Jeffrey Lent: In the Fall: A Novel
When 17-year-old Norman Pelham departs his father's Vermont farm to join the Union army, he can little anticipate the incredulity and scorn that his return--accompanied by his former-slave bride--will elicit. The newlyweds make a go of country life, Leah's industry wins the locals' begrudging respect, and the two transact a fidelity that only rarely acknowledges their racial dissimilarities. Leah, however, who fled her native North Carolina after lashing out violently against a lifetime of abuse, believes an inescapable retribution stalks her. And so, beset with guilt and anxious to confront her own past, she briefly leaves Norman and their three children, throwing all five lives into disarray. Her desperation eventually reemerges in her youngest child, the volatile Jamie, who abandons farm life for bootlegging and rash romance. When his own ruthlessness undoes him, it falls to his son, Foster, to uncover the lingering mystery of Leah's life and death, as well as the obstinate racism that has stalked the Pelhams.
Stephen King: Secret Window, Secret Garden
One evening last week, I caught a showing of "Secret Window" on tv and immediately commenced to reread the novella from which it was taken. Written by Stephen King, this is an engrossing story of a writer whose marriage has hit the rocks. In the aftermath of his divorce, more trouble comes to Mort Rainey in the form of one very strange stranger, John Shooter from Miss'ssippi, who insists that Mort stole his story. Shooter wants things put right. During Mort's steep plunge into madness, Shooter is always there with threats and challenges. Read the story or see the movie to find out which of these men wins the battle. (****)
Stephen King: Revival: A Novel
A study in lost faith, drug addiction, obsession, rock music, and one possible afterlife. Six-year-old Jamie Morton meets Reverend Charles Jacobs when the reverend comes to the small New England town to pastor Jamie's family's church. Rev. Jacobs becomes a fixture (his "Fifth Business," as Jamie puts it) throughout Jamie's life, and ultimately, not for the good. What at first appear to be miracle healings (for Jamie, his brother, his friend, and hundreds of strangers) performed by Jacobs (using his "special electricity") have some pretty terrifying side effects. This is the best book Mr. King has written in several years, I believe. And Charlie Jacobs is one of his most interesting characters. (****)
Robert Nathan: Portrait of Jennie
Starving artist Eben Adams meets a little girl skating in the park, and the two form an immediate bond. The girl Jennie returns to Eben every now and then, always a little older, until she is finally old enough that the two can declare their love for each other, a love that goes beyond time and space. Eben and Jennie were meant to be together, and neither death nor an ocean can keep them apart.
"Where I come from nobody knows and where I am going everything goes. The wind blows, the sea flows, nobody knows. And where I am going, nobody knows." --Jennie
Everyone should experience this wonderful book. (*****)
Carroll Dale Short: The Shining Shining Path
Turner, a rock promoter and Vietnam vet, is improbably chosen by a sect of Buddhist monks as the "Hope" -- a spiritual warrior picked to battle the forces of darkness and evil in times of millenial world crisis. And the conflagration will come in his native Alabama. The skeptical Turner is sent home with six monks whose special talents he will need. While waiting for the Armageddon, he sets off on a new concert tour, the monks performing traditional Buddhist music and dance in colleges and community centers across the South. This odyssey is hilarious, heartbreaking, and fraught with perils. A triumphant blend of magical realism and spiritual adventure, The Shining Shining Path examines the power of love, forgiveness, and redemption. (Amazon) (****)
John Searles: Help for the Haunted: A Novel (P.S.)
A interesting story of a most unusual family, their deep secrets, their harrowing tragedy, and ultimately, a daughter’s discovery of a dark and unexpected mystery.
Sylvie Mason’s parents have an unusual occupation—helping “haunted souls” find peace. After receiving a strange phone call one winter’s night, they leave the house and are later murdered in an old church in a horrifying act of violence.
A year later, Sylvie is living in the care of her older sister, who may be to blame for what happened to their parents. Now, the inquisitive teenager pursues the mystery, moving closer to the knowledge of what occurred that night—and to the truth about her family’s past and the secrets that have haunted them for years. (Amazon review) (***)
Stephen King: Full Dark, No Stars (Second reading)
Some of King's best (and darkest) storytelling, this book contains four novellas, including BIG DRIVER, from which the new movie derives. There's also a story about a serial killer who closely resembles BDK (but this one is more about his wife than himself); one about the complete destruction of a depression-era farm family; and one about a very unconventional cancer cure. These stories aren't for anyone who has a weak stomach or constitution. I'm not exaggerating when I say they are not just merely dark but really quite sincerely dark. (****)
James Hilton: Random Harvest
I really enjoyed reading this novel, published in 1941, by the author of one of my all-time favorite books, LOST HORIZONS. But I have to admit I'm a bit puzzled by what the ending means. Here's a description from Amazon: "The story is a romance, a mystery, a critque on England's class structure, and a parable. Hilton uses the lost years of Charles Rainier as a methaphor for the lost years of the 1920/1930's when England failed to prepare for the next war. Told in flashbacks and bookended by World War I and World War II, the resolution is only revealed in its final sentence that will shock you and change everything that you have just read & thought you understood. You will go back and re-read the book as your perception of all the characters are altered by the surprise ending." But the book is really better than that description implies. I think I will have to read it again.
Ivan Doig: The Bartender's Tale (2nd reading)
Everyone has that one memorable summer of youth, that time when childhood begins to take a back seat to long awaited adulthood. For 12-year-old Rusty Harry, it is the summer of 1960 in a small town in Montana where Rusty's dad tends bar and does the job of a single parent as best he can, which turns out to be pretty darn good. The bar, the town, and the people who make up Rusty's compact life are the players in this magical story that's right up there with TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD for being one of the best coming-of-age stories you'll ever read. (****)
Michael McDowell: The Elementals
Hill House, the Marsten house, Amityville, Hell House, the Overlook--now I can add Beldame to the scariest fictional haunted house books. Located on the Alabama Gulf Coast on a spit of land between Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, Beldame is a compound of three identical Victorian houses, used by the McCray and Savage families for decades as summer homes. Something horrible (and very sandy) lives in "the third house," which, due to the encroachment of a very large dune, has not been inhabited by mortals for as long as anyone can remember. Now these unexplainable horrors have become interested in taking over the other two houses, and those who dare to sleep there. Ooooooooooo. (****)
Michael McDowell: Blackwater VI: Rain
The town of Perdido, Alabama comes full circle in this final, and shortest, book of Michael McDowell's Blackwater series. The books of the Caskey saga are some of the best I've ever read. Taken together, they are a classic, I believe, of American literature. The marriage of southern gothic and horror makes for some great storytelling. I am so very glad that I discovered this author and will be seeking out other works by him, in limited supply since he died in 1999. The Blackwater books are out of print. I found them on Kindle, and my sister has been able to borrow them from the library. In my opinion, it's high time for a reprint. (****)
Michael McDowell: Michael McDowell's Blackwater V: The Fortune
As if the lumber mill and other enterprises had not made the Caskeys enough money, they now find oil under their land. Money flows in more swiftly than the red waters of the Perdido flow into "the junction." Elinor's youngest daughter Frances discovers she's pregnant and gives birth to twin girls. The daughters must be separated at birth for reasons that will become clear. (****)
Michael McDowell: Blackwater IV: The War
War (WWII) intrudes on the lives of Perdido, Alabama in Book 4 of the Blackwater series, not with entirely negative consequences. Elinor's youngest daughter Frances shows that she is her mother's true daughter. (****)
Michael McDowell: Blackwater III: The House
The Caskey Saga continues in Book 3, as new characters are introduced. Elinor has given birth to two daughters who are very different from each other. Elinor's big house, which her mother-in-law Mary-Love built for her and her husband and for which Elinor must pay a terrible price to be allowed to occupy, becomes a mystery itself. (****)
Michael McDowell: Michael McDowell's Blackwater II: The Levee
In Book 2 of the Blackwater series,Elinor has become thoroughly integrated into the lives of the people of Perdido, and especially of the Caskey family. Townsfolk decide to build a levee around the waters of their twin rivers to avoid another devastating flood. Elinor does not approve. (****)
Michael McDowell: Blackwater I: The Flood
Fanny Flagg meets Stephen King: That's what comes to mind when I think of the writing style of this author, whom Stephen King himself has called “the finest writer of paperback originals in America.” Michael McDowell peoples this work with eccentric and colorful southern characters set among scenes of strangeness, spookiness, and violence.
The mysterious saga of the Caskey family begins in this first of a series of six novels, set in Perdido in South Alabama during the early 20th century. A devastating flood brings a strange and beautiful visitor to the small, sleepy lumber town. Elinor Dammert's arrival will forever change the town and the wealthy and powerful Caskey family.
I'm hooked. I have now moved on to Book 2, THE LEVEE. (****)
Sue Monk Kidd: The Invention of Wings: A Novel
In the early 1830s, Sarah Grimké and her younger sister, Angelina, were the most infamous women in America. They had rebelled so vocally against their family, society, and their religion that they were reviled, pursued, and exiled from their home city of Charleston, South Carolina, under threat of death. Their crime was speaking out in favor of liberty and equality and for African American slaves and women, arguments too radically humanist even for the abolitionists of their time. Sue Monk Kidd has turned the lives of these two freedom pioneers into a most enjoyable and inspiring novel. I recommend it highly. (****)
Diana Gabaldon: Outlander
In 1945, Claire Randall and her husband are just back from their service in WWII. Having been apart for five years, they are spending their second honeymoon in Scotland, getting reacquainted. At a visit to an ancient stone monument where she has gone to pick wildflowers, Claire is suddenly hurled back in time to the 18th century Scottish highlands. She is captured by warriors the McKenzie clan, who believe her to be an English spy. Eventually she is forced to marry Jamie Fraser, a chivalrous and romantic young Scottish warrior. Their relationship soon becomes passionate, and Claire's heart is torn between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives. WARNING: Numerous scenes of explicit sex. (***)
Paul Boone: Blackbeard: To Live by the Drink, To Die by the Sword
Having enjoyed the recent tv series, "Blackbeard," I wanted to know more about the famous pirate, so I went searching for a book. I finally settled on this one. It's a fast read and sticks far more closely to what is known of the facts of the life and death of Edward Teach (Blackbeard) than did the tv series. I had some problems with the author's somewhat amateurish writing style, and a good copy editor would have helped, but as a source of a quick look at the reign of one of our most famous and feared pirates, it suffices. Language and violence, however, make it unsuitable for children. (**)
Dan Brown: Deception Point
Very fast paced and exciting read. When NASA scientists discover a 300-year-old meteor buried in ice in the Arctic, it seems that not only the flagging space agency will get a new breath of life but also the presidency of the current administration, which has been a strong NASA supporter. Imbedded in the meteor are the fossilized remains of a giant insect. NASA has discovered extraterrestrial life. But of course things aren't always what they seem, or are they? This book will keep you guessing right into the final pages. (***)
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. (***)