Saturday, February 14, 2015

Descent by Tim Johnston

I am not much of a fan of thrillers, but when Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill comes out with a novel, I read it, regardless of the genre.  Descent, by Tim Johnston might just change my view of suspense novels.

Johnston, a native of Iowa City, Iowa, teaches creative writing at the University of Memphis.  He has authored a young adult novel, Never So Green, and a short story collection, Irish Girl, which won the prestigious Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction.  Descent is his first adult novel (Dust Jacket).  And what a first it is!

Grant and Angela Courtland have two children – Caitlin, 18, and about to enter college on an athletic scholarship as a cross-country runner, and Sean, 16, who idolizes his sister.  The family travels to the Rocky Mountains for a vacation.  One morning, Caitlin goes out for a run, followed by Sean on a mountain bike.  Their travels take them up a mountain and down to a road.  Sean skids onto the road and is hit by some sort of SUV.  Caitlin returns to him and finds he is seriously injured.  She has no cell phone signal.  The driver offers to drive her to the nearest town to get help.  Someone alerts the police, and they find Sean by the side of the road.  But Caitlin has disappeared.

As I near 200 segments of Likely Stories, I can honestly say I have never used the term “Page Turner.”  But Descent is exactly that.  Like all fine fiction, I did not know how the story would end, and I did not care.  The emotions the characters experienced were eerily real.  The narrative was so taut, so detailed, and so exciting, that was all I needed to keep going. 

Angela experienced a tragedy when she was young, losing her twin sister in a swimming accident.  This dark, cloudy memory overhangs the entire story.  The sheriff locates Grant and Angela.  Johnston writes, “Now in the little motel room, his wife’s phone to his ear, he begged: Please God, please God, and the sheriff was asking him again where he was at, telling him to stay put.  The boy was safe, he was sleeping.  He was coming to get them, the sheriff – no more than fifteen minutes.  He would take them up there himself, up the mountain.  He would take them wherever they needed to go.  But they wouldn’t be here when the sheriff arrived, Grant knew.  They would be on the mountain, on their way up.  The boy was safe.  The boy was sleeping.  Grant would be at the wheel and Angela would be at the maps, they way it was in the life before, the way it would be in the life to come” (19).

The story has several twists and turns, and the action happens so fast I am reminded of a slalom skier flying down a mountain.  Descent by Tim Johnston is about as exciting a novel as I have ever read.  Any cliché which comes to mind – page-turner, edge-of-the-seat, hair-raising – they all fit.  I am even in a rare agreement with a jacket blurb – “Lyrical and hypnotic […] a pulse-pounding thriller.”  My next order of business: order his collection of short stories, and then wait for another novel.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 2/8/15

Becoming the Villainess by Jeannine Hall Gailey

Jeannine Hall Gailey is the Poet Laureate Emeritus of Redmond Washington.  Garrison Keilior featured her work on The Writer’s Almanac.  I reviewed her third book of poetry, Unexplained Fevers, in 2013.  She has won numerous awards, and her works has appeared in The Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner.  Becoming the Villainess is her first collection.

As I wrote in 2013, Jeanine Hall Gailey’s third book of poetry, Unexplained Fevers, helps the heroes and heroines of fairy tales step out of the towers and oppressive households.  She uses these poems as allegories for the problems facing many people today.  In Becoming the Villainess, she dips into the world of comic book superheroes and their exaggerated physical features.  She writes, in the poem, “Female Comic Book Superheroes” “are always fighting evil in a thong, / pulsing techno soundtrack in the background / as their tiny ankles thwack // against the bulk of male thugs. / They have names like Buffy, Elektra, or Storm / but excel in code decryption, Egyptology, and pyrotechnics. // They pout when tortured, but always escape just in time, / still impeccable in lip gloss and pointy-toed boots, / to rescue male partners, love interests, or fathers. // Impossible chests burst out of tight leather jackets, / from which they extract the hidden scroll, antidote, or dagger, / tousled hair covering one eye. // They return to their day jobs as forensic pathologists, / wearing their hair up and donning dainty glasses. / Of all the goddesses, these pneumatic heroines most // resemble Artemis, with her miniskirts and crossbow, / or Freya, with her giant gray cats. / Each has seen this apocalypse before. // See her perfect three-point landing on top of that chariot, / riding the silver moon into the horizon, / city crumbling around her heels” (5).  She spans the objectification of woman from the Ancient Greeks through the Germanic tribes to the teenage boys spending hours before a video console.  Some things never change.

My favorite of this collection, “Alice in Darkness,” deftly manages to put a favorite children’s story into a more realistic venue.  She writes, “Forget tears.  Chasing / white animals with timepieces / in this drug-trip landscape / can only lead to more of same. / Hedgehogs, playing cards, paintbrushes: / full of undisclosed danger. / Didn’t your mother tell you / not to kiss strangers? / That Cheshire smile shouldn’t fool you. / Pull your skirt down. / Your nails are growing so fast / you’re hardly human. / Alice, fight your version of bedlam / as long as you can. / Sleep the sweet dream away / from that gooey looking glass, or mushrooms, / or the fear of your own body. / Forget what the night tastes like. / Stop wondering (sic) through the shadows, / holding your neck out / for the slice of the axe” (3).

Jeannine Hall Gailey’s first collection, Becoming the Villainess, foreshadows the wonderfully inventive and pleasing poems which would come later.  I sense a note of humor flowing from her experiences as a woman growing up in America today.  She has a fourth volume coming soon – The Robot Scientist’s Daughter --- and I look forward to seeing what she does with science fiction.  Five stars

--Chiron, 2/6/15

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

I must confess: when I was in seventh grade, I had a tremendous crush on Elizabeth Taylor.  Molecules of that crush remain today.  When I first noticed a novel by Elizabeth Taylor, I quickly dismissed the writer as no relation to the violet-eyed goddess.  Then, the name kept popping up in odd places, a mention here and there, without any elaboration.  Finally, I decided to find out about Liz the second.  The first novel I could find was Angel. 

According to the bio in the New York Review Books Classics, she was born in 1912 into a middle-class family in Berkshire, England.  She worked as a librarian and governess before marrying in 1936.  Nine years later, the first of her eleven novels appeared.  She also authored four collections of short stories.  Two of her novels, including Angel were made into films.  I just added that one to my Netflix queue.

Angelica Deverell is a thoroughly despicable character.  Most of the time, readers like to admire the main characters in the novels they read, but every once in a while, one comes along with such an absorbing story, we can’t stop reading. 

Angel lives with her mother over a shop in a poor section of town.  Angel’s Auntie Lottie is in service as a lady’s maid to a wealthy family nearby at Paradise House.  She offers to introduce her to service to help out her sister and “Angel stared at her.  ‘Do you really dare to suggest that I should demean myself doing for a useless half-wit of a girl what she she could perfectly well do for herself; that I should grovel and curtsy to someone of my own age; dance attendance on her; put on her stockings for her and sit up late at night, waiting for her to come back from enjoying herself?  You must be utterly mad to breathe a single word of such a thing to me’” (46).  One must admire her spirit, drive, and determination.

Angel hears story about Paradise House, the grounds, the peacocks, and the servants.  However, she will not visit there, because, Taylor writes, “My mother lost her inheritance because she married beneath her.  She can never go back, so don’t ever mention anything to anybody about Paradise House for that reason” (10).  Secretly, Angel has a growing obsession with the house.

At an early age, Angel decides she is going to become a famous writer.  She writes her first novel at about the age of 16.  She sends it off to the only publisher she has ever heard of – Oxford University Press – and quickly receives a rejection.  She denigrates the editors, and her wild imagination began to reshape her life.  Taylor writes, “Her panic-stricken face would be reflected back at her as she struggled to deny her identity, slowly cosseting herself away from the truth.  She was learning to triumph over reality, and the truth was beginning to leave her in peace” (15).

 Angel’s dreams grew and expanded.  Taylor writes, “She had never had any especial friends and most people seemed unreal to her.  her aloofness and her reputation for being vain made her unpopular, yet there were times when she longed desperately, because of some uneasiness, to establish herself; to make her mark; to talk, as she thought of it, on equal terms: but since she had never thought of herself as being on equal terms with anyone, she stumbled from condescension to appeasement, making what the other girls called ‘personal remarks’ and offending with off-hand flattery” (16-17).

The prose is wonderful, the story absorbing, the characters all interesting.  I can’t wait to find more of her novels.  Angel, by Elizabeth Taylor.  5 stars

--Chiron, 2/3/15

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley

After books about English Professors and literature – or perhaps before, it is an extremely close race – I love novels set in bookstores.  Christopher Morley has an especially warm place in my heart, since he is a Philadelphia native and a journalist to boot.  Novels by former newspaper people are a close third on my list.

Morley’s second novel, The Haunted Bookshop, starts out as a whimsical tale of Roger Mifflin, an eccentric owner and operator of the shop.  An interesting cast of characters haunts the shop.  Set in about 1919, the prose, attitudes, and viewpoints of the characters might seem a bit dated.  I felt the faint glow of O. Henry who died in 1910.  While Morley does not have a clever twist at the end, the story does take a radical turn on the last few pages.

One day, Aubrey Gilbert stops by the shop and proposes an advertising campaign to increase sales.  Roger will have none of it.  He claims, “The people who are doing my advertising are Stevenson, Browning, Conrad, and Company” (7).  Thus begins a cascade of literary references, which tempted me beyond all reason to catalog.  Once I started, I could not stop, and ended up with six pages, single-spaced of authors and works, much to the amazement of my book club.  Some mentioned items were well-known, others not so much, but only a few escaped my research.  This makes a daunting and most interesting reading list.

Aubrey persists without making any headway, but coincidentally, he does write ad copy for a Mr. Chapman, CEO of Dantybits Company, who also happens to frequent the shop.  Mr. Chapman has a daughter fresh out of “finishing school,” and he wants her to have some real-life experiences.  Roger agrees, and the young lady moves into the attic.

A peculiar set of booksellers – known as the “Corn Cob Club” -- also meet at the shop.  Mostly they decry the pitfalls and misfortunes of the bookselling business, as well as the theory and practice of stocking such a shop.

I have “haunted” many a shop like Roger Mifflin’s in my life, and I recognized the characters, the complaints, and the dusty shelves.  On one occasion, Roger is called to a noted bookseller in Philadelphia to appraise his collection.  The trip to the City of Brotherly Love turns out to be a fake, thus setting in motion the bizarre turn the story makes.  With some hours to spare before his return train to Brooklyn, Roger walks down Market Street to visit, Leary’s Bookshop, on 9 South 9th Street.  Leary’s operated for nearly 100 years at that location.  It closed in 1969, and was known as the oldest bookshop in America.  I spent so many fond afternoons in Leary’s I could not recount them all.  I happened to visit the day they announced the closing.  I stood on the sidewalk with tears streaming as though I had lost a great, good friend.  Indeed, I had.

The copy I have is print-on-demand, and the editing and layout are atrocious.  If you order this quaint book, make sure a publisher is listed in the description.  The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley will provide hours of fun – and not all of them actually reading – for anyone interested in books and literature.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 1/30/15

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

My  recent encounter with Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively’s Booker Prize winning novel, led me to a more in depth look at this clever, amusing, and skilled author.  She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, A member of PEN and the Society of Authors, and a receipt of several titles bestowed by the Queen, including Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.  She was born in Cairo, Egypt, but now lives in London.

Her 2011 novel, How it All Began, tells the story of Charlotte Rainsford, who is mugged in the first sentence.  This sets off a chain of consequences, which dramatically affect the lives of several people, some of whom do not even know Charlotte.  For example, her daughter Rose must give up a business trip with her employer, Lord Henry, to care for her mother who has been seriously injured.  Monica, Henry’s niece, takes the place of the efficient Rose, and promptly forgets the typed text of his speech for a conference.  Humiliation ensues.  Before Monica leaves, she texts her lover, Jeremy, and his wife reads the message.  Monica also meets a banker, named Harrington, and upon discussing her business as an interior designer, he hires her to redo a condo in London.  I am not really giving that much away, since all this happens in the first few pages.

Charlotte moves in with Rose and her husband, Gerry.  She has been teaching a class of immigrants to read and speak English, and one student presses Charlotte for lessons in her home, as he needs these skills for an upgrade in his employment.  She agrees, and he has a peculiar effect on Rose and Gerry.  Of course, Charlotte is anxious to get back on her own, and she constantly muses over her difficulties. 

Lively writes, “Old age is its own climate, she reflects.  Up against the wire, as you are, the proverbial bus is less of a concern: it is heading for you anyway.  The assault upon health is inevitable, rather than an unanticipated outrage.  You remain solipsistic – we are all of that – but the focus of worry is further from the self.  You worry about loved ones – that tiresome term, as bad as closure – you worry about the state of the nation, about sixteen-year-olds sticking knives into one another, about twenty-year-olds who can’t find a job, you worry about the absence of sparrows and the paucity of butterflies, about destruction of habitats, you worry about the decline of the language, about the books that are no longer read, about the people who don’t read” (194).

That sure fits me to a tee!  Interspersed are many moments of quiet humor, tenderness, and a dash of treachery.  Like many English writers, I always pick up a handful of interesting terms and idioms.  Charlotte has an obsession with books and reading.  On a visit to her doctor, she notes others in the waiting room, “…few others had a book.  People read magazines – their own, or the dog-eared ones supplied by the hospital – or they simply sat, staring at each other, or into space.  One girl was immersed in a paperback with candy pink raised lettering on the cover.  An elderly man had a battered hardback library book.  She wanted to know what it was but could not see – unforgiveable inquisitiveness, but the habit of a lifetime” (117).

I never go anywhere without a book, and I always try and sneak a peek at what others are reading.  How it All Began by Penelope Lively has convinced me to expand my collection of her works.  A most pleasant and enjoyable read.  5 stars. 

--Chiron, 1/19/15