"That was why I come. Not to find a friend, but to finally, and forever, lose one."
The downside of being an avid reader is that you can go through a g...more"That was why I come. Not to find a friend, but to finally, and forever, lose one."
The downside of being an avid reader is that you can go through a great deal of books without really connecting to one. It's not that you're jaded, just that at a certain point it takes more to really impress you. There are, after all, only so many stories a person can tell, so plots become cliched, characters become familiar. But every once in a while a voice comes along that makes you sit up and pay attention. A voice that takes familiar notions and makes them feel fresh--alive. It sends a shiver down your spine when it happens. That is exactly what happened to me when I picked up Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues--right from the first page, when she wrote "we lay exhausted in the flat, sheets nailed over the windows. The sunrise so fierce it seeped through the gaps, dropped like cloth on our skin. Couple hours before, we was playing in some back-alley studio, trying to cut a record. A grim little room, more like a closet of ghosts than any joint for music, the cracked heaters lisping steam, empty bottles rolling all over the warped floor."
If I had to describe Half-Blood Blues very quickly I'd say that it's like Cabaret crossed with Amadeus with a dash of Atonement, but that wouldn't exactly do it justice. The plot follows the Hot-Time Swingers: jazz musicians who were on the brink of greatness until World War II broke out and shattered their lives forever. First we have Sid Griffiths, our narrator, whose passion for music fills every pore on his body (on his first experience hearing jazz in a speakeasy: "I was in love. Pure and simple. This place, with its stink of sweat and medicine and perfume; these folks, all gussied up never mind the weather--this, this was life to me."). His passion leads him and his childhood friend Chip away from Baltimore and all the way to Germany, where there's a great deal of excitement about the burgeoning jazz scene. They have to go a little underground once the Nazis come to power, but leaving would be impossible to Sid. Especially after they hook up with Hieronymous "Hiero" Falk, a young prodigy who both inspires and infuriates Sid with his natural talent. Sid advocates for the kid but can't help but undermine him in increasingly less subtle ways, acting as something of a Salieri to Hiero's Amadeus. "I admit it," Sid notes. "He got genius in spades. Cut him in half, he still worth three of me, It ain't fair. It ain't fair that I struggle and struggle to sound just second-rate, and the damn kid just wake up, spit through his horn, and it sing like nightingales. It ain't fair. Gifts is divided so damn unevenly." They eventually escape to Paris with the help of the haunting jazz singer Delilah, and while this should have been their saving grace, it ends up being their downfall.
But this is only half of the story. The other half takes place in 1992, when Sid and Chip are invited back to Berlin to attend the premier of a documentary honoring the memory of Hiero, who was arrested by the Gestapo after the Nazis occupied France, and never seen again (this is no spoiler, by the way. It happens in the first chapter, and the narrative goes back and forth between WWII and 1992 to flesh out the details). The journey to Berlin stirs intense feelings of pain and guilt in Sid, but the truth is that these emotions have never been unfamiliar to him in the decades since Hiero vanished. Sid may be the narrator, but it is Hiero who drives the plot, whose spectral presence haunts every page.
It's a story of passion, jealousy, and betrayal, and while these elements feel familiar (and at times predictable), it is impossible not to fall under Edugyan's spell. Her writing is beautiful, and the way she weaves all of the plot elements together belies the incredible craftsmanship it must have taken to make it all feel so organic. Sid is an incredibly contradictory character; he says " I guess folk just ain't built to be faithful to nothing, not even to pain. Not even when it their own," but the way he has lived his life shows that he has never been able to forget the hurts inflicted on him by Hiero and Delilah, let alone the pain he caused them. Sid has lived with this ache but he is incapable of confronting it directly. I don't think it is unfair to say that when he travels back to Berlin he is hoping to finally find some form of release from his memories. So despite these contradictions Sid never feels false; on the contrary, the fact that he is at odds with himself is the very thing that brings him to vibrant life. Edugyan even pulls off one of my most common gripes when she briefly introduces Louis Armstrong as a character. Now, I generally roll my eyes when an author inserts a real person into a historical novel, but that's because most writers do it in the most clumsy, contrived manner possible. Not so with Edugyan. Armstrong's place in the story feels natural, organic. She doesn't just put him there for kicks--she makes him an integral force in the plot.
I hadn't so thoroughly enjoyed a novel this much since I read The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. last summer. Falling under a book's spell is a thrilling experience, and I sincerely hope that you enjoy Half-Blood Blues as much as I did. (less)
Everybody's day starts off on the wrong foot when Maura gets the shock of her life as an anonymous body she is about to autopsy turns out to be very m...moreEverybody's day starts off on the wrong foot when Maura gets the shock of her life as an anonymous body she is about to autopsy turns out to be very much alive. Things get worse after the Jane Doe is rushed to the hospital, only to take pregnant-to-bursting Jane Rizzoli and several other people hostage. While Jane struggles to defuse the situation and stay alive, Maura must team up with FBI agent Gabriel Dean to find out who this mysterious woman is--and what deadly situation drove her to this desperate moment.
Just like in Body Double, Gerritsen plays the pregnancy-in-peril card, but this time it feels less forced and the stakes are higher. It's no great secret to the reader what Jane Doe's story is, since we have access to flashbacks and some narration from her, but Gerritsen makes her fear and determination palpable enough for you to feel invested in her as well as our regular protagonists.
One of Gerritsen's strengths is that she is exceptionally good at writing strong women, and Vanish is a sterling example of this talent at work. In a male-dominated genre, it really is a breath of fresh air. I cannot state that enough. Women in mystery-thrillers are all too often undermined in favor of their male counterparts--most often by making them sleep with every hardboiled man they run into. Gerritsen is guilty of this at times, too (think of the awkward love triangle between Rizzoli, Catherine Cordell, and Thomas Moore in The Surgeon; or the way Rizzoli ended up in bed with Gabriel Dean in The Apprentice), but for the most part she is able to use these incidents to deepen her characters as realistic, flawed human beings who face real consequences for their actions. The only character on the same level is probably Kinsey Millhone, of Sue Grafton's alphabet series.
Vanish stands out in this series as a compelling read that also celebrates the strong women driving the plot forward.
For more Rizzoli & Isles, check out my blog post comparing the book series and the TV series. (less)
Ned Brummel, a history professor living in Maine with his partner of 12 years, is sent on a trip down memory lane when he receives word that an old fr...moreNed Brummel, a history professor living in Maine with his partner of 12 years, is sent on a trip down memory lane when he receives word that an old friend is dying. While Ned travels to Chicago to be by his friend's bedside we are taken through his life story. Ned's profession is not an accident, as he will prove to be an excellent guide through a tumultuous time period.
Born in 1950, Ned is an accidental witness to a wildly active period in gay history. He comes of age at the same time that the Stonewall riots occur, spends a tour in Vietnam, navigates the minefield of the AIDS crisis, witnesses the era of Don't Ask Don't Tell, and settles into the modern age of It Gets Better. It's like a primer on gay history for the last sixty years, which has proven to be a fascinating time of hardship and strife, but also of progress and change. Any gay man wanting to know what it was like to live as a gay man in the latter half of the 20th century would do well to pick up this novel. But this isn't a mere history lesson, so don't be daunted. Ned's life brushes with historical events in a manner similar to Forrest Gump, without so much of the cloying. One of my big pet peeves is when an author tries so desperately hard to contrive a way for his or her characters to be present at every significant event during a certain time period. For the most part, Ford makes it seem natural. It helps that some of the period details are merely hinted at. Ned sees a brassy singer performing in a bathhouse and speculates that she's got a big future. The lady in question is never named, but it seems clear that he means Bette Midler. These moments are fun. There are, however, some that don't work. Like when Ned and his friend Jack remark that Gloria Vanderbuilt's six-year old son Anderson Cooper is clearly gay. That's a touch too prescient (and a bit of an eye-roll).
Like I said, I don't want to get too caught up in the historical angle and scare you off. The personal story driving Ned's narrative doesn't deserve short shrift. It's a story of friendship, love, coming of age, and finding your own place in the world. It begins with Ned and Jack, neighbors born just one day apart. They are sure they will be best friends for life. In adolescence they realize they are both gay and begin experimenting, deepening their connection. All seems to be going well until they go to college and meet Andy, a seemingly heterosexual roommate that both Jack and Ned can't resist. Lust and resentment bloom, and the three men spend the next thirty years falling into and out of each other's lives. Hard times, good times, relationships, break-ups, swinging singles. Illness. Death. My god, it's like a gay version of Beaches.*
Is it a perfect novel? No. It has flaws. But it's a sweet story and well-told. It deserves to be read and experienced.
For more Great LGBT Book Recommendations, please visit the LGBT Books page on my blog. (less)
Dexter's Dark Passenger has been an integral part of him for as long as he can remember. It's the source of his devilish urges but it also acts as som...moreDexter's Dark Passenger has been an integral part of him for as long as he can remember. It's the source of his devilish urges but it also acts as something of a guide. It helps him recognize evil when he encounters it. It feeds him clues to help him unravel mysteries. It keeps him safe. Dexter has always assumed that the Dark Passenger was more of a figurative term for a psychotic urge that gripped him when he witnessed the brutal murder of his mother as a toddler. It has never occurred to him that there could be more to the story.
All that changes when Dexter reports to a crime scene of a double homicide where two female students were burned and beheaded, their heads replaced with ceramic bullheads. Something about this situation alarms his Dark Passenger. Terrifies it, actually. To the point where it skedaddles, leaving Dexter despondent and alone and confused. Not to mention the target of a mysterious cult that would like to kill him.
Navigating the world without his Dark Passenger isn't easy, and to top it all off Dex's family life is causing him great stress as well. Rita is busily planning their wedding. Her kids, Astor and Cody, have revealed to Dexter that they have Dark Passengers of their own, which means he has to take them on as pupils to teach them the Harry Code. All while avoiding the cult members that want to kill him.
Let's not dance around it: attempting to explain Dexter's Dark Passenger was a mistake. It works fine as a philosophic construct, or at least as a mysterious, undefined concept in the Dexterverse. Explaining it was always going to be a tough sell, and using demonic possession by ancient evil spirits like Molloch was a particularly groan-inducing way to do it. It's just silly. Thankfully, future installments to date omit all references to evil spirits, which means we can pretty much pretend this never happened.
Astor and Cody requiring training is an interesting concept as presented here. When I first read this book I was very intrigued as to where it was going to take the story. Well, I have the benefit of experience now, and the road ahead is pretty bumpy. Basically, we're going to start getting saddled with a lot of stories where the kids get kidnapped to bring us into the final showdown. And it just gets repetitive very fast. You've been warned.
Lindsay remains a wickedly clever writer, but unfortunately Dexter in the Dark is where the book series jumped the shark. He's been trying to bring back the magic of the first two books ever since, with varying degrees of success. I'd say it's worth hanging in there (clearly, I have). I wouldn't blame you if you threw in the towel, but there are some twisted little set-ups ahead that you might miss out on.
Maura returns from a business trip in Paris to find that her home is a crime scene and everyone acting like they saw a ghost the second she walked in...moreMaura returns from a business trip in Paris to find that her home is a crime scene and everyone acting like they saw a ghost the second she walked in the door. Turns out there's a body in Maura's driveway. A body that looks exactly like Maura.
During the course of the investigation, Maura learns that she had a twin sister who had been digging into their past in order to find Maura. Finding her sister's killer may just put Maura in the crosshairs herself. Meanwhile, Rizzoli is eight months pregnant with FBI Agent Gabriel Dean's baby and trying to reconcile her traditional status as a hard-headed loner with her new life as a wife and mother-to-be. It doesn't help when she and Maura uncover a nation-wide baby-smuggling racket that doesn't exactly keep the mothers alive when they're done with them. Could the very pregnant Rizzoli be putting herself in danger, too?
Maura has always been an introspective character (almost painfully so), so it's nice to see her off on a plotline that gives her cause to gaze at her own navel so fiercely. Discovering that her mother is a serious criminal as well as a mental case is something that she will have to struggle to come to terms with over the next few books, and it carries much more weight as a burden than the failed marriage that haunted her up to this point.
As for Jane, well, her plotline is half good. I love the conflict inherent to her pregnancy situation. As I said, she's trying to reconcile her commitment to her job and her hardheadedness about letting anyone into her life with the reality of her situation. It's a genuine conflict and Gerritsen handles it very well as a character-redefining moment. It's what I like about the book series compared to the TV show: actual growth over time.
Where this one goes a little off the rails for me is that it gets too convenient when the baby smuggling comes up. Maura had already found herself in the crosshairs as she investigated her past, so I guess Gerritsen felt like the stakes needed to be raised for Jane as well. She ultimately makes a great point about the fierceness of maternal instincts, but to me it's a plotpoint that feels a little ham-handed. The baby-in-potential danger theme will be handled much more organically in the next installment.
For more Rizzoli & Isles, check out my blog post comparing the book series and the TV series.
“There's not some finite amount of pain inside us. Our bodies and minds just keep manufacturing more of it."
Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to re-use t...more“There's not some finite amount of pain inside us. Our bodies and minds just keep manufacturing more of it."
Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to re-use the intro to my review of Tom Perrotta's last novel, The Abstinence Teacher. Trust me, it still applies:
"If you're picking up a Tom Perrotta novel there are a few things you can be sure to expect. First and foremost is Perrotta's signature wit - fiercely intelligent, unsparing, and laugh-out-loud funny, the kind of dead-on satire that most writers can only aspire to. Secondly, a cast of disaffected characters, usually adults in a state of arrested development. These emotional time bombs propel the plot along with the help of feature number three: a moral quandary to act as a catalyst for their unraveling. Election had its unethical campaign practices, Little Children the double whammy of adultery and how to react to the town's newest resident (a convicted pedophile), and The Abstinence Teacher tackles religious fanaticism in small town America"
Well, The Leftovers has the largest catalyst for unraveling of them all: the Rapture. Or maybe it wasn't the Rapture. No one knows for sure. All they do know is that a sizable percentage of the population up and disappeared into thin air one day. What exactly happened that day is the subject of wild, often violent debate. Better to call it the Sudden Departure instead and start trying to put the pieces of your life (and society) back together again.
The center of Perrotta's novel is the Garvey clan: Laurie, who leaves her family to join the Guilty Remnant, a cult whose members mutely wander the streets of Mapleton; Kevin, the town's new mayor, trying to instill a sense of hope in his community despite his confusion and guilt at the break-up of his own family; Tom, who ran away from home to follow a prophet; and Jill, a troubled teenager who witnessed her best friend's disappearance. The narrative bounces between them and a few other characters like Nora Durst, who is the only remaining member of her family--struggling to deal with the loss and guilt over a terrible secret. The characters are compelling, if typical for a Perrotta novel. The men are mostly emotionally stunted and immature. The women are mostly depressed and unsatisfied with their lot in life. These are the kind of people who know the right things to do and honestly believe that they want to do them--even as they choose to make the wrong decisions.
And here's the thing about The Leftovers: it works. It does. If anyone has an excuse to be depressed or emotionally immature, it's people who have been left behind by a mass disappearance. And there are moments of The Leftovers that are profoundly shocking. But for the first time the Perrotta schtick feels ... old. It seems grossly unfair to say that I would like to see something a little new from Perrotta next time out, considering the man just wrote a novel about the Rapture (kinda) and all, but well, there we are. I said it. His early work (Bad Haircut, for example) was really darned good without such heavily thematic overtones. And even though he's really, really good at writing characters that just can't seem to grow up (for the men) or get happy (the women), I'd like to see him do something different. It's the Jhumpa Lahiri factor--everything is exceptionally good but begins to feel entirely familiar all too soon. Bear in mind that I was able to recycle the intro to my review of Perrotta's last novel.
Do I recommend The Leftovers? Yeah. Sure. But I confess I'm concerned about what it portends for the future of Perrotta's novels. It will be interesting to see what he does next. Will the trend continue, or will he break new ground?