Saturday, November 30, 2013

Notable Books Challenge to Close

The first post to the Notable Books Challenge blog was in August of 2007. Since that time, hundreds of reviews have been published here by many bloggers enthusiastic about the Notable Books lists, including The New York Times Most Notable.

But, 6.5 years is a long time and there have been a lot of changes and challenges in my life - especially over the last year or so. My energy for blogging has dipped - I no longer have the drive to administer multiple blogs and I no longer want the pressure to maintain this blog or the challenge.

Because I get the stats, I know there are readers still coming here and reading the reviews. It is a nice resource to readers to have this site...and so, the site will stay open (at least for awhile) and the reviews already posted will remain.

The site will be closed for new posts beginning January 1, 2014. What does that mean? Well, I will be removing all the authors from this site (except myself) beginning December 31st. 

I want to take a moment to thank everyone who has contributed to The Notable Books Challenge blog - your insights, reviews, and participation have helped it become a popular blog amongst literary readers. I hope you will choose to keep your reviews posted here, but if you choose to delete any reviews, that needs to happen before December 31st.

Thank you all!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

Dark places, inhabited by unstable, unpredictable characters.

The main character, Libby Day, is 31 at the opening, a bitter, angry young woman not given to trusting others. Or even having others in her life. She's always been a bit standoffish but events in her early life sent her down a road of manipulation and guardedness.

At the age of seven, in early 1985, Libby was in the house when she heard others being attacked. Although she did not see anything, she head enough to make her afraid. She managed to slip out of the house and hide in the nearby woody area. She heard her brother Ben calling for her a little later but remained hidden.

Her mother and two sisters were killed that night: her mother was knifed, then shot in the head, her sister Michelle was strangled in her bed, and her sister Debby was axed to death. Libby herself stayed out all night, made it to a gas station to call for help, and ultimately lost two toes and a finger to frostbite.

Ben was charged with the murder, and in part because of Libby's testimony, he was sent to prison for life. Libby grew up with her aunt, the subject of much attention from the press, and at age eighteen inherited a large amount of money from collections made for her. In her twenties she was persuaded to co-author a self-help book, a pop survival book, but she herself didn't believe much that was in it.

At age 31 she learns she is almost out of money. Getting a regular job just seems too much to her. She feels too tired and she doesn't get along well with others. So when the opportunity to earn a little money by talking to a group of "murder fans" comes along, she takes it. She meets this odd assortment in an old building, where they are split into interest groups - interest in various sensational murder cases. Her case draws interest because many people believe Ben to be innocent. They want to locate the real killer.

Eventually, although she is upset to find that everyone in the group believes Ben to be innocent and her to be complicit in his conviction, she comes up with a plan to get more money from them. She will talk to various key players in the episode, ask them questions that possibly only she can ask. And thus she sets off on a journey that takes on a life of its own.

The chapters alternate between 1985 and "now". Libby's chapters are in first-person, the others in third. Gradually we creep up on the actual night of the murders, inch by inch, through the experiences of Ben, Libby's mother Patty, and a few others, with breaks for Libby's current travels. The technique builds suspense to the point where I found it almost unbearable to go on. Or to not go on.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

I do like a book with an edge to it. And this one has more than its share of edges. 

Nick and Amy. Perfect couple. Perfectly in love. Except they aren't. Were they ever? On their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappears, leaving suspicious traces. Was she abducted? Was she murdered? Did she just leave? And what about Nick? He's hiding something.

The couple, living in Nick's home town in Missouri, share their stories in alternating chapters. When they talk of the same incident their takes are entirely different. Normally I prefer one narrator to two or three or four. In this case, the two-narrator setup seems to be ideal for the development of suspense and suspicion. We do get to know the two rather well. It doesn't matter than both are substantially flawed. They both experience some kind of change.

When Amy first disappears, the press and public are vocally in sympathy with Nick. Over time, though, as more information is revealed, this perception changes, and Nick desperately needs to bring it around again. Together with his twin sister Go (for Margo), he fights what each revelation suggests. And we wonder. Then we begin to learn more about Amy and the story shifts. Amy, who is the model for her parents' successful children's book series, Amazing Amy, has reason to be a little resentful now and then.

Highly addictive.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

I found this book, at times, difficult to read. But ultimately highly rewarding.

The story features fifteen-year-old Esch, living with her family in New Orleans, who discovers that she is pregnant. Her father, who drinks too much, doesn't have a lot to offer the family, other than the land held by his family over generations. Her older brother Randall is hoping for a career in basketball, hoping that he will be chosen to go to basketball camp this summer. He is a solid family member, helping with the younger members as needed. Junior is the youngest and mostly hangs around hitching rides on others' backs or riding a bicycle without a seat. The other primary character is Skeeter, a year younger than Esch, who has a dog, China.

Skeet enters China in dog fights. This is where the novel became difficult for me. I worried about the dog, who is pregnant at the beginning of the book, and I worried about the place dog fighting has in the story. I found a different kind of view of these dogs than the one we often hear about, the Michael Vick type story. We find that Skeet loves China, perhaps more than any other creature. This love is not inconsistent with the fighting that she does: pitbulls are known for their desire to please, which may be even stronger than that of other dogs. This is the real reason they make good fighters.

Of course I found it difficult, still, to think of these dogs facing horrible injuries and of the owners having few resources for helping them with their wounds. Skeet does an admirable job in this regard. But I could imagine there would be many instances when his skills would not be up to the task.

We follow this family through the days leading up to the day Hurricane Katrina hits. By the time it does its worst we know them. We understand why they did not leave their home. We understand why it would be so difficult to understand what a category 5 hurricane, particularly this one, would be so different from the hurricanes they have experienced in the past.

I found the book enlightening both in the way that it describes how a very poor southern family sees the world and in the details of living through Katrina. In all the coverage I read and saw of that hurricane I never before heard it described as it is here.

Monday, June 10, 2013

2013 ALA Notable Books


Díaz, Junot. “This is How You Lose Her.” Riverhead. Yunior, a smooth-talking Dominican, explores the complexity of love, fidelity and cultural identity in these inventive, uncompromising stories.
Edugyan, Esi. “Half-Blood Blues.” Picador. Two aging African-American musicians return to Berlin to find their friend, a jazz trumpeter arrested in Nazi-occupied France.
Eggers, Dave. “A Hologram for the King.” McSweeney's. In a nod to Godot, an American salesman is in Saudi Arabia to close a deal which may salvage his way of life.
Erdrich, Louise. “The Round House.” Harper. On the Ojibwe reservation, Oop hunts for his mother's attacker and learns that law does not always provide justice.
Ford, Richard. “Canada.” Ecco. The twin teenage children of once upstanding citizens who rob a bank are left to fend for themselves. The murders come later, in Saskatchewan.
Fountain, Ben. “Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.”  Ecco. Bravo Squad was caught live on camera in a firefight. Now temporarily stateside, they are being exploited in a hyped-up victory tour.
Heller, Peter. “The Dog Stars.” Knopf.  A man, his dog, his airplane and a will to survive in post-apocalyptic Colorado.
Johnson, Adam. “The Orphan Master's Son.” Random House. In a surreal sortie to a world of fabricated reality, Pak Jun Do is forced to become many people by the North Korean government.
Joyce, Rachel. “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.” Random House. Delivering a letter to a dying friend becomes a 500 mile journey of reflection and redemption.
Lam, Vincent. “The Headmaster's Wager.” Hogarth. What happens when you are blind to the realities of war? Percival, a Chinese expatriate in Vietnam, makes bad bets with tragic consequences.
Tropper, Jonathan. “One Last Thing Before I Go.” Dutton. No one can understand how Silver has made such a mess of his life. Can he fix it before the clock runs out?
Watkins, Claire Vaye. “Battleborn.” Riverhead. The aching beauty of Nevada from the mid-1800s to the present is depicted in these nuanced and elegant stories.


Boo, Katherine. “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.” Random House.Documents the lives of the slum dwellers of Annawadi, whose work as garbage pickers barely keeps them alive.
Cain, Susan. “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.” Crown. Compelling arguments for why we should turn down the volume.
Colby, Tanner. “Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America.” Viking. Answering a simple question uncovers the surprisingly complex roots of contemporary segregation.
Dyson, George. “Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe.” Knopf. The story of the eccentric personalities whose work in Los Alamos and Princeton initiated the modern era.
Egan, Timothy. “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.”Houghton Mifflin. Illuminates one man's quest to document and preserve the culture of indigenous American tribes.
Holt, Jim. “Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story.” W.W. Norton. Why something instead of nothing? 
Ingrassia, Paul. “Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars.” Simon & Schuster. From the Model T to the Prius, we are what we drive.
Iverson, Kristen. “Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats.” Crown. The personal story and public politics of life beside plutonium triggers.
King, Ross. “Leonardo and the Last Supper.” Walker. Think you know everything about da Vinci and his masterpiece? An enlightening and entertaining treatment of an iconic subject.
Murphy, Paul Thomas. “Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy.” Pegasus.Queen - 8, assassins - 0.
Roberts, Callum. “The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea.” Viking. Sail and swim through our threatened waters towards ideas for creating a sustainable future.
Winterson, Jeanette. “Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?” Grove. Religion, sex, class, libraries, politics, madness, art--the memoir of a young woman discovering the sanctuary of literature.


Alighieri, Dante. Trans. Mary Jo Bang. Illus. Henrik Drescher. “Inferno.” Graywolf. A rollicking, contemporary trip through the Underworld.
Olds, Sharon. “Stag's Leap.” Knopf. An arc of verses which touch the raw nerve of betrayal, lost love, forgiveness, healing and finding peace.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Red Door, by Charles Todd

A different kind of mystery, at least to me. Shortly after the end of WWI, Inspector Ian Rutledge is assigned two investigations: into a man who has been attacking people at night, and into the disappearance of a prominent citizen. He sets his own pace, however, not always showing up where he is expected to be.

The disappearance is of a former missionary, Walter Teller, followed his hospitalization for a mysterious illness. He apparently came out of the paralysis that siezed him and took off out of the hospital, sight-unseen. Teller and his brothers were "assigned" their vocations by their overbearing father, and while they complied with his wishes none of them found their careers satisfying. Some people suspect that Walter was reacting to a call from his church to return to the field, a return he clearly did not want to make.

But there is a wrinkle in the whole family story. A woman is found dead in another community, and it turns out her last name is Teller also, and that she married someone named Peter Teller, the same name as Walter's brother. Coincidence? After all, Peter already has a wife. IS this a relative or is it bigamy or what? This is the question Rutledge has to answer.

We get to know Rutledge in part through his work on these cases. We learn that he is suffering from "shell shock"and hears the voice of a former subordinate in his head. He has bad memories of how this person died and is careful not to let anyone know that he is talking to him. I found his investigative method a little odd. Perhaps I expected more of a standard procedure to be followed. Nonetheless, he followed his own instincts and got there in the end. It's as much a story about Rutledge as it is about the people he investigates. I am always on the side of stories that dig into characters like this.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Bury your Dead, by Louise Penny

Complexity! And lots of it!

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache (of the Surete) is pulled into a strange case while taking a leave of absence. An amateur archeologist, bent on discovering the grave site of the founder of Quebec, is found murdered in the basement of the Literary and Historical Library, an old and treasured library of books in English. The local police ask Gamache's informal assistance. Although he tries to stay out of it Gamache cannot help himself. His mind churns endlessly, searching for answers.

Meanwhile, he is haunted by memories of a recent confrontation with the kidnappers of a young subordinate. Bits of the final scene and the hours before it play in his mind like a tape, stopping and starting seemingly without his control. His broken memories gradually reveal to us the mistakes he made and the consequences of his actions, as well as those of others in command, until we finally get the full picture.

But that isn't all. A previous case has been kept alive in his mind as well. The partner of a convicted man remains unconvinced of the guilt of his friend. He writes a note to Gamache every day, asking "Why did he move the body?" When Gamache finally decides the case deserves another look, he sends Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir in to Quebec to investigate quietly, informally. Neither man is particularly convinced that they got the wrong guy, but Beauvoir is willing to do his best to find out.

These three cases run alternately through the book, to the setting of Quebec and particularly Old Quebec City. I did have to pay some attention to the description of this lovely city and to think about visiting myself some day. Or at least looking at it in Google Earth. For Ms. Penny seems determined to impart some of her own love of the city to the reader.

We learn, too, of the uneasy alliance between the French and English in Quebec, where the English are a decided minority. Although their fighting times are long over, memories seem to span generations.

An interesting introduction, for me, to Chief Inspector Gamache. I felt I got to know him a little in this long book, to know his heart, as well as that of his mentor and a few of his subordinates. The case of the dead archeologist turns out to take many different turns, while Gamache does a great deal of reading at the Lit and His and beyond. I am wondering how he behaves in more familiar stomping grounds now.