While you were sleeping

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE SLEEPWALKER. By Chris Bohjalian. Read by Cady McClain and Grace Experience. Random House Audio. 9 ½ hours; 8 CDs. $47.

sleepA new novel from Chris Bohjalian is always cause for celebration. It’s not just that he is a fine writer. He also is brave and inquisitive enough to tackle new and unusual subjects, so that each of his works is like a revelation, whether he’s writing about the Armenian genocide, a midwife in rural Vermont, animal rights, human trafficking, a nuclear accident or something else. This time, the subject is a particularly troubling variety of sleepwalking.

In The Sleepwalker, we meet the Ahlbergs of Vermont during a devastating family crisis. Annalee Ahlberg, wife and mother, has disappeared and is feared to be dead. Annalee, a beautiful woman and a gifted architect, suffers from a bizarre form of sleepwalking that sometimes takes her out of the house and into perilous situations. Once, her older daughter, Lianna, saved her as she was about to plunge off a bridge near their home into the Gale River. Annalee’s episodes usually happen only when her husband, Warren, a college professor is away from home. After therapy and medication, Annalee has been free of sleepwalking for quite a while, so Warren dares to travel to an academic conference in another state for the first time in years.

When Annalee disappears while he’s gone, Lianna and her younger sister feel both devastated and responsible.

As the search for Annalee drags on and then is more or less abandoned, Warren and his daughters struggle to deal with their loss. Not knowing Annalee’s fate makes things even worse.

Annalee disappeared at the end of summer, and Lianna finds herself unable to return to college for her senior year. She finds herself drifting aimlessly through the days, providing a semblance of meals and routine for her father and her sister, Paige, who’s middle-school age and a gifted athlete. In a way, Lianna is sleepwalking through life – or, more accurately, walking, dazed, through a nightmare,

But she’s also trying to learn more about her mother in hopes of solving the mystery of what happened to her, and what she discovers is more and more unsettling. Her mother didn’t just walk in her sleep; she engaged in risky behavior, and that fueled the tensions between Lianna’s parents.

And then there’s Gavin Rikert, a handsome young detective who shows up on the day Annalee is discovered missing to help with the case. Then he comes back, again and again, and soon he and Lianna are in a clandestine relationship. Gavin, Lianna learns, knew her mother from the sleep center where her mother went for treatment. As time goes on, Lianna is torn between her attraction to Gavin and her suspicions about his relationship with her mother as well his intentions toward her.

Bohjalian also has the commendable gift of being able to create women characters who are entirely believable rather than, as so often happens when men write about women, a male fantasy of how women think and react. This book works particularly well as an audiobook, with two women voicing the primary and secondary narrators.

The novel at first seems low-key and almost slow, but the suspense steadily builds as Lianna, bit by bit, learns more of her family’s secrets. Finally, Bohjalian delivers an ending that will leave your head spinning before you realize the truth of what he’s written.



Posted in Contemporary literary fiction, Mysteries | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A fresh perspective: What happened to the baby?

Here’s another review by one of Paul O’Connor’s students in opinion writing at the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Reviewed by Lauren Tarpley

THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR. By Shari Lapena. Pamela Dorman Books (Viking). 320 pages. $26.

coupleA couple in New York attend a dinner party at their neighbor’s house, leaving their beloved infant daughter home, but taking the baby monitor with them and checking on her every half hour. Then they return home to find that the baby has vanished. Their motion detector has been tampered with, and the front door is unlatched. A typical kidnapping case … right? Wrong. What follows is not your standard story surrounding a missing child.

In her novel The Couple Next Door, Shari Lapena examines the fear Anne and Marco Conti face as they try to piece together the night before in hopes of finding their daughter, Cora. As more evidence is uncovered, more about the couple next door comes to light, and what they find is unsettling.

Lapena does an excellent job of keeping the narrative moving by providing a seemingly endless array of action and plot twists. Just when you think you’re one step closer to figuring out who took Cora, Lapena throws in a new detail to stop you in your tracks.

From Anne’s wealthy parents to the beautiful and charming woman next door, the characters throughout the novel might appear clichéd at first. Yet, the characters that Lapena has created are just as dark and complex as the narrative itself. Whether because of mental illness or family secrets, nobody within the novel is to be trusted. However, since the novel is so fast-paced, there is little time for character development. The reader is still trying to unravel the characters up to the very last page. On the one hand, because the characters are so complex, I would have liked to get to know them earlier in the novel. But, on the other hand, perhaps this slow character development feeds the suspense of the novel. The reader doesn’t know whom to blame or trust — just as the characters in the novel don’t know.

Lapena excels when it comes to giving voices to her varied characters. Anne, a distressed mother with postpartum depression, never sounds crazy or objectified, which can be a difficult task when giving voice to someone with mental illness.

In what could have been your stereotypical suspense novel revolving around a kidnapping, Lapena does an excellent job of making sure her plot line is new and captivating. Through vivid detail and fast-paced action, Lapena is able to completely immerse the reader in the story.

Posted in Mysteries, Thriller/Suspense | Tagged , | 1 Comment

In treacherous territory

Bob Moyer wrote this review a while back, but either because of human error or a disturbance in the force, it never made it onto the blog. The book has been out since last summer, but never fear if you missed it – it’s still around, and still good.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE JEALOUS KIND. By James Lee Burke. Simon and Schuster. 382 pages. $27.99

jealousJames Lee Burke has a penchant for placing his heroes in treacherous territory. Pity poor Aaron Holland Broussard. He’s confronted with traps, peaks and valleys, bogs, shifting ground, all with no charts, in that dreadful place called — Young Love.

It’s Houston in the 1950s, and convertibles and hotrods fill the parking lots of drive-ins everywhere. It’s in one of those that 17-year-old Aaron intervenes in an argument between Valerie Epstein and Grady Harrelson. He gains two things with that move — the love of his life, and a sworn enemy.

Grady, it seems, is The Jealous Kind, who “…don’t love themselves, so they can’t love or trust anyone else. There’s no way to fix them,” says Valerie.

Grady is also the dangerous kind. His daddy is a mobster, and Grady launches inconceivable ferocity on Aaron and his family. Instead of worrying “…about dealing with a collection of spoiled rich kids, (they were) a few feet away from men who fixed prizefights and trafficked in narcotics and prostitution and committed murder for no other reason than greed.”

In a bow to the world of folklore, Aaron descends, literally, into the underworld to do battle with the forces of evil, and to become a man by finding the courage his father had found as a soldier in the Great War.

The forces of evil take on a variety of vivid faces: the high school shop teacher who preys on young boys; the mobster’s son disfigured by botched plastic surgery; the gangster’s moll who makes moves on Aaron; and, of course, Grady himself.

In his picaresque but perilous journey, Aaron is joined by his very own Sancho Panza, Saber Bledsoe, who can get everybody in trouble but nobody out. In the middle of the swirling, emerging class war that winds its way through Burke’s narrative, there’s also a murder, a crime that complicates Aaron’s rise against evil.

And the course of true love, two people “…unable to enjoy pleasure without the presence of the other.” A binding love carries Valerie and Aaron through the conflict to a place where “…life was a song, eternal in nature, and the smell and secrets of creation lay in the tumble of every wave that crested and receded into the Gulf.”

Aaron’s story is another chapter in the Holland family history, which stretches across many years and many books. With his usual unsurpassed skill, Burke blends the natural world with the nature of the human beast known as Holland.

He also manages to balance the love story with the lawless violence of the plotline. That balance makes this quite possibly the best book in the series, and one of the best he’s written. It fills out the history, while also standing on its own. Quite a feat. Quite a read.





Posted in Thriller/Suspense | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A fresh perspective: The cursed Harry Potter

Again this year, students in Paul T. O’Connor’s opinion-writing class in the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have contributed book reviews to Briar Patch Books. We welcome these reviews, which offer some different fare as well as fresh perspectives. Thanks to these bright students!

Reviewed by Rebekah Dare Guin

HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD. By J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, Jack Thorne. Scholastic, Inc. 320 pages.

cursedJ.K. Rowling cursed her legacy by releasing the script to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as a book that’s part of her franchise.

The magic was back. Potterheads around the globe dressed in black robes and flew to bookstores in hopes of reliving the wonder of the bestselling book series of all time.

But Cursed Child deviated from the earlier works in the series in distinct ways. First, the book was not a novel but a script from the West End play that opened the same weekend. Second, Rowling was not the primary author of the work. Her name is on the cover in thick black type, but she only consulted on the script with playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany. Last, the play and script cast Potter’s gang in secondary roles and focus instead on the second generation of wizards.

The script starts where the books left off. The first scene is a re-enactment of the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Harry is sending his second child, Albus, off for his first year at Hogwarts. The next few scenes quickly move through time until it settles on Albus’ fourth year at the school, where most of the action takes place.

The script focuses on Albus’ struggle to accept the legacy of his father and to solve the mystery of a prophesied “cursed child.”

On the surface, this script should have been a welcome addition. The plot follows the narrative that fans have come to expect, and it answers the never-ending question of what happened next. However, page after page proved that the script was a great idea in concept but was very poorly executed.

The characters are flat and one-dimensional. Unlike in the books, their dialogue feels flat and forced. Of course, some of this can be chalked up to differences in media. The characters would gain dimension on the stage that was lacking on the page. It is possible that watching the play leaves the viewer with a completely different feeling and impression. As a reader, I found it hard to care for the characters, even the ones from the original work. They lack the authenticity that made Rowling’s books famous.

Additionally, the script panders to fans. Throughout the work, we reunite with many characters from the original books. However, clearly they are included as fan service rather than to move the plot forward. It is a common fan theory to believe that Snape has a heart of gold under his tough exterior, and the script plays into that so heavily it feels disingenuous to the saga as a whole.

The script is a mess. One premise of the plot is time travel, and the principles applied in this script do not match with the laws of time and magic that Rowling laid out in her books. It seems silly to bicker about the technicalities of an impossible phenomenon, but if you accept the laws in Cursed Child, the whole plot of the third Harry Potter falls to pieces.

Lastly, the plot is weak and predictable. Rowling was known for using plot twists and surprises to set her work apart, enabling her to transcend children’s literature and appeal to millions of adult readers. The Cursed Child plot reverts to simplistic and predictable children’s work.

As a staged performance, Cursed Child might provide a valuable addition to Harry Potter world, but releasing it as a book tarnishes Rowling’s reputation and offends her fans. It might be worth £100 to see it live, but it will never be worth the $20 to read.


Posted in Popular fiction, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Young Adult | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Stone Barrington’s latest is rich with plot, action and politics

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

BELOW THE BELT. By Stuart Woods. Read by Tony Roberts. Penguin Audio. 8 hours; 7 CDs. $35. Also available in hardcover from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

beltI haven’t read nearly all of the Stone Barrington books, which Stuart Woods cranks out with alarming frequency. I have read enough of them to know that they are of uneven quality; some are more worth a read or a listen than others. Below the Belt, No. 40, is one of the better ones. It’s got plenty of plot, lots of action and it’s something of a commentary on contemporary politics,

As anyone who’s tried the books knows, Stone is a wealthy man, with his private plane, servants and multiple houses in attractive places around the world. And nearly everyone he deals with is also excessively rich, and usually powerful as well. On one level, these books are pure fantasy for those who like to imagine how it would be to have more money than anyone could spend in a lifetime, to be able to hop from Manhattan to an English manor or a desert or island retreat at a whim, and find the chosen abode in perfect order and stocked with goodies. A good deal of dialogue deals with such things as wines, liquors and fine dining, not to mention yachts, cars and aircraft. When Stone needs a car, he buys a luxury one, and there’s no loan involved.

This fantasy lifestyle also includes sophisticated sexual relationships. Stone always has a woman who’s intelligent, usually wealthy in her own right, and perfectly happy to engage in an adult relationship that need not have strings attached. It’s sort of like having a golfing or sailing buddy, only different, wink, wink.

All this wealth, ease and dalliance are intriguing the first or second time, but the less successful books in the series offer little else. A whole novel in which people do little but jet around, buy expensive items, eat and drink well, fall into bed and then arise to do the same things the next day gets a bit boring.

But Below the Belt will have you turning pages feverishly or, if you, as I did, listen to the audio version, taking the long way home to hear what’s happening next. This story begins at Stone’s new spread in Santa Fe, where he hopes to spend time with Holly Barker, a beautiful and willing companion who’s taking a little break from her high-level White House position. Things quickly get complicated after the former president, who happens to be the husband of the current one, asks Stone to do him the favor of taking possession of a strong case. What exactly the case contains and why various people are going to great lengths to acquire it are parts of a mystery that involves current and former intelligence operatives and could have bearing on the president’s re-election.

The action moves across the country and eventually across the Atlantic, with danger and suspense mounting. A key player is a wealthy man who made his fame as a TV personality and who has been carefully groomed by an even wealthier man for a major political role that could profoundly change the United States. Could this celebrity politician have some explosive secrets in his past?

If any of this sounds as though it’s loosely based on our recent election, that’s obviously the idea. But never fear, reading (or listening to) it is a lot more fun than living through recent events.

As always, Tony Roberts does a good job of reading the audio version, and this time, the story is well worth his time and yours.


Posted in Action/adventure, Audio Books, Popular fiction | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Frozen, a la Stephanie Plum

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

TURBO TWENTY-THREE. By Janet Evanovich. Read by Lorelei King. Random House Audio. 6 hours; 5 CDs. $32. Also available in print from Bantam Books.

turbo-twenty-three-by-janet-evanovichJanet Evanovich is one of those prolific writers with several series and a new novel of some sort appearing just about every time you turn around. All her books are entertaining, but the first series that propelled her into the big leagues – the one starring Stephanie Plum, an unlikely New Jersey bounty hunter – remains by far my favorite. Judging from the regularity with which these books jump to the top of The New York Times best-seller list, I am in good company.

The latest of Stephanie’s adventures is No. 23, but Evanovich manages to make this book as fresh and entertaining as the first one. And, of course, because these books have a touch of romance as well as adventure and crime, Stephanie still hasn’t resolved her attraction to the two men in her life, Morelli and Ranger, even though she and Morelli are sort of engaged to be engaged. Or something. Let Ranger say “Babe…” as only he can do, and all Stephanie’s resolutions begin to melt.

This time out, Stephanie and her intrepid sidekick, Lula, the buxom former ’ho, happen upon a refrigerated 18-wheeler as they are chasing a criminal who, once again, has jumped bail. When it turns out that the truck contains not only a load of ice cream from a local factory but also a very dead employee decorated like the factory’s famous ice cream bar, things start to get both zany and dangerous.

It seems that two local ice cream factories are warring, and eventually Stephanie winds up working undercover for Ranger’s private security company at each of them, at least briefly. Meanwhile, Lula and Randy Briggs, an annoying dwarf who’s crossed their paths before, are having late-night adventures around Trenton as they try to win a spot on a reality TV show that involves nudity. Stephanie, of course, gets roped into helping them make their videos. Further complicating her life, Stephanie is suspicious of Grandma Mazur’s new love interest.

As always, there are plenty of laughs and lots of action. Stephanie’s life and limbs are in grave danger, naturally, and things don’t go well for her current vehicle. And, also as always, despite her unusual life, Stephanie comes across not as a hardened woman of action but as a likeable gal who doesn’t like guns or violence, wants to do the right thing, loves her wacky family and friends and is just trying to figure out how someone with “virtually no marketable skills” can get by in Trenton, N.J.

These books are quick, light reads . I enjoy listening to the audio versions, with Lorelei King’s voices for the various characters adding to the hilarity.





Posted in Action/adventure, Audio Books, Humorous fiction, Popular fiction | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The enduring mountain

Tom Dillon, journalist and outdoorsman, reviews a new book that’s full of information about North Carolina’s beloved tourist attraction and state park.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

GRANDFATHER MOUNTAIN: THE HISTORY AND GUIDE TO AN APPALACHIAN ICON. By Randy Johnson. University of North Carolina Press, 290 pages, $35.

grandfather-mountainMention Grandfather Mountain near Linville, and the face of the late super-promoter Hugh Morton inevitably springs to mind. It was Morton who promoted North Carolina’s “top scenic attraction,” as it was known, came up with the idea of the Mile-High Swinging Bridge (only 80 feet above the ground, but a mile above sea level), and eventually became one of the best-known North Carolinians of the 20th century.

But Morton isn’t the only name one should associate with the mountain. A more obscure name is that of Randy Johnson, a hiker, cross-country skier and backpacker who set up Grandfather Mountain’s self-sustaining backcountry trail permit system in the 1970s and 1980s. It was that system that really saved what at the time was a decaying trail network, as well as laid the groundwork for what is today Grandfather Mountain State Park.

As Johnson tells it, he and some friends had come to the mountain sometime in the 1970s hoping to do some winter camping and hiking – looking for “the snowiest, most spectacular summit in the South” – only to find the trails closed. There had been a death from hypothermia on a poorly maintained trail, it turned out, and Morton, ever averse to bad publicity, had closed the trails. To him, it had seemed the only option.

“I couldn’t imagine the possibility that the mountain’s highest peaks would be off-limits to hikers,” Johnson writes here, “so I set out to meet Morton. Luckily, he was receptive to a hiker fee-funded, safety registration program I devised to keep the trails open.” Johnson ran that program for more than a decade, reopening old trails and blazing new ones, teaching cross-country skiing, promoting backcountry management, and all the time, writing about it.

He’s still a writer for a several outdoor magazines, as well as author of a number of hiking guides, but this is the book he was destined to write, and it’s a good one. His history follows that of northwestern North Carolina through the travels of the early botanists, on through settlement (yes, there’s stuff about Tweetsie Railroad), the logging years, then into the development of resorts (some good, some bad) and finally through to the emergence of a conservation ethic.

The book reliably follows the battle between Hugh Morton and the federal government about the route of the Blue Ridge Parkway in the region. That’s the fight that ended with the agreement to build the Linn Cove Viaduct over a part of the delicate high-altitude environment. It was a definite battle, and Johnson says Morton’s feelings are probably one reason the mountain’s backcountry is today a state park, instead of parkway land.

There’s also the inevitable information about the swinging bridge and other tourist attractions, which remain under the control of the Morton family and friends. That was one of the compromises that had to be worked out when the backcountry was sold to the state for a new state park. It’s a tourist attraction, but it has been done with more care than a good many others.

One caveat: Don’t expect to tuck this into your back pocket for a hike. It has information about all the trails, old and new, as well as some Johnson would like to see that don’t exist yet. There are also handy tips on photography. But at 9-by-12 inches and loaded with color photography, this is a coffee-table special. It’s a coffee-table special with a lot of information and history, but it’s still a coffee-table book.

But the main point is Johnson’s optimism about the future of the mountain now, with new state protections against development and new state support for the trails. “My hope,” he says, “is that the wild beauty still found on the mountain’s peaks … will open a door to appreciation and inspiration for whoever finds their way to our great, evergreen Grandfather.”

  • Tom Dillon is a retired journalist in Winston-Salem.


Posted in American History, Contemporary Nonfiction, Nature | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Around the world with Dirk Pitt

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

ODESSA SEA. By Clive Cussler and Dirk Cussler. Read by Scott Brick. 12 hours. 10 CDs. $45. Also available in hardcover from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

odessaIf you like Dirk Pitt novels, you’ll get your money’s worth and more in Odessa Sea, No. 24, out just in time for Christmas.

These novels are great travel books – ideal for listening while driving or for reading while on a plane or waiting in an airport. This time, the tale is also a travel story because the fat-paced action moves from the Black Sea to Bermuda to Norway to the Mediterranean to Gibraltar to England to the Chesapeake Bay … you get the idea.

Pitt is the director of the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) a fictional government agency that deals with ocean exploration and investigation. (In real life, Clive Cussler has created a real NUMA as a nonprofit organization that works with underwater archaeology and shipwrecks,) Somehow, however, doing what might seem to be fairly routine NUMA tasks (if dive expeditions and the use of high-tech submersibles are ever routine) often embroils Pitt and his relatives and associates in dangerous situations involving international bad guys.

This latest novel is definitely one of those times. When Pitt and his colleague Al Giordino answer a Mayday call from a freighter in the Black Sea, they find most of the crew dead in mysterious circumstances. As they try to unravel the mystery, the two are drawn further and further into a tangled web of crime, violence and global political intrigue. Missing gold from the waning days of the Romanov Empire seems to be involved, as are British warships in World War I and a bomber that went down during the Cold War. Pitt’s adult children, twins Dirk Jr. and Summer, are drawn into the danger and intrigue via a shipwreck they find far away from their dad’s activities.

Before it’s all over, a nuclear bomb threat, rebels in the Ukraine, highly advanced drones, an alluring if sometimes-rash Interpol agent and anoxic zones in various bodies of war are involved.

As usual, the Cusslers lace their action tale with plenty of interesting history and science, which is based in fact even if the tales themselves sometimes stretch credulity. There’s so much action, suspense, thrills and interesting information in this story that a lazier or less ambitious author would have turned it into several novels.

This book is definitely worth the trip!



Posted in Audio Books, Popular fiction, Thriller/Suspense | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Better than chicken soup

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING. By Fannie Flagg. Read by Kimberly Farr. 16 CDs; 12 hours. $54. Also available in print from Random House.

wholetownJust as there is comfort food, there are comfort books. Once again, Fannie Flagg has dished up the latter in fine style.

Some people know Fannie Flagg mostly for Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Café, which became a popular movie, and they think of her as a Southern writer. She is, indeed, a fine Southern writer, but she’s also written some good novels with other settings. We already know the Midwestern town of Elmwood Springs, Mo., from her Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!, Standing in the Rainbow and Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven. (Forgive me if I’ve missed one.)

And now Flagg gives us, as only she could, an overview of the history of Elmwood Springs from its founding in the late 19th century to the present. Fans will be happy to see some familiar characters again, but first-timers won’t have any trouble appreciating what’s here.

Of course, this novel is not some dry accounting of facts, but rather a history through stories of the people who live in Elmwood Springs – and even of many of the people who die and are buried there. Lordor Nordstrom, the dairy farmer who, with his mail-order Swedish bride, got things started back before Elmwood Springs had a name, set aside a special place as a cemetery for family, friends and their descendants. As the years go by, Flagg’s stories of what has “the whole town talking” move easily back and forth between the living and those who find themselves at Still Meadows, mostly at peace but keenly interested in what’s going on.

Still Meadows, as it turns out, is something of a misnomer. Its residents can talk to one another, even if they can’t communicate with the living (for the most part).

This is not, however, a ghost story. It’s very much a book about life, described with Fannie Flagg’s characteristic wisdom. There is often humor in Flagg’s stories, but it’s never slapstick or condescending.

Flagg brings Elmwood Springs alive through a series of fairly brief stories told from a variety of points of view. Common themes and people tie everything together, even as the townsfolk find their lives changed by the Great Depression, wars (worldwide and more limited), women’s suffrage, suburbanization and all sorts of modern inventions, including movies, airplanes and cell phones.

There are happy times and sad. Inevitably, there are tragedies. Some people get what they deserve, while others suffer fates that just don’t seem fair. Yet, the overall feeling among the residents is that life goes on, and that’s mostly a good thing.

This book is sentimental at times, but never sappy. It’s certainly not formulaic. The stories may take a quirky turn at times, but never to an extreme.

Longtime fans should be warned that the audio version is not, as some earlier ones have been, read by Flagg herself. While her Southern accent enhances some of her books, the choice of Kimberly Farr for this one is wise. She’s able to get the Swedish and Midwestern accents just right. And even though the book covers a lot of time, and it’s important to pay attention to the setting of each new section, it’s not hard to follow the audio version.

Whether you listen or read the print version, The Whole Town’s Talking will make you smile a lot, laugh at times and ultimately feel that things aren’t so bad. It’s a celebration of life, family and that elusive thing we call community.




Posted in Audio Books, Humorous fiction, Popular fiction | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Playing a risky game

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

SWEET TOOTH. By Ian McEwan. Anchor Books. 400 pages, Softcover. $15.95

sweet_tooth-mcewan_ian-18807532-frntlSerena Frome has been playing out of her league all her life.

The mostly overlooked daughter of an Anglican bishop, she attends Cambridge University, where she’s a middling student in “the maths” and the target of derision by more talented male classmates.

She accepts work in the British Security Services, where few females rise above secretarial positions and where her male superiors outmaneuver her.

But it is in love that Serena, lead character in Ian McEwan’s 2012 thriller, is most obviously outplayed. Her first lover is a gay student who uses her to hide his homosexuality. That’s something one must do in early 1970s England.

Her next is a Cambridge professor, 33 years her senior, who enjoys his dalliance and dumps her at a highway rest stop. Her third is the true premier leaguer, however, feasting on her minor league talent.

Thomas Haley is a rising author and literature professor at a second-tier British university. Frome’s superiors assign her to enlist him in an MI 5-sponsored program through which he’ll receive a regular stipend to write whatever fiction he wants. MI 5 considers Haley a supporter of British ideals, a young cultural figure who’ll be a good tool in the Cold War’s clash of ideas.

After Serena reads several of Haley’s graphically sexual short stories, she fantasizes. Once she meets him – he’s handsome, of course – she lands in his bed, something that’s clearly a conflict of interest for a spy, which, technically, she is at this point.

Poor Serena. She just wants a good job, a good lover and a chance to read. She loves literature and would have been an English major but for her mother’s insistence that she use her math talents to enter a male-dominated field, helping liberate all women.

Serena becomes entangled in the intrigues of MI 5, the jealousies of co-workers, the vindictiveness of a rejected suitor and the manipulations of those much craftier than she.

Sweet Tooth is set amid the social and political turmoil of early 1970s London and is a fictional account of government attempts to infiltrate the intellectual community for Cold War purposes. It’s wonderfully written; no one would expect anything less from McEwan. But one gets the sense that it could have just as easily been a long short story as a novel. One, two, maybe three accounts of weekends in bed might have been enough to get across the concept that Serena and Thomas liked sex.

And just about the time the reader wonders where the hell this story is going, McEwan throws in a twist in the last chapter that turns the whole damned thing on its head. Pretty clever.

That one word sums up the whole novel: clever. All of these men were more clever than Serena, and McEwan is more clever than his readers, at least this reader.

  • Paul T. O’Connor is the political columnist for the N.C. Insider newsletter. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.






Posted in Contemporary literary fiction, Thriller/Suspense | Tagged , , | Leave a comment