Tana French’s intriguing novel FAITHFUL PLACE is founded on the premise that you can never go home. But go home indeed is what Undercover Detective Frank Mackey is forced to do when something suspicious is uncovered in his old neighborhood. You see, back in 1985 on a cold winter eve, Frank made secret plans with his girlfriend, Rose Daly, to escape the dead-end life, poverty and dysfunctional family lives of their inner city Dublin neighborhood, Faithful Place. With a carefully planned out escape and elopement to London, Frank is uplifted by hope for once in his life. But when Rose fails to show up at the agreed upon hour and place, finding only a cryptic note, Frank assumes she has dumped him and gone on alone. Frank leaves that night, not to return for over twenty-two years. That is, until Rose’s suitcase, packed with her clothes and tickets, turns up in a derelict building in Faithful Place. Thus begins a psychological tale of mystery pitting the successful son who “escaped” against the family members who remained home and true to their duties. In addition to family tensions, Frank is shunned as an outsider and turncoat for having become a cop, constantly judged and found lacking by dozens of watching eyes and whispering lips, evaluating his every move in the neighborhood. The mystery of Rose’s fate keeps the pages turning, as well as the tense, poignant, and cruelly realistic family vignettes in this novel. The characters are so sharply portrayed, it is hard to believe they aren’t real. French has a fine ear for language as well. The dialogue and slang of the rough streets of Dublin in the mouths of these characters, although unfamiliar, is lyrical and feels right. The only weakness I could see in the story was perhaps Frank’s daughter, Holly, who at age nine seemed a bit too sophisticated and savvy for her years. Also, (no spoilers) a second body turns up and in the end, but I was not fully on board with the motivation for this murder was revealed. All told, however, French has spun another riveting tale of horrible violence, wrapped up and delivered in beautiful prose.
I recently picked up a copy of Erika Robuck’s novel FALLEN BEAUTY, featuring a fictionalized account of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s encounter with a local seamstress, while she was writing her sonnets at Steepletop. Author Robuck’s earlier novels HEMINGWAY’S GIRL and CALL ME ZELDA clearly point to her love of strong and intriguing women of the ’20’s and ’30’s. Who can blame her? Although I have not read her other novels, BEAUTY has at least prompted my interest enough to delve more deeply into the works and biography of Millay and finally read the definitive biography on her, SAVAGE BEAUTY by Nancy Milford.
Robuck’s imagined Millay is at times repulsive and at others endearing and sympathetic. She captures the capricious nature of the poet along with her extremes of passion. The Millay character, based on what I assume is exhaustive research, plays against the character of a local seamstress, Laura Kelley, who has been left to raise her illegitimate daughter alone, abandoned by a cowardly lover in a small-minded town. The story alternates between the lives and view points of these two different women, until circumstances push them together as Laura secretly creates sumptuous costumes for Millay’s readings.
The book description tells us each woman is forced to confront what it means to be a fallen woman and what price she is willing to pay to live a full life. I see that in the character of Laura, but not so much with Millay. In fact, in the end, the Millay character rather falls off the stage of the novel for a while as Laura Kelley finds new love and confronts old enemies. Although I enjoyed the story, I felt that all of the women in it (Laura and her sister, Marie; Laura’s nemesis Agnes; Millay) were emotionally overwrought all of the time to the point that I found some scenes quite hard to believe and exhausting. The work also transformed from a fictionalized account and exploration of Millay to a sort of romance novel half way through and to the end.
Roebuck created a richly imagined small town populated with a variety of characters and a situation not dissimilar from The Scarlet Letter and then inserted the bohemian lifestyle of Millay as counterpoint. It is a worthy concept to explore, but I’m not sure it was fully developed.
I’m a fan of mystery writer Paul Doiron and feel as if I discovered him (after all, I was one of the first to read his Edgar Award finalist novel The Poacher’s Son and recommend it to my mystery loving friends.) His latest work, The Precipice, takes us to the Hundred Mile Wilderness area of the Appalachian Trail in Maine. Two young women have gone missing, so heroic game warden Mike Bowditch is called in to help with Search and Rescue, interrupting a romantic vacation planned with his new girlfriend, wildlife biologist, Stacey Stevens. During the search, Bowditch is teamed up with a legendary AT hiker “Nonstop” Nissen, who is fit but misantrhopic volunteer with a shady past. When the girls fail to turn up, it looks more and more doubtful they will be found alive. Meanwhile, those who encountered the girls along the trail are telling stories with varying degrees of relation to the truth. Tensions mount when their bodies are found at the bottom of a precipice, torn apart by wild coyotes. The townspeople and hikers spin out of control in a witch hunt to eradicate the coyotes, but meanwhile, Bowditch has his hunch it was human, not canine, that caused their deaths. The book comes to an exciting man hunt conclusion, rife with backwoods violence.
What I particularly enjoy in all of Doiron’s novels is the wild and terrible beauty of backwoods Maine. He paints a realistic scene of both the poverty, ignorance and squalor along with the natural landscape and breathtaking wilderness. The beauty of nature is often juxtaposed with the ugliness of life. In this story, his description of the life and culture of the Appalachian Trial day and thru-hikers is fascinating and a colorful backdrop. His treatment of the life of a game warden is handled well, especially when describing the frustration of working with FBI, local police and sheriff’s office during an investigation, illustrating the limitations of his powers. This story kept me guessing to the end (and not wanting to reveal any spoilers, I won’t elaborate.) I did not, however, feel as if the motivation for the perp was sufficiently explored. Also, Doiron has his fun with several misguided preachers in the story, casting them in a very poor light. Some of the tale hinges on the possible motive of a hate crime, when it is revealed that the “Bible student” girls were secretly lesbians. This part of the story feels a bit artificial and forced in order to play against the moral certitudes of these two-dimensional self righteous preachers. Another thing I felt was missing from the end of the story was the reaction of the parents. The girls both have powerful parents who fly into Maine to oversee the search efforts. We get a glimpse of them with the impression they will continue to cause problems for law enforcement, especially when it is revealed that the girls were a couple, but then they drop from the picture. Lastly, I did not enjoy the character of Stacey, Bowditch’s new love interest. I felt she was unnecessarily erratic, cold to the point of being cruel at times, and generally unloveable. It was hard to believe he would see anything in her.
Overall, as always, Doiron delivered a great story sprinkled through with beautiful descriptions of the Maine landscape.
Thrilled to have been interviewed for Layered Pages!
P. D. James is the undisputed mistress of murder. She set the bar for the detective murder mystery genre, so why did I have such a hard time getting involved in the novel “A Mind to Murder”? It is a mystery featuring her enigmatic detective Adam Dalgliesh and is set in an exclusive psychological treatment hospital. Promising indeed. The victim is discovered early in the story–a much disliked administrative official–stabbed with a chisel in the basement records room. From there, the story sags as the detective interviews all the doctors and staff on the minute details of their movements prior to the murder. I admire James’ attention to detail, but as a reader this was a bit tedious because the same information was repeated and it was extremely difficult for me to keep track of a dozen new characters who were introduced all at once with little to distinguish them from each other. The mystery picked up when we are given a glimpse into the more private lives of these characters from a different POV, usually their own. The ending was satisfying with a little last minute twist at the end. As always, James is masterful in creating realistic people and describing them with just the right touches of detail. Dalgliesh is an intriguing detective and well-rounded creation full of his own insecurities and unexpected talents, like poetry writing. Once I became engaged with the characters I enjoyed the book and you can’t beat James for layered plots and unexpected turns.
Just finished The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Although you cannot fault her prose, I can’t help feeling as if the story would have been much better if it had been cut down by a hundred pages. The novel tracks the intersecting lives of two mythological creatures–the Golem of Hebrew lore and the Jinni from the Arabian tradition–but takes 484 pages to tell the story of these two main characters, their struggles, their saviors, their enemies, and friends along with the backstory of each and every one of these secondary characters. There is a lot going on here. I felt as if the plot did not really get going until page 300 when a crisis erupts which sets everything spinning. What kept me hanging on through the story up until this point was the beauty of Wecker’s descriptions of turn of the century New York and the magical worlds she creates. Her descriptions employ all the senses so that a reader feels she has travelled the desserts with the caravans, meandered along the streets of The Bowry at night, and worked alongside the Golem, Chava, at the bakery. Unfortunately for this reader, I somehow felt let down at the end of this tome, as if the conclusion did not live up to the build-up of almost 500 pages. Still, I would read another of Wecker’s works.
William G. Tapply’s novel Gray Ghost is a quiet meditation on the art of living simply, wrapped in a very simple mystery package. The Stoney Calhoun character is a fellow who just wants to live in his cabin in the woods with only his dog as company (with the exception of an occasional visit from his lady friend) and guide fishing trips in the waters around his home in Maine. The funny thing is, Calhoun knows how to do things like examine a witness or thwart an attacker–skills he has no idea how he came by because he lost all memory after a lightening attack several years ago. Someone else in very keen to find out what he knows–a mysterious visitor known only as The Man in the Suit. He probes and grills Calhoun to determine if he has remembered anything significant. Against this backdrop, the charred remains of a mutilated man is discovered on Quarantine Island–a small smudge of land with a haunted past. Calhoun, against his will, is dragged into the investigation. Eventually, the danger lands on his doorstep, literally. The murder mystery plot is not overly complicated because the beauty of this book is the description of Calhoun’s simple life and struggle to keep it that way amidst modern demands and complicated relationships. The description of nature and the author’s deep understanding of fly fishing adds interest and atmosphere. It is a quiet read with some disturbing twists and turns. The Gray Ghost of the title refers to both a fly fishing lure and a reference to the nuns who haunt Quarantine Island.
Mary Rickert’s novel The Memory Garden is the story of a foundling, Bay Singer, who struggles with who she is and the powers she may possess as she comes of age. Bay’s mother, Nan, is a woman her grandmother’s age, who behaves in ways which embarrass young Bay and which have caused the neighborhood kids to dub her a witch. The story takes place over only a few days when Nan decides to invite her long-estranged girlhood chums to a weekend together at her magical home, but with the hidden agenda of finding someone who will agree to take care of Bay. The author hints at something that occurred in the past involving these old women which strained their friendship to breaking and has haunted each in a unique way. The story unfolds very slowly, but with lovely bits of magical realism and sensory descriptions of Nan’s enchanted garden. It is told in two alternating viewpoints: Bay and Nan. I must admit that at times I became impatient and felt as if I was trapped in an old woman’s confused thinking and wished for some clarity, but the teasing hints of what these women did as young women kept me reading to find out. If you are looking for a leisurely read with some magical elements, this is the book.
I’ve been neglecting my reading list and book reviews lately while I concentrated on finishing writing False Gods, a Young Adult novel which, at first glance, is about a girl shooting for the Washington International Horse Show against the odds. On a deeper level, the story is about the nature of desire and whether what you want in life twists and torments you or lifts you up and fills the void. For the months of December and January, all proceeds are going to a local church’s youth program. The book is now available on Amazon http://amzn.to/163iXsS in paperback and ebook versions. Please post a review on Amazon if you buy it! #YA #horses #FalseGods
Thanks Blog followers and I hope to be back with some book reviews soon.