Praying Drunk

By Kyle Minor

(Sarabande, $15.95, 192 pages)

Who is this author?

For an author who is not yet 40, Kyle Minor has racked up a quite impressive list of honors.  Minor won the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction and the Kroger Prize for Short Fiction, was a three-time honoree in the annual Atlantic Monthly writing contest and was selected as one of Random House’s Best New Voices of 2006. His work has appeared in The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Iowa Review, Salon.com, Best American Mystery Stories 2008, Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers, and Forty Stories: New Voices from Harper Perennial. He also is the author of the 2008 story collection, In Devil’s Territory. He grew up in Florida and has lived in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.

What is this book about?

Tortured souls, including some who have actually been physically tortured, abound in this complex collection. While this is a book of short stories, Minor instructs his readers that they are meant to be read in order, as themes and events and characters play return engagements in these tales set in Kentucky, Florida and Haiti. You will encounter people who speak in tongues, bully a classmate, seek God, fail to find God and battle despair. Minor creates people who embark on the great struggle to maintain faith in a world of random pain.  “Praying Drunk” is a sobering book.

Why you’ll like it:

Kyle Minor is unafraid to tackle the downside of belief and the grimness so many find in life, but while there is a lot of unhappiness in this book, Minor handles it so skillfully and intelligently that it uplifts, rather than depresses. His characters struggle and do not always succeed, but it is the struggle that counts. Adding to the complex nature of this collection is his use of repeating themes and characters, a layering that adds depth to these already provocative tales.

What others are saying:             

The Los Angeles Times says:  Kyle Minor’s “Praying Drunk” offers a grim, gripping view of men and women still searching for the miraculous. Evangelists embark on missions to Haiti hoping to save anyone, if not just themselves; grieving family members struggle with questions of faith in the face of mounting evidence that they have no business having any; and a young narrator is tortured over and over again in school.

“To read “Praying Drunk” is to open yourself up to the type of rumination that some might be afraid of: namely, how can anyone have faith when humans do so much to distort godliness? The stories in Kyle Minor’s second collection are tender, searching and reflect onto one another. . . . tales are told over and over again from different perspectives, with facts erased, altered or added. Characters inhabiting one story pop into others, shifting our belief in who the characters are and who they wish to be. Minor quotes a teacher in the story “Q&A”: “Our job is to identify the distance between the story we’ve been telling ourselves about our lives — the received story, or the romantic story, or the wishful thinking — and replace it with the story that experience is revealing about our lives, the story that is more true.”

Says the New York Times Book Review: “Kyle Minor wants you to know that Praying Drunk is not actually, or only, a collection. In the epigraph, he warns: “These stories are meant to be read in order. This is a book, not just a collection. DON’T SKIP AROUND.’ Minor is right to insist. The stories may span decades as they move from Kentucky to Haiti and points between, but they work in concert to slowly reveal the landscape of an emotionally desolate quasi-America sinking under the weight of its own faith. . . . Minor writes beautifully about these ruined lives.”

In a starred review, Kirkus says: “An award-winning short fiction author offers 12 stories so ripe with realism as to suggest a roman à clef. . . .”In a Distant Country” is the most affecting, ringing with the haunted truths of Shakespearean tragedy—a missionary in Haiti, his teenage bride, the Duvaliers overthrown, his death, her disappearance—a tale unfolding in six letters from witnesses. It’s the 10th tale, but don’t read it first. In sequence, the stories present a powerful reflective narrative, offering perspectives on friends, family and faith. Stories cut to the heart—a teen helps his father chop a pink piano into kindling before he “walked toward this woodpile with a loaded shotgun and blew off his head”; then the boy’s funeral is rendered through multiple stories. Then come stories of the narrator’s brother, a Nashville musician, cheated and misused, who quits, finds a good job and then quits again . . . .Pain and loss range from Ohio to Tennessee to Kentucky to Florida to Haiti, with prose ringing with the hard-edged, mordant clarity of Southern writing. A preacher turns the making of biscuits into a funeral parable, and there’s more sardonic play with faith, as when a character sniffs up methadone powder: “There’s the line, gone up like the rapture.” That surrealistic piece follows a bereaved father who recreates a dead son as a bionic robot to win back his wife. This brilliant collection unfolds around a fractured narrative of faith and friends and family, loved and lost, an arc of stories in which characters find reason to carry on even after contemplating a “God with agency enough to create everything…and apathy enough to let it proceed as an atrocity parade.” There’s cynicism and despair and nihilism in the collection, certainly, but there’s courage too and a measure of blood-tinged beauty.”

Publishers Weekly says: “Similar to a great magic trick, the 13 stories in Minor’s  latest lure reader investment with strong visuals while simultaneously pulling the rug out from underfoot with clever, literary sleights–of-hand. Though not necessarily linked in the traditional sense, there is a sequential order to the collection—ideas, locations, incidents, and characters echo as the volume chugs forward—and the result is an often dazzling, emotional, funny, captivating puzzle. At the heart of the book are the Haitian tales “Seven Stories About Sebastian of Koulèv-Ville” and “In a Distant Country.” Set within the same village, though separated by decades, the narratives follow the lives of missionaries and the natives they look to aid during the Duvalier dictatorship and after the 2010 earthquake. The ideas of trust and faith run deep, and these emotions bleed throughout the collection, particularly in the narratives concerning a character akin to the author, who frets over his musician brother (in “There Is Nothing but Sadness in Nashville”), his dying grandfather (in “First, the Teeth”), and his own convictions (in “You Shall Go Out with Joy and Be Led Forth with Peace” and its companion, “Suspended”). Minor’s continuous play with form keeps the book fresh, despite a somewhat distracting presentation.”

Booklist says: “Minor’s first book of short fiction, In the Devil’s Territory (2008), introduced a talented writer with a penchant for experimental repetition and extraordinary vision, whose characters struggle to contain or divulge the dark secrets faith and family conceal. This well-honed second book consists of a series of linked narratives dealing again with questions of religion and kin, spanning Kentucky, Florida, and Haiti. The book deserves to be read sequentially, not because it’s arranged in chronological order but because characters and conceits recur, eventually coalescing into heartrending closure. In one instance, Minor tells the story of a son’s suicide from multiple perspectives, spinning off seemingly peripheral characters, only to take up alternate points of view in subsequent stories. Elsewhere, a rational young man questions his romantic interest’s spiritual awakenings, which include speaking in tongues and dangerous visions. Minor writes with the descriptive clarity of Denis Johnson, the jigsaw-like structuring of Sherwood Anderson, and the Appalachian acuity of Jayne Anne Phillips. Certainly one to read and enjoy and to watch for in the future.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch have copies available for borrowing.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Instructions For a Heat Wave

By Maggie O’Farrell

(Knopf, $25.95, 304)

Who is this author?                            

Part of the fun of writing about books is getting to discover authors I’ve never before read. Not that they aren’t already well-known, just not to me. My summer discovery this year was the award-winning Maggie O’Farrell, who was born in Northern Ireland, grew up in Wales and Scotland and now lives with her family in London. This is her sixth novel, the others being  “After You’d Gone,” “ My Lover’s Lover,” “The Distance Between Us,” “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox”  and  “The Hand That First Held Mine.” Happily, that means I have five more to look forward to.

What is this book about?

It’s the brutally hot summer of 1976 in London, where an Irish family (or most of it) is coping with the stunning heat wave. Gretta, mother of three troubled grown children, wakes to find what seems like a normal day, and despite the punishing heat, bakes some soda bread. And then she realizes that her husband, a quiet retired banker named Robert, has quite unbelievably disappeared, along with some money and his passport. Soon the children — unhappily married history teacher Michael Francis; equally unhappy and very judgmntal middle daughter Monica; and far off in New York, smart but dyslexic youngest daughter Aoife, who has hid her inability to read from family, teachers, employers and even her boyfriend Gabe — are forced to put aside their sometimes petty and more often profound differences and solve the puzzle of where their father has gone. And even more important, what they themselves want from life, and each other.

Why you’ll like it:

O’Farrell is deeply talented at creating believable characters who talk the way real people do, which immediately draws the reader in and does not let them go till the final pages are consumed. Anyone who has had to cope with dysfunctional family dynamics — and that is just about everyone — will be impressed by how skillfully O’Farrell handles them here, from the low-level sniping among the siblings that begins in childhood and grows more serious in adulthood to the constant struggle of a well-meaning mother to control the children she loves but does not understand and their never-ending battle to break free. What takes place over four days is fascinating, but compelling as the plot may be, it’s the power and beauty of O’Farrell’s writing that makes this book so good. Here’s a sample of her prose, as the story begins:

“The heat, the heat. It wakes Gretta just after dawn, propelling her from the bed and down the stairs. It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome: it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs. The air in the kitchen is like a solid entity filling the space, pushing Gretta down into the floor, against the side of the table.

“Only she would choose to bake bread in such weather.

“Consider her now, yanking open the oven and grimacing in its scorching blast as she pulls out the bread tin. She is in her nightdress, hair still wound onto curlers. She takes two steps backwards and tips the steaming loaf into the sink, the weight of it reminding her, as it always does, of a baby, a newborn, the packed, damp warmth of it.

“She has made soda bread three times a week for her entire married life. She is not about to let a little thing like a heatwave get in the way of that. …”

What others are saying:

“O’Farrell appears to be fascinated by the idea that the visible connections of kinship or marriage are often not the entire story — and not even the actual story — of what holds us close to one another. Secrets and lies pervade her fictional worlds, and they always tumble out to satisfying effect. She has made her mark by combining the elements of good old-­fashioned drama — love affairs in the shadows, the reappearance of long-lost relatives, hidden wives — with a modern lightness of touch in language and a deft freedom in moving her narratives forward through juxtaposition rather than linear plotting. For the reader, this can feel like having one’s cake and eating it too. O’Farrell’s novels appeal to a broad audience, but they’re also smart and provocative. Over and over, they try to work out who people really are, how ordinary lives can conceal extraordinary stories,” says The New York Times Book Review.

The Observer says:  “All the hallmarks of an O’Farrell novel are here: a family with secrets in its past and words left unsaid years ago, relatives long since forgotten, a claustrophobic atmosphere of uncomfortable emotional closeness. This is an accomplished and addictive story told with real humanity, warmth and infectious love for the characters. Highly recommended.”

Says Booklist: “It is July 1976, and London is in the grip of an intense heatwave. All over the city, people are coming unhinged, and the Riordans are no exception. Retired banker Robert has left to buy a newspaper and never returns. His wife, Gretta, calls their three children, who converge on the family homestead for the first time in years. marriage is over; uptight Monica, trapped in a second marriage with two stepchildren who hate her, is not speaking to the younger sister she practically raised; and Aoife, who has taken herself off to Manhattan but cannot outrun the dyslexia that has made her working life a virtual hell. As the siblings seek out clues to the whereabouts of their father, O’Farrell, in her sixth novel, draws a beautiful portrait of family life. The story really blossoms in the second half, when the Riordans end their search in Ireland, where the family’s secrets and private feuds come raging forth so that the true healing can begin.”

Publishers Weekly says: When Gretta Riordan’s husband, Robert, disappears during the 1976 London heat wave, her three grown children return home for the first time in years. All are dealing with personal crises that inform their relationships with each other and are tied back to their family history. The oldest, Michael Francis, is trying to keep his marriage together as his wife yearns for independence, and his two sisters, Monica and Aoife, have been estranged for years over a bitter secret that led Aoife across the ocean to New York, where she has made a life for herself while hiding her illiteracy. Under the stress of searching for their father and enduring the unbearable heat—which causes people to “act not so much out of character but deep within it”—the siblings and their mother are forced to confront old resentments which bubble to the surface. O’Farrell skillfully navigates between past and present, as family secrets are revealed and old grudges are hashed out, without ever losing the narrative’s pace. An absorbing read from start to finish, through O’Farrell’s vibrant prose, each character comes alive as more is revealed and the novel unfolds.

Kirkus Reviews says: “A sometimes-brooding but always sympathetic novel, by prize-winning British writer O’Farrell, of a family’s struggles to overlook the many reasons why they should avoid each other’s glances and phone calls. Hot town, summer in the city. . . . This does not keep Gretta Riordan, dutiful and uncomplaining, from rising early to bake soda bread. Desiccated Irish transplant Robert Riordan, though, takes a look at his suburban life, wife and family and makes his way to cooler and greener pastures without them. Has the heat addled his brain? Is he doing the only sensible thing possible? When his children converge to suss out what Da has done, they have no answers. Meanwhile, all of them are on the run from themselves: Michael, a schoolteacher, has a wife who’s taken to sheltering herself in the attic, away from her own children. Monica, the favorite (“Not even her subsequent divorce–which caused seismic shockwaves for her parents–was enough to topple her from prime position.”), is on the edge of a scream at any given minute. The baby, Aoife (pronounced “precisely between both ‘Ava’ and ‘Eva’ and ‘Eve,’ passing all three but never colliding with them”) has been off in New York, nursing a very strange secret. In other words, no one’s quite normal, which is exactly as it is with every family on Earth–only, in the case of the Riordans, a little more so. O’Farrell paints a knowing, affectionate, sometimes exasperated portrait of these beleaguered people, who are bound by love, if a sometimes-wary love, but torn apart by misunderstanding, just like all the rest of us. A skillfully written novel of manners, with quiet domestic drama spiced with fine comic moments. The payoff is priceless, too.”

When is it available?        

Whether it is hot or cold, this book can be found at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Without Warning

By David Rosenfelt

(St. Martin’s/Minotaur, $25.99, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

David Rosenfelt grew up in New Jersey, became marketing president for Tri-Star Pictures in California and then a successful writer of novels and screenplays. His books include five “standalones” and 11 Andy Carpenter mystery novels, including “Leader of the Pack,” featuring an appealing sleuth and his dog. (More about that later.)  Rosenfelt’s second novel, “First Degree,” was a Publishers Weekly best book of 2003. The author and his wife are devoted dog lovers and moved recently from California to Maine in three RVs so that they could bring their 25 – that’s right, 25 —  rescued golden retrievers with them. Their Tara Foundation has rescued nearly 4,000 dogs.  His 2013 nonfiction book, “Dogtripping,” tells that epic tale..

What is this book about?

In small-town Maine, newspaper editor Katie Sanford is still mourning her husband, Roger, who was killed in prison after being convicted (wrongly, she insists) of the murder of Jenny Robbins, with whom he was having an affair. That killing still haunts Jake, Jenny’s husband, who is chief of police. When a hurricane hits the town of Wilton, a time capsule meant to be buried for 50 years is unearthed after just five, and its revelations are shocking: creepy predictions of a dozen murders and tragedies, including Jenny’s death, that strongly suggest Katie’s husband was not the killer after all and also implicate Jake in the various crimes. Kate and Jake now have information that could prevent the next murder and explain the mystery, if they work fast and furiously enough. But a killer this clever is no easy mark, even for this savvy duo.

Why you’ll like it:

Rosenfelt knows how to spin a good tale, and he also possesses the ability to write with dry humor, even about grim circumstances. Deeply buried dark doings in a small New England town is an almost sure-fire plot structure for an entertaining thriller, and Rosenfelt has the chops to set up the story and blend the mystery with a bit of romance and some much–needed comic relief. All of that makes for a good read.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says:  “At the start of this riveting standalone from Edgar-finalist Rosenfelt, a hurricane destroys a Wilton, Maine, dam. When newspaper publisher Katie Sanford and her staff unearth the time capsule they buried nearly five years earlier to check for water damage, they discover skeletal remains and a set of predictions about future crimes, including the murder of the wife of police chief Jake Robbins. Months after the capsule’s burial, Katie’s husband allegedly killed Jake’s wife, with whom he’d had an affair. Other predictions correlate to an unsolved arson case and a string of murders. When Jake realizes he’s the common denominator among the crimes, he races to piece together the cryptic clues, identify potential victims, and delve into his own past to discover who wants to frame him and why. His feelings for Katie—the high school sweetheart with whom he’s starting to rekindle romance, but who represents the potentially antagonistic press—add complexity and nuance. Only some minor chronological discrepancies mar this suspenseful page-turner.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A methodical serial killer is on the loose in a small Maine town, and it’s up to the police chief to resolve the case before more people die in Rosenfelt’s latest police thriller. Jake Robbins is a war hero, but it’s a role he neither likes nor covets. While in Afghanistan, he was involved in an incident that won him the Navy Cross, but though he saved lives that day, others were lost, and it’s something he has a hard time reconciling. When he returned to Wilton, where he grew up, he worked his way up to chief of police, but life there has its own price: His wife, Jenny, was murdered by Roger, the publisher of the local paper, with whom she was having an affair. Roger was murdered in prison, leaving his wife, Katie, to assume control of the paper. After Wilton suffers damage from a devastating hurricane, Katie decides to dig up the town’s time capsule, something that’s buried every 50 years, to make sure it’s not damaged; when workers open the hole, they find the skeletonized body of a man who apparently died about the same time the capsule ceremony took place. Even more disturbing is the fact that the capsule, which in addition to artifacts holds predictions written by local dignitaries, now contains an extra box of predictions—each of which addresses a murder. Some of those murders—like Jenny’s—have already taken place, but others have not, and Jake must resolve the mystery before more people are killed. Rosenfelt’s staccato writing style is clean if a bit abrupt. While the action moves along at a rapid pace, he fails to flesh out the characters, making the ensuing romance between Jake and Katie seem both forced and predictable. A romance camouflaged as a thriller but a short, smooth read most will enjoy.”

“Spooky. Creepy. Edgy. Shuddery. What more could anyone want? The author of the Andy Carpenter series offers an offbeat premise. A snoozy Maine town fills a time capsule with predictions and instructions to open it in 50 years. After only five years, though, the capsule is broken by a flood, and folks get a premature look at the predictions. They’re a shock. Some forecast vile things that have happened; others predict they’re going to happen. Then they start happening, ahead of schedule, and they all obliquely involve police chief Jake Robbins. The novel steps into Michael Connelly ground as Robbins learns that the savage murders he’s investigating are about him. The cop and the reader struggle together to figure out why. So effective is this approach that it’s almost disappointing when the air of mystery evaporates as the plot becomes clear. The novel is a tad too long, and Rosenfelt’s most engaging quality—a sense of humor in the face of growing menace—sometimes feels a bit inappropriate. Still, this is highly recommended for readers craving that elusive “something different,” says Booklist.

When is it available?

“Without Warning” is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Albany, Camp Field, Dwight, Mark Twain and Ropkins branches.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!


The Quick

By Lauren Owen

(Random House, $27, 544 pages)

Who is this author?

Lauren Owen, who lives in the north of England and is not yet 30, has a degree in Victorian literature, and that gives her debut novel, set in 1892, a strong underpinning. Owen studied at Oxford University and the University of East Anglia, where she won an award for best fiction dissertation. “The Quick” was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of its top 10 literary fiction books of the season.

What is this book about?

It’s the late 19th century in London, and a young, aspiring poet moves in with a wealthy and charming young man, who soon brings James Norbury into his aristocratic circle, where he makes new friends and falls in love. But when James unexpectedly disappears, it is left to his sister, Charlotte, to leave the family’s country home and find her missing brother. Mystery and sheer horror await her as she discovers a supernatural netherworld in the great city, where the men of the upper-class and powerful Aegolius Club hold the answers she seeks and secrets almost too dangerous to face.

 Why you’ll like it:

Fall is fast approaching and with it, Halloween: time for some supernatural chills.  You may think the horror genre has done just about all it can with the subject of vampires, but think again. Owen, who has studied the territory well, brings her own perspective and perceptions to this venerable subset of scary stories, and reviewers are delighted with her blend of historical fiction about the Victorian era and the horror she cleverly and thoroughly invokes.

What others are saying:

In The New York Times Book Review, Andrew Sean Greer says: “…a good old-fashioned vampire novel…To cover such well-worn narrative ground, a novelist has to either invent new possibilities or invent new storytelling devices. Owen has chosen the latter, and the novel proceeds by looping back over the previous episodes, each time from a different character’s perspective. This has the pleasant effect of plunging us into invention and then, slowly, into recognition…The Quick is full of…wonderful inventions, while still providing the torn collars and hungry looks the genre demands. Like a corpse in a bag, Owen’s novel is lumpy in places, spattered in blood and eventually opens up to horror. What fun.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Though currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity, vampires as we know them are a Victorian invention: Dracula came out in 1897. Debut author Owen sets her seductive book in 1892, in a late-Victorian London with a serious vampire problem. And like her Victorian counterparts, Owen depicts a host of characters: there’s shy, provincial poet James Norbury and his intrepid sister Charlotte; vampire hunters Adeline Swift and Shadwell; a rich American in danger; and Augustus Mould, who researches vampire myth and fact on behalf of the vampires, and who’s as warm and friendly as his name suggests. The vampire world is divided: the elite men of the Aegolius club coexist, not happily, with a ragged band of underclass undead. The book’s pleasures include frequent viewpoint shifts that require readers to figure out how each character fits into the story, new riffs on vampire rituals and language, plus several love affairs, most of which are doomed. And there’s plenty of action—Mould’s research, the clubmen’s recruitment efforts, escalating battles between vampires and vampire hunters and among the vampires, and Charlotte’s efforts to save James. Though the book has an old-fashioned, leisurely pace, which might cause some reader impatience, Owen’s sentence-by-sentence prose is extraordinarily polished—a noteworthy feat for a 500-page debut—and she packs many surprises into her tale, making it a book for readers to lose themselves in.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “An elegantly written gothic epic that begins with children isolated in a lonely manor house; takes a spin through the velvet-draped salons of late-Victorian literary London; then settles in to the bloody business of an outbreak of evil magic. The novel draws from several genres and benefits from innumerable literary influences. Indeed, its many elements are so familiar that one feels—not unpleasantly—as if one has read and loved it already, years ago, but can’t remember exactly how it ends. The year is 1892, and James Norbury, a poet fresh from Oxford, has taken rooms with an intriguing young nobleman. Alas, the joys of youthful gay abandon don’t last long. James disappears, and his sister Charlotte takes it upon herself to come to London to find him. The ominous city that awaits her will please readers who love magical creatures of the elegant, bloodthirsty variety, and the vast cast of more or less creepy characters that populates the cobblestoned streets will satisfy admirers of ensemble novels. As in Dracula, an obvious influence, the supernatural mystery must be solved by a motley crew of avengers. And although the book is not as lushly described as The Night Circus, Owen’s soaring imagination and her light-handed take on magic save this story from being either obvious or boring. Eventually, Charlotte discovers that her brother’s disappearance can be traced to a secret organization of gentlemen—and no sparkling Beau Brummell or amiable Bertie Wooster is to be found among the terrifying and powerful inner circle of The Aegolius Club.A book that seems to begin as a children’s story ends in blood-soaked mayhem; the journey from one genre to another is satisfying and surprisingly fresh considering that it’s set in a familiar version of gothic London among equally familiar monsters.”

When is it available?

It’s lurking on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Be Safe I Love You

By Cara Hoffman

(Simon & Schuster, $26, 304 pages)

Who is this author

Cara Hoffman writes and teaches others to write and appreciate literature. Hoffman has been a visiting writer at St. John’s, Columbia and Oxford Universities and now teaches writing and literature at Bronx Community College. Her first novel was the well-received “So Much Pretty,” and “Be Safe I Love You” is also getting critical raves.

What is this book about?

It’s about a soldier who unexpectedly comes home from a tour of duty in Iraq, bringing a daunting load of war-induced emotional problems. What’s different about this book is that the soldier is a woman. Lauren was once a gifted singer, but enlisted to help provide for her family, especially her very smart brother, Danny.  Something is obvious wrong when she returns, but Lauren’s family, which has been rocked by divorce and her father’s illness, can’t or won’t deal with it, hoping that time at home will help her heal. Then she takes Danny to Canada, where there is an oil field she has grown obsessed with, and begins to teach him survival skills. Bit by bit, the reader learns what happened in Iraq and why she is behaving so oddly, and perhaps dangerously.

Why you’ll like it:

We’ve all read compelling books about men at war and the difficulties they have when they return home. But it’s a rare novel that captures the experience of a woman warrior who is just as devastated as male soldiers, especially when the book  is earning great praise for its beautiful writing.  As our armed forces have changed to offer opportunities for women, this book is a reminder that the horrific downside of the experience affects both genders.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Hoffman’s excellent sophomore effort (after 2012’s So Much Pretty) describes the troubled homecoming of U.S. Army Sergeant Lauren Clay to Watertown, N.Y., from a tour of duty in Iraq. Lauren, left as a young girl by her mother to care for her little brother, Danny, and her depressed, bedridden father, is bitter and skeptical of her parents’ newfound eagerness to play an active role in her life. Once a promising classical singer, she is now permanently on edge, quick to anger, and plagued by nightmares and hallucinations. Upon her return, Lauren is alarmed to find that 13-year-old Danny has become an Internet junkie, and she decides to take him on a road trip to Canada. There, she plans to look for work with former soldier Daryl Green, a kindred spirit with whom she served. Lauren chucks Danny’s phone and subjects him to a crash course in wilderness survival as the two head north. Meanwhile, Lauren’s acquaintances become concerned about her unusual behavior, especially after several calls from an Army psychologist. Hoffman fills her tight narrative with an ominous sense of imminent violence. The sunny ending sounds a rare false note in this haunting page-turner, which otherwise rings true in its depiction of a veteran’s plight.”

“A finely tuned piece of fiction . . . Be Safe I Love You is a painful exploration of the devastation wrought by combat even when the person returns from war without a scratch. The story—written with such lucid detail it’s hard to believe the main character is an invention—suggests the damage starts long before the soldier reports for duty. . . . In crystalline language that conveys both the desolation of the Iraqi desert and the north country of New York State . . . this book is a reminder that art and love are all that can keep us from despair,” says The New York Times Book Review.

The Washington Post says: “In so many ways, we still think of warfare and soldiering as male endeavors. The plight of the female soldier remains largely out of view — in print media, on television news, even in fiction and film. Through Lauren, Cara Hoffman’s thoroughly researched and carefully crafted heroine, Be Safe I Love You illuminates the distaff side of military service and the ways that life in uniform are at once different and, at times, uncannily similar for men and women. Toward the end of this fine novel, Lauren finds a new life for herself based on her old passions, but Hoffman doesn’t give us the sense that she’s fully healed. Rather, she is, in her own way, soldiering on, a woman forever changed. . . . ‘She knew now that the difference between never and always was small,’ Hoffman writes. ‘Never and always are separated by a wasp’s waist, a small sliver of safety glass, one bead of sweat; separated by the seven seconds it takes to exhale the air from your lungs, to make your body as still as the corpse you are about to create.’”

“Beautifully written and unflinching in its honesty . . . [Be Safe I Love You] is a penetrating social critique: Hoffman paints a vivid and nuanced portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder and raises questions about class divisions (the working class being more directly affected by American warfare than anyone else). . . . A terrific story, suspenseful and smart and tender in unexpected moments, but it’s also a call to action, a heartfelt demand for us to pay closer attention to the costly fallout of violence,”  says the Miami Herald.

The Boston Globe says: “For those of us never deployed into active duty, it is difficult to fathom the adrenaline-fueled combination of terror and anger that combat instills. We only see the aftermath, when soldiers return home, forever changed, trying to connect with a world where everyone seems flawed and fragile and uncomprehending. . . . In prose that is both powerful and poetic, Hoffman (So Much Pretty) paints a searing portrait of PTSD and the disconnect of the returning vet amid the well-meaning but clueless. . . . Even more compelling is the novel’s rare, illuminating glimpse into the distinctive experience and psyche of a female vet. Hoffman challenges us to imagine how extraordinarily difficult it must be to reconcile the innate protective instincts of the caregiver with a culture of violence and orders to kill. Yet she does that beautifully and poignantly, without destroying our hope for redemption and healing.”

When is it available?

This novel is now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Blue Hills and Mark Twain branches.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!


Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade

By Walter Kirn

(Liveright, $25.95, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

I first heard of Walter Kirn when I saw the bittersweet movie, “Up in the Air,” starring George Clooney. That popular film was based on Kirn’s book of the same title, and another of his novels, “Thumbsucker,” also was adapted for the screen. His other fiction includes “My Hard Bargain: Stories” and “She Needed Me.” Kirn, who lives in Montana, is a contributing editor for Time and often writes for the New York Times Book Review. His writing also has appeared in in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, Vogue, New York and Esquire. “Blood Will Out” was named a USA Today Top 10 Best Book of Winter 2014.

What is this book about?

This is the story of a smart writer who was gulled – in no small part by his own willingness to believe and his desire to snag a fascinating story – by a con man who goes far beyond a kind of entertaining “Catch Me if You Can” life of impersonations straight to cold-blooded murder. In 1988, Kirn, whose marriage was failing and was about to become a father, accepted a strange assignment: bring a crippled dog from Montana to a mysterious New York banker and art collector who had seen the dog on the Internet and wanted to adopt it. The man called himself Clark Rockefeller and claimed to be part of the famously rich family, but in fact turned out to be a poor German émigré, a skilled sociopathic imposter, kidnapper of his own daughter and a ruthless killer. For 15 years, Kirn let his life be entwined with that of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, aka Clark, and the book details what the author learned about his psychopathic pal and about himself, from the first ill-fated trip with the dog to the murder trial and beyond.

Why you’ll like it:

This is definitely one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” true crime stories, and you will be mystified by how “Clark” managed to fool countless people who should have seen through his brilliant and sophisticated con games, including his wealthy upper class wife. And you may well also be puzzled how Kirn, an apparenty smart and savvy observer of life, also fell – for many years and quite willingly – for Clark’s phony representation of himself as one of the privileged upper crust. Read this one as a cautionary tale: if someone’s story of his life seems too good to be true…well, you know the rest.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says, in a starred review: “In the summer of 1998, Kirn . . .  was a struggling writer, taking assignments where he could get them, when he accepted an odd task: transporting a crippled dog from a Montana animal shelter to New York City, where a wealthy benefactor from the Rockefeller family eagerly awaited its arrival. That alone could have made for a quirky riff on Steinbeck’s classic Travels with Charley, but Kirn’s road trip took another turn entirely as he entered a wild and murky 15-year friendship with the man who called himself “Clark Rockefeller”—a man who would eventually be the target of a nationwide FBI manhunt and charged with murder. Kirn artfully relates how the man born as Christian Gerhartstreiter manipulated those around him, operating against a backdrop of elite mens’ clubs, expensive art, constant name-dropping, and tales of wealth and sophistication. The parallels with Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley are not lost on Kirn, who spends as much time trying to understand how he and others fell under Gerhartstreiter’s spell as he does relating the primary tale of the criminal himself. Kirn’s candor, ear for dialogue, and crisp prose make for a masterful true crime narrative that is impossible to put down. The book deserves to become a classic.”

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, March 2014, review says: “An epigraph from Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley says much about what’s to come in Walter Kirn’s remarkable confessional: “He was versatile, and the world was wide!” When Kirn first met Clark Rockefeller, he was smitten by the man’s wealth and eccentricities. Coming off a failed marriage (to the daughter of Thomas McGuane and Margot Kidder), Kirn was a bit of a wreck, as was Rockefeller. The two men were drawn to each other. As the friendship progressed–into some uneasy terrain–Kirn ignored the clues “spread out for [him] to read,” and plowed ahead to become a confidant and enabler. Except, it turns out, Clark wasn’t a Rockefeller at all. Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was, as Kirn puts it, “the most prodigious serial imposter in recent history.” He was also a murderer. So what did that make Kirn? “A fool,” he admits, “a stubborn fool.” This is a compulsively readable, can’t-look-away book and, ultimately, a brave piece of work. Kirn has laid himself bare: his failed marriage, his Ritalin reliance, his misguided allegiance to a sociopath. In exposing his own “ignorance and vanity,” what Kirn has really crafted here is the story of a bamboozled writer who for fifteen years ignored the big story right under his nose; who, in trusting his imposter friend, “violated my storyteller’s oath.” With Blood Will Out, Kirn has impressively restored his storyteller’s credentials.

Says Booklist: “In The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), Janet Malcolm dissected journalist-subject dynamics. Here Kirn also covers that subject, but in the highly personal story of his being hoodwinked, professionally and emotionally, by a man he knew as Clark Rockefeller, a member of  the famously wealthy industrial, political, and banking family. Over the years, their often long-distance friendship faltered in suspicious ways, yet Kirn kept up hope, naively perhaps, considering the flaws and untruths he uncovered, disturbing occurrences Kirn chose to ignore. But when Kirn woke one morning to discover that his friend Clark was not even Clark, much less a Rockefeller, and going to be tried for a murder committed years ago, he decided to finally write about their relationship, questioning along the way journalistic integrity and the encounters between the subject and the writer. This tale’s a fascinating one (starting with Kirn’s road trip with a paralyzed dog) that is covered elsewhere (Mark Seal’s The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, 2011), but Kirn’s reflecting, musing, and personal dealings add a killer punch to this true-crime memoir.”

“Kirn is such a good writer and Gerhartsreiter such a baroquely, demonically colorful subject, you could imagine this being a fine read had they no personal connection. That they did, however, elevates Blood Will Out to another level: Kirn lards his story with detail while reviewing his own psyche, in an attempt to discover how he—a journalist!—could have been so fooled. The irony? With all due respect to Kirn’s skills as a novelist, it is hard to conceive of any fictionalized version of ‘Clark Rockefeller’ being as compelling as the real thing,” says Entertainment Weekly.”

When is it available?

Here’s the truth: it’s at the Downtown Hartford Public Library now.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!


Visible City

By Tova Mirvis

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Tova Mirvis, who lives in Newton, Mass., previously published the novels The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, a national bestseller. She has had essays published in anthologies and newspapers, including The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, and Poets and Writers, and stories by Mirvis have been broadcast on National Public Radio.

What is this book about?

Kind of a “Rear Window”-style vibe, but without the murder, this is a novel about a woman who relieves the inevitable isolation of being a stay-at-home mom with two little children by using her son’s Fisher-Price binoculars to peep at the people in the windows across the street in an Upper West Side building much like her own.

Here is how Mirvis sets the scene:

“Nina’s living room window offered no sweeping city views, no glimpse of the river or the sky, only the ornate prewar building across the street. She and Jeremy had lived in this Upper West Side apartment for five years but still hadn’t gotten around to buying shades. Even though she looked into other people’s windows, she’d convinced herself that no one was, in turn, watching them. With two sleeping kids, she couldn’t leave the apartment, but it was enough to look out at the varieties of other people’s lives. At nine in the evening the windows across the street were like the rows of televisions in an electronics store, all visible at once. Nina’s eyes flickered back and forth, but she inevitably returned to watching the same square, waiting for the couple to reappear, their quiet togetherness stirring her desire to ride out of her apartment into theirs. Hoping to find them there again, hoping that this might be the night in which they looked up from their books, she didn’t move, not until she was pulled away by the scream of a child.”

The lives of Nina and her husband Jeremy intersect with those of two other couples, challenging their anonymity and forcing them to confront change.

Why you’ll like it:

Mirvis writes with empathy and discernment about couples in their 20s, 30s and 60s, each confronting typical, yet unique to them, problems of relationships. Just as Nina spies on their lives, Mirvis lets us look into their worlds, which are not as simple and structured as Nina once believed. Eventually the watcher and the watched encounter one another and perceptions and reality clash in this occasionally darkly humorous and insightful tale.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says:  “If you keep talking to strangers… eventually they become friends.” Mirvis (The Ladies Auxiliary) writes an intimate story about different types of relationships, including those with complete strangers. Mirvis sets her story on New York City’s Upper West Side where two families live in high-rise apartments with their curtains open, one apartment’s windows facing the other’s. Nina, a restless ex-lawyer and current stay-at-home mother, is in possession of her son’s toy binoculars. To fill the lonely hours until her lawyer husband Jeremy gets home from work, she watches, with admiration and growing jealousy, an older couple across the way. One evening, instead of seeing two peaceful companions reading quietly on the couch, Nina sees a youthful couple (temporarily staying in the older couple’s apartment) in a lustful and heated embrace. The sight makes Nina reinterpret the comfortable and quiet love of the older couple, and wish for something closer to what the young couple has. Her new mindset is further complicated when fate steps in, and the lives of Nina’s family and the strangers in the window collide. In this story of chance and the temptation of change, Mirvis elicits the reader’s sympathy for her characters’ conflicting desires.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Anyone who has spent time in Manhattan or watched Hitchcock’s Rear Window will recognize the voyeuristic pleasure that jump-starts Mirvis’ third novel, as a bored young mother stands at her apartment window watching across-the-street neighbors in their living room, unaware that the two families’ lives will soon intertwine. While her lawyer husband, Jeremy, works all hours at his high-pressure firm arranging large real estate development deals, lawyer-turned–stay-at-home-mom Nina is going a little nuts. Trapped in her Upper West Side apartment with 3-year-old Max and baby Lily, Nina spends lonely nights watching a couple reading together in what looks like companionable silence in the building across from hers. Then one day, the couple is replaced by a young woman in a leg cast who argues, then makes love with a young man, aware that she is being watched. The young woman is Emma, who has moved back in with her parents—art historian Claudia and therapist Leon—while her broken ankle heals and she decides how to get out of her engagement. Running into Claudia on the street, Nina recognizes her former professor, who never encouraged her. Nina’s friend Wendy, who presents herself as a perfect mommy, turns out to be one of Leon’s more unhappy patients. Avoiding involvement with his wife and daughter, Leon spends his happiest hours moving his Volvo to obey parking rules. Leon and Nina meet in the neighborhood coffee shop and begin a flirtation. Meanwhile, Jeremy faces a professional crisis that will impact everyone. (The author’s previous fictions were explorations of specifically Jewish communities, and while Mirvis makes only passing mention of Jeremy’s Orthodox upbringing, there is no mistaking her characters’ ethnicity.) It becomes clear that how people appear in the tableaux created by window frames and how they are in real space can be very different. This dark, witty, if slightly overstructured comedy about deceptive appearances evolves into a moving examination of intimacy’s limitations.”

“Mirvis’s meticulously choreographed novel surprises and moves us. She shows the city for what it is behind all its windows and walls: a vast constellation of those ‘truthful moments’ her heroine seeks, as numerous as the stars,” says The New York Times Book Review.

“A complex novel about intersecting lives. . . [that] paints a wry, funny portrait of an Upper West Side in turmoil, where harried mothers endlessly ponder their skills at “parenting”. . . What makes Visible City interesting is Mirvis’s humane, intelligent perception of the emotional lives of her characters,” says the Wall Street Journal.

“By the time she has knitted up all the delicate threads of her story, Mirvis reveals that freedom often involves the acceptance of responsibility, rather than simply casting off the fetters that bind us to daily life. Through Nina’s eyes, she offers a radiant vision of her characters’ newly discovered liberation and of the infinitely complex, extraordinary city in which that kind of reinvention can come to feel like a possibility every day,” says Bookreporter.com.

When is it available?

You can peek into this book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Mark Twain Branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

 


(Knopf Doubleday, $24.95, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

T.T. Monday knows the way to in San Jose. That’s because he lives there. The Setup Man is his first thriller, but you won’t find much online about T.T. That’s because he’s really Nick Taylor, who blogs for PaloAtoonline.com  about books and also writes about baseball.  He’s written two novels as Taylor, but  “The Setup Man” is his first “baseball thriller” as T.T. Monday.  Here is what he blogged about choosing that pen name:

“My decision to use a pseudonym was a mix of three factors: one, I wanted to create a new brand for work in a new genre (like J.C. Oates); two, I was hoping to escape my dismal sales record; and three, I thought it would be fun.

“In case you’re wondering, “T.T.” doesn’t stand for anything. I just happen to like names with a repeated initial (ee cummings, A. A. Milne, Z.Z. Packer, B.B. King, J.J. Abrams, C.C. Sabathia).

“When I finished the book, my agent agreed to send it to editors under the pseudonym. . .  . We eventually sold the book to Doubleday. . .  It wasn’t a first-novel payday, but I felt good about the deal. The editor was young, enthusiastic, and full of ideas for the manuscript. Even better, he was comfortable with me being T.T. Monday, even though he knew who I was. He even offered to let me publish the book as Nick Taylor.

“In the end I went with T.T. By that point I was invested in the idea of a new brand. I even had a new website. I hadn’t escaped my sales record (those numbers will be chiseled on my tomb), but I had reset my own expectations. As T.T. Monday, I had new hope of reaching a wider audience.

What is this book about?

Johnny Adcock is a setup man, a Major League Baseball relief pitcher who specializes in facing left-handed batters in the eighth inning, before the closer comes in to put the game away for his team. But he’s also a private investigator in his spare time, and his fellow players, whose big bucks make them a fat target for criminals, grifters and unhappy wives, know that Johnny has the smarts and discretion to relieve those problems, especially when they are shunning publicity.

But when a teammate begins telling Johnny he needs help with marital issues and then suddenly dies in a car wreck, the pitcher/ P.I. gets tangled up in murder, porn, Mexican cartels and a grand slam of a baseball scandal. Has Johnny got what it takes to leave this field alive?

Why you’ll like it:

Monday/Taylor knows the game and he knows how to write a lively fastball of a book. If you are a baseball fan, or a mystery fan, or both, here is a book that should fill your summertime (or any other time) light reading needs. Play ball!

What others are saying:

From Booklist’s starred review: “ Johnny Adcock knows he’s fortunate. He’s paid $1.5 million per year for about 10 minutes’ work, about 70 times a year. He’s the Setup Man, whose job is to pitch the eighth inning, or even to pitch to a single left-handed batter. But he’s also a realist. At 35, he’s a senior citizen, a torn ligament away from retirement. So he moonlights as a PI, solving the myriad problems that can befall suddenly rich, usually headstrong young men. In this debut, Adcock’s client is teammate Frankie Herrera, who is concerned that porn tapes starring his wife may soon surface on the Internet. But before Adcock can even begin to investigate, Frankie is dead in an auto accident. What Adcock finds is a convoluted mix of prostitution, murder, Mexican cartels, and retired ballplayers. And while he’s detecting, he’s traded to another team, then abruptly waived. Monday’s plot is inventive, but it’s the verisimilitude of Adcock’s baseball life that makes this one a delight. Adcock is a solid MLB citizen, but he’s aware of the many quirks endemic in baseball’s manners and mores, and he shares them freely with the reader. Here’s hoping he has many more seasons and many more cases.”

Publishers Weekly says: Monday’s clever debut introduces 35-year-old Johnny Adcock, a Major League Baseball player winding down a 13-year pro career and developing a sideline as an investigator whose clientele consists primarily of fellow ballplayers. Backup catcher Frankie Herrera approaches Adcock, who has developed a reputation as a dependable setup man for the Bay Dogs of San Jose, Calif., about an embarrassing sex video featuring wife, Maria. Even before Adcock begins to investigate, the case takes a deadly turn, and Herrera’s problem morphs into a case of murder, prostitution, and sex trafficking that paints a target on Adcock’s own back. Monday deftly describes the perks and pitfalls of life in pro ball—the highs, the lows, the boredom, the fragility—and the temptations. Monday, the pseudonym of Nick Taylor (author of the historical novel The Disagreement), has delivered a rare double—a book that succeeds as both a mystery and a baseball novel.”

“I’m a sucker for baseball fiction. I’m a sucker for private detective fiction. That makes me a double sucker for The Setup Man by T.T. Monday. I was more than happy to ride shotgun with Johnny Adcock as he battled Mexican drug lords, surrendered dingers to steroid-muscled designated hitters and described everything with a sense of humor even in the midst of great physical or emotional pain. Much fun, much fun, much fun,”- says sports columnist and New York Times bestselling author Leigh Montville.

“Don’t shy away from this mystery if you’re not a baseball fan. The industry is seamlessly interwoven into the story and you’ll pick up all you need to know without any effort. If you are a baseball fan, dive in headfirst….This is the author’s first thriller, but I hope it’s not his last,”- says Suspense Magazine.

Kirkus Reviews says: “A throwback Southern California mystery in modern pinstripes, this book leaves no doubt that the author is a fan of both Sam Spade and Bull Durham’s Crash Davis. When a teammate and a 17-year-old girl are found dead in a crashed car, aging relief pitcher Johnny Adcock’s secondary skills as a sleuth are put to their most severe test. Johnny is in his final stretch with the San Jose Bay Dogs, a fictional major league squad. The dead teammate, backup catcher Frankie Herrera, had asked for help on a blackmail scheme involving an old porno film his wife appeared in. The girl in the car with Frankie, it turns out, was a prostitute, one of many controlled by an insidious cartel that targets baseball towns. Far from grief-stricken, Frankie’s widow is involved in the operation. So, in classic fashion, is just about everyone.  . . . Monday writes with a smooth, easygoing authority, wryly referencing noir and baseball fiction rather than trying to reinvent them. Johnny’s internal monologue can’t compete with Kevin Costner’s character’s, but there’s still fun to be had in watching him be crafty enough to strike out a former battery mate on a breaking ball but cocky enough to give up a game-winning home run on a fastball the next time he faces him. Johnny is in worse pain watching the ball’s flight  than when he is beat up, tied up and knocked unconscious by the bad guys. A treat for readers of mystery or baseball novels, this debut will be especially enjoyable for fans of both.”

When is it available?

It’s on deck at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Albany and Ropkins branches.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

The Bees

By Laline Paull

(HarperCollins/Ecco, $25.99, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Laline Paull is not yet well-known, but “The Bees” may well change that. Paull, who is of Indian heritage, studied English at Oxford, screenwriting in Los Angeles and theater in London. After working in Los Angeles and New York, she now lives in England with her husband, photographer Adrian Peacock, and their three children.

On her website, www.lalinepaull.com, she talks about herself, and about bees:

“It takes twelve bees their entire lives to gather enough nectar to make one teaspoon of honey. It should be priced like gold.

“I live by the sea with my husband, daughter, two step-sons and two cats.

“As a child, books and animals were my best friends.

“I believe in nurture at least as much as nature.

What is this book about?

Its heroine is a lowly janitor, of the apian variety. That’s right: Flora 717 is a bee. But not your average bee, we soon learn. Flora, who does her work in a hive in an orchard, toils away like others of her station, but she is admired for her bravery and strength, though her curiosity worries the hive. Still, she is allowed to feed baby bees in the Queen’s nursery and later to forage for nectar and pollen for the threatened colony. Soon she discovers secret – and dangerous –  information about the hive and her maternal instincts lead her to challenge its hierarchy and the Queen herself.

Why you’ll like it:

There have been memorable books set in the world of animals – “Watership Down” and “Animal Farm” come to mind—as well as fables set in dystopian societies: think “1984” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In “The Bees,” Paull combines elements of each type, making the world of the bees vivid and realistic while also establishing parallels with humanity (and often they are frightening.) Flora is a feminist heroine and as brave as any warrior, whether she is taking on a stultifying bureaucracy or fighting for her life and the lives of others. She may float like a butterfly, but she stings like a you-know-what.

Here are some thoughts about the book and bees that Paull includes in her website:

“A beekeeper friend of mine died, far too young. In the immediate aftermath of her death, I began reading about the bees she loved so much. Very quickly, I realized I was exploring the most extraordinary ancient society that was like a hall of mirrors to our own: some things very similar, others a complete inversion, whilst more were fantastically alien and amazing. The more I read the more I wanted to find out, but when I learned about the phenomenon of the laying worker, I became incredibly excited by the huge dramatic potential of that situation. I also felt very agitated that someone else must surely have seen it before me and written the novel that I needed to write. I rushed to Google to check – and when I couldn’t find one, I rushed to write it myself! . . . I’m still fascinated by how honeybees exist in a strange and literally lawless gap between the wild and the domestic – we can buy and sell them, treat them as we will, kill them through neglect or massive industrial exploitation – and there is no penalty.”

What others are saying:

Says Booklist:  Imagine a story similar to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale but told from the perspective of an insect. That’s exactly the premise of Paull’s debut novel. Flora 717, a lowly sanitation bee, is born with unusual features and abilities that allow her to move fluidly between the strict hierarchies of her hive. Through this ability, she witnesses the brutality and beauty that the various castes of bees exhibit to keep the hive productive, all in service and loyalty to the queen. But when Flora discovers she is fertile and can produce an offspring, she must betray her instincts to worship the queen bee and follow an untrodden path that leads her away from her kin. Paull’s plot brings to mind films like the 1998 hit Antz, but her deft storytelling and her nod to scientific literature allow the story to avoid the cutesy trappings that sometimes characterize novels featuring nonhuman characters. A surprisingly compelling tale.”

“It quickly became clear that in its basic facts, the novel sticks closely to real-world apian biology and behavior. That is fascinating enough, but Paull deftly wields this information to create an even more elaborately layered culture of beeness…Beautiful,” says The Washington Post.”

“Brilliantly imagined…Paull’s use of human language to describe this tiny, intricate world is classic storytelling at its finest…The Bees boasts a refreshingly feminist spin on fairy tale-style plots….A wildly creative book that resonates deeply for quite a long time,” says the Austin Chronicle.

The New York Times Book Review  says: “Laline Paull’s ambitious and bold first novel…is told with…rapturously attentive imagination…the tale zooms along with…propulsive and addictive prose…Forward-thinking teachers of high school environmental science and biology will add The Bees to their syllabuses in a flash. Not only is this novel a gripping story of a single bee’s life, it is also an impossibly well-observed guide to the important role bees play in our human lives. When I finished the book, I stepped outside my door and into a spring day, full of buzzing and pollen, and I wanted to thank each and every bee for its service. Few novels create such a singular reading experience. The buzz you will hear surrounding this book and its astonishing author is utterly deserved.”

Publishers Weekly says: “Dystopia meets the Discovery Channel in this audacious debut novel. Flora 717, a bee born to the lowest social strata at the orchard hive, is different than her kin. Her uncommon earnestness and skill lead her to various jobs—from child rearing to food gathering—and earn her the respect and admiration of her peers. But Flora’s advances also expose her to the hive’s questionable social order and attract negative attention from the elite group of bees closest to the queen. Like Animal Farm for the Hunger Games generation, Paull’s book features characters who are both anthropomorphized and not—insects scientifically programmed to “Accept, Obey and Serve,” but who also find themselves capable of questioning that programming. The result is at times comic—picture bees having an argument—but made less so by the all-too-real violent stakes involved in maintaining beehive status quo (sacrifices, massacres, the tearing of bee heads from bee bodies). Dystopian fiction so often highlights the human capacity for authoritarianism, but Paull investigates bees’ reliance on it: what is a hivemind, after all, if not evolutionarily beneficial thought control? And while Flora 717 may not be the next Katniss Everdeen, she symbolizes the power that knowledge has to engender change, even in nature.”

Library Journal gives it a starred review: “Accept, Obey, and Serve.” This is the first commandment within the hive. Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, the lowest of all the castes. Yet from the moment she emerges from her cell into a community where variance is destroyed, Flora shows herself different. As her uniqueness proves useful in a time when the hive is at risk, Flora finds herself feeding newborns in the royal nursery, then foraging alone beyond the hive to bring back pollen, and even meeting the Queen, who shows Flora the beauty and sadness that exists in the bees’ past and present. Each new job brings Flora more joy, and more questions, for while she knows that obedience and sacrifice are instinctive within the hive mind, her individual traits bring her under the purview of the high priestesses and fertility police, who are striving to maintain the strict hierarchy of their society. When Flora breaks the ultimate law of the hive, challenging the Queen’s role as mother to all, her desire to protect her egg will lead the hive toward a future none expected. VERDICT Paull’s debut presents the intricate world of the honeybee hive, where devotion and service are sacred, and caste, politics, and power are as present as in any human royal court. A powerful story reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which one original and independent thinker can change the course of a whole society.”

When is it available?

The buzz says it is now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Mr. Mercedes

By Stephen King

(Scribner, $30, 448 pages)

Who is this author?

Stephen King has had an amazing career as a writer, with a phenomenal 50-plus international best-seller list to his credit. Most of us have read at least one, or seen a movie based on one, or are watching the TV miniseries “Under the Dome.” Some may dismiss him as a writer of horror stories, but many praise his gifts as a storyteller and author of imaginative fiction, often the kind that scares the living daylights out of its readers, and his nonfiction memoir/guide, “On Writing,” is a valuable book for writers and readers alike. King’s honors include the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Many of his books are set in Maine, where he lives with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.

What is this book about?

I interviewed Stephen King for The Courant last year, and he told me then that his forthcoming novel, “Mr. Mercedes,” would make people think it was based on the Boston Marathon bombings, but in fact he had already written it before that horrific event occurred. But this novel does indeed involve a mad bomber, one Brady Hartsfield, a deeply insane young man who lives with his abusive alcoholic mom and is bent on committing evil acts. He starts relatively small: deliberately running his stolen Mercedes into a crowd of forlorn job seekers, killing some and wounding many more. But Brady has bigger plans for thousands more victims. Who can stop him? Perhaps a depressed retired cop, Bill Hodges, who gets threatening letters from Brady and sets out to prevent further mayhem, working with some unusual helpers.

Why you’ll like it:

This is not one of King’s patented supernatural tales, though the evil at its heart is far from normal.  King is a personal fan of gritty crime stories, and that is the genre in which “Mr. Mercedes” has parked itself. So you don’t have to believe that crazed shape-shifting clown demons lurk in the sewer to be chilled and thrilled by this one: the killer here is all too human. The plot follows a favorite path of this author: a regular-guy hero pairs up with a few intrepid souls to figure out, find and write the finale for a very bad man. A well-tuned Mercedes offers a smooth ride; so does this novel.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “King is clearly having fun, and so are we…For the first half of the novel, King tickles our anxieties, his detective engaging in a classic cat-and-mouse game with the killer. But you can feel him wriggling against the hard-boiled tradition, shaking the hinges. Soon enough, in ways large and small, he rejects and replaces the genre’s creakiest devices…But it’s the larger genre deviations that make Mr. Mercedes feel so fresh. At their purest, hard-boiled novels are fatalistic, offering a Manichaean view of humanity. For King, however, dark humor extends beyond the investigator’s standard one-liners, reflecting a larger worldview. Killers and detectives make mistakes all the time…and coincidences play a far greater role than fate. Mr. Mercedes is a universe both ruled by a playful, occasionally cruel god and populated by characters all of whom have their reasons. One man can do only so much.”

Says Booklist:  “King’s interest in crime fiction was evident from his work for the Hard Case Crime imprint—The Colorado Kid (2005) and Joyland (2013)—but this is the most straight-up mystery-thriller of his career. Retired Detective Bill Hodges is overweight, directionless, and toying with the idea of ending it all when he receives a jeering letter from the Mercedes Killer, who ran down 23 people with a stolen car but evaded Hodges’ capture. With the help of a 17-year-old neighbor and one victim’s sister (who, in proper gumshoe style, Hodges quickly beds), Hodges begins to play cat-and-mouse with the killer through a chat site called Under Debbie’s Blue Umbrella. Hodges’ POV alternates with that of the troubled murderer, a Norman Bates–like ice-cream-truck driver named Brady Hartfield. Both Hodges and Hartfield make mistakes, big ones, leaving this a compelling, small-scale slugfest that plays out in cheery suburban settings. This exists outside of the usual Kingverse (Pennywise the Clown is referred to as fictive); add that to the atypical present-tense prose, and this feels pretty darn fresh. Big, smashing climax, too. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: No need to rev the engine here; this baby will rocket itself out of libraries with a loud squeal of the tires. –

Says the Associated Press: “Classic Stephen King. Creepy, yet realistic characters that get under your skin and stay there, a compelling story that twists and turns at breakneck speed, and delightful prose that, once again, proves that one of America’s greatest natural storytellers is also one of its finest writers.”

Library Journal says: Bill Hodges is bumping around, barely registering his retirement, when a maniac in a stolen Mercedes repeatedly drives into a line of unemployed folks waiting in the gray dawn of a gray Midwestern city for a job fair to open. Eight people are killed and 15 injured. Hodges immediately enlists two allies to help him find the killer, who so loved his little taste of death that he’s planning to blow up thousands. The novel, described as King’s first hard-boiled detective tale, has an unsettling ripped-from-the-headlines feel, though the author has said that he started work on it before the Boston Marathon tragedy.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “In his latest suspenser, the prolific King returns to the theme of the scary car—except this one has a scary driver who’s as loony but logical unto himself as old Jack Torrance from The Shining.  It’s an utterly American setup: Over here is a line of dispirited people waiting to get into a job fair, and over there is a psycho licking his chops at the easy target they present; he aims a car into the crowd and mows down a bunch of innocents, killing eight and hurting many more. The car isn’t his. The malice most certainly is, and it’s up to world-weary ex-cop Bill Hodges to pull himself up from depression and figure out the identity of the author of that heinous act. That author offers help: He sends sometimes-taunting, sometimes-sympathy-courting notes explaining his actions.  . . . With a cadre of investigators in tow, Hodges sets out to avert what is certain to be an even greater trauma, for the object of his cat-and-mouse quest has much larger ambitions, this time involving a fireworks show worthy of Fight Club.  . . . King’s familiar themes are all here: There’s craziness in spades and plenty of alcohol and even a carnival . . . It’s nicely dark, never predictable and altogether entertaining.”

When is it available?

“Mr. Mercedes” is waiting for passengers at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Barbour, Blue Hills, Camp Field and Dwight branches and will also be at the Albany and Goodwin branches.

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