Sunday, July 31, 2011

What the Dead Know, Laura Lipman

Laura Lipman can usually be counted on to provide a mystery that is more than a mystery.  Her intricate plots are always just as much about love, family, and the difficult choices we make as they are about solving a crime.  What the Dead Know is no exception.

What the Dead Know is the story of the Bethany sisters-two young girls who disappeared without a trace in the summer of 1975.  Thirty years later, a woman turns up claiming to be one of the lost sisters, but the circumstances of her sudden reappearance leave more questions than answers.  Joe Infante, a detective in Baltimore, and Kay, a social worker who is assigned to evaluate and protect the rights of "Heather Bethany" can sense that the woman is lying, but about what, and why?  Each tries to get to the bottom of the mystery in their own way, but it is not until the mother of the girls arrives from the life she managed to make for herself in Mexico that everyone finally gets the full story.

Alternating between the past and present day, Lipman weaves together a narrative that is engaging and infuriating-well, really it is engaging partly because it is so infuriating.  Getting to the end of a chapter was like a cliffhanger at the end of your favorite show.  Bits and pieces of the story slowly start to coalesce into an almost clear picture, and then you learn something that makes you reevaluate what you thought you knew.  The general gist of the girls' story-kidnapped and held for years against their will-is something that has become almost cliche in contemporary mysteries.  But Lipman's treatment of it made it feel familiar yet new at the same time.

What I found so interesting as I was reading was that I didn't really like any of the characters.  Not the cop, not the "found" sister, not the father or mother.  I can't remember the last time that I was able to get this into a book where I didn't really feel sympathetic towards any of the characters.  But somehow it worked.  Even though I found myself annoyed with everyone at one time or another I still wanted to know what happen.  Maybe Lipman's biggest risk was making "Heather" so unlikeable.  We want our lost girls to be sweet and damaged and innocent.  Well, "Heather" was damaged all right.  She was manipulative, emotionally stunted, selfish, and a liar.  But after learning about the circumstances that led her back to the place she disappeared from, that all made sense to me.  How else would you feel if you were ripped away from your home and family, forced into sexual bondage and a new identity, and then escaped into a world that you thought had forgotten you, and would tear you apart if they remembered?  Lipman explores the ties of family, and those who become our family, even in the most horrifying of times.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Pray for Silence, Linda Castillo

After years of reading almost nothing but mystery/thrillers (they were mostly free, don't judge!), it is pretty hard to find a book in that genre that feels entirely new to me.  Part of why I like a lot of mysteries and thriller is because they are usually fairly predictable and formulaic, thereby allowing me to lose myself in the story of the moment without actually having to think terribly hard.  Admittedly, this gets a bit old.  And it is for that reason that I am glad that I discovered Linda Castillo and her Kate Burkholder series.

I read the first book in this series, Sworn to Silence, earlier this year.  It introduces chief of police Kate Burkholder, a former Amish who chose not to be baptized into the church after a traumatic event in her childhood.  Pray for Silence starts with the discovery of an Amish family murdered in their own home-mom, dad, and five children.  Violent crime is very rare in the Amish community, and Kate can't imagine what the motive could be.  But the Amish have the same human fallibility as the rest of us, and it soon became apparent that at least one of the family members was hiding a secret that put their entire family in danger.  Kate once again teamed up with state bureau of investigations agent John Tomasetti, who shows up in Painters Mill after being suspended for a failed drug test.  Their budding relationship continues, both of them dragging their respective baggage, and tripping over it more often than not, in their desire to be together.

The horrific nature of the crime scene stands out starkly against the backdrop of the peaceful Amish community, though the bulk of the action in this novel takes place in the English community, not the Amish.  Castillo does a decent job of describing the Amish community, their history and traditions, in such a way that it does not feel stereotypical.  Where she is pretty stereotypical, however, is in the characters of Kate and John.  I mean, to read most mystery writers, one would assume that all detectives are damaged, stand-offish, and terrible at relationships.  Add the fact of Tomasetti's drug and alcohol problems, and you have a caricature of every hard-boiled detective ever.  Luckily I don't read her books for creative characterization, but for an engaging story set in an unusual setting, and that Castillo delivers on.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday-I Have Issues...

...or rather, these books tackle tough issues.  That's the theme this week over at The Broke and the Bookish, the lovely bloggers who host Top Ten Tuesday.  I have a while theory of reading as social justice, and have been meaning to get back to building my Social Justice Books page here at Book Addict Reviews, so coming up with ten is a cakewalk.  I'll put the adult titles here, but if you ware interested in social justice-themed books for children, check out my post at Second Childhood Reviews.

1.  A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini:  I have a friend who has told me she is glad that I was around on 9-1 so I could explain who the Taliban were and what was happening in Afghanistan, since she had never heard of them.  I think that this book does the best job of describing what life was like under Taliban rule.


 2.  The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien:  I just read this book of short stories/vignettes from O'Brien's experience in the Viet Nam War, and I think that it has important things to say about war in general and what it does to the young people we send into it.



3.  The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood:  Patriarchal, tyrannical theocracy based on biological control of women anyone?  Oh, wait, that's right, we aren't that far away from that it some parts of our country, where a woman's right to choose is being eroded more and more every day.


4.  Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison:  Amazingly powerful book about child sexual abuse and domestic violence.  And on a related note...


5.  The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison:  All of the above, only adding racial identity and racism to the mix.


6.  Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean:  When horrible people do horrible things it is in our nature to dehumanize them and turn them into monsters who deserve death.  What Sr. Prejean's work does is remind the readers vividly that people on death row are as human as you or me, and that if we as a society want to continue executing them, we need to do it with an understanding of our shared humanity.

7.  Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg:  This roman a clef details Feinberg's life as a butch lesbian in New York in the years directly before and after the Stonewall Riot in 1969.  Feinberg has since identified as transgendered, and wrote another book about the historical treatment of transgendered people called Transgender Warriors that is really fascinating.


8.  Zeitoun, Dave Eggers:  This true story details what happened to an Islamic immigrant named Zeitoun and his family in the days after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  Zeitoun stayed in New Orleans, and after the storm spent his days rowing around his neighborhood rescuing people and feeding pets left-behind-that is, until the US army arrested him as a terrorist...


9.  And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts:  Shilts' book recounts the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and how homophobia and bigotry kept doctors and scientists from recognizing, researching, and treating the disease more quickly and efficiently.


 10.  The Abstinence Teacher, Tom Perotta:  Perotta gives us a thoughtful look at the abstinence-only vs. comprehensive sex education debate.  But guess which one still leads to fewer unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases?  Knowledge is power, people!



Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sister, by Rosamund Lupton

Sister is a good example of why I refuse to put up my nose at genre fiction.  Billed as a mystery novel with a plot that sounds like something ripped from today's headlines, Sister is actually a novel about love and family and grieving and acceptance.

Sister follows the story of Beatrice, a British ex-living in New York, as she tries to solve the murder of her younger sister, Tess.  Free-spirited Tess, an artist living in London, is discovered in a men's toilet in Hyde Park, an apparent suicide.  Beatrice refuses to believe that her sister would have taken her own life, and begins to dig into the events surrounding the last weeks of Tess's life, looking for a key to her murderer.  Despite the fact that nearly everyone believes that her sister killed herself, and despite the fact that her quest pushes away some of the people closest to her, Beatrice eventually discovers the sinister secret at the heart of her sister's murder.

Let me say first that this is, in fact, a first rate mystery.  The plot is thoughtful and well laid out, and the story is not as formulaic as some mystery/thrillers.  But this book is so much more than just a mystery novel.  It is a love story about sisters, and a story about grief.  Every part of Beatrice's story-told as a letter to her dead sister-drips with raw, honest, sometimes painful emotion.  Every turn of phrase draws you in more deeply to Beatrice's state of mind, her regrets, her guilt, her anger, and her sorrow.  But you also begin to see Beatrice change, from the stodgy women she was quickly becoming, to someone stronger and more alive.  Her sister's death frees her from convention, allows her to become this person who makes waves, who questions authority, who is not afraid to say the hard or uncomfortable things.  Lupton's writing is almost poetic at times, giving the whole story an easy flow that draws you in and engages not just your logical, figure-out-the-mystery brain, but the part of your brain that appreciates beauty, even in sadness.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

I was born in 1970.  So while my life overlaps briefly with the Viet Nam War, I have no real memory of it.  What I do remember is going to downtown Chicago with my granny, and later with my parents, and seeing the faces of the homeless vets that were begging on the streets.  Wild-eyed, or blank-stared, the memories of their faces color everything that I have heard, read, or seen about the war since.  And I have heard, read, and seen a lot.  Stories from the fathers of friends who fought in the war, lessons from school, movies like Full Metal Jacket and Platoon-from these sources I have cobbled together a picture of that hot, wet, chaotic, horrific place and time.

But I am not sure that I have truly felt that I had even the faintest understanding of what it might actually have been like.  Not, that is, until I read Tim O'Brien's stunning book The Things They Carried.  Neither entirely fact nor entirely fiction, O'Brien uses a series of short stories and vignettes to tell the tale of Alpha Company, a group of soldiers based, in part, on the real men that O'Brien served with during the war.  The stories meander from stateside to the jungles of Viet Nam, from childhood to middle age, detailing how each experience prepares or informs or explains the person that Tim was or is or may yet become.

I will admit to having some difficulty at first with the non-linear narrative, and with the fact that I was never sure what was true and what was made-up.  But the genius of this work is that you soon realize that it doesn't matter.  In fact, the way that the book is put together and the inability to tell fact from fiction ends up doing a better job describing what living through that experience was like than any straight forward telling could.  O'Brien and his fellow soldiers lived a reality that most of us will never experience, and can never truly comprehend, where time was skewed, day and night traded places, where extraordinary circumstances became ordinary, and where the ordinary world as most of us know it became a dream that you couldn't let yourself believe in.

My favorite section of the book (if favorite is even the right word) is the story of how O'Brien almost ran away to Canada rather than go to war.  Part of O'Brien's extreme talent is an ability to use words to paint not just a visual but an emotional picture for the reader, and I was able to feel how deeply terrified he was at the prospect of war.  I felt his ambivalence about running away, about choosing the possibility of death over the certainty of shame and embarrassment.  But the thing I found most stunning, and the line I would consider the most "controversial" of the whole piece, is this, "I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Viet Nam, where I was a soldier, and then home again.  I survived, but it's not a happy ending.  I was a coward. I went to war."
Given the hyper-patriotism of the US since 9-11, and our unquestioning assumption that every soldier is brave and heroic,  this simple statement stopped me dead in my tracks.  It felt almost sacrilegious.  Are we allowed to say that not going to war is more courageous than going?  What does that say about us as a society, that we are find ourselves so often in armed conflicts?  Is it bravery and strength, or is it because we don't want to be judged as wanting by the rest of the world?  What would happen if our young men and women, en masse, simply refused to go the next time we try to send them into harm's way?  Would it be courageous or cowardly?  Regardless of where any one of us comes down on that particular idea, what O'Brien's work has done is illustrate for those of us that weren't there that nothing is as simple and straightforward in war as those of us sitting at home watching it on our televisions thinks it is.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Monsters of Templeton

I admit it, I read this book because Stephen King wrote a blurb for the cover.  I don't usually read the cover blurbs, but when I see and author I love as much as SK has read the book I am considering, I pay attention.  That blurb was pretty much all I knew about The Monsters of Templeton before I started reading.  As a result, I was expecting a horror story...and why wouldn't I?  Stephen Freakin' King wrote a blurb.  What I actually got was something far more complex and indefinable.

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff tells the story of Willie Upton, the down and out descendent of the founder of Templeton, Marmaduke Temple.  She has fled back to her childhood home after a disastrous affair with her dissertation adviser.  Pregnant, depressed, sure she is losing her career and her life, she stumbles into town in the middle of the night.  The next morning, much to everyone's surprise, the body of a huge animal floats to the surface of Glimmerglass Lake-the fabled monster Glimmey, supposed-myth turned real.  Into the public chaos that ensues, Willie gets a little surprise of her own.  After years of believing that her father was one of three men her mother lived in a commune with in the year before her birth, she is told by her mother that her father is right there in Templeton, and has been all along.  When her mother refuses to tell her who the lucky man is, she goes on a quest to discover his identity-a quest that takes her back through her family's (and the town's) long and sordid history.

Despite the monster in the lake, and the ghost that lives in Willie's house, there is nothing scary about this book.  The true monsters of Templeton were the people who lived, loved, fought, and died there throughout the years.  In many ways, this book tells the story of a woman who is finally growing up.  Willie, who lived a fairly privileged and idyllic childhood in many ways, just was not able to get herself together out in the "real" world.  Despite the prestigious college she went to, despite her competence in her chosen field (archaeology, the symbolism of which is only now hitting me), Willie can't seem to take that last step into being responsible for herself.  Her pregnancy, her return to her hometown, her realizations about her mother, and most of all her research into her family, finally bring her to a place where she can find herself in the mess of high expectations, failed relationships, and career suicide that she left in her wake.

The story alternates between present-day Willie and characters from the past, and it is this narrative structure that shows how talented Groff really is.  She wrote sections of the novel as the journal of a 19th century woman, as letters between two 18th century women, as the son of the founder of Templeton, as a nameless Indian girl, and as the monster itself.  Each voice felt authentic, and each one revealed a little bit more about the sprawling family of which Willie was a product.  The story is intricate and multi-layered, and I think that the revelations about the various Temples, Upton, Averells, and others were well-paced.  While there is some magical realism, this novel is not really that.  While there are some historical fiction elements, it's not really that, either.  In the end, I think that this book defies any clear-cut description, which to me makes it even more intriguing and enjoyable to read.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday-Books All Teens Should Read

I am so excited to be participating in Top Ten Tuesday for the first time all summer.  Somehow I thought I would have more time for blogging on my summer break, but the truth is that I honestly don't remember what day it is most of the time.  I call it summer brain.  As a result, I usually remember Top Ten Tuesday on about Friday.  Anywoot, here's my picks for the ten books every teen should read.

1.  To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee-I realize that this is still on the high school reading lists in most places, so most teens are reading this book.  While I am a proponent of enriching the high school English curriculum with more contemporary works, this is one that should stay on the list forever and ever!

2.  The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood-I didn't read this until college, and it literally changed my life.  And I don't just think that female teens should read this.  Atwood's horrifying vision of what theocracy could look like is still timely for everyone.

3.  The Book Thief, Markus Zusak-OK, I admit I haven't read this myself, but everyone I know who has-youth or adult-has impressed upon me how amazing it is, and it is on my TBR list.  And on a related note...

4.  The Diary of Anne Frank-There is so much in this slim volume that speaks to young people.  And given the increasing polarization of our society over issues of class and immigration, there are plenty of lessons to be learned here about our shared humanity.

5.  Luna, Julie Anne Peters or Almost Perfect, Brian Katcher-Both of these titles are about transgendered youth, and they both give good insight into the struggles that transgendered people have living true to themselves and gaining acceptance from their families, peers, and society.  Given the recent spate of anti-gay bullying, I think that we need to be encouraging more teens to read books with GLBT themes.

6.  Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson-I think that this novel about a young girl finding her voice again after a sexual assault speaks to many young people who feel like they are powerless, even if they have not had a similar experience as the reason.

7.  Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut-Again, I am making a recommendation that I have not in fact read myself, but it is a gaping hole in my reading past that I plan to fill this summer.  And really, I am down with any anti-war book that we can get into the hands of young people.  I am eternally hopeful that maybe the next generation can find less-violent solutions than the previous generations.

8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky-Like Speak, only without the sexual assault and with a male protagonist. 

9.  A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini-I never really understood much about Afghan culture until I read this and The Kite Runner.  Given the continuing war there, I think people should understand more rather than less about what the stakes are, and I don't mean for the US, but for the Afghan people, if the Taliban are allowed to reassert themselves.

10.  Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews-Because really, you can only get away with it in high school...if you're going to read trashy novels about incest, do yourself a favor and only do it early enough to be able to claim youthful stupidity when you admit it later.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Clash of Kings, Or Why Fantasy Novels Should Come With a Score Card

I've been a fan of fantasy since I was a kid.  I remember getting the Narnia books for Christmas and reading them all before going back to school.  I remember getting The Wishstone of Shannara for Christmas a few year later and completely losing myself in the quest to save the tree...and how I cried when the elf had to sacrifice herself at the end.  I think that this is one of the reasons that I like role playing games like Final Fantasy or Fable-they are like living in the books I read growing up.


That said, it's been a while since I have gotten into a fantasy series.  I suppose some of the reason is because after reading so many they do start to blend together and feel like the same story over and over.  I experienced a similar phenomenon after years of reading almost nothing but mysteries and thrillers.  But I think that part of it is because fantasy stories have this perception of being childish or immature somehow.  I mean, serious, literary readers don't read genre fiction like fantasy, do they?

Then came Game of Thrones on HBO.  Because while I might have stopped reading much fantasy, I sure do love to watch it.  I've probably watched every Arthurian based movie and show made in the last 20 years, as well as any Robin Hood adaptation.  While I did read all of the Harry Potter series, I am just as excited about the movies coming out as I was the books (well, OK, maybe not just as excited, but you get my point).  Now, I have always been a proponent of reading the books that a series is based on.  I've scolded people for not reading the Southern Vampire books before watching True Blood, and I have waxed poetic on how much better the Temperance Brennan books are than the TV show Bones is.  So, after watching (and loving) the first season of Game of Thrones, not to mention hearing my many friends who've read the books lambast me for being a hypocrite, I gave in and downloaded the second book in the series, Clash of Kings, for my brand-spanking new Kindle.

I should have known that my friends would not steer me wrong.  George R.R. Martin has done something that most fantasy writers in my experience can't quite pull off-a grown up fantasy novel.  Clash of Kings tells the story of what happens in the Seven Kingdoms after King Robert is killed by a boar while hunting.  His "son" ascends to the throne, supported by his rich and powerful family, House Lannister.  Of course, thrones are rarely passed peacefully, especially when it is pretty apparent that the 13 year old "king" is in fact not King Robert's son, but a product of incest between his mother and her twin.  Three other men aspire to be king:  Robert's brothers, Renly and Stannis, and the murdered Eddard Stark's son, Robb.  The intrigue, violence, and betrayal that ensues are pretty much impossible to summarize, unless I want this post to be as long as the book (which at 761 pages is one of the longer books I've read this year).

The writing is smart and well-crafted, and the main characters are well-developed.  They are also fairly nuanced for a genre that lends itself to one-dimensional characters who are either wholly good or wholly evil.  I find that of my favorite characters, one is a member of that incestuous Lannister clan, despite the fact that in the arc of the story his family is pretty much completely cruel and morally bankrupt.  And this talk of character leads me to the subtitle of this post.  While I love my new Kindle, reading this book on an e-reader may not, in fact, have been the best choice.  I'm not sure that it is exaggerating to say that there are hundreds of characters mentioned in this book-both "present" day and past heroes-and not being able to flip to the maps of the pages tat listed how everyone was related to everyone else sometimes left me very confused. Short of reading with a computer next to me to look things up I was hard-pressed to keep it all straight.   In the end I decided to just go with it-after all, I'll have season two of Game of Thrones to explain whatever I missed.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, or Why I'm Glad I Wasn't Born in 19th Century China

Sometimes I am in horrified awe at the things that people have done to make women more "desirable".  As oppressive as I find the ridiculously unrealistic American beauty ideal, it is downright feminist when compared to past and present practices from around the world.  And while I realize that this novel is probably supposed to be about the power of women to create community, but I couldn't get past the foot-binding.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is the story of Lily and Snow Flower, who meet at young girls in 18th century China.  They become laotong, or friends bonded for life, at age seven at the behest of a matchmaker in the hopes that their friendship will yield better marriages for both.  Because of their families' social status, the girls have their feet bound at the age of seven.  Foot binding was practiced by all but the poorest families in China, the goal being to stop the girls feet from growing.  The smaller the feet, the better the marriage.  Lily tells the story of her friendship with Snow Flower through all of the stages of life-childhood, adolescence, womanhood-through their use of nu shu, a special written language used only by women.

Lisa See does an excellent job using the story of Lily and Snow Flower to paint a vivid picture of Chinese culture, especially women's culture.  My 21st century brain was routinely appalled by how the women were treated. But nothing was as horrifying as the description of the foot binding process.  The girls toes were bent under their foot and bound there.  They were then forced to walk on them until they broke, and the foot slowly bent under until there was only the big toe left to balance on.  Perhaps the most disturbing part was the fact that it was generally their mothers who bound their feet.  As a mother myself, I can't imagine the social pressure that a person must be under to cause that kind of pain to your own child.

It also struck me reading this novel how many times in the history of the world people have created social rules that in fact work against not just their self-interest, but their actual survival.  Forced to flee their homes due to civil unrest, many of the women died trying to walk up a mountain on their "golden lilies", as their small bound feet were called.  Purposely keeping whole classes of people illiterate also seems counterproductive, to say the least.  And of course, determining a woman's value by her physical attributes...seems like we're still working on a few of those today.