Category Archives: book reviews

The Monday Book: GRAY MOUNTAIN by John Grisham

tumbsNormally I only do Monday Books on those I’ve liked. This one is a bit half-hearted, but Grisham’s latest is set in our region and tackles the much-ignored topic of mountaintop removal, so almost everyone around here feels an obligation to read it. We need opinions for the church potlucks.

Obligation is a pretty good word. I don’t like dissing authors, or books – unless they’re real creeps, and Grisham isn’t. He just….. kinda didn’t do anything exciting in this book. And, inevitably, even though he spent time in SE Kentucky with some people dedicated to stopping MT removal AND bringing social justice to the Coalfields, he got some important stuff wrong.

It isn’t a big deal that the mileage and directions are way off in his book. It’s fiction. It isn’t a big deal that sometimes he slides into stereotypes even though you can tell he’s trying not to – kinda like a kid learning to ride a bike will guaranteed hit the pothole she’s watching with her whole being, intent on avoiding it. You always hit what you concentrate on avoiding, because you’re concentrating on it rather than the story you have to tell. We don’t mind; it was nice of him to try.

But I knew we were in trouble when Grisham started the serious action of his book with an old “legend” that circulates about SW VA/SE KY/NE TN mountain roads.

The book itself opens with the heroine getting laid off from her high powered-yet-hated legal job. She has a chance to keep her health insurance if she goes to work for a nonprofit, and she winds up taking the “bottom of the barrel” with the only remaining option: in the Coalfields of Appalachia. It must be hard for an author to try not to stereotype while writing about a NYC character coping with moving out of Manhattan. He tried, bless his heart. It made the book a bit flat because at the points where people would’ve been asking some serious questions, the heroine gets all open-minded. Still, his mechanism for driving her to VA is a good one: keep your health insurance if you leave the land of the midnight latte for the exile of rural America. Nice try, Johnny, but your logistics are showing.

Maybe that’s the biggest problem throughout the book. HOW he was trying to tell the story showed as much as the story.

Anyway, she drives into a town thinly disguised as being not-Grundy, VA, and a guy pulls her over in an unmarked police car and threatens her with all kinds of things if she doesn’t come back to the station with him. Including handcuffing and a gun. Turns out he’s the local learning impaired dude who pretends he’s a cop and only pulls over people with Yankee license plates.

We are not amused. You can look up the stories on Snopes, but there really was a rape and murder under this scenario; the guys weren’t handicapped; they were felons. It is not funny to display color local characters in this manner, let alone a town complicit with such dangerous actions. {“Yeah, he’s weird, but he’s ours.”} I began to hate the book at this moment, and probably couldn’t give it a fair read from there forward.

From then on the words skimmed past my eyes very much like an Arthur Hailey novel: all explanation and no storytelling; the facts of mountaintop removal thinly disguised as a fish-out-of-water story; lots of sensational details added about the main characters, a la the unnecessary drama of a Hollywood plot built around a love story. The whole thing just read like… well, like reading the script of your average mid-week 8 pm tv drama. I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters, because I didn’t believe they were real.

Which is annoying, because–let’s give him credit–Grisham is the FIRST big deal author to tackle MT removal, and I don’t care how much I didn’t like the book, I love him as an author for doing that. GOOD FOR YOU MR. G!

But can I add, very sadly, that I wish he’d done a better job of telling a story rather than so obviously trying to talk people into hating the bad guys? The complexities suffered, and so did the communities. But thanks.

mtr

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The Monday Book: THE ODD SEA by Frederick Reiken

This was an odd little book – little in that it is short. Odd in that it is about a disappearance that remains unsolved. Rather than taking the thriller resolution or the Doris Day film happy reunion ending, it just…. stops.

Philip’s older brother Ethan disappears, on a random day doing some normal activities. And the rest of the book is about piecing together what the rest of the family can of their lives. And there’s a lot of Catcher in the Rye coming of age bits about sex, too. Ethan was having sex with his girlfriend and a local artist, and both of these things figure prominently in his diary–which his oldest sister, Amy the Angry, finds. She keeps it from the police and press, but Philip traces his brother’s footsteps–almost literally, as he kind of falls for the one girl and is fallen for by the other.

The book explores the darkness inside all of us, but across the surface. It’s more about how Philip deals with all the things he can’t explain around him–including his brother’s disappearance and his emerging manhood.

And the title is one of the best parts; it comes from the youngest daughter demanding that the father distract them all by telling stories to the family on the porch. And he tells them the adventures of the Beaver King and Queen and their son, all through the long hot summer. It isn’t until years later that Philip realizes his dad has beaverized The Odyssey – and done a good job of it. And he begins to think of their lives and Ethan’s disappearance as The Odd Sea.

This is a quiet book, a gentle one, not given to tension so much as exploration. It’s the kind of novel adults like to read about high school times. Two beaver tails up.

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The Monday Book – A YEAR IN THE MERDE by Stephen Clarke

Jack offers the Monday Book review this week!

I’m not sure which used book store we bought this in but I’m sure glad we did!

Stephen Clarke’s hero, Paul West, is an Englishman working on contract in Paris for a company planning to open a chain of tea-rooms in France. The interlingual puns and description of the absurd cultural clashes are hilarious.

I admit to being an enormous Francophile myself, having toured there many times with my old buddies in ‘Heritage’ and would cheerfully live there if necessary with no difficulty. But Paris is another thing – in many ways it is just like any other enormous city! So my preference would be the rural South.

The parts of Clarke’s book that depict him trying to speak French while his employers try to use English are hysterical, full of the verbal equivalent of slapstick.

Having said that, I once hitch-hiked from Scotland to Paris with a friend (back when hitch-hiking was still legal). We camped in the Bois de Boulogne and enjoyed breakfasts of paine chocolat and enormous bowls of coffee in sidewalk cafes.

Getting back to the book – I am a big fan of Peter Mayle and his series of books about an Englishman in France. Clarke takes things into another dimension and mixes corporate mischief, questionable morals, advice for tourists and a mischievous take on French chauvinism into a very worthy addition to the genre created by Mayle.I heartily recommend it to anyone who has visited, or is planning to visit Paris.

If I were a Parisian and read this book, I’d find it funny. If I were a Frenchman, I just might be insulted. This is a cheeky, irreverent look at a city people are used to treating with dignity; Clarke dances on thin ice and stops just short of blowing a rude gesture at the French.

I loved it. :]

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Meanwhile, in Classics…..

book of snobsWe installed the Second Story Cafe in our bookstore just over a year ago, and making that possible meant moving things around. Among the stuff that shifted in The Great Upheaval were the Classics, Art, Theatre, and Writing books. They all went upstairs to the place formerly known as “Jack and Wendy’s bedroom,” and spread themselves about in a dignified manner as we tore the rest of upstairs apart, getting the dining room and kitchen set up on either side of them.

Which means they are now isolated up there, poor things, all alone, a little island of thought in a sea of food.

Me being me, I worried. “What if we don’t sell as many? We always sold a lot of Classics before, and now they’ll be the only books up there, isolated, unable to socialize with the other genres ….”

“Steady on, dear!” Jack said. “They’re books, remember? They aren’t living things that think; they provoke thought in living things.”

Jack says our Classics sales may actually have increased since they moved up the stairs. “Perhaps they’ve moved up the ladder as well, getting noticed more.”

Me, I’m thinking that the sweet little students in scruffy hats, and the happy retirees in scruffy coats,  who used to buy our Classics don’t eat out much, but maybe when they do, they favor soup. Our Good Chef Kelley makes three soups every day, and I see a lot of the Barricade Brigade up there, not even removing their fingerless gloves as they enjoy soup in the garret while reading Les Miserables.

Come to think of it, I suppose the Classics do feel at home in their new quarters Certainly they no longer have to mix with the riffraff down on the shop’s main floor–the cheap science fiction tramps in beat-up paperbacks; the lurid thriller covers of horror; the demure looking girls, long lashes resting against cheeks as eyes cast down, gracing the covers of the Amish romances.

God save us from the Amish romances…..

No, really, I worried unnecessarily about the “isolation” of Classics upstairs. They’ve been waiting all their life for A Room of Their Own.

They never wanted to socialize with the other genres anyway. Snobs.

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The Monday Book: SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING by Amy Tan

By now you know I have penchant for books about faraway places, especially when they are character-driven in their plot. And I love the way Amy Tan chops her ideas into tiny, stark phrases that say so much.

The title is a case in point. A fisherman saves fish from drowning, he tells a group of tourists just before he totally screws them over.

Tan has a way with dark comedy. This is not a friendly read. It’s got sharp edges, not to mention a dead protagonist. When you realize the book is about an art dealer who dies mysteriously just before leading a tour of eleven friends down the famous Burma Road, you think you’re getting a literary thriller. What you’re really getting is one long, wild, dangerous culture clash, as only Tan can write it.

Darker than The Joy Luck Club, just about as dark as The Kitchen God’s Wife, Fish has some amazing word pictures in it as well. You can smell the steam from the river, see the trees, and feel the terror and wonder and confusion.

And you get gems like this: describing the rescue of the protagonist’s hapless friends, Tan writes, “Most of [them] could have walked down, but after the twins said they wanted to be airlifted by the giant sling, everyone else did, too. Why not? It made for great TV visuals, all day long.”

She just has that acid-dipped honey voice running through the whole thing. It’s a great read, but be prepared to be ashamed of yourself for laughing.

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GIRL IN TRANSLATION by Jean Kwok – THE MONDAY BOOK

Our December shopsitter Jennifer wrote a shelf review of this novel (something she started and we’ve kept up since) for this book, and I picked it up on her recommendation. It’s a fast read, perhaps slightly predictable, but Kwok’s writing is powerful in the way she constructs it. There are few surprises in this book, just the pleasure of that fast, confident writing.

The narrator is an immigrant from China with a very rough life, and the juxtaposition of her intellectual prowess at an Ivy League prep school against the work she does with her mother at a clothing factory gives the novel much of its power. It’s also autobiographical, and at the points where it gets most realistic, it pulls back. She expresses fury at her mother for being a doormat, then never mentions it again. That kind of thing.  The reader is left to ignore or fill in blanks.

This doesn’t really take away from the interest in reading, but it does make you feel rather voyeuristic; this book has a similar fascination to Random Family, but perhaps less direct impact. It’s fiction, based on real life, but fiction. Some stuff is nicer than real life, although I doubt much of it is worse.

The love triangle element is one of the most developed subplots of the book, making this a great bathtub or airplane read. It’s got some lovely teen angst moments that everyone can identify with.

If you’re intrigued by the hardness of big city life on families facing hardship to begin with, if Chinese culture in general fascinates you, if you like stories of overcoming, you’ll like this one. It’s almost fairy tale-esque in its ending. Honestly, it’s how well Kwok writes that saves this story from falling through the cracks. She has a lovely way with words, keeping them simple but strong.

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The Monday Book: ISTANBUL PASSAGE by Joseph Karon

We apologize for recent glitches in the blog timing. We were experimenting with presetting, and it’s not been going well. We’re going back to manual settings and will be good for Monday, Wednesday and Friday regular blogs henceforth. Technology wins again…. :] and now, Jack’s review of ISTANBUL PASSAGE
I’m a sucker for spy novels, and Wendy and I recently spent two weeks in Istanbul, so this screamed at me when it came into the shop.
I wasn’t disappointed!
Karon is often compared to Le Carre and Greene and my first observation to Wendy was “this is a cross between ‘The Third Man’ and ‘Smiley’s People’”.
The plot is both dense and enthralling – I was continually sucked in and drawn along. To begin with I was confused (actually, after finishing the book I had to go back and re-read the first few chapters). Wendy and I had not only visited Istanbul, but also Romania (not to mention Rumania and Roumania), so all the settings meant a great deal to me. Did being familiar with the places make the book more meaningful? I really don’t know!
Having said that, I definitely got an extra jolt from knowing the settings of the story.
Briefly this is a tale set in Istanbul just after the 2nd World War and as the Cold War is getting going. I had either forgotten or never realized that Turkey was neutral during that war. It was, therefore, one of those strange places like Switzerland and Portugal where the spies, diplomats or black-marketeers could mingle and play out their dramas. One of the main characters is an American businessman who’s become a ‘semi-detached’ spy and another is a Romanian double-agent. In the end the story ends up being about their relationship as much as anything else.
The descriptions of Istanbul rang very true. The book is set in 1946, but all the descriptions of streets and landmarks are just familiar enough to take me back there. Not just that, but the atmosphere as well!
When Wendy and I were flying home from Istanbul after our 15th anniversary vacation last year, one of the movies on the plane was the latest James Bond, which started with a scene in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar – we’d just been there and one of the settings in Karon’s book is also there. Not just that, but Wendy had almost been pick-pocketed there as well.
In the end the book is about choices. Who you owe most to and where your loyalties lie.
There’s an interesting interview with Karon at the end of the edition we have where he says that the best spy novels are not about spying but more about moral dilemmas. I wonder whether all the best books, no matter what the genre, are about those?

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