Recent Book Reviews

Dead Lemons Alive

Damaged psychologically and physically, the wheelchair bound main character moves into a cottage with a grim past at the farthest point south in New Zealand. His goal is to either recover or kill himself.

While that description may sound dark, the novel itself offers an uplifiting message of hope and resiliency. What transpires is a unique blend of suspense, mystery, psychology, and history in a captivating setting, all melded into a cohesive plot that for the most part is well worth the read.

Some issues with formatting on the kindle will likely deter a significant number of readers. The problem can easily be corrected by the author and I hope he does so soon as “Dead Lemons” deserves to be read. Aside from the formatting I found the use of present tense unnecessary and distracting and the latter part of the story seemed to slow when it should have picked up speed.

Overall, however, “Dead Lemons” is a fast paced story with interesting characters, history, plot twists, and psychological angles, all set in a unique location. “Dead Lemons” is informative, uplifting, and enjoyable.

Heavenly Writing

I read “Heaven Lake” at least ten years ago and was recently puzzled to find that I hadn’t left a review. What’s not so surprising however is that the novel has remained on my bookshelf and I knew exactly where to find it. Prized possessions are like that. After revisiting the first paragraph, I can see why I kept it. Few novels rate a second read and fewer still a third. “Heaven Lake” easily deserves a second read. Dalton’s writing appears to hold up well over time.

“Heaven Lake” is a superb novel told in exquisite and compelling prose that at times seems effortless, description and perception blended into an intimate portrayal of the young missionary Vincent whose discoveries in China easily become the reader’s discoveries. I can highly recommend joining Vincent in his journey across mainland China.

An Upside Down Look At Humanity

“The Inverted Forest” is a curious and ultimately captivating narrative that challenges us as readers to accept our own inner humanity, despite our preconceived notions about beauty and intelligence.

While I felt that the story was not as cohesive as Dalton’s earlier novel, “Heaven Lake,” the high quality of his prose and his willingness to immerse himself into the challenging perceptions of his unusual main character, Wyatt, deserve praise. When Dalton drops Wyatt into a unique and somewhat twisted situation while maintaining authenticity, “The Inverted Forest” becomes a novel well worth the read and fully deserving of a five-star rating.

John Dalton’s prose is a pleasure and I look forward to his next novel.

The Full Fun Catastrophe

“The Full Catastrophe” is one of those books that I’ve read portions of over the years whenever I need a good chuckle. But it’s more than funny. Like most good jokes, it’s humor is rooted in truth. It was such a fun read that I am still recommending it to anyone who will listen. For me, this is Carkeet’s best novel, and that’s saying a lot given his other exceptional work.

The mere idea of a live-in linguist as the solution to a troubled marriage is hilariously ridiculous, but Carkeet manages to make it entirely believable. While portions may seem more relevant to a time when men and women had slightly different roles, the humor still applies to any relationship. The witty dialogue and description and the neat, smartly executed plot lead to a very satisfying ending. Excellent book and a lot of fun.

“The Full Catastrophe” is one of those books that I’ve read portions of over the years whenever I need a good chuckle. But it’s more than funny. Like most good jokes, it’s humor is rooted in truth. It was such a fun read that I am still recommending it to anyone who will listen. For me, this is Carkeet’s best novel, and that’s saying a lot given his other exceptional work.

The mere idea of a live-in linguist as the solution to a troubled marriage is hilariously ridiculous, but Carkeet manages to make it entirely believable. While portions may seem more relevant to a time when men and women had slightly different roles, the humor still applies to any relationship. The witty dialogue and description and the neat, smartly executed plot lead to a very satisfying ending. Excellent book and a lot of fun.

Full of Errors

I read David Carkeet’s “The Error Of Our Ways” when it was first published in 1997 and have vivid memories of staying up well past midnight to finish it. I did not expect the same thing to happen in 2016. But it did. Despite references to outdated technology and perhaps some of the social mores of the decade in which it was written, this novel holds up well over time.

There is something “off” about this book, but in a good way. All the quirks and odd occurrences are completely believable. Carkeet interweaves ordinary events into an intricate plot, those events gaining increasingly greater and somewhat ominous significance as the novel progresses. I know of few writers who can describe the process of seeking college financial aid and weave it into the plot so that reading it becomes almost suspenseful. Not all errors are ordinary of course and the big mistakes can often balloon into ever bigger ones, but when we make them it’s often hard to determine their significance. Maybe our lives are like that, one long mountain climb where a small seemingly irrelevant mistake, neglecting to change a frayed boot lace, can have dire consequences on icy slopes.

“The Error Of Our Ways,” like Carkeet’s previous novels “Double Negative” and “The Full Catastrophe” feature the linguist Jeremy Cook. In those novels the humor jumps off almost every page, especially “The Full Catastrophe.” While “The Error Of Our Ways” is funny, its themes suggest more threatening forces, making it difficult to stop reading. And Carkeet knows his setting, exploiting it beautifully, the odd array of small “cities” bunched around the city of St. Louis.

In a way, “The Error Of Our Ways,” depicts a life transition, from Jeremy Cook, the cynical linguist who has no children and is only technically married, to Ben Hudnut, who has all the trappings of a family, his newly career minded wife, four daughters, his nut business, and an expensive house in an expensive neighborhood. Cook, the linguist who has nothing but his passion for language development will never have the family life of Ben Hudnut.

While the main characters Hudnut and Cook, are inventive, intricate, complex, their wives and supporting cast are only a little less so, and are strong characters nonetheless. However, this is ultimately a book about men, the man standing alone amid the debris of his inevitable mistakes, battling the forces that would harm him and what’s important to him. In Ben Hudnut’s case, his family and his nut business. For Jeremy Cook, his character, his political views, his lack of involvement in community, his solitude. In this regard, the novel makes excellent use of literary allusions, most notably Our Town. Perhaps, ironically, “The Error Of Our Ways” seems more suited to male readers who might be less likely to read it.

“The Error Of Our Ways” should resonate for a long time. Carkeet displays a gift for turning the mundane into the extraordinary, interweaving normal parental concerns and lingering sense of self into a compelling story. “The Error Of Our Ways” deserves to be read. Give it a try.

Answer: Offspring of a Witch, Caliban

As you might expect Hag-Seed shows (again) that Margaret Atwood is a masterful writer, this time applying her hard work and talent to the Hogarth Shakespeare project, an effort to have Shakespeare retold by “acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today.” Years ago, I tried reading Handmaid’s Tale and failed, so after a recommendation from a writer who I admire, I gave Hag-Seed a go. Everyone, I thought (and still do), should read at least one novel by Margaret Atwood.

However, I feel that I’ve failed again. Clearly, the fault is all mine. Atwood’s writing in Hag-Seed was intelligent and sometimes fun, showing a thorough mastery of Shakespeare’s The Tempest,. Unfortunately, I too often felt I was reading a High School Honor’s lesson plan, a question and answer assignment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – it is after all a proven method for teaching, and even second-rate adjunct English professors like me assign such questions. And Hag-Seed probably would work well for students. But I wanted to read a novel and not a lesson plan. It also felt a little like those questions occasionally listed at the end of contemporary novels, presumably for book groups, maybe to insinuate that the novel will withstand the test of time and appear in a classroom someday. (The Hag-Seed inmates seemed more like superficial high school drama students than criminals.) Maybe I should blame the Hogarth concept for turning novel writing into a classroom assignment. The notion of using “the novel” as a big writing project feels like a setup, sure to fall short.

Clearly, Margaret Atwood is an accomplished writer and despite the Hogarth High School approach, for the most part I enjoyed Hag-Seed.

Swimming with Family

Mary Troy creates characters so authentic, with universal human frailties, strengths, complex motives and tainted personal histories, that they become family. Some are close and some are distant aunts by marriage, but all are believable. She accomplished this masterfully in her first novel, Beauties, with alternating viewpoints between two misfit cousins.

In her second novel, Swimming on Hwy N, Troy ambitiously tries to expand her vision of humanity as family, with all it’s flaws, by moving fluidly from one character’s secret fears, desires and flashbacks to another’s, occasionally in the same paragraph. Troy attempts to intensify her themes of a shared humanity by speeding things up, sending her deeply flawed characters on a quirky, and slightly absurd, road trip turned chase turned search for family and home. Perhaps as a result of this determined effort, the writing occasionally feels strained and, with the numerous shifting viewpoints, the narrative and the dialogue can sometimes feel tautological. There are so many names and characters that it can become a challenge to keep up with them all. Perhaps this is intentional. The story leads us to a family reunion, the sort of gathering where we all have trouble keeping up with who’s who – but we try because we’re related. The group of misfits are family and in a broader context, we are all family.

Troy’s effort is extraordinary. With nerve and compassion, she introduces new intriguing characters well into the novel, delving into details of minor characters equally, and informing our understanding of common humanity. While I may be reaching here, the nearly equal weight given to all characters, even tertiary, can be seen as a metaphor. As the primary character, Madeline, swims in her children’s pool, it becomes smaller with less space, and paradoxically larger, as she accepts more broken people into her own damaged life. As readers, we jump into the pool with Madeline.

Swimming is a cranked up complex experience that pushes the boundaries, making it a little more challenging than her first novel, which in many ways, makes it more impressive and intellectually satisfying. The rush of characters blend into one mass of humanity, deeply flawed, but no less human and identifiable, aspects of all our own frailties revealed in a group of loosely intertwined misfits on their way to an unknowable future, guided by belief and heritage, family and ultimately love.

While Swimming on Hwy N occasionally seems unnecessarily difficult, it earns high marks with it’s rich complexity, belief in humanity, complex characters, and ambition, and it is well worth reading.

Out of the Trenches

Examining the psychologically complex effects of World War One trench warfare requires masterful, nuanced, and precise language. In “Regeneration” Pat Barker is fully up to the task. While some of the Briticisms of the time may impede a few readers, I can highly recommend this book, especially for those interested in psychology, psychiatry, war poetry, history, “shell shock,” pacifism, duty, recovery, and so on.

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