Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Rodham


Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, RODHAM (Random House, 2020) is one of her best. In short, RODHAM is the alternative autobiography of Hillary Rodham Clinton—part roman Ă  clef, part fantasy novel for progressives and part lamentation for the Hillary that might have been had she not married Bill Clinton.

The novel begins with Hillary’s 1969 Wellesley graduation speech, with its impromptu opening a response to U.S. Senator Edward Brooke’s condescending remarks on political activism that he gave right before hers. This is a great beginning, for it illustrates the first public blaze of political acumen for which Hillary would later become renowned. In the fraught years following 1968, Hillary emerges as a reflective ally in civil rights issues and a conscientious workhorse in legal aid cases (and later as a professor and politician whose drive to help others is a major motivation for her decisions).

The first third of the novel covers her meeting Bill Clinton at Yale, law school, and eventually accompanying Clinton to Arkansas to teach at the Law School at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Some reviewers have cringed at the few somewhat explicit sex scenes between Bill and Hillary, but they comprise just one piece of the larger portrait Sittenfeld creates to illustrate the alluring “aura of Bill Clinton.” At the end of the day, her verdict appears to be that he is a brilliant, charming philanderer—and possibly predator—who churns out Arkansas folksiness to disarm others, and whose soft skills and ability to work a room are otherworldly.

The novel breaks from reality as Hillary drives out of Arkansas leaving Bill in the rearview mirror. From there, she pursues a successful career as a law professor at Northwestern, enjoys solid relationships with her best friend and her family in the suburbs (save her father, Hugh, who is mean and cruel to the women in his life), runs for the U.S. Senate against Carol Moseley Braun, and ultimately runs for president.

This novel is so enjoyable not because it excavates any new territory about the Hillary Clinton we currently know, but because it brilliantly imagines the Hillary that we wanted her to be. That’s a heavy burden for a living person to carry, of course, but for a novel, it is deliciously entertaining. Sittenfeld does give Hillary some foibles, but not many. Hillary admits few missteps in this novel and offers no regrets.

Sittenfeld made the bold choice to write in the first-person, and the voice she gives Hillary is relatable, crisp, sympathetic, and keen. This choice affords us a vantage point into Hillary’s imagined interior life that often makes us feel like we are reading a truly honest memoir.

RODHAM is captivating from beginning to end. It is a work of great imagination that is heartbreaking, compelling, and funny in equal turns. The subject of this book is obviously not for everyone. But Sittenfeld’s dynamic prose and gifted storytelling is engaging for every reader.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Hide Away


Buckle up and prepare yourself for the thrilling ride that is Jason Pinter’s new novel, HIDE AWAY (Thomas & Mercer, 2020).

This page-turner introduces a new character, Rachel Marin, a witty, resourceful and incisive mother of two whose strong sense of justice is the well-earned outcome of events in her recent past. Rachel’s vigilante tendencies, and her determination to keep the secrets of her past buried, provide for some dramatic entanglements with local detectives who are investigating the apparent murder of a once popular former mayor, Constance Wright.

This scenario sets in motion a complex and layered plot that has elements of police procedure, amateur detection, and even broad humor. At just over 400 pages, the book is rewarding because Pinter invests in every character, so much so that the ending is a juicy and satisfying payoff.

The story takes place in Ashby, Illinois, which is where Rachel moves with her children after experiencing some horrific events in her home state of Connecticut. From Pinter’s descriptions, Ashby feels like a city about the size of Rockford—small enough for people to be familiar with one another, but enough to accommodate a range of wily characters and shenanigans. It’s a place where one can be involved in day-to-day community events but also be anonymous. The city is important to the story.

For the first 200 pages or so, you’ll read and feel entertained and curious, you’ll keep turning the pages. You might fear that you’re approaching that saggy middle part of a novel—but you’re not, not in HIDE AWAY. The action heats up considerably (in fact, there are several action scenes in this book that are superbly written, not an easy feat!), and before long you think you’ve got it figured out. But I promise—you don’t!

The story unfolds more or less chronologically, but a few chapters shift back in time to help fill in background. I liked this approach because I didn’t have to remember everything about Rachel and her life before moving to Ashby.

I love a big crime novel with a meaty, satisfying ending, a reward for all the clue-finding and image-making you’ve done in your mind while living with the characters and their concerns. HIDE AWAY is as good a thriller as you’re likely to read in 2020. I recommend it!

FTC Disclosure: I chose an Advanced Reader's Copy of this book from an array of free books on offer at a major mystery convention.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Nothing More Dangerous


Bicentennial celebrations are on most Americans’ minds in 1976, but for the residents of small town Jessup, Missouri, it’s going to be a long hot summer in NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS, Allen Eskens’s bracing new novel (Mulholland, 2019).

Ah, Missouri. Despite its two major metropolitan areas, the state is profoundly rural, one of those “between” parts of the country that straddles the American heartland and whose people embrace sociocultural aspects of the west, the south and the midwest. This makes it a perfect setting for murder—and for exploring the web of relationships among the townspeople, and the oblique forms of racism, prejudice and sexism that perpetually bubble just below the surface and burst over at contentious moments.

Boady Sanden, fifteen years old, is the hero of the novel. He lives with his widowed mother and is the odd man out at the local private school; he dreams of the day he can escape Jessup for the big city. And then one day, the bookkeeper of the plastics factory—the town’s biggest employer—disappears with a bunch of money. This sets in motion a series of events that turns the town, but most importantly Boady’s life, upside down.

Charles Elgin, from the company’s headquarters in Minnesota, is dispatched to Missouri to oversee the plastics plant and find out what happened to the missing money. Charles, his wife, and his teenage son, Thomas, move in across the street from Boady and his mom and their neighbor, Hoke. The Elgins, though, are different from the other folks. They’re from cosmopolitan and progressive Minnesota, and they also happen to be black, in contrast to deeply white and rural Jessup.

Thomas and Boady develop a fast friendship that tests the historical yoke of in-group loyalty that the other Jessup teens have harnessed onto Boady. And, as cruel manifestations of prejudice by some white extremists in the town become progressively violent, Boady has to become more engaged in his hometown than he would have ever imagined, while mustering the gumption that is foreshadowed in the opening scene of the novel.

Allen Eskens has honed his skills in five previous novels (THE LIFE WE BURY) and in NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS, written a story so absorbing and characters so real that the payoffs feel much more substantial than they otherwise might in a nonseries novel. Eskens takes some risks for a crime novel. The book starts with a slow burn, and there’s no body until about page 139. Some of the surprising twists—and there are plenty—have less to do with the central crime itself, and much more to do with resolving multiple strands of tension and action that have built up over the course of the novel.

NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS is a coming-of-age novel in the best sense. Eskens vividly evokes the ethos of boyhood in the character of Boady, and he does it particularly well by plumbing the teenager’s hopes and fears: from Boady’s daydreaming to his plan for escaping Jessup, to his fears of what length a school bully would go to exact revenge. The novel is written in first-person singular, in Boady’s voice, which is not the easiest technique for this story even though it is clearly the correct choice.

There are a few places early in the book where it appears that Eskens will moralize or preach (given the heady thematic underpinnings of the plot, one could see why), but fortunately, he does not. Instead, Eskens sets the scene thoroughly and takes his time putting flesh on the characters. The payoff is that by the time the pace increases, the reader is totally invested in the characters. The last third of the novel is utterly propulsive, and I consumed the final hundred pages in a white heat of page turning.

A lot happens in the lives of Jessup, Missouri during the summer of ’76. Some things wonderful and some things folks would rather forget. “But memories aren’t like photographs; they can’t halt the passing of time. Instead, they lay like footsteps along a path, each determined by the step that came before and colored by the ones to follow” (pp. 243-244).

Monday, December 27, 2010

Nothing to Envy

The irony of the title of Barbara Demick's moving book, Nothing to Envy (Random House, 2010) is of course that North Korea--where children were taught a nationalist song "We Have Nothing to Envy in This World"--itself possesses nothing at all to envy, nothing to support the heady propaganda of the Socialist state in acute decline. What was once a jewel in the Socialist crown has steadily and rapidly fallen into a hellish manifestation of a ruling dynasty's eccentric, deadly desires--a regime ill equipped to deal with the fall of the Soviet Union and its attenuating ramifications for former patron states.

But Demick's book steers clear of political rhetoric in favor of vivid individualistic depictions of "real lives in North Korea." Her precise descriptions and renderings of North Korean families over a long period of time create a narrative momentum that grips the reader in an emotional and gut-wrenching pull. The recurring theme of North Korean lives from the early 1990s onward is the quest for basic food. Kim Jong Il's denial of the famine cost the lives and suffering of untold millions. A simple dish of white rice--once the basis of Kim Il Sung's Communist rule--by the 1990s under Kim Jong Il becomes an unfathomable luxury.

The dire conditions of ordinary North Koreans is one of the world's greatest tragedies, and I cannot imagine a more powerful book to bring the realities of this complex issue into the light. In 2009, Demick told The New Yorker: "Any glimpse of the outside world is corrosive to the regime’s hold over the population. When North Koreans watch soap operas, especially South Korean soap operas, and see ordinary people in kitchens with microwaves and gas stoves, refrigerators filled with food, they realize everything they’ve been told is untrue. They do have something to envy."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Holly Blues


It’s nice to be back in Pecan Springs, Texas after the previous China Bayles mystery, Wormwood, had China on adventure in Kentucky Shaker country. Susan Wittig Albert’s latest installment, Holly Blues (Berkley, 2010) begins with the mysterious arrival to Pecan Springs of Sally, Mike McQuaid’s ex-wife and Brian’s mother. Sally is not exactly China’s nemesis but she is a perpetual nuisance to China, McQuaid and her own sister. In the past she has proven to be a liar, a cheat, a squanderer and all around bad news.

No one’s quite sure why Sally has come to Pecan Springs just a few days before Christmas. Neither China or McQuaid, happily married for many volumes now, warm to her presence, though their realization that no matter what, Sally is still Brian’s mother, she should be treated with some respect despite how crazy her stories sound and the various sorts of trouble they expect her to bring. Indeed it’s not long before China learns Sally has lied to her about why she came to Pecan Springs from her home in Kansas City. And soon, they both learn Sally has a stalker who has followed her to Texas.

McQuaid, away on business in Omaha, leaves China to deal with Sally and all of the increased holiday traffic at the shop herb shop she owns with Ruby, her venerable sidekick whose back story in Holly Blues isn’t quite as deep as in other installments, but nonetheless flawlessly realized and imagined.

Sally inexplicably disappears just as she and China were worried about the stalker. Meanwhile, someone near and dear to all of them is found dead in a north Texas town. There are a few murders, all off scene, and another subplot involving the decades-old murder of Sally’s parents in Kansas, which McQuaid is persuaded by Sally to investigate since he is in nearby Nebraska. Albert uses a narrative technique she first employed in Nightshade (one of the best entries in the whole series) that gives events from McQuaid’s perspective, a break from the first-person China narrative. I thought the technique was used to even greater effect in Holly Blues because McQuaid was far removed from the happenings in Pecan Springs and so we could get his point of view on things while he was away, things that China could not have told us from her real-time first-person perspective.

Holly Blues is a solid, welcome installment in the unique and expertly crafted China Bayles series. Few are better than Albert at bringing the complex strands of a new mystery puzzle together with the comfort of the setting and characters we have grown to love.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Stirring Up Strife

Jennifer Stanley's Stirring Up Strife (St. Martin's Minotaur, 2010) is a well-plotted and well-written mystery that is as fun to read for the subplots as it is for the central "whodunit" puzzle. The premise is this: Cooper Lee, an unlikely female office machine repair technician, has a chance encounter with a client whose jammed copy machine Cooper is called in to repair. That client, Brooke Hughes, has an instant connection with Cooper and invites her to attend Bible study sessions at Hope Street Church. Cooper, feeling down and out after recently breaking up with her longtime boyfriend Drew and moving back in with her parents, could use a little light in her life, so she decides to visit Hope Street.

The Bible study is all aflutter when one of their beloved church members, Wesley Hughes, has been arrested for the murder of his wife, Brooke! Cooper and members of the Bible study, who know Wesley and cannot imagine him having committed the crime, set out to prove his innocence through old fashioned gumshoe detective work.

The strength of Stirring up Strife is in its strong plot, and while all of the characters have some relationship to it, we also feel they have their own lives. Stanley does an excellent job of balancing our introduction to these lives (such as Cooper's parents, various members of the Bible study group, etc.) and offering action and clues to solve the mystery. One of the best subplots is Cooper's second chance at love with a member of the Bible study group; we are cheering for her all the way. Stanley is also great at evoking the atmosphere of urban Richmond, Virginia, the setting for this series.

As many readers who are drawn to this book because of its church-ish theme could potentially be driven away by it. However, I can attest that Stanley does a really good job of balancing the faith/God/prayer themes without much syrupy sentimentality or even a drivel of preachy rhetoric. That is a much more difficult task to do than Stanley makes it seem. While the Bible quotations at the beginning of every chapter did seem to get a bit heavy at times (and the more orthodox among readers might object to their contextualization), I found myself always reading them and finding resonance in the chapter that followed. This is a rather bold move for commercial mass market fiction, but Stanley is up to the job.

My qualms with the book are minor but bear mentioning because I am seeing them as a trend in many cozies. I am of a personal mind that authors should stop writing "clucked" as a term of expressive action. I'm pretty sure people don't cluck, or even if they do it must be rarer than what we're reading in a lot of cozy mysteries these days (maybe the tsk tsk??). I'm also not a fan of characters who refer to their vehicles with made-up cutesy proper names based on the vehicles size and/or color (here there are two, "Cherry-O" and "Sweet Pea," and you can probably guess one is red and the other, yep, green). It kind of removed me from the story every time I came across those things, clucked and proper-named autos. I would also lose Quinton's hymn lyrics, which as printed in full within the text read like doggerel even though they would be appropriate set to the right music in a church environment.

These small annoyances, which may well be just my own hangups anyway, do not detract from this excellent first entry into the Hope Street Church Mystery Series. The solid and believable finish is as satisfying as what came before it, which is the mark of a good mystery. I will look forward to the next book, Path of the Wicked with anticipation.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Taking Chance

Taking Chance was a surprisingly moving film about what happens in the aftermath of war tragedy. Kevin Bacon portrays US Marine Lieutenant Corporal Michael Strobl, who has volunteered to accompany the remains of a young Marine killed in the Iraq war, Chance Phelps, back to Phelps's hometown in Wyoming.

What makes the emotions of this movie work is that it avoids the saccharine emotion-tugs prone to movies of its type; it is not of a piece, which is precisely what makes it work. Based on a true story, it is not a film that takes an evident "side" or makes moral judgments about the war itself, and so viewers' readings of it will certainly be wide and different. Bacon's steady performance is one of his best, perhaps since Murder in the First. And the film far outpaces its nearest recent comparison, the Woody Harrelson-helmed The Messenger, which somehow seemed more contrived than Taking Chance.

Taking Chance's concentration on the mechanical processes of the return of a war-dead soldier holds a magnifying glass to the heavy tolls that war, patriotism, responsibility, and duty exact on the individual who must bear them. Beyond the glare of star-spangled soldiery and military steel, there are the soft hearts of family and friends, and a nation that continues to ask itself, "Is it really worth it?"