Thursday, January 5, 2017


See below for musings that were kick started by tweets that caught my attention on Twitter.

Below are book reviews I wrote in 2016. I'm a bit embarrassed by the low number (especially after having seen goodreads annual report totals for some other people) but I'm an admittedly slow reader plus much of my book time last year was spent WRITING the final drafts of my own rather than reading others. Hopefully I'll do plenty of reading AND writing in 2017. A children's book series awaits (more on that later), the plot of novel #3 surely waits around the corner for me to outline and get to work on a first draft, and I've resolved to spend less time in 2017 staring at screens (either TV or computer or tablet or phone) and more of it with eyes glued to a page.  As for the list of books I managed to get to and through in 2016, I suppose it could have been more diverse. It could have been less diverse too. It is what it is. I don't read according to any rules but simply read the most intriguing book I get my hands on and then move on to the next one...and then the next after that...and so on...and so forth.

NOS4A2NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book delivered and proved the old adage that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Stephen King's son has proven capable of giving his old man a run for his money. Taking the merriest of holidays and turning ho ho ho's into a tale of horror was a stroke of genius. Hear Jingle Bells in late November or December and it brings smiles to the faces of those who celebrate Christmas on December 25th. Heard in June and it's straight up creepy because it so obviously does not belong. I wouldn't be surprised if it was this particular event that planted the seed which became NOS4A2. Regardless, Joe Hill's novel is a well executed tale inhabited by characters who are easy to relate to. It features a protagonist who is able to conjure up a bridge with her mind that can take her wherever she wishes to go. We all wish at some point that we had a super power, whether it be invisibility or x ray vision or superhuman strength or the ability to take flight. In NOS4A2 we meet a woman who can find whatever is missing, wherever it may be. But taking too many trips in search of lost things comes at the risk of losing her mind. Or having everyone believe that is what's happening to her. This spooky, inventive story has me anxious to read more of Joe Hill's work, and to take down my Christmas decorations ASAP. Anybody can make Halloween scary but Mr. Hill appears capable of freaking out readers 365 days a year.

View all my reviews American Gods (American Gods, #1)American Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Intriguing premise. The various gods who have been worshiped by mankind over the centuries are real. When belief of them is at its height, when they are being prayed to and sacrifices are regularly made in their honor, their powers are at peak. As the years pass into modern times and memories of the old gods fade, they become shadows of their former selves. New gods are continually created because there are always new things that men believe in and live for and sometimes kill for. But plenty of the old gods, usually masked as common people walking among us, are still around. If enough of them band together, perhaps the ancient gods can vanquish the newer ones in a war. A man named Shadow, who toes the line between the world of man and gods, is enlisted in the cause. There are many books I've greatly enjoyed that I no longer recall many details about. Something tells me that American Gods is one of those books that for reasons I scarcely understand will stick with me.

View all my reviews RubyRuby by Cynthia Bond
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a devastating book, a relentless series of gut punches that batter the soul. The title character is put through a hell that the most evil of people would not wish upon their greatest enemy. What somehow fails to kill Ruby does manage to annihilate her spirit and make her incapable of respecting, much less loving herself. If you can't self love then another person has little chance of earning it. But despite the many horrors witnessed and cruelties visited upon Ruby, she has just enough strength to care for her spiritual children while living a shell of a life perched on the edge of madness. And this keeps her going. Her body is used and abused at the whim of men who take advantage because there is no resistance. But one man is different - a man whose love for Ruby gets him to stand up for her and himself rather than mutely accepting what is handed to him. Ephram shows Ruby that in spite of all that has been done to her and by her, she can still be viewed with tenderness, adoration even. But the world is harsh, atrocities abundant, the devil ever present, people judgmental when not being indifferent. So love is not a big enough miracle to save Ruby. Sometimes the only person who can save you is the one found in the mirror. This is not a gentle read, but it is a fantastic one.

View all my reviews Go Set a Watchman (To Kill A Mockingbird #2)Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again. If you had only given me some hint, if you had only broken your word with me a couple of times, if you had been bad-tempered or impatient with me---if you had been a lesser man, maybe I could have taken what I saw you doing. If once or twice you'd let me catch you doing something vile, then I would have understood yesterday. Then I'd have said that's just His Way, that's My Old Man, because I'd have been prepared for it somewhere along the line."

The words above are spoken to Atticus by his daughter Scout towards the end of Go Set a Watchman. They basically sum up the entire book. As you may already know, or in case you didn't until landing upon this review, Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird quite a few years later. Jean Louise (aka Scout) is now a grown woman contemplating marriage to Henry, whom she has known since childhood. Henry has remained in their hometown of Maycomb, Alabama and followed the footsteps of Atticus into the law profession. If Scout wishes to marry a father figure, she's all set. Yet apparently she wants more out of life than Maycomb has to offer, because she now lives in New York City, which is about as different from the small southern town she grew up in as a planet in another galaxy. Maycomb holds many ties on her though. The narrative of Go Set a Watchman takes place during a visit to the place where her identity was formed in the earliest of her 26 years.

Much has changed in America from the years Mockingbird are set in to the 1950's. A considerable amount of the change has to do with race relations. People who were once blatant bigots continue to be so. Some things never change. But those who were closet bigots with enough good manners not to let it show in polite society now feel free to express hostility openly. Turns out they were only able to give the appearance of open minded respect for their fellow man when scales of opportunity were tilted heavily in their favor. As the scales became more balanced, the truth beneath southern hospitality was revealed. Count Henry and even our hero Atticus among those in Maycomb more willing to hear out the KKK than the NAACP. Changing times to them means time to put up a more aggressive fight against progress.

Amazingly Scout has been clueless about her father's true social/political views until he is about 70 years old. Once she is finally in the know, of course she feels betrayed. Her father was a lie. Her childhood was a lie. Her life has been a giant deception and she must get through the devastation and figure out how to come to terms with this.

I did not like Go Set a Watchman much. Not enough happening in the plot (no cool subplot like the one Boo Radley presented in Mockingbird). Too many long speeches that did not ring true to how people speak off the page of a novel. A domestic violence scene (I realize this was a far different time than 2016 but still) that was jarring and felt unnecessary and plain weird to me. Last but not least, I just didn't buy that it would take an intelligent woman so long to obtain an inkling of how the people closest to her feel about topics of such importance to her. It's not as if anybody was trying to hide anything from her. But somehow she only saw nobility in her father without catching a whiff of the stench of the rotten core that lay beneath his principles. Those of us who read To Kill a Mockingbird and/or saw the movie adaptation were also duped. This isn't the Atticus we thought we knew. How had that guy actually been this guy all along? Did we not read the book closely enough, all subtext going over our head? Or was Atticus given a complete personality transplant, which means not only did Atticus betray Scout, but Harper Lee betrayed us?

I could choose to contemplate Watchman in a vacuum, pretending I have no awareness of Mockingbird, that I'm meeting these characters and examining their motives for the very first time. If I do, I don't think it changes my opinions much. I still see the same flaws regarding lack of an attention holding plot, too many wandering speeches, etc. Sense of betrayal would be lessened, but I would still find it odd that it took Scout so long to finally wander into a room and learn what type of people she has been surrounded by her entire life.

Maybe that last part is unfair of me. After all, I know a thing or two about racist views remaining undetectable for a long period of time until the right situation brings them out from hiding. I've known parents who showed no overt sign of bigotry until their child became romantically involved with someone of another race. Prior to then, from their words and deeds and even choice of friends, few if any clues of intolerance were given.

There are things we don't know about those who are closest to us. There are things we don't yet know about ourselves because the circumstances to unearth them still lay in the future. There are cowards who believe they are brave, timid people who don't realize their potential to be adventurers, and friends who do not yet know that they consider you to be their enemy.

Unintentional deception is an intriguing premise for a novel. I don't feel that Go Set a Watchman examined it particularly well, but merely brushed up against the surface. I suppose that's why Lee's editor advised her to put Watchman aside and craft a new book based on an incident referenced in what turned out to be a first draft several decades before emerging as a sequel. That sound piece of advice (or so the legend goes) led to the creation of the vastly superior To Kill a Mockingbird.

Then again, perhaps the beloved Atticus Finch of the time tested Mockingbird is simply too good to be true. Maybe Atticus of Watchman is the more realistic depiction of a flesh and blood man, because the fact that he is a hypocrite is made plain. The shattering of illusions we depended on always goes down hard.

View all my reviews The Given Day (Coughlin #1)The Given Day by Dennis Lehane
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What an incredibly eventful time period to read about. Somehow in one city in one year there is The Great Molasses Flood, the early growth stage of the NAACP in a racist climate, a Spanish Influenza pandemic, unions gaining a foothold to combat unfair labor practices and absurdly low wages, the Boston Police Strike of 1919 and resulting riots, the start of Prohibition, a relentless hunt for violent radicals who sow seeds of fear, and Babe Ruth being traded from the Red Sox to the NY Yankees where a dynasty will result. This action packed period of time in history was fascinating to learn about, with a multi-plotted page turner Dennis Lehane story line thrown into the middle of it as bonus. The more things change the more they stay the same was the thought that repeatedly came to mind as I read The Given Day. In 2016 we call the violent radicals Islamic terrorists; the medical crisis du jour is the Zika virus; protests follow questionable shootings with riots sometimes resulting when activists from the newbie #BlackLivesMatter movement face off against police officers with #BlueLivesMatter mindsets; and Kevin Durant has left Oklahoma City to form a super team in the Golden State. What's the modern day equivalent to the molasses flood? Donald Trump's presidential candidacy perhaps. Both certainly created enormous messes to deal with.

View all my reviews The LoneyThe Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes it's necessary to carefully arrange a system of beliefs to explain the unexplainable. People love a good mystery provided it gets solved in the end. Unresolved we are left with questions that can haunt us. Religion serves the purpose of providing answers without needing to bear the burden of proof. By accepting the influence and omnipotence of a higher power, rather than wrestling with questions, people accept explanations that cannot be disproved. But even the most strongly constructed belief system can be vulnerable to harsh doses of reality and cruel twists of fate. The Loney is a place where people come to seek miracles, a private Lourdes. Maybe the miracles are gifts from God. Maybe they come from elsewhere. If you find what you seek, does the source matter? If you learn the truth, was the miracle worth the lesson? I recommend giving Andrew Michael Hurley's atmospheric debut novel a read. I've done my best to review it spoiler free. Like high tide on a desolate beach, this novel will pull you in and hold on fast.

View all my reviews YoungbloodYoungblood by Matt Gallagher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a fine book of place, if not plot which this novel is rather light on. Matt Gallagher effortlessly (which of course likely means he took great effort) pulls us into an Army unit in Iraq and gives us a taste of what modern warfare is like for members of an occupying force. It isn't a tale of heroism so much as of following orders and doing what it takes to make it from one day to the next, hopefully without abandoning too much of one's conscience along the way. There is a bit of detective story thrown into the narrative, a bit of star crossed love story too. There are threats to the narrator Jack Porter from within his own unit that are as ominous as bombs and bullets coming from the official enemy. There is sand and heat and scorpions and falafels and brokered deals and needless death and unhelpful remorse and the biding of time. I feel somewhat knowledgeable about the day-to-day existence of a 21st century soldier stationed in an ancient land after having read this book. But I'm wise enough to know that reading what it's like is one thing, living it as Mr. Gallagher did and admirably documented, quite another.

View all my reviews Z: A Novel of Zelda FitzgeraldZ: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fine piece of literary historical fiction. I've always been fascinated by the Jazz Age and the artists who gave it its reputation. Especially the American writers who took a break from our shores to live in Paris and join the future icons from Europe in wine, cheese and debauchery. Therese Anne Fowler did an exemplary job of bringing familiar names and reputations from literature anthologies to life, skillfully transporting us to romanticized days. Reading this novel I felt like Owen Wilson's character in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, suddenly thrust into a world where each day was filled to the brim with an excess of genius, celebration, and elegant style. In the middle of this story we find Zelda Fitzgerald, a woman who on the one hand was perfectly emblematic of this time, yet on the other could not fit in the way she truly yearned to because she was a woman/wife/mother in a man's world. Zelda was a person of bursting talent and ambition that could not be fully exploited and showcased because of her role as Mrs. Fitzgerald. Fowler explores the great passion that brought and somehow held the Fitzgeralds together over the course of their tempestuous marriage. The reader knows before turning to the first page that greatness is in store for them, most especially for F. Scott, but Zelda is more of a mystery to us. As the pages are turned and the narrative unfolds, we learn that there is more to Zelda than her reputation. We watch her try to be a good wife as the time period defined this term to the man she loved, while also trying to be a woman ahead of her time who hoped to carve out her own place in the history books. We watch her desires nearly destroy her as her husband's vices wreak havoc on their roller coaster marriage and his health. Various famous names flit in and out of their lives. Ernest Hemingway plays a major role in expanding F. Scott Fitzgerald's insecurities and loosening the bonds of his devotion to Zelda. There is plenty of glamour and globetrotting and name dropping and a Great War and eventually another one. In the center of it all is a fun loving southern belle who decides to take a chance on a cocky northern soldier that her daddy does not approve of. She chooses to defy conventions and expectations, and tries to discover herself along the way rather than meekly accepting who society says she is supposed to be. F. Scott Fitzgerald casts a great shadow. Seeking light nearly destroyed Zelda, but she was a formidable woman who could withstand everything but the literal flames that consumed her on her final day. With able assistance from Therese Anne Fowler, Zelda has risen from the ashes and assumed her place as an icon from a magical time.

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