The Anger Meridian by Kaylie Jones

A newly widowed woman is forced to face her own secrets, in vibrant San Miguel de Allende.

anger meridian

Merryn is up late at night, awaiting and fearing her husband’s drunken homecoming, when she opens the door to find two policemen announcing that he has been killed in a car accident. She quickly bundles up their nine-year-old daughter, the precocious Tenney, and leaves Dallas, Tex., for her mother’s home in San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico.

The rest of Kaylie Jones’s striking novel, The Anger Meridian, is set in San Miguel, where Merryn’s mother, Bibi, presides over an opulent home and her frightened daughter’s life. As Merryn struggles to navigate her husband’s legacy (the FBI has followed her to Mexico to investigate his business dealings) and her and Tenney’s future, she has the opportunity to confront many dishonesties, including her own. Lying is one of The Anger Meridian‘s central themes.

The tone of Jones’s writing quivers with tension from the opening page. Merryn is traumatized, anxious, grinds her teeth at night; she behaves like an abuse victim. But where does her damage come from? And whom should she–and the reader–trust? A handsome American expat doctor, a lawyer friend of the family, a local yoga teacher, the members of Bibi’s entourage and clever Tenney each offer different angles on Merryn’s life. In the end, there are several puzzles to untangle in this lovely, finely plotted novel, which highlights colorful San Miguel and the complexities of family, loyalty and honesty. The Anger Meridian is at once a suspenseful mystery and a superlatively gripping story of self-discovery.


This review originally ran in the July 21, 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: 7 martinis.

The Casualties by Nick Holdstock

This memorable first novel examines a Scottish neighborhood’s eccentrics with the benefit of hindsight following an apocalypse.

casualties

In Edinburgh, Scotland, there was once a neighborhood called Comely Bank, whose denizens included some eccentrics, with stories that warrant telling. Hinted at, just out of the reader’s line of sight, is the calamitous event that wiped it out, and Edinburgh, and all of Western Europe and beyond. This catastrophe motivates the unnamed narrator’s storytelling, told almost entirely in flashback.

Following a brief and ominous opening in which Comely Bank’s destruction is promised, the daily lives of local residents form the focus of Nick Holdstock’s debut novel, The Casualties. Sam Clark is a very curious man. He runs the charity bookshop in the neighborhood, where he carefully sifts and sorts through donated books looking for the ephemera tucked forgotten between their pages: he’s after photographs, letters, airline tickets, notes and cards that shed light on the lives of strangers. He carefully observes the people around him, seeking their stories. The reader won’t learn what he’s really looking for until well into Holdstock’s meticulously ordered narrative.

Comely Bank’s other residents include Sinead, a nymphomaniac struggling to control herself but obsessed with a local shopkeeper; meanwhile she serves as caregiver for an obese, mentally handicapped man. Caitlin works at a secondhand clothing store and fixates on the crackling skin condition that mars her face. She loves a man who does not love her; “with adoration comes the wish to hold a pillow over his face.” Alasdair lives under a bridge, dispensing questionable health advice to passersby who do not want it; he can’t remember his last name or his past. “Trudy” is the name taken by a Filipino prostitute illegally residing in Comely Bank. Mr. Ashram is resentful of his neighbors’ reluctance to accept him into their society. Retired headmistress Mrs. Maclean is impatient for her own demise. And so on–until the final, strangely twisting, imaginative pages.

Holdstock vividly presents his odd and varied characters, and places them in a world that is at once both colorful and recognizably everyday. The protagonists’ personalities and actions are quirky but believable, and given added weight by their place in time: The Casualties is a twist on the post-apocalyptic novel in that it reexamines the world just before its end. This perspective, and the continuing mystery of the narrator’s identity, nudge the reader into asking uncomfortable questions about life and its length and meaning. In its ending, Holdstock’s unusual creation leaves certain details to the imagination. Strong characterization and a creative plot, both familiar and bizarre, give this novel enduring allure.


This review originally ran in the July 21, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 pictures.

Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

Trauma is reborn for the victims of a double abduction, nearly 20 years after their rescue.

pretty is

Two women in their 30s: Chloe is an almost-famous actor barely hanging on to her Hollywood career; Lois is a precocious junior professor with two book contracts. They share a past neither wants known. When they were 12, Lois and Chloe–then known as Carly May–were abducted and held in a hunting lodge in the Adirondacks for a summer before being rescued. This secret, the victimization they just want to forget, comes back to haunt them in Maggie Mitchell’s first novel, Pretty Is.

The action alternates between the present lives of Lois and the reinvented Chloe/Carly May, and flashbacks to the summer they spent with a man they called Zed. They’ve stuck by their story that he never touched or hurt them, not that anyone seems to believe that. Now, Lois’s latest project and a peculiarly disturbed student seem poised to intersect with Chloe’s struggling acting career. The question becomes not what Zed did nearly 20 years ago, but what agency do the adult women have in their own lives?

Suspenseful, quick-paced and action-driven, Pretty Is also wisely invests in character development. Carly May may have been a beauty queen, but she was an intelligent child, too; Lois was a spelling-bee champion and confirmed bookworm as well as pretty, and those lists of spelling words still serve as a mental aid. Mitchell’s greatest strength, however, is in the riveting, magnetic pull of her plot, as the stakes grow higher and Pretty Is rushes toward its finale.


This review originally ran in the July 17, 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: 6 text messages.

Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime by Val McDermid

The science of criminal detection from a writer with expertise and connections in the field.

forensics

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid (The Skeleton Road) expands on her considerable experience with Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime. In it, she studies the fields encompassed by forensic science and the large role that such detailed evidence plays in the modern judicial system.

In writing fiction, McDermid routinely consults professionals in law enforcement and scientific experts; here, she delves into their worlds to examine the history and challenges of their work. Chapters focus on crime and fire scenes, entomology, pathology, toxicology, forensic psychology and anthropology, the courtrooms and legal systems of various countries and more. McDermid visits with experts in each of these fields, exploring their personal and professional experiences, which can include trauma as well as deeply stimulating and important work. She also covers specific criminal cases, ranging from serial killings and rape to common burglary, that illustrate the science in question, and offers impressions of her own.

McDermid is not a perfectly impartial judge of the professions she considers; the tone of Forensics is more admiring than journalistic. She provides a great service in reducing complex science to a narrative easily understood by laypersons, and thereby allows fans of television crime drama and detective novels a heightened appreciation of the genre. Details are often predictably graphic, but never gratuitously so, and should be well within the tolerances of murder-mystery buffs. Forensics is an easy-reading introduction to the science behind criminal detection and a fine companion to fiction like McDermid’s.


This review originally ran in the July 17, 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: 6 pairs of gloves.

Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word by Matthew Battles

Bibliophiles and historians will be thrilled by this enthusiastic, detailed account of writing throughout history.

palimpsest

Matthew Battles (Library: An Unquiet History) undertakes a mammoth topic with Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word. Rather than an exhaustive chronicle, however, he has composed an extended meditation, a roaming through the centuries. The result is a collection of narrative examinations of writing as a technology, as a means of wielding power, as artistry and as communication. As Battles quotes it, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a palimpsest as a “writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another.” His imagination is captured by this concept in fact and as metaphor, and Palimpsest is in part a drawn-out consideration of “mind as page” and “page as mind” (the titles of its opening and closing chapters).

Battles’s survey ranges from Mesopotamian cuneiform in the fourth century BCE to early printing, word processing and social media. He explores Thoreau’s views on Confucianism, the clay tablets of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the topology of Chinese hanzi and the fascination with writing in Great Expectations. He is intrigued by the politics of the printing press and various typefaces. Historians, writers, philosophers and anthropologists including Socrates, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound and Ralph Waldo Emerson provide context for the philosophical significance of writing. Battles points out that modern computer code is a type of writing as well, “a kind of text that can’t exist on its own. But what other kind of text has ever existed?”

Among other revelations, Palimpsest elucidates the original meaning of “pirated” literature: “not… the unauthorized reproduction of someone else’s work but the use of a printing press without proper license,” and Allen Ginsberg’s modern redefinition of “graffiti,” which originally referred in the Italian to words or ornaments carved in clay forms. How we learn to write changes as our cultural expectations of writing change; thus what Battles calls a “feedback loop” of change in writing technologies perpetuates. In other words, in an increasingly digital age, Battles argues that writing is in flux–as it has been since its beginnings.

Palimpsest returns more than once to an emphasis on writing as art, and Battles’s own writing style is often decorative. The meandering structure of this expansive essay on writing in history, as well as its formal and academic tone, may pose challenges for some readers. However, the reader and writing fan absorbed by writing’s miscellany will find much to love and sink into in Palimpsest.


This review originally ran in the July 10, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 4 radicals.*

*For my personal reaction to his style, although the quality of writing and research are sure to please other readers.

Maud’s Line by Margaret Verble

A young American Indian woman’s existential questionings and daily life on an Oklahoma farm will appeal to fans of historical fiction and personal narrative.

maud's line

Early in the 20th century, the U.S. government assigned plots of land to the American Indians displaced by Oklahoma’s statehood. Maud Nail’s day-to-day life on her family’s allotment is consumed by guns, dirt and chickens. She cares for her men–a dangerous, unruly father, aptly named Mustard, and a sensitive, thin-skinned brother named Lovely–as well as the extended family whose allotments neighbor hers. They recently survived the flood of 1926-27 that covered Oklahoma and much of the Midwest, but the difficulties don’t stop there. Margaret Verble’s first novel, Maud’s Line, details the year in which Maud makes several large choices that will affect the rest of her life.

A peddler in a brilliantly blue covered wagon first captures Maud’s eye with his good looks and his books. He gives her a copy of The Great Gatsby, and she can’t stop thinking about those bobbed haircuts and dresses above the knee. Though she loves her family, Maud desperately wishes she could move on, live in a different world. But as she begins to be caught up in a nascent love affair, her family’s troubles demand her attention. Two men from the family that has long feuded with hers are murdered, and Mustard has to leave town in a hurry. Lovely falls ill, and then, more troubling still, seems to be losing his mind. And Maud’s occasional, erstwhile boyfriend then makes a claim on her, just as she is struggling with the biggest dilemma of all.

Maud’s Line is filled with evocative glimpses of violence, viscera, yearning and the brusque but communal caring of family. In her unadorned writing style, below the violence and hardship on the surface of Maud’s life, Verble crafts a story filled with nuance and quiet conflict. She exhibits a talent for characterization: each individual is carefully and distinctly fashioned, so that Lovely’s girlfriend and the members of Maud’s extended family, for example, shine brightly in even the briefest of appearances. Maud herself is finely wrought, caught between the values she’s been raised with–and the people she loves–and a hope for a different life, one with electricity and hygiene in place of dust and blood. One of the greatest strengths of Verble’s novel, set on her own family’s land allotment, is the delicate interior conflicts produced by Maud’s deceptively simple life. Propelled by its own momentum, Maud’s Line pulls the reader along until, amid daily privations and small tragedies, Maud has the chance for the first time to choose for herself what her future will hold.


This review originally ran in the June 30, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 guns.

The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba by Brin-Jonathan Butler

An amateur boxer’s love affair with Cuba.

domino

Brin-Jonathan Butler first traveled to Cuba as a teenager, hoping “to find a boxing trainer and to meet the guy from The Old Man and the Sea.” He accomplished both goals and over the years that followed made repeated trips, seeking Cuban boxing, baseball and literary heroes, as well as the mysteries of the sequestered island. Eventually, Butler’s fixation on Cuba inspired a forthcoming documentary, Split Decision, about Cuban athletes’ difficult choices between staying and leaving. In The Domino Diaries, he confesses that the project was partly an excuse to stay, having become “homesick for a place [he] wasn’t born to.” His memoir further unravels the relationship he’s formed with this nation.

His escapades make for fine writing and include a tryst with Fidel Castro’s granddaughter and an interview with boxing legend Teófilo Stevenson that results in Butler’s being banned from Cuba. The Domino Diaries is a memoir of boxing heroes and political strife, a study of Castro’s legacies and Cuba’s “Special Period” of economic crisis, and an ode to the grace, joy and sadness of Cuban culture; it is also the personal story of Butler’s own traumas and his mother’s escape from Hungarian communist rule. These threads necessitate some meandering, but the resulting musing tone Butler employs is elegiac and quite effective. Rather than an exhaustive survey of the large and thorny topic of Cuba’s economy, politics and culture, Butler’s memoir is a rambling exploration, appealingly written in a distinctive voice and peppered with wisdoms phrased with lovely wit.


This review originally ran in the June 26, 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: 7 cigars.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 456 other followers

%d bloggers like this: