Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Feed A Cold, Starve A Fever

The Fever
by Megan Abbott

4 out of 5 tattooed French teachers would read this book.

(I received an ARC from NetGalley for this review.)

The whole time I was reading this I had to fight the urge to walk around imitating Christopher Walken from that famous Saturday Night Live skit.  “I got a FEVER and the only prescription is more Megan Abbott!”

Sorry.  I had to get that out of my system….

Deenie Nash is a pretty typical American teenage girl.  She lives with her school teacher father Tom and her brother Eli.  After her best friend Lise has a seizure in class followed by more girls becoming violently  ill, a wave of hysteria rises which makes all of them examine what they thought they knew about the people around them.

Megan Abbott showed her impressive noir chops in great books like The Song Is You and Queenpin, and in her more recent work (Dare Me) she’s been illustrating how the inner lives and social circles of teenage girls can be a darker and scarier topic than mob-owned night clubs or the seamier  side of Hollywood.   She’s outdone herself in The Fever by starting with a simple premise of a mysterious illness causing panic, and then using it to touch the variety of things that would come up in any teenage girl’s life.  When Deenie is jealous of her friend Gabbie’s  new relationship with the odd Skye or struggling to understand her adolescent sexual urges or angry at her mother for leaving her father it makes adult reader remember the confused emotionality that goes along with teenagers.

What impressed me even more than her ability to put us inside the head of a teenage girl was how Ms. Abbott also nails the male side of the equation.  Tom is a single dad trying to do his best for his kids but still constantly feels like he’s failing them in one way or another.  Eli is a handsome hockey star who is bewildered by the attention he gets from girls, but that doesn’t stop him from occasionally hooking up with one of them.  Tom and Eli often regard Deenie and her friends as mysterious creatures best observed from some distance.

Another terrific aspect is how authentic the reaction of the community is portrayed. Parents embracing conspiracy theories based on no evidence and pointing fingers at school administrators and government health workers is exactly the kind of irrational and panic-stricken total bat-shit freak-out that would occur.

Mystery illness, paranoia, teenage angst, high school politics, sex, divorce, environmental issues, social media gossip……  This book has something for everyone and proves once again that if you aren’t reading Megan Abbott, you should be.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Playing Spoons With Bernie Rhodenbarr

The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons
by Lawrence Block

4 out of 5 collectible buttons

OK, now I get it.

Despite being a huge fan of Lawrence Block, his series featuring professional thief and book store owner Bernie Rhodenbarr never tripped my trigger like most of his other stuff does. A few years back after reading Burglars Can’t Be Choosers, I thought I had finally pinned down why.  Unlike Block’s other regular characters, Bernie’s books aren’t really about his chosen profession.  Matt Scudder is a detective who does a lot of detecting, and John Keller is a hired killer who kills a whole bunch of people, but the main point to Bernie’s stories were not that he burgles.  Instead, he’s a burglar who usually ends up playing amateur sleuth due to circumstances brought about by his breaking and entering.  (It didn’t help that I was comparing Bernie to Donald Westlake’s comedic series about luckless thief John Dortmunder whose exploits are all about coming up with creative plans to steal stuff.)

However, while reading this I found myself completely charmed by Bernie and his adventures in breaking and entering as well as trying to solve a mystery so I think that by realizing what had irked me about the series in the past, I was finally able to just relax and enjoy Block showing a lighter comedic touch on a more whimsical character rather than nitpicking the story for what it isn’t.

What I ended up liking the most was the similarity that Bernie shares with Block’s other creations in that he has  a lot of quirky conversations with a variety of people.  The historical tidbits learned from an eccentric collector who hires Bernie to steal a couple of items he can’t get his hands on legally were interesting and might come in handy during a game of trivial pursuit.  I’d cheerfully read a book that was nothing but the oddball conversations that Bernie has with his best friend Carolyn over lunches and drinks that may start out being about his latest job but frequently go off into different directions that involve jokes, random observations, idle musings and general goofing around.

We also get Bernie’s complaints and observations about running a book store in the age of the Kindle as well as a few shout outs to crime writers like Ed McBain and Michael Connelly.  Then there’s an overall plot that involves a couple of burglary schemes and Bernie being asked by a cop to lend his expertise to a crime scene involving a burglary and potential homicide.  Put all this together and you get a book that provide more than a few laughs that also gives the reader some things to puzzle out.

You weren’t the problem, Bernie.  It was me all along.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Monday, January 20, 2014

They Blew The Roof Off The Joint....

The Maid's Version
by Daniel Woodrell

4 out 5 dancing angels.

The thing about small towns and secrets is that usually there aren’t really that many secrets; there are just unpleasant things that aren’t discussed openly.

West Table, Missouri, has one of these uncomfortable topics after an explosion destroyed a dance hall and killed dozens of people in 1929. There is no shortage of rumors about various causes of the disaster, but that’s just the buzz disguising the real story. Listen carefully enough and the underlying truth is there, but most of the locals would prefer that it never be revealed.

Alma Dunahew was a poor maid with three kids she could barely feed as she worked for a prosperous banker when the explosion occurred and killed her younger sister Ruby. Alma believes she knows what happened, but since no one is interested in hearing it, she is eventually shunned and driven half mad by the willful blindness of the town. It’s only years later that she finally reveals the true story to her grandson Alek.

A simple summary like that makes this book seem more linear and more of a mystery than it actually is. Daniel Woodrell tells this like an old person recounting a long story with frequent digressions and skipping back and forth through time. It’s not enough to understand what happened at the dance hall, he wants to make sure you understand why it happened and how it effected everyone with the slightest connection to it.

Despite the rambling nature of how it’s told, it’s still a short tale at 164 pages, but even though it’s not a long book, when the reader gets to the end, they’ll understand each and every character and what part they played.

This seemed a bit different from other Woodrell books I’ve read like Winter’s Bone in that it had more a dreamy quality to the writing. It drifts, it doesn’t walk a straight line, but it still shows that the man delivers maximum story for minimum page counts.

You can read more about Woodrell and the real story behind this fictionalized version of it here.