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Archive for the ‘Andrew’s Picks’ Category

trainThere’s a little bit of the voyeur in all of us. Admit it, when you walk by someone’s house, especially at night, you glance up to the window in case someone walks in front of it. You glance over at the car next to you to see if the driver’s picking his nose. You listen, even if accidentally, to those one-sided cell phone conversations. And, if you’re like Rachel Watson, you look for the beautiful couple living in the house beside the tracks every day, and wish for their golden lives.

Rachel herself is a mess. The ride home from London is occupied by a cold, canned (blecch!) gin and tonic, the night in her rented bedroom passed with a bottle or two of wine, and the commute back with a hangover. In the aftermath of a bitter divorce, broke, drinking to the point of blackout, it’s no wonder Rachel projects her desire for a better life onto the couple she names Jess and Jason. Until one day when she sees Jess kissing a stranger in the garden. And Jess, that is to say Megan Hipwell, goes missing, so Rachel feels compelled to interject herself into the investigation.

That’s not the only place Rachel makes herself an intruder. Truth is, Rachel’s old house, where her ex and his new wife and their baby live, is only a couple of doors down from the Hipwells (Scott is the husband). Rachel spends far too much time–some of it drunk–hanging around the neighborhood, and second wife Anna Watson is first creeped out, then downright angry. Could Rachel’s hanging around, even getting close to Scott, have anything to do with Megan’s disappearance?

The story is split among three first person narrators: Rachel, who has the lion’s share, Anna, and Megan herself. Megan’s story is basically a flashback, gradually revealing to the reader what was happening in her life in the year before her disappearance. Rachel and Anna split the narrative for the present day, and their mutually hostile attitudes color the reader’s take on the story. Is Rachel the dangerous alcoholic Anna believes her to be? Is Anna the manipulative mistress who destroyed Rachel’s marriage and put her on the downward spiral?

That conflict–to which Megan’s life and disappearance provide a backdrop–is the principle mover to the story, and someone looking for a fast-moving mystery is bound to be disappointed. Nor are the revelations as shocking as those in Gone Girl, which the publisher compares it to. That doesn’t mean that it slacks off, only that the pacing is more a slow build-up to one explosion rather than a string of firecrackers.

Check the WRL catalog for The Girl on the Train

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JacketIt doesn’t seem like you’d find romance, emotional conflict, and a profound cultural shift in a grease-filled garage, but Wayne Harrison has found a way to do it–and for some reason that setting gives the themes a lot of punch. I mean, who would expect that guys who spend their lives elbow-deep in transmissions, radiators, and carburetors would live deeply-felt lives?

Harrison’s story centers on Nick Campbell’s Out of the Hole garage, where legendary mechanic Nick has taken on 17-year old Justin as a Vo-Ag intern. Over the course of a summer, Justin practices diagnosing and repairing the good old cars with names like Barracuda, Chevelle, Challenger, Firebird, GTO. Those cars could be completely disassembled, re-engineered and rebuilt to burn the rubber off the fat racing tires. Think Greased Lightning or just about any Springsteen car.  And Nick is a master, even written up in Road Rage magazine for his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of just what it takes to milk that last bit of torque to create the unconquerable street car.

Nick is married to Mary Ann, a beautiful, intelligent woman who runs the business end of the shop, and with whom Justin inevitably falls in love. Even after his apprenticeship is up, Justin flees his unwelcoming school for the camaraderie of the shop, and eventually takes a job there. Old-timer Ray, Bobby the ex-con, Nick and Mary Ann are the friends and uncomplicated family Justin needs. But Nick and Mary Ann suffered a tragedy while he was gone, and it’s having an effect on the shop–Nick’s work is getting dangerously shoddy and he and Mary Ann are barely talking. Mary Ann turns to Justin for comfort, which turns into a sexual relationship. Now 19, Justin sees a perfect future in which he takes Mary Ann for himself. There’s one problem: Nick.

Justin still regards Nick as a mentor, a combination father figure, brother, and teacher.  And the opportunity to work on Nick’s latest project, restoring and racing a Corvette ZL-1, one of two in existence, is irresistible. The owner also has a big dream to build a chain of shops specializing in customizing those big engines. See, the future is here. The EPA’s new emissions restrictions essentially require computerized controls, and those can’t be diagnosed by guys listening to spark plugs and tasting the gasoline. Plus they make the cars wimpy–no more living and dying on the line for cash or pink slips with the new generation.

Harrison pulls off both sides of the story with seeming ease. The world of cams and quarter-mile racing opens up even to the most auto-phobic, and the interaction between the characters is natural enough to touch the heart of any gearhead. As those worlds head towards collision, neither set of readers will be able to ignore the power of the writing.

Check the WRL catalog for The Spark and the Drive

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JacketIn this corner, weighing in at three pounds, with a chemical punch that rules the body is The Brain! And in this corner, managed by clueless trainers and sycophantic followers, is Everything Else! It’s the eternal match-up of Nature vs. Nurture! Tonight’s referee is Herman Koch, but there are no rules about punching below the belt, no timekeepers, and judges who can’t score the bout until it’s way too late. Ding!

OK, that’s a poor imitation of the ongoing boxing match between those who say criminals are born and those who say they are made. As a story, The Dinner is more like a tag-team wrestling event with a fundamental questions at its heart: Does a parent’s love encompass protecting their children from the consequences of their deeds?

Herman Koch has structured his approach to the question as the progressive courses of a dinner (hence the title) between two brothers and their wives. Paul, the narrator, is a teacher; his brother Serge a politician cruising to the top of Dutch political life. We see everything through Paul’s eyes, beginning with the bitter aperitif of Paul’s loathing for his pretentious brother and ending with a horrific after-dinner drink at a nearby pub. This single viewpoint frequently breaks the action up as individuals and pairs leave the table for private conversations we aren’t privy to, or we follow along as Paul does things the others don’t know about.

Over the course of the evening we learn that Paul’s son Michel and Serge’s son Rick were involved in a terrible crime. Paul recognized the boys from security footage, but the police and public haven’t, and every day brings new and more strident calls that the criminals be brought to justice. Does Paul have the courage to confront his son, to tell his wife, brother, and sister-in-law, to expose the boys and ruin both families? And does Paul’s bitterness have roots in a deeper conflict?

Koch has successfully incorporated the technology that has rendered so much other fiction out-of-date. Swapped cell phones, stolen emails, YouTube videos, and deleted voice mails all play a significant role in bringing the conflict into the open, and in offering a solution to the dilemma. But at its core, this is a story about people, ethics, and that old battle of Nature vs. Nurture. That one’s not going away any time soon.

Check the WRL catalog for The Dinner

(Coming in Summer 2015 as a Gab Bag – I’ll post that as soon as it’s up)

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HookThere’s nothing so tempting to readers as the opportunity to rewrite the books they enjoy. (Even though sometimes it leads to chaos.) And how meta is it for fictional authors to give happy endings to “flawed classics?”  At their best, authors exploring fictional characters from different points of view–villains reconsidered, offstage characters allowed their own voices, principal characters followed beyond the ends of the original story–increase the reader’s understanding and pleasure in the original book.

If that’s what you’re after, don’t pick up Alias Hook. If you’re interested in a story that recasts the hero in an awful light and turns the two-dimensional villain into a grievously abused victim with a tiny chance at redemption, Alias Hook is a terrific place to go.

Gifted with magic and music, leader of boys who don’t want to grow up, recruiter of girls who take all responsibility until they ask too much, what character better represents eternal boyhood than Peter Pan? At least that’s the Pan that Hook cannot escape, despite trying for 300 years. This Pan is competitive, but only on his own rules, (which include keeping Hook alive while allowing the Lost Boys to kill his crew), controlling the environment to his own advantage, and of course ruling the Indians and mermaids that live in Neverland at his pleasure.

Granted, Hook is not that nice a guy–the spoiled rich son of a merchant, he became a privateer in the 1680’s and was imprisoned as a pirate by the French enemy. Released into the poverty and bitterness, his hatred took him on a path that led him to Neverland. He still dresses as the Restoration dandy he was, but underneath all that lace and rich cloth, he longs for redemption and an end to his captivity. With the arrival of Stella Parrish–a WOMAN! in NEVERLAND!–he may just achieve that.

Jensen leads us on a trip through Neverland, including the land of the fairies, the Indian village, and the mysterious path leading to the beautiful loreleis who lure unwary sailors to their death. In each, she shows us a rich and mythical place where wisdom and adulthood are held at bay by the mercurial boy. It is plain early on that Hook (and just how did he lose that hand?) must forge his own destiny and find a way to escape Pan’s world; but how? The answer is as simple and as mythical as it is emotionally rewarding.

Check the WRL catalog for Alias Hook

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fallenPatrick Flanery’s Fallen Land is centered around two provocative and complex themes: the meaning of home, and the nature of the family. As he develops those themes through the book, the reader can see the inevitable collision, but can never tell where that intersection will come. We do know that the land about which he writes has its own tragic family history, and we also know that a modern crime was driven by desire for the land.

Fallen Land veers between an omniscient narrator and the first person voice of Louise Freeman Washington, an older black woman who lives on the land left to her by her own parents. Her husband had farmed the land, but she was forced to sell when he died and left her in debt. She knows every fold and hollow, and the loss is as grievous as her husband’s death. As the story opens, Louise is squatting in her old home, existing in much the same way her ancestors had. She has little left, having fought the county to keep the last bit of her family land, which was taken through eminent domain to widen a road.

The road needs widening because of the neighborhood built on the old farm. Paul Krovik, the developer who bought the land for a song, created his dream neighborhood of large houses on big lots. The neighborhood was supposed to be centered on his own home, a monstrosity where he would be the benevolent overlord. But Paul built shoddily, the land lost value in the Great Recession, and he went bankrupt amid a raft of lawsuits. Left alone by his wife and sons, Paul has literally gone to ground, living in a complex and secure bunker unknown to the rest of the world. The bunker has an access door into the house he built, and he haunts the rooms where he believes his dreams may still come true.

But the house is bought for a song by the Noailles, a Boston family relocating to this unnamed Midwestern city for Julia’s university job. Nathaniel is also transferring to a better job with his employer, a multinational corporation with fingers in every imaginable pie. Their eight-year old son Copley, bright and inquisitive but troubled by the move, is enrolled in a charter school run by the multinational under a draconian set of rules, which he accidentally breaks on a regular basis. Paul can’t even pronounce their last name (No-Ales? No-Ills?); that their name is pronounced No Eyes is a pointed commentary on their inability to see what is around them.

Of course, the Noailles don’t know that Paul is living under the house, and when he sees the changes they are making, his anger erupts into madness. Copley is caught in the middle, repeatedly telling Julia and Nathaniel that he has seen the man slowly defacing their home, but they will not believe him. As Nathaniel gradually slides under the influence of his employer’s mission, he also begins to believe that Copley is destroying the house, sabotaging his work reputation, creating a rift between father and mother, and lying to everyone.

As I said, this is a story about home and family. Flanery contrasts Louise’s grounding in the land and memories of her ancestors and husband with Paul’s obsession that his house creates his masculine identity and Nathaniel and Julia’s vision of a house as a sterile shelter from the world. Those perspectives come from the treatment the three of them survived as children, which is gradually revealed through the course of the story. As those revelations compound with the treatment Copley is receiving, the tension finally explodes.

Flanery also explores the larger intersection of home and family in the public sphere. Nathaniel’s employer has the stated goal of making people safe in their homes, watched over by a government-contracted company concerned with their health and well-being. They don’t state that it also would track consumption, movements, relationships, and thoughts, then intervene when it judges those people dangerous. Nathaniel’s passive acceptance of that vision turns him from a specialist in creating rehabilitation programs for ex-convicts to a bureaucrat trying to convert those prisoners into a corporate profit center. To do that, they must identify criminals in elementary schools, imprison them as soon as possible, monitor them after release, and incarcerate them again for the slightest of infractions. Welcome to the future of safe homes and happy families.

Check the WRL catalog for Fallen Land

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orfeoWhat does it take for a musical composition to become “classical music”? Some pieces now in the canon caused riots and inspired revolutions when first performed. It seems, though, that when composers set out to declare revolution, they didn’t really connect with audiences. That’s the situation Peter Els found himself in as a young man.

Peter Els is the main character in Richard Powers’ Orfeo, and our tour guide through the worlds of orchestral music and biological terrorism. Seventy years old when the novel begins, his career as a composer over, his only creative outlet lies in the brave new world of manipulating bacteria for his own enlightenment. It’s just too bad that his equipment triggers a full-out alarm at Homeland Security, which reacts in a heavy-handed fashion. With little warning, few resources, and the weight of public opinion quickly turned against him, Peter flees.

On his journey, he recites an apologia of his extinguished career. Els grew up in a time of musical turmoil, where old-fashioned notions of rhythm and structure (“beauty” is the reviled term) were thrown out in favor of dissonance and audience involvement. He had two compatriots in his personal revolution – Richard Bonner, a manic director and producer brimming with wild ideas; and Maddy, a singer who agrees to try one of his experimental pieces and ends up marrying him.

But low-paying jobs that enable his creative flow, and his devoted fatherhood to their child are not enough for Maddy, and they divorce. Peter goes into a hermitic existence, which he breaks only when Richard blasts back into his life with an earthshaking commission. After an extended and agonizing creative process, the piece debuts to rave reviews; however, Peter sees an unfortunate parallel to current events, refuses to give permission for future performances and breaks all ties with Richard. Alone, he takes a position as an adjunct professor in a middling music program where he nonetheless affects his students and brings out their best.

Els admires many of his contemporaries, among them Harry Partsch and John Cage. But he also shows us the ambitions and results of composers ranging back to Mozart, and the future of sounds created by popular musicians who adapted them from the revolutionaries of the late 20th century. Like Mr. Holland, he  teaches by understanding where we are and leading us to a new level.

Still, he’s on the run, and his efforts to recapture and even make amends for his past are fraught with danger. His genetic engineering interest sparks a national debate, driven by hysteria and the need for a villain by the national media but Peter Els has his own voice and uses it to maximum effect to counter the fear that has been created in his name.

Powers’ back-and-forth structure allows him to develop Peter Els against a background of familiar but vague current events, as if his art shelters him from the real world until that art crumbles. He isn’t always a sympathetic man, but freely admits his shortcomings. By the time we reach the unclear conclusion, his story doesn’t need an ending. It’s his life, and the music, that stand on their own.

I don’t know if Richard Powers knew about these guys when he started working on Orfeo; if not, it’s an ideal case of life imitating art. Ironic, since all Peter Els wanted to do was have his art imitate life.

Check the WRL catalog for Orfeo

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JacketOK, let’s get this out of the way first – the book we have in our collection is actually titled The American, which as you read the book becomes patently ridiculous. This is a movie tie-in for a George Clooney vehicle, which got middling to bad reviews from ‘ordinary’ people, but middling to good reviews from top critics. If the movie follows the pacing of the book, I can see where the thrill movie seeker would come away less than satisfied.

A Very Private Gentleman is slow, but in the way that develops tension even as the gentleman slowly allows readers into his very private world until we get a more complete view of a character who rationalizes and even elevates the evil he does.  Even the nature of that work is trickled out until we fully understand that he is a master craftsman of death. Not the death-dealer, but the maker of the custom weapons the death dealers require. That doesn’t make him any less a target, and there are plenty of people who want him dead.

His craft requires subtlety, patience, watchfulness, and mobility. For this, his final job, he has chosen to live in a small Italian village under the identity of a painter of butterflies, so he becomes Signor Farfalla to the inhabitants. While awaiting the commission, he argues theology over bottles of fine wine with the local priest, becomes known at the local bars and restaurants, and a regular customer at the local brothel. Even considering his obsession with security, this is the most idyllic place he’s ever lived.

Indeed, the idyll is seductive. The kindness of people who don’t demand intimacy, the eternal feel of this ancient village, the excellent food, the romps with two beautiful girls, the landscape around his temporary home all call to him that he can maintain this identity and settle into a well-deserved (but still watchful) retirement. But his sixth sense turns up a hint of danger, and the idyll becomes less than ideal.

Signor Farfalla still has that commission to fulfill, which means meeting the client for the specifications, finding the materials, creating and testing the weapon, then making the final delivery. Each of those is a potential vulnerability, and Signor Farfalla practices his professional paranoia to the hilt. When the commission comes face-to-face with the source of his unease, it quickly becomes apparent that his professional life will cause his personal death.

Signor Farfalla addresses the story directly to the reader, even telling us that he’s withholding information that might allow us to identify him. That almost-confiding tone also conveys a sense of hubris when he claims the rightful role he believes history owes him, but involves us in his love of nature, and the good life he’s got. That personal connection makes the climax much more shocking than a genre thriller as the final revelations erupt and Signor Farfalla must make fatal decisions.

Check the WRL catalog for A Very Private Gentleman (aka The American)

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