Day 589: Broken Monsters

30 Sep

Cover for Broken MonstersIn the wreck of the city of Detroit, Detective Gabi Versado is investigating the bizarre murder of a young African-American boy. His torso is found glued to the body of a deer. Gabi is so involved in the case that she doesn’t realize her teenage daughter Layla and Layla’s best friend Cas are attempting to entrap a child molester.

Jonno is a failed writer who moves to Detroit and is soon posting video blogs about the wild art scene. He just happens to be on the scene to videotape the discovery of another weird murder.

Clayton is an artist whose work has recently shifted. A few people have been stunned by the strange beauty of his animal fusion statues. An art promoter wants him to exhibit at a massive art party where the artists are assembling themed shows in a group of abandoned houses.

Beukes steadily builds tension in a novel that juxtaposes the ruins of the city with themes about abuse of the Internet. Those who are fans of her stunning debut, The Shining Girls, will not be surprised by the additional twist the plot takes.

http://www.netgalley.comIf I have any criticism, and it is a very small one, it is that the South African author, who has set both of her novels in the urban ruins of large cities in the U.S., occasionally gets her American idioms wrong.

Day 588: I Await the Devil’s Coming

29 Sep

Cover for I Await the Devil's ComingI had a strong reaction to I Await the Devil’s Coming, which I will explain in a moment. This book was written in 1901 and belongs in the category of confessional literature. It apparently was quite a sensation at the time and had a great following by young women.

Mary MacLane was a 19-year-old woman living in a Montana mining town. In the book she declares herself a genius and an egoist who is waiting for her life to start when the Devil takes her away to be his love. This book is claimed as an early feminist work, and in the introduction, there is a statement to the effect that if MacLane had been a young man, she could have gone off and made her mark.

I don’t see this book as a feminist work at all but more likely as an expression of mental illness. I have met a similar person in a relative, who complained that life was hell on earth and that the people of our town were all provincial philistines. MacLane wasn’t going to act, she was waiting for things to happen to her. You could reply that in her time and place there was nothing a respectable woman could do to change her life, but of course, MacLane didn’t care about being respectable, at least she said she didn’t.

MacLane was mentally ill not because she said she was waiting for the Devil, but because she showed signs of severe depression alternating with fervor and euphoria, and she heard voices. If she had been a young man, she would have been incapable of striking out on her own and making a success of herself.

In fact, she did not. Her book was published and she was kicked out of the house. We don’t really know how she led her life after that. She wrote another book years later that was not a success, and she died alone in her 40’s in a hotel room.

It is a sad story. The book is well written, visceral at times, but it is not a feminist masterpiece. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a feminist. George Eliot was to some extent a feminist. Mary Wollstonecraft was a feminist. Mary MacLane was not.

Could the situation of women at the turn of the century make a woman ill? That is another question. Charlotte Perkins Gilman obviously thought so.


Day 587: Harvest

26 Sep

Cover for HarvestHarvest seems to be concerned with exploring the dark side of human nature. Set in an unspecified time in the past, it focuses on unusual events in a small, remote village.

The villagers are celebrating the harvest. They are so busy drinking and eating that they forget to appoint their harvest queen. Groggily awakening the next morning, they spot two fires. One is green wood burning in the distance, a signal that some new family is establishing itself. The other is the master’s resented dovecote and the stables. Someone has set fire to the dovecote, and the fire has spread.

The novel’s narrator, Walter, noticed three young men return the night before with a load of hallucinogenic mushrooms and a dried puffball. He knows there is no use for the puffball except to spread a fire. Still, he decides to say nothing.

After the fire is out, Walter notices how the men he believes guilty behave over-helpfully to Master Kent and insist that the newcomers must have set it. So, the master and some of the villagers go off to see them.

Walter has injured his hand in the fire, so he stays home. But he soon hears how the villagers caved in the roof of the hovel so that it injured the young woman inside and how the master sentenced her two companions to a week in the stocks.

For some reason I felt dread from the onset of this novel, and this feeling was not wrong. Although the villagers have already started trouble by not confessing their actions, much worse is to come. For kind Master Kent has lost his property through an entailment to his wife’s cousin, a ruthless and cruel young man who is only interested in enclosing the common land and putting it to sheep. Now that he is master, it is up to him to mete out justice when the next incident happens.

Although Walt’s main fault is inaction, he soon finds himself being treated like a stranger again, for he came to the village long ago as a servant to Master Kent. Soon the village he loved is unrecognizable.

This novel is masterfully written, about how greed and ignorance can destroy a community. It is a dark and twisty tale.

Day 586: Wit’s End

25 Sep

Cover for Wit's EndRima Lansill finds herself suddenly without a family. Both her parents are dead: her mother when she was young and her father just recently of cancer. It is not so much her father’s death that has rocked her, though, but that of her younger brother Oliver in a drunk-driving accident. Rima is upset enough to want to get away from Cleveland for awhile, so she is happy to accept the invitation of her godmother to stay at her house of Wit’s End in Santa Cruz, California.

Rima’s godmother is the famous mystery writer A. B. Early—Addison—whose sleuth is Maxwell Lane. Rima has read all of Addison’s books but has never actually met her, as there was some sort of rift between Addison and Bim, Rima’s father. Rima wonders if it was caused by Addison having used Bim’s name for the murderer in one of her books.

Taking sleuthing tips from Maxwell Lane himself, Rima decides to try to find out what happened and just what her father’s relationship to Addison was. Addison herself is not very forthcoming, but some letters Rima finds in Maxwell’s fan mail show knowledge of the real Bim, not the fictional murderer. And these letters arrived from the home of what used to be a cult.

I have now read three Fowler novels, and they all construct an interesting tale full of well-meaning characters (although We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves leaves the others in its dust). There are some alarming moments in Wit’s End, but mostly what it offers is comfort and a new home for the main character. I have categorized it as a mystery, but the mystery is really only something to hang the characters and atmosphere on, as the book club is in The Jane Austen Book Club. Wit’s End is a fun bit of very light reading.


Best Book of the Week!

24 Sep

Cover for The Shining GirlsThis week’s Best Book is The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (and of course, A Visit from the Goon Squad, but I’ve already picked it once).

Day 585: And the Mountains Echoed

23 Sep

Cover for And the Mountains EchoedMaybe because it doesn’t have as focused a plot, I didn’t like And the Mountains Echoed as much as I have Hosseini’s other books. Still, its characters involved me in their dilemmas.

I don’t think the blurb helps, because it made me think that the novel centers around Abdullah and his younger sister Pari, who are separated early in the novel. It starts with them certainly, but then it goes on to examine a multitude of relationships between other characters—some relatives of Abdullah and Pari, some connected only peripherally.

The novel explores the difficulties of connections between people—loved ones who are separated, people who are displaced, siblings who don’t understand each other, children who feel their parents disapprove of them, and so on. Although each story is interesting on its own, I felt a certain amount of frustration when some of the characters never reappeared again.

Although the ending of the novel is touching, I feel that the plot is too diffuse to be entirely satisfying. Although Jennifer Egan used a similar approach in A Visit from the Goon Squad, the difference is that I came away from that book feeling thrilled at its cleverness rather than frustrated.

Day 584: The Shining Girls

22 Sep

Cover for The Shining GirlsThe Shining Girls is a clever, clever novel, a hybrid of a fantasy novel and a crime thriller. I read rave reviews of it, and it deserves them.

Harper has just killed a man in a Chicago Hooverville in 1931. He is being pursued in the freezing cold when he murders a blind woman for her coat. Inside the pocket he finds a house key, and somehow he knows the way to the house. It is a boarded up old wreck on the outside, but inside it is warm and comfortable, even prosperous looking. When Harper goes into an upstairs room, he finds souvenirs and girls’ names written on the wall. He understands that the house wants him to kill these girls. When he goes back outside, he finds himself in another time.

In 1993, Kirby Mazrachi interviews for an internship at the Chicago Sun-Times. She has asked to work with Dan Velasquez, a former crime writer who now covers sports. Her goal is to find the man who attacked her and nearly killed her in 1989. She believes he is a serial killer, and she is planning to use the paper’s resources to find more of his murders.

As Kirby continues her investigation, finding evidence that doesn’t make sense, Harper tracks down his shining girls one by one, visiting them when they are young and then going back for them as adults, over a time period of 60 years. He takes something from each one and gives it to the next.

This novel is completely absorbing, well written, and suspenseful. It is also haunting and unusual, with everything cleverly linked up. In the larger context, it explores the issues of fate and free will, but as entertainment, it keeps you pinned to your seat.



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