Review: Broken Harbor

Broken Harbor by Tana French. Viking Adult. 2012. Personal copy. This is my Thanksgiving Holiday Read, a review of something that is not a YA book. (Yes, it’s the day after, but you have the weekend to read it!) Book 4 in the Dublin Murder Squad series. Previous books: In the Woods; The Likeness; and Faithful Place.

The Plot: Patrick Spain is dead, as are his two small children. His wife is in critical condition. They were found in their new house, in a development never finished, one of Ireland’s “Ghost Estates.” Mick Kennedy (nickname Scorcher) is the investigating detective. taking a risk on Richie, the rookie on the team.

Mick takes pride in what he does; and he follows the rules; and he gets the job done. Not many could take a case with dead kids, for instance; Mick does.

The Spains lived in a development called Brianstown. Before the fancy, unfinished, poorly built Brianstown, though, it was called Broken Harbor. Broken Harbor was where Mick’s family spent a week of vacation each summer, back in the day when families where happy with a week in a caravan and the beach and ice cream. Something happened to Mick’s family back then, but Mick isn’t going to talk about that. He’s not going to think about that. He’s going to solve the case, of what happened to the Spains.

The Good: Yes, I skipped the middle two books in this series. It was no problem, really; each book stands alone, loosely tied together by the members of the murder squad, yes, but with shifting main characters. So while I didn’t experience Mick as seen through the eyes of others in the earlier books, it didn’t impact how I read this. I could tell from how Mick treated Richie that Mick could sometimes be a bit of an annoying stick in the mud, particular about things being done the right way and only he, Mick, knowing that way. Of course, now I want to go back and read the two that I skipped!

They mystery is, of course, who killed the Spain family, who left Jenny Spain for dead? Mick is a by-the-book man, who believes that usually people “invite” crime in. There is something, somewhere, that made the crimes happen; it doesn’t come out of the blue; if a family member usually did it, look at the family; and these are what guides his investigation. Richie, younger, questions why Mick isn’t open to more possibilities. The tension between the two, the disagreement on what to look at and what to not look at, creates some of the tension in this novel. Even though this is told by Mick, at times I was sympathetic to Richie’s arguments, or saw the things Mick couldn’t recognize.

The other tension comes from Mick himself. What happened to his own family, years ago, at Broken Harbor, is a secret he slowly reveals to the reader. What is more quickly shown to the reader is Mick’s younger sister, Dina, who is flighty, irrational, mentally unstable, and has only her family to take care of her. Since their other sister has her hands full with her husband and children, it’s up to Mick to caretake Dina while delving into the murders of the Spains.

There are several ghosts in Broken Harbor. The Ghost Estates: the ghost of the broken dreams of posterity and promise, the ghost of success and happiness. It is Mick’s own ghosts, too, of what happened to his family. It may be even more than that. One of the things I loved about In the Woods is that there was a possible fantastical element to it, if the reader wanted to believe in it. Children disappeared, and was it for something a bit unreal, something pagan leftover in the woods? Here, Mick discovers that the house the Spains lived in, like that of their neighbors, was poorly constructed. The Spains tried to hide it with furniture and paint… except for the holes in the walls and baby monitors in odd places and a trap in the attic. What was going on in the Spain house?

Mick grew up in before the success a younger generation knew; the loss of that, perhaps, hits him and his generation a bit less than those who always knew plenty. He and his knew about wearing hand me downs or second hand clothes; for someone like Jenny Spain, though, those things would be a sign of failure. Broken Harbor isn’t just a murder investigation: it is also a look at economic prosperity and it’s loss. It’s a look at what that loss does to a person.

Broken Harbor is also a glimpse at the Ireland before that success, in the story of Mick and his family. Let me tell you: I really liked Mick. When I couldn’t understand his relationship with his sister, Dina, I reminded myself that (while he is roughly my age) his was a culture of  “what would the neighbors say” and “we take care of our own.” That, I could understand, and Mick’s and Dina’s tragedy is that neither of them can move beyond that. Still, they take of their own. That’s something, right? Broken Harbor, or broken people, and which people can put themselves together and which people don’t? What do you do when the wolves are at the door? For all that Jenny Spain doesn’t want to buy used clothing, who am I to judge, because neither do I.

Because this book has just the right mix of elements to intrigue me, because I liked Mick, because I felt sorry for the Spains, because the story haunts me, because I want to read the books I missed, because I want to read more about Ireland and the ghost estates. And because I was reminded of Ken Bruen‘s books. (Note to self: need to catch up with Jack Taylor and see how he’s doing.) This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: S. Krishna’s Books; Rhapsody in Books; NPR.

Review: White Devil

White Devil by Justin Evans. HarperCollins. 2011. Personal copy. Part of my Holiday Reads for Grown Up series; and what better book to pick than one that is not just a ghost story, but is a haunted boarding school story?

The Plot: American Andrew Taylor has been sent to an exclusive British boarding school, Harrow, for his final year of schooling. He’s under strict orders from his father not to mess things up like he did at his previous high school.

Harrow is old — and anything old has ghost stories, right?

Things are looking up when Persephone Vine (the only female student at the school) approaches Andrew about playing Byron in a play being written by Piers Fawkes, a poet and Andrew’s housemaster.

Then Andrew finds the body of a fellow student. One of the few who had been friendly to the new American. It’s quickly determined to be death from natural causes, but it’s enough for people to give Andrew a wide berth. There are even whispers of drugs.

It’s even more complicated because Andrew something someone — something — no, someone, by the body of the dead student. Who’ll believe him?

As Andrew learns more, he begins to believe that there really is a ghost at Harrow. But if the ghost is real, who is it? What does it have to do with the dead boy? And is anyone else in danger?

The Good: Let’s be honest. Ghosts aren’t scary.

No, really.

What’s scary is what ghosts does. What’s scary is never knowing where a ghost is. The way you can’t trust your eyes or ears. Not knowing what a ghost will or won’t do. Not being able to stop the ghost.

Andrew realizes not just that there is a ghost; not just that it’s killing people; but also, that it has something to do with Andrew. This isn’t something random; and it’s not something that has been going on for ages. It’s something old and dark and dangerous but perhaps scariest of all, it’s about Andrew. People are being hurt because of him. But why? And how? Andrew researches the school’s long past, with the help of Fawkes. Fawkes is haunted by something entirely different. As a young man, he’d shown promise and won awards and accolades for his poetry. Now, he’s a has been, his agent doesn’t return his calls, and his drinking is an open secret. He’s not the best person to handle the sudden unexpected deaths of people around him. What he is, though, is the best person Andrew has, and one of the few people Andrew can trust. And yes, this was scary and full of tension but I couldn’t help but love when Andrew starts looking into the history of the school and doing some in-depth research and reading original sources.

I have a bit of a soft spot for underdogs: Andrew, Fawkes, and Persephone are all underdogs. The lone American, the drunk, the girl. One of my favorite types of tragedies is the underdog so scarred that he becomes the villain. This is what happened here with the ghost — it is love turned to hate, want turned to destruction.

So — you have a ghost. You have a ghost who is killing people. You figure out who and why. And it’s all super scary and reading with one eyed closed. And now comes the real problem: can you stop the ghost?

This book was super scary; and it became even creepier when I read at the author’s website that Harrow is a real school. And while I don’t want to give away the ending, it was unexpected yet perfect and had me putting down the book because I couldn’t believe it and pacing around the room then picking it up again.

Other reviews: New York Times review; Jenn’s Bookshelves; S. Krishna’s Books; Jenny’s Books.

Review: Murder on Astor Place

Murder on Astor Place (Gaslight Mystery No. 1) by Victoria Thompson. Berkley Prime Crime. 1999. Personal copy. Monday is Columbus Day, so this review is a Holiday Read for grownups; that is, it’s not a young adult or children’s book.

The Plot: This is the first in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in turn of the century New York City. Teddy Roosevelt has decided to reform the police department; Frank Malloy is a hard-working detective sergeant who understand how the system works and has doubts about what Roosevelt is doing. Not because Malloy is corrupt, even though he knows how to play the game and is saving the money needed to get a promotion. No, because he wonders whether someone like Roosevelt will really get anything done.

Sarah Brandt is a midwife, widow to a doctor. Her background is not typical, and not what one would expect. She is the daughter of a rich and well connected New Yorker, a child of privilege, who for many different reasons has turned her back on her family and her class (as they have on her).

Sarah is called to assist in the birth of a hard-working woman who runs a boarding-house, and sees a girl she thinks looks vaguely familiar. Taking care of the mother and new baby takes up all her time, and she doesn’t follow up on it. When Sarah makes a follow up visit to the woman and her infant, she learns that girl has been murdered. Malloy is investigating, and has no time for Sarah, even when she says who the girl looks like — a friend of hers, a rich, New York woman. It turns out that the girl is the younger sister of Sarah’s school friend, and Sarah finds herself pulled into the investigation, both because she has knowledge of the world Malloy knows nothing about and because she feels she owes the dead girl. Malloy reluctantly accepts Sarah’s help.

Spoilers! Sarah and Malloy form a partnership of sorts, and the Gaslight Mysteries (there are now fourteen of them) is about the two of them, from different worlds, working together.

The Good: I love, love, love historical mysteries like this. Bonus for it being about a place I love, New York City. I love how Thompson works all the details of life at the turn of the century into this book, and how she looks at many classes and types of people. Plus, of course, there is the history aspect. The setting — so good.

And the characters! Sarah, with a career, independent but not without friends. Frank, coming from a world where solving crimes is helped along by bribes and kickbacks. I look forward to reading the other books in the series, to seeing what changes Roosevelt makes and how that impacts Frank. Confession: while its set a good thirty years after the new BBC America show, Copper, I kept thinking of that show. What Frank said about the police department is giving me a greater depth to what I’m watching take place in Copper.

My only quibble? I totally guessed the plot. I’ve said before, I don’t like holding that against a book because it’s not a book’s fault I read and watch a lot of mysteries, and approach them like a puzzle I want to solve. In this instance, though, I really think I may have read this book when it first came out, because while I don’t remember reading it, so many of the details were familiar I think I must have. Still, that doesn’t matter, because it was tightly plotted; the setting is supreme; and Sarah and Frank are two people I want to spend more time with.

Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House. 2011. Random House Audio. 2011. Narrated by Wil Wheaton. Listened to audiobook from library. Holiday Reads (Here at Tea Cozy, holiday reads aren’t books about holidays; they’re grown up books for grown up readers to indulge in over the holidays. And yes, the holiday is St. Patrick’s Day.)

The Plot: Wade Watts has one passion in life: solving the puzzle the late, eccentric, bazillionaire, James Halliday left behind five years before. The first person to solve the puzzle inherits Halliday’s fortune and control over Halliday’s creation, the OASIS, a virtual reality world. In 2044, everything takes place in that virtual world: shopping, friendships, business.

Wade’s just another teen playing games in the OASIS, obsessing over Halliday and trying to figure out the first clue in Halliday’s puzzle. Until something changes: while sitting in Latin class (a virtual class in the OASIS)  the cryptic first clue suddenly makes sense.

Five years after the game began, player one is on the game board and Wade is no longer just another teen.

The Good: Ready Player One is pure, unadulterated fun. It may be set in 2044, but Halliday was a child of the 80s and loved everything pop-culture from the 1980s: TV shows, film, music, computer games. When Halliday designed the contest to determine who would inherit his company and fortune, he used the 80s culture he loved. To understand the contest, to solve the puzzles, requires total immersion into the 1980s. Ready Player One is full of fun references, from Ultraman to Ladyhawke.

I was in high school and college in the 1980s, so got a lot of the references, but Halliday is much more of a computer geek than I ever was and so many things went over my head. Cline’s writing is such that it doesn’t matter. He explains enough about things like Black Tiger that I understood what was going on. Part of the enjoyment of Ready Player One is trying to guess what 1980s pop culture references will be used next, or realizing where a quote or name comes from.

Technically speaking, some of the pop culture is pre-1980s, such as H.R. Pufnstuf; shows like that would have been on reruns, though, so it makes sense to include them.

Wil Wheaton’s narration is brilliant; he totally captures Wade, an eighteen year old who in the “real world” is a poor orphan living in a nightmare trailer park but once in the OASIS is his avatar Parzival, with top knowledge of all things Halliday. Wade has no friends except the local crazy cat lady. Parzival has friends: other avatars, that is, and he spends huge amounts of time “plugged in,” watching films and playing arcade games with these OASIS friends. Wade is both vulnerable and lonely, arrogant and talented, and Wheaton perfectly captures that teenage male.

Wade spends much of his time in the OASIS because the virtual reality is so much more attractive than the real world. In the OASIS, one can literally be anything one wants to be. The OASIS is full of worlds, where magic and science fiction can be real. Breathless action scenes are shown, as Parzival battles enemies and takes risks to achieve his goals, and then Wade reminds us that he’s actually sitting in a chair with a visor and keyboard. It’s not real. Yet, at the same time, it is real. The prize — Halliday’s money — is very real.

The combination of Cline’s writing and Wheaton’s narration is such that at first, one doesn’t realize just how many rules Cline breaks. A ton of set up is needed for the reader to understand this future world, that is both so unlike ours yet very similar. It wasn’t until I began listening to the third CD that I realized that the first few CDs are basically a huge info dump. It’s done smoothly, and it entertains, so it doesn’t matter. It’s not until Wade/Parzival mentions he’s been sitting in a chair, plugged into the OASIS, playing a game that I realized the first part of the book was basically Wade wakes up and goes to school. Since school is in the OASIS, it’s a bit more involved, but, at its heart, that is what happens.

Cline has created a pretty bleak future. There’s a reason people like Wade escape into the OASIS. Yes, it’s fun to live in a world where you can be taller, thinner, better looking.; it’s also the perfect escape from a real world that has gone to hell in a hand-basket. Most of the book takes place in the OASIS, so only a little bit of the real 2044 is shown. There are some very clever bits, such as the future trailer parks being stacked up trailer upon trailer and vending machines that sell guns.

I’ll be honest: I listened to the audiobook, adored it, adored Wheaton telling the story. I’m not sure how I would have felt reading this; at times, Wade was too much of a geek for me. Of course, Wade has to be an uber geek, it is the point of the story and of Halliday’s contest. Part of the fun of Ready Player One is it takes the type of things that are of personal interest (games, TV, movies) and makes them into things that matter. My frustration with Wade aside, there were also a few plot points that left me going, “wait, what?” I think the reader/listener has to be willing to just go with it, to just sit back and enjoy Ready Player One for what it is: a fun read.

Read Roger asks, is Ready Player Onean adult or YA book? Wade’s journey is classic coming of age; he learns life lessons; and while the future is bleak, for the most part, Wade is having so much fun being Parzival that the reader doesn’t always remember it’s a depressing dystopia. Honestly, part of the reason I’d say adult is that, to me, the 1980s nostalgia/love affair is aimed at the adult reader, not the teen.

The Book Smugglers did a joint review; it’s my favorite type of review, because Ana and Thea disagree and I can see where both are coming from.

Review: The Kitchen Counter Cooking School

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks by Kathleen Flinn. Viking. 2011. Review copy from publisher via NetGalley. Holiday reads. Here at Tea Cozy, holiday reads aren’t books about holidays; they’re grown up books for grown up readers to indulge in over the holidays

It’s About: Cooking! Flinn, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu, sees a woman in the foodstore stocking up on preprocessed and frozen meals and convinces her to try a few easy, simple substitutes. This leads her to wondering people don’t cook more and why they rely on prepackaged food; Flinn then puts together a group of people who don’t cook, for various reasons, and conducts a series of lessons starting with the right way to use a knife. Will they be transformed into fearless home cooks? Will the reader be?

The Good: I like reading about cooking much more than I like to actual cook. As I once said to someone, I shelve my cookbooks next to my fantasy books. (No, not really. I sometimes exaggerate, but you get the point.)

Flinn’s book is part memoir, part how-to, part recipe, part history. Yes, she wants to know why people don’t want to cook when it’s just as easy to cook; but she is also wondering what she’ll do next with her life.

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School didn’t insult me. Sometimes, when people talk about the benefits of home cooking over store bought or preprocessed, they include the opinion that baking or cooking is morally superior than store-bought or packaged. Flinn did not do that; her argument is that it is just as easy to do it yourself, with the additional bonus of being cheaper and healthier and tasting better. These are the things that sway me.

I mentioned history: the history of prepackaged food is fascinating. Reading The Kitchen Counter Cooking School makes me want to find out more about the history of food and cooking;

Will this turn me into a fearless home cook? Well, I don’t always agree with some of Flinn’s conclusions. Fear isn’t a reason I don’t cook; time and energy is. Familiarity, too; something is “easy” once you’ve seen it done, and do it yourself, which is why Flinn’s lessons were successful. Following a recipe for the first time adds time and lessons the “this is easy” element.

Did this book inspire me? Heck, yes! I want to go get some good (yet not terribly expensive) knives. I want to experiment with the simple pasta sauce and salad dressing recipes in the book.

Any recommendations for other books about food and cooking?

Review: In The Woods

In the Woods by Tana French. Viking. 2007. Library copy. Holiday reads — a grown up book to read over the holidays.

The Plot: 1984, a summer day, a Dublin suburb. Three twelve year olds, Germaine (Jamie), Peter, and Adam, go in the woods to play. They don’t come home. Adam alone is found; slash marks on his back, blood in his sneakers, no memories of what happened.

Twenty years later, the body of Katy Devlin, twelve, is found, near the woods where the children disappeared years ago. Police detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox investigate. By Katy’s body they find a clue: an old barrette. Jamie’s, the missing girl from decades before. It’s not the only link to the earlier crime.

Rob Ryan is Adam. Grown up, change of name, even a change of accent from the schools his parents sent him to to keep him out of the public eye. Rob Ryan, who despite his lack of memories of that fateful day is determined to not just solve the crime of Katy’s murder but also that of his missing friends.

The Good: A deliciously good, ice-chilling mystery. This is Rob’s story, and he is a storyteller, knowing just what to tell us and when. “What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception.” The reader is warned, but there are surprises to be had.

The setting is Dublin; and I’m a mystery lover who likes mysteries set in other countries. Having visited Ireland more than once, some descriptions of towns and landmarks were familiar, which is an added bonus for me.

I loved the multiple mysteries going on here: the present one, the murder of young Katy; and past one, the disappearances of the twelve year olds. There is added twist that Adam/Rob is the narrator, someone who should have the most information to share yet who suffers amnesia for the time he and his friends went missing. Rob also has incomplete remembrances of his childhood before that time, so he’s lost not just his two friends but the friendship they shared as well. When thoughts of that time period are shared, I was reminded of Stephen King and when he writes about childhood friendship: the magic, the fierceness, the loyalty. Some of this is then oddly mirrored in the working dynamics in the present between Rob, Cassie, and a third police colleague working on the case.

Rob is also not always honest with himself or the reader; he reveals information in dribs and drabs. By the end of the book, I wasn’t quite sure what to think about him, except that I felt sorry for him, both the child Adam and the adult Rob. The mystery of In The Woods is as much about who Rob is and why as it is about the dead and missing children.

For the Katy mystery, I made some correct guesses about what had happened to her. For me, mysteries work for different reasons, and while sometimes I read to be surprised by whodoneit other times I read a book as if it’s a puzzle, to see if I can figure it out with or before the investigators. So, that I made some correct deductions meant that the book worked and I felt smart. Where I was surprised in the story? By what happened to the grownup characters, Cassie and Rob. For the Jamie, Peter, and Adam mystery, I’ll reserve my thoughts for the comments. That way those who don’t want to be spoiled, won’t, but those who need to discuss it, can.

I read this using my phone as an ereader. It’s not a way I’d want to read all my books, but it was nice to have a book on my phone for when I wanted a book to read and  hadn’t brought one.

Review: Bobby Singer’s Guide to Hunting

Supernatural: Bobby Singer’s Guide to Hunting by David Reed. 2011. It Books, an imprint of Harper Collins. Review copy from publisher. A tie in to the CW TV show, Supernatural. Holiday reads. Here at Tea Cozy, holiday reads aren’t books about holidays; they’re grown up books for grown up readers to indulge in over the holidays.

The Plot: Bobby Singer’s brain is leaking memories. He has some blanks in his memory, and he doesn’t think it’s alcohol related. Things aren’t were they are usually kept, like the grenade launcher. And he just cannot remember how he got home from Ashland. Where are the car keys? Where is the car?

If Bobby was anyone else, well, there would be a medical explanation. Bobby is a hunter, hunting all those things that go bump in the night that are real: vampires, demons, werewolves, ghosts, well, you get the picture. Before Bobby loses all his memories, he wants to pass down some of his knowledge to Sam and Dean Winchester. Welcome to Bobby Singer’s Guide to Hunting.

The Good: Yes, this is a tie in with the TV show Supernatural. My love of the pretty, pretty Winchester boys is well documented. And I still they they would be awesome on a READ poster. Honestly, if you don’t watch Supernatural, this book is not for you. If you don’t watch the show, and do like horror and supernatural delivered in a way that is serious and scary and sometimes funny, give the show a try. Because there are season long story arcs, I’d recommend going all the way back and starting with Season 1; Bloody Mary, the fifth episode, is the one where this show really grabs you and says, watch this show. It’s more than two pretty, pretty boys and a terrific car.

If you watch Supernatural, Bobby Singer’s Guide to Hunting is a lot of fun. Who doesn’t love Bobby? And here is a whole book from Bobby’s point of view, as Bobby shares some of his past hunting stories. There is more on how he started hunting after his wife died; an explanation for Bobby’s fluency in Japanese; and what Bobby really thinks about John Winchester. It’s a series of short horror stories, with Bobby — well, he may not always win but he always survives. Up until his last case, in Ashland, and that frustrating lack of memories. It’s that tale that wraps it all together, sort of like how one story arc covers a season of Supernatural while there are monster of the week episodes as well.

Review: The Map of My Dead Pilots

The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska by Colleen Mondor. Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. An adult nonfiction title, this is part of my “Holiday Reads” series; adult books to read and enjoy over the holiday.

It’s About:  The myths and realities of flying in Alaska is explored, using the time period of the 1990s when Mondor worked for “the Company,” an Alaskan commuter and charter airline. In attempting to understand those who fly in the dangerous Alaskan conditions, the risks they take, and the reasons they crash, Mondor also looks at the past and the first Alaskan flights in the 1920s. This is as much about story, and the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives and our choices, as it is about the high-risk stakes of flying in Alaska.

The Good: Writing the brief synopsis of this book was hard, because I kept wondering if my words (“the high-risk stakes of flying in Alaska“) added to the myths that Mondor writes against.

The Map of My Dead Pilots is not a linear autobiography of Mondor’s time in Alaska in the 1990s. It does not begin with her arrival in Alaska commenting on the cold, it does not say why she went to Alaska, it does not go day by day, month by month, year by year. It’s not that type of book. Rather than a straight line, The Map of My Dead Pilots is a series of interlocked circles, linked stories that talk about the pilots, their flights, their crashes, why they flew and why they crashed. Stories that are about real people and real things, so they overlap and run into one another, have nothing to do with each other and everything to do with each other.

The myth of Alaska looms behind the story, and it’s a big myth, so Mondor wisely only looks at the myth as it applies to one area: flying. The myth is why some went to Alaska, why they went there to fly, and why the stayed. “It was the place where pilots were needed, where they mattered.” Myths are stories, and for Mondor and her pilots, the story matters. Why did a pilot, a friend, crash? What does “pilot error” mean? “Because he was lucky, he thought he was good.” True of pilots, but also true of anyone, and also true of how we choose to interpret our lives. How are our stories told and retold? For one particular crash where a pilot crashed into the Yukon River, different pilots have different stories of why the crash occurred, and each story is based on their own flying experiences, what they would or would not have done when the moment comes when there is the realization that something is wrong.

So the stories are told, by Mondor and her pilots, living and dead, attacking some myths (when is something a “life saving” mission and when is it to meet a contract to get paid?) yet repeating others: pilots who go to Alaska and and find that their comfort zones about what is and is not safe shifting, and “before they knew it, each of them was taking off in conditions that seemed unacceptable just a few weeks before.”

The writing in The Map of My Dead Pilots is beautiful; it tells about cold beyond cold, of cargo, of mail and corpses and dogs, and even a head in a box, as well as the planes, the pilots, the flights, and the history. From page one, it brings you into the story; I thought I was there, with Mondor and her friends Sam and Bryce and the other men. By jumping right into the stories, and following the emotional story arc rather than a linear one, Mondor includes the reader. “My” dead pilots does not mean Mondor’s dead pilots; it is the reader’s dead pilots as well. We are part of the myth-making and myth-breaking. “They came [to Alaska] for a thousand different reasons, but they stayed for one: Not one of them had anywhere else to go.”

I’ll end with what may be my favorite passage, because it is about how we use story to interpret our lives, and while Mondor is writing about flying I think it’s universal: “There are two ways to tell a flying story: the truth and what everyone wants to hear. You can’t have it both ways. The best stories try to walk a fine line, keep it real while making it funnier than it was, less frightening than you remember it. . . . But I think if you tell a story enough, you can find the truth in it: you can find the way it really was and not just how you wanted it to be. The lies in a story don’t come from writing it was better. They come from knowing it wasn’t.”

Disclaimer: I’ve been on-line friends with the author, Colleen Mondor, for several years. We met in-person for the first time at KidLitCon 2011.

Review: Full Dark, No Stars

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King. Scribner. 2010. Personal copy.

Part of my “holiday reads” for grown ups. What better Halloween author than Stephen King?

The Plot: Four stories.

In 1922, a man who loves his farm decides that his wife is what stands between him and a happy life farming. He involves his son, and winds up losing and he wanted to hold onto.

Big Driver is about the victim of a violent rape who decides to take justice into her own hands. The victim happens to be a writer of cozy murder mysteries and discovers that difference between real life and fiction.

In Fair Extension, a man makes a deal to have everything he ever wanted, and part of what he wants is his “best friend” to not be successful. It’s schadenfreude taken to an extreme level. What’s the price paid for such a deal?

Finally, the woman in A Good Marriage believes she has a good marriage, and the proof is the long marriage, the two successful children. What’s a good wife to do when she realizes her husband is a serial killer? 

The Good: Each of these four stories has a vaguely supernatural air about it. The story with the strongest supernatural quality, 1922, can also be read as a psychological horror story — the Tell Tale Heart. Only with rats.

I enjoy Stephen King’s books; when I compare books I read to him, it’s a very big complement. If I had to pick only one author that would still be read a hundred years from now, it would be Stephen King. For all that, for all that I love The Stand and The Shining and his other books, I think it’s his short stories that are his most powerful. Building a world in hundreds of pages? Easy, you have hundreds of pages! Building that same world in a handful of pages? Now that is talent. King writes horror, and I enjoy the horror he writes, but some of his most terrifying writing has not been about vampires and killer cars but about the loss of a child, the death of a sibling. These are the types of stories in Full Dark, No Stars. They scare the reader because they hold up a mirror to show something the reader doesn’t want to see, a window into what they fear is happening in the house next door.

What is really scary, for each of the stories, is not the ghosts or devil or other fantastical elements — it’s the everyday aspects of the stories. A man angry at his wife, who convinces his son to take sides, concerned only with “winning” his child, “winning” his farm, and is so focused on hurting his wife in order to “win” that he doesn’t realize the hurt he inflicts on his son and himself. A woman, beaten, raped, left for dead, who doesn’t want to go through life labelled a victim so takes the law into her own hands. The jealousy and resentment one feels towards one friends. And, the dilemma being between a rock and a hard place: expose a husband’s crimes and destroy the lives of your children who will forever be known as killer’s kids. All of those are about the real fears and temptations and choices people face. This is why Stephen King is a magnificent writer: because he gets into people’s heads, is fearless about showing the good, the bad, the gray, the dark wishes and dark choices.

In the Afterword, King writes that “I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive. It gets in your face. Sometimes it shouts in your face. I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. i want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal. I put that in italics, because if the tale is good enough and the characters vivid enough, thinking will supplant emotion when the tale has been told and the book set aside (sometimes with relief.”

The book has been set aside, and now the thinking . . . . It is not fearing a vampire child floating outside the window; it is fearing at what point one loses ones soul because they delight in the downfall of another. It is in discovering the consequences of taking a wrong detour. What would one do to survive?

Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffee and Annie Barrows. Dial Press, a division of Random House. 2008. Personal Copy.

Another in my series of “holiday reads” for grown ups!

The Plot: London, 1946. Author Juliet Ashton, thirtysomething, is looking for an idea for a new book when she gets a letter from Dawsey Adams, a farmer from Guernsey who found her name in a book and is wondering if she could help him find more reading material. Told solely in letters, Dawsey Adams and his friends tell Juliet about their life on Guernsey during the German occupation.

The Good: I am the last person in the world to read this book, right?

The story of Dawsey Adams and his friends and neighbors, and what they did and didn’t do during the German occupation, fascinated me. There was much I didn’t know, beginning with the fact that the Channel Islands were occupied for almost five years. The conceit is not just the letters, but also the Literary Society and the power of books. The Society started as an excuse to the Germans to explain a breach of curfew, but went from an invention to a reality. For some people, like Dawsey, books ended up offering solace, distraction, something to do, and reading each member’s unique relationship with the books they read was beautiful. Along the way, Shaffee and Barrows include so many details about the occupation, both large and small, that part of me wants to go out and read some nonfiction about it, and part of me doesn’t because I don’t want to find out what parts are fiction.

At the same time, the story is also told of Juliet’s experiences in London during World War II, and of her present life as an author. That, too, interested me and Juliet’s story of why she broke off an engagement at the last minute had me laughing and sympathizing with her.

Juliet, an author, has discovered an intriguing, little known story. What else can she do, but go to Guernsey and meet her pen pals? I know the pen pals are fictitious, but I want to go to Guernsey now!

Despite the dark things that happened during the Occupation, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is hopeful and offers happiness, to the reader and to Juliet and Dawsey and their friends. There is even a romance that is sweet and subtle.

I have to admit — when Juliet actually went to Guernsey? And met all the people? It felt a bit like a reader entering a story they’d been reading, like The Neverending Story or (for movies) The Purple Rose of Cairo, except without the fantasy. It seemed almost too perfect, in how it all came together. But you know what? Sometimes a person just wants a happy ending, and that ending made this a perfect holiday read.