Friday, March 27, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: Last Words by Rich Zahradnik

I was sent Rich Zahradnik's Last Words: A Coleridge Taylor Mystery in exchange for a book review on this blog. What interested me about this particular mystery was not only the setting of New York City in 1975, but also the nature of the crime the protagonist must investigate. Like any other mystery or thriller, there are the usual twists, turns, and red herrings, but this story overall was slightly different from most mysteries than I am used to reading.

The Situation: It is March 1975 in New York City, and Coleridge Samuel Taylor (yes, you read that correctly) has been relegated to writing obituaries for the New York Messenger-Telegram after the sources for his story on a nine year-old heroin addict disappeared on him. Now a disgraced journalist, Taylor's reputation is non-existent, and his superiors at the paper are itching to be rid of him. And even though Taylor is not supposed to be out seeking out stories to investigate and write, he cannot help but keep up with some of his old sources, and visit some of his most reliable locations for information, such as emergency rooms and morgues, in hopes of delivering himself from writing about dead people for the rest of his career. After coming across the dead body of a homeless teenager, Taylor believes he may have found the deliverance he was looking for. Aside from his clothes, this supposedly homeless boy is too clean and too put together to be one of the many homeless people in New York City that freeze to death in the winter. And that is just enough for Taylor to begin a search for the truth.

The Problem: Once Taylor receives confirmation that the clothes the boy was dressed in didn't belong to him, he knows this is a story worth pursuing, one that could restore is reputation. Not only was the boy from a wealthy and influential family, but the clothes he was wearing belonged to a hobo. Taylor's connections in the homeless community verify that the jacket belongs to a well-known hobo named Voichek. And as Taylor begins to earnestly seek answers, he gains the attention of those who want to keep everything quiet, putting himself in danger, along with anyone else he gets to help him. Soon, Taylor finds himself questioning privileged teenagers, depending on the homeless, hiding from hired hit men, and angering both his coworkers and the police. Time is also not on his side, so Taylor must do everything he can to quickly get to the young boys murderer.  

Genre, Themes, History: Last Words is the first in what will be a series of mystery novels involving the journalist character of Coleridge Taylor. Set in 1975 New York City, the story begins on Tuesday, March 11th, and ends seven days later on Monday, March 18th. In just a week, Taylor will go through all of the adventures of a classic mystery in an attempt to solve this case and save his reputation as a journalist. And since 1975 was not the most prosperous year for New York City, there is much discussion about lack of jobs, rise in crime, and the closing of several newspapers as the industry begins to decline. Another aspect of the story is Taylor's eventual dependence on help from the homeless community. Near the middle of the book, Taylor even receives a lesson in the dying language of the hobo community from someone who has been living that life for decades. Zahradnik himself has been a journalist for 30 plus years and would know the value of reliable sources, as well as the trouble that comes when those sources disappear on you when you need them most.

My Verdict: I am always wary of any mystery that has a male protagonist get involved with a younger woman, only because it is something we have seen and sometimes get tired of seeing. But other elements of Last Words are original and fresh enough that the romance between Taylor and Laura isn't all that bothersome. Overall, the story itself is incredibly intriguing and complex, but not so complex that the reader gets lost. And there are very clear elements of the story that set it up to turn into a series, such as the nine year-old heroin addict and her mother, whom Taylor is able to track down, but he still doesn't know why he was set up, or by whom. And there is also the mysterious Pickwick who has given Taylor some of his best leads, but only over the phone and with a fake name. This story will easily make the first in a fruitful series, and the mysteries will only get better and more interesting.

Favorite Moment: When Voichek lets Taylor in on the language used by all hobos, a language that he feels is dying out, along with his way of life.

Favorite Character: Taylor's homeless friend Jansen serves as sort of the director or organization for a group of homeless people in New York City. He is dependable and organized, words that often aren't used to describe the homeless.

Recommended Reading: I recommend The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith, a.k.a. J.K. Rowling. It is a different sort of mystery, but also features a sort of down-on-his-luck protagonist trying to get back on his feet.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

Ava Dellaira's Love Letters to the Dead was nominated for Best Young Adult Fiction in the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards, but ultimately lost to E. Lockhart's We Were Liars. Even so, the premise of this book interested me as did its format. Comprised completely of letters written to famous dead people, this young adult novel tells the story of a young girl coming to terms with her sister's death and her own place in the world.

The Situation: Laurel has just started high school the summer after her older sister's death. In an effort to minimize the amount of attention she would receive over what happened to May, Laurel opts for attending West Mesa High School, instead of the school her sister attended. In English class, May is given the assignment of writing a letter to a dead person, and initially, Laurel picks Kurt Cobain as he was her sister's favorite musician. But for some reason, Laurel can't bring herself to turn the letter in, but instead keeps writing more. Eventually she writes to other famous dead people, including Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, E.E. Cummings, and John Keats. But she never turns any of them in; and of course, they all remain unsent.

The Problem: Not only is Laurel still trying to deal with her sister's death, but there is also her parent's divorce, and splitting her home life between her dad's house and her religious Aunt Amy's house. With her mom in California, dealing with her grief in her own way, Laurel can't help but feel that her mother blames her for May's death, since she was the only one present when it happened, and can't seem to be able to discuss anything about it, with anyone. Plus, even with May gone, Laurel still wants to be just like her, even as she is slowly learning that May might not have been as perfect as she believed she was. As Laurel continues to write letters to dead people, she slowly reveals, and is able to talk about, what really happened leading up to her sister's death. But she fears she may have already pushed away those she wants to talk to the most.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that begins with the start of Laurel's freshman year of high school, and ends after the last day of school in the spring. While May's death is a major focus point in the story, the novel also deals with the effects of divorce, destructive behavior in teens, feelings of abandonment, and also child molestation. In other words, suicide isn't the only heavy issue this book attempts to confront. And not only are the letters Laurel writes addressed to dead people, but they are all famous dead people who died tragically. Some were suicides, but some were not, such as Amelia Earhart. And others were in that tricky are of accidental suicide, like Heath Ledger. As Laurel writes the letters, she often discusses not only what is going on with her, but also the lives of the people she is writing to. She talks to Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse about their music, and E.E. Cummings about his poetry. And she even sometimes get mad at them leaving the rest of us behind, just as she is still mad at May. Ultimately, Laurel is trying to find out who she is, because she always wanted to be just like her older sister, but now that May is gone, she doesn't know who to be. 

My Verdict: Knowing ahead of time that this book was written from the point of view of a young girl whose older sister committed suicide was not adequate preparation for what the story actually contains. There is so much more going on here than Laurel just grieving for her sister. A lot lead up to the night of May's death, and now a lot is happening in the months that follow, even though Laurel would love to just be able to push it all aside and live her life. And as the secrets start coming out, things don't immediately get better. Like many things in real life, the situation gets a little worse first before anything starts improving. It is the kind of book I want to hand to every parent that decides to get a divorce. And Dellaira writes it all, the hard stuff and the fun stuff, with the kind of honesty that a book containing this sort of subject matter has to have in order to work. If you don't want to go beneath the surface to the ugly parts of being a teen and having a hurting family, then this isn't the book for you. But I highly recommend it anyway, especially if you're looking for honesty and a story that took courage to write.

Favorite Moment: As heartbreaking as it was, my favorite moment was when Laurel finally comes clean to her parents about what really happened with May. It is the kind of stuff no parent ever wants to hear, but as Laurel starts talking about it, it is clear that she is beginning to get on the path of not feeling so shattered and alone anymore.

Favorite Character: Laurel's dad, Jim, is hurting just as much as anyone, but he keeps up a strong front and is there for his daughter, whenever she wants to talk. 

Recommended Reading: I recommend E. Lockhart's We Were Liars. It is a shorter young adult novel that also deals with loss, but in a different way.    

Friday, March 13, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

Today's post will be on the extremely short story (only 96 pages, half of which are covered in pictures) by Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library. Those of you that are more used to reading his longer works, such as 1Q84 or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, will most likely be as bewildered as I was when finished The Strange Library in under 30 minutes. But even though it is incredibly short, almost to the point of being disorienting, it is still very much a Murakami.

The Situation: A young boy is visiting the library like he has done many times before. Everything is as it should be, since he is returning books before their due date, as his mother taught him to do, and is now looking for something new to read. The girl at the front desk is someone he has never seen before, but when he tells her he is looking for something else to read, she gives him directions to room 107. Upon finding and entering room 107, the boy encounters an old man who is insistent on finding the boy something to read and directing him to the Reading Room. The boy really only wanted to check out more books and then go home to his waiting mother, but the old man is so forceful, that the boy finds himself following him into the library basement, with books he really has no interest in reading.

The Problem: It turns out that the Reading Room is little more than a jail cell, and if the boy doesn't memorize everything that is in the three massive books that the old man gave him by the end of one month, he'll have his brains eaten out. A sheep-man that serves as the boys jailer and brings him his meals explains that this kind of thing happens in libraries all of the time. The boy knows he has no hope of memorizing everything in the books. And even if he were to manage an escape, there is no way he could navigate the massive labyrinth that led to the library's basement, and make it bake to his anxious mother.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction short story with elements of fantasy, much like many of Murakami's stories. Also similar to many of the author's other stories is the presence of a young male narrator and protagonist; a mysterious and beautiful girl who is somehow part of this world, but also not; an instance of being held against one's will, though not painfully; strange animals; and of course, delicious food described in detail. As I mentioned, the entire story is only 96 pages long, half of which are filled with pictures. And the text on the other half is not in the standard format of your usual mass market paperback. The font is bigger, there are less lines on the page, and less words in a line. So basically, the book is extremely short, but still very Murakami. And as usual, by the end, it isn't clear to the reader, or even the young narrator, what was real and what was imagined. I am sure there is some social commentary to be found in the fact that the boy is held prisoner in the basement of a struggling library, being forced to read about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. Many readers out there would love the chance to live in a library, although being forced to read and memorize books on a specific subject at the threat of having our brains eaten is not the way they'd want to get it. 

My Verdict: I would have settled for being able to pick up a Murakami book and finish it within a week of starting it, much less a half hour. Fans of Murakami may end up a little torn on this one. On the one hand, it is a great short story. But on the other hand, it is a short story coming from someone that we know is capable of so much when he takes the time to write out 500+ pages of story. After finishing The Strange Library, I had to wonder in what different kind of avenues this story could have been taken if it was at least as long as Kafka on the Shore. It almost would have been better if Murakami wasn't known for his previous work. But then again, if Murakami wasn't known for his other books, would he have been able to get away with publishing something like this? Either way, Murakami fans should pick this book up. The illustrations alone make the short story worth the 30 minutes it takes to read it.

Favorite Moment: When the young boy is given homemade fresh-from-the-fryer doughnuts made by the sheep-man.   

Favorite Character: At first it seems as if the sheep-man is just a lackey for the evil old man, but he proves to be incredibly helpful. Plus, he makes doughnuts.

Recommended Reading: A Murakami book that will most certainly take more then 30 minutes to read is 1Q84. But if you're not in the mood for a three-part epic adventure, I would recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although it is still a door stop at 607 pages.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Historical Fiction: The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman is yet another selection I picked out from the nominations in the Goodreads Choice Awards. As some readers may recall from previous blog posts, I am a fan of amusement parks and thrill rides, and while Hoffman's novel isn't necessarily about an amusement park, it does contain a lot of the general atmosphere as the main female protagonist resides in a house containing oddities that are part of a, for lack of a better term, freak show. Plus, Coney Island is close by and the museum must compete with the attractions of the much bigger and fancier amusement parks. The description on the book jacket also gave the story the feel of something like Emily Morgenstern's The Night Circus, which I ultimately found to be disappointing, but I did generally like the descriptions and characters.

The Situation: It is 1911 in New York City, and Coralie Sardie has a nightly obligation as a part of her father's Museum of Extraordinary Things. Since she was a young girl, the professor has trained Coralie to be an excellent swimmer. Not only can she swim in extremely cold temperatures for a much longer amount of time than normal, but she can also hold her breath for an incredible amount of time, making it seem as if she has no need for any air at all. So the professor shows her off every night as a mermaid, allowing the birth defect that gave her webbing between her fingers lend to the fantasy. Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, Eddie Cohen is somewhat of a loner, but with some peculiar if helpful skills. He used to work for a man who was paid to find people, and he still remembers everything the man taught him, which will prove useful in a task he is given by a man searching for his lost daughter. But Eddie has also managed to become an incredibly skilled photographer, even though the types of pictures he is known for taking don't exactly make him a welcome sight with the general public. These two people live in the same city, but somehow worlds apart. Even so, a series of strange events will bring them together.

The Problem: The growing attractions at the nearby amusement park, which also has a freak show of its own in Dreamland, cause the professor to steadily lose business, as well as willing workers. As such losses make him more and more desperate to find an attraction worthy of bringing a large crowd, he also forces to Coralie to put on a different type of show that is only meant for certain visitors late at night. The more Coralie performs, and the more she learns about her father, the more miserable and defiant she becomes. And it is their discovery one night by the river, a discovery that the professor believes will save his museum and solve their money problems, that will bring Eddie into their lives, changing all three of them forever.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in early 20th century New York City. Some events that are central to the plot, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and the 1911 fire on Coney Island, did really happen. And it is Eddie's presence at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that causes him to be called upon to search for a local man's missing daughter, who should have been at the factory at the time, but isn't among the surviving or the dead. As Coralie lives with her father and shares the house with his freak show, there is much description of both living and preserved things that many don't often see in nature. There are disfigured animals in jars; men as hairy as wolves; a "butterfly girl" with no arms, but wings that she puts on when she is at the museum; and even a 100 year-old giant tortoise kept in a pen. Coralie herself is billed as a mermaid girl because of her ability to stay underwater, and the blue dye the professor has her apply to her skin. It is an interesting look at what people will pay to see and how they choose to entertain themselves. 

My Verdict: Ultimately, while the premise for this book sounds both promising and fascinating, I found the entire story to be incredibly disappointing. And the disappointment I felt reminded me a lot of how I felt at the end of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, with the difference being that at least I enjoyed The Night Circus right up until the ending. With The Museum of Extraordinary Things, I was only about 50 pages in when I felt this novel to be a letdown. While The Night Circus had beautiful descriptions and settings, as well as characters I could hold onto, Hoffman's book was strung together by a series of events that felt forced. And not only did the characters not feel like real people, I also couldn't get myself to care what happened to them. Much of the novel seemed rushed through, as if it was written in a hurry, to beat a deadline, and maybe it was.

Favorite Moment: When Coralie and Eddie manage to set the 100 year-old tortoise free.

Favorite Character: Even though she had her own set of problems to deal with, Coralie's caretaker, Maureen, is devoted to her charge and refuses to leave her, even though she could easily do so and live her own happy life away from the sinister professor who often mistreats her. 

Recommended Reading: I am actually going to recommend The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, even though I find the ending to be lacking. But I recommend it because of the similarities it shares with Hoffman's story, and, like I said before, it also has better descriptions and better characters.