book beginnings on Friday: One Out of Two by Daniel Sada

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

one out of two

This is a very slim (100-page) novel in translation from the Spanish, and I am excited and charmed by its first lines.

Now, how to say it? One out of two, or two in one, or what? The Gamal sisters were identical. To say, as people do, “They were like two peas in a pod,” the same age, the same height, and wearing, by choice, the same hairdo.

My ARC offers a blurb on the front cover from Robert Bolaño: “Of my generation I most admire Daniel Sada, whose writing project seems to me the most daring.” Sada died in 2011.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Last Ragged Breath by Julia Keller

last ragged breathThis is the fourth novel in Julia Keller’s detective series starring Bell Elkins, a lawyer with a high-powered degree who has returned to small-town West Virginia to work as a prosecutor there. I tried to read (or actually, listen to) the first, A Killing in the Hills, and found the characters a bit flat. In a nutshell, Last Ragged Breath was very enjoyable, but did not entirely solve that problem.

The Buffalo Creek Flood of 1972 is a true historical event in West Virginia history, in which a coal mining company’s irresponsibility and disregard for human life led to more than 100 deaths. In this novel, a childhood survivor of that tragedy, Royce Dillard, is now a grown man, a recluse living alone in the woods with a number of rescue dogs. A tourism development company looking to build a resort in the nearby hills has been bothering him to sell a small parcel of land; when the chief botherer turns up murdered on Royce’s land, he is arrested for the crime. Although the forensic evidence is overwhelming, something about this case doesn’t sit right with prosecutor Bell Elkins. Meanwhile, she struggles with sideplots: her best friend the sheriff has just retired, and she’s not done being angry and grieved about it; she is learning to work with his replacement; and a potential love interest offers distractions.

Bell Elkins is noted as a well-developed character by many, inspiring complimentary blurbs from the likes of Michael Connelly. Sadly, I continued to feel that a few aspects of her personality felt predictable. The teenaged daughter who bothered me so much in the first novel is now mostly removed, although I recognized the same awkward dialog between the two of them when she reappeared. Other characters (like the new sheriff, and the owner of the resort-building company) also felt just a bit too typed from time to time, and scenes sometimes get a bit overwrought. This is my only complaint with the book, though, and it is a minor one (and perhaps my sense of it was heightened by that earlier experience). Overall, the story is compelling, and carries significant momentum: I was happy to spend a day and a half doing almost nothing other than finishing the book. Its comments on corporate responsibility and the complexities of coal mining’s regional legacy were well done. The people of Acker’s Gap mostly recognize that coal is dirty, and mining is dirty work; but they also need work, and see that there’s nothing to fill the hole it would leave. Nothing is simple.

An intricate plot, neatly paced suspense, and yes, likeable (if not perfectly realized) characters make for not only an enjoyable and entertaining read, but one accompanied by commentary on our real world. I’ve made my peace with the Bell Elkins series. And stay tuned for my upcoming interview with the very gracious Julia Keller.

Rating: 6 kibbles.

The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream by Katharine Norbury

A pensive, meandering memoir of searching–for the source of both a river and the author’s life.

fish ladder

In The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream, a memoir of two concurrent paths, Katharine Norbury aims to find a river’s source and to discover her own. She is mourning a recent miscarriage and the loss of her father, taking solace with her mother and her daughter, Evie. Norbury was adopted, and all she knows of the woman who abandoned her at a convent is a name. Neil M. Gunn’s novel The Well at the World’s End inspires her to walk a waterway from the sea to the source, as does Gunn’s protagonist. But Norbury’s journey is clearly also metaphorical, a search for herself and her roots.

The route she chooses is not specific: with Evie, she walks parts of several waterways, eventually setting more precise goals along the way, and reaching for Gunn’s work when her plans falter. Her expedition to find her biological family proves to be more challenging, intersecting her pathway upriver, from the location she has discovered is her birthplace.

Norbury’s seeking is set in Britain, and The Fish Ladder doubles as an amateur naturalist study of the country’s flora and fauna. She shares her insecurities and questions alongside Celtic folk tales about salmon traveling upriver to the places of their birth. Her story wanders, but in the end makes emotional and profound ventures into landscape, the importance of place and the very real connections between physical and interior voyages.

This review originally ran in the August 25, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 5 pieces of chocolate.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Living by Annie Dillard

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

the living

As is the new norm with audiobooks, I am working my way through Annie Dillard’s novel about my new place of residence very slowly. Set in the region including and surrounding what is now the town of Bellingham, The Living is about the early days of settlement. It is a large and sweeping tale that spans generations, which will give me some challenge when it is time to write about the whole, since I’m taking so long to listen to it. But no worries. It remains an engaging story, and it’s always stimulating to read about a place that you know. Today’s teaser involves a settler to Washington state traveling back east for a visit.

Minta considered the Rockies inferior to the Cascades and dull, for they lacked form, height, and glaciers. The volcanic cones she loved, Mount Baker and Mount Rainer, had enormous forests at their skirts, and waterfalls that drained the meadows above the forests, and precipitous snowfields and glaciers that rose above the clouds.

Indeed. As I am a new resident of Cascadia, this is something to think about in a country enamored of the Rockies.

Thanks for stopping by today. I’ll get around to reviewing this novel one of these days…

Creative Nonfiction, issue 56: Waiting

You can read my review of the previous issue here.

waiting“True stories, well told.” In this issue, they are stories concerned with waiting, whatever that might mean to the writer. (A few craft-related essays are also included.) Unsurprisingly, I am very impressed with the stories CNF chose to publish.

There’s not much not to love here, beginning with Editor Lee Gutkind’s opening piece about all the waiting that goes on in his and my line of work; Dinty W. Moore’s ponderings on the genre name “creative nonfiction” (I am an unrepentant Moore fan); and the essay “Waiting and Wading through Story” by Maggie Messitt, about immersion research and storytelling and the lessons she’s learned from other writers. But I was really blown away by this issue’s winning essay: I agree wholeheartedly with their choice of Joe Fassler’s “Wait Times” as winner of the Best Essay Prize. If you read nothing else in this magazine, please go read this story. It is heartrending and thought-provoking and disturbing, and I’ve thought about it at least daily for more than a week since reading it. It’s about a medical emergency experienced by his wife.

I found Judith Kitchen’s “Any Given Day” harder to love, and I’m sorry to say that, because I’ve heard such wonderful things about her (and have her Half in Shade waiting on my TBR shelf), not least from Gutkind in his opening piece. She died last fall of cancer, and this piece is in part about that ending. But the form of it – loose, amorphous, wandering – didn’t quite work for me. Just a personal reaction; perhaps you’ll find it mindblowing, and I’d love to hear if you do. Certainly she is a fine artist. But this piece didn’t work for me quite so well.

“Lost and Found” by Josephine Fitzpatrick was more a straightforward narrative piece, and call me simple-minded but that struck me more forcefully. Fitzpatrick’s brother went missing in Vietnam when they were both teenagers, and this is the story of waiting for him to come home or for his story to be somehow resolved, for many decades. It is of course touching and thoughtful and, I think, potentially helpful for others suffering from “ambiguous loss” (see also Sonya Lea’s outstanding Wondering Who You Are). Mylène Dressler’s “End Over End”, about coming to surfing as a mature adult and finding the stoke, finds a good balance between cerebral wanderings and narrative.

Following essays and stories about waiting, Sangamithra Iyer’s “The Story Behind the Story,” about searching for her grandfather’s history as civil servant turned activist in Burma, is a touching and instructive piece, not least in its realization that “not getting the story was part of my story, too… the loss of memories, the erasure of our histories, is part of the narrative of many of us children of the diaspora.” I love this concept.

Rachel Beanland’s “Required Reading” was another revelation, about handling the loss of her father by reading numerous memoirs of others’ losses. This strategy was deemed strange or not shared by others but made sense to her, helped her, and this makes sense to me, too. Look, I just said something similar, above, about “Lost and Found” and Wondering Who You Are. This is a short but powerful essay and it contains lots of titles and snippet-quotations that I’m marking for later.

I always look forward with intrigued anticipation to “Pushing the Boundaries,” the section of each issue that includes an “experiment in nonfiction.” This time it is Nathan Elliot’s “An Honest Application,” a response to the part of an immigration application that asks him to justify and place a value on the marriage that hopes to qualify him for permanent Canadian residence. His actual written response is short and simple, but it is accompanied by lengthy footnotes that include all the emotion and indignation he couldn’t put in his application. It is genius – I loved it – and I love as well the story of love that he has to tell.

There were others, but these are my favorites. You can view these pieces and more, or buy the whole issue (do that!) here.

book beginnings on Friday: Red Dirt Women: At Home on the Oklahoma Plains by Susan Kates

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

red dirt women

My first review for Concho River Review is of this slim collection of stories about Oklahoma’s diverse and powerful women. It is a fine and auspicious beginning book, and in that spirit, today’s book beginning:

In her chronicle of life in Kenya – one of the great grasslands of the world – Isak Dinesen explains that it is impossible to live any place for a time and remain unaltered by one’s surroundings. “It does not even make much difference,” she says, “whether you have more good or bad things to say of it, it draws your mind to it, by a mental law of gravitation.”

You know I am a little obsessed by a sense of place, and that is very much at the heart of this collection, as this Ohio native comes to feel at home on Oklahoma’s dusty plains. Good stuff. I am glad to be able to recommend this book to you. Happy weekend, friends.

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

An enchantingly unsettling thriller with mysterious characters and a classically spooky setting.

dark dark wood

Ruth Ware’s chilling, atmospheric thriller In a Dark, Dark Wood is her first novel and the inaugural title published by Simon & Schuster’s new imprint, Scout Press.

Nora is a writer of crime novels, a loner who buys her groceries online and appreciates her solitude. But when she gets an invitation to a hen party being thrown for a woman she hasn’t spoken to in 10 years, her carefully structured life is disrupted. Against her instincts, she agrees to attend, and the party’s setting serves as a disturbing beginning: an isolated castle of steel and glass set deep in the English woods, populated for the weekend by nervous guests, each apparently with secrets to keep.

In the novel’s disjointed timeline, Nora later wakes up in the hospital with fractured memories of being covered in blood, running through dark woods with a sense of urgency; the police are waiting outside her door. What happened to her? Or… what has she done? As the narrative switches between Nora’s confusion in her hospital bed and the events leading up to her hospitalization, she and the reader together begin to wonder: Can she really not remember, or does she not want to? Both timelines accelerate with building suspense toward the big reveal, and eventually Nora will have to go back and recall events from her past that she’d rather leave forgotten.

In a Dark, Dark Wood is peopled by mysterious characters set to a classically spooky backdrop and culminating in blood, broken glass and memory loss. Readers who appreciate being unnerved will be charmed.

This review originally ran in the August 14, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!
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Rating: 7 tequila shots.

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