The Hike by Drew Magary

Ben is supposed to meet his vendor during a business trip at some odd mountain top hotel.the-hike  As Ben arrives first, he’s game to explore the terrain surrounding the inn.  And indeed, there is a defined path that seems tailor-made for a woodsy stroll.

Ben’s hiking bliss does not last.  And in the next few days (years) of his life, it will seem that Ben’s every nightmare and bad memory manifest themselves into things more horrific to be imagined.  He tangles with homicidal dog-faced men, a man-hungry giant (literally), and all other sorts of creatures that seem determined to steal his very being.  Ben also meets help along the way, including a vaguely familiar older woman who gives Ben some valuable seeds, and a talking crab who adds some comic relief along the way.

Ben learns, and often the hard way, that remaining on the path is crucial to his survival, and return to his real life.  It’s tough to adhere to a path that cuts through ocean and terrain alike, but Ben manages, even though he bungles along through most of his travail.

The Hike is a modern-day fairy tale, a hero’s journey of sorts, a Bildungsroman of a grown man who badly needs to let go of the horrors of childhood. The book is by turns horrific and whimsical.  Ben is a believable Everyman, an average Joe that you will cheer on even when he’s being an idiot.

I started this one after plowing through a shorter book that I didn’t like.  The Hike was a much, much better choice.

Pair this one with John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, another good book brimming with fantastical, scary, and humorous elements.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Wrapped in Rainbows : the Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd

wrappedSome years ago, I read Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, but, before reading this biography, I didn’t know much about this famous African-American author.  Her experiences were extraordinary!  She grew up as an imaginative child in a totally African-American town in Florida.  When she was thirteen years old, her mother died; Zora’s father ceased paying for her education and sent her away from home.  Although she had to postpone her education for a number of years to support herself by working in a variety of jobs, she eventually earned a college degree from Barnard College in New York City.  In addition to her distinguished writing career, she collected folklore and customs of black people in the Southern United States and the Caribbean.  This research included apprenticeships with a number of voodoo practitioners.  The biography includes information about her part in the Harlem Renaissance, her three marriages, and her shocking arrest on a false charge.

Zora had a connection to North Carolina; she taught briefly in Durham at the college that later became North Carolina Central University.  During that time, she attended Paul Green’s playwriting seminar at Carolina, and, in recent years, many people urged Carolina officials to name a building after her.

The book includes summaries of her novels and many of her short stories.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

The Children by Ann Leary

Whit Whitman was an eccentric to family and friends alike.  The heir of a large fortune, the-childrenWhit “retired” early on to pursue hobbies and enjoy the company of Joan, his second wife, and stepdaughters.  When he dies of cancer in his mid sixties, Whit leaves a considerable trust to his widow.  Although the Connecticut lake house that they lived in belongs to his sons from his first marriage, it is stated in the trust that Joan can stay there until she passes away.

And so Joan remains there, along with Charlotte, her youngest daughter, now in her late twenties, who disdains the outer world for the comforting sprawl of the lake house and its property.  Sally, the bipolar older daughter, resides mainly in New York City, but visits fairly often.  The three bicker when they’re together but generally get along.

Mother and daughters come together somewhat when the younger of Whit’s sons announces his engagement.

Spin is the golden boy of the family – decent, kind-hearted, smart.  His fiancée Laurel is everything that the sisters are not – outgoing, glamorous, and overachieving to a fault.  In other words, she’s a little too perfect, even for their beloved stepbrother, though he apparently adores Laurel.

The sisters, snoops to the point of perfection, begin to figure that Laurel is more sinister than she lets on, and enough things happen during the family’s annual July 4th party to ratchet up their suspicions.  It would seem, in the aftermath, that their ramshackle home is no longer an easy haven.

Mix in flings with the estate caretaker and a series of burglaries attributed to “Mr. Clean” and you have a great family soap opera, well-written and catty as hell.  The dynamics of this crazy mixed family are enough to keep you flipping pages, or as I did, flipping backwards at times, just to piece together some missing hidden gems.

The plot idea isn’t new (interloper invades tight-knit yet dysfunctional family) but in The Children, the author puts it together into something fresh, funny, and shocking.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

As Good As Gone by Larry Watson

as-good-as-goneCalvin Sidey is an old school cowboy and a loner.  Ever since he deserted his children years ago, he’s been eking it out on the high prairie of Montana.  Solitude suites him just fine.

His grown up son Bill comes from town needing a favor; his wife needs surgery in far-off Missoula and they need somebody to watch out for the kids.

At first, it’s hard to tell whether Calvin is miffed or bemusedly pleased that his son still considers him close enough to ask for this very personal favor.  Regardless of what, back into town Calvin comes.

Despite his laconic manner, the grandchildren respect Calvin, even though they’ve had little exposure to him during their growing-up years.  Ann is a teenager, has a job, and is responsible.  Will is a tender-aged eleven, a generally good kid who is a ball of confusion.  Ann has boyfriend issues, and Will has buddy issues.

Calvin is the type to dispense his own sense of justice then he has grievances; this may be the reason he left town abruptly so many years ago.  When he notices certain things – derelict tenants of Bill’s, a sinister car whose driver appears to be after Ann – Calvin is not hesitant to go after any perceived perpetrator.

Add to this the attentions of the widow next door and his disillusionment with town life, and Calvin is a ready powder keg.

As Good As Gone addresses how Old West values clash with 1960s suburbia, and how a grim isolationist manages to navigate himself into this strange (for him) new world, sometimes disastrously.

Calvin Sidey is the sort of character that I am not sure you will root for on all accounts.  He certainly has a sense of honor and doesn’t shirk from his role as protector.  But Calvin doesn’t bend for anybody and hasn’t had to do so for a long time, so he really is out of his element in the town environment.  He’s a quintessentially stubborn old cuss and in some ways a force of nature, but even Calvin hits his hurdles.

The author has written for years about the hardened natives of Montana and North Dakota.   A writer from the West, rather than a “Western” writer, Larry Watson is worth a shot if you like books set in this area of the country.  I read his previous novel Let Him Go, and liked it very much.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Bitter River by Julia Keller

Julia Keller won a Pulitzer Prize for her work as a reporter and editor for the Chicago bitter-riverTribune, and authors Michael Connelly, C. J. Box, and Scott Turow highly praise her mysteries.

After reading Bitter River, I discovered that it’s the second in a series, but I had no difficulty in understanding it without reading the first book, A Killing in the Hills.  After Bitter River, the series continues with Summer of the Dead, Last Ragged Breath, and Sorrow Road.

The setting of the series is a West Virginia town so small that “everybody is next of kin to everybody else.”  The fact that West Virginia is Keller’s birthplace no doubt helped her in describing that state’s beauty, as well as the desperate desire of many residents to move away from it.

Bell Elkins, the series’ main character, grew up in a series of foster homes in West Virginia, escaping her difficult life to become a lawyer in Washington, D.C.  This novel finds her divorced and back in her home county, where she is now the prosecuting attorney.

Lucinda Trimble, a lovely, talented sixteen-year-old, was the pride of the town.  Everyone was confident that she would leave her economically unprivileged home to attend an elite university.  Then a hiker sees a car at the bottom of Bitter River, and the sheriff discovers Lucinda’s body inside it.

Bell becomes actively involved in this case, which is especially painful for her, since her daughter is only a year older than Lucinda was.  As the townspeople are still reeling from the shock, there’s a shooting at the courthouse and an explosion in the downtown area – and that’s just the beginning!

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Yokohama Yankee : My Family’s Five Generations in Japan by Leslie Helm

Tyokohamahe author’s German great-grandfather Julius Helm first came to Japan in 1869, and spent most of his life after that developing a thriving shipping business.  Being on the “ground floor” as it were, of Japan’s first major economic development since it was opened to outside trade,  his business was in a unique position to capitalize on Yokohama’s bustling port.  As a company, Helm Brothers existed throughout two world wars, fires, earthquakes, and Japan’s rapid postwar changes.

The author writes about his extended family and how they managed to coexist for over a hundred years in a culture that never completely excepted them.  The family was biracial (Julius had married a Japanese woman) and as the world wars entered their lives, certain members of the family wound up taking different sides in the conflicts.

Yokohama Yankee is a rich observation of what family and identity really mean.  The author has to come to terms with personal prejudices and attitudes to  Japanese culture and his own Japanese heritage, as he returns repeatedly to the country for work, for genealogical research, and for pleasure.  He and his wife also adopt two Japanese children, and it proves to be a challenge to raise them as Americans, and to have an appreciation for their birth country.

The book is beautifully illustrated with many paintings  and vintage photographs of Japan from the 1800s to the present.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

Jodi and Todd have been together for twenty years.  They met when he ran into her movingsilent wife van, and Todd’s life has been a series of collisions ever since – mainly with other women.

Jodi largely turns a blind eye to Todd’s affairs.  Due to his expanding renovation business, they live in a stylish condominium in Chicago, where Jodi is quite happy to hold court as household diva and still manage a small caseload of clients as a psychologist.

It is an ordered and protected world that Jodi inhabits, and she’s fine with Todd’s transgressions so long as he’s home for dinner and makes the mortgage.

It’s the last affair that Todd has that threatens Jodi’s carefully balanced existence – and it will mess up his own life until the bitter end.  Maybe Todd should have thought more about Jodi…

The Silent Wife is a quiet exploration of affluent “normalcy” and what it takes to destroy it.  The book lacks the shock value of Gone Girl, to which it’s been compared, but give it a chance.  More a psychological simmer than a sensational thriller, The Silent Wife will catch you quickly enough, and the ending will surprise.

The book also continues a trend of fiction in which the main characters are not likeable.  The read is worth it – you’ll find out, drawn out through the novel, what makes Jodi and Todd tick, or not.  Denial is part of the game.

(William Hicks, Information Services)