She’s back…

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

OLIVE, AGAIN. by Elizabeth Strout. Random House Audio. Read by Kimberly Farr. 12 1/2 hours; 10 CDs. $45. Also available in print from Random House.

Anyone who met Olive Kitteridge in Elizabeth’s Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 book of interrelated stories by that name, will remember that blunt, sometimes abrasive retired middle-school math teacher well. Olive is a large and imposing woman physically and also by sheer force of personality.

And now, Olive is back. Thank goodness.

As that first book begins, Olive seems rather unlikable, and readers might wonder, briefly, whether to bother getting to know her better. But such is Strout’s quiet genius that, as the connected stories unfold, we begin to understand and sympathize with this gruff, outspoken woman. Strout deftly blends stories told from Olive’s point of view with those in which we see her through the eyes of others. And some of the stories give us – and sometimes Olive – deeper insights into people she may have misjudged.

More than a decade later, here Olive is again, and through more stories of Olive and her neighbors in seaside Maine, we see her facing the realities of advancing age. It’s not necessary to have read the first book to appreciate this one, but it does help.

Strout’s books are not about intricate mysteries or dramatic events, although these are sometimes lurking in the background, but rather about the lives of ordinary people. As the first book unfolded, we learned, along with Olive, how difficult it is really to know other people, and how difficult it is for them to know us. Olive, like all of us, has much to learn about empathy.

This time around, Olive, gruff and outspoken as ever, continues to learn. Somewhat surprisingly, she marries again, forging a bond with a widower who moved to town some years earlier after his career as a professor at Harvard ended abruptly. Olive also tries, blunderingly, to reshape her strained relationship with her only child. We see, as the prickly Olive charges through life, that in her own way, she really does care about people and want to do the right thing. She has many regrets, high on the list the way she treated her long-suffering first husband, Henry. But she also takes pleasure in the ways she connects with and helps a variety of people.

As age takes its toll, Olive also grows in self-awareness. She is not going gently into that good night – she is definitely not happy about having to wear those “poopie pants” sometimes – but she is gaining some peace as she deals with the reality that presses in on her.

Yet this is not a melancholy book. Olive has a sense of humor, and her irrepressible personality often involves her in amusing situations. And while she doesn’t exactly mellow with age, she does learn to take more pleasure in the world around her and the life she’s lived and is living.

Kimberly Farr does a marvelous job of reading, especially as she gives unforgettable voice to Olive.

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Our boys, our nation

Here’s the latest from our roaming correspondent, Bob Moyer, ever an eclectic and thoughtful reader.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

NICKEL BOYS. By Colson Whitehead. Doubleday. 213 pages. $24.95

Colson Whitehead is an important writer. He’s a good, sometimes great writer, yes, but above all — he’s an important writer. He homes in on material that speaks to our consciousness, and then he brings a conceit, a motif that transforms his narrative into a vital part of our national saga. In The Underground Railroad, he took the story of a young slave girl escaping the South and put her on an actual underground train, which delivered her and his story to places and situations that resonated with our contemporary life. Now, with his latest, he again addresses a subject that keeps surfacing in our story — dead black men.

Boys, actually. In 2011, the Dozier School for Boys in Florida was shut down with allegations of horrific crimes committed in the “school’s” 111-year history. Shortly thereafter, an archaeological dig revealed 55 unnamed graves in a secret graveyard —and counting. Whitehead has built his fictional Nickel School for Boys out of those rancid materials.

Into that campus of evil, Whitehead drops one Elwood Curtis, deserted by his parents, raised by his grandmother. He’s a sharp boy, avoids trouble, and takes to heart Dr. King’s encomium, “You are as good as anyone.” Unfortunately, while hitching a ride to a prized college class in 1962, his first, he gets arrested — for riding in a stolen car. He didn’t know it, but that made no difference — it’s the segregated South, and boys of color from Tallahassee could be shipped to the Nickel School for any reason.

Within days of his arrival, Elwood’s worldview gets him sent to the White House, where the roar of the huge fan both announces that someone is being punished, and also covers the screams of the miscreant. When he emerges, he comes across Turner, who believes just the opposite from Elwood — get down, get by, keep your wits. Elwood can’t believe the depths of deprivation in the place, sexual abuse, boys disappearing, goods intended for the boys disappearing into the community, money disappearing into the administration’s pockets. As crimes accumulate, the narrative takes on the inexorable weight of impending death.

But not just the actual “disappearances,” or the deaths of “graduates” who end up “Dead in prison, or decomposing in rooms they rented by the week, frozen to death in the woods after drinking turpentine.”  No, Whitehead gives us the tragedy of another kind of death—the loss of possibility: “The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place …. All those lost geniuses — sure not all of them were geniuses, Chickie Pete for example was not solving special relativity — but they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary.” Turner and the world keep whispering to him, “Do not love for they will disappear, do not trust for you will be betrayed, do not stand up for you will be swatted down.” Through it all, Elwood holds on to Dr. King’s words: ”Throw us in jail and we will still love you.”

Just when the tension and the plot come to a head, Whitehead makes a move that resolves the tension, brings the indomitability of the human spirit to the fore, and elevates these individuals’ lives into our national dialogue. No spoilers here, only a deep appreciation to a writer who understands just how much pain a reader can take, and then makes them consider who we are as a nation. It’s a remarkable read. Don’t miss it. 

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Virgil Flowers takes on academia

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

BLOODY GENIUS. By John Sandford. Penguin Audio. 11 hours; 9 CDs. Read by Eric Conger. $40. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

First, Margaret Trane, the police officer who is handling the case, doesn’t really want his help and is annoyed that the governor has yielded to pressure from some rich supporters and sent Virgil.

When Virgil Flowers of the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is called in to help the Minneapolis Police Department investigate a murder at the University of Minnesota, he finds a lot more than what he expected.

Then the case goes from almost no leads to a dizzying array of conflicting possibilities. 

The murder victim is Barthelemy Quill, a brilliant and rich nerve scientist at the university. He was killed when making a surreptitious after-hours visit to the carrel he isn’t really supposed to have in one of the university libraries. It looks as though he stumbled upon someone in his carrel and was bashed in the head with his own computer.

The case hasn’t been going anywhere, but Virgil, winning Trane’s reluctant respect, finds an important clue that suggests the thrice-married Quill might have been using the carrel for a late-night trysting spot.

And then more clues and anonymous tips start turning up, turning the case into a greater and more complex puzzle than ever.

Was Quill’s death related to an intense but arcane feud between two academic departments? Did it have to do with an anonymous tape in which three men seem to be discussing a highly unethical medical procedure? Could Quill’s daughter be involved, or his soon-to-be former third wife, who, because of a prenuptial agreement, gets a lot more as his widow than she would have once they were divorced? How about the unscrupulous man who’d been seen lurking around Quill’s lab, and who is known for stealing the ideas of others in hopes of payoffs to avoid patent lawsuits? Or the drug dealer connected to the cocaine found in Quill’s desk in his home office?

Quill was not a popular man, nor is the university’s ivory tower as tranquil as some might think.

Virgil and Trane join forces to sort the murderous person or people from the merely unscrupulous or eccentric, and try to stop a killer before someone else dies.

This is another highly entertaining book in the Virgil Flowers series. Eric Conger, a familiar voice from other John Sandford audiobooks, reads it like the pro he is.

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Bad guys, beware

I can’t keep up with the peripatetic Bob Moyer as he travels hither and yon, going to exotic places and doing interesting things, but I’m always glad when he finds time to send a book review.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

A DANGEROUS MAN. By Robert Crais. Putnam. 339 pages. $28.

Joe Pike is indeed A Dangerous Man — to criminals. Just minutes after a bank teller flirts with him, he watches her being pulled into a car and kidnapped: “The corner of Joe’s mouth ticked. Once.” Poor bad guys. Within minutes, they are pulled out of their car, flat on the ground, waiting for the police to arrive. The girl says she has no idea why they want to kidnap her, and Joe believes her. Shortly after they are released from jail, however, the kidnappers are murdered. Someone wants them shut up, and Joe wants to know why. So he calls on his partner, Elvis Cole.

Elvis is not A Dangerous Man. He’s a wiseass. When his line of investigation crosses that of the U.S. marshals, a passel of them pile into his office. Undaunted, he announces “Thank you all for coming. Meeting’s adjourned.” Neither the marshals nor the L.A. Police are amused by Elvis, who always seems to be one step ahead of them in the intersecting cases of a dead retired marshal and a twenty-something bank cashier.

Robert Crais works his magic here, as Elvis trolls through high school yearbooks, interviews with a drunken jewelry storeowner and an old whistle-blower case. Meanwhile, Joe tries to protect the girl, but she disappears. Someone on the end of a phone line talking to someone in L.A. really wants her. Crais moves between the page-turning action of Joe’s search for the girl and the slow reveal of information from Elvis that keeps us interested. It’s a fine balancing act, and it’s teamwork that carries the narrative to a happy conclusion. It’s also safe to say that right up to the last page Joe Pike proves to be A Dangerous Man — for the criminals.

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Gamache amid the storms

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

A BETTER MAN. By Louise Penny. Minotaur Books. 437 pages. $28.99.

Some critics are calling this, the 15th in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, one of her best. Others are pointing out what they consider minor weaknesses and saying maybe A Better Man isn’t quite up to Penny’s highest standards.

My take? There are legitimate arguments to be made about which of Penny’s Gamache novels are best, but they are all superb.  Read A Better Man, savor it, and then, if you want, go back and re-read some of the others to compare. What’s not to enjoy about that?

As fans know, Penny’s novels go far beyond the genres they might loosely fit into. Gamache is with the Surete du Quebec, the provincial police force, but although there are intriguing cases, complex plot twists and a good deal of suspense, these books are more than police procedurals or mystery/thrillers. 

Much of the setting is the somewhat remote village of Three Pines where Gamache and his wife life, along with a now-familiar cast of eccentric neighbors. Penny offers colorful characters, evocative descriptions of village life in a sometimes-harsh natural environment and a fair amount of humor along with the crimes, but these books are more than cozy mysteries.

That “more” includes telling glimpses into the minds and hearts of Gamache and other major characters, and through them, profound insights into the human condition. Gamache and his colleagues, including his son-in-law and former protégé, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, deal with some very ugly, violent situations and evil people, as well as otherwise decent people who make bad choices.

They have to make difficult decisions, ones that can cost people their lives. As the series progresses, it grows darker, but it also reveals the light that emanates from the good that is still in the world, and especially in people such as Gamache.

As this book opens, though, a lot of people in Quebec apparently don’t believe there’s anything worthwhile about Armand Gamache. He’s the subject of virulent attacks on Twitter, with many detractors insisting he should be in prison rather than returning to his old job as head of the homicide department. Gamache had pursued a risky strategy to topple the people behind the growing illicit drug trade, and, although ultimately successful in the grand scheme of things, he’s become a political scapegoat in the midst of the fallout. Removed in disgrace from his post as chief superintendent of the Surete, Gamache has been offered his previous job in homicide because those in power figured he’d retire rather than take a step back.

They were wrong, and his return is complicated by the fact that for the first several weeks he’ll be in the new job, he’ll be working with – or for – Jean-Guy, who is about to take Gamache’s daughter and grandson off to a new, safer life in France.

Meanwhile, the capricious Canadian spring weather is threatening Three Pines, as the river begins to rise dangerously.

Meanwhile, Clara Morrow, a friend in Three Pines who recently earned success as an artist after many years in obscurity, finds herself also the victim of a storm of abuse on social media. Her latest project has been so thoroughly trashed that people are questioning the worth of her earlier works. 

In the midst of all this, Gamache’s attention is drawn to the case of a missing young woman. Her father is convinced her abusive husband has harmed or killed her, and Gamache has trouble separating his own paternal feelings from his judgment in the investigation.

Amid the threatening floods, the relentless Twitter abuse, political machinations and family dynamics, Gamache, Jean-Guy and their colleagues are trying to find the missing woman – and, after her body is found, trying to bring her killer to justice. Most everyone is sure the husband is guilty, but are emotions clouding their vision?This is a fine addition to an outstanding series. And, with new developments in various lives and careers, Penny has laid the groundwork for keeping the series fresh. Here’s to more Gamache novels, and more debate about which is be

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It’s still summer…

The heading above was the subject line of the email in which Bob Moyer sent me this, his latest book review. He’s making the point that yes, this book is a beach book, in a way, but we’re not behind on our review because by the calendar, it’s still summer for a few days. And more important, this is a good book to read whatever the season. Sounds about right to me.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE LAST BOOK PARTY. By Karen Dukess. Henry Holt. 240 pages. $27.

The Last Book Party is a festive occasion for those who love books, as well as the reading, writing and publishing of them. Readers will at least take away a list of books they haven’t heard of, or, at least, not thought of for some time.

That list, however, is just icing on this multilayered cake of a novel. This is a bildungsroman, a coming of age, coming into talent novel like Goodbye, Columbus, and Bright Lights, Big City,both of which the author references. 

Set in 1985, the book sits in that poignant sweet spot between the decline of the major publishing houses, and the rise of the internet. Twenty-five-year-old Eve Rosen, trapped in a dead end publishing job, jumps at the chance to work as a summer assistant to a famous magazine writer. A wannabe writer, she immediately gets star struck by the stream of writers that flows from Boston and New York into Cape Cod for the summer. She is astounded by how those writers “… lived outside the conventions that guided my parents and their friends … creative people, real writers and artists, made their own rules.” And Eve desperately wants to know those rules, the secrets to their society. She looks for inspirational conversation, dialogue, even the whisper of the Muse. The reader tags along while she tries to parse out the secrets of their trade. She despairs of her situation:  “I hadn’t grown up charmed or tortured; there wasn’t anything unusual about me at all. How could an ordinary life like mine result in a story worth telling?”

First-time author Karen Dukess shows us just how it’s done. As Eve moves through the summer, the scales fall from her eyes. She is schooled by the latest wunderkind, whose work she knows to be a “… complicated brew of ambition, talent, fear, shame, dishonesty and hard work.”  She finds marital discord, politics, jealousy, even anti-Semitism, but, most important, she finds herself. At the end of the summer, her boss throws his annual book party, when guests dress as a fictional character they wish to be. By the time of The Last Book Party, Eve may not be able to tell who everyone else is, but she has a much better idea who she is. 

If there is a niche for book/beach books, The Last Book Party is at the top of the list.

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Young men, and love and war

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

CHANCES ARE… By Richard Russo. 11 ½ hours. 9 CDs. Read by Fred Sanders. $40. Also available in print from Knopf. 301 pages, $26.95.

Some books are considered “women’s fiction,” a label that does not in itself indicate inferior quality. Many, in fact, are very good. Lee Smith’s “The Last Girls” immediately springs to mind. The term is loosely applied to fiction that focuses on women characters, their lives and emotions.

Richard Russo’s “Chances Are…” is, by those same standards, men’s fiction. That doesn’t mean it’s about sports or hunting or macho pursuits, but rather that this is a novel about men, their lives and emotions.

If something is labeled “women’s fiction,” few men will choose to read it. That’s too bad, both because men are missing out on some fine novels, and because most people can learn a lot by reading books about those who are different from us. 

Women tend to be more willing to read “men’s fiction,” probably in part because for centuries, if they did not, they would have had little to read. 

I hope both women and men will read and enjoy “Chances Are …” It’s well written, with a slowly unraveling mystery to propel Russo’s familiar sense of humor and insights into the human condition.

This is a book that will be especially meaningful for people who came of age in the tumultuous era of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Told in alternating points of view, it’s the story of three men who became close friends during their student days at a tony liberal-arts college in Connecticut. Bonded at first by their status as outsiders, they had in common their work as “hashers,” serving food at a sorority house.

Lincoln Moser grew up in Arizona as the only child of a tyrannical, narrow-minded little man who pushed religion, obedience and his notions of manhood. He came to Minerva only because his usually meek mother, a Minerva alum, insisted. 

Teddy Novak grew up in the Midwest with teacher parents who seemed far more interested in each other and their intellectual pursuits than in the child they had produced. They taught him virtually none of the skills he needed to succeed in public school and society in general, and also imparted to him a fear of physical injuries. Tall at an early age, he tried to make it playing high school basketball as he envisioned it – not a contact sport at all. The results were disastrous and permanent.

Mickey Girardi was the youngest and only boy among eight children of a working-class Catholic family in Connecticut. He ended up at Minerva by making almost a perfect score on the SAT, after years of indifferent schoolwork.  All he really wanted was to play in a band.

One of the ties that bind these three young men is Jacy, a sorority girl. They are all madly, not really secretly, in love with her, even though they know her future lies in a different world. Jacy treats them as her best friends, or brothers, or maybe her groupies. 

A pivotal night in all their lives comes in December 1969, midway through their junior year in college, when the numbers are drawn for the Vietnam War’s first draft lottery. 

All these memories return when the three men, now in their late 60s, reunite for a weekend at the house on Martha’s Vineyard that Lincoln had inherited from his mother.

They’ve stayed close in some ways, but their lives have taken widely divergent paths, in career and family life as well as geographically. As they gather on the island, their thoughts are filled with the last time they were here together, on Memorial Day weekend just after their college graduation. Jacy was with them then, even though she was engaged to marry someone else.

And the last morning of that long ago weekend, Jacy vanished. Forever.

But she’s never really left any of them.

Being back on the island together brings her to the forefront of their minds, setting into motion events that, before this weekend is over, will finally bring some answers.

Along with thoughts of Jacy, all three are haunted now by how their lives have played out and by the choices they made because of the war and the draft. They are also increasingly aware of how they reacted to the ideas of what it means to be a man that were imparted to them – or not imparted – by their fathers.

Whether you read the book or listen to the fine audio version read by Fred Sanders, the stories will haunt you, too – the stories of these four once-young people, full of hope and possibilities, and the broader story of a generation that came of age under the dark cloud of a terrible war.

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‘A friend to anarchy’

BIG SKY. By Kate Atkinson. Little Brown. 386 pages. $28.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

Most mystery novelists move their minor characters around the chessboard of their story like pawns, always highlighting the kings and queens of their plots.

Not Kate Atkinson. She delves deep into the lives of what seem minor characters far from the heinous crime at the heart of this story. A trophy wife, her nerdy stepson, a man who loses both his job and his wife, along with just one character connected to the crime itself — she carries us so deep into their lives, with such deceptive ease, that we lose our concern about where it’s all going. She leaves one person to bring all the elements of the story together: Jackson Brody.

He’s the ex-cop private eye who is haunted by a family tragedy. Last seen in Case Histories, Atkinson’s previous mystery and now a successful series streaming on TV, he resurfaces in real time with a teenage son. He’s not much in the “…real business of detecting” now; he’s dealing with “…Entrapping unfaithful boyfriends and husbands … just high-functioning morons.”  He is, however, what one character calls “…a friend to anarchy.” 

 “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen” is his operative mantra, and it serves both him and Atkinson well here. If he didn’t see that girl get into the car … If the trophy wife didn’t hire him … If he didn’t tackle that man about to throw himself off a cliff … The author gives him a grasp on the reins of each of the elements in the story, and lets his “grey cells” lead us to a gut-wrenching conclusion. It’s there where his sense of justice obtains:  “He wasn’t a vigilante, he really wasn’t, although his idea of right and wrong didn’t always conform to the accepted legal standard.” And it doesn’t here, most certainly, and most entertainingly. There are so many things to admire about Atkinson’s writing, but the best is the fact that the reader doesn’t notice any of them. 

Big Sky is a good book.

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Predators, human style

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

WOLF PACK: A Joe Pickett Novel. By C.J. Box. Putnam. 370 pages. $27.

After a bruising political battle in book 18 of this series, Joe Pickett gets a new truck and his job back as a Wyoming game warden. Now perhaps he can return to handing out tickets for illegal trapping and fishing, taking a break from solving murders in the beautiful setting of this series.

Fat chance. Trouble hovers over Pickett. Like the drone that is terrorizing animal herds, chasing them to their deaths. Pickett handles the drone with the help of a talented accomplice, but he doesn’t handle the owner of the drone quite as well. When confronted, the guy, a transplant from New Jersey, his father and his bodyguards openly mock Pickett. 

While Pickett tries to parse out why they are so dismissive, trouble shows up in a black SUV. Two FBI thugs try to intimidate Pickett into giving up his campaign against the guy. Unbeknownst to them all, even bigger trouble shows up in less conspicuous transportation — aWolf Pack.

Not the natural predator that locals claim kills their cattle. No, this pack is a crew of killers hired by the Sinaloa drug cartel to eliminate enemies. Unfortunately, they kill even when pointed at the wrong target. Before Pickett can figure out what’s going on (the reader has the information earlier, of course), bodies start piling up at an alarming rate — alarming to both Pickett and the reader.

Don’t get attached to any of the characters in the book; they might not survive to the grisly finale. This 19th book in the series is probably more graphic than any previous ones. Pickett survives, of course, but if you are bothered by bloody body count, you might want to think twice about following the Wolf Pack.

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The legacy continues

I could be angry. I loved Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, reviewed many of them for newspapers, and even had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Hillerman once. When his daughter, Anne, took up the torch and tried continuing her late fathers series, I reviewed her first couple of efforts on this blog. So how did Bob Moyer beat me to this one, and how have a missed a couple in between?

Instead of being angry, I’ll thank Bob, post his review and start looking for the books I’ve missed in this fine series. Leaphorn would be proud of me.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE TALE TELLER. By Anne Hillerman. Harper. 322 pages. $26.99.

In this legacy series, Anne Hillerman has picked up the pen dropped upon her father Tony’s demise. Fans of the fierce Navajo duo Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee watched with apprehension as the daughter took on the challenge of keeping the well-loved series alive. Now in her fifth effort, Hillerman shows she has done her homework and also has developed skill at maintaining the body of work her father created.

Reading The Tale Teller is like attending a family reunion. You recognize everyone, they’ve changed either a lot or a little, and it’s enjoyable catching up with them. The “legendary lieutenant” Leaphorn, retired, had a stroke, and the words that come into his head don’t come out well in English (his Navajo is still fluent).  Chee, still a traditionalist, has mellowed a bit, and is happier. He’s a life partner with the biggest change the daughter has made — Bennie Manuelito. Introduced by Tony long ago, she was always a minor character, never allowed to make an arrest. Now, she is a full-fledged partner in the narrative, especially in this latest installment.

The book starts off with three story lines. Leaphorn takes on a private case, looking for a missing valuable artifact sent to the Navajo nation. Bennie literally runs into a dead body while out jogging, and Chee investigates a robbery. Before long, Joe has a possible murder on his hands, Chee’s robbery escalates into a shooting, and Bennie has to wrestle with the FBI over the identity of the corpse. As the book progresses, two of the cases merge, while the third threatens to spiral into disaster. Hillerman moves smoothly among plot lines, and she keeps us interested.

She also writes with eloquence comparable to her father’s about the Southwest and the Navajo cultural landscape that the three protagonists patrol during their investigation. She carries on the sense of wonder her father invested in the series. Not quite as good as her father at dialogue, she nevertheless has become skilled at drawing upon the treasure her father left behind.

We can look forward to another reunion with anticipation, not apprehension.


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