Friday, July 20, 2018

Dave and Violet by Sarah Adams

Dave is a dragon who wears his heart on his scales.  When he is sad he turns blue and when he is nervous he turns redder and redder until Whoosh! fire shoots from his mouth.  Dave's best friend, Violet, thinks Dave is great so she wants all of her friends to meet him.  She tries various ways to introduce Dave to other people - my personal favorite being as lunch lady - but each time he gets nervous and his flames scare everyone away.  What is a socially anxious dragon to do?

Dave and Violet is both short and sweet.  The artwork is extremely colorful and clear as well.  Nobody should have to lean in or flip a page back and forth to figure out what is going on, each page is very well composed.  Dave himself has such a strong look that children will recognize him no matter if he's green, blue, or red.  The story is straightforward enough for even very young children to grasp.  One thing I enjoyed was though the story has a happy ending, it doesn't arrive there exactly as you might expect.  There isn't really a lesson learned other than maybe finding your talent.  It's just a simple story with bright art that reminds that not everything children read needs to be a morality tale.  Sometimes, a fun and engaging story does the trick.

If you like this book, you could try Bear's New Friend by Karma Wilson, another story about a bashful animal.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum

As the title might give away, Joshua Slocum sailed around the world.  Also, as the title indicates, he did it alone.  This was 120 years ago and it took him three years to complete the voyage.  If you are not thoroughly impressed, how about this?  He never learned to swim.

Almost unbelievable facts aside, what really mattered was Slocum's voyage.  He sailed his ship, Spray, to South America and then on to Australia.  He made his way across yet another ocean until finally arriving on the east coast of the U.S. where he had originally departed.  All told, he traveled over 46,000 miles.  He was delayed for weeks due to a storm.  He encountered various people along the islands where he stopped now and then.  He even outwitted a known killer pirate by rigging clothes on some lines and heading below deck to change his own clothing so it appeared like three people were on board the Spray.  One of the most remarkable things to me is that while we think we live in the most connected time in human history where news spreads instantly, Slocum was actually asked to give lectures at some of the ports where he stopped during his voyage

My biggest takeaway from Sailing Alone Around the World is how pleasant and relaxing it is.  Even the sections with dangerous storms and pirates feel upbeat and like the merest trifles.  This may be because I listened to a downloadable audio version narrated by a man with a calming British accent.  He could probably narrate a Stephen King novel and make it seem like a breezy stroll.  But even accounting for the narration, the book itself never plays up the drama.  Honestly, I was a little concerned that a book written over a century ago about someone visiting other cultures around the world might get a little dated and insensitive but despite some terminology differences, Slocum's good nature keeps things from too strongly offending modern sensibilities.  At one point, he mentions how two native women in canoes with whom he traded made a deal with him and that he could not have expected better treatment from anyone in Christendom.  Slocum was perfectly at home by himself on his ship in the middle of the sea, so nothing fazed him, and his audience feels right at home with him.

If you like this book, you might also enjoy The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, a mysterious if tragic story of another solo sailing adventure.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Yonder Stands Your Orphan by Barry Hannah

Normally, when writing a review, I try to zero in on the main character or plot without giving too much away.  I can't do that with Yonder Stands Your Orphan, not that the story is easily spoiled, there just isn't a protagonist and no overarching plot.  If it were a movie, it would have an ensemble cast and the plot would be...well, can decline be a plot?

The community around Eagle Lake is in decline.  It's a small town in rural Mississippi and very few of the residents are in a good way.  There is a disgraced former doctor, a new sheriff who might be a fraud, a recovering drug addict turned preacher, an ex-priest turned alcoholic, a beautiful and talented singer who performs in casino lounges and her own backyard, prostitutes both recruited and reformed, a gangster, and a few dirty, wild, young boys.  There are others but you get the idea.  The gangster might be the main character except he is much more of the antagonist.  If you're wondering how he can be the villain when there is no hero, it's because he antagonizes everyone.  His name is Man Mortimer and in his youth he resembled Fabian.  Age has made him look more like Conway Twitty in the early 21st century.  Mortimer is a fiend.  He's a killer and a pimp and he runs any number of illegal activities in the region.

Yonder Stands Your Orphan reminds me of the book I reviewed yesterday, Ninety-two in the Shade.  Both books are about the weirdness that can crop up in the humid South.  Both present humanity close to its worst.  And both feature intriguing and murderous antagonists.  Man Mortimer is not an unstoppable malevolent force.  He is evil and awful for sure but numerous times throughout the story he is on the wrong end of a funny situation (falling into a den of snakes, for instance).  One of the most interesting things about this book is that almost every character is dynamic.  Even with such a large cast, many of the characters undergo a change by the end - for better or (mostly) worse.

If you like this book, you could try Ray, also by Barry Hannah, which can be downloaded on Hoopla from the Virginia Beach Public Library.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Ninety-two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane

Thomas Skelton is a young man in the midst of a bender.  He has imbibed various substances and his perception is...skewed.  He becomes keenly aware of a stoplight that he can see through the window of a motel.  He is slightly less aware of his traveling companions (friends?  acquaintances?  strangers?).  He decides he should leave and so he does.  This may not sound like much but it honestly is one of the best opening sections (there are no chapters) of any book I have ever read.  The writing is hilarious and frenzied even when the action is leisurely-paced.  It is a stunning mix of high-minded language and references describing lowbrow people and events.  This juxtaposition continues throughout the story as Skelton heads home to Key West and endeavors to become a fishing guide.  Again, it seems simple enough but that doesn't include Skelton's father who has been in bed for seven months, his grandfather who amassed great wealth as a crooked local politician, or Nichol Dance.  Dance is an established fishing guide and he is not interested in new competition.  He is rumored to have killed a man in his past and his talk makes it clear that he would have little compunction to do so again.

Ninety-two in the Shade is not for everyone.  The first section that I mentioned will let you know if you're in or out.  If you can laugh out loud at artful prose describing darkly humorous violence and sex, you are in.  If winos being marched in an alley by an old drill sergeant isn't your particular cup of tea, you may be out.  I recommend giving it a chance though, because this book is wildly fun even when it's sad or gross or tense.  It has a lot of the freewheeling surprises that its 1975 publication would suggest.  It also has a fair amount of machismo and a simultaneous skewering of machismo.  Plus, it has a man living in the fuselage of a crashed plane.  What more could you want?

If you do indeed want more, you could try Cloudbursts a short story collection also by Thomas McGuane.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Plague by Albert Camus

The rats are dying in the city of Oran.  Nobody thinks much of it; some people are even pleased to see the vermin dying off.  Then the stray dogs and cats begin disappearing.  Dr. Rieux is already concerned but even after people start displaying symptoms (fever, swollen lymph nodes) the local government is unwilling to say publicly what they're dealing with - plague.  Even after the government admits that plague is in the city, all they can provide are ineffective serums and forced quarantines.  Dr. Rieux is on the front lines trying to contain a disease that eventually kills hundreds of citizens per day. 

I've never read a novel about a plague.  The middle of July might not be the best time to read about a disease ravaging people - including through the sweltering heat of summer - but I enjoyed it all the same.  I had some preconceived notions about what a book about an epidemic would be like.  I assumed it would read like a thriller with people racing against the clock to find a cure.  The Plague isn't like that.  Camus isn't concerned with telling the story of heroes conquering a microscopic villain, though there are courageous and selfless people throughout.  He is telling a story about what happens to people - to individuals - when something senseless happens.  Mob-like panic is mentioned but mostly in passing.  The drama comes from people like Rambert, who is in the city on a work assignment and is now stuck there away from his wife.  The intrigue comes from people like Cottard who is nervous and secretive and enters the novel after a failed suicide attempt.  The actions and reactions of the small group of people brought together by the plague are the focus of this novel but it is also a realistic depiction of a city under quarantine:  the malaise, the smuggling and profiteering, fear giving way to depressive acceptance.  The story is structured as narrated diaries and it reads as such:  muted, exhausted, personal, and unique.

If you like The Plague, you might enjoy The Stranger, also by Camus, from the Virginia Beach Public Library.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Long Black Veil

“But late at night, when the north wind blows
In a long black veil, she cries over my bones”
So goes the song of a woman who kept her secret, though it cost her lover’s life.

In 1980, on impulse three college student couples, along with one little brother and one old German professor, explore an abandoned prison in the heart of Philadelphia. Eight went in, but only seven came out. Thirty-five years later, a grisly discovery brings them back together. This nightmare reunion reveals that one of them has changed beyond recognition but most have been unable to leave the prison behind.

Boylan uses the framework of a murder mystery to explore the way we are haunted by our pasts, a recurring theme in her books. This enhances the suspense as the twists of plot turn on the quirks of the characters. The settings are vivid and it’s not hard to imagine a movie based on the story, especially as Eastern State Penitentiary is a real place.

There are echoes of Boylan’s memoir I’m Looking Through You in Long Black Veil. The song title clue made me think of Sharyn McCrumb’s ballad series, for example, She Walks These Hills. And McCrumb’s ballad mysteries also evoke a past haunted by guilt.

Review by Carolyn Caywood, retired from VBPL

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Last Gargoyle by Paul Durham

Penhallow wants you to know he is a Grotesque, charged with guarding the inhabitants of his apartment building. In his opinion, a gargoyle is just a glorified water fountain that spouts when it rains. A Grotesque protects his wards from nightmare ghosts like Shadow Men and Netherkin that prey on children.

There aren’t many Grotesques left in Boston. In fact, when something turns his friends into ash, Penhallow realizes he is the last. And he senses danger is growing, especially for a family that just moved into his building. Meanwhile, he has made a friend of a mysterious girl who can see the insubstantial form a Grotesque takes when he leaves his stone shell.

The Last Gargoyle is a fast-paced, suspenseful fantasy narrated by an impudent boy with magic powers, too much responsibility, and painful secrets. The story reminded me of the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the book How to Catch a Bogle by Catherine Jenks. Our fear and fascination with death populates fiction with many menaces from ghosts to the undead, and some strange settings from Garth Nix’s Sabriel to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

Review by Carolyn Caywood, retired from VBPL