Thursday, July 31, 2014

This is the Water by Yannick Murphy

Smart writing without being self-reflexively clever and excellent tension building.
This book piqued my interest because it revolves around a girls swim team. One of my nieces is a swimmer and I am fascinated by the amount of work my sister put into her daughter's high school team. Although my sister never struggled with another parent to stuff her daughter's body into a race suit (they had official team suits), there were 5am practices to get to, appropriate foods to fret over, timing duty, and all-day meets.

This is the Water is one of the most creative and suspenseful mystery/thrillers that I've read. For starters there's the writing style and structure. It's written in the second person perspective and hangs on a structure of paragraphs that often begin with "This is." This is the water. This is the facility. This is Chris. "This is you, Annie, mother of two swim team girls, Sofia and Alex, wife of Thomas" and "This is the killer, our killer, at the meet watching Kim."

At first this structure annoyed me. It seemed like it slowed things down, was too staccato. During my first two reading sessions I had doubts about finishing the book and then, suddenly, it was lodged in my brain. I couldn't stop thinking about the book when I wasn't reading it and when I was reading it the style & structure carried me swiftly along like the hooks of a long poem or song.

Here's a sample from early on:
"This is your brother with the gun in his mouth. This is your brother forming a cauliflower head on the carpet with his blood. This is his wife, hearing the shot downstairs in his office set up with sound mixers and stereos and computers. This is your brother's teenage son, hearing the shot too, colliding with his mother as both of them try to run down the stairs together, barely fitting that way, abreast in the stairwell as they run. This is the mother using all of her force to hold her teenage son back from opening up the door. This the teenage son calling out for his father and banging on the closed door. This is the father answering with just the sound of his blood as it pours out of him" (70-71).
It was this scene that made me realize I was tightly gripping the book. It made me both teary eyed and excited to read more.

Short chapters also help moved things along so beware if you're reading before bed, you might stay up too late. Publisher's Weekly says the novel is, “Obscenely suspenseful. . . . In Murphy’s hands, the structure becomes almost hypnotic–and when the story hits full speed in the final quarter, the suspense becomes almost excruciating.” So true. Go figure, an honest book blurb.

Yannick Murphy
The setting is rural New England and the characters are primarily middle aged parents in less than satisfying marriages if not outright unhappy unions. Annie, in the beginning, is in an obsessive state over her brother's suicide. A serial killer in Denver is caught and that triggers the chain of events in This is the Water.

These two things, suicide and murder, are what eventually lead to the climax which highlights one of the themes of the novel, which is choosing life. Not just being alive, but living. Not just wondering and worrying about things, but taking action. Murphy subtly weaves life/death imagery throughout the story. Nothing is extraneous.

As a New England newbie, I appreciate Murphy's descriptions of New England, particularly how you
can see right into people's houses at night. New Englanders, at least those of the small town variety, aren't big on curtains or other window treatments. Don't people feel vulnerable? Is this some kind of Puritan hold-over, that people want other people to see that they are not doing anything against God behind closed doors? But I digress.

In this novel it's not what people are doing behind closed doors that creeps you out, it's that people can and can't see from the outside in or inside out.

There were also some humorous bits and timely commentary. In one scene after listing all the healthy things the swim parents feed their children, Annie says,
"We do not talk of the bag of peanut M&M's we buy to get us through the long day of working at a swim meet. We will not talk of the Diet Coke we drink, perfectly timed to be drunk after our coffee and before the lunch hour, but never in front of the children, least they see how we drink soda, and we never let them drink it themselves unless it's soda water flavored with natural juice high in some kind of element or vitamin they wouldn't normally get in their daily diet and packaged in a can whose design wipes out any image of an industrial facility spewing smoke, spinning the dials of the electric meter, and hiring immigrants at low wages. Instead the can design screams healthy, whole, natural, good for you, flowers, fruit orchards, and sunshine. As if the cans themselves were just plucked from trees" (133-134).
And how about this for timely, what with all the recent to read or not to read YA talk:
"You should be thinking about your girls instead. Sofia's been reading too many YA books that are poorly written. You want to go through your own books and find one that's a classic, one you know she'd like, but lately you haven't had the time or the energy, the wherewithal to get up from your chair to do it" (172). 
That's Annie thinking and she's been reading Anna Karenina. You can't help wondering how the ending of that novel will be reflected in this one.

There are some brilliant sentences, too: "You feel warmth coming off Paul as if he were pavement on a hot day." Not only is this a nice sentence, it speaks volumes about what is lacking in Annie's life, the warmth of human connection.

There was a scene or two where I doubted something would really shake down that way, but it was a weak thought immediately replaced with wondering what was possibly going to do next.

I highly recommend this novel if you're into mystery/thrillers or interested in experimental writing. It's one of my favorite reads of the year.

This is the Water
Yannick Murphy
Harper Perennial: July 29, 2014
Source: review copy via TLC Book Tours
For more stops on the blog tour click here

FTC disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. I was not required to write a positive review. Since I usually only finish books I enjoy or am stimulated by for whatever reason and usually only blog about books I've finished, most of my reviews are about books I've enjoyed and therefore tend to be on the positive side. Life is too short to read books one doesn't enjoy or learn something from. And life is certainly too short to waste time blogging about such books.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Killer Angels Read-along Wrap-up Post: July 3, 1863

The Killer Angels Read-along

Even though I knew how things were going to turn out for the battling armies, Shaara does a brilliant job of creating tension in this final section.

The primary tension is the portrayal of what General Longstreet, General Lee's second in command, went through in trying to change Lee's mind without insulting his commander and then the anguish of following Lee's suicidal order to attack. Heart wrenching. Longstreet understood that old tactics wouldn't be successful with new weapons. And I just wanted to shake General Lee. What was he thinking? Why couldn't he see what Longstreet understood? But that is the benefit of sitting on one's butt reading history--usually you know how everything turns out and the price of decisions being made.

As the Marine Corps Reading List blurb says of this book, "The author's ability to convey the thoughts of men in war as well as their confusion--the so-called "fog of battle"--is outstanding."

James Longstreet" by E. & H. T. Anthony (publisher) - SMU Digital Collection
One thing that I didn't anticipate before reading this novel was my desire to learn more about the lives and careers of the men who are highlighted in this story. Longstreet, with his dedication, understanding, and tears, is the guy who captured my imagination in this last section.

I'm so glad to have finally read this classic and was pleasantly surprised by its readability and passion.

Before I read any more about the Civil War, I want to watch the movie Gettysburg, which was based on this novel, and then go visit Gettysburg National Park in Pennsylvania, which is only about five hours away from where I live.

So, fellow readers, have any of you read The Killer Angels or visited Gettysburg? Your thoughts and comments are always appreciated!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Bone Seeker by M.J. McGrath

I used to shy away from reading a book in a series when I hadn't read the previous releases, but I've found that sometimes with a series an author is finding her footing in the first or second book and by the third or fourth things really take off.

That's how I felt about Louise Penny's excellent Chief Inspector Gamache series,  which keeps getting better and better, but was initially hard for me to get into. On the other hand, a series like Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta seems to have started out strong and then floundered (yet I still faithfully read it).

But as a general rule, I think if a series makes it beyond two or three entries it is usually a good bet to try, so when the publicist asked if I was interested in reading The Bone Seeker, the third entry in the Edie Kiglatuk series, I said yes because I was intrigued by the Arctic setting.
From the publisher:
Summer in the High Arctic. When young Inuit Martha Salliaq goes missing from her settlement, her teacher, ex Polar Bear Hunter Edie Kiglatuk enlists her police friend Derek Palliser to help search for the girl. But once a body is discovered floating in a polluted lake on the site of a decommissioned Radar Station, Edie’s worst fears are realized.
As the investigation into Martha’s murder begins, the Inuit community – and Martha’s devastated family – are convinced the culprits lie within the encampment of soldiers stationed nearby. Before long Sergeant Palliser finds evidence linking two of the men with the dead girl. But Edie and local lawyer Sonia Gutierrez remain unconvinced. Why are the military quite so willing to cooperate with the investigation? What has Edie’s boyfriend Chip Muloon, a simple academic researcher, got to hide? And why has the lake where Martha’s body was found been suddenly cordoned off?
A gripping, atmospheric thriller set in the Arctic’s long white nights, in The Bone Seeker the very personal murder of a young girl will explode a decades-long tale of the very darkest betrayal.
As a fan of Dana Stabenow, this seemed like it would be right up my alley and I was right. The Bone Seeker is an engaging and surprising story about a part of the world most people don't get to visit and even fewer understand.

The cover is a stunner, isn't it? The contrasting colors and design are just breath-taking in real life. (I know that sounds overly dramatic, but when I opened the package I actually said "wow" and stood there admiring the cover for a bit.) The dust jacket has that slightly grippy feel to it that Louise Penny's recent dust jackets also have. I know there's a name for it, but I forget. And, by they way, the title is not what you think, but it is brilliant.

The girl mentioned above is murdered in a horrific manner, but there's no detailed description of the murder or the postmortem. And there's also not a lot of gore or gratuitous violence throughout the story, which I appreciate. Don't get me wrong, I like it when the protagonist of a mystery goes through physical and emotional challenges and gets pushed around and worked over. That does happen in this story, but it was refreshing to read a mystery without excessive brutality or detailed descriptions of pain and psychological torture.

The setting was also unique (to me anyway). The isolated landscape with its harsh conditions shapes both the action of the story and the characters.
"She [Edie] knew it was the orderly types who often found the Arctic the hardest to adjust to because they were often the ones for whom the feelings of fear was the hardest to bear. It was impossible to be in the Arctic without the daily experiences of fear. Inuit like Edit took it for granted. Fear was the shade that could block out the sun but it was also the canopy under which you could shelter. You lived in its presence because you couldn't survive without it. Flight, fight. Fear."
This is a well written story and I wouldn't call the action fast-paced, but it never dragged for me. I actually had a few moments where I forgot I was reading and was just wrapped up in the story. There was only one moment when I was confused and thought there was a typo regarding a pronoun and that was because there's a boy named Willa. I've come across women named Edie before, but a boy named Willa? Perhaps it's just because I'm a Willa Cather fan that I got hung-up.

I did have a glimmer of knowing who the murderer was early on, but the book kept me guessing nonetheless. I highly recommend The Bone Seeker to amateur sleuth lovers and readers who like Dana Stabenow, Nevada Barr or Sue Henry for the big country setting, environmental themes, and confident outdoorsy woman sleuth.

Chronological order of the Edie Kiglatuk Mystery Series:
  1. White Heat 2011
  2. The Boy in the Snow 2013
  3. The Bone Seeker 2014
M.J. McGrath
The Bone Seeker
Viking: July 25, 2014
Source & FTC disclaimer: review copy provided by the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. Since I usually only finish books I enjoy or am stimulated by and usually only blog about books I've finished, most of my reviews are about books I've enjoyed and therefore tend to be on the positive side. Life is too short to read books one doesn't enjoy or learn something from. And life is certainly too short to waste time blogging about such books.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Killer Angels Read-along Check-in #3: Day 2, July 2, 1863

The Killer Angels Read-along

In this section I continue to be intrigued by some of the reasons given for why the war is being waged and why some men chose to fight.

The Southerners "called themselves Americans, but they were transplanted Englishmen" (158).

I am fascinated by the idea that the war was fought not because of slavery, but over the resulting class structure that the system maintained. The South was thought by some (many?) to be replicating the aristocracy of Europe. As one foreign observer thinks to himself in this novel, "They haven't left Europe. They've merely transplanted it. And that's what the war is about" (165).

Robert E. Lee, Lieutenant of Engineers, U. S. Army 1838, by William Edward West (1788-1857).
In Robert E. Lee: An Album by Emory M. Thomas. New York: WW. Norton & Company, 1999]

As for why some of the individual men fought, I was most surprised by General Lee. He was a graduate of West Point (1829) and a career US Army soldier (32 years in service) who didn't want the war and didn't approve of slavery, yet chose to fight for the Confederacy because his people were from Virginia. Lee, at least according to this novel, didn't think the ideas or land was worth the war, but he couldn't fight against his own kin. However, he does end up fighting against old friends. As Longstreet says and Lee agrees, "They're never quite the enemy, those boys in blue" (191).

Robert E. Lee in 1863
[Unattributed - Heritage Auction Archives]

Some of the battle scene descriptions completely captiviated me, particularly the bayonet charge that Chamberlain's troops made to defend Little Round Top. After reading this section, I read more about that action, including this informative article by James R. Brann that explains how Chamberlain didn't win this skirmish by himself, of course, and how he contributed to his own legend in the post-war years. Once again the enlisted men, (like Sergeant Andrew Tozier) who create the circumstances for which officers take credit, are, for the most part, ignored.

Talk about class issues.

All snarkiness aside, as a writer myself it is interesting to see how Shaara uses historic figures and the historic record in a way that intensify and streamlines his story.

What stands out for you in this section of the novel?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

My First Guest Post

Hi Everyone!  I recently had the pleasure of writing my very first guest post for another blogger. I hope you'll check it out over at Tif Talks Books.

Tif recently moved and while she was busy taking care of business she asked other book bloggers to write posts about books that moved them in one way or another. I wrote about books on the move--vacation reading and re-reading.

While you're there I hope you treat yourself and take some time to browse around Tif's blog. She's one of my favorite book bloggers and a huge inspiration to me.

Thanks for the opportunity, Tif!

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Killer Angels Read-along check-in #2: July 1, 1863

What struck me in this section is the amount of music mentioned--the music playing during the marches and battle, the soldier's talk of music, and particularly the conversation about the bugle calls of Dan Butterfield. I didn't know that Taps originated during the Civil War.

Do kids still grow up learning the lyrics to When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again and Dixie? It was part of my education. I also recall learning about the importance of bugle calls and drum corps in earlier armies, but all of that was brought to life seeing it represented in a novel of the experience of a battle as it is being waged. You can listen to some of the songs and bugle calls on YouTube.


I felt compelled to learn a bit more about Dan Butterfield's experimentation with bugle calls and his writing of Taps. A quick search reveals that there have been disagreements over the origin and initial use of Taps. However, Jari Villanueva, a 23 year veteran of the US Air Force Band in Washington, DC and the foremost historian of military bugle calls, wrote a book about Taps. You can read an excerpt of his findings on his website.

When I finish reading The Killer Angles, in addition to watching the movie Gettysburg (1993, based on this book) I may have to finally watch Ken Burn's documentary on The Civil War (1990). I caught bits and pieces when it originally aired and remember music being a big part of that series.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Killer Angels Read-along check-in #1: June 29, 1863

Killer Angels Read-Along
The Killer Angels Read-Along
Are you reading The Killer Angels?

Yes--How's it going?
No--Why not?!

I read the first section as planned, up to the end of Monday, June 29, 1863. Where you able to stop at the end of the first section or did you keep reading? It was hard for me to stop after that first section.  At first I was going to keep reading, but then I thought it might be good to take a few days to ponder what I'd just read, to really think about what these characters are going through. I cannot comprehend what it was like to take up arms against citizens of one's own country, particularly when some on the other side are old friends.

Did you like that the characters were introduced at the front of the novel, before the action begins? Usually I groan upon seeing a list at the beginning of a novel and anticipate a confusing character laden mess to follow, but I found that reading those short bios created some tension and anticipation for what's to come.

I also like the way Shaara presents the main ideological reasons for the war for the North (through Chamberlain's thoughts) and the South (through conversations of various characters). I already have a soft spot for Chamberlain.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain [source]
What are your thoughts on this first section?

Friday, July 4, 2014

Born on the 4th of July by Ron Kovic

Happy Independence Day, fellow Americans!

Happy Birthday, Ron Kovic!

Kovic's memoir has been on my mind to read since I saw Oliver Stone's 1989 movie adaptation of his story staring Tom Cruise.

Earlier this year I picked up a 1977 mass market edition by Pocket Books for a buck. In 2005 a new edition was published by Akashic Books with a new introduction by Kovic.

Born on the 4th of July is Kovic's story of growing up in a stable middle class Catholic family and a tightknit neighborhood where the little boys band together to play baseball and war games. He wanted to join the Marines since he was a little boy and saw John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima (great movie). He graduates high school, heads off to boot camp, during his second tour of duty in Vietnam gets shot and paralyzed from the chest down, experiences horrific conditions at the VA hospital, eventually comes home, gives college a try, becomes an anti-war activist.

In the 2005 introduction to the new edition Kovic writes,
I wrote Born on the Fourth of July in the fall of 1974 in one month, three weeks and two days. It was like an explosion, a dam bursting, everything flowed beautifully, just kept pouring out, almost effortlessly, passionately, desperately. I worked with an intensity and fury as if it was my last will and testament, and in many ways I felt it was.  [source]
The content is outstanding and raw which makes this book a solid read, and one I highly recommend, but the execution, both in writing style and organization, is lacking and will annoy some readers. It has the feel of an early draft and not a finished piece of writing.

There is no closure in this book and Kovic come across as an angry victim. In one scene he writes about his power coming back, but it is a power to make other people angry, which doesn't seem helpful in the long run. One of the things that bothers me about this book is that Kovic never claims responsibility for any of his actions or decisions. It is the memoir of an angry young man, one who has good reason for that anger, but the lack of closure leaves the reader spinning.

This book was written out of Kovic's anger and pain--of feeling duped by the dream of being a war hero and the pain of living life as a paralyzed young man. His story reflects the country's pain and growing confusion of fighting a war that no one ended up wanting. With this in mind, the book is a brilliant time capsule of the period.

Here's the trailer from Stone's movie:

Kovic has continued to work as an anti-war and peace activist. The Wikipedia page on Kovic mentions that he is now writing a sequel to Born on the 4th of July. His other books include Around the World in Eight Days (1984) and A Dangerous Country (1987).

Ron Kovic
Born on the 4th of July
Pocket Books, 1977
Source: own it
Rating: 5/5 stars for content, 2/5 stars for execution
Recommend to those interested in the Vietnam War, military memoir, activism, American life of the 1950s-1970s

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

That's a Wrap: So Long June!

Does blogging about books make time speed up?
I'm beginning to suspect that it does. We're at the halfway mark, people, halfway through 2014! Wowzers.

Literary Blog Hop Winners
Thanks to everyone who entered the Literary Blog Hop earlier this month! Carol N Wong won the copy of One of Ours and Kristia won The Killer Angels. According to the Book Depository your books are on the way. Happy Reading!

Books Read in June (Links go to my review):
I read nothing but really good books this month. None of them was even close to being just "meh."

  • The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel. This crime novel was a huge seller in Germany when it first came out. I've recently heard that it is used as a teaching tool at some police academies. Based on a true crime, this fictionalized account is pieced together from interviews, memories, and hearsay. I can see why it is used as a teaching tool. 
  • Blossoms & Bayonets: A Story of Love, Faith, and Courage under Japanese Occupation by Hi-Dong Chai and Jana McBurney-Lin. This book came to me by way of TLC Book Tours. I love the opportunity that tours provide to expose myself to books I may not find on my own. This book is classified as fiction, but gets most of its material from coauthor Hi-Dong Chai's experience as a young boy in Korea just before, during, and after WWII. I'd recommend this one to middle schoolers on up. Its a powerful historical narrative.
  • A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka. I can't believe I haven't blogged about this fantastic novel yet. I suppose its one of those books that I need to let percolate for a while. The tale of a Polish family from just before WWII to shortly after the end of the Cold War.
  • From Here to Paris - Get Laid off. Buy a Barge in France. Take it to Paris by Chris Hammond. I read this one for France Book Tours and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is a light read but one that causes you to reflect on your life and check-in with your own life intentions.
  • Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. This book had been on my TBR list for years and I finally listened to it on audio. The narrator, Shelly Frasier, is a perfect fit for this book. Her dry delivery makes both the heavy parts and the humor shine.
Currently Reading:
  • Born on the 4th of July by Ron Kovic. I saw the Tom Cruise movie based on this memoir when it first came out and have had it in the back of my mind to read the book ever since. Painful, but good.
  • The Zen of Social Media Marketing by Shama Hyder Kabani. Listing to this on audio and I don't particularly like the narrator so it's taking forever to get through. The content lends itself to
Coming Up in July:

The Killer Angels Read-a-thon starts this week!

Here's the plan for Week 1:
  • Read through the section "June 29" (about 46 pages)
  • Come back to chat at the end of the week. Discussion post will be up on July 7th.

I'd also like to read The Quick by Lauren Owen asap.
Here's the link to Goodreads if you haven't heard about this one yet. Sounds like a good old Gothic spine-tingler, doesn't it?

What was your favorite read of June? Looking forward to any new releases this summer or fall?
Thanks for stopping by!

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