Thursday, June 26, 2014

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek is as gourmet a piece of writing as an author can produce and the fact that this is a debut novel is mind boggling. The writing is so smooth it goes down like lobster dipped in melted butter. It feels as if Henderson’s impeccable phrasing has translated English into a whole new language.  Yes, you may need a dictionary to get every nuanced sentence exactly as intended and the book is a tad long but Henderson’s words aren’t prim or academic.  The book is primarily set in Montana and the characters’ cadence and speech reflect their setting.

Fourth of July Creek is a brutally shattering tale of families that go off track without knowing they’ve slipped. Pete Snow is a rural Montana social worker whose own family makes dysfunctional seem like a step up. When he meets mountain man Jeremiah Pearl through Pearl’s son Benjamin who has scurvy and giardia, he hopes to gain Pearl’s trust. Pearl is a paranoid survivalist hell-bent on preparations for the Biblical End Times and he doesn’t stay in one place long enough to listen. When the FBI and other agencies enter the search for Pearl, Snow is caught in the cross-hairs.

Pete Snow is a flawed man; he drinks too much and he’s lonely and confused but he consistently tries to do the right thing by the kids on his watch. He shows up when and where he thinks there’s need.  That should be a good thing but the book’s epigraph predicts that it may not be so: 
If I knew for certain’ty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.  – Henry David Thoreau

Snow’s “conscious design” to help Cecil, an emotionally damaged boy, has several unintended consequences no one could predict.  Even Snow’s turning out of his own brother, a fugitive running from a demented parole officer, doesn’t work as it should.  The side story of Snow’s 13-year-old daughter Rachel who’s on the run and its reminder that Pete can’t find his own child to save her is almost too bleak to be palatable.  The reader knows Rachel will end up in deep trouble yet it’s still difficult to watch her descend.  In Rachel’s tale, Henderson’s ability to write so well is something of a curse as it forces the reader into her downward spiral.

This novel’s grace is Henderson’s dialogue and his pacing.  As Pete Snow sits in a diner, the waitress says “I could just spit.”  Snow replies, “I’ll bet you could do better’n that.”

She has had a hard life – you can tell from the way her face has aged, the frowns etched there – but Pete’s remark elicits an endangered smile. He’s recognized her, something deeply true about her, and it is a pleasant thing to be seen and for her toughness to be acknowledged.

“Yeah, I could do better than that. What’ll you have hon?”

Summing it Up: Smith Henderson has written a novel that recognizes that people, even people like Jeremiah Pearl and Rachel Snow, who’ve run away from life, still want to be acknowledged. Fourth of July Creek has already been nominated for the Laherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and the prognosticators predict more nominations and awards to come.  Read this debut novel to taste the flawlessly rendered, authentic America that Henderson serves up on a polished-to-a-high-sheen platter.  Cormac McCarthy fans will love the setting and language if not the length. At 467 pages, it’s just a touch too long.

Rating:  4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Book Club
Publication date: June 3, 2014
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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Cop Town by Karin Slaughter

It’s officially summer so you may be hopping on a plane, heading to the beach, or for the unlucky - working countless hours at the office while under stress that makes it difficult to relax.  Regardless of your summer circumstances, Karin Slaughter’s new police mystery, Cop Town, is the perfect novel to help you make your summer escape. Sometimes violent crime, a serial killer on the loose, and a little blood and gore are just the right recipe to combat a hot summer day.

Slaughter, best known for her acclaimed Will Kent series, has written a stand-alone novel set in 1974 Atlanta where the cops are almost all racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, women-hating creeps. Maggie Lawson is a young, but seasoned cop from a family of policemen, a very dysfunctional family with a sad history. She hates the way the department functions but knows enough not to fight city hall. But then Maggie’s brother Jimmy’s partner is killed by a serial cop killer and Jimmy only escapes because the killer’s gun jams.  Maggie can’t call this business as usual especially when some of the reported details of the murder don’t support the evidence. Soon Maggie is paired with rookie cop Kate Murphy, a pretty, privileged widow, who’s smarter and more tenacious than the rest of the squad expect. Her first day on the job is much worse than a “girl” from her background could have imagined but she simply won’t quit. Kate has lots to prove and solving the biggest crime in Atlanta would demonstrate that she’s more than what others expect. Kate is a character who could star in almost any award-winning literary novel.  Slaughter develops her before the reader’s eyes as if she were a Polaroid print coming into focus.  Here’s hoping Slaughter decides to grow a series around Kate Murphy.

The 1974 setting is brilliantly evoked especially with the playing of Carole King’s Tapestry album in the background of many emotional scenes. The setting also showcases the low regard for women and minorities in the workplace forty years ago. These details make the book much more than a police procedural – it’s a nuanced portrait of the way people treat the “other” when they can get away with it.

Good mysteries ask questions.  This one asks many including: Who is this shooter who’s executing cops in pairs?   Who are these people who treat the law as their own personal smorgasbord, taking whatever they wish from it regardless of who gets hurt?   Will Kate and Maggie capture the killer before becoming his next victims?  Have things really changed in the last forty years?

Masterful mystery writers have one essential characteristic in common – pacing. Slaughter’s unrelenting excellence in using pace to make her plot twists sing make this thriller one that will keep even the jaded mystery reader turning the pages for more.  There's much more to Cop Town than this review will divulge and readers will discover many secrets as Slaughter's careful pacing cleverly reveals them. 

Summing it Up: When you pack for the beach, make sure you include Cop Town with the hot dogs, beer, and beach toys.  This thriller will reward you as much as s’mores and fireworks.

Rating:  5 stars   
Category: Chinese Carryout, Fiction, Five Stars, Mysteries and Thrillers
Publication date: June 24, 2014
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Friday, June 20, 2014

We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride

I thought this was going to be one of those outstanding but sad novels like The Yellow Birds or Billie Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  I thought it was going to be a beautifully written book that would help me bear witness to the effects of war and poverty.  I love those novels because they challenge me and imbed me in a world I need to understand.  But, We Are Called to Rise is a different animal.  Yes, it’s beautifully written, bears witness, and challenges but in addition it offers incredible hope.  It blindsided me with the unexpected pleasure of watching people do the right thing and it astonished me with the simple joy of observing people who care.

Set in the Las Vegas most of us don’t know, the Las Vegas where real people live oblivious to the neon and glitz of the strip, four realistic characters weave intersecting stories into a cohesive whole. Bashkim is an earnest eight-year-old boy working to help his Albanian refugee parents survive. He seems older than eight because the turmoil and poverty in his home force him to be wise.  Given a school assignment to write a local soldier serving in Iraq, Bashkim pens a letter that sets up a chain of unexpected events.

Luis, the tormented recipient of Bashkim’s letter, lies in a bed at Walter Reed Hospital recovering from an injury he doesn’t recall happening. His anguished thoughts and dreams spill onto the page making the reader wonder if he’ll ever be able to tell enough to be helped. Enter Dr. Ghosh, a VA psychiatrist, who listens and offers him caring treatment and possibly a way out of his troubles.

Average-seeming Avis opens the book as her husband unexpectedly leaves her for another woman.  She’s also deeply concerned about her son Nate’s mental health after his third stint in Iraq. She lost her baby daughter Emily when she was barely pregnant with Nate and her life is a testament to “how quickly life could change, how quickly everything important could disappear, to always be trying to feel this unexpectedly beautiful life to its core.”

Roberta is a lawyer, a Las Vegas native. She serves as a volunteer advocate for children. She cares deeply and sometimes gets hurt.  She’s anxious to make certain that Bashkim and children like him get what they need not what the system spits out for them.  She and other “helpers” in the novel try to do what’s right.

What if everyone worked together to do what was best for a child?  What if “the helpers” all really helped?  What if the staffs at all our VA hospitals had the time, training, and temperament to help returning veterans as Dr. Ghosh tries to help Luis?  The epigraph of the novel tells us what’s to come as it hints at what could happen if . . .

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies
-- Emily Dickinson

Author Laura McBride says, “I wanted to tell a story that might make a reader have a big feeling, the sense that no matter how cruel life could be in a given moment, no matter how terrible the consequences of a tiny mistake, it was ultimately beautiful to live.  I didn’t set out to write a book about war or poverty or racism, I just wanted the reader to love a child enough to feel devastated when that child’s heart was broken and euphoric when that child got a chance at hope.”  Readers: Debut author McBride accomplished her goal.

Summing it Up:
This novel gave me hope and a feeling that all might just be right in the world if each of us answered the call to rise. Laura McBride eloquently showcases a group of people who rise to help others who probably wouldn’t make it without their help. She touches the sky with this authentic, uplifting story of a boy I’ll never forget and the people (they aren’t characters to me – they’re real people) who cared enough to try to help him and others in need.  I’ve never wanted to travel to Las Vegas but I could change my mind if I could visit Bashkim, Luis, Avis, Roberta and some other people I already know and love who happen to live there. 

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: June 3, 2014
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Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

The Farm is a psychological thriller in the vein of Gone Girl or Tana French’s novels. Daniel lives in London and his parents have retired to what he believes is a bucolic life on a remote farm in Sweden.  His father calls him and suddenly everything changes.

Your mother...she's not well, his father tells him. She's been imagining things - terrible, terrible things.

His father says his mother has had a psychotic breakdown and has been committed to a mental hospital.  So Daniel rushes to Heathrow to fly to see her. Before boarding he gets a call from his mother who says:

Everything that man has told you is a lie.  I’m not mad. . . Meet me at Heathrow.  If you refuse to believe me, I will no longer consider you my son.

Tilde, Daniel’s mother, says his father is involved in a criminal conspiracy and wants her out of the way. Who can Daniel believe?  Tilde carefully lays out a strange tale packed with facts that may or may not prove her allegations. Daniel, too, is harboring a secret – he’s never told his parents that he’s gay.  Smith, known for his espionage thrillers set in Russia, takes a new tack with this riveting tale of trolls, elk, strangely carved wood, and the darkness of Sweden. Smith’s Child 44 trilogy is a superb trio of espionage tales but this stand-alone might just top them all.  

This is a short review as revealing too much of the tale will rob the reader of delightfully diabolical discoveries. I’ve included a link to an interview with the author on National Public Radio.  Read it AFTER you read the novel – not before.

Summing it Up: Devour this suspense-filled thriller and watch your mind spin as you try to surmise just who’s telling the truth.  What would you do if your mother and father, whom you’ve always trusted, told you conflicting tales?  Could your gentle father be a criminal or is your strong mother imagining it all?

Caveat: This is one of the books involved in the fight between Amazon and Hachette Publishing which means that it’s probably going to be less expensive to purchase or download The Farm from independent bookstores or other sites as Amazon is currently selling it with no discount. Many independent bookstores are offering deep discounts on Hachette titles so shop carefully.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Gourmet, Chinese Carryout, Book Club, Fiction, Five Stars, Mysteries and Thrillers 

Publication date: June 3, 2014

Interview with the Author (Listen to or read this AFTER your read the book):

What Others are Saying: