Strange Weather

This is the fourth book that I’ve read by Joe Hill, and with this NOS4A2 and The Fireman, I feel comfortable saying that he is well on his way to becoming a favorite author. (The Heart-Shaped Box was also excellent but a little too scary until it fizzled out.) However, unlike, NOS4A2 and The Fireman, which were doorstoppers of more than 600 pages, this book is a collection of four novellas. All of them are pretty good, definitely hard to put down.

Jenny reviewed this collection a few months ago, so you can read her review to get a sense of what they’re like. I’d rank the four novellas pretty much the same way she did: Loaded, about the horror of U.S. gun culture; Snapshot, about a memory-wiping camera;  Rain, about a literal rainstorm of skin-piercing crystal needles; and Aloft, about a boy’s adventure on a cloud. Snapshot and Rain are about equal in my mind, partly because I read Rain during an actual rainstorm — so lots of ambiance!

The thing that all four novellas have in common is that it is very hard to predict what’s going to happen next, even as the characters generally behave in ways that are utterly predictable, or that at least make sense in context. They are generous, cruel, brave, and violent in just the ways real people are. But, with the exception of Loaded, they are put in unimaginable situations. What would you do if the sky rained needles, if you were stuck on a solid cloud, if you found a camera that erased people?

In contrast, Loaded, while depicting a realistic situation, incorporates just enough chance in its storyline to keep the outcome from being obvious. However, it also walks a fine line on whether its characters are types or full-on caricatures. I think it mostly stays on the right side of the line, but it’s close at times.

Overall, though, what these novellas have going for them is their sheer creativity at putting characters in situations they couldn’t possibly have planned for and then seeing what happens. Even the weakest story, Aloft, which feels weird for the sake of weird, is impossible to turn away from. It’s toward the end that it gets silly, whereas the other stories finish strong.

Anyway, if you haven’t read any Joe Hill, and you like good horror thrillers, you should give him a try. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next and hoping he keeps up the great story-telling.

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Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 3 Comments

More Than Love Letters

I do love an epistolary novel, and this one by Rosy Thornton is a lot of fun. The letters that open the novel are written by Margaret Hayton to her MP about such matters as taxes on feminine sanitary products, the British government’s sluggishness on greenhouse gas regulations, and the disrepair of the zip line on the local playground. Her MP, Richard Slater, writes her off as an old-lady crank and sends back form letters. But, eventually, he realizes he needs to be more visible to his constituents to restore his reputation with the government after voting against the war in Iraq. So, in response to a letter from Margaret about a refugee woman the WITCH group (for Women of Ipswich Together Combating Homelessness) is helping, he invites Margaret to come meet with him. He is surprised to see that she’s young and attractive, and he’s impressed with her passion and ends up trying to help.

The relationship between Margaret and Richard is chronicled in their letters and e-mails to each other, to friends and family, from Margaret’s landlady to her husband, a handful of newspaper articles, and minutes of weekly WITCH meetings. As Margaret and Richard attempt to help Nasreen, the Albanian refugee, they get closer to each other. Miscommunications and misunderstandings occur, each of them grows up a little, and so on.

It’s a typical romcom plot, with two charming, good-hearted people falling in love while surrounded by quirky friends and personal dramas, some of which are quite serious, involving sexual abuse and suicide. Along the way, Richard learns to put people before politics, and Margaret learns not to let her initial assumptions get the better of her. (Margaret doesn’t have as far to go as Richard, but she does make some serious errors in the heat of the moment.)

And that’s about all there is to say about this book. It was fun to read. I had heard that it was a modernization of North and South, but, if so, it’s a loose one. Margaret is named after the heroine of Gaskell’s novel, and she shares the same passion for doing good, I think it’s more that is provided some general inspiration, rather than a framework on which to build. And that’s fine. It’s an enjoyable story on its own.

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The Murderess

As Hadoula, the 60-year-old protagonist of this 1903 novel by Alexandros Papdiamantis (and translated from Greek by Peter Levi) takes care of her infant granddaughter, she considers her life as a woman and the lives of her daughters. How much pain there is, how much their futures are prescribed by dowry customs and whims of men. And she wondered, “O God, why should another one come into the world?”

Girls have seven lives, the old woman reflected. Not much makes them ill and they seldom die. Should we as good Christians not help in the work of the angels? Oh how many boys, and how many little princes are snatched away untimely! And even little princesses die more easily, rare in their sex as they are, more easily than the infinite multitude of the children of the poor. The only ones with seven lives are the girl children of the lowest class! They seem to have been multiplied on purpose, to punish their parents with a foretaste of hell in this world. Ah, the more one works things out, the more one’s brain goes up in smoke.

On the very next page, Papadiamantos observes that the old woman’s brain has indeed gone up in smoke, as her musings turned into a deadly impulse, and the baby in her care is now dead. And it’s not the last.

Hadoula sees herself as doing good, preventing years of suffering for young daughters and their families. For her, pain is inevitable for girls and their families, and Papadiamantos offers sufficient reason in the history of Hadoula and others in the village for us to believe it. Hadoula is a healer who uses herbs and plants to ease her neighbors’ pains. These deaths are a extension of that work. Yet the families in Hadoula’s village don’t see it that way, and so she ends up on the run, crawling up the mountains of Skiathos, evading capture as long as she can.

I can’t say that I loved this book, partly because stories of women’s suffering are so ubiquitous as to require something really original to stand out. The premise is original, but the story felt thin once I got past the premise. However, the ending of the book raises some interesting questions about how Papadiamantos wants readers to understand Hadoula’s actions, and her feelings about those actions. I’m not suggesting that the book’s argument is that the murders are righteous, but the final image, evoking baptism, makes me wonder if we’re supposed to read something righteous in her intentions. Papadiamantos says she’s caught “midway between divine and human justice.” So what, exactly, is the justice she’s receiving?

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The Tragedy of Brady Sims

This novella by Ernest Gaines begins with a verdict, followed by a crime. A young man is convicted of robbery and murder, and, just as he’s being escorted out of the courtroom, his father, Brady Sims, shoots and kills him. Brady pleads for two hours on his own before he turns himself in, and the sheriff, Mapes, allows it. In the meantime, a young reported named Louis is told to get started on a human interest story about Brady.

To do his research, Louis heads to the town barbershop, where the black men of the community, like so many black men, spend their time, chatting about local happenings, past and present. And their meandering narration forms the core of the book.

The men are ostensibly telling Brady’s story, but their storytelling goes all over the place, including into a running joke about whether it was War or Tractors that sent so many of their young people away. And so, through their stories, we get a sense not just of Brady’s life, but of the sensibilities of the town’s black community.

These are men who know each other well, and they’ve known each other for years. They’re just letting Louis, and us, listen in. Sometimes that makes for frustrating reading, when characters are referred to as “that boy” or some shared history is referred to that an outsider wouldn’t understand. And so the reader doesn’t understand either. Gaines makes clear that this is a deliberate choice because there’s an out of towner hanging out in the barbershop, and he complains about how the story is never getting anywhere.

I think this technique does well at pointing out how outsiders really can’t understand the full story of a community and its particular suffering. Those who aren’t from Bayonne, Louisiana, who won’t understand the community’s history. White people will miss the nuances. The storytelling is not for us. It’s a way that these storytellers maintain their bonds to each other. Others can listen in, but the speakers aren’t going to stop to explain all the details. It makes the storytelling feel more natural, even if, like the out of town listener, I sometimes wanted the rambling to get to where it was going. (If the book had been longer, it might, alas, have been too frustrating for me, so I’m glad it was so short.)

So what do we learn about Brady? We learn that he spent his whole life making sure that his children, and other children in the community, do not end up in the Angola prison. If that means giving them a beating, then so be it. Is he right? Is he wrong? The book doesn’t say. Some of the beatings are severe. But, then again, so is Angola. Mapes speaks at the end about the burden society placed on Brady and how everyone, including him, could have done more. And so the book asks us to take on some of the burden, to try to understand without hand holding, to seek ways to lighten the load.

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Beast in View

This old-school 1955 suspense novel by Margaret Millar features a fractured family whose secrets are being pulled out of the darkness by a resentful woman whose feelings have bred a sort of madness that makes her a danger to everyone that gets on her wrong side.

The story begins when Miss Helen Clarvoe receives a phone call from an old school friend named Evelyn Merrick. Helen, a cold and solitary woman, doesn’t remember Evelyn, although she pretends to, but she’s unsettled by the phone call, which includes a reference to the money she inherited when her father died. So she calls Mr. Blackshear, the family financial adviser for help. Blackshear, recently semi-retired, takes up the case and begins looking into Evelyn Merrick.

It turns out that Evelyn is more closely tied to the Clarvoe family than Helen recalled, but once the nature of the relationship is revealed, the situation begins to look even more sinister. Before long, people are dying. Yet, Evelyn herself remains a mystery, with people presenting altogether different versions of her. And the sinister phone calls and revelations go on.

The plot in this book winds around quite a lot as new characters are introduced and new shocking twists revealed. It takes a while for the main thread to be revealed, but once it is, the book becomes pretty gripping. There’s some dark comedy, especially in a scene involving a doting mother. And the book’s climax is patently obvious once you look back but still something of a surprise (to me, anyway). The groundwork is well laid.

This book was written in 1955, and it’s a book of its time, with some dodgy ideas about mental illness and homosexuality that may bother some readers more than they bothered me. For the most part, I think Millar was attempting to treat her outcast and troubled characters with sympathy without letting them off the hook in areas where they go wrong. (This is very much Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith territory. In fact, this novel won the Edgar award over The Talented Mr Ripley.) I’ve hadn’t read any Margaret Millar before, and this appears to be her most highly regarded book, but if anyone would like to suggest others of hers that are worth reading, please do!

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 2 Comments

Light Boxes

This odd little book by Shane Jones is set in a small town where it is always February and flight is forbidden. It wasn’t always this way. The town once had a lively tradition of ballooning, and many of the residents remember that, most especially the bird-masked former balloonists known as the Solution. The members of the solution are plotting a war to confront February and bring it to an end. (February is both a never-ending month and the being who has caused it.)

The book focuses on a family — Thaddeus, Selah, and their daughter Bianca. Thaddeus teaches Bianca the ways of the past with surreptitious kite-flying outings, and he’s curious about the Solution, who are encouraging him to join the war effort for the sake of his daughter. The stakes go up when Bianca disappears, one of many children who has gone missing, presumably kidnapped by February.

The story gets weirder and weirder, with reversals and mistaken identities and shifting plots and changing loyalties. Most of the story is communicated in fragments, just images of what is happening, but very few explanations. This approach puts readers right into the situation, having to work out what’s going on moment to moment, without ever having complete information. Is, for example, it a good idea to listen to the children living underground? Are the children ghosts? Is the man on the edge of town really February, or just a builder as he claims? What is the girl who smells of honey really up to? I don’t know that it ever comes together, but the questions kept me reading.

One thing that struck me about the story, and the foggy mode of storytelling, is that it gives readers a sense of how it feels to be in the midst of something dire (a war, a disaster, a horrifying presidency) without knowing what’s going to happen next or the best way to get out of it. People’s commitment to the cause shift as circumstances change, and it’s not always clear who to trust. The book reads like a fairy tale, and, like a fairy tale, it gets at some universal fears about living in the world.

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An American Marriage

Celestial and Roy are living the American dream. Roy is finding success as an Atlanta executive. And Celestial is making plans for turning her art, making lifelike dolls, usually modeled after Roy, into a lucrative business. There may be some conflicts around the edges, as the newlyweds get to know each other’s secrets, but that’s marriage. It’s nothing they can’t get through.

But as the couple are on their way home after visiting Roy’s family, Roy is arrested for rape, even though he was with Celestial the entire time. After his conviction, he becomes one of many black men in jail, and Celestial has to figure out how to live a life on her own while honoring the commitment she made to Roy.

This novel by Tayari Jones has gotten a lot of praise, and I’m happy to say that it is well deserved. Celestial and Roy are complex characters, caught up in an impossible situation. And there are layers to the complexity involving class, family background, and personality. Added to the mix is Celestial’s best friend Andre, who introduced the couple and is now continuing to act as best friend, filling in for Roy at important family events. The novel takes each of their perspectives in turn, and each character acts in ways that are sometimes frustrating but always understandable. They are, after all, in an impossible situation.

This book won me over early on, in a lengthy sequence of letters between Celestial, Roy, and others, while Roy is in prison. I love an epistolary novel, and these are very well done. You can see exactly how Celestial and Roy are trying to keep things together while talking past each other. All the tensions that would come with any marriage are ramped up to 11. With Roy in prison, the stakes are so much higher, and any misstep can feel like an even bigger betrayal than under more ordinary circumstances. Loyalty and faithfulness feels both so much harder and so much more important under these circumstances.

As the story goes on, all of the characters are forced to question the nature and meaning of their relationships. At times, it makes for very uncomfortable reading, and my emotions were all over the place. At some point, each of the main character did something to infuriate me, even as I could see where each one was coming from with their actions.

I should also mention the strong supporting cast, especially Roy’s mother and step-father, especially especially Roy’s stepfather (also named Roy). He is fiercely devoted to Roy, and to his wife, Roy’s mother, Olive, and he presents a strong and unwavering moral center to the novel. An argument could be made that it is Roy and Olive’s marriage that is the American Marriage of the title because it is, in many respects, the model marriage, built on steadfast loyalty and trust. But Celestial and Roy’s marriage may be closer to the norm, built on love, yes, but also misunderstandings and difficult questions. The most difficult of which is, How much love is needed to get past all the rest?

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The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

I became interested Sherlock Holmes mostly through Laurie King’s Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series. Prior to reading those books, I’d read maybe a handful of Conan Doyles’s short stories and The Hound of the Baskervilles. But I’m enjoying slowly working through the originals.

This, the second collection of stories, contains 11 “Adventures,” to use Watson’s terms. (The UK version includes 12.) Each stories, with one notable exception, includes some sort of puzzle to solve, whether it’s the disappearance of a horse and the death of its trainer or the apparent imprisonment of a Greek man and his sister. As always, Holmes relies on his keen sense of observation to determine what’s really going on.

These are not necessarily mysteries that readers can solve, although more skilled readers than I might be able to figure things out. For me, I got pleasure from noting important details, even if I don’t have the background knowledge to recognize their significance. It was enough to be able to say, “Oh, that must mean something.”

With one notable exception, I don’t think any of the stories in this collection are especially well known—at least I hadn’t encountered references to them before. This is the collection where Mycroft Holmes is introduced (in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpretor,” one of the weaker mysteries in the collection). There are a couple of stories from early in Holmes’s career, and Watson presents them as told to him by Holmes. One of these “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” was among my favorites in the collection — it’s just so dark!

Another of my favorites was “The Adventure of the Yellow Face,” not because it’s a particularly good mystery, but because it’s both sweet and sad. From the title, I expected something altogether different, and I was pleased with the direction the story took. Conan Doyle is not always great on issues of race, but this is a nice story.

The most important story in the collection, however, is “The Final Problem,” which is the story in which Conan Doyle attempted to retire his famous character to the waters of the Reichenbach Falls. I knew how this story would end, but I’d never read it. In the story, we meet Moriarty for the first time, although we only get a glimpse of how he operates. He seems to be tailor made simply for the purpose of bringing Holmes’s career to a noble end. It would have been fun to see more of him. I understand he’s mentioned in later stories, but doesn’t play a direct role in many of them. I’ll enjoy looking for those references as I read more!

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries/Crime, Short Stories/Essays | 4 Comments

Blue at the Mizzen

Well, friends, this is it. The last completed book from Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. I plan to take a look at the unfinished final volume in the next few months, but my understanding is that it’s not much more than fragments, so I’m not expecting to get a lot out of it other than a sense of what might have been.

So with Blue at the Mizzen, we have a book that wasn’t intended to be the end of the series that ends up being its end. In some respects, it’s a nice ending. The final moments show Jack moving on to a new role, one that he’s longed for over the course of the whole series. It’s an appropriate end. But most of the book really feels like a transition, a set-up for a new set of adventures taking place after the Napoleonic War.

The primary mission that Jack and Stephen undertake is a journey to Chile, which is fighting for independence from Spain. Before the journey can begin, the Surprise requires extensive repairs, which proves more complicated than anticipated, thanks to a fire in Portugal. As these novels go, this one feels somewhat uneventful. There are events, sure, but storms and starvation are starting to seem routine. Ditto the interpersonal dramas, and that’s despite the introduction of some crucial new characters. Those characters have potential, but it all goes so smoothly. I am somewhat worried that Stephen is going back to taking laudanum again, but even that is treated as no big deal. (Although I wonder if that, among other things, was meant to be setting up future conflict.)

When reviewing The Hundred Days, I expressed my consternation at the sudden off-page death of Diana. I’m still irritated by that, a fact that probably did a disservice to my potential appreciation for Stephen’s decision to propose to fellow naturalist Christine Wood. I liked this character a lot, and, in some ways, she seems like a more appropriate match for Stephen, a match chosen with mature thoughtfulness and not youthful passion. But it still feels sudden. She appeared in one previous book, before Diana’s death, and the first mention of her here is about Stephen’s decision to propose. We don’t get to be part of his thought process. Again, this might be setup for some future drama — if the marriage doesn’t happen or isn’t successful despite seeming perfect on paper. But I wasn’t ready for Stephen to move on. I could be convinced, and I want to be convinced, but not being part of his journey makes it difficult.

Perhaps, though, O’Brian was starting to run out of steam for the series. I feel confident that the story could have picked up with more volumes, but part of me is happy to see Jack sailing off to new honors and Stephen dreaming of a new family life as this one ends. Nothing but good things ahead.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 2 Comments

Devoted Ladies

A few years ago, I read Good Behavior by Molly Keane, and it was a novel that I admired more than liked. It had a pleasingly dark plot and well-developed characters, but I felt I was being kept at a distance from it all. With this much earlier book, which Keane published under the pseudonym M.J. Farrell in 1934, I feel similarly, except I’m not sure that I even admire it that much.

As the novel begins, we meet Jessica and Jane, two lesbians who have been together for six months. Jessica is cruel, violent, and abusive to Jane, and, although Jane is devoted to Jessica, she’s also ready to leave. She’s done. Still, she’s too frightened to do anything until she meets an Irishman named George at a party and feels she has her answer. When she’s sick with alcohol poisoning, George sends her a package of divertingly silly books set in Ireland. Jessica treats the gift with scorn and sees the books as beneath them both, but as Jane and her nurse start sneaking around behind Jessica’s back to read them, Jane becomes certain that she’ll find a way out with George in Ireland. She enlists Sylvester, part of her and Jessica’s social set, to help.

Soon after this, Sylvester is visiting his cousins, Piggy and Hester, in Ireland when Jessica and Jane turn up. Jane has been injured in a car accident, and they will have to stay there for at least a month. Piggy is a devoted friend to George’s sister, Joan, who mostly treats Piggy with scorn. And so, Jane is able to make inroads into George’s life and seems to genuinely come to love him. All the while, however, there’s Jessica’s possible reaction hanging over the relationship, as well as Piggy’s own affection for George.

Almost all of the characters in this book are either mean-spirited or pathetic, and sometimes both. Jessica is, of course, the most overly mean, but Joan undermines everything about Piggy whenever she can, and Piggy has internalized the meanness and looks down on herself. Other characters, like Sylvester, just enjoy making cutting barbs. None of this is enough to turn me off a book entirely, but it the case of this one, the nastiness was just so unrelenting and one-note that it became boring. It’s only in the last several pages that the story takes a turn that I found genuinely surprising. And, at that point, I realized that Keane was laying the groundwork for a big climax all along. But the journey to get there just wasn’t worth it to me. I could see the skill, but I didn’t care. And that’s fatal.

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