Monday, December 31, 2012

La Verité

Have you ever read a book that was so interesting that, once you were done, you started over and read it again? I have read perhaps three books in my life that made me do this. Code Name Verity, a World War II espionage novel by Elizabeth Wein, is one of them.

Verity is the code name of a young British spy who has been captured by the Gestapo. (Her other aliases include Queenie, Scottie, Eva, and Katherine.)  After a week of torture, she’s broken and she is giving it all up: wireless codes, airfields, everything she knows.

Her captors give her paper and she begins to write, hoping to dribble information out slowly enough to delay her inevitable execution. What she writes makes up the first portion of this novel.

It is not so much a confession as a story - the story of Verity's friend, Maddie, a motorbike mechanic before the war who becomes a radio operator in the WAAFs. It was as a radio operator that Maddie met the girl called Queenie. Maddie, gallant and straightforward, learned to fly and and became a pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary. Queenie, with a gift for languages and for lying, was recruited into the Special Operations Executive, which conducted undercover espionage and sabotage operations. And they became solid friends. “It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend,” writes Verity.

The first time I read the Code Name Verity, I found it breathlessly suspenseful. We follow these two young women through their wartime careers, knowing that one of them is going to end up spilling her guts to the Gestapo. How did she get there? What happened to Maddie? What is going to happen to them? How long can Verity stay alive, trading time for secrets?

Then, after the book concludes with a head-snapping change of perspective, I started over.  This time I read it more slowly, puzzling out the clues, unraveling the mystery. Because this book is a mystery, one whose the end shows you that nothing is the way you thought it was when you started.

Look for the hints. Verity introduces her narrative by writing, “I am a coward. I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending.”

She is.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

Caren Gray, single mother and law-school drop-out, is the manager of Belle Vie, the historic Louisiana plantation where she grew up as the cook’s daughter. She accepted the position to provide a safe home for her own nine-year old daughter, but when a woman’s dead body is discovered on plantation land, and Caren finds blood on the sleeve of her daughter’s school uniform, all sense of safety flies out the window.

What did her daughter see, and why isn’t she telling? Are police suspicions of Caren’s staff justified? Why do the old slave quarters, preserved as part of the plantation tour, seem more haunted than ever? And how can Caren restrain her desire for her daughter’s father, who’s soon to remarry but who comes running when Caren needs help?

 This is a book of mysteries, both past and present, and of race and the shadow that slavery still casts. Caren, a black woman whose ancestors were held in slavery by the same white family for whom she now works, has a unique perspective, as do her employees, who daily re-enact a sanitized educational drama about plantation life for the benefit of schoolchildren. Belle Vie also abuts an active sugar-cane plantation which employs illegal immigrants, who live in conditions not all that different from Caren’s ancestors.

I enjoyed The Cutting Season, which dissolves any sense of Gone with the Wind-induced false nostalgia for plantation life, while evoking Caren’s love/hate relationship for her childhood home with all of its painful history. The many threads are handled well, but the haunted, lyrical, steamy tone of the piece contradicts the subject matter, and characters sometimes blatantly overreact to events to force the plot along. Three out of five stars, plus an extra half star for the uniqueness of the setting and the interesting point of view.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Poetry à Trois

The Newport Public Library is hosting a poetry reading on Sunday, January 6, at 1:00 p.m. Poets Sandra Ellston, Ruth F. Harrison, and Dorothy Blackcrow Mack will give readings from their latest works, debut volumes from Turnstone Books of Oregon. The three authors, who are all retired English professors and award-winning poets, are members of the Tuesday Writers.

Ruth F. Harrison is author of several volumes of poems. Her new work, "How Singular and Fine," is a substantial volume with poems in several established forms: the sonnet, villanelle, epic, ode, terza rima, and other lyric structures. Of these poems, Marjorie Power says they "show us a world both fresh and mysterious, like newly fallen snow when the sun breaks through."

Sandra Ellston is President of Writers on the Edge and a practitioner of t'ai chi. Her volume, "Poems Along the Way," consists of modern reworkings of ancient Chinese texts from the T'ang dynasty. These poems describe the joys and heartbreaks of life's journey and have been called calming and serene. Poet Matt Schumacher says that her book is a "Taoist treasure chest that frees fleeting flute notes and turtledoves thousands of years old, gives us pause under the 'study huts' of our ancestors, and braves the same mountain summits as the T'ang Dynasty's finest poets. A very old muse runs through these poems."

 Dorothy Black Crow Mack is President of the Coast Branch of Willamette Writers and is active in writing endeavors throughout Lincoln County. Her book, "Anuk-Ite': Double-Face Woman," honors "the elders who blessed her life on Pine Ridge Reservation. She writes for the 7th generation, the young ones coming, to share the stories." Her book is illustrated with personal portraits and images of life on the South Dakota reservation. Of Black Crow's poems, Oregon Poet Laureate Paulann Petersen says, "Black Crow has the wisdom and heart to do an ancient, ageless work: delving '. . . deep / to pull out all those designs / pricked in the night sky. . . ."

Each poet will read samples from her book and copies will be available for purchase at the event. This program is sponsored by Turnstone Books and the Newport Public Library. Admission is free and open to the public.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The yoke of inauspicious stars

 Books about kids with cancer are pretty high up on my list of things I don’t generally want to read. That does not mean I think cancer is an inappropriate topic for fiction. It’s just so sad.

So I didn’t read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green when it first came out earlier this year, even though it got rave reviews from everyone. As the months went by it continued to get great reviews, and people I knew and trusted continued to love it and to talk about how good it is. Finally I was intrigued enough by what I can only describe as an avalanche of good buzz, and I picked it up.

It is really, really good.

Hazel is an intelligent, witty 16-year-old girl, who is also a terminal cancer patient. Her tumors aren’t growing, but they’re not in remission, either. She and her parents know she may not have much time.

At a cancer support group, she meets Augustus, a very cute, equally smart boy. They swap favorite books. They discuss everything from video games to family pressures to the meaning of life and the afterlife. They become friends - the best of friends.

Because they have both confronted death, Hazel and Augustus are fearless about painful topics - indeed, they find that there are things they can only talk about with each other, topics that discomfort their healthier friends and family. And they eventually become more than friends, too:

Augustus Waters read to me while Mom, making lunch, listened in … As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once. 

The Fault in Our Stars is extremely sad. But it’s overflowing with joy, too; it made me cry, but sometimes with happiness. Hazel and Gus are clever, self-aware, hilarious observers of the absurdity as well as the tragedy of their situation. The writing is so good, what could be a heavy tear-jerker actually feels as light as air.

I’m so glad I read it at last.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Cold Kill by David Lawrence

 David Lawrence’s Cold Kill is the third Detective Stella Mooney mystery, published in 2005. A series of “thrill-kills” have filled the London tabloids with stories of dead young women who were attacked with no apparent motivation.

 D.S. Mooney’s on the case, and she has a likely suspect: a floppy-haired young man who was following one of the dead women and has confessed to her murder. A search of his flat reveals that he doesn’t just follow, he uses a zoom lens to take photos which he attaches to explicit and violent handwritten stories. And it wasn’t just the one woman, it’s an alphabet-full.

 But during questioning, the stalker is shaky on some of the details of the murder, and completely wrong about others. When DNA results come in, his doesn’t match the material found on the body. Mooney has to cut him loose, because he’s an “innocent” man. Or he was. Someone read about his confession in the newspapers. Someone was impressed. And now the stalker has a new friend, who’s really not fooling around.

The rest of the world keeps moving on in the midst of this high-stakes murder investigation. Mooney and her boyfriend are trying to figure out if it’s lust holding them together, or something more. She’s not sure if she can set the boundaries necessary in a relationship between a cop and a reporter, and he’s not sure he’s willing to follow them. Meanwhile, Mooney’s team struggles with their own issues, from ending affairs to being targeted by gangs of young burglars.

Lawrence has a literary style and a postmodern sensibility, where not everything gets tied up in a neat bow at the end. It’s not a cozy mystery, but it is a good one. I would suggest reading the series in order.

The dead sit round in a ring 
Nothing like the night
Cold kill
Down into darkness

Friday, December 14, 2012

The right note

I love books that take me to other worlds, be it the Middle Earth of Tolkien, the deep space of C.J. Cherryh, or the wide, unpopulated Wyoming of Craig Johnson.

Marcelo in the Real World is one of those books. Author Francisco Stork takes the reader into the world of Marcelo, a seventeen year old boy with Asperger Syndrome. Asperger Syndrome is on the high functioning end of the Autism Disorder Spectrum.

 Marcelo is comfortable with his life. He attends a special school and in the fall he’ll be starting his senior year. He's excited about his plan to spend the summer working with the school’s therapy horses. He has a doctor friend who likes to study him and he’s paid a small amount for allowing special tests on his brain.

Marcelo lives in a world where he is liked and understood; but suddenly everything changes. Marcelo's father tells him that he won't be going to the special school in the fall. He'll be going to a traditional high school instead. When Marcelo protests, his father insists that he needs to deal with the "real" world.

The two finally reach a compromise. Marcelo will work for his father for the summer and if he succeeds at his job, he'll be able to go to the school of his choice. Marcelo agrees unhappily, and girds himself to do the best he can.

All perhaps would be well if his job wasn't in a law firm. Marcelo is thrown into the shark tank of a highly successful legal partnership, where he is forced to deal with multiple distractions and people who aren’t what they seem.

 How Marcelo learns to cope with the “real” world is fascinating. His character is very likeable, and I was deeply engaged by his problems and the evolution of his understanding. I also admired the author’s beautiful control of voice and plot. Marcelo in the Real World is a compelling read.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A romance of the patriarch

Herman Wouk has written such epics as The Winds of War, and his new book, The Lawgiver, is about Moses. So you might think it would be a huge sweeping beast of a novel. In fact, The Lawgiver is a charming story, told on a small scale.

In The Lawgiver, an elderly author named Herman Wouk is struggling to write a novel about Moses. He is contacted by a filmmaker who wants him to make a Moses movie.  The venture capitalist who's bankrolling the film, an eccentric Jewish billionaire, has insisted that Wouk be involved.

Betty Sarah Wouk (referred to throughout the book as BSW), is the author's agent and wife.  She's skeptical, but Wouk is intrigued, and signs on as a consultant. They hire as screenwriter and director a young woman named Margo Solovei, a brilliant wunderkind who rebelled from her Hasidic upbringing to make movies. Margo knows her Book of Exodus, but can she turn it into a movie that’s relevant to modern audiences?

The novel tells the story of the making of this movie. It also shows how writing about Moses helps Margo resolve her conflict between her independent, questioning mind and the religion of her fathers. It is an epistolary novel, told entirely in emails, faxes, text messages, and Skype transcripts.

 A few criticisms:  Margo does not really come across as a 21st century professional woman - she says things like “horsefeathers” and “glory be;” but you know, her creator is 97 years old. The ending to the novel is also not very surprising.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this sweet-natured romantic comedy. The epilogue is sweet too, and sad. In it Wouk reveals that BSW died, at 90, while he was writing The Lawgiver. They had married in 1945. Betty Sarah Wouk is portrayed in the novel as an incisive critical thinker who suffered no fools. The Lawgiver can be read, in part, as a tribute from the author to his wife, and it is a lovely one.

 Herman Wouk has produced an engaging, funny, fast-paced trifle. I liked it very much; it also made me want to re-read some of his heftier fare, like the excellent The Caine Mutiny.

Monday, December 3, 2012

How long must we sing this song?

The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty is set in Northern Ireland, 1981. While Pope John Paul is recovering from an assassination attempt, Charles and Di are planning their wedding, and Spandau Ballet is topping the charts, men in a Belfast prison are starving themselves to death in protest against their treatment by British authorities.

It is one of the worst years of Ireland’s decades-long agony known as the Troubles. Northern Ireland is convulsed by bloody riots. Paramilitary groups are armed with automatic weapons and rocket-launchers. Incendiary devices kill civilians in restaurants. Sergeant Sean Duffy of the Ulster Royal Constabulary checks his car for bombs every morning.

Duffy is assigned a homicide: a young man was shot twice and his hand severed. At first Duffy assumes the man was killed by paramilitaries, perhaps in revenge for informing to the police. But the clues add up to something stranger, and when a second body is found, Duffy suspects Belfast has a serial killer.

The Cold Cold Ground is a gritty police procedural, at once grim and darkly funny. Duffy’s ability to investigate is constantly hampered by the partisan struggle; no one is willing to talk to a policeman for fear of reprisals, even when he’s investigating a murder.

The fact that the killer seems to be hunting homosexual men makes people even less interested in cooperating. Deeply conservative Northern Ireland is not worried about its gay men.

What I adored most about the book is how well it evokes the setting of a city tearing itself apart. McKinty, who was born in Carrickfergus, knows better than to simplify the conflict or to assign noble motives to any one side. He presents the Troubles in all their poisonous complexity: the Catholic Irish, the Church of Ireland Irish, the Presbyterian Irish, the Boston Irish; the police, the military, the various illegal paramilitaries; the Marxists, the Scots, the English. By making his Northern Irish cop a Catholic, he shows that none of these groups was monolithic.

The Cold Cold Ground is the first in a planned trilogy set during the Troubles. If you like grim, noirish mysteries, give it a try. The claustrophobic paranoia of Belfast in 1981 will stay with you.