Day 1096: Lockdown

Cover for LockdownAlthough King is best known for her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries, it is her stand-alone thrillers that have really appealed to me. I think her Folly is one of the best of its genre. However, if Lockdown hadn’t been written by Laurie R. King, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read it. The subject, a violent incident at a middle school, wouldn’t normally appeal to me.

The staff and students of Guadalupe school are preparing for Career Day. They have had a tough year in which one student’s sister was murdered by a gang banger, another student is a witness against him, and another student, a young girl named Bee, disappeared without a trace.

Linda McDonald, the school principal, is most concerned about whether the day will come off. She is hoping to inspire some of her mostly impoverished students with career ambitions, and hope for the future.

Gordon Kendrick, Linda’s husband, has a past that may be coming back to haunt him after he is mentioned in the publicity for Career Day. Another adult who is hoping to stay under the radar is Tio, the school janitor.

link to NetgalleySeveral of the students are clearly troubled. But 8th grader Brendan Atchison, the son of a successful entrepreneur, is plotting something drastic that involves another person.

Although the novel employs a technique that I recently found irritating in Salt to the Sea, the rapid shifting of point of view between short sections, it works much better in Lockdown, building true suspense. At first, I was more interested in the story of what happened when Linda met Gordon in New Zealand than in the plot about the school, but I finally decided that this is another fine suspense novel by Laurie R. King.

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Day 1092: Commonwealth

Cover for CommonwealthIt’s difficult to explain what Commonwealth is about without either telling too much or failing to make it sound interesting. Yet, it is a very interesting novel about how one afternoon changes the lives of everyone in two families, or at least that’s partially what it’s about.

The novel begins when Albert Cousins, an attorney from the district attorney’s office, crashes a christening for Fix and Beverly Keating’s youngest daughter. Fix only vaguely knows Bert Cousins from his work as a police officer. Bert has crashed the party in an effort to get away from his own household with his three children and pregnant wife, Teresa, as he does every weekend.

But once Bert sets eyes on Beverly Keating, he decides she is his future. One kiss in the upstairs bedroom with a sleeping child begins an affair that results in divorce for both families.

The novel concentrates on the effects of this divorce on both sets of children. Although Carolyn and Franny Keating beg year after year to stay in California with their dad, they are uprooted to Virginia to live with their mother when she and Bert move back to his home state. Bert demonstrates again and again that he doesn’t care to be around his own children, but he wins custody of them for the whole of each summer, while Teresa gets a job and keeps it together the rest of the year by the skin of her teeth. The result is that the kids grow up with virtually no supervision, especially in the summer, when Bert leaves everything to Beverly, who can’t cope.

This novel reminded me in some ways of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy, although it spans only about 45 or 50 years. However, it felt that the characters in this novel are much more knowable. I always enjoy Patchett’s writing, and her novels are all different from each other. I enjoyed this one very much.

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Day 1068: Cloud Atlas

Cover for Cloud AtlasBest Book of the Week!
Cloud Atlas is a reread for me, and I think when I first read it, it was my first postmodern fiction. I found it, and still find it, astonishingly inventive and compelling.

Like its namesake, “Cloud Atlas Sextext,” the musical composition that recurs throughout the book, Cloud Atlas is composed of six stories, but with various themes and motifs linking them. Each story is set farther into the future. A story begins and is cut off at a climactic moment until we get to the sixth, which is complete. Then, going back toward the past, the stories are completed.

“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is the journal of a man traveling in the Pacific in the 19th century. On his travels he observes the shameful treatment of the natives by missionaries, rescues a native from slavery, and encounters a series of scalawags. A quack befriends him and begins treating him for a supposed worm.

In “Letters from Zedelghem,” Robert Frobisher writes his dear friend Rufus Sixsmith about his adventures. Frobisher is a gifted composer but impoverished and a bit of a scalawag himself. In 1931 Belgium, he talks his way into a position of amanuensis for a great composer. While there, he begins writing the haunting “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” But he finds he is not the only con artist in the house.

“Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is a manuscript mystery novel about a reporter who finds out about safety hazards in a nearby nuclear power facility. Her informant is Rufus Sixsmith, now in his sixties, a Nobel winning scientist. After Sixsmith is murdered by the corporation that employs him, Luisa begins trying to get a copy of the report he wrote, which is being suppressed.

“The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” is a movie set in the present or near future. In it, a publisher in debt is being threatened by thuggish clients. When he goes for his brother’s help, he is tricked into committing himself to a home for the aged.

“An Orison of Sonmi-451” is an oral history dictated by a fabricant from prison, some time in the future. She relates how she became enlightened and got involved with a revolutionary movement against the corprocacy  that controls the 12 cities still habitable on the planet.

“Sloosha’s Croosin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” is a story told to listeners in the far future. By now, most of the world is living as primitive tribes, and Zachry’s tribe lives in Hawaii as farmers and goat herders. But a Prescient named Meronym comes to live in the village. These people are the only ones who have kept the scientific knowledge of the time before. Zachry suspects her of motives for being there that she has not told them.

Each of these stories is written in a different style reflecting its time period and with language evolving in the future. The stories share thematic threads and invoke each other’s characters, mixing together the “fictional” characters with the “real” ones. Luisa meets Sixsmith, Robert Frobisher finds Adam Ewing’s journal, Zachry’s tribe worships Sonmi as a god, Sonmi watches the movie about Cavendish. Intricately plotted and fitted together like puzzles, these stories comprise an amazing novel.

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Day 910: The Sisters Brothers

Cover for The Sisters BrothersThe Sisters Brothers is a book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project, but it also turns out to qualify for my Man Booker Prize project. It is a peculiar novel indeed. It is blurbed as hilarious. I did not find it so. Satirical, maybe; dark, yes; picaresque, definitely.

It  is 1851, and the Sisters brothers are on their way from Oregon City to California to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm. They are hired killers who work for a man known as the Commodore. Charlie is the Commodore’s man, but Eli is tired of the life and wants to own a store.

This is definitely a road trip novel, and on the road, Eli and Charlie encounter many odd people. Most of them they deal with brutally. Eli and Charlie are themselves almost self-parodies, as is their mode of speech.

Although there is an underlying plot, the novel is a series of episodes, where the brothers encounter one situation after another and get out of them more or less fantastically. There is a bit of dark humor in the dialogue, but unlike some other reviewers, I did not find the novel funny. I was interested in Eli’s mental journey, but after he and Charlie blew away a bunch of people, not so much.

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Day 842: Literary Wives! A Circle of Wives

Cover for A Circle of WivesToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives! If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.

Ariel of One Little Library
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

Welcome back, Ariel!

My Review

As a detective for the Palo Alto police department, Samantha Adams does not have to deal with many violent crimes. So, when a prominent plastic surgeon is found dead in a local hotel room, registered under an assumed name, the assumption is that he died of a heart attack. But the medical examiner finds bruising on his body and what seems to be an injection site.

The first interviews around the possible crime seem routine. Dr. John Taylor’s wife Deborah is a commanding and cold presence, but nothing seems out of the ordinary. Then someone leaks shocking information to the police. Dr. Taylor had not one but three wives.

To her surprise, Sam finds that although second wife MJ and third wife Helen are completely unaware of the existence of the other wives, Deborah knows all about them. Love having departed their marriage years before, Deborah has compromised to avoid divorce by allowing John to have other wives.

MJ is a middle-aged hippy who has two grown sons by her first marriage and is close to her brother. She works as an accountant and has had a difficult life. Helen is a successful pediatric oncologist living in L.A., who was happy with a part-time married life while John worked in Palo Alto. The coroner’s opinion being brought in as murder, Sam seems to have a choice among three ready-made suspects.

This novel certainly hooked me in, although it never really answered my questions about the kind of man who would do this. As a mystery, it is also complicated. I was able to figure out how to break one character’s alibi, but the solution was more complex than that.

What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

If we don’t count Samantha’s relationship with Peter, which she doesn’t admit to even being “committed,” this novel looks at three marriages. For Deborah, her marriage seems to be concerned solely with wealth and prestige. She has pushed John into his career because of its potential for making money, his only insistence being on sticking with reconstructive rather than elective plastic surgery. He has stopped doing the things that used to give him pleasure because of her opinion that he isn’t that good at them and they are a distraction. It is not such a surprise that he would have wanted a divorce but more of a surprise that he didn’t just get one. But Deborah’s will seems to have been stronger than his, he seeming to be one of those men who will do almost anything to have peace in the house.

John’s marriage to MJ is based on his having the upper hand. She is so happy to find him that she meekly accedes to all his rules about their relationship, which she later learns were designed to keep her from learning about his original marriage. She does not call his office and just accepts his odd schedule unquestioned. This marriage of six years was the least clear to me. John and MJ seem to have little in common, and the attraction seems to have to do with MJ being from such a different sphere and not being demanding. MJ herself gave the impression that what held them together wasn’t sex.

Literary Wives logoHelen and John are still in the honeymoon phase of a six-month marriage. Although Helen is a private, self-contained woman, she is in love and happy with John. Because her career is so demanding, she has no problem with a marriage where they see each other only a few times a month. Theirs seems like a marriage of equals, but it obviously isn’t, because he has lied by omission about his previous marriages and another worse lie is to come. The newness and seeming happiness of their relationship makes a discovery about a decision of John’s inexplicable.

What the novel seems to say about marriage in general is that a lot depends upon where the balance of power resides. But I think we only get a very surface look at any of these marriages. This novel doesn’t really deal in subtleties.

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Day 786: Telegraph Avenue

Cover of Telegraph AvenueArchy Stallings and Nat Jaffe own a vinyl record shop on the dilapidated Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. It makes a modest income but mainly provides a hang-out for the locals. Now Archy and Nat are worried because ex-NFL pro Gibson Goode is planning on opening a huge media outlet two blocks away that will include a department for vinyl. Archy and Nat thought that city councilman Chan Flowers was blocking the permits, but now he seems to have changed sides. Curiously, he has also begun asking Archy about the whereabouts of his father, whom Archy has not seen in years.

Luther Stallings and Chan Flowers were involved in a crime years ago before Chan became respectable. Luther went on to star in several Blaxploitation karate films in the 70’s, but for years he has been a has-been and a drug addict. Now, Luther is trying to shake down Chan for the money to make a third film in his famous series.

Archy isn’t altogether certain how he feels about losing his business, but he has other problems. His very pregnant wife Gwen has caught him cheating on her, and his 14-year-old son Titus from a previous relationship, ignored until now, has turned up and made friends with Nat’s son Julie. Furthermore, Gwen, who is in partnership with Nat’s wife Aviva as midwives, has lost her temper with a doctor at the only hospital that allows them admitting privileges, and a hearing is scheduled.

I had a harder time getting involved in this novel than I usually do with Chabon because I found Archy’s behavior reprehensible on many fronts. Of course, Chabon sometimes seems to specialize in the adolescent behavior of grown men, but I have less patience with it. However, Chabon gets in some digs at the lifestyles of Gwen and Aviva’s white middleclass clients, which is fun, and skewers the noir genre in general with the subplot involving Chan Flowers and Luther Stallings.

It takes awhile, but Archy is finally forced to consider his relationships with both his wife and his son. The energy of Chabon’s writing kept me engaged well enough, but the ending of this novel seems overly optimistic, given its web of difficulties.

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Day 689: Wild

Cover for WildI didn’t actually become interested in reading Wild until I saw the terrific movie adaptation. That and a few excellent reviews changed my mind about reading it. There was just something about the author having changed her name to Cheryl Strayed that annoyed me, to be honest, and was keeping me away from the book.

If you have seen the movie, it is amazingly similar to the book, only changing the sequence of some events and leaving a few things out.

This memoir is about Cheryl Strayed’s attempt to get her life back on track by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Southern California to near Portland, Oregon. After Cheryl’s mother’s death from cancer several years before, her life fell apart. She became promiscuous and eventually began using heroin. After she and her husband divorced, she decided to hike the trail alone in an attempt to return to her true self.

Although Cheryl views herself as an outdoorsy girl, she soon finds that she is unprepared for the rigors of the journey. Her pack is so heavy that she can barely lift it, her boots uncomfortable, she herself not in condition and not understanding that such an endeavor is painful even for an experienced hiker. She originally planned to hike about 20 miles a day but finds herself only making 6 to 8 miles, less at the beginning.

This memoir is vividly written and quite harrowing at times as it follows Strayed’s journey. She encounters snow and landslides, wild animals, friendly as well as scary people, and her own truth. Wild is an interesting journey into the wild and into self-awareness.

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