Day 582: The Secret Place

18 Sep

Cover for The Secret PlaceDetective Stephen Moran has been stuck on the Cold Case squad ever since he made his move to claim responsibility for a solved case in Tana French’s last book, Broken Harbor. But when Holly Mackey comes to see him, he thinks he’s found his opportunity to join the Murder squad.

A witness in a previous case, Holly is now 16 and attending St. Kilda’s, a private girl’s school where Chris Harper, who attended a nearby boy’s school, was found dead the year before on the grounds. It is so far an unsolved case, and Holly has information about it.

Holly explains that the school has a bulletin board called the Secret Place, where the girls can post anonymous messages. The school thinks this board is preferable to allowing the girls to use a social media site. That morning Holly found a message that said, “I know who killed him.” As she is a cop’s daughter, she removed it carefully with gloves and put it in a plastic bag to bring to Moran.

Moran takes the note to Antoinette Conway, the lead on the Harper case, hoping she’ll allow him to work with her. She has not had a lead in the case for awhile and is eager to follow it up. Once the two detectives begin looking into it, they find their suspects for posting the note and for being the murderer limited to two groups of four girls—one Holly’s group of close friends and the other a bunch of mean girls lead by a girl named Joanne.

Although this is not my favorite of French’s novels, she writes a strong, atmospheric mystery. I believe she is the premier writer of contemporary Irish crime fiction, and her work in many ways reminds me of that of Gillian Flynn. I like that her books are not series, yet they are linked by a minor character in one novel being the major character of another.

http://www.netgalley.comIn The Secret Place, French evokes an eerie atmosphere in the grounds of this posh girl’s school. This novel creates a fascinating psychological portrait of these two groups of teenage girls.

Day 581: Reread! A Visit from the Goon Squad

17 Sep

Cover for A Visit from the Goon SquadWhen I first read this quirky book last year, I said I wanted to reread it so that I could pay better attention to the minor characters in each story. I intended this because Egan’s clever technique to tie these stories together is to make a minor character in one story be the primary character in another.

So, this is my second review of this collection, which is really great. If you didn’t run right out and get it after my last review, I urge you to do so now. The stories are hip, aware, funny, and terrifically smart, centering around the music and public relations industries.

The stories in the first half of the book all touch on two characters—Benny Salazar, who is a music business executive when we first encounter him, and Lou, his mentor. The stories move backward and forward in time, so Benny is first at the height of his career but beginning to realize his taste is falling out of fashion. In a later story he is a teenager in a punk band called the Flaming Dildoes. He has several more appearances before making a comeback in his 60’s with a sensational concert starring his old friend Scotty from that first high school band.

Lou is at the height of his powers in one of the earlier stories, when he seduces one of the girls from the Dildoes, Jocelyn. Her friend Rhea watches their behavior in dismay. Later a dying old man, Lou is delighted to receive a visit from Rhea and Jocelyn, together again after years. But Jocelyn fights an urge to push him into the swimming pool as she considers her 30 years of wasted life as a drug addict, started on her way by Lou when she was 17.

The funniest stories skewer the public relations field. Dolly, once the premier public relations agent in New York (and the boss of Benny Salazar’s wife), has given up her career after a disastrous party she planned. Her brilliant idea to suspend translucent pans of colored oil from the ceiling near spotlights so that the oil would move as it heated was ruined when the plastic pans melted, sending hot oil down to burn all the celebrities. She sees an opportunity to revive her career in a job rehabilitating the reputation of a brutal third-world general. Even though this job almost ends in a murder, when her strategy actually works, she is contacted by a slew of dictators and assorted thugs wanting to hire her.

The has-been starlet Dolly used as the general’s “girlfriend” is the focus in her early career of a hilarious vituperative mock PR piece by the journalist who physically attacked her during an interview (Benny Salazar’s troubled brother-in-law). And finally, a short time in the future, Benny Salazar brings together his smash concert by appealing to the tastes of babies (“pointers,” as they are termed by the marketeers) and using the equivalent of likes on Facebook.

I understood a few things better on rereading the book. In an interview, Jennifer Egan said the stories were about pauses. One of them, a delightful Powerpoint presentation written by a preteen girl (the daughter of Benny Salazar’s ex-assistant Sasha, whose story is the first one in the book), talks about her little brother’s fascination with the pauses in rock music. In the book, we revisit the characters at different times in their lives, after pauses when we don’t see them. This approach leads us to consider the events of their life that we don’t see. Finally, there is the title, explained by the remark of a character. “Time is a goon.”


Best Book of the Week!

16 Sep

Cover for TetheredThis week’s Best Book is Tethered by Amy MacKinnon!

Day 580: The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

15 Sep

Cover for The Broken RoadIn December 1933, eighteen-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor began a journey on foot from Holland to Istanbul. Last year I reviewed the two books that cover the first two legs of the journey, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, but had to wait until this third volume was published to finish the journey.

Unfortunately, Fermor never completed this book. He actually began writing it first, about ten years after his journey, but stalled. Many years later he wrote the other two books and finally returned to this one. The editors explain in the introduction that they had to piece bits of it together from the manuscript, one of his surviving diaries (others were lost), and other documents. They did a great job, for it only seems fragmentary for a few pages in the middle.

This travelogue picks up at the Iron Gates by the Danube in Rumania but almost immediately moves to Bulgaria. Fermor spends a great deal of the book traipsing around the Bulgarian countryside meeting colorful characters before abruptly deciding to go to Bucharest. As most of this section of the book is written from his memories of what happened because of his lost diaries, I can only say that his memory must have been remarkable. He writes in a vividly descriptive style, allowing you to imagine yourself along on his trip through a world that is long gone.

It is remarkable also that almost everywhere on this journey he meets with kindness and hospitality. Only one night as he miserably hobbled along in Bulgaria after his foot was rubbed all day by a boot nail were his requests for a ride on two different passing wagons met with demands for money. Since he was living on a pound a week, wired periodically by his parents, he chose to walk. That same night his appeal for shelter at one house met no response from inhabitants who were clearly home. But farther down the road some charcoal burners cheerfully took him in.

Only at all disappointing is his description, which is almost nonexistent, of Istanbul. (He persists in calling it Constantinople.) I can only suppose his visit was in some way spoiled, as it is clear from his comments on the way there that he had romantic notions of the East. A footnote repeats his remark that he never left Constantinople without a lightening of the heart.

Fermor’s book ends where his green diary picks up, with his travels all over Mount Athos, Greece’s Holy Mountain. There he visited one Eastern Orthodox monastery after another. This section is fascinating for its glimpses into this unusual mode of life. Fermor came to love Greece so much that he lived there much of his life, and this was his first experience of it.

I actually found this book easier to read than the other two more polished efforts, as enjoyable as they are. I think it is because it was written by his younger self. For although he was kicked out of prep school before this journey and never returned to a formal education, he plainly was frightfully well read and knowledgeable and constantly lost me in the earlier books with classical or poetic allusions that I was too lazy to look up.

Apparently Fermor, who was clearly adventurous, went on to live an exciting life. I have a biography of him waiting for me in my pile.

If you have read my reviews of Fermor’s other books, you may have noticed a discrepancy. In those I say he was nineteen at the beginning of his adventures. Well, that’s what he said, but since he celebrated his 20th birthday at a monastery in February 1935 and started his journey in December more than a year before, even I can do the math. I did notice him referring to himself as twenty before he actually turned it, so that’s probably what happened in the earlier books.

Day 579: The Daughters of Mars

12 Sep

Cover for The Daughters of MarsNaomi and Sally Durance are sisters and Australian nurses in 1914. They are divided by old grudges and a new crime. The older Naomi deserted their home in the bush for a career in Sydney, leaving Sally stuck there with their parents. More recently, their mother was struck down with cervical cancer and suffered terribly. Sally stole enough morphine from her own hospital to help her mother die, but one day after Naomi arrived, Sally found their mother dead and the drugs gone. Sally feels guilt at her part of the crime and resentment that Naomi could do what she could not.

There is a fervor in Australia for the war, so both women decide independently to volunteer as nurses. They set out by ship for Egypt, then to serve on a hospital ship off Gallipoli, and finally to France.

This novel shows extensive research into the conditions of World War I for nurses, and of their treatment. Although by and large they receive respect, that is not always the case. In an incident based on a true event, their hospital ship Archimedes is employed for one mission as a troop carrier, its red crosses blacked out. It is torpedoed and the survivors, including Sally and Naomi, wait in the water clinging to a raft for hours for rescue. During this traumatic wait, one soldier after another simply lets go.

After the nurses are rescued, they are put to work in a hospital on Lemnos, where the officer in charge sees no use for them and lets the orderlies treat them with disrespect. All their possessions lost, they are given local peasant dresses to wear instead of uniforms. Eventually, an orderly rapes one of the nurses and after a perfunctory investigation, gets off lightly.

The adventures of the sisters and their friends are indeed interesting and provide a different view of the war. With the few of Keneally’s books that I have read, Schindler’s List being the most well known, I have felt a certain distance from events and characters. This book is no exception, but at the same time I wanted to see what would happen.

Although told in a straightforward limited third-person narrative that moves between the point of view of the two women, Keneally offers up an alternate ending. It is not one we can choose between, but one where he tells us what might have happened and then tells us what did happen. The ending brought tears to my eyes but also seemed a little like a trick.


Day 578: Tethered

11 Sep

Cover for TetheredClara Marsh has been wounded by life. She is a mortician who spends her days preparing bodies for burial, caring for them tenderly and tucking a symbolic bouquet of flowers into the coffin of each. But she herself is isolated, afraid to look people in the eye, unable to touch. Her frame is skeletal, her scalp scarred from pulling out her own hair. The only people who seem to care for her are her boss and his wife, Linus and Alma Bartholomew.

One day Clara finds a little girl in the funeral home named Trecie, who says she has been visiting Linus. When Clara asks Linus about the girl, he asks Clara to help her. Soon after, at the scene of a death, Clara finds evidence that Trecie is the victim of child pornographers. When she tells Detective Mike Sullivan that she knows Trecie, he asks her to call him when she sees Trecie again. But Trecie gets away from them.

Mike believes there is a connection between the pornographers and the death of Precious Doe, an unidentified child found murdered after being badly beaten three years before. Soon it begins to look as if he may be right. Unfortunately, a fragile friendship between Clara and Mike is threatened when Mike begins to believe that Trecie doesn’t exist.

Although this novel is framed within a mystery, its soul is within the persona of Clara and her story. Tethered is precisely and beautifully written and absolutely haunting. I was transfixed by it.

Day 577: Red Sorghum

8 Sep

Cover for Red SorghumRed Sorghum is absolutely brutal. It tells the story of a Chinese family during the time of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Most of the action of the book takes place in 1939 and a few years thereafter, although there are glimpses of years before and later. I say book, because it is described in some places as a series of novellas and in other places as a novel.

The two main characters are Yu Zhan’ao, the narrator’s grandfather, also known as Commander Yu, and Dai, his grandmother. The narrator’s father Douquan is a less important character. The narrator himself only makes an appearance in the last two pages.

The book begins with an ambush of the Japanese near Black Water River. But nothing here is related in a straightforward manner. The narration moves back and forth in time as Commander Yu’s preparations for the battle alternate with the story of Uncle Arhat’s kidnapping as slave labor for the Japanese and the story of how Yu Zhan’ao meets Dai. There is plenty of violence in all of these stories, and we are not spared any details of guts falling out, decapitated heads, or anything involving bodily functions.

The Chinese are at war through most of the book, of course, but various factions of Chinese fight and kill each other just as viciously. Although Commander Yu wins the battle of Black Water River, almost all of his men are killed when his ally, Detachment Leader Pocky Leng, fails to turn up at the ambush, then steals all of the captured armament.

Earlier in time but later in the book, Grandfather Yu meets Dai on her way to marry a rich man’s son. Her father’s greed has betrothed her to a leper. Yu seduces her on her way back to visit her parents after three days of marriage and then goes off to murder her husband and father-in-law, leaving her a rich widow.

Sometimes the violence in this book is so extreme it is almost funny. People behave grotesquely—they are crude, barbaric, disgusting, venal, and revengeful. Commander Yu is almost more eager to kill Pocky Leng than he is the vicious Japanese, who are nearly cartoonish in their evil.

In between scenes of almost unbelievable brutality are beautiful descriptions of nature, with a strong emphasis on color. Red is consistently a symbol of life and goodness while green is its opposite. Sometimes blood is green instead of red and too the sun can be green. This use of color comes to a focus in the last pages of the novel, where Mo Yan laments the disappearance of the wonderful red sorghum (a major presence in the novel) and excoriates its green hybrid replacement.

I found very little to like in this book. I read it all, but I basically had to force myself to finish it (and beautiful descriptions or not, I got tired of reading about sorghum). I know the book has received a lot of admiration, and I do not exactly agree with the criticism that it glorifies violence, but there is a lot of very graphic violence in the novel.


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