Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

I took a few days off, but that was all I could stand before returning to book 3 of this compelling series. As I wrote the other day, this review will contain spoilers for the first two books but not for this one.

Following the events of Catching Fire, Katniss learns that District 12 was burned by the Capitol, and the surviving residents – including Katniss’s mother and sister, Gale and his family – were taken in by 13. We thought 13 no longer existed, after the way-back-then uprising, but it was all a hoax; in fact, 13 moved (literally) underground, where Katniss and her family now dwell as well, following her airlift rescue from the most recent Games. She’s having trouble adjusting to the highly regimented, militarized society and the claustrophobic setting. She’s been reunited with Gale, but separated from Peeta – he was captured by the Capitol, and we can just imagine the terrible torture he’s undergoing. As the book opens, Katniss is still trying to recover from a concussion and also to decide whether she will agree to serve as Mockingjay, sort of a figurehead symbol of rebellion, in propaganda videos. Thirteen’s social order is ill suited to this surly teenager’s disposition, and being a figurehead does not necessarily come naturally, but she gives it a try.

Of course, it does not suit the series for Katniss to serve as mere symbol, and she’ll end up back in some real action soon enough. The love triangle continues with a fascinating new twist.

This book included some satisfying combat sequences, and some engaging new characters, as well as the development of (for instance) Finnick Odair. I am intrigued by the questions about what the next version of this world could look like: if the uprising is successful in tearing down the social structures we know, what will we put in their place? It’s much easier to criticize existing worlds than to build decent new ones from scratch. When I encounter dystopian stories, this is always the part that fascinates me the most, I think. So in this way, I appreciated that the series continues with the zoomed-out perspective I mentioned when reviewing Catching Fire.

But on the other hand, I yearned for a little more of Katniss’s love triangle – feelings, discussions of feelings, and, well, action… I guess a young adult novel can only take romance so far! I’m pretty satisfied with how things turned out, but I think I could have used more of Katniss’s internal workings throughout this story. She’s pretty bound up inside, and it’s probably realistic that she’d have been so unclear on her own feelings, but I wish we could have felt a little more of her emotional life.

The theme throughout the series of the blurred line between reality and reality television is brought forward a touch in this story, where a central character gets extra-confused and must ask repeatedly, “Real or not real?” This feels like the literalization of larger concerns throughout, and while it could have been heavy-handed, it’s not. It’s poignant, and serves as reminder that this is the real problem with so much of this world (and of our own).

My opinion of Collins’s prose remains: mostly it’s serviceable and effective enough, but there are just occasional hilarious flubs. I chuckled at “Boggs does emergency first aid on people to hold them until we get back.” He “does first aid”? What does that look like? On “people”? That’s some lazy writing, y’all. But of course this line is just a placeholder meant to move us on to what we care about, which is what Katniss does next. I picture the author sort of waving her hand – “people do things, and then Katniss…” But these moments do crack me up.

Looking back on the series, I don’t think there’s much question that book one, The Hunger Games, is the best one, where we meet and learn to care about the key characters, and are introduced to the enthralling world of the Games. You need all three to see the story through, though. And my mild criticisms aside, the series is a feat. I rarely feel compelled to read all day and into the night without looking up, and Collins had me riveted, so hat’s off. This is a hell of an imaginative, gripping story, whose details will I think continue to haunt me. I believe I’ll try and see the movies. Worth every minute spent, and highly recommended – especially for younger readers.

Rating: 7 bowls of mushy beets.

As I write this review, a prequel by Suzanne Collins titled The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is forthcoming; it will be available when this post goes live. Head’s up, Hunger Games fans!

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

I didn’t even pause between The Hunger Games and this book 2 in the series. Hmm… I don’t guess I can do this without spoilers from book 1, but I’ll keep them general. (No spoilers for book 2.) Stop here if you want to read these books blind (which you should, if you’ve avoided them this long).

Katniss and Peeta have returned home from the Games to find what every big-time lottery winner knows: fame and fortune do not, in fact, solve everything. And they have their decidedly unclear relationship to navigate. Katniss, unsurprisingly, just opts out of that complicated task and avoids Peeta entirely; she’d like to patch things up with Gale somehow but hasn’t the first clue where to begin. Meantime, the districts are likewise grumbling and unsettled; it seems that without meaning to, Katniss stirred up some tendencies toward rebellion with the way she finished the Games. Now she’s got some bigwigs out to get her if she can’t figure out how to put things back together. As a hero, Katniss is both impressive and frustrating; she’s a badass, but not very self-aware, and she’s a typical teen in that she can’t begin to see herself as others see her, let alone boys. Her bluster and bumbling can be trying, but we love her, and we clearly have no choice but to root for her. Because, yes, the Games are back – she and Peeta end up back in a new arena with other past victors in an unprecedented all-star-game event. Strange to say, because they’re always a fight to the death, but somehow the stakes are even higher this time.

I noted, again, the importance of appearances, of playing to the camera, and therefore (especially for someone like Katniss, for whom motives and desires were already muddied by adolescence), it’s really difficult to tell what anyone really thinks or feels, to figure out their truest emotions and motivations. What is truth and what is a lie? Which of several versions is the true one? For me, the most important metaphor of these books is the idea of duplicity and deception and performance for an invisible but all-important audience. It’s quite disturbing – which is a compliment to these novels.

This installment did feel like a sequel, and in fact like the middle book in a trilogy: it relies heavily on what came before and leads directly into whatever it is that comes after. I appreciated a little bit of character development (particularly with Haymitch, Katniss and Peeta’s drunken mentor and former Games victor), and the details and complexity of the arena were cool. But this book had nothing amazing to contribute that wasn’t there in book 1; it’s really just a continuation.

That said, I do appreciate the zooming-out of focus. Where The Hunger Games centered on Katniss, her own survival, and her budding romance(s) and love triangle, Catching Fire widens the lens angle to take in the plight of all 12 districts (or are there 13?) in relation to the Capitol. Katniss has more to worry about than her boyfriends now. As we head into book 3, I’m looking forward to more of this wider world and the idea of revolution.

Rating: 7 o’clock.

Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan

This book came recommended by one of my favorite faithful readers here at the blog, so I’m sorry to say I’m not an unqualified fan.

Adrift is a memoir of survival. Steven Callahan is a lifelong sailor, and from boyhood had wanted to sail across the Atlantic, which he eventually managed to do in his late twenties in a 21-foot sailboat of his own design and build. Her name is Napoleon Solo, and with a friend, Callahan sails her from New England to old England. Here the friend flies home and Callahan putters south with another short-term crew member; they part at the Spanish island of Tenerife. Callahan sets out alone for Antigua, and it is in this second attempted Atlantic crossing that things go wrong. The subtitle gives the briefest summary. Callahan spends the 76 days in an inflatable raft with few and meager tools, whose accelerating failures require increasingly creative solutions, even as the man’s body and mind self-cannibalize and break down.

For one thing, this book is interesting in that it is both suspenseful and riveting, and spoiled from the beginning: that Callahan got to write the book (never mind that subtitle) gives away the ending. In fact, the subtitle’s specificity gives away yet more. As I read the log, I see we’re in day 41 and know we’re nowhere near done. I was nevertheless absorbed by the story. It’s hard to say to what extent I enjoyed this read; I was often frustrated, but always reluctant to close the book and walk away.

I think I might have been more able to enjoy the story if I’d better understood the practical aspects of it. Sometimes Callahan throws out terms or processes unconcernedly that are meaningless to me. Sometimes he tries to explain but entirely passes me by – which may be as much on me as it is on him; certainly I don’t know my way around a boat, and mechanical intelligence is not a strength of mine. He includes some diagrams and step-by-step explications that so entirely passed me by that I started skipping them, as trying and failing to understand only irritated me. That said, giving up on the details still left me able to follow the life-and-death struggle.

Callahan conceives of himself as operating in three parts: physical, emotional, and rational. Especially as he starts to really lose it (with fatigue, starvation and dehydration, frustration, sleep deprivation, and the general crazy-making of his situation), these parts become a chorus of arguing voices in his head. There is a philosophical, if not meta-physical, thread to the story: will to live versus peace with death, and how people suffer and work through experiences like this. I suspect such a story is one of the hardest things to write, to communicate such profundities… and so if I say he didn’t do an entirely convincing job of it, I mean that as mild criticism. Certainly I’ve never lived through anything like this, nor tried to write it, and I can’t imagine I’d do any better.

The story was undoubtedly compelling. I didn’t want to stop reading. And yet I felt a certain impatience, too. It’s strange to say, but the events of these 76 days, while they included much variation, were also much of the same over and over. Much minutia of patching holes and reconfiguring a speargun, but on the other hand, just the ocean: “that torn blue desert,” he calls it, with dorados and flying fish and triggerfish and calm weather or angry weather, hot days and cold nights. Possibly this could have been done in fewer than 238 pages to better effect. (That’s a major decision to be made with a book like this: degree of detail; pacing.) Maybe I’m not the ideal reader of this book, or not at the ideal time. When I think about survival-in-nature stories, I think of Krakauer first, of course; Into Thin Air remains the pinnacle for me, in memory, with Into the Wild a close second. (Both of these, apparently, pre-blog. And what would I think of them if I reread them now?) Stories this elemental must be among the hardest to get right. Isn’t this kind of survival narrative the definition of ineffable?

Interesting in its own ways, and demands to be finished (no question of a did-not-finish here), but not something I loved reading.

Rating: 7 eyes.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My 8th-grade book-talks buddy had me read chapter 3 for one of our weekly discussions, and that was that. Two days later I read this whole book and most of book 2 in the series in a single lazy day.

A few qualifications first and then I’ll just rave: Collins’s writing can occasionally be a bit awkward, syntactically speaking. A handful of times I noticed her phoning in some of the details so as to move on with the action. The writing style overall ran toward the simple (which I suspect is just a feature of YA, keeping it easy for younger readers), which I guess I noticed coming from often more convoluted styles; but there’s nothing wrong with simple when it’s clean and effective, which this writing almost always is.

And there’s no question that this is a compelling plot. I was quickly absorbed in the world of District 12, the last of the twelve districts of Panem that serve the Capitol, a city of riches and leisure built on suffering and privation. Panem was formed from the former United States, and District 12 was once Appalachia; its main contribution to Panem’s wealth is coal mining, which has gone on here for many hundreds of years, “which is why our miners have to dig so deep.” The main action is the Hunger Games themselves, an annual fight-to-the-death, survivalist, reality-show-entertainment, punishment-for-rebellion event the Capitol inflicts upon the districts. Each district provides two tributes each year, a boy and a girl, ages 12-18. These 24 teens are thrown into an arena (designed by the Gamekeepers) until only one emerges. The whole thing is televised in fine detail; when things get dull, the Gamekeepers spice them up with extra challenges, manufactured “wild” animals, “natural” disasters, and the like.

Note the conflation of “reality television” with the battle royale. Violence as entertainment (for the Capitol) and violence-as-entertainment as cautionary tale (for the districts, a repeat of whose long-ago uprising these Games are meant to deter). There is some level of metaphor and real-world commentary available here for those looking out. I think most pointedly, the reader is never allowed to forget that these are games, and that there is an audience to play for. Tributes can be supported during the Games by gifts from sponsors, dropped by parachute; they’re motivated to play for the cameras, appeal to prospective sponsors and be likeable for the Gamekeepers, who have the power to skew things toward life or death.

If Collins’s sentence-level writing is not the finest I’ve read lately, her imagination and execution are excellent. The world of Panem and the Games, the drama and spectacle, and her characters are completely engaging. Our first-person narrator and hero is Katniss, who’s been supporting her mother and younger sister since she was 12 years old. Her fellow tribute in these Games is local baker’s son Peeta, with whom her relationship will be complicated. She must leave behind not only the beloved younger sister but her hunting buddy and possible budding romantic interest Gale. Some of the staffers who make up the workings of the Games will become personalities of interest, as well. The worldbuilding is solid, as are both plot and character development. Pacing and suspense are expert; again, I raced through this book in part of a day and then rolled straight into book 2.

I’m very impressed, frankly, and reminded that we shouldn’t undersell YA. I love being absorbed into a new world – even a dystopian one. And I can’t wait to find out what comes next.

Rating: 8 grooslings.

Foxfire Story: Oral Tradition in Southern Appalachia ed. by T. J. Smith

Decades of carefully collected oral storytelling and local lore from Southern Appalachian culture offer a singular perspective.

Since 1966, Foxfire has been educating and working to preserve local heritage in Georgia’s Rabun County. The organization has published the Foxfire magazine for over 50 years, and more than 20 books. But Foxfire’s archives are still rich and deep enough to furnish mostly never-before-published material in Foxfire Story: Oral Tradition in Southern Appalachia, a collection of folktales, stories, mountain speech, pranks, jests and much more gathered over the decades.

Editor T.J. Smith–Georgia mountain native, Ph.D, folklorist and Foxfire’s executive director–groups these materials into categories: anecdotes come from personal experience and often contain a punch line; folk beliefs connect us to cultural or religious communities and are sometimes known by the pejorative “superstition.” Proverbs and sayin’s include colloquial comparisons: sharp as a tack, a needle, a briar, a pegging awl. Legends include ghost stories and tales of treasure hunts. In a second, shorter section, Smith organizes additional storytelling by the teller. Here, Ronda Reno recounts the tradition in her family of the “granny witch,” or herbalist/midwife/community healer. Cherokee storyteller Lloyd Arneach describes his art form and how it grew, almost by accident, into a career.

The legends, folktales, songs and stories in this collection are often unsophisticated, portraying ways of life that are dying out or already gone. They shed light on endangered occupations, economies and ecological niches. With Smith’s commentary, these unaffected narratives and usages (git-fiddle: “term for guitar in the context of old-time string music”) offer a glimpse of a world otherwise unavailable to many readers.

This review originally ran in the May 1, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 5 panthers.

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart (audio)

When I heard, some years ago, that the author of The Drunken Botanist had written a women-centered detective story, you can bet I couldn’t wait to get to it. Because it’s a touch longer than I usually have time for, it took me some four years to get to it, but I finally did, in a very nice audio format performed by Christina Moore.

Constance Kopp lives with her two younger sisters, Norma and Fleurette, on the family farm in the New Jersey countryside, even though their brother keeps insisting they sell it and move into town, because three “girls” shouldn’t be out there on their own. In the summer of 1914, their buggy is struck by an automobile driven by silk merchant Henry Kaufman. Constance insists that Kaufman should pay for damages, but Kaufman is a jerk and sort of a gangster type, and he refuses. The rest of 1914 and well into ’15 are absorbed with the Kopp-Kaufman conflict: Kaufman and his unsavory friends harass and stalk the Kopp sisters, eventually attempting to burn down their house and shooting at them, and sending letters threatening to kidnap young Fleurette and demanding money. At every point the “girls” (Fleurette is a teenager, but Constance is closer to 40 than 30) are encouraged to just let this thing drop, but Constance will not be deterred. She sues Kaufman for the damages and then pursues charges against him for the rest of the violence and threats; a friendly local sheriff’s assistance is critical to her persistence. Constance will prove a better detective than many real detectives, and this novel ends with her being offered just such a job. (The series of “Kopp Sisters” novels follows that thread.)

These events are closely based on the true Kopp sisters, and if you want to avoid spoilers for the novel, you’ll avoid reading the history just yet, too.

I had mixed feelings for this one. It’s got a solid plot, but one that dragged on far longer than it needed to; well-portrayed characters with complexity and flaws and quirks, but a bit more likeability would have helped me enjoy them far more. (I don’t require that I absolutely love all, or even any, characters in a book. But there has to be enough that I invest in them in some way. And while I appreciated Constance quite a bit, and Sheriff Heath, almost everyone else grated. You don’t want your reader to spend most of your book exasperated.) I dig the feminist pluck, the setting in time, and the period-appropriate details. The sisterly interactions were cute at first, but started to irritate me. I was often impatient. Nearly 500 pages? This novel could have been done in half that, I think, and would have been a snappy ripping little novel at that length. I would definitely be signing up for book 2 in the series in that case; as it is, I’m not sure I won’t look into it, which is of course a vote of some confidence. But I’m not sure I will, either, because it bogged down for so long. Why was this book as long as it was? We spent entirely too much time watching the same things happen over and over again.

The reading of this audio format was above average. I enjoyed the voices for the different characters and the contribution to Constance’s character.

Some high points for sure, but I can’t give a strong recommendation. Many readers have loved this book, so feel free to seek other opinions. To each her own.

Rating: 6 blue bands.

Time and Chance by Sharon Kay Penman

Sharon Kay Penman writes epic historical novels that I love to sink into. (I have read 7 of her 15 to date, and she’s still writing, thank goodness!) It’s funny, but for me, what lasts about these books is not detail, but feeling. Individual characters, emotions, and relationships resonate, but I find I can retain almost nothing about the monarchies, battles, and power struggles – the real *history* – she has so meticulously researched. I’m resigned; this seems to be a feature of how my brain works (or doesn’t), as I certainly don’t think it’s a feature of Penman’s work. Also, the English monarchs tend to reuse the same names over and over. It makes it very hard for me to keep them straight.

Years ago, I read the first novel in the Angevin “trilogy” (now at five books, ha), When Christ and His Saints Slept (also here). Here I am finally with book two in that series. “It began with a shipwreck on a bitter-cold November eve in God’s Year 1120,” which kills the one legitimate son of King Henry I. He names his daughter Maude, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, as heir, but the people balk at the rule of a woman, and her cousin Stephen seizes power. The Empress Maude makes an armed bid for the throne which fails, but in her remarriage to the Count of Anjou she produces a son who will call himself Henry Fitz Empress and rise to great heights. At nineteen he marries Eleanor of Aquitaine, an older woman, a great beauty, former wife to the King of France; at twenty-one she is a queen again when he becomes King of England. …All this is prelude; Time and Chance covers several decades of Henry’s rule over England, his passionate and eventually rocky marriage with Eleanor, and his changing relationship with Thomas Becket. More than 500 pages flew by for me, as I was entirely spellbound by the characters, their relationships and machinations.

Henry is controlling, confident, charming, single-minded, arrogant, and brave. For a king, he can be quite informal, appreciating simple clothes and food and bawdy humor; but his temper flares easily (much talk of the Angevin temper) and he does not tolerate disrespect. Eleanor is quite his equal, passionate and ambitious, not to be crossed; she is wise and clever, and he doesn’t take her advice as often as he should. They’re well-matched and truly love each other, in Penman’s telling, but he’ll betray her late in the book. Betrayal is central to this story, because the third main character is Thomas Becket, who has risen from a low birth to serve as Henry’s chancellor and one of the few (alongside Eleanor and the Empress Maude) whom the king fully trusts. When Henry promotes him to Archbishop of Canterbury, though, Becket’s loyalties shift. The two men will spend the next eight years as enemies, with Becket pushing for Church powers while Henry pushes for his own. Henry, Eleanor, and Becket form the triangle that is the heart of this book. But for me, a loveable fourth figures heavily as well: Ranulf, Maude’s brother and Henry’s uncle, had a Welsh mother and has made a home and a life for himself in Wales, with a Welsh wife and children who consider the English to be an ‘other’ (if not an enemy). Ranulf’s loyalties are obviously split, but they are deep; he feels himself bound to Henry but also to the Welsh King Owain, and when the two come into conflict he is sorely pained. As impressive as Henry and Eleanor can be, Ranulf is the one who feels most human, most the friend whose eyes I see this story through.

The book is written in a third person perspective that moves around, close to one character and then another; the reader gets views inside of Eleanor’s heart and mind, glimmers into Henry’s, but I think we do get closest to Ranulf, and even his wife. (Rhiannon is blind, which is quite a remarkable condition in this time.) Thomas Becket remains an enigma, as I think he is to history, and we know Penman takes her historical accuracy very seriously. It’s one of the things I love and respect about her, even if I can’t seem to retain the historical details of her novels once I put them down.

My first Penman, which I fell in love with, was The Reckoning, which centers the Welsh. I don’t know if she writes especially lovingly of Welsh characters or if I respond especially to them, but Ranulf won my heart, again. Interestingly, he’s the character in this novel that Penman entirely invented: she writes that Henry I had so many illegitimate children (at least 20) that one more couldn’t hurt.

When these characters get in ships or on horses and go charging over land and water and meet with dignitaries and offer gifts and make agreements, and break them, and when the lists of names get long, I tend to glaze over a little. But when they are engaged in close, interpersonal relationships – when Ranulf and Henry joke, or Ranulf and Rhiannon discuss decisions, or Eleanor and Henry fight or make love, or Ranulf and his brother Rainald catch up, or the Welsh prince Hywel makes poetry and flirts and jests, or Eleanor and Maude and Maud (yes, another one) confer on the role of women… these moments compel me. The larger power plays are interesting, and they are the plot points that coerce the interpersonal relationships. But it’s the private and interpersonal that drive my devotion to the story. There is a certain romance to the way that Penman lets these characters generally be their best selves, a sentimentality in some (not all) marriages and in parent-child relations. I cynically suspect that this perspective is a rather optimistic reading of history, but it certainly makes for enjoyable fiction.

I still admire this author so much, and I find her work so enjoyable. She makes decades of political intrigue feel like an intimate drama among people I could be friends with. Five hundred pages of historical fiction about the Plantagenet dynasty sounds like it would be a slog, but here it’s an indulgence. I’m still committed to reading all her work, over the years!

Rating: 8 shared trenchers.

Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly (audio)

I am considering a few possibilities about this book. 1) Michael Connelly has fallen down a little bit recently. 2) I saw a version of this story on the TV show Bosch, and the book coming second hurt its reception somewhat. 3) I think it might be #1 actually.

There are two storylines to this novel that run side-by-side. One is the pharmacy shooting in which a father-and-son pair of pharmacists are murdered in an apparent professional hit. Bosch and his colleagues at the San Fernando PD quickly link this to a possible ring of pill runners, and Bosch will end up going undercover as an opioid addict and getting into all kinds of mess. In the other thread, a decades-old case resurfaces when it looks like a convicted killer Bosch busted as just a baby detective will be released from Death Row. Bosch knows in his heart that the investigation was righteous and the guy is guilty, but worse still, it’s alleged that he planted evidence in the original case, so now his reputation is on the line.

The actual plotlines, both of them, are compelling. But many things about this book rubbed me wrong.

First, the reading of the audiobook by Titus Welliver – who plays Bosch on the TV show – sounded like a good idea. I think he’s an excellent Bosch onscreen. But it turns out that to read the audiobook, he has to play not only Bosch but all the other characters as well, and this may be beyond his range. Early on, a less-experienced detective has to go talk to the widow/mother of the murdered pharmacists, she expresses concern over the emotional challenge of this job – and Welliver delivers this in a monotone. Oh, no, I thought.

Did Connelly always over-explain like this? I am no kind of expert on the criminal justice system, except to the extent that I am an avid reader of murder mystery/crime procedurals and watcher of the same genre of television shows… It doesn’t seem like I should feel this impatient with the explanations of acronyms and procedures and why Harry might think or do a certain thing. Likewise, I’ve begun to pick up on a dialog tic that gets under my skin: police detective partners, say, explaining their actions or thought processes to each other out loud in a way that I just don’t believe they’d do in real life, for the benefit of the reader. This is a pet peeve of mine, and I can’t recall Connelly doing it before. Also, Harry Bosch is a pretty laconic guy. I think of him as being not big on explaining, let alone over-explaining. I don’t buy that Haller and Bosch’s banter would involve so much explanation. They move in the same circles, they speak most of the same lingo, and they’re pretty close. I think they’d operate with a lot more shorthand than we’ve got here. The ease with which a certain opioid addict is convinced, by a stranger, to take a cold-turkey cure felt unrealistic. There were just a lot of details that felt inauthentic.

But the worst thing came right at the end – and I said this just the other day. The ending of a book leaves the lingering impression! At the end of the book, Bosch is handed a solve on an old case. A woman long missing and considered dead – most likely murdered by her husband – turns up under a new identity and tells Bosch she had to flee her abusive marriage. “You have to stop looking for me,” she says. Bosch is angry with her for wasting the department’s resources in the search; his boss wants to have her charged with fraud. They are also offended that she left her baby behind with the abuser, who later gave said baby up for adoption. She doesn’t show remorse. The anger that Bosch and boss feel toward this woman pissed me off, you guys. We live in a culture that privileges male abusers over their victims. A woman like this likely couldn’t get out any other way – don’t make me laugh by saying she should have called the cops. She got out in the way she could. And if she caused department resources to be misspent? If she fucked up her kid’s life? That makes her a less-than-perfect victim, and gosh knows we only like our victims perfect. What’s funny, though, is that Bosch is the man of “everybody counts or nobody counts.” This was just the scenario for him to demonstrate that a victim of intimate partner violence, even though she made some choices we’d like to judge her for, deserved to take her own freedom where she could find it. It would make a lot more sense to get mad at the system that offered her no other out – and Bosch has plenty of experience getting mad at the system. He’s progressive enough to care about the rights of sex workers, but apparently not to extend his compassion to a survivor of domestic violence. This ending felt hypocritical, not to say misogynistic, and left a terrible taste in my mouth.

I’m sorry to feel so disenchanted here with one of my long-time favorite authors. And I can’t quite explain this: has Connelly changed so much? Have I? With beers or bicycles it’s hard to say, because you can’t go back in time. But in this case I have the classics, the early works – The Black Echo, The Black Ice, The Poet – to go back to. Hmm…

The plot, the mystery itself, is still solid. I can feel the old Harry Bosch underneath it all. But this edition did not work for me at all. Maybe I’ll hunt down one of those classics and double-check things. And I think I’ll still tune in to the recently-released season six of the show Bosch – assuming I can put this book behind me. Hope it’s a fluke.

Rating: call it 6 sealed envelopes just for old time’s sake.

Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here by Nancy Wayson Dinan

Forces of nature and preternatural human empathy come together in an extraordinary novel about relationships, love and place.

Set against the true events of Memorial Day weekend 2015 in central Texas, Things You Would Know if You Grew Up Around Here explores empathy, history, local lore, fantastical happenings and simple humanity. Amid catastrophic flooding, Nancy Wayson Dinan’s protagonist offers a compelling balance between the weird and the ordinary. Eighteen-year-old Boyd has always been unusually perceptive. Her best friend Isaac is the only one who never asked anything of her, in the unspoken way that people do. “Hurt children trailed Boyd… the forked stick of a dowser… tuned not to water, but to pain.”

It’s the fourth year of the drought, the beginning of summer, and Isaac is camped on the edge of the lake below Boyd’s house, panning for gold: “You can pay a semester of tuition at UT with a tiny sack of that gold dust.” After the first night’s rain, landscapes are rearranged, people scattered, and the rain still falls. Boyd can feel Isaac lost somewhere, “the copper fear in his mouth… the shivering of his chilled limbs.” Bridges out and all roads blocked, she sets out cross-country, on foot. “She had no doubt she could find Isaac; she was drawn to him like a magnetic pole, reading his distress like a Geiger counter.”

So begins a chain of events and searches: Isaac in mortal danger; Boyd following instinct alone into uncharted territories; her neighbor Carla, a retired hippie recluse from Austin, following her own instincts after Boyd. Boyd’s mother, Lucy Maud, accompanied by a motley crew of aging family members and Boyd’s father. Isaac’s father, also missing, gone treasure-hunting just as the rains began.

Dinan’s narrative shifts among these quests: Carla slipping through the mud in her yoga slides. Lucy Maud, alternately drawn to her estranged husband and annoyed by his ineptness. Isaac in one predicament after another. And Boyd, whose unlikely understanding has expanded until she must navigate both time and space, lost children and Texas history, wandering through the same sodden world where she looks for Isaac.

Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here is fabulous and engrossing, both faithful to the real-world details of central Texas and wildly imaginative, peopled with treasure hunters, prehistoric beasts, distracted professors and one improbable young woman facing a momentous decision. Dinan’s storytelling flows as forcefully as a flash flood in this spellbinding first novel in which a handsome young man, refreshingly, awaits rescue by a powerful woman.

This review originally ran in the April 27, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 glyptodonts.

The Tree and the Vine by Dola de Jong (trans. by Kristen Gehrman)

This sensitive novel illuminates women who love women in pre-World War II Holland.

Originally published in 1954, Dola de Jong’s The Tree and the Vine was a groundbreaking portrayal of lesbian lives in Holland just before the outbreak of World War II. This updated translation from the Dutch by Kristen Gehrman retains what is fresh, understated and moving in the original.

Bea, a shy office worker and the narrator of this story, keeps to herself and considers social activity a chore, until she meets Erica. Within weeks, they become roommates, and Bea is increasingly fascinated by her heedless new friend: Erica, a journalist, keeps strange hours and doesn’t seem to sleep. Her moods vacillate. Over many months, the pair becomes close, and Bea is simultaneously obsessed and resistant to her own feelings, telling herself that independence is paramount. “I could no longer live without her, and with her there was nothing but the strange existence that had been predetermined.”

As the threat of a German invasion grows, Erica gets involved with several female lovers, often in abusive relationships, while Bea plays the loyal friend always there to bail her out of trouble. On the brink of war, realizing that Erica is half Jewish and engaged in risky behaviors, Bea takes a half-step toward recognizing what they share. “She never spoke those few words again…. We’ve accepted it, each in our own way.”

The tone of The Tree and the Vine is often backward-looking and elegiac, told at a distance of years. But the immediate events of the women’s lives feel frantic: Erica rushes about, Bea panics. What is most important almost always goes unsaid.

The prose can occasionally feel a bit stilted, or involve a bit more telling than showing; but in fact what is shown, often, is not actions or expressions but Bea’s own deep feeling and anguish. The result is a love story on the brink of war in which the love never quite steps out in the open and the war remains off-stage. A sense of looming, momentous events pervades this slim novel.

In a thoughtful translator’s note, Gehrman notes linguistic peculiarities of de Jong’s original: anglicisms and words and expressions from the French, for example, which Gehrman has worked to maintain, and her delicate handling of Dutch idiom. She argues that The Tree and the Vine is not just a lesbian novel but “reflective of a broader female experience.” By turns emotional and restrained, this powerful story indeed offers valuable perspective on the human experience.

This review originally ran in the April 23, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 6 sandwiches.
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