Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Elizabeth Is Missing - Emma Healey

Emma Healey’s 2014 novel Elizabeth Is Missing is narrated by a woman determined to find out where has best friend, Elizabeth, has gotten to. But Maud, the narrator, cannot get anyone to take her concerns seriously because she suffers from a rapidly advancing case of dementia and her daughter, the police, the caretakers who visit her every day, and Elizabeth’s son are getting very tired of hearing the same old questions from her over and over again. 

Talk about an unreliable narrator; Maud is the ultimate unreliable narrator. The elderly woman suffers from an advanced case of dementia, and she is losing more ground to that horrible condition every day. However, though Maud lives in a world inside her own head that is such a blending of the present with the past that she is in a constant state of confusion, she knows two things for certain: she can find neither her friend Elizabeth nor her own sister, Sukey. The problem is that Elizabeth is missing right now, but Sukey disappeared just a few months after World War II and hasn’t been seen since. Now, Maud cannot always be certain for which of the two women she is looking. Even so, she keeps looking for them even as what’s left of her dwindling cognitive abilities continues to slip away from her, and what she uncovers by forcing others to try to keep up with her turns out to be more than anyone bargained for, including Maud. 

Elizabeth Is Missing would have been a good mystery even without its unusual narrator. The circumstances under which Sukey disappeared not long after her recent marriage to a man who seemed to be living just on the edge of the law has all the makings of a very good historical fiction mystery. But what really makes this novel stand out from the crowd is the way that Emma Healey allows the reader to live for a few hours inside the head of a dementia sufferer like Maud. We stumble along with Maud in the present as very little makes sense to her, as she begins to forget the names of common everyday items that she’s used all her life, and as every little thing she encounters reminds her of a vivid memory from her long ago past. In effect, Sukey’s part of the story is told in flashback fashion as Maud literally flashes back to her detailed memories of those days. 

Bottom Line: Too many books are forgettable; after a few weeks or months, readers can barely distinguish them in their minds from all the other books they’ve read before or since. Elizabeth Is Missing is not one of those books. These days, as more and more people live to an advanced age, most every family has been, or soon will be, touched by the experience of having to provide care for a family member with dementia or Alzheimer’s. If you want to know what that family member is really experiencing, novels like this one are a good way to supplement your more clinical reading of the disease. Readers will not be forgetting this one.

Emma Healey

Monday, February 22, 2021

The Black Book - Ian Rankin

The Black Book, originally published in 1993, is the fifth novel in Ian Rankin’s more-popular-than-ever Inspector John Rebus series. I didn’t begin reading the Rebus books until 2003’s A Question of Blood, but it’s been a favorite detective series of mine ever since picking up that one. In more recent months, I’ve started reading the novels from the beginning, fascinated all the while to watch Rebus and his supporting cast gradually morph into the characters I know so well from the later books. It is, I think, in this fifth novel that Ian Rankin really hits his stride, and The Black Book is now one of my favorite ones in the entire series. 

On display is an early look at the cranky, funny, insightful, dedicated cop that Rebus really is. Already his doctor has told him to quit smoking and to eat better - an ominous hint of what Rebus’s health will be like just a couple of decades into the future. Because the man spends so many hours of his day working cases, he finds it difficult to share his life with anyone, something he regrets only until he gets so busy again that his social isolation slips from his mind. He is reckless when it comes to placing himself in physical danger, and his equally reckless policing methods always see him in danger of finally losing his badge for good. But with one exception - finally putting away “Big Ger” Cafferty - John Rebus always gets the job done. 

“On Monday morning word went around St. Leonard’s police station that Inspector John Rebus was in an impressively worse mood than usual. Some found this hard to believe, and were almost willing to get close enough to Rebus to find out for themselves…almost.”

Rebus has now reached the stage of his policing career where he effectively serves as mentor to the younger cops who report to him. That is the kind of work relationship he has with DS Brian Holmes and, especially, with DC Siobhan Clarke. At the moment, though, Rebus is also dealing with his ex-con brother Michael who has recently returned to Edinburgh and with being kicked out of the house by the woman with whom he’s been living. Thus, the grumpiness on display in the above quote. 

And just when it seems that his personal life could not be in more of a shambles than it already is, Rebus gets sucked into a situation at work that rivals every other bad thing already happening to him: DS Holmes gets the back of his head bashed in and is left in a coma, maybe never to wake up again. Rebus wants to know if the attack was work-related, but with Holmes in a coma for days, the only thing the inspector has to work with is Holmes’s “black book,” a notebook filled with investigatory notes that mean little to anyone other than the critically injured detective himself. Rebus, though, is prepared to follow the clues wherever they take him - and after his brother is attacked, it all gets very personal.

Bottom Line: The Black Book is notable because of its development of the Siobhan Clarke character and her budding friendship with Rebus. It also, I think, marks the first time that Rebus and Big Ger Cafferty butt heads in a face-to-face confrontation. Interestingly, almost three decades later, Rebus will still be trying to put away Cafferty, and his bond with Siobhan will be as strong as ever. Too, Rankin is now hitting exactly the right note with his humorous asides and displays of Rebus’s own sense of humor. On offer is the dry, smart kind of wit that never fails to make me laugh - even in the middle of another look at John Rebus’s brutal world. 

Ian Rankin

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Speculative Los Angeles - Edited by Denise Hamilton

The good news here is that Akashic Books has begun a new series of short story collections similar to its successful series of noir short story compilations readers have enjoyed for several years now. The bad news is that the first offering in this new series of “speculative” short stories, Speculative Los Angeles, is not home to many really exceptional stories. According to the book’s editor, Denise Hamilton, the fourteen writers whose work is included in the collection were asked to “reimagine Los Angeles in any way” they chose to do so. The problem is that most of them could not get past the basic premise of the effects global warming might ultimately have on the city or what life would be like in Los Angeles after “the big one” knocks everything down around the city’s population. Some of the stories, in fact, have so little real plot that they become hardly more than a hallucinatory tour of the destroyed city streets and the people forced to live among the rubble. 

That’s not to say that there are not some good stories in the collection, because there are. Among those is “Peak TV,” a story by Ben H. Winters about a television producer whose new hit series seems to be causing teens to kill themselves in copycat fashion to what happens on the show. This one has a particularly nice twist at the end that makes it even better. Then there’s Aimee Bender’s “Maintenance,” the story of a little girl and her father who take comfort from a mastodon tableau on display at the city’s famous tar pits. The tableau speaks to them emotionally in a way that fits their own family circumstances, and they visit the tar pits every week to revisit the mastodon family - right up until the massive pieces disappear and no one knows where they went or who took them. 

One of the stories that does a good job with the destroyed-city concept is A.G. Lombardo’s “Garbo on the Skids” in which a bad cop thinks he his taking advantage of a beautiful young woman living in a condemned building but finds out that she may be a lot smarter than him. Another effective tale is “Walk of Fame,” a story by Duane Swierczynski in which someone has murdered so many celebrities that they are down to the “D-list” now. Needless to say, no one wants to be famous anymore.

But as it turns out, my favorite story in the entire collection is its very last one: “Sailing That Beautiful Sea” by Kathleen Kaufman. This is the story of a dying woman being tended by specially-adapted caretaker bots who are doing everything possible to make her last days as comfortable as possible. The kicker is that she is now the last human being alive on the entire planet, and that after her death the bots will carry on alone in their own brave new world. 

Bottom Line: Perhaps Los Angeles was not the best choice as the city to launch the new series with because its dystopian future is so easy to visualize that it all seems to be too predictable after a while. I am looking forward to seeing what the next collection brings, however, because I do like the premise of a city-by-city alternate history survey of the world.

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Wanderers - Chuck Wendig

I’ve found myself these last few months being more and more drawn to dystopian pandemic books than I have in a long time, and I’ve read several of them. One of the best of them - and at almost 800 pages, by far the longest - is Chuck Wendig’s 2019 novel Wanderers. Too, despite its science fiction elements, it is also probably the scariest of the ones I’ve read since the beginning of our own real-world pandemic because of how by the time anyone figures out that something very wrong is happening to people, it is already too late to stop the spread. Way too late.

It all starts one morning when Shana wakes up to find that her little sister is nowhere in the house, and spots her walking toward the highway leading away from their isolated Indiana farm. At first, the little girl appears to be sleepwalking, but as Shana soon learns this is no ordinary sleep-walk. There is no way to wake her up, turn her around, or even minutely change the direction in which she’s walking. And soon enough, she is not alone. Other “sleepwalkers” will join her, so many of them, in fact, that the media come to call them “the flock,” just as they begin to call those who follow the flock to care for them, as Shana does, “the shepherds.” 

But where is the flock heading, and how is it possible that they can continue walking west (all the while gathering new members) from Indiana for weeks without stopping to rest, eat or drink anything, or communicate with anyone around them? Maybe they really are a flock, but no one can figure out what they have in common other than their ability to endlessly sleepwalk toward some unknown destination for an equally unknown purpose. And then people begin to die…and with a push from a radicalized radio preacher, the flock starts to get blamed for their deaths.

Bottom Line: Wanderers is a long book, but Chuck Wendig does not waste many pages in this accounting of how quickly the civilized world is capable of losing its civility and its soul. What Wendig has to say about humanity and the ties that bind us is sometimes horrifying, sometimes inspirational. This is a book that perhaps owes a tip-of-the-cap to Stephen King’s The Stand, but in my estimation, it is the better book of the two.

Chuck Wendig

(This review is a bit shorter than I like them, but I'm rushing this morning. I finished the book two days ago, but this is my first opportunity to write and post a review. The rolling blackout that is affecting the entire state of Texas this week has not spared us here. We regained power only 90 minutes ago, after having had power shut down for exactly, to the very minute, 17 hours. That means that it got down to 49 degrees in our bedroom last night, and that we are now having to boil water before using it - and that's hard to do without power. So we have all of our charging stations plugged in right now so that we will be ready for the next round, the heaters are working hard to get us back to a temperature in the neighborhood of seventy degrees, and we are boiling pots of water for later use. My daughters live about six miles from us, and both were down for five hours last night before the lights came back on for them around two a.m. They are down again, so it's obvious that we are nowhere near the end of the "rolling" yet.)

Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Music of Bees - Eileen Garvin

Although Eileen Garvin published her memoir How to Be a Sister (intriguing title, that) in 2010, the soon-to-be-published The Music of Bees marks her debut as a novelist. Part of what makes this new novel so much fun to read is the rather painless education about bees and beekeepers that the reader acquires along the way. Garvin, who is herself an Oregon beekeeper in addition to being a writer, skillfully makes it all seem simple right up until the point the  reader comes to realize just how complicated beekeeping actually is, and how terribly important bees and their keepers are to the environment and the food chain. 

The Music of Bees is a story about three loners, two of whom have become loners pretty much by choice, and another who had the lifestyle forced upon him after an accident put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Alice Holtzman is a 44-year-old county employee who enjoys keeping bees so much that over the next year she wants to double the number of hives she has. She is in the process of doing just that, transporting some 120,000 bees home in the back of her truck, when she almost literally runs into Jake, the 18-year old in the wheelchair. Jake is rather foolishly tooling down the side of the highway in his chair at dusk when Alice runs him off the road. When the smoke clears, Jake is so intrigued by Alice and how she is able to entice almost all the bees back into their proper containers, that a new friendship is born. Harry is a 24-year-old running from his past who moves west to live in a dilapidated trailer with his reclusive uncle. After spotting Alice’s help-wanted ad, he responds, and the unlikely trio soon find themselves not only working together, but living together.

All three have things in their recent past they regret, and all three of them have withdrawn into themselves in the mistaken belief that they will heal their wounds that way. What they end up learning is that they are much stronger together than they are separately. More importantly, though, the bond they form is such a strong one that each of them begins to come back to life - and when the well-being of their bees and new way of life are threatened, they are willing to fight back as one, no matter what it takes or what the personal repercussions may be for any one of them.

Bottom Line: The Music of Bees is a beautiful story about empathy, friendship, and personal restoration. At its heart it is a basic story of good versus evil, and how sometimes the least powerful among us can beat the odds just long enough to win the battle - oh, and all of that beekeeping knowledge that seeps in along the way is a special bonus readers are sure to enjoy. 

Eileen Garvin

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Friday, February 12, 2021

Winter Storm Coming My Way - But I think I'm Ready

I'm about to hunker down for some serious reading  because it's really getting cold out there - and very windy - for this part of Texas. I just came inside from checking to see that all the outside water lines and faucet heads are still wrapped and well-insulated, in fact, and now I'm warming up next to a small space-heater. From what I understand, this part of the state has gone into single digits temperature-wise only three times since records of that sort of thing have been kept. Well, right now they are predicting that Spring, TX, is going to go down to 7 degrees on Monday. For Austin, they predict a temperature of 1, and for College Station, where my granddaughter is a Texas A&M student, they predict 3 degrees. On top of that, the weather service is telling us that we all have about a 70% chance of snow on three separate days next week. 

Sound like fun, right? The only problem with all of this is that pipes in this part of the state often freeze and burst here at temperatures considerably higher than those because the houses here are not insulated like they are in the northern states. When a similar winter storm came through here in December of 1989, so many pipes burst and flooded homes that it was weeks before enough new pipe could be found to make the tens of thousands of repairs needed. And that was if you were lucky enough to have a plumber even answer the phone for a couple of weeks. So, this could be a huge mess before it's all over - and that's before all the amateur-winter-condition drivers hit the roads as if all is normal. Already, there's been a 20-car pileup in Austin and one of over 100 vehicles in Fort Worth.  Yep, fun times are just ahead. 

But I'm ready. I picked up, via curbside service, a week's worth of groceries this morning before heading out to the library for a pick-up there of a week's worth of new books. So as long as the pipes don't burst, we are good.

The library surprised me this morning with Burrows, the second book in Reavis Wortham's Red River Mystery series. It's the "Large Print Edition," but these days that is more a help than I ever dreamed it would get to be, so that's a good thing. Also in the bag was a copy of one called The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez, an Argentinian writer I've never read. I can't remember who or what tipped me off to that one, but it sounds really good so I'm looking forward to reading it even if it will be a while before it hits the top of the stack. 

Now back to the four books I'm already reading. Stay warm.