Thursday, September 26, 2013

Final Words

That will be my last post for now.  I appreciate everyone who has read along and encouraged me along the way.  If you ever get stuck for something to read, just ask: I am always excited about something I am reading!  I may return sometime, but in the meantime, VERY BEST WISHES!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Marina Adair continues her Napa Trilogy with another amusing romance


Summer in Napa

Marina Adair’s Summer in Napa (340 pages, $12.95, Montlake Romance) follows her Kissing under the Mistletoe with her story about the Napa Valley and the DeLuca family.

This time, a younger member of the family, Marco, takes an interest in Alexis Moreau, who has come limping home to Napa after a breakup with her husband and co-restaurant owner in New York.  She has taken a room over her grandmother’s bakery, and while there seems quite willing to help with the baking.

Meanwhile, her romance gets off to a rocky start.  Marco likes her, but they had a history dating from their high school days, and this does nothing but make Lexi nervous.

Just when it seems that she and Marco might be on solid ground, and as she tries to open her own restaurant in Napa, the rug is pulled out from under her, when her ex sues her for all her recipes and even those of her grandmother’s bakery.  It is complicated how and why this happens, but it does, and it creates a crisis for Lexi.  Not only does she feel unable to compete or make it in any way on her own, but also she wonders whether Marco can have time for a loser like her.

Needless to say, they work things out. And as they do, Adair extends her range of likable eccentrics who populate her version of the Napa Valley.  This novel is a quick read, and a fun read, and with Adair’s other novels about the Napa Valley promises to hold its own among the work of other romance writers.

Marina Adair

Summer in Napa is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Marina Adair sets her romance in the Napa Valley at Christmastime

Kissing Under the Mistletoe

Marina Adair’s Kissing Under the Mistletoe (310 pages, $12.95, Montlake Romance) is the first in her series of Napa Valley romances.  While certain staples of romance description, especially moments of sexual intensity that only manage to tease the principle characters, leave me unimpressed, Adair has a way of creating winning characters and putting them in very amusing, if not always believable, situations.

In this novel, Regan Martin, a talented wine expert, has come to Napa to fill an important job vacancy.  When she arrives, however, she finds she has stepped on the toes of the most powerful local wine families, and her job disappears before her eyes.

The family, the DeLucas, have a longstanding tradition of power-broking in Napa.  Now they are a younger generation—four brothers and a single sister.  It seems that Regan was having an affair with the sister’s husband.  Regan didn’t know about her, Abigail, and when she did discover that the boyfriend was married, she was in the process of being fleeced by him, too.  Regan has come out of this affair with a daughter and a whole family of enemies.

The oldest brother, Gabe, is the one who is commissioned to deal with Regan.  And while he has blackballed her from getting a decent job in any winery in the country, he nevertheless finds her breathtakingly attractive when confronted with her face to face.  Regan feels exactly the same about him, and the two characters spend hundreds of pages trying not to get into each other’s pants—or getting into them and then figuring out how to get beyond that lapse.

While this is going on, Adair creates a whole assortment of other characters in her Napa setting, and she does a wonderful job with characters' descriptions, sometimes at the level of caricature but often with a deft hand at the revealing detail or telling secret.

Kissing Under the Mistletoe is not for everyone.  But if you like a fast moving romance with good characters, then this one might be for you.

Marina Adair

Kissing Under the Mistletoe is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ben Fountain writes about the Iraq War without leaving Texas


Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (307 pages, Ecco, $14.99) is the most stunning Iraq War novel to have appeared.  Bravo Squad, so-called because of a misnomer that sticks, has had a visible and very highly publicized success in Iraq and has returned home for honors and celebration.  We meet them on the last day of their leave, as they are feted at a Dallas Cowboys football game.  They are guests of the owners and they have a role to play during the halftime show.

The novel takes place only during, as well as immediately before and after, the football game.  There are a few flashbacks to a day or two before, but they only help to amplify our understanding of the main character, Billy Lynn.  Billy is a nineteen-year-old from Texas who was one of the key players in a battle that resulted in one of his good friends being killed in the field.

Billy is a slow thinking young man, but he is good looking enough to find himself often in the spot light.  When he has to speak, he does; and sometimes what he says is profound.  Billy started thinking more because of Shroom, the friend who was killed.  Shroom told Billy what to read, how to carry himself, how to be self-aware.  His death has affected Billy deeply, and the sorrow of that loss infuses the entire narrative.

Billy and his squad are busy knocking back whatever form of alcohol they can get their hands on.  Their sergeant, Dime, checks up on them from time to time, but it seems that mostly they do what they want.  After all, they are being wined and dined as victors from Iraq, and everyone around them in Texas and elsewhere wants the reassurance that what they did in Iraq has larger significance for the war.

One person who buys this line is Albert, their now-resident Hollywood producer who is promising to bring in a deal.  As he throws around huge numbers that a film deal would bring to the soldiers, they get off on all sorts of fantasizing about who might play what roles and how their story will look when turned into a Hollywood project.

They are all asked, but Billy is especially asked, how they did what they did; what it felt like; and whether they were scared.  Billy has a rote answer, but each time he is asked, it becomes clear that he has no language to describe the intensity of that moment of holding his dying friend in his arms.

As the game gets started and the soldiers settle into their comfortable seats in the owner's box, sipping Jack and Coke, Billy locks eyes with one of the cheerleaders that will be performing during the game.  This cheerleader seems to be interested in Billy, and when they meet later on, she clearly seems to be ready to spend time with him.  She gives Billy something to fantasize about while he and his buddies are getting hammered during the game.

She plays in his mind against the memories of his time with his family, especially his sister Kathryn, who is trying to persuade him to resist the army’s demand that he return to Iraq.

Fountain's novel is a wonderful satire of the world of the Dallas football club and the ranks of Americans who are trying to support this war without knowing anything about what it is.  At the same time, it is a deeply touching story about a young soldier growing up through his experience of war, especially as he has this distance on his own actions and tries to put everything together as he prepares to step onto the halftime stage in the football stadium.

Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Jacqueline Winspear takes Maisie Dobbs into harrowing memories of WWI


Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather (336 pages, Penguin, $16) is another of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs novels.  Set in 1930, this novel begins when Maisie is called to the offices of a difficult wealthy financier.  Maisie is meant to find his daughter who has gone missing.

Maisie is happy to take on this case, but as she makes inquiries about the girl and her friends, it turns out that some other girls that were associated with the missing girl have been murdered in suspicious circumstances.

Winspear does a wonderful job of creating a feeling of that era between the wars, and she creates the war as a memory for her characters very beautifully.  In this case, it seems to have something to do with the war, that these women were together before the war and that they have hardly socialized since.  What holds them together, or why the young heiress has fled, are all baffling to Maisie.

She seems to unravel the mystery and find the girl almost at the same time, but that does not really tell her what she is to do about the situation.  She has a young heiress who does not want to go home, several other girls who have been murdered, and a man who hardly deserves to be called the girl's father.

This is a case for Maisie Dobbs, and all I can say is she pulls it off beautifully.  That is another way of saying that Winspear is at her most deft in bringing all the details of this plot into an effective resolution.

Jacqueline Winspear

Birds of a Feather is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Jacqueline Winspear creates in Maisie Dobbs an inspired detective.


Maisie Dobbs

As the first volume of a now several-volume series, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs (294 pages, Penguin, $15) sets up an important back-story of the eponymously named heroine.  Maise was born just before the start of the twentieth century, and she spent her formative years in service.  From the first, however, she showed intelligence and verve; and before long she emerged from the downstairs world to take lessons and eventually inspiration from the local professor, Maurice Blache, who dabbles in detection himself.  He gives Maisie and impressive reading list, which she attacks on top of all her housework. Eventually this earns her admission to Girton College at Cambridge, just before the outbreak of World War I.

This novel actually flashes back to these wartime experiences, but tells us Maisie's story in the present of 1929 as she is setting herself up as a private investigator.  With the help of her sometime assistant, Billy Beale, Maisie attempts to discover the truth behind a wife’s seeming infidelity.  This search, enhanced by Maisie’s astonishing gift for almost visionary inspiration, helped by her facility at mediation and projection, leads her to some hideous mistreatment of veteran soldiers who have emerged from the war maimed and depressed.  As Maisie looks into a supposed retreat for these men, she flashes back to her own wartime experience.

In the war, Maisie volunteered as a nurse, and not long into her service she meets the dashing and delightful Simon, whose own experiences of the war turn out to have shaped her understanding of love and loss.  Without spoiling these rich chapters, I can say that they have a direct bearing on what is happening in the present, and as Maisie struggles to understand one series of events, she finds herself working through some of the implications of the earlier experiences.

Maisie Dobbs is an accomplished and evocative novel.  My guess is that later volumes in this series,  all of which I hope to read, will deal similarly with this period between the wars, often looking back but sometimes looking forward as well.  Maisie Dobbs is a detective to put with the best of them.

Jacqueline Winspear

Maisie Dobbs is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Anne Korkeakivi writes an intimate thriller.

An Unexpected Guest (277 pages, Back Bay Books, $15), a debut novel from Anne Korkeakivi, tells one day in the life of the wife of a British foreign minister stationed in Paris.  Asked to host a dinner party at the last minute, Clare Montrose finds herself having to prepare an occasion that will determine whether or not her husband gets his next posting, a promotion to ambassador in a new location.  She goes into automatic pilot—organizing the staff, deciding on a menu, and working out details with the staff of the embassy, where the dinner was originally to have been held.

As she wakes in the morning and organizes her day, another two complications begin to envelop her.  First, she discovers that her husband’s likely posting, if the dinner is a success, will be to Dublin. The dread she feels at this suggestion at first remains merely atmospheric, but it is real enough.  She dreads the name of the city and to go there, she imagines, will drive her mad.   Second, she has a call from the younger of her two teenage sons, the fifteen year-old James, or Jamie, who is in private school in London.  He seems to be in some kind of trouble and is heading home. She doesn’t know whether he has been expelled or has simply absconded, but in either case, she is terribly worried.

As the day advances, she proceeds in her dinner preparations, always recognizing how very important this dinner is to her husband.  Edward has been her partner for twenty years, and she loves him deeply.  But she harbors secrets from the past that she worries might destroy their relationship.  She plans the dinner with care—deciding to choose the vegetables and the flowers herself—and in a wonderful scene she works out details with the very talented chef Matilde, a Swiss and Scottish woman who steals every scene of which she is a part.

As she attends to the various details of the dinner, she also deals with the fact of her son’s misbehavior, the details of which she seems unable to discover, and, shortly later, his very presence at the minister’s residence.  She doesn’t want him to upset the dinner plans—it means far too much to her husband to let her son disrupt the evening—so she pleads with him to hide out in his room.  But this doesn’t stop her worrying about what he might have done or what might be necessary to get him back in school.

At the same time, she allows herself to call up the distant past and remember her own youthful transgression, a rather grand political gesture, it turns out, that led her to Dublin and to activities that she worries may have meant the deaths of innocent people.  This is a rather damning interpretation of what in reality seems to have been a young girl’s infatuation with a firebrand from the IRA who persuaded her to do something down right foolish.  That she did it, and did it successfully, is all a measure of her feelings for the young man in question, a young Irish man, who could persuade her to do almost anything.

That these memories are nagging at her more aggressively because of her husband’s Irish posting does nothing to reassure her or weaken their intensity, in fact they build to a climax, almost precisely when the dinner party is meant to be coming perfectly together.

The book is described as a thriller, and this is the thrill:  will the dinner party come off as flawlessly as it needs to in order for Edward to get the Dublin ambassadorship? can Jamie be put back on the right track? and will the memories of Clare's political past emerge to destroy the realities of her present.  Anne Korkeakivi does a fantastic job of balancing these possibilities and making it very thrilling indeed to see what she succeeds in accomplishing in a world as harrowing as the one she inhabits.  This is a great first novel that bodes only better things to come.

Anne Korkeakivi

An Unexpected Guest is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Thomas Perry writes another fascinating thriller.


The Boyfriend

In Thomas Perry’s new novel, The Boyfriend (228 pages, Mysterious Press, $25), a handsome young-looking guy in his later twenties is murdering young female escorts in various cities around the country.  When the parents of one victim approach the private detective Jack Till, a former police detective, they seem willing to pay whatever it will take to find their daughter’s killer.

Jack takes on the case unwillingly: he’s not sure he can discover anything beyond what the police have already found.  But when he finds that the police have been slipshod in various ways, he gets more and more intrigued with the details of this case.  When he discovers that several girls look almost the same—thin strawberry blonds with blue eyes and distinguishing jewelry—he thinks he is on the trail of the killer, but still he cannot make any sense of the meaning of the victims.

After some close calls in various cities, Jack starts to notice that other murders, often political or business-oriented, and usually very major murders that are like gang hits, are happening in the same cities as the escorts' murders and he starts to connect them.

He figures out that the murderer somehow hooks up with girls, probably online, and then stays with them as long as it takes to carry out his real job.  And then, before leaving, he kills the girls who have hosted him so that there is no real record of his even having been in the city.

As the novel progresses, we get the back story and some of the emotional involvement of the boyfriend himself and some of his victims.  Perry is great at following out the implications of his tale, and at a certain point Jack knows he has the murderer cornered, perhaps with a victim about to be executed, and he is without police back up.  That’s when things get really exciting.

Perry is an imaginative novelist with a hard-bitten style that is hard to resist.  I was pleased to happen upon this novel, and I look forward to reading some of his other nineteen novels.

Thomas Perry

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

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ann Leary looks deeply into a New England past


The Good House

In her latest novel, The Good House (304 pages, Picador, $15), Ann Leary tells the story of Hildy Good, a middle-aged realtor in a coastal town north of Boston.  Hildy takes pride that her family can trace its origins back to the early witch trials in Massachusetts Colony, and as she tells her story, she seems more and more like some kind of witch herself.

Maybe that’s not entirely fair.  We have the story from her perspective, and we learn a lot of her secrets along the way.  One secret is that she keeps a case of wine in the trunk of an MG in the garage.  She stashed it out there because she’s been in rehab—after a family intervention—and she doesn’t want anyone, but especially her daughters or her now-gay ex-husband, to find out that she’s drinking again.  Of course, she feels that there is no harm to having a glass or two of wine, but that’s utterly self-deceptive as we quickly realize.  The more Hildy drinks, the less likely she is to remember anything she has done.

Her position as realtor in the small town is threatened by the expansion of one of the national chains, and she is struggling to stay afloat.  She can’t let anyone know that either, and in her buttoned up New England way, she tries to do what she can to get whatever clients seem likely to come her way.

And otherwise she watches her friends and acquaintances in the town careen into wild misbehaviors that she both chuckles over and condemns.  At times, in fact, in her inebriated states, she sometimes could be said to cause the crises herself.

All along she is being courted by the local garbage man, whom she has known all her life.  She finds the man attractive in his way, but she can approach him only when she is drunk and able to silence the voices in her head that tell her he’s beneath her.

All this makes wonderful reading.  Leary is great at making the town so vivid that it is almost another character itself, with its embarrassing past and brooding secrets in the present.

Many of the events of the plot are merely of soap opera quality, but the way Hildy takes them in and the manner in which they unfold here make them far more than that.  This is a great novel about a small town, and about the people that manage to be larger than the town seems to be shaping them to be.

Ann Leary

The Good House is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Mohsin Hamid tells a parable about richness and poverty in Asia


How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

Mohsin Hamid’s recent novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (240 pages, Riverhead, $25.95), is something of a tour de force.  At a time when life stories from Asia are overwhelming in their length and breadth, Hamid tells a very simple tale about how a poor Asian, in an unnamed country, with a little bit of talent and know-how, can profit in a system that is corrupt and make the most out of the ignorance of his countrymen.

The narrator talks to the hero, who is never named, in the second person, which adds an intimacy, and he often uses the language of self-help books to suggest the path form obscure poverty to corporate power.  The chapters move quickly and each takes us through an important stage of development of our hero.

What goes up must also come down, and it is not ruining the story to say that the greed and self-satisfaction that brings about ascendency can also undermine it in the end.

What marks the growth and development of the hero, as much as the schemes he develops or the money he saves, is the love he feels for a girl, who is known throughout as “the pretty girl.”  At first it seems that she is out of his league, but he is handsome and powerful in his way, and it seems that she is attracted to him as well.

They are both on the make, however, and she can’t stop with a young nobody: she has too much to achieve.  And with her good looks and her moxie, she more than succeeds to fulfill her dreams.  As the hero grows in power, every so often he runs into her again, and their brief encounters serve to punctuate the degree to which they have fulfilled their dreams and how much that can mean to them.

As short as the novel is, it is very powerful. I called it a parable above, and I think it does work that way.  The hero is an Asian everyman, and this is the progress he is meant to pursue.  The implications of the story are deeply moving, and even as we see the hero making bad choices, there is little we can imagine as an alternative to the choices he makes.

I have not read Hamid’s novels before this—this one is his third—but I will certainly watch for any new ones.  His talent is considerable.

Muhsin Hamid

How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.