Sunday, June 19, 2016

Nitro Mountain by Lee Clay Johnson

“Do you know what growing up means? It means learning how to beat a woman. Trying to kill a man. Posting up at a worn-out palace with a loaded gun and waiting to deal with the consequences of what you’ve done.”

I don’t think I’ve ever taken my own picture for a book review before, but it feels right for this one. I took it with me on a weekend camping trip and found a spot next to a stream to finish it. Nature has a personality in Nitro Mountain, and not a good one. Being in nature was a great way to get into the book but when I was done, the woods seemed a little less friendly.

Nitro Mountain is the connected stories of several people in Bordon, a nothing little town in the Virginia wilderness. The book starts with Leon, who plays bass with a broken arm. It drifts on to drug-dealer Arnett and later, his girlfriend Jennifer. Other characters make appearances: a talented but aimless musician, a suspended sheriff looking for a chance to get his job back. Others- parents, ex-wives, waitresses and mentoring bartenders- get a mention or two. Some are just looking for direction and some are deeply psychotic. Some mostly hurt themselves, some go a long way to hurt others, most do a little of both. All of them are trapped in the same kind of life, shaped by poverty, drinking, and violence. For them,  abuse and addiction are like bad weather: unlucky but a part of life no one can avoid. The book winds from one life to the next, through missed court dates, bluegrass shows, days spent at dead end jobs and nights spent drinking at the same bars. 

Above all of it is Nitro Mountain. At first the mountain is just a bleak backdrop of bare-branched white oaks and foggy pine valleys. But the woods are a place for people to hide and things to be hidden. Vultures and “corpse-like cattle” make their home in it, next to even more ominous animals. The mountain becomes a brutal, apathetic witness to the lives of Leon, Jennifer, Arnett, and the other people of Bordon. It surrounds them and rises over them, putting the town in its shadow. It watches how they waste their days, watches the creative ways they hurt the people they care about, and it watches all their dead-ended attempts to escape the circuit of pain and hopelessness that runs through their town. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Etta Mae's Worst Bad Luck Day by Ann B. Ross

“Pushing aside the hangers in the closet, I pulled out by newest and best dress that I’d worn to church on Easter and only a couple of times since then. I was real proud of it because it was a designer dress from the Kathie Lee Collection at Walmart’s and looked like a million dollars on me. If I’d had the chance, I’d have bought something new for my wedding, but at least this was mostly white. A quality 100 percent rayon classic white dress with black polka dots. Signifying, I guess, my marital experiences of the past.”

Some people may recognize the author of Etta Mae's Worst Bad Luck Day, as well as the small town of Abbottsville, North Carolina, where the book takes place. Ann B. Ross is the writer of the well-known Miss Julia series. But this book follows a different character: Etta Mae Wiggins, who appears in the Miss Julia books but has never had a story of her own before.

Etta Mae is a tough but good-hearted young woman who, tired of being written off as trailer trash, has come up with a plan to finally get ahead in life. That plan is to tie the knot with the elderly and well-off Mr. Howard Connard, for whom she works as a home nurse.  Surely, she believes, Etta Mae Connard will command the respect Etta Mae Wiggins never could, and in the process she can brighten an old man's life, however much he has left. As Etta Mae anticipates the approaching wedding— velvet-clad bridesmaids, baby’s breath bouquets and all—things are complicated by the appearance of two unwelcome faces: Mr. Connard’s ill-tempered son and one of Etta Mae’s deadbeat ex-husbands.

Etta Mae is a charming heroine, immediately sympathetic for her pragmatism, kindness, and Southern style. Despite the book’s humor, this makes for some profoundly sad moments when we see Etta Mae crushed by the shallow judgments of her neighbors. The story has some elements of a mystery—a crime, an unknown perpetrator-- but doesn’t have a lot of tension or gravity; instead, what makes it an easy and enjoyable read is how Etta Mae deals with the many roadblocks on her path to a better life.  

If you would like a copy of this book, leave a comment with an email address and I will choose a random winner in a few days. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little

“I stepped forward and pushed open the front door—which promptly fell off its hinges. I caught it just as it hit the floor, the crack of wood on wood echoing through the hall. I went still and silent and waited. For the sound of footsteps. For the sound of voices. But, thank god, no one came.

I replaced the door as best I could and peered around. Your standard foyer, with two large rooms on either side. I had stirred up dust with my graceless entry and for a brief moment the sun refracted through motes so profuse the air glittered like a fairy glen. But then the dust settled, and the room took on the hue of the water at the bottom of a tub after you plunge up a muck of soap-scummed hair."

Jane Jenkins is the star of Dear Daughter, and we meet her moments after she’s released from prison on a legal technicality, having been convicted for the murder of her manipulative socialite mother. Instead of trying to return to her old life in L.A., dating actors and starving for fame, Jane dons a disguise and flees across the country to look for the truth about the night of the killing, a night she can’t recall well enough to know if she committed the crime or not. Her pursuit takes her to a tiny, stagnant town in the Midwest, the kind of place that carefully keeps its secrets.

Elizabeth Little’s first novel stars a complex protagonist with a voice and personality that really shine. Every page drips with Jane’s bitterness and sharp humor; Little pries deep into Jane's psyche, uncovering damages from a decade in prison and a lifetime as a scapegoat for her apparently flawless mother. The descriptions genuinely feel like Jane’s own words so readers get to see the people and places in the book through the unique lens of someone who is both a released convict and a former Hollywood darling.

A solid mystery, the book holds a handful of surprises although only one or two feel really meaningful. All in all, it was entertaining with a pace that picked up in the second half, and a book where I'll probably remember the protagonist more than I'll remember the story. 

You can buy Dear Daughter on Amazon here or you can win a free copy by commenting here with your email. US only.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

City of Lost Dreams by Magnus Flyte

City of Lost Dreams follows a musicologist named Sarah as she tries to save Pollina, a young piano prodigy, from a serious illness. With the help of her friends, an immortal dwarf and a Czech prince, Sarah looks for a missing doctor; her search gets complicated and dangerous as the past and present bleed together on the streets of Vienna and Prague. 

This is the second book in a series and the first series where I’ve read the sequel first. There are plenty of references to an eventful history but I generally didn’t find myself confused or missing out. However I'm definitely going to find the first one, City of Dark Magic, soon.

City of Lost Dreams is a vibrant story where even minor characters are colorful and deep. The grandiose cities seem otherworldly and the blend of science, history, and magic are really charming. There are a number of images and sensations that recur throughout the story and are described so well that they stuck with me, from an automated golden galleon to the music of a glass armonica to a horse barn on fire. There are some scenes that are so heavily visual and abstract that I did have trouble imagining them, but for the most part, Flyte (who is actually two authers) writes so vividly I feel like I’m still in that mystical version of Europe.

You can get City of Lost Dreams on Amazon here.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Who Asked You by Terry McMillan

When I need to describe a good book, I usually use words like ‘enjoyable,’ ‘fascinating,’ ‘well-written,’ but I don’t really think of books as ‘fun,’ not because I don’t like reading them but because ‘fun’ makes me think of riding roller coasters.  But Who Asked You is just a fun book. It was a blast to read, and what makes that even weirder to say is that it touches on some sad, serious problems like addiction, divorce, and crime. There are some real heartbreaking parts but the book is, overall, optimistic and charming.

Who Asked You tells the story of an extended black family in California during the early 2000s. The first character we meet is Betty Jean, who’s taking care of her grandsons after their addict mother drops them off. The narrative soon expands to include her sisters, their families and some of their friends. There are quite a few narrators, in and outside the family. Some of them appear just once and one doesn't even get a name. The occasional chapter by a child narrator adds some levity and I appreciated the variety of voices, from Quentin’s mildly pretentious vocabulary to Lee’s short, fractured trains of thought.

I'm used to a traditional story structure of rising action and a climax, I was a little lost when I finished the book and found that hadn’t happened. There are dramatic events but they don’t really build to a boiling point. They just kind of happen, one after another with no particular plan, just like they do in real life. For a book that mimics the pace of the real world so well, the ending was oddly neat and convenient. Almost everyone gets an extremely happy ending. The way it wraps up doesn’t leave a lot to think about but left me with a nice feeling at the last page.

Terry McMillan has written a couple other novels, including How Stella Got Her Groove Back. If you want to read this book, leave a post with contact info and I'll pick a random commenter in a few days. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain

Admittedly, I didn't finish this book so keep that in mind with this review. I really tried but eventually it felt like too much of a chore to open it and I gave up at about 300 pages. I feel like I just didn't get it. It gave the impression it has a lot to say about capitalism, culture clashes, and being an American abroad; maybe someone more familiar with philosophy and history would have found something to sink their teeth into. Mostly, I was bored. It was impossible to read more than 20 pages at a time. I had no problems with the prose style and sometimes Crain paints a charming scene, it was just a tedious story. There’s no urgency, intensity, or weight to the protagonist’s situation. Jacob floats from scene to scene without appearing to feel much or care about anything and I was not at all invested in him or his friends. The book is a long string of self-contained scenes: Jacob buys a hamster, Jacob gets a boyfriend, Jacob goes to Berlin, Jacob tutors some Czech children, and so on- you could just cut most of them up and put them in any order without changing the story’s impact. Some of the snapshots do sparkle with real tension or tenderness but most of them seem inane if pleasantly written, with no bearing on each other or the greater arc of the story. 

One thing I can say is that I liked the dreamy, almost fantasy-like portrait of Prague. In an interview, Crain quoted another author as saying “Every writer needs a fairyland” – not a Middle Earth or Hogwarts exactly, but some setting that is almost but not quite like the real world. To me and probably to a lot of Americans, Crane’s Prague is certainly that, with its unpredictable food shortages and numerous linguistic quirks. It just wasn’t enough to outweigh the carefully-maintained detachment that colors every character.

If you want to see for yourself, leave a comment and I'll choose one person to receive a copy.  

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker

New Jersey native Nora, stinging from a recent breakup, stumbles through a portal into the clutches of the Faitoren, a race of capricious illusionists with sinister plans for her.

A novel with a solid, classic fantasy feel. Even the cover looks vintage, like a sword-and-sorcery paperback from the 80s and the story carries some of that influence as well, complete with its own flavor of magical mechanics and quite a few constant-heavy names. It’s got a relaxed pace and tension that builds at a really slow boil, making it a comfortable book I looked forward to reading before bed. What little romance there is serves as a nice accent rather than a the main attraction and it feels authentic in its evolution. I do wish Nora had been a little more active in her own fate, not because her passivity didn't make sense in the context of the story, just because I wanted her to control her own direction a bit better. At one point, she (almost) sets out on her own and that was an exciting turn of events but it didn't pan out. The other characters are provide interesting glimpses of a much larger world and a dense history. I hope there are more books in the future that expand on this as well as the next part of Nora’s journey; the story ends with a cliff hanger and there’s a lot that needs to be wrapped up. Some of it would have been better done in this book because there were some questions I thought shouldn’t have gone unanswered, but it does make me look forward to the next book.

There is a copy of this book available for giveaway. If you'd like it, leave a comment with a way to contact you and in a week or so I'll randomly pick a winner.