to Literature, 7th ed., by William Harmon & C. Hugh Holman (Prentice Hall, 1996):

Genre classification implies that there are groups of formal or technical characteristics among works of the same generic kind regardless of time or place of composition, author, or subject matter; and that these characteristics, when they define a particular group of works, are of basic significance in talking about literary art. (p. 231)

Genre fiction originated in dime novels—cheaply printed paperbound books, originally sold for about 10 cents, featuring tales of crime or adventure. Two of the most popular types of dime novels were detective stories and tales of Western adventure by men like Buffalo Bill Cody.

Dime novels became popular with troops during the United States Civil War and remained popular until about the 1890s, when pulp magazines began to replace them. Like dime novels, pulp magazines were printed on cheap pulp paper and featured tales of adventure, love, or crime. Pulp magazines became especially popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Over time, several distinct genres of fiction developed to fill these publications:

  • mysteries
  • tales of crime detection
  • Westerns
  • tales of adventure, especially stories of espionage or travel to exotic fictional lands
  • science fiction
  • fantasy
  • romance

Each genre had its own standards, including characters, plots, and writing styles.

Genre criticism

Because each genre had characteristic contents and format, the term genre came to refer to formulaic writing. Today the term genre literature is often used pejoratively, with the sneering note of “mere genre fiction” used to distinguish works of popular fiction from more high-brow literature (I do not hold this view. In fact, one of the reasons why I didn’t finish my doctorate in English and American literature was that I didn’t agree with the note of snobbery that pervaded the academic study of literature.)

Here’s an article that makes a case for reading widely, in all genres, by a man whose discovery of genre fiction saved his appreciation for fiction and made him a writer: Class, Race and the Case for Genre Fiction in the Canon.

Review: The Blinds

Sternbergh, Adam. The Blinds
HarperCollins, 2017
ISBN 978–0–06–266134–0

Caesura, an isolated town in rural Texas, houses about 40 people who’ve all chosen to live there, though they no longer remember why. Some committed a crime, others witnessed one. But all they know now is that they agreed to live here before having certain crucial moments wiped from memory, then chose a new first and last name from two lists, one of famous movie stars and the other of former vice presidents of the United States. They also know the rules of their new life: no visitors, no contact with the outside world, and no return if they ever choose to leave.

The town, called The Blinds by its residents, has been receiving a trickle of new inhabitants every few months throughout its eight-year existence. When the novel opens, we meet Frances Adams, one of the original eight residents.

And then she hears a gunshot…

Just like that, the novel’s action is under way. Its progression incorporates elements of five literary genres:

  • mystery
  • police procedural
  • Western
  • science fiction
  • romance

(1) Mystery

That early gunshot produces a body, the traditional opening for a mystery. And the characteristic process of a mystery is to answer two questions: Who killed whom, and why? But a traditional mystery takes almost the complete book to play out. In The Blinds, we learn about the killer much earlier than we expect.

(2) Police Procedural

A police procedural, in some ways a subgenre of mystery, shows the steps a law enforcement officer takes to solve a crime. Although we meet Sheriff Cooper early in The Blinds, it’s Deputy Sidney Dawes who undertakes an investigation—one that involves the sheriff.

(3) Western

This is the genre that carries most of the weight of the novel. In many ways the town of Caesura and what happens there is straight out of the typical Western playbook.

First of all, we meet Sheriff Cooper. Like all the other town’s residents, he has chosen a new name for himself, and he chose Cooper after Gary Cooper, the actor who played a sheriff in many Western movies. Our Sheriff Cooper wears a badge and considers it his job to protect the residents of his town. Second, the town itself resembles a typical nineteenth-century Western town: isolated, located miles away from civilization, a self-contained microcosm of the world.

Third, the plot comprises that of a generic Western: strangers from outside—riding in black SUVs rather than on black horses—arrive and set into motion action that threatens to destroy the town’s equilibrium. And the climax of that action occurs in a shootout, just like the famous confrontation at the O.K. Corral. And for good measure, the person behind the existence of Caesura is Dr. Holliday.

(4) Science Fiction

Research scientist Dr. Holliday (who, unlike her Wild West namesake, is a woman) created Caesura as a laboratory for her experimentation with a technique that removes specific memories from the human brain. Her discussions with Sheriff Cooper late in the novel reveal her as an example of the genre fiction trope of the mad scientist, such as occurs in H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, published in 1896.

As does most science fiction, this element of The Blinds comprises the novel’s thematic material. Dr. Holliday’s experimentation takes to the extreme current scientific interest in brain science and in the nature of consciousness, of memory, and of self-identity. Can science truly change people by eradicating some of their memories, then giving them a new name? And if such changes could be made, who has the right to make them?

(5) Romance

This novel also contains a bit of romance, but I’ll leave that for you to observe for yourself.

Like many contemporary works of fiction, The Blinds combines elements from several literary genres. A good part of the enjoyment of reading a novel like this is recognizing and appreciating how it both embraces and subverts those generic elements to create an original literary work.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Review: “Every Last Lie”

Kubica, Mary. Every Last Lie
Harlequin Audio, © 2017
(print edition also © 2017)

I enjoyed Mary Kubica’s first three novels: The Good Girl (2014), Pretty Baby (2015), and Don’t You Cry (2016). Each features a twist at the end. But these twists aren’t simple plot tricks designed to shock or titillate readers. Rather, they demonstrate that life and people may not be what they appear to be, that there may be more to any story than we know because we are limited to what we can see.

In this novel we meet Clara Solberg holding her four-day-old infant son in her arms. Her husband, Nick, driving four-year-old Maisie home from dance class, calls to say he’ll pick up dinner and to ask if she wants Chinese or Mexican. A while later the police ring Clara’s doorbell. There has been a terrible car accident. Nick is dead, though Maisie is unhurt.

The investigation of the accident concludes that Nick had been driving too fast when he tried to round a notorious curve on the road home. But Clara insists that Nick wouldn’t have driven so recklessly with their young daughter in the back seat. She can’t accept that Nick’s death could be so random, so without cause. There must be some other explanation for what happened. Her suspicions grow when Maisie begins having nightmares from which she wakes up sobbing, “The bad man, Daddy. The bad man is after us.”

The novel unfolds in sections alternating between Clara’s and Nick’s first-person accounts. Clara’s sections aren’t labeled, but Nick’s sections are labeled “before,” which I initially found confusing. Before what? And before suggests that there will be an after. Will Nick eventually somehow speak from beyond the grave? However, I soon realized that Nick’s sections narrate his and Clara’s life from his perspective leading up to the time of the accident. I would have preferred a label something like “six months earlier” for Nick’s sections in order to avoid this bizarre, creepy confusion.

Complications ensue for Clara: a woman from Nick’s life before he met Clara turns up, Nick’s supposed best friend and business partner isn’t the man Clara thought him to be, Clara finds a suspicious receipt … . Was Nick having an affair? These complications fuel Clara’s spiraling paranoia as she insists that someone must have killed Nick and sets out to determine who wanted Nick dead. Clara’s increasing paranoia, plus exhaustion from caring for two children, one a newborn, alone, plus a likely dose of postpartum depression, plus her own grief all make Clara’s agitation credible.

Meanwhile, we learn from Nick’s narration that his life also had its complications. He experiences financial strain from starting his own dental practice in an area with stiff competition for new patients. His business partner, supposedly his friend, isn’t pulling his weight and may even be sabotaging the practice. A second child on the way makes Nick even more worried about money. And then his high school girlfriend, whom he left when he went to college 12 years earlier, appears out of nowhere with an 11-year-old son and tells Nick she needs to talk to him.

The use of alternating first-person narratives builds suspense and tension as we watch both Clara and Nick dissect their life together separately. As in Kubica’s earlier novels, things may not be as they appear to be. Will Clara be able to find the truth she so desperately seeks? And what really happened on that road the night Nick took that curve too fast?

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Review: “The Late Show”

Connelly, Michael. The Late Show
Hachette Audio, © 2017
ISBN 978–1–619–69430–9
(print book © 2017)

Recommended

Michael Connelly is one of my favorite authors. His two series characters are LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch and criminal defense lawyer Mickey Haller, known as the Lincoln lawyer because he works primarily from the back seat of a chauffeur-driven black Lincoln.

In The Late Show Connelly introduces a new character, LAPD detective Renée Ballard. Ballard holds a degree in journalism from the University of Hawaii and worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. But after a few years reporting on crime, Ballard decided that she didn’t want to just write about crime, she wanted to be the one solving the crimes. She therefore joined the LAPD. (Michael Connelly himself has a journalism degree and worked as a crime reporter at the LA Times before becoming a full-time novelist.)

Detective Ballard was advancing well in her police career when she filed a sexual harassment complaint against her superior officer, Lt. Olivas. Ballard’s partner at the time, Ken Chastain, saw the writing on the wall and declined to support her claim. With no one to corroborate her story, her complaint was thrown out.

As punishment, Ballard was demoted to the night shift, known as the late show. This was not simply a demotion, but, for Ballard, a career buster because late-shift detectives don’t get to follow through with the investigation of their cases. Rather, they take the late-night calls but then turn the cases over for follow-up to the day-shift detectives.

The book opens with Ballard answering a call about a transgender woman who was brutally beaten. Ballard is at the hospital waiting to hear whether the victim will survive for questioning when EMTs arrive with a shooting victim. The young woman, a waitress at the Dancers Club, was shot when a customer at the club opened fire on three men seated at a booth with him. After killing the three men, the shooter shot a bouncer and the waitress on his way out. The bouncer was dead at the scene, and the waitress, near death, was transported to the hospital, where she died.

Sensing an opportunity, Ballard begins asking questions about the waitress. After questioning the EMTs, she goes to Dancers, where she questions the employees and takes the dead woman’s belongings as evidence. Meanwhile, the assault victim at the hospital survives her surgery but remains in a coma. Before her shift ends, Ballard also picks up a stolen credit card case that leads to a burglary suspect.

Knowing that detectives on the day shift won’t take much interest in the burglary and assault cases, Ballard manipulates and cajoles her way into investigating them on her own time. She also uses her initial work on the waitress’s death to hang around the Dancers Club investigation the next day. But that high-profile case is under the jurisdiction of Lt. Olivas, who won’t let Ballard anywhere near the investigation. But before leaving the scene Ballard notices her former partner, Chastain, retrieving a piece of evidence from the floor of the club.

Ballard continues to use her off-duty hours to investigate the assault and burglary cases. But the Dancers Club case takes a nasty turn when Chastain is killed execution style. Despite Chastain’s failure to support Ballard’s harassment claim, she feels a sense of duty toward her former partner and begins to investigate this case surreptitiously on her own time as well. Her work eventually solves the case, a fact that Lt. Olivas grudgingly must acknowledge.

I had wondered what Michael Connelly would do now that his mainstay character, Detective Harry Bosch, is nearing retirement. In The Late Show Connelly has introduced a younger character who, like Bosch—like all of us, really—deals with her own personal demons while remaining dedicated to her own notion of justice and the job she loves. I look forward to more Ballard novels in the future. In the meantime, I’m waiting for the fourth season of Amazon’s show Bosch, starring Titus Welliver, due next year.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Review: “Dark Matter”

Crouch, Blake. Dark Matter
Crown, © 2016
ISBN 978–1–101–90422–0

Highly recommended

It’s the beautiful thing about youth.

There’s a weightlessness that permeates everything because no damning choices have been made, no paths committed to, and the road forking out ahead is pure, unlimited potential. (p. 10)

I don’t give out many five-star ratings, but this book certainly earned one. The first few pages aren’t exactly a suck-you-right-in opening, but as soon as the meat of the story began, I couldn’t put this book down.

I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but this novel does exactly what good science fiction should do: It uses science (in this case, a problem from quantum physics) to explore the deepest questions of human existence. And don’t be scared off by the phrase quantum physics. The novel gives an excellent visual explanation of the situation at its heart on page 113.

Jason Dessen has a good life. He teaches physics at a small liberal arts college. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Daniela, and their almost–15-year-old son, Charlie. There was a time when both Jason and Daniela, a budding artist, imagined a different life for themselves: he a research scientist, she an accomplished artist. But when Daniela got pregnant, they opted for marriage and a life conducive to family. Jason got a steady job teaching undergraduates, and Daniela settled in as a stay-at-home mother with a little artwork on the side. Gradually youth gave way to encroaching middle age.

Then one night, after buying ice cream, Jason is accosted on the street by a masked man. The last thing Jason hears before the man knocks him out is “How do you feel about your place in the world, Jason? … Are you happy in your life?” (p. 28). Jason awakes in strange surroundings, with people he doesn’t recognize but who seem to know him.

And so Jason begins the search of his life, the search for his life. As he gradually figures out what happened to place him where he is, he also does a lot of soul-searching about where he wants to end up. The tension builds as he tries time after time to find his way back home.

It’s often said that science fiction isn’t about the future, it’s about the present. In the case of Dark Matter, the distinctions between past, present, and future dissolve as Jason pursues the answer to those timeless questions of human existence: Who am I? And who do I want to be?

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Review: “So Long, See You Tomorrow”

Maxwell, William. So Long, See You Tomorrow
Random House, 1980
ISBN 0–679–76720–7

I very much doubt that I would have remembered for more than fifty years the murder of a tenant farmer I never laid eyes on if (1) the murderer hadn’t been the father of somebody I knew, and (2) I hadn’t later on done something I was ashamed of afterward. This memoir—if that’s the right name for it—is a roundabout, futile way of making amends. (p. 6)

Sometimes our greatest regret isn’t something we did, but something we didn’t do.

In this short—only 135 pages—gem of a novel, Maxwell’s first-person narrator ponders “the moment that has troubled me all these years” (p. 55). In considering “What strange and unlikely things are washed up on the shore of time” (p. 16), he meditates on the nature of time and memory:

What we or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw. (p. 27)

The moment that haunts him is failing to acknowledge Cletus Smith, son of the murderer, when the two of them crossed paths a year and a half after the murder and its ensuing scandal. By then both the narrator’s family and Cletus and his mother had moved from the country into Chicago, where the boys’ attended the same high school. When the two boys passed each other in a school hallway, each recognized yet failed to acknowledge the other.

For the narrator, “the elderly man I am now” (p. 51) can seek atonement only in imagination:

Why didn’t I speak to him? I guess because I was so surprised. And because I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what was polite in the circumstances. I couldn’t say I’m sorry about the murder and all that, could I? … I think now—I think if I had turned and walked along beside him and not said anything, it might have been the right thing to do. But that’s what I think now. It has taken me all these years even to imagine doing that, and I had a math class on the second floor, clear at the other end of the building, and there was just barely time to get there before the bell rang. (p. 51)

We can forgive his rationalization, since “There is a limit, surely, to what one can demand of one’s adolescent self” (p. 134). Yet the hindsight of old age produces at least a bit of guilt over the question of whether Cletus Smith was ever able to “lead his own life, undestroyed by what was not his doing” (p. 135).

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown