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Archive for the ‘Plot’ Category

tarloffWhat is it about higher education that makes it such a fat and funny target for skewering?  Is it the seemingly arbitrary power professors have over their students? The increasing definition of a specialty, so that to earn a PhD you have to know everything about nothing at all  (“In/Signification and Dys/Lexicography: A (Mis)Reading of Nabokov’s Ada“)? The cloistered atmosphere, where according to Sayre’s Law, “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low”?  I don’t know, but take all those elements, stir them into a small town Baptist college, throw in an identity crisis and pornography, and you’ve got The Man Who Wrote the Book.

Ezra Gordon is the hapless hero of the tale, a poet without the means to make his ends meet.  He hasn’t written in years, much less published; he was charged in a sexual harassment action and had to answer to his girlfriend, the college’s attorney, who also happens to be the daughter of a college trustee who really doesn’t like Ezra.  With most of the students, the department chair, his tenure committee, his landlady, maybe even his girlfriend – wherever Ezra goes, he’s the most unpopular guy in the room.

He does have one friend, Isaac Schwimmer, who lives in LA, so Ezra goes to stay with him for spring break.  Isaac left the world of academia for the considerably lower-stress world of publishing, even breaking in with his own imprint.  Ezra, of course, has no idea what Isaac publishes, and when he walks into Isaac’s high rise “lives of the rich and famous” condo, meets his beautiful, brainy, and willing neighbors, and crashes in a guest bedroom bigger than his apartment, he gets curious.

It turns out that there has to be someone who publishes pornographic novels, and Isaac happens to be one of the most successful in the crowd.  That success has also given Isaac tons of self-confidence, which he generously tries to share with the beaten-down Ezra.  He also makes Ezra a business proposition – write me a porn book and I’ll pay you $10,000.  To his own surprise, Ezra accepts, and returns to campus with a little secret and a great big grin. (Did I mention the willing neighbor?)

The secret of writing a throwaway piece of smut fires Ezra’s imagination, and before he knows it the manuscript for Every Inch a Lady is in the mail, and the book is in print.  To Ezra’s (and Isaac’s) surprise, it takes off in ways neither can imagine.  Plus, finishing it gives Ezra the nerve to tell off his old girlfriend, show off his new one, tick off an FBI agent investigating cybercrime, help a student find his way, and finally, contemplate writing his own novel under his own name.  Ezra’s journey becomes a comic take on the erotic journey of his heroine, picking up momentum along the way.

Tarloff also wrote for M*A*S*H, All in the Family, and The Bob Newhart Show, and still writes for Slate, The Atlantic, and The American Prospect. He’s married to economist Laura D’Andrea Tyson, which is where I guess he got his exposure to academic politics.  In The Man Who Wrote the Book, he scores with vicious and illuminating satire (is that a tautology?), and makes Ezra’s growth from immature schlub to confident adult fun. The lone downside of the book is its relationship to technology – does anyone even publish porn on paper anymore? Would many readers remember the days of computer access limited to dial-up campus networks? The upside is, well, everything else.

Check the WRL catalog for The Man Who Wrote the Book

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JeevesReading PG Wodehouse’s original Wooster and Jeeves stories is like eating a lemon meringue pie – underneath some light, fluffy, insubstantial sweetness, there’s a hint of acid which livens the palate.  So it is with Sebastian Faulks’s homage to Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells – with the exception of a couple of eggshells in the meringue.

This isn’t the first such recreation Faulks has had a hand in.  I wrote earlier (FSM, has it been five years?!) about his Devil May Care, a James Bond adventure that went straight back to Ian Fleming’s original style and sensibility.  This time around he approaches, with proper reverence, the world of a comic genius and nails the breezy tones that Wodehouse seemingly cast off without thinking.

For those who aren’t familiar with the original stories, they revolve around Bertie Wooster, scion of a family whose bank accounts have thrived as their gene pool has evaporated.  Bertie is a decent chap, though, with lots of time and few demands placed on him.  He spends much of that time evading the matrimonial clutches of the various women of his circle, or helping his friends slip up to the altar despite the disapproval of their parents and guardians.

Wooster’s gentleman’s gentleman is the unflappable Jeeves, the very model of a discreet servant.  Jeeves is also a master practitioner of psychology, and it is he who guides Wooster’s madcap schemes to their inevitable happy endings.  With marriage averted or achieved, angry aunts soothed, and some truculent old man reduced to a buffoon, Wooster and Jeeves blithely return to Bertie’s London home for tea, cocktails, and dining at the Drones Club.

Wooster is surrounded by similar young men with surnames so sophisticated and schoolnames so childish they become a mockery of privileged genealogy – Cyril Bassington-Bassington, “Catsmeat” Potter Pirbright, Gussie Fink-Nottle, and Bingo Little are the usual suspects.  In Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Peregrine “Woody” Beeching is the stymied lover, and Wooster must plot to help him conquer the hand of his beloved, Amelia Hackwood.  Being a young though gifted lawyer, Woody has more prospects than assets, thus earning the disapproval of Amelia’s father.  At the same time, Amelia’s best friend Georgiana is Sir Henry Hackwood’s ward, and the impecunious baronet wants to marry her off to a wealthy man who might save the family manse, a circumstance that renders Bertie unaccountably jealous.

Due to unforeseen circumstances (and Wooster always encounters circumstances unforeseen), he and Jeeves must reverse roles at a country weekend with the Hackwoods.  Jeeves takes up the part of one Lord Etringham while Bertie becomes his manservant Wilberforce.  Too bad Bertie has never polished a pair of shoes, boiled a shirtfront, or served from the left.  Added to Bertie’s attempts to convince Amelia that Woody is faithful to her, his efforts to drive the wealthy suitor from Georgiana’s side, and to raise a cricket eleven for Sir Henry, it is small wonder that Bertie collapses into his servants’ quarters each night.  As always, Bertie’s plotting goes delightfully astray, Jeeves saves the day, and in this story accomplishes a little more than the reader expects.

Wodehouse somehow created a timeless feel to his stories, a kind of eternal English summer where the fields were planted, the trees in bloom, young lovers gazed adoringly into each others’ eyes, and the most damage the aristocracy could do was to the furnishings at their clubs.  There are cars, telephones and telegrams, jazz and  flashy theater which all signify the Roaring Twenties, but a kind of self-satisfied innocence that predates August 1914.  It seems to me that Wodehouse deliberately avoided bringing events from the outside world into the eggshell that encompasses his stories.  Faulks makes a couple of historical references that crack that shell and momentarily turn Wodehouse’s tartness into bitterness, but steers the rest of the story back to the bucolic.  All in all, Faulks does a masterful job bringing Wooster and Jeeves back to life for one final spin in the old two-seater.

Check the WRL catalogue for Jeeves and the Wedding Bells

And for a masterfully done light comic television series featuring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, check out the PBS show Jeeves and Wooster

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dickens-1Each winter I try to read something from the 19th century that I have not read before. These sprawling, character-laden stories seem to be just the thing for reading the winter blues away. I had intended to get started on something over the Christmas holidays, but circumstances prevented me, so in January, on the recommendation of a colleague  ~ thanks, Penelope ~ I dove into Our Mutual Friend.

Dickens’ last finished novel is, in some ways, a recapitulation of many of his earlier themes; poverty, social climbing, unscrupulous lawyers, and loving families all make appearances. It is also typical Dickens in its many plot lines that run in parallel for so long that you cannot see where they are ever going to intersect or even resolve. And, to be honest, they do not always resolve cleanly; some plots just seem to drift away and are never heard from again. Nonetheless, the story is a fascinating one, and it is worth the time to read through it.

Like Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend concerns an inheritance, in this case, one gone oddly wrong. Young John Harmon, on his way back from abroad to take up the profitable “dust” business left to him by his estranged father, is thought to have been murdered by a local boatman, and a body found floating in the river confirms that suspicion. The will stipulates that John only inherits if he marries Bella Wilfer. Needless to say, the body in the river is not John, and the story, or one of the stories, revolves around Harmon’s efforts to prove the boatman innocent of his murder, to woo the girl that his father’s will would have forced him to marry, and to come to his rightful inheritance. I told you things got complicated.

There are a lot of other tales here too: the pursuit of Lizzy Hexam, whose father supposedly killed John Harmon, by a lawyer and a schoolmaster; the trials and tribulations of the Veneerings, who are seeking to rise up in society; and the ups and downs of the delightful Mr. and Mrs. Boffin. Written in serial form, abrupt shifts of scenery, plot, and cliffhangers abound. But Dickens manages to wrap everything up at the end, pulling together the various strands of the story in sometimes surprising ways. I was delighted to meet several new characters here who will stay with me–Jenny Wren, Noddy Boffin, Mr. Riah, and Reginald (R.W.) Wilfer among them. They can join company with any of Dickens’ better-known creations.  Our Mutual Friend is an excellent novel to start with if you are new to Dickens, and if you enjoyed others, you will find much to like here too.

Check the WRL catalog for Our Mutual Friend

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sameDoes anyone get out of their high school years unscathed? Free from uncomfortable memories of interactions they mishandled due to their own unnerving awkwardness? If you did, then you will not be able to understand the brilliance of Same Difference. The action in this novel is not about the present existence of the two main characters, but rather of the juxtaposition between their past deeds, clumsy with the emotional over-eagerness of youth, and their current ability to reassess those actions and desires through the lens of their adult experiences and maturity.

Simon and Nancy are two early-to mid twenty-somethings living in Oakland. For Simon, it has been seven years since he graduated high school and he dreads each return to the town where he grew up due to the embarrassment and unease of constantly running into people he went to high school with. Though Nancy teases him, she is just as reserved about her high school experience and fights any invasion of her privacy related to those gawky years. They both know that when you are young you are stupid and lack the experience to deal with the flood of emotions you are faced with on a daily basis. Neither wants their present judged on the transgressions of their past.

Nancy’s meddlesome response to some letters meant for a previous tenant of her apartment serves as the vehicle for a road trip for her and Simon back to Simon’s hometown. There Simon must face people and situations he thought he had long put behind him. I was especially drawn to his conflicted feelings over his meeting Eddie and Jane, two married members of his high school class who used to torment him in their separate and devastating ways. Seeing them walking down the street with one baby in a stroller and another on the way left them toothless and oddly, ordinary. Would you want to hang out with someone who tormented you in high school and called you a nerd? It would seem not, but time is an antiseptic which, if not heals, certainly numbs old wounds.

A winner of the 2004 Eisner Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition, 2004 winner of the Harvey Award for Best New Talent, and 2003 Ignatz Award, this title came to me with high expectations, but it far exceeded them. Recommended for readers of graphic novels and anyone who enjoys a coming of age story in all its painful clarity.

Search the catalog for Same Difference.

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rosieUnreliable narrator? Check. Quirky characters? Check. Fish-out-of-water? Check. Funny scenes? Check. The Rosie Project manages to push all these buttons, plus add a semi-sweet love story, a bit of a mystery and some academic humor. No wonder it’s been a surprise international hit for debut author Graeme Simsion.

Don Tillman is a genius geneticist, the kind who makes other genius geneticists (and geniuses of all other specialties) look like…well, like me. Part of his success is an ability to focus on the work at hand; part of it is an eidetic memory; part is a determination to win at anything he turns a hand to. But those qualities also add up to an inflexible loner, probably with Asperger’s Syndrome and no idea why he never has a second date.

Stymied by women who smoke, who are never on time, who eat apricot ice cream, are adamant vegetarians, or show any conflicting values, Don decides he’s going to weed out those who are demonstrably unsuited for him. His method? A 16-page questionnaire covering every conceivable idiosyncrasy that might affect his ability to be around that person.

One of Don’s test subjects is Rosie Jarman, a barmaid, smoker, chronically late, pretty and opinionated young woman.  Obviously not a match for Don on any count. However, she presents him with a puzzle he cannot resist—the opportunity to collect DNA from a limited but scattered population to find her natural father. The technical part is easy, but he’s intrigued by the difficulty of finding the subjects. Thus begins the Rosie Project.

Simsion perfectly captures the interior voice of a man with Asperger’s, and in multiple comedic scenes demonstrates why Don doesn’t get along with those who are conditioned to follow social conventions (as he sees it), or those who have learned to interpret the myriad of clues that lubricate social interaction (as everyone else sees it). The Apricot Ice Cream Disaster, the Jacket Man Incident, the Pig Trotter’s Disaster, the Flounder Incident, the Bianca Disaster, the Aspie Lecture—all point to Don’s seeming inability to function in public. But gradually, and in small ways, Don learns to look for and interpret, and finally to empathize with, distasteful human emotions.

If this sounds like a formula Hollywood script, it’s because it started as one (a script, that is), but Simsion realized that dialogue alone wasn’t enough to portray Don without making him an object of ridicule. The result of his move to the novel form is a romantic comedy with depth and original characters, and an unsympathetic narrator we quickly come to cheer for. It comes across initially as a light read, but I think readers will remember Don Tillman for quite a while.

Check the WRL catalog for The Rosie Project.

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curiosityA team of researchers finds something unusual frozen in the ice of an enormous Arctic berg. When they reanimate it, it wreaks havoc on the researchers and breaks loose into the larger world where its existence threatens all of humanity. Sounds like the plot of a science fiction movie, right? In The Curiosity, Stephen P. Kiernan takes that trope and turns it into a love story, a commentary on modern science, religion, and culture, and wistful insight into days long gone.

Although this discovery was an accident, the search that led to it was not. A private research facility run by the imperious Erastus Carthage sent a ship to search for “hard ice,” which forms so quickly that specimens’ cells don’t have time to freeze. Carthage’s theory is that such flash-frozen animals might be revived with a protocol he’s developed and is working to prove. Who knows what he expects as a payoff, except a Nobel Prize and scientific immortality? Having succeeded with krill, he hopes to extend the lifetime and complexity of the subjects he reanimates.

Then a research team led by Dr. Kate Philo finds an infinitely more complex creature and the stakes of reanimation skyrocket. With painstaking effort under dangerous conditions, Kate cuts the ice surrounding the specimen away and discovers a human body, cells intact, a perfect candidate for reanimation. When the “Lazarus Project” is announced, Carthage and his arrogant team of physicians provoke the critics, especially the religious activists, ensuring ongoing attention from around the world. Relegated to the sidelines, Kate and much of her team become a liability for the project but fight to retain some role. Thus it is that Kate is on hand when Judge Jeremiah Rice regains consciousness and moves from his 1906 drowning to a 21st-century laboratory and an expedition into unimaginable territory.

The judge is still a young man, but dignified and erudite in a way that her peers lack, and Kate becomes fascinated with him. She also recognizes that Carthage is keeping Jeremiah a virtual prisoner, and begins sneaking him out of the lab to see the changes time has wrought. As he recovers strength, their expeditions become longer and more elaborate, their conversations more intimate, and their reliance upon one another more profound.

In the meantime, the world wants to know about Judge Rice and claim kinship with him. He becomes a celebrity, with attendant privileges and loss of dignity he cannot comprehend. The nature of scientific and cultural progress becomes debatable among the team members who show him both the dark and light sides of that progress. And aspects of that progress overshadow the Judge and Kate, as we learn in the opening chapters.

Kiernan brings us the evolving story through the voices of four narrators—Kate, Jeremiah, Carthage, and the odious Daniel Dixon, a second-rate science writer given exclusive access to the project. As the book moves to its inevitable conclusion, each character and his or her changes are illuminated through their voices and through the observations of the others. The cast of supporting characters—especially a computer genius/stoner/Deadhead, a cell biologist, and Carthage’s flunky—flesh out the background.

Kiernan does not use Rice’s voice to condemn modern society or praise the past. His role as a judge gives him the poise to deal with contentious issues and people (of which there are many in this more relaxed time), but he also connects easily with those who crowd around him and finds ready allies wherever he goes. His entries are poignant with both the grief he feels for the world and people he left behind, the naive way he approaches the modern world, and his growing feelings for Kate.  (Interestingly, I don’t believe Kiernan ever has him quote Miranda from The Tempest!)

Check the WRL catalog for The Curiosity

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butlerWe’ve had plenty of blog posts about Robert Olen Butler’s work, and if you go check them out you’ll see the incredible range and imagination that characterizes his work.  (We don’t yet have a post about A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, the short story collection that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.  Alas, another sign that none of us can read or write about everything we’d like to.)  With The Hot Country, Butler’s narrative skill takes off in a new and wholly unexpected direction.

War correspondent Christopher “Kit” Marlowe Cobb has traveled to hot spots all over the world, but this time he’s covering one close to home. It’s 1914 and the U.S. has invaded Mexico in response to a diplomatic slight, and Kit is there to report on the heroic measures of the U.S. military. But Woodrow Wilson’s policy is to hold the port town of Veracruz, so there isn’t a whole lot for Kit and his colleagues to write about, except maybe the sporadic attacks on Marines visiting the local brothels.  (He’s still got to get that one by the censor.) Unlike his more staid colleagues, he goes out looking for material, and finds a big story that illustrates the turbulent background of Mexican politics.

Kit also learns that a German ship anchored in the harbor and reputed to be carrying arms to the Mexican army may have a dangerous cargo. Keeping in mind events taking place far away, Kit decides to dig deeper. As the nature of that cargo becomes more and more apparent, he takes it on himself to investigate further, then to act on his discovery. His efforts take him out of the city and into the Mexican hinterlands, where he barely escapes with his life. The scoop he carries is so explosive that he must cross the desert into the United States one step ahead of Pancho Villa’s men, and file from the first U.S. telegraph office he finds. But the response is far different from the one he expects.

Although the story is a genuine thriller, Butler makes Kit a dynamic character changed by the events he is part of. Although he is a war correspondent, it isn’t until his Mexican experience that Kit understands that he isn’t an immortal bystander, and the realization humbles him a bit. Kit is also the son of a renowned stage actress and readers come to understand how his upbringing has created the man he is—a restless chameleon entranced by words, capable at fighting but incapable of long-term relationships. In the course of the story, he also comes to grips with the fact that his mother is aging, and that the path she’s chosen has led her into a situation from which he cannot rescue her.

The Hot Country is followed by The Star of Istanbul, which has Kit heading across the Atlantic to cover the Great War, but getting sidetracked by historic events.  Its excellent reviews were what got me interested in reading the first of Kit’s adventures. At the same time, I’m hoping that Butler continues to allow his magnificent imagination to continue exploring the unexpected.

Find The Hot Country in the WRL catalog

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Thrillers rarely come along that are created with as much verve as Headhunters, a standalone novel by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø, who also writes the Harry Hole series. The crafty, intelligent plot has a bit of noir as well as some jaw-dropping comic moments; you won’t believe the literally sticky situations that come up amid Hitchcockian twists and turns. You’ll also find well-developed characters despite the book’s brevity (less than 300 pages), which I always appreciate.

Roger Brown is a corporate headhunter who moonlights as an art thief to maintain a lavish lifestyle for his wife. He is also clearly trying to compensate for his short height and his insecurity about having such a gorgeous wife, terrified that she’ll discover his true colors. In Roger’s misguided drive to supplement his already lucrative work and preserve his marriage, he suddenly finds himself caught in a web of unclear motives and loyalties, with no one to trust. He wonders just how long he’s been the target in someone’s larger scheme rather than solely the mastermind of his own crimes.

Clas Greve is not only a brilliant and devilishly handsome corporate icon, he’s also a tried and tested covert special forces operative skilled as another type of “head hunter.” His history with GPS tracking technology landed him the CEO position with a major corporation rumored to have lost him following a takeover. Roger Brown’s wife Diana, who meets Greve through her art gallery, tips Roger off to Greve’s availability as a potential CEO candidate, and Roger thinks he is perfect to head a competing GPS technology firm. Diana also tells the tale of a missing masterpiece by Rubens that was found in Clas Greve’s grandmother’s apartment in Oslo. Not only does Roger think he has found the perfect executive for his client, he plots to steal the work of art that might set him up in luxury for life.

Pampered, polished Roger, a sophisticated businessman and very classy thief, may be in over his head, but in the course of an adventurous and outrageous series of circumstances, he reveals his true grit. The reader will end up rooting for this undeserving hero. Fans of Stieg Larsson, Elmore Leonard, or Carl Hiaasen are likely to be enraptured.

“MPAA rating: R; for bloody violence including some grisly images, strong sexual content and nudity.” If you are over 17, and know that you could at least stomach Pulp Fiction or Fight Club, don’t let this intimidating film rating prevent you from viewing the riveting Norwegian film version of the novel. Despite the rating, I found it less disturbing than expected, not as violent or brutal as your average Tarantino flick—the murders in Headhunters come across as rather accidental, not cold-blooded or ultra-disturbingly violent. Yes, there are some graphic scenes, but you’ll be so caught up in the unexpected plot twists that I doubt you’ll find them too extreme—well, except for one scene reminiscent of the unforgettable outhouse scene in Slumdog Millionaire. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed suspense this much since Fargo. What you should know is that the details in some scenes are so much more graphic in the book that you’ll be glad that the director chose to leave them out!

The DVD has settings for viewing in Norwegian with subtitles or with English dubbing. I enjoyed it in Norwegian more because the English was dubbed with American accents. Roger Brown’s character is British and all the other characters are either Norwegian or Dutch, so it just made more sense to use the English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for the book 

Check the catalog for the ebook

Check the catalog for the DVD

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YardLondon, 1889. The city’s residents are frightened and demoralized by the crimes of Jack the Ripper, and Scotland Yard’s reputation has suffered as a result of its inability to capture the killer. The story opens on the scene of newly recruited Detective Inspector Walter Day and forensic pathologist Bernard Kingsley examining a corpse on a train station platform.   The corpse turns out to be a fellow policeman, shockingly mutilated.

Day soon finds himself heading up the investigation, supervising Scotland Yard’s recently formed “Murder Squad.”  The reader is taken into the world of policing in class-conscious Victorian London and its overworked detectives, disrespected constables, and the nascent science of forensic pathology.  The thoughtful and perceptive Day, and the detectives on his murder squad, examine the cases of the murdered Detective Little, trying to find some thread of a lead to grasp.

As the murder squad pursues leads in the murder of their colleague, an ambitious and dedicated constable pursues the seeming accidental suffocation of a young boy in a chimney. The tragedy is a predictable outcome of the boy’s work as a chimney sweeper’s boy, yet Constable Hammersmith finds himself moved by pity and anger to pursue the facilitator of the child’s fate– against the orders of his superiors. He finds himself opening a very dangerous can of worms, which may or may not be related to Day’s homicide investigation. Jack the Ripper himself figures into this story, but not in the way you might think!

You should check out this series if you enjoy the Victorian-era mysteries of Anne Perry. Grecian’s protagonists share their sense of justice with those of Perry’s detectives Thomas Pitt and William Monk.

I was intrigued by the characters and their relationships. The character Bernard Kingsley is based on real-life forensic pathology pioneer Bernard Spilsbury (most famous perhaps for his work on the Crippen poisoning case).  The forensics are one of the most intriguing aspects of the story. It is fascinating, for example, to see the general incredulity which greets Kingsley’s introduction of fingerprint technology into the case, something which today is taken for granted in criminal investigations. I was surprised to find out that the powerful character of Commissioner of Police Colonel Sir Edward Bradford is a real historical figure and portrayed very true to life.

The relationship between Inspector Day, Constable Hammersmith, and Dr. Kingsley are developed in the second book in the series, Black Country, which I think I enjoyed even more than the first one. I’m greatly looking forward to the next entry in this series.

Check the WRL catalog for The Yard as a book.

Listen to The Yard  on audio CD.

We also have The Yard as an eaudiobook.

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heartI am the first to flee at the sight of blood. As such, I don’t watch boxing and I quickly switch the channel when watching football if the station decides there is a need to show slow motion replays of a player’s injury from EVERY ANGLE. But for whatever reason, I can stomach violence in graphic novels, as the images can be processed as art by my brain, conveniently disconnected from reality.

Browsing our shelves, I picked up a copy of Heart but almost put it back again when I realized that the story revolved around an MMA (mixed-martial arts) fighter. I ended up holding on to the volume, deciding that since I had been in a reading rut recently, something so far out of my normal comfort zone might be just what I needed.

The story throws you right into the middle of the octagon at the beginning of a fight between Oren “Rooster” Redmond and Mike “The Hooligan” Murphy. Glaring and tattooed with muscles tensed, they square off with the cheers, jeers, and bloodlust of the crowd in a roar around them. The story is narrated by Oren, and he baldly presents his adrenaline and bravado as well as his mistakes as he takes us through his journey from slightly overweight office worker to trained fighter. He’s inspired by his older brother, who started out as a college wrestler and progressed to MMA after graduation. From the drudgery of his data entry job, Oren enters a life that finally allows him to live life on his own terms.

It’s Oren’s honesty about how his fighting career progresses that really pulls the reader into the story. He’s not trying to fool anyone, not even himself. His frankness and honesty are refreshing yet surprising, since MMA promotion isn’t known for being austere or unembellished. Oren wryly confesses to prior unkind thoughts about “guys who wore too-tight t-shirts with shiny, metallic crap written on ‘em” before he entered and embraced the culture.

Heart is an engaging and powerful read. I would recommend it to sports fans, readers of graphic novels in general, or any reader who loves stories where the human element transcends the environment.

Search the catalog for Heart

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OceanatendofLane

“The dread had not left my soul. But there was a kitten on my pillow, and it was purring in my face and vibrating gently with every purr.”

Neil Gaiman has a great talent for seeing the sinister and malevolent under the everyday and mundane. But he also has a talent for pointing out the beauty and wonder that simultaneously exist in the same everyday and mundane things. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told mainly through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy, which gives the book a simple, direct style as the boy is without preconceptions. He reports matter-of-factly that his new nanny is an evil monster who rode out of another dimension in a worm hole in his own foot, but this is not the sort of thing that adults believe.

The book starts as a middle-aged man returns to his childhood village to attend a funeral, so we know that the narrator survives (something I would not have been sure of otherwise). Forty years ago, the tragic suicide of an almost-stranger and a series of seemingly small, but bad, decisions, lead to dramatic and possibly world-ending events, all under the eyes of oblivious adults.

Neil Gaiman has created a complete, but never fully explained, fantasy world living just under the surface of the world we see. His Hunger Birds are close to the creepiest fantasy creatures I have ever encountered. I can see glimmers of the best of other British fantasy. The woods that the boy first enters with Lettie Hempstock reminds me of the damaged, dimensionless woods in Diana Wynne Jones’s The Pinhoe Egg. Lettie Hempstock herself, being a non-human in human form, with her Universe-saving sentiments, reminds me of Doctor Who. These may be plausible connections: Neil Gaiman knew Diana Wynne Jones and considered her his mentor, and he has written for Doctor Who.

This book is being marketed as an adult novel and lots of adults and teens love it.  I think older children who are strong readers and fantasy fans will also enjoy it. They will appreciate the main character’s impotence in the face of the seamlessly complacent adult world. It has a few oblique references to sex, but they will probably go over the heads of many children. Simply, but poetically written, this a beautiful short book that I wanted to come back to and immerse myself in. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and have heard several read by the author. Neil Gaiman is by far the best reader of his own work that I have come across. From his pleasant English accent to the menace in the voice of the monster, I can’t wait to hear more.

Check the WRL catalog for The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

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sleepTo tell the truth, no librarian should have favorite books.  There are too many out there to read, too many different circumstances under which to read them, too many ages at which to discover that a book you hated now speaks to you or one you loved falls flat.  Under theoretical laboratory conditions, though, I might have to admit that I do have favorites, and that several of them are by Stephen King.  The Stand. Salem’s Lot. Christine. The Green Mile. The Dead Zone. Night Shift.  And, of course, The Shining.  I still remember sitting by a pool in 95-degree weather and shivering as a snowstorm sealed me into the Overlook Hotel with the Torrance family and the reanimated dead.

Now King has returned to continue Danny Torrance’s story in Doctor Sleep.  (And if you haven’t read The Shining, forget this review and go get that book. Seriously.)  Of course, time has passed and Danny, now Dan, is all grown up.  But the combined burdens of his childhood, his family’s history of drinking, and his dubious gift have left him a place no reader would have wanted to see the tow-headed little boy.

Dan is a drunk.  A drifter, a brawler, sleeping with strangers who promise another high, or in a culvert if he has to choose between the price of a bottle and a bed.  A full-blown alcoholic who hits his personal bottom early in the story, he spends the course of the novel running from his shame.

The thing is, Dan still has his shine, that ability to glimpse things that were or that are or that will be.  It helps him reach in and hold the essential part of other people, and gives him extraordinary empathy.  When he can hold down a job.  But that same empathy gives him haunting visions that he cannot evade.  This time, the shine guides him to a small town in New Hampshire, where he thinks he might be able to start again.  Through the good graces of another person with just a little bit of the shine, and with the help of a hard-ass AA sponsor, Dan Torrance quits drinking.  He also goes to work at the local hospice, where he and the resident cat comfort the dying and guide them to the threshold of whatever lies beyond.

But there are other special people out there in the world, and Dan becomes a sort of unwilling fulcrum between them.  On one side is Abra, a young teenaged girl who out-shines Dan like a lighthouse outshines a flashlight; on the other, the True Knot, a band of psychic vampires who live on the pain and fear of children.  Led by the horrific Rose the Hat (and like all subcultures, the Knot has insider names and public names), the Knot travels in a caravan of campers seeking out fresh victims.  During their time off the road, they lie up in a charming Colorado campsite with a plaque that designates it as the site of the now-destroyed Overlook Hotel.  When the True Knot detects Abra’s ability, they know that they could feed on her for decades, if they can seize and control her.  Dan Torrance must pit his lesser abilities and Abra’s immature skills against Rose’s blind greed and power to save the girl and destroy the Knot.  If he can survive the place of his own fears.

Like the best of King’s fiction, Doctor Sleep excels at framing the relationships between imperfect people drawn together to face an impossibly evil power.  Sometimes those relationships are deep bonds: parent and child, teacher and student.  Sometimes they are forged in hellish fires, as Dan discovers through his AA sponsors and supporters.  And sometimes they erupt from the unlikeliest of sources to create the possibility of redemption.  Maybe that’s the real reason I shouldn’t have favorite books: too many unlikely sources, too much need for redemption, too little time to find either.

Check the WRL catalog for Doctor Sleep

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endingI love unreliable narrators. From the unnamed man in The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards to the clueless John Dowell in The Good Soldier to the layered unreliability of American Pastoral, to the multiple narrators in An Instance of the Fingerpost, the craft is sometimes hard to detect. Sometimes it erupts all at once, sometimes it’s given to us in the beginning, sometimes the accretion of details doesn’t add up. And sometimes, as in The Sense of an Ending, we are left overwhelmed by the possibilities.

Barnes, who deliciously skewered nostalgia in England, England, returns to the same theme, but with a dark and unnerving approach that makes the reader wonder about his or her own past. Tony Webster is in his sixties, retired from an undistinguished career, divorced without bitterness, grandfather to a baby he sees every once in a while when his daughter gets around to visiting. The highlight of his life was probably the extended trip he took across the United States after his undistinguished college career, but that was ruined by the news that a prep school friend committed suicide while Tony was away.

Adrian Finn joined Tony and his two pals in a kind of elite society of scholars, although it’s quickly clear that he is far brighter than the other three, who often mistake facile conclusions and clever tag phrases for brilliance. When the four break away onto their own paths, their friendship becomes something to reminisce about rather than restart. But Tony will cross paths with Adrian again.

While in college, Tony has a few girlfriends, but falls in love with Veronica Ford, a somewhat standoffish, somewhat snobby young woman whose tastes are far more sophisticated that Tony’s. From the heady (and bodily) excitement of their early days, they grow more comfortable with each other, until Veronica takes Tony home to meet her parents. Not long afterward, though, they have the “where is our relationship heading?” conversation, and Tony drops her. Except for one bout of breakup sex.

Fast forward a while, and Tony has a letter from Adrian asking his permission to go out with Veronica. Tony dashes off a witty postcard, and that’s the end of the matter–until Adrian emulates the ancient Romans and slashes his wrists in a warm bathtub. Tony grieves for a while, then goes on with the next forty years of his peaceable life.

Then one day an official letter arrives. It seems that he’s been willed a tidy sum of money and some documents by, of all people, Veronica’s mother. Although the money is easy to collect, Veronica has the documents–Adrian’s diary–and no legal effort can pry them away from her. So Tony searches her out himself and asks for the diary via email. She sends him one page that includes ruminations, a mathematical formula with bizarre variables, and ends with, “So, for instance, if Tony “.   Puzzled by this introductory phrase, Tony presses Veronica for details, until she at last consents to meet him.

The problem with their initial meeting and those that follow, is that Veronica won’t interpret any of it for him. She tells him repeatedly, “You just don’t get it. You never did and you never will.” On their final meeting, she takes him to a neighborhood in London and shows him something that he still doesn’t get. But Veronica also shows him something that blasts his self-image. That witty reply to Adrian’s letter was actually the invective-laced diatribe of a petty boy seeking to hurt the two of them as deeply as he could. So much for Tony’s memory.

What else does he get wrong? What else had he done or not done, seen or overlooked, heard and misconstrued? Barnes doesn’t tell us.  Frustratingly, appallingly, he doesn’t tell us. Perhaps that is why the Intertubes are filled with discussions of The Sense of an Ending, each with a plausible development of the plot, resolution to the equation, and the end of the mysterious sentence. But most of those interpretations are contradictory, because Barnes just doesn’t give us enough. We just don’t get it. We never did and we never will.

It would seem that such an indefinite ending would consign the book to obscurity or subject it to harsh critical reviews. But Barnes’ language is so evocative, so simple, so perfect in tone that within 150 pages he makes an inoffensive nonentity realize the devastating effect he had on many lives. It becomes a powerful story of memory, and of the way we change our memories to meet our own self-image. That may perhaps be an ordinary idea, but in Julian Barnes’ hands it becomes a brilliant novel.

Check the WRL catalog for The Sense of an Ending

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Captivated by the pages in Gap Creek devoted to the slaughtering of a hog and the rendering of its fat, I have shown that passage to several people who, after reading that one section, immediately proceeded to read the whole book in less than a day or two.

I was taken aback by how interesting I found it to read such raw detail about a process that I would have absolutely no opportunity or desire to participate in, but the detailed prose made me feel so familiar with the unpleasant work that I could almost smell it. This was the first time I noticed myself so engrossed in a story that I felt as if I could be there, working as hard as Julie Harmon; in fact, I wanted to be able to work as hard as Julie. I would not wish upon myself the hardships or poverty of her turn-of-the-century Appalachian life, but I envied her character’s drive and unquestioning energy to do what’s necessary. Our lives these days are often rife with options, the easy route freely taken without the consequences of starvation or loss of life too common a hundred years ago. I’ve witnessed older members of my family who work with such force and have never found within myself such stamina. Today, I suppose it can be found most often in elite athletes, willing to push their bodies to their absolute limits.

Even in Julie’s day, and among her family members, she is an uncommonly strong and intensely diligent workhorse, so much so that this quality stands out more than beauty for good-looking Hank, who stuns her by offering his proposal of marriage. Their married life proves to be fraught with unforeseen challenge and misadventure. At times, it seems that their life could not possibly get worse but then it surely does. The reading of Gap Creek is an experience you will not forget or regret.

Look for Gap Creek in the WRL catalog.

I eagerly await the upcoming release in late August of the follow-up novel, The Road from Gap Creek.

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My family discovered this story a few years ago during a road-trip stop at a popular restaurant and gift shop franchise where you can actually rent audiobooks on CD then return them at another location anywhere in the country. It delighted us that this alternative take, or prequel, on the lost boys, Peter Pan, pirates, magic, plus mermaids and a jealous fairy was equally appealing to the males and females, young and old, riding in our car. No one wanted to miss a single word as our car rolled along and it really helped pass the time!  We even couldn’t wait to get up the next morning from our hotel beds to hit the road and continue listening!

My kids have since taken up the reading of the complete series of five tales that concluded publication in 2011. This first audiobook is nine hours long.  I’d say this is the best road-trip audiobook ever and have recommended it to a lot of grandparents and parents seeking something to please whole carloads.

The book has boundless high-seas adventure, a mystery, and a heroic quest complete with a strong teen female character named Molly plus plenty of swashbuckling danger. Readers will learn the origin of the stardust that enables Peter and his friends to fly, and we get to know characters who feature in the timeless J.M. Barrie story Peter and Wendy. Humorist and novelist Dave Barry is a great storyteller and has ensured that the laughter almost never stops; Ridley Pearson’s skill with fantasy and fast-paced suspense is as adept in this young adult title as in his many books for adults.

Look for Peter and the Starcatchers in print or audiobook in the WRL catalog.

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elmerThis is a book about a talking chicken. Please be warned though, that this is certainly no children’s tale. It is an alternate history of the world, very similar to the one we inhabit right now, except for one teensy incident: all at once, every chicken in the world became sentient.

How this happened is never explained, nor is it really germane to the story, which focuses on the outcome for both species when humans are suddenly confronted with beings that have a consciousness equal to their own, along with the use of language to express themselves. The story is told through the lens of Jake Gallo, a chicken, who is one very angry bird. He simultaneously hates humans and desires to be accepted by them, and his state of constant conflict within himself and with the world further feeds his anger. His sister works side-by-side with humans as a nurse and sees acceptance and collaboration between the two species, but Jake sees only discord. Overhearing youths joking about things “tasting like chicken” and threatening to roast his kind certainly does nothing to dispel his beliefs.

Jake travels back to the family home to visit his ailing father, Elmer. Upon his father’s death, Jake is given the diary that Elmer wrote in throughout his life, starting with his first night of consciousness. Via his father’s diary entries and through conversations with his mother and a longtime family friend, a human farmer named Ben, Jake explores the violence experienced by those first chickens and their struggle for equal rights. And there is plenty of carnage, with both species reacting to the changes with understandable levels of anger and fear. But like most conflicts, there are those who passionately fight for peace and an end to the brutality. Only if society can listen to the voices of amity and silence the voices of discord will the struggle end for both species.

Tragic, thoughtful, and engrossing, Elmer is a remarkable book. It explores pride, lost histories, and the legacy of abuse and violence, counterbalanced by a vein of thoughtful humor. Though images like a chicken wearing a three-piece suit are intentionally amusing, the humor never dips into slap-stick. Gerry Alanguilan somehow manages to make the faces and body language of the chickens display a wide range of emotions that are never cartoonish. Recommended to fantasy and graphic novel readers.

Search the WRL catalog for Elmer.

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blackdogLike Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks mysteries, Stephen Booth’s series featuring Ben Cooper and Diane Fry digs into the dark life of rural England.  Set just to the south of Banks’ Yorkshire Dales, Cooper’s native Peaks District is also an uneasy mix of long-established families, newcomers, and a transient population that brings money and sometimes trouble to their community.

Ben Cooper is a lifelong resident of the Peaks, caught between familiarity and community and the sense that too many people know him and his family’s history.  Even then, he has secrets that he hides from his neighbors, co-workers, and supervisors.  Diane Fry is the new girl on the force, transferred from Birmingham after a violent incident made it difficult to stay there.  The boys on the force are threatened by her, convinced that her gender will put her onto the fast track for promotion.  Both are subject to depression (what the Peaks natives call “the black dog”), and it is ever at their heels.

When the Labrador belonging to a retired miner discovers a missing girl’s sneaker, Fry and Cooper – along with every other cop in the region – begin the standard search protocol.  There’s something strange about the case, though: the old man is obviously holding back from the police, and the girl’s parents are giving off mixed signals about their concern for their daughter.  When Laura Vernon’s body is found, those discrepancies cause more suspicion.

Answers are not forthcoming, though.  A kid who worked in the family’s garden is accused by the father, and police resources are dedicated to finding evidence against him.  Cooper is pulled off the case while Fry continues on the investigation, but in his off hours Cooper follows his hunches to more productive ends.  Despite her distaste for unscientific police work, Fry reluctantly stays with Cooper, rescuing him more than once from both danger and professional criticism.  The mixture of police procedure and instinct eventually pays off, but the result is as tragic as Laura’s death.

The puzzle is almost a backdrop to the establishment of Cooper and Fry’s characters as Booth sets them up in professional competition even as their personal similarities emerge.  He doesn’t immediately throw them into a romantic relationship, but their informal partnership does put them into proximity that makes each of them aware of the possibility.  These are two damaged people, though, and their black dogs keep them apart.

Booth won the Barry Award for Black Dog, and continues the series through a 12th entry released in mid-2012.  Reviewers have favorably compared him to Minette Walters, Elizabeth George, and even Ruth Rendell, so for those readers who haven’t encountered Cooper and Fry, you’ve got another writer whose skill at creating atmospheric and psychologically complex mysteries stand with the best.

Check the WRL catalog for Black Dog

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tomatoHow do some writers create compelling, even heroic, main characters that you wouldn’t want to spend ten minutes with in real life?  It’s a problem for some readers, but I admire the ability, and find that skill translates into forceful storylines.

Tomato Red is the story of four such characters.  Sammy Barlach tells the tale in an uncompromising voice; he does not hide anything from his audience, including his understanding that his whole life he’s been headed for prison or an early grave.  We first meet Sammy when he’s under the influence of crank and breaking into a McMansion to impress a girl. But the high runs out and he wakes to find himself in the company of two seemingly-sophisticated young people who want Sammy to help them with a project.

Turns out Sammy has come into the orbit of Jamalee and Jason Merridew, two of the inhabitants of the lowest life across-the-track neighborhood in West Table, Missouri.  West Table’s chief employer is a dog food factory, and Sammy can’t even keep a job there; Jamalee and Jason have bigger plans to escape West Table and go somewhere where people don’t treat them like the garbage on the bottom of their shoes.  That’s where Sammy comes in.

But there’s trouble with their plan, the kind that can’t be overcome no way nohow.  It seems their only choice is to put themselves into their own places – Jason at the local hair salon, Jamalee waiting tables at the country club, and Sammy doing whatever is left when the dog food factory doesn’t work out.  Even those efforts go awry, and the trio embarks on a cycle of revenge and retribution that destroys their plans once and for all.

The fourth person in the story is Bev Merridew, Jamalee and Jason’s mother.  She’s the kind of woman who learned long ago that for a pretty girl from across the tracks the best solution to life’s steamroller is to lay down.  So she lays down, either with a joint or with a guy who can put some money in her pocket, and lets the rest wash over her.  She even smokes, drinks, and sleeps with Sammy, which throws another sour note into his relationship with Jamalee.  When trouble hits too close to home, though, for once she decides to take action but finds what few assets she has are worth nothing to the important people of the town.

Woodrell’s characters are the very best thing about this book.  Sammy speaks in the cadence and language of a mostly unlettered culture that hasn’t yet succumbed to the uniformity of TV-speak.  Like the forebears who settled in the isolated Ozarks, he has a fierce independence, a fierce loyalty to the people he adopts as his, a fierce temper when crossed.  Jamalee barely contains her rage, knowing deep down that she doesn’t have the wherewithal to leave West Table.  Jason is learning about his sexuality, and it doesn’t look good for him among these rural alpha males.  Bev is earthy, practical, willing, which makes her a favorite among those same men.

I don’t know what it is about this setting, or the people who inhabit it, but it seems that I keep coming back to it, and with Tomato Red, I know I’m in good hands.  The author of the terrific Winter’s Bone (also made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, who was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Ree),  Woodrell’s writing is a reminder that an air of fatalism and a talent for stark storytelling seems to characterize the people of the Ozarks; maybe that’s what brings me back.

Check the WRL catalog for Tomato Red

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