Friday, September 27, 2013

Review: Through the Evil Days by Julia Spencer-Fleming

Back in March 2011, I finished One was a Soldier - the book preceding this one in the series about Clare Ferguson and Russ Van Alstyne. After reading the closing line, I threw the previous book across the room yelling - " can't leave us hanging like this!"

30 plus months later, we are finally able to pick up the story.  All of us who are fans of this wonderful cast of characters have been holding our collective breath to see what's going to happen.  I really hate to give too much away so that readers who have not read the earlier books can have the fun of catching up before this one hits the bookshelves November 5th.

But it does pick up just where the last one ended.  So let's catch up a bit. Clare Ferguson is an Episcopal priest and an Army Air National Guard Helicopter pilot.  After she returned from a very stressful tour in Afghanistan,  her PTSD led to drug and alcohol problems, not to mention testy scenes with the love of her life, Russ Van Alstyne.  Russ, recently widowed Vietnam era vet, is Chief of Police of Millers Kill NY, where Clare's parish is located.  After a long and tumultuous courtship, they have recently married and are determined to have the honeymoon they about were unable to have during the previous book.  Russ has found the perfect place - about an hour out of town on a quiet lake, there is a rustic cabin for sale.  It has no electricity, no plumbing, no phone line, and a big frozen pond where he is going to teach Clare the fine art of ice fishing. He wants to buy it, and this is the perfect opportunity for them to check it out to see if this could become their hideaway retreat.  Clare reluctantly agrees to check it out. After all, they're both veterans of Army survival training, so what's the big deal about no power, running water or phone?

The big deal is that Clare is under pressure from her vestry to resign because of some transgressions (the cliff hangar from the last book) and Russ is facing the dismantling of his small town police force by the town council who claim the state police can provide coverage for much less money.  Neither tells the other about the impending axes about to fall.  Each figures that a week away from pressure will guide them to an answer.  Neither counts on the storm of the century isolating them so totally that the situation becomes extremely dangerous.  Neither counts on a seriously ill 7 year old being kidnapped back in Millers Kill while the police force is understaffed.  Neither counts on becoming entangled with a gang of drug dealers operating nearby.

The story of Hadley Knox and Kevin Flynn - members of the MK police force whose on again, off-again relationship is off at the beginning of the book- find themselves thrown back together as partners when they are assigned to lead the search team for the missing child.  This relationship has quietly developed over the last several books, and I found myself especially interested in seeing it blossom.  In fact, it is becoming as compelling as the Clare and Russ story.

Spencer-Fleming is a master at blending multiple story-lines, a fairly large cast of characters and a setting untamed enough to foster all kinds of evil doings.  This one does not disappoint.  It is fast paced, taking place over a short week that to the participants must have seemed like a year.  It has new characters arriving, old friends still there (although a few are more on the fringes with this one), and a very well plotted mystery with several "Wow,  where did that come from?" plot twists.

And now, in her usual white knuckle routine, Spencer-Fleming leaves us yelling at the end again.  "NO---don't leave it like this!!!"  Please Julia,  don't make us wait another 30 months.   At least we'll have time to read the whole series again.  They are definitely books that don't get old with re-reading.
Go pre-order.  If this isn't the best one yet, it's sure close to whatever is.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Review: Sparta by Roxana Robinson

 Last night, I finished a real hard cover print book which I read in about 48 hours. I very seldom have the physical strength to hold a book for that long, or the mental wiring to single-task and sit still for that lengthy a stretch, but Sparta: A Novel by Roxanna Robinson BLEW. ME. AWAY. I could not put this one down. I did not want to read another book about the Iraq war. I did not want to read anything else grim, dark, or depressing. But since it was one of my required reads for Maine Readers' Choice, I dove in and told myself to get it over with.

I can't begin to get my thoughts ordered enough to write this one the review it deserves, but I can sing its praises to the heavens. Have no doubt-- this is a meaty book, with a subject matter that many of us find distasteful, but it is an exquisite piece of extra words, no fluff, instead it's a bold, brazen, heart-wrenching look into an anguished soul; it's a panic attack-producing introspective view of what is happening to an entire generation of this country's (and maybe the world's?) young military aged people who have gone off to serve their country with high hopes of changing the world, only to return to a world they don't know, don't understand, and a world that doesn't seem able to understand them or help them cope with the traumas they've endured. They may come home in pieces physically, or they may return looking intact, but they are all fractured indelibly from what they've done, what they've endured, what they've seen and heard and smelled and experienced.

The story is about Conrad Farrell - New England upper middle class classics major in college, enamored of the ancient Spartans and the purity of their thoughts, who decides after graduation to do "something real.. something that will make a difference" by accepting a commission in the US Marines. As a Marine leader, he is responsible for his men, and goes off to Iraq to engage in the carnage that was Fallujah and surrounding area battles. When he returns after four years, he is irrevocably changed and unable to settle back into a world he no longer recognizes.
"You don't get it. I'd love to do this....Change. I can't. Something's not working. All you do is tear me apart. I'd like to be back here with you all, but I'm not. You don't get it. I'm not here. I'm not home. I'm still there." p. 348
His family (parents, brother, sister and girl-friend) are devastated when their efforts to understand are scorned, all offers of help are ignored or rejected, when they see him sinking further and deeper into non-functioning desperation and are forced to stand by helplessly. His inability to articulate his problems compounds the tragedy. The VA is not much help. (The book is set in 2006). His mother, a professional therapist, is particularly upset:
"I know what I'm supposed to do....I do it all the time as a therapist...but I can't do it with Con.  I can't do it.....I'm not supposed to reach out to him.  He doesn't like it.  I can see that.  If he were a client, I'd tell myself to stop....I'm too afraid.  I can't leave him alone....What kind of a therapist! What kind of a mother!  I can't stop."  p. 340

It should be required reading in high school, in college, at our military's officer training academies and War Colleges, and by all who are in the unenviable position of treating these returning veterans both physically and mentally. Ultimately, it's not only an indictment of our mental health care system, but of our national caring system, our national conscience, and the conflicted value system of leadership and patriotism.

Ultimately it's also a book about hope, and love, and caring, and never giving up.  Go get it, go read it.  It's definitely going to be one of my top five of  the year.

Many thanks to Sarah Crichton Books for making this available for review.

Author: Roxanna Robinson
Publisher:Sarah Crichton Books (Farrar Staus and Giroux) (2013), Hardcover, 400 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Subject: War trauma and mental illness
Setting: New York
Source: Review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now? It was given to me to review for the Maine Readers Choice Awards Committee.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Review: The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

 In the past, I haven't been a huge Chris Bohjalian fan, but this one has changed my mind.  The Light in the Ruins is a tightly written mystery story with two plots and two narrators.

There is the story of Italian partisans battling the Fascists in Tuscany, and of the Rosati family, demi-royals who lived on a huge estate with hundreds of acres of wine grapes and an ancient Etrucan burial ground and who were viewed by the partisans as collaborating with the Nazis.

Then there is the story of a  murder in Florence in 1955  (the first of several by a serial killer who is one of the narrators of the book.)  The police detective assigned to the case is Serafina, the first female detective ever to hold this position in Florence.  As it turns out, Serafina grew up near the Rosati family who now appear to be the target of this demented killer.

As Serafina tracks her prey, she must also relive her days as a partisan, including the agony suffered when she was critically burnt and left for dead.  The victims' family does not immediately recognize or acknowledge her, and she is drawn into the story of their cooperation with the Nazis in the hopes of maintaining their lives and property.

I found this tale fascinating:  the background and story of the struggles of the Italian people during WWII were eye-opening.  Although Bohjalian does not overwhelm us with tons of information, he manages to present enough to help the reader fix the situation in overall historical perspective, and to understand the sympathies both of the Partisans and the collaborators.

Background material aside, it is the unraveling of the story of Serafina that dominates.  Her gradual reawakening to what happened to her, to her understanding of how the Rosatis were involved in her past, and how her past holds the clues to solving the mysteries of the murders of two of the Rosati women.  Convoluted, intertwined, and thoroughly engaging, this story is a spectacular example of the art of writing historical mysteries that impart good history, solid plotting, interesting characters, and a gorgeous setting.

Title: The Light in the Ruins
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday (2013), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 320 pages
Genre: Historial fiction
Subject: Italian collaboration with Nazis; murder
Setting: Florence, Tuscany Italy
Source: Review copy from publisher
Why did I read this book now? It's being considered for the long-list for the 2013 Maine Readers Choice Award

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Review: The Cat by Edeet Ravel

Stunning.....absolutely stunning story. I almost didn't read this after scanning the jacket blurb:
Single mother Elise is devoted to her son; he is her world. But that world is shattered in one terrifying moment when her son is killed in a car accident. Lost, angry, and desolate, Elise sees no point in going on, and longs to join her son. But despair is not an option; Elise must stay alive to take care of her son's beloved cat, Pursie.
Already this wasn't working for me.  I seem to have been inundated with dark, depressing books in this batch we've been reviewing for the Maine Readers Choice Awards for next year.  In fact, one of my fellow reviewers quipped that "Grim is the new funny."  I hope she didn't really mean it!

This one is elegant, lean writing at its best.  There isn't a wasted word.  While the reader can feel and understand the torture that Elise goes through, and can become immersed in the struggle, the detached dreamlike quality of the narration keeps it from becoming too maudlin, too ugly, or too unthinkable.  Having Elise herself narrate what it happening, and letting her memories surface to explain how and why she is grieving makes this a beautiful tale.

The cat is the excuse Elise uses to continue on, but the feline never becomes the real story.  Had that happened it would have been a travesty.  Instead, the good kitty stays in the background, available when needed, but never pushing into the limelight.  As Elise goes through the first few months of her self-imposed isolation, she deals with the memories of her own childhood, her feelings toward her mother, her son's father, her previous lover, and her only childhood friend.  Each of these characters is described with just enough detail to fit in, but never intrudes on the story which is essentially Elise's.

Although it's set in Canada, the setting could have been anywhere.  The time frame is a bit more important because the isolation and communications issues are very much influenced and framed by modern day media and communications devices.

In the end, Ravel manages to leave the reader with a sense of hope without closing the door on any possibilities.  I wish she had been able to expand the ending a bit more.  It seemed almost to say  "OK, now here's a way to solve this mess, I'll leave it right here."  Disappointing perhaps, but then again, this young woman is never going to have her life wrapped up with a pretty bow, so leaving the future open is quite realistic.

Right now, this one is very near (if not AT) the top of my list for 2013.  Go get a copy.

Title: The Cat
Author: Edeet Ravel
Publisher: Pintail (2013), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 240 pages
Genre: literary ficion
Subject: Dealing with grief
Setting: Northeastern Canada
Source: Courtesy copy from publisher
Why did I read this book now? It's being considered for the long-list of Maine Readers Choice Award for 2013 books.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Lazy Sunday - Darning and Day-Dreaming

Tutu has not been doing a very good job of blogging lately.  It's not that I'm not reading, it's just that real life keeps getting in the way of writing reviews.  It's that glorious time of year when the days here in Maine are usually warm, the evenings crisp and cool, the harvest bounty is still plentiful, and we find ourselves already making plans for the fall.  Thus the book cover....

Fall brings back closed toed shoes and SOCKS.  In case you haven't noticed, the price of socks, along with everything else has gone through the financial ceiling, and the quality has fallen out the basement door.  In other words, those $7 a pair socks are lucky they last 7 wearings.  I used to just ignore small holes in socks (as long as they weren't visible to others, and then, when the holes had grown too big, I'd either keep them for wearing on hands for furniture dusting, or throw them out.  I even went through a phase where I pretended I was a very "with it" younger person and wore mismatched socks, telling anyone who stared they were a fashion statement.  That only lasted about three times.

Now I have a whole basket of socks, many of them among my favorites, all of which have mates, but none of which can be worn because they have holes in them.  For the past month, I've been on the hunt for an old fashioned darning egg-like the one seen here.  They seem to exist only in my memory or in museums these days.  I have decided to try the next best thing - a baseball bat- and plan to spend some time this evening working on at least one pair of socks to practice  darning techniques.

My mother was quite often heard to remind us when she was growing up after the Great Depression, and then through World War II, citizens were constantly reminded to use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.  And I do remember someone in my family (grandmother, mother, aunt?) using a darning egg.  Or it may have been in Girl Scouts?  Maybe that's where I was exposed to the basics.  I've studied the videos and step by step guides on the internet, and have chosen a pair of my least favorites to use for practice.  So we'll see.

In the meantime, it's a lovely day for a walk, and maybe a listen to an audio book while I prep the peaches and pork chops for dinner.

Enjoy the autumn....get out and soak up the gentle weather, get the wood pile stacked and the vegetables put up.  Winter won't be far behind. 

Match up those socks and get them darned. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review: Someone Else's Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson

Joshilyn Jackson just keeps getting better. This latest novel certainly exceeds the "southern fiction" genre label of her previous offerings "Gods in Alabama" and "BackSeat Saints". It's much more than just a chick-lit romance; it has a hint of mystery, and an assortment of men and women and relationships. As the title indicates, it's truly a story of relationships. The resolution of who is in love with whom and who will end up together is handled so beautifully that the reader doesn't even realize that these permutations of relationships exist until well into the story. As I read, I actually found I couldn't decide who should win the fair maiden's hand.

It's told as almost a series of small individual stories. The main character Shandi tells us her (almost) unbelievable story from the beginning in the first person. The story opens: "I fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint in a Circle K." Then other characters' stories begin to emerge in the words of a neutral narrator. In addition to a love story, or several love stories, it is a story of friendship, of parenthood, and a tale of betrayal and forgiveness. There are plot lines about date rape, genetic research, and the power of suggestion.

This one is not going to be available until later this fall, but it would be a wonderful holiday gift for readers of southern stories, romance and good literary fiction. Put it on your list. It's going to be a winner.

Title: Someone Else's Love Story
Author: Joshilyn Jackson
Publisher: William Morrow (2013), e-review galley 352 pages
Genre: fiction
Subject: relationships; date rape; genetic research
Setting: Atlanta GA and surrounding area
Source: Edelweiss electronic review galley service
Why did I read this book now? It was available for review and I enjoy the author's works.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Review: Eventide by Kent Haruf

This sequel to Plainsong is every bit a good as the first. I can't seem to get enough of Kent Haruf and his picture perfect portrayal of the Midwest. I'm a coastal person, but I have come to appreciate the way of life of the inhabitants of Holt Colorado and its environs. Eventide brings back the wonderful McPheron brothers, their ward Victoria and her daughter, we meet the hapless Wallace family in their dilapidated trailer, we meet Rose the social worker, and we see the hard-working, plain, loving, and giving way of life of the plains ranchers and small town merchants. It's another perfect piece of writing.

I simply can't get enough of Haruf's plain and simple scene setting and lyrical prose. There is not a wasted word, nor a wasted scene. His characters are real, the story is true to life, and although parts can be called extremely sad, they are simply statements of life as it is. The hope and grace he portrays in his characters keeps the story from being maudlin, and leaves the reader looking for more. If you haven't discovered this superb writer, run to your bookstore or library. You won't regret it.

Title: Eventide
Author: Kent Haruf
Publisher: Vintage (2005), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 299 pages
Genre: contemporary fiction
Subject: life in small town
Setting: Holt Colorado
Series: Plainsong
Source: Public library
Why did I read this book now? I'd read the 1st and 3rd books, wanted to fill in the series.