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Archive for the ‘Characters’ Category

DeathWoreWhite

This is the first entry in a series featuring Detective Inspector Peter Shaw and his Detective Sergeant Bob Valentine in Norfolk, England. It’s a police procedural with a “locked-room” element to the main plot: A line of cars is stranded in a snowstorm on a desolate coastal road. When help arrives, the driver of the first vehicle in the convoy is discovered dead at his steering wheel, murdered seemingly under the noses of the other drivers stranded behind him. With no footprints in the snow, Shaw and his team are stumped as to means and opportunity. As to motive, however, the police begin to uncover some very convoluted relationships between the other drivers–supposedly all strangers to each other–in the convoy. Complicating matters are two other murders in the immediate vicinity, one corpse floating to shore on a toy raft and another found buried in the sand. Could all these deaths be related? You’d be surprised!

The plot was satisfyingly byzantine, and the atmosphere deliciously chilling and bleak. But what piqued my interest was the back story of DI Shaw and his relationship with Valentine. Valentine is an older man who fell from grace and was demoted as a result of implied corruption in the fall-out of a failed investigation years before. His partner had been DI Shaw’s father, since deceased. Shaw Jr. wants to know the truth about this unsolved case, which involved a murdered child, and his father’s true role in the investigation. Valentine would like his name cleared and his position back, but suffers from resentment of serving under the younger man. A mutual lack of trust complicates matters even further, but over the course of the story each man begins to develop a grudging respect for the other’s detective abilities. One can tell that this back story will continue to develop in future series entries, which will keep me reading.

Check the WRL catalog for Death Wore White

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jacketAs a fan of David O. Russell’s film adaptation of The Silver Linings Playbook, I picked up Matthew Quick’s latest young adult novel, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, fell in love with it, and went on a Matthew Quick reading frenzy. In his latest novel, due out June 16th, Quick looks at a woman ready to trade a comfortable but unfulfilling life for the one her high school English teacher made her believe she could attain.

Portia Kane married a slick young film director whose charm and opulent lifestyle wooed her after she dropped out of college, uninspired yet desperate to leave her unsatisfying home life. Mid-thirties, her gilded cage built, she finds herself finally unhappy enough to confront her long-philandering husband about his dalliances with his barely-eighteen string of “film” talent. (Those kinds of films.) Portia returns home to suburban Philadelphia to stay with her mother long enough to reconnect with her adored high school English teacher, become newly inspired, and engage with the world as a contributing member. Portia knows to expect the decrepit state of her hoarding mother’s home, the roughness of the old neighborhood, and the adult versions of the classmates who still hang around the neighborhood bars; but she is shocked by what has happened to her beloved teacher Mr. Vernon.

As in several of his other novels, Quick’s world is set within the working-class neighborhoods around Philly – think Billy Joel’s “Allentown” – and focuses on the lives of regular people trying to do their best, flaws and all, repairing themselves through bad times, after bad choices, and with old friends. The authenticity of Quick’s characters transports you to a barstool or to an elderly mother’s kitchen table. This novel is lighter than most of his work – anyone into hair metal in the 80s will appreciate the references – but still explores the personal work of people trying to reinvent themselves and find happiness despite wrongs that can’t be righted, only survived. I found myself disappointed in some of the characters, as I felt they didn’t learn or recover from the depths as much as I wish they had, but perhaps this is one reason the characters feel authentic, as people don’t always in the real world either. Quick’s fully-realized characters connect the reader to what might otherwise be a lukewarm slice-of-life story.

For a novel about the struggle of regular people trying better themselves with characters you can’t help but connect to, read Love May Fail. I recommend this title to fans of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry and Jodi Picoult.

Check the WRL catalog for Love May Fail

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maronReaders who enjoy police procedurals and are looking for stories of justice in the New South will find a lot to enjoy in Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series. Maron sets her books in contemporary North Carolina (like fellow writer Michael Malone). Over the course of the series, Judge Knott has to address the same problems and concerns—racial and social divides, economic inequality, etc.—that face Malone’s Police Chief Cuddy Mangum. Maron does not shy away from addressing challenging issues in contemporary society.

The problems that Judge Knott faces are often rooted in the evils of the past. Family and community play important roles in both the life of Judge Knott and in the stories. Maron’s novels are straight ahead mysteries, with engaging characters and interesting plots. This is an excellent series for readers interested in contemporary crime writing, issues in the New South, or police procedurals. Start with Bootlegger’s Daughter.

Check the WRL catalog for Bootlegger’s Daughter.

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jacketDespite being abandoned by her Danish mother when she was an infant and her Chilean immigrant father’s absence working as an international airline pilot, Maya was raised by her grandparents with spirited enlightenment and fiercely bolstering love. She was propped to have sound character, and her future held so much promise, until her Popo died when she was fifteen. Popo was her Nini’s second husband, but his presence meant the world to Maya. He had promised, “I swear I’ll always be with you.” Popo was a remarkably attentive surrogate parent to Maya, but following his death, whatever threads held her in check were unraveling at an alarming rate. The trio formed with her two girlfriends styled themselves as the “Vampires” and challenged each other to commit increasingly risky criminal acts and venture into dangerous sexual territory. By the time Maya is nineteen and living on the streets of Las Vegas, by the time she phones home, she’s on the run from criminals and the law. As she’s ushered onto a plane to exit the country and ride out the danger, her grandmother hands her a notebook for writing out her troubles as a tool for recovery, or as her Nini says it,

take advantage of it to write down the monumental stupidities you’ve committed, see if you can come to grips with them.

In the audiobook version I enjoyed, as the narrator began speaking in the voice of the 19-year-old female main character in Maya’s Notebook, she sounded far too mature, using unrealistic vocabulary and sounding too worldly. Soon, however, that didn’t matter because I was spellbound by Maya Vidal’s troubled past. She’d experienced complex problems and was running from drug lords, international criminals, and the FBI, and she comes from a highly unusual family; clearly her life was more complicated than an average teen girl’s. She was sent by her Chilean grandmother, her Nini, to Chiloé Island, perfect as a place for banishment or exile, to ride out the danger with an old friend of Nini’s, Manuel Arias. Manuel is a man with a mysterious and painful past as well. The narrative floats easily between Maya’s present in Chiloé and her past in Berkeley, California, then a rehab academy in Oregon, then in Las Vegas where she reaches the darkest pit of her degradation and suffering. Just when you think her story has been told already, it just gets deeper and more layered.

Maya’s Notebook is an Adult Fiction title which would likely appeal to many older teens, but the book contains very graphic scenes of criminality, violence (both sexual and drug-related), sexuality, and extreme drug use. It’s available in the WRL collection via regular print, audiobook on CD, e-audiobook, and in large print.

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GodGotaDog

Recommended to me by a children’s librarian who was making a display of children’s books that adults love to read, this little book provided some unexpected moments of grace in a grumpy day.

Prolific Newbery award-winning author Cynthia Rylant has produced a book that all ages could find quirky, thought-provoking and beguiling. It may not be for everyone, since the basic premise is that God is visiting earth in various everyday situations to see what living on earth is like. Written in verse, it includes some startling moments such as when God opens a shop called “Nails by Jim,” an idea I find surprising, but oddly beautiful:
“He got into nails, of course,
Because He’d always loved
Hands ——
Hands were some of the best things
He’d ever done”

God Got a Dog portrays God personally with human failings and doubts:
“He knew He WAS
invincible
but he didn’t
always feel that way. Not every day).”

Like Cynthia Rylant’s other books it is idiosyncratic, unconventional and gently effervescent, and made me look at the world in a slightly different way. Reading it was a small break from the day.

These poems were previously published as part of a longer teen book called God Went to Beauty School. To appeal to a younger audience, in God Got a Dog each poem has a lovely, calm and muted illustration, with a wide viewpoint that gives a sense of large scale.

God Got a Dog will suit adult readers who are interested in children’s books and it will also appeal to anyone who is eager to explore quirky ideas about religion.

Check the WRL catalog for God Got a Dog.

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JacketI don’t know anyone who doesn’t long for the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle: record company execs throwing cash at you, the weeks on the road, the camaraderie formed under the pressure of creativity, the worshipful fans throwing onesies onto the stage. Wait a minute—onesies?

Yep. And that’s what the Wonderkids face on their climb to the top of the charts. Fronted by Blake Lear (his stage name), Wonderkids ride his mix of poppy music and bizarre lyrics to million-selling albums, memorabilia, and fans, fans, fans. Billed as “your kid’s first rock band,” the music appeals to—or at least doesn’t drive mad—the parents, and the lyrics, which are based on Lewis Carroll’s imagery, William Blake’s innocence, and Edward Lear’s whimsy, grab childrens’ attention.

Raffi’s sincere goody-two-shoeism is not yet on the scene and parents are tired of “Octopus’s Garden” and “Yellow Submarine,” so when a record company executive’s 5-year-old son picks a demo at random and listens to it over and over again on a long drive, Dad knows he’s on to something. From a basement practice band and menial jobs, the newly-minted Wonderkids is on the road in England and soon to the United States.

Wonderkids’ real appeal is the live show, especially since Blake is happy to sit with every kid for pictures, tell jokes, talk with parents and give each person a real personal experience. It also sells tons of t-shirts and other memorabilia, which is where the Wonderkid of the title comes in.  Sweet is a young teen in a foster home when he and Blake meet. Before long, he becomes the guy who takes money for the swag and keeps an eye on the promoter. Tour life is his chance to make the transition from childhood to adulthood, which he does under the tutelage of a bizarre mix of characters. When the band heads for the U.S., Sweet becomes our eyewitness to Wonderkids’ spectacular rise and the excesses it leads to.

Any band aimed at the children’s audience had better be squeaky clean. When those excesses (some of which aren’t even excessive) start to catch up to them, things go sour. In true rock ‘n’ roll fashion, the band splits, but its life doesn’t end. Which makes the last portion of the story both poignant and whimsical as anything Blake Lear ever wrote.

Check the WRL catalog for Wonderkid.

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onanStewart O’Nan is quite simply one of the best authors writing today. His quiet prose captures ordinary feelings and lifts them up in a light that shows them to be both specific to his characters and universal to the reader.

West of Sunset could be a departure for him; it’s an exploration of the final years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life at a time when this icon of American literature had not yet attained the immortality that came with his creation of Jay Gatsby. (In fact, he was better known for Tender is the Night–and for his outsized lifestyle–than the work most people remember him by.) Brought down by his drinking and reputation he has fallen so far that he is relying on the charitable intervention of Hollywood friends to earn a living. At the same time, his wife Zelda is institutionalized in a North Carolina sanitarium, where her youthful free spirit has metastasized into destructive mental illness. Between the cost of her treatment, their daughter Scottie’s high class Eastern education, and his own profligate ways, Fitzgerald is consumed by worries about money.

There are bright spots in his life: his friendship with Humphrey Bogart (based on a mutual love of drinking and literature–surprise!), his friends Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, and a love affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. But his working life, although it paid more than he was ever to earn from his books, was less rewarding.

O’Nan takes this period and delves into the frustration and pain of a man faced with more troubles than he can surmount. Far from being sheltered by his status (and by an income that exceeded that of nearly all Americans at the time), he knows he is as close to ruin as any Depression-era assembly-line working stiff. But he also finds respite in his own work, and in his desire to be the man Sheilah wants him to be. In essence, O’Nan is still attracted to those ordinary feelings, and with West of Sunset he once again lifts them up to us through the life of a very public man.

Find West of Sunset in the WRL catalog

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