Owlcat’s CBR 5 review #16 of “The Light Between Oceans” by M.L. Stedman

Apparently, this is M.L. Stedman’s first novel, which I would not have guessed.  It is an incredibly complex story filled with complex characters, histories, geography, and emotions.  As I began reading it, I immediately sensed that this was a story about good people with good intentions, while also realizing it was not going to end well.  Ultimately, it does end “well” in the way a Hollywood movie has to end “well” and that, for me, was it’s only flaw, but an understandable one, because the author apparently needed to relieve the reader of the intense sadness that builds up throughout the final third of the book. There isn’t a “bad” person in this book but everyone is affected by what turns out to be a bad situation.

The story begins by introducing a WWI veteran, Tom Sherbourne, who returned from the battlefields of Gallipoli and the Somme unscathed physically but tormented with survivor’s guilt, PTSD, and having shut down and compartmentalized his feelings to protect himself.  This latter approach to life had begun in response to a harsh childhood and was exacerbated by his war experiences, so by the time he arrives in the town of Port Partogeuse, Western Australia, he has become someone who will never love and will always be alone, and at this point, is perfectly satisfied with this understanding.  He sees himself as flawed and incapable of being a person who could be loved and appreciated. Nevertheless, we see an inkling of the person he’d rather be when he rescues a woman who is on the same boat as he when he is traveling from Sydney to Port Partageuse; she is accosted by an arrogant, abusive man and he runs interference for her, and she in turn is surprised by the quiet way and self-deprecating manner he in which he presents himself.

As part of this persona, he has accepted a position to maintain the lighthouse on Janus Rock, a small island off the coast of Western Australia, feeling it is suitable employment for someone like himself, who should be alone. He understands there will be only seasonal contact with the supply boat, approximately every third month, and no shore leave for very long lengths of time.  Just before leaving Port Partageuse, however, he meets an unusual young woman, Isabel, 10 years his junior, who sparks a joy within him he hasn’t experienced before; while posted at the lighthouse, he receives intermittent correspondence from her and they reunite as friends the next time he returns to shore, and they hastily marry with her agreeing to go to Janus with him, understanding the social deprivations there.  They are so in love with each other and each is in awe of the other so that little else matters.  He in particular is so enamored of her willingness to love and accept him as he is, even when she’s unable to penetrate his reluctance to share past details about his life, that he will do anything for her, and this becomes the source of his horrible moral dilemma.

While on the island for the first two years, Isabel suffers two miscarriages and a stillbirth, and she becomes angry, sad, guilty-ridden and despairing.  Tom doesn’t know how to comfort her or make her return to him emotionally.  Their isolation only exacerbates the situation.  And then a rowboat washes onto Janus Rock and in it is a dead man and a live baby.  Tom immediately wants to report this to the authorities but after much pleading from his wife, he relents to her need to keep the baby, who is only about 3 months old, and they’ll pretend it’s theirs.  They bury the dead man, who has no identification.  Tom feels torn between what he has done and what he should have done, i.e., reported the baby’s survival so that if there was a mother waiting for her, she could be returned.  Nonetheless, they name the baby Lucy, and Isabel becomes the mother she believes God meant her to be by sending this child, arguing with Tom that the mother undoubtedly drowned, as evidenced by a woman’s sweater that had been in the boat.

Over time, they become an ideal family and Tom is as much enamored of the child and fatherhood as Isabel is of the child and motherhood, and they are wonderful parents. During one trip to shore, however, the seeds of doubt begin to emerge for Tom when he hears of a woman named Hannah who lost her husband and child at sea.  He begins to feel a rift between himself and Isabel as they struggle with the possibilities that Lucy belongs to this woman and they, Tom in particular, realize their decisions have caused horrible pain to another human being.  Tom begins to relate the guilt he feels with their initial decision to the guilt he feels about surviving the war, and over time he begins to feel more and more guilty. He also realizes that no matter what choices he makes now, there will be trauma for many involved, himself included, and we see him struggle in a no-man’s land of conscience.

I won’t go into details about the decisions and results, but will say that I was in tears in several parts of the book, including the end that I previously described as a bit too “Hollywood.”  I felt somewhat manipulated at the end. Throughout the rest of the book, however, I truly felt these characters were totally realistic, well-developed, and each and every one of them deserved better than they got! Yet I also felt there were impossible decisions these characters had to make, and as each did so, could understand and feel the heart-wrenching agony for each of them.  There were some unexpected decisions but even these made sense from the point of view of the character, and none of the final decisions or choices left me thinking they weren’t true to character or to the story.

This was a book full of exploring isolation, courage, loss, grief, desperation, trauma, guilt, and morality, with a clear understanding that often right and wrong are indistinguishable, and what is considered right or wrong can be colored by one’s past, even when the past is long buried – it has its way of surfacing. Once I had finished reading this book and sat with my feelings and tears, I knew it was also a book that would stay with me for a very long time, and even while reading it, I could easily find myself asking, “What would I do?” I vacillate between giving this three stars or four, but decided it may not be great, but it’s very, very good, and a favorite, thereby earning five stars. I do warn readers, however, to be prepared for an emotional roller-coaster ride and to have plenty of tissues on hand toward the end.



Owlcat’s CBR5 Review #15 of “And the Mountains Echoed” by Khaled Hosseini

I have read Hosseini’s two previous novels and had thoroughly enjoyed both, so I anticipated enjoying this novel, as well, and happily, I can say I was not disappointed.

The book begins with an opening Afghan folk story that is a parable that the opening character tells his son and daughter, and this parable sets the tone for the rest of the book.  The parable describes a father whose must sacrifice his son to a monster, only to discover when he hunts the monster down, that the child is actually better cared for and happier than he would ever be had he remained with his family.  The choice then becomes one of guilt if he if he retrieves his son just to fill the void in his own heart, or guilt and sorrow at leaving him behind.  The so-called monster recognizes the difficulty of his choice and gives him a day to decide; when he chooses the selfless decision to leave his son there, he is then rewarded with a loss of memory so that he does not remember what he has done nor remembers his son;  even so, however, he feels a hole in his heart that he never understands.

This parable is reflected throughout the novel, sometimes obviously, sometimes more subtly, and particularly in the story that follows the three “main” characters, Soboor (the father), Abdullah (the son) and Pari (the daughter).  The novel itself begins in the early 1950s in Afghanistan and ends in contemporary times in Afghanistan, France, and the United States.  These three characters are walking from their village to Kabul, where, unknown to the children, the daughter will be left behind with a couple whose wife desperately wants a child.  Being four years old, Pari quickly adapts to her new life, but Abdullah is so much older that he desperately feels the horrible tear in the fabric of their relationship and he never forgets her, always hoping to find her. Gradually, other characters are introduced and developed, some within their interactions with the three original characters, some individually and among each other.  As generations pass, the predominant theme is this broken bond of relationships and the their effects on everyone who experiences them as lives go on.

The characters’ stories are formed around each other, the events of numerous historical significance (i.e., the war with Russia, the Taliban, the U.S. arrival after 9/11), and the U.S.’s gradual winding down.  This is not a story about the wars, but rather, the conflicts and upheavals from them that contribute to the characters’ development and decisions.  Some escape literally to other countries, the U.S. and France; others remain; others return;  and some of the more peripheral characters who end up being involved with the Afghan characters, come for humanitarian reasons, often on a temporary basis that turns into a permanent one. All have an impact on each other and sometimes it is not clear what their relationships with Abdullah and Pari are or will be.

Hosseini’s characters develop in ways that are remarkably realistic and are clearly formed by their families, their experiences, their environments. Two can face the same experience and/or issue and each has a believable reaction that can be totally different from each others’ and both are understood and easily accepted by the reader.  The emotion within the various stories is at times heart-wrenching and unbelievably sad and yet, watching the characters endure and continue on despite this is a statement of the determination and malleability of the human mind.

There is hope interspersed at times and the story line was occasionally a bit difficult to follow, but in the end, it all tied together very nicely and understandably in a way that demonstrated the good and the bad of the human race, and, as well, demonstrated how everyone in the world really is like everyone else, particularly when family is involved. I highly recommend this book.

Owlcat’s CBR 5 review #14 of Modern Weirdness – Tales from the Parallel Universe – 10 Short Stories and a Novel Excerpt by Dave Champoux

This will probably be one of my shorter reviews because it’s about 10 different short stories that I’m lumping together and the final one of which I didn’t read because I was burnt out on the “weirdness,” and the novel excerpt, I only skimmed to see if I would be inclined to order it.  Full disclosure, too:  I once worked with the spouse of the author.  Additionally, the book was a free download in a promotion to encourage sales and recognition.  All that said, here goes.

I have given the book two stars as an OK book, and considered, unfortunately, giving it only one star.  However, when I began reading the stories, I initially liked them, particularly the first few, particularly “No Other Baby Can Do This,” because I liked the way Champoux, who was being the typical new father here, was not taking the trite way out when projecting his fears for his daughter’s future.  Rather, he reflected on her future with all the fears we parents encounter but kept her as a pre-toddler in the story with adolescent behaviors, and it was an interesting and creative approach.  I found at the end of the story, I wanted more.

There were a couple of other stories within the collection, including “Devil” and “Walker’s Foot” that were weird but intriguing, but after reading them, gradually I became tired of the weirdness that began appearing in the other stories.  I might have been better off reading these stories one at a time with long intervals; my mistake may have been in trying to read two or three at the same time and within a week’s time, all of them, so that I became overly saturated with the weirdness.

What I did like was the author’s telling the stories in the first person, which allowed the reader to more clearly understand the perspective and thought processes going on within each story.  I also liked his locations of the stories, since they were local to me and I could better relate than some to the influence of the localities, especially, for instance, in “Radio Free Hampshire County.”

As for the novel excerpt, it was intriguing and written well and I would conceivably read the entire novel but at a later date.  It felt more real and less strange than the stories in the collection but it was also difficult to tell in what direction it was going. But because I liked the overall style of the author, albeit not necessarily all that “weirdness,” I would be inclined to give him another chance.  I wish, in fact, that I had read the novel first, and, as I said, spread out reading the stories over a longer period of time.  My bad perhaps.

Owlcat’s CBR 5 Review #13: Orphan Train by Christine Baker Kline

This book was a very fast read for me because the history and the characters were so enticing.  It’s two stories that are parallel to one another, which sounds a little gimmicky but that isn’t true at all, although one story is a little weaker than the other (Molly’s) and I’d almost have preferred the novel focused just on the historical story that is the reference in the title, the so-called orphan trains that went from New York City to the Midwest from the late 1850s until the late 1920s.  I had heard about the orphan trains but knew no details and had thought they were just a phenomenon of the 1800s, so was very surprised to discover they continued well into the 20th Century. 

The book begins in 2011 in Spruce Harbor, Maine, where a 17-year old Penobscot Indian foster child, Molly, is living with a family in which the father had wanted a foster child but whose wife is angry and suspicious about Molly because of her troubled past. We see the situation through Molly’s eyes:  her feeling abandoned by her own family after her father is killed in an accident and her mother dissolves into drug abuse and poverty;  her feeling unwanted and abandoned by numerous foster families;  and her knowing that she is basically unwanted where she currently resides and distrustful of the people assigned to care for her. Over the years, she has developed numerous coping skills to prevent more injuries to her psyche, including developing a Goth exterior and not getting close to anyone, including her foster parents and her Child Services therapist. She will soon be 18 and aging out of the system and has given little thought to what that might mean for her, but assumes it will be just one more abandonment. 

Molly does like to read and seems to relish stories around people who are independent and reflecting her own character and determination.  At one point, she is discovered stealing one of three copies of “Jane Eyre” from the local library and consequently is assigned community service hours, and becomes involved with helping an elderly woman, Vivian, who is 91 years old, sort through and discard decades of materials in her attic.  Molly at first sees this simply as a task to get through and doesn’t expect to connect with Vivian or share any of her own life with her, but as time passes and more is revealed through the sometimes odd items they come across in the attic that Vivian had been unable to part with and the many letters and other writings, she begins to realize that Vivian’s life, although separated by many decades from her own, is also very similar to her own.  Both lost their fathers and had institutionalized mothers;  both were passed from home to home;  and both had cultural identities that were reflected in talismanic keepsakes, a Claddagh necklace for Vivian, Native American fetishes for Molly, and which they had lost touch with through their respective journeys.

Vivian’s story  begins several chapters into the book, and was for me the more interesting of the two, partly because it was more detailed and partly because she seemed to overcome horrendous situations, one after the other.  I was also drawn to her young character initially, when it focused on her 7-year old self as a recent immigrant to New York City when she and her family arrived from Ireland, to her preteen years, when her life began to slowly improve, because with a grandchild at 11 now, this resonated more intensely for me.  Nevertheless, I think I would have been intrigued by her because, once again, it’s a character who copes with almost apocalyptic scenarios. What would have happened to me in her situation? She lost so much, including her name when given a more “American” name (no one could easily pronounce or spell her Irish name), not once but twice, and endured so much with a resignation that reflects how deeply she had to bury her past life.

Vivian first endures  shattered expectations of coming to New York City, where her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s apparent mental illness are exacerbated by the extreme poverty and realization that life is worse than it was in Ireland.  She then loses her entire family in a tenement fire. This is in the late 1920s, shortly before the Stock Market crash and well before there were any real social service safety nets, and as a result, for a while, she lives in an orphanage run by the Children’s Aid Society, which had been sending orphans and “street urchins” out of New York City on these orphan trains for many, many years, and placing them with Midwestern families, ostensibly for adoption but more often than not, they became indentured servants. Most in the Society truly thought they were offering these children both redemption and an opportunity to better lives compared to what they were enduring in the city. Some, mostly babies, did have the good fortune of being adopted, but most, like Vivian and her closest friend on the train, Dutchy, became hired hands. It’s hard to believe what life on a farm for a city child must have been like, where they could no longer live by their own initiatives and wit but were at the mercy of the elements and the back-breaking work on the farms. Most had never seen animals beyond pigeons and rats! Vivian was initially placed with a family that ran a dressmaking shop because she could sew and at first, though difficult, was able to do the work and maintain a semblance of normalcy, though forced to sleep in a hallway alone and was often hungry because of the locked refrigerator. When the Stock Market crashed, she was removed from that placement because they could no longer afford to keep her, and transferred to another family where she was expected to be a mother’s helper, but which was extremely poor and where the mother was emotionally unstable.  Her life became unbearable when the father in the family attempted to rape her (you see it coming), and the mother blames her and forces her out of the home in the middle of a cold, Minnesota winter’s night.  Her story improves after that, gradually, until eventually she becomes the a wealthy store owner and she and her husband retire to Maine.

The best part of her life, however, holds a major sad secret that she never revealed to anyone over the years, not even her good, second husband, but which she finally reveals to Molly during the times they begin more seriously discussing her life. This is the result of a portaging assignment Molly is required to pursue at school when studying local Wabanaki history.  The author quotes Bunny McBride, in Women of the Dawn, in an epilogue that is crucial to the story:  “In portaging from one river to another, Wabanakis had to carry their canoes and all other possessions.  Everyone knew the value of traveling light and understood that it required leaving some things behind. Nothing encumbered movement more than fear, which was often the most difficult burden to surrender.”  Molly pursues this them with Vivian, and ultimately with herself, in terms of portaging metaphorically, realizing both of them had done so over time. 

Interestingly, many of the peripheral women in this book seem to have major psychiatric issues, Molly’s mother, her foster mother whom we meet at the beginning of the novel, her other foster mothers that she thinks about at times when comparing her current placement with those, Vivian’s mother, and the two women Vivian encounters in her two bad placements.  As a result, these peripheral women are either cruel or distant enough to validate both main characters’ wariness to connect. Yet through their mutual stories, and with a lot of hesitation, Vivian and Molly do connect; they have come to recognize the similarities in their stories but also the similarities in their personalities, and are thus able to trust one another.

I don’t think I’m writing a good review here;  I find it difficult to choose aspects of the book that kept me reading it, yet, as I said, it was a quick read.  I wanted to get to the next part of each character’s story.  I do recommend the book but have to admit I can’t tell the reader what to look for that resonated so well with me.  I guess the reader will have to find their own reason to enjoy the book. 

Owlcat’s CBR 5 review #12: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

I was unfamiliar with this author, Ben H. Winters, when I came across the title of this book and a synopsis that intrigued me.  I have always been fascinated by post apocalyptic stories but this one is pre-apocalyptic and I thought this would be an interesting and unique take on the world in general and the character in particular. The impending apocalypse is an asteroid that is due to strike earth, although initially people do not know exactly where, but wherever, it is going to change life on earth forever; the implication is that it will have the same effect on the human race as the asteroid that struck earth and destroyed the dinosaurs. I was also unaware when I began reading this book that it is the first in a trilogy, the second of which is not available until July (I have pre-ordered it), so be forewarned!

I enjoyed Winters’s relaxed style of writing that allows him to develop his characters and his plots (there are several) realistically but without a glibness that sometimes authors descend into.  He gives enough information about both to keep the reader interested and to relate to the main character so that we want him to succeed and want to follow him to wherever his leads take him.

The main character is Hank Palace, a young police detective in Concord, New Hampshire (which also appealed to me since the story takes place in New England).  Unlike a lot of people, he has not reacted pessimistically to the impending doom.  He has seen people react with suicide and with fulfilling their “bucket lists,” so many that bucket listing has become a verb.  Because of a shortage of employees everywhere as a result, life is already changing; one of those changes is that Hank has become a detective much sooner than he might have otherwise, and it’s something he always wanted to be so he is determined to do the best job he can, regardless of the circumstances.

His first case is a hanger;  Concord, in fact, has become known as a “hanger town,” where people commit suicide in great numbers rather than face the anticipated immediate death with the asteroid’s impact, or the aftermath that will likely lead to a long and lingering death if the impact is elsewhere on the globe.  The apparent hanger is Peter Zell, who seems to have hung himself from a towel bar in a McDonald’s, but when Hank is investigating the circumstances around his death, he first begins to suspect it’s more than the result of suicide, that it could be a murder. Others in his department think he’s overzealous and wonder what it matters anyway, given the world’s situation, but he is determined to ferret out the truth.  In doing so, he encounters apathy, lies, misdirections, and his own attempted murder (twice), although others think he is overreacting or misjudging and is maybe a little paranoid. Nevertheless, the mystery around Zell’s demise, and Hank’s determination to solve this case, continue throughout the book, culminating in a final analysis at the end of the book.

In the midst of all this, there is a subplot around his relationship with his sister and her unclear determination to reveal what might be government overt operations.  He has always been protective of her since they became orphans and she manipulates him into helping her without his realizing until it’s too late that he is part of her plot.  This story line, which is also more convoluted than the more simple suicide/murder case, remains unresolved at the end of the book, and I assume will be continued through the second and maybe the third books.

The asteroid also does not hit earth at the end of this book but the location of the impending impact has been revealed, that it will occur in Southeast Asia.  Peoples’ reactions to the impending catastrophe are varied, from resignation to sadness to fear. People are looking for ways to escape and trying to build rocket ships, and others are determined to do all sorts of things they never did because they were being “good” and living by the rules, and suddenly the rules are meaningless. Lawlessness begins to emerge with random shootings, some looting, but overall people are living their desperate lives in many ways as they always have and some are going a bit further, with charity and peace their goals.  The government seems to be attempting to remain in control and issuing mandates, some ignored, some applied.  The book clearly  asks questions of the reader:  What would your reaction be if you knew you and everyone around you had only six months to live? Would you take the noble route or the not-so-noble route?  Would you choose to stay at your job or do the bucket-list thing? Would you choose suicide or wait to see what is really going to happen?  What would affect your decisions, i.e., family members starving, being attacked, knowing there are those who are exploiting the situation and/or have found a way to circumvent it? Do we just keep on as if nothing is going to happen, because in the end, asteroid or not, don’t we all die anyway?  Lots of questions. There is a quote by Hank midway through the novel that says, “You can’t think too much about what happens next, you really can’t,” which I felt reflects his overall philosophy and could be applied to both an impending catastrophe or a normal lifespan.

This is a complex story, and the book ended with my definitely being frustrated, but in a good way.  The fact that Hank resolves the primary case that was introduced at the beginning of the book, with all of its twists and turns in plot and character, gave me the sense that story was wrapped up and that was satisfying. But there are the loose threads or two that remain, his sister’s story and the impact itself of the asteroid, that I assume will re-emerge in the sequels. I am very anxious to read the second book to see where it leads.

Owlcat’s #CBR 5 Review #11 : Alex Cross, Run by James Patterson

I have read all of James Patterson’s Alex Cross detective novels, some of which have been disappointing and appeared to be written by a committee, or phoned in, or written specifically to make it as a movie, which is true of two of his novels.  This most recent Alex Cross crime thriller is one of his better ones.

As usual, his primary character is Alex Cross himself, a Washington, DC, police detective (and incidentally a psychologist, but that gets mentioned only once in this novel).  Around him are his usual secondary characters, his second wife Bree (his first was murdered), his Nana (the grandmother who raised him and now helps raise his three children), the children (one in college and two younger ones), and in this case, a fourth child, a teenager named Ava, whom the family is currently fostering and hoping to adopt, despite the emotional traumas and resulting damage to her psyche that prevents her from trusting this family or any adult who might help her, and making her particularly vulnerable to repeating past experiences.

Patterson uses an interesting technique when writing, using the first person narration when it is Alex Cross but third person when it is the supporting characters.  Sometimes this gets in the way of following the story lines but other times, such as in this book, I think it enhances the perspectives.

As usual, the crimes he investigates are horrific and there have been times in the past when I have found them more gory than necessary.  This time, Patterson seems to have reigned himself in somewhat, describing the brutality clearly but not dwelling on the scenes, which was a relief.

In this novel, there at first appears to be four story lines:  one involves the murders of young blonde women, all similarly killed and posed;  the other involves young gay men, again all similarly killed and similarly disposed of; another involves a man who is apparently stalking Cross, intent on revenge for his perception that Cross had taken from him his daughter who was killed in a crossfire in the past; and Ava’s story. Very quickly we learn that the first two story lines are really one, that the two perpetrators of the murders of the young blonde women and the young gay men are feeding each others fantasies and have been doing so since college (and this is a good 40 years-plus later).  The stalker story begins separately from Ava’s story, but there is a point where we begin to realize that his narrative is going to become wrapped up in Ava’s.  All of these stories feel like jigsaw puzzle pieces until Cross slowly begins to manipulate and recognize the pieces, and even once that occurs, there is the intensity and anxiety of his not having done so quickly enough.  At one point in the novel, because he knows one of the characters is goading him and trying to undermine him by blogging with implications and innuendos about him, and he reacts unprofessionally by physically attacking the man, that thread of the stalker/Ava story becomes entangled by Cross’s temporarily being relieved of duty and possibly facing criminal charges.  In that way, he becomes another separate part of the novel.  Eventually, of course, it all comes together, although not exactly as we would expect it to – parts of it do, parts of it don’t.  Rather like life itself.

Patterson very clearly manipulates the reader with suspense and plot and with his characters, particularly the perpetrators. Cross is an old “friend” for me so I already have a well-established idea of who he is and what he looks like, etc.  I do think my one criticism of this book would be that someone unfamiliar with the character might not understand where he is coming from nor the depth of his development.  That said, however, I did like the fact that a bit more than usual, Patterson involved Cross more within his family, so we got to see his interactions there and his own vulnerabilities as a result.

I did enjoy this book, obviously.  It was a thriller full of suspense and his writing flowed well from scene to scene and character to character.  I think it helps to have read some of his other Cross novels but it isn’t necessary, either, because it’s so well developed.

Owlcat’s #CBRV Review #10 of The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

This is a story about two adult brothers, a sister who is the twin of one of the brothers, and the relationship of all three as they meander somewhat helplessly through a maze of family history. When the story begins, Susan, the divorced sister, lives in Maine, in the small town where they all grew up.  Both Jim and Bob, the Burgess brothers, are lawyers living in New York City;  Jim is wealthy, partly due to his marriage and partly due to his high profile lawyering, a successful lawyer who relies on his reputation, seemingly happy, self-confident, and contemptuous of his brother, whom he not-so-lovingly refers to as “Slob-dog.”  The incessant belittling got on my nerves.  Bob, on the other hand is low-keyed, somewhat self-contemptuous, and a liberal who works for a legal aid society;  he remains good friends with his divorced wife, Pam. He is basically the conscience of the story but that’s not totally apparent until the end of the novel. Among the siblings is an unwritten rule that no one will speak of the tragedy that occurred when the twins were four and Jim was eight, when Bob disengaged the family car’s gears and rolled over their father, killing him.

The catalyst for the story is Zach, the sister’s 19-year old rather hapless son who commits what the government may decide is a hate crime when he mindlessly throws a pig’s head into a mosque of Somali refugees who have lived in the small Maine mill town for some time but have yet to truly assimilate. As a result of his act, when Susan learns from her son that he is the perpetrator, she reaches out to her brothers, to help with his turning himself in and the resulting legal implications and complications.  Neither Bob nor Jim likes being back in Maine;  each relates better to society in NYC.  What occurs among the siblings in Maine returns to the childish animosities, disputes, and jealousies, in other words, family life as it was when they were growing up.  We see glimpses of their childhood through vague references, in particular their mother’s inability to nurture Susan and the mother’s over-protectiveness of Bob after his accident.  Jim was always the one who would succeed, though.

I found the first three-quarters of the book the most interesting because it told not only the siblings’ stories but also included some individual stories of Somali refugees living in Maine and their reactions to both the incident itself (a Somali child in the mosque at the time it occurred fainted), the distrust and suspicions on both sides, and the realization by one Somali leader that Zach, as he watched him in the initial court proceeding, really was just an uninformed kid who had to understanding of the significance of what he had done, that he really had thought it was “just a joke,” and this leader’s ability to thereby accept and forgive him. There were the townspeople, the police chief, and the lawyers each trying to make sense of the situation, some trying to make it beneficial to themselves, and others truly wanting to help both Zach and his family and the Somali refugees.

I expected more from the story about Zach, in fact, thinking we would get to see him perhaps interact with others more and not be the sad character he was.  Instead, the author has him run away to his father in Sweden where we then see only glimpses of him that his mother sees. His fear sent him there but it gave him an opportunity to mature and develop away from her and her issues.  I was glad he developed into a more realistic character but was sorry we didn’t get to see the process, which is only alluded to.

What we did get to see in the latter part of the book was a reversal of roles between Bob and Jim, the direct result in Bob’s case of Jim’s revealing something from their past.  At first Bob was angry but then goes through a series of developments, coming out of the situation with a better understanding of Jim, himself, and his family in general.  He feels more worthy and begins to appreciate himself and his life more, adding things to make himself happier.  In the meantime, partially as a result of his revelation, but also because he gets caught in self-destructive behavior, Jim’s role turns into one of the underdog, needing Bob’s acceptance, losing his wife and job, and slowly sinking into a depressed, sad caricature of what he used to be.

This is a complex novel, very character driven and very interesting, but I felt it lost its momentum once Zach went to Sweden and once Jim and Bob began to dance around each other in trying to sort out the family hostilities and anger.  I’m not sure I believed the fact that all three of the siblings changed (Susan as a result of Zach’s decision to go to Sweden without telling her), or that it would be quite so dramatic.  At some points, it felt tedious and whiny, particularly Jim’s wife’s reactions to things and his own.  Maybe I’m just cynical.

I think the book is good and worth reading but I did find myself wishing we had spent more time on the Somali story;  maybe her next novel could be about one of those characters.  Again I’m wishing there were a category to check that would be a half-star between 2 and 3 stars. I will go with “a good book.”

Owlcat’s #CBRV Review #9: Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin is a prolific detective mystery author from Scotland, to whom I was introduced several years ago by a friend in Finland.  I have read perhaps 10 of his novels and this is his most recent one, which over the course of time has followed a DI (detective), Rebus, in the Edinburgh police department.  Having aged along with the numerous novels, he has gradually worked his way through the ranks, and in this particular novel, he is semi-retired, having joined the cold case unit as a way of maintaining a semblance of usefulness.  He is not the sort of man who retires, moves to a cottage on the coast, and fishes or bird watches.  He needs to be in “the thick of things.”

In Standing in Another Man’s Grave, Rankin has Rebus behaving as his usual self, a man who is complicated, irascible, very much a maverick within the department throughout his life, “old school,” intuitive, and in frequent trouble with his superiors, sometimes to the point where The Complaints (which is their version of internal department investigators) have occasionally investigated his techniques and behaviors, never, however, finding enough evidence to do anything about him other than to annoy him and put him on notice.  He doesn’t care, as he is more determined to resolve cases and find perpetrators than worry about his own situation within the department, particularly in this newest novel, since he knows that once the case he resurrects is done, he’ll again be considered “redundant,” the British Isles term for “retired.” His drinking, which he has tempered somewhat since other appearances in other novels, and his cigarette habit are also a source of personality flaws that, along with his stubbornness and other above traits that are both good and bad, but all of which make him very believable and very human.  Despite my own adverse reactions to strong personalities, drinking and cigarette smoking, I always come away from these novels liking Rebus.

In this novel, the plot is as complicated as the man trying to solve it and at times, just a little difficult to follow, but that could also have been the result of my frequently trying to read it when I was a bit too tired.  All the characters are well developed and connect either directly or indirectly with Rebus and frequently with each other, sometimes resulting in their diverting the reader from the truth that at times is hinted at but easy to not see.  We leave that up to Rebus!

The story begins with his wanting to discover what happened to one particular girl who went missing many years ago and whose mother decides it is Rebus who can discover the truth.  In the course of investigating her case, he begins to see a pattern that had heretofore not been noticed and connects the dots, realizing they may well be indicating a serial killers’ presence in area of Inverness.  His methods to determine who this is involves his using his maverick and old school methods, while others at first dismiss his accusations until more technological evidence (i.e., computers) begin to suggest he may well be correct.  Even then, his unsubtle and tenacious willingness to step on toes, particularly those in authority, and his disregard for protocol when they and it get in the way of investigating, leads him to be thrown off the case, although Rebus being Rebus isn’t about to let that stop him.  In the midst of all this, however, is his care and concern for his former partner, DI Siobhan Clarke, and her therefore willing attempts to help him as best she can, even when he cautions her that he could be a bad influence on her, leads the two of them to a climactic ending that is satisfying and believable.

I highly recommend this book, along with all the other Ian Rankin novels, because none that I’ve read are boring and all are interesting, the characters, Rebus, John Fox in The Complaints series, Scotland itself, and the minor and major characters.  The books also can be read out of sequence, which is how I began reading them, though now I try to read them in sequence more for continuity than anything. This book in particular is exceptionally good. Maybe I relate more to the Rebus character now that I’m also retired and better understand all of the questions and insecurities he has internally, and the need to reconnect the present with the past. Even though he is an older character, however, I think anyone who enjoys a good detective story is going to enjoy this book.

Owlcat’s #CBR5 review #8: Nemesis by Philip Roth

Over the years, I’ve read numerous Philip Roth novels, some of which I have liked, some of which I have disliked.  Even ones I have liked have left me feeling somewhat let down and I am never sure if I am missing something or just don’t particularly like Roth’s style of writing.  Recently, I saw him in an interview and decided I like the way he speaks more than I like the way he writes.  That said, however, I do have to admit that I basically did like Nemesis for a variety of reasons and I would recommend it.

One reason I liked the book was the fact that it takes place in 1944 during a polio epidemic, a backdrop to which I could totally relate. Although I was born two years after this story takes place, growing up in the 1950s, I was subjected to all the fears and limitations that polio outbreaks threatened every summer until the Salk and Sabin vaccines were developed. There were the movie theater closings, the wading pools in parks being drained, the admonition to not socialize in large groups, etc., each summer.  There were the fears expressed in parents’ whispers about so-and-so’s child who had succumbed to polio, and the pictures in the likes of Look Magazine of rows and rows of iron lungs that conjured up the worst of nightmares for us children.  There were the classmates who suddenly disappeared into hospitals, not to be seen again, or who eventually emerged wearing heavy iron braces, having lost their childhoods. Those who never grew up with this threat of a disease that seemed to kill and maim children indiscriminately probably could never understand the intense fears and effects it had on families and communities. The fears and sorrows are palpable, as is the need to blame others such as the Italians who are slowly infiltrating the neighborhood, and the desire to find some kind of safe place to evade the disease. Roth captures all of this through the plot and his both minor and major characters extremely well.

The primary character is 23-year old Bucky Cantor, a former high school athlete from a strong, Jewish family full of support and love. He feels strong in knowing, at that point, who he is and his role. Nonetheless, when he is unable to join the military because of weak eyes and cannot go, as many of his friends and contemporaries have, to fight in World War II, he is humiliated by what he perceives as his deficits, but then finds a way to redeem himself in his own eyes by becoming a playground director. The playground becomes his own battlefield, where he makes crucial decisions in his own and the children’s lives, and he can protect them from the changes in the neighborhood they all begin to see as immigrants merge into the community.  He is close to many of the children who participate in his playground activities, but, as polio slowly begins to strike child after child, he begins to doubt himself and his ability to protect them or anyone else from the ravages of reality. He is angry and panicked, like most adults, by the situation and feels helpless. He is devastated by what is going on and his inability to do anything about it.

In the midst of this horror, a love story develops between him a his girl, who becomes a camp counselor in the Poconos, and who tries to convince Bucky to join her there.  At first, he feels he would be deserting his post, and worries about the children he would leave behind.  He is a decent and honest individual, full of compassion, and is conflicted by conceding defeat and going to the summer camp, where the mountain environment is undoubtedly safer than the city in terms of escaping polio and where children, therefore will be healthy and happy, and letting down his girlfriend, who fears for his safety and wants her with him in the safety of the Poconos.  The love story is realistic and sensitive and even the sexuality of it is humble and mature, unlike some of Roth’s other novels.  It does not get in the way of the story, and, in fact, in  defining Bucky even more, both before and after his going to the Poconos, it is necessary to the story. And as that is necessary, so is the twist that inevitably occurs at the camp.

Initially, it is unclear who the narrator is, and that piece of information is not revealed until the reader is about one-third of the way into the novel, and it is somewhat a surprise to learn, an interesting twist in a story that shows the fragility of happiness and decency and determination.  Roth, I felt, is more gentle in his treatment of the characters in many ways, because he uses this narrator who has been affected as well by the epidemic and so can relate to all the other characters and in particular, Bucky, in a way managing to fix the past for Bucky who, as time passes, continues to be physically and emotionally devastated by what has happened and is unable to forgive himself for his decisions. The novel ends with a reconciliation that is a bit too “easy,” but I was able to accept it as a viable ending and as realistic as much of the book was.

Owlcat’s CBRV #7 review of Guilt by Jonathan Kellerman

First, I need to admit that I believe I have read all of Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series and usually read them quickly and enjoy them, even those that are less than equal to his usual standards.  In some ways, his novels are my “fluff” reading, a ready escape into a world that is interesting with characters I’ve come to know well and who seldom deviate from my expectations.  Mysteries fascinate me, as does psychology, so these two being intermingled in all of the Alex Delaware series makes these books a good match for me.

Alex Delaware is a retired child psychologist who works as an occasional consultant with the LAPD, teaming up with a gay detective, Milo Sturgis, who has one of the highest case solves within the department and is therefore grudgingly given leeway within the department to approach difficult, and in particular, high profile crimes in a manner he deems necessary, which inevitably involves his calling in Alex Delaware.  In this novel, there are some added aspects to their relationship and to the overall story.

The banter between the two is low-keyed as usual but fun to read.  Alex’s comments to the reader about Milo add to the enjoyment of their relationship, which has nothing to do with Milo’s sexual preference, since Alex is married to a woman and Milo is partnered with an emergency room physician. What was interesting in this book’s relationship between the two was the fact that in the previous book, Alex had saved Milo’s life and they had yet to discuss the ramifications of that event, although Alex is clearly aware that it’s changed Milo’s attitude somewhat toward him and is hoping they can get the emotions and attitudes out into the open.  This does eventually happen, mostly on Milo’s terms, which means a terse appreciation and acceptance, and they’re able to move on, back into their usual realm of a Holmes-Watson-type relationship, more reminiscent these days of the camaraderie we see on TV shows like “Law & Order” or “CSI.”

The story begins with a 60-year old skeleton of an infant being discovered in a backyard of a home in LA.  This sets off a search for the why and how and who that were involved in burying this child there.  As an apparent result of the news around this, there suddenly is another infant skeleton, much more recent, as well as a missing nanny and a dead nanny and a dead male estate manager, all centered around the questionable lifestyle of a mega-star family who may or may not be the perpetrators. This story has a lot of characters who complicate the plot and slow it down a bit in the middle, all of whom are connected and whose relationships make sense at the end.  This story also reveals our presuppositions and biases about super stars and others, as Alex begins to make his own realizations in this area.  His characters, even the more eccentric ones, are interesting and believable, probably because they’re in LA and either directly or indirectly connected with “the industry” there.  There were a few characters earlier in the book who maybe could either have been eliminated from the story line or at least developed in less detail, as they, too, slowed down the plot and began to make it harder to remember who was who doing what.  By the same token, however, they also added more suspects into the mix and a good mystery should do that. Given that, there may have been too many suspects and stories within the story seemed to get a little muddled.

Overall, I was pleased with the book and enjoyed it for the reason I read it, rather like reading a favorite TV show.  I knew what to expect in terms of the characters, and I particularly enjoyed the heavier emphasis on his psychological approach to several of the characters, especially when he realized he had made presumptions before meeting the main suspect that were rapidly dismissed.  I also enjoyed his revelations around his own upbringing that had been alluded to in other books but which had more of an impact on the Alex character in this book because of the similarities he was assuming were there and the ones that actually were.

If you already like Jonathan Kellerman as an author, you will enjoy this book, I think.  If you haven’t read him before, you don’t need to have read the series but it might help if you do, just to clarify the development in his and Milo’s relationship: however, you can enjoy the “whodunit” aspect and the twists and turns of the plot, as well as the characters, both major and minor.