Review 1474: The Wolf Border

Rachel Caine is an emotionally detached woman who manages a wolf reintroduction program on a reservation in Nez Perce, Idaho. She prefers to keep her sexual liaisons brief and hasn’t returned to her home country of England for years. She takes the opportunity to visit her mother, Binny, when she meets with the Earl of Annandale about a project he has taken on to move wolves into a contained area on his huge estate and nearby national forest lands in Cumbria, near where she grew up. She isn’t interested in the job, but her brother Lawrence has told her that Binny won’t be around long.

After a meeting with the Earl, whom she doesn’t trust, she has a difficult visit with Binny and then returns home. Her personal circumstances change after Binny’s death, though, so she finds herself accepting the Earl’s job.

This is a thoughtful and vital novel that examines the nature of Rachel’s relationships with her family. Events allow her to open the door to people in her life. The novel is complex, not because of the plot but because of the tangle of human thoughts and feelings it examines.

The writing is clear and vivid. I read this book for my James Tait Black project—another winner!

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Review 1473: A Long Way from Home

A Long Way from Home is almost like two different novels, starting out as a light-hearted romp and finishing with the Australian treatment of its indigenous inhabitants. It is set in 1954 Australia, all over it.

Irene Bobs and her husband Titch are tiny people with a great will to succeed, but they are hampered by the activities of Dangerous Dan Bobs, Titch’s father, who seems to be working against them. When Titch, who is the best car salesman in Southeastern Australia, wants to open his own Ford dealership, Dan prevents it using his influence with his cronies at Ford. Having opened a junk yard, Dan continually drops off expensive objects at Titch’s and then charges him for them.

Irene always vigorously supports Titch against Dan, so when Dan scuppers the Ford dealership, she has already arranged something with GMC. Then, the two get the idea to compete with one of their cars in the Redex Reliability Trial, a grueling test of a car’s endurance on horrendous roads all around Australia. Irene and Titch will be drivers, and their neighbor, Willie Bachhuber, will navigate. Of course, Dan decides to compete against them.

Willie is a recently fired schoolteacher. He is also a competitor on a quiz show and a fugitive, who left his wife after she had a black baby and is wanted for child support. His quiz show work, after a long run, ends when his infatuation with his competitor interferes with his thought processes. He is a great reader of maps, however.

The novel starts out bright and energetic, with vibrant and quirky first-person narration by Irene alternated with that of Willie. It takes a darker turn, though, after an accident with Dan. Soon, Willie is separated from his companions in far Western Australia.

I was really taken with this book, especially at its zippy and vivacious start. I liked the characters, and I thought the ending covers important history about aboriginal abuse. However, these comments don’t convey how the novel zips along in its own quirky way.

I read this book for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1472: Daisy Jones & The Six

Daisy Jones & The Six, about the rise and demise of a 70’s rock band, is written like the script for a documentary. I got the impression at first that it was trying to accomplish something like Jennifer Egan’s amazing A Visit from the Goon Squad.

In the beginning of the novel, we see the separate starts of Daisy Jones and of the band that became The Six. Daisy, a neglected 14-year-old, begins as a rock and roll groupie, while the band works its way up through the usual dances and bars. When they are each beginning to get a little attention, a record executive thinks it would be a great idea if they record a song together. They are a hit. The only problem is that Daisy and the band’s lead singer, Billy Dunne, don’t seem to like each other.

This novel does a pretty good job of depicting the drug- and sex-fueled 70’s rock scene, but I felt it was about 100 pages too long. It also signals where it is going a little too early. The format has its problems. It makes the reader separate from the book even while amusingly showing how different people’s versions of the same event can be.

Taylor Jenkins Reid seems to have ambitions to write more than chick lit, but this novel is essentially chick lit.

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Review 1468: Swimming Home

I didn’t know what to make of Swimming Home because the situation was unbelievable to me. First, there is some timeline confusion because of a short scene dated July 1994 in which Kitty Finch is driving dangerously through the Alpes-Maritimes at midnight with a man. The scene seems threatening, and you get a sense of dread.

Then, the main action of the novel begins with no timeframe, so that you don’t know if the preceding scene comes before or after it or even what year we’re in until there are references later on.

Joe Jacobs, a poet and serial philanderer, has rented for the summer a villa in the Alpes-Maritimes with his wife Isabel, a war correspondent, his young daughter Nina, and another couple. They come home to find a naked woman in the pool, looking dead. She is not dead, she is Kitty Finch, a beautiful but clearly disturbed woman. She makes an unconvincing explanation that the owner lets her stay there sometimes off-season and she got her dates mixed up. It is not off-season, however.

Do they show her off the property? No, they do not. They invite her to stay in the extra room. In particular, Isabel invites her, which gives rise to wondering for the rest of the book.

In fact, it shortly comes out that Kitty knew Joe Jacobs was staying there and wants him to read her poem, “Swimming Home,” which is about suicide. It is clear all the way that the novel is working toward death, but the ending is surprising.

I read the novel for my Booker Prize project, and I’m still wondering about it.

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Review 1463: This Must Be the Place

Daniel Sullivan is about to leave Ireland for a business trip when he catches a segment of a radio broadcast more than 20 years old. He hears the voice of Nicola Janks, his old girlfriend. When he learns she died in 1986, the year he last saw her, he becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her, fearing he was responsible for her death.

Unfortunately, he is unable to explain this concern to his wife, Claudette. Instead, she hears from his family about his erratic behavior. He is supposed to visit his 90-year-old father in Brooklyn but stays only a few minutes before abruptly leaving to visit his children from his first marriage.

These are the first events in a series that will change his life. But O’Farrell is interested in more than these events. In chapters ranging back and forth over 30 years and switching point of view among the characters, she tells about the lives of many of them, of Claudette, the reclusive ex-movie star; of Daniel; of Daniel’s children and Claudette’s children; of Daniel’s mother; even of some of the novel’s secondary characters.

I came late to O’Farrell and so far have only read two books by her, but I’ve enjoyed them immensely. She catches you with her complex plots but keeps you with her characterizations.

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Review 1458: Winter

The beginning of Winter was so bizarre that I wasn’t sure I was going to finish it. Sophia is an older woman living in a large home in Cornwall. She has begun to hallucinate a child’s head that floats in the air and interacts with her.

Art, Sophia’s son, has split from his girlfirend, Charlotte, and she is now posting tweets on his Twitter account that are causing problems for him. Art is supposed to take Charlotte to his mother’s house for Christmas. Unable to explain what happened, he hires a girl named Lux to pretend to be Charlotte.

When Art and Lux arrive at Sophia’s house, they find it barely furnished, with no beds in the extra bedrooms and no food in the refrigerator. Sophia seems vague and much too thin. At Lex’s insistence, Art summons his Aunt Iris, even though Iris and Sophia haven’t spoken in years.

As I said, this novel started in such a way that I wasn’t sure I would like it. It is quirky, certainly, but it grew on me. Things that seem inexplicable are explained, in a way. As usual with Smith, there is a strong focus on art and ideas. Smith is always interesting and inventive.

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Review 1454: Milkman

Best of Ten!
Middle sister, the unnamed narrator in a novel where no one has a name, has a stalker. Actually, she has two. She lives in the 1970s in an unnamed city that is clearly Belfast, and at 18 she has no way to explain what is happening to her and no one to tell, anyway. The man she’s worried about is known as the Milkman, rumored to be a powerful renouncer-of-the-state. This stalking begins with him driving up next to her and offering her a ride. She knows not to get into his car.

That is all it takes for rumors to begin flying about that middle sister is having an affair with the Milkman. Eldest sister, egged on by her husband, who has been letching after middle sister since she was 11, arrives to berate her for this supposed affair with a middle-aged, married man.

But middle sister’s strategy for keeping safe in a dangerous world is to tell nothing about herself. That, and her mother’s constant queries about why she isn’t married yet, have caused her to keep secret her real relationship with maybe-boyfriend. It is the maybe part of this relationship that decides her not to tell maybe-boyfriend about the stalking either, when it progresses to the Milkman joining her while running and making clear that he knows every aspect of her life.

She does finally tell her Ma the truth, but her Ma is too busy upbraiding her for bringing shame upon the family with the affair and calls her a liar. So, middle sister is left to cope with her fears alone.

This sounds like a grim tale, and at some times it is, but it is told exuberantly, in a torrent of words, ideas, stories, asides, and circumlocutions. To give you an idea, about page 80 middle sister steps into an area called the ten-minute zone because it takes ten minutes to cross it. She describes the ten-minute zone and an explosion within it, then she goes into what she calls “the provenance of the eeriness of the ten-minute area” from which she relates a discussion with Ma about her asking weird questions, tells about her father’s history of depression and her Ma’s “hierarchy of suffering,” discusses her bafflement in “shiny people,” those who go around looking happy, finds the head of a dead cat and decides to bury it, compares cats and dogs and tells about an incident where the state killed all the neighborhood dogs, has another encounter with the Milkman and then with one real milkman, and so on until page 139, when she steps out of the ten-minute area. I would include an excerpt, but a short one would seem nonsensical and a long one would be, well, long.

Above all, the novel is funny, dazzling, gleeming. I was absolutely entranced by it. It is about more than middle sister and her adventures, it is about the effects on society of everyday terror, paranoia, gossip, constant attention to the behavior of your neighbors. This is a stunning novel that won the Booker Prize. It deserves it.

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