Bridge to Nowhere

Have you heard about Markus Zuzak’s new book Bridge of Clay?  You probably have because the whole world loved The Book Thief and have waited forever.  No really, it’s been thirteen years.  That’s the first red flag.

When I heard Mr. Zuzak was publishing a new book I was excited because I loved the writing of The Book Thief.  I thought the plot wasn’t that original or exciting but the style was awesome.  I also loved I Am the Messenger because the story was so off beat and interesting.  If we could have a book that married the amazing prose of The Book Thief with a charming plot like I Am the Messenger, we might have a contender for Favorite Book.

But it was not to be.  I read an interview on Goodreads where Zuzak said he had been trying to write this book since he was really young and he agonized over everything, making sure it was perfect.  Uh-oh.  Red Flag number two.  Something that personal does not usually translate.  Mostly it’ll resonate with, well, you.  Despite this reservation I gave it a shot.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.  I read about half of the book and I have no idea what we’re supposed to be getting from it.  We start out with five boisterous teenage boys taking care of themselves with a bunch of animals running around.  That was actually the part I liked.  They were interesting, I liked the way they interacted, each with his own unique personality.  Enter the deadbeat father who asks them if they’d like to come with him out to the middle of nowhere and build a bridge.  Um, okay.  So one of them decides it’d be a good idea to quit school and go to the middle of nowhere with a man he hardly knows to dig holes in the hot sun so they can put a bridge over a mostly dry river bed.  Um, okaaayyy…

Most of the 250 pages I read didn’t even have anything to do with Clay or his brothers.  It was all about their mother’s childhood behind the Iron Curtain and how she got to Australia and their father’s childhood and how he married one girl and then got divorced.  Why do I care?

I’m sorry, but you introduced a whole group of really interesting characters and then left them for half a book to talk about their parents’ pasts?  What does that have to do with anything?  Not to mention this is supposed to be a first person narrative.  The narrator is the oldest brother who isn’t seeing any of this first hand and yet writes like he has intimate knowledge.

To me, this book was a mess.  I think this is what happens when a story marinates too long in the writer’s head.  He gets too close and loses perspective.  Zuzak wanted to convey some awesome family saga with great points about healing and forgiveness but really it’s just a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing.

As much as it pains me to say it, I think Mr. Zuzak missed the mark this time.  I would give this one a wide berth.

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Book Reviews: Non-Fiction

Ok, another round-up of book reviews.  This time we turn to non-fiction.  I love a good true crime but I also love biography and memoir, so this is a bit of all three.  Enjoy.

Blood Lands Series by Harold Schechter

I thoroughly enjoyed these short works by Harold Schechter.  Each one focused on a lesser-known true crime story in American history and only took around an hour to read.  I especially liked the one about the family of murderers living across the prairie from Laura Ingalls Wilder.  It was aptly titled Little Slaughterhouse on the Prairie.  The other one I liked was The Pied Piper about a young man in the 1950’s who committed Manson-style murders by holding other young people in thrall.  I would suggest this series of short reads for anyone just getting into true crime.  They get in and get out and don’t have time to get dull and repetitive like so many I’ve abandoned over the years.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Before I traveled to Taiwan I felt that I needed to read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail alone.  It was well-written and quick and deeply poignant.  There’s something about solitude that really centers us.  One thing that stood out to me was the mental toughness it took to do something like that.  It wasn’t just physical.  It took a lot of “mind over matter” to get through it.  That idea of pushing through and overcoming really spoke to me.  I definitely suggest this one even if, like me, you have no intention of hiking anywhere, alone or otherwise.

In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson

I realized recently that while Frankenstein is a masterful work and is still relevant today, I knew very little about the woman who wrote it.  So I read In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson.  It was a little long but it kept me engaged throughout.  I think it’s amazing that Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was only nineteen.  People have mocked Shelley for being obsessed with death but death was all around her.  Her mother died at Mary’s birth, her half-sister committed suicide, her husband was killed in a boating accident, and only one of her four children lived to adulthood.  I think Mrs. Shelley can be forgiven for having a preoccupation with death.  Frankenstein is much more than a monster story.  It goes to the heart of what it means to be human and what happens when humans attempt to create life.  In Search of Mary Shelley is a good read and I recommend it for biography lovers.

The Dark Heart by Joakim Palmkvist

This is the best true crime I’ve read in awhile.  Set in Sweden, it follows the missing persons case of Goren Lundblad in 2012.  An interesting twist to the story was the role of Therese Tang, an investigator with non-profit organization Missing Persons Sweden.  Though not law enforcement, Therese blows the case wide open.  But the best thing about this one was the dramatization of scenes without straying into fiction.  I never thought Capote was successful in mashing up true crime and fiction in In Cold Blood.  This seemed to be much more fluid and engaging, without crossing any lines.  I recommend The Dark Heart for true crime buffs and anyone looking for a good whodunit.

That’s all for now.  Happy reading, y’all!

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

I just finished J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy about a kid growing up in Ohio, a grandchild of the hillbillies who made the trek from the hills of Kentucky after WWII in search of opportunity and the American Dream.  It was good to see the white working-class (lovingly called hillbillies) so well represented.  Mr. Vance is my age, early thirties, grew up poor and disadvantaged in the Rust Belt.  A lot of his experiences are extreme, and I grew up in an intact family with all the opportunity to achieve what I wanted, but his family members and some experiences seemed very familiar to me.  I have some nuts hanging from the family tree (thankfully they were not a large part of my formative years), but mostly what I recognized were the kids I went to school with.

The South has its own version of hillbillies called (lovingly or not depending on who you talk to) rednecks.  Rednecks come from the same Scots-Irish tradition as hillbillies and have the same honor code and are just as quick to fight.  It’s a deep and ingrained culture in the South and it makes no difference how much money you make or what subdivision you live in, a redneck will usually stay a redneck.  And be proud of it.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with tradition and sticking by your kin.  What’s wrong is being content with a rotten life because that’s what you’ve always known, and you can’t see a way out.  These are the points Mr. Vance makes in his book.  Government policies, more school funding, more welfare.  These are not the things that help disadvantaged kids in these areas.  It’s people who make the difference.  Mr. Vance had people, family members, teachers, friends, who made him see that there was something more than the misery of his current situation.

People need Jesus.  And not just as a get-into-heaven-free card.  They need the power of the Lord to breakdown those demonic barriers that keep people fighting and fleeing for generations.  It’s Satan’s most successful strategy in the modern Western world: keep families angry and hurt and resentful and vindictive.  Keep widening the criteria for victim-hood.  Keep preaching hate and divisive politics.  Mr. Vance makes the point that the government can’t save these communities with legislation.  The only way a culture will change is when the majority of its adherents finally say enough is enough.  It’s people who are going to make the difference and we as people need to recognize barriers that are keeping us apart and call on the Lord to pull down those strongholds.

Hillbilly Elegy really didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, because I live in the same kind of culture, but I think it can be a wake-up call to those who don’t.  I recommend it for a quick read that’s also thought-provoking.

Book Reviews: Historical Fiction

I realized recently that even though I’ve been reading a lot I’ve neglected to do any reviews on this blog.  I don’t normally read a lot of historical fiction but recently the thriller choices on Book of the Month have been lacking so I’ve been opting for something different.  So here are a few that I’ve devoured lately.  Enjoy.

The English Wife by Lauren Willig

This was a good starter for me because it still has a murder mystery at the heart of things.  It’s set in New York during the Gilded Age, which I love.  There’s murder, manners, and mistaken identity.  And a little bit of Shakespeare for good measure.  Though not the best I’ve read, I would recommend it for a light read.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

The next book that caught my eye was The Alice Network.  This one takes us into parallel time lines between WWI and WWII.  It delves into female roles during WWI in the real-life Alice Network, women who served as spies in occupied France.  It also looks at the female role just after WWII.  The world was changed and so were the women living in it.  Though Eve Gardner is driven by hate and revenge, she’s a captivating and sympathetic character.  Her old-age bitterness is tempered by the young woman who comes to her for help.  I greatly enjoyed this one and recommend it for WWI buffs and anyone interested in women’s roles though-out history.

The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams

I can’t thank Book of the Month enough for introducing me to Beatriz Williams.  I bought this one as an extra, not sure if it would suit, opting for my usual dark, gritty fare, but I’m really glad I took a chance on it.  Though a murder mystery plays a role in this novel, it’s not the main focus.  It focuses on the relationships and dynamics of a small island in Long Island Sound after WWII.  There’s love, romance, and heartbreak.  And again, a little Shakespeare.  But what really captivated me was the prose.  I’m a sucker for good prose and Ms. Williams is wonderful at using her words to evoke a time and place.  It goes beyond the slang of the time period and creates the atmosphere of Post-War New England a la the Kennedy family.  I was totally swept up and definitely recommend it for those who want an author whose diction is more than hum-drum.

A Certain Age by Beatriz Williams

I admit I was chasing the high of The Summer Wives when I immediately went to Amazon and ordered A Certain Age.  Beatriz Williams’ writing, a love triangle, and the Jazz Age.  I was sold.  Although I must say that I was somewhat disappointed.  It was a good story and the prose was on point, but I think it ran a little long.  I found myself wishing these people would just say what they meant for once.  And the murder mystery felt a bit unnecessary.  If you love the glitz and glamour of the 1920s, you’ll probably enjoy this one but otherwise you can give it a skip.

Until next time.  Happy reading!

Book Review: Into the Water

I got the new Paula Hawkins novel, Into the Water, thanks to Book of the Month extras.  Just like her debut, The Girl on the Train, I couldn’t put it down.

It’s a quick read and it looks longer than it is in hardback format.  The type is large and the chapters are short.  It moves back and forth between narrators with speed and skill.  I’m normally not a fan of that but Ms. Hawkins does it really well.  I do admit that it was a little confusing at first trying to place everyone into the narrative but I think that was part of the point.  This book really makes you lose your bearings, very much like the characters.

I enjoyed the tight family drama and the suspense.  It kept me reading and I’m sad it’s over.  That’s what a good book should do.  I definitely recommend Into the Water to lovers of grip-lit like myself but I also recommend it to anyone who likes a well-told story.

Book Review: Orange is the New Black

Having seen the series, I’m not sure why I wanted to read the book, Piper Kerman’s memior, Orange is the New Black, about her time spent in a Federal women’s prison.  I suppose I wanted the real story.  To say the Netflix series takes liberties is an understatement.  I enjoyed the first two seasons but all the backstories in the third became a bit tiresome.

I thoroughly enjoyed Kerman’s writing and you can tell this wasn’t ghost written.  That’s something I always appreciate.  She did her time in Danbury, Connecticut and she writes about it with surprising affection, though going to prison was a traumatic experience for her, as it would be for anyone.  Prison is degrading and humiliating but she writes about the women she met there with love and grace, giving them back some of the dignity the institution took away.  She also writes about the importance of having people in your life on the outside who make life worth living.  The letters, the visits, the books, all kept Piper going through a horrible experience.  That’s a lesson we can all learn without spending any time in the clink.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read.  In fact, I really enjoyed comparing it to the series and turning each page to see what crazy, funny, horrible, or happy thing was going to happen next.  I would recommend it if you’re a big fan of memoir like me.