Posts Tagged fall reading

Fall Reading Part 3

woman with gun

<em>Woman With a Gun</em> by Phillip Margolin. Publisher: Harper [December 2014]. Thriller. Hardcover. 320 pages.

RATING: ***/5

Authors gather inspiration from everything. It can be a picture, a newspaper story, memories or personal experiences. The black and white photograph on the cover compelled author Phillip Margolin to create this thriller and also drew me in. The only unusual aspect of this inspiration is that the author purchased the photograph and it’s used as the cover. I’m not familiar with Margolin’s previous novels so I can’t compare his current work to his past work. There are two stories within this novel: one is that of aspiring novelist Stacey Kim and the other is that of Portland-based prosecutor Jack Booth.

A recent MFA graduate, Stacey Kim lives in New York City and works in an administrative position. Margolin writes: “Stacey’s nonexistent social life and mind-numbing job would not have mattered if she were making progress on her novel, but she wasn’t.” One day Stacey Kim visits the MoMA and happens upon an exhibit for photographer Kathy Moran. The photo “Woman with a Gun” mesmerizes her and she decides she needs to know more. Soon after she quits her job and moves to Portland for novel research when she discovers that the photo links to a cold case murder. The DA in the seaside town of Palisades Heights calls in Jack Booth to help with the Raymond Cahill murder case. Photographer Kathy Moran came upon Cahill’s wife Megan during an after-work walk on the beach and snapped the picture of her holding the gun in her wedding dress. Kathy Moran used to be a defense attorney but was disbarred. Jack Booth prosecuted a case where she represented a dangerous drug dealer named Kilbride. Moran won and Booth lost the case. Later when Moran became a drug addict, Booth and the police worked with her to arrest the drug dealer. Booth maintains an attraction to Moran.

Margolin fails to completely enthrall readers with the story or any of the characters. Particularly that of Stacey Kim and her journey to Portland, Oregon. She doesn’t just stop in for a research visit as most writers do but she quits her job to move cross-country. Generally I can’t stop reading a good thriller. While there are plenty of unexpected twists and turns, I didn’t care that much. Perhaps because the Cahill case isn’t solved until the budding novelist starts digging into the cold case.

Women aren’t positively portrayed in Woman with a Gun. They are gold-diggers or manipulative. On Megan Cahill someway says: “’Parnell, thick as he was, finally figured out that Megan was only interested in the millions he was going to make in pro ball, so he tried to break up with her. But, like I said, Megan has a genius IQ and is excellent at problem solving. She told Parnell that she was pregnant.’” The sexist clichés didn’t sit well with me. The beautiful woman who marries first a pro football player and then a team co-owner.

Then there’s the woman as sex object. When Booth describes his attraction to Moran it’s all sexual. During the Kilbride case: “Jack might have spent time wondering why she had not pursed a plea if he weren’t so preoccupied with wondering how Kathy’s breasts would feel when he cupped them or how smooth her thighs would feel when he stroked them.” When Stacey Kim becomes interested in Glen it’s as a potential relationship. Margolin writes: “But now, after the murder and the way Glen had helped her, she was wondering whether there was some way to make the relationship work, because she found that she was enjoying her time with Glen more than she’d enjoyed being with any man in recent memory.” I liked Booth. He’s dark and intriguing. I didn’t need the sections where he fantasized about Moran or remarked on some other woman’s looks. It brought the novel down several levels.

–review by Amy Steele

<em>FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.</em>

purchase at Amazon: Woman with a Gun: A Novel


<em>Rooms</em> by Lauren Oliver. Publisher: ECCO [September 2014]. Fiction. Hardcover. 320 pages.</em>

 RATING: ***/5

“How do ghosts see? We didn’t always. It had to be relearned. Dying is a matter of being reborn. In the beginning there was darkness and confusion. We learned gropingly. We felt our way into this new body, the way that infants do. Images began to emerge. The light began to creep in.”

Starts with an appealing set-up: author Lauren Oliver divides the novel by the various rooms and focuses on one character at a time. There’s Caroline Walker and her two adult children, Trenton and Minna, returning to their childhood home after their father Richard’s death. Minna has a daughter, Amy. The Walkers haven’t been in this home for a decade or more since their parents’ divorce. Two ghosts—Sandra and Alice– currently reside in the house. As this family deals with cleaning up the house and the aftermath of the father’s death, Oliver explores their connections and intermingles some of the characters with the ghosts. We find out about the family. The parents split and subsequently the children become alienated from their father. Oliver also eventually discloses how the two ghosts died in the house. Rooms unfolded with promise but wasn’t quite compelling enough. I could put it down and wasn’t invested enough to pore through it. The solid writing needed to be punched up a notch or two. Sometimes when you tell stories from too many angles and too many points-of-view the stories muddle instead of illuminate. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger remains my favorite novel involving ghosts. Effectively creepy and bewitching. As I read it, I felt chills. I adore that book.

–review by Amy Steele

<em>FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from ECCO/Harper Collins. </em>

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IN THE REALM: Fall Reading Part Two


river of glass

River of Glass by Jaden Terrell
The Permanent Press [October]
RATING: ****/5*

When the body of a young Vietnamese woman is found in a dumpster outside Nashville private investigator Jared McKean’s office he becomes linked to the case since she’s clutching a photo of Jared’s father. A few days later, a Vietnamese woman named Khanh, saying she’s his half-sister, shows up and asks for help in finding her missing daughter Tuyet. While former police detective McKean hesitates he takes her case because he can’t turn the woman easily away. Soon they’re investigating the dark world of human-trafficking. Working the case, McKean aggravates his former police co-workers yet at the same time they grudgingly trust and respect each other, albeit.

“I wanted to protect Khanh, to keep her in the shadows while I followed threads and searched for her daughter, but I understand now that, even if she’d had reason to trust me, she needed to play a part in bringing Tuyet home. She’d walked into a minefield to save Trinh, but she had failed. That failure made her doubt herself. It made her doubt me. It made her doubt the probability that Tuyet–that anyone—could be saved.”

As for the human trafficking, Terrell shows that it can happen anywhere and can involve anyone– maybe the least likely candidate hiding in plain sight. It’s sad, it’s depraved and unbelievable it could be happening in your own backyard but that is today’s reality. Women are chattel used for sex and tossed when no longer young, pretty or useful. Treated like slaves. Because that’s just what’s going on. There’s also a sweet bond developing between McKean and his maybe half-sister Khanh, a determined woman with a war-weary past. Terrell adds twists to keep the reader turning pages. She’s created quite the character in private investigator Jared McKean.


story of fester cat

The Story of Fester Cat by Paul Magrs
Berkley Trade [November]
RATING: ***/5*

“I’m a cat, you see. I understand this stuff. Cats live in the here and now. We are opportunists and chancers. We are pragmatists. We change all the time.

That’s what the nine lives thing means.”

This is the story of a stray cat adopted in his later years by a gay couple near Manchester, England. Or rather Fester chose the two men, Paul and Jeremy, as cats do. It’s as much about the cat as about Paul and Jeremy. To write the couple’s story from the perspective and voice of a cat makes it a clever and entertaining read. Fester overhears Paul and Jeremy discussing a range of subjects, entertaining guests and occasionally arguing. Paul’s easy-going while Jeremy’s more neat and organized. Generally the men get along but like any couple who’ve been together for more than a few years, they have clashes and annoyances with each other.

“Jeremy is forever railing against authority figures. I am coming to realize this. He gets especially cross when those with authority are morons, as he puts it. Jeremy spends a lot of his time being exasperated.”

Fester lives with Paul and Jeremy for eight lovely years. They treat him quite well—he gets a smorgasbord of food, special treats and lots of attention particularly from Paul who works mostly at home after he gives up his teaching job to focus on writing. When he arrives at the guys’ home, Fester’s flea-ridden and terribly mangy. They take him to the vet and through the years he’s treated for worms [in a funny scene, Magrs writes: “Well, I’m mortified. Worms! Worms at Christmas. Not very bloomin’ festive, is it? I got to flomp down miserably in my basket while Jeremy goes to the vet’s. Now I daren’t even look at my bum in case I see something staring back at me.”], a thyroid condition and then a stroke.

The subtitle says “How One Remarkable Cat Changed Two Men’s Lives.” I didn’t find that Paul and Jeremy’s lives were extraordinarily changed by the addition of the cat. I adore cats but this isn’t Marley & Me. Cats are wonderful, independent, enigmatic creatures. Like a cat sometimes the memoir is warm and fuzzy and sometimes it is quiet and reflective. Taking care of Fester proves to be a touching way for the two men to come together for one purpose. Taking care of Fester strengthened Paul and Jeremy’s relationship.

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IN THE REALM: Fall Reading Part One

by isaac israels

by isaac israels

Grab a cuppa and a fuzzy blanket, tuck in for some fall reading.

contemporary lit:


Love Me Back by Merrit Tierce
Doubleday [September]
RATING: *****/5*

“Tanya had been halfway nice to me, in that beatup way career low-grade hospitality workers have. The ones on whom something has quit, bitterly, and then quit again, resigned. They’ve made it this far by not fucking up too much or knowing how to manage it when they do, so they’re typically proficient if not too shiny.”

Raw, creative novel about a young mother who works as a waitress. Sex –she admits to having sex with 30 men in a three-month stretch–, drugs [cocaine, cannabis, pills] and the nitty gritty of working in the hospitality industry. The young author Merritt Tierce used her own experience in various restaurants to create this character. Marie had so much potential as valedictorian of her high school until she got pregnant and married her daughter’s father at 17. She’s scrappy, opinionated and tough. As Marie remembers her self-destructive times, her wilder days [where she drank, drugged and hooked up for an escape, for obliteration], she’s also astutely aware and contemplative. It’s graphic, sometimes shocking and chocked with angst. One of the best novels in a while about finding your way and developing a sense-of-self in your twenties.

“In that restaurant all of us were off. Chipped. Everybody on the way to the curve. Maybe it’s the same in a law firm, a nail salon, whatever high or low. Maybe that’s just what it is to be alive, you’ve got that broken sooty piece of something lodged inside you making you veer left.”


alice and freda forever

Alice & Freda Forever by Alexis Coe
Zest [October]
RATING: *****/5*

“Only Freda knew the whole story and she wanted nothing to do with Alice anymore. It was as if their love had never existed, her world shattered by a phantom. The box, hidden in the kitchen, was all she had left, the only proof that Freda ever loved her.”

True story of murder, love, same-sex relationships and betrayal in turn-of-century Tennessee. School mates 19-year-old Alice Mitchell and 17-year-old Freda Ward were close and were engaged at one point until Freda’s family intervened. They didn’t want their reputation tarnished and forbid Freda from any continued communication with Alice. The plan had been for Alice to pass as a man so the two could marry. Teenage love can be complicated, to say the least. Alice was crushed. She became obsessed that Freda should never be with anyone but her and she stabbed her to death in 1892.

A long-forgotten scandal, Alexis Coe brings it all back through extensive research from court records, letters and other related materials. Same-sex relationships still receive much public scrutiny though more accepted 120 years after this case. Matthew Shepard was brutally killed 16 years ago. Same-sex marriage is possible in 30 states after intense legal battles. Coe discusses that there were certain expectations for how a woman should act and the opportunities available to women. Mostly for Alice and Freda, that would be marrying well. A beautiful thoughtful book that discusses gender identity and same-sex relationships in the context of this long-ago tragic true crime in Memphis.

republic of imagination

The Republic of Imagination by Azar Natisi
Viking [October]
RATING: ***/5*

In this book, Azar Natisi contemplates three novels– The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers [one of my all-time favorites]– in her teaching and immigrant experience in America. She juxtaposes her experience teaching in the states with teaching in Iran. It’s part-memoir, part literary-analysis. Rather academic at times. I’ve yet to read Babbitt so completely unfamiliar with that novel.

“The crisis besetting America is not just an economic or political crisis; something deeper is wreaking havoc across the land, a mercenary and utilitarian attitude that demonstrates little empathy for people’s actual well-being, that dismisses imagination and thought, branding passion for knowledge as irrelevant.”

How many people do you know or have talked to who proclaim they “don’t read” as if that’s a positive? Natisi emphasizes the importance of great literature, the knowledge and discussion elicited from reading.

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