When fiction bleeds into real life

  • Glass Houses by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books); August 2017
  • In 40 words or less: The latest Three Pines mystery deals with a classic vision of conscience and the strangling effects of opioids on familial life and civil society. Chief Superintendent Gamache will go to any length to break the Quebec-based drug cartel.
  • Genre: Mystery
  • Locale: Quebec
  • Time: Now
  • Fans love Louise Penny’s novels for the strength of the characters she creates. Once again, the human frailties of the principals deepen the storyline.

When I finished Glass Houses yesterday morning I was struck by the timeliness of the storyline – a very small, carefully chosen group within the Sûreté plot to bring down the cartel controlling the distribution of opioids in Quebec and across the US border. And then I listened to CBS 60 Minutes exposé prepared with  The Washington Post on the pharmaceutical industry working with the Congress to diminish the DEA’s authority and resources to combat the proliferation of opioid abuse.

Louise Penny’s Three Pines is isolated and idyllic. Every reader I know would love to spend time in the bistro and the bookstore. But as in every mystery, it’s not all it seems. The day after Halloween a hooded specter appears on the green, a cobrador, a moral debt collector, silently terrorizing all in view. When an occasional visitor is found dead in the cobrador‘s costume, the questions grow.

This story covers the period of approximately a year, bouncing between the murder in the fall and the trial in the heat of the summer. Stifling heat in the courtroom reinforces the discomfort for Gamache and the prosecutor during the trial. Early on, it is clear that neither is fond of the other and that this case is outside the norm.

The drug abuse and the opioid crisis clearly weigh heavy on Louise Penny. Key characters have struggled with abuse and their pasts are woven in as reality. Gamache has a reputation for ferreting out corruption within the ranks, often at a high personal price. The potential for corruption, particularly when dealing with the vast monies associated with drug trafficking are part of the story.

If you are unfamiliar with Louise Penny, I urge you to give it a try. Be aware that there is an arc through all the titles and reading later books will provide spoilers about the lives of the ongoing characters. Having said that, each may also be read and enjoyed as a standalone novel.

It may seem odd that I often choose this genre as a getaway read. Despite the violence, justice generally prevails albeit at a high price. When you look at it that way, it is a much pleasanter experience than keeping up with the news.

 

 

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The Hidden Light of Northern Fires

  • Hidden Light of Northern Fires by Daren Wang (St. Martin’s Press; August 2017)
  • In 40 words or less: Town Line, New York had a rare outpost of secessionists as the Civil War approached.  Mary Willis puts her family home and business in jeopardy as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Wang imagined this story from materials found in his hometown.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: US (Buffalo area, NYC)
  • Time: Civil War
  • Historical fiction can send a reader straight to the internet to learn more. Elements of this novel did just that for me. It is a September Indie Next pick.

Mary Willis wants more than small town life after her college graduation in 1859.    A visit to her alma mater draws her into aiding the Underground Railroad, crucial since her family lives near the Canadian border. The Willis family is very prominent in Town Line, New York, with farmlands, a lumber mill, and a well-established business shipping and selling materials throughout the region. Mr. Willis is a town commissioner as well, further ensuring his influence.

Town Line is a split community. While many are in favor of Lincoln and the north in the impending war, a group of German immigrants, led by their minister, are sympathetic to the southern cause and believe that escaped slaves should be caught and returned as property. Several among them scour the area as armed bounty hunters, known as Copperheads, creating dangerous confrontations among neighbors.

At the start of 1861, Joe Bell has reached New York after fleeing Virginia. Taught to read by his master and very skilled, Joe is better equipped to navigate the dangers than many others. So close to freedom, Joe tangles with two Copperheads and is badly wounded, finally seeking cover on Willis property. His good fortune in this choice is tainted by the vengeance sought for the casualties of the encounter. From then forward, Joe’s and Mary’s lives are inextricably entwined.

Leander Willis is the family’s heir apparent. More interested in hanging around with his childhood buddies, his father dispatches him to nearby Buffalo to begin to learn the ropes of the family business. Leander is easily distracted by the wheeling and dealing and the lure of nightlife. Soon he is drawn to New York City and his life spirals out of control, damaging the family business in the process.

After returning home, Leander seeks redemption by banding together most of his friends as recruits for the Union Army. As a son of a prominent family, Leander is commissioned as an officer, common practice in the day. Soon they realize that the war is not the lark they imagined.

The beauty of Daren Wang’s debut novel is the teasing out of new facets of history within an engaging story. I’m a big fan of authors who drop bread crumbs to encourage readers to research the veracity of surprising details within the story. Wang did this very well. Most stories of the Civil War focus on Gettysburg and south. Bringing to the fore the northern experience and Canadian involvement is a welcome change. The characters he created are complicated, many admirable, others less so. Throughout the book, people are forced to deal with the consequences of their choices.  The mix of characters, history and plot twists make for a worthy addition to Civil War historical fiction.

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Bestsellers, blockbusters and just plain good reads!

Some days you get lucky.  It just so happens that 2 articles appeared in my inbox that provide a peek into what differentiates a strong selling book from a phenomenon.  Summer is the perfect time to make this assessment.  Since June some of the biggest names in books have released their latest. There are those who won’t head out on vacation without the latest John Grisham or Daniel Silva in hand.

Publishers Weekly is the arbiter for what is selling and how many are sold. Each week the list has the ranking, number of weeks on the list, copies sold that week and calendar sales year-to-date. Grisham’s Camino Island has been on the list for 7 weeks, always at #1 or #2. Over 400,000 copies have been sold already and almost 25,000 last week alone. Now that’s a blockbuster!

Farther down on the list at #8 is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. It was published 10 months ago, in September 2016. Towles has a strong following and the book debuted on the list, but not even in the top ten. Since January, over 160,000 copies have been sold but it only takes a bit over 6 thousand to be in the eighth position for the week. Publication of the paperback has been delayed since hardcover sales remain so strong.

So why did I choose A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles for the comparison?   Continue reading Bestsellers, blockbusters and just plain good reads!

Hum If You Don’t Know the Words

  • Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais (Putnam), July 11, 2017
  • In 40 words or less: Beginning with the Soweto uprising, a young white girl and a Xhosa woman are thrown together as a family. Their complementary narratives enrich insights into life under apartheid. Great book!
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Locale: Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Time: 1970s
  • Forty years after the uprising that began the end of Apartheid, this novel opens a door to the challenges of life for the Blacks and others in South Africa fighting for change. A wonderful novel of people in very difficult times.

Robin is a young Anglophone girl growing up in South Africa. Bullied by her Afrikaans schoolmates, she is very concerned about living up to her parents’ expectations. Her father is a manager in a mining operation, overseeing Black workers. When her parents receive a last minute invitation to a business function Robin’s life is changed forever. En route to the event, Robin’s parents are ambushed and murdered. So starts Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. Robin and her housekeeper are dragged to a notorious police station where the housekeeper is brutalized. Robin is turned over to her only relative, her Aunt Enid who lives in Johannesburg. After gathering up a small suitcase, Robin’s past life is left behind.

Beauty Mbali is a well-educated teacher living with her sons in the Transkei. Looking to improve her daughter’s life, she sends her to Johannesburg to live with relatives and attend a superior school. After receiving a message that her daughter may be in trouble, she travels for more than a day to Soweto to see her. Beauty arrives in the midst of the first day of the student marches, discovering that her daughter is in the leadership and is now missing. Beauty will do whatever it takes to find her daughter.

Robin isn’t the only one adjusting to her family’s trauma. Enid is a stewardess and modern single woman with no one to account to but herself. Though she tries, upending her life to provide the care Robin requires herself is neither practical nor within her skill set. She reaches out to her network of friends, many of whom are anti-Apartheid supporters, for help. Through these channels, Beauty becomes Robin’s caregiver, confidant, and lifeline. This allows Beauty to remain in Johannesburg, though illegally, so she can continue to search for her daughter.

Bianca Marais has created two rich communities to tell her story. Bit by bit, Robin’s world expands. Her one friend is a Jewish boy, homeschooled because of the anti-Semitic bullying he receives at school. His apartment becomes a safe space and his family’s customs a source of curiosity. Enid has several gay male friends who are at times endangered by the authorities. At times it is difficult for Robin to distinguish friend from foe.

During the continuing search for her daughter, Beauty reveals elements of her family and its past. Protecting all her children leaves her torn – caring for a white child while her sons are back home and her daughter missing. Her search takes her through Soweto, balancing secrecy with her goal. Vivid descriptions of afterhours gathering places and the leaders and hoodlums that are all part of the growing uprising enrich both the story and the reader’s understanding of the times.

Both Beauty and Robin are leading their lives as survivors rather than as victims.  Not always optimistic, each demonstrates inner strength consistent with her position in life. Neither is perfect and these flaws are key to the story.

As a blogger and book group leader, I have the chance to read some books before they are published or reviewed. It can be a crapshoot – some good, some meh and some not worth finishing. And then there are the special books.  I love Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. There are twists, even in the beginning. As I read I could see the story unfold, almost as if a movie was taking place in my mind. This is Bianca Marais’s debut novel. It has been selected as an Indie Next selection for this month and has gotten well-deserved advance accolades. It is a great pick for book groups and to share with friends.

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Anita Shreve’s fiery novel of coastal Maine

  • The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve (Knopf), April 2017
  • In 40 words or less: A young mother’s life is upended when a catastrophic wildfire destroys her home and community. Naive and untested, she finds strength and resilience as she builds a new life for her family. Inspired by an October 1947 fire.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Maine
  • Time: 1947-50
  • Anita Shreve lulls the reader with the rich details of small town domestic life. Deftly altering the pace as events overtake the commonplace, Shreve recalibrates the storytelling for the transformations to come. A perfect summer read for anyone with an affinity for Maine and the self-reliance of its residents.

In The Stars Are Fire Anita Shreve paints a picture of village life in coastal Maine shortly after the end of World War II. Young families are being created by those who’ve returned from the war, there is some spare money for the first time since the Depression and there are good jobs, at least for the men.

Grace Holland is the mother of two toddlers. She and her husband Gene are not really in synch. Gene has an excellent job with good prospects. Grace tries to make the best of her life despite being unfulfilled in many ways. Her neighbor and best friend, Rosie, has a joyful and spontaneous life that amazes Grace. Where Grace’s life is structured, orderly and unstimulating, Rosie’s is disorganized and vibrant. Rosie and her family bring joy to Grace’s days.

As always, the rhythms of Maine life are dictated by the weather. Storms can be widow-makers for those dependent on fishing for their livelihoods, including Grace’s father. Unending rain or snow can make travel impossible and bring new meaning to cabin fever. But it is drought that can turn clear blue skies perilous.

The endless spring rains give way to a sparkling clear summer. By fall, fire danger warnings are constant. When a large fire approaches both Grace’s and Rosie’s husbands are off to help keep it at bay. As the fire overtakes them, Grace’s quick thinking saves both women and their children. When they are found by rescuers their homes are gone and Grace is seriously injured. Rosie is reunited with her husband but Gene is missing. With all this uncertainty, Grace must make a life for herself and her family.

Grace comes into her own in this new role. With no alternative, she, her mother and children move into her late mother-in-law’s home. This decision changes everything.

Anita Shreve creates in Grace a woman who will not let tragedy define her. Rather than retreating, she chooses to embrace the uncertainties she faces and determine her own future.  Shreve beautifully crafts her settings and describes the details that add depth to the story. These are some of the reasons Anita Shreve is a perennial favorite.

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