Fateful Mornings by Tom Bouman

Maiden’s Grove Lake in Wild Thyme Township in northeastern Pennsylvania is an oasisfateful mornings for the well-off in an otherwise hilly, hard-bitten place where crimes both petty and strange happen semi-regularly.  Here in this beautiful but harsh place, there is an uneasy truce between poor and rich, meth labs and natural gas interests.  All of this tends to keep Officer Henry Farrell busy enough.  Being a native of the area himself, he well understands the foibles of his neighbors.

When investigating a burglary at a house on the lake, Henry gets involved with one of the suspects, a young man who lives with his girlfriend in a trailer on the edge of property belonging to Andy Swales, a moneyed lawyer about town.  The girlfriend, with a history of drug abuse, has been missing.  The couple have a small child with health issues, but she has long been in foster care.

The missing person case and a purported shooting has Henry digging deeper and farther, crossing the state border into Binghamton and elsewhere, and finding trouble in all the wrong places.  Extended family resentments are revealed, the body count mounts, and bigger menaces come into play beyond the relative calm of Wild Thyme.

As if his job doesn’t provide enough drama, Henry has his own affairs (literally) to sort out, including one he’d love to end, and another that shows strong promises.  He still grieves for his deceased wife, drowns his share of sorrows on a regular basis, and moonlights as a construction worker for his close friend Ed Brennan, with whom Henry plays old-timey fiddle music.

Fateful Mornings moves at a slower pace than most thrillers.  Not to say that there aren’t sudden surprises here – they come with their own grisly quickness – but the nature of the book is that of character development, slow and sure and ultimately worth it.

This one can be read as a standalone, but if you prefer to read things in sequence, start with Dry Bones in the Valley, the first book in the series.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel, 1942 by Richard Brautigan

Richard Brautigan is my favorite American author; Dreaming of Babylon, however, isdreaming of babylon not one of his better books.

Originally published in 1977, the novel belongs to that group of morbid, thinly-allegorized suicide notes Brautigan indulged in towards the end of his life that includes the novels So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away and the posthumously published An Unfortunate Woman: A Journey.  Dreaming of Babylon follows a day in the life of down-on-his-luck private eye C. Card as he attempts to work a potentially well-paying job.  Thwarting him along the way are two types of obstacles – quotidian ones related to his real life (such as not having bullets for his gun, not having a car, not having rent money, etc.), and fantastical ones related to the book’s title.  C. Card routinely drifts into reveries about an imaginary “Babylon” so vivid and complex that he functionally blacks out and loses time, and the novel traces his struggle to keep these overpowering daydreams at bay while he works an unusual case.

Seasoned readers of Brautigan may already notice this book’s similarity to his earlier Sombrero Fallout, which also featured parallel stories unfolding in fictional and “real” space, but whereas those narratives were integrated, in Dreaming of Babylon, Brautigan can barely conceal his lack of interest in the hard-boiled detective genre he has decided to employ.  Rather than subvert or deconstruct the tropes of detective fiction, he abandons them (and the reader) completely by having his main character simply show up late to the novel’s climax, thereby missing the solution to the book’s minor mystery.

While the surreal sequences set in the book are poetic and enjoyable, the vile characters, the unnecessarily “rough” voice of the narrator, and repetitious plot stymie this otherwise brisk read; however, since it is Richard Brautigan, I still recommend it for any adventurous reader out there.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

Undertow by Elizabeth Heathcote

undertowZena Johnson is beautiful, charming, and driven – and beguiling enough to separate Tom, a successful lawyer, from his wife and children.  After his divorce, Tom and Zena buy a cottage on the eastern coast of England, and seemingly have a perfect setup.  Or do they?

Several months later, Zena, a determined swimmer since childhood, goes for an evening swim in the ocean and doesn’t return.  A mother with her child and dog find Zena’s body washed up on a beach a few days later.

Tom remarries, this time to Carmen, and doesn’t tell her everything about this chapter of his past life.  As such, Carmen begins to have doubts about their supposedly idyllic relationship, particularly when she notices Tom’s peculiar behavior; behind his calm lawyer demeanor is an unpleasant temper.

Carmen delves into Tom’s past with as much secrecy as she can muster, and what she finds gets increasingly unnerving.  And Zena, dead for three years, haunts Carmen’s dreams and thoughts.

Undertow brings the Rebecca motif into the modern age.  Tense and nervy, the book will have you doubting Carmen’s sanity as she skirts danger and finds help from some unlikely sources.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

FikryA. J. Fikry is an irascible bookseller in Alice, an island community located off the coast of Massachusetts.  Island Books is his establishment and reflects his narrow and demanding tastes in books.  A. J.’s business demeanor is curt, and when a new sales rep from Knightly Books comes calling, it’s a very tense meeting.

A. J. has his reasons for the way he is –  he is a widower in his late thirties.  His deceased wife was the life of the bookshop that they started together, and in her absence, business has been lacking.  He barely interacts with the community, and most of his customers think A. J. is stuck-up.

His lackluster existence changes abruptly when a valuable book of his goes missing and a two-year-old girl is left in the bookshop with a note from the mother, requesting that A. J. take care of the child.

And so, antisocial A. J., with limited people skills and no parenting abilities, learns how to be a dad – and strangely enough, succeeds, with lots of help from the community.  A. J. learns what readership is, in a much bigger way than his own, and his floundering little bookshop becomes a success and a go-to place in town as book clubs start forming and A. J. expands his merchandise.

The sales rep from Knightly Books also finds her own business with Island Books picking up, and not just from book orders.  Amelia Loman – sales rep, unlucky with dates, goofy and lovely in equal measure – finds that first impressions don’t always define future love.

I would put The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry in the “sweet little book” category.  There’s lots of feel-good sentiment here.  My biggest fear when beginning the book was the potential for clichés.  There is some here, but this doesn’t overwhelm the flow of the book.  For the most part, the writing is fresh, and funny in lots of places.

There’s also tragedy.  You’ll deal with this early on, and there’s more to come – this gives some gravity to an otherwise light-hearted narrative.

The author begins each chapter with a short story commentary from A. J. (short stories are his weaknesses).  If you like short stories in general, these might set you off in other reading directions.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

head full of ghostsAt the age of fourteen, Marjorie Barrett undergoes a harrowing descent into acute mental illness, witnessed with horror and confusion by her eight-year-old sister Meredith, with whom she is extremely close.  While Marjorie’s mother believes that her daughter’s problems are ultimately psychological in nature and therefore medically treatable, her father – who has increasingly turned to religion to make sense of the world after being laid off from his long-time job – becomes convinced Marjorie is possessed by a demonic entity and enlists the aid of a priest, Father Wanderly.  The involvement of the priest, coupled with the possibility of a real-life exorcism being performed on an American teenager, excites the predatory interest of the producers of a reality TV program.  While being the subjects of a TV show helps the Barretts out financially, the constant presence of the camera crew exacerbates the friction and discord already present in the family.  The resulting TV show, entitled “The Possession”, lasts just six episodes before being cancelled due to a tragedy which occurs during the performance of the exorcism, but the end of the show doesn’t spell the end of the horror for the Barrett family.  Thirteen years later, a now twenty-three-year-old Meredith Barrett agrees to meet with an established writer and tell the truth about what really happened to her family before, during, and after “The Possession”.

In A Head Full of Ghosts, author Paul Tremblay is less concerned with possession as a possibly real supernatural event than he is with the idea that we can never “possess” the truth about our pasts and ourselves free from the influence of the ready-made cultural narratives that surround us.  The scripted aspect of supposedly spontaneous reality TV lends itself as a metaphor quite easily, but Tremblay also dramatizes the notion of possession-by-prior-spirits in the body of the text itself.  References to earlier books and films make frequent “ghost” appearances in the novel, and the author uses the literary device of an internet blog in certain chapters to introduce the figure of a close reader who will notice and point out these subtle allusions in case an ordinary reader were to miss them.  As the overtures to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Vladimir Nabokov’s deception-fueled Despair, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (among others) in these sections attest, it is the reliability of the narrator and the truth of the tales being told that are ultimately at stake here.  A twist at the end of the novel, a veritable “turn of the screw”, casts even more doubt on the veracity of the events that Meredith, our guide, has been relating to us.

Be warned – there are some genuinely creepy moments in the story, but Tremblay is careful to maintain a steady amount of ambiguity, leaving the reader to decide how to interpret the information presented by the narrator.  Tremblay’s exploration of the subjectivity of truth is a particular strength of the book, but readers are free to enjoy it on any of its multiple, unsettling levels.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman, leaves her home and her boyfriend, Obinze, to attend americanahcollege in the United States.  Obinze hopes to follow her but is unable to get a visa.  During the next fifteen years, Ifemelu completes college, writes a successful blog about race in America, and has long-term relationships with two American men, one white and the other African-American.  At last she returns to Nigeria.

Americanah is a love story and also a tale about the difficulties of adjusting to a different culture and finding ways to earn a living in one’s new country.  While Ifemelu faces these challenges in the U.S., Obinze lives illegally in England, working in menial jobs and dealing with the fear of deportation.  Ifemelu’s blog entries offer information about race relations in the United States from a Nigerian perspective.

This novel, published in 2013, won the National Book Critics Circle Fiction award and was on the New York Times list of the year’s ten best books.  Adichie has masters’ degrees from Johns Hopkins and Yale and won a MacArthur Genius Grant.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Gifted by John Daniel

GiftedFrom early on, Henry Fielder is different.  Although somewhat social with other kids, he is solitary by preference and has an unusual way with animals.  His mother recognizes Henry’s unique approach to the wild, and encourages him to engage with it as much as he can by hiking long jaunts near their home in Oregon’s coastal range.

His father is less empathetic to Henry’s affinity to nature, but even he understands the need to get out in it.  Henry grows up learning from his dad how to fish, hunt, and otherwise appreciate the practical sides of the natural world.

After his mother dies of cancer, the father/son dynamic between teenage Henry and his dad changes for the worst.  His father is working harder hours and trying to homeschool his son, but, as Henry is in his rebellious years, he creates some trouble.  His dad’s ideas of discipline soon turn towards physical abuse, and beyond.

Forgiveness from Henry is elusive; this is fateful, when a storm of horrendous power destroys their house, kills his father, and sends Henry on a journey of self-discovery that uncovers his wildest fears and forces him into remorse and maturity.  After his return, Henry finds forgiveness from other people in his community and acceptance from an older couple who have befriended him.  He also maintains a close contact with Raven, a member of a rural commune who helped Henry towards the end of his journey.

As a character, Henry is likeable, but pretty flawed.  He does quite a bit of crazy things, including drugs and petty theft, and there are times here where one can see how he tries his old man, who is trying, in his own flawed way, to make a home for the two of them.  Unfortunately, the dad does something unspeakable, and Henry can’t forgive him soon enough.

I’d almost call Gifted a young adult novel, but it is easily accessible to adult readers.  The book is written from the perspective of a much-older Henry, as he reflects on his teenage life in 1990s Oregon, when environmental groups and logging interests clashed.

(William Hicks, Information Services)