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

Book Review: “Big Little Lies”

Moriarty, Liane. Big Little Lies
Berkley, 2014
ISBN 978–0–399–58720–7

I hadn’t read any of Liane Moriarty’s books, although I kept seeing them recommended. I picked up this one when I heard that HBO was making it into a series.

Set in a suburban seaside town in Australia, the novel delves into the lives and interactions of the community’s residents. The focal point of the story is the school and its annual fundraiser, trivia night, held near the end of the school year. The opening pages make clear that the present time of the story is the trivia night and that the police are investigating a murder that has occurred at the event. Moriarty sprinkles throughout the novel quotations from police interviews with the attendees as periodic reminders of the situation. These quotations also build suspense by dropping hints of personal animosities while withholding both the victim’s and the suspect’s names.

At the center of the story are three mothers:

  1. Madeline: flamboyant and outspoken, she’s turning 40. She is married to Ed, and they have a daughter, Chloe, entering kindergarten. Other important members of this cluster are Madeline’s ex-husband, Nathan, and his new wife, Bonnie, whose daughter, Skye, is entering kindergarten.
  2. Celeste: former attorney and drop-dead gorgeous wife of the dashing and mega-rich Perry. They are the town’s Beautiful Couple. Their identical twin boys, Josh and Max, are entering kindergarten.
  3. Jane: newly arrived single mother with a mysterious past. Her son, Ziggy, is entering kindergarten.

As the book opens on kindergarten orientation day, Jane meets Madeline, who then introduces her best friend, Celeste. When they go back to school to pick up their children, a little girl says one of the boys tried to choke her. With the marks clearly visible on her neck, she is pressed to name the culprit, and she points at Ziggy. Ziggy protests that he didn’t do it, and the tone for the school year is set, with various parents choosing sides and pointing fingers despite Ziggy’s continued and fervent denials.

This book is about the women and their growing friendship. Jane believes in Ziggy’s innocence, while Madeline and Celeste trust her judgment and continue to support her. But most of the other kindergarten parents are quick to believe the worst, and Jane’s hope for an idyllic new life quickly fades.

But the novel is also about the men, particularly about their role as fathers. Ed left a high-power journalism job to help with parenting duties so that Madeline could work part time. Nathan, who abandoned Madeline and their daughter 13 years ago, has now, in his second marriage, become a model husband and father. Perry spends most of his time traveling for business and bringing back expensive gifts for his family and even for Celeste’s friends. And Ziggy’s dad is a big unknown whom the boy keeps begging his mother to identify.

And finally, the book is about community, and about people’s eagerness to condemn and ostracize outsiders. This is where the title pertains, as seemingly little lies can have big effects:

  • the lie told about Ziggy at school
  • the lie festering beneath the perfect-couple image of Celeste and Perry’s marriage
  • the lie Jane tells everyone, including herself, about the significance of Ziggy’s paternity

At the end the reader learns who was murdered, by whom, and why. But even though the resolution fits the facts, those revelations pale in comparison to the melodrama that leads up to them. Nonetheless, the characters are well developed and the portrayal of community life, especially when centered around parents and their children, is detailed and credible.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Thoughts on “Thirteen Reasons Why”

Asher, Jay. Thirteen Reasons Why
Penguin Random House, 2007
978–1–59514–188–0

Originally published in 2007, this book recently received renewed interest when streaming service Netflix made it into a series. In fact, that’s why I bought and read it.

The story comprises 13 cassette recordings left by teenager Hannah Baker for the people who contributed to her suicide. The novel is narrated by Clay Jensen, Hannah’s would-be boyfriend, as he progresses through the 13 tales.

I’m going to let you read the book or watch the series for the details of how teenage bullying and bad behavior led to Hannah’s suicide. In place of a book review, here is my reaction to it.

I finished the book with alarmingly mixed feelings about it. My edition, a tie-in with the Netflix series, contains an ending section titled “Between the Lines: Thirteen Questions for Jay Asher,” and I had to read that section to convince myself that Asher meant for this book to have a positive message.

Yes, the novel ends with Clay feeling hope when he insists on talking to Skye so that Skye will not feel driven toward suicide, as Hannah was. But before that he felt nearly overwhelming guilt:

You were not very clear with me … I didn’t know what you were going through, Hannah … I would have helped her if she’d only let me. I would have helped her because I want her to be alive (p. 280)

When Clay had tried to talk with Hannah, she pushed him away. These kids are 15 years old, at an age when they’re learning how to interact socially. And now, with so much concern over drugs, date rape, and slut shaming, we’re emphasizing that no means no. Is it fair, then, to expect an obviously caring character like Clay to force Hannah to do something, even just talk, against her will? Despite the book’s hopeful ending, which shows that Clay has learned from Hannah’s tape, I’m bothered that Clay has been made to shoulder so much self-blame for Hannah’s death:

How many times after the party did I stand right here, when Hannah was still alive, thinking my chances with her were over? Thinking I said or did something wrong. Too afraid to talk to her again. Too afraid to try. (p. 285)

I wish Asher had found some other way to demonstrate that we should all recognize and insist on trying to help people in crisis, even when they try to push us away.

I’m not objecting to reading about an emotionally sensitive issue like suicide. Rather, I’m concerned with part of the message that this book presents as a solution.

And I’ve decided not to watch the Netflix series.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Review: “Chance”

Nunn, Kem. Chance
Scribner, 2014
ISBN 978–1–5011–6467–5

San Francisco hosts this novel, but not the charming city by the bay. This is the San Francisco of fog, mist, and nighttime crime, where thoughts and desires scuttle off down the darkest paths and then emerge from the depths to bite us.

This is where we meet Dr. Eldon Chance. As a forensic neuropsychiatrist, he doesn’t have patients whom he treats regularly. Instead, he works as a consultant, meeting each patient only once for evaluation. That’s how he met Jaclyn Blackstone, referred for evaluation of periods of poor concentration and intermittent memory loss.

And that’s where contact between Dr. Chance and Ms. Blackstone should have ended, unless you’re an antihero like Chance who loves to obsess about the lives of his once-met clients. When the doctor and Ms. Blackstone meet each other in a bookstore, an ill-advised and dangerous liaison develops between them. Chance just can’t resist the advances of Jaclyn Blackstone. Or is it another personality, Jackie Black, who attracts him?

Chance’s relationship with Ms. Blackstone attracts the attention of the husband she’s trying to separate from, Oakland homicide detective Raymond Blackstone. His stature as a police officer allows him to wage an effective war of threats and intimidation. As Chance’s relationship with Jaclyn develops, so does the antagonization from the dangerous detective.

The novel becomes progressively more sinister as the reader learns more about the backgrounds of both Eldon Chance and Jaclyn Blackstone. In the meantime, Chance comes under the spell of a young man who calls himself D. D. is a self-proclaimed warrior of the blade to whom Chance appeals for help when he realizes the threat Det. Blackstone poses. All of these people come together on a dark, foggy night in a way that leaves more questions than answers in a noir world where nothing is ever quite certain and mistakes have a way of repeating themselves.

I read this novel after watching the series on streaming service Hulu. The television version, starring Hugh Laurie as Eldon Chance and Gretchen Mol as Jaclyn Blackstone, accurately captured the novel’s atmosphere of threat and dread, and the actors well portrayed characters caught in a life in which chance and the darkness of the human heart determine inevitable outcomes.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

5 Memorable Novels

What are the novels that you remember most fondly, even long after you’ve read them? Here are five that have stuck with me over the years.

1. Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos

Margaret Hughes, age 75, has just learned that she has a brain tumor. Margaret lives alone in a huge mansion in the most upscale section of Seattle, where her only companions are the rooms and rooms full of valuable figurines left to her by her father. When Margaret’s mother, dead some 60 years, begins visiting her, Margaret decides to take in a boarder. Wanda, in her 30s, answers Margaret’s ad. She recently sold all her belongings and left New York City for Seattle in pursuit of the lover who abandoned her. Warily, Margaret and Wanda begin to befriend each other. The mansion’s list of residents increases over the course of the novel as new people arrive to fulfill various needs—both their own and each others’.

I loved this novel for its treatment of life’s big themes: the meaning of family, friendship, responsibility, and love. Broken for You received several honors: The Today Show book club selection, 2004; Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, 2005; and Washington State Book Award, 2005.

2. Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Empire Falls, Maine, is a town that has seen better days. With its logging industry and textile mills now defunct, its working-class inhabitants try to earn a living however they can. Miles Roby is a typical Empire Falls resident, still living in the town’s tangled web of historical, economic, and family relationships. He manages the Empire Grill, the last economic holdout of Mrs. Whiting, the widow who is the only remaining member of the family that once held all the wealth, industry, and property of the town.

This is a social novel in its look at the declining economic and class conditions of rural America. But it’s also a deeply personal novel in its look at how people interact with one another. At the heart of the story is the relationship between Max and his teenage daughter, Tick. This is another novel from which life’s big themes shine forth: love, friendship, honesty, and family.

3. Plainsong by Kent Haruf

In the fictional small town of Holt, on the high plains of Colorado, a high school teacher works at raising his two sons after their mother’s retreat from her life and responsibilities. In another part of town a mother locks her pregnant teenage daughter out of the house. In the country just outside of town, two elderly bachelor brothers work their family farm, the only life they’ve ever known. Life on the plains is unremitting, but the people in this small town manage to come together in a mutually supportive way that serves everyone’s needs.

I am drawn to novels that demonstrate how people, even though unrelated by blood, create surrogate families that fulfill their needs and desires for companionship, help, and love. Karuf creates a group of memorable characters who, despite the greatly different situations, do just that. This is a truly memorable novel, along with its sequels, Eventide and Benediction, that continue the story.

4. Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Lydia Rowe is a 42-year-old classical pianist married to Victor, a painter. The couple has four children. Lydia has remained friends with a group of college roommates who all studied philosophy together and engaged in endless debates about the fine points of particular theorists. They still hold frequent gatherings, and at one meeting George tells Lydia about field theory, a construct borrowed by psychology from physics, that posits a psychological field as the locus of a person’s experiences and needs. As George explains to Lydia, “the tendency is always to try for some sort of equilibrium in the field. To complete an unfinished transaction” (p. 4). A disturbance occurs in the field when a “particular need is not satisfied. You can’t move on. You get stuck” (p. 8).

Over the course of the novel, all the members of Lydia’s circle learn that abstract philosophical theory cannot begin to do justice to the dense reality of everyday life as intricate, complex experiences accrue. This rich novel has stayed with me for the nearly 10 years since I read it. It’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

5. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

This novel follows the lives of four college roommates from a Massachusetts college (the name is not mentioned, but Harvard is implied) for decades after they all move to New York City to start their careers. There’s an actor, a painter, an architect, and a lawyer. At the center of the group is the lawyer, Jude, a man so broken both physically and emotionally that all the others instinctively surround and protect him.

This is a big book—an 814-page trade paperback—that takes the time necessary to look at all the world can throw at four people over their lifetimes. Yet in the end it’s another novel about how people manage to put together the surrogate family they need to care for themselves and each other. Like all of these novels, it will stay in my memory for a long time.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

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