Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Keeper

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Keeper (Atria, 2014).

Can't help but spoil this one a little, friends. It's a doozy.


John Lescroart writes the very best legal mysteries in the business. His characters - a great family of friends centered around attorney Dismas Hardy and retired cop Abe Glitzky - shine like none others in the world of series fiction. I love the way that anybody from the group can take the lead role in an adventure. This time out, it's Abe's turn.

In The Keeper, a deputy at the San Francisco County jail comes to Dismas after five days of his wife being missing. Even though she has not been found, Abe's former colleagues at homicide have come around to begin the interview process, suspecting foul play. Abe has been stagnating since his enforced retirement in an earlier novel, so Dismas hires him to help find the wife and, if indeed she has been murdered, find the actual killer.

You wouldn't be surprised, after twenty-five years writing these characters - who age in real time! - if Lescroart started to rest a little bit and let the trappings of the cozies creep into his stories, like pretty much all his peers in the genre do. But he's constantly surprising readers with new left-field changes in the characters' lives, and still coming up with really terrific plot twists.

Take this one. Indeed, the wife has been murdered, and her death is connected to several others. We know that two characters, call 'em BAD GUYS X and Y, are behind it. The book is fifty pages from its conclusion when BAD GUY X is found dead in a car, victim of a self-inflicted gunshot. So the protagonists start looking into the probability that BAD GUY Y shot his partner and staged a suicide. Round about page 272, I suddenly got a tingle in the spine. I knew BAD GUY Y didn't do it. There were just enough tantalizing clues to make the readers see that FEMALE SUPPORTING PLAYER A did it. I didn't want it to be her. Twelve pages crept by like glaciers. Surely it was me misreading things. Thirteen. Nope. Couldn't have been BAD GUY Y. He has an alibi for the first killing. Had to be the lady. I winced the whole time, and exclaimed aloud. I never do that.

So Abe goes to talk to the lady. And IT IS NOT HER EITHER. It's an absolutely. completely brilliant bit of misdirection and I loved it to pieces. Have you ever seen the Mission: Impossible episode "The Mind of Stefan Miklos," I wonder? It's hailed as one of the best episodes of TV drama ever. In it, the team has to very subtly put clues together so that their target thinks he's put a puzzle together. They have to make him think that he has cleverly uncovered something which does not actually exist. It's unbearably complex and complicated - it makes absolutely no sense in a cut-up syndication copy because there's not thirty seconds of footage not critical to the plot - but anyway, what makes this so darn fun in The Keeper is that Lescroart is simultaneously bluffing the detectives in the narrative and bluffing the reader with asides and clues that they don't have. Double misdirection! I loved it to pieces.

Start with Dead Irish, if you haven't already. Highly, highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

This Must Be the Place

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of This Must Be the Place (Henry Holt, 2010).

I was reading Kate Racculia's debut novel, This Must Be the Place, and a co-worker asked me what it was about, and I said "a boarding house." And that is a million miles from either helpful or accurate, but for years to come, I'm going to remember this novel, which I did not enjoy as much as I had hoped, as being "that one at the boarding house."

The reason that I didn't enjoy it is that so much of the plot is dependent on characters keeping secrets from each other. It's just one of my bugbears. The story is driven by the accidental death of Amy, a special effects technician in her early thirties. Her husband finds a pink shoe box full of mementos from her past and drives across the country to meet her high school best friend, but he doesn't tell her what he's doing in her boarding house for ages. And the best friend is keeping other secrets from her daughter, Oneida, and Oneida's new boyfriend is keeping secrets from her... basically the entire plot is constructed on secrets and lies.

That said, it's amazingly well-written. Oneida's story is just tremendous fun, with suitors throwing punches at each other as they deduce what the other has in mind, and her heart is stolen, against her initial judgement, by the fellow who acts like a tough-guy weirdo. I love her prose, and her dead-on-point depiction of overpowering teenage lust. I would have enjoyed a book about Oneida with very few reservations. Unfortunately, dead Amy haunts everything, and some tomfool notions of loving Amy being like loving a tornado or some other force of nature never rang true. Whenever Oneida and Eugene's story found room to breathe, I enjoyed the book, but other times, it was a burden. Very mild recommendation.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin Books, 2014).


If you enjoy books, then you have to read this book. What Gabrielle Nevin did here is so perfectly crafted and lovable that it would be churlish to complain about her strategy. She probably sat down to create Island Books, on a small Massachusetts tourist island, and deliberately crafted the place to appeal to bookstore lovers so much that they want it in their own community. I was all set to drive to Massachusetts and figure out the ferry schedule before remembering that it isn't real. I'll have to "settle" for someplace wonderful in the real world instead.

A.J. Fikry is a young and recent widower, and when we meet him, he's still mourning the loss of his wife Nicole, who had handled all the store's events and activities. He has a meet cute with a new publisher's rep, and, over the course of a few years, softens and actually reads the book that she first recommended when they met, a memoir written by a widower in his late eighties. By that time, Fikry's life has run around some bizarre curves already: he's suffered the theft of a very valuable antique, on which he had hoped to retire, and he's found a one year-old abandoned in his store with a note to look after her.

Well, this isn't a very deep book, and it's not challenging, and its mysteries are not going to confound anybody looking for very intricate puzzles. In point of fact, if anything here surprises anybody, then they probably don't really love books as much as they think that they do. But it is so well-written and so vivid that the author can get away with being predictable and a little cozy. It's a love letter to bookstores, and, with all due deference to the fact that I do sort of like it when people click the Amazon link in the image, buy something, and give me a tiny commission or discount, it really should be purchased in a real, live bookstore. You should visit one today - TODAY! - and take this home with you with my smiling recommendation.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, 2014).


My father's gone, my mother just had back surgery and is looking for a smaller house, and Roz Chast's Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? scared the heebie-jeebies out of me.

I haven't read any new Chast in a little while now, and came to this new book - which is an absolutely gorgeous hardback, all purple and beautiful - expecting her usual light whimsy. Now, don't get me wrong. This book is terrific and funny and lovely, but it also accomplishes something that Chast has not done before. It left me sobered and worried and troubled. Her parents lived into their nineties in a very small apartment home with few friends and contacts and hit a massive, downhill deterioration. They refused to consider their futures, leading to a lot of poor decisions and a huge financial burden on her family.

This memoir of their final years is really amusing in places, and heartfelt and warm throughout, even when she's detailing her loudmouthed mother's "blasts from Chast" or her father's decline into dementia and amnesia. I can't recommend it strongly enough, but it also reminds me of how very much I'd prefer to talk about something more pleasant myself. So if you'll excuse me, I'll go write about barbecue somewhere else now.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Visit from the Goon Squad

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of A Visit from the Goon Squad (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).


It's kind of a novel and kind of a collection of short stories, and A Visit from the Goon Squad is a really clever and entertaining book. The writer, Jennifer Egan, created a timeline of events for two characters. One is a music industry exec, Bernie Salazar, who in the 1990s has a comfortable job at a major record label, and the other is his assistant, Sasha, who struggles with kleptomania. Over the course of about 45 years, their stories cross paths with lots of other people, and, in thirteen chapters, Egan tells stories of these two, or some of the intersecting players in their lives.

So it's far more than just thirteen short stories about two characters. It's a low-key epic that won 2010's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the way it tells incredibly interesting stories that have a deep but subtle link in the passage of time and aging. I found myself starting each new chapter very excited about who would lead the story: somebody we've met, somebody we've heard about in passing, or somebody brand new, their connection to Bernie or Sasha, or one of the other leads of a previous story, not yet apparent.

The only fumble is a pretty minor one. Egan set the final story a few years in the future, before Apple's iPhone and its autocorrect put an end to all that awful "l33t"-type of the 2000s. She gave the communication technology of this story an even further devolved use of abbreviations and random capitalization. Well, she loses a point for predictions, but she had plenty to spare in this heart-filled, sad, knowing, and very clever book. Happily recommended.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Freedom

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Freedom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).

If you're in the market for a great big book about a modern, unhappy, midwestern marriage, boy, have I got the book for you! - said nobody, ever, probably. But that's okay, because Freedom is really terrific. I enjoyed this novel tremendously, but I can certainly understand why people have problems with it. At Amazon, the number of one-star reviews is almost equal to the number of five-star ones. Polarizing, you might say.

Patty and Walter met in college in the late 1970s. She was a basketball star with a stalker of a friend, and he was... well, kind of a nobody, really, but his best friend and roommate was the singer in a punk act who would go on to some notoriety and, eventually, success. After her career is ended with injury and he wins her over through nice-guy loyalty (one of those many problems people have with it), they finally hook up. By the late 2000s, their marriage has fallen apart, and life has taken them and their children in bizarre and unplanned directions.

The writer, Jonathan Franzen, was evidently attempting a modern take on one of Tolstoy's gigantic, decades-spanning stories of love, life, and disintegration. I confess that I find it really difficult to summarize, even in a quick way, what all goes on in this story, because it all does get a little outlandish, but I admire Franzen's moxie in tackling everything from the music world to arms profiteering with equal intensity and making it all believable.

It's a great story, equally sad and funny, and I absolutely loved Franzen's trick of writing a book-within-a-book from a different character's POV, and then introducing that book as an element in the plot, especially when he introduces it like a hand grenade. That's a bit of a spoiler - watch what you write about other people! - but it sure is fun. Recommended.

Friday, June 27, 2014

You Should Have Known

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of You Should Have Known (Grand Central, 2014).

This, however, is one of those books that can't be discussed without spoilers, so be aware.


Jean Hanff Korelitz's new novel, You Should Have Known, came with a warning that there was a twist coming. And for the first hundred pages, it seemed evident what that twist would be. Our protagonist is Grace Reinhart Sachs, a therapist whose first book, also entitled You Should Have Known, is just about to be released. Her premise is that women ignore the danger signs that spark that first instinct to not give a fellow a try. Forget about trying to "fix" them, just forget them entirely. Most men can't be fixed. And since Grace has a husband who works, selfessly, as a pediatric oncologist, and a dream marriage that includes a violin-playing son and her fellow socialite Manhattan moms at the private school, everything is set up splendidly for the inevitable betrayal. I even had the other woman pegged from her first appearance.

Korelitz's prose is good enough that I didn't mind reading what seemed to feel like something not entirely unique. I wasn't completely taken with Grace's character, well-drawn as it is, but the construction of everything just in time for it to collapse around the publication of a book about failed relationships was just too good to stop reading. Oh, what egg will be on our heroine's face when the world finds out about the other woman.

Then the other woman turns up dead. And the husband can't be found. That's how Grace learns. Well, now.

Detective fiction typically leaves a lot of supporting characters in the wake, wondering what in the hell just happened. You Should Have Known flips its premise and turns into the story of a player in somebody else's drama. Some other book entirely could be written about the murder, starring the two detectives who are investigating her death and are convinced that the wife of their suspect is just playing dumb and shielding him.

I've never run into a book like this, and I enjoyed the daylights out of it. I hit the hundred-pages-in-twist about the time of day when I needed to stop reading and leave it 'til the next day, and conspired to make time for it whenever I could, staying up quite late and through several more game-changing punches to the gut to finish it. It's a genuinely terrific novel and happily recommended.