30 May 2016

Books: Nobody's Fool By Richard Russo (1993)

When Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool came out 23 years ago, I think I did want to read it, but 1993 is a long way in the past. I’m unsure what I was reading back then, though probably a lot of fantasy. Then in 1994 a movie was released, based on the novel, starring the legendary Paul Newman. Unfortunately I’ve never seen the film. I would offer excuses, if I could manifest them, but fear everyone would see through my lies. 

However, I did read Russo’s 1997 Straight Man, which I found brilliantly hilarious and thought that would be the beginning of a long relationship with the author.  And while working at Borders, I grabbed the ARC copy of Empire Falls, the 2001 novel by the author (this is the one of many things I miss about not being in the retail book business anymore, for one of the best perks was free books). I, of course, never read it. But I held onto it, and I think I still have that ARC somewhere in my book collection that is shoved in boxes in the garage. 

So let’s move up to 2016. I discovered that Russo was releasing a new book in May, and it turned out to be a sequel to Nobody’s Fool (called Everybody’s Fool). So, despite having many other books to read, I got a used edition at Iliad’s in North Hollywood and finally, twenty-three years after it was published, read the book. 

Donald "Sully" Sullivan is a worn yet spry hustler living in the peaceful, snowy northern New York state village of North Bath. He free-lances in the construction business, usually with his dim-witted friend Rub by his side. He is often at odds with Carl Roebuck, a local contractor, suing him at every opportunity for unpaid wages and disability. Sully's one-legged lawyer Wirf is inept, and his lawsuits are repeatedly dismissed. As a way to irritate him, Sully flirts with Carl's wife Toby (Griffith) openly at every opportunity (which she enjoys). He is a regular at the Iron Horse Saloon, where he often has drinks and plays cards with Wirf, Carl, Rub, and the town sheriff. Sully is a tenant in the home of the elderly Miss Beryl, whose banker son Clive strongly urges her to kick him out and sell the house. Family complications of his own develop for Sully with a visit from Peter, his estranged son who is a jobless professor at odds with his wife. While he and Sully reconstruct their relationship, Sully begins a new one with young grandson Will. Peter’s sudden everyday presence does not sit well with Rub, but Sully tells him that although Peter is his son, Rub is still his best friend. Meanwhile, Clive is on the verge of a lucrative deal to build an amusement park in North Bath. However the deal seems too good to be true. 

While the themes of quirky small town America life, filled with eccentric characters of all stripes, are well-worn tropes in fiction, Russo delivers a fairly original character of Nobody’s Fool Sully. He’s a well-developed, almost real-life person who clearly has succeed in failing at everything he does, but does not seem to be really bothered by it. He has a smart mouth, which tends to get him trouble a lot, but overall, his appealing nature makes the reader fall in love with him, instead of wondering why anyone would be friends with him, especially Rub.

The book has many storylines that eventually dovetail nicely, but there were many of them that went on too long and seemed to be filler (I was amused at the running joke with the snow blower, however).  But what made the book work are the carefully realized characters having real, very believable conversations. It’s a treat, sometimes, when an author can travel over well-worn premise and still deliver something worth reading.

24 May 2016

Books: Chicago By Brian Doyle (2016)

In what is essentially a love letter, a sweet valentine to Chicago, author Brian Doyle delivers, with great skill, a novel about a certain time in the city I was born in (though grew up in its suburbs) with such intimate detail, the reader can easily feel the strum and thrum of the city, smell the empanadas of Mrs Manfredi, and smell the waters of that great lake where the city grew up around.

“On the last day of summer, some years ago, a young college graduate moves to Chicago and rents a small apartment on the north side of the city, by the vast and muscular lake. This is the story of the five seasons he lives there, during which he meets gangsters, gamblers, policemen, a brave and garrulous bus driver, a cricket player, a librettist, his first girlfriend, a shy apartment manager, and many other riveting souls, not to mention a wise and personable dog of indeterminate breed named Edward.”

Having been born there and lived within its shadow for most of my life, Doyle’s Chicago reminds me why I still love that sometimes difficult city, and why LA (where I live near now) will never be anything but runner-up. 

It begins in the fall of 1978 and into the early 1980s, and the unnamed narrator (obviously Doyle himself) gives us is sensory data of Chicago –“the sounds and feelings of things” where “buildings crowded the streets;” a Chicago with its “bone-chilling cold, and shuffle of boots leery and weary of ice, and the groan and sigh of buses coming to a stop, and the whir and whine of evening traffic on Lake Shore Drive;” along with “the shriek of trains leaning into the curves of elevated tracks near Wabash and Wacker.”

I remember everything that happened in this book, know of the all the places he mentions, of the gangs and Archdiocese (Doyle worked at US Catholic Magazine) that ruled with an iron fist while ignoring the corruption around it. Then there was the snowstorm of 1979 that paralyzed the city and ultimately cost the Mayor his job (and the rise of Jane Byrne, the cities first and so far, only female mayor). But ultimately the book is less a history of that time (though it is), but more about what Chicago has done, has always done, to the people that were born, raised, and died there and the many who came to it seeking a new life and then move on, and that imprint on the soul it leaves. Even me, now eleven years nearly gone since I made the somewhat rash decision to leave, still miss the city, the friends I made and wonder of its skyline. 

Chicago, for me, is a gorgeous novel, filled with some interesting characters, human, canine, and concrete alike, and takes me back to a time when I thought there was no better place to live. It should be required reading for many Chicagoians, as well as those who visited and have felt a longing to go back.

19 May 2016

Books: Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (2016)

As a Constant Reader of Stephen King, when he likes a book he goes out of his way to praise it and that means I’ll have to read it (much as King did with Fieldwork from a few years ago). Getting high praise from the master of horror is a good sign that Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex, his first novel to be released in the United States, is a force to be reckoned with. 

“Whoever is born here is doomed to stay 'til death; whoever settles, never leaves. Welcome to Black Spring, the seemingly picturesque Hudson Valley town haunted by the Black Rock Witch, a 17th century woman whose eyes and mouth are sewn shut. Muzzled, she walks the streets and enters your homes at will. She stands next to your bed for nights on end. Everybody knows that her eyes may never be opened. The elders of Black Spring have virtually quarantined the town by using high-tech surveillance to prevent their curse from spreading. Frustrated with being kept in lockdown, the town's teenagers decide to break their strict regulations and go viral with the haunting, but in so doing send the town spiraling into the dark, medieval practices of the past.”

It’s a well-written book, but as mentioned before in other posts, I don’t find these books scary; I won’t have nightmares as this book gave folks when it was published in the Netherlands. Perhaps my rational mind understands the fantasy aspect of this and many other books in this genre and accepts them as entertainment. It is creepy and atmospheric, though, and that works very well. My only complaint may be that it takes too long to get the book going. The authors spends an inordinate amount of time setting up the books final set piece, but I felt the lead up was, at times boring. But that’s just my opinion, as I still think it’s a worthy read.

The authors note at the end explains that while Nancy Forest-Flier translated the book from Dutch to English, Thomas Olde Heuvelt speaks fluent English. While he explains why he updated the book for an American audience (here), I feel slighted that this book is not a true translation –that the Dutch version is slightly not the same and has a different ending. While I understand from a business point of view why this was done, I’m disappointed that I will not be able to read it as the author originally released it (though he did write the new finale in English himself). 

Heuvelt is the author of five novels and many short stories. His work has appeared in many languages, including English, Chinese, Japanese, Italian and French. In 2015, his story The Day the World Turned Upside Down was the first ever translated work to win a Hugo Award. Two more of his stories have been nominated for both Hugo and World Fantasy Awards.

12 May 2016

Books: Boy's Life By Robert McCammon (1992)

I’ve kind of always thought that Robert McCammon’s 1992 novel Boy’s Life was a variation on Stephen King’s 1986 classic It (as I felt his Swan Song may have been a reworking of The Stand). But to my surprise, the book has little to do with that novel, beyond the era it is set (1964 instead of the late 50s). And while there are monsters here, they are of the more human variety, but there is more than a whiff of the supernatural as well.

“Zephyr, Alabama, is an idyllic hometown for eleven-year-old Cory Mackenson—a place where monsters swim the river deep and friends are forever. Then, one cold spring morning, Cory and his father witness a car plunge into a lake—and a desperate rescue attempt brings his father face-to-face with a terrible vision of death that will haunt him forever.  As Cory struggles to understand his father’s pain, his eyes are slowly opened to the forces of good and evil that are manifested in Zephyr. From an ancient, mystical woman who can hear the dead and bewitch the living, to a violent clan of moonshiners, Cory must confront the secrets that hide in the shadows of his hometown—for his father’s sanity and his own life hang in the balance.”

In a lot of ways, this book reminded me of the King short story The Body (which became the film Stand By Me), with its sort episodic look at small town life a few months after the Kennedy assassination. And Cory’s search to find the secret of the dead man in the lake takes on a more serious route, with some hair-raising adventures both by himself and with his boyhood friends.

So while there are tinges of the supernatural within, the book plays out like a typical coming of age story, which also has a murder mystery and a heart pumping thriller at its center. It’s a well-written valentine to growing up before the world really changed in the mid 1960s, when milkmen were facing extinction due to huge grocery stores coming in with their plastic jugs instead of glass. 

A bit over-long, which I seem to comment on a lot, but I’m still glad I found this book not to be what I thought. And it proves that eventually I will get to the books I’ve always wanted to read, even if it took 24 years to do it. It also means, sadly, I’ll never live to read them all.

07 May 2016

Books: Uprooted By Naomi Novik (2015)

After complaining about the humdrum predictability of Michael J. Sullivan’s fantasy The Rivria Revelations series, I then pick up Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and I’m enchanted into a highly designed, almost beguiling fantasy of wizards, Kings, and a wickedness known only as the Wood. 

“Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life. Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood. The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her. But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose."

Novik, is a second-generation American; her father is of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry, and her mother is an ethnic Pole. After writing eight books in the Temeraire series (a ninth and final volume is due later this year and one I’ve not read), Novik decided to mine her own parents legacy in folklore and mythology of Eastern Europe for this novel. And while Uprooted certainly carries the many tropes of fantasy novels before, Novik does a splendid job of upsetting the apple cart here on those expectations (something Sullivan did not do, and thus I pass on his other work). Agnieszka (author pronounces it ag-NYESH-kah) does not have an easy life once living with the Dragon. As a matter of fact, it sort of borders on child abuse –and the set pieces through the malevolent Wood are pretty horrible stuff. And while the book could’ve used some humor to offset the darkness, it shines with greatly with wonderful characterization and a new and very original way to present these old stories. 

This appears to be a rare stand-alone fantasy novel, which I liked in many ways. But if Ms Novik were to continue, I might be inclined to follow.