Monday, October 24, 2011

Cemetery Girl by David Bell

This is one of those books that I almost stopped reading once or twice, but then something surprising would happen and I'd find myself reading later than planned, negotiating with myself that after I read just one more chapter then I'd do xy and z.

With it being October, I was hoping Cemetery Girl would be a creepy book, learning more towards horror, but it is a psychological suspense novel, mainly about Tom, the father of a twelve year old girl named Caitlin who goes missing for four years. No clues, no ransom note, no nothing. Caitlin's Mom, Abby, is trying to move on and has turned all her energies toward her church, including her sexual energy, it seems, as Tom believes she's having an affair with Pastor Chris.

At first you think Abby is a real schmuck and that the husband, Tom, is the good guy, trying to keep the candle of hope lit for his daughter's return. But then his likeability is thrown into doubt early on for dumping the family dog at the pound. And then you learn he did it as a last ditch effort to save his marriage. Still, not forgivable (not for me, anyway), but perhaps understandable for some. Then you learn that it was that nasty Pastor Chris who put the idea of getting rid of the dog into Abby's head as a way to 'help' Tom move on and that just made me think of Pat Robertson recently telling a caller to divorce his wife with Alzheimer's and move on, but that's a whole 'nother story. Let's just say the situation left me wondering whether or not to go on reading a 389 page book with characters that I didn't particularly like from the beginning. One of the things that kept me reading was the character of Tom and how my feelings about him weren't easy to pin down.

If you plan on reading Cemetery Girl and don't like spoilers, you might want to stop reading now.

It dawned on me fairly early that perhaps Tom isn't exactly a reliable narrator. He is, after all, an English professor writing a book about Hawthorne. Eventually you start to question just about everything going on in the novel, especially everyone's motives, as well as their IQs and their emotional intelligence. It got to the point where I thought a good alternate title for the book would be Parents Behaving Badly. Or just Bad Dad.

If I had to sum up Tom in one sentence, I'd say he's a narcissist loner with anger management issues probably suffering from PTSD stemming from childhood abuse at the hands of an alcoholic step-father and a mother who just can't handle the truth. First he's obsessed with believing against all odds that Caitlin is still alive and will come home. All he wants is for her to come home. Its okay that this part of the novel is all about him and his feelings. But then when Caitlin does come home he becomes obsessed with learning not so much about what happened to her, but about why she stayed with the man who abducted her. In other words, why she chose her abductor over him.

At a time when his daughter most needs his attention, it's still all about him. This is when you really start to think something's wrong with the guy. Is should be all about his daughter now. Maybe he never really was a good father. The prologue sorta makes you wonder about that. And other things happen. Such as the fact that he makes and then promptly breaks a promise to Caitlin on her first day back, yells at her, slaps her, and grabs her arm so tightly that he doesn't care if he bruises her just days after her return. He feels bad about spitting into another man's face, but justifies hitting his daughter as an attempt to help her. He's also judgemental of just about everyone else. It is always about him and is feelings. In fact he pesters Caitlin with this whiny rant:
"What made you stay?” I asked. “Why, after all that, did you stay? People saw you with him in public places. You could have screamed and cried. You could have run away. Why did you stay with him? Why did you do that . . . ?” I resisted for a long moment. I tried to swallow it back, but finally I couldn't hold it in. “Why did you do that to me, Caitlin? Why?” (355).

I have no idea if David Bell set out to write a bad dad novel. Tom wants to have a family, but it seems like he wants to have it without having to work at it. He sits and laments about Caitlin's hygiene, table manners, and cursing and says, "All the things we could have helped, the disciplinary battles we could have fought, were lost. What was left?" (350). What? She's only sixteen and has just been through four years of sexual assault and mind control and Daddy Dearest is ready to throw in the towel after just a few days?

In the Epilogue Tom says to his brother, "In the end, my instincts as a father are stronger than anything else" (387). Some readers may feel like that's a nice wrap up. It might make them feel warm and fuzzy about Tom and fatherhood. But it creeped me out. Tom made many rash and irrational decisions, put his daughter in harms way, was abusive towards her on more than one occassion, and lied to everyone in his life. Is he carrying on his family of origin's legacy of abuse and silence? Wraping himself up in the protective cloak of 'parental instinct' that outsiders don't dare question? That's what it seems like to me.

David Bell does a great job holding it all together. I didn't like any of the characters in this novel, yet I kept reading, wondering what was going to happen next, even when some of the characters, as seen through Tom's eyes, do some pretty unrealistic things and make seriously poor choices. Issues of trust abound in this novel, as do those of power, control, parenting skills, and family ties. I am impressed with Bell's skill at weaving only Tom's perspective throughout this tale.

Cemetery Girl
David Bell
New American Library
Source: review copy

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Sometime back in the 70s when I was a kid and wanted to try reading a mystery, some well-meaning adult told me to read Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie. I couldn't get into either back then (they both seemed snooty and stuffy). Other than reading Edgar Allan Poe for classes, I didn't give mysteries a try again until I was in my early 30s and saw a review of Nevada Barr's The Track of the Cat in an outdoors magazine. Barr opened the door to mysteries for me and I've been a mystery reader since then.

When the publisher asked if I'd like to review The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes I thought it was time to give the world's most famous detective another go. I am so glad I did. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed all of the stories in this edition. Earlier this week I heard Nathaniel Philbrick in a radio interview talking about Melville first reading Shakespeare at midlife. Philbrick said that some literature is best read after we've had more life experience. I'm in that boat when it comes to Sherlock.

The stories in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes are:
  1. Silver Blaze
  2. The Yellow Face
  3. The Stockbroker's Clerk
  4. The Gloria Scott
  5. The Musgrave Ritual
  6. The Reigate Squires
  7. The Crooked Man
  8. The Resident Patient
  9. The Greek Interpreter
  10. The Naval Treaty
  11. The Final Solution
If you're like me and haven't read Sherlock Holmes yet, these seemed like fine stories to start out with. Each story is only about 20 pages long, so they're perfect for a lunch break or a little bed-time reading. For me there wasn't a dud in the bunch. Each tale presents a very different cast of characters and situations. Overall the stories were interesting both for the mystery involved and for representation of class and race in late 19th century England. Holmes only annoyed me once (at the beginning of "The Crooked Man" where he offers a bunch of unsolicited observations. Yes, I know it sets the reader up for his brilliant observations later, but it seems rather heavy handed) and I found myself wanting to know more about Watson's life (particularly his time in Afghanistan).

My favorite story of this collection is perhaps "The Naval Treaty." In this tale Watson receives a letter from an old school chum who has been down with brain fever for nine weeks after a top secret naval treaty that he was copying is stolen. The friend asks if Watson could bring Holmes around to help solve the mystery, since the authorities couldn't get to the bottom of it. I enjoyed the lessons in the art of detection that Holmes teaches in this story: That crimes of opportunity can be harder to solve then those that are well planned, and too much evidence can get in the way: what is vital is overlaid and hidden by what is irrelevant. And what Holmes said back then is seemingly still true today: "The authorities are excellent at amassing facts, though they do not always use them to advantage" (216).

Do you have a favorite Sherlock Holmes story? Which one and what appeals to you about it?

This new edition of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is labeled as inspiration for the new Sherlock Holmes movie, The Game of Shadows, which opens Dec 16th. You can watch the trailer here. I enjoyed the first movie, although it was a bit over-blown at times for my tastes. This second film seems to have taken some of its plot from "The Final Solution", the last story in Memoirs. This is the story where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried to get rid of Sherlock in an effort to be done with the fictional character that seemed to be taking over his life. Graham Moore's novel, The Sherlockian made much of this. Now that I've read some Sherlock Holmes and especially "The Final Solution," I just might go back and re-visit The Sherlockian (see my review here).  In "The Final Solution" Sherlock takes on Professor Moriarty, the evil mastermind who just might be his equal. The final show-down is at Reichenbach Falls. Perhaps you've heard of it?

I now have plans to read all the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels and have already downloaded The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Cheerio mates!

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle
Penguin Group USA
ISBN: 978014312015
Source: review copy, digital edition

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Illinois Railway Museum Used Bookstore

1920s Electric Pullman

I've gotten used to the fact that my mother, who is from Germany and has lived in the States for over 40 years, always manages to run into other Germans. Wherever she is. Seriously. One time we were in a ghost town in the middle of the desert in California near the Nevada border and ran into Germans who were driving around the western US.

For me it's not Germans that I'm always running into, but books. Usually used books. They seem to show up in the most unexpected places. Take, for example, my recent outing to the Illinois Railway Museum (IRM) in Union, IL. The IRM is the largest railway museum in the country and you'd expect them to have a bookstore, or at least a museum gift shop that has some books. Well, they have both a museum gift shop and a bookstore. What I didn't expect them to have is a USED BOOKSTORE.

The used bookstore at the IRM is not near the "official" museum bookstore or gift shop. Those are located next to the depot where you can board and ride the historic train that they're running that day. We took a ride on a 1920s era electric Pullman, pictured above, that ran between Chicago and Milwaukee. The used bookstore is deeper into the museum grounds and set a bit back from the main thoroughfare. It's in a box car that's attached to the Union Pacific engine pictured below (on the far right).

Used bookstore is attached to the Union Pacific engine.
I walked into the bookstore shortly before closing time, so didn't have a lot of time to look around. I've no special knowledge of trains, but I do like them. I grew up two blocks from the Cicero, IL train yard, so whistles, the rumble of diesel engines, and the banging of steel couplings were the background soundtrack to my childhood. My dad was an engineer for the Chicago Railway Company where he designed box car doors and other train components. I'm pretty proud of the fact that he held some patents for various box-car component designs. I now live in a neighborhood that's hemmed in by much-used train tracks to the west and to the south. Getting "stuck" at crossings by commuter and freight trains is a daily occurrence. My record is watching five trains rumble by in one day.

Below are some pictures of the used bookstore. I spoke with Joe, one of the volunteers, a super nice guy who refrained from being photographed. He'd love for more people to know about their operation and offerings (both the museum and the used bookstore).

The used bookstore entrance.

Inside the used bookstore--browsing heaven for the train enthusiast.
I bought a copy of Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express.

An excellent cause. The used bookstore has everything from personal narratives & novels to technical manuals & company histories and more about trains from around the world.

Joe explained that many train related magazines are now coming out in digital editions, so they have had to give away and/or recycle hundreds of pounds of magazines. I grabbed some copies of Rail & Wire (the IRM's magazine), Slim Gauge News (from 1973), and Timber Transfer (Friends of the East Broad Top Railroad in PA).
If you live in the area and are looking for a volunteer opportunity . . . .

Rare books are locked up, but many of the books on their shelves might be priced at only $35 whereas online they'll go for $125. Joe said they're more concerned with finding good homes for the books they have than competitive pricing. If you're looking for a specific book for your train-related book collection, just write to the used bookstore at the main museum address (Illinois Railway Museum, 7000 Olsen Road, Union, IL 60180). It might take them a while to get back to you, but Joe said they do reply to all inquiries. They do not, however, order books for people.

Closed for the day.
If you live in the area, I highly recommend a visit to the IRM. They have a huge selection of trains that's astounding to behold--from old steam engines, to the Nebraska Zephyr, to desiel engines. We spent about five hours there and only saw a fraction of their trains. Several of their trains have been used in period movies such as Babe Ruth and A League of Their Own.

They also have some historic buses and I bought a post card of the bus that I used to take from Cicero to the Ford City Mall. What a find!

Visit the IRM website at

If you're looking for a haunted house, check out their TERROR ON THE RAILROAD every Friday and Saturday night in October through the 29th.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Today is National Coming Out Day!

Since 1988 National Coming Out Day has been celebrated on October 11th in the USA and on October 12th in the UK. It's a day to celebrate coming out of the darkness of the literal or metaphorical closet, and to raise awareness of the LGBT community and Civil Rights.

I thought it would be a good day to share my top five favorite LGBT novels and to encourage those of you who may have never read an LGBT book to pick one up. 

The Well of Loneliness (1928) by Radcyliffe Hall. The title says it all. This is story of a lesbian/transsexual women's struggle to live openly and true to herself. I read this book in graduate school for a concentration in lesbian literature that I developed. It's a painful book to read, but it really gives you a glimpse into the attitudes of the time and the pain experienced by those who were different from what was then being defined as "normal." I know there's a ways to go for full LGBT equality, but this is one of those books that lets you see how far we've come. Wikipedia has an extensive entry about Hall, the book, the time period, the obscenity trials surrounding the book in the UK and US, and the book's lasting impact. Best read with a friend.  Memorable line: "Give us also the right to our existence!"

Sudden Death (1984) by Rita Mae Brown. Before Rita Mae Brown wrote about animals solving mysteries, she wrote about lesbians living life. This was the first LGBT book that I ever read so it holds a special place in my heart even if I don't remember much about it other than that it is set in the world of professional tennis and is supposedly loosely based on Brown's relationship with Martina Navratilova. It is the first place I came across the quote (which is attributed to Ben Franklin), "Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results." Prior to reading it in an actual book, I thought my dad made it up.

Patience and Sarah (1971; originally self-published in 1969 under the title A Place for Us) by Isabel Miller (pen name of Alma Routsong). I read this book around the time I read The Well of Loneliness. If you have any desire to read Hall's novel, read it first and then read Patience and Sarah. Its a historical novel about two women set in early 1800s America. It's a beautiful love story, loosely based on the life of two real women, written with much humor and warmth. Practically every lesbian I've met has read this book and has a fond spot for it. It won the American Library Association Gay Book Award in 1971.

Tipping the Velvet (1998) by Sarah Waters. I love, love, love this book. I love the 19th century and this novel brought the seedy side of Victorian England to life. From the picturesque sea side village of Whitstable to the back alleys and stages of London, this is the story of young Nan and how she loses herself to passion and self-punishment, and eventually finds love and a sense of self. Not for the faint of heart. The BBC adaptation provides a nice visual for the story, but read the book first. "Have ever tasted a Whitstable oyster?"

Scars (2010) by Cheryl Rainfield. This is a bold, truth-filled Young Adult novel about a teenage girl struggling with sexual abuse and self-harm. Another book that's not easy to read, but its an important story for its acknowledgement of the reality of abuse and self-harm and the hope it can provide for those currently living with it and for those well-along the path of healing.

For more LGBT books, check out the Publishing Triangle's list of the 100 Best Gay & Lesbian Novels or visit The Lambda Literary Foundation.

What's your favorite LGBT book or is there one you've been thinking about reading?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

It’s October! Are you thinking about Halloween yet? Gearing up for a little monster book mash? For some readers October is the month when they realize they haven’t read a horror novel in a while. For others it’s the month when they intentionally add horror novels to their reading schedule. Or perhaps you regularly read horror and need a break from all the vampires and zombies in your life? Whatever your relationship with horror novels, if you're in the mood for one, I recommend Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf.

I first heard about this novel months ago when Ann Kingman of Books on the Nightstand podcast strongly recommended it as a great addition to the tradition of literary horror novels. It's been on my TBR list since then, but I finally took action and got on the library waiting list after my friend Noah, a former Borders coworkers, decided to start a book group and this is his first pick.

The Last Werewolf tells the tale of Jake Marlowe, a guy who happens to be the last living werewolf. Werewolves have been hunted to the brink of extinction by WOCOP: World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena.

In 1842 at the age of 34, Marlowe was accidentally bitten by a werewolf while masturbating alongside a stream in Snowdonia. At the opening of the novel, which is set in contemporary times, Marlowe is 200 years old. The lifespan of a werewolf is 400 years, so Marlowe is basically a middle aged guy who’s a bit tired of it all—the monthly transformation, keeping his edge against WOCOP, and killing time. Being a modern day werewolf is tiring: in order to survive, Marlowe’s kills are carefully planned: victims are chosen with care and get-away plans are established well in advance. Marlowe has done some work for the good of humanity, fighting against evil regimes around the world, but now he's experiencing the shock fatigue and exhaustion that's infected western civilization. Or perhaps he's simply transferring his exhaustion and lack of purpose--his existential angst--onto western society. Harley, Marlowe's requisite human side-kick, refers to Marlowe's funk as an "absurd suicidal melodrama" (43).

Now that he's the last of his kind, Marlowe is ready to roll over and let Grainer, the star werewolf hunter, kill him. Forty years ago, Marlowe killed and ate Grainer's father and Grainer wants a spectacular fight at the end, not an easy slaughter, and so he does something that would provoke most people to action (and Marlowe very clearly considers himself human), but it fails to get Marlowe’s fur up. Then Marlowe discovers that the vampires are interested in keeping him alive. Yes, there are vampires in this novel.

While vampires and werewolves are not friends, they usually leave one another alone. Vampires have some rather constipated philosophies about why vampires are better than werewolves and so it’s a bit odd that vampires now want to ensure Marlowe’s survival. 

Add to all of this a sudden, all-consuming reason for Marlowe to want to live and the life-or-death chase is on. There are some nice surprises along the way.

Werewolves live solitary lives controlled by the cycles of the moon. Eating people, killing, and fucking are their main activities. In between they drink a lot of alcohol (only good quality stuff, mind you) and chain smoke (it can’t harm them due to their hyped up healing abilities). And Marlowe is a gentleman: he uses a condom with prostitutes. I'm no prude, but at times I got a little tired of  the sex, drinking, and smoking, but that's Marlowe's world. Need I add that this is not a book for kids? If there's ever a faithful movie adaptation, it will be at least R rated.

The Last Werewolf lacks the scary, creepy, I'm-afraid-to-be-alone-are-the-doors-and-windows-locked elements that I most enjoy in horror novels. In fact, at times it reads more like a thriller, like a serial killer or crime family novel. I also found myself getting annoyed with the narrator around page 42, but shortly after that the book really picked up and I stayed engaged until the end. The last 40 pages were also somewhat hard to take--it started sounding like a TV crime show--but there were some interesting developments at the end. Overall, I enjoyed the book, perhaps not enough to rave about it for a general audience, but enough to recommend it to those who enjoy horror novels.

According to this interview with Glen Duncan, the sequel is already written (and presumably due out in 2012) and there's a third scheduled for 2013. I wasn't surprised to hear that since he left a few strings hanging (the ancient book, something sticking in Marlowe's mind about Madeline in the hotel room, and what's revealed at the end).

If you like your monsters to be literate guys who wax philosophic over good scotch, Marlowe’s your man.

If you like your werewolves to be flesh ripping beasts that fornicate like dogs in heat, Marlowe’s your man.

If you like a world where love (yes, love) and stories still matter, Duncan's latest novel is your book.

The Last Werewolf
Glen Duncan
NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-59508-9
293 pages

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