Doin' the Time Loop
Loop Quantum Gravity, a physics theory that "shatters time and space" -- that's my excuse. Scientific American magazine says, "We perceive space and time to be continuous, but if the amazing theory … is correct, they actually come in discrete pieces."
Someone shorted me on my share of discrete pieces of time. Without that time, lists of books remain to be purchased, stacks of books lay unopened. Reviews bubbled and fermented but never made it to my computer or onto the pages of Crescent Blues.
With the piece of time allotted me now, let me play a bit of catch up and give a few brief reviews of books that I enjoyed, but due to that crazy time loop, didn't get to review.
Carolyn Hart: Letter from Home
Berkley Prime Crime (Hardcover), ISBN 0-425-19179-6
Usually I read a mystery novel, close the cover and move on. After reading Letter From Home by Carolyn Hart, a serene spirit enveloped me for days. The characters lived multi-faceted lives in real settings and faced believable problems in a difficult era made romantic by the overshadowing aura of war, death and survival. I connected with the setting and characters.
The author takes us and renowned journalist G. G. Gilman back to Gilman's childhood Oklahoma hometown, back to the year 1944 when Gretchen Grace Gilman, age 14, began her career at the local newspaper. Her friend Barbara sent the letter that brought the elderly Gilman back to her roots, and it was Barbara's mother who died that simmering, fateful summer of 1944. Barbara found her mother murdered in their living room, and Gretchen became entangled in the mystery.
The police hunted Barbara's father. Gretchen's grandmother (whose cooking made me homesick for Mom's kitchen) helped Barbara's father evade them. Barbara called upon Gretchen's friendship to keep her secrets, while Mr. Dennis at The Gazette wanted the story.
Swirling around the murder mystery, Hart creates a world of home cooking, pre-war ethics, small-town security and censorship, the emerging world of war, loss of loved ones, changing morality, family and women's roles. Gilman's delightful dual role as evolving journalist and girl growing into confident professional makes this book sing. The use of a letter to frame the 60-year-old mystery also moved the plot smoothly from past to present, chapter by chapter. The twisted finale makes this one of the most enjoyable mysteries of 2003.
Dorothy Garlock: Mother Road
Warner Books (Hardcover), ISBN 0-446-53062-X
Garlock makes use of a setting similar to Hart's in A Letter from Home, in that often-romanticized era, the Great Depression. "Mother Road," a nickname for Route 66, sits in the middle of the dust bowl during the 1930s. Mother Road pits struggling, moral, flawed characters against the evil, hypocritical, self-serving ones.
Andy, a one-legged widower, runs a garage and camp site along Route 66 where he services bootleggers' vehicles as well as westward-bound, destitute families' broken down trucks. Andy's unmarried sister-in-law lives with him and cares for his two children. Their living arrangement raises eyebrows and speculation in the nearby little Oklahoma town. As luck would have it, a silent stranger stops by on the day Andy faces down a rabid critter. While Andy recovers from the bites, the stranger runs Andy's garage and protects his home and family.
No one writes a more heart-warming, fascinating novel than Garlock. Her long, successful run in non-formulaic romances attests to her skills. Mother Road shatters no stereotypes, but I enjoyed wallowing in the old ethics of hard work, the morality of helping your fellow man. I liked associating with men and women who love and live nobly and men who stand tall, whether on one leg or two.
Lev Raphael: The German Money
Leapfrog Press (Trade Paperback), ISBN 096795200X
After avoiding The German Money for months, I finally sat down last week and read it cover to cover. The book reads smoothly and quickly, and fills the need for a well-written read. I avoided it partly because of the hype and partly because of my cynicism -- "Oh no, another Holocaust novel!" -- and partly because of the author's love of words.
Raphael rarely uses one word where he could use five. Not to say they aren't great words, wonderful, descriptive, appropriate words. I find this author takes one paragraph to describe something most authors say in one sentence. Yet the writing, slightly reminiscent of Margaret Atwood, sucked me in, and I adjusted to his style. Although the Holocaust remains the central theme of this dysfunctional family's problems, the author takes it in a different direction.
The authoritative, secretive, haunted mother dies. The somewhat nosy neighbor who bakes exquisite cakes and sweets, finds the body and calls 911. This neighbor mothers the adult children more than their own mother, yet she seems an odd person for their mother to befriend.
The three children gather to clean up the remains of their mother's life. The youngest son, a troubled bi-sexual, inherits the apartment. The beautiful daughter, who married a rich man but remains unhappy, inherits the insurance money. The eldest son, who spent years alienated himself from the family, inherits "the German money."
This money, reparations from the German government for their mother's loss and suffering as a Jewish survivor of Nazi concentration camps, sat unused throughout the mother's lifetime. She invested it and treated it like her war experiences -- something not to be discussed. Yet she gave it to her eldest son. Now it amounts to over a million dollars -- a sum far exceeding the low six-figure sums bequeathed to the two children who had remained in her life.
The eldest son can't understand why his mother left him the money. As he tries to come to terms with his inheritance, he begins to face the elements of his life he spent decades avoiding.
Yet, Raphael and I differ on how the ending should play out. I found his choices at odds with the characters he created and ultimately unbelievable. In addition, the number of times the eldest son sexually gratified himself seemed more an author's indulgence than a necessary plot element.
While the book's outcome felt wrong to me on several levels, the writing -- I know I grumbled about the many words -- elevates this book to a higher plane than most murder mysteries and makes for a thought provoking read.
Rochelle Krich: Dream House
Ballantine Books (Hardcover), ISBN 034544972X
Rochelle Krich, one of my favorite west coast suspense novelists, writes a second series featuring an Orthodox Jewish, true crime writer Molly Blume. Krich's first series features an Orthodox Jewish police detective Jessica Drake, who shares many of the same character flaws and behaviors as Molly Blume. (Blood Money reigns as my favorite of that first series, amazingly because of its association with Holocaust survivors.) Both women fight the repressive nature of their religion while reveling in the peace and fulfillment of their faith.
Dream House, Krich's second book in the Molly Blume series, focuses on the controversy swirling around HARP (Historical Architectural Restoration and Preservation) boards that govern neighborhoods in affluent, upscale, yet older communities. Several vandalisms, a missing woman and, of course, murder keep Molly searching for the ringleader in the attacks against preservationists. The list of suspects proves long since almost everyone subject to the board's decisions (e.g., which light fixtures to install or what patio not to construct) made death threats against these all-powerful HARP members.
Well written in Krich's no-nonsense style and knee deep in a refreshing landscape ripe with mystery clues, Dream House fulfilled its promise to keep me guessing throughout most of the book.
I enjoy learning about religions. Krich answers many of my questions about Orthodox Judaism in the course of her novels. Nevertheless, a personal preference for independent, free-spirited, unrepressed protagonists keeps me from embracing this series and this sleuth with enthusiasm. Stephanie Plum (Janet Evanovich's feisty bail bondswoman) and Bennie Harper (Earlene Fowler's moral yet curious mystery sleuth) live lives I prefer to fantasize about, especially Bennie's hunky husband Gabe. But, I digress.
So many more books wait in line for review, but the Quantum Loop tightens, and my time grows short.
Cynthia Riggs: The Cemetery Yew
Thomas Dunne Books (Hardcover), ISBN: 0312321260
The 90-plus protagonist of The Cemetery Yew fascinated me with her energy, curiosity and wisdom. Set in Martha's Vineyard, the book spoke of an intimate community of people who lived their lives surrounded by water, dependent upon the tides and nautical perversities. The well-told mystery sat like a bonus atop the setting and characters.
Knowing that the author runs a bed and breakfast for writers on Martha's Vineyard, resides on the island and based the protagonist upon her late, talented mother, a poet who lived past 100, only deepens my enjoyment of this book and the series.
Libby Fischer Hellmann: A Picture of Guilt
Poisoned Pen Press (Hardcover), ISBN: 1590580737
Ellie gives up on life. But we next catch sight of her at dinner in an antebellum setting with her daughter; a wealthy, mysterious, stranger named Abdul; and Ellie's fiancé David who seems more enamored by the stranger's wealth than supportive of Ellie's near-death experience.
Hellmann writes a novel packed with action, politics, history, full-bodied characters and sets them all in a city that exists in the real world, just sixty miles down the road from my front door. Chicago. The city and its history fascinate me, and Hellmann brings Chicago in as a bonus character.
The masterful way Hellmann unfurls a mystery leaves me in awe. She gets my enthusiastic two thumbs up for this blend of politics, history and suspense.
Laurie R. King: Keeping Watch
Bantam Books (Hardcover), ISBN 0553801910
I fell in love with Laurie R. King's writing through her freestanding novel Folly. Keeping Watch follows Folly character Allen Carmichael into his mysterious world as recovering Vietnam veteran and his work as "kidnapper for hire." Carmichael's a good guy. He retrieves children and the helpless from life-threatening situations.
The set up for this book certainly struck me as original. Yet even with the strong writing, outstanding topic and multi-faceted characterizations, I came away somewhat disappointed. I wanted another Folly and I missed my beloved Rae (a character from Folly) who played only a minor part this time around.
King comes within millimeters of a masterful novel but pulls back into the security of a formulaic genre just when she approaches the threshold of a more literary project.
But despite my disappointment, I whole-heartedly recommend this book. King's insights into the relationships between abuser and abused raise the value of this book well beyond that of "just another mystery. "
And now, the book that sums up my life:
Sarah Nelson: So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading
G.P. Putnam's Sons (Hardcover), ISBN 0399150838
This part-memoir, "part exploration of great novels, over-hyped classics and the occasional brilliant piece of good luck" must be read with pad and pencil at the ready so you can add books to your "To Be Read" list before you forget.
Nelson's humorous tone, skillful writing and wonderful insights simply enrich an already tasty dessert. One chapter begins, "To arrive in Key West bookless is only slightly less jarring than finding oneself hatless in Dallas."
This should be an annual publication. Better than Publisher's Weekly or The New York Times Review of Books for a personal opinion and dissection of books as well as life. Plus, you gotta love an author who shares her life with a husband who designs sets for Saturday Night Live.
Sorry, my personal Quantum Loop kept me from reviewing this months ago, thus enabling you to include it on your gift list. But there's nothing to prevent you from including it on your after-holiday shopping list.