Tuesday, March 30, 2021

One Two Three - Laurie Frankel

Laurie Frankel’s One Two Three is the story of a little Massachusetts town whose people were blindsided by the chemical company that came to town one day offering the moon (mostly in the form of high-paying jobs and civic infrastructure improvements) but ended up ruining everything it touched — including the town’s water supply and the health of almost everyone who lived there. Now, seventeen years later, Bourne is a community filled with disabled young people and memories of people who died way too soon.

“…one of the sad things that happens when almost everyone dies is there aren’t enough people left who remember why.”

One, Two, and Three are triplet sisters whose mother, Nora, was carrying them when the water turned green. The girls have given themselves the numeric designations based on their birth order, and it’s what they call each other. And on a whim, their mother chose their names based on that same order: One got the one-syllable name Mab; Two got the two-syllable name Monday; and Three earned the three-syllable name Mirabel. It is through their eyes that we begin to understand the struggle that life in Bourne still is.

Everyone knows everyone in Bourne - mainly because practically no one new ever moves into town  — but the Mitchell triplets would be special in any town. Of the three girls, Mab is the one most likely to find a life outside of Bourne and she and her best friend spend every spare moment preparing to leave town for college. Monday, who has emotional problems, by snagging all the books discarded by the town library when it shut down, has become the town’s unofficial librarian, and an expert on finding just the right book for her patrons. Mirabel is wheelchair-bound and can speak only through a mechanical voice, but she may just be the smartest person in Bourne and everyone knows it.

The girls have never known a day when their mother has not almost singlehandedly kept a class action lawsuit against the chemical company active. It’s the only life they know, and it’s a life that they can’t imagine will ever much change. But after the unthinkable happens, they decide it’s time for them lift some of that burden from Nora. The Mitchell triplets are on the case now, and they are about to shake things up to the point that life in Bourne is going to change — one way or the other. 

Bottom Line: One Two Three is sometimes tragic and sometimes hilarious, but it is always entertaining. The Mitchell girls and their mother are the best thing about the novel, and the unique relationships between Mab, Monday, and Mirabel are unforgettable. This is so much a character-driven novel (even the “villains” are quirky) that the plot of the novel is almost secondary, and even though everything is fully resolved by the end of the story, it’s the characters that readers are likely to remember. If you enjoy novels by writers like John Irving, Allan Gurganus, or Pete Dexter, this one is for you. 

Laurie Frankel

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Monday, March 29, 2021

You Belong Here Now - Dianna Rostad

You Belong Here Now
, Dianna Rostad’s debut novel, is a story about three children who ride the Orphan Train from New York to Montana in 1925 only to reach the end of the line still not having been chosen by anyone looking for children to bring into their homes. Stop after stop, they find themselves having to re-board the train hoping that it will go differently for them on the next train platform they come to. But Charles is too big, little Olive is too scrawny and refuses to talk, and Patrick just seems to be too Irish to suit the locals. 

The three have little in common other than their determination not to end up back in New York City, but when Charles and Patrick decide to jump off the slow-moving train together before it reaches its last stop in Montana, Olive refuses to be left behind. And now the three of them are on foot in what seems to them to be the middle of nowhere. That’s when Charles decides to steal a horse from the family ranch they finally come across, figuring that wherever they are going, riding is a whole lot easier than walking. 

This, though, is not just any family ranch. It is one in the process of dying right along with what’s left of the family that owns it. Nara, the spinster who runs the ranch along with her aging father now that her brother has made a new life for himself in New York, doesn’t think about the future much. She knows that her father is slowing down, but working from dawn to dusk - and beyond when necessary - is the only life she knows, and she can’t imagine anything else. After she catches Charles trying to steal one of her horses, she only reluctantly agree with her father to let the boy work off his crime on the ranch rather than turning him over to the sheriff. But  even after Nara’s mother falls in love with tiny Olive immediately upon setting eyes on her, Nara is determined to work the two boys so hard that they can’t wait to get away from the ranch for good.

You Belong Here Now covers a lot of ground. Some will call it a triple coming-of-age novel, but it is much more than that. It is also a novel about decades-old grudges with the power to destroy those who hold them, racial prejudice, the power of family ties, bonding, love, and bottom-line justice. It is the story of six people who learn just how much they mean to each other, and that real families do not necessarily share the same blood. And as Nara learns: 

“…justice doesn’t come about through rules of law, but rather it rises from the courage of just one person. Someone who yields to the better judgement of their heart. It doesn’t matter whether they’re a nobody, a somebody, or a big shot, so long as they have the temerity to put one finger on the scales.”

Sometimes, in order to achieve justice, laws simply have to be ignored.

Bottom Line: Historical fiction about the Orphan Trains is not uncommon these days, but it is a story that deserves to be told. It can be argued that many of the orphans sent  west from America’s big cities were abused and otherwise overworked and exploited by the people who took them in, but it can also be argued that many, hopefully the vast majority, of the children were given better lives than the ones they left behind. You Belong Here Now tells part of that story. The novel did leave me with the impression that it is as much a YA novel as one for adults, so I recommend it for anyone wanting to learn more about the period in general and about the Orphan Train in particular. 

Dianna Rostad

Review Copy provided by Publisher for Review - novel to be published on April 21, 2021

Saturday, March 27, 2021

The Searcher - Tana French

Well, it took me a while. I’ve been seeing Tana French’s name all over the place, and hearing nothing but good things about her, for the last several years, but until The Searcher I had not experienced one of French’s novels for myself. For that reason, I suppose it’s appropriate that The Searcher is one of the author’s two standalone crime novels rather than part of her six-book “Dublin Murder Squad” series. 

The “searcher” referred to in the novel’s title is Cal Hooper, a retired American cop who has moved to a remote part of Ireland where he hopes to live a life as different from the one he knew in Chicago as possible: no guns (other than his hunting rifle), no crime investigations to concern himself with, and sadly for Cal, no wife now that he’s freshly, and painfully, divorced. And for a while, it looks like all that might actually happen for Cal. Then he notices that a local kid is secretly watching his every move as he goes about the business of refurbishing the worn out old cottage he’s purchased - and he wants to know why the kid has taken such a keen interest in him.

As it turns out, young Trey Reddy has heard that Cal is an ex-cop from the big city and believes that makes Cal the perfect man to find the kid’s missing older brother. Cal wants no part of any kind of investigation, especially one with the potential to bring him into a confrontation with local police and equally as likely to leave his new neighbors convinced that he is sticking his newly-arrived nose in places he has no business sticking it. But Trey Reddy is not the kind of kid who takes no for an answer, and despite all his reservations about what he is about to do, Cal soon finds himself snooping around on the kid’s behalf - and that’s when the locals notice what he’s up to.

Cal quickly realizes that the only thing beautiful about life in this little Irish town is the scenery he sees outside his windows. Almost nothing else is what it seems, perhaps even including his relationship with the elderly neighbor who seems to have taken Cal under his wing so that the American can ease himself into this new life without first offending all the locals. Cal, though, is not a quitter, and the more encouragement he gets to mind his own business, the less likely it is that he will do so. And one of the first things he learns about Trey is that the kid is even less a quitter than he is.

Bottom Line: The Searcher is a relatively slow-paced story about a lonely man and a lonely kid who need each other more than either of them realize. It is one of those crime novels in which the crime is secondary to the characters and how they change over time. No one will call this one a thriller, but that is most certainly not a bad thing in this instance. The Searcher is a satisfying novel in which one of the main characters comes of age at the same time that another one is having his eyes opened for him. Recommended. 

Tana French

Friday, March 26, 2021

Larry McMurtry - Dead at 84


Larry McMurtry in one of his several Booked Up store locations in Archer City (I think this was taken on the Saturday that the author was liquidating most of the stock in his several locations throughout the city, an event I attended along with hundreds of others from all over the world).

I have been around long enough now that I've been reading some of my favorite authors for twenty, thirty, forty, or even fifty years. That means that I'm starting to lose them one by one now, and yesterday I lost one of the guys I've been reading for over fifty years, Larry McMurtry.

I discovered Larry sometime in the late sixties, back in the days when his connections to Houston were more obvious than they would be in his later years. He was a graduate of the city's Rice University and set some of his earliest novels in Houston. But it was after Larry decided to open up one of his bookstores near the old SPCA dog pound inside Loop 610 that I really felt connected to the man. I don't know how often he manned the cash register himself, but I ran into him there on several Sunday afternoons over the years, and I found him to be quite the bookseller. Depending on the number of shoppers in his little bookshop, Larry was always willing to talk books and book-searches with me until I found just the right thing to make my 25-mile drive to Booked Up worth the frustrating traffic that had to be negotiated to get there. 

According to the beautifully written obituary in the New York Times, Larry McMurtry died (very appropriately) in his Archer City, Texas, home from congestive heart failure on March 25.

He will always be remembered, of course, for the Pulitzer Prize winning Lonesome Dove, but he also wrote books (many of which became classic movies) like: The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Horseman Pass By (the movie version was called Hud), and others. Six of his novels were set in Houston: Moving On (1970), All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers (1972), Terms of Endearment (1975), Somebody's Darling (1978), Some Can Whistle (1989), and The Evening Star (1992). 

Fans of the wonderful characters in Lonesome Dove will be pleased to know, too, that McMurtry added to their legend in three 1990s novels: Streets of Laredo, Dead Man's Walk, and Comanche Moon. 

It broke my heart a little when Larry McMurtry decided that he had published his last book, but that feeling is dwarfed by the realization that he is really gone now. Gone but never forgotten.

The middle shelf is home to most of my Larry McMurtry books, but the book I'm proudest to own is a first printing of Lonesome Dove. That one sits on a different shelf along with a couple of other first printings of some of his earlier books. 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Burrows - Reavis Wortham

(2012) is the second book in Reavis Wortham’s Red River Mystery series. That series grew to eight books earlier this year with the addition of Laying Bones, ending a more-than-two-year wait for fans eager to get back to Constable Ned Parker and the goings-on in little Center Springs, Texas. 

Fans of the books will recall that The Rock Hole, the first book in the series, ended with Ned’s retirement and the election of his nephew Cody to Ned’s old constable position. Try as he might to stay out of things, though, Ned’s neighbors and friends still find it impossible to break the habit of calling him with their concerns. And if he were to admit it to himself, Ned is kind of tickled by that despite all the grumbling he does out loud about it. Little does he know, however, that both he and Cody are about to be tested by one of the strangest cases and criminals imaginable - and that it will take both of them to get the job done if either is to survive the chase. 

Someone is killing people and collecting heads - and they’ve come back to Ned’s little north Texas border town to do it. That’s crazy enough, but after what they discover in the huge, abandoned Cotton Exchange warehouse in a nearby town, Ned and Cody are about to redefine the word “crazy.” The five-story warehouse is literally stuffed with every kind of garbage and castaway imaginable: old furniture, stacks of newspapers and magazines, bales of rotting cotton, books, tools, tires; you name it, it’s there in abundance. Unfortunately for Cody and John (the black deputy from the “wrong side of the tracks”) that includes thousands of rats, roaches, and bats that call the warehouse home. But that’s not even the crazy part.

Whoever is responsible for dragging everything inside the warehouse has packed it so tightly that there’s no way into around the interior of the building other than crawling through all the tunnels and mazes that run through the trash - mazes that are booby-trapped to the extent that they bring back the nightmares that haunt Cody from his recent experience as a Viet Nam War tunnel rat. But the killer is hiding in there somewhere, and somebody is going to have to flush him out. Guess who?

Bottom Line: Burrows is one heck of a thriller, definitely the most atmospheric one I’ve read in a few years. Just be prepared, because the bulk of the book takes place with Cody and Deputy John crawling through the kind of filth and danger that truly is a lawman’s worst nightmare. If you are a little claustrophobic already, this one will scare you to death; if you are not claustrophobic, you may be after reading Burrows. All the regulars, including Ned’s granddaughter Pepper (who still has a mouth on her), his grandson Top, his best friend Judge O.C, and his Choctaw wife Miss Becky, are back - and they are half the fun of any Red River Mystery. 

Reavis Z. Wortham

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Reavis Wortham & Joe Lansdale: In Conversation

I'm about halfway through Reavis Wortham's Burrows right now, and I'm enjoying it just as much as I enjoyed reading The Rock Hole, the first book in Wortham's Red River Mystery series. But that got me to wondering just who Reavis Wortham is and how I managed to miss his books for so long. I knew that Reavis is from North Texas, but that was about it...so I was pleased this morning to find this conversation that Wortham had on YouTube in January 2021 with another of my favorite Texas writers, Joe Lansdale. 

If you've read neither of these writers yet, you don't know what you're missing. Granted, I may "get" them more easily than someone who didn't grow up in Texas in the mid-twentieth century, but both these guys are such brilliant storytellers that I think you really need to take a look at their work. I'll be surprised if you don't fall in love with their writing. 

Lansdale is best known for his Hap & Leonard series (and the fairly awful TV series made from the books), but my favorite of his is a standalone called Paradise Sky. 

I've been reading Lansdale since the early eighties, but Wortham is much newer to me (his first novel was published in 2011) so I was surprised to hear him talk about a second series he already has into its fourth book. Lansdale is one of the more prolific novelists out there, and it looks like Wortham's output is adding up quickly. If you have the time - and patience - to listen to these guys until they get wound up, what they have to say about writing, publishing, their influences, etc. is really interesting. 

Tip: Around the 40-minute point of the conversation, the guys discuss the "woke culture," censorship, racism, realism, honesty, etc. 

Monday, March 22, 2021

Nothing More Dangerous - Allen Eskens

Nothing More Dangerous,
by Allen Eskens, is set in mid-1970s small-town Missouri where fifteen-year-old Boady Sanden lives alone with his mother. Boady, a high school freshman, is very much an outsider at the Catholic school he’s attending for the first time. He spends his days there either being completely ignored by his classmates or bullied by some of the older boys - and Boady’s one real goal in life is to save enough money so that he can leave town on his own as soon as he turns sixteen. He’s had just about all of life in rural Missouri that he can stand.

Things start to change, though, when a black family - who have a son near Boady’s age - move into the old house across the road from the Sandens. Young Thomas Elgin is a city boy, and now he is as unhappy about being stuck in rural Missouri as Boady is. Neither boy particularly wants to admit that they need a friend, but because no one else their age lives within shouting distance of the isolated road they live on, the boys find it hard to ignore - or avoid - each other. After a rough start, surprising themselves, they become close friends. And that’s when things begin to turn ugly.

Lida Poe, the black bookkeeper at the area’s plastics factory has supposedly disappeared along with at least one hundred thousand dollars of the company’s money. Her disappearance is all anyone in town can talk about, but it shouldn’t have a thing to do with Boady and Thomas, or their friendship. And it doesn’t, until the two boys go camping and decide to do a little snooping on their own. What they discover out in the woods starts a chain of events that will prove deadly dangerous to Boady, Thomas, and some of the people closest to them.

I experienced Nothing More Dangerous via its audiobook version, and if you enjoy audiobooks at all, I recommend this one. Kevin Stillwell, the audiobook narrator, uses a combination good-old-boy/country drawl delivery that gives life to the story being told by young Boady Sanden. Stillwell’s atmospheric voice enhances the innocence with which Boady begins telling his story while slowly coming to the realization that what he thinks he knows about his hometown and its people is not at all as simple as he has believed it to be. 

Bottom Line: Nothing More Dangerous is a coming-of-age novel in which two boys, in just a few short weeks, are forced to learn the harsh realities of the world they live in. Thomas experiences a level of racism he had not known in the city, and Boady figures out some things about himself, those closest to him, and his own culture that he never suspected. The boys “grow up” to a degree that neither could have done on their own; they could have only done it together. This one has a bit of a “fairy tale” feel to it, but I totally bought in to it in the long run. 

Allen Eskens

Saturday, March 20, 2021

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life - George Saunders

George Saunders is a prize-winning short story writer who has taught an MFA-level class on Russian short stories at Syracuse University for the last twenty years. As much as many of us would love to sit in on such a class, few will ever be given that opportunity. But now, Saunders offers the rest of us a glimpse into his classroom via A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. The four Russians in question are: Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Nikolai Gogol. 

Saunders uses seven of their short stories (three from Chekhov, two from Tolstoy, and one each from Turgenev and Gogol) to show his students “how fiction works and why it’s more relevant than ever in these turbulent times.” He does this (with the exception of the first Chekhov story) by having us first read the Russian short story for ourselves before delving into his explanation of how each  story is constructed, and why some of them work so extraordinarily well to change the very way that we “see the world.” Reading fiction, according to Saunders, leads to us opening ourselves and our curiosity up to exploring the world through the points of view and experiences of others. 

Saunders explains the study this way:

“We’re going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art - namely, to ask the big questions: How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” 

But as Saunders notes, a story does not get to ask these questions, or any others, if we decide not to finish reading them. That’s where the craftsmanship and genius come in, and Saunders, using his striking conversational style all the while, explains exactly how Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol work their particular magic on the reader. Saunders recognizes, however, that authors will achieve none of this without readers, and he ends his introduction to A Swim in a Pond in the Rain with a tip of the hat to the:

“…vast underground network for goodness at work in the world - a web of people who’ve put reading at the center of their lives because they know from experience that reading makes them more expansive, generous people and makes their lives more interesting. As I wrote this book, I had those people in mind.”

How are we to resist a compliment like that one?

Bottom Line: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is primarily aimed at aspiring fiction writers, but Saunders never forgets that someone has to read all those stories. His explanation of how a short story is constructed (and what to look for while reading them) and what an author is, or should be, trying to achieve in the process is truly eye-opening. A lot of what Saunders has to say reinforces what many readers already intuitively know about reading fiction but have never tried to articulate for themselves. This is no a preachy, professorial lecture in which an all-knowing authority reveals to the rest of us what we are supposed to think. Because Saunders wants readers to think for themselves, it is almost the opposite of that.

George Saunders

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Delhi Crime - Netflix Series

Lead Investigator

Because so many of us are fans of crime fiction, detective series, and police procedurals, I want to mention a television series that I just finished watching last night. 

It is a seven-episode series called Delhi Crime that was produced in 2019 by/for Netflix. The approximately-50-minute episodes were filmed over a 62-day period in Delhi, India. The crime being investigated in the show by the Delhi police is based on an actual case that occurred in that city in 2012, and the series covers what happened between  December 16 and December 21 of that year as the six suspects were rounded up one-by-one. 

Warning: the crime being investigated is a horrifically brutal gang rape of a young woman and the beating of her boyfriend. Even though the rape is not shown on the screen, the horrific details of her injuries  are revealed in interrogations and testimony.

No. 2 Investigator with Suspect

The series has been well-received, and even won an "International Emmy" in 2020. The acting is terrific, and the fact that I was completely unfamiliar with anyone in the cast gave the series almost a documentary feel to me. I recommend watching the episodes in the original Hindi language version with English subtitles, as I did. Interestingly, much of the dialogue in that version is in English as the characters seamlessly switch back and forth between Hindi and English. They do that so often and so easily that I have to assume it's the norm there, but it did lead to one unexpected problem: I found it difficult to understand all the English words being spoken by some of the actors - and the subtitles disappeared when English was being spoken by anyone -  so my comprehension was actually better when Hindi was being spoken and I was reading subtitles. 

Delhi Crime has been renewed for a second season, but that was before COVID-19 landed on the film industry with both feet. So even though, I look forward to a second season at some point, it may be a while. I'm going to go way out on a limb here and admit that this film left me with a clearer picture of street life in India than any novel covering similar material I've ever read. That's about the strongest endorsement of Delhi Crime that an avid reader can ever give to any  film. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Transcendent Kingdom - Yaa Gyasi

Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi’s follow-up to her immensely-praised debut novel, Homegoing, is a coming-of-age novel about Gifty, a young woman who is the only one in her family to have been born in the United States. Her parents left Ghana to settle in Huntsville, Alabama, when Gifty’s brother Nana was still a baby. Nana was the baby their parents prayed for but had just about given up on ever seeing; when Gifty came along several years later, it was far more a shock than it was a surprise.

Gifty, the book’s narrator, is now a sixth-year PHD candidate in Stanford’s neuroscience program, but she has always felt like the under-appreciated outsider in her family. She was born in America, she is by far the youngest in the family, she is female, and she is the only one of them without at least some personal memory of life in Ghana. Despite Gifty’s intellectual brilliance, once Nana reveals himself as one of the best high school basketball players in Alabama, it is Nana who becomes the family’s superstar. And that’s the way it stays right up until Nana dies from an overdose of heroin. That the boy only became a heroin addict after first getting hooked on doctor-prescribed OxyContin as the result of an athletic injury is no consolation. He is dead, her mother becomes  suicidal, and Gifty dedicates the rest of her life to trying to figure out why it all happened the way that it did.

Gifty is well into her twenties when the story begins, but she is still struggling to figure out who she is - or wants to be. Her life has already been so scarred by her family’s multiple battles with addiction, depression, and loss that she is determined to discover a scientific explanation for  why some people are prone to addiction and others not. Aiming for the stars, Gifty dreams of finding a real cure for depression and addiction. First, however, she has to reconcile the different versions of herself that already exist: the little girl raised on Christian evangelism, the black girl carrying all the associated baggage of growing up in the Deep South, the young woman who values her privacy over having friends, the woman simultaneously struggling with her faith in God and her sexuality, and the brilliant scientist she is fast becoming. 

Bottom Line: Transcendent Kingdom is for the most part a beautifully written story about a unique American family, one that is coming apart at the seams. It is told in a flashback fashion that makes Nana seem very much alive despite the fact that readers learn of his death in the book’s first few pages or via the book jacket itself. And up to about the book’s ninety-percent mark, I was certain that it was going to be one of my favorite books of 2021 before it stalled and I found myself becoming impatient for it to reach its conclusion. I found all the internal philosophizing that occurs after the book has reached - and moved beyond - its climax  to be just too much. That said, Yaa Gyasi is a very talented writer and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Yaa Gyasi

Monday, March 15, 2021

Library Due-Date Crunch Time

I find myself fighting the clock this week thanks to the several library books with short time-fuses that I'm still reading. I really don't want to miss out on reading any of them now that I finally got my hands on them...but they all came in about the same time and none are renewable without me returning to the end of the line again.

I've had this one on hold since November, starting out as number 210 on the waiting list. Tana French is not an author I've read before, but I finally decided that her immense popularity demands a peek. So, the book finally arrived, and I read the first page and was immediately hooked before I put it aside to finish a couple of others first. And I'm still on page 2. One week to go.

Transcendent Kingdom is actually due back at the library today, but I'm still over 120 pages away from the end so that's not likely to happen. I picked it up, finally, last night thinking that if I had to give up on one, this would probably be the one to get culled. About a dozen pages later, I knew that was not going to happen. I am so immersed in her story right now that I can't imagine not finishing the book. Yaa Gyasi is a special kind of writer. This will be the first book with a waiting list I've ever purposely not returned on its due date...maybe tomorrow.

The George Saunders book is due in four days, but I'm only 40% of the way through this creative fiction class, so this one may end up being returned late, too, despite its still-growing waiting list. Even at this point in the book, I recommend A Swim in a Pond in the Rain to anyone curious about how good short stories are constructed - especially ones written by some of the Russian masters of the genre. I'm retaining much more of what Saunders has to say about the structure of the stories than I would have thought possible - and that's entirely to the credit of Saunders's prose style. Saunders is one of my favorite writers for a reason.

If I'm not careful, I'm going to be in the same boat with another set of library books in just a couple of weeks. But, hopefully, I've now learned that my "eyes" or bigger than my "brain," and I will better control my urge to put every interesting book I run across on my library hold list. Yeah, right, like that's going to happen.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

The Secrets Between Us - Thrity Umrigar

The Secrets Between Us is my first experience with one of Thrity Umrigar’s novels. I have always found it difficult to imagine what daily life must be like for India’s poorest, those people forced to spend all their time and energy on finding enough food and shelter to survive for just one more day. Always one day at a time…and always knowing that cultural constraints make it next to impossible for them to escape their lot. I was hoping that The Secrets Between Us would help me understand what that kind of like must be like - and it did exactly that.

“This is what I believe. There is only one true evil. And it is being poor. With money, a sinner can be worshiped as a saint. A murderer can be elected chief minister. A rapist can become a respectable family man…Understand?”

The story revolves around two main characters, Bhima and Parvati, two women who do not know each other as the story begins. Bhima, poor and illiterate, has spent the last two decades cleaning and cooking for a middle class family in Mumbai. Her duties often take her to the  rambling, open-air vegetable market where she has noticed Parvati, an old woman selling her sparse good from a rug spread on the ground. The two women, however, have never acknowledged each other’s existence. Bhima thinks that Parvati is beneath her notice, and Parvati believes Bhima to be a snob who overestimates her own worth.

Both women will soon begin to learn how wrong they have been about the other. It will take some time, but time is just about all either of them has anyway. Bhima is the sole provider for Maya, her teenaged granddaughter, and after Bhima is unfairly fired from her cleaning job without warning, she is desperate to replace the lost income before she and Maya end up living on the streets of the slum. Parvati has no one to call family anymore, other than the young man she thinks of as a “nephew,” even though he only allows to have her sleep outside his apartment door every night as long as she does nothing to offend the neighbors. 

Largely because there are no better options for either of the women, Bhima and Parvati come to an unlikely business arrangement with the potential to save both their lives if only they can learn to stand each other’s company. Both women have secrets about their past that they have sworn to share with no one, but they will come to learn just how much they have in common with each other - as well as with most every other Indian woman. 

She is aware that every mother in this basti has deposited her unrealized hopes into her children because not one woman believes that she will live long enough for her own Age of Darkness to end. It is for their children’s sake that the women put up with the bad tempers of bosses, the humiliations and assaults too numerous to count, the arbitrariness of their hirings and firings, the grind of public transportation designed for a city one-third the size of what Mumbai has become.”

Bottom Line: The Secrets Between Us is a story about the surviving strength of women in a society in which they are clearly second-class citizens. It is a story about women who are willing to do whatever it takes to give their own children, especially their daughters, the chance for a better life than the one they themselves have endured. What the novel has to say about the plight of women even today in parts of the world is horrifying, but in the end it leaves the reader with the hope that it will not always be this way. 

“I am like this paper. People can write on me, spit on me, tear me up, it makes no difference. One strong gust of wind and -“ she releases the scrap of paper - “bas, I’m gone. And no one will even know I was here.”

Thrity Umrigar 

Thursday, March 11, 2021

The Brutal Telling - Louise Penny

Louise Penny’s 2009 novel The Brutal Telling is the fifth in her popular sixteen-book Inspector Gamache series. And precisely because I’ve already read what are currently the last seven books in the series, The Brutal Telling is the one that has most surprised me. Readers who are reading the Gamache series in the order in which it is being published will not experience that level of surprise. Nor will they have to reconsider their understanding of a major series character they probably thought they knew well. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. What I do know, is that The Brutal Telling is a different novel for readers who are reading the series the way I am than it is for readers who are reading the books in order. 

     “For Armand Gamache knew what not-nice was. He knew what cruelty, despair, horror were. And he knew what a forgotten, and precious, quality “nice” was.”

It is the end of summer, and the permanent residents in the little village of Three Pines are looking forward to the end of the tourist season. They are down to the final weekend of the season now, and a few of the families with school-aged children are already packing up to get an early start back to the city. And then it happens: a dead body is found inside the little bistro that is really the beating heart of Three Pines, the one owned and run by Gabri and Olivier. 

After Inspector Gamache and his team, all of them well-familiar with Three Pines and its core residents, are called in to investigate the victim’s murder, the first thing they learn is that no one seems to know who the dead man is. He is a stranger to all of them, and what he may have been doing inside the bistro after it was locked up for the night is as big a part of the mystery as who he is. So, Gamache - being Gamache - starts asking questions…lots of questions. And the answers he gets all seem to point the finger at one man. As potential suspects are eliminated one-by-one, only one suspect is left standing: Olivier. But could the beloved bistro owner, a personal friend of Gamache’s, really be capable of a crime like this one?

Bottom Line: The Brutal Telling is, as is every book in the Gamache series, a well-planned and well-executed mystery. The Three Pines setting is as much fun as ever, and the main characters are beginning to feel like old friends by this point in the series, but Penny still has some surprises for readers starting to feel too comfortable with it all. One of those surprises takes place on the book’s next-to-last page, and while it has nothing at all to do with the mystery and Olivier’s predicament, it packs quite the punch. The title of this one is prophetic. 

Louise Penny (Book Jacket Photo)

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain - George Saunders (First Pass)

 I mentioned a few days ago that I've gotten back into the habit of juggling seven books at a time in an attempt to keep any one or two of them from unnecessarily going stale on me. I'm relieved that that is still working well, but a little irritated to find my rotation through the books more controlled by library due dates than by anything else. I know it's my fault for requesting so many books at the same time, but it's causing me at times to neglect the books from my own shelves that are already in progress.

And now a new wrinkle to contend with. I came across short story writer George Saunders's new book (can't recall what first brought it to my attention) and immediately put it on my library hold list because I am a big fan of the man's stories. I fully expected this to be the author's new collection of short fiction, but it turns out to be something else entirely. The title of the book certainly sounds like a fiction title: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, but I never noticed that there was a subtitle. And what a subtitle it is: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life.

Even with that, the book's content is still a bit of a head-scratcher, so let me tell you a bit more. In addition to being a very gifted author, George Saunders teaches creative writing at Syracuse University, and what he has done here is to boil down one of his classes into a single volume in which seven short stories written by four Russian masters of the genre are read, discussed, and deconstructed in an attempt to teach his students how it is all done. So we get seven stories, seven essays regarding the stories, and seven short "Afterthoughts" following the essays. 

According to the book jacket, Saunders intends the book "for anyone interested in how fiction works and why it's more relevant than ever in these turbulent times." And, having now worked my way through two of the stories and two of the essays,  I'm finding that it delivers exactly as promised. But now, the squeeze is on because A Swim in a Pond in the Rain seems to be a lot more popular with the reading crowd in Harris County, Texas, than the librarians here anticipated it would be. That means not nearly enough copies to meet reader demand, and only a single two-week window to finish it before it needs to be carried back to the library. 

I don't know about you guys, but nonfiction reading is always slower going for me than reading a novel or a short story - in particular for a book like this one that requires careful consideration and reflection upon what I've just read before I can move on to the next chapter. So a slight change to my March reading plan is in order - and it's probably only the first of others to come.

At some point, I will be reviewing A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, so I hope I haven't just told you more about it than you ever wanted to know.  Keep in mind that the book was published on January 21, 2021, and that it has already been reviewed on Amazon 385 times, with 80% of the ratings coming in at five stars. That kind of response to a book like this one does my heart good; it gives me hope that the dumbing down of America is not yet a done deal. 

Monday, March 08, 2021

Good Morning, Midnight - Lily Brooks-Dalton

At only 253 numbered-pages, Lily Brooks-Dalton’s Good Morning, Midnight is a deceptively complex novel with a whole lot going on, so pay attention. If you do, I think that you are pretty likely to appreciate the ride as much as I did. 

Good Morning, Midnight begins as a relatively straightforward tale about the forced evacuation and ultimate abandonment of an isolated Arctic observatory. One man, Augustine Lofthouse, who is in his late seventies refuses to be carried out with the rest of his colleagues despite being warned that there will be “no return trip,” No return trip means no second chance to go home - ever. Not long after everyone leaves, Augustine discovers that he has company: a little girl who tells him her name is Iris. He knows that no one is coming back for her either. 

While all this is going on at the observatory, a sophisticated space ship manned by a crew of international astronauts is drawing closer and closer to Earth after having spent two years on a scientific mission to Jupiter and that planet’s moons. Those aboard the ship lost communication with everyone on Earth months earlier, including NASA’s mission control specialists. The closer they get to their home planet, the more obvious it becomes that something has gone catastrophically wrong for everyone they hoped to return to someday. 

In alternating chapters, Brooks-Dalton explores the struggles of both groups to make sense of what has happened to them. They have questions, but there is no one around to give them any answers, so the six astronauts and the two people abandoned at the observatory are left to deal with the situation on their own. Tough decisions are going to have to be made, and soon.

Different as they are, each of the scenarios is very atmospherically presented, and as a reader, I never found myself prematurely wishing that one segment would end so that I could revisit the other. The isolation faced by Augustine and Iris is very different from the lack of privacy felt by the astronauts in their confined living space, but all of the adults are faced with making sense of the lives they have lived, and the concept that they may now be among the last handful of humans still alive. The little girl, on the other hand, is content to take life one day at a time, and to enjoy the great adventure she and Augustine are experiencing. 

Bottom Line: The ending of Good Morning, Midnight is almost certain to surprise its readers. It will also confuse them to the point that they have to reevaluate everything they’ve just read. However, Brooks-Dalton, I believe, does play fair with the reader by providing hints along the way that will lead them to some relatively solid retrospective conclusions about the story. This is a solid debut novel about love, regrets, guilt, optimism, and bravery, and I would love to hear what others think of it.

Lily Brooks-Dalton