Sunday, November 25, 2012

Nicholas Sparks has another hit on his hands.

I always feel a little funny reading Nicholas Sparks novels.  They are deeply sentimental and almost a little cheap.  But they are told well, and they seem to make fine films.  This one is no exception.


The Lucky One

Most Nicholas Sparks novels feature a handsome but misunderstood young drifter and a gorgeous, but lost or grieving, young heroine, and this one is no exception.  The Lucky One (416 pages, Grand Central Publishing, $7.99) tells the story of Logan Thibault, a Marine veteran who had extensive experience in Iraq, and Beth, or Elizabeth, a young divorcee with a ten-year-old son, Ben.

While on tour in Iraq, Logan found a photo in the sand, and while he tried to find its owner, he also carried it with him and began to think of it as his lucky charm.  After returning to the States, his best friend from the Marines persuaded him that this photo had saved his life in a number of situations and that he owed the woman in the picture at least his thanks.

With this advice and because of a gnawing emptiness he was feeling, Logan walked however many thousands of miles it is from Colorado to North Carolina, for in a small North Carolina town was where he believed he would find the young woman in the picture. 

When he gets to the town, though, he first encounters a sleazy deputy sheriff, whom he catches ogling and photoing naked coeds at a local river.  After an encounter with this deputy persuades him that he should keep his distance, we readers are discovering that he is actually the adolescent-seeming ex-husband of the heroine, Beth.

Keith Clayton, this deputy, is from the first family of this small town, and he is obviously as foolishly conceited as they come.  The first sign of his badness comes from his interactions with his son.  Ben is a bookish and musically-inclined young kid, and Clayton really wanted an athlete for a son.  He is brutal with the kid, and poor Ben reacts as one might expect.  He is miserable when he has to spend time with his father, and he dreads the grueling games of catch his father inflicts on him.

Clayton is even worse than this, though.  We discover that he has been trailing and then chasing off—with the force of the “law”—anyone Beth has dated since their divorce.  This makes it particularly galling to him that Logan has turned up as a worker at the kennel that Beth and her grandmother run and that the two seem to be hitting it off.  Ben has come to idolize Logan too, not only because he seems willing to spend time with him, but because he takes so much pleasure in doing so.

These three adults—Logan, Beth, and Clayton—are on a collision course, and for a while it seems as if Clayton may have the upper hand, but Beth and Logan are ready to fight back, and finally they do so with all they are worth.

Nicholas Sparks can tell a good story, and as always his Southern settings have a particular charm.  His plotting is strong, and although he is not above a cheap trick or two at the end, he writes a story that is compelling and in many ways true.

Nicholas Sparks

The Lucky One is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Alan Furst writes another wonderful thriller.

Who can resist a new novel by Alan Furst?  This one is as good as any.

Mission to Paris

True to form as the novelist-historian of World War II, Alan Furst approaches the war from a new perspective in Mission to Paris (272 pages, Random House, $27).  The story focuses on a Hollywood actor, of Austrian extraction, who is sent to Paris just before the outbreak of the war.  It seems that the powers that be in Hollywood thought an anti-war film would be a good idea.  The Nazi spies, or one can hardly call them spies, the Nazi officials in Paris at this time thought that an Austrian actor could be very useful to their purposes and they decided to use him and dispose of him, as they were already doing to so many.

Frederic Stahl is suspicious about the Germans who are wining and dining him, however, and he finds their political pronouncements increasingly distasteful.  So much so that he approaches the American embassy and talks to someone of considerable importance there.  When it seems that he is dissatisfied with the advice that he not worry, he is asked whether he would like to serve a more important function.  When he jumps to that offer, his role as a spy is initiated.

Furst makes all the details of this tale bristle with life.  When Stahl is dealing with the smarmy and self-assured Germans, it is easy to feel his disgust; and as he carries out simple, but exceedingly dangerous activities, his excitement is palpable.  Furst is clearly having fun with his subject here, and there is every reason that he should.

When it turns out that Stahl, the vague and under impressive actor, has outsmarted the Nazis, even after they have had him in the German capitol and have (they thought) nearly persuaded him to return to Germany,  they refuse to believe that they have been outsmarted. But Stahl and his American supporters have the last laugh.  The ending is almost funny.

Furst is at his best here, and this is a novel to enjoy.  Like his other successes, this one places him easily in the company of the great thriller novelists of the twentieth century, like John Le Carré and Graham Greene.  He is quickly earning his own place as one of the great novelists of the twenty-first century.

Alan Furst

Mission to Paris is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Stephen Chbosky looks on from the sidelines in this provocative novel.

I was intrigued with the premise of this novel—the story of a character who feels alienated from his experiences—and I was pleased to see what this talented novelist could make of it.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (213 pages, MTV Books, $14) is told from the perspective of Charlie, a precocious young school kid, just coming into puberty, who has a checklist of neuroses and hospitalizations, but who writes beautifully and has an astonishing imagination.

The story he tells is of budding sexuality and the even more difficult ins and outs of emotional experience for any early teen.  The novel is written in the form of letters to an unspecified friend.  As the novel proceeds, it almost seems as this letter-writing might be a form a therapy.  What is really great about it, though, is the way we get Charlie’s own responses to things.  Sometimes, we feel that we understand more than he does about what’s going on, but at other times, he really surprises us.

Early on, we see Charlie in his family—the youngest of three children—and with his attentive, but hardly overly doting parents. We also hear of an aunt, a sister of his mother, who was wonderful to the boy but who died young in an automobile accident.

Charlie’s depression at his aunt’s death is enough to send him to the hospital for treatment, and as the novel opens, he is coping with another death, this time his best friend at school, who ended his own life.

With the cards stacked against him in this way, Charlie tries to become friendly with some older kids at school.  At first it seems like they are ready to brush him away, but because he is so smart and articulate, they seem ready to take him up.  The brother and sister, Patrick and Sam, befriend Charlie and he is over the moon with the idea that these kids are his friends, and when he is honest with himself he admits that he finds himself deeply attracted to Sam.

As Charlie gets pulled into the lives of these older students—with their smoking, drinking, and drugs, as well as their more mature approach to relationships and experience—he starts to feel that there is more to life than he realized.  As he tries to cope with the sexual realities around him—friend are having sex, some are gay, some are violent—he feels that he is watching from the sidelines and seems afraid of having experiences of his own.  Everyone else seems to know how to do it, and he’s just confused.

The pleasure of the novel is listening to Charlie as he reacts to the special reading that his English teacher is giving him—he is way beyond his grade in reading and writing—and watching him react to all the events that make up high school life.  But what is really wonderful is watching him grow, as he does, from a child to a bona fide adolescent.

This book is listed for “young readers,” but I think anyone could benefit from its insights.  It’s a coming-of-age novel to put with the best of them.

Stephan Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Ryan Quinn writes a college novel like no other.

I am not sure where I read a review of this wonderful novel, but I remember hesitating before I opened it.  Was I sure I wanted to read a novel about college.  Well, I should never have hesitated.  This is a great book.

The Fall

Ryan Quinn’s debut novel The Fall  (336 pages, Amazon Encore, $14.95) tells the story of half a dozen undergraduates in a distinguished liberal arts college in the East.  It doesn’t take Ryan Quinn long to engage us in the fate of his characters, and in fact, their crises are neither unusual nor unexpected.  But he tells the tale in such a way that even the simplest events take on unexpected significance.

Quinn uses a specific technique of presentation for each of the three major characters.  Casey, a star of the football team and a pre-med student, keeps a running account of his activities on Facebook, and these are used to introduce the chapters that are told from Casey’s point of view.  His friend Ian, who was on the high school football team with him but has now moved to tennis as a sport, has aspirations to go to film school, and his chapters are introduced with the kinds of scene descriptions used in screenplays.

The third central character is Haile, who has come to this college to escape from the life of demanding achievement, at Julliard, and crushing concerts, with a string quartet—she plays the violin—and now she hopes to find her own voice as a songwriter and performer.  Her chapters start off with review-like headlines, right from the world in which she hopes to project herself.

But these characters are all twenty years old, and their confused aspirations, their pulsing hormones, and the awkward attempts at social interaction mean that they all have a lot to learn.  For Casey, that means moving on past his sorority-cum-cheerleader type girlfriend and also facing squarely his aspiration for playing professional football.

Ian's challenge is more complicated, not only because he is dealing with questions of sexuality and recognizing that he needs to accept himself as gay, but also because his famous football coach father has moved to the college to save the season when a coach leaves mid-season.  This means that Ian has to work out issues with his father right when he is trying simply to discover himself.

Haile confronts her own demons in the practice rooms and attempts to be creative as she suppresses everything she knows as a performer.  Her challenge is to step out from the shadow of her domineering mother, who has managed her performance career and now disapproves vehemently to her escape from the bight lights.

In addition, these characters are coping with their own desires as friends and lovers, to each other but also to a rich cast of characters who take the same classes, play on the same teams, or work at the same campus jobs.

Two faculty members also emerge from the crowd: a charismatic art teacher who moves the students to confront whatever is most meaningful to them; and a music teacher, who knows talent when she sees it and allows students to discover for themselves where their talent lies.  These professors are played off again each other as the crisis of the story builds, but it is really the students and their rich process of self discovery that makes this novel so powerful.

I recommend it without reservation.

Ryan Quinn

The Fall is available at Powell's and Amazon.