Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Need relief from the Dog Days? 5 great end of summer reads

When a child is endangered, who’s the first person everyone looks at if not the mother? She’s the first one to take the blame and most of the time, she’s blaming herself more than anyone else could, whether it’s warranted or not. But what if as the mother the harm done isn’t to your own child, but to a friend’s child who was given into your care? And the harm is the direct result of your negligence, because as the result of your overwhelmingly busy, stressed out life, the one with the schedule from hell, you dropped the ball, failed to check up on, to follow through on the whereabouts of this child, and now, she’s missing? That’s the set-up, the trigger that ignites this riveting domestic thriller. It’s a story that begins with ordinary life and ordinary people who within the space of a day, of mere hours, find themselves under scrutiny from the police and the media, their friends and neighbors. This situation could happen so easily to anyone, really. How would you feel? That’s the question. What would you do? In her debut novel, JUST WHAT KIND OF MOTHER ARE YOU, Paula Daly, renders a compelling portrait of a mother whose life takes the darkest detour imaginable. But character is the real strength of this novel. Each one is vividly alive and breathing right off the page, and the suspense builds with perfect rhythm until the last explosive page. And the ending is a shocker.

Almost everyone can relate to the idea that life is a journey, but not everyone is so gifted with the use of language that they can render their journey, or any portion of it, with such eloquence and courage as Cheryl Strayed. This is a memoir that makes the genre worth reading. It is a story that can be life altering in the way that one person’s life, and the experience they’ve had when it is arduous and difficult and fraught with obstacles, not the least of which are one’s own flaws, can go beyond the words written on the page, as beautiful and eloquent as they are, and reach into another person’s soul, there to ignite a similar fire, a similar will to be brave, to persist. The story Cheryl tells is vivid and compelling and raw in its truth, and that is the beauty of it. Throughout her narrative, there are moments that are breathtaking and other moments that are heartbreaking, and some that are simply so comic, you laugh aloud, but throughout, the sense of her will and her determination, her honesty and bravery ring through every syllable just as these very same qualities, despite the missteps, must be the ones that brought her through the difficult times and places in her life. This is a memoir that will stay with you. It is at once a treasure to mine and an inspiration to hold onto.

First, I have to say I read an advance uncorrected proof of THE MOURNING HOURS by Paula Treick DeBoard that was sent to me by my publisher, MIRA, but just to clarify, I wasn’t asked to do a review, and in fact, had I not loved this book, I wouldn’t have bothered. It’s that whole thing—you know, if you can’t say something nice, etc…. But what I can surely say about this novel is that it was a nonstop thrill to read. The situation is calamitous. A high scho
ol kid, an athlete on the fast track to a college scholarship, an all around great guy with a bright future, is implicated when a girl he’s dating disappears on a snowy night in Wisconsin. This isn’t the typical suspense novel, some police procedural, no. It’s a heartrending story about a family that is suddenly, illogically and brutally broken apart by a single tragic event, and the incredible suspicion that explodes in its aftermath, tainting the entire family. Long-held loyalties shatter. Trust is gone. And the future that once seemed solid and sure is, within days, wholly brought into doubt. That this fast-paced, tautly written page-turner is told through the eyes of a nine-year-old narrator, the sister of the accused, only makes it more poignant when she’s forced to make choices and to evaluate circumstances that are beyond her understanding. It’s not until she returns as an adult to her childhood home that she begins to understand the mystery of what really happened on that long ago snowy night. It’s not at all what she thought, and the end, when it comes is shocking and nothing at all like what she might have predicted.

At the heart of this story are two brothers, and the complex nature of their relationship is revealed
through their response to a shocking incident, perpetrated by their teenage nephew, their sister’s kid, the loner who’s so awkward and shy, he barely makes a blip on the radar screen. Now this kid’s in trouble, and the Burgess boys, both lawyers, are summoned by their sister to the rescue. That’s the scaffolding, the ribs so to speak, where this story hangs, but it is so much more and all of it rendered in the inimitable style that Elizabeth Strout is known for. From nothing more than words, she creates a wonderfully gorgeous and accurate cast of characters and sets them into situations that are vividly real and poignant, managing to make them accessible even when you don’t like them or their opinions much. But the really riveting core of this novel, at least for me, was in how she took a fairly ordinary family, albeit one that suffered an enormous and shocking tragedy early on, and a current situation, fraught with racial tension, one that had all the earmarks of becoming a national incident, and reflected though these circumstances the similarities that lie between individuals, whether in families, or political parties, or communities or nations. We are all the same, all human. For my money, having read all of Ms. Strout’s books, I like this one best.

People always seem to speak of our current time in history as the worst the world has seen, but consider 1918. Not only was the world embroiled in a brutal war that was killing thousands, but lives were also being lost to the Spanish flu, an outbreak so huge and widespread it was labeled a pandemic. People wore gauze masks. They chewed cloves of garlic and hung them from their necks, and they died like flies anyway. The fear and grief that was spawned as a result, that must have hung in the air like a shroud, gave rise to a near frenzied interest in spiritualism, in ghosts, in ways to talk to the ones we love who have passed. It must have seemed that Armageddon had come. I felt that it had from the very first page of Cat Winter’s beautifully written, eerily atmospheric debut novel, IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS. The story is categorized variously as horror and paranormal, and the reading audience is YA. But that seems too limiting for this novel’s sweep. It has an almost “ripped from the headlines” kind of feel to it as if it could be happening now, and all of it were true. It’s a riveting read, and not just for kids, either. There’s so much wisdom in the words, in the story that’s developed on several levels. There’s a lot to ponder. One of the lessons that seems clear, at least to me, is how indomitable the human spirit is. It comes through the wonderfully drawn main character, Mary Shelley. This is a novel that teaches about a long ago time in history, that has lessons for today. And the photographs that are included with the story are compelling and chilling, like iced frosting on an already scrumptious cake.