Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian

If you're afraid to fly and/or have a flight coming up, I don't recommend reading this book anytime around your trip.

The Night Strangers is the story of Chip Linton, an airline pilot from Pennsylvania who flies regional trips. During take-off his plane flies into a flock of geese that take out his engines. He attempts to land his plane in Lake Champlain and things are looking fairly good until a wave from the wake of a boat hits one of the wings causing the plane to jack-knife through the water, killing 39 of the 70 passengers on board. He's cleared of any wrong doing or lapses in judgement at the subsequent trial, but he is now known as the un-Sully Sullenberger, the pilot who did not successfully land his plane in a body of water and get all passengers out safely.

Chip's wife Emily decides to move the family away so that Chip can recover from his traumatic experience and PTSD symptoms in peace and quite. They find an old Victorian on a hill in a remote corner of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. They're embraced by an overly friendly group of herbalists who take great interest in their ten year old twin girls, Hallie and Garnet. Chip focuses on fixing up the house and discovers a door in the basement that has been sealed shut with 39 bolts. What's behind the door? Why 39 bolts?

Chip becomes obsessed with the door. He hears voices, he sees things . . .  or is it his PTSD? The herbalists in town become obsessed with the twins. Emily becomes more and more concerned about Chip. Overall, The Night Strangers is a good haunted house, ghost, and witch story until the end. Bohjalian does a great job of slowly building and then unfolding this story and even if some of the characters are a little flat, I still enjoyed the reading. The ending was just so disappointing--it's a cheesy, Hollywood-like ending that seems like a cop-out after all the care he took to create the build-up.

Readers who enjoy literary fiction and some suspense might enjoy this novel, but I'm not so sure that it would be a good fit for those who regularly read horror. Please correct me if I'm wrong. I've seen this novel on several best of 2011 lists and it would probably have made it on mine if it weren't for the ending.

Bohjalian shared the research that he did on plane crashes and how to survive them at the first Books on the Nightstand retreat which you can listen to here. I couldn't help but think about this talk from May and the details from his novel during my recent regional flight from Chicago to Hartford. I'm not afraid to fly, but some of the information from his talk and images from the novel sure stuck with me. I certainly took more notice of the exists and will keep my fingers crossed that the geese keep away from my plane for many flights to come.

The Night Strangers
Chris Bohjalian
Crown, October 2011
ISBN-13: 978-0-307-39499-6
400 pages
Source: library copy

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Passage by Justin Cronin

Trade paperback cover (US)
This book is one big delicious tease. If you're looking for a long book to curl up with this fall/winter, this baby weighs in at 775 pages and just might do the trick if you're looking for an epic novel of struggle and survival.

Yes, there are vampire-like 'humans,' but they are viscous and violent, not studs in the mood for love.

The book is broken into 11 sections, 74 chapters, and a postscript. The first two sections tell the story of Agent Wolgast, a little girl named Amy, and a top secret military experiment that is showing signs of strain. Together these two sections make up the first 246 pages of the book and could stand as a novel by themselves.

I really enjoyed the characters in these early sections and was at first disappointed to find that new characters took over the third section. I eventually got into the new characters as well, but I didn't become as emotionally attached to any of them as I had to Wolgast and Amy. I've been thinking about my reaction and can see how the various and ever-changing circumstances of the characters impacted me emotionally as a reader.

In these first two sections, Wolgast and Amy are in their own world for the most part. Although they are vulnerable, they are, in some ways safer. It's physically safer for them and emotionally safer for the reader. It's their normalcy in isolation, their existence in a world that we understand, and a known sense of suspense (Will the vampires get them or not?) that helps the reader bond with them.

Hardcover (US)
With each subsequent section, more characters are introduced, the geographic terrain covered expands, and the action speeds up. With more and more characters being further away from places of safety and taking the reader into a more foreign existence, there are more chances for people to die. It makes it harder to become emotionally attached to others in this world. And so perhaps the reading experience of not feeling as emotionally attached to later characters actually mimics what it's like to live in such a world. Does that make sense? Or am I making an excuse for later characters that aren't, perhaps, as well-written?

There's eventually a lot of back-and-forth between various groups of characters in different locations. In a less engaging or less well-written novel such back-and-forth can annoy me and seem like disorganization or sloppy writing. I've talked with a few people who've read the novel and at least one thought it broke down and turned into a mess at the half-way point. But I found myself happily turning the page into each new section and wondering if I'd find old characters or new characters or some ginormous new twist in the plot. I think some readers might miss the safety of a straightforward narrative and so perhaps it boils down to personal taste and/or what one is in the mood for at the time.

UK cover
This book is part of a proposed trilogy and I had that in mind while I read; I wondered which characters, places, or ideas will be pick up in subsequent books. There are tantalizing clues dropped and statements made about someone or something that made me want to know more NOW. Characters may say things, but Cronin also uses newspaper clippings, signs, journal entries, and proceedings from conferences about North American that take place in the future to provide information and to wet the reader's appetite for more.

I think of this book as more along the lines of Stephen King's The Stand rather than as a vampire novel per se. Granted, I read The Stand over twenty-five years ago, but I remember the feeling that it gave me and it's that feeling that came to mind while reading The Passage. I appreciate the way in which Cronin incorporated Bram Stoker's Dracula in a meaningful way, beyond the obligatory nod.

Book two in this trilogy, The Twelve, is coming out sometime in 2012. Oh, and of course there's a movie in the works. That's rumored to come out in 2013.

The Passage
Justin Cronin
NY: Ballantine Books, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-345-50497-5
Source: bought it

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Book Barn, Niantic, CT

Coastal Connecticut is on my mind these days as we're getting ready for another trip. Not sure yet what bookstores I'll be able to visit, but I have a handy list made up and a new GPS unit, so I'm ready to roll.

During our last trip I was thrilled to visit the Book Barn in Niantic. This is probably the most unique bookstore, in terms of layout, that I've ever had the pleasure of browsing. We didn't have as much time to browse as I would have liked (really, is there ever enough time for books?) and this is one of those shops that requires either a very long visit, or frequent shorter visits. If time isn't a factor, long frequent visits would be ideal.

The Book Barn is more than just a barn, it's a collection of buildings, sheds, telephone booths, and even an outhouse, all of which are filled with books. It's all wonderfully landscaped and there's seating scattered about. And if that's not enough for you, there's two other locations in town.

At the main location the various structures on the property are home to different subject matter. Cats wander around the property and some liked to be petted whereas others had their own agenda which didn't include me. The folks who worked there were friendly but not overly chatty (which is perfect when one is faced with a time constraint).

With only one hour at my disposal and over 350,000 books to explore, I figured I could rush around to each building and run through it, or I could target a few sections and browse. History and literary fiction were on my mind that night. I spent most of my time in the military history section, which is in the main building. It is by far the best military history section that I've ever come across in a general used bookstore.

Let me tell you about one of the books that I bought on that visit:
New York:  W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., 1969

I'd never heard of Mr. Bosworth (1901-1986) who served 38 years in the Navy, but I was immediately captivated by his relaxed, conversational prose style. Apparently he'd written about twenty books in his day: half non-fiction on various topics and the other half fiction in the western genre.

In My Love Affair with the Navy, Bosworth sets out to answer the question, Just what is the United States Navy? His attempt is not technical, he says, like weighty tomes that cover ships, submarines, and jets. The Navy "is and always has been people" (15) and this book is loaded with all sorts of funny and heroic stories from people who have served.

Early in the book Boswell explains how Naval service begins with a recruiter and shares this story:
Not long ago, a Navy chief and a Marine Corps sergeant were invited to address a high school senior class. The globe-and-anchor man spoke first, and turned out to be quite an orator. He made a very dramatic talk about the traditions and honors of the Marines, and ended on a high note by thumping the table and saying, "Remember this! The Marine Corps builds men!"
The Navy CPO rose, and studied his audience for a full minute without opening his mouth. Finally, in a perfectly flat tone, he said: "If you aren't already a man, the Navy doesn't want you." Then he sat down.
This spiked the Marine Corps' guns--a thing that has seldom happened--and the Navy got all the lads who were eligible and could pass the physical examination (36-37).
Sixth printing, 1983 edition

I'm a globe-and-anchor woman, but got a kick out of this story nonetheless. It's a taste of Bosworth's style for you. It reminds me of Major H.G. Duncan's series of Marine Corps Sea-Stories [Green Side Out, Brown Side Out, Run in Circles, Scream and Shout] that I purchased through mail order, inhaled, and then passed around to the Marines in my unit in the mid 80s.

Another reason I bought the book is because within its pages I found a letter, a Dear Abby column, and an ad for exorcisms. The letter is addressed to George from a man named John Bauernschmidt who had, from the contents of the letter, served with Boswell from 1950-53 and sent this copy of My Love Affair to George. I love finding clippings, notes, and photos in used books, but this was the first time I found an actual letter. I appreciate bookstores that don't clear out such bookworm detritus. I'm doing a bit of research on the letter, so perhaps more on that in the future. 

Back to the Book Barn: We arrived at twilight and many of my pictures didn't turn out that great, but let me leave you with some so you get a bit of a taste for the place--

The entrance.


 The white tent had mass market mystery & thrillers. I believe the red building in the back housed literary fiction.

Guard or greeter, depending on your perspective.

This kitty wanted some petting.
New arrivals, mystery & thrillers.

Of course I checked out their Willa Cather offerings.

Care to guess what subject is shelved in the outhouse?

Nope, not politics . . . but travel!

This kitty just wasn't that into me.
Subject appropriate decor in the military history secion.
Napoleon Bonaparte keeps an eye on things.

Alas, my time was up and I did not make it into this section.
If you have a favorite bookstore on the coast of CT, I'd love to hear about it!

Visit the Book Barn:
The Book Barn
41 West Main St.
Niantic, CT

Friday, November 11, 2011

Free Dana Stabenow eBooks

Alaskan writer Dana Stabenow is one of my favorite mystery writers. I don't know if it was the first snow shower of the season that we had here in the Chicago area the other day or what, but I've been thinking it was high time I got back on track with reading her Kate Schugak series. Then, while catching up with my email earlier this week, I saw an announcement from Stabenow that her first books, The Star Svendotter Trilogy, are now in ebook format. I followed the link to Stabenow's website and noticed that the first Star Svendotter book, Second Star, is available as a free download. This series is science fiction and although I don't read much science fiction, I downloaded it and will give it a shot sometime this fall/winter.

The first books in both of Stabenow's mystery series are also available as free eBook downloads and it's this news that I most wanted to share with you all. Here's the link to the books:

Original cover art
Stabenow's first mystery series and the books for which she is perhaps best known, are the Kate Shugak Mysteries. Book #1 in this series is A Cold Day for Murder which won the 1993 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. If you'd like an overview, watch this fun 3:56 minute video of Stabenow giving an overview of the series up through book #16, Whisper to the Blood. The next book in the series, #19 Restless in the Grave, is coming out in February 2012. Kate, the title character, is an Aleut who lives in the interior of Alaska within a fictitious national park. She's a self-sufficient tough cookie who used to work as an investigator for the Anchorage D.A.What I enjoy about this series is the glimpse it gives of life in Alaska and some of the political, racial, and environmental issues residents struggle with.

The second mystery series is The Liam Campbell Mysteries. Liam is an Alaskan State Trooper and the action for this series is set in Southwest Alaska in Bristol Bay. Liam's love interest is a woman bush pilot and there's lots of interesting flying info in these books. It's been a long time since I read this series and I think I may have just read the first two.

I don't remember who first recommended Stabenow to me or if I stumbled upon her myself, but I do remember that I started reading her shortly after I discovered Nevada Barr and was looking for something similar. Outdoorsy mysteries is how I classify both Barr and Stabenow, as well as another Alaska-based writer, Sue Henry. Stabenow was born & raised in Alaska on a fish tender (hence, the amazing on-board scenes in some of her novels). She still makes her home in Alaska and from reading her newsletter for a few years and now more recently following her on Facebook, she seems to come down to the lower 48 fairly regularly on book tour and for conferences. I had the pleasure of meeting her once about a half dozen years ago at Centuries and Sleuths bookstore in Forest Park, IL. She's also active on Twitter.

If you haven't read her yet, now's your chance to snag three freebies. If you don't read eBooks or have already blown your 2011 budget for new books, check with your local library. I've noticed mass market copies of her books in many libraries.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Fever of the Bone by Val McDermid

UK Cover

Fever of the Bone is the 6th entry in Val McDermid's Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. It's the first one of the series that I'm reading. Usually I make myself start at the beginning of a series, but this time around I just jumped in with no regrets. It'll actually be enjoyable to read the earlier books in the series to see where everyone started.

There are many wonderful characters in the novel. Some I presumed were series characters and others not, so as characters came on stage, I didn’t always know who the regulars were. This made things interesting, because knowing it was part of a series forced me to pay a bit more attention to everyone.

I picked up Fever in the Bone at Borders during the liquidation sale. I’d been planning on reading more Val McDermind and Fever first came to my attention after it won a 2010 Lambda Literary Award for best lesbian mystery. But don't let that scare you off, dear reader. Val McDermid is mainstream all the way. It's just that, apparently, fictional lesbian characters are more mainstream in the UK than the US.

Fever in the Bone is a serial killer novel, one of those that opens with the discovery of a body. Another body is found with similar patterns and the race is on to catch the killer before he/she strikes again. McDermid doesn’t go into graphic detail and the actual killings all happen off stage, but be warned that genital mutilation is involved. Just those two words, when combined, seem graphic enough without needing anymore detail to seem too graphic for some. I know it freaks me out.

In the beginning Chief Inspector Patterson and his 'bagman' Alvin Ambrose are at the scene of a body dump—a fourteen year old girl’s body is found. She’d just been reported missing, too. At the same time, Chief Inspector Carol Jordan has been saddled with a new boss who wants to cut costs and one of the first expenses he slashes is the profiling expertise of Tony Hill, Jordan’s landlord/friend/potential-lover-in-denial, and professional colleague. The new boss also wants to end Jordan’s team’s work on cold cases, which he thinks takes away from serving the public in the here and now. Soon, Jordan’s team is investigating the murder of a fourteen year old boy. And then the murder of a second boy. Tony Hill was called in as a profiler by Patterson and even though he’s officially out of the loop with Jordan’s team, he makes connections between the killings.

That’s the main plot. There’s also a subplot that features a cold case that one of Jordan’s underlings is spearheading and then a second subplot that revolves around Tony Hill’s father. Hill never knew his father, but the man died wealthy and left his estate to his son. I suppose you could say there’s a third subplot which is the emotional/sexual tension between Hill and Jordan.

McDermid does a smooth job of weaving all these plots together. I became attached to not only Hill and Jordan, but to members of Jordan’s team (Paula, Kevin, Stacey, and Sam) as well as to Alvin Ambrose. And Patterson, too, because you gotta love a boss that "doesn't transfer the pressure from above for results to his team" (28).

Another good thing about this book is the language. McDermid is from Scottland and lives in Northern England, so you get lots of fabulous words and sayings that are English, but still foreign to US readers. They add flavor that would be lost in translation if translation were necessary.

Here’s a taste:
  • On the knocker
  • You berk
  • I know nowt
  • pillocks
  • tipple
  • spazoid
  • slag
  • poxy
  • Sussed him
  • agrass
  • boffins
  • nonces
  • and there are lots of lads, lasses, mates, and blokes. And twats.
I especially enjoyed how the characters who are lesbian are presented as just normal people trying to live their lives. McDermid doesn't coddle the audience and makes no veiled argument that "lesbians are people, too." They just are. I once listened to a book podcast (sadly, I don't remember the source or I'd provide the link, but it was possibly The Guardian Books Podcast) where it was mentioned that the UK is more accepting than the US of gay & lesbian writers and characters. Off the top of my head, the gay or lesbian characters that I’ve recently stumbled upon in mainstream novels have all been by non-US writers. I’m thinking of Louise Penny (Canada), Emma Donoghue (Canada by way of Ireland), and Sarah Waters (England). Patricia Cornwell is the only mainstream US writer that I know of who regularly includes gay and lesbian characters. What do you think?

Here's a list of the Tony Hill novels in chronological order:
  1. The Mermaids Singing (1995)
  2. The Wire in the Blood (1997)
  3. The Last Temptation (2002)
  4. The Torment of Others (2004)
  5. Beneath the Bleeding (2007)
  6. Fever of the Bone (2009)
  7. US cover
  8. The Retribution (2011)
Overall, this was an absolutely fulfilling mystery. I liked that it revolved around a social networking site, the fictitious RigMarole, and the detectives use good old “coppering” (questioning, looking, thinking) skills along with high tech computer techniques, psychological profiling, and DNA/medical forensics. The characters don't suffer at the hands of the plot, and the plot is familiar yet has enough twists to make things feel fresh.

Fever of the Bone
Val McDermid
Harper, 2009
ISBN 978-0-06-198648-2
Format: Quality paperback
Pages: 500

Source: bought it at Borders :'(

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

At the End of the Road by Grant Jerkins

Fabulous suspense, coming of age novel with a creepy, dark core.

At the End of the Road is Grant Jerkins's second novel and there is nothing of the sophomore slump about it. Set in rural Georgia on the cusp of the coming suburban sprawl that's ready to explode out of Atlanta, At the End of the Road is the story of ten year old Kyle and how radically his life changes one day in 1976 after he causes a car accident and then doesn't help or get help for the injured driver. When Kyle returns to the scene of the accident, there's no trace of the driver or the car, which had rolled on its side.

A series of events unfold and Kyle's secrets build and turn into lies. He eventually starts to believe his lies, to some extent, and then they start to take a physical and deeply emotional toll on him and on his little sister Grace. At one point I started to wonder if Kyle wasn't right in the head, but then I recalled what it's like to be a ten year old with a big problem, one that you've never had before and know adults would freak out about and then who knows what will happen to you. You'd be beyond in trouble. And it is 1976. I'm not sure how well this novel would work set in 2011, in an America that is much more sophisticated about crime, technology, and communication. It would be doable, but it would certainly be a different novel.

Kyle lives on Eden Road. You can read this novel as just a good, well-written suspense story, or as an origin story for a life of drugs and alcohol addiction, or even, yes, as a retelling on the story of the Garden of Eden.

I was ten years old in 1976 and even though I grew up in an urban environment, I could relate to Kyle in many ways. I remember the popularity of Wonder Woman, shopping at Zayre, and the dangers of playing with matches and Drano. His childhood is pretty standard: siblings who either ignore him or become his best buddy, parents who aren't really paying attention to their kids because they're wrapped up in their own pain or routine, the casual violence of children running free, neighborhood bullies, and mean neighbors who construct believable social facades for the adults around them.

Except that in Kyle's neighborhood there's someone who is beyond mean.

I really enjoyed Grant Jerkins first novel, A Very Simple Crime, which came out last year [see review here]. I was still a bookseller back then and regularly hand-sold copies of that book to mystery readers who were looking for something new. Most of them came back asking if I knew when Jenkins' next book would be out. Alas, the bookstore where I worked is no-more, but I hope those customers find At the End of the Road at their "new" bookstore or library because it's a really good read. It's been a long time since I gave a book a 5-star rating on Goodreads, but this one earned it for its smooth writing and understated storytelling.

If you're looking for something different, something that reads like a combination of Mark Twain, Stephen King, and a dash of Patricia Cornwell, At the End of the Road might be up your alley.

At the End of the Road
Grant Jerkins
Berkley Prime Crime
ISBN: 978-0-425-24334-3
Genre: Suspense, mystery
Source: review copy
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