Monday, August 16, 2010

Glover's Mistake by Nick Laird

In a beautifully described contemporary London, jealous spite leads a man to destroy his friend’s romantic relationship

If you’re going to go to the trouble of writing a novel, shouldn’t there be a burning compelling reason to do so? A life or death reason you must shout from the rooftops. This book was an exquisitely painted miniature with lovely descriptions of London. The problem is that the stakes are miniscule. Also, the plot machinations and the character motivations for the last third of the novel became frantic and unbelievable. About schlubbly David, a part time English teacher with a Mr. Peepers type alter ego blogger and his incredibly good looking virginal Christian much younger roommate James. Ruth Marks comes into their lives, a dashing 45 year old artist and immediately falling in love with James. They actually decide to get married. But here’s a problem – why would such a “winner” such as Ruth even bother with these two loafers?

In many ways, this book reminded me of Zoe Heller’s Notes On a Scandal (the unreliable narrator while being a friend to the hero, is actually making his life much worse.) Only in that book, the stakes were huge – you couldn’t help but turn the page. It was hard to finish this short novel. What I was really interested in though was David’s relationship with a fellow blogger – that seemed real and sad.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Shadow Knows by Diane Johnson

Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of man?

Although never voiced, this question underlies the events in the novel. I really liked this well written unsentimental book – it worked on many levels. About a ditzy young woman, N., divorced and knocked up with four kids, living in a Sacramento housing project and succumbing to paranoia. Or is she? Perhaps every one she knows is in fact out to kill her. That certainly seems to be in the case in the first person narrative. Among other things, The Shadow Knows is also a nanny novel. N. has a black nanny, Ev, with a similar set of problems: a useless husband and a hurtful lover. Someone is out to get both women. The “murderer” starts small, leaving crap on the windshield, a dead cat on the step, slashed tires. Then the murderer gets personal with deadly results. The powers that be – men really, want N. to forget about the issues, ignore the mounting signals. The one saintly helper turns out not to be so saintly after all.

The amazing thing about this book were the fully developed characters from three distinct worlds – the upper class white world N. has rejected/been exiled from, the black world of drunkenness, manual labor, and music, and N's academic life as a college student/mother. The book is full of incredibly politically incorrect dialogue and scenes. But these scenes did not feel fake or phony. At the end N., a “little bitty woman,” is compelled to become a detective, discovering a midnight core of pure savage sexuality. The final scene is N. receiving the “coup de grace.” The mercy blow typically resulting in death, but in this case it brings happiness.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Burning by Diane Johnson

A seemingly sane couple is unbalanced by their swinging neighbors the day before Bel Air burns down.

I laughed aloud several times while reading this novel, which felt very much like a relic of the Sixties. It’s about Bingo and her doctor husband Barney. After the fire department requires them to cut down a hedge, they are suddenly sucked into the communal life of the very eccentric psychiatrist next door and his cast of eccentric patients, specifically the heroine addicted Maxine. Bingo and Maxine switch places one day as Maxine’s children are about to be confiscated by the State of California. The story moves quickly along as Bingo and Barney accept whatever crazy thing their neighbors are doling out. Bingo thinks about morality and life. This is not a frivolous book. At the end, a wildfire threatens to wipe away their neighborhood, but they all survive to love some more.

Visible Spirits by Steve Yarbrough

Wounds of slavery continue to bleed

I really liked this novel. It was emotionally coherent and I thought presented a woman’s point of view well. Loda Jackson is the African American postmistress of a small Mississippi town in the early 1900’s, placed there by Reconstruction. When a wastrel, Tandy Payne, comes to town, he sees an opportunity to kick her out and take the job himself. A flaw of the novel is that Tandy is a capital V villain. His big brother Loring Payne is the good hearted mayor who wants to be fair. The three of them have a shared painful history, history and family compounded. The blacks in the town are fearful of the whites, fearful of a massacre. One such massacre is related in a flashback. This book is also good about learning about history, though the ending was a little confusing and I wasn’t sure exactly what had happened.

Ferris Beach by Jill McCorkle

A teenager girl grows up in a small North Carolina town

This novel left me cold and I almost gave up on it. I puzzled as to why. The writing was clean and descriptive and I truly felt the emotions of Kate, the sensitive smart teenage narrator, the overprotected daughter of two middle aged eccentrics. The characters were remarkable – so many of them – each one of them three dimensional. The little Southern town sprang to life. The plot –there wasn’t much of an overarching one, it felt more like that the story was built from small tangents.  I think the reason I grew disinterested is that the main character is super passive. Vaguely Kate wants to go to Ferris Beach to live with her loopy young aunt she half imagines could be her mother. When she finally does go to Ferris Beach, she realizes in about two minutes her aunt is a flake. Also, certain plot twists needed to be established in Chapter One, but I felt that the plot twists in Chapter 12 were set up too late in Chapter 11.