Okay, it’s not funny videos or swollen uvulae, but it’s time for me to report in on some books I’ve read lately.
A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire – Brrr, the Cowardly Lion. is the protagonist in A Lion Among Men, Gregory Maguire’s third installment of “The Wicked Years.” After offering up an alternate, heroic take on Elphaba, the erstwhile Wicked With of the West in Wicked, then exploring the identity of Liir, Elphaba’s rumoured son in Son of a Witch, Gregory returns to a well-known popular figure, who is his hands shares more with Elphaba than you might expect. Like his one-time green nemesis, Brrr is an extremely complex character, not one you might think would make a very good hero to a story upon first reflection. In many ways you would be right: while Elphaba’s story was surprising in its heroism, Brrr’s story tends to move in the other direction. Obstensibly on a mission for the powers-that-be in the Emerald City, Brrr is seeking out any who had connections with Elphaba, and more importantly, the Grimmerie, Elphaba’s magical spellbook. He finds Mother Yackle, and ancient crone who seems to defy death, but who has lived on the fringes of Elphaba’s life. Before Yackle will share any of her knowledge with Brrr however, she demands that he share with her his life story. Grudgingly, and not always intentionally, he reveals a life spent searching, fleeing, and often being held responsible for circumstances he has had the bad luck to peripherally involved with. His sobriquet, “The Cowardly Lion” follows him and gives shape to his reputation. As more of his person is revealed, we are alternately moved by his plight and disappointed with his choices, but perhaps the whole point of this novel is to find Brrr redemption? One review I read thought A Lion Among Men was book that felt like one long set-up for the next installment. I certainly did not feel that. Brrr’s story is worth telling in its own right, but the final segment does weave itself into the Wicked mythos that Gregory is building so wonderfully, that a follow-up novel, should there be one, would certainly be high on my reading list.
Excerpts from reviews of books I have read recently. Full reviews available at the Reader’s Circle.
Lie Down with the Devil by Linda Barnes – In Lie Down with the Devil Carlotta takes a simple case where a distraught young woman needs her fiancee followed to prove his fidelity. The case goes horribly awry, and the client ends up dead… and not who she said she was. Not only that, but the case seems tied into Carlotta’s personal life, as her fiancee, tied to the mafia, and hiding out abroad ends up connected to the murdered young woman. Barnes does a terrific job weaving the drama of Carlotta’s personal life with the particulars of the case giving us a solid, traditional detective novel mixed with a nice bit of personal drama. I look forward to reading more from Linda Barnes.
Passage by Lois McMaster Bujold – Bujold continues to deepen the characters of Dag and Faun, particularly with the latter, whose role in this tale is beginning to grow more complex. By serving as both a beacon and an anchor for Dag, Faun illustrates how important such a seemingly passive role truly is. The supporting characters in Passage are lots of fun as well, with Whit gaining a little maturity as he sees his younger sister out in the real world. Berry, their flatboat’s Captain, shows Faun a bold, aggressive strength that she had rarely seen in farmer women. Remo and Barr, a young pair of Lakewalkers who slowly become converts to Dag’s mission, and the rest of their ragtag crew provide variety and story fodder making Passage an entertaining and satisfying read.
The Condition by Jennifer Haigh – Jennifer Haigh’s The Condition draws a portrait of an emotionally reserved family that has spent years holding each other apart. It begins in 1976 during the annual summer vacation on Cape Cod, when the McKotch patriarch Frank notices that his 13-year-old daughter Gwen still hasn’t reached puberty while her younger cousin has. The resulting medical exploration and discovery that Gwen suffers from Turner’s Syndrome, a condition that will keep her in the body of a little girl, tears Frank and his wife Paulette apart and sets a course for their three children away from them. Oldest brother Billy is successful and emotionally distant. The details of his private life are a mystery to all but Gwen. Gwen’s life is even more shrouded in the unknown as she refuses to discuss her personal life with anyone. Youngest brother Scott wastes his teen education on pot-smoking and finds himself in a soul-killing job and a bad marriage… …If you read one book on family dysfunction this year, make sure it’s Jennifer Haigh’s The Condition.
The Film Club by David Gilmour – Over the course of three-plus years, the father and son share conversations on a wide range of subjects, and gradually, Jesse develops an entire language around discussing film that many adult film lovers never attain. Could there be a future for Jesse in film criticism? Perhaps, but by the end of the book, it seems that Jesse is striving for a career as part of a rap/hip hop duo. There is a curious lack of consequence in Gilmour’s recounting of these years, and a rather heavy importance placed on young Jesse’s incipient romantic life. Gilmour’s memoir is highly readable and well written. The observations he makes about life as related to movies are interesting and sometimes nicely wrought. Still, there’s a discomforting sense of privilege steeped in this tale, and a nearly alamring telescoing of viewpoint. Besides an occasional mention of his wife, and a slightly more frequent mention of his ex-wife (and Jesse’s mother) the book lacks any other perspectives. In fact, I was quite surprised to read in the author’s note that Gilmour had a grown daughter! While many might enjoy this readable memoir, there are a few things that turned me off so I can’t really recommend it.
The Book of Lies by Brad Meltzer – It’s an ambitious synopsis: The Book of Lies explores the world’s first murder, that of Abel by his brother Cain, and draws a connection with Justin Siegel, the creator of Superman, whose father was gunned down when Justin was a little boy. If only Justin’s father was invulnerable to bullets, think of how his life would have turned out differently? The central character in this novel is Cal, a fallen FBI agent who now spends days with his partner Roosevelt, helping out the homeless in Florida. When they come across an apparent vagrant that turns out to be Cal’s long-estranged father, his life turns upside-down and he ends up on a wild race staying just second ahead of a relentless pursuit from both sides of the law. On the one side is a ruthless killer, marked with the brand of Cain, wearing the uniform of a policeman, who will stop at nothing to obtain that which Cal is hunting for. On the other side is Naomi, an FBI agent who mistakenly thinks Cal killed her partner. All Cal has going for him is his father, whom he doesn’t trust, and Serena, a new age yoga instructor who may or may not be sleeping with his father. That and his own wits and training, and a healthy does of curiosity.
As the tension winds up and the chase gets hotter, Meltzer taut plot keeps thing humming, but in the end, it is the surprising emotional denouement that really touched me. In the end, The Book of Lies is about family, and the way we tell stories. It all unfolds like magic in the hands of a master craftsman. You were right, Brad, I’m a convert.
Volk’s Game by Brent Ghelfi – Brent Ghelfi writes thrillers set in modern-day Russia. They are hyper-violent, in-your-face, complicated tales set against a massive political power that is still finding its legs after the fall of communism. And Brent knows what he’s talking about… …In the opening pages of Volk’s Game, Volk is asked what he knows about art, and the answer is not much. By the end of the novel, Volk knows a great deal more, and he’s lost a lot because of it. It’s a powerful story, and even though I was getting impatient with all of the reversals and intrigues about three-quarters of the way through, I can tell a good thriller when I read one.
Goldengrove by Francine Prose – Francine Prose’s forthcoming novel Goldengrove, coming out in September, is a poignant coming-of-age tale about a thirteen-year-old girl whose family endures a terrible tragedy, and the summer they spend they almost unravel. Nico’s family lives in Upstate New York on the shores of an idyllic lake. Her older sister Margaret is the star of the family, with a lovely voice and a possible career as a singer in her future. She is poised and beautiful, with the adoration of everyone, including her younger sister Nico. The two watch old movies, imitating the actors, and sharing secrets. Aaron, Margaret’s artist boyfriend, is not accepted by her parents, so Nico covers for her older sister so the two can be together.
As tragedy strikes at the beginning of the summer, Nico finds herself drowning in misery, unable to pull herself out of it, and she is not alone. Prose skillfully shows how the entire family copes with grief all the while keeping the focus sharply on Nico. With a few neat nods to old movies, particularly one Hitchcock film, Goldengrove is a wonderful read that is both literary and readable.