Pearl's Picks for September 2009
Awakening - by S.J. Bolton
S. J. Bolton's Awakening is not a book I would have predicted I'd ever enjoy. I am not fond of snakes (and that's an understatement for you) and in general I don't like atmospheric psychological mysteries (plain old vanilla action is enough for me), but I was totally riveted by S. J. Bolton's second thriller, Awakening. I hadn't read her first one, so had no idea what to expect, and it was a pleasant shock to find myself turning the pages into--and through--the wee hours of the night. When reclusive Clara Benning, a veterinary surgeon in a small British town, gets a call from a panicky mother to please come quickly to remove a snake from her baby's crib, it's only the first in what turns out to be a series of venomous crimes. Who's behind the appearance of one of the world's most dangerous snakes--the Australian taipan--in placid Dorset, England? And, more importantly, how can the increasingly terrified villagers rid the town of these deadly intruders? Clara gets help finding answers from her handsome neighbor, a good-looking policeman, and a quirky reptile expert. Her investigations lead her to a deserted house, some long-buried and sinister secrets, and, in the process, a better understanding of her own fears. Perfect reading for a long plane trip--unless, of course, the film they're showing during the flight is Samuel L. Jackson's Snakes on a Plane. That would definitely be overkill.
Death on the Holy Mountain - by David Dickinson
When you begin any series in the middle, there's always a question about how the author is going to handle all the information you don't know because you haven't read the earlier books. That's why many readers insist on starting every series with the very first title. But I find that as long as an author spends enough time--but not too many pages--filling me in on what I absolutely need to know to enjoy the newest book, I don't really mind where I begin a series. I am happy to go forward or backward if I want to read the rest. Though I was only introduced to David Dickinson's mysteries featuring Lord Francis Powerscourt with the 7th title in the series--Death on the Holy Mountain--I didn't at all feel that I was out of my depth when it came to the back story. The time period and setting of the novel--1905, primarily Ireland--provides interesting insights into the ongoing conflicts between Protestants and Catholics in both England and Ireland. Powerscourt is originally asked to investigate a series of art thefts from large Irish country houses. It's a strange sort of crime, really, because the thieves are pretty much ignoring the Protestant owners' really valuable paintings, such as collections of Old Masters, and concentrating instead on stealing ancestral portraits. And then--weirdly--the portraits begin to be returned to their owners, but altered. When real people begin to die, however, the mystery deepens. What's going on here? And who's responsible? And is religion really the motive? Powerscourt--who, I suspect, will remind some readers of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey--is both intelligent and witty. For readers who enjoy literate, unhurried historical novels with a puzzle at their heart, Dickinson's novel perfectly fits the bill. I'm only surprised I'd never even heard of the author or his books before I picked this one up.
The Dark Horse - by Craig Johnson
I am always happy to find a new entry in Craig Johnson's mystery series featuring Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire. Walt was introduced in The Cold Dish, which was followed by Death Without Company, Kindness Goes Unpunished, Another Man's Moccasins, and now, in what is perhaps his most compelling and humane novel yet, The Dark Horse. Walt, morally upright and an all-around good guy, takes a temporary leave from sheriffing when he leaves his home base in Absaroka County to investigate what appears to be an open-and-shut case in neighboring Campbell County. Mary Barsad has repeatedly confessed to anyone who will listen that she shot her husband Wade six times in the head after their house and barn burned down and Mary's horses died a horrible death. But something about Mary's story doesn't ring true to Walt and he decides to pass himself off as an insurance agent in order to figure out what really went down that day, and to learn if she really is responsible for the murder. Fans of the series will be pleased to know that Walt's two closest friends--Henry Standing Bear (aka, The Cheyenne Nation) and his fellow detective on the Absaroka police force, Victoria "Vic" Amoretti--feature in this story. Having Bear as a continuing character was a brilliant idea on Johnson's part, since the close friendship between Bear and Longmire gives Walt greater credibility within the Indian community. And it continues to be a pleasure to watch Walt's relationship with Vic develop from book to book. Dog lovers please take note: Dog, Walt's companion (you can't really call him a pet), is one of the best characters in this series.
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet - by Reif Larsen
"Clever" novels frequently put me off. You know the sort I mean: those that make use of different fonts, footnotes, and other similar affectations. I often wonder if the purpose of all these bells and whistles is simply to disguise the fact that the author really has nothing much to say to the reader. And I find that so often novels about child geniuses all follow the same story arc: kid burns out and comes to no good end. So you can imagine my relief and delight when I discovered that Reif Larsen overcame both of my ingrained prejudices in his splendid and emotionally satisfying first novel, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet. Twelve-year-old cartography genius Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet lives at the Coppertop Ranch (just north of Divide, Montana) with his über-laconic rancher father, his scientist mother (who is obsessed with finding a certain type of beetle that nobody else believes exists), his older sister, Gracie, and the memory of his younger brother, Layton, whose death has left an unhealed scar on the family's psyche. T.S. spends his days mapping the world around him. We're shown examples of his maps: there's one describing the behavior of the female Australian dung beetle during copulation, while another is a three-dimensional time-map of 26 of the Spivet family toasters, including "highlights of its career and the date and nature of its demise." Two other notable maps are of the family's dinner table conversation and the correlation between the time and distance of the self-inflicted gunshot that killed Layton. Then one day T.S. gets a call from the Smithsonian Institution, announcing that he has won the prestigious Baird award. He's invited to come address a select audience and receive the recognition due him for his outstanding scientific contributions. (T.S. realizes that the man on the phone has no idea that he's only 12, but he's too shy to tell him.) Almost on a whim, T.S. decides to hop an eastbound train and hope that he makes it to Washington in time to accept the award. As T.S. travels toward the Smithsonian, we are along for the ride, experiencing the world through the eyes of this brilliant, funny, and emotionally wounded kid. It's a trip well worth taking.
Bubble Trouble - by Margaret Mahy
I count myself as someone crazy for the books of Margaret Mahy, especially her picture books. I love her flights of fancy and her scrumptious way with words. And her new book--Bubble Trouble--is great fun to read. Now, for several reasons it's somewhat difficult for me when I come to review a picture book. First, so much depends on the marriage of the illustrations to the words. In the case of Bubble Trouble, it's hard to imagine the text without the winsome watercolor and cut paper pictures by Polly Dunbar. They carry along the silliness of the story and make you smile as you look at them. Second, it always seems to me that it would be so much easier if I could just include the complete text in the review, rather than pulling out bits and pieces to quote. Third, the plots of picture books are frequently the least important part of the book--instead it's the use of language, rhythm, and (often) rhyme that are what make a book a winner. Still, here I go, reviewing Bubble Trouble. When Mabel blows a bubble, her little brother is caught up in it, wafting out of the house and through the town. Mabel, her mother, and the rest of the townspeople--Chrysta Gribble, her brother Greville (in his nightshirt), Tybal and his mother Sybil (who are playing a game of Scrabble when they see the baby float by, encased in the bubble Mabel blew) and others--all chase after the baby. Even "crumpled Mr. Copple and his wife (a crabby couple)" and "feeble Mrs. Threeble, in a muddle with her needle (matching pink and purple patches for a pretty patchwork quilt)" try desperately to figure out how to bring the baby safely to earth. "'With the problem let us grapple,' murmured kindly Canon Dapple,/ 'and the problem we must grapple with is bringing Baby down.'" Even when it seems as though things are hopeless (due to the dastardly deed of rascally Abel), someone figures out a way to save the day (and the baby). Reading this aloud (and it must be read aloud) will be the highpoint of any library story hour, or, indeed, is the perfect choice for that "just one more book" before bedtime plea from any three- to six-year-old.
How to Sell - by Clancy W. Martin
Contrary to the implications of the title of Clancy Martin's How to Sell, this is not a "how-to" book, but rather an unexpectedly poignant first novel, set in and around a large jewelry warehouse store in Texas. If I had to use only three words to describe Martin's novel, they would be sex, drugs, and sadness. I know that some reviewers have found this novel to be hilarious, but I was too caught up in the desolation and meaningless of the characters' lives to be greatly amused by anything that happened. When Bobby Clark drops out of high school, he travels from his Canadian home, leaving his girlfriend Wendy, to live with his older brother, Jim, in Fort Worth, Texas. Jim gets his baby brother a job at the jewelry emporium where he, along with the owner and most of the salespeople, are raking in dough hand-over-fist as they cheat the shoppers with numerous scams. These include printing bogus certificates of authenticity on the office printers and replacing real Rolexes (which the customers have brought in to be cleaned) with fake ones. The salespeople use the same con with rings brought in to be reset. The real jewels are replaced with fakes, and then the diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, et al. are resold at greatly inflated prices to prime suckers--oh, and I suppose that phrase should be "important buyers." Most of the female staff is also turning tricks, and many are using cocaine, smoking crank, and liberally imbibing alcohol, both on and off the job, in order to get through their days and nights of immorality and deceit. Somehow, Clancy makes it all work: I cared, deeply, about the main characters, especially Bobby, a true lost soul, who learns too much too fast for someone so young, when he falls, hard, for his brother's mistress, Lisa. And Lisa's fate, while perhaps all too predictable, broke my heart. The author evidently knows whereof he speaks, because he had a (brief?) career selling jewelry before he became a philosophy professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Readers who don't mind a little walk on the grungy side of literary fiction will probably love this novel. (I found Charles Bock's Beautiful Children, which has some similar grunginess and themes of lost children out of their element in the world in which they've found themselves, much more distressing than Martin's novel.) In fact, the only people who will definitely despise Martin's tale are those in the jewelry profession. You'll no doubt be a much smarter customer of fancy earrings, pendants, and watches after reading this--and how many novels can make that claim?
The City & the City - by China Miéville
Here's a scene I imagine might have gone through China Miéville's mind as he was thinking about beginning his newest work of fiction, The City & the City. He'd just finished his wonderful novel for young people, Un Lun Dun, which posited a London that is quite like and unlike the one we know today. Where to take that idea next, Miéville may have wondered. Brilliant writer that he is, here's what he came up with: a police procedural set in neighboring, nearly identical cities. The catch is, these cities--Beszel and Ul Qoma--co-exist in the same physical space, and their separation ultimately depends on how well each city's citizens do in ignoring the existence of the other. Sound a little complicated? Leave it to Miéville to make it work superbly. Police Inspector Tyador Borlú is assigned to find the murderer of student Mahalia Geary. She was a member of an extremist group who believed that there is actually a third city-Orciny--that exists in the interstices of the first two. As more murders occur, Borlú is reluctantly forced to consider that the outlandish views Geary held might actually contain some truth. But with Miéville, weird as the plots of his novels might sound, it's actually the setting that seems to matter most to him, and, ultimately, the reader. While I was engrossed in this quite compelling mystery, I found myself thinking of the many parallels that Miéville's notion of separate cities (each with a different currency, economic level, religion, governmental structure, and ways of life) that are separated only by a longstanding habit of belief, have in the modern world. One could (and perhaps should) read this as a parable of segregation reduced to its most elemental form. But Miéville is also a splendid prose stylist--his characters talk the way people really do, with unfinished sentences, hesitations, and many stops and starts. This novel is the sort I happen to really enjoy, in which the author immerses you in an unfamiliar world but makes references to events and people as though you knew exactly what he was talking about (and eventually it all comes together, and you do). You might have to work a bit harder with a book like this--maybe read it more than once--but it's totally worth it.
Nomad's Hotel: Travels in Time and Space - by Cees Nooteboom
There are some armchair travel books I would put into a category simply labeled "Something Special," and Cees Nooteboom's Nomad's Hotel: Travels in Time and Space is one of them. This collection ranges over a number of years, and includes essays originally written between the 1970s and the present decade. (The two earliest pieces are from 1975: one a prescient account called "An Evening in Isfahan," and the other a charming tale of an unexpected trip Nooteboom took to The Gambia, in Africa--it was unexpected because he had actually intended to journey to the Spanish Sahara but ran into visa difficulties.) What sets Nooteboom's travel articles apart from many others is that he is both a real reader and a real writer. By that I mean that he frequently refers to the experiences of other writers (but in a way that doesn't make you feel inadequate because you haven't read them) and is also able to capture the essence of a place in a paragraph or even a single sentence, which meant that I felt I had experienced the soul of, say, Venice, without ever having set foot on a vaporetto. Much has been written about Venice, but this is how Nooteboom does it:
In the article on his trip to The Gambia that I mentioned earlier, Nooteboom describes a young woman who is headed off for a two-year Peace Corps stint as someone who "resembles the beginning of a novel that is destined to have an unhappy ending." For me, the most moving chapter dealt with a trip Nooteboom made to Canberra, Australia, to the war memorial and museum dedicated to the men who fought and died in the Battle of Gallipoli in the First World War.
In Venice anachronism lies at the very heart of things: in a thirteenth-century church you look at a fifteenth-century grave and an eighteenth-century altar; what your eyes see is what the no longer existent eyes of millions of others have seen. Here, on the contrary, that is not tragic, for while you are looking they go on talking, you are constantly accompanied by the living and the dead you are involved in an age-old conversation. Proust, Ruskin, Rilke, Byron, Pound, Goethe, McCarthy, Morand, Brodsky, Montaigne Casanova, Goldoni, Da Ponte, James Montale, their words flow around you like the water in the canals, and just as the sunlight causes the waves behind the gondolas to fragment into myriad tiny sparkles, so that one word, Venice, echoes and sparkles in all those conversations, letters, sketches, and poems, always the same, always different. Not without reason did Paul Morand call his book about this city Venices, and actually even that is not enough. There ought to be a superlative degree of the plural just for this island.
Gooseberry Park - by Cynthia Rylant
When your six-going-on-seven-year-old granddaughter tells you that you have to read a particular book because it's her current favorite and she's shocked, SHOCKED (although she doesn't use exactly those words), that you haven't read it, surely I am not the only grandmother who immediately hops to it--gets the book, sits down in a comfy chair, and starts reading. And, I have to say, all grandmotherly prejudice aside, Sarah Lakshmi Raman has very good taste: Cynthia Rylant's Gooseberry Park is pure fun. A Labrador retriever named Kona, a smarty-pants bat named Murray, and Gwendolyn, an elderly, astute hermit crab band together to help Stumpy the squirrel in a time of great need. After giving birth to triplets, Stumpy's home in Gooseberry Park is destroyed during an ice storm. The unlikely trio of dog, crab, and bat rescue the newborns and keep them safe (and warm) in Kona's owner's basement. But Stumpy has disappeared--and it takes all the ingenuity of Gwendolyn, Kona, and Murray to reunite the family. The loving cartoon-like illustrations by Arthur Howard add to the sense of whimsy.
Shelf Discovery: Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading - by Lizzie Skurnick
Lizzie Skurnick has a much-read blog called Old Hag, but Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading is actually based on her column Fine Lines from Jezebel.com. And reading Shelf Discovery is akin to spending time with an old friend talking about best beloved books from the past. Skurnick, with occasional contributions by Meg Cabot, Laura Lippman, Cecily con Ziegesar, Jennifer Weiner, Margo Rabb, Tayari Jones, and Anna Holmes, briefly describes and discusses many of the books that were hugely popular with girl readers from the 1960s through the 80s. It's like a trip down memory lane. Here are Skurnick's reactions to Are You There, God?, It's Me, Margaret, Judy Blume's classic tale of adolescence; John D. Fitzgerald's hilarious The Great Brain, the story of a Catholic family growing up in Mormon Utah in the early 20th century; Jacob Have I Loved, Katherine Paterson's 1980 weepy that can still bring me to tears when I try to talk about it; Homecoming, surely the best book Cynthia Voigt wrote in a career of writing outstanding teen novels; Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (the essay written about it by Laura Lippman is not to be missed); Summer of Fear by Lois Duncan--which is still intensely scary after all these years. I could go on for pages (or just copy the index) listing all the books it was such a delight to find included. (A few more are Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, Paul Zindel's My Darling, My Hamburger, a thoughtful discussion by Tayari Jones of Judy Blume's Forever, and more and more and more. The fun of a book like this is not only rediscovering old favorites (I hadn't thought of the Zindel title in decades), but also recalling all the books that you wish had been included. For me, being probably a decade older than Skurnick, it was some of the older titles from the 1950s--the books by Rosamund du Jardin, Betty Cavanna, Lenora Mattingly Weber, and Mary Stolz, for example. But Lizzie (I feel by the time I get to page 345 of her book that we're old and dear friends and I can therefore call her by her first name in this review) can still surprise me with her choices: She happens to include MY VERY FAVORITE Louisa May Alcott novel--An Old-Fashioned Girl, surely one of the best books you may not have read because you were too busy crying over Jo marrying Mr. Baer instead of Laurie in Little Women. Reading Shelf Discovery is like opening a space capsule: these were the books that made us what we are, and aren't we lucky we read them?