Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The Gall of It - and March's Reading List

Let the record show that March 2014 was a crummy month for me and many people close to me, and I am glad to see the end of it. (I did manage to salvage the very end of it with a viewing of Muppets Most Wanted in good company.)

Sometime between now and the end of April I will be bidding farewell to my gallbladder, which has become clogged with stones and is interfering with both my liver and my spleen. The medieval attribution of bad temper to those organs is justified; I am uncomfortable and irritable and generally unpleasant to be around right now. You may think it's funny to remark that you notice no difference in my usual demeanor. You may even be correct about this, but please notice that I'm not laughing.

Anyway, I read quite a lot in March. About half of it was work-related and therefore confidential, but here's the list for public consumption.

What I Read in March

Elmore Leonard, RUM PUNCH. I reread this for a book club discussion on Fairfax Public Access Radio at the beginning of the month. I'd thought I remembered it pretty well, but realized that I was remembering the movie Jackie Brown, not the book it was based on. The book is sharper and more violent than the movie, and the central character is not Jackie but Max Forster, the bail bondsman played by Robert Forster in the movie. I hadn't realized that RUM PUNCH itself was a sequel to THE SWITCH, which I haven't read. Anyway, RUM PUNCH is a great novel about midlife and how we decide where to make our stands, as well as being a highly entertaining caper novel.

Alma Katsu, THE TAKER. Alma was the guest author on the radio show I participated in; I'd met her a few years ago at the Virginia Festival of the Book, but am embarrassed that I didn't get around to reading her first novel until now. It's a great historical fantasy romantic epic, in the tradition of Interview with the Vampire and Outlander. Lanore's passion for the young man she can't have drives her from colonial Maine to Boston, and into the arms of the dangerous Adair, who is not what he seems to be. I'm looking forward to reading the next two books in the series.

Lawrence Block, THE BURGLAR WHO COUNTED THE SPOONS. You cannot go wrong with a book about Bernie Rhodenbarr, bookseller and semi-reformed burglar. The latest in the series works on a couple of levels; as a classic whodunit in the tradition of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe (an influence the book openly acknowledges) and as metafiction about the business of bookselling. The theft of a Colonial American spoon turns out to be related to the death of an elderly socialite, but it's much too complicated to explain here, and I'd be depriving you of the fun of reading the book.

Serena Mackesy, HOLD MY HAND. Bridget Sweeny, fleeing her abusive ex-husband, takes a position as housekeeper for a vacation rental property in a remote part of Cornwall. The townspeople warn her about the house, but no one tells her why. Odd things start happening, and Bridget's daughter Yasmin makes a new invisible friend as the house's history forces itself inexorably into the present. Great reading for a blustery winter's night; I do love a good ghost story.

Donna Johnson, HOLY GHOST GIRL. Superagent and eminence grise Dan Conaway, who represents Donna, thought I'd love this book, and he was right. Donna Johnson's mother ran away to join a tent revival when Donna and her brother were tiny, and the children spent their formative years traveling with Brother David Terrell and his followers. As the years passed, Donna came to understand that Brother Terrell was not only her mother's pastor but her lover — and eventually the father of two of her sisters. He thoroughly enjoyed the material benefits of his ministry, and ultimately served time in federal prison for tax fraud. But — and this is what makes this book so compelling — he was also, as far as Donna could tell, a man of great and genuine faith who appeared, at times, to carry miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit to his followers. Donna bears witness to all of this, with an awe-inspiring compassion.

Jo Wood, IT'S ONLY ROCK AND ROLL. I admit I bought this because it was a Kindle Daily Deal, and I needed something mindless. Jo Karslake was a 22-year-old model when she hooked up with Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, and the two were all but inseparable for 30 years until he finally left her for a teenager. The book reads like a book-length People magazine feature, which is not a criticism; it was exactly what I wanted, but weeks later I can barely remember anything about it. I did finish it with the conviction that no one in their right mind would want to be a Rolling Stones' wife or girlfriend.

Declan Hughes, ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE. It's been much too long since we had a new novel from Declan Hughes, and this book won't be out in the US until the summer. You should pick it up, once it's out. It's a standalone, a novel of domestic suspense that taps into the deepest fears of midlife: that we're wrong about everything, from the plans we've made to the people we love and even what we thought we knew about ourselves. Claire Taylor comes home after a week away to discover that her husband, children and belongings are gone, and the family dog is dead in the yard. A day later, a man's dead body is found in the yard, and Claire's husband Danny is the prime suspect.

Gavin Edwards, LAST NIGHT AT THE VIPER ROOM. Halloween is central to the plot of ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE, and it's the heart of this book as well, a nonfiction look at the short life and terrible death of River Phoenix. It's strange to think that was already 20 years ago. The Los Angeles Edwards describes had already changed by the time I got there in 1999, and it's obviously changed even more now; some of it lingers, though, and some of it will repeat itself as long the entertainment industry exists. Edwards places no blame, but shows us River Phoenix as a young man in an environment he had no tools to manage. After reading this book, I want to watch the movie Dogfight, which Phoenix made with Lili Taylor in 1991.

Spencer Quinn, THE DOG WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. I recommend the Chet the Dog books for whenever you're alone and doped up in a hospital emergency room; this is the fourth in the series. Chet, the narrator, is so cheerful and pure of heart that even when things go bad, there's always the possibility of a treat, a game of fetch or a good patting. Chet and his human partner, Bernie, take a job as bodyguard for a single mother who's not telling them her whole story, but wind up hunting for her young son when he goes missing. Late in the book we meet (briefly) a young dog who might turn out to be connected to Chet, so now I have to track down books five and six to find out who this puppy is. Until I can get another dog of my own, Chet and his friends are a happy substitute.

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