Monday, May 30, 2011

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin — 304 pgs

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter: A Novel (P.S.)In the 1970s Larry Ott, also known as “Scary Larry” to the residents of his small Mississippi town, was accused of raping and murdering a local girl after taking her out on a date and returning home without her. Because no evidence or body was ever found to convict him, Larry was never charged with the murder but has had to live with the stigma all these years. Larry, a working class white man, is somewhat asocial and was considered strange even before the disappearance of the girl, and is now ostracized by the community. Now, many years later, another local girl has gone missing and Larry is the prime suspect. The small town is also home to the African-American constable, Silas Jones, who was once a boyhood friend of Scary Larry. Silas fled the small town after high school to play college ball but eventually returned to Mississippi, not having been able to forget the years and memories he collected there. Now estranged, the two men will come together over the unlikely circumstances surrounding the missing girl’s whereabouts, and the past between Silas and Larry will be uncovered for the whole community to witness. Both tense and perfectly paced, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a masterpiece of suspense that sheds its secrets in onion-like layers as the story weaves between the present and the past.

One of the things I liked best about this story was how atmospheric and evocative it was. I could feel the damp heat of the small Mississippi town and hear the insects buzzing around the characters’ ears as I read, and I felt that Franklin did a lot to pull his readers into the story with his descriptive prowess. As the narrative moved forward, I began to see the town’s insolvency and corrosion as physical forces in the story, and from the first, it was these things that made indelible marks upon my mind as I read and experienced the tale that Franklin so expertly tells. He also used a technique that I found very effective, which was that his sentence style was abbreviated, giving the story a conversational and convivial feeling despite the dark undercurrents of the narrative.

As Silas Jones, nicknamed “32,” goes about his business as constable, there was an undercurrent to his observations of the town. He and the others in his community are living in a dead-end town, and they all know it. Silas does his best to keep his memories about Larry out of his mind, but as things begin to escalate and Larry is put into danger, Silas begins to display some strange regard for this man and his property. Since not much is revealed about the history between the two at this point in the book, I began to speculate over what had gone on between them and why Silas went out of his way to ignore Larry yet still harbored curiosity and concern for him. As things progressed, I began to see that the altruistic Silas was not who I thought he was, and that the secrets he kept had more to do with protecting his image and status than being malicious.

Though he was a little strange and asocial, for most of the book I felt sorry for Larry because, for one reason or another, he was always the underdog and was constantly being slighted, maltreated and teased. It was heartbreaking to consider the realities of Larry’s existence, and what made it worse was that he was so trusting and na├»ve. Larry had a tough row to hoe because when he was growing up he was very lonely and was ignored by the other white children around him. This was why he eventually made a bid for Silas’ friendship. Larry also had to deal with a father who was cold and unresponsive and who could be very cruel to the boy. When Larry’s father uses his ire to separate Silas and Larry, the boys, once friends, become combatants. Larry’s life only gets more complicated after his date goes missing and he takes on the town’s hatred.

There was a lot of chronicling of racial prejudice in this book and the n-word was used liberally. These scenes, uncensored as they were, were hard to read and digest, and they made me a little uncomfortable, but they did give the story plausibility and credibility. Franklin’s style of writing was very evocative and beautiful while still being tense and suspenseful. Though there was not a lot of mystery to the identity of the kidnapper and murderer of the second girl, the fact that Franklin balanced what amounted to two suspense plot lines in addition to the story of Larry and Silas’ past really impressed me. It was the kind of story that kept me pushing through the pages, and this was not only because the story was compelling, but because Franklin uses his ability to craft narrative and dialogue expertly. The book provoked a lot of uncomfortable emotions in me, and in Franklin’s vacillation between the past and the present there was regret, sorrow and shame, but ultimately, hope as well.

This was not your typical suspense/thriller, and though it had all the components of books of that genre, it was far more literary and dense. There has been a lot said about this book, and I’m not sure if I’ve added anything new to the discussion, but I will echo others and say this was an extremely worthy read and one that shouldn’t be missed. Franklin does an excellent job not only with his characters, but with the braiding of the stories he creates. An excellent and compelling read. Recommended.


Author Photo About the Author
Tom Franklin is the author of Poachers, Hell at the Breech and Smonk. Winner of a 2001 Guggenheim Fellowship, he teaches in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program and lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, and their children.

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Tuesday, May 17th:Eclectic/Eccentric
Wednesday, May 18th:Book Journey
Thursday, May 19th:Jenn’s Bookshelves
Monday, May 23rd:That’s What She Read
Tuesday, May 24th:Chronicles of a Country Girl
Wednesday, May 25th:Lit and Life
Wednesday, May 25th:Helen’s Book Blog
Thursday, May 26th:Life In Review
Tuesday, May 31st:Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, June 1st:Life in the Thumb
Thursday, June 2nd:Diary of a Stay at Home Mom
Tuesday, June 7th:Jo-Jo Loves to Read!
Wednesday, June 8th:Debbie’s Book Bag
Thursday, June 9th:Books and Movies
Friday, June 10th:My Reading Room
Monday, June 13th:Wordsmithonia
Tuesday, June 14th:Crazy for Books
Wednesday, June 15th:Teresa’s Reading Corner
Thursday, June 16th:Unputdownables
Friday, June 17th:Rundpinne


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert — 272 pgs

The Coffins of Little HopeIn a small Nebraska town, news is being made. The whole town is alight with excitement over being the chosen location to print and publish the last in the series of one of the most popular and premiere children’s books of the century, with everyone atwitter over just how it will all turn out. As the resident obituary writer in the town, Essie Myles is no stranger to strange and unusual circumstances, but when a young girl named Lenore goes missing, the situation gets more and more odd. It seems the town is not entirely convinced that little Lenore even existed, let alone has gone missing, and when her mother Daisy can’t produce the evidence that the town so desperately needs in order to begin searching for the young girl, Essie takes it upon herself to get to the bottom of things. Meanwhile, Essie’s thirteen year old great-granddaughter, Tiff, is going through a difficult time due to the reappearance of her mother after several years of abandonment, and Essie’s grandson Doc is strangling under the weight of his job as the editor of the local paper. Is Lenore really only a figment in the imagination of a woman seeking attention, or is there more to the story? And what will become of Essie and her brood as the foundations of their family are realigned and resituated? These are the questions that underpin the strangely melodious tale of The Coffins of Little Hope, the witty and intriguing new novel from Timothy Schaffert.

This was a story that had many different levels and components, all working in harmony together very nicely. Schaffert gives us the tale of a town that is alight with all sorts of excitement and fervor, and hones in on one family and their reaction to it all. Aside from the children’s book being published and the mania it brings to the little town, there is the Lenore contingency that threatens to overrun its borders and has in fact become national news. As Essie ponders her family’s troubles, she also decides that she will be the one to get Daisy to admit that Lenore is nothing but a ghost from inside her own mind. But Daisy is having none of this and continues to assert Lenore’s existence ardently. At first I thought it strange that no one in the town was searching for the young girl, but then I came to understand the logistics of the problem. Too many people surrounding Daisy had reason to believe that the little girl was only a lonely woman’s way to get the attention that had been denied her for so long, and as such, they never took Lenore’s plight very seriously at all.

Of course, the town was not above keeping the spotlight turned on the Lenore case for the notoriety that it won them, and as the paper ran feature after feature on the case, I began to see that the town was milking the Lenore situation for all it was worth. Doc and Essie could especially be blamed for this, and as more and more strange people and circumstances began to surround Daisy, the town grew more and more embedded in her story. The mystery of whether or not Lenore even existed was constantly turned over and over in the narrative, the townsfolk choosing to remain sceptical and non-committal, even to its final conclusion. As Lenore’s absence lengthens, her strange circumstance draws people towards Daisy in a sort of religious fanaticism and Daisy becomes the acolyte of a new kind of church that lives to pay homage to her missing daughter.

The other half of the book focuses on the series of children’s books that are being printed in the town and how these books have a particular importance in the life of Essie and her family. When Essie begins to secretly correspond with the author of the books, she discovers that all is not what it seems with him. As the books go to print, there is some anxiety that parts of the story will be leaked; a situation that causes Doc to become very nervous, as he is also the owner of the press that prints the books. The possibility of the particulars of the book being leaked is not Doc’s only concern, for as the sole guardian of Tiff, he must now step aside when her mother comes back into the picture, a fact that disheartens and weighs on him. Meanwhile, Essie is struggling with not only her family troubles, but with the realities of her work as an obituary writer, feeling that her time in this particular career is almost over. Schaffert delivers these intertwined stories with a stylistically lush yet somehow sparse narrative, deliciously serving it all up with a quirky style and smooth dialogue.

Though I wasn’t sure what to make of this book when I first picked it up, I did end up loving it. It has all the classic hallmarks of a great and invigorating read, and I grew to be particularly fond of the quirky stories and characters that populated the pages. It’s the kind of book that’s easy to relax into and let the story wash over you, and though things are not neatly tied up in the end, there’s room for a great deal of speculation when it comes to how thing turn out for Daisy, Essie, and her family. A gem of read that will please even the most picky readers. Recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Finally, a Few Winners!

It’s been awhile since I held my giveaways for a copy of Dancing with Gravity and a Dark Divine Prize pack, but today I have picked my winners, and they are —

Dancing with GravityWinner of Dancing with Gravity:

Jenners!

The Dark Divine
The Lost Saint: A Dark Divine Novel
Winner of The Dark Divine, The Lost Saint, and a bottle of blue nail polish:

Diane!


Congratulations to these winners, and thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway! Please stay tuned, as I have a few more giveaways coming up soon!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Kings of Colorado by David E. Hilton — 288 pgs

Kings of Colorado: A NovelWhen 13 year old William Shepard stabs his stepfather in the side with an ivory handled pocket knife after trying to protect his mother from his brutal abuse, he is quickly sent off to Swope Ranch Boys’ Reformatory in the remote hills of Colorado for a stint of two years. Even though Will’s stepfather ends up surviving, the punishment for the boy is swift and severe. Though the facility is ostensibly a place for juvenile delinquents to do correctional time, the boys who live at the ranch are also responsible to care for and break the wild mustangs that are caught in the hills for eventual sale to other ranches. As William soon discovers, life at the ranch is always precarious and sometimes brutal, not only due to the attitudes of the inmates but also due to the power plays and aggressive behavior of the guards and wardens. Although his new life is harsh, William soon forms a small group of friends, and as they fulfill their sentences day by violent day, the boys become closer than brothers. When one by one the other boys begin to fall prey to horrible incidents, Will’s heart begins to break and he must hold on to himself and his sanity as life around him swirls into a maelstrom of violence, hatred and vengeance. In this debut by David E. Hilton, the terror and senseless atrocities of a boys’ correctional facility is rendered in flawless and stark detail, sharing the tale of Will and his ragtag band of friends.

I had originally thought this book would be suitable for a YA audience; however, when I began to read it, I quickly discovered that this was not the case. Though the story deals with teenage protagonists, this is in no way a story for an immature audience, and as I pressed further and further into the book, I nearly became nauseated by some of the atrocities that befell the boys of the ranch. This book reminded me very much of the movie Stand by Me, with the focus being on boys’ friendships in times of trouble, but unlike Stand by Me, this was much darker and told a story of unending sadness and heartbreak. Though it was an extremely difficult book to stomach, it was also remarkable and had the ability to pull me in to its difficult tale headfirst, and keep me trapped within its story until the very last page.

The conditions at Swope Ranch are violent and primitive, and Will must learn to navigate in a world where he must watch his back not only from the boys, but the guards as well. There is something about the way that Hilton captures the frenzy of the boys in these sections that was not only frightening to read about, but that rang true to me. In a place stacked to the gills with boys who are already known as juvenile offenders, Swope seemed to have the atmosphere of an almost dystopian community, and the conglomeration of boys reminded me of the children that populated the island in Lord of the Flies. There was one particular boy named Silas who simply seemed to be the epitome of evil, and I do not say this lightly. He was not only indifferent to the suffering of others, he was almost hungry and gleeful for it, and some of the things he does in this book were so upsetting that I had to take small frequent breaks while reading, which is something I haven’t had to do for a long while.

In his story, Hilton manages to get the alchemy of boys’ bravado and smack-talking to a level I’ve not seen before. Reading through the chapters, the gravity and impact of the boys’ daily interactions and skirmishes rang very realistically true. Reading the dialogue was like sitting unnoticed among a group of teenage boys discussing their lives and conquests, both real and imagined, and it drew me deeply into the story and heightened my compassion for these wayward boys who were just trying to get along and do their stint. There was a great camaraderie between Will and his band of friends, and just as they could throw out insults and cut each other down, they were also capable of stunning acts of kindness and loyalty.

A certain portion of the book also deals with the breaking of a particularly aggressive and ornery mustang, and in the attempts of the boys to bring her into the fold, I could see various allusions to the breaking of the boys themselves and the persistence with which they fought the impetus to change into people who are unrecognizable versions of themselves. That horse and her actions symbolized so many thing so beautifully, and I thought Hilton did a great job incorporating that particular storyline into the book.

Though there were tender times, there were times that the violence was intensely difficult to read about. The rivalries and confrontations were caustic and sometimes deadly, and the book had the capacity to be stunningly and piercingly violent, disturbing and severe. There were times that my stomach was twisting in knots and I began to get light-headed, which is something that has never happened to me before while reading a book. It was a graphic and brutal display of narrative and at times it left me breathless with rage and sorrow. Anyone considering reading this book needs to know these things before they begin, I think, as coming across some of this unaware could be startling and might turn readers off the book early.

Though there was copious violence here, there was also beauty and a deep exploration of friendship and brotherhood that would touch even the most hardened hearts. It was a story that had me moving from lofty highs to abysmal lows and back, and I think Hilton did a magnificent job creating the type of story and characters that you can’t help but become invested in. This is a book I won’t forget for many reasons, and if you’re the type of reader who can stomach strong violence and pathos, I would recommend Kings of Colorado to you heartily.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Ninth Wife by Amy Stolls — 496 pgs

The Ninth Wife: A NovelBess Gray is a thirty-something folklorist living in Washington, D.C. Though she has a great career and the love and support of good friends and family, what Bess really hungers for is a serious relationship that will one day lead to marriage and a family. Through the urging of a friend, she decides to throw a singles mixer in her large apartment one evening, inviting a group of random strangers over to find a potential mate. It’s on this evening that she meets Rory, a handsome Irish expatriate who plays the fiddle and is disarmingly funny. Before Bess really realizes what’s happening, Rory is a main fixture in her life and the two are inching their way towards the kind of commitment Bess craves. But Rory has a secret, because although he seems to be the perfect man, he has actually been married eight times previously. When he finally comes clean to Bess about this, their relationship goes from harmonious to troubled in the blink of an eye.

Now Bess is on a quest to meet and interview all of Rory’s ex-wives to find out just what kind of man marries and divorces eight women, and ultimately discover if Rory is the right man for her. Taking advantage of a trip to relocate her beloved grandparents to their new home, Bess takes off across the country to discover all that she can about Rory. Along the way she must confront not only the difficult and frightening situation between her grandparents but must also help as the friend she is traveling confronts his own demons from the past. In this incredibly involving and heartfelt tale, Amy Stolls gives us the unlikely romance between a man who compulsively says “I do” and the woman who has lately come to love him.

From the very first, I was drawn into this story that alternated between chapters that chronicle Rory’s eight marriages and the opposite story of Bess’ everyday struggle through singledom and her eventual love affair with Rory. The dual narrative had the effect of letting me in on certain aspects of the tale while keeping a good portion hidden, and it really ratcheted up the intrigue as I was constantly wondering when and where the two stories would finally intersect. The book was also filled with crisp and witty dialog that kept my mind entertained my eyebrows raised.

Rory was a very interesting character, and I would have to say, a perfect match for Bess. He was a sensitive and caring man who longed to have a committed and stable relationship but for whom things had never quite worked out. Stolls does an amazing job of summarizing Rory’s past relationships, making each of the eight plausible and credible and not just the result of his being addicted to women, or marriage for that matter. A lot of Rory’s experiences in marriage and subsequent divorces were not solely his fault, and it was easy to see that some of the women he had married had other priorities that weighed more heavily on them. Of course, there were a few times that Rory completely dropped the ball and had in fact ended things for peculiar reasons. These failed relationships shouldn’t have been marriages, but Rory’s romantic nature kept leading him to walk these women down the isle instead of just dating them.

When Bess discovers Rory’s secret she is understandably overwhelmed and begins to pull away from him incrementally. It’s not so hard to understand that she would do this, as I think it was a realistic reaction on her part. How can she be with a man who thinks so lightly of an institution that she herself has such great respect for? She eventually decides that it might be better to do a little investigation and meet as many of the wives Rory left behind as she can find. Throughout Bess’ search, and through the other subplots of the narrative, Stolls explores marriage in all its complexities and asks piercing questions about the bonds that we form before, during and after marriage, and about identity in the singular and plural sense of coupledom. Stolls’ ability to get her readers pondering and asking questions, not only about her characters but about themselves, was done with a deftness and sensitivity that I found truly refreshing.

But meeting the women doesn’t go exactly as she planned, and aside from her mission, Bess comes to discover a very frightening and dangerous secret about the relationship between her grandparents that may change not only her future, but theirs as well. Blended expertly into the mix of this very eclectic story are some of the most interesting and compelling characters you will find within the pages of any book. From Bess’ homosexual neighbor Cricket, who finagles his way on the cross-country trip, to the grandparents’ mentally challenged neighbor Gerald, a man-boy who may be more important to Bess than she could ever realize, to the irrepressible couple that Bess knows as her gram and gramps, Stolls fills her story with unique people, proving that she’s not only creative, but socially aware as well. Stolls has a gift in creating characters that are not only full of depth and nuance, but quirky and ingenious in their own right.

I loved this book and read compulsively all the way to the end, wondering what was to become of Rory, Bess, and the cast of colorful characters that populated the pages. This is a book to get lost in and savor, and Stolls’ ability to tell an uncommon and extraordinary story will please any reader who loves to get caught up in the absurd and yet somehow commonplace. A great read that kept me turning pages. Recommended heartily.


Author Photo About the Author

Amy Stolls’s young adult novel Palms to the Ground was published in 2005 to critical acclaim and a Parents’ Choice Gold Award. She spent years as a journalist covering the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska before she received an MFA in creative writing from American University. Currently, she is the literature program officer for the National Endowment for the Arts, where she has worked since 1998, advising and collaborating with thousands of writers, translators, editors, booksellers, publishers, educators, and presenters nationwide to keep literature a vital part of American society. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two-year-old son.

Follow Amy on Facebook.

Amy Stolls Discusses The Ninth Wife on Blog Talk Radio.


TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Tuesday, May 10th:Sara’s Organized Chaos
Wednesday, May 11th:Acting Balanced
Tuesday, May 17th:The Bodacious Pen
Wednesday, May 18th:Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books
Thursday, May 19th:Raging Bibliomania
Monday, May 23rd:Colloquium
Tuesday, May 24th:Good Girl Gone Redneck
Thursday, May 26th:Rundpinne
Friday, May 27th:Books Like Breathing
Tuesday, May 31st:Book Club Classics!
Wednesday, June 1st:Reading Through Life

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Princess of Nowhere by Lorenzo Borghese — 336 pgs

The Princess of Nowhere: A NovelWhen Prince Camillo Borghese meets Napoleon's sister Pauline, he is at once mesmerized and intrigued, but although he is considering marriage, Pauline is not the woman he would choose. After hearing rumors of her scandalous behavior, Camillo decides against Pauline, but when he one day spies her unaware, he realizes that she is a beautiful woman that he could one day love and decides to marry her and make her a princess. Pauline brings to the marriage one young son named Dermide and a young girl named Sophie who has been placed in Pauline’s care by her brother Napoleon. As Camillo and Pauline begin their marriage, things are almost immediately rocky between them, for Pauline doesn’t wish to conduct herself in a ladylike manner and begins having affairs with several other suitors, a fact she doesn’t hide from her husband. Aside from this, Pauline also spends extravagantly and often neglects her son and her charge, spending countless hours doing what pleases her. All these things lead Camillo into a dance of betrayal and forgiveness that spans several years of their marriage. Sophie also is having difficulty with Pauline, for although she idolizes and loves her, Pauline neglects her and uses her as a pawn in her power struggles with Camillo. In this historical fiction debut, readers come face to face with the manipulative and selfish Pauline Borghese, a princess who only looks out for herself, no matter what the consequences are.

Though I’ve read a little about Napoleon and knew he had siblings, I didn’t have the faintest clue about what their lives were like or what kind of people they were. When I picked up this book, I hadn’t even read the jacket copy, so it was all a very big surprise to me. This isn’t your typical historical fiction read for a lot of reasons that I’ll go into, but mainly because it centered more around character development than any historical event or period. As the author explains in the afterword, his motivation for writing this book was to chronicle the life story of one of his most famous and maligned ancestors. While I think he succeeded with the story of the ever ostentatious Pauline, the book left a little to be desired in its scope and execution.

Pauline was not a very likable person, in my opinion. She was extremely vain and manipulative, and so much of a vixen that she would coax any available man into compromising situations in order to frustrate and enrage her husband. It was frustrating to me to read about this, so I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for Camillo to live with it. Camillo was a loving and attentive man, wishing to give Pauline happiness and pleasure, but Pauline never recognized his efforts and repeatedly chose to stray from him and then to defend her right to do so. She made a cuckold of her husband very early on in the marriage and continued to do so, even though it embarrassed herself and her brother Napoleon. Though at times she tries to behave, it never seems convenient enough for her to do so for very long, and soon she reverts back to past sins and indiscretions. As the story progresses, Camillo and Pauline engage in a back and forth see-saw of attraction and repulsion.

The relationship between Pauline and Camillo was sad to watch, but I felt more sorrow at the relationship between Pauline and Sophie. Sophie loved Pauline and was continually debased and taken advantage of because she left her heart open to her guardian. Though she would do anything for the princess, Pauline cruelly uses her and subverts the love she has for her. At times Pauline is unimaginably cruel to her charge and puts her very life in danger to satisfy her whims, and though she tries to be a mentor to the young girl at times, she only succeeds in being vulgar and inappropriate when attempting to teach the young girl the ways of love. Like her relationships with the other people in her life, Pauline can be cruel and vindictive to Sophie, and when her mind fastens on a goal, she thinks nothing of putting the young girl in harm’s way. Through it all, Sophie stays loyal and true to Pauline and, in the end, even Camillo finds a way to forgive her for her transgressions, which made me a little mad to tell you the truth.

One of the things that I found very surprising was that it was filled with graphic sex scenes. Now, I am no prude, but these scenes just seemed a little out of place in a historical fiction novel, and thinking back on it, I’m quite sure this is the only historical fiction novel I’ve read that utilizes this concept. I also got a little bored with Pauline’s excessive and poor behavior and wanted the story to focus more on the events that were happening in the world during that particular time, instead of on the bad behavior of Pauline. In the conclusion of the book, Pauline is forced to make her apologies to everyone around her, and comes to regret the way that she acted in the past. Though these sections were believable, they came a little too late for me and I couldn’t forgive the princess as easily as those in her life did. I’m almost certain the ending of the book was meant to elicit a few tears from its audience, but I remained staunchly dry-eyed because these sections felt a tiny bit contrived and orchestrated.

My feelings on this book are a bit muddied. Though princess Pauline was indeed a retched character whom I grew very tired of reading about, there was also a sort of train-wreck quality to her life that I couldn’t seem to look away from, and it was interesting to see how those around her dealt with the messes that she so expertly created. This isn’t historical fiction at its best, and that is mainly because it’s so tightly focused on people instead of events, but it is a book that might just give you a character that you will love to hate. I think readers who are looking for something that is well rounded and more historically involved would be disappointed with this book, but those who love troubled characters could possibly fall right into Pauline Borghese’s life and find it riveting. A mixed bag of a book.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Caribou Island by David Vann — 304 pgs

Caribou Island: A NovelIrene and Gary are in a failing relationship. Though things seems civil on the surface, Irene is convinced that this is the last winter that the couple will spend together, sure that Gary will leave her. When Gary decides to build a cabin on Caribou Island, he enlists Irene’s help, but all the couple seem to do is snipe at each other more and more aggressively. Meanwhile, Gary and Irene’s adult daughter Rhoda is hoping to receive a marriage proposal from Jim, her long term boyfriend. But Jim isn’t all that thrilled about settling down with Rhoda and thinks perhaps he can do better. Irene and Gary also have a grown son named Mark, who is basically a shiftless pothead who wants very little to do with the rest of his family and whose prospects have gradually dwindled. When a new couple of Mark’s acquaintance starts hanging around, the woman of the couple, Monique, a manipulative twenty-something, begins to dangerously tempt Rhoda’s boyfriend Jim, a situation that Rhoda is oblivious to. After a particularly grueling day spent building the cabin, Irene seems to have developed a chronic and severe headache that she just can’t shake. After several medical tests reveal nothing, her family is left doubting whether there is anything wrong with her at all or if this is just an attempt to get attention from her fumbling husband. As the misshapen cabin grows, things begin to take a sinister turn in the couple’s marriage, leading to an act of bizarre and frightening violence from which the family will never recover. Bleak and caustic, Caribou Island presents a slice of the life of one family whose dysfunction and apathy will reverberate through all the lives they touch.

While this book had a lot of wonderful and evocative imagery and real ambiance of life in Alaska, I found it to be a very tough pill to swallow. The story was not only dark, but it had all the hallmarks of an irredeemable tragedy that I found very upsetting. The relationship between Irene and Gary was just painful to read about, and though the book mainly dealt with this from Irene’s perspective, It seemed like she was right on the money in predicting just what Gary was thinking in regards to his plans to leave her. I didn’t really like Irene or Gary at all. They were both self-involved, and at least in Irene’s case, there was enough self-pity shooting through her thoughts and actions to slay a horse. Both halves of this couple seemed miserable with each other, and one of the questions I asked myself is how they had managed to stay together for thirty-odd years without realizing that they were just not good for each other. This book started off in the throes of a desperate time for Irene and Gary, and as such, there was no opportunity for me to see what kept this couple together or to witness any of the good times that they ostensibly had. It was like walking into a room at the tail end of a fight, and it felt awkward and uncomfortable, to say the least.

I also had a hard time with the relationship between Rhoda and Jim. While Rhoda is basically driving herself crazy over her mother and father’s doomed relationship and the strange turn in her mother’s health, Jim is off acting like a sleazeball. I wanted Rhoda to be able to see him for what he was, but this never happened. Though she did begin to suspect that Jim was changing right before her eyes, she never really caught on to what he was going through or the resolutions he had made, and those resolutions were a doozy, let me tell you! I began to see that Rhoda’s relationship would eventually mirror her mother’s, and towards the end of the book, Irene even states this obvious fact to her daughter, but nothing could make Rhoda see the deception that Jim was engaged in. Rhoda also had some aspects of co-dependency to her personality, and whether or not she enabled her mother to act in such a bizarre fashion was something that remains cloudy in my mind. Though I really disliked the subplot between Rhoda and Jim, I was eager to see it to the end because I wanted some type of resolution that would make sense to me, but this resolution was only dealt with obliquely.

Much can be said about the repercussions of living in a relationship that is obviously past its prime, a situation that was minutely detailed in this book, but what stuck me the hardest was the way these individuals dealt with each other like enemies. They stored up grudges and dragged them out when they were at their most painful point, and it was really very ugly to witness. I didn’t feel sorry for either of them because they were both obviously so insensitive and cruel to each other. There were points that I felt embarrassed for them and wished that they would just go their separate ways in order to salvage some of the self-respect they had lost, but like boxers, they just kept getting up and pummeling each other over and over again until the final haunting conclusion. It was a sad state of affairs and I can’t say I was entertained by it. I felt a lot of discomfort reading about the perpetual battles and recriminations they put each other through, and by the end of the novel, I was fed up with all the hatred they both took part in. The solution to this problem was inelegant and shocking, and the final thoughts of Irene impacted me as severely selfish and short-sighted.

Though I really didn’t enjoy the story this book told, and often it made me frustrated and angry, I did like the scene setting and atmosphere. It was filled with lush and vivid descriptions and gave me a peek into what it might be like to live in the wilds of Alaska. I can’t say it was a pleasant reading experience though, as most of the time I was very put off by the characters’ behavior and thought patterns, but as a novel that deals with a dysfunctional family, I would have to say that it excels in its ambitions. Not a read for the faint of heart or the easily offended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid by Wendy Williams — 224 pgs

Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of SquidCephalopods, a group of animals that include octopuses and squid, may be some of the oldest creatures in the known world and can vary in size from a fraction of an inch to hundreds of pounds. In this wonderful exploration of one of the sea’s most mysterious class of creatures, Wendy Williams explores the strange and unique aspects of the cephalopod and explains why this odd creature may have done more for the advancement of medical science than any other animal in the world. She shares the reasons people are so squeamish when it comes to this animal and the unique way they display intelligence that scientists are only now beginning to discover and tap into. Drawing upon research that stretches back hundreds of years, Williams shares the common misconceptions that have hounded squid and octopuses from their earliest days and delights her audience with the weird and wholly unexpected reality and astounding facts about the cephalopods that abundantly fill Earth’s oceans.

I’m a nut for science writing, particularly nature writing. In my efforts to discover all that I can about the flora and fauna that populate the world, I sometimes come across a book that I can’t ignore. This was such a book. I had never really given squid and octopuses much thought because, frankly, they seemed a little too gelatinous and slimy for my liking. But when the opportunity to review this book came up, I jumped on it because it fed my need to know more about nature and the strange things in the sea. I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest by this book and found that Williams has not only a conversational and accessible style, but that she used the most fascinating analogies and illustrations to show just what being a cephalopod is all about.

Both octopuses and squid have developed and adapted all sorts of body weaponry over the millions of years they have evolved. They are known as experts at defending themselves, which seems counterintuitive because they don’t have the protection offered by bones or shell with which to repel predators. Some cephalopods even take fleeing from prey to the next level, like the Japanese flying squid, who can launch its body out of the water to avoid predation. Some are adept at using their skin cells to change colors, and this technique is not only used for camouflage, but also to turn parts of their bodies into either an attractant or repellent by producing some truly startling colors. All cephalopods live in salt water and some can live up to fifteen years. Most cephalopods, however, do not live that long at all.

This book was so packed with interesting information that it was like a treasure trove for readers looking for strange tidbits to keep the brain churning. For example, did you know that there are a few squid who can expel a mucus-filled ink that actually mimics the form of the squid when it’s released, making it easier for the animal to escape? Or that most cephalopods have three hearts and copper-based blood (as opposed to human iron-based blood)? Many people have probably heard that a cephalopod arm is capable from separating from the body, but did you also know that the severed arm has the capability to live independently for hours? Some cephalopods can even leave the water to hunt on land at certain times. One of the most interesting things I found while reading is that some cephalopods are filled with a protein based bio-luminescent bacteria that enables them to turn lighter and darker beneath the waves, enabling them to be both invisible to predators and giving them light with which to hunt more capably.

The research side of this book was also fantastic. Because of cephalopod research, the field of neuroscience has advanced monumentally, and studying cephalopods has helped science fill in questionable evolutionary gaps that have remained unsolved for hundreds of years. Research on squid has even proved promising in the search for a cure to Alzheimer's. It was also interesting to discover that squid share many characteristics with humans, such as binocular vision, similar neurons and neurotransmitters, and even some intellectual developments. The book also shares the fascinating logistics of cephalopod reproduction (which was an eye-opening section indeed), and expounds on the ability of cephalopods to solve complex and multifaceted puzzles. In fact, researchers at this point are a bit stumped in devising puzzles for these animals that will challenge them, because at this point, they have figured them all out in record time. As of this book’s writing, scientists are trying to discover a way of quantifying cephalopod intelligence, which is proving to be a difficult task indeed.

Reading this book was like being in a natural science class, but unlike a science class, the book was always entertaining and relevant and never repetitious or boring. I found so much here to pique my interest, and as far as science writing goes, this book was top-notch. Maybe I’m the only one who thinks that the myriad creatures of the sea are fascinating, but I have to say, if you pick up this book and give it a few pages, you will be just as engrossed as I was, I’m sure of it. In this fascinating look into the science of cephalopods, no stone is left unturned. A remarkable read.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


What is the plural of octopus? Merriam-Webster Ask the Editor - Octopus has the answer!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Arms Wide Open: A Midwife’s Journey by Patsy Harman — 324 pgs

Arms Wide Open: A Midwife's JourneyPatsy Harman has led a very unusual life. In her twenties and thirties, she lived in the backwoods of Appalachia with her lover Stacy and their young son Mica. As self-proclaimed hippies, Patsy and her band of friends eat organically, protest environmental pollution and attend demonstrations against the Vietnam war. Living out in the deep woods of Minnesota, the small family lives simply, without electricity, indoor plumbing or running water. They grow and tend a subsidence garden and fill the chinks in their cabin by hand. But life out in the wilderness away from everyone eventually proves too hard for Patsy, so she leaves her son and lover on the homestead and begins to travel. When she finally ends up living in an intended community, Patsy finds that she’s far happier and falls in love with Tom, one of the community’s residents.

Life is hard out in the woods, but with many pairs of hands to help with the raising of children and the supporting of the commune, Patsy finds peace. That is, until one by one the commune’s residents begin moving away, either to their own farms or to the wider city. With the mass exodus of the commune’s residents, Patsy finds herself alone with Tom and their two boys and she’s not happy about it. Having been present as a birth aid for may of the rural women of the area, Patsy soon decides to take a chance and become a midwife. As she travels from residence to residence delivering babies, Patsy discovers she has a talent for the work and a love and respect for the women she meets. This leads her to discover that she would like to be a midwife in a more professional capacity so she begins to study nursing, alongside her husband Tom, who is studying to become a paramedic.

Fast forward about 30 years to 2009. After Tom and Patsy have opened up their own practice specializing in pelvic pain patients, things begin to become rocky, not only with their practice but with their marriage. The life they’re living is a far cry from their past, and soon Patsy must once again reinvent herself. She must also help her husband work through some crippling allegations that have been made against him. But above it all, she remains the same peace-seeking and caring woman, capable of helping women in many ways, leading others to brand her as “the wise woman.” This is Patsy’s story, from her humble days working the land and protesting the Vietnam War to the more comfortable yet sometimes difficult journey through the modern world. It’s a memoir that won’t soon be forgotten.

When the book opens, Patsy is describing life on the homestead with her lover Stacy and their infant son Mica. The winter is coming and they have only a short amount of time to chink their cabin against the frigid temperatures. Patsy is unhappy with the endless toil required to keep her family fed and safe, but Stacy doesn’t see the reason why Patsy is so unhappy. Her hours are filled with gardening and the boiling of cloth diapers, repairing the house and cooking meals for her family. Life is demanding in this environment, and Stacy isn’t one who is easy to communicate with. Patsy tries to explain that she would rather live in an intended community, but Stacy doesn’t see her point. He’s rooted to this cabin and refuses to leave. I could feel Patsy’s dissatisfaction and see that she wanted more than a rural life had to offer. The constant pressure of being all alone with her small family, miles away from civilization, was something that Patsy just couldn’t deal with. I can’t imagine what life must have been like for her. In a way, I idealized the life Patsy was living, for often I’ve thought what a joy it would be to be isolated in a cabin in the woods. But reading about the reality of backbreaking toil every day, with no one to call on for help, opened my eyes about the life of a rural woman far from civilization. Patsy longs to be part of the peaceful movement to stop the war and to live sustainably, and I think this is partly what drove her to leave her family and travel, along with her need for community. She didn’t stay away for long though, and eventually, finding herself among an intended community, she decides that this is the lifestyle for her. Eventually Stacy and their son join her, but her relationship with Stacy has ended and she’s now married to Tom. Living in a huge farmhouse with a handful of others is what Patsy had been hoping for, and she relishes the time spent with the others and the sharing of responsibility for the land and the homestead.

Soon Patsy is travelling all over Appalachia to help women give birth, and it’s clear that this is what she’s meant to be doing. Patsy delivers hundreds of babies naturally from the comfort of the mother’s homes, and as she lovingly describes the births she attends, she elucidates on the differences between each delivery, both the effortless and the difficult. I had thought that these would be my favorite sections of the book, but in reality, I found the entirety of Patsy’s journey to be fascinating. It’s so markedly different from the way I live, and reading her anecdotes of discovering a wild bear in her yard or being stricken with intestinal worms was just as interesting as hearing about the delicacies of an unusually difficult birth. I never tired of reading about Patsy’s life and found myself admiring her for not only her ideals, but for her tenacity and grace as well.

In the third section of the book, Patsy and Tom are leading an altogether different life. Living in a spacious and luxurious home, they are both deeply involved with the reproductive care of the women they treat. Patsy is no longer a midwife due to broader restrictions and unexpected changes in the field, but she’s still able to counsel women and help them at her husband’s practice. She now has three grown sons who have left the nest and started families of their own, and she has become careworn and anxious. In a way, I believe Patsy’s worries were influenced by her living a life where she now had so much more to lose. Having left the security of the land and her other companions long behind, she must again rely on herself in a world that’s more dangerous and corporate-minded than the one she lived in years ago. Though she is much changed, she reflects back on her time as a midwife in Appalachia and comes to accept that, though she is not birthing babies anymore, her work with women is just as important, if somewhat less satisfying to her. Unable to help Tom during his crisis, Patsy becomes afraid and despondent, eventually cornering Tom and trying to work things out. It’s with both a sense of joy for the new resolutions that she shares with Tom and an underlying sadness for all that has changed that Patsy begins to look forward again, into the face of the unknown.

I found this book to be remarkably compelling. Reading about Patsy’s life out in the wilderness was both interesting and enlightening in a way I didn’t expect. Much of what Patsy went through will be unfamiliar to readers who sit comfortably in their houses with every luxury at their fingertips, but sharing in the journey of a woman who has lived a very unconventional life should prove to be edifying in many ways. This is not a book that tells a heartwarming and easy story. Often the life we are invited to look into is full of hardship and heartache, but it’s a story told with an unusual sense of urgency about a lifestyle that is slowly becoming obsolete. It’s a book that I think will speak to the hearts of women everywhere, despite their very different circumstances. Highly recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Wither by Lauren DeStefano — 256 pgs

Wither (The Chemical Garden Trilogy)It’s a world much like our own, but here in this world of unimaginable bleakness, young men and women meet their deaths much too soon. For the women of this world, the age of expiration is twenty, while the males only garner four years more. Humankind has eradicated all the most deadly diseases, and the first generation lives on and on in uninterrupted health. But when they discover that their children are dying of a dreaded virus just after entering adulthood, the world takes on a sinister and horrific cast. Living in this desolate place is Rhine, a sixteen year old girl who, with her twin brother, is living a hand-to-mouth life after their parents, who were first generations, die unexpectedly. Rhine has heard the story of the Gatherers, men who steal young women and turn them over to wealthy families to be breeding machines until their early deaths. Though she has taken precautions to avoid being snatched, one day she’s tricked into a van and taken away.

When Rhine awakens in an opulent mansion, all she can think about is how she will escape, but that seems unlikely as she doesn’t even know where she is. Along with Rhine in the van were several other girls, but only two others survived to be brought to this gilded prison. Now Rhine, Jenna and Cecily are forced into a marriage with Linden, the man who owns the mansion. Destined to be sister wives until they succumb to the virus themselves, the three girls deal with their captivity in very different ways. But it’s Rhine who is constantly thinking of escape. Though Rhine finds a measure of pleasure in her captivity, and even finds a friend in the young house servant named Gabriel, she never stops plotting an escape from Linden and his prison-like estate. But will Rhine ever manage to be free again, and if so, will she ever make her way to her twin brother? Adding to Rhine’s resolution to escape are her puzzling feelings about the man who is her captor and the new-found thrill of being close to Gabriel. In this debut novel, Lauren DeStefano posits a world very much like our own but fundamentally and bleakly different.

I had been reading a lot about this book all over the blogosphere and was really excited that I had a copy waiting on my shelves for me to delve into. A lot of what I had heard made me excited because, though I’ve read many reviews of YA dystopian novels, I haven’t actually read very many at all. I figured this book would give me a great chance to see if this genre would work for me, and since it had been getting such rave reviews, I was eager to see if it would live up to the hype. What I found was curious, and though I do think the book fit my tastes very well, I almost wish I had avoided all the hype, because no matter which book is being hyped, I generally end up feeling disappointed.

The writing style struck me as a bit subdued and quiet, which had the effect of making the narrative feel dreamlike at times. In scope and execution, Wither was both deft and satisfying, but certain sections felt slow. It took some time for the action to ramp up, but even then, the story was almost placid and calm. I found the plight of the sister wives, prisoners of a strange childlike man, to be thought-provoking and remarkably detailed. Each girl had her own ideas about her marriage to Linden, and in their inward reflections, I could see variations that were true to what would have been their real-life counterparts. Though only one of the wives felt that it was a privilege to be married to Linden, they were all curiously accepting in certain ways, and they all found outlets that made life for them more bearable.

Though parts of this book were ominous, it wasn’t as horrifying as I might have imagined. The scene setting and narrative were creepy and malevolent, but at times I felt that the book missed its mark with the haunting atmosphere it was trying to present. This may be a personal problem though, because I’m not yet accustomed to the subtle nuances of this particular genre, but I also feel that this in part has to do with all the hype that surrounded this read. While I was reading, I was asking myself a lot of questions about both the realities and plausibility of dying just when you were starting to live, and found myself pondering the injustice of life being cut short in such a horrible and insensible way. I actually reflected a lot over this book, which indicates that DeStefano not only hit her mark in terms of worldbuilding and characters, but also that this is the type of book that has stronger implications than what the surface reveals to its readers.

I found the lifestyles and realities of the everyday lives of the sister wives to be the the most intriguing aspects of the book. There were also subtle mysteries and malignancies that ran through the plot that enticed me as well. Though not all of my questions were answered, I’m aware that this is only the first book in a series and I hope to uncover more as the series progresses. I also liked that the narrative was so descriptive and lush. There was a lot of thought and effort given over to the physical description of almost every aspect of the plot, which was something that I found very satisfying. In terms of scene setting and descriptive power alone, I would rate this book very highly, and I feel that this exemplary component of the book made the story seem to jump off the page.

Though I didn’t fall into the same kind of love for this book that others did, I still found it to be a very successful read and enjoyed the time I spent with it. I’m definitely interested in reading the subsequent books and finding out more about this world and these characters, and I would recommend this read to any who are curious about it. It didn’t disappoint, and I’m sure others will enjoy this foray into the world and life of a very determined heroine who just wants to get home.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

In Stitches by Anthony Youn — 288 pgs

In StitchesIn this introspective and witty memoir, Anthony Youn, a young Korean doctor, shares the passage of his life from early childhood and adolescence to his frantic foray through medical school, culminating in his residency in plastic surgery. Though Anthony is a smart youngster and a dedicated student, he’s not very popular with his classmates during his formative years. Adding to this problem is the unending pressure from his father, a Korean immigrant who has become a successful obstetrician. After graduating high school at the top of his class, Anthony decides to go on to medical school at the urgings of his father. Despite the fact that he’s not sure he wants to be a surgeon or doctor, Anthony does exceedingly well in medical school and is also able to make a handful of cherished friends who go through the ups and downs together with him.

But what’s most pressing to Anthony isn’t the demands of medical school, but the fact that he can’t get a date to save his life. With the help of his more smooth and suave friends, Anthony finally finds himself at peace within a very successful relationship. But as year four of medical school continues, Anthony’s choice for a surgical residency is still up in the air. He works a bit in each field but finds himself unimpressed by all of them, until one life-changing evening when he finds himself at the elbow of one of the country’s most successful plastic surgeons.

Now Anthony is on a mission across the United States, learning from and practicing with some of the most renowned and eccentric plastic surgeons in an effort to complete his education and make himself eligible for residency. As he moves through the medical world, he shares his joys and failures, and comes to understand that his father’s wish for him is not so far from his own dreams. Both candid and funny, In Stitches shares Anthony’s journey from unpopular obscurity to the halls of medical artistry, and the choices he must make to get there.

This was a rather strange read for me. Though I’ve read quite a few memoirs, In Stitches was surprising because of its very brisk pace. I wanted to know more about Youn’s life, and from my perspective, it seemed like he glossed over things rather quickly. Though I admit that in writing the book this way the action was fast paced, I couldn’t help but feel like the story of Youn’s life was rushed. This breakneck pace had the curious effect of distancing me from the narrator instead of drawing me closer. Though so much was packed within the first few sections, I felt like I didn’t know him at all, which was the lamentable result of Youn’s fast-paced style.

Though I liked Youn, I found at times that he could be faintly misogynistic and sneering about women. This may have been because he was bitter about not getting any action, but the implications of his discussions about dating unattractive women in an effort to have sex just rubbed me the wrong way and made me feel a bit indisposed towards him. A lot of the first few sections were given over to his endless cogitation about his sexual urges and his attempts to get in a girl’s, any girl’s, pants. I ended up feeling that Youn was very immature, even in his reflections and digressions, and it bothered me that so much of his story revolved around his not being able to get lucky. I worried that the whole scope of this book was going to be self-absorbed and whiny, but luckily, when we moved into the second year of his medical schooling, things got a lot more interesting.

When Youn finally got a girlfriend and put his angst to rest, there were, at last, some interesting developments in the book. As he takes us on a tour of what it was like for him in medical school, the story rapidly picked up flavor and my interest. Here are the tales that I had been waiting for. The arrogant and insensitive doctors, the troubled and ill patients. Youn shares his reflections on the first surgery he attends and its unexpected outcome. He relates his experiences about being on call for days and how frazzled he was, and ultimately, he shares just what it was that made him decide to go into the field of plastic surgery. I felt that this section of the book was much more interesting and absorbing, and really felt that if the whole book had been written in this vein, it would have been a more successful read for me. It was almost as if there was an imperfect amalgamation between the two stories; one half-reflecting the same cares and woes that most teenage boys experience, and one half-filled with the exciting and fuel-laden drama of life as a medical student. It’s probably pretty clear to you which I preferred.

Though I didn’t really enjoy the first section of this book, the second half was in some ways redemptive. I guess it’s understandable for the sections that describe Youn’s adolescence to be turgid and at times immature, but I was glad when things moved on and there were more altruistic leanings to this memoir. If you’re not the type of reader to be bothered with such things, then I would recommend this book to you. It wasn’t what I had been expecting, but once the more difficult passages had been hurdled, I found myself really enjoying myself and curiously invested in the tale that Youn tells.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt — 256 pgs

Mr. Chartwell: A NovelWhen librarian Esther Hammerhans decides to rent out her box room to a boarder, she’s horrified to discover a huge black dog at her door inquiring about the vacancy. But this dog is like none other, for he can speak eloquently and wryly, and seems to have an uncanny way of getting into Esther’s subconscious. Though renting to this absurd creature is the furthest thing from her mind, the dog, known as Black Pat, is soon in residence, and Esther’s life is slowly spiraling into melancholy.

When Black Pat isn’t busy hounding Esther and making her uncomfortable, he’s on the other side of town menacing the great Winston Churchill on the eve of his retirement from public office. But whereas Black Pat is somewhat gentle and self-deprecating in his dealings with Esther, he’s a lot more ferocious and malignant to Churchill. Sitting on his chest and making it impossible for him to move, or whispering horrible things to him from the corner of the room, Black Pat is a terrible specter that haunts Churchill malevolently.

As Esther and Churchill battle the black dog of depression, they come to find that Black Pat is not only destructive, but also very unwilling to let them go. When an unexpected meeting between Churchill and Esther is scheduled, the two recognize that they are both being haunted by the same menace, and the battle between these two and Black Pat intensifies. With witty verve and a startling poignancy, Hunt manages to catch the elusive ramifications of the depression that Churchill once described as a “black dog” with both a humor and horror that will delight readers to their core.

One of the things I found so remarkable about this book was Hunt’s ability to capture all the melancholy and dread of the depressive state through her clever use of the black dog in her narrative. When Black Pat first arrives, he negotiates with Esther over whether or not she’ll let him stay, finally sliding in when her defences are down. This is symbolically accurate from the accounts of depression I’ve read. Later in the story, Esther and Churchill speak about the menace of the black dog being akin to warfare, in which the depressive person must staunchly maintain his defenses from the ceaseless attack of Black Pat. It was curious that Black Pat’s strategy differed between his victims, and I grew to recognize that in his initial attack of Esther, he was turning on the charm and hoping to wiggle in under her radar. Later things would be different, as they were with Churchill. Once the dog was granted admittance for the first time, he was free to take over and became horribly abusive and cloying.

Black Pat is the embodiment of depression to a T. Capable of being darkly humorous in his initial attack, he’s portrayed here as obstinate, vulgar and persistent, even as he is uncharacteristically charming and self-aware. Though Churchill has faced Black Pat many times before and knows his opponent, Esther is completely unaware of the danger in letting him linger and is surprised to discover just who her boarder really is. In both cases, the dog makes both a physical and mental nuisance of himself, sometimes playful and other times ominous. He regards his role in the lives he usurps as lamentable but necessary and often claims his existence and persistence is not within his control, believing that he is summoned by affinity. Black Pat is inventive and wily while also being profound and deep. He can be intolerably rude, coarse and undignified, but in him resides a kernel of remorse that he wishes wasn’t there. Though he is dogged (no pun intended) and charming at times, he’s also fierce and dangerously destructive.

Though I’ve described the bleaker aspects of this book, it also was rather funny, which was an unexpected surprise. The relationship between Esther and her boss was a source of many snickering laughs, as were some of the conversations and situations that arose with Black Pat. The book melded both profundity and laughter in a perfect package that at times delighted and often made me ponder depression in a way I hadn’t before. The narrative was also filled with some unique and well-developed characters, who rounded out the story very nicely and gave a lot of heft to what may have otherwise become a thin farce of a narrative. It’s not often that I laugh aloud at a book, but I did so here, which sort of startled me because one wouldn’t expect to find this particular topic amusing.

I was also struck by the surprising outcome of the story, for even as I loathed Black Pat, I grew to appreciate him in some ways despite my reluctance. I ended up feeling enormously sorry for him in one sense, and in another I was glad to see him in such reduced circumstances. It was a curiously odd feeling to hate and yet admire a creature so repulsive and all-consuming, but I have to honestly admit that I did. Black Pat was a villain whom I came to care about, though I knew he was rotten to the core. I think part of this had to do with his ability to sympathize with his victims and his need to warn them of his trickery. This made him seem almost a victim of his own circumstances and made me feel that there was more to him than I had first suspected. He was altogether perplexing, in both good and bad ways, and not a character whom I will likely forget.

I found this book to be utterly amazing and superbly crafted. The originality of the material coupled with characters that were believable and well-rounded made this a book that I would recommend to a host of readers. In addition to its very nuanced story, the humor of the tale is something I think a lot of readers will find unexpectedly welcome and winning. If you’re on the fence about this book, I would encourage you to take a chance and see what all of the fuss is about. It was an excellent read. Highly recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
 
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