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.

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.

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.

A Clue to the Exit by Edward St. Aubyn

Edward St. Aubyn’s favorite of his own novels surveys characters from his other work, in a clever, sophisticated consideration of death and consciousness.

clue to the exit

Edward St. Aubyn (Mother’s Milk) calls A Clue to the Exit his favorite of his own novels. Originally published in 2000, it’s now being reissued by Picador.

Charlie is a hack screenwriter who’s just been told he has six months to live. (He takes issue with the idea that his doctor has “given” him six months, as if it were a gift he should be grateful for.) He starts driving more carefully, even as he considers suicide, experimenting with the proper response to this news. He contacts his ex-wife about seeing his daughter; he sells his house and takes half his riches to Monte Carlo to lose it as quickly as possible. And, suddenly inspired, he sets out to write a serious novel–much to his agent’s exasperation.

In Monte Carlo, he meets a beautiful stranger, who he imagines might help him with his burden of mortality. Angelique is a gambling addict, and in her company Charlie feels an equal craving for his own writing. They have a deal: she gambles away his fortune, and he writes in the casino as he watches her. His novel, On the Train, tackles the big question of consciousness, or nothing less than the meaning of life, and Charlie’s autobiographical protagonist is none other than Patrick Melrose, St. Aubyn’s most famous character, who is joined by others that St. Aubyn’s fans will recognize from previous work. The characters of the novel within the novel argue philosophy on a train stuck in Didcot, as Charlie finds himself stuck as well between games of chance and the need to map his own final months.

St. Aubyn’s craft is on full display with this inward-looking work of simultaneous parody and earnestness. Nearly every line is quotable, a small but shining victory of prose. On the Train visits with Proust and Buddha, while “a clue to the exit” references Henry James on “the human maze,” but alongside serious, even wearying considerations, Charlie’s story is often very funny and self-referential. A third-person narrative “is so much more personal than a first-person narrative, which reveals too flagrantly the imposture of the personality it depends on,” writes St. Aubyn in Charlie’s voice: A Clue to the Exit is told in first-person, while On the Train is in the third. This feedback loop is a central device. “Feeling too upset to write, I made the brave decision to write about feeling too upset.” A parade of absurd characters and dinner parties accompanies Charlie’s, and his character Patrick’s, contemplations of death. As Charlie’s six months run out, St. Aubyn continues to surprise his reader in the final pages.

A refined and stylish novel of cynicism and the question of death, A Clue to the Exit is a perfect sample of St. Aubyn’s craft.


This review originally ran in the August 13, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 chips.

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

This compelling novel of resistance to the Norman Invasion, told in a hybrid of Old English, will satisfy motivated readers of history, ecology and the persistent pull of the old gods.

wake

The Wake is a singular debut novel by Paul Kingsnorth (One No, Many Yeses; Real England), set in England immediately following the Norman invasion of 1066. Its first-person narrator is a landowner named Buccmaster, who has lost everything to the attack: his family, his home, his land and his privilege. He takes to the fens and woods, with revenge in his heart and an intention to drive the French from his land and all of England. There he becomes one of the guerrilla fighters known as green men, whose chapter in history is little known.

What makes this powerful story distinctive is Kingsnorth’s decision to write the story in what he calls a “shadow tongue,” an Old English hybrid of the author’s invention, made slightly more understandable to the modern reader. This choice presents an undeniable challenge to the reader, and requires substantial extra effort to pursue the story. (Hint: try reading aloud, to hear cognates and the rhythm of the speech). But Kingsnorth defends his strategy: it evocatively renders Buccmaster’s voice, and brings to an already gripping saga a layer of new meaning, in that the reader has to participate in creating that meaning through interpreting unfamiliar words. A partial glossary deciphers some words, but many are left for the reader to define via context clues and, yes, guessing. Some readers will be turned away. But those who persist will find the language easier to follow after 20-40 pages, and will be rewarded by Buccmaster’s riveting narrative.

Buccmaster is a follower of the eald (old) gods, as was his grandfather, the gods of wilde places on the earth and its wihts (creatures). His father was not. “I will not spec of my father,” he says, but the story of his father is only one of the details that this unreliable narrator leaves out. As Buccmaster travels overland on foot, gathering companions who also wish to drive out the French, he journeys as well into the myths and traditions of his elders, and envisions a grand role for himself. The fate of his band of green men is as tenuous as that of England, as their leader struggles with reality.

The Wake is an ambitious novel in its themes and scope, in addition to its unusual linguistic decisions. As the English folc in his story become disconnected from their land, they lose their freedom: “if the frenc cums and tacs this land and gifs these treows [trees] sum frenc name they will not be the same treows no mor.” As an impassioned defense of the natural world and people’s responsibilities toward it, the novel acts as a metaphor for modern times. Buccmaster’s personal narrative is a lesson in pride and its dangers, a glimpse of another culture in its own language. Kingsnorth’s captivating first novel is thought provoking, multi-faceted and intriguingly rendered.


This review originally ran in the August 11, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 fugols.

Wondering Who You Are by Sonya Lea

A woman’s thoughtful account of life after her husband’s traumatic brain injury.

wondering

When Sonya Lea’s husband, Richard, had surgery to treat his rare appendiceal cancer, they knew there were risks. But they had not considered that Richard would wake up with no memory of his 23 years of marriage and two young adult children, or of his own personality and past. Sonya considers their shared history and difficult recovery in her memoir, Wondering Who You Are.

The details of Richard’s medical story are inarguably painful but often sweet. Sonya’s changed husband is empathetic, guileless and highly motivated to learn. Alternating chapters cover the trauma of his surgery and aftermath, and the story of their teenage romance and decades of marriage, until the timelines merge into one: Sonya’s quest for the husband she lost and her eventual acceptance of the one she’s found. This powerful, gut-wrenching narrative negotiates spirituality, hope and despair, sexual experimentation and a dedicated caregiver’s tireless research and advocacy. Sonya and Richard’s family story wanders geographically as well, from Kentucky to Ontario, Banff, Memphis, Seattle, California, France, India and more. Through assorted, arduous adventures, they learn again to rely on one another, to persist and to accept.

Sonya Lea is a fascinating narrator, by turns vulnerable and fierce, patient and maddened, always devoted. Her writing is contemplative and lovely, and contains just enough scientific detail. The result is a lyrical, intensely candid meditation on memory, identity and the stories we create for ourselves–and a love letter to both the new and old versions of Richard.


This review originally ran in the July 28, 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: 9 journal entries.
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