The Map of Time presents three separate stories set in Victorian England. In the first, Andrew Harrington seeks to travel through time to save Jack thThe Map of Time presents three separate stories set in Victorian England. In the first, Andrew Harrington seeks to travel through time to save Jack the Ripper’s last victim, with whom Andrew was in love despite the differences in their social class. The second centers on Claire Haggerty’s desires to find a world where she belongs; she settles on the year 2000 when England has been overrun by robots. The final section has H.G. Wells determining which universe is real and which is merely a parallel universe destined to end abruptly.
If that seems confusing, you’re not far off. The three stories are tied together loosely by the illusion and reality of time travel and by the presence of Wells.
The ideas behind the novel are promising. The first two sections look at the ethics and paradoxes of time travel, while simultaneously rejecting it.
Whether Wells helps Harrington really save Mary Kelly, thus creating a parallel universe in which she and Harrington can live out their lives together, isn’t as important as the effect of believing in possibility. Likewise, Haggerty’s search for somewhere her 21st-century outlook is at home and her beau’s search for meaning in life doesn’t depend on his true identity or whether Haggerty visits the future. Much like Dorothy, the answers they seek were at home all along. To explain more about the ins and outs of the Harrington and Haggerty plots leads into spoiler territory.
Not that there’s much to be spoiled. The Map of Time doesn’t live up to its promise nor its book-jacket description. The characters are superficial and show no objection to being pushed into various set pieces by their overly vocal creator. Imitating the “dear reader” voice of some Victorian authors, Palma inserts himself as a commentator on action and character. At one point, he tells the reader he’s going to skip over a scene because it would be boring otherwise.
Wells is an integral part of Harrington’s story and pops in and out of Haggerty’s. He receives his own focus in the final section of the book where he, Henry James and Bram Stoker are told a time traveler is about to kill them and claim some of their works as his own. Wells is perhaps the most well-developed character of the novel. Not surprising as Palma has historical details to draw on. But the section feels underdeveloped and tacked on, as if Palma wanted a better hook to draw in readers.
He may not have needed one. The Victorian era is a favorite setting for authors, particularly those who dabble in time travel without jumping into steampunk. Like its cousins, The Map of Time makes sure readers revisit the high points of the time as if moving through a checklist: Jack the Ripper, Joseph Merrick, electricity, social mores. Some of these are relevant to the plot; others, mere waystations before the last page. Wells’ meeting with Merrick is the best nod to the genre tropes, with the conversation having an emotional resonance absent from the rest of the novel.
The main problem with The Map of Time isn’t that it’s a bad novel. Palma’s writing can be engaging, and the pages turn quickly. Readers looking for a great time travel story or Victorian novel or simply a good read, however, will be disappointed. Too often, Palma neglects what could be a good novel in favor of moving quickly to the next section or wrapping up the novel. Glimpses of a novel that could have been devoted to Tom Blunt’s life in the lower classes or one about Wells’ personal life may cause readers to wish they could find a parallel universe to read these (possibly) more rewarding stories....more
When an early morning police raid meant to uncover evidence of financial fraud also uncovers involvement in child pornography, Sir Wilfred Hadda resisWhen an early morning police raid meant to uncover evidence of financial fraud also uncovers involvement in child pornography, Sir Wilfred Hadda resists arrest and ends up in a coma for nine months. He awakens to find a rock-solid case against him and divorce proceedings initiated by his wife. Sir Hadda – Wolf to his friends – spends the next seven years in jail while his ex-wife marries his lawyer and denies Wolf any contact with his daughter.
Wolf meets regularly with psychiatrist Alva Ozigbo. At first, he denies the child pornography charges, but after several sessions, Dr. Ozigbo breaks through to her patient and he claims responsibility. Granted an early release, Wolf returns to his childhood home in Cumbria and begins an investigation into what really happened.
The question of Wolf’s guilt isn’t fully answered until near the end of Reginald Hill’s latest pageturner The Woodcutter. And the answers involve a shadowy government agency, personal betrayals, hidden motives and lots and lots of secrets.
Hill begins the novel with a quote from The Count of Monte Cristo, which should clue readers about the levels of deception from all sides. Three quick scenes follow, each depicting a different time and what appear to be turning points for the nameless characters. The scenes are riveting but quickly forgotten as the main novel picks up speed. Hill returns to the opening later, and clever readers will pick out connections.
Once in prison, the novel focuses solely on the cat-and-mouse game between Wolf and Alva. Wolf provides Alva with written pieces of his backstory until he achieves a breakthrough and ends what Alva sees as self-denial.
Upon Wolf’s release, the novel switches gears. Characters viewed only through his prison writings take their own turn center stage. McLucky, the policeman who guarded Wolf in the hospital, is now a private investigator Wolf hires to look into the crimes. A Russian mobster who fancies Imogen, Wolf’s ex-wife, becomes a tool for Wolf to use. Imogen and her monied family have their own secrets to hide.
The novel changes from a psychological thriller to a hardboiled crime story, with all the high and low points of the genre. Alva discovers she’s sexually attracted to Wolf, despite believing he’s a pedophile. Coincidences make for convenient plot points. The final plot twist delivered by Imogen seems to come out of nowhere and isn’t necessary.
But the overall writing is well done, and Hill takes his time setting up the final unraveling of the mysteries. Every character serves a purpose and moves Wolf closer to not only finding his answers but to revenge.
Hill knows how to create a complicated plot that doesn’t lose the reader’s interest. Even readers who figure out the mystery before the end will want to keep reading to see how all the seemingly disparate pieces fit together and how Wolf and Alva handle the answers they uncover.
The Woodcutter isn’t a book that will change your life or open your eyes to a truth about the human condition. It is, however, an entertaining mystery that you won’t be sorry you spent time with....more
Once upon a time, a little girl and her father wanted to know if they could read aloud for 100 nights in a row. When they reached that milestone, they decided to keep going. Eventually, when the little girl went to college, the nightly reading stopped after 3,218 nights. The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared by Alice Ozma uses those nights of reading as the frame for an episodic memoir that covers life in the Bronzina household from when Ozma is in the third grade to present day. Her father is a elementary school librarian, and his love of literature is evident the name he gave his younger daughter. Ozma begins each chapter with a quote from a book she and her father would have read around the time of the incident that anchors the chapter: The Giver for a chapter about the death and funeral of her beloved beta fish; Charlotte’s Web for a chapter about watching spiders and summer storms on a porch; Dicey’s Song for a chapter about the awkward father-daughter conversations about a growing daughter. A reading list at the end of the book details most of the books the two read during what the referred to as “the streak.” It’s full of classic children’s books that most readers have encountered at one point or another. The episodic nature of the book is, in part, the book’s downfall. Ozma never spends enough time with pieces of her life that, in a different memoir, could serve as a centerpole. Her mother leaves the family, but it doesn’t seem to affect Ozma and her father much other than the two of them trying to figure out what would make an acceptable Thanksgiving dinner. Her older sister pops in and out of the book but doesn’t seem to be part of the family. At times, this isn’t a problem. After all, Ozma is telling the story of her relationship with her father. At others, however, the episodes rush by before their importance in Ozma’s life is clear. The Reading Promise is Ozma’s first published work, and the pacing shows that. You want to stop her as she’s writing and encourage her to put more words on paper, to spend more time with an episode. The scenes are probably vivid in her memory, and her writing is engaging so readers want to spend more time with the scenes. Unfortunately, Ozma is on to the next one far too quickly. One of the stronger points of the book is her writing style. In the beginning chapters, the voice is that of a younger child, capturing who Ozma was at the time. Sometimes, she can come across as precocious, one of the kids you only see in sitcoms, but by the end of the book, it’s clear that Ozma was an intelligent child and, although some of the dialogue may be a fantasized version of how she spoke as a child, it fits with the picture of who the author is. Readers expecting a close discussion of children’s literature and how it affected Ozma may be disappointed. The nightly reading is just a framework for stories about growing up. What does come through is her father’s love of reading and the importance both he and Ozma place on reading to children and making a place for literature in the home. Ozma ends the book with a sudden, almost academic paragraph on the need for a commitment to reading in modern life. It feels out of place; after she had done a decent job in showing the need, she doesn’t need to explain it. ...more
Color. Look around. Note the shades of greens and blues out the window. The yellow and orange threads in a carpet. Now imagine all but one shade gone.Color. Look around. Note the shades of greens and blues out the window. The yellow and orange threads in a carpet. Now imagine all but one shade gone. You can only see one natural color. Everything else comes through to you through artificial paints, as if Ted Turner’s colorization had taken over the rest of the palette. And that’s only if your town can afford to keep the artificial color pumps on.
Welcome to Jasper Fforde’s new novel, Shades of Grey. Since an unexplained incident sometime in the distant past, almost everyone in the world can see only one color. People are ranked according to which color they can see and how much of it they can see. The Greys see no color and are at the bottom of the caste system. Reds are just above them, with higher status and power granted the further along the color spectrum you are. Signs tell us the univision world was once very similar to, or perhaps was, our world: Picasso and Vermeer paintings still exist.
At the start of the novel — or rather, right after the main character tells readers he’s being digested by a tree — Eddie Russet accompanies his father to an outlying village with little synthetic color. As the village prefects explain their looser interpretations of the color laws, readers get tantalizing glimpses of the rules that govern Fforde’s latest world. Great Leapbacks have erased most technology, etiquette must be followed, and spoons are incredibly important to one’s self worth.
All Eddie wants is to earn enough credits to leave the village and earn the hand of his beloved Constance, a member of the highly regarded Oxblood family. A Grey named Jane soon ends his hopes of a normal, unassuming life by introducing him to thoughts of revolution and forcing him to decide what matters most: marrying up and upholding the laws of the community or falling in love and standing up for honor and integrity.
The Univision world has existed for hundreds of years, so characters are familiar with intricacies readers are not. Some parts of the world are very similar to the real world, while others are not. It’s easy to get bogged down in the differences and throw your hands up and walk away. Readers familiar with Fforde’s Thursday Next novels may have a leg up in understanding Shades of Grey. The best approach is to tilt your head slightly to get a different perspective and let Fforde’s deftly drawn characters and well-paced plot pull you along. It’s not necessary to understand all the laws of the world. After all, Eddie is starting to question some of them and even break one or two. Besides, Fforde plans two more books in the series, which may — or may not — explain why swans attack and what causes Mildew ...more
Books captivate readers for a number of reasons. Maybe it’s a character that reminds you of someone you know or someone you want to know. Maybe it’s aBooks captivate readers for a number of reasons. Maybe it’s a character that reminds you of someone you know or someone you want to know. Maybe it’s a setting that you’ve always dreamt of. Maybe the plot engages your attention fully, refusing to let go even as it twists and turns.
If you’re lucky, a book captivates you because of its author’s voice and its author’s awareness of how to build character relationships and how to maintain suspense. Readers of Matt Bondurant’s The Night Swimmer can consider themselves among the lucky.
Bondurant centers his story on an American couple who win a pub in Ireland. Many people might take the cash equivalent of the prize, but Elly and Fred make the decision to leave everything and everyone they know behind. As Fred restores the pub in Baltimore, Elly spends her time swimming in the waters off Cape Clear Island.
Elly has a minor genetic abnormality (an evenly distributed, thin layer of fat) that allows her to spend long amounts of time in cold water. Her communion with the ocean is one of the strong points of Bondurant’s writing, likely because he is a long-distance swimmer himself.
A side note – the locations in The Night Swimmer are real, and images are available on the web if Bondurant’s word paintings make you want more.
Another strong point of the novel is the bond between Elly and Fred. Bondurant doesn’t describe their love in over-the-top prose. He lets his characters’ actions speak for themselves. It’s clear these two love each other, which makes it slightly confusing when events of the novel begin to overtake their relationship.
Elly and Fred begin to feel the power of the Corrigan family which controls most of the commerce and culture of Baltimore and Cape Clear. The Americans are outsiders and Elly’s growing awareness of the undercurrents on Cape Clear make them more of a target. Fred retreats into a novel he’s trying to write and neglects the needs of the bar. Elly retreats into her swimming and getting to know Cape Clear. The two start to drift apart, but Bondurant never fully explains why.
It’s a jarring flaw in the novel. Other plot points go unexplained. For some of them, this works – Elly starts to learn about mysteries on the island and she may not need all the answers. Some of the island’s mysteries though cry out for explanations, at least for the reader.
Highgate, a blind goat farmer who becomes central to the story, may be more than he seems. As may the Fastnet lighthouse, which exerts a strange pull on Elly.
It’s to Bondurant’s credit though that these flaws are minor. The story is told from Elly’s point of view, and Bondurant never once drops the female perspective, a feat not all male authors can pull off. The mood he creates throughout The Night Swimmer pulls a reader in. His descriptions of setting and character are active. Readers experience the setting as Elly does, not as a laundry list of flora and fauna. Even when Elly befriends a visiting birder (who offers his own threat to her marriage), her exposure to the numerous species excites the readers, rather than becoming a mind-numbing list of bird names.
The novel builds exquisitely to a series of climaxes before ending on what may seem an abrupt note. Perhaps that’s an area for improvement in Bondurant’s writing. Or perhaps it’s just a sign of not wanting to find yourself on the last pages of a book....more
For some people, the time after college is a second adolescence. Responsibilities of exams and classes are over, but responsibilities of the real worlFor some people, the time after college is a second adolescence. Responsibilities of exams and classes are over, but responsibilities of the real world haven’t kicked in yet as recent graduates look for a job in their chosen field or continue to struggle to define what they want to do when they grown up.
The latter is the situation facing Esther in Leigh Stein’s The Fallback Plan. Having moved back in with her parents, Esther feels very much in between stages of her life. She drifts for a bit before landing a babysitting/nanny job with family friends. The family’s youngest daughter died six months before the novel opens, and Esther’s job involves entertaining the remaining daughter, May, while her mother works on a mysterious art project in the attic.
Along the way, Esther indulges her previous college and adolescent side by hanging out in playgrounds smoking marijuana with childhood friends.
The book moves quickly, and Stein draws clear characters at crossroads in their lives.
The problem, unfortunately, is that it’s hard for readers to care about characters who aren’t sure whether or not they like themselves. Esther’s inability to move forward as an adult could be an interesting character trait if Esther seemed more invested in moving forward or had strong feelings about it either way. Instead she drifts, a little too willing to accept whatever is thrown at her without being upset or joyful over her circumstances. Esther doesn’t seem to have an opinion of herself and it’s difficult for a reader to care much about her either.
It’s telling that the stories Esther tells May to pass the time are more interesting than Esther’s own story. The original fairy tales center on a young panda girl whose travails mirror Esther’s. When Esther falls for Jack, one of her childhood friends, he shows up in the panda’s story.
How the panda experiences the crush is not as predictable as what happens to Esther and Jack. Also predictable is the relationship between Esther and May’s father.
Yet, despite the predictability, nothing happens. Esther has a safe pseudo-affair with May’s father, but it doesn’t progress to the point of danger. She sleeps with Jack, but the lack of emotional consequences or effect on the plot makes it another “meh” event in Esther’s life. Amy shows clear signs of being dangerously unhinged and Stein lays the groundwork for a big event that would threaten May or Amy that never materializes.
The novel ends as it began. Esther recognizes that her childhood is over, but doesn’t have a firm plan for the future or a firm grasp on who she wants to be. She’s grown closer to her parents and recognized she wants more than meaningless sex and affairs, but the overall impression is that the events of the novel weren’t that important to Esther, which makes them not that important to a reader....more
The title of Joe Hill’s second novel encapsulates the problem facing its main character – Horns. Ignatius “Ig” Perrish wakes up after a hard night ofThe title of Joe Hill’s second novel encapsulates the problem facing its main character – Horns. Ignatius “Ig” Perrish wakes up after a hard night of drinking brought on by the one-year anniversary of his girlfriend’s murder. He may not have his memories of the previous night, but he does have horns. Actual, bony protuberances. A logical trip to the hospital finds the horns aren’t the only unusual thing about Ig.
He has the ability to make people around him disclose their innermost thoughts, sinful fantasies and confessions of past and planned crimes. If he touches someone, he sees their sinful pasts. If he thinks about it, he can make them act on their worst desires.
The first few people Ig listens in on confirm one of his worst fears. Everyone believes he’s guilty of murdering and raping his girlfriend, Merrin. Even the local priest isn’t immune to what Ig suspects is the horns’ Satanic influence. Nor are his parents who just wish Ig would go away. His brother, who hosts a late-night talk show, falls under the horns’ spell and tells Ig who really murdered Merrin. And all of this happens in the first fifth of the book.
In a typical horror novel, Ig would embark on a quest to rid himself of the horns and seek justice. But Hill isn’t a typical horror writer. Instead of rejecting the evil of the horns, Ig embraces it, finding it second nature to encourage people to act out their desires. Ig isn’t a hero in the conventional sense of the word. It could be hard to root for him to succeed - usually a reader cheers for the characters fighting the devil – but traditional good and evil don’t apply here. Hill doesn’t take a black-and-white view of the world in Horns; it’s grey streaked with darks and lights. Perhaps the question underlying the novel’s events is whether evil is necessary.
Where Hill hits his stride is in the extended flashbacks to younger versions of the main characters. The novel becomes a coming-of-age story where teenagers do stupid teenage things that create bonds between them lasting well into adulthood. The allure of cherry bombs (made before child protection laws) sets off a chain of events that introduces Ig to Lee, who becomes his best friend and the third player in the Ig-Merrin relationship. Lee has his own issues to deal with as an adult, and the clichés a lesser author might trot out never come to pass. The characters are complicated and fully realized. Even minor characters enter with a full history. The reader has the impression Hill knows all of his characters down to what brand of toothpaste they use. Hill’s talented so he doesn’t feel the need to put everything he knows about the character down on the page. It’s enough that he knows and uses that knowledge to inform the choices the characters make.
The novel holds more than well-drawn characters. Hill writes exciting action sequences that send the reader along with Ig on his journeys down the Evel Knievel trail. It is all too easy to immerse yourself into the novel – seeing a cherry tree and hearing a trumpet play – and devour the book in one sitting.
The flashbacks can hold more attraction than the present-day pieces, but that may be because they tell the story of before Ig’s life fell apart. As the horns become more important to who Ig is (and snakes begin to follow him), the reader starts to look for signs Ig will find a way out, that good will prevail and innocence will take the day. These things happen … and they don’t. Not all questions are answered by the last page. And the ones that are don’t come with a nicely tied ribbon on top.
It’s inevitable that Horns will be compared with Hill’s first novel, Heart-shaped Box. Whether one is better than the other is a matter of personal taste. The two novels are different enough, with Horns coming off as a little more fantastical and requiring a little more suspension of disbelief. Regardless, Horns is an enjoyable read that leaves you anxious for another book from Hill....more
In 1994, nine English majors met for a night class at Jasper College. What made the night class special was its professor: Richard Aldiss, a convictedIn 1994, nine English majors met for a night class at Jasper College. What made the night class special was its professor: Richard Aldiss, a convicted murderer. The nine students are given the task of discovering the identity of reclusive, renowned author Paul Fallows.
Years later, after the class resulted in Aldiss’ acquittal and the revelation of Fallows’ identity, the students reunite at a funeral. One of their classmates was murdered in an eerie imitation of the crimes of which Aldiss was accused.
Dominance by Will Lavender keeps both timelines in the air smoothly by focusing on Alex Shipley. In 1994, she’s the student responsible for solving the 1994 mysteries. In present day, she’s a Harvard professor. The reputation from her student days lead the police and Jasper officials to ask her to help solve the current crime.
That should be the signal that Dominance is not a piece of literature, that it’s nothing more than a Lifetime movie in book form. How Lavender juggles the two stories, however, makes it a little more than that, requiring a little more from readers expecting a James-Patterson-esque mystery to leave behind on the airplane or forget after reading. The final twist of Dominance makes it a novel readers won’t soon forget.
In 1994, the students don’t know what’s about to happen to them. In the present, they’ve all lived through it and don’t need to discuss it in detail. Lavender cleverly avoids exposition traps by doling out information almost on a need-to-know basis.
For example, the night class introduces the students to a game known as the Procedure. They refer to it in the present day setting as well. The rules of the game or how the students are involved remain unclear for a good while. Lavender explains it at exactly the right time, when readers are just about to give up caring about the game out of frustration. Granted, the game is odd and it’s hard to picture anyone taking it as seriously as its proponents, but, at the same time, it’s popular on college campuses where young adults may be more indulgent. That is, it’s popular on Lavender’s fictional campuses, although it’s not far fetched to see it catching on in reality.
The biggest problem with the game is its dependence on Fallows. Although the author is a central part of the mysteries, Lavender doesn’t do much to establish why he carries such importance in modern literature and why his works would captivate students so.
Aside from Alex and Aldiss (who although innocent of murder seems capable of everything else and more of which he’s accused), many of the characters blend into each other. The grieving widow, herself a former member of the class, appears on scene only to cry and serve as a brief red herring. That’s not a spoiler; it’s evident she’s never really a suspect. Another classmate appears to serve only as a sexual diversion. Alex’s former boyfriend is a little more fleshed out, but not fully enough to prevent some contradictions. Oddly, the minor character who does stand out is Daniel Hayden, one of the students. Hayden dies between 1994 and the current story, but his behavior in 1994 makes him someone Lavender should used as an example for how to create the remaining characters.
These flaws don’t matter all that much. Dominance remains an entertaining and suspenseful read. Lavender builds tension, increasing the stakes as the novel progresses. Readers can’t sit back and wait for the answers to the novel’s central mysteries to be handed to them. As Alex investigates each time’s mystery, every piece of information leads to the next, with clues intertwining across time. Sometimes the characters miss obvious connections, but there’s plenty for the reader to have to work to figure out. Much like Aldiss points his students in the right direction (or occasional wrong direction) and leaves it to them to identify and answer the correct question, Dominance expects its readers to do the same.
Not all answers readers come up with turn out to be correct. And the last pages of Dominance have the potential to cast the previous pages in a new light. A re-read promises a new experience.
Dominance is an above-average summer read. Pages will turn quickly....more
As America expanded beyond its original 13 colonies, almost all new states and territories were added through treaties, purchases or by claiming landAs America expanded beyond its original 13 colonies, almost all new states and territories were added through treaties, purchases or by claiming land the U.S. government felt no one owned. Texans will tell you their state was an independent country before annexation although Mexico refused to acknowledge its independence.
Then there’s Hawaii. The chain of islands, annexed in 1898, was originally a series of island kingdoms before being unified in 1810 under Kamehameha I after a series of battles. Seven kings and one queen ruled the island chain before the monarchy crumbled under an influx of foreigners who invested heavily in the country.
Julia Flynn Siler’s Lost Kingdom details the end of Hawaiian independence in a fact-filled book that falls just short of a must-read.
The story of Hawaii’s downfall is readymade for Hollywood – kings and queens fighting for their people, villainous sugar-cane magnates, midnight coups, secret messages encoded in songs. The facts as Siler lays them out should be a more compelling read than they are. Perhaps Lost Kingdom’s shortcomings are only apparent when judged against other history books, such as those by Erik Larsen. And it may be unfair to judge Siler’s work against Larsen. The two writers have different styles, and a reader’s personal preference may determine which comes out on top.
Siler begins her tale of Hawaii before its last monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani takes the throne. The book explains the Hawaiian acceptance of visiting missionaries and lays the groundwork for what should be a peaceful future.
To the Hawaiians’ detriment, the foreign population brings disease for which the native population has no natural defense. The native population begins to decrease as Europeans and Americans increase their numbers. Marriages between Hawaiians and outsides further dilute the native population.
As children raised by missionaries come of age, economic forces begin to tug at Hawaii. The islands can grow sugar and foreign investors are quick to start building empires and making their fortunes. When the crown needs to borrow money, it is foreign loans that shore up the throne. And with those loans come requests for favors and political power.
Siler portrays an almost inevitable march to Hawaii’s subjugation to outside influence. By 1887, King Kalākaua is forced to sign what becomes known as the Bayonet Constitution. The new constitution moves power from the King to his cabinet and legislature. Foreign resident aliens could now vote as could Hawaiians who met economic and literacy requirements. Asian immigrants, who made up a substantial part of the islands’ population, saw their right to vote taken away.
Lost Kingdom wants to place Lili’uokalani as its central figure, but history dictates other figures take center stage before Lili’uokalani gains the throne. Siler is rightly fascinated by Hawaii’s queen (whose authorship of one of Hawaii’s most famous songs “Aloha Oe” is among her many accomplishments), but that fascination sometimes leads to a less detailed portrayal of other monarchs or the sugar barons. The book is not an objective look at Hawaii’s history; Siler tells the story from Hawaii’s point of view. Claus Spreckels, Lorrin Thurston and other foreigners are clear villains, motivated by profit and not caring about the Hawaiian people. After reading Lost Kingdom, it’s hard to argue otherwise, particularly in the case of Thurston who seemed to take personal pleasure in destroying the monarchy. One suspects another side of the story exists.
Lost Kingdom is a worthwhile read for those interested in Hawaiian history and culture, America’s expansion and how less powerful governments and people can be swept away by an economic tide. It’s not a perfect book and readers truly interested in Hawaii should seek out a more balanced book, but Siler’s story is interesting....more
A young girl disappears in the woods, leaving no real clues where she’s gone or who might have taken her. She told her brother and cousin she was goinA young girl disappears in the woods, leaving no real clues where she’s gone or who might have taken her. She told her brother and cousin she was going to live with the King of Fairies. It couldn’t be true, could it? Except her brother had chased after fairy bells in the woods, too.
Fifteen years later, Lisa is still missing. Her brother, Sam, hasn’t gotten over her disappearance. His girlfriend, Phoebe, has her own suspicions about fairies. When they receive a mysterious call that leads them to Lisa’s Book of Fairies, they reunite with Sam’s cousin, Evie, at a remote cabin. Evie “knows” things, including that Phoebe may be pregnant. An old woman shows up at the door, singing Lisa’s childhood songs, only to stab Evie and run off, stripping off a disguise and revealing she’s a young woman. Phoebe and Sam give chase, but the young woman tells police the couple abducted her. Back at the cabin, there’s no trace Phoebe and Sam stayed there and no sign of Evie.
Once home, Phoebe and Sam discover the Evie they met at the cabin isn’t the real Evie. They find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery of Lisa’s disappearance. Was she taken by the King of the Fairies? Or was a more sinister, all-too-human villain behind her disappearance?
The bones of a good story lie beneath Jennifer McMahon’s Don’t Breathe a Word. What starts off as a young teen’s desire to believe in something magical, to be something more than ordinary pick up a sinister undertone as the plot progresses. As McMahon writes, “What if things happened to you—special, magic things—because you’d been preparing for them? What if by believing you opened a door?”
Chapters flip between Phoebe’s investigation into Lisa’s disappearance and 15 years earlier to Lisa’s attempts to contact the Fairy King. The chapters from Lisa’s point of view are stronger. McMahon does well when writing about the transition to being an adult while wanting to cling to parts of childhood like believing in fairies. Her teen and preteen characters are believable, making mistakes and assumptions that real teens would. The plot in these chapters is a bit muddy at times, but that can be excused by gaps in Lisa’s knowledge of her family’s history.
The Phoebe chapters are more problematic, with some inconsistencies in how characters act and one too many plot twists and reverses. A hint of deus ex machina in the form of a late-introduced character to provide answers doesn’t help.
As those answers come, the end of the novel feels rushed as information is dumped on the reader through a discovered diary. The full scenes McMahon was able to portray of the young Lisa give way to quick flashes and hints of scenes that may have played better if more fully developed. ...more
The Fleming family retreats to a family cottage in the Outer Hebrides following the death of Nick Fleming in 1980s West Germany. Accusations of treasoThe Fleming family retreats to a family cottage in the Outer Hebrides following the death of Nick Fleming in 1980s West Germany. Accusations of treason and a suicide note from the diplomat lead his wife to question how well she knew her husband while her two daughters struggle to define themselves and her young son leaves clues for his “lost” father to find the family. As the Flemings arrive on the island, a tamed bear escapes from his owner and hides out in a sea cave. A strange connection forms between bear and boy as Bella Pollen weaves a sleepy sort of magic in The Summer of the Bear.
The novel moves at a well measured pace: slow but designed to capture readers. Pollen creates a world to spend time in. When she brings the main plot threads together, it’s with a feeling of moving the characters along to whatever waits for them after the last page is turned.
Pollen’s chapters alternate perspectives among the Fleming family. Letty pieces together evidence of Nick’s treason while shutting herself away from her children. Georgia, the older daughter, accompanied her father on a trip to East Berlin and knows something about the secrets he was keeping. Alba, the middle child, uses anger to keep her feelings at bay. Jamie is the special one; his mind doesn’t work the way it should and it takes him a long while to understand his father isn’t lost, but dead.
The characters could be written easily as stereotypes. The two daughters struggle to emerge as fully realized characters, with only Georgia achieving that successfully. Letty and Jamie, however, are very real. Jamie’s mental disabilities – which are never categorized clearly – could have made him too precious, but Pollen grounds his differences in having Jamie just be a child, fighting with his sister and looking for proof that his bear is real.
Jamie and his father were supposed to go to the circus on the day Nick died. Among the attractions was a bear act, and when Jamie sees a truck advertising a performing bear on the family’s trip to the island, he decides the bear will help him find his father.
The bear feels a connection to Jamie as well, and Pollen checks in with the bear in short chapters that may be too anthropomorphic for some readers but can be explained by the bear’s time with humans. Pollen stops short of delivering magic realism, but doesn’t offer explanations for everything either.
The Summer of the Bear has some flaws. The answers to Nick’s treasonous behaviors seem like an afterthought as the novel increases tension about Jamie and the bear. What Nick may or may not have done gives the other characters something else to do. An environmental MacGuffin near the end of the novel provides an excuse for Letty to leave the family cottage and not much else.
But the flaws are minor or, at least, don’t negate the engaging story Pollen tells. The Summer of the Bear is a novel to relish and to mourn when the last page is read. ...more
Any introduction to writing or literature class will include the theory that most (if not all) books follow a pattern of escalating peaks that reach aAny introduction to writing or literature class will include the theory that most (if not all) books follow a pattern of escalating peaks that reach a climax before drifting off into a denouement. In a line graph, the crux of the book, regardless of the genre, would stand above everything else. The pattern of plot denotes a clear beginning, middle and end.
But what if a book chooses to disregard this tried-and-true formula? What if the book chops off the traditional beginning and end? What if the middle the book portrays would be more of a flat line in a traditional book’s graph?
If the book is The Odds by Stewart O’Nan, you’re in luck. And, under close observation, the flat line displays fractal properties of the traditional plot graph. Readers meet Art and Marion Fowler as the couple travels to Niagara Falls. A whole other novel could take place before page 1: The Fowler marriage and finances are already dissolving, with only legal steps remaining before both are wiped out, when we meet them.
The two return to the site of their honeymoon with what remains of their savings in a last-ditch attempt to regain financial solvency at the casinos. The plan is Art’s idea; Marion goes along with it because she doesn’t have a better idea. Art’s other idea is to win back Marion’s heart, to return to the passion of their younger years. Marion just wants the weekend to be over.
Like O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, it’s easy to say not much happens in The Odds. Instead both novels offer a glimpse of a couple of almost ordinary days in the lives of ordinary people.
What other authors might treat as a peak to build tension — say, a bus accident — O’Nan uses to build character. Art wants to comfort Marion, but isn’t sure how it would be received given her constant rejections of intimacy. Marion wonders how the accident will delay their trip.
ONan tells the story from a third-person point of view that shifts perspective between Art and Marion. The transitions in perspective work seamlessly and serve to fill in some of the back story that led the couple to page 1.
While Art saw the divorce as a legal formality, a convenient shelter for whatever assets they might have left, from the beginning she’d taken the idea seriously, weighing her options and responsibilities—plumbing, finally, her heart—trying, unsuccessfully, to keep the ghost of Wendy Daigle out of the equation. How much easier it would be if Wendy Daigle were dead …. She’d lost her spot on the page and read the same sentence again, sighed and kneaded the bunched muscles of her neck.
“Want a neck rub?” Art offered.
“I’m just tired of sitting.” She shifted and went back to her book, ignoring him again.
These little rebuffs, he would never get used to them. Years ago he’d come to accept that no matter how saintly he was from then on, like a murderer, he would always be wrong, damned by his own hand, yet he was always surprised and hurt when she turned him down.
Art and Marion are masters of masking their reactions. Inside, they may question what the other is doing, imagine unsaid conversations and untaken actions. On the surface they remain calm, even though, and sometimes because, that calmness frustrates the other.
The Odds ends when the Fowlers’ weekend at the Falls does. What happens to them after the casino is left to the reader decide. O’Nan’s approach may not be the traditional peak-and-valley storytelling, but his quieter approach is worth spending time with....more
The Hillstrand brothers, for those not familiar with Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch, own and operate a crab fishing boat out of Alaska. The TV shThe Hillstrand brothers, for those not familiar with Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch, own and operate a crab fishing boat out of Alaska. The TV show follows them and other crab crews over the season. Time Bandit is the brothers’ story of how they became fisherman, how it affects their lives off the boat and the large amounts of alcohol, nicotine and sugar that are consumed during the crab season.
The book opens outside the crab season with Johnathan fishing for salmon alone. His boat runs into trouble and without engines and a radio he is at the mercy of the sea. His story serves as a framing device for the rest of the book. While on the boat, Johnathan “remembers” events from his childhood and days as a fisherman. Interspersed with Johnathan’s chapters are chapters from Andy, who is at his horse ranch in Indiana in the off season. Andy also looks back at his fishing life as well as offering some background on Alaskan, national and international laws and politics that govern the community. A few chapters from a third-person point-of-view describe what happens at the fishing camp when Johnathan doesn’t return and can’t be raised on the radio.
At times, the interwoven stories are hard to follow. It’s difficult to tell one brother from the other before you get to a specific detail that says “I’m on the boat” or “I’m on the farm.” It’s best to think of the book, not as a linear story interrupted by flashbacks, but as a long evening or two in one of the bars the crab crews frequent with Johnathan and Andy telling you stories. Some are shorter than you want; others are longer. And just like a bar conversation, tangents pop up that derail what seemed like a really good story that you never get back to.
Also, just like a bar conversation, the brothers talk about their friends and employees as if you also knew them. For someone who’s not that familiar with the TV series, descriptions of crabbers other than the Hillstrands are light. Readers get to know these men in broad strokes through snippets of stories involving near injury or arguments with the captains.
The book is at its best when the brothers take the time to flesh out the narrative and explain their jobs thoroughly. Johnathan describes a crab run that frustrates the men at first before the pots starts filling up. On its way to a processing center to drop off their $200,000 catch, the boat runs into pack ice. The story is occasionally interrupted by a tangent or the salmon story, but it’s told in full and keeps you turning the pages. Andy’s piece on the rationalization of crab fishing, which involves a lengthy discussion of Derby Day and Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, would seem to be a dry discussion of evolving legislation. Instead, it becomes one of the more interesting pieces of the book as he describes how the law changed how he works and the concerns he and his colleagues have over the future of the industry. Both men describe these pieces with passion; readers safe in their armchairs come away with an understanding of what life on the Bering Sea is like.
Unfortunately, the overall narrative is often choppy. If you’re having a bar conversation and are just as drunk as the guy telling tales, you’re okay with the tangents and distractions. If you’re the designated driver, you have trouble following the conversation and want to ask a lot of follow-up questions. Andy’s explanation of rationalization, although well written for the most part, has a confusing framing. It begins with Andy walking to the Indiana barn to check out his horses; his thoughts about change lead to the rationalization discussion. At the end of it, however, as he describes how the old ways are disappearing, he is suddenly on a plan with a pilot announcing an imminent landing in Alaska. This disconnect is typical of the book. A careful reader will want to look back at previous pages, thinking he’s lost the thread of the book. No thread has been lost; a new one was picked up without warning.
For fans of Deadliest Catch, Time Bandit may be a fast read with the confusion absent thanks to familiarity with the authors and setting. For someone not as familiar, the book is best read in small chunks with the ability to skim over the shorter tangents and confusing bits to reach the longer stories. ...more
For many Americans, the time between the American Revolution and the Civil War is a blur. General U.S. history classes in school paid the period littlFor many Americans, the time between the American Revolution and the Civil War is a blur. General U.S. history classes in school paid the period little mind except brief mentions of westward expansion and the presidents between Washington and Lincoln.
The Whiskey Rebels takes a closer look at this time, focusing on 1789-1791. The story follows two main characters. Captain Ethan Saunders left the Army of the Potomac in disgrace and, in 1791, finds himself caught up in intrigue swirling around his former fiance, Alexander Hamilton and the Bank of the United States. Joan Maycott and her husband leave Philadelphia for the wilderness around Pittsburgh in 1789 and become heavily involved in distilling whiskey.
Liss does an excellent job putting the reader in the time and locales. Readers appreciate the access to historical figures like Hamilton. Liss paints a vivid picture of everyday life for the wealthy, the would-be wealthy, the poor and the desperate.
Chapters alternate between Maycott and Saunders. It's a common enough device, but hits some rough patches here. Saunders' story takes place during the latter half of 1791, while Maycott's begins 3 years earlier. As their stories involve some of the same characters, it's difficult at times to keep track of what a supporting character has and hasn't done yet. At the same time, Maycott's struggle to establish a life in the west is often more interesting than Saunders' daily activities.
There's a reason for that. Saunders and Maycott eventually meet in 1791, but to keep the chapter sequence going, it may seem that Saunders is killing time until the other character shows up. His story is told on an almost daily basis, while weeks or months go by between Maycott's chapters. The Saunders sequences, however, could not be combined into a long expository meeting between him and Maycott as much of what he does explains to the reader the intricacies of bank speculation at the end of the 18th century. It's necessary, but readers may find themselves preferring one of the two plot lines more than the other until they come together.
Saunders and Maycott find themselves on opposing sides of the financial and political future of the country, although Maycott is the only one who knows that until the last few chapters of the novel. Until this point, the reader has been rooting for each character to succeed in his or her private missions. Then it feel necessary to choose a side between two people the reader has come to care about. And Maycott doesn't seem at all like the woman we met in the early pages. The signs and reason for her changing personality are clear in the book, but the positions she and Saunders stand for require a choice between them.
A quick perusal of Wikipedia entries on Hamilton, Maria Reynolds, Whiskey Rebellion and William Duer can tell you how history worked itself out without the intervention of the fictional characters. Liss doesn't create an alternate history by changing the outcomes, but presents an alternate catalyst that ties together some of history's disparate threads. By the end of the novel, the reader comes away with a better sense of why Hamilton mattered in the early government. ...more