Thursday, July 20, 2017

Station Eleven

This book by Emily St. John Mandel was highly recommended by my walking friend, Kathy F. and several other members of the short-lived fantasy/ sci-fi book group, and it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and numerous other accolades. It is indeed lovely writing. The premise is that a pandemic flu wipes out 99% of the world's population and we hear the stories of several of that small group left alive in North America. It is set primarily from Toronto down to the south end of Lake Michigan, with short jaunts to L.A. and British Columbia to fill in the characters' back stories. Two primary entities form the warp (weft?) of the connecting stories. The first is Arthur Leander, from a tiny island off the west coast of Canada who moves to Montreal, becomes an actor and then becomes a movie star. He marries 3 times, has one son, and dies of a heart attack on-stage while performing King Lear in Toronto, the same night the pandemic reaches N. America. His first two wives, his son, his closest friend Clark, and a child actress in the King Lear production, Kirsten, all have their own stories. The second is The Symphony, a group of traveling musicians and actors who travel in the post-pandemic world to surviving settlements along the shore of Lake Michigan performing classical music and putting on Shakespeare plays. Several characters, including Kirsten, are members of this group. The title comes from a tiny run of graphic novels created by Arthur's first wife, Miranda, about a space station/ planet which starts to break down when it passes through a worm hole, causing systems to malfunction and flood the planet. A group of survivors live in the settlement of Undersea and want to return to Earth and life as they knew it. You can see the connections to the "real" story, of course. It is a hopeful story in the end, although there is no end to the craziness, grief and loss--not just for people who died, but for an entire way of life.
Plenty of reviews available to fill in my short account: The Guardian, The New York Times, Kirkus, the Huffington Post, and The Independent.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

A memoir by J. D. Vance that does much to explain the mind set of a significant portion of the American population--the Scot-Irish immigrants to the Appalachians, who have become colloquially known as hillbillies. As always, when you look beneath the surface, the picture is infinitely more complicated and Vance spares no sympathy when calling out the dysfunctional and corrosive aspects of this culture. There is also no question that he loves the people he came from at the same time. His maternal grandparents joined a wave of immigration from Kentucky to the Rust Belt just after WWII, Ohio in Vance's case, looking for paying work and better lives. But they moved in such large numbers that their culture remained intact rather than being assimilated. They still often think first of violence as a way to solve problems, and blame others for their problems. Often fiercely loyal to family and country, they can also be abusive and embody the worst of learned helplessness mentality and behavior, including addictions and welfare dependence. Once exclusively Democratic, now they are largely Republican. Vance, a statistical anomaly for having "escaped" and become financially successful provides his personal and political (conservative) views about the problems facing this culture and America at large. Understanding this story offers insight into the current state of American politics. There is an excellent review in The New York Times, more at Kirkus and The Guardian, and this aptly titled article from the National Review, "What Hillbilly Elegy Reveals About Trump and America."

Dark Fever

Well, as an antidote to reading Orphan Master's Son, I dove into this supernatural fantasy thriller. Author Karen Marie Moning has written two series and this book is the first in the "Fever" series (Highlander being the other). The premise is that our protagonist, a carefree, 20-year old named MacKayla (or Mac for short) has her life turned upside down when her older sister, who has been attending university in Dublin, is brutally murdered. But when the Dublin police find no leads into identifying Alina's killer, this sheltered young woman from a small town in Georgia decides to take matters into her own hands. It's only weeks after the murder when Mac is able to retrieve a final disturbing message from Alina left on her cell phone:
“We’ve got to talk, Mac! There’s so much you don’t know. My God, you don’t even know what you are! There are so many things I should have told you, but I thought I could keep you out of it until things were safer for us. I’m going to try to make it home”—she broke off and laughed bitterly, a caustic sound totally unlike Alina—“but I don’t think he’ll let me out of the country. I’ll call you as soon—” More static. A gasp. “Oh, Mac, he’s coming!” Her voice dropped to an urgent whisper. “Listen to me! We’ve got to find the”—her next word sounded garbled or foreign, something like shi-sadu, I thought. “Everything depends on it. We can’t let them have it! We’ve got to get to it first! He’s been lying to me all along. I know what it is now and I know where—”
When Mac arrives in Dublin, she is horrified to realize that she can see creatures that no one else does, effectively looking beneath the glamour of the Fae and viewing the real monsters or beauties that they are. Mac is out of her depth and so grasps at the help offered by ostensible bookstore owner Jericho Barrons. Barrons is out to get the book Alina mentioned, the Sinsar Dubh, for his own purposes and he will use Mac to help him find it; whether or not she survives is secondary to him.
Mac is an interesting character, driven by love of her dead sister but tortured with (appropriately) self-doubt about her ability to deal with this crazy situation. She spends a little too much time worrying about her appearance for my taste, but that won't stop me from seeking out the next book in the series, Bloodfever. Additional reviews from Publishers Weekly, and from Booklist (reprinted below).
MacKayla "Mac" Lane is a small-town southern girl living a life of suntans and shopping. All that changes when her sister dies in Ireland and a cryptic message on Mac's cell phone raises disturbing questions about the nature of her sister's death. Mac follows the lead to Dublin and the strange life her sister led, on to the darkly dangerous book-dealer Jericho Barrons, and a burgeoning war with deadly Fae that humankind doesn't even realize has begun. Time-travel-romance maven Moning reshapes her Celtic lore for a radically different and engaging new dark fantasy series. Mac's first-person narrative is more than point of view; it's a true recounting of how a sheltered young girl grows to accept the role fate has dealt her. And while moments of sexual awareness hint that a relationship between Mac and Jericho could complicate matters in the future, wisely there is no full-blown romance here to distract from the complex introduction to Moning's new world. Nina Davis
Copyright © American Library Association.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Orphan Master's Son

 Holy cow was this a tough one. If it had not been a book for my book group, I am not sure I would have finished it. This novel by Adam Johnson, which won the 2013 Pulitzer for fiction, is an absolutely harrowing journey into the lives of people living in North Korea during the tenure of Kim Jong Il. The perspective is predominantly that of Jun Do (an allusion to John Doe?) who is raised in an orphanage run by his father. His journey through the crazy machinations of politics has him initially kidnapping people from Japan or S. Korea and returning them to N. Korea, being part of a mission to the United States to retrieve something the Dear Leader says was stolen from him, and  finally being put on a fishing boat to monitor radio communications from other countries. When Jun Do becomes part of a cover-up for a fellow crewman's defection, he eventually finds himself in one of the notorious mining prisons, from which people never return. But fate plays an ironic twist when he encounters General Ga, who has come to torture Jun Do but gets killed instead. Jun Do puts on his uniform and assumes Ga's identity. Everybody in authority knows he is not really Jun Do, but reality is what the Dear Leader says it is, and right now he has need for the continued existence of General Ga. So Jun Do, walks out of the prison, returns to the home and family of General Ga, and begins making plans for them all to escape. We also have a storyline from one of the official torturers who begins to see the insanity of the system but not in time to save himself or one of his colleagues.

     This is simply a nightmarish or, as The New York Times calls it, "Kafkaesque" existence where any accusation of disloyalty can end your life. It turns parents and children against one another, or colleague against colleague in order to secure one's own safety. Propaganda is ubiquitous and nobody is truly safe, however. As one character notes, “Where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”
Johnson based his story on actual testimony from N. Korean defectors, although he said he had to tone it down in places because the reality would be too shocking. Adam Johnson is also an English professor at Stanford University; there is a biography from Wikipedia here. Additional reviews from The Guardian, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and The Telegraph.

Eagle Catcher

Having recently read a later book (The Girl with Braided Hair) by Margaret Coel set on the Wind River Reservation, I wanted to go back and start the series from the beginning. This book introduces "two intelligent, compassionate sleuths: Father John O'Malley, S.J., a history scholar and recovering alcoholic, exiled to an Indian mission on the Great Plains, and Vicky Holden, an attorney who, after ten years in the outside world, has returned to the reservation to help her people" (from the author's website).
The opening event is the murder of the tribal chairman of the Arapahoes at Wind River, and the immediate suspect is his nephew, Anthony, who was heard arguing with him the previous evening. Vicky takes Anthony's case while she and Father O'Malley undertake to discover who the real killer is. The motivation for the crime involves the early history of the Arapahoes when land was taken from them, and their current efforts to buy back pieces of that land through the profits from their oil (mineral rights). Of course Vicky and John make themselves targets when they start digging into past and present crimes against the tribe. Once again, this is well-written, tightly plotted, and informative, providing insights into historical and present situations and issues facing the Arapaho people. I would not hesitate to read more in the series.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Girl with Braided Hair

One of the nicest kinds of surprise is when you discover an author, previously unknown to you, who pulls you into their stories, their characters, and their settings. Just by chance, going through the bag of "to be sold" books at my sister-in-law's house, I ran across this book by Margaret Coel. This is the 13th installment (of 16 total) in her series of mysteries based around the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming. The two protagonists are Vicky Holden, an Indian rights lawyer, and Father John O'Malley, pastor at the St. Francis mission on the reservation.
Father John is called in when the skeleton of a young woman is uncovered; she was apparently murdered in the early 1970's--a time when AIM was active and many of the AIM leaders sought to hide from their federal pursuers on the reservation. Vicky gets involved when a group of tribe elders (women) ask her to move the investigation along so the skeleton can be identified and given a proper burial.  Vickie knows that a 30+ year-old case is not only low priority for law enforcement, but also that people on the reservation will never talk to a white sheriff, so she agrees to help. Pooling their networks and information, Vicky and Father John identify the young woman as Liz Plenty Horses, who apparently had a baby with her just before being murdered. They both want the murderer brought to justice and it quickly becomes apparent that this person is not only still around, but is willing to kill again to keep from being found. Vicky is his initial target, but everyone she talks to also becomes vulnerable. Determined, they forge on and Father John is very nearly killed in the process. The culprit is finally caught, the now-grown daughter of Liz is found, and the dead woman is laid to rest on the reservation.
It is so exciting that there are lots more books in this series to read and I will definitely go back and start from the beginning with The Eagle Catcher, so I can watch these characters and their relationship develop. Oh boy! Coel has been compared to Tony Hillerman in a favorable way and, based on my initial contact, that seems warranted. Good writing and compelling plot line complement the well-developed characters and settings. Positive reviews here from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A Vision of Light

This first installment in the "Margaret of Ashbury" trilogy by Judith Merkle Riley is set in 14th C England, a time when women had no rights and, in fact, were considered less than men in their mental capacities. They were believed to be unable to think logically and it was a radical concept to consider learning to read for any but the most wealthy women. So imagine itinerant monk Brother Gregory's chagrin when the only work he can find is to write the life story of a merchant's wife. Margaret was born near the church of Ashbury and was married off to an elderly merchant when she was only 14. Her younger brother had been taken into the Church to be trained as a cleric; this was considered a stroke of real fortune for such a poor family. Only later does Margaret learn the real reasons behind that decision. But Margaret is physically and sexually abused in her marriage, and when the plague is decimating the population, the couple leave town to avoid contamination. However Margaret, who is pregnant, takes ill and her husband abandons her by the side of the road to die. When Margaret regains consciousness, we learn she has been saved by a mid-wife/ herbalist, Hilde. The baby died, however. Margaret agrees to learn the mid-wife's skills. Her near-death experience has brought her a gift, a vision of light, that allows her to see the life force in every being, to heal the sick, and to occasionally hear God. It is noteworthy that the author has chosen to give Margaret supernatural powers in a time when women had no temporal power.
Joining an acting troupe for a while, then settling finally in London, Margaret is able to start building a clientele of those needing herbal remedies or help with childbirth. When she is called to the bedside of a couple of wealthy patrons, however, jealousies are aroused and she is imprisoned for heresy. She escapes being burned at the stake only through the intervention of her brother, who is in service to the Priest heading the inquisition council. She is forbidden to practice her craft and one of her patients offers to marry her as a solution. The horrors of her earlier marriage make her reluctant, but Master Kendall, also a wealthy merchant, is not only kind and loving, but indulges Margaret's every whim, including agreeing to let her hire a copyist for her biography and to let her learn to read and write. Life seems finally to have smiled on Margaret until Kendall dies, and then a whole new set of problems arise. Again, marriage seems the only solution to having her house stolen out from under her. Certainly intriguing enough to want to read the rest of the trilogy!
Margaret is an admirable character and the historical setting is deftly rendered to create a vivid sense of time and place. Favorable review here from Kirkus.