Monthly Archives: February 2013

*** The Blackhouse by Peter May

Let’s start with what I did not like about The Blackhouse. I did not like the last 50 pages, where the Deus Ex Machinae (or, in this case, the Devil Ex Machinae, or the Devils, plural, Ex Machinae) suddenly descended to solve the mystery with utter disregard for the careful narrative so far. The rest of the book I found breathtaking, not so much the mystery, although it holds its own until those accursed last 50 pages, but more the landscape of the Isle of Lewis, whose wind stings our skin from the first chapter, and the wonderful character of the detective, who grew up on the island and rediscovers his childhood friends when he is sent there to investigate a murder that resembles one on the mainland. The story is told in alternating chapters between his childhood and the present, and satisfyingly so.

I must note that two key scenes take place as the Lewis islanders go hunting for gannet chicks on a  rocky island — which figured in The Old Ways, recently  reviewed here. And I can’t resist mentioning that this mystery thoughtfully includes a map of the island, which was sorely missing in the other one.

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** Daddy Love by Joyce Carol Oates

Daddy Love reminded me strongly of Room, although the kidnapper here preys on the child himself and not on his mother, but both books create an atmosphere in which one cannot breathe. The overbearing grandmother who rather enjoys her celebrity, however painfully acquired, the broken, obsessive mother, the brutal kidnapper, the boy who is conditioned to hide his real life, all are skillfully  portrayed. for a gripping story.

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* Almost Never by Daniel Sada

Almost Never starts with the very funny description of a young man who works very hard on an isolated ranch and gets ensnared by a prostitute who sees him, very rightly so, as her ticket out of the brothel where she is kept prisoner. Meanwhile, the man’s mother intrigues to find him a proper wife, which brings him to a very sleepy village and a complicated courting arrangement that will take years and much effort. Alas, the verve of the story peters out once he jettisons the prostitute he loves, which occurs only a third of the way into the book.

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** Oddly Normal by John Schwarz

The story of Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality is a sad one, as it tells a boy’s nightmarish experiences through a less than helpful school system. The title makes it seem that the big issue is the boy’s sexual orientation, and certainly his dedication to girlish pursuits makes him a target for bullies in elementary school, but his father, the author, describes a number of affective and learning limitations that seem to create their share of challenges. What really struck me was the terrifying rigidity of the school system that seemed incapable of simply moving the boy to another class when his teacher seems to develop an utter hatred of him — along with the immense difficulty of getting a correct diagnosis of his learning problems. It’s so sad when common sense seem to desert educators.

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*** The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

I picked up The Gift of Rain because I had liked The Garden of Evening Mists and I was not entirely disappointed, although I felt that the latter was superior, with a richer story, more nuanced characters, and a less extreme death rate of the main characters. Like its predecessor, this book tells the story of Malaysia during the second world war, this time in Penang, it is told as a series of flashbacks within a contemporary story, and it centers on the close relationship between a Malaysian and a Japanese citizen who quickly appears to be a spy. I did not enjoy the belabored descriptions of the hero as a misfit, from his Sino-English parents to his choice to be a war collaborator, or the forced retelling of the larger historical context, but the atmosphere of the island and the feelings of dislocation of the war are evoked very skillfully.

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** Arcadia by Lauren Groff


Arcadia is a big novel that tells the life of a boy born in a commune in New York State. It reminded me of memoirs of people raised by ideologically extreme parents, and especially of My Life in Orange, whose author grew up in a cult with a guru not unlike the one in this book. The most successful parts of the book take place in the commune, both during Bit’s childhood, with hard times for his family and the commune, and near the end of the book when he returns to take care of his ailing mother.  I could have done without the apocalyptic flavor of the last part of the book and the story of the commune seemed just a little too predictable, but the novel  had an authentic sixties hippy commune atmosphere — at least if I judge from the aforementioned memoirs.

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** Brain on Fire by Susanna Cahalan

Despite the fire of the title, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness is a chilling reminder that the self-awareness and poise we take for granted is constantly subject to the whims of our bodies. The author and sufferer here goes from high-functioning journalist to a raving maniac within hours, and lingers in the hospital for a long time without a diagnostic. The personal story, reconstructed from memories of families and friends as well as scary surveillance videos kept by the hospital, is told openly and affectingly. The attempts to enlarge the debate to mental illnesses and the plight of the undiagnosed come across as clumsy and less successful.

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