11/20/14 “It is rather funny I think,” wrote Barbara Pym in 1939 of her novel-in-progress, Crampton Hodnet. The war prevented her from pursuing publishers, and after the war she felt the book was dated and turned her attention to another of her novels. As a result, Crampton Hodnet wasn’t published until 1985, among the last of her works to appear. Every now and then I re-read one of the thirteen novels of Pym, among my favorite novelists, a master of postwar English humor and ahead of her time in her views of male-female relationships.
11/10/2014 – BOOK REVIEW: GODS IN ALABAMA BY JOSHILYN JACKSON
Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson starts with a shock and ends with an even bigger shock. Set in the tiny town of Possett, Alabama, the story is a classic example of Southern Gothic literature, which includes works by Flannery O’Connor (the queen of Southern Gothic), William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Carson McCullers. You can tell a story is Southern Gothic by its preponderance of violence, weird characters, loners, ghosts, and other grotesque occurrences in any and all combinations. Jackson’s protagonist, Arlene Fleet, fulfills most of these requirements all by herself.
10/21/15 REVIEW OF M. L. DOYLE’S THE GENERAL’S AMBITION
Given lemons, make lemonade. M. L. Doyle is no longer a Late Last Night Books blogger, so I’m taking advantage of our loss by reviewing her latest book, something I couldn’t have done while she was one of us. Whether in or out of uniform, press corps Army Sergeant Lauren Harper faces the problems of today’s Every Woman as she is drawn into a murder investigation. Her direct superior in the press corps, now divorced and without his family, imposes his affections upon her. He wants to marry her, rather than to be her best friend. Lauren once longed for this but thought it could never be. But is she in love with him now? Or is she in love with a British front-line soldier never before willing to let a woman worry about whether he will or will not return from each of his missions?
8/10/2014 BOOK REVIEW: GUESTS ON EARTH BY LEE SMITH
Sanity and insanity are more closely linked than most people realize, particularly in the lives of artists. Why is creativity often accompanied by some degree of madness? And why are women, particularly in the past two centuries, more likely to be judged insane than men? With a captivating mixture of fictional characters and people who actually lived, Lee Smith explores these questions and others in her latest novel, Guests on Earth.
When I told my wife and some friends that I was finally going to take their advice and read one of Louise Penny’s Inspector Armand Gamache novels, they all told me the same thing: You must read them in order! So of course I started with No 2, A Fatal Grace, and then turned to The Beautiful Mystery, which is No. 8. Well, I’m here to tell you that despite what everyone tells you, you can read Penny’s novels out of order and still live to sing their praises.
But unless you’re also the ornery type like me, why would you? You’ll be doing yourself a favor to follow directions and start at the beginning with Still Life.
8/4/14 – THE JANE AUSTEN PERSUASION
When I told my adult daughters and son-in-law I’d be reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion for book club, all three pulled disgust faces. “Why?” groaned my older daughter, a Harvard graduate. “I couldn’t even finish Pride and Prejudice,” said my son-in-law, who had reveled in Plato and Cervantes and the rest of St. John’s Great Books curriculum. My younger daughter, another product of a Great Books curriculum, recalled that Harold Bloom had a reputation for droning on about Persuasion for reasons she was unable to fathom.
Lynn Darling spent her life losing her way. She used to love the adventure, but by the time she’s into her fifties, a widow of ten years with her daughter off to college, getting lost has lost its allure. In order to find her way, both practically and metaphorically, Darling runs away to the Vermont woods only to find more ways to be lost.
THE SUBJECTIVITY OF READING: HOW DO YOUR FAVORITE BOOKS FARE ON AMAZON?
I noticed recently that one of my favorite books, Anita Brookner’s Booker Prize-winning Hotel Du Lac, averages only 3.7 stars with 82 Amazon reviewers. Not a terrible rating, but surprisingly low to me since I love the book. Amazon features this sentence, quoted from one of the reviews: “The main character was dull and not very likeable, but that may have been the point.” Amazon adds, “10 reviewers made similar comments.”
7/10/14—A REVIEW OF THIS BRIGHT RIVER BY PATRICK SOMERVILLE
Sometimes a novel is interesting because of its story. Sometimes because of its characters. And sometimes because of the author’s writing techniques. I started reading This Bright River by Patrick Somerville expecting to be enticed by the novel’s story. I had read Somerville’s previous novel, The Cradle, a few years ago and liked the story about expectant parents’ search for the mother’s childhood cradle, an effort that brings them much more than a cradle. From the beginning, however, This Bright River is different and much darker.
7/7/2014 — WHY YOU SHOULD REREAD ANNA KARENINA — AT LEAST ONCE A DECADE
I have a confession to make. I don’t read long books—not even after e-books eliminated two of my complaints (hard to hold in bed and painful if dropped on a toe). The problem is that too many long books just aren’t worth the investment of time, often because of authors who don’t know what to leave out or editors too submissive to cut. I did try to read The Goldfinch to see what the fuss was about, but the laborious writing and the abuse of the semicolon (my favorite mark of punctuation) led me to give up after five pages.
Of course there are exceptions to my big book phobia—beginning with almost everything Tolstoy and Dickens wrote. And it’s one of those exceptions that I want to talk about today. I want to urge you to reread Anna Karenina at least once a decade. And if you’re a writer, make that a requirement, not a suggestion.
Ever since she sat beside me in 11th grade English class, I suspected that Judith Frank had something to tell the world – and the writing chops to tell it. Over the years Judy confirmed my suspicions repeatedly, winning prizes for her poignant poetry even back in high school and going on to become an author of both scholarly works and prize-winning fiction. If I had any lingering doubt, her new novel All I Love and Know, has shattered it.
Afraid my Kindle might run out of juice, I wanted a small book for backup for a recent flight and, because I wanted something light to carry, grabbed off my bookshelves the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I’d read it at least three times over the years and thought I might be bored. Think again. Capote amazed me.
There’s something special about discovering a young author who’s really good. You can savor that first book while looking forward to the next, knowing that chances are, each succeeding work will be even better than the last. So imagine the kick of discovering an impressive author who’s only sixteen. Remember Me, a young adult coming of age novel written in verse, was published last month by Bold Stroke Books. The author, Melanie Batchelor, is a high school junior, who actually penned the novel when she was fourteen.
6/4/14 – MAKING TIME FOR SERENDIPITY
Inexplicably, I found A.S.A. Harrison’s novel The Silent Wife, on my nightstand. Where did this book come from? Did my mother leave it for me? Did I buy it for a book club meeting I couldn’t attend and abandon it? I had no clue, but I picked it up and started reading.
5-23-2014 A REVIEW OF CHRISTINE TRENT’S STOLEN REMAINS: A LADY OF ASHES MYSTERY
A lady undertaker, a summons from Queen Victoria, a questionable death, a grieving housekeeper, arguing relatives, a body gone missing. In this second of the Lady of Ashes mysteries, when Queen Victoria summons her, Mrs. Violet Harper can’t refuse. She leaves her ill mother, her harried father, and her beloved second husband on their own while she rushes to London to tend to a dead viscount whose burial must be delayed until the Queen gives permission. The Queen trusts Violet’s discretion because she was so very kind and helpful when Prince Albert died.
At Three Editors Journal I read the excerpt below from Dave Barry’s The Complete Guide to Guys, immediately went to Amazon, read more, and bought the book. Here’s the excerpt from the Journal:
Let’s say a guy named Fred is attracted to a woman named Martha. He asks her out to a movie; she accepts; they have a pretty good time. A few nights later he asks her out to dinner, and again they enjoy themselves. They continue to see each other regularly, and after a while neither one of them is seeing anybody else.
And then, one evening when they’re driving home, a thought occurs to Martha, and, without really thinking, she says it aloud: “Do you realize that, as of tonight, we’ve been seeing each other for exactly six months?”
5/7/14 — KERRY PERESTA’S THE HUNTING: HOW A GUY LEARNED TO LOVE CHICK LIT
When Pen-L Publishing offered a contract for my first novel, I went into high research mode, ordering a bunch of their books to see what they were like. I needed to know whether the books were well edited, well designed, and professionally produced. I also wanted to find out whether Pen-L’s stable of authors was any good; after all, I had a little of that natural insecurity, wondering how good could the company be if they wanted me.
4/20/14 INTERVIEW WITH JOHN O’HERN, COMEDIAN, PLAYWRIGHT, AND AUTHOR OF THE LAUGH-OUT-LOUD FUNNY NOVEL SWEETSPOT, CONFESSIONS OF A GOLFAHOLIC
The International Network of Golf named Sweetspot its 2013 Outstanding Achiever, and the New England Golf Monthly said, “If you’re crazy about golf or you’re a golf widow, then you have to put the book Sweetspot, Confessions of a Golfaholic by John O’Hern on your must-read list.” Or if you just plain like to laugh, I say.
With more than a million books published each year in the United States alone, it’s all too easy to overlook a wonderful author. Don’t do that to Margaret Meyers, whose new story collection, Dislocation, has just been published by Entasis Press.
Meyers’s multilayered stories are charming, insightful, and significant, with writing that’s filled with wit and humor. There’s no better way to capture the power of her prose than to quote it. Consider the opening of Doing Good:
“As the young black woman climbs into the front passenger seat of the VW Bug, Delia, crosslegged in the back, notes that her mother’s ears are still ripe-tomato red. Her mother speaks to the young woman in her calm, warm, Sunday-morning voice but those ears, generally very pale with tiny gold freckles, tell Delia that her mother is very far from calm.”
3/7/14 – IS THERE STILL A ROLE FOR THE NEGATIVE BOOK REVIEW?
The world of the book review is getting mighty hard to navigate. With more and more publications tightening their belts, eliminating book supplements, and pink slipping reviewers, serious literary criticism (think James Wood in the New Yorker or Dwight Garner in The New York Times) has become a very rare commodity. At the same time, online book review sites of widely varying quality are proliferating, with new ones popping up every day.
3/4/14 – REVIEW: THE DEATH LOTTERY BY GERALD M. WEINBERG
Full disclosure: I love books about serial killers. So I was destined to love The Death Lottery, Gerald M. Weinberg’s new novel about a serial killer randomly terrorizing Manhattan and a team of math geniuses determined to find a method to the madness.
Time and fortune happen to everyone. Before my other half, Todd, read Garry Craig Powell’s Stoning the Devil, I told Todd that when he finished I would want him to tell me if he could see any difference between Stoning the Devil and the novels on the New York Times notable books lists over the years. Because I can’t see any difference, in quality of writing or in the relevance and significance of topic.
2/10/14 BOOK REVIEW: COBALT BLUE BY PEGGY PAYNE
Cobalt Blue is a novel about sex, and then it’s not. If you’re looking for steamy sex scenes, you’ll find them here, but you’ll also find much more in the struggles of Andie Branson, a 38-year-old artist who is suddenly caught up in a puzzling chaos of inspiration and desire. Frustrated that her career is floundering (her most recent job includes the lowly work of napkin design), Andie’s interest in creating art is waning, so she’s surprised when an unexpected surge of pleasure grows into an urgent passion to paint. And so the journey begins.