Shelley Stewart: The Road South: A Memoir
Growing up near Birmingham, Alabama in the early 60s, I knew Shelley "the Playboy" Stewart as a rocking cool DJ who spun platters on local WENN. Most of us white kids had to sneak off to our rooms or to the family car to listen to this African American radio personality, it being mid-century Alabama. Little did we know of the horrors Shelley had experienced during his childhood. As a small child, Shelley and his family suffered a violent, abusive, alcoholic father who killed his mother then forced Shelley and his brothers to live on the back porch, sleep on a filthy mattress and eat fried rats. An aunt with whom he lived for a time beat and sexually abused him. By age six, he had run away and was on his on. Shelley survived the horrors of his childhood and the injustices and cruelty of racial bigotry to become a well known, well respected, and successful business man. But his quest for family love and closeness has alluded him, causing his lifelong battle with depression. (***)
Andy Weir: The Martian: A Novel
This is the most exciting book I've read in a long time, if ever. Mark Watney, part of a manned mission to Mars, is left for dead on the hostile environment of the Red Planet by the rest of the crew after a monster sandstorm threatens the lives of all. They abandon the mission and settle in for their two-year flight back to Earth, never suspecting that they have also abandoned their friend and fellow astronaut, who is very much alive. Thus begins Watney's year-and-a-half-long struggle to survive until rescue comes. His steady nerves, genius problem-solving, and witty outlook endears the reader to Watney keeps you cheering him on. It's an impossible spot he finds himself in, and logic says there's no way out; but the reader keeps hoping against hope, even when more things go wrong than right. I was unable to put the book down for the last half. There's a lot of technical stuff, but strangely, it does not slow the story. In fact, Watney's descriptions of the working of various parts of the equipment, vehicles, and habitant that he uses to prolong his life on Mars serve to move the story along, build tension, and add dimension to this book's main character. (****)
Anthony Doerr: All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel
This beautifully written story takes place in occupied France during World War II. The main characters are a young blind Paris girl, Marie-Laure, and an orphaned German boy, Werner. Just as the war leaves Much of Europe in tatters, so it does with the lives of these young people and their families. But for one brief moment, the war brings Marie-Laure and Werner together and leaves them both with a memory that will last throughout their lives. This is one of the best books I've read in years. (****)
Stephen King: Mr. Mercedes: A Novel
No ghosts, no vampires, no supernatural stuff at all. Just plenty of Stephen King gore and excitement. This is the story of a would-be mass serial killer whose first massacre occurs when he plows a stolen Mercedes into a group of unemployed people waiting to get into a job fair. A retired cop, a teenage boy, and a woman with flaws of her own team up to try and stop this killer before he can perpetrate an even more horrific slaughter. A good read, but not particularly memorable. (***)
Larry McMurtry: The Last Kind Words Saloon: A Novel
This was a good book--as far as it went. It just didn't go far enough. 167 pages are just not enough for multiple character development (if I weren't already familiar with most of these characters, they'd be blank slates) and plot development (what plot?). Granted, the dialog was the usual McMurtry masterpiece, but that's the best I can say for this little book. I was excited to know that this author, one of my favorites, had written a novel about some of my favorite old west character (Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Charlie Goodnight, etc.). When I saw the page count, I was skeptical; when I read the last sentence, I was disappointed. (**)
Nicholas Pileggi: Wiseguy
If you've seen "Goodfellas," (and I have, about a hundred time), then there's no need to read this book strictly for information. I have rarely seen a movie that sticks so closely to the book from which it was made. The great dialog in "Goodfellas" was, for the most part, taken straight from the mouths of the real-life characters it depicts. As with the movie, WISEGUY begins in 1955 when Henry Hill becomes, at 11 years old, connected with the Mob. It ends, as does the movie also, when Henry and Karen are forced to cooperate with the FBI, join the witness protection program, and help the government take down a bunch of Henry's coworkers--after which, as Henry said, he got to live the rest of his life as as shnook. (***)
Karen Novak: Five Mile House: A Novel
Legend has it that in 1889, Eleanor Bly flung herself from the tower of Five Mile House after murdering her seven children. More than a hundred years later, her ghost reaches out to Leslie Stone, a New York cop who has killed a child murderer and is haunted by her actions. New to the town of Wellington-famous for its coven of witches-Leslie becomes obsessed with Eleanor's story, suspecting that the truth may be quite different from local legend. As she digs deeper, uncovering dangerous town secrets, her life and the lives of her children are put into peril.
I love stories in which a haunted house serves as the main character: e.g., The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunted, Hell House, etc. This haunted house story contains ghosts, witches, ancient secrets, and a fascinating premise based on the supposedly infinite number pi and what will happen if its end could ever be reached.
A good book for sure--but not quite on a par with The Haunting of Hill House. But then, what is?
Larry McMurtry: Crazy Horse: A Life
Not much is known about this famous Sioux warrior, therefore McMurtry's book is brief and to the point. Even so, the reader gets a pretty clear picture of the man's bravery, integrity, and generosity. As with many of our native people, he died much too young. (***)
Louis Bayard: Roosevelt's Beast: A Novel
In 1914, Teddy Roosevelt and his son, Kermit, set off to map Brazil’s Rio da Duvida (River of Doubt). What was supposed to be a lark for the “Colonel” and his son ended up almost killing both of them. Indeed, the former president never completely recovered. Bayard has taken three days out of this time period to write a fictional thriller that kept me turning pages. The Colonel (Teddy) and Kermit kidnapped are by the Cinta Larga natives The tribe is being ravaged by a “beast” that kills its prey, guts it, drinks its blood, and then leaves nothing but a husk. The beast leaves no footprints, and no one has actually seen it. The chief will release Kermit and his father if they kill the beast. The Colonel sees it as just another hunting expedition, but Kermit (the Roosevelt in the title) sees it as something much more, something that will haunt him the rest of his life. I enjoyed this book very much. (***)
Ransom Riggs: Hollow City (Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children)
So Miss Peregrine is stuck in bird form, all the loops have been corrupted by murderous wights and hollowgasts, and Miss P. and her peculiar children must go on a long and dangerous trek to find an intact ymbryne to help put things to right. A whole new set of peculiar vintage photos helps the author spin his latest tale of mystery, suspense, and fantasy. Unfortunately, I think I had had enough of these characters with the first book. This one didn't hold my attention nearly as well. But there's another one coming. So if you are an avid fan, you won't have to wait long for the story to continue. (***)
Ron Rash: Serena: A Novel
George and Serena Pemberton are young, ambitious members of the timbers baron class, busy stripping the ancient timberlands of Western North Carolina for profit during the Depression--at the same time that the Department of the Interior is trying to protect the area by turning it into a national park. Pemberton is ruthless enough in his own right, but Serena earns her place among the worst female fictional villains of all time. Apparently devoid of conscience or compassion, when someone gets in the way of what she wants, she has them killed as easily as swatting a bothersome insect. The one thing that she wants that she can't have is a child. Her one pregnancy results in a stillbirth and leaves Serena unable to carry another. Pemberton, however, has fathered a child by a local girl before he marries Serena, and this fact does not sit well with the barren baroness. She sets out to destroy both the child and his mother.
The excessive descriptive passages in the book do nothing to further the action, but the interspersed scenes of action and interplay among characters is enough to keep one reading to the end--an end that I didn't quite see coming. In fact, I went back and retread the last two sections just to make sure I had understood. (***)
Jason Mott: The Returned
The book on which the new tv series "Resurrection" is based. Harold and Lucille Hargraves lost their only child, 8-year-old Jacob, in a drowning accident in 1966. In their old age they've settled comfortably into life without him, their wounds healed through time…. Until one day Jacob appears on their doorstep—flesh and blood, their sweet, precocious child, still eight years old.
All over the world people's loved ones are returning from beyond. No one knows how or why this is happening, whether it's a miracle or a sign of the end. Not even Harold and Lucille can agree on whether the boy is real or a wondrous imitation. As chaos erupts around the globe, the newly reunited Hargraves find themselves at the center of a community on the brink of collapse.
Although I enjoyed this book, I feel the tv show is better. For me, the book lacked the edge-of-seat suspense that's present in the series. But both the series and the book share one problem: the age of Jacob's parents. The dates of the then and now in each just never seemed to jibe with an "elderly" couple to me--not to mention how great Frances Fisher looks in the series as the mom. (***)
Jennifer McMahon: The Winter People: A Novel
After a night of partying, 19-year-old Ruthie awakens to find her mother, an off-the-grid hippie who rarely leaves their Vermont farm, is missing, and Ruthie is left to care for her young sister. Ruthie desperately searches their old farmhouse for clues and uncovers a hidden compartment in her mother’s room filled with frightening artifacts: a pair of strangers’ wallets, a loaded gun, and an old diary that reveals a 100-year-old mystery lending credence to the campfire tales about their farm, the nearby Devils’ Hand rock formation, locals who have gone missing, and her mother’s warnings that bad things happen in their woods. Ruthie begins tracking her mother with the information in the wallets and soon finds links between the diary’s horrors and her mother’s disappearance. This mystery-horror crossover is haunting, evocative, and horrifically beautiful. (***)
M.L. Stedman: The Light Between Oceans: A Novel
After four years at war, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby. Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom’s judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them. Beautifully written and heartbreaking. I found it hard to put this book down. (****)
Leif Enger: Peace Like a River
Dead for 10 minutes before his father orders him to breathe in the name of the living God, Reuben Land is living proof that the world is full of miracles. But it's the impassioned honesty of his quiet, measured narrative voice that gives weight and truth to the fantastic elements of this engrossing tale. From the vantage point of adulthood, Reuben tells how his father rescued his brother Davy's girlfriend from two attackers, how that led to Davy being jailed for murder and how, once Davy escapes and heads south for the Badlands of North Dakota, 12-year-old Reuben, his younger sister Swede and their janitor father light out after him. But the FBI is following Davy as well, and Reuben has a part to play in the finale of that chase, just as he had a part to play in his brother's trial. It's the kind of story that used to be material for ballads, and Enger twines in numerous references to the Old West, chiefly through the rhymed poetry Swede writes about a hero called Sunny Sundown. That the story is set in the early '60s in Minnesota gives it an archetypal feel, evoking a time when the possibility of getting lost in the country still existed. Enger has created a world of signs, where dead crows fall in a snowstorm and vagrants lie curled up in fields, in which everything is significant, everything has weight and comprehension is always fleeting. This is a stunning debut novel, one that sneaks up on you like a whisper and warms you like a quilt in a Minnesota winter. --Publisher's Weekly review
READ THIS BOOK. You'll be grateful you did. (****)
Jordan Bollinger: Sisterly Love: The Saga of Lizzie and Emma Borden
A fictional version of the famous "Lizzy Borden" murders, this book takes for granted that Lizzy was indeed not guilty of killing her parents, just as the jury's verdict indicated. I was not surprised by this author's choice of murderers. I have suspected the same. I enjoyed the book, except for the preponderance of grammatical errors and typos. Apparently Bollinger did not enjoy the services of a copy editor. (***)