Sunday, September 28, 2014

Legends (Spy Novel and scattered thoughts)

Reading Legends by Robert Littell marked a departure from my usual reading habits. Legends is the first spy thriller that I remember having read. It is also one of the first times I turned reading a novel into part of a larger event. I had just started watching Legends on TNT and was curious about the book on which it was based. So, I saved up episodes to watch until I finished the book, watching the last five episodes back to back last night. The effect raised questions for me about the context of my reading. Do I just want to keep reading book after book, or do I want to see if I can integrate books into a larger experience? In which case, what experiences do I want? What do I want to explore?

Briefly, a “legend” is an elaborate identity created for a spy by the CIA. Martin Odem is that spy. In both the novel and in the television series he is confused as to his true identity. Someone is keeping the truth from him. He is outwardly tough and inwardly fragile.

In the Legends novel, Odem is a detective who has been hired by Stella to find her brother-in-law, Samat, so that her sister can obtain a Jewish divorce. Odem has a number of mysteries to solve. Who is Samat and where is he? Why doesn’t the CIA want Odem to find Samat? They would rather kill Odem than have him find the answers.  At the same time, Odem struggles with his own mental health. Is this merely a side effect of taking on too many legends or does he have multiple-personality disorder? Reading Legends was a relatively fun and interesting experience for me. I enjoyed how Littell wove the different storylines together, putting chapters with different time periods side by side. Odem is a fascinating character. But, what I found most interesting was learning about the end of communism and the role that the CIA played. I just never thought about it, and the novel made it come to life. A German friendly acquaintance of mine has a rather harsh opinion of Americans and their knowledge of World events.

I had a different experience watching Legends than I did from reading the novel. Unlike the novel, Odem is still belongs to the CIA and plays an integral part in missions. The plotline of the series is driven by Odem trying to uncover the truth about his identity. Most of the episodes don’t have clear ending; a couple of times I thought I had fast-forwarded too far. I especially enjoy watching Odem transform into the different personalities. Watching the show made me remember the work of Hal and Sidra Stone, who believe that all of us are made up of different personalities. 

I don’t intend to start reading and watching spy thrillers on a regular basis. But, Legends has been an enjoyable experience for me.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Dust Devil on a Quiet Street (Fantasy Novel)

There should be a genre called “haunting and beautiful.” I would definitely put Dust Devil on a Quiet Street by Richard Bowes into that category. While it has some (very) minor fantasy elements –possible ghosts, telepathy, a soul imprisoned in amber, and feline genes – it is more a novel about one man’s life. It is haunting to me not because of any fantasy elements, but because it does such a good job of capturing poignant moments. While the main character is a gay, former drug addict who lives in Manhattan (none of which describes me), most of the time I could easily identify with him. Much of the novel deals with universal experiences: losing friends, aging, coping with tragedy, celebrating friendship, and nurturing the next generation.

Dust Devils on a Quiet Street is written in a style that I am coming across more and more often, a hybrid between a series of stories and a traditional novel. Two of the chapters/stories especially touched me. The first was the opening chapter, which takes place on 9/11. The main character does his best to deal with his own sense of loss, while comforting those who look to him for a sense of stability. The second story that moved me involves the narrator coming close to the brink of suicide and being gently brought back. Be aware that some of the novel deals with the exploitation of young gay men, which while not particularly graphic is disturbing.

I sometimes talk about wanting novels to represent us to future generation, and I think Dust Devils on a Quiet Street does a good job of taking some snapshots of the opening days of 9/11 and of the beginning of the AIDs epidemic. While the novel was nominated for the 2014 World Fantasy Award, I wish it had received more recognition, so that more people would be moved to read it. It certainly touched my heart.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Love Letters (Romance Novel)

The inn had worked its enchantment once again, healing wounded hearts, lifting spirits, blessing all who stayed.
I slept extremely well last night, an odd statement with which to open up a review of a book and an unusual statement from someone who often has problems sleeping. But, the truth is that Debbie Macomber’s novels often have a soothing influence on people, especially me. They are definitely not examples of great literature. The prose is unsophisticated, the conversations unrealistic, the plots simplistic. Yet, in many ways Macomber is a great writer because she is able to touch the hearts of millions of women. Make no doubt about it, I am coming back for more.

Debbie Macomber’s Love Letters is the third novel in her Rose Harbor Inn series and continues where the last novel left off. Jo Marie Rose, the owner of Rose Harbor Inn, continues to cope with the grief she has felt since the death of her husband two years ago. In Love Letters she finds herself more and curious about her handyman Mark, who has become a close friend but remains something of an enigma. Meanwhile Jo Marie has some guests: Ellie, a young woman who is meeting a man she met on the internet; and a married couple, Maggie and Roy Porter, who are trying to heal their marriage. Ellie’s mother has warned her about the potential dangers of meeting the young man, but neither woman could have predicted the surprise he has in store for Ellie. As for the Porters, just when they think they have rekindled their love, it is tested by a potentially insurmountable challenge. In Love Letters, Jo Marie, her dog Rover, and even Mark attempt to heal the hearts of the Rose Harbor Inn's guests.

Macomber takes on some difficult topics in Love Letters. I’m not sure any real person would react the way her characters do, but it is nice to think that they would. The novel ends with something of a cliffhanger, and I plan to see what happens at The Inn at Rose Harbor next year, when the next book comes out.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Sunshine on Scotland Street (Novel)

For most of us a discussion about the things that really matter – the fundamental questions of how we are to live our lives and, just as important, how we are to make sense of the lives we live—is a rare event. We do think about such matters, but our contemplation of them tends to be sporadic and darting. And when it comes to talking about them with friends, embarrassment often prevents us from anything but the most superficial discussion.

The above quote from Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith sums up why I continue to read books in the 44 Scotland Street Series and Alexander McCall Smith’s two other major series, the Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries and The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series. Alexander McCall Smith does dare to talk about “the things that really matter” but no one talks about. Alexander McCall Smith’s books were the ones I immediately thought about when Connie Willis said that books saved her life. These books continue to save me, and I don’t feel so alone in this world. That said, Sunshine on Scotland Street, the eighth book in the series, is also a lot of fun to read.

In Sunshine on Scotland Street a number of characters undergo life changing events. Angus and Domenica get married. Bruce meets his doppelganger. Yet, there is at least one character who chooses not to have their life changed too much. In addition, after a wee too much cheer, Mathew agrees to be filmed for a Danish documentary. And, both Bertie and Angus have some adventures. I’m sure I repeat myself every time I write up my reaction to an Alexander McCall Smith book. So few authors dare to talk about matters of the heart. I am grateful that AMS still does. At some point I know the series will end, but until that time I will continue to look forward to each book. I’ll close with another lovely quote from Sunshine on Scotland Street.

“Goodnight, my boy,” said the Cardinal. “And God bless.”
It was a kind thing to say to a dog, and a good thing. Because the least of us, the very least, has the same claim as any other to that love, divine and human, which makes our world, in all its turmoil and pain, easier to comprehend.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Significant Objects (Short Stories, Social Experiment Book)

Significant Objects edited and partially written by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn has been my lunchtime companion for the last few months. It is an odd little book that I found at Half Priced Books. It almost said: “I’m coming home with you, you know.” I was looking for a book of short stories, and this seemed to fit the description. When I got it home, I wasn’t so sure. Maybe it is a book of short stories; maybe it is some odd hybrid. Yet what it has been is thoroughly engrossing. “So, what do you have for me today, my odd little lunch companion?” I wondered each day.

Significant Objects began as a social experiment. Walker and Glenn acquired over a hundred odd objects: for example, a necking team button, a duck vase, a rooster oven mitt, a seal pen, a motel key. Some were given to them. Some they bought at flea markets or thrift stores for very little money. The editors then asked authors to write fictional stories about the objects. Pictures of the objects and their stories were posted on E-bay, clearly indicating that that the stories were fictional. Part of the experiment was to see how the stories increased the value of the objects.

The book describes the experiment and contains the pictures and stories. The book is not slick. The photographs leave a lot to be desired. Many of the objects are on the pathetic side. But, I enjoyed the stories; many are odd, some touching, some horrifying, most clever. Most of the stories can be read in a minute or two. This odd book is the perfect companion for those odd moments when we just need a tiny bit of entertainment.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Fantasy Novel)

That’s the trouble with living things. Don’t last very long. Kittens one day, old cats the next. And then just memories. And the memories fade and blend and smudge together….

I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I found joy in the things that made me happy. The custard was sweet and creamy in my mouth…

Beautiful. What a beautiful little novel. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman so gently touched my heart. The main character as a child reminds me a lot of seven year old Bertie from Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street Series.  Gaiman’s character has that same innocence. Both authors have a talent for looking at life and what it is like to be human. Unlike Scotland Street, The Ocean at the End of the Lane also contains a liberal dose of magic, a bit of horror, and a smidgen of sexuality. The story is deceptively complex, both a simple fantasy and an allegory.

After the narrator returns to his hometown to attend a funeral, he finds himself returning to the Hempstock’s farm. There he remembers something that happened to him as a child. A new boarder had run over his beloved cat. Later the boarder was found dead by suicide. While his father and the police officer were busy, the narrator met the Hempstocks, including Lettie, who is eleven but she isn’t. He learned about the ocean on their property. The death unleashed a magical force. While Lettie promised to keep him safe, something unfortunate happened when he lets go of her hand. The Hempstocks attempted to put things back right. But, they wonder whether they did the right thing.

This image of the ocean at the end of the lane has appeared in my life while I have been exploring a mediation in my real life. The ocean is a perfect and vivid metaphor. As I sat down today, I couldn’t help but think of Lettie and her ocean.

Sometimes I think of the winners of the various awards as representing the world at a particular point in time. I want The Ocean at the End of the Lane to represent us to future generations: burnt toast, fathers and sons trying to understand one another, and magic. And it will. The novel won the Locus Fantasy award and was nominated for the 2013 Nebula, 2014 Mythopoeic, and 2014 World Fantasy Award.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Strange Country (Fantasy/Supernatural Fiction Novel)

There had been a time in her life when the world hadn’t been all that complicated — do the job and get back home. Even if sometimes getting home had been difficult or even dangerous, it was knowable. Doable. Things weren’t that way anymore.
As soon as I started reading the Strange Country by Deborah Coates, I was gone, totally immersed in the story, totally oblivious to my usual ruminations. Strange Country is a sequel to Wide Open and Deep Down. This part mystery, part supernatural fiction novel deals with some of the unfinished business that took place in the earlier storylines, including Death’s proposition to Hallie.

The story opens with Boyd Davies responding to a call about a possible prowler at Prue Stalking Horse’s home. Boyd doesn’t find a prowler, but when he looks around Prue’s home something doesn’t feel right. When they go outside, Prue is shot and killed by a high powered rifle. While searching Prue’s home, investigators find a long dead body and some mysterious stones. The stones are similar to the one carried around by Laddie, an unlucky psychic and a friend to Hallie and Boyd. In the meantime, Beth, Boyd’s sister-in-law and the daughter of Death, shows up at Hallie’s door. And, someone or something is leaving mysterious notes for Hallie, telling her to face her fear. Who murdered Prue? What does her death have to do with events that happened over twenty years ago? What does it have to do with recent supernatural events involving Hallie, Boyd, and others?

Strange Country renews my love of the Taylor County Series --I had loved Wide Open, but had been disappointed with Deep Down-- The rural settling and the characters are almost laid back, yet the plot surges forward. The plot just melts like chocolate or a spoonful of ice-cream, easily creating an immediate experience. While the novel ends with a sense of completion, it keeps open the possibility of more secrets that might lurk in Taylor County or in the lives of Boyd or Hallie.